The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Bloodlines

 

 

(An alternate reality story)

 

Johnny reined to a stop outside the hacienda with apprehension. Murdoch had said be there at three o'clock and here he was but he wasn't so sure he wanted to go inside. He hadn't a clue what might be going on in that room. He half imagined there might be blood spilled then quirked his mouth. Well, no sense in putting it off. Besides, he was more curious than worried. He wanted to get a look at this man.

As he closed the front door, he noticed the quiet and wondered if that meant anything. Either they'd come to an understanding or someone was dead. He almost laughed, coughed instead then pulled his hat lower over his eyes and walked inside.

They were standing nearly on opposite sides of the room staring at each other. There didn't seem to be too much tension in the air. At least, no more than he would've imagined. To his relief, he noted there was no blood either. So far, so good.

"John, come in. I want you to meet someone."

He glanced at Murdoch then fixed his eyes on the young man. Fair-haired, tall and thin. It was the clothes that almost broke the seriousness of the moment. Fancy gray suit with ... God! ruffled cuffs? He took in a deep breath slowly as he walked over, hand extended.

"I'm Johnny."

"Scott Lancer," he replied stiffly, his eyes raking over the man before him.

Johnny felt like he was on an auction block but, he'd promised to behave or whatever words Murdoch had used last night that sounded exactly like 'behave yourself' to him.

Releasing each other's hand, they both kept staring. Scott cleared his throat.

"I understand you've been here a short while now."

"Yeah, couple of months."

"Then, you have the advantage."

Johnny smiled a little. "Are we at war?" He knew about the stint in the cavalry. Impressive he supposed but not so much to him.

"Not at all but I've found strategy is required in most every facet of life." Scott's face remained somewhat pinched as if this whole thing was painful for him.

Johnny reckoned it was. He was luckier, he supposed, not having a clue who his father was for so many years. From what Murdoch had told him, Scott knew exactly who and where the old man was forever. He chanced a glance in the rancher's direction and saw more discomfort.

"Well, I guess you'd like to get settled in before supper," he offered.

"Yes, I would. It's been a tiring trip." Scott turned and nodded curtly to his father before following Johnny up the stairs.

******

It was like night and day, the change that came over the easterner once in the bedroom. His entire being relaxed and Johnny grinned as he walked over and pulled the curtains back.

"I like the windows open but, if you want it closed..."

"It's fine, thanks."

He turned at the softer tone and crooked a brow. "Pretty overwhelmin, huh?"

Scott sat on the bed and sighed loudly. "Yes, very."

"He tell you anything?"

"Such as?" Again, Scott's posture stiffened.

"About your ma or mine or anything." Shoulders shrugged before resting against the wall.

Frowning, Scott began a bit hesitantly. "He told me a condensed version of my birth and why I grew up in Boston . It wasn't very enlightening."

"He don't like to talk about the past much. Just told me my mama up and left one night. That's all."

"Did she?"

Again, Johnny shrugged. "I don't know. I didn't even know who my old man was until he sent for me." He laughed a little then. "I thought it was a job."

Scott's frown deepened and he shook his head in confusion.

"I'm a gunfighter by trade. Or, was, until two months ago. Well, I'll let ya rest up. Supper's at six. Don't be late." He grinned and sauntered out of the room.

******

At six o'clock , Scott entered the dining room and took the seat Murdoch indicated on the man's right. Johnny noticed the old man's almost smile at Scott's punctuality. It had been a bone of contention with them when he'd first arrived. He'd explained to his father that he'd never watched a clock in his life and didn't own one anyhow. It was a pleasant surprise when Murdoch pulled his old timepiece from his pocket, offered it up and told him to keep it.

Johnny coveted that watch, took great care not to scratch, lose or break it and from that day forth, he'd always been on time. It was a little crazy to him but it made the old man happy and it didn't cost him a thing. He almost didn't notice his own shoulders tense when Maria began bringing the food to the table.

She didn't like him, that was clear. Why, he had no clue. Maybe she hadn't liked his mama. Well, that wasn't his problem. She fed him, hadn't poisoned him - yet - and was a damned good cook. That's all that mattered to him. He looked up at her, a warm smile on his face as he tried once more to break through the block of ice. It didn't work any better tonight but he saw her face soften when she looked at Scott.

Johnny's anger rose and he was perplexed as to why. Then, he was perplexed why she seemed to like someone she hadn't even met yet, too. The idea hit him hard and he wondered why he hadn't thought of it before. When she left the room, he leaned to his right a little to speak softly to his father.

"Maria don't like mestizos?"

Murdoch's expression was utter surprise. He just stared for a long moment, before finally answering. "I don't have a clue."

"What's a mes...mes..."

"Mestizo. It means half-breed," Johnny replied casually. A grin split his face when he added, "that's what I am. My mama was Mexican."

"I don't like that word, John."

"Well, what's a better word then?" Johnny's question was innocent and calm.

"Mixed, I suppose. Anything is better than half-breed. It makes you sound like an animal."

His eyes lowered and he simply nodded. After a beat, he replied softly. "I'll tell that to the next fella that calls me one, then."

"Anyone around here calls you that, I want to know about it," Murdoch decreed, pointing with his fork.

Slowly, Johnny's head came up as a smile came to his face. "You gonna beat 'em up?"

Both debating men looked over in surprise when Scott laughed.

Johnny joined him, pleasantly surprised his brother had a sense of humor. He hadn't been too sure about that but then, the man had had a hard day.

Murdoch smiled and it softened his features. "I would but I think you can handle yourself, John."

"So, Boston , what did you do back east?"

Scott, seemingly taken aback by the sudden change in subject, took a moment to reply. "I worked with my grandfather. He's an accountant by trade," he paused and smiled at using the same term as his brother, "and he has a lot of business interests."

"Sounds boring."

"Johnny," Murdoch chastised.

"It's alright. It is boring, Sir."

Johnny smiled in appreciation. "Murdoch says you were in the cavalry. Guess that means you know somethin about horses." He didn't miss the darkening in Scott's eyes, though brief it was.

"I get by."

"I'll help ya pick out a good mount tomorrow. There's some fine horseflesh on this ranch."

"Then, I thought you and I could go to town, son. Pick you out some more appropriate attire for living out here," Murdoch chimed in.

"Is there something wrong with my clothes?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Well, it ain't the style besides, I don't guess you have anything in them trunks of yours for workin."

Scott conceded the point though it aggravated him. "I suppose not. I don't have to tell you both I know nothing about ranching."

"It will come, Scott. It just takes time and hard work."

"Yeah, real hard work but you get used to it." Johnny almost groaned the words out. It had taken him what seemed a long time to get use to it, especially by Murdoch's rules.

"Did you have any experience?" Scott was asking.

"A little. I worked a couple of drives, mostly wrangling here and there."

Murdoch was staring at Johnny and Scott didn't miss the look.

"I suppose it will take as long, if not longer, for us to all get to know one another," he imparted into the silence.

******

When Johnny walked into the living room the next evening, he noticed the tension immediately. Murdoch and Scott were sitting in the matching wing-backed chairs, both appearing to be reading. He steeled himself then eased further into the room, trying to gauge their moods better. They'd only gone to buy clothes. What could have gone wrong?

"Evenin," he called softly.

"Good evening," Scott replied stiffly, glancing up before returning to his book. Murdoch only grunted.

Johnny sat on the sofa and sprawled out, exhausted and not in the mood for whatever this was. "Is somethin wrong?"

Neither man spoke for a long while. Finally, Murdoch looked at him with a scowl. "It's not your concern."

Cocking a brow and reining in his temper, Johnny remained silent too long.

"Maybe, maybe not," Scott retorted.

"It was a private conversation, Scott. You don't need to drag Johnny into it."

"If he wants to tell me, that's his business, Murdoch," Johnny countered and received a deeper frown and a flexing jaw muscle as a response. "And if he don't, that's okay, too."

Scott's face relaxed a little and he smiled softly. "Thanks, brother. We were discussing my grandfather and why I grew up in Boston ."

Johnny made an 'oh' with his mouth, glanced at Murdoch's still threatening glare then smiled at his brother. Scott seemed to be thinking hard so he just waited.

"Perhaps, a different perspective is exactly what is needed."

"The only perspective that matters here is yours and mine, Scott. Johnny can't be objective anyway."

"Yes, I can," the man stated with certainty.

Scott agreed and stood up, nodding toward the French doors. Johnny followed him outside and sat in a chair next to his brother.

******

Scott stayed still for a while, contemplating how to go about the telling without the anger and frustration he was feeling. He decided that wasn't possible so he just began the story.

"My grandfather met up with my mother as planned in a place called Carterville but she'd gone into labor and I was born. She died and he took me back to Boston with him. Murdoch said he wrote to Grandfather to claim me but was told that wasn't going to happen. Apparently, he wasn't able to afford the trip following the raids that had caused him to send Mother away in the first place.  

"While he was rebuilding, he met your mother and married. You were born and, I guess, everything was fine until she left. He went after you but, of course, you know he wasn't successful. He said he came for me on my fifth birthday but Grandfather threatened to drag a custody battle through the courts and me along with it. He told Murdoch I was better off with him rather than be raised in the wilderness in a 'mud hut'."

"Guess your grandfather's never seen Lancer, huh?" Johnny asked softly.

"Apparently not. At any rate, Murdoch caved in and that was the end of that."

"So, he figured you were safe, had a good home and all that money."

"Yes, all the advantages."

Johnny nodded. "Maybe he figured he couldn't raise you alone out here. Had to be a lot rougher back then."

Scott frowned. "I suppose. He could have tried to stay in touch with me."

"Yeah, he should've done that. What did your grandfather tell you about him?"

"Precious little. He said my father couldn't be bothered."

The bitterness in Scott's voice bothered Johnny more than he was prepared for. "I guess you must have hated him for that."

"I suppose I did," the older man sighed out.

"Reckon Murdoch figured that, too."

Scott looked over at his profile, shadows hiding part of his face as the sun set. "And?"

Johnny shrugged. "And nothin. Just that he figured you hated him and bein so far away, there wasn't a whole lot he could do to change that. I'm not sayin he was right, Scott. He should've grabbed you up and brought you home but he didn't. He let your grandfather win. Maybe he made himself believe you were better off. Hell, maybe you were. Was your grandfather good to you?"

"He was very good to me. He was a wonderful parent," Scott smiled fondly.

"Makes you lucky in my book. Reckon the old man ain't perfect by a long shot. Still, we're here now. That's got to count for somethin, don't it?"

Scott thought about this for a long moment. He didn't know much about his brother's life before coming home but he knew it was far worse than his own. Maybe Murdoch had known how tough this land would be for a motherless child. He was sure many children grew up without a mother here but, maybe his father wanted better for him.

"I figure the old man wanted the best for you, ya know? And he knew your grandfather would give you a real good life. A good education and all that."

Both young men turned at the sound of the front door opening and Johnny laughed softly. "Guess he couldn't stand it any more."

Scott turned and smiled at him. "Thanks, Johnny. You've helped me see things more clearly."

The younger man smiled and patted his knee then stood as Murdoch walked over. "Well, reckon I'll try and get some of this dust off before supper," he said and left them to it.

Murdoch stood there and just stared at him. Scott looked at his face and wondered if the man was even breathing. He smiled and waved his hand toward the chair.

"I'm not sure I like what happened. I'm not sure how I feel about Grandfather's actions or yours but, I think I can accept it. I'd like to move past this, Murdoch. I'd like us to work on being a family now."

He breathed then - heavily, and closed his eyes for a second. Murdoch looked at his son and smiled warmly. "Thank you, son. I can't tell you how much this means to me."

"Thank Johnny. He helped me understand things better. I guess you were wrong about that." Scott smiled wickedly.

Murdoch's lips twitched but he could only nod.

******

The next few weeks, Murdoch noticed something surprising to him. Scott and Johnny seemed to be getting along well. He'd been worried about that. An easterner and a gunfighter couldn't possibly have anything in common but, they spent as much time together as they could. They laughed and joked with one another in the evening - until Scott fell asleep from exhaustion - and neither ever seemed to take the other's joking seriously. Murdoch thought some of the things both men said were a bit over the line but, evidently, his notion of decorum and theirs was completely different.

It was more surprising coming from Scott who, despite his claims after their talk, seemed somewhat distant with Murdoch. He knew he was not an easy man to get along with but he was trying very hard with Scott. Still, it had to be difficult settling into a whole new life so far removed from anything he'd ever known. Murdoch decided Scott was just taking them on one at a time. Besides, he had no history with Johnny so it had to be easier to get along with a virtual stranger compared to the father who'd allowed someone else to raise him.

It never had set well with Murdoch and he knew he'd handled things badly with Harlan Garrett but, he also truly believed Scott had received the best in life. Now, he could only hope his son really wanted this life with him.

******

Scott grunted, a hand at the small of his back as he straightened up and looked out over the land. He was tired, dirty and sweaty and wanted nothing more than to jump into the stream a few yards away. Two months in and he still didn't think he'd ever get used to the long hours, early mornings and back breaking work.

He felt, and had been told, he was fortunate to be working with the Lancer segundo. The man had certainly taken to him quickly enough. Scott was pleased he was getting along so well with Cipriano. His only complaint would be not having much time with his father and brother, especially Murdoch. They hadn't had the opportunity to talk much since the night of the revelations, as he'd come to think of it. Everyone was worn out at the end of the day. Especially him. He found himself nodding off most nights right after supper.

"It will get better."

The words he'd been thinking himself sounded as loud as thunder when the segundo spoke them. Scott turned and smiled at the man.

"I hope so. I was just thinking how tired I am at night. I haven't had much chance to get to know Murdoch or Johnny."

Cipriano's expression was difficult to read but Scott thought he saw something like discomfort on the man's face.

"Your papa understands. He will make the time when you have been here a while longer."

"He's been very understanding and considerate. I must say, I'm a bit surprised. He seems to rule with an iron fist."

The segundo laughed boisterously. "Si, he does but, as I said, he knows you are learning still."

"How long was he understanding with Johnny?"

Again, that look came to the man's face and Scott watched him with a quizzical expression. Before the man could answer, they heard a horse and both turned to watch the golden palomino loping toward them.

Pleased, Scott smiled and waved, stepping away from the fenceline.

"How's it goin, Boston?"

He sighed lightly. He still hadn't said anything to his brother about calling him Boston. He hadn't made up his mind whether he liked it or not yet. Johnny used it as an endearment of sorts, Scott knew, so he didn't want to hurt his brother's feelings.

"We're making progress, albeit slowly," he smiled.

Johnny looked at him blankly for a minute then returned the smile. "Well, Murdoch wants ya to come back to the house. Said Cipriano could finish up out here. He wants to talk to us."

"I'm heartbroken," Scott deadpanned. He turned back to the segundo as Johnny chuckled. "Well, I guess I'll see you later."

"Si, Senor," Cipriano replied but he wasn't looking at Scott, he was looking past him and his eyes were hard.

Scott turned and found the same hard stare in his brother's eyes before Johnny turned away and mounted up.

"Cipriano doesn't seem to like you very much, brother," Scott noted as they rode toward the house.

Johnny looked over and shrugged. "He ain't the only one around here."

"Why do you think that is?"

"Well," Johnny sighed out, "could be cause I was a gunfighter. Could be cause I'm a mes ... mixed," he grinned as he corrected himself.

Scott smiled a little himself. "Why don't you ask him?"

"Because I don't care. Him and me got no reason to be all friendly."

Scott thought about that for a moment. "He's the ranch foreman. Don't you think at some point, the two of you might have to work together?"

"Maybe, but I don't worry about what ain't happened yet. Now, I haven't had the chance to ask how you like that horse."

"He's a fine animal," Scott smiled. He did like the horse and it seemed to like him, too. He reached down and patted its neck.

"Trained him any yet?"

"Trained him?" Scott asked, looking over.

"Yeah, I mean does he do any tricks?"

Scott laughed and shook his head. "He's not a dog, Johnny."

"Don't mean he can't learn tricks. Barranca here, he can do tricks."

Sure his brother was pulling his leg, Scott decided to test it out. "He can not."

Johnny pulled to a stop and looked Scott in the eye. "You callin me a liar?"

The voice was cold and hard-edged and Scott was taken aback. "No, of course not! Alright, what can he do?"

Somewhat pacified, Johnny dismounted and walked several yards away. He whistled and Barranca trotted over to him, lowering his head for an ear scratch. Johnny then tossed his hat to the ground, mounted up and took off down the road before turning and riding back. He leaned down, his shoulder nearly touching the ground as Barranca continued his gallop, straight and sure. Johnny scooped the hat up and put it on his head then rode back to his brother with a satisfied smile.

Impressed, Scott nodded his approval then looked around. He spied the fence to his left and kneed his chestnut into a gallop, jumping and clearing the fence. He then rounded and repeated his performance flawlessly before rejoining his brother.

Johnny whistled softly and nodded his own approval. "That was some ridin, Boston. See? That's a good animal. You can teach him all kinds of things. Most important is to come when ya call him."

"Thank you and why is that?" Scott asked, ridiculously pleased at the praise.

"You never know when you're gonna need your horse quick like. Or, he might get spooked by a rabbit or somethin and take off. If you train him to come back, you'll save yourself some walkin."

Scott laughed. "That's very true and a good idea. I'll work on that in my spare time. Now, I think we'd better get back."

Grinning, Johnny nodded and pressed his spurs to Barranca's sides.

After a few quiet moments, Scott spoke up. "Where did you learn to work and train horses?"

"Here and there. I've always liked spendin time around 'em. Hung around some ranches and liveries when I was a kid."

"Where did you grow up, anyway?"

"All over Mexico and the border towns."

The reply seemed casual but Scott thought he detected a strain in his brother's voice. "And the gunfighting?" he asked as he looked sidelong at Johnny.

His lips tightened, his face turned to stone and he didn't answer.

"Sorry. None of my business."

"No, it ain't. Maybe I'll tell ya sometime. Not like it's a big secret. I just don't talk about it much. Murdoch don't seem to like it."

"Murdoch isn't here."

A soft smile caressed Johnny's face. "True but we're almost home."

Scott acquiesced for the moment but he felt this was the first breakthrough of sorts with his new brother. He hadn't been able to figure Johnny out but he was determined to try. Most of the time, the young man smiled and joked and generally seemed to simply enjoy life and they got along well. But, there were times, like when he'd asked about gunfighting, when Johnny turned to rock. Well, he thought, it isn't like we're the best of friends - yet. It will come in time like everything else. But, he did feel a need to know about Johnny's former profession. Something he had no experience with and wasn't even sure what all it entailed.

He pushed the thoughts to the back of his mind as he walked into the living room behind his brother. As soon as he saw Murdoch's face, dread consumed him.

"We have a problem, boys. Someone has been raiding the smaller ranches surrounding us; driving the owners off their land."

Johnny stepped forward quickly. "Who?"

"I don't know yet but I'm worried. Johnny, what do you think?"

Scott watched the exchange. For some reason, it irritated him that his father hadn't asked his opinion.

"Well, we need to know who we're dealin with first off. Figure out what exactly they're after."

Murdoch nodded, his forehead creased in worry. "The ranchers in this valley have always helped each other in times of trouble. But, this has happened so fast, there's been no time to rally."

"It's a smart move. Get in quick before anyone can figure it out. Make them all feel like they're alone. Whoever is behind this knows what he's doin. That makes him real dangerous."

Scott decided to involve himself in the conversation. "We should gather all the remaining ranchers together, form a united front and go on the defensive."

Johnny smiled at him. "That's a great idea, Boston, but everyone is pretty spread out. By the time you do that, it'll be over." He turned his attention back to Murdoch. "Will the hands fight?"

"I believe most of them will especially..." he stopped and tightened his lips.

"Especially with a gunhawk in the mix?" Johnny asked with amusement.

Relaxing, Murdoch smiled. "Especially with Johnny Madrid in the mix."

Nodding his acceptance of the statement, Johnny continued. "Best call them all in, let 'em know what's about to happen."

******

The tension rolled over the ranch like a waterfall of fear. Murdoch was surprised by the number of men who packed up and left. But, they still had a good amount remaining and he could only hope it was enough. He was immeasurably grateful to have Johnny's skills to rely on. Range wars he'd had but, he hated the senseless killing and carnage. His hope was that Johnny could minimize the fallout. He walked back into the living room to find both young men staring at a map of the valley.

"There are too many places for them to hold up," Scott said.

"I know. I'm gonna ride into town and see what I can find out."

"Alone? Johnny, you can't do that!" Scott proclaimed.

Cold eyes turned on Scott. "I can do anything I damned well like, Scott."

"Boys!" Murdoch's voice boomed through the room, startling both younger men out of their staring contest. "Scott, I know you have a military background and I'm grateful to have your expertise but this is something Johnny is much more experienced with. I think we should follow his lead right now."

"I appreciate Johnny's knowledge of this sort of thing, Murdoch, but I'm not going to sit back and watch while my brother gets killed. I'm going with him."

"The hell you say! Look, thanks really but, this is a one man show - for now anyway. I can get a lot more information on my own, Scott. You're gonna have to trust me on this. I'm not sayin I won't need your help. I damn sure will but, not until I know the lay of the land."

Scott sighed heavily then looked to his father for support but Murdoch wasn't giving any and Scott just gawked at him. "Are you going to let him do this alone?"

"He knows what he's doing, son."

"I might not be back til late. Leave me a crumb or two of supper," Johnny grinned then headed for the door.  

"I can't believe you're going along with this. Your son just walked out of here to possibly face a hornet's nest!"

"Scott, I know you don't have any idea what it's like to be a gunfighter. Neither do I but Johnny does. He knows the game and he's extremely good at it. He has quite a reputation."

"You almost sound proud," Scott said, aghast.

Murdoch glanced at him before walking over to his desk and sitting down heavily. "I'm glad to have him here for this, I won't deny that."

******

Johnny rode into Morro Coyo for the first time since arriving at Lancer. He was a little surprised at himself when he realized that but, he'd been pretty busy with all this family business. Lord knew, he didn't have a clue how it all worked. He also didn't know how much the locals knew about his present situation. What he was fairly sure of was that they wouldn't be volunteering any information to whoever was behind these raids. It was always a crap shoot, though, so he was ready for anything.

He dismounted in front of the cantina, the only one in town and eyed the men loitering about the boardwalk. Some of them were vaguely familiar, others not at all. None of them was the ringleader, that he knew for sure.

He stepped onto the planks only to find his path blocked by a leg. His eyes, dancing with amusement, came up to the man's face.

"Somethin I can do for you, boy?"

Johnny smiled a little. "Nope. Unless you wanna get me a drink."

Smirking, the man moved to stand directly in front of him. "I think I need my boots cleaned, boy. Now, why don't you just get down on your knees and lick 'im clean for me?"

Sometimes, this happened. Sometimes, some idiot was almost too obnoxious and sometimes, he almost let his self-restraint slip. This was one of those times. Johnny gave himself a few seconds to rein it in before answering. His lips turned up. "Know a lot about bein down on your knees, do ya?"

He watched in fascination as the man's face flushed red, his shoulders went back and his fists clenched. Johnny just stood there, relaxed and smiling.

"You need to be taught some manners, boy!"

"I wouldn't."

The man whirled around and Johnny's eyes went to the speaker. He wasn't a bit surprised to find Day Pardee standing in the doorway of the cantina. Pardee's eyes locked on his.

"Long time, Johnny Madrid."

"Day," he nodded, laughing softly.

"Buy ya a drink?"

"Yeah, sure." Johnny stepped past the obnoxious man, giving him not so much as a second thought.

******

Riding back to the ranch that night, well morning, Johnny thought about all he'd found out. Pardee was after Lancer. A pretty ambitious move for a gunfighter. He wasn't sure why Day thought he could pull this off. At least he knew what was happening now. He was already working through a plan when he reached the hacienda, noting lights still glowing from the windows.

Scott was at the door waiting for him when he walked in. He said nothing until they reached the living room.

"His name is Day Pardee. He's a gunfighter and he's good. He's after Lancer and he has about twenty-five men with him."

There was a brief silence before Murdoch spoke. "I thought gunfighters just hired out."

"Usually. Day always did have some high ideas." Johnny gave a short, soft laugh. "He offered me a job."

Scott rolled his eyes. "Could he be working for someone?"

"I didn't get that from talkin to him."

"So, he doesn't know about your connection to Lancer?" Murdoch asked for clarification.

"No, I'm sure of that much. I was thinkin I'd hire on." Johnny walked casually to the fireplace before turning to face them. He laughed at the expressions. "It'll be better to be on the inside. Find out what his plans are."

"That's a dangerous game, John."

"I know, Murdoch, but it's the best plan. I don't know where he's hold up. It could be a hundred different places."

"Then, we follow him and his men and find out. Attack before they know what hit them," Scott offered.

"That ain't gonna happen. Day ain't stupid, Scott. He's real good and we have to be careful with him. He's a rattlesnake. Anyways, I'm goin to bed."

"You should eat first," Murdoch said.

Johnny shook his head. "Ain't hungry. See ya in the morning."

Scott watched his ascent then sighed tiredly. "Has he always been this reckless?"

"I have no idea, son. We should get some sleep. There are guards posted around the house. We'll discuss it more tomorrow."

******

Sleep was something that didn't come for anyone in the house that night. Murdoch stood in the yard talking to Cipriano when Scott walked outside.

"Keep everyone close to the house. We can't chance Pardee making a run," Murdoch was saying.

"I still think Johnny's crazy. He's going to get himself killed," Scott argued.

"He is a pistolero, Senor. He knows the risks."

"He's not one anymore, Cipriano, and the risk is too great for my brother." Scott was livid and unable to understand this man's casual attitude. He knew Cipriano didn't seem to like Johnny but a man's life was at stake.

Before the argument could ensue, a rider came tearing into the yard. Several rifles came to bear briefly before recognizing the hand.

Isidro ran to Murdoch, yelling unintelligibly.

"Calm down, man! What is it?" Murdoch barked.

"I see smoke, I ride to Wilson's. What I see, Senor," the man cried.

Scott caught movement in his periphery and saw Johnny walking purposefully to the corral. He briefly wondered where his brother had come from before joining him.

******

The smoke from the burned out barn was choking as they all stared at the man hanging from the barn doors. What was left of them, anyway. Several crossed themselves and prayed then went to cut him down.

Murdoch went to the broken front door of the house, calling for the woman inside. When he stepped to the doorway, his stomach lurched. He turned to the men before him and starting issuing orders. Everyone sprang into action. Everyone but Johnny who lagged behind and walked to the doorway.

His blood boiled in his veins as he looked upon the tortured body of the woman. All his years of being a gunhawk, he'd never allowed anyone to hurt women or children if he could help it. It ripped him apart to see what Pardee had done here. He felt betrayed and that puzzled him a little. He'd seen the worst men could do but somehow, he hadn't allowed himself to think Pardee would go to these lengths. He understood what the man was doing and he marked Pardee a coward in that moment.

"Calm down!" Johnny shouted.

"Calm down? Did you see what those animals did?" Scott raced about his room, changing his clothes and ready for a fight.

"Yeah, I saw but you're doin exactly what he wants, Scott."

The older man stopped and turned to his brother. "I know that," he replied, his tone calm as a breeze.

Johnny stared at him then cocked an appreciative brow. "I'll get him here. You be ready."

"We will be. Johnny," he grabbed the young man's arm as he started to leave, "be careful."

"Always."

Murdoch watched the exchange from the doorway with a mixture of confusion and worry. Johnny stopped as the man blocked his path.

"Are you sure this will work?"

He dropped his head for a moment before looking at the rancher. "Yeah. Look, this is gonna get ugly. I just ... well, if things don't go right..."

"It will all work out, John. Be careful," Murdoch interrupted brusquely.

He looked into his father's eyes but didn't see what he'd hoped. Maybe it was still too soon. Even with all that was happening, maybe Murdoch just couldn't ... well, no time for that now. He sighed and nodded then walked around his father.

Scott was giving the older man a scrutinizing stare and Murdoch turned away as Cipriano came in, ready to lead Scott into the mountains after Pardee.

Johnny headed for town but his mind wouldn't focus. He was worried about more than Pardee. It seemed something had changed between he and his father. Murdoch was distant with him lately. Like just now. He didn't expect a hug for heaven's sake but a smile would've been nice before he rode into the lion's den. Frowning, he realized it had started when Scott came home. He couldn't figure it out. He knew the old man had problems with Scott but they'd worked that all out and he knew Murdoch was spending a lot of time with his other son, helping him ease into this new life. Still, Johnny thought the old man was sure capable of handling more than one thing at a time. Then again, the man's ranch was under threat. He shook his head and berated himself for being so foolish.

******

Why he'd ever even thought he should give the man half a chance, Johnny didn't know. As he rode hellbent for leather toward the hacienda, firing back at the gang quickly gaining on him, he knew he hadn't owed Pardee a damned thing. Still, he'd given him that last chance to ride out while he could. But, Pardee wasn't seeing things his way. Still believing he had them snookered, Johnny imagined.

One more fence. I just have to clear one more fence and I'll be home free. He said a silent thank you to Barranca for his magnificent jumping abilities as he sailed through the air, clearing the top rail easily.

Suddenly, he was on the ground trying to suck air into his starved lungs. They felt crushed but he knew that wasn't right. He was breathing, somehow. The fire in his back was a nuisance but he ignored it as he saw one of Pardee's men run past him. Rising up, Johnny started firing.

Suddenly, Scott was there, dragging him to that big old tree then firing that long gun for all he was worth. Johnny took a split second to admire the man's aim then he saw Pardee and called a warning. Without so much as a twitch, Scott turned and fired and Pardee went down. With that event, his men began backing off quickly.

Scott went after them, running a few feet then stopping to fire. Johnny watched with respect as the last vestiges of the assault wound down.

Scott walked back to him, grinning like a cat in the cream.

"Good shootin." It was all he could think to say.

"Thanks, brother. I love it when a plan comes together. Now, let's get you taken care of."

Johnny started to get up, saw the offered arm and grabbed Scott's jacket sleeve. He made it about ten feet before his eyes rolled back in his head and he knew nothing more.

******

He stared at the wall and knew he should be grateful to be alive and he was. But, lying here like this was straining his usual devil-may-care attitude. He cared now; had something to care about - and someone. Johnny smiled a little, make that someones. At least the fever was gone now. All he had to do was wait a little longer, a few more days by his reckoning and he could start moving around properly.

Yesterday, when the doctor had come, he'd given Johnny a very scrutinizing look and the young man knew he'd figured it out. To his credit, Dr. Jenkins had said nothing about knowing he was getting out of bed. Johnny was curious as to how he knew that, though, and had almost hoped the man would say something so he could ask. Of course, he wasn't about to admit to it but if he was caught, he was caught. He laughed softly.

He heard the bedroom door open and slowly turned his head to see who was there. He smiled at his father but Murdoch just scowled. Johnny's brows knitted as he looked at the man who didn't seem to have any intentions of speaking any time soon. He watched Murdoch walk around the bed and, rolling his eyes, turned his head back in that direction.

Murdoch stood at the window and looked out, his hands clasped behind his back. After a very long minute, he finally spoke. "It's been a dry year."

"See anything of rain over the mountains?" he asked, more confused by the man's countenance than his lack of manners.

"No, it's clear."

"You're worried." There was no question in the tone.

Murdoch turned and looked at him then nodded.

"Well, I know an Indian who does rain dances," he laughed.

The rancher's lips twitched briefly before returning to the scowl.

Johnny sighed a little. "You mad at me?"

"No, why?"

Shrugging his shoulder, Johnny said, "cause you seem to be in a bad mood anytime you come in here."

"I have a lot on my mind. I'm trying to hire new men and get the ranch back in order. It's a lot to consider." Murdoch sat in the chair by the window.

"I'm sorry I'm not any help but it won't be much longer. Less than a week, I bet."

"It will take as long as the doctor says, Johnny." The warning tone of his voice was crystal clear.

Johnny had to smile as he slowly raised himself up on his elbow. "I know myself pretty well by now, old man. Doc will listen to me about this."

Murdoch sighed and ran a hand through his hair. His expression was one of irritation and Johnny wondered what he'd done to cause it.

"I would appreciate it if you wouldn't call me that."

"What?"

"Old man."

Johnny grinned, his eyes lighting up. "I'll try." He received a glare and the grin left. "You are mad at me."

"No, I just would like some respect, young man. Is that so much to ask?"

Johnny actually leaned back from the hard words, his eyes widening in surprise. "I didn't mean it disrespectfully."

"That's how it sounds."

He lowered his eyes and swallowed hard then nodded. "I'm sorry," he whispered. He looked back up in time to see Murdoch stand up and turn away. He almost called out to his father, feeling a canyon opening up between them and he had no idea why. But, he said nothing and Murdoch walked out of the room. Johnny fell back against the headboard and sighed.  

******

"Are you sure about this?"

"You heard the doctor, Scott. Johnny's fine," Murdoch replied tersely.

"Still, there's a difference between being fine here at the house and being fine out on the range. Sleeping on the ground won't do his back any good, Murdoch."

"I like sleepin on the ground, brother." Johnny stood near the dining room table, listening to his brother's worried tone. It was really nice to have someone care about him but sometimes, Scott didn't know when to stop.

"See?" Murdoch said.

Scott sighed and knew it was a losing argument. At least, Johnny wasn't calling him 'Boston' quite so much. It seemed his brother had gone to using a much more pleasant endearment. The one he himself had starting using almost from day one. 'Brother'. Yes, Scott liked it much better.

"And tending the cattle or whatever we'll be doing? How is your back going to like that?" He just couldn't let it go.

"Well, it never did like that so much. And we're rounding them up, just so you know. Don't worry so much, Scott. Doc said I was fine."

"I just want it made clear. If you start feeling badly, you should come back to the house." Scott's gaze left his brother and locked onto his father's eyes, fairly daring him to disagree.

Murdoch knew he was being tested somehow though the why of it failed to let itself be known. He decided it was best to agree with his son. He was pretty sure Johnny would not be tucking it in anyway. He simply nodded his head.

"Well, now that's settled, I'm gonna get cleaned up for supper," Johnny said as he started toward the stairs. Mumbling not so unclearly, he added, "don't know what I'm cleanin up from."

He had only been cleared to go back to work today. Two weeks of sitting around was not his style. Okay, he conceded to himself, one week. The first one had found him in bed with a fever from the infected wound. Sure, I was rollin around on the ground. Could've laid odds it'd get infected. Well, no worse than I've had before. Although, Scott seemed to think he was on his death bed and sat vigil nearly every night for the first five days. Murdoch had finally gotten him to take it easy. He still didn't know how the man had managed that.

It hadn't really occurred to him then. Well, he was pretty sick. But, Murdoch didn't seem to be all that eager to watch over him. Oh, he came in and visited but he never stayed long. Johnny had lately started wondering about that but his reasonable self told him the man was not the sort to babysit, didn't hover and sure didn't coddle. That was okay by him. He didn't cotton much to that type of thing anyhow. So, why did it bother him?

Then, he remembered his thoughts before the firefight and ever since about how Murdoch had changed toward him and he frowned. He had tried that once. He'd asked if Murdoch was mad at him. He said he wasn't so, what was it? Well, after the roundup we'll talk, he decided.

At least, he and Scott were getting along very well. He truly liked the man and Scott didn't seem too fazed by his past. They'd talk a lot more since his enforced bedrest and Boston seemed to take it all in his stride. They were comfortable with each other.

******

Sitting the saddle and awaiting his family, Johnny thought he was glad he'd had a few days to get back in shape before this roundup. He'd never admit it, especially to Scott, but it had been hard getting back into the swing of things. His eyes roved over the men mounted up and he saw Cipriano watching him. He hadn't been a whole lot of help either. Seemed to Johnny the man was pushing him; trying him to see how he'd react. He was pretty sick of it and very near telling the segundo to go hang himself. If things didn't get better and soon, he'd do just that. Then, Murdoch could deal with it. That thought didn't sit well with him. He didn't want to cause his father problems but, damn! Cipriano wasn't cutting him any slack.

He sighed and turned to his right as Scott mounted up beside him. In the next minutes, they were on their way to the far south side of the ranch. It wouldn't be much longer before the big drive in the Fall. Johnny wasn't looking forward to it for a few reasons. He wasn't crazy about cattle drives and he wasn't crazy about his brother's first time. He wasn't sure if the men would be playing any games with the sons of their boss but, he had him a feeling that was exactly what would happen. At least with Scott. He thought he might be able to slide by since they had a real dandy to play with.

Johnny smiled a little as he thought about this.

"What has you so happy?"

He turned to his brother and the smile widened. "Just thinking about the drive."

Cocking a brow, Scott asked, "that makes you happy? I understand they are not much fun."

"Depends on where you're sittin, Boston. The hands, well they like to break in the newcomers."

Scott stared at him then groaned a little. "What can I expect?" The question was asked with such dread, Johnny laughed aloud.

"Oh, pretty much anything that ain't too life-threatenin. I hope you can swim."

"There will be no time for swimming," Murdoch chimed in, having just ridden up next to Scott and only hearing the last sentence.

Johnny laughed again and shook his head but didn't explain. Scott kept his mouth closed as well. He had a suspicion this initiation had as much to do with him not 'running to daddy' as how he handled any given situation. It wasn't the first time he'd been through this but he was quite sure it would be a whole different kind of 'test'. He glanced over at his brother who was watching him closely and seemingly paying no mind to where he was going. Scott tried hard to keep an impassive expression on his face but he couldn't quite pull it off.

He shook his head slowly at the younger man and thought how well they were getting along. He was quite pleased with that turn of events. He'd spent as much time as he could with Johnny during his recovery and they'd had some good talks. He genuinely liked this man and was more than relieved with that outcome.

******

Johnny stepped out of the woods with his arms full of wood for the fire, coming face to face with Cipriano. Not surprisingly, the man was glaring at him. He could have stepped around, he supposed, but this whole attitude was wearing thin.

"Excuse me," he said sharply.

The segundo stepped aside but never stopped staring. Johnny walked over and dumped his load near the chuckwagon, smiling at the cook who gave him a wink that promised a little something extra for his supper that night in return for the kindness. But, when he turned back around, Cipriano had not moved.

Johnny started to go over and ask what his problem was when Murdoch called out to him. He walked over to where his father and brother stood near the remuda.

"I'm making out the assignments, Johnny. Scott wants to pull night herd duty tonight. Do you have a preference?"

He chewed his lip. Yeah, he had a preference. Let Cipriano do it every night. He was so tired of that man and his accusatory looks. He just shook his head.

"Something wrong, brother?"

"No, nothin, I guess. Whenever you think is best, Murdoch."

"If you want tonight, I can..."

"No, Scott. It's fine, really." He softened his tone. He didn't want to take this out on his brother so he added a smile.

Scott relaxed and nodded then left them alone. Murdoch was writing out his list and Johnny paced about for a few minutes before deciding. He really couldn't stand this much longer. Why it was starting to bother him so much, he didn't know.

"Can I ask you something?"

"What is it, Johnny?" Murdoch replied distractedly.

Sighing heavily, he stood in front of the older man. "Could ya look at me and listen?"

Aggravated, Murdoch did as asked.

"What is Cipriano's problem with me?"

"I didn't know he had a problem with you."

Johnny gave him a sidelong look, unconvinced. "He keeps starin a hole through me. It's like he's pointin a finger at me but he won't say nothin."

Murdoch tensed up as he considered this. "Have you asked him?"

"Not yet. I didn't want to cause any problems but if he don't cut it out, me and him are gonna have a big problem."

"Johnny, are you sure it isn't your imagination? Cipriano isn't the easiest man, I know, but he's a good segundo and loyal."

"I ain't imaginin him glarin at me, Murdoch. I ain't imaginin him ignoring me, not speakin to me. I don't expect to be his best friend but we hafta work together."

Murdoch was quiet for a moment and Johnny let him be. Sometimes, the old man needed to gather his thoughts.

"I'll talk to him and see what's bothering him. It may be a simple misunderstanding. Try not to let it get to you, alright?"

"I don't need you fighting my battles for me," Johnny argued.

"I'm trying to avoid a battle, Johnny. He's a good man and I'd rather not lose him for what may be a wrong idea."

Relaxing his shoulders, Johnny nodded, knowing his father was making perfect sense.

******

Two days passed and nothing had changed. Cipriano was still glaring and apparently, Murdoch hadn't said a thing to him. Johnny sat by the campfire with the rest of the men, listening to the soft strumming of Pedro's guitar with a smile of contentment on his face. He looked up when the music stopped and saw the segundo had joined them. His eyes found Pedro's who smiled a little and set the guitar aside.

Johnny wondered what that was about until he heard an unfamiliar sound. His father laughing outwardly, loudly even. He turned to see Scott and Murdoch standing off alone talking and joking, he guessed. He smiled a little, happy his brother was settling in and getting more comfortable around the old man. When he turned back to the fire, he saw something even more astounding. Cipriano was watching the other two Lancers with a smile on his face. Johnny couldn't recall the man ever smiling before and it baffled him.

Suddenly, he felt a heavy weight on his shoulders pushing him forward a bit. He forced his back straight and craned his neck to find his brother leaning on him. "What're ya doin?"

"I need your help, Johnny," Scott answered, breathing a bit heavily.

"With what?"

"Murdoch. He's threatening to turn me over his knee," Scott grinned.

Chuckling arose from around the campfire and Johnny pushed his brother away. "Why would I help you? I wanna see this!"

Scott plopped down next to him and threw an arm around his shoulders, pulling him closer. "Thanks a lot! I'll remember that when it's your turn."

Cipriano stood so suddenly, all eyes turned to him. He stalked off quickly into the night.

Johnny's grin died on his lips and he sighed out then looked over to where Murdoch stood talking to the cook. He hadn't seemed to notice and Johnny wondered when the old man was going to get around to talking to the foreman.

******

Murdoch joined the men around the campfire, sitting with a slight grunt next to Scott who had to scoot over to make room.

"Can we watch, too, Mr. Lancer?"

He frowned and shook his head. "Watch what, Frank?"

"When ya turn Scott over your knee," the hand grinned.

Murdoch cocked a brow and sent a sidelong look at his son. "If he keeps telling tales out of school, I might just let you do that."

The men laughed with appreciation as Scott elbowed his father. He received an odd expression from the older man, surprise mixed with... fondness, Scott thought was a good description.

Johnny held a slight smile on his face but he had other things on his mind just then. He leaned behind Scott and tapped Murdoch's shoulder. When the older man leaned back to look at him, Johnny said, "need to talk to you. It's important."

Scott hadn't noticed as he was talking with the men but he suddenly remembered something and turned to his father. "When are you going to show me that lariat hoop?"

Murdoch glanced at Johnny then leaned forward to his previous position. "Right now if you want."

Both men stood and walked away from the group. Johnny stared after them, stunned at the slight he'd just received. He stood up slowly and started toward the woods. As he reached the tree line, he looked back and watched for a few seconds as Murdoch showed Scott the finer points of tying a lariat loop. He shook his head and sighed then disappeared.

******

Johnny found Cipriano staring out over the water of the nearby stream. "I want to talk to you."

The man turned and, for the first time, his face didn't hold the usual visage when he regarded the younger man. To Johnny, it was a look of pain. But, he wasn't going to let anything stop him.

"I want to know what your problem is with me."

"I have no problem with you, Senor."

"Bull, old man! You been givin me the evil eye since I came here. Murdoch seems to think a lot of you and I'd like to get along but if that ain't in the cards then I think I deserve to know the why of it." He stood his ground, hands at his sides and he had to make a conscious effort not to clench them.

Cipriano shifted his feet. "You should ask El Patron."

Cocking his head to one side and not expecting that answer, Johnny replied. "I already did and he said he don't know so, why don't you just spit it out."

Cipriano's eyes left him and looked behind. Johnny heard a twig snap and whirled around then stayed himself, unwilling to draw his gun in this environment. He figured Murdoch would have a lot to say about a stunt like that and he really didn't feel threatened. At least, not by the unseen; just the unknown.

Murdoch's silhouette was easy to discern and Johnny sighed, figuring he was gonna hear it anyway. He turned back to the segundo.

Cipriano leaned in and, in a whisper, asked, "Did he tell you about your mother?"

Johnny frowned at the strange question but had no time to respond as Murdoch approached.

"What's going on here?"

"Nada, Senor."

Murdoch glowered then turned to Johnny. "Is there a problem, John?"

Completely confused and head spinning, he could only say, "no problema, Murdoch." He looked up at his father quickly. "I've got night herd duty. Should get goin."

Murdoch watched his receding back then turned to Cipriano who only looked blankly at him before walking away as well.

******

His head hurt from thinking all night. Johnny had no idea what Cipriano was trying to tell him. He counted himself lucky the night had passed quietly because he'd paid little attention to the growing herd. Now, as he rounded up more strays to push back to the makeshift corral, he found it nearly impossible to think at all. He was moving on instinct and letting Barranca do most of the work. By noon, he was ready to fall out of the saddle. Truth be told, his back was singing to him, too.

But the question would not leave his mind. Did he tell me about my mother? No, was the answer. But, why would Cipriano care? And why was Murdoch so different with him now? Since Scott came home, there had been a definite difference. Murdoch didn't pay much mind to him now. At first, the old man was all over him wanting to know did he need anything, how was he settling in, did he have any problems with the work. Now, he simply asked for reports of work done or in progress and grumped a reply.

He'd tried to shrug it off before when he'd thought about it but now, he wasn't too sure he could ignore it any longer. Mostly, because he didn't know what the hell that old Mexican was trying to tell him.

******

Scott watched his brother slump to the ground with a plate of beans in his hand. He watched as Johnny simply sat there and stared at the plate, not moving. Walking over, he eased down beside his brother and waited several minutes but Johnny didn't even acknowledge his presence.

He laid a hand on his brother's arm and Johnny nearly jumped out of his skin then looked confusedly at him.

"What's wrong with you? Don't sneak up on me like that!"

"Sneak up on you? I've been sitting here for at least five minutes, Johnny. What in the world is going on?"

He blinked and shook his head, unable to really understand what Scott had said. He knew he was in trouble. If he only knew what and why, he could figure it out.

"It's too much. I knew it was too soon for you to be doing this. We had a deal so now, you need to go on home."

"You and Murdoch had a deal. I didn't agree to nothin," he said almost automatically.

"No problem. I'll just tell Murdoch you need to go home. You're in no shape for this and you know it. You're risking not only yourself but the men as well."

Johnny closed his eyes and let out a harsh breath. He knew his brother was right but he wasn't really sick just ... very confused. Maybe he did need to go home and try to sort this out. Figure out what the hell Cipriano had meant. He was sure the man would tell him no more but he also knew this was important. Cipriano wouldn't have made such an effort and risked Murdoch's wrath by mentioning something so personal otherwise.

"Maybe I don't feel so good," he finally mumbled.

It was all Scott needed to hear and he went to find Murdoch. The next thing Johnny knew, he was heading home.

******

Maria met him on the porch before he could get in the door.

"Is something wrong? Is it El Patron?" she asked, wringing her dish cloth.

Johnny frowned and shook his head. "No, no. I guess I wasn't as ready for this as I thought. Murdoch sent me home."

She sighed with relief which he found irritating as he watched her walk back inside without another word. Johnny hurried to catch her up.

"Maria, wait a minute. Cipriano said something to me last night and I think maybe you know somethin, too."

She turned slowly and once more began twisting the towel. "Que?"

"He asked me if Murdoch had told me about my mother. What did he mean by that?"

Her eyes widened then she closed her face. "I would not know, Senor."

"Yeah, you do. What's the big secret?"

She stared at him for a beat, shrugged her shoulders and hurriedly made for her kitchen.

Johnny felt a bit defeated then he felt exhausted. He walked over and fell on the sofa. He was asleep within a minute.

******

He awoke a bit disoriented. Johnny raised up and rubbed his face. The room was pitch dark and he fumbled to find the nearest lamp. Lighting it, he turned up the wick to brighten the room and stretched his back. Damn that woman! he thought.

His stomach rumbled and he grabbed the lamp then headed for the kitchen, knowing she hadn't left him a thing to eat. What the hell had he done to these people that they hated him so much? It would be different he hadn't made an effort, hadn't tried to be nice, had treated his father badly.

As he suspected, the stove was cold. Not even a pot of coffee. Sighing his frustration, he went about preparing a meal. He had to root through the pantry and cabinets to find everything. Finally, a half hour later, he sat at the table and ate the sandwich, coffee pot in front of him. And he wondered again at Cipriano's strange question.

******

He left the dishes on the table. Good enough for her, he thought angrily, then walked back into the living room. He stared at Murdoch's desk, knowing the man kept everything of value in there or the safe.

His curiosity got the better of him and he walked over to the desk. A place he'd never been nearer to than a chair on the opposite side. He'd spent a few evenings watching Scott sitting in this chair going over the books but he'd not been too interested. Johnny stopped suddenly, realizing Murdoch had never once offered to show him the ledgers. Did that mean anything?

He shook his head. Scott's grandfather was an accountant. Scott was supposed to work with him so he was good with that stuff. It stood to reason Murdoch would show him the ranch accounts. He sat down and looked at the top, neatly arranged and smiled a little. Then, he tapped his fingers on the surface as he decided whether he had any right to open those drawers.

This was his father's desk. His father's business. But, Murdoch was his father so didn't he have a right to see what was here? Shouldn't he know what was going on with the business side? Murdoch had never indicated what exactly their roles would be in this family. Maybe he expected the brothers to just work the land, learn from experience and take over one day, far down the road, when Murdoch could no longer run things. Still, if that were true, he needed to know.

Well, you can sit here and try to convince yourself that's what you're doin. You know it ain't, though. You know what you're lookin for. It's not a big deal. Just find something, anything that makes sense. Then, when Cipriano gets back, we can have it out once and for all.

Johnny nodded his head and opened the top left drawer. All he found was paperwork so he tried the right side. More of the same. He opened the middle drawer and rifled through. More paper. The man did like paper, he thought with a smile. Then, he saw a small picture frame. Pulling it out, he leaned toward the lamp. Well, this is definitely Scott's mother. Blonde and beautiful, she was. He could see Scott in her. Johnny smiled and laid it gently on top the desk. His brother should see that.

He went back to his pilfering, for that's how he thought of it, and found another picture. Repeating his earlier actions, he looked upon the face of the Mexican beauty.  

******

He wasn't sure how long he sat there not breathing but his lungs reminded him to take a breath. And he did. Several, in fact as his heart raced, the pulse throbbing in his temple.

Okay, okay, just take it easy and think this through. But he couldn't seem to think straight. Panicky, Johnny went through the rest of the drawers until he came to the bottom left. It was locked and he knew, just knew this was where his answers lie. He still didn't know what the hell the question was. He tried desperately to find a key, knocking papers to the floor in his haste. His hand hit the paperweight, turning it on its side and there, underneath was a key.

He picked it up and stared at it for what seemed forever before making himself try it. The key turned, the drawer opened and he closed his eyes for a moment before looking. Pulling out the first file, he saw his name emblazoned there. Johnny Madrid. At the top right side was the Pinkerton Agency insignia. He frowned at that then sat and stared at the thing for a while.

Turning up the lamp wick, Johnny opened the file and began reading. It was the story of his life. Fairly accurate, he thought, but nothing surprising. Until he got to the last page. It wasn't what the file contained, it was what it didn't contain. There was no mention of Murdoch. No mention of the name Lancer at all.

He sat back, completely befuddled, his mind unwilling to work with him. Deciding he was missing something, he read it again but the result was the same. He was becoming aggravated so he looked in the drawer again and found a second report. His first thought that it was about Scott was wrong.

He swallowed dryly as he read the name. Maria Lancer.

By the time he finished reading this file, Johnny felt sick to his stomach. He stood quickly and headed for the French doors, yanking them open and stepping onto the veranda. He sucked in deeply of the cool night air but it didn't help. Before he knew it, he was hanging over the low wall retching.

Some time later, he raised his head from where he'd pressed it against the cool adobe and stared out into the night. Then, he turned and walked back inside. Up the stairs and to his bedroom he walked with purpose. Once inside, he began to pack what little he'd brought with him to Lancer.

******

Johnny walked into the kitchen the next morning to find Maria taking biscuits from the oven. He sat down and wondered if she'd serve him but soon, she was setting food before him. He sipped the coffee but only looked at the food with disinterest. He could hear her behind him moving about.

"Sit down please, Maria."

She turned, her face full of scorn as she looked at his back.

"Por favor, Senora," he said softly.

She walked over and sat down, her hands in her lap as she waited impatiently.

Johnny wasn't sure how to start but he thought he had figured out a few things and, for some reason, it was important to him to clear the air with this woman. He looked up slowly, unable to hide the pain in his eyes, the incredible sorrow.

"Did you think I knew all along?"

"Knew what?" she asked, her heart skipping a beat.

He implored her with his eyes not to play with him and her face fell.

"You did not?"

"I found the Pinkerton reports last night. It took me a while to figure it all out. A lot longer to understand and accept the truth. Why didn't you tell me?"

She shook her head, stunned by this information. "We thought you knew; had agreed to this loco plan."

"We. You mean you and Cipriano. Yeah, I figured that was why you both seem to hate my guts. And no, I didn't have a clue. Guess I'm just too stupid. I never questioned him about a thing. I never wanted to upset him by askin about my mother. I wonder what lies he would have told me if I had." The bitterness was there, trying to rise through his broken heart.

"Dios! Why did he do this?" he beseeched, dropping his head into his hands.

Maria pushed aside her own feelings and reached out, placing her hand on his arm. "I do not know why he did this. I do not know what he was thinking. He would not discuss it. Cipriano tried to tell him it was foolish but he ordered us both never to speak of it. He is a good man, Johnny, but his heart has been broken for many years."

"A good man? A good man doesn't lie. A good man doesn't rip another person's world apart for his own selfish reasons. No, Maria, Murdoch Lancer is not a good man!"

She said nothing, knew he had every right to say anything he wanted in this moment.

"I think you'd best make yourself scarce when they get home. This ain't gonna be pretty."

"Por favor, do not hurt him," she begged.

Johnny looked at her with unforgiving eyes. "I ain't sure what I'm gonna do. I would've lit out last night if it wasn't for Scott." His voice cracked when he said the name of the man he'd come to love in such a short time and he hung his head.

******

Scott was never so glad for something to be over in his life. He decidedly did not like roundups but he knew, the worst was yet to come. The cattle drive, by all accounts, would be grueling. And he'd heard many accounts from the hands this past week. He smiled as he thought of Johnny's warning of the initiation to come. He was almost looking forward to it. Well, more to the point, looking forward to getting past it.

As they rode up to the house, he noticed Maria walking quickly toward Cipriano. Curious but too tired to think much of it, he dismounted and waited for his father to give final orders for the day. Still, the two of them caught his eye and they seemed to be having quite an animated conversation. Scott entertained himself watching them until Murdoch walked up.

"Congratulations, son. You did a fine job out there," Murdoch smiled as he wrapped an arm around Scott's shoulders and began walking to the front door.

"Thank you, Sir. It was ... educational," he laughed lightly.

Both men stopped short just inside the doorway to the living room, the smiles sliding from their faces.

Johnny sat in Murdoch's desk chair watching them walk in together all happy and his eyes grew even colder. He was holding his gun in his right hand, his elbow resting on the armchair as he waved that hand around beside his head. The loose grip on the Colt did nothing to ease the thickness of the air.

Scott made the first move and stepped cautiously toward him. "Hello, brother. What's going on?" He tried to make his voice light but he knew he hadn't pulled it off.

"Oh, so many things, Scott. Just so many things," Johnny drawled. His eyes went to Murdoch. "Well, come on in. It's time for a family reunion, ain't it?"

Murdoch gave him a wary look as he joined Scott who was now in front of the desk. "What's going on, John?"

He smiled and tapped the gun to the side of his head a few times. "John? Ain't ya gonna call me son? Oh, right. You never have before. Why start now?"

Scott eased into a chair and watched the gun wave about in the air too close to his brother's head. "What's wrong, brother?"

Johnny sat forward so suddenly, Scott actually flinched a little. "Have a seat, Murdoch. Might as well be comfortable."

The rancher sat beside his son, his heart in his throat. Johnny glanced at him, pure disgust all over his face. Then, it was gone, replaced with nothingness.

"Got somethin for you, Scott. I thought you'd like to have it." He picked the picture up and handed it across the desk.

Scott leaned forward to take it and smiled at the picture of his mother. "Thank you. It's a good likeness."

"Yeah? What'ya think of this one?" Johnny asked and handed him the second picture.

Scott looked at it then smiled at him as best he could. "She's beautiful. Your mother?"

"Nope. Never seen her before in my life. Maybe Murdoch here can tell us who she is. No, wait, I already know. That's Maria Lancer, right?" His voice was colder than a December morning in Boston as he turned his gaze on Murdoch.

The rancher looked at the picture then simply nodded his head.

"I don't understand. Maria is your mother, Johnny," Scott said, clearly confused.

"Is that what Murdoch told you? Cause it's more than he's said to me about her. He's never mentioned her other than to tell me she ran out on him and he never called her by name. You know why, Scott? Because Maria Lancer was not my mother. Never met the woman before." He turned his attention to Murdoch.

"So, now we get to hear just exactly what you thought you were doin, Murdoch. Tell me because I just don't get it. Why did you bring me here? Why did you lie to me? Why did you tell me I was your son that died fifteen years ago!?"

Scott's mouth dropped opened and he slowly turned to his father, nearly gasping at this information.

Murdoch stared at his lap for several long moments before looking back up at Johnny who leaned back in the chair, retaking his previous position.

"I saw you in San Diego when I was on a business trip. I couldn't believe how much you looked like ... like what I pictured Johnny to look like. When I found out who you were, the idea just started to come to me. I wasn't sure it would work so I hired the Pinkerton's to look into your background. It was perfect, really. You had no family and didn't seem to know who your father was."

"So, you decided to replace your dead son?" Scott asked, completely aghast.

"No, no, not exactly." Murdoch took a deep breath before continuing. "I'd heard rumors about Pardee. That he was planning on making a run at this valley; at Lancer. You're a gunfighter. I thought having you here would either make him think twice or I'd have someone on hand to deal with the problem."

Johnny stared at him emotionlessly. "If you wanted a gunhawk, why not just hire me?"

"I have a reputation, Johnny. Having a gunfighter on my payroll wouldn't look very good. People would get the wrong idea and think maybe I was going to start a range war. It could have caused a lot of unnecessary problems. And maybe I thought ... well, it hadn't been that long since I found out about my Johnny. I'd been searching for him for so long and you looked a little like Maria."

"So, you were trying to replace him. Only, then Scott came home and you didn't need me around anymore. That's why you've been so cold to me since he came here. Why you spend so much time with him. I figured you were just trying to help him get used to this life but that ain't it at all. Just exactly how long did you think you could keep this up?"

Shaking his head, Murdoch sighed tiredly. "I hadn't thought about it."

It was quiet for a few minutes. Scott sat there simply stunned and trying to wrap his head around so many things. Utmost was the fact that his real brother was dead and had been for years.

"How old was he?" he asked in a whisper.

Murdoch glanced over, unsure of the question for a second. "Seven. It was smallpox."

"Would've been a hell of a lot cheaper to hire me, old man. Now, it's gonna cost you a lot more," Johnny said flatly.

Murdoch's head came up. "What does that mean?"

"What do you think it means? Who the hell do you think you are playin with my life like that? Did you even think about how I'd feel about this? No, I don't guess you did. I guess you didn't think I could feel anything. After all, I'm just a half-breed killer, right?" His eyes blazed with rage and pain.

"No, I guess I didn't think of that. I didn't think past what I needed right then. I ... I'm sorry, Johnny."

"You're sorry!? You hand me a family I never thought I'd ever have. Make me believe you're my FATHER and all you can say to me is you're sorry? You sonofabitch!" He cocked the gun and pointed it at Murdoch's head.

"Johnny, don't! Please. I know what he did was reprehensible. It's outrageous and so completely unfair but..."

"But, what, Scott? Why shouldn't I blast him straight to hell where he belongs?" Johnny asked in a cold, calm tone.

"Because, no matter what he's done, he's my father. I don't know what to think about this. I can't imagine how you must feel but, you and I were brothers. We have a connection no matter what. Please, for me, don't kill him."

Johnny's eyes wavered and he lowered the gun slightly. "What makes you so damned sure you're his son? Seems to me, it's a crap shoot. Besides, who the hell would want to claim him?"

"I'm not sure I do but I don't want you to do something you'll regret. It's murder and you're better than that."

Johnny snorted. "How would you know?" He sat back once more and considered Scott. "My mother was a whore. A prostitute. I grew up in a bordello. Well, more than one. She never told me who my old man was and I guess she didn't really know. I convinced myself from what little he told me about her runnin off is why she became a whore. But, I guess that ain't it at all. So, I ain't real sure why she kept me. Most don't. If they don't kill it before it's born, they leave it in an alley or orphanage."

He looked back at Murdoch. "Didn't see anything in that Pinkerton report about my real father so I reckon they couldn't find out either." It was a question though he didn't ask it.

"No, they couldn't find out," Murdoch mumbled.  

"Did they try?"

Murdoch shook his head. "No."

"Figures. Well, tell me, old man, what am I supposed to do with you now?"

He didn't answer though Johnny didn't expect him to. "Sign this," he said as he shoved a piece of paper across the desk.

"What is it?"

"A bill of sale for Barranca." The tone told the rancher it wasn't a request or a suggestion or even askance to purchase the horse.

Murdoch knew it was small enough payment and had no qualms about giving the horse away. Johnny had broken it, trained it and no one else could ride it. He signed his name quickly.

"Now," Johnny went on, pulling a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, "I've been here six months. This is what you owe me minus fifty dollars for the horse. That's my usual fee so I don't want to hear any hagglin over it."

Scott had sat quietly, his mind blank for the most part. Simply shut down by too much insanity going on around him. Too much information to process. Johnny's voice was so ... cold and flat. He couldn't blame the man but he was suddenly feeling a deep and painful loss.

"Why didn't you just take the money from the safe?" Murdoch was asking.

Johnny's eyes narrowed as he hissed the words. "I ain't no thief!"

Murdoch walked over and knelt in front of the safe, unlocking it and pulling out a smaller box. He counted out the money then replaced the rest and locked the safe before returning to his seat. He still wasn't sure Johnny wouldn't kill him. His mind tried to think of a way to get the man to leave without gunplay.

Johnny counted the money silently. Satisfied, he shoved it in his pocket and sat there for a minute just staring at Murdoch.  

"I thought about burnin this place to the ground but then you couldn't pay the hands and they're all good men." His lips quirked. "Even Cipriano."

"I know what I did is unforgivable. I wasn't thinking clearly and I truly am sorry for any inconvenience..."

"Inconvenience?" Johnny broke in. "Boy, you are some piece of work, ain't ya? Did it ever occur to you that I might actually have feelings for you? For him?" He tossed his head toward Scott then swallowed hard, willing the emotions away. He stood quickly and both other men tensed.

"Don't think for one minute this is over. I'm too damned mad right now to think straight so I'm leavin here. But, I swear this to you, old man, you will pay for what you've done. You ain't ever gonna see it comin'. It might be a week from now or five years but you won't know it. So, if I were you, I wouldn't relax for one second; keep lookin behind you because I might just be there." His grin was cold and evil.

He headed for the front door then stopped and turned. "You will never see another minute of peace as long as I draw breath, Lancer. I will ruin you." He left then, slamming the door behind him.

******

Scott sat there listening to the echo of Johnny's threat which still lingered in the air. He watched as Murdoch stood and walked to the picture window behind his desk, looking on as Johnny rode away.

"What kind of man are you?"

"Please, son, try to understand. I've been searching for my boy for so many years. Hearing he was dead, had been dead all this time, I nearly lost my mind with grief. When I saw Johnny, I ... it was like seeing my boy, he looked so much like Maria. I made myself believe I was bringing him here because of his skill but, I was starting to ... have feelings for him. I started to forget he wasn't my son."

"Until I came along," Scott spoke sharply.

"Yes, when you arrived I finally had one of my boys back. I never thought you'd come, you see. It was more than I'd ever hoped for but it was too late then. Johnny settled in much more easily than I would have thought."

"Of course he did! He's never had a real home, a real family. I'm sure he inhaled it all like a man starving for air! My God, Murdoch! Were you really going to continue this farce? Would you really have let us go on thinking he was a Lancer? What would have happened if you got angry with him over something? If you let something slip in a year or ten years? If he'd actually asked you about his mother?!"

"I didn't think about that! All I could think was I had Johnny. Even if it wasn't really him. It could have so easily been him, Scott. Johnny Madrid could so easily have been my son."

Scott took a deep breath and stood up. "You have no idea what you've done to that young man, do you?"

Murdoch turned to face him, his expression pure puzzlement. "I gave him a home when he had none."

"You gave him hope. Hope that he could have a family. That he could be loved then you ripped it all away. Well, he was loved, Murdoch. At least, by me. I can't just stop thinking of him as my brother." Scott stopped and shook his head, his chest cramping. "I can't stay here. I have to leave."

"Scott, please, don't go. We can work this out. Give it some time, son. I know you can understand what I was thinking if you just take some time," Murdoch implored.

"No, I will never understand how a man can manipulate other people's lives. You hated my grandfather for taking me away from you, for manipulating you but you're no better. In fact, you're worse! At least, my grandfather is actually related to me!"

Scott turned and stalked to the stairs then paused for a second before running up the steps two at a time.

******

Johnny rode slowly down the trail. His mind was abuzz as he thought of ways to finish this even as his heart nearly stopped beating. The single worst part of this whole thing was Scott. He'd had a brother for a moment. For one brief moment, he'd known what it was like to love another person. And it wasn't because he thought they were blood kin, he genuinely liked Scott; respected and admired the man.

Now, he'd lost that and it was killing him. Anger reared its head as he vowed it wouldn't kill him before Murdoch Lancer lost everything he cared about. Except for Scott. He couldn't hurt Scott. Besides, he figured the man was hurting pretty good already. As close as he felt to the man, he knew Scott felt the same for him. It was shocking to him but, there it was. He didn't want to question it because then, he'd have to question what Scott felt for him now.

He had no right to expect a damned thing from the man. If he was smart, he'd head for Boston on the next stage. Probably exactly what he'd do. Johnny smirked as he recalled how he'd taken up for Murdoch that night Scott told him how he'd ended up living in Boston. If he'd only known then.

Johnny sighed heavily and looked around him. An idea sprung to his mind and he turned off the road. It didn't take him long to find the newly rounded up herd all snug in their corral. He smiled as he approached the two men watching over them.

"Hey, Johnny. Feelin better?" Walt called and waved.

"Feelin just fine, Walt. Just fine," he replied then walked Barranca to the main gate. He reached down and unlocked it then swung it open.

"What're ya doin?" Walt asked as he walked slowly toward the man.

"Mount up, Walt."

The man gave a puzzled look then shrugged and figured maybe the old man had decided to cut out some of the steers. He did as he was told and as he settled in the saddle, Johnny rode up to him.

"You don't need to ask any questions, Walt. You and Pete just head back to the bunkhouse. Don't look back, just ride."

The young man was completely confused, opened his mouth then closed it quickly at the cold stare he received for the effort. He glanced over at Pete who'd been in the saddle the whole time and simply nodded.

Johnny watched the men ride off, waiting a while even after they were out of his sight. He moved to the back of the corral and drew his gun, firing at the foot of one of the steers.

The cattle began a clumsy dance as they all tried to leave the corral at once. Soon enough, they were stampeding off across the valley. Johnny smiled as he watched them then rode away.

******

It was getting late and he had no place in particular to go so Johnny set up camp just south of Lancer's border. He'd prepared himself with trail provisions courtesy of the ranch. Something else he figured was owed him. The money he'd received weighed heavy in his pocket. He didn't want it, hated the thought of it lying in there and briefly thought of throwing it all in the fire. But, he was a practical man and he had to eat. At least, until he felt strong enough to work again.

Yes, his back still bothered him but that wasn't the sickness he felt most. It had taken him some time to get over his mother's death. He knew this would take even longer. Kids were a helluva lot more resilient.

He leaned against his saddle and sipped the coffee, staring at nothing and trying not to think anymore when he heard it. He didn't move and knew he was taking a chance but the odds were he knew exactly who was riding in.

"Mind if I join you?"

"Come on in, Boston."

Scott dismounted and led his horse next to Barranca. He removed the saddle quickly and placed it near Johnny's. "I saw an odd thing as I was riding."

"Yeah?"

"Yes, the cattle I spent the past week rounding up seem to be grazing from here to the four corners of the earth." The wry tone caused Johnny to smile.

"Is that right?"

"It is. I was stumped at first." Scott poked around his saddle bag then brought out a tin cup. "May I?" he asked as he nodded toward the coffee pot.

Johnny simply nodded.

"Of course then, I remembered seeing Walt and Pete riding in as I was riding out. I assumed they'd been replaced. Now, I know there was no reason for them to stay out there."

"No reason if there ain't no cows to watch, I reckon."

Scott smiled into his coffee cup before taking a drink.

******

They sat quietly though hardly relaxed, each man working through his thoughts and feelings about all that had transpired. Neither sure what, if anything they should say. Johnny was content to leave it just that way all night. He couldn't stand the thought of drudging it all up again.

"What are your plans?"

Scott's soft voice broke the reverie gently.

"Nothin special. Just headin home."

He looked over at the younger man with some astonishment. "I thought you didn't have a home."

"Just meant south, Scott. The border. Anywhere along there is home, I reckon."

Nodding as his chest tightened, Scott forced his voice to be even. "I was thinking about what I'd do. Of course, going back to Boston is an option but, I'm not sure I want to do that. I rather like ranching so I thought; why not buy a ranch of my own?"

Johnny smiled softly and raised his coffee cup in a toasting motion. "Good luck."

"Thank you but, I'm afraid I never got the chance to learn all the ropes. I don't think I'd have much success without some help. I was thinking, since you have so much experience with cattle and horses, you might be interested in a partnership."

He stared into the fire, he had to. He knew what the man was trying to do and, as good as it made him feel, he didn't think he'd be able to stand it. "No, thanks," he whispered.

"Johnny, I..."

"Scott, stop, okay? I can't be around you. It's too much of a reminder of what he did. I know it ain't your fault but, still and all..."

"That would get better with time. Look, I understand, believe me, I do. I just don't see any reason we should lose our friendship because of

him." His anger escaped in the words and Scott swallowed hard to push it back down.

Johnny sighed heavily and shook his head, leaning forward and tossing the dregs of his coffee into the fire. "Won't work. In time, you'd come to resent me."

"That's ridiculous!"

"Is it, Boston? You just found your old man. Well, sort of. You were workin hard on gettin along and gettin to know him and things were goin good. I saw the two of you when you walked in the house today. All smiling, him with his arm around you. Sooner or later, the mad's gonna go away then what'll you be left with? Me to remind you of what you lost again."

"It's not your fault," Scott said pointedly.

"Don't matter. It'll happen. Maybe ... maybe some day you can get past this and you'll wanna go back and ..."

"I will never step foot on that ranch again. He lied to me and to you. He used a complete stranger to get what he wanted with no regard for you. No, Johnny, I never want to see Murdoch Lancer again!"

******

Johnny fell back against his saddle and went quiet for a long time. Scott watched him, waiting to see if he'd understood and believed what he'd said.

"I know how ticked off you are. I'm a hundred times madder than that. But, anger dies, Scott. Has to or a man can't live. I gotta tell you I hope you don't go back cause you ain't gonna find what you want from that old man. Besides, I meant what I said when I left. Lancer will be ruined before it's all said and done."

"Then ruin it, Johnny. I sure won't try to stop you. Yes, I'm angrier than I can ever recall and I'm not going to get past it. You're right, the anger will fade but what he did will always be there. I've never thought of myself as someone who holds a grudge but this is so far beyond a grudge, I can't fathom it."

Johnny looked at him fully for the first time since he rode into the camp and spoke with a trembling voice. "He's your father. That much is true. I hate that part of it. I hate goin after your kin."

Scott's jaw clenched then relaxed as he thought through the implications. Finally, he responded. "I appreciate that. All I ask is you don't kill him."

"I won't. It's too easy anyway. That ranch is the end all be all for him. He loves you but not enough. Sorry, that's just how I see it. I figure takin that away is the worst thing I can do to him."

Scott dipped his eyes. Johnny's words were painful but he knew they were also true. "I can't bring myself to offer to help you. I really wish you'd just leave it and come with me. We can find a good piece of land, make a fresh start."

Johnny's lips quirked. "I ain't all that fond of ranching, Scott. Besides, I do hold a grudge when it's worth holdin and this one is as far as I'm concerned."

"What will you do?"

He shrugged and relaxed, crossing his arms over his chest. "Haven't decided yet. Right now, I'm too tired to think on it. I guess you're stayin the night so might as well sack in."

******

The next morning, the two men went about their morning rituals quietly, neither in the mood for idle chitchat. Johnny walked off into the trees to do his business as Scott cleaned up from breakfast and extinguished their fire.

His mind whirled with everything that had happened. He was still livid but more than anything, he had to admit to himself he was hurt. Deeply hurt. He'd lost his family. A tenuous family, it was, but it had been his if only for a moment. A brother he never knew existed and really didn't. At least, not anymore. He was grieving that, too, he realized. Johnny Lancer was dead and had been for years. He would never know his younger brother and the thought broke his heart.

Johnny had been right last night. He and Murdoch were getting along well and he'd been happy and fairly settled in the relationship. Oh, he knew there was a long road ahead of them but he'd felt the bridge had been crossed. The chasm between father and son closed with the painful truth. And he could live with it, thanks to Johnny's help.

It was so ironic really and he had to smirk at it. He startled when he heard the shout.

"Madre de Dios! Meirda!"

Scott didn't know what that meant but he was certain it wasn't good. He stood up and looked toward the trees. "Johnny, are you alright?"

"No! Dammit it all to hell, no! I'm not alright!" He kept right on cursing, mostly to himself, as he emerged from the trees limping badly.

Scott went immediately to his aid, wrapping an arm around his waist and helping him near the now doused campfire. He eased the younger man down and knelt beside him unsure what was wrong.

"I twisted my knee," he grunted as he held the offending limb, rubbing gently.

"Is it swelling?"

Johnny only nodded as he rocked back and forth slowly.

"Alright. I'll get the horses ready. Can you ride?"

"Yeah, I can make it," he ground out.

Scott had his doubts but he went to saddle the animals and took his time. When he returned to Johnny, the man had calmed a great deal but the pain was easy to see on his face.

"We'll get you to Spanish Wells and the doctor."

"It'll be okay, Scott."

"I'm sure it will once the doctor fixes it," he smiled and extended a hand.

******

Johnny thought he might just pass out by the time they reached town. As they passed the small sign announcing Spanish Wells, his face went blank and he pulled his hat lower over his eyes. Clenching his jaw, he scanned the streets for the doctor's office. Finding it, he wasted no time heading that direction.

Scott watched it all with some interest. So, this was Johnny Madrid. He was surprised at the thought and realized he had continued thinking of this young man as Johnny Lancer all along. 'I need to stop that though I don't know how,' he thought as he dismounted and headed around his horse to Barranca.

Scott stood beside the animal, giving Johnny the room he needed but close enough to catch him should he falter. But, he didn't. He swung his right leg over the saddle and slid to the ground, landing most of his weight on that good leg.

"Neat trick," Scott smiled.

"Yeah, Barranca ain't the only one who can do tricks," Johnny grinned.

Scott laughed and put his arm around Johnny's waist but he felt the other man tense up and he looked curiously at him.

"I don't need any help. Especially in front of gawkin hens."

Scott let his arm slide away and turned around. Sure enough, a few ladies were looking in their direction with more than a little curiosity. He sighed and turned back to find Johnny already headed to the door.

Thankfully, there were no stairs and he was able to get inside without limping too much. But, his knee was killing him and he couldn't believe how bad his luck was running lately. Lancer must have put a curse on him, he thought with a smirk.

Sam Jenkins wrapped the knee up tightly and smiled at the young man. "Well, you need to stay off it for at least a week, Johnny. It's a bad sprain. No more riding."

"Can't hang around here, Doc," he groused.

"Then get a wagon and go home."

Johnny's eyes were afire when he looked at the man. "Ain't got no home."

Surprised, Sam stared at him for a beat. "Don't tell me Murdoch's gone and done something already? It's only been what, six months?"

"He sure did," Johnny sighed out, suddenly feeling very tired. He eased off the exam table and hobbled around the room.

"That is not what I meant by staying off it, Johnny. You shouldn't be putting any weight on that leg."

"Well, how do you suggest I get around, Doc?"

Sam raised a brow at the attitude. "Get Scott to help you. I can get you some crutches."

"No way," he stated adamantly.

"To what? Scott or the crutches?" the physician asked in exasperation.

Johnny's jaw tightened. "Either one."

Before Sam could ask, the front door swung open and two men came in, one holding the other up. Johnny's hand was on his gun until he realized someone was hurt. Then, he recognized both men.

******

At that moment, Scott returned from acquiring them a hotel room. He walked quickly to the uninjured man who'd just helped his friend onto the examination table.

"What happened, Walt?"

The hand seemed surprised to see him there then, his eyes went to Johnny and more surprise registered. "We was wondering where you two went. There was a fire at the ranch early this mornin."

"Where?" Johnny asked.

Walt's sympathetic expression was wasted though he couldn't have known it. "The house. I'm sorry, it's just about completely gone."

"Was anyone else hurt?" Scott asked.

"No. Frank here got a pretty bad burn on his arm. Mr. Lancer swallowed a lot of smoke before we could pull him out but he seems alright."

"How did it start?"

Walt looked over to Johnny and answered. "Ain't real sure. Mr. Lancer was sittin in a chair by the fireplace out cold. Looks like maybe a log rolled out. He ..."

"He what, Walt?" Scott asked impatiently.

"There was an empty bottle of whiskey next to him and he smelled like he took a bath in the stuff. Near as we can figure, he was passed out and couldn't wake himself up."

It took everything Johnny had not to laugh or even smile. He looked at Frank and any mirth died as he saw the pained expression on the man's face. Johnny liked Frank. He'd liked all the hands except Cipriano and it didn't feel good at all to see any of them suffer.

No one spoke again until Sam finished. "It's a bad burn alright but, as long as he's very careful and keeps it clean, it should heal."

"Can I take 'im back to the ranch, Doc?" Walt asked.

"Just take it easy. I gave him a good dose of laudanum so he should sleep most of the day. Here," he picked up a brown bottle and passed it to Walt, "give him this as he needs it. It's going to hurt like the dickens for several days."

Walt nodded then looked at Scott and Johnny. "Should I tell Mr. Lancer you'll be home soon?"

Scott looked at Johnny who only shrugged and said, "not me."

"Nor me. In fact, don't tell him you even saw us, Walt."

The young man stared openly at them both then frowned with anger but he said nothing else and went to help his friend.

******

Once the hands had left, Sam started. "Will one of you tell me what in the devil is going on here? Did you not hear the man say your house just burned to the ground?"

"Ain't my house and I don't give a damn."

"It's a long story, Sam," Scott replied more quietly.

"Well, I don't have anyplace to go."

Johnny's eyes narrowed as he stared at the man. "What makes you think it's any of your business?"

"Johnny..."

"No, Scott!" he said as he glared at the man, "he ain't got no right to know anything!"

"I brought you into this world, Johnny. I'm old friends with Murdoch and a very good friend, too. If there's trouble, I'd like to help." Sam managed to tone down his anger but not by much.

Johnny limped over to stand directly in front of the man. He noticed Scott tense up in his periphery. "No, you didn't bring me into this world. I'm not Johnny Lancer! He's long dead and gone, Doc. But, since you think you know Murdoch so well, tell me somethin. Why would he tell me I'm his son, bring me into his house while all the time knowin it ain't so?"

Sam gawked at him then staggered back against the table. His mouth hung open as he tried to register what he'd heard. Slowly, his head began to shake back and forth.

"It's the truth, Sam. Murdoch lied to both of us about who Johnny is. My brother died when he was seven years old and Murdoch knew it when he approached Johnny. He had Pinkerton reports on Johnny and on his second wife. The proof is all there in black and white." Scott could not believe how calm he sounded to his own ears. Ears that were buzzing.

Johnny turned and hobbled to the furthest corner of the room where he crossed his arms over his abdomen and leaned one shoulder against the wall, taking the weight off his left leg, his profile to both men.

There wasn't a sound in the room save the breathing; rapid and unsteady of three men. Sam inhaled sharply and let it out slowly as he righted himself and looked at Scott, then Johnny.

"I don't know what to say. What was his excuse?"

"He had a few. He knew Pardee was coming and wanted a gunfighter around but he didn't want to sully his reputation by hiring one. When that excuse didn't wash, he said he had only just found out about my brother and was still grieving and maybe he was trying to replace that son."

"The truth of the matter is, he didn't think Scott would stick around without thinkin he had somethin more than Murdoch to gain in the bargain."

Scott looked at him, stunned.

Johnny shrugged. "I figured that out last night. It makes the most sense to me. He acted like he didn't want me gettin in the middle when you two had your talk but I think that's exactly what he wanted. He played us both like a fiddle. Soon as Scott came home, he started actin different around me. He didn't have the time of day to spend with me. Wasn't like that at first. He was all 'fatherly' then."

"How did you find out?"

Scott froze for a second. He hadn't even asked that question himself. He assumed Johnny had stumbled on the information but, now that he thought about it, that didn't make any sense.

"Cipriano. He's never liked me. Maria either. On the round-up, I asked Murdoch to talk to him but he didn't. I finally got sick of it and asked him myself. All he did was ask me a question."

"What question?" Scott asked.

"Did he tell me about my mother? But, it was the way he asked it, like I should really find out. Like there was a real important reason for it. And there sure was.

"When I got back to the ranch, I tried to talk to Maria but she wouldn't say nothin. Just gave me the evil eye like always. So, I started pokin around the old man's desk. That's where he keeps everything important. One of the drawers was locked and I found the key and a whole lot more. I confronted her the next day and found out why her and Cipriano seemed to hate me. They thought I was in on it. That I was workin you, Scott."

******

Sam closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, unable to fathom what Murdoch had done.

Scott shook his head with sadness and frustration. "They really thought you were playing some kind of game?"

"Yeah, reckon they figured since I was just a gunhawk, I'd do about anything."

"This whole thing is unconscionable. I don't understand what Murdoch thought he was doing." Sam straightened his shoulders, the anger back. "But, I intend to find out. I'm going out there. Some of those men may need me, anyway. The effects of smoke inhalation aren't always evident immediately."

"Have fun, Doc," Johnny smirked.

"Maybe you shouldn't, Sam. I'm not so sure I want Murdoch to know we're here," Scott said.

"Let him go, Scott. I don't give a damn what that old man knows. Besides, you can leave ... if you're scared." A grin worked its way onto Johnny's face. 

Scott rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Hardly. Come on, you need to lie down."

"Get some ice and put it on that knee, Scott. He needs to get the swelling down," Sam said almost automatically, his mind working on a different conversation altogether.

******

Scott put the ice pack gently on Johnny's knee but the man still hissed a little.

"It's really swollen."

"Yeah, guess my luck has plain run out."

Scott smiled a little as he sat back in the chair beside the bed. "Well, I could get us some lunch if you're hungry."

Johnny regarded him for a few seconds. "What you need to do is figure out where you're headed."

His head dropped and he nodded. "I know. I suppose I should let Grandfather know something as well. I just feel so ... out of sorts."

Johnny snorted at that. "Whatever you decide to do, do it for yourself, Scott. Don't worry about me and you don't have to stick around here just because I'm laid up either."

"Do you mind if I take a minute to decide the rest of my life?" the older man shot. "I'm sorry," he added reticently.

"No need. None of my business anyways. It ain't that I don't like havin you around it's just ... it makes it harder when you do go, is all," he mumbled.

"We don't have to split up, Johnny."

"Yeah, we do. I already told you why. Besides, you won't like my plans much."

Scott looked up. "The house is gone. What more is there?"

"Plenty," Johnny clipped. "You don't really know me, Scott. I'm gonna take that old man down and that's all there is to it. Best thing for you to do is be miles away."

Scott decided he didn't want to have this conversation again so he changed the subject, feeling the need to be alone for a while. "I'll see about some lunch and check on the horses."

Johnny watched him leave and wished he'd keep right on going. It was too hard having Scott around reminding him of everything he'd lost. But then, he'd never had it to begin with. Not really. It was a nice dream. One he'd had before. A family, a home, someone to care about. But, he'd long since killed that dream and now, it was back. It had been at his fingertips and he reckoned he could have kept up the lie. He could have stayed quiet, let the old man play this out. Still, he knew there was only one real outcome to all of this. Sooner or later, Murdoch would have made a mistake. Slipped up on something.

How long could he have kept it up? Especially if he'd challenged the old man about something. Started spouting off one day about family or how the ranch was bein run or any number of things. He could just see it. Murdoch sayin something and him standing there, acting all surprised. He couldn't do that. He had a good poker face but this wasn't poker. This was his life and Murdoch Lancer had trampled all over it.

So what if it wasn't the best life? It was his and he owned it. No one had the right to tell him how to live it, either. He wanted the anger back but it wouldn't come to him right now. All he felt was the loss. All he knew was he didn't have a brother or a father and he never had. It hurt more than he could ever admit, even to Scott. He closed his eyes and tried to think of something, anything else.

******

Sam Jenkins stopped his surrey and stared at the ruins of the once beautiful home. Stained black with smoke, the remaining walls seemed ... haunted and he imagined they were. Haunted by the ghosts of Catherine and Maria Lancer. And Johnny Lancer, too. All of them he was quite sure, looking sorrowfully on what had become of the rancher who had once loved so deeply. He sighed and stepped to the ground then headed for the bunkhouse.

Sam walked on in and looked around at the solemn faces. Frank was sound asleep in his bunk but the rest of the men sat around quietly. He went to Walt who tried to smile at him.

"How's Frank?"

"Gave 'im the laudanum, Doc. He's been sleepin mostly."

"Is anyone else hurt or sick?"

Walt shook his head. "Mr. Lancer's been coughing quite a bit but he won't let no one help him."

"Where is he?" Sam asked in a hard voice.

"Right here, Sam."

The doctor turned to find his oldest friend covered in soot. His face seemed to have been given little more than a cursory swipe of the towel. "Let's talk outside."

Murdoch stared at the hull of the house, his eyes distant and unseeing.

"Let me take a look at you."

"I'm alright, Sam."

"No, Murdoch, you aren't. You are so far from alright, there isn't a word for it. You've managed to lose your son. From what Walt told me, you seem to have even burned your own house to the ground."

Murdoch turned quickly to him. "What do you mean, 'lose your son'?"

Sam braced himself before speaking. "Scott and Johnny are in town. Johnny hurt his leg and they were in my office when Walt brought Frank in. I couldn't understand why they weren't rushing to get home until they told me what you've done. Have you completely lost your mind?!"

"Yes, Sam, I have lost my mind along with everything else," he answered flatly.

"No, you lost it first. How could you do such a thing, Murdoch? How could you do that to that young man?"

Murdoch snarled his face. "Do what? Give him a home and a chance to live past twenty-one? He didn't have a life, Sam. I offered him the world and he destroyed mine!"

"How dare you play God with anyone's life? It doesn't matter what he does, he's a human being, Murdoch. He has feelings. I know you probably don't think so but I saw it today. I saw how you've destroyed that boy. He tried so hard to be a good son to you and for what? Nothing, that's what! And in the process of ruining him, you've ruined any chance you had with Scott. He didn't even want you to know where they were."

"I can't believe they're together," he muttered.

"Why not? They thought they were brothers for nearly half a year. That's not something a person can just walk away from. I've seen them together. I've seen how they've grown closer. How they care for each other. You can't turn that off without a damned good reason. You gave Scott that reason with you when you pulled this outrageous stunt!"

Sam stopped and took a breath, trying to calm himself. "Johnny thinks you brought him here as a buffer for when Scott came. So Scott would have more reason to stay besides you. Is that true?"

Murdoch walked a few steps away and stared out over the corrals. "Yes, that was part of it."

"He's a smart young man but I don't suppose you noticed that."

"He pulled a gun on me. If Scott hadn't stopped him, he would have killed me."

"I don't blame him!"

Murdoch whirled around and glared at him.

"Don't give me that look, Murdoch. It doesn't work." He shook his head and his shoulders slumped. "I'm not even sure you truly understand what you've done here. What you've destroyed. I'm finished with it and you." Sam turned and walked to his surrey then drove away.

******

Scott stayed away from the hotel room after removing their barely eaten lunches. Johnny was sleeping and he didn't want to disturb him. Truthfully, he didn't know what to do with himself. He sat in the saloon and nursed the same beer for two hours while he stared at the table. It was the same question, really. Over and over, he asked himself. How could Murdoch do such a thing? Why?

Okay, he smirked a little, that's two questions but it all meant the same. Johnny was devastated even if he wouldn't show it and Scott still could not reconcile that the man wasn't his brother. He thought he should write to his grandfather but he felt ill just considering the idea. Harlan Garrett would be pleased things didn't turn out well, he knew. And he still had a bone to pick with that man. Right now, he didn't want to think about that.

He needed to make a decision. He had pretty much ruled out going back to Boston, at least for now. So, where could he go? He knew nothing of California. What he needed was some advice. Johnny didn't seem to be willing to give him any help. Well, not the help he wanted from the man.

His head jerked up when he saw someone sitting down across the table from him. His face relaxed when he recognized the doctor.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."

"It's alright, Sam. I wasn't getting anywhere anyway."

Frowning, as he had been since he sat down, Sam asked, "getting anywhere with what exactly?"

Scott sat up from his slouched position and realized he was pretty numb from sitting there so long. He winced a little as he leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table. "Where to go, what to do?"

The doctor nodded his understanding. "I take it Boston isn't an option?"

"For now, no. It's just that I don't know this country. I'd like to stay out west. I was thinking of starting my own ranch but I don't have much experience."

"Then you need a good foreman, someone you can trust."

Scott smiled a little. "I've already asked him to be my partner. He said no. He's bound and determined to go back to gunfighting. I have no idea why."

Sam stayed quiet for a moment as he contemplated this. "Maybe he thinks it's all he's good at."

Scott nodded but he knew that wasn't all of it. He knew Johnny's plans but he wasn't about to share them with anyone. "It's too hard for him to be around me."

The pain in that gentle voice was easy to hear and Sam Jenkins felt pretty miserable himself. "I can understand that. I, um, talked to Murdoch. I didn't get very far. I had to leave before I punched him in the nose."

Scott gave a short, sharp laugh. "I wanted to do more than that. What drives a man to such idiocy?"

"I don't know, Scott, and he didn't have a good enough explanation. But, then, I don't think one exists."

"Well, all I know for sure is that I don't know much of anything. I don't even know where a good place to start over would be."

"There's good land up around Stockton, I hear."

Scott nodded thoughtfully. "What about south?"

Sam fidgeted a little. He wasn't so sure he should get any more involved. He liked both young men, had grown fond of them while tending to Johnny's gunshot wound and had been to the house several times for supper. He still couldn't believe Johnny wasn't a Lancer but he did know the young man was a gunfighter. He could only imagine the kind of childhood the boy had had.

"Scott, please don't get upset with me but, I don't think it's a good idea for you to try and situate yourself where you think you'll be close to Johnny. I understand how hard this is for you and that you don't want to lose him but, the truth is, he's not even related to you. I know, I know, you've become friends but Johnny's life doesn't have much room for friendship. Gunfighters don't usually stay in one place very long. I think you're trying to hold onto something that never really existed. You need to start thinking about your life. Not how to hang onto someone whose lifestyle could, quite frankly, get you killed."

He sat back in the chair and sighed loudly. "It's not that easy, Sam. I can't just turn it off. He may not be my brother but he is my friend and I care what happens to him. I can't stand the thought of him going back to that life and getting himself killed."

"It's the choice he made, son."

"Was it? Did he have a choice?" Scott asked angrily.

"Only Johnny can answer that. You aren't responsible for him. He's the only one who can decide what he wants. All you can do is offer him something else and you've done that."

Scott didn't answer for he knew the man was making perfect sense even if it did aggravate him. He also understood he was going to have to let it go at some point. He just wasn't ready or willing yet. He figured he still had time to talk with Johnny before he was well enough to leave.

******

"How many times do I have to say it? No."

"Then, at least, come to Stockton with me and help me find some land to buy," Scott negotiated.

"You don't need my help with that. There's land offices for that kind of thing. I'm goin south when I go, Scott. You might as well just head on out if that's where you're goin. Sounds like a good idea, to me." Johnny sat up in the bed, his back against the headboard and his arms crossed stubbornly over his chest. His knee was propped on a couple of pillows and the swelling and pain were much improved. He was ready to go and he needed Scott to be ready, too.

Scott paced at the foot of the bed, head down as his mind strategized. "It will be awhile before you're ready."

"I'm ready now. Matter of fact, I'm leavin in the mornin."

He stopped and turned to stare at Johnny. "Sam said..."

"I don't care what he said. I'm not stayin here any longer. I can't, Scott. I have to get out of here and get my head right. Donâ€t you understand?"

His shoulders fell as he sighed and nodded. "Yes, I understand. I just ... I'm going to miss you, bro ... Johnny."

Both men winced at the slip. Johnny had credited Scott with not calling him brother all this time but, it seemed facing the certainty of splitting up had caused the man a momentary lapse.

"I guess I'll go see if there's a stage for Stockton soon."

"You ain't takin your horse?"

Scott tensed then shook his head. "I don't want it." He walked out then, using that military stride he had when he was upset or angry.

Johnny thought about the animal Scott had never gotten around to naming. He supposed it was a good thing he hadn't now. He was very glad he'd never branded Barranca. The palomino had always been too spirited in Johnny's mind to slap any man's brand on him. Now, he was grateful he wouldn't have to look at the Lancer 'L'. Of course, he would've had to do something about that which made him all the happier as he didn't want the animal marred.

He shook the thoughts away and got up slowly, testing his knee carefully. It was fine, he decided. A little sore still but nothing he couldn't handle easily. Now, he needed to make a show of leaving. He was sure Scott thought he'd decided to let things go and just leave this valley but Johnny had no intentions of doing that. He wasn't leaving until Murdoch Lancer was on his knees. He didn't much care how long it took, either.

******

The next morning, Scott and Johnny stood outside the stage depot glumly. The hour was quickly approaching when they would part ways forever and neither was looking forward to it.

As much as Johnny needed to be away from Scott and all he represented, this was only the second true friendship he'd ever had in his life and he hated losing it. His head came up and he locked onto Scott's eyes as the stage rounded the corner. Both men started walking to each other.

"Well, Boston, I guess this is it," Johnny smiled tightly.

"Yes, I suppose so. I ... please, take care of yourself and if you're ever near Stockton, look me up."

Johnny kept the smile and nodded then lowered his head and stared at his boots.

"Johnny, if you ever change your mind; if you ever decide you want a different life, come see me. Promise?"

He looked up into the light blue eyes. "I promise, Scott. Ya know, I might even drop you a letter once in a while if I can."

"That would be nice, very nice." Scott's face tightened when the driver called all aboard.

"I will never forget you, brother," Scott said and grabbed his hand in a firm shake.

"Take it easy, there, Boston. That's my gun hand," Johnny teased but he didn't let go. He had to lock his jaw to keep the smile in place as he looked at the man who'd been his brother and, more importantly to Johnny, his friend.

Scott was breathing rapidly, his jaw clenched tight as he managed a small smile. Finally, he released Johnny's hand and turned quickly, stepping into the stage and leaning his head out the window.

Johnny reached up and shook his hand once more. "I'll miss you, Scott," he said so softly, the older man had to take a minute to hear it. The stage jolted on its take off and their hands separated.

Scott looked back and shouted, "Me too!"

******

Johnny watched the stage until he couldn't see it then he stood there still longer. He heard footfalls come up behind him but he didn't turn around.

"He's a fine young man."

He turned then and smiled softly. "Best man I've ever known."

"How's the knee?"

"It's fine, Sam. Quit fussin. Besides, I'm leavin now."

"Already? I'd really like you to take another couple of days, Johnny. Let me take another look."

He shook his head. "I know myself, Doc. It's fine. A little sore but I ain't even limpin now. Anyways, I really need to get out of here."

Sam watched him bow is head and he sighed lightly. "I know. Take care of yourself, Johnny. It was a real pleasure knowing you. You're a fine young man, yourself."

Johnny frowned then cleared his throat before looking at the physician with a smile. "Been a real pleasure, Sam. Maybe, someday I'll see ya again."

"I'd like that, son."

He nodded and quickly walked away before he made a total fool of himself. It was bad enough saying goodbye to Scott but to have this man, any man, call him 'son' was too much. Murdoch never had, not once and he knew why now. Funny, he'd never noticed before he'd learned the truth. He pushed thoughts of the rancher away quickly and made his way across to the hotel where Barranca awaited him.

"Well, boy, say adios. We're out of here - for now." He mounted up and rode south at a fast pace.

******

He watched from behind the boulder as the wagon laden with adobe brick lumbered down the trail. Johnny smiled a little as the wagon came to a stop in front of the small tree blocking its way. He almost laughed when he heard Julio curse. He moved silently from his perch and approached the back of the wagon. As the mason began trying to clear the road, Johnny let down the tail gate and cut the ropes from around the load. He then moved back to his spot and watched a few minutes as Julio moved the tree and jumped back onto the seat. 'Perfect, he didn't even notice,' he thought then disappeared up the hill.

He returned to Barranca, waiting on the other side of the hill then mounted up and followed the road. He wanted to see this. Make sure his plan worked out. It was only the first step but he was intent on making sure Lancer would not have an easy time rebuilding his precious hacienda.

As he predicted, when the wagon came to a particularly steep curve, the entire load shifted and the wagon began to overturn. He watched breathlessly as Julio jumped clear then waited to ensure himself the man wasn't hurt. He wasn't, as he got to his feet and started cussing the moon, the stars and everything else under heaven.

Johnny smiled and rode on to his next task. This was almost too easy but he knew he needed to make a big dent before Lancer caught on. He was sure the man would figure it out quick enough. He may be a lyin snake but he was smart, too.

It had been by chance that he'd happened on the order of adobe. When he returned to Morro Coyo after two months, his plans weren't crystal clear. He knew how to go about the task but he just hadn't mapped it all out yet. When he saw the mason working so hard on a large order, it didn't take much to figure it out. Adobe took time to make so he wasn't surprised the old man hadn't started rebuilding yet. He hoped the bastard had been made to sleep on the ground but he reckoned he'd taken over one of the smaller homes on the ranch. Maybe even have kicked Cipriano out - if he'd learned of the man's part in him finding out the truth.

He reined to a stop and looked down on the cattle. There had to be a thousand head in the valley below him. Five, no six vaqueros were all that tended the herd. It was perfect. He dismounted and pulled his rifle from the scabbard. Finding a tree to sit under, he waited a while until the men were in a good position. He didn't want to hurt any of them and he was being as careful as he could but that wasn't going to stop him, either.

******

Finally, the time was right and he repositioned himself on one knee as he brought the rifle to bear. He squeezed the trigger, a bullet skipping the ground near the back of the herd. As predictable, the cattle began to stampede. It was like shooting at tin cans. There were so many, he couldn't have missed if he wanted to.

One by one, the steers fell under his bullets then, he reloaded. The vaqueros had spotted his perch, he knew but they were too busy embroiled in the stampede to come after him yet. He had time so he emptied the rifle again, taking down several more steers. Figuring he'd pushed his luck far enough, Johnny jumped in the saddle and rode away.

An hour later, he was in the south pasture re-living the scene so recently played out. Another stampede was started, another couple dozen head dead and he knew a lot more than that before they stopped running for their lives. He grinned and disappeared.

That night, the fire bell rang and shouts of urgency were heard as the hands fought valiantly, if in vain, to save the barn. By morning, it was nothing but a pile of ash.

The next week was an exhausting one for the Lancer hands as they found themselves fighting one crisis after another. Field fires, stampedes, dammed streams, poisoned watering holes and downed fences were becoming rote. Each evening, they dragged themselves to the bunkhouse only to find themselves fighting some other problem a few hours later.

Fifty men had quit by weeks end and many more were grumbling about leaving as well. Their decision was made for them Monday morning when one of the bank tellers from Morro Coyo rode in to tell Murdoch the bank had been robbed sometime over the weekend. For it was payday Monday and there were no funds left.

By the end of the day, Lancer had twenty vaqueros left. Tuesday morning, the president of the bank walked into his office to find all the money had been returned.

******

Murdoch Lancer stared out over his beloved ranch and wondered how much longer this would go on. He didn't have to wonder who was doing this to him and he was stunned by the effectiveness one man could have. The situation was becoming dire and he knew he had only one choice left to him. As much as he hated the idea, he could do nothing else if he wanted to keep his ranch. He rode into Morro Coyo and to the telegram office.

Vern looked up when the door opened and his expression was one of apprehension. Murdoch looked strangely at the man then tried a smile.

"Good morning, Vern. How's Emma?"

"S...she's fine, Mr. Lancer. Real fine." The man paled and swallowed hard.

"I'd like to send a telegram," Murdoch said, trying to ignore the man's odd behavior.

"Oh, well, I can't do that. Ya see the lines are down. Yeah, that's right, the lines are down and I don't know when they'll be up again. Might be a month," he prattled.

Murdoch's face reddened with anger and he leaned over the counter, a mere breath from Vern's face. "Did Madrid tell you not to send any wires for me?"

Vern sat down on his small stool and hung his head. "I'm sorry, Murdoch. He didn't tell me that but he did cut the wires. I wasn't lyin about that. It will take a good month to repair all the damage he did." His eyes came up and he looked panic-stricken. "If he did it. He never said he did and nobody saw nothin."

"Then, how do you know?"

"Well, he come in and asked me how long it'd take to fix a downed wire. I told him just one wouldn't be bad but a whole lot would make a mess. I didn't think anything of it at first but by the time the sun set, the wires were all down."

The vein in Murdoch's temple throbbed as he glared at the man. Then, he took a deep breath. "Do you know where he's staying?"

The man shook his head. "I ain't heard nothin."

"No, I don't suppose you could," he remarked sarcastically then walked out the door.

Standing on the boardwalk, Murdoch looked up the street at nothing in particular. He thought if he could talk to Johnny, reason with him or even pay him off ... he sighed and knew that wouldn't be happening. Suddenly, he realized he was being watched from the hotel porch. Eyes widening in surprise, he recognized the man.

******

Murdoch pulled his shoulders back and walked across the street and down to the hotel. Johnny was sitting in a rocking chair watching him with an amused smile on his face.

He stopped on the third step and looked the gunfighter in the eyes. "What will it take to get you to back off?"

Johnny laughed softly. "What have you got left?"

He closed his eyes and worked hard on keeping his temper in check. "Johnny, I know you hate me but how can you do this? Do you know how many men have quit? Men who now have no job?"

"Cowboys can always find a job, old man. But, I don't care, either." He stopped rocking and sat forward. "You see, I don't lie. When I say I'm gonna do something, I do it. I told you I'd ruin you and that's what I'm gonna do. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got some business to take care of." He stood and walked around the man.

"Scott's got a ranch in Stockton," Murdoch said suddenly.

Johnny stopped but didn't turn around. "I know everything there is to know about Scott's ranch. You can't use him to get out of this. If you were smart, you'd pack up and leave now. Hirin a gunhawk ain't gonna save you, either." He didn't wait for a reply. He walked around the corner and a minute later, reappeared riding Barranca out of town.

Murdoch watched him and wondered how Johnny knew why he'd come to town. How could Johnny know he was going to do that very thing? Resignedly, he realized the young man was very good at what he did and was anticipating any move Murdoch could make. Now, he had to come up with something Johnny wouldn't anticipate. Something he would never see coming.

******

As he rode toward home, or what was left of it, Murdoch tried to think of a way out of this. He didn't deserve this and he couldn't believe one man was destroying him when armies had tried and failed before. What was Johnny's weakness? That was easy. Scott. But, he couldn't see a way to use that to his advantage. His son wanted nothing to do with him but he wouldn't put the man in harm's way. Maybe, he could talk to Scott. See if his influence on Johnny would make the gunfighter back off.

Murdoch didn't know if Scott would agree to that. If he would even talk. He also wasn't crazy about the idea of leaving the ranch right now. No, he knew he couldn't do that. Johnny would swoop in for the kill if he left. He could write a letter but, even if it got through, it would take more than a week to deliver then respond. He wasn't sure he had a week.

For the first time, he allowed the idea of losing the ranch to enter his mind. There had to be a way to stop this. Stop him. Murdoch knew little about Johnny but he knew he had no family and no friends. No one he could use as leverage and nothing of value, either. Nothing but that horse and he was sure that wouldn't stop him. In fact, hurting Barranca would only cement his resolve.

He was losing this battle and he didn't know how to fight a shadow. For that was what Johnny was. No one ever saw him doing anything. There was no proof he was behind this and Murdoch had only his own conversations with Johnny to go by. His word against a gunfighter's might be worth something but it wasn't enough evidence. That's what he needed. Evidence. But then, he'd have to wait for a US Marshal - if he could even get word to one. Dammit!

He finally admitted to himself there was only one way to stop Johnny Madrid and that was the permanent way. A nearly impossible task at the moment for he had no way to contact anyone now. Well, that wasn't true. As he entered the yard, the idea formulated and he sought out his segundo.

"No, Senor. I will not."

"Cipriano, you have to. We have to stop him and I don't know any other way!" Murdoch's voice rose with each word until he was nearly shouting.

"Perhaps there is no other way but, I will not be the weapon to bring down Johnny Madrid." Cipriano's stern visage softened somewhat as he stepped closer to his Patron. "Perhaps, you should accept the inevitable. That you are now reaping what you have sown."

Murdoch's back went up and he glowered at the man. "I made a mistake. It certainly isn't worth losing everything I own over."

"It is to him, Senor. I was wrong about him. I thought you had told him everything and he came here willingly to deceive Senor Scott. I think you wanted me to believe that so I would not tell him the truth. You had no right to bring the pistolero into your home, lie to him then treat him so shamefully."

"I don't need a lecture, Cipriano. I need your help!"

"I will fight for you, for this rancho, but I will not go to hire a pistolero for you."

The vein in Murdoch's temple throbbed and he gritted his teeth. "Then leave. You can't fight him so there's no point in staying here."

******

Johnny rode into Sacramento at a leisurely pace, his eyes searching for and finding the court house. He rode past it and found a hotel then settled in. It was Friday, his timing perfect and he smiled a little as he sauntered down the sidewalk, turning east around the side of the building then nonchalantly making his way to the back. He scoped out every available entryway and, satisfied he knew what he needed to know, returned to his hotel to wait.

Saturday night in Sacramento wasn't much different than any other town. The saloons and dancehalls were alive and very loud. As he made his way toward the courthouse, the noise died down substantially. Slipping quietly into the cover of night, he avoided the streetlamps and made his way to the back. He'd seen two lawmen making their rounds not ten minutes ago so he was fairly sure he had plenty of time. He wasn't too worried about them, anyway. Who the hell broke into a courthouse? He almost laughed at that as he tried three windows before finding success.

Once inside the pitch dark room, he slid the window tightly closed and walked into the hallway. He didn't know where the records room was so he had to search. Twenty minutes went by and, as he was passing a window, he saw the officers again. Ducking to the side, he waited for them to pass and sighed with relief when they did so. Half an hour rounds or near to it - perfect.

This room was as dark as the rest of the building. Johnny walked over to the window and eased the curtains back, the moon casting a soft glow but, in the darkness, it seemed as bright as the sun. He found the file for 'L' and opened it, searching through until he found what he sought. Pulling the folder out, Johnny sat at the table, squinting to read.

He'd learned a few things living at Lancer for six months. One of those was when the taxes were due. He smiled then went to the registrar's desk and looked through the papers until he found a mailing list. Johnny sat there tapping his fingers on the high-polished wood as he considered what he was about to do. A slow grin came to his face when he spied the typewriter. If it was in the courthouse and it was on paper, it was the gospel truth no matter how much you argued about it.

It wasn't easy as he'd never used the contraption before but after much trial and error, Johnny finally completed the list, sans the Lancer ranch. He compared the two lists and thought his was good enough to pass. Hell, they probably wouldn't pay any attention to it anyway.

Then, he went back to the desk and found a completed form along with the blank one he needed. He'd seen this type of document once before in San Diego so he had a good idea what it looked like. He smirked as he went about the task and wondered how shocked ole Murdoch would be to know he had more brains than the man had ever given him credit for. He completed the form and looked it over. Now, just have to make it look legal and binding. Back at the desk, he found the stamp and inked it. With much enjoyment, he pressed the stamp to the form. Overdue.

He laughed softly and figured it looked damned good. And, if it didn't work, that was fine. Besides, this was only one small part of his plan. It was the easiest way but he never minded doing things the hard way, either.

One final chore accomplished, Johnny slipped out into the fading night.

******

Murdoch watched Frank ride out with the letter to be hand delivered to Scott. He could only hope his son would help him. He refused to believe Scott would choose Johnny over his own blood. He'd had time to get past the anger now and Murdoch thought his words would get through to his boy.

But, he had a bad feeling in his gut and had since he'd seen Johnny. He'd said he had business to take care of but there'd been no more raids on the ranch; no trouble at all for a week. He wished he could feel some relief about that but it only served to increase his anxiety. He felt the real showdown was fast approaching and once again, he wondered if Johnny would end up killing him.

He'd gone as far as to send Walt to town this morning to see if Johnny was still around. It was probably a wasted trip as the man would not be seen if he didn't want to be.

How had he let it get this far? Why hadn't he acted more quickly? But, he knew why. Johnny had him running from one end of the ranch to the other on a daily and nightly basis for weeks now. He never had the chance to take a breath from one disaster when another arose. He shook his head. The man was damned good. How could he have ever thought it was a good idea to bring a gunhawk into his home and treat him like family?

There was still a small part of Murdoch that felt something for the young man. He reminded him so much of his Johnny. His eyes, his smile, his laugh, even. He closed his eyes as memories assailed him. Memories of his toddler tearing through the house on one adventure or another. Steeling himself, Murdoch rebuked the memories and any idea that Madrid was like his son. He was ruthless and unfeeling and Johnny Lancer would have never been such.

He was saved from driving the memories away as he saw Walt riding toward him.

"He wasn't around anywhere, Mr. Lancer, but there was mail," the hand said before being asked as he handed over the bundle.

"Thank you, Walt. I appreciate you riding in."

The young man only nodded and rode over to the corral.

Murdoch skimmed through the mail until he saw an official letter from Sacramento. He growled. Taxes. Just what I need right now. He ripped the letter open and stared slack-jawed for a long time.

******

Scott watched cautiously as the familiar figure rode up to his modest home. He stepped off the wrap around porch and leaned against the hand railing as Frank dismounted and tethered his horse to the hitching post. Scott smiled wanly.

"Hello, Frank."

The man nodded. "Scott, good to see ya."

"You, too. You're looking well."

"Thanks. I got a letter for you from your father. He said I was to wait for your reply."

Scott took the envelope with a mixture of feelings. Suspicion and dread seemed to be warring for supremacy at the moment. "Why didn't he just mail it?"

"Well, reckon he's in a hurry and there was no guarantee it'd get here. Johnny's been making a lot of runs on the ranch."

Scott's shoulders tensed at the mention of the name, all thoughts of the letter in his hand forgotten for the moment. "What's happened?"

Frank looked off to the east and sighed before facing the man again. "Mind if we sit?"

Shaking himself a little, Scott found his manners. "Of course. Let's sit on the porch. Would you like some lemonade or coffee?"

Frank settled in a chair and shook his head. "No, thanks. Guess I'll just start. It's been goin on about a month now. He started stampedin and shootin the cattle, poisonin the water holes, pullin down fences. He burned the barn to the ground and every time Mr. Lancer puts in an order for adobe to rebuild the house, it never makes it to the ranch." He stopped for a moment, a deep frown on his face.

"He robbed the bank."

"What?" Scott shouted, sitting forward suddenly.

Frank put up a hand to ward him off. "He took the money the day before payday. When the hands found out they wasn't gonna get paid, a whole lot of 'em left. The next day, the money was found back in the bank all nice and neat but it was too late by then. Johnny was runnin us ragged. Every day there was somethin else. If it wasn't the cattle or the fences, it was field fires."

Scott sat back and frowned. It seemed Johnny was making good on his promise.

"Then, he cut the telegraph wires - a whole lot of 'em. Vern said it'd take a month to get them all repaired."

"How's Murdoch taking it?"

Frank's face fell into a scowl. "He ain't fit to be around, Scott, that's for sure. He fired Cipriano the other day."

"Why?" Scott's question was automatic. He was too shocked to give it any thought. But, when he saw the look on Frank's face, he cleared his mind to listen. The man didn't seem in too big a hurry to give over that answer so Scott asked again and more firmly.

"Mr. Lancer wanted Cip to ride out and find him a gunhawk to go against Johnny. I gotta tell ya, Scott, I ain't too sure I'll be around much longer. I don't know what all happened between you all but, if the man is sending hired guns after his own son ..." he stopped there, finding it difficult even now to speak ill of his employer.

Scott's face registered his surprise. So, he'd managed to keep it all a secret, still. Evidently, Cipriano was willing to go along yet again. Seemed there was some line the segundo wouldn't cross, though. Scott, however, felt no such loyalty to Murdoch Lancer. He spent the next several minutes telling Frank the what and why of he and Johnny leaving the ranch.

By the time he'd finished, Frank was livid. Scott sympathized, knowing how the man must feel.

"All this time none of us could figure it. We couldn't believe Johnny was doin this to his own father and all along ... I just can't believe it. I never thought Mr. Lancer would ever do somethin so lowdown."

"I wish I could say the same, Frank. The truth is, I wouldn't have been able to say whether he was capable of something like this or not. It's apparent he is now but, maybe there was a time when he wasn't. It doesn't matter. Johnny is out for revenge and nothing short of dying is going to stop him. I just hope Murdoch isn't able to hire someone. I can assume no one has been hurt through all this?"

"No, not one man. Johnny seemed to be real careful about that. There was one close call when a steer was chargin after the stampede started. Young Billy Webb was caught up in it and he couldn't get away. All the sudden there was a rifle shot and the steer went down a few feet from the kid. I was there and when I looked where the shot came from, I could see that palomino. Never saw Johnny but I saw that horse and I know he's the one that saved the boy."

Scott closed his eyes for a second, grateful his friend still had his conscience.

"You gonna read the letter?"

Confused briefly, Scott suddenly remembered the envelope clutched in his fist and he looked down at it. With a sigh, he tore it open and began reading. He was appalled and flabbergasted at the content. Murdoch was still defending his actions, unable or unwilling to admit he'd been wrong. He still preached of how he'd offered Johnny so much more than he'd ever have on his own. Giving him a home and a family without earning or deserving it.

Scott thought bitterly no one deserved that family. He looked back over at Frank who was waiting patiently. He found he couldn't speak for a moment. He didn't want to sound harsh for the man was only the messenger. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly before giving his answer.

"Tell Murdoch I have no intention of interfering in whatever is happening at Lancer. Tell him I want no part of it or him."

Frank nodded and stood up.

"Stay the night, Frank. It's late."

"Thanks, Scott, but I'd just as soon head on back. Then, I reckon I'll be packin up and movin on. Can't stomach bein around this no more."

He could only nod, couldn't blame the man at all. "Come back here, if you want. You have a job with me."

"I might just do that. Thanks, Scott." He smiled and headed to his mount.

"Frank," Scott called, "if you do happen to see Johnny, tell him I'd like to see him."

"I'll do that." He paused with a thoughtful expression. "Ya know, there was a time when I thought nothing and no one could bring down Lancer. Guess I was wrong about that. There was one man who could destroy it. The man who build it in the first place."

Scott walked out to the hitching post. "You're right about that. Murdoch did this to himself. How many men does he have left?"

"After I leave, reckon there won't be much more than a dozen. Ain't like they got much to do. Most of the cattle are so far scattered, they might never find 'em."

Scott watched him ride out. It might have been mildly amusing if he'd read it in a book but the reality of what was happening held no humor at all. Johnny was hurting himself as much as he was hurting Murdoch and he could only hope the man would come see him after this was over. He wasn't all that sure Johnny could bring down Lancer. Murdoch had a lot of resources, after all. Even if he couldn't easily reach them at the moment.

Part of him wanted to go and find Johnny. Maybe even ask him to stop. Not that he held any regard for Murdoch but, to save Johnny from Johnny. He smirked at himself. That was self-righteous, Scott. He was sure Johnny knew exactly what he was doing. Still, it was the anger that was driving him now. When did he stop and allow himself to cope with the hurt? Somehow, Scott didn't think his friend had done that.

It had taken him weeks to stop referring to Johnny as his brother, even if only in his own thoughts. It was still hard. He only hoped Johnny still thought of him as a friend as much as he, himself did. He could only hope the man would seek him out afterwards. More than any of that, he prayed Murdoch would not hire a gunfighter to go after Johnny. And if he did manage to, that gunfighter would lose.

******

Foreclosure! This could not be happening. Murdoch paced the yard, the notice balled inside his iron grip. How could this happen? He wasn't late with his taxes, hadnâ€t even received them yet. No, this was a mistake of some kind. He'd have to go to Sacramento now. He'd have to get this straightened out.

He pulled up short as the thought struck him like a lightning bolt. Was Johnny behind this, too? No, he would have no way of doing something like this. It wouldn't stand up in court. All it would do ... all it did was get him away from the ranch for several days, maybe even weeks. And by the time he got back, there'd be nothing left.

Rage engulfed him and he strode to the corral, grabbed his horse and mounted up. He rode out like the fires of hell were after him.

******

Johnny sat in the rocking chair on the hotel porch and watched the world go by. A lazy smile lay on his face as he swatted a pesky fly away. People walked past him, increasing their pace until they were well away and he smiled at that, too. When he'd first returned to Morro Coyo, there'd been smiles all around. Soon enough, they heard what he was up to and now, there was only fear. The same kind of fear he'd smelled when Pardee was here.

Well, no one was gonna play him like he'd played Pardee. Besides, he'd already been on the receiving end of a double-cross and he didn't like it any better than he reckoned ole Day had. Johnny laughed softly at that.

He looked down the street and his smile grew. Now, things were about to liven up. Murdoch was riding straight for him. The smile fell away as the man got nearer. It was time to play stupid. He figured the old man would swallow it hook, line and sinker.

Murdoch did not stand on ceremony. He walked right up and towered over Johnny. "Are you behind this outrageousness?!"

Johnny didn't stop his rocking. He looked up slowly and shrugged. "What?"

"This! These supposedly unpaid taxes!" Murdoch exclaimed, shaking the envelope in his fist.

He frowned and cocked his head to one side. "Taxes? You're talkin to me about taxes? Ain't my field of expertise." A smirk came across his face.

Murdoch just stood there unsure for a moment. "I didn't think you had the wherewithall to pull a stunt like this."

"No, you wouldn't."

"Then, you are behind it," Murdoch surmised.

Johnny sighed and stood up slowly then walked over to the railing and perched on it, making sure he sat on his left side. "You know what you should do, old man? You should pack up whatever you have left and move on. Hell, maybe even go back to Scotland. Lancer is done. Your dream is a nightmare." He smiled, his eyes alive with humor.

Murdoch took a menacing step forward, his arm drawn back.

In a throaty voice, Johnny said, "Don't even think about it, Lancer. You'll be dead before you hit the ground."

"I have to wonder why you haven't just done that already."

"Simple. Killin you would be too easy. I want you to feel every minute, know down deep in your bones that you've lost it all. Everything you worked for all these years, everything you sweated and bled for is gone. And all because you're a lyin, selfish bastard." He stood up smoothly and walked a few paces away before turning back. Shaking a finger at Murdoch, he grinned.

"I tell ya what I'll do, though. This whole thing has cost me, too, ya know. I mean, I ain't been able to work. Well, no payin jobs anyway. Maybe, we can cut a deal."

Murdoch worked hard to keep an impassive look on his face but he was ready to pay whatever the price to stop this. "I'm listening."

The grin widened. "I'll take five thousand to go away forever."

"I don't have that kind of money!"

"Yes, you do and you know it. You got all those stocks and bank accounts. See, it don't always pay so well to keep your enemies close."

Murdoch took a deep breath and held it. "That will ruin me. I'll have to start all over."

"Not completely. I mean you have the land already. That's a good start."

He shifted his weight back and forth as he thought fast and furious. "It will take a while to get that much together."

"You have one week from today. Oh, and if you're thinkin of usin that money to hire a gunhawk instead, don't bother. I'll know about it long before they get here and, well, nobody's gonna do a job for a dead man."

Johnny played his ace then. He hadn't wanted to do this and hadn't been sure he could but looking at Murdoch Lancer made it easy even if it was a bald-faced lie. "Then, there's always your son to think about. I told you I know everything there is to know about Scott and his ranch. Why do you think I would have bothered to find that out? Now, I ain't so sure that even matters to you but, if you try to swindle me again, he'll be the one to pay for it."

Murdoch's mouth fell open as he gawked at this ... evil before him. The cold, dead eyes pierced straight through him. "He's your friend," he managed to breathe out.

Johnny laughed harshly. "I ain't got no friends, old man. One week." He turned and walked into the hotel.

Murdoch dropped his head then turned and went to his horse. Despondently, he mounted up and headed for home. That was it, then. He'd been beaten. It was over. He couldn't put Scott's life in danger no matter how his son felt about him. He rode home only vaguely aware of his surroundings. When he got there, he saw Frank waiting for him and a small hope sprung up inside only to die with the look on the man's face.

Frank relayed the message from Scott word for word then informed Murdoch he was leaving. Without another word or a backwards glance, the long-time hand mounted up and rode away.

Murdoch sat on the veranda, the only part of the house still viable, and dropped his face into his hands. Twenty-five years it had taken him to build this ranch. All those years of heartache and loss were all for naught. He'd lost his first-born to a treacherous man and his second-born to an evil woman and an equally evil disease. He idly thought Johnny should have been Maria's son, so hateful was he.

He wished to heaven he'd never laid eyes on Johnny Madrid. Never seen those blue eyes, that black hair, those cheekbones so reminiscent of his baby boy. His son would never have turned out so vicious.

There was no point in sitting there wallowing, he decided. If he had to start over, that's what he'd do. It wouldn't be the first time. It was still early. He could make some miles to Sacramento before dark. He stood up and pulled himself together then went to talk with the remaining hands.

As he rode away from the ranch, he couldn't help wondering if anything would be left when he returned. If this wasn't some ploy to get him to leave. He could do nothing else and he had to believe Johnny wanted the money more than he wanted to finish off Lancer. Murdoch figured his greed would come to the fore sooner or later. He only wished it had been sooner.

From high up on South Mesa, Johnny slid the telescope back into itself and smiled. "Have a real safe trip, you sonofabitch."

******

Murdoch had no choice but to return to the ranch. The registrar gave his word he would diligently look into the tax situation. Murdoch had finally convinced the man there may have been some foul play going on. Unfortunately for him, all his papers had been destroyed in the house fire he'd caused with his drunken self-pity months ago. But, he had to get back as his deadline was fast approaching. He had no doubt Johnny would not wait one hour longer than the assigned time for his money.

It had been a tense journey traveling with so much cash but he'd kept away from towns and camped far from the main road each night. Now, as he entered Morro Coyo, he wondered if anything more had happened at the now abandoned ranch. Letting his remaining hands go was a hard thing but, he could no longer pay them for not working. He'd asked them to return in six months time hoping he'd be on his way to recovery by then though he wasn't sure how. If the registrar could find no evidence of tampering, he would have no more funds to pay those additional late fees he didn't owe in the first damned place! His temper soared as he approached the hotel.

He walked into the lobby with the heavy saddle bags and asked for Johnny's room. The clerk informed him Mr. Madrid had checked out yesterday and left him a note. Murdoch fairly growled as he snatched it from the man and read it quickly. With no patience left him, he headed back out of town for South Mesa.

He spied the palomino tethered in the tree line then saw Johnny sitting by a campfire outside the shack. Frowning and a little curious at the strange set up, Murdoch dismounted and carried the saddlebags over, dropping them next to the man.

Johnny slowly raised his head and looked blankly at the rancher. He opened the bags and dumped the money on the ground.

Murdoch felt the need to speak. "Five thousand dollars just like you said."

A small smile flitted across Johnny's face as he nodded. "Yeah, just like I said." His voice was soft and almost melancholy as he gathered the scattered stacks of currency and unceremoniously tossed them into the fire.

"What the hell are you doing?!"

Johnny stood up and faced him from across the fire. "It's my money. I can do anything I want with it."

"What was the purpose of bringing it here if you're only going to burn it?"

"So you wouldn't have it," he shrugged and walked over to Barranca. He mounted up and reined the horse still then looked down at Murdoch with a glint in his eye. "Might want to take a nice long look at the view from here. It's somethin to see."

Murdoch turned around and watched him ride away, feeling completely flummoxed. Dread filled his heart and he walked through the trees to the overlook. He didn't want to look out there, didn't want to see what no longer existed. He took a breath and raised his eyes.

At first, it was all so familiar; the blackened fields bordering those still green and the absence of livestock, until he really started noticing the smoke dotting the panorama. It took a long time to comprehend what he was seeing but he finally realized what it was. Every line shack save the one behind him had been burned to the ground. He whipped around and stormed back the way he came. When he reached the clearing, he saw the fire blazing through one of the shack windows.

"Madrid! I'll kill you myself!" He shouted at the top of his lungs then fell to his knees and hung his head.

******

It had been nearly six weeks since Frank had returned and started working for him. Scott often wondered what was happening at Lancer but he couldn't bring himself to go there. He couldn't bring himself to lay eyes on Murdoch ever again. Johnny had been right; the anger had faded but not the resentment, the feeling of betrayal and the astonishment that lay beneath it all.

As he walked toward the house after another long day, he noticed movement down the road. Scott squinted against the lowering sun as he tried to make out his visitor. His heart fluttered a little when he saw the golden coat, the figure slouched and relaxed in the seat then, he smiled.

Johnny had a soft and easy smile on his own face as he stopped in front of Scott. Dismounting, he flicked the reins at the hitching post and pushed his hat back on his head. Hands on hips, he looked the man over.

"Well, you haven't fallen on your face. I guess you might make a half-way decent rancher after all."

Scott's hand snaked out and grabbed him by the nape of the neck, pulling him in for a brief hug. Johnny's cheeks heated as he dropped his head for a second then grinned at the man.

"Come inside and tell me the parts I don't know yet."

Cocking his head to the right, Johnny drew his brows together.

"Frank works for me now," Scott explained simply.

He only nodded and followed the older man into the house. Johnny looked around the room. It was modestly and comfortably furnished. Not nearly as big as the great room at Lancer but it definitely felt more homey.

Scott sat in an overstuffed chair near the cold fireplace and Johnny took a seat on the sofa, angled to the right of his friend.

"Do you want a drink?"

"Not right now, thanks. Just came to tell you somethin," Johnny replied, still looking around the room.

Scott said nothing, just waited for him.

"Well," he sighed heavily, "I thought you might be interested in a piece of property south of here. Lancer goes on the auction block in two weeks."

Scott cocked a brow, surprised things had escalated this much. "Is there anything left worth bidding on?"

"Just the land itself. There might be a steer or two in the high country and there's always the horses." Johnny's voice held no emotion whatsoever, neither did his face.

"I think I'll pass."

Shrugging, he stared at the hearth. "No problema. Just thought you'd want to know. It should go pretty cheap."

"And Murdoch?" Scott's heart began thumping as he waited for the answer. And he had to wait several seconds.

"He's alive." Johnny looked at him and saw he expected more. "He's still there, stayin in one of the houses. Well, the only one left. Maria was still there so I left it standin for her but then she lit out for Mexico."

"You burned everything?" Scott's voice held pure astonishment.

"That's the only building left standing within twenty miles of the house."

"Remind me never to piss you off."

Johnny shot him an aggravated look. "I can be pissed off, just don't turn my life upside down and lie to me then think you're doin me a favor."

Scott sighed lightly. Johnny was still hurt, still angry. He knew this was how it would be. The man had never allowed himself time to get past it all before seeking his vengeance. "You're going to have to deal with it now that there's nothing left to destroy."

"Deal with what?"

"The pain, Johnny. The hurt he caused you whether you admit to it or not. You've been so focused on ruining Murdoch, you haven't given yourself the time to get over it all. What are you going to do now?"

A grin slid on his face. "I'm sittin pretty, Scott. Words got out, ya know. I'll be in even bigger demand."

Scott's face showed his disappointment clearly. "So, you're going back to gunfighting."

"Never left it."

"And you won't even consider an alternative."

"Like what?" he snorted.

"Working with me. My offer still stands. This place isn't huge but it's a thousand acres of prime graze. I've got three thousand head of cattle and a contract to deliver in the fall. And there's no drive, I just have to take them to the stockyards in town."

"That's a sweet set up, Scott. I'm glad for you but I'm not a rancher and I sure as hell ain't a cowboy." Johnny stood and walked around the room. He smiled at the large bookcase and shook his head. "Do you like it?"

Scott almost didn't hear him, his voice was so soft. "I do. I'm a little surprised at that but, yes, I like it."

"Did you ever write to your grandfather?"

Scott laughed a little. "Yes and he was adamant I return to Boston. His last letter was more of a tirade but, I'm settled here. I've met some very nice people and a few very lovely ladies."

Johnny turned at that and smiled wickedly at him. "You'll be an old married man before long. Have a family and all that. Which is exactly why you don't need me hangin around. Besides, all this home and hearth stuff is overrated."

Scott stood and shook his head. "Who do you go after when you lie to yourself?" Immediately, he regretted the question. "I'm sorry, it's none of my business, I guess. I just hate that we lost something that meant a great deal to me."

Johnny lowered his head. "Yeah, me too. But, you know as well as I do it could never work, Scott. Too much has happened. Anyway, I'm gonna go now."

"Stay the night. You must be tired."

He shook his head adamantly. "No, I'm goin back to Mexico." Raising his eyes to meet those of his once-brother, he added, "where I belong."

Scott relented for he knew he had to let go now. He saw it in Johnny's face. He could never be relaxed here and it saddened Scott. "If you ever change your mind or just happen to be in the area, come and see me."

"I will. If you ever need any help, anything at all, just put out the word. I'll hear and I'll be on your doorstep in a heartbeat." Johnny smiled as he offered his hand.

Scott walked the few feet between them and smacked his hand away, grabbing him in a hug he knew wasn't appreciated. But, he had to be selfish just this once and he held the man tightly for a few seconds. "I wish you'd been my brother."

Johnny pulled away, turned quickly and headed to the door. Stopping with the knob in his hand and the door partway open, he turned halfway around. "Me too," he said in a trembling voice. Then, in an instant, he was gone.

******

Murdoch Lancer stood beside the auctioneers block. It was a simple platform of planks set atop two barrels. He watched silently as his neighbors and strangers alike fought a bidding war over his land. He was unshaven and unwashed and hadn't slept much the past few weeks. His shirt had a rip in one sleeve, the other cuff frayed. Puffy bags pulled down his eyes making him look even more sorrowful. Whiskey was his main nourishment now.

It took no more than three hours to sell the land in lots of ten thousand acres each. It all went for pennies on the dollar but it was enough to pay the taxes and his debts. He watched as the people rode or drove away. Then, there was no one left but the auctioneer.

The thin, tall man walked over and handed him a one hundred dollar bill. "This is what's left over."

Murdoch looked at it, turned it over in his hand and saw visions of thousands of dollars burning in a camp fire.

"You'll need to vacate the premises by the end of the week," the man continued flatly. He received no acknowledgement of his statement so he shrugged and walked away. Leaving the platform standing, he slid into his surrey and drove down the road toward the arch.

Murdoch stood there staring at the ground, the money balled inside his fist. Suddenly, he felt as if he was being watched and he looked down the road. There, sitting astride the golden palomino, was his devil; his nemesis. He took five steps forward then stopped and watched the man give him a tip of his hat before turning the horse and riding slowly down the road.

His entire body began to shake with rage and grief. He dropped to his knees and couldn't take his eyes off Johnny's back.

"Someday, you bastard. Someday, you will pay for this," he vowed hoarsely.

 

 

~end~
2007

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