The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

A Brother Lost

 

 

 

June 3rd, 1872

Johnny walked through the front door and tossed his hat on the wooden peg. Brushing his hair back from his face with both hands, he peered quickly at himself in the mirror hanging below the pegs on the wall. With a satisfied grin and anticipating his birthday dinner, he walked through the archway, stepping down one step into the living room.

His world ended with an explosion of white hot pain as his head jerked back.

Murdoch sat helplessly as he watched his son gunned down in front of him. Hands tied painfully to the chair and a rag stuffed in his mouth, he nearly choked as he watched the bullet enter Johnny's head.

The three men stood quietly as the smoke whirled lazily upward. The stench filling their nostrils satisfyingly. The one holding the gun smiled then looked at his compadres and nodded. Without another word, they walked out of the side entrance, mounted up and rode away.

Murdoch struggled uselessly against his bindings. He scooted the chair forward as he craned his head to see his son then wished he hadn't.

A pool of blood was forming at an alarming rate beside Johnny's head. The black innocuous hole deceptively small.

Please, Scott, come home, he prayed. Then, he thanked God Teresa had gone to town with Jelly for some last minute spices for ...... Murdoch's eyes welled. He tried very hard to stop it but his brain would not obey this time. Today was Johnny's birthday. He couldn't bear the same date being carved on a headstone twice. No, he can't be gone.

Panic rose sharply inside him and he pulled against his bindings more fiercely. But they would not relent.

The French doors swung open and Scott's smile disappeared when he saw his father. He immediately went to the man and removed the gag.

"Johnny," Murdoch managed to choke out.

"We'll find him, Sir. Don't worry," Scott misunderstood and used his knife to quickly free his father.

Murdoch flung himself from the chair and went to his boy. It was then that Scott saw his brother lying so still. Murdoch was blocking a full view but too soon, Scott saw the wound. His stomach clenched.

"I'll get Sam," he mumbled and staggered out the door.

Trembling fingers searched for a pulse as Murdoch Lancer, hard as nails rancher, Scotsman, force to be reckoned with, slumped over his son's body and began to sob.

******

"and that's all there is to that."

That was all he heard and then silence. Someone raised his arm and he felt cool wetness there. Then it was dry again.

More moving of the other arm in the same fashion. Then something warm being pulled over them both. What it was he could not fathom. But he could hear the heavy breathing as the chore was being completed.

He didn't know who it was. Couldn't latch onto the voice when the words disappeared so quickly just as he grasped they were there at all.

It was frightfully dark; no light at all. How could anyone do anything in this cloak of night?

******

".....nothing more I can do. I'm sorry."

Someone's very sad. Was that Sam? He couldn't really tell and the voice stopped. Why did he only hear these small phrases? And why couldn't he open his eyes? He had tried so very hard but the darkness beckoned each time and he succumbed, gratefully so. It hurt too much to try. Easier to go to the darkness. So that's where he went.

******

.......too much. We can't keep doing this!"

Now that voice he knew and he held onto it like a lifeline. Scott. He sounded angry. Who is he arguing with?

"We have no choice, son."

Murdoch. He sounds so sad; so ..... defeated. What's happening? Why can't I open my eyes? God, my head hurts!

********

Silence now. Deafening silence. He didn't like it. Not one bit. Where was everyone? Wait! A soft rustle like .... paper? Yeah, a page turning, that was it. Okay, someone's there. That's good.

He thought he sighed. He'd intended to. Did they hear him? He waited but no more sound came. Guess not. Still can't open my eyes. My head doesn't hurt so bad anymore though. That was a good thing, right?

What happened to me? Why can't I open my damned eyes!?

Someone cleared their throat and he listened hard. The chair creaked then footsteps. Heavy. A man's steps. He couldn't tell whose. Was a time I would know right off who it was. Why not now?

Oh, cold! A wet cloth on my face, gentle and soft. Feels good. He smiled. Didn't he?

Dios, what's happening? Who's here?

A soft sigh; dishearteningly soft and sad.

"Wake up, Johnny. Please, wake up."

Murdoch. I'm trying to, old man. Eyes don't seem to work right now. Just give me a little time, okay? Don't give up on me. I'm trying.

There it is again. The darkness swirling in so dizzying in its speed.

******

Ouch! Damn! Take it easy. Feel like a log in a rolling contest.

"Hurry up, Jelly! I have work to do!"

"Wahl, scuse me fer bein careful! Ya heared what Doc said about his skin. Jest one little wrinkle can make a bed sore. And I aim ta make sure that don't happen. So just hold yer water, boy!"

"He's not as light as he seems, you know."

"Reckon not. Since when're you so all fired in a hurry ta dig post holes?"

"Beats doing this," he muttered.

Jelly frowned at him. "Ain't a easy chore, I know. But it's gotta be done."

Scott sighed and rolled his eyes.

Boy, Scott must have had a bad night. He don't usually get that upset. Guess changing sheets isn't the most fun in the world. Still, there's something different. Something more in his voice. Just can't put a name to it yet. Sorry, brother. I hate it more than you know.

"Alright. Now roll 'im over the hump to me."

Scott sighed again and pushed back.

Damn, brother! Take it easy. I ain't a piece of wood!

"Wahl, why dontcha jest roll 'im out in the floor next time?" Jelly shot harshly.

Scott grabbed the roll and pulled it out, throwing it on the floor in disgust. He then pulled the clean through and began tucking.

"Now get them wrinkles outta there. Lessen ya wanna do it agin!"

Scott straightened and let his hands fall to his sides. "I didn't want to do it this time. If you want the wrinkles out, do it yourself. I have to go to work!"

Whhooeee! Slammed that door about off its hinges, brother. What's got you so fired up?

"I don't know what's got inta 'im, Johnny. Well, reckon I can get the rest of it myself. Boy ain't been fit to live forever it seems."

How long is forever, Jelly? How long have I been like this? And why can't I talk to you? God, I want to talk to you so bad!

******

"Thar now! I dare anybody ta find a wrinkle in them sheets. Jest one wrinkle! Now, we gotta do yer exercises. Murdoch'll have my head if'n we don't. He keeps a tight schedule. Caint miss a one. Boss says them muscles needs ta stay fit fer when ya wake up."

What's the matter, Jelly? You sound so sad. Guess you don't know I'm awake, huh? Well, maybe when I open my eyes. I can't wait to see a smile on that whiskery old face.

"Don't you worry none about Scott neither. If'n he ain't got the sense ta know you ain't gonna leave us, too bad fer 'im. I caint believe he done gave up on ya like that. Caint believe it atall. Well, me and Murdoch, we'll keep right on tendin to ya. Don't you worry bout nothin."

Scott gave up on me? What do you mean? He was just here. He was pretty mad about it, though. God! How long have I been like this? Scott wouldn't turn his back on me. Not ever. Jelly, you're just jawin. Mad at him is all.

"Ain't like ya done it on purpose. That's how he acts most a the time. Plain mad at the world I reckon."

"Jelly, how many times have I asked you not to talk like that in front of him?"

Murdoch. Boy, he sounds tired. And sad like Jelly. Damn! What happened to everyone? Sounds like they're all fallin apart!

"Yer right, Boss. Weren't thinkin. Scott jest got me all flustered. Actin like he's too good ta change a bed," Jelly groused.

Murdoch sighed heavily and swiped his face. "Here, I'll do that."

What're ya doin, old man? Holding my hand? No, you're workin my fingers. Keepin 'im loose? Thanks, Murdoch. Guess you really do understand. Whew! I sure am tired. Wonder why I get so tired. Sure haven't done a thing. And my head aches some again. There it is, that dark is back. Guess it's time for me to go to that place for a while.

******

Cold. Why is it so cold? Guess I'm still here, stuck in this place wherever it is. Come on, Johnny, open your eyes. Dammit! Open them! Sigh. God, please. What happened to me? What is happening to me? Someone please help me. I hate this place. I want to go home now.

"My God," Murdoch whispered.

"What is it, Boss?"

Murdoch reached out and touched his cheek. A single tear trailed down it toward his ear. He wiped it away and stared at the moisture on his finger in awe.

Jelly looked over his shoulder. "He's cryin?"

Murdoch shook his head. "I .... I don't know. Johnny? Can you hear me, son?" He grabbed a limp hand. "Johnny, if you can hear me, squeeze my hand."

Okay. That's a good idea. Except I can't. I can't move! Is this hell then? Trapped in a body that won't do what I want. Able to hear them but unable to answer? Feeling their touch but not able to touch back? Sounds like the perfect hell to me. Maybe that's what it really is. Maybe I am dead and don't know it.

"Come on, son. Just one little squeeze," Murdoch insisted.

Ain't like me not to do as I'm told, huh, old man? He grinned. Or did he? He wanted to. He wanted to grab hold of that big hand and squeeze those fingers blue. But he couldn't. He just couldn't and he drifted away.

******

What was that? A scraping sound. Somebody dragging a chair across the floor? Yeah that was it. Who's here now?

"Well, I don't have anything new to tell you. There's been no change," Sam said.

Sighs lifted up like a choir in the room.

"What about that tear? Me and Murdoch both saw it," asked Jelly.

Sam shook his head sadly. "Bodily functions, Jelly. That's all. He hasn't responded to anything. Not touch or sound or elements. Heat and cold don't seem to affect him."

Speak for yourself, Doc. I'm freezin.

"What can we do, Sam?" Murdoch asked.

"You have a couple of choices, Murdoch. You can keep going like you have been; caring for him yourselves. You could hire a live-in nurse to ease the load. Or, you could send him to that hospital I told you about before."

"No! I'm not sending him away!" Murdoch bellowed.

You tell 'im, old man.

"Murdoch, it seems to be the best solution. He's not going to get any better. Surely you can see that by now," Scott intervened.

No, brother. Don't say that. You don't really mean it. You don't want me to leave, do you?

"Scott, as I long as I draw a breath, Johnny will live in this house!"

"Live? This isn't living, Murdoch! This is existing! Johnny is dead. He died in that living room when that bullet was put in his head. How can you not see that?" Scott argued vehemently.

"How dare you? He is still breathing and that means he is still alive!"

Right!

******

"I can't believe you're being so stubborn about this. Is that what you really believe or is it your guilt talking?" Scott shot.

"Guilt? What are you talking about?"

"You had to sit there, tied to that chair and watch them gun down your son. There wasn't a thing you could do to stop it. That is what I'm talking about!"

Oh, God! Murdoch saw it?

"Yes, Scott, I do feel guilty about that. But that has nothing to do with my decision. I will not send my son away to rot in some institution. To waste away to nothing!"

"He's already nothing!"

Scott?

"Shut up! I know you hate having to do anything for him. I know it shakes your sensibilities. Tough! You don't have to do a thing, Scott. Jelly and I will take care of Johnny."

"Fine. You do that. You take care of Johnny like you have been and I'll keep running the ranch like I have been. Just think about this, Sir. What happens when you two keel over from exhaustion? Who will take care of him then? Because it won't be me!" Scott shouted then walked out, slamming the door.

Murdoch plopped into the chair, his knees giving out on him.

Sam stood dumbstruck for several seconds and Jelly paced the room.

That wasn't Scott saying all those horrible things. That wasn't my brother. Tell me it wasn't. Murdoch? What's wrong with him? Why does he hate me so much? What did I do? God, what did I do? Why can't I remember any of this?!

God, take me back to the darkness.

******

"Murdoch," Sam called. He got no response so he walked over and leaned across the rancher. His finger touched just under Johnny's eye and came back wet.

And for a second. A fraction of a second, he thought he saw Johnny flinch.

Murdoch looked up, his face a mirror of pure agony and he watched Sam.

"Thar! Ya see that, Doc? Jest like before!" Jelly exclaimed.

Murdoch looked at his son. A spark of hope ignited then died as quickly. "You heard what Sam said, Jelly."

"Maybe..... maybe I was wrong," Sam whispered.

Looking up at his old friend, Murdoch frowned. "Do you really think he can hear us?"

Sam nodded. "Yes, Murdoch. I think it may very well be possible."

Murdoch leaned forward and took Johnny's hand in his own.

"Son, your brother has been so hurt by all this. He's angry that this happened to you and he's turning that anger toward you. It's because you can't talk to him, I think. He doesn't hate you, Johnny. I swear it, son. You have to believe me. Johnny?"

Murdoch looked up at Sam.

"He may have heard and then fell unconscious again. It's impossible to know when he's aware enough to hear. I think the best thing is to keep talking to him. Try keeping it on a schedule. Yes, during usual waking hours. That might help him get a perspective on time. Then again, Murdoch, I may be fooling myself as much as you. It may simply be false hope," Sam said sadly.

"There's no such thing as false hope, Sam. As long as Johnny draws breath, there is a chance and I'm going to take that chance," Murdoch said adamantly.

"Me, too, Boss. Count on it," Jelly said then wiped his eyes with his handkerchief.

******

"....Dewdrop. I'm tellin ya, Johnny, I'm about ready ta make that bird the next Thanksgivin meal!" Jelly groused.

Sure, Jelly. You always say that. Thanksgiving? It can't be time for Thanksgiving. It was just my birthday!

"Anyhow, it's time fer yer exercises. Them muscles is a might smaller but they ain't tightened up on ya. Doc says that's real good. Says he thinks ya can hear us sometimes. So, I'm gonna keep on jabberin at ya til ya get tired of hearin it. You jest wake up and tell me ta hush whenever ya want."

Dios, how I wish I could do that, Jelly. How I wish I could open my eyes and look at you. And I really want to talk to Scott. Show him I ain't dead. Show him real good!

Jelly stopped moving his arm through its range of motion and stared at his face. His cheeks were flushed and Jelly felt his forehead. No fever. Wonder......

"Whatcha thinkin about, boy? Somethins gotcha all mad. Yer face is red as a tomata." Jelly chuckled then. "Wahl, if yer thinkin about that brother of yourn, I caint blame ya none. You jest keep right on bein mad. Maybe it'll wake ya up."

Yeah, that's what I'm thinking about alright. How'd you know, Jelly? Reckon you know me pretty good by now, huh, compadre? Reckon I knew I could always count on you. But, I always thought I could count on Scott, too. He turned his back on me. He promised he'd never do that and he broke that promise.

How could he do that, Jelly?

"Johnny, I jest don't know what ta tell ya, son. Scott's been hurtin for a long time. Ever since this happened. First, he was all fired ready ta go after them yahoos. Then, when Val caught up with 'em and took care of the trash, well, I reckon Scott felt cheated on his revenge. Ain't like him, I know. Still, he ain't been hisself neither."

Still and all, that don't make it right. Doesn't sound like anybody but me was hurt so he can't be mad about that. I don't know. My head aches a little. I'm so tired, Jelly. I get so tired so easy. I need to rest some but I know you or Murdoch will be here, won't you?

******

"....something I'll never forget."

Huh? Who's talking now? I didn't catch that. Sorry.

"Well, after that little trip, my father made sure I wasn't allowed on the ferry by myself again until I was, oh, fifteen, I think," Murdoch chuckled.

Damn! Sounds like I missed a good story. God, I miss you all. Miss talking to you. Seems I'm missing most of what you're saying to me, too.

Hissss. That one hurt a little, old man. Maybe you shouldn't stretch my legs out so much. Keep talking to me, Murdoch. Please, I need to hear your voice.

"Then, there was the time Blane followed me on a date. I was seeing a bonny lass. Oh, that's a pretty girl. Anyway, I didn't know he was dogging me until later. He'd seen everything. Not that I'd been anything but a gentleman, mind you. But the next day, everyone knew every minute of that date. The girl thought I'd told it and she would never speak to me again." Murdoch laughed again at the memory.

Sure wish I could see your face right now, Murdoch. I can picture it, though. All crinkled up with laugh lines.

"Johnny? Can you hear me, son? I thought ..... I thought I saw something in your face."

Did you? Oh, please, God, I hope so. I've been tryin so hard to move something. Anything! Maybe I did. Maybe I'll be able to open my eyes soon. My luck nobody'll be around to see it.

"Maybe not. I guess it was just wishful thinking." Murdoch leaned in close. "But, I swear to you on all I hold dear, I will never give up on you, son. Not ever!"

Thank you. That means more than you could ever know. Why can't I talk to you like this when I'm awake? Or you talk to me like this? Maybe .... maybe now we can. I have to stop this. I have to work a lot harder, don't I? You and Jelly have been doing all this for me and I haven't really tried.

Guess I'm scared. Scared of what might happen if I do wake up. Of what I'll find or how I really look. What if I can't ever move again? I know I'm being a coward. I'm sorry, you deserve better than that.

Damn! I feel it again. That tiredness that I just can't fight. I'm sorry, Murdoch. Next time I wake up, I promise .......

Is it lighter? It sure seems lighter than it has before. Maybe it's just daytime. Surely all these times it hasn't been night. Something's different. My head doesn't hurt anymore. Not one bit. That's a good thing, right?

I'm still tired though. Guess that's from just laying here doin nothing. Okay. I promised. I remember that I promised to try very hard. Here it goes.

Okay, just concentrate. Focus, Johnny. Open your eyes. Open. Your. Eyes. Just keep thinking it over and over. That's it, keep thinking it. Keep at it. Keep......

Oh, that's bright! Hurts! No, that don't matter. Keep going. You're almost there. Just a little more. Is someone here? I knew it. I knew I'd be alone when this happened. Damn!

Well, nothing but to go for it. Let er buck, Johnny, boy.

Everything is so hazy. Like there's a fog over everything. Blink. That's it. Good. Now, that's a little better. It's starting to clear up. Thank you, God. Thank you for my sight. Don't think I could go through that again.

Blink some more. Good! Now, give yourself a minute to get used to all this light. Deep, slow breaths. We're almost there.

Whew! Now, just look around. Ohh, can't turn my head too good. Hurts. Well, stands to reason I'd be stiff after all this time. Wonder just how long I've been like this?

Well, lookee there. God, I want to laugh. I don't think I can even smile. That's next for sure. Work on moving my face next. Right now, this is a sight for sore eyes. Yeah, my eyes are sure sore.

Hey, old man. Wake up! You been after me for this and here it is. Stop that, Johnny. Damn! Cryin like a baby. But, it feels so good to be able to see him again. Never thought I'd miss looking at his face so much!

Well, I can sniffle anyway. Oh, that laugh wants to come out so bad. Wish I could make some kind of noise. It will come. It will come. I just have to keep believing it, that's all. Wasn't too sure I could do this but I did. Just have to get that Lancer stubbornness to kick in.

Come on, Murdoch. Wake up!

******

Murdoch sensed someone watching him. Jelly, most likely. Not wanting to wake him. Well, I need to see to Johnny. He opened his eyes and rubbed a hand roughly over his face as he leaned forward and stretched out his back muscles.

"I'm awake, Jelly," he said, turning to find an empty room. With a frown, he shrugged and decided he'd been dreaming. Then he turned to the bed.

"Johnny!"

Dang, old man! No need to shout! But that smile is there, I can feel it. If not on my face, in my eyes. I can say a lot with my eyes, I know.

Murdoch jumped out of the chair and landed on the bed. He reached down and put his arms under Johnny's shoulders, hugging him close as he leaned over.

Oh, that feels so good!

Pulling back, he had to look again to be sure. Placing a hand on his son's face, his eyes filled. "Johnny," he said more softly. "Dear God, thank you. Welcome back, son. I missed you." The smile on his face was wider than he would have thought possible but he didn't care. Didn't care one bit if he was making a fool of himself.

"What's the matter?" Jelly asked as he flew into the room. "Heard ya yell all the way downstairs!"

"Look, Jelly. Will you just look at this beautiful sight," Murdoch laughed.

Jelly treaded carefully, almost afraid to hope. His face broke wide in a grin and he laughed and cried at the same time. Moving to the other side of the bed, he perched himself on the edge.

"Boy, you are a sight for sore eyes. Welcome back, Johnny. God love ya, welcome back!"

"Look at the smile in those eyes, Jelly. Do you see? It's alright, son. I'll bet it's too hard to try and talk right now. Don't worry about it. One thing at a time. Jelly, send for Sam." Murdoch blubbered all over the place.

******

Sam Jenkins was floating on air as he straightened himself from his patient. "I'd almost .... well, Johnny, you fooled me good," he laughed.

"Look at that, Sam. He's laughing at you," Murdoch teased.

"I believe you're right, Murdoch. Now, Johnny, I can just imagine how much of a toll it's taken on you getting this far. I don't want you to worry about speaking right now. Or moving for that matter. I can't really tell what all works until you tell me. But, with a little more luck, we'll make it all the way."

"Hey, maybe you could blink yer eyes, Johnny. Once for yes, twice for no?"

Johnny blinked once and they all laughed out loud.

The laughter died as the light in Johnny's eyes faded into a dark, cold look. All three men turned to see Scott standing in the room.

"I didn't want to believe it," Scott whispered then smiled. "Welcome back, brother."

Johnny lowered his eyes then closed them. Too tired now to deal with you, Scott. You gave up on me. I don't wanna see you til I can talk, no, yell at you.

"I think he's worn out now. Let him rest and let's all try to settle down just a little bit," Sam advised.

Murdoch nodded his agreement but he had his suspicions about the sudden change in Johnny. If he had heard them, then he knew the truth. He would not hold it back from his son. He only prayed, well... plenty of time for that now. He thanked God once again.

******

The entire ranch was abuzz with anticipation. It seemed the heavy veil had been lifted. The held breaths were released as, finally, some news was known. Not many had held out much hope that news would ever be good again as far as the younger Lancer son was concerned. That night, a party erupted in the bunkhouse and Murdoch could only smile at the raucous noise.

In fact, all he could do was smile. He was very much at a loss for words most of the time. Now, as he sat in the living room while Johnny

slept, that smile grew and grew.

Teresa sat at his side on the floor, resting her head on his leg. Her own smile as big as the sky.

"Now, will you let Maria and me help with him? We can keep him company and do whatever Sam thinks is best to help him."

"Yes, sweetheart. I think there's a lot you and Maria can do for Johnny now. He just needs to understand what you haven't done. I know he knows exactly what's going on around him. That he understands everything. His eyes were .... so alive," his voice grew husky at the last.

Teresa craned her neck to look at him. Tears brimming in her eyes, happy tears at long last. "I know. I'll make sure he knows, I promise. Things are going to be better now, aren't they?"

He petted her head. "Yes, things are going to be much better now. He still has a long road ahead of him. But, I just know in my heart, he'll recover."

"Completely? Oh, please tell me he'll recover completely," she pleaded.

Murdoch frowned a little. "He has his senses. We've made sure his body didn't waste away. Whatever problems there might be, we can handle. He's alive and aware, darling. Right now, that's all I can think about."

Teresa felt anger rear it's ugly head. "Thanks to you and Jelly. Otherwise, he would probably be dead now," she remarked in a surprisingly hard voice.

But Murdoch couldn't begin to think about that right now. He could only focus on the immediate future. Johnny's immediate future. That thought had him smiling again.

******

"Mornin, sleepy head," Jelly greeted cheerfully.

Johnny opened his eyes all the way and smiled at him with them.

"Sure is good to see them peepers again. I can tell you! Now, it's time to get ya all spiffied up. Yer gonna have company. First, I gotta explain some things, okay?"

Johnny blinked once.

"Well, Murdoch wanted ta make sure ya understood. Me and him are the onliest ones that's been takin care of ya. What I mean is, the women folk ain't been allowed ta do nothin. Well, Maria come up with some real interestin ways of making food that'd fit down that there tube. Other then that, the girls ain't been allowed. Oh, they come ta visit ya alright, but that's all. Ya understand?"

Johnny blinked once and gave Jelly the most grateful look he could manage.

The old man smiled and nodded his head. "Good! Cause they're both chompin at the bit ta visit with ya. First, we gotta give ya a bath and a shave."

He blinked once. Thank you, Murdoch. I know it was you who made sure of that. I know you would know how bad I'd feel if .... well, dang! Can't even think it much less say it, even if I could talk.

Still yet, as Jelly bathed him, he couldn't help feeling some embarrassment. His face flushed more than once as the man went about the ritual like he'd been doing it all his life.

Guess it has come to be second nature. I swear this to you, my friend. If there's any way I can make it up to you, I will. You have my word.

Jelly turned him once more on his back as he finished up and stopped to stare as he heard a soft grunt.

"Was that you, Johnny?"

Johnny's eyes lit and he blinked once.

"Wahl, caint say it's the sweetest thing I ever did hear but it come purty near to it!" he laughed. "Seems that voice box has got some potential after all!"

Johnny eyes lit up again.

"Boy, you could talk up a wind with them eyes. Dang if ya ain't movin along too fast fer me ta keep up with! Now, I reckon yer right presentable. Ready?"

Johnny took a long slow breath in and let it out then blinked once.

******

Teresa flew into the room like a tornado. A smile so wide, he thought she'd break a jaw. She practically fell onto the bed and she leaned over and hugged him fiercely then kissed his cheek with enthusiasm.

"Welcome back," she choked out through the tears.

Johnny blinked twice.

"No, they're happy tears, Johnny. The happiest ever!" she proclaimed.

Maria stood back just a bit but not out of his line of vision. His eyes widened as he took her in.

"Nino. Gracias, Dios," her voice trembled. She moved to the opposite side and sat gingerly next to him.

"He won't break, will you, Johnny?" Teresa laughed.

He blinked twice and with some fierceness.

She reached down and kissed his cheek softly, then a little more firmly. She stroked his cheek then pressed her own to his. All the while, she spoke softly in a sing song voice. Words for his ears only and he couldn't help the emotions she brought forth.

Maria reached in her apron pocket and produced a kerchief, dabbing at his eyes and that only made it worse.

Suddenly, Jelly was no where to be seen and Johnny knew why. These people. How did they get to know me so well?

After half an hour, the women could see his fatigue and even though he protested as much as he could, they made him rest. Reminding him they weren't going anywhere.

They left him but he found his mind would not settle. He kept thinking about Scott. How he'd betrayed him so. For that's what it felt like and that's what it was. He had so much he wanted to say to the man. So much he wanted to say to them all. And he had questions. Tons of questions.

Finally, he drifted away.

******

He felt a feather soft touch on his arm and it tickled a little. Not that annoying type of tickle but a nice kind. Johnny opened his eyes to find his father sitting there stroking his arm. The man seemed deep in thought.

I'll just see if I can move my hand a little. Let him know I'm awake. Okay, just like with my eyes, concentrate. Move your hand, Johnny. Move it. Move your hand.

A twitch, not much more. But it brought Murdoch's head up in surprise and then, relief.

Johnny's eyes shone.

"You seem to enjoy surprising me, son," he grinned then stroked Johnny's cheek. "I take it the visit went well?"

Johnny blinked enthusiastically once.

"Can you move your hand again?" Murdoch asked then mentally kicked himself. Don't push!

But Johnny took the challenge and looked down at his hand, willing it to move and it did. He raised his palm up and quickly it went back down.

"Johnny, that was terrific! Good job, son!"

Eyes widened at the praise. Praise he'd waited a long time to hear. Then his eyes lit up again and he blinked once.

Murdoch's face turned pensive then and Johnny held his breath.

He's gonna give me some bad news now.

"Son, do you .... would you want to .... see your brother?" he fumbled.

Johnny's eyes darkened once more and he blinked twice fast.

Murdoch nodded. "You heard us, didn't you?"

One blink.

Sighing heavily, the rancher squeezed his hand. "I'm sorry, son. I wish I could explain it to you but I don't know myself why Scott's been this way. Truthfully, I've been too focused on you to really get into it with him. Still there must be something else going on there. Well, there's time for that now, isn't there?"

Johnny tried to frown, wasn't sure he had but he blinked once just the same.

******

Wow, this is a first. There's no one here. Guess I must be a lot better. That's good. Guess I don't mind being alone so much anymore either. But, it's time to work on getting myself working proper now. Let's see, I moved my right hand a little so I'll work on that.

No, first my face. I can't stand not knowing if my face works. Murdoch said he thought he saw something so I'll start there.

A smile would be nice. Murdoch and Jelly deserve one of those. Least I can do. The very least. No! I'm not goin there. Got to be positive and stay right here in this minute.

Okay, just have to open my mouth. Not something I ever had a problem with before. Oh, I shouldn't do that. Wanting to laugh and not being able to is hard.

There! I opened it a little, I know I did. I could feel it stretch. I can feel everything. That's how I'll know. I just have to stop depending on other people to tell me what I've done. I can feel it so I'll know.

A little more now. A little wider. Yeah, not bad at all. Doesn't really hurt. Maybe a little uncomfortable, is all. Wider now. Open that big mouth of yours, Johnny.

Good! Now, just rest a few seconds. Now, make it a smile. Stretch it out. Yeah. I think I'm doin it. Damn! I think I'm smilin!

Whew! Can't believe how hard that was. Well, that's okay. Nothing worth having is ever easy. Who told me that? Can't remember right now. Reckon it don't matter. Just keep working with it. Next time Murdoch comes in, I'll have a real surprise for him.

Maybe ..... no, don't push yourself too hard. You don't know what that might do. Could make things worse. Could set you back. Still, just to say a word. Any word. That would be so sweet!

******

Footsteps. Still can't figure whose yet. Guess that'll come back. I hope. But what if .... stop it.

"Hi, son. Have you been awake long?"

Two blinks.

Murdoch smiled. "I just ran down to get some coffee," he explained, holding the cup up for proof as he settled in the bedside chair.

Johnny just watched him, holding in his surprise for the right time. It was hard as hell, too.

"Are you having any pain, son?"

Two blinks.

"It's late, you know. Almost midnight. Think you can sleep?"

Johnny stared at him for a beat then raised both brows.

Murdoch's cup stopped in midair as he saw an expression on Johnny's face. "Did you just..."

Johnny smiled widely and a breathy sound came from his throat that surprised even him.

Murdoch nearly dropped his coffee cup as he set it down quickly and leaned over.

"You're full of surprises, aren't you?" he asked as he placed a hand on Johnny's cheek.

Feeling rather rambunctious, Johnny tried and succeeded in nodding his head slightly.

Murdoch smiled widely and shook his head in awe. "It won't be long til you're ..... um, maybe I shouldn't say that," he grinned mischievously.

Johnny had to return it, knowing what his father was about to say and slightly stunned at the playfulness he was witnessing. Then a frown came on his face as he got a good look at the old man in the low light.

Johnny dropped his eyes toward the mattress.

"What is it, son? Are you cold? Do you want to turn over?" Getting two blinks for each question, he didn't know what his son wanted and it scared him a little.

Johnny raised his right hand and patted the bed, then looked at his father, his eyes dropping to the mattress again.

Murdoch cocked his head to the side. Surely that isn't it? "You want me to lie down?"

Johnny smiled and blinked once.

"I am a little tired, son, but I'm okay."

Johnny blinked twice hard and patted the bed again, making a concerted effort to do so more insistently this time.

"Okay! You don't have to shout," Murdoch laughed.

Johnny grinned and settled as his father stood and walked around to the other side of the bed.

He turned his head slowly and carefully to watch the man as he removed his boots and settled on his side, facing Johnny.

Satisfied, Johnny closed his eyes and drifted off, feeling his father's hand stroking his hair and relaxing into the warmth.

The sun in his eyes woke him. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, Johnny opened his eyes to an empty space beside him.

Guess Murdoch's up and about. He turned his head slowly to find Jelly at the dresser doing something he couldn't see.

"Mornin!" Jelly smiled as he turned to find himself being watched.

Johnny smiled and Jelly's mouth dropped open.

"Will ya look at that! Didn't think I'd missed anything more'n them eyes open. Reckon that smile was missed a whole lot more. You keep this up and you're a gonna be runnin round this place in no time flat!"

Johnny managed a small laugh that sounded more like a reversed gasp. He opened his mouth and struggle with his latest venture.

"Now, don't go takin it all on at once, Johnny. I know how bad ya wanna talk. It'll come same as everthin else has. Don't want ya pushin too hard."

Johnny nodded his understanding but giving up was not in his vocabulary.

As Jelly went about his morning ministrations, Johnny let himself think. It was better than concentrating on what Jelly was doing. He didn't care how many times it had been done, he still didn't like it.

Inevitably, his thoughts went to his brother but he tried hard not to think about that. Not yet. Not until I can talk to him. Maybe it's just been all the pressure of runnin the ranch while Murdoch was here with me. Then again, Scott's the one he'd think would be caring for him. It was like the two of them had switched places. Scott actin like Murdoch; Murdoch actin like Scott. Crazy!

He suddenly realized Jelly had stopped and he looked at the older man. Jelly was watching him closely.

"Could ya ease up that grip, Johnny? Can't git my hand loose," he grinned.

Johnny looked at his hand grasping Jelly's in a death vise and smiled apologetically while releasing his hold.

Jelly chuckled and shook his head as he went back to work.

******

"Sam, it's been a week and I just can't believe the progress he's made. The only thing that worries me is his speech. He's trying, I can see that, but he's only made a few sounds," Murdoch explained anxiously.

"Well, Murdoch, the voice box isn't something you could exercise for him. Some muscles can't be reached. His tongue as well. It is a muscle, after all. It will take more time to get use of it again. When he does start speaking, his words may be slurred and hard to understand."

"Will you explain that one to him? You know if he hears himself, how he'll react," Murdoch shot a wary glance at his friend.

Sam nodded as he opened the door to Johnny's room to find the young man sitting up in bed, pillows propped behind him. Sam smiled then laughed at the smile he received in kind.

"Just itching to get out of that bed, aren't you?" he asked.

Johnny nodded enthusiastically.

"Lookee here at this, Doc," Jelly said and took Johnny's hand.

Johnny squeezed Jelly's hand tightly and the old man ow'ed a bit theatrically.

Sam raised a brow then went to the foot of the bed. He removed the covers and placed a hand under Johnny's knee, crooking his leg. He then placed a hand flat of Johnny's foot. "Push."

Johnny did and Sam let his mouth fall open. "Very good, Johnny!"

He repeated the process on the other foot with the same result though he could feel a bit less strength there. After taking a minute to think, Sam nodded his head at his decision. "Gentlemen, let's see if our miracle patient can stand."

******

As happy as they were, both Murdoch and Jelly felt a knot in their stomachs but Johnny was already pulling the covers back.

"Now, listen to me, young man. This is not going to be as easy as you think. I don't want you to be discouraged if you aren't doing a waltz right off," Sam warned.

Johnny rolled his eyes and wanted badly to remind Sam that he didn't care for waltzing in the first place. Standing on his own two feet was plenty - for now. He grinned at that thought and no one missed it.

With Jelly and Murdoch on each side and Murdoch's arm around his waist, they stood him up and slowly. Then, in methodical increments they released their hold.

Johnny was surprised at how wobbly he was. He didn't think he was going to be able to do this. Then, his nature kicked in and he gritted his teeth.

Before he knew it, he was standing. Though it wasn't the prettiest sight in the world, as he swayed about, he was standing on his own two feet and no one was holding onto him. Then, he made a mistake. He raised his head to look at Sam and lost his balance.

Murdoch had him though and eased him back to a sitting position.

"Your balance is naturally off quite a bit. That's to be expected. You did much better than I could have hoped for though. And, I think you can sit up in the chair now. A little at a time. Don't wear yourself out," Sam actually wagged a finger at him.

Once settled in a chair by the window, Sam sat across from him and began a serious discussion about his speech. Warning him of how it would be at first and what he must do to improve. He gave Johnny some exercises to do and warned him in no uncertain terms that this was not something he could push too hard; lest he lose his voice forever.

Johnny nodded his understanding and listened closely. Agreeing that trying to whisper at first was prudent. Once Sam was finished, Johnny looked into his eyes for a long beat then pointed at the tube in his nose.

Sam nodded. "Let's try some water first. See how your swallowing is doing."

He tried hard not to but he choked a little on the water. He figured it was from going so long without. Once he'd cleared his throat, he insisted on trying again. This time he did much better. But Sam wasn't satisfied and he left the tube in.

******

Over the next two weeks, Johnny improved physically. His strength was returning gradually and he was walking with less assistance. He had yet to leave his room and he hadn't shown any indication he wanted to. Murdoch was concerned about this but said nothing. He watched Johnny do his speech exercises diligently but so far, he hadn't said any words. Only making the sounds Sam had instructed him on.

This too, concerned the rancher. He knew Johnny should be able to whisper at least yes or no but the young man hadn't. He wondered if he should push just a bit.

Johnny was eating thin soups and moistened bread though Murdoch could tell, it was working on his nerves. After Sam's latest visit, he allowed them to progress his diet slowly; trying soft foods and Johnny tolerated them, savoring something different.

It had not gone unnoticed that his left side was weaker than his right but Johnny didn't seem to mind this. He kept right on going, compensating when he could.

This night, Murdoch brought him a tray of brown beans, mashed potatoes with gravy and cornbread.

Johnny stared at the tray, a small grin lifted one corner of his mouth. He looked into his father's eyes.

"Thank you, Murdoch," he whispered.

Murdoch just stared at him for several seconds, a lump forming quickly in his throat as he blinked and blinked. Finally, he dropped his head and rubbed a hand over his face.

"Don't," Johnny whispered, seeing the distress and misunderstanding it.

Murdoch shook his head and looked back at him, eyes shiny and bright. "I'm sorry, son. It's just ... it's   ..... I was beginning to think I'd never hear that voice again. It's more beautiful than any music," he said in a husky whisper of his own.

Johnny smiled shyly and dropped his eyes only to feel two arms encircle him and pull him in. "You keep this up and you're going to give your old man a heart attack," he laughed.

Johnny laughed too, a whispery semblance of his former self.

"I'm almost there. I can feel it," he said, knowing his father understood what he meant.

Murdoch pulled back and nodded. "And I can see it. Every day, Johnny. Every day. You will be as good as before."

"Maybe even better?" Johnny grinned.

"No, son. There's nothing better."

Johnny cleared his throat and frowned a little. Still unable to take a compliment.

"Don't start, young man. I suspect you've been practicing this but remember what Sam said. Not too much at a time," Murdoch warned.

"I have so many questions," he said forlornly.

"And I'll answer every one of them. But, not now. You've been incredibly patient, son. Just a little longer, okay? Just until Sam says you can talk a blue streak if you want," Murdoch smiled.

Johnny nodded reluctantly and told himself to remind his father of this promise when the time came.

******

Murdoch sat with him while he ate then helped Johnny settle in for the night. He was anxious to get downstairs and spread the good news to his family. As he descended the staircase, he wondered how Scott would react. His elder son had not said much since Johnny's awakening and the look his brother had first given him. Murdoch shook it away, guilt gnawing at him. It wouldn't be long before he could no longer shake it off.

As expected Jelly and Teresa were overjoyed and overcome with tears of happiness. Dust and smoke, for Jelly.

Scott had a smile on his face but it was mixed with worry but he said nothing. No one noticed. They had all come to expect him to say next to nothing where Johnny was concerned.

Murdoch slipped outside to the cool fresh air and looked up at the stars. His thoughts swirled like the

high thin clouds spattered above him. He let out a breathe he hadn't realized he was holding and closed his eyes briefly. Almost spring time again, he thought idly.

Murdoch sat on the wall, leaning his back against the adobe in a fashion reminiscent of his younger son. When did Scott lose hope? When had it happened?

His thoughts went back to that day and that argument. That horrible argument he'd had with his elder son. Murdoch had been shaken to his core by Scott's attitude, his demeanor as a whole. The young man had been so adamant. So sure he was right and so unwilling to hold out any hope. Why?

******

"Sam, what can we do?" Murdoch asked dejectedly.

Shaking his head sadly, the doctor answered, "I don't know, Murdoch. He hasn't responded to any of the tests I've performed. His reflexes aren't reacting at all. I'm afraid there may be nothing left to do. I don't think Johnny is ever going to get any better."

"You can't know that! It hasn't been all that long. Why, Johnny lives by his own clock. You know that, Dr. Jenkins," Teresa argued, her voice quivering slightly as tears welled in her eyes.

"We have to be realistic, Teresa," Scott said firmly. "Sam, would a hospital be able to help him?"

"I don't see how, Scott. I've made inquiries all over the country. No one has developed any new procedures, no new medications to treat this. He's in a coma and will most likely remain that way for the rest of his life."

"Then, there's nothing left to do, is there?" Scott asked quietly.

"Yes, there is something left to do. Take care of him," Murdoch spoke.

Scott looked sadly at the man. "For how long, Sir? Another three months? Thirty years? How long can he exist like this?" the last was directed at the doctor.

Sam sighed again. "Decades with good care."

Scott waved a hand toward Sam with a 'See? I told you so' expression.

Murdoch clamped his jaw tightly but still managed to speak. "However long it is, he will be taken care of. He will get excellent care!"

"I could recommend some good nurses," Sam offered.

Murdoch shook his head. "No, Sam. I will take care of Johnny."

"And me too!" Jelly interjected.

"Well, that's wonderful. The two of you are going to take care of him around the clock. How long do you think you can keep that up, Murdoch?" Scott asked.

"As long as it takes, Scott! What would you have me do, son?" he asked, calming his voice with the last.

Sighing heavily, Scott regarded his father. "Sam said there were hospitals for...."

"No! I will not send Johnny to an institution hundreds of miles from home. No, Sir! He is not leaving his home again!" Murdoch announced, pointing his finger erratically in the air.

Scott took a deep breath and switched tactics. "Murdoch, will you listen to yourself? Who is going to run the ranch? Who is going to take over when you fall flat on your face from exhaustion? And how long do you think you can keep up that kind of grueling schedule? He can't do anything for himself. He's worse than a baby. He can't even cry out."

"What's wrong with you, Scott? Is it so easy for you to give up on your brother?" Murdoch challenged.

******

He closed his eyes and allowed himself a minute to enjoy the breeze touching his face before going back to his reminiscing. That statement had led to an explosion of biblical proportions.

"Give up?! There is NOTHING to give up on. Johnny is gone, Murdoch. My brother is DEAD! He died right there on that step three months ago!" Scott shouted and pointed to the floor.

Murdoch took two long strides to reach his son. He grabbed both shoulders and shook hard. "Johnny is alive and breathing upstairs. Until he is no longer breathing; until his heart is no longer beating; he is ALIVE!"

"Stop it!" Teresa screamed out. Tears flooded her face and she made no effort to wipe them away. "Please, stop it," she sobbed and plopped down in a chair.

"See what ya done went an done? Got this little girl all upset with all yer caterwallin! I ain't no high educated man, Scott Lancer, so I got just one thing ta say ta you. I'm with Murdoch on this. Johnny is stayin home," the wrangler jutted out his chin as he glared at Scott then went to comfort Teresa.

"Why am I the only one who can see this?" Scott asked, raising his hands then dropping them in defeat.

"Scott, you're thinking with your head, son. The rest of us are not ready to give up the fight."

"And what will it take for you to be ready, Sir?"

Murdoch regarded him closely. "I don't know, Scott. Maybe Johnny will let me know."

Scott rolled his eyes and walked out of the room.

That was the last big blow out. There had been other arguments, infrequent yet still emotional. None as prolonged as the first. Scott would say his piece, maybe even argue his point, but he would then give up and go back to what he'd been doing all along. Running the ranch.

Murdoch could count the times on one hand that his son had actually been in Johnny's room.

'I have so many questions' That's what Johnny had said and Murdoch knew what at least one of them would be. And it was the one he wasn't sure he could answer.  

******

Johnny stared at the ceiling, watching the shadows play across it as the breeze blew the tree branches outside his window.

He remembered the two times he'd heard Scott's voice. Both had been an angry voice, full of resentment and bitterness. Why? Apparently, he hadn't been asked to do too much for his brother. Jelly had said it was him and Murdoch all along.

What hurt more than anything was that Scott had all but walked away from him. Unwilling to give him the time he needed to heal. He didn't understand any of it and it wore on his very soul. What had caused his brother's heart to turn to ice?

Maybe it was the who not the what? Maybe whoever had shot him was at the core of the problem. He didn't know that either. Hell, he didn't know a damned thing more than he did when he'd first heard .... whoever it was he'd first heard talking. He couldn't remember now. Wasn't sure he knew then. Probably not. It was all a big ball of confusion in his mind. Something he didn't want to dwell on now.

He didn't want to think about Scott either but it seemed that's all he could think about. No, that wasn't true. He thought about his father. Completely floored by the old man was what he was. Johnny shook his head slowly. Still unable to fathom this side of his father.

Never had he seen such tenderness from Murdoch. So much love shown outright. So much emotion that, it seemed, the old man wasn't trying all that hard to hide.

Johnny smiled. I always figured I'd never truly know him. Maybe now, I'm seeing the real Murdoch. The man he was before ...... he swallowed hard and closed his eyes for a moment. Before my mother ruined him.

Sighing, he slowly turned on his side. This small feat having been such a victory just a short while ago. Closing his eyes, he allowed himself to drift away to sleep; to rest his weary mind. How do I exercise that, Doc? was the last thought he had this night.

******

Murdoch walked into the room with a tray the next morning and stopped cold. Johnny was sitting in the chair wearing his pants, his shirt on but not buttoned and his socks. The rancher smiled a little then forced a frown as Johnny turned his head.

"Feeling a little froggy this morning?" he asked.

Johnny smiled and shrugged. Then he hooked a thumb in the waistband of his pants and pulled at the excess of garment.

"Sam will be here today," Murdoch reminded him.

"I know," came the whispered response.

Murdoch eyed him peripherally as he set up the tray. He could tell it was finally happening. He'd been waiting a long time for Johnny to buck and it seemed the hour was at hand.

But the younger man said nothing as he ate his breakfast slowly. A frown appeared from time to time as the nasal tube got in his way and he sighed heavily once.

Murdoch sat across from him in an overstuffed chair, nursing his coffee and trying not to stare. Once he was sure Johnny had given up on his breakfast, he stood and removed the tray without a word. Sitting it on the dresser, he resumed his seat.

"Don't you get tired of it?" Johnny asked.

"Tired of what?"

"This. Me. All of it."

Murdoch raised a brow and thought to glaze it over but decided against that. "I would be lying if I said there haven't been times, son. Times when I was at the end of my rope. Times when I felt like giving up. It's been hard, there's no point in denying that."

"Why did you do it?"

Murdoch stared at him for a long beat. "What was the alternative?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and shrugged. "I wouldn't know."

The bitterness was there, so easy to hear even if the words weren't loudly spoken.

"You haven't always been the most patient man I know," Murdoch smiled wanly. "I know it's nearly impossible, son. But...."

Johnny raised a hand. "I know. Wait. Be patient. A little longer. I know." He leaned back in the chair and rested his head, closing his eyes.

******

"Well, I think it's safe to take that tube out, now," Sam smiled.

Johnny returned the smile but it wasn't one of his more brilliant ones. Sam didn't need anyone to tell him the problem. He understood well.

"This is going to hurt, Johnny. Your throat will be awfully sore for a few days and you'll have to go back to liquids mostly for a while. You'll cough quite a bit as I remove it and you'll be quite irritated."

"Okay," he whispered.

Sam nodded then thought to add, "and you may not feel like talking."

Murdoch had to turn away. He couldn't watch this. Hearing it was bad enough.

If Johnny had ever had a worse experience, he couldn't remember it now. Nothing compared to the agony of what had just happened. Tears were streaming down his face as he fought to breathe through the harsh and unrelenting cough. Gasping for air, he grabbed Sam's shirt sleeve, nearly wrenching it free from the garment.

Sam rubbed his back in slow circles, patting occasionally as Johnny fought for control. Finally, he lost the fight and his breakfast before nearly collapsing from exhaustion.

Murdoch wiped his face with a cool wet cloth and helped him lean back in the chair.

At long last, it seemed to be over and he opened his eyes slowly. Jaws clenched tight against any further threat, he glared at Sam.

"Yes, I know, Johnny. And it isn't the first time I've been called all those names," Sam smiled a little, knowing what his young friend was thinking.

After half an hour and several small sips of water, Johnny sighed. Worn out by the activity, he looked yearningly toward his bed.

Murdoch helped him there and settled him in. With a loving pat on the head, he 'ordered' his son to sleep.

******

Downstairs, Murdoch sat Sam down for a talk.

"Now that the tube is out do you think he can go outside?"

"If he wants to. He hasn't seemed to be in any hurry about that," Sam frowned.

"I saw it this morning. He's getting ready. I think a lot of his ambivalence has been because of Scott," Murdoch said sadly.

"You think he's avoiding Scott?"

"I know he is. He doesn't want to see him, Sam. I can't blame him but this can't go on either. They have to talk sometime."

"Now, wait a minute, Murdoch. I know Johnny has made great strides but he is no where near ready for a confrontation. Physically or emotionally. So far he's had nothing but love and support and that's exactly what he needed and still needs. He's not well yet. He has a long way to go. And, frankly, that left side worries me some."

Murdoch ran a hand through his hair. "I know but he seems to make up for it well."

"For now. While he's in his own room where it's close and familiar. Eventually, he'll be out there in the world and he has to be able to deal with whatever comes along. Being a rancher is dangerous enough. He has to be able to react quickly. He needs to be able to depend on his own reflexes."

Murdoch studied these words for a while. He could certainly see the logic in Sam's thoughts. Not that he expected Johnny to be driving herd anytime soon. He had no intentions of allowing his son to go back to work for a good long while.

"It's Scott that worries me, Sam. He hasn't asked about Johnny's progress. Hasn't made a single inquiry as to his brother's health."

"I don't know what's wrong with him, Murdoch. But it isn't like he has to ask. That is about all any of you talk about these days, isn't it?"

"I suppose so," Murdoch mumbled then his head came up. "Sam, do you think Scott feels abandoned?"

Sam raised a thoughtful brow. "I hadn't really considered it but it's certainly a possibility. Everything has been about Johnny for so long, I can see him feeling left out."

"Who's fault is that?" Murdoch shot bitterly and was immediately reticent. "I'm sorry, Sam. It's sure not yours but I'm yelling at you anyway."

Sam smiled. "Maybe you should talk to Scott again. See where his mind is and what he's feeling."

Murdoch spent the day with Johnny, making sure he was as comfortable as possible. He wasn't able to swallow much so he was reduced to soups again. Bland ones on top of it since his throat felt so raw. Murdoch felt badly for him but knowing it was temporary assuaged those feelings some. By late afternoon, he'd worn Johnny out enough so the young man slept soundly.

With a sigh, he headed downstairs to talk with his other son, hoping it would go better than any other talks they'd had in so many months.

Scott came home in not the best mood. Slapping as much dust off himself as he could before entering the house, he dragged his tired bones inside.

"Hello, son. How was your day?"

Scott stopped in his tracks and looked suspiciously at his father. "Rotten," he growled.

Murdoch sighed inwardly. Great! he thought. "Drink?"

"Yes, thank you," Scott replied stiffly, still leery of the polite treatment. He sat on the sofa and accepted the glass of whiskey.

"Any particular problems or just a bad day in general?" Murdoch asked as he lowered his frame into a chair.

"In general," Scott clipped.

Murdoch nodded and took a sip, thoughtfully swirling the amber liquid round the glass.

"What's wrong?" Scott asked brusquely.

Looking up, Murdoch frowned in confusion. "Nothing is wrong, son. I hoped we could talk but if you're in such a bad mood perhaps it should wait."

"Talk about what?" Scott asked though he knew he didn't have to.

"Johnny."

******

"Of course," he raised his glass snidely.

"Sam removed the tube today. He's doing much better and I expect he'll be out of his room soon," Murdoch said, ignoring the dig.

"And you want me to be sure I avoid him," Scott surmised.

Murdoch lost his patience and slammed his glass down. "What I want is for you to stop acting like an ass! What I want is to prepare you for talking to your brother. It is inevitable, Scott. Johnny has questions that only you can answer."

Scott was not disturbed by the outburst. Why should he be? He had instigated it. Was determined it happen. Why, he could not fathom. "I'm quite sure you and Jelly can explain it to him. It appears you've explained everything else," he spoke calmly.

"No, we did not. At least, not intentionally. Johnny could hear us, Scott. I don't know for how long but he heard some of our conversations. Enough to know something was wrong. That you weren't around and didn't want to be. How do you think that makes him feel?"

"I don't know how he feels, Murdoch. Anymore than any of you know how I feel. And for the same reason. No one has bothered to ask!"

"Malarky! I can't recall the number of times I've asked you what's wrong. Why you've been behaving as you have."

"No, Sir! You have not asked. You have demanded explanations!" Scott's voice rose a notch.

"You're playing with words, Scott. Did you want me to baby you?"

"No, Murdoch. Johnny is the only baby around here," he shot then threw the rest of the whiskey down his throat.

Murdoch stared at him. "You're jealous? You're jealous of the attention Johnny has gotten? Well, if that is the case, Scott, the solution is simple. Fall into a coma, son, and I'll baby you all the live long day!"

******

Scott glared at him. "You're being ridiculous. I do not want to be babied. Being appreciated. Having my opinion count for something. Now THAT would be a nice change!"

Murdoch stood and paced. "I did listen to your opinion, Scott. I didn't happen to agree with it. When you have children then you can decide their welfare. But, no one and I mean no one is going to dictate how my son is cared for but me!"

"And the hell with the rest of the family. Is that it, Murdoch? The rest of us can just fend for ourselves. Well, that's exactly what I've been doing. Now, you want to take me to task for it. No, I don't think so!"

"What I want, Scott. What I've always wanted, is for you to care enough about Johnny to help take care of him. To believe in him and to have faith that he would recover. But you wouldn't do that. Almost from day one you refused to believe there was any chance at all. I will never understand that."

Scott flew to his feet. "Why not? He had a bullet IN HIS HEAD, Murdoch! How much chance did he have? How many people could survive a wound like that? Yes, he did survive and he is recovering but it is against all odds. I couldn't set myself up for that kind of torture. I couldn't believe you would!"

"And if I hadn't? If we had done as you wanted Johnny would have awoken in an institution surrounded by strangers. Or worse, he would have withered away from lack of any kind of human touch. Johnny would have truly been lost to us forever."

Scott reined in his emotions and lowered his tone. "It's very easy to say that now, Murdoch. Now that he is getting better. What if he hadn't? How much longer could you have kept going?"

"I don't know, son. I thank God I never will. This is not helping anything. What I need to know is do you want to see your brother?"

"Of course, I do! I just ....." Scott stopped, his breathing labored. He hung his head and struggled to find the words, to find his way. "I don't think he'll ever forgive me," he finally whispered.

Murdoch's heart broke. He stepped closer to Scott. "I can't tell you anything, son. We haven't spoken about it or anything else. He's only now able to whisper words and with the tube out, he can't do that for a few days. I've been putting him off but I can't much longer. Everything I tell him is going to be very hard for him to hear. It would help me so much to know you are at least willing. That you want to be with him. What can I tell him, son?"

Scott looked up, pale blue eyes tormented. "Tell him ....." He shook his head, unable to speak the words. Whatever he had to say to his brother, Scott would say it himself.

******

Scott sat on the veranda alone that night. A bottle beside him on the bench. Swirling the liquid round his glass, he took a healthy swallow. Every night was much the same. He'd drink enough to help him sleep then he'd make his way upstairs.

And every night, he'd pause outside his room and look across at the closed door, then turn and shut himself off from the world for a while.

Some nights, Saturday usually, he'd go to town to do his drinking. But that was harder by far. Inevitably, someone would come along and ask the question he'd come to hate passionately. How's Johnny?

He could recall a few hazy times when he had asked 'Johnny who?' and received evil looks. Looks that made him laugh at the ridiculous situation.

How's Johnny? Dead, he wanted to say. Wanted to scream at them all. His brother was dead and he didn't give a damn about anything anymore.

Yet, everyday, he rose and dressed. Every day he ate and worked. And every day he came home to a mausoleum. Or was it a shrine?

Nothing had changed. No mirrors had been shrouded. No pictures of Johnny laid out for all to see. Just the incredible quiet. The silence of a dead house; devoid of life or living. A cacophony of humdrum. Moving about as if they were machines. Nothing different ever happened.

The incredible tedious existence they had all fallen into made him want to run. Leave this house of pain forever. Why hadn't he? It was a question he'd asked himself a thousand times. Why don't you just leave?

Because he knew. God help him he knew that one day, Murdoch would realize it was futile. That he would make the decision that ultimately must be made and send what was left of Johnny away. Then and only then would they be able to really live again.

Scott wanted no parties, no chorus of 'you were right'. He only wanted peace or some semblance of it for his family. It seemed he was the only one willing to look hard at the situation. The only one willing to make the tough choices.

A sardonic smile spread across his face as he lifted his glass a bit wobbly toward the sky. "To you, Johnny. You proved me wrong. Now, I have to face you and I don't know how."

Bitterly, he threw the liquid into his mouth and swallowed hard. "But, don't expect me to beg forgiveness, brother. I was right. No matter the outcome, I was right in theory."

******

Five days passed quietly and much the same as the past months. Johnny's recovery had slowed while he recuperated from the rawness in his throat. He continued to build his physical strength with the exercises Sam had lain out for him. Talking was something he had stopped altogether until his throat was healed.

Murdoch couldn't believe the patience the young man was exhibiting. He wondered for the first time if Johnny's personality would be different now. If this experience had somehow altered his son. And he wasn't sure how he felt about that. Johnny could be tenacious and strong-willed and, at times, exasperating. But, he didn't think he wanted that to change anymore than he wanted his son's smiles to change. No, he shook his head, I don't want anything about him to change.

It was Sunday and everyone went to church except Murdoch and, of course, Johnny. As he pushed the bedroom door open with his hip, tray balanced in his hands, Murdoch stopped short and smiled.

Johnny was up and dressed, sitting in his chair.

"Good morning. Glad to see you're feeling better," he smiled.

"My throat's okay now," he answered very softly.

"Oh, well, I wish I'd known. I would have asked Teresa for something more substantial. I'm afraid she's left for church."

"It's okay. I can stand it for one more meal," Johnny smiled.

Murdoch set the tray down in front of him and Johnny looked up a bit bashfully.

"What is it, son?"

"I ... nothing. It's fine."


"Johnny, do you want something else?" Murdoch asked, trying to sound stern.

Sighing a bit and hating to ask his father to wait on him, he replied, "coffee?"

Murdoch grinned. "I should have known. I'll bring a pot. I haven't had nearly enough myself this morning." He patted his son's shoulder as he left the room.

Johnny sat back in the chair and looked at the tray. Oatmeal. Well, it's not that bad. Lunch will be better, he placated himself. Maybe, he thought with a frown. His uncertainty came from knowing what his plans for this morning were. He was determined to talk with his father about all that had happened. He needed to know and he'd been patient enough.

He ate as quickly as he dared, not wanting to make himself sick. The coffee was like ambrosia and he had two cups with his food.

Settling back as Murdoch removed the tray and cradling his third cup in his hand, Johnny waited for his father to rejoin him.

"It's time," was all he said.

******

Murdoch sighed softly and nodded his head. "How much do you remember?"

"Not one thing."

The harshness in his voice did not escape notice and Murdoch watched him closely.

"It was your birthday. Three men came into the house using the side entrance. They took me by surprise and tied me to a chair then gagged me. They wouldn't tell me what they wanted. Just that they had something to take care of and once done, they would leave and no one else would be hurt. Of course, they never said who would be hurt. I didn't know what to think and they weren't being very talkative. In fact, they never spoke after that initial comment. Then, we heard a horse approach and one looked out the window. He simply said "it's him". When I heard the front door open I knew it was you."

"How?" Johnny asked, not knowing why that was important to him.

Murdoch smiled briefly. "I heard your spurs. Well, I didn't know what to do. My mind was racing to come up with some way to warn you. That gag was stuffed in good. I couldn't make a sound by then, my throat was so dry. Then suddenly, there you were and ......" he closed his eyes and trailed off as visions of that day flooded his mind with a clarity that sucked the breath from him.

Murdoch felt a hand on his arm and opened his eyes to find Johnny watching him with concern and guilt.

"I'm sorry, son. It's hard to think about. It happened so fast! He just simply pulled the trigger. No talking, no warning, nothing!" He took a moment to gather himself before continuing.

"Then they left. Simply walked out the way they came. I tried to get loose. To get to you. Then, Scott came in the French doors and untied me. We sent for Sam and he treated you. He removed the bullet. Then he said he didn't think you would survive."

Johnny let out a shuttering breath. "Who were they?"

******

"Val went after them with a posse. They were all killed in a shootout. It took some time but he finally identified them. Two were Mexican, one white."

"Names," Johnny stated flatly.

"Graham Hasker, Raul Gomez and Phillipe Suarez."

Johnny closed his eyes and nodded. He said nothing and Murdoch didn't ask. At this point, it didn't matter to him anymore.

"Every day that you kept breathing we held out hope. For three months we waited. Then, Sam told us there was no more hope. That you were in a coma and would never wake up."

"Three months?" Johnny asked incredulously.

Murdoch swallowed hard and grimaced but he went on. "That was when Sam suggested a hospital. Well, more like an institution. But I wouldn't agree to it. He offered to get nurses but I said no."

"Why?"

Murdoch looked perplexed by the question. "I couldn't send you away. And I couldn't let strangers take care of you in your own home. Besides, I kept thinking of how many times you've beaten the odds. How many times you've come back to us when all seemed lost."

Johnny nodded but his mind was awhirl.

"Jelly said he'd help and together, we've tended to you every day."

"Wait a minute. You said Sam told you after three months there was no hope. Murdoch, how long was I   out?"

Bracing himself, Murdoch answered. "It's late April, Johnny."

The younger man stared at him for a long time, unsure he understood what his father was telling him. It's April? So? I was shot on my birthday. In June. His eyes widened as comprehension took hold and he opened his mouth but no sound would come out.

A year? Almost a year? No. He shook his head as if this would change what was. "It can't be," he finally managed to whisper.

"I'm sorry, son, but it's true."

Johnny closed his eyes and bowed his head. "I need to be alone."

"Son, please...."

"I need to be alone!" he repeated with vehemence.

Murdoch sighed and stood. "I'll be downstairs."

******

How long he sat there, stock still, he didn't know. Eventually, he opened his eyes and looked around disinterestingly. Johnny stood and began to pace the room, arms wrapped around himself.

A year. I've lost a whole year of my life. No wonder Scott ..... he let that thought trail off. He wasn't ready to deal with that just yet.

He wasn't sure he was ready to deal with any of this. Three months he could handle. But this. This was .... shaking his head, he couldn't fathom it. Could not fathom what his family had been through.

He thought about his father. Day after day, hour after hour, month after month bathing, changing and feeding him. Exercising his muscles in the hope that some day he'd awaken. A hope that had no root in logic; no sense at all.

Why? Love was not enough to put yourself through that, was it? It was madness. Simply madness. And Jelly going right along with it. Stubborn was comical compared to this insanity.

What drove a man to such lengths? Guilt? Maybe. Fear? Certainly.

He suddenly felt as if all the energy had been sucked out of him and he went down to his knees. Hanging his head and rocking back and forth slowly, he tried to come to terms with what he'd put them through. The only thing he was absolutely certain of was that it was his fault. His past and his mistakes that had caused this. And his punishment. But it was his family who had paid the price. He'd been asleep! Or near to it as he could comprehend at this moment.

He felt the hot tears slide unwanted down his face but he couldn't be bothered with that right now. Not now when he had to figure out how to tell them. How to explain why this happened and that it was his fault. How do you apologize for this? For putting your family through pure hell for a year!?

He leaned forward, sinking further into his despair and feeling completely desolate. It was then that he felt a tender touch on his shoulder; felt the presence kneel down beside him and the arm slide across his back.

******

Johnny leaned into that presence; desperate for the touch. Needing the closeness and knowing exactly who it was. And in that knowing, understanding the intensity of the need.

"Scott, what have I done?" he croaked out.

Both arms enclosed him, pulling him tightly in and rocking with him. A chin rested on the top of his head and a hand caressed the side of his face.

"Nothing, Johnny. You've done nothing."

"It's my fault. My doing. My damned past that caused this!"

"And you are the one who paid for it."

"No!" Johnny shouted and pulled away, turning his back but making no move to rise. "No, you all paid for it. For a year you paid for it!"

Scott reached out and rubbed his back gently. "We ALL paid, brother. But, it's over now. You're back with us now."

"No," he shook his head. "It's not over. It will never be over."

Johnny's voice was filled with such misery it broke Scott's heart. He understood what his brother was saying. In the past, Scott had argued tooth and nail that Johnny's past didn't matter. And it truly did not to him. But what he had never understood until now was that it mattered a great deal to Johnny. And this was why.

"We will get through it together, Johnny. It's all we can do."

"No, it's not. It's not all I can do," Johnny whispered in a cracked voice.

"Don't start that. You aren't going anywhere. We've lost enough time as it is and I don't mean just the last year. I mean a lifetime, Johnny. A whole lifetime together. And even if you leave, what good will that do? It will only mean more time lost. Without us, brother, well, you just aren't as good."

Johnny looked up and over his shoulder at his brother. A grin threatened to break through and he had to fight it. But he won the fight much to Scott's chagrin. Johnny wiped his face and sniffled, then sighed heavily. He turned and sat properly on his rear then crossed his legs and dangled his arms off his knees.

Scott mimicked him somewhat, opting for knees pulled to his chest instead.

******

"Where have you been, brother?" Johnny asked softly.

Scott dipped his head shamefully as his cheeks flushed hot. Swallowing hard, he found he had no voice.

He felt a hand on his head and looked up with guilty eyes. Johnny smiled.

It was Scott's turn to loose the fight with his emotions as his eyes welled and he looked away quickly. "I gave up on you," he barely whispered.

"After a year, I would think so."

"No, Johnny. A long time ago. After three months. When Sam said ..... I just couldn't handle seeing you like that every day for the rest of your life. Murdoch was being so obstinate. He wouldn't listen to reason."

"Don't sound like him," Johnny observed.

"He's changed so much since this happened."

"He feels guilty because he couldn't stop it," Johnny stated frankly.

Scott nodded. "I .... I tried to get him to send you away. I was being completely selfish. Having you here was like ... like a funeral that never ended," he stuttered out.

"That must have been brutal." There was nothing but sincerity in his voice.

"Stop being so understanding! You should hate me!" Scott lashed out.

"I did until I found out what was really going on. Scott, I can't blame you. My God, nobody should be expected to live like that."

"You're the one that suffered, Johnny," Scott pointed out.

"No, I didn't know a thing," Johnny countered.

Scott looked up at him. "Murdoch said you heard some things."

Johnny nodded. "Little bits of conversation. Sometimes, whole conversations. Sometimes it made sense, sometimes not. I remember thinking my head hurt and not knowing why. Then, I couldn't understand why I couldn't move or open my eyes or anything. That was the hardest part. Hearing the old man ask me to wake up and knowing I couldn't let him know I was." A haunted look shadowed his face as he stared into space.

******

There was a long silence between them then Johnny sighed.

"I heard you say you weren't going to take care of me when Murdoch fell over exhausted."

Scott closed his eyes and nodded. "I'm sorry. I was so angry with him. With myself for not being able to do what I should. I should have been the one taking care of you, Johnny. I should have been the one who never lost faith. But I did and I'm so ashamed of that. I've been telling myself that I have nothing to apologize for. That I was right theoretically. But that doesn't mean squat when my brother needed me. I let you down. I broke my promise."

Johnny didn't answer at first. He couldn't because, even though he understood everything, it still hurt so bad!

"I wouldn't blame you if you never forgave me. I've been a fool. A blind fool," Scott said.

"It was too hard, I guess," Johnny finally said.

"No, that wasn't it. I was scared. Afraid to have hope then still lose you. I swear to you, Johnny, I really believed you would never wake up. It killed me."

"And Murdoch was too wrapped up in takin care of me to think about you," Johnny concluded.

"Petty, isn't it? To be jealous of a comatose man," Scott snorted bitterly.

"Don't know that I'd call it jealousy exactly. You were being ignored, Scott. That wasn't fair and it wasn't right. Murdoch should've known that."

"Don't blame him. He did what he thought was best."

"Best for who? Him? He felt guilty, Scott. Wrong as that was, too. I'm not blaming him really. I guess I'm just disappointed that he didn't see that you needed him, too."

"How do you know he didn't? I don't. I was too angry to see much of anything. He tried talking to me many times but I always turned it into an argument immediately. I was hurt and bitter at losing you. You were gone but you weren't. I didn't know what to do, what to think."

"So you ran the ranch while he nursed me. Is that it?"

Scott smiled briefly. "Yes. That's what I did."

******

Johnny sighed the sigh of an exhausted man and Scott looked at his profile.

"Come on. I can at least help you to bed," he offered.

"Help might be puttin it lightly, Boston. Not sure I can get up off this floor," Johnny laughed softly.

Scott smiled and stood up, then offered his hand. "Then I'll carry you."

Johnny closed his eyes and bowed his head briefly before taking the offered hand up. He'd been right. Scott ended up grabbing him under the arms to get him all the way to his feet.

"Sorry," Johnny breathed out.

"You have no reason to apologize to me, brother. No reason at all," Scott whispered as he repositioned his arm around Johnny's waist.

Once sitting on the bed, Johnny scooted back but made no move to lie down. He watched as Scott pulled open a drawer and retrieved a nightshirt before joining him.

He plopped down and held the garment in his hands on his lap, staring at it solemnly.

"You didn't think I knew what was going on. You about rolled me out of this bed," Johnny said, a light in his eyes as he tried to tease Scott.

******

But the older man jerked his head round and stared openly at him.

"What?"

Scott shook his head slowly. "The last time I helped change your bed was ...... months ago."

Johnny frowned and shook his own head. "No, I heard you and Jelly. He was telling you to make sure the wrinkles were out. And you said for him to do it himself. Then you slammed the door."

"Yes, Johnny, that was months ago," Scott concurred, the flush of shame back in his cheeks.

Johnny suddenly felt light headed. He stared at Scott for a long time before dropping his head and staring at the floor. "I remember it like it was yesterday. I kept kind of slipping in and out. But, it didn't seem like a lot of time had past. Seems like that happened not too long before I woke up."

He stood suddenly and began to pace, ignoring the slight dizziness of the movement. "God, how long was I....."

Scott stood and blocked his path, taking his arm and moving him back to the bed. "Come on, get undressed and into bed. This won't do any good, Johnny. It will only make you crazy."

"Too late," he snipped, feeling totally disoriented again.

Scott let the comment go and helped Johnny out of his clothes and into bed. Once he'd tucked his brother in, he sat on the edge and let his hand lie on Johnny's knee.

Johnny closed his eyes and tried to let sleep take him but his mind would not stop. Months ago. How could that be? He needed to talk to Sam about this. Try and figure it all out. Part of him said it didn't really matter but a bigger part knew it did.

He was never one to really think things to death. Had always just let sleeping dogs lie for the most part. But this was a huge hole in his life. He'd missed so much! Birthdays and holidays. Dios! He'd missed Thanksgiving AND Christmas.

He remembered Jelly complaining about Dewdrop and how he'd be the next Thanksgiving bird. Remembered thinking Jelly was nuts as it wasn't anywhere near Thanksgiving. But it must have been.

Christmas must have been a real thrill for them all. He could just imagine the sadness. Teresa probably didn't even decorate. Another holiday shot to hell for the girl. This one his fault. First her father now him. He knew in his heart there was nothing he could ever do to make it up to her; to any of them.

Johnny opened his eyes and found himself wishing his father were here. Scott was too guilty and he wasn't sure how he really felt about his brother at this moment. He needed Murdoch but he was wont to ask for the man. God knew, his father had spent enough time in this room. He closed his eyes again before Scott could notice.

Sunshine brightened the room and he opened his eyes slowly. Realizing after a few minutes that he must have slept yesterday through. Sighing and stretching out like a cat, Johnny yawned.

Carefully, he tested himself by moving one leg to hang over the mattress then the other close by. He managed to sit up and scoot to the edge before the door opened.

"Good morning. You must be starved."

Johnny smiled a little. It was forced. He felt plain ornery at the moment. "Guess so," he mumbled.

Murdoch sat the tray on the table by the window and walked to the dresser. Pouring fresh water into the wash basin, he set out Johnny's shaving gear.

The younger man watched him with a mixture of humor and resentment. "I can do that now."

Murdoch's shoulders stiffened then relaxed quickly. Chuckling a little, he turned around. "I guess you can. I imagine it will take me some time to break that habit."

Johnny didn't share the smile. It only served to remind him what a burden he'd been, especially to his father. He eased off the bed and staggered a little as he made his way over.

Murdoch watched, tensed to move should Johnny waver too much. But he made it and Murdoch moved away, giving him room.

"You look like you're about to come out of your skin," Johnny noted as he watched the older man through the mirror.

"And you look about done in. I can finish that if you want," he offered.

Johnny was about done in and he knew it but he was determined to at least shave himself. "Almost done," was his answer as he pulled the blade up his throat twice more, desperately fighting to keep his hand from shaking. He splashed the water on his face and dried quickly. Giving himself just a minute to catch his breath, he wobbled over to the chair.

"I'll go get you some fresh coffee. This is cold."

"No! Stop waiting on me hand and foot!" Johnny shouted as loud as he could manage. He closed his eyes and sighed. "I'm sorry. I just hate this."

"Like you told me. You're almost there," Murdoch said quietly.

"Yeah well, almost only counts in horseshoes," he said glibly as he took a bite of cold eggs and grimaced.

******

Murdoch had no comment for that statement and he said not another word about freshening his son's breakfast.

He didn't eat much and it wasn't because it was cold. His appetite had left him as the tiredness settled in. The simple task of shaving had nearly killed him he reckoned. He put the fork down and pushed the tray away a little, then leaned back in the chair.

"Scott said you two talked yesterday," Murdoch spoke.

"Yeah, some. You need to talk to him."

"I know and I will."

Johnny opened his eyes and regarded his father. "Seems I missed out on a lot. All of us did."

Murdoch only nodded.

"How did Teresa handle Christmas?"

The older man cocked a brow. "Not well. None of us did."

"Yeah," he breathed out.

"Teresa mentioned that we should be able to make up for all the missed holidays by your birthday," Murdoch said casually.

Johnny grinned. "Is that her way of tellin me to get myself better soon?"

Murdoch chuckled. "I imagine so."

"Well, then I will," he stated determinedly as a shadow crossed his features.

"Don't push yourself, son."

"I will push myself because it's the only way I'll get better and you know it," he challenged.

Shaking his head, Murdoch had to smile. "And here I was worried you might have changed. I'm glad you didn't."

******

Johnny bit his lower lip and dropped his eyes. "You got any questions for me?"

"Like what?"

"Like why three men broke into your house and shot me in the head," Johnny said flatly as he looked up.

"Firstly, our house. Secondly, if you want or need to tell me, I'm listening."

Johnny shook his head. "I killed his brother. Shot him in the head. Suarez, that is. About three years ago. We'd had a couple of run-ins after that but he never out and out challenged me."

"Because he knew he couldn't beat you." It was a statement.

"Yeah, guess so. It was right before the revolution. Maybe he thought I was dead. Guess that's why it took him so long."

"Maybe he couldn't find you."

"Maybe. But he did find me. More will find me most likely."

Murdoch looked hard at him for several seconds. "So?"

Sighing, Johnny held the stare. "So, if you got anything to say about that, say it!"

"Alright, I will. Next time, I won't be caught off guard. Next time, if there is one, I won't be tied to a chair while someone guns my son down," Murdoch stated, angry with himself.

"Yeah? What're you gonna do about it, old man?"

"Fight," he stated simply.

"You mean, get yourself killed."

"If need be."

Johnny leaned forward with a grim, hard look. "No. No, you won't. You'll do exactly what you did last time. You'll make sure you don't get in the way. You'll do what they say and stay out of it."

Murdoch looked back with an equally hard expression. "And if I don't?"

"I'll shoot you myself," Johnny stated and leaned back.

******

Murdoch smiled, knowing that was an empty threat. He grew somber then. "Johnny, I know you feel guilty about this. I understand that. But, if you're thinking that leaving will solve the problem, you're wrong, son. So wrong. Don't you understand that by staying here, you reduce the chances of this happening again? The longer you live your life as Johnny Lancer, the lower the odds get. People will forget, son. I know that might be a blow to your ego but it's the truth."

Johnny snorted. "My ego don't give a damn, Murdoch. I wish they would forget. I wish there was something I could do to make them forget. But there isn't. And until that day comes, all of you are at risk. Suarez could have killed you. I'm not sure why he didn't. Maybe he didn't know you're my old man. Maybe he thought I was workin here. I don't know. But, next time, you might not be so lucky."

"Maybe there is a way, son. Maybe if somehow word got out that Johnny Madrid was dead...." he trailed off, his mind working.

"How? Too many people around here know who I am."

"But if they think you're dead, they won't come looking and no one would have a chance to tell them any different," Murdoch countered.

"What makes you think someone around here wouldn't go shooting their mouths off? I know it's hard to believe, but not everyone in this valley loves me," Johnny grinned a little.

"That is hard to believe," Murdoch rejoined dryly. "Still, it's worth thinking about."

"Go ahead and think about it. Won't do you any good," Johnny sighed.

Murdoch eyed him as a smile played at his lips. "What would you say to going out on the veranda?"

Johnny's eyes lit up like the sun of a brand new day, a smile igniting on his own lips.

******

Scott walked out of the barn, headed for the house. He spied Jelly to his left grunting and grumbling over some task. As he neared, his curiosity piqued.

"What are you doing, Jelly?"

"I'm a tryin ta fix this here contraption fer Johnny," he grouched.

Scott stepped closer still and eyed the 'contraption'. "What is it?"

Jelly stopped and looked at him then sighed. "It's a wagon brake. I thought if I could make the brake spring back when ya press on it, that'd help Johnny's legs get strong. 'Specially the left one. He's a might weak on that side," he explained.

Scott cocked a brow and looked thoughtfully at the apparatus. "That's a good idea. May I help?"

Jelly studied the young man for a long moment. "Why?"

Scott could have been angry with the question posed but he knew he had no right. Instead, he bowed his head briefly then met the man's eyes. "Because it's about time I did."

"You got that right! Well, I caint quite figger out how ta make it do what I want. I got a wagon spring here but it's too tight," Jelly explained as he stroked his beard thoughtfully.

"What about hinge springs. You could use several of them and tighten them as much as you need," Scott suggested.

Jelly's brows went up and his eyes alit. "Now that ain't such a bad idee! Lot easier ta tighten a spring than ta loosen one fer sure. Thanks, Scott."

The younger man smiled. "You're welcome. Why don't I check the tack room and see what we have."

Jelly nodded his agreement and went about removing the current spring from his contraption.

Scott stopped after a few feet. "Oh, what about his arm? Isn't it still weak, too?"

Jelly grinned with enthusiasm. "I got that covered," he winked.

******

The two of them worked quietly together for the next two hours. Not many words were spoken but many grunts and soft curses could be heard as they, by trial and error, slowly achieved their goal.

Scott straightened his back and put a hand to it as he streteched out.

"I think this will work. Jelly, you should have been an inventor," he smiled.

Jelly nodded. "Yep, I reckon I coulda been at that."

"Now, what did you have in mind for his arm?"

Jelly turned and bent down, opening a small burlap sack. He stood and tossed the object at Scott who's eyes lit up as he deftly caught it.

"A baseball?"

"Sure. It's hard but ya can still squeeze it. Reckon it'll have them muscles bulgin in no time flat!"

Scott shook his head in awe. "Where did you get it?"

"From the orphanage."

"What? Jelly, you took this from the orphanage? Johnny won't like that," Scott exclaimed.

Jelly jutted out his chin as he began defending his actions. "Reckon he'll like it just fine when I tell 'im it was the kids what give it to 'im. I went over thar to ask where they got their's from and tole 'im why I wanted it. Took them boys bout half a second ta give it up. Mind you, I wasn't a gonna take it. But, the padree come out and said it was the Lord's work. Now, how could I turn 'im down then?"

Scott looked at him with chargin. "I'm sorry, Jelly. I should have known better."

"Hmmph! Seems ta me you shoulda know'd better about a lot of things, Scott Lancer. I don't know what's ailin ya but ya might wanna get that sawbones ta take a look. You been plump stupid for a year." Without a backward glance, Jelly picked up his invention and strode off.

"Maybe I do need a doctor, Jelly. I have been plump stupid," Scott murmured to himself.

******

Scott walked around the house and stopped short when he saw Murdoch helping Johnny into a chair. He grinned as an idea popped in his head. Turning on his heel, he went into the barn.

"Ahhhh, is that fresh air I smell?" Johnny smiled.

Murdoch chuckled. "As fresh as it gets around here."

He heard it and his eyes opened instantly. Johnny leaned forward in the chair and scanned what he could see of the yard. Anticipation tightening his gut.

Then, he got his first glimpse followed soon by a beautiful sight. Scott led the palomino right up to the low wall, grinning like the cat that got the canary.

Johnny stood slowly, feeling Murdoch's hand on his upper arm but paying no heed. He moved to the wall and reached out. Barranca immediately stuck his mouth into the cupped palm and licked it.

Johnny laughed and stepped closer as the horse reached in and laid his forehead against the man's chest, eyes half closed and totally still. Johnny scratched behind his ear and rested his own head on the golden horse's neck.

"Hey fella. Remember me?" he whispered, unprepared for the emotions that surged forth.

Johnny reached out both arms and hugged his neck tightly. "I missed you so much."

Jelly stood off to the side and watched through teary eyes as the two amigos reconnected instantly. It was as if the previous year had not passed.

"Jelly's been riding him some and he had Julio run him a few times a week," Scott explained. Another pang of pain hit his heart as he realized this was, again, something he should have done for his brother.

"He looks good. Real good," Johnny whispered huskily.

"He ain't had the same spark in 'im but I reckon that'll change now," Jelly spoke with a tremor.

Through all this, Barranca did not move, relishing the contact as much as his human counterpart. He made soft nickering noises that Johnny recognized and his heart broke.

"I'm so sorry, boy. I know, I know. It's okay now, Barranca. It won't be much longer, I promise," Johnny soothed the emotional beast. Reluctantly, he pulled away and stroked the golden coat. "Jurar, compadre."

******

That evening after supper, Jelly brought his contraption to Johnny's room and explained its purpose. He postioned it so the footboard of the bed kept it stationary.

Johnny tried it out, feeling the strain against his leg muscles and smiled fondly at the old man. It was hard but that was good. It was supposed to be hard. Johnny reckoned it was like everything else in his life.

He also tried out the baseball. After hearing where and how Jelly obtained it, he had to duck his head. He was getting pretty tired of feeling so overwhelmed all the time. He couldn't understand why all these people were doing all these things - for him.

Ugly thoughts reared up in his mind. Thoughts about his brother's lack of charity toward him. Johnny knew they were not done yet. There was still much to discuss. He wasn't really sure how he felt but he knew he needed to find out. Soon.

Bringing Barranca to him today had been an act of contrition, Johnny was sure. But he hoped part of it was Scott just being Scott. Knowing how much it would mean to him.

He hoped his brother was coming out of his private little hell and turning back into the man he had known and trusted. The man he loved. For he knew he did still love his brother. That wasn't something he could simply stop doing. Not ever, he was sure.

And this too, gave him more of that hope. If he could still feel that way about Scott, together they could mend the rift. But while all this needed to be accomplished, he still had to get himself back to a physical state of wellbeing, too.

He had told Murdoch he was nearly there but that wasn't entirely true. While he felt good most of the time, any amount of exertion took its toll quickly. As much as he hated it, he had to admit it would be a very long time before he was back in form.

Another problem to conquer was his other 'form'. He felt overwhelmed by the crushing weight of the many tasks that lay ahead.

Johnny had never been afraid to work at what he wanted but this was beginning to feel like too much. Maybe that's why Scott had not pushed to talk again. Why he was still keeping some distance. Maybe he knew how overwhelmed Johnny was feeling. Something else to hope for, he reckoned.

******

Two weeks later, Johnny kept his vow to Barranca. Sam allowed him to mount the animal with a promise there would be no more than a slow walk. Stepping into the stirrup and pulling himself up had been harder than he thought. He imagined it would have been impossible two weeks ago. Before he'd started using Jelly's invention. He could feel the difference in his left side now. He worked both sides every night but always twice as much on the left. He reckoned that would pretty much even things out.

Johnny kneed the horse's sides and took him around the corral at an easy pace, using the reins to turn Barranca in familiar ways. It was as though they'd never been apart as Barranca heeded the commands easily and with enthusiasm.

Murdoch finally had to call Johnny in or he'd stay up there all day, he was sure. As the young man slid off the horse in his accustomed way, he whispered in the palomino's ear and smiled as Barranca nodded.

Johnny sauntered to the fence and Murdoch could not stop the jaw-breaking smile on his face as he witnessed that walk.

"What?" Johnny asked.

"Nothing, son. It's just .... you look ..... like yourself," Murdoch faltered in trying to find the words. These were not the ones he wanted to say but he couldn't seem to think of the right ones.

Johnny gave him a quizzical look but shrugged.

"How do you feel?" Murdoch asked as he stepped though the gate.

Johnny leaned against the corral, his arms resting on the top, his chin atop them as he watched Barranca. "I feel good. Really good," he smiled.

Murdoch laid a hand on his shoulder and nodded. This was his Johnny. The son he knew. Oh, he still lacked the amount of energy he usually possessed. Still did not have the same lust for life as before. But Murdoch knew it would come back full force in time. He was satisfied to wait; anticipating the day.

As he looked over, he saw a pensive expression on Johnny's face. "What is it, son?"

Johnny straightened up and turned to face him, looking up at his father with something unreadable in his eyes.

"I don't know. Seems things just aren't right."

Murdoch frowned. "How so?"

Johnny shrugged his shoulders and looked down at the ground. "Scott."

Murdoch sighed and nodded. "Have you talked to him?"

"Not lately. I mean, not really talked."

"Maybe this is something all three of us need to do together," he suggested.

Johnny nodded. "Yeah, I think so."

That evening, Johnny joined the family at the table as he had for the past week. The novelty of it had worn off quite a bit. Still, Teresa beamed as he took his rightful place on his father's left. Maria had finally gotten the okay from Sam Jenkins to prepare something more to Johnny's taste and his eyes grew big as she laid out the fare this night.

As much as he wanted to just stick his face in the platter of tamales, he used restraint. He knew what this evening held and he didn't intend to stuff himself to the point of being too miserable to talk to his family.

He did however, thank the woman enthusiastically over and over each time she entered the dining room.

Murdoch gave Teresa a subtle look that told the young girl to make herself scarce. He'd already explained what was on the agenda and she could not agree more that it was past time for this talk. So, she left them with the excuse of having a dress to finish.

Once in the living room, Murdoch served drinks all around. The only one clueless was Scott who had picked up the Sacramento paper.

Johnny nodded at his father and Murdoch cleared his throat. It all seemed so dramatic to the young man and he stifled a laugh.

"Scott, we need to talk," Murdoch started simply.

Scott lowered the paper and looked first at his father, then at Johnny with a suspicious expression.

"Alright," he said, folding the paper and laying it down on the coffee table. "About what?"

"Well, son, about everything that's happened. Johnny and I feel this is something all three of us should discuss together."

Scott's jaw tightened. "I see."

"We ain't gonna gang up on you, brother. It's just that we all need to get it out so we can get on with living. Seems everyone's still walkin on eggshells," Johnny explained.

Scott relaxed a modicum and sighed heavily. "How did you want to go about this?"

Johnny laughed softly. "Haven't figured that part out."

"I thought you and I had already talked this through, Johnny," Scott said.

"Some. But, it hasn't seemed to help. I mean, I still feel ...." Johnny trailed off, uncomfortable already.

"Go on, son. It's the only way," Murdoch urged gently.

******

Johnny still hesitated for a minute. Then, he figured the hell with it. "Okay. I still feel betrayed, Scott. I know in my head that there's only so much a person can take. Still and all, it seems like you didn't give me much of a chance." There he'd said it. And he waited with held breath.

Scott nodded his head absently but he was at a loss as to what to say.

"I have to admit I was surprised by your attitude, son. It just wasn't like you," Murdoch added.

"Don't you think I know that?" Scott spat angrily then clamped his mouth shut.

"Go on, Scott," Murdoch pressed.

"With what? I don't have an explanation. Only what I've already told Johnny. I was a coward, I admit it. I couldn't stand seeing him like that. Before, it was different. I always knew he'd be okay. There were rough times when he was hurt badly. But I always knew he'd make it. This time was different."

"Why?" Murdoch asked.

Scott looked at him as if he were a madman. "Gee, Murdoch, I don't know. Maybe because he had a bullet in his brain!" he shouted sarcastically.

Scott got to his feet and began to pace. No one spoke as they waited for him.

"I've seen what that kind of injury can do. I've seen it too many times. Young men with holes in their heads. Half their brains spilled out on the ground. There was no logical reason to believe Johnny would survive that. None! But, he did. He beat the odds again. I kept telling myself he'd run out of chances. That this was too much even for Johnny."

"What does that mean? 'Even for Johnny'?" the subject in question asked.

Scott turned to look at him. "You aren't superhuman, brother. You've survived for years against all odds. How many lives do you think you have? I am so sick of wondering and worrying if this time will be the time. If this will be the ninth life."

"I only have one life, Scott. And I fight to keep it. Sorry, if that bothers you," Johnny shot as he, too, came to his feet.

"Bothers me? Of course it doesn't bother me! You just don't understand how hard it is, Johnny. Well, it's very hard."

"What's very hard, son?"

Scott turned his attention to his father. "Caring about him. Loving him. It's not an easy thing, Murdoch. You know that better than anyone. Oh, it's a joy. It's fun and exciting and makes me happier than I've ever been. But it's also frightening and heart breaking and so damned unfair!" He flailed his hands as he spoke, sloshing his whiskey over the lip of the glass.

There was a moment of silence then, compounded by the sound of ticking from the grandfather clock.

"I would do anything for you, Johnny. Anything to help you live and be happy. But, I just couldn't see that happening this time. I just couldn't believe you could survive such an awful injury. And the longer you lay there unmoving and unresponsive, the more I understood that I had lost my brother. I couldn't ... I just couldn't be a part of caring for a corpse." His voice had grown soft and husky, barely discernible in fact.

Murdoch's hand tightened on his glass and his jaw clamped down. Johnny could hear his teeth grinding and knew his father was about to go off.

"I understand what you're saying, Scott. Just seems like you didn't do anything. I mean, you couldn't even take care of Barranca. You know he'd rather you ride him than Julio or anybody else," he said softly.

Scott's face flushed as he lowered his eyes.

"Matter of fact, from what I've heard, you didn't do a damned thing from the get go," Johnny went on, his anger rising. Shaking his head he took a deep breath. "You just said you'd do anything to help me live but you didn't, Scott. What little I can remember of what I heard, you've been mad at me the whole time."

"Mad at you? I wasn't mad at you, Johnny," Scott protested.

"I think you were," he replied softly.

"As do I," Murdoch supplied.

Scott looked back and forth between them with a stunned expression. "I ... I was angry that it happened. Angry that I had lost you. But I wasn't angry at you," he denied again.

Johnny sighed softly and turned to pace toward the fireplace. He leaned one arm against the mantle, his profile to Scott.

"I remember you and Jelly changin the bed. You were really mad then. You weren't too gentle either, brother," he cocked a brow. "That was at what? Three months, I think you said. I'm just curious, Scott. How many times were you made to take care of me?"

Scott glared at him. "So that's what all this about, then? I'm to be tried and executed?"

Murdoch finally took to his feet as well. "No, son. But I do think your brother deserves some sort of explanation past you were angry."

"You wanted to send me away," Johnny spoke so softly, it came out in almost a croak.

"I didn't think there was anything of you left," Scott spoke as softly.

Johnny closed his eyes and lowered his head. "Out of sight, out of mind." Sighing loudly, he turrned to face his brother. "You said I was nothing. You said you wouldn't take care of me when Murdoch dropped over. Then, when I did wake up, the first thing out of your mouth was that you didn't want to believe it.

"I tried, Scott. I tried to reason it all out. Tried to remember how long it's been and how you've had to run the ranch by yourself. I tried really hard but in the end, the simple truth is this. You never gave me a chance at all. As soon as you saw a hole in my head, you buried me. You keep saying you didn't think this or that. I guess being an educated man, that's what you're best at. That's what you always fall back on - logic. Some things just don't make sense, though. Some things can't be explained.

"I wish none of it had happened but wishes are pocketsful of nothin. All I know is, I don't think I could have done what you did. That doesn't make it wrong, I guess. Just that we see things differently. And, I don't think I would have wanted any of you to give up a year of your life for me. Both of you made choices based on what you believed or wanted to believe. Isn't that what we all do every day? Isn't that what life is all about? Choices?"

******

Johnny's diatribe had left them all heavy in thought. The minutes ticked by silently. Each one trying to sort out all that had transpired.

Scott looked up and shrugged. "I'm not sure I understand, Johnny. Are you angry with me or are you saying you understand my position?"

Johnny let one side of his mouth curve up slightly. "Reckon I'm sayin both. Doesn't seem to make any sense, does it?"

"No, it doesn't," Scott agreed then a look came across his face and he looked cagily at his brother. "And that's the whole point, right?"

Johnny said nothing, just waited.

"Yes, I used my head. What else could I do? Murdoch was working on pure emotion. He couldn't focus on anything except making sure you were taken care of. He refused to even admit the possibility that you wouldn't recover. I felt like I had to be the responsible one. Someone had to take up the reins. There is a whole ranch worth of people counting on us to provide their livelihood," Scott said passionately.

"Thinking again," Johnny shook his head. "Look, I'm not saying you were wrong really. I'm just asking why, Scott. Why didn't you give me even a day or a week or a month?"

"To do what, exactly? Wake up? Then what, Johnny? We had no idea how you would be, what would work and what wouldn't. How could I know then what would happen?"

"You couldn't know and that's the whole point. The easiest thing to do was just turn away. You said Murdoch couldn't focus on anything else. But you focused on everything else. As long as it had nothing to do with me. No, Scott. It just ain't that simple. I could understand if you'd tried but you didn't." Johnny did a half-turn again, unable to look at his brother.

He had thought he'd reasoned it all out and could understand Scott's position. But now that they were talking about it, he wasn't able to see so clearly anymore.

"It wasn't easy, Johnny. Don't think for a minute that it was easy. Every day I watched my father slip further away. Watched as he withdrew into that bedroom. Never seeing him for more than a minute every few days. Seeing what it was doing to him and knowing there wasn't anything I could do to stop it. This family fell apart, Johnny."

"Scott, I think you're overstating things," Murdoch said, trying to keep himself calm.

"No, Murdoch, it's alright. I understand now. Let's just forget about it," Johnny spoke softly.

******

"What do you mean forget about it?" Scott asked, more than a little stunned.

"Just what I said, Scott. I get it, okay? Now, I'm tired and I'm goin to bed," Johnny stated strongly and started toward the stairs.

Murdoch took his arm as he started past him. "Just a minute, son. What are you saying exactly?"

Johnny raised his head to meet his father's gaze. "I'm saying it's okay. Scott has a right to feel whatever he feels and do whatever he wants or needs to do. Just like you did what you needed to. I really do need to go lay down now."

Murdoch watched him for a second before releasing his gentle hold and nodding his head. He stared after his son as he slowly climbed the stairway and wondered what Johnny was really thinking.

Scott watched him go as well and shook his head. "What was he talking about?"

"I'm not sure. I hope it isn't what I'm thinking."

"Which is?" Scott asked.

Murdoch looked steadily at him. "That he wasn't important enough to you for you to try."

Scott's eyes widened. "I didn't say that!"

Murdoch bit his lip. He was tired, too. Too tired to argue with his son anymore. "Maybe we should shelve this until tomorrow. I think we all need a good night's rest."

Scott gave him a wary look. "Are you going to be able to do that, Murdoch?"

Shaking his head confusedly, the rancher frowned, "do what?"

"Get a good night's rest. Or are you going to sit with him all night?"

Murdoch sighed heavily, the frown deepening. "He doesn't need that anymore. I'll admit it's been hard letting him do for himself but I just have to let go. Goodnight, son."

"Goodnight, Sir," Scott answered distractedly.

******

Scott sat and stared into the flames as the house quietened for the night. He swirled the amber liquid in his glass without thought. Johnny's words haunted him and he had to wonder if Murdoch was right. If Johnny had just given in and accepted what Scott had or had not done.

But he'd seen the anger and hurt in his brother's eyes more than once tonight. It seemed to him that Johnny was fighting hard not to blow his top. That he wanted to yell and rant. It was exactly what Scott expected him to do. Yet, he hadn't. He'd only raised his voice once.

Maybe he was too tired to talk any more. Maybe it was that simple. Scott didn't think so. He thought Johnny had resigned himself to the idea that Scott didn't care. Nothing was further from the truth. Was it?

He shook his head angrily. No! I do care and I always have. Yes, I think logically. That's how I was raised and taught. There's nothing wrong with that. And yes, some things can't be explained. Johnny is living proof of that. Living proof.

Scott frowned. Is that what his brother was trying to tell him? That he believed as long as he was alive, Scott should have held onto hope? But Johnny had not lived with this every day for the past ten months.

A shudder coursed through him as he thought of his brother awake and aware yet unable to move or talk or even open his eyes. All the things he knew Johnny had heard made him feel ill. Dear God! What had that been like for his brother? He could not fathom it and that was most likely the seed of his brother's feelings. Whatever those were exactly. Scott still wasn't sure. The only thing he knew for certain was they still had things to discuss. This time, he would make sure neither of them held back. If that meant ripping each other to shreds, so be it.

He drained the glass he held and stared at it for a moment. Then, he set it on the table and took himself to bed.

******

Murdoch tapped lightly on the door and made himself wait for an answer. He received it quickly and entered Johnny's room.

"Do you need anything before I turn in?" he asked, noting Johnny was sitting in the chair by the window. Evidently, he'd made no effort to prepare himself for bed.

"No, I'm fine," came the whispery answer.

"I doubt that. I would like to talk more tomorrow, son. Nothing has been resolved."

Johnny sighed softly. "Some things can't be resolved, Murdoch. Goodnight."

Murdoch opened his mouth then closed it again. "Goodnight," he mumbled and left the room.

Johnny never turned from staring out the window. He didn't want his father to see the tears so close to edging over his lids. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger and slumped back in the chair. Inhaling deeply through his nose, he fought back the emotions then let his hand fall into his lap.

No, some things can't be resolved and he was pretty sure this was one of them. Scott felt what he felt, period. Just as he felt what he felt. No amount of talking was going to change what had happened or how any of them had chosen to deal with it.

And Johnny knew he really couldn't blame Scott anymore than he could blame the man in the moon. That was really easy to say but not so easy to do. The plain simple truth of it was, no matter what Scott said, Johnny still felt betrayed. He didn't think anything would change that. Certainly nothing done from this point on would do so.

What he needed to figure out was how he was going to handle knowing this. A small smile lifted his mouth. He'd told Scott he was a thinker and it was true. Johnny was more inclined to feel first, think later and still go with his initial feelings. That wasn't very comforting in this situation however.

Something had died. Maybe it was in him, maybe it was in his brother. He thought the latter. No matter, things wouldn't be the same. He hated; absolutely hated thinking this but he knew he could never really trust Scott completely.

They'd had many long and sometimes emotional conversations during the time they'd known each other. It had taken a lot for Johnny to open up as much as he had to Scott. Though he had not told his brother many specifics about his past, he had confided his feelings about certain things.

It had been during one such talk when he had told Scott how hard it was for him to trust, that his brother had made the vow.

You can trust me. I'll never let you down. I'll always have your back.

******

That was what Scott had said to him. And he had done so until this ..... whatever it was had happened. Scott said it was too hard to look at him. Too hard to deal with a corpse.

Johnny swallowed hard. A corpse. He was dead to Scott. His brother had made himself believe that in order to go on.

But what kind of life had Scott had? Any of them for that matter. Not much that he could tell. It seemed in one way or the other, they had all been waiting for one long year. Waiting for him to either wake up or go ahead and die.

And they waited still for him to get better, to get back to his old self. How was he supposed to live with the guilt of what he'd done? How could Murdoch give a damn about him after all he'd put them through? And not just this last. The times before when his past had come to call or his 'services' were needed in one fashion or the other. There were times none of them knew about, too.

What he'd done with that kid, Andy. And how he'd ended up selling a piece of their land for a dollar and some biscuits. Johnny smiled at the memories. Still, he had used Madrid so easily those times and many others.

Murdoch had told him once that maybe part of him would always be Madrid. He'd wanted to tell the old man then there was no maybe about it. He knew in his soul it was true. But, was it so bad? If he could use his talents to help people, wasn't it worth the price?

No. He reckoned it wasn't seeing as how it had cost them all so much this time. Maybe he had expected too much from Scott. Sure. How could Boston know what he was really promising? And how could Johnny really expect him to live up to that? It wasn't fair and it wasn't right.

Scott had nothing to do with Madrid and Johnny never wanted him to. So why did he feel so abandoned by his brother?

Maybe it's because this wasn't about why he'd been shot. It was about him being hurt and Scott's reaction to that. Wasn't it? Or was Scott really angry with him as he'd told the man downstairs. Yes, Johnny thought that was more to the point. Scott was mad because once again, Johnny Madrid had turned their world upside down.

Johnny could understand that easier than any other explanation. If that was how Scott felt, he needed to know. He needed the truth no matter what the cost. Closing his eyes and resting his head, he thought he would have to finish this talk after all. And maybe without Murdoch this time. Maybe Scott wasn't opening up because the old man was there. He knew both of them had always felt more comfortable talking to each other than with their father. He hoped that was still the case.

Johnny's head slid down off his hand and he jerked it back up, startled awake. He blinked several times and rubbed his face vigorously before yawning. Standing up, he stretched out his back muscles then placed a hand on each side of his head and cracked his neck to the left then the right.

He rolled his neck slowly then and sighed. Murdoch would kill him if he knew he'd fell asleep in the chair. He wasn't real happy about it himself. Stiffly, he walked over and poured water in the wash basin and set about his morning rituals.

As he wiped the last vestiges of shaving cream from his face, Johnny stared at himself in the mirror. Looking deep into his own eyes and hoping for some kind of an answer. It didn't come and he resigned himself to another torturous day.

He heard the door across the hall open and close then the footfalls grow quieter as they retreated to the stairs. He leaned his hands on the dresser and bent forward slightly, head down. Trying to find the strength to face the day. For some reason it seemed so much more difficult this morning. But he figured he knew what that reason was. Somehow, someway, he had to talk to his brother. Settle it once and for all then start livin again.

Whatever the outcome of this talk, he truly believed Scott did care for him in some measure. He may very well have to settle for whatever amount that might be. No one had promised they would be best friends or even like each other. No one had ever said that they could be true brothers. Whatever the hell that meant.

So, whatever was left of their relationship, Johnny figured it was better than hating each other. Something he would never be convinced could happen.

Pulling himself to his full height, he brushed his hair once more then, with grim determination, left his room.

******

Scott settled at the table, grabbing the cup of coffee almost before it had been filled for him. A mumbled 'thank you' was directed toward Teresa.

Murdoch watched his son. He looked like he hadn't slept a wink. No small wonder, he thought gravely.

"Good morning," the rancher said lightly.

"Hmm," was the response he got.

"Sometime today, I'd like you to catch me up on what's going on with the ranch," Murdoch tried again.

Scott nodded as he supped his coffee, totally focused on the caffeine. Murdoch saw his shoulders tense as footsteps grew nearer.

Johnny entered the kitchen slowly, his eyes lowered but noting everything and everyone. Murdoch was watching him pensively, Scott looked like hell and Teresa was busy at Maria's side near the stove. Fairly normal considering, he thought.

Taking his seat, he smiled at the girl as she poured his coffee. She returned it, gave a quick glance Scott's way then kissed the top of Johnny's head before returning to her task.

Johnny took a full look at his father and returned the smile he found awaiting him.

"Mornin," he said softly.

"Good morning, son. Did you sleep well?"

Johnny hesitated, wondering if he should just lie. He almost laughed out loud. So much for honesty, huh? "Not really. I, um, fell asleep in the chair. Neck's a little stiff," he replied as casually as he could.

Murdoch's frown nearly did him in, though and he grinned widely. With a shrug, he added, "you asked."

"I did but I was hoping for a better answer," the rancher replied with a shade of disappointment.

"Want me to lie?"

"No, I wouldn't want you to do that, son."

******

A loud sigh broke the levity between father and son. Both turning their heads toward the source and finding a bowed head cradling an empty cup.

Johnny dropped his eyes to his own cup while Murdoch tried to decide if he should ask.

He made his decision fairly quickly. "What is it, Scott?"

The young man's head came up and he looked questioningly at his father, shaking his head as if not understanding the question or why it was being asked.

"You look pretty beat up, son," Murdoch explained.

Scott chanced a glance Johnny's way but his brother was not looking at him. "I'm just tired, Sir. That's all."

Teresa and Maria served breakfast and the young girl joined her family. Johnny watched in astonishment as Maria picked up his plate and began to fill it.

"Mamacita, I can't eat all that," he protested gently.

"You are still too skinny," was her reply as she sat the mound of food before him.

"You expect him to regain all the weight he lost at one time, Maria?" Murdoch asked with amusement.

The look she gave the eldest Lancer effectively wiped the smile from his face and he actually ducked his head.

Johnny's mouth twisted as he fought to maintain control. For this moment in time, he forgot what lay ahead for the day and simply enjoyed the warmth of his family. His mood darkened quickly as he looked over at Scott, lost somewhere in that hell of his. Johnny shook his head slightly and decided as soon as they were finished here, he and Scott would talk.

The rest of the meal went on in relative silence. Scott's mood overshadowed any attempts at conversation.

Finally, the young man pushed away from the table. "I have to get to work," he announced.

"No, Scott," Johnny said softly.

For the first time all morning, their eyes met. Both hues of blue filled with a deep sadness that seemed to overwhelm the other's.

"We need to talk. Alone," Johnny said, glancing quickly at his father.

Murdoch's jaw tightened as his first instinct was to argue that point. He wasn't sure he wanted these two alone together just yet. But he gave himself a minute and watched them both. Then, he knew this was how it had to be.

"I think I'll go see Cipriano and Jelly. Maybe they can catch me up while you two talk," he said as he stood. Dropping his napkin on top of his plate, he turned and walked out.

Scott stood where he was as his father left the room. Teresa began clearing the dishes silently and Johnny continued to stare at him.

"Ready?" the younger man asked.

A half smile turned up one side of Scott's mouth. "Not really but I guess we'd better."

******

Once in the great room, Johnny walked over to the cold fireplace and faced the mantle. He fingered the pictures there. Pictures of him and Scott together. He closed his eyes and drew on his reserves then faced his brother.

Scott stood near the sofa watching Johnny screw up his courage. He'd seen it many times but, usually, it was because of their father. He braced himself.

Johnny turned with a slight smile on his face. "Guess I'm not sure where to start."

Scott smiled as well. "Me either."

They stood there, both feeling incredibly uncomfortable and both hating it.

"Well, brother, I did a lot of thinking last night," Johnny began.

Scott nodded. "Yes, so did I."

"Come up with anything?" Johnny asked hopefully.

Scott grimaced and hedged. "Did you?"

A soft laugh came from Johnny as he paced about the small area he'd claimed for his own this day. "Some, yeah. I'm wondering if I didn't expect too much from you. You really didn't have any idea what my life was like. You promised to have my back but I don't think you really understood what that meant. It's not your fault. I could have tried to explain it to you. I guess it just didn't occur to me. I just need to know, Scott. Are you mad because my past did this?"

Scott's brows went up at the last question. "You didn't do this, Johnny. Yes, it was men from your past that caused this but that isn't your fault."

"Yes, it is. That's what you refuse to believe. It is my fault, Scott. My life before and what I did then that caused this. Right or wrong. You said last night that you were sick of worrying about me. I got to thinking maybe you meant you were sick of dealing with what happened before we ever met," he made his statement with assurance but his voice gave way near the end. Johnny cursed himself.

Scott's jaw tightened and his lips formed a thin tight line.

"Say it, brother. It's long past time to be honest with each other," Johnny said.

"Yes, I am sick of Madrid. I'm sick of him interfering with your life; our lives. Sick of him making you feel less. Sick of him haunting your every waking and sometimes sleeping moment. I'm sick of the pain he's caused you and the price you've paid because of him," Scott stopped and took a breath.

******

Johnny only nodded when he'd finished. But that wasn't quite right and he needed to find a way to explain that.  

"The problem is, Scott, Madrid isn't someone else. You talk about him like he's another person. But, I am Johnny Madrid. I always will be. That's something I've had to learn, too."

Scott shook his head. "I don't believe that, Johnny. I think Madrid was a facade, a mask if you will. I think you have always been Johnny Lancer hiding behind Madrid."

"I don't hide from anything, Scott. Unlike some people," Johnny flared.

Scott's mouth fell open at the anger coming from his brother. "What did I say?"

"Who the hell do you think you are? Telling me who I am? I know who I am, Scott. I've always known. You might not be able to accept it but that's too bad. Seems like you have a hard time accepting a lot of things," Johnny spat.

"And what does that mean?" Scott asked defensively and with no small amount of his own anger.

"It means, if somethin doesn't suit you, you just bury your head. Or, more to the point, bury the something or someone. You decided I was dead only I guess the man upstairs didn't agree with that."

"I have explained that. I don't intend to make a habit of doing it every five minutes!" Scott came close to exploding, hands on hips as he glared at Johnny.

Johnny turned sharply on his heel and paced a few steps before turning back to face his brother. "Yeah, you explained it. How you've seen it before. How you used your head. I know! That don't make it any easier to take, Scott! You gave up on me like I was some dead steer you found out on the range. Shrugged it off and was ready to put me in the ground."

"That is not true, Johnny! You have no idea what I went through. What any of us went through. How dare you tell me what I felt!" he shot.

"What did you feel, Scott? I still don't know. I still don't understand how you could...." Johnny's voice broke and he kicked at the floor with his boot, frustrated at his inability to keep his cool. He hung his head and worked to slow his breathing.

******

Scott watched him struggle, part of him wanting to go to his brother, part of him too angry to move. "I felt lost. Like I had lost the most meaningful thing in my life. I couldn't stand to look at you lying there so still. I had to drink every night just so I could sleep! And yes, someone had to run the ranch. Someone had to take up the slack. I didn't mind that. It had to be done. What I couldn't do, Johnny, was watch you wither away to nothing! Watch Murdoch slowly destroy himself! Watch Teresa cry almost daily and Maria, too. Watch Jelly trying so very hard to keep a good thought, to be optimistic. He kept saying you weren't ready. That you needed time to heal then you'd be back. I wanted to throttle him!"

Scott began to pace himself, trying to spend the pent up emotions before they totally took over.

"Ya know somethin? Nobody told you to run the ranch. Maybe if you'd taken some of the load off Murdoch and Jelly, you would've had that help you keep griping about. Maybe you wouldn't have had to watch our father destroy himself!"

Scott glared at him. "As if I had a choice! And why did you say it like that? Our father?"

Johnny held the stare and shook his head slowly. "Last night you said my father. That really bothered me, Scott. Seems to me you still think of me as bein dead. Maybe you would've been happier if I had just had the grace to die. Maybe you can't deal with Murdoch spending all his time takin care of me. I know he ignored you and I know you ain't used to that!"

Scott looked sidelong at him, cocking his head slightly. "Not used to what?"

"Not bein the center of attention. Not having your word taken as the gospel. Murdoch disagreed with you when you wanted to pack me off. He wouldn't listen to you and that really kills you." Johnny stood his ground, hands at his side clenched in fists.

"That's ridiculous! I don't need to be the center of attention, Johnny. However, I will not be dismissed. I have as much right as anyone to voice my opinion."

"Yeah, whether it's asked for or not. I know! You and Murdoch have always gotten along real good. But he didn't listened to you this time. He disagreed with you and you can't stand that. Worst of all, he ignored you. The point is, I was in the way."

Scott opened his mouth then closed it as he stopped to rein himself in. He raised his hand as he needed a moment to get his thoughts together.

******

Johnny watched him do what he always did. Stop before the anger took control.

"Sure, Scott. Take all the time you need. God forbid you should let your feelings out!"

"There's no need for this to be reduced to a shouting match, Johnny. I think it's prudent to calm down before we both say things we'll regret," he replied tightly.  

Johnny sighed and turned his back, returning to the fireplace.

"Look, I know you're hurt. I know you're angry and you have a right. But all these accusations aren't helping anything, Johnny," Scott spoke calmly and rationally.

"What will help, Scott? What will it take for you to tell me the truth? Because from where I stand, all I see is a man who doesn't want to get his hands dirty," Johnny replied coldly.

Shaking his head, Scott gawked. "Now I really don't understand that statement."

"Then I'll explain it to you. You've spent most of your life on easy street. That's fine and good for you. But, you've never had to deal with ugliness. You've never had to face anything distasteful, I guess you'd say. It was just you and that old goat. No worries past which party to go to." Raising a hand, Johnny stopped the inevitable interruption.

"Yeah, I know, the war. I'm sure you saw things that had you pukin your guts out. For a little while. The thing is, you don't have any more of a clue than I do about how to be part of a family. You never have. But you would never admit that. Because you always have to be right, Scott. You always have to be in control.   Right in theory, you said. That's a load of bull."

"That's unfair, Johnny. I don't think I always have to be right. Just because I have an education doesn't give you the right to degrade me. Yes, I was privileged and I am fully aware most people never get the opportunities I had. That is hardly my fault. But if you think for one minute that 'little while' I spent in the army didn't change me, you are the one who is dead wrong," Scott seethed.

"Of course I am, Scott. I must be wrong because you never are. Well, I might not have the words but I know a few things they don't teach in them fancy colleges. And one of those things is that you can't live your life always holding everything in. Always keeping a tight rein. You do that to a horse and he'll buck pretty soon. Might take longer for a man. Years longer maybe. But sooner or later, Scott, you're gonna just explode. So I'll ask you again. What did you feel?" His tone was a demanding one with that last question.

Scott stared at him for a very long moment before dropping his eyes and making a half-turn. He folded his arms across his chest and flexed his jaw several times.

Johnny could almost see his brain working at fever pitch. It would have been amusing if he wasn't so desperate for an answer. A true and honest answer.

"I felt cheated. You were right about something. I didn't really know what it was to have a family until I came here. Grandfather was always good to me but he was a cold man. The first time you threw your arm around me, I almost pulled away. It took everything in me not to do that. It was a strange feeling and I didn't understand it. But you did it so casually, so naturally. As if it were the most normal thing in the world.

"But that's not normal for me. Not everyone wears their heart on their sleeve, Johnny. Being with you, watching how you are - it was an education of a whole other kind. My friends would never dream of a display like that. I was taught to think critically and logically. Every question had an answer. Everything could be explained. There was always a bottom line.

"As much as I thought I've changed since coming here, I haven't at the core. I've tried to be less ..... conforming. I've done things with you that go against every rule, every scruple I was ever taught. Like robbing a train." He stopped briefly and a smile curled his mouth for a second.

"But the entire time, I kept thinking this is wrong. Even though what we were doing was for the good, it was still wrong. You live by your emotions. They drive your very existence. I could never do that. I need facts, Johnny. Cold, hard facts. I need something I can touch and see and calculate. That's who I am.

"So, when Sam gave me those facts, that was all I had to go on. All I could relate to."

He stopped for more than a second so Johnny assumed he was done.

"Bullshit!"

Scott turned and stared at him.

"I think that was true at first. But I've seen you do things, Scott. And not because I pulled you into it. I've seen you defend a man who was burning barns and stealing livestock. I've seen you help people accused of murder get away. Don't stand there and tell me you never do anything based on your feelings. When it came down to it, you couldn't handle being my brother. You couldn't handle being my friend. It's easier for you to stand up for complete strangers. Maybe because you didn't have anything invested in them. Maybe I ended up not being a good return on the investment you made in me. I told you before I could understand you givin up after a while. But not from day one, Scott. Not like that," Johnny's voice once more betrayed him and he reckoned Scott was right about that. His emotions did rule him and always had.

It was quiet for a while after that. Neither sure what more to say.

"I'm sorry, Johnny. What more can I tell you? I did what I thought was best for the family. But I did and do care about you. That hasn't changed."

"Oh, I think it has, Scott. Everything has changed. Maybe you thought you cared more than you really did. Maybe you wanted to. Don't ask me to believe you loved me, Scott. Because that's not how you treat people you love. You don't turn your back when things are at their toughest. That's when you stand together even more. It's not okay to care about me when it's easy. When you're sure I'll be alright. That ain't love. That ain't friendship. I don't know what that is."

"I wish you could believe me, Johnny, but I understand why you don't. But, where does that leave us now?" Scott asked softly. He knew it was pointless to continue this. He was unable to find any more explanations.

Johnny looked away. He had to. He never thought he would ever be saying this to his brother. But here he was about to say the words and he was choking on them.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as he raised his eyes. "Business partners."

He was sure his chest would just collapse in on itself when he saw the expression in Scott's eyes. He knew Scott did care but it wasn't enough for them to ever truly be compadres. He knew he'd just hurt his brother terribly but he had to do it. He couldn't trust Scott anymore. Couldn't confide in him ever again. It was a pain deeper than any he'd ever felt before but it was true. And that was what they needed to face. The truth.

Scott swallowed hard at the dry lump emerging quickly in his throat. That was it then. Johnny didn't trust him. He could see it in the man's eyes. So clearly present. It was over. The relationship they had worked so hard for, had come so close to sealing together forever, was gone. He felt the sting and blinked as he turned away. But he didn't move. He didn't want it to end like this but for the life of him, he saw no way to fix it.

"Is there even a chance that we could have more at some point?" he asked in no more than a whisper.

Johnny watched him and all he wanted was to sit down next to his brother, throw that arm around his shoulders and tell him a joke. Something, anything to make them laugh together again. But he didn't feel like laughing, certainly. And he didn't feel like even being in this room anymore. He didn't have the answer to that question.

"I don't know," he replied honestly.

Scott looked up at him briefly and nodded. "I won't give up," he said strongly. Then he turned once more and, this time, he did walk out.

Johnny watched Scott leave the house then he staggered to the nearest chair. Exhausted both physically and emotionally, he slumped into the seat and held his head in his hands. That was it then. It was done.

Scott strode purposefully to the barn only to be caught up short by the sound of his father's voice. He stood in tension as Murdoch walked toward him.

The rancher's face was drawn tight as he regarded the younger man. The expression on Scott's face told him things had not gone well. As he came within earshot, he simply said, "let's go in the barn," and turned in that direction.

Scott sighed heavily and followed, too tired to deal with this. All he wanted was to get away from here for a while.

Murdoch was standing to the right near several haystacks recently brought in. His arms were crossed over his chest and Scott got the distinct impression he was about to be raked over the coals.

"I take it things did not go well with Johnny?" Murdoch started right in.

"You take it right," Scott said more harshly than he'd intended.

Murdoch's mouth worked, twitching back and forth as he fought to stay calm. "What happened?"

Dropping his head, the younger man paced over to a stack of hay. He twisted his hat in his hands for several seconds before raising his head but he would not look at Murdoch. "We agreed to be business partners."

Murdoch felt a cramping in his heart. He heard the pain in Scott's voice. "Was nothing resolved?"

Scott shook his head brusquely. "Only that Johnny doesn't think I'm capable of feeling anything at all. He doesn't believe I love him or that I ever did. He thinks because I grew up privileged I couldn't handle something this hard."

Murdoch's eyebrow went up with this information. "I see."

Scott turned and looked at him. "Do you believe that?"

"No, son, I don't. Not entirely. Scott, you're just slow to open up to people. But, I thought you and Johnny had done that with each other. Why would he say those things?"

"Because I couldn't give him any reason to think otherwise. I told him I was raised to think logically and that's true. Sam said there was no hope. What else was I supposed to think?"

Murdoch crooked his head to the side a little. "I think Johnny was trying to say you were supposed to believe in him. To have some faith in him not to leave you, son."

Scott furrowed his brows. "But, that doesn't make any sense."

"No, it doesn't. That's why it's called faith. But, Scott, has Johnny ever made that promise to you? That he wouldn't leave you?"

Scott's frown deepened as he thought back. Slowly, he nodded his head. "Yes, he did."

"But you forgot that."

Dropping his shoulders, Scott sighed. "Murdoch, it's all well and good to make a promise and mean it with everything you are. But this was ..... this was an impossible situation. I know Johnny would fight but I was convinced he couldn't win this time."

"And I understand why you thought that, Scott. Johnny didn't care if you changed his sheets or bathed him or any of that. All he wanted was for you to show some faith in him. To give him just a chance to come back. If you had done that, son. If you had made that effort, we wouldn't be where we are now," Murdoch explained gently.

"But..."

"No, Scott. No buts. Don't you see, son? THAT is what faith is. It defies logic. It defies mother nature. It is simply believing. No buts about it."

******

Johnny had decided to give Barranca another go. He stood just outside the barn door and listened to his father explain what he never could. Murdoch was saying exactly what he'd wanted to but somehow couldn't find the words for. He smiled a little. The old man is smarter than the rest of us put together, he thought.

Scott stared silently at his father as he listened to the words spoken with such sympathy. Why did this man care about him after what he'd done? More to the point, what he hadn't done.

"All Johnny wanted was a chance, son. I truly believe that..." he stopped to gain control of himself before speaking the unthinkable. "that if I HAD sent him away after three or six or even nine months and he woke up, he would have understood that decision. He would have because he would have known we'd given him that chance. Do you understand?"

Johnny leaned against the door frame and closed his eyes, nodding his agreement.

Scott's eyes misted over but he couldn't seem to tear his gaze from his father's. Here, in this moment, he understood what they had all believed fervently. He understood his betrayal was a lack of faith in his brother and not that he hadn't spent every waking moment at his side. He had lost his faith in a higher power once in his past. Now, he'd lost his faith in his brother. And it didn't matter if Johnny never woke up. It didn't matter if he left them altogether. What mattered was that Johnny only expected what Scott had promised. To be there for him. He couldn't fault his brother for that for Scott had always kept his word before.

It was nothing more complicated than pure, raw fear that had driven him all these months.

His knees suddenly felt very weak and they began to tremble. His lower lip joined the action and he bit it hard. Swallowing back the tears as best he could, he nodded. He could not speak. He had no voice but he understood. Finally, he understood.

Scott sank to his knees and Murdoch went to him. Kneeling down, he placed a gentle hand on his son's shoulder. The younger man leaned into that touch. One he had not felt for so very long.

With a trembling voice, he spoke softly. "Ever since I was old enough to understand, Grandfather started talking to me about what I needed to do when he died. He told me how to handle the arrangements, how to handle the business. There was never any discussion about feelings, about grief."

Murdoch sighed and looked toward the heavens hidden beyond the roof. "You've been grieving for your brother for months, Scott. Believe it or not, so have I. I wasn't convinced Johnny would come back to us. I did what I thought was best for him. What he would have wanted. But when that miracle happened, you couldn't rejoice with us because you knew Johnny was upset with you. You realized you hadn't handled yourself the best you could have. Son, what you need to understand is that everyone grieves differently. Your only mistake was giving up on your faith in your brother too soon, I think."

"No, that wasn't my only mistake. Just the biggest one. But, how do I explain that to him? And why would he even want to hear it? It doesn't matter that I understand now, Murdoch. Johnny will never trust me again. I don't think I can stand that. I don't think I can stay here anymore," Scott said huskily.

******

Johnny listened closely to it all. His own eyes moist, his heart breaking all over again. Now what was he supposed to do? He didn't want Scott to leave but he couldn't absolve his brother either. Scott was right about that, he didn't trust him. Maybe someday but Johnny couldn't see it now.

"I don't believe for one minute your brother wants you to leave. I think he would have told you that if he did. I know I don't want you to go, son. This isn't something that can be fixed in a day, a week or a month. It may take years. What you have to ask yourself, Scott, is this. Is it worth taking that time? Is Johny worth it?" he asked as he rubbed slow circles on Scott's back.

"Yes!" came the resounding and lightning fast answer.

Murdoch had to chuckle a little. "Well, that wasn't hard, was it? You just can't push it, Scott. You have to let Johnny come to you in his own time."

Scott snorted softly. "I may be an old man by then." He leaned against his father's arm and Murdoch squeezed the back of his neck.

Smiling, the rancher couldn't disagree. "You may be. Is it still worth it?"

A softer but just as firm 'yes' came from Scott's mouth. He didn't even have to think about it. And he understood something else, as well. Murdoch cared about him because he was his son. It was as simple as that. Sniffling, Scott wiped a hand over his face and stood.

Murdoch came to his feet as well and watched his son compose himself.

"I think I need to take a ride."

"Alright. Be careful and take your time. And Scott, remember what I said. You can't push him on this," Murdoch gently advised again.

Nodding, Scott said, "I know. On this or anything else." With a fleeting smile, he added, "Johnny time is what I've always called it."

Johnny slipped away from the barn and back to the house. He thought about going to his room but he hoped Murdoch was coming back in soon. So he waited in the great room though he felt like a dishrag. What made him think he could handle taking a ride after this morning's events?

******

Murdoch did return to the house, leaving Scott to saddle his horse and deal with his emotions. His own were rather brittle at the moment. Besides, he wanted to see how this had all affected his younger son.

He spotted Johnny sitting on the sofa and walked over, plopping down beside him with a sigh.

"Hey," the young man said.

"Hey, yourself. How do you feel?"

"Wrung out," Johnny smiled.

"I can imagine," the older man smiled back.

"I would have, you know?"

Murdoch turned to look full on at him with a frown. "Would have what?"

"Understood if you'd sent me away after a time," he spoke so softly, Murdoch had to lean in to hear him.

Closing his eyes briefly, Murdoch sighed once more. "You were listening?"

"Didn't mean to. I was goin for a ride. Then I heard you two talkin. I almost walked away but ....."

"But?" Murdoch urged.

Johnny glanced over and grinned. "But you were doing such a good job of explaining me, I wanted to hear it all."

Murdoch smiled and nodded. "Did I get it right?"

The smile left Johnny's face as he looked in his father's eyes. "More right than I could. The words just wouldn't come to me. Everything you said about having faith in me, about the promise I'd made to Scott not to leave him, all of it. It was all so ..... right."

"And, um, what did you think about Scott's response?" Murdoch inquired gently.

Johnny cocked his head to one side. "I heard him. I think he understands now. It's just .... hard knowing it took so much to make him see, ya know?"

"You heard what he said about Harlan."

"Yeah, I heard. I get it, Murdoch. Still and all, it ain't like we just stepped off the stage together. He thought he knew me so well but he doesn't know me at all."  

The pain was so easy to hear, Murdoch wanted to just grab him up and hold him. Much like he'd wanted to do with Scott in the barn.  

"I'm not sure that's entirely true, son. I think he doesn't know you as well as he thought but he does know you. It takes a lot longer than the time you two have had to get to really know a person. That goes both ways, too." Murdoch cocked a brow.

Johnny looked sideways at him. "I was a little hard on him but he deserved it. Still, I know he's hurting. All I wanted was for him to understand why he did what he did. I wanted to understand, too," he defended.

Murdoch wasn't about to argue the point. He didn't think Johnny had done much damage to his brother so it wasn't worth the effort. Scott had been much more upset about losing Johnny's trust than any words the younger man had used. Besides which, Murdoch figured Johnny had the right as long as he didn't get vicious. Something that was impossible for him to imagine this young man doing anyway.

"How do you think the two of you will do now?" Murdoch asked.

Johnny sighed and rubbed his face. "I don't know. I don't want us bein mad at each other. I hate to think of just bein civil but I think that's all we can do at this point. I'm not going to say it will always be that way, though. That's not what I want."

"He won't give up," Murdoch cautioned.

"Yeah, but I heard you tell him not to push me. Thanks for that and everything else you said to him. I think it made a big difference. I don't want him to leave," he said the last softly.

"I know that, son. I also know that you are exhausted. Why don't you lie down before lunch," Murdoch suggested.

Johnny smiled softly. "Think I will. I'm feelin pretty done in."

Murdoch watched him slowly make his way upstairs. He had to hold onto his own faith that the brothers would some day find their way back to each other. He thought he knew them both well enough by now to feel solid in that faith. As he'd told Scott, it may take a long time for Johnny to forgive him. But forgive him, Murdoch knew his son would.

A smile came over his face as he remembered his most important task. Tomorrow he had something special planned and he had to get with the ladies for some plotting. Scott, too, he reminded himself. No matter what, his whole family would be involved in this endeavor.

******

JUNE 3rd, 1873

Johnny walked into the kitchen and stopped on a dime. He knew he'd slept way late in the morning but he figured Maria would at least be here. It didn't look like the woman had left anything on the stove for him, though. He thought maybe he'd tired them all out finally.

He walked slowly toward the stove to make sure. He was pretty hungry but he wasn't above scrambling himself some eggs. Wouldn't be the first time for sure.

Teresa tiptoed back into the dining room and nodded, the excitement well-defined on her face.

Murdoch smiled and cleared his throat. "Johnny!"

The young man jumped a foot at his father's booming voice. He started warily toward the front of the house.

As he came through the door into the dining room, he saw them all standing there right in front of him looking entirely too serious. Murdoch, Scott, Teresa, Jelly and Maria. He didn't like this. Not at all.

"What?" he asked hesitantly.

"We have something for you, young man," Murdoch stated grimly.

Johnny watched him then his eyes settled on Teresa and he relaxed. She was trying hard not to smile but she'd given it away. They were trying to fool him about something. What, he hadn't a clue. Making sure he held a most serious expression himself, he spoke. "What would that be, old man?" he drawled.

Murdoch cocked a brow then, as one, they parted.

Sitting on the table before him was a mountain of gifts wrapped in colorful papers and ribbons. Johnny cocked his own brow.

"What's all this?" he asked, stepping forward tenuously.

"Happy birthday, son," Murdoch whispered, his voice shaky.

Johnny's eyes shot to him, confusion turning to understanding then something else. Pain, guilt, remorse and then, finally, acceptance and love.

Murdoch stepped up and hugged him unabashedly. "This is a two for one birthday. Last years presents and this year," he spoke in his son's ear.

Johnny looked up at him as they parted. He smiled shyly, embarrassed suddenly. He cleared his throat but he found he had no words.

Teresa came forward and hugged him tightly, then Maria. Jelly swaggered up and patted his arm hard, his whiskers twitching dramatically. Johnny smiled with understanding and said, "thank you," to the unspoken greeting.

Jelly nodded as if he'd actually said anything then backed away. Johnny found Scott's eyes. The older man looked uncomfortable. As if he wasn't sure he should even be here.

Johnny smiled a little, trying to assuage him. It was alright. He didn't mind Scott being there. In fact, he was glad of it.

"Wahl, reckon ya got enough air in them lungs ta blow out some candles?" Jelly asked.

Johnny tore his gaze from Scott's and saw the cake alit with a few too many candles in his mind. "How old do you all think I am, anyway?" he laughed.

Scott bit his lip and lowered his eyes to hide the pain. The answer that popped in his mind was Johnny was way too old in experience than he should be. Still too young to have lived the life he had. He pushed those thoughts away, or tried to.

Johnny leaned forward and shook his head. He inhaled deeply and blew hard to get all the candles out. "Whhoeee! Might want to take this outside before the house fills with smoke!" he laughed.

Everyone laughed but Murdoch thought he may just be right. "Scott, would you open the doors, son?"

Scott did so as Teresa guided everyone into the living room. "Well, how about opening last year first," she suggested.

"I'm sure you're the one who's runnin this show, miel. However you want it," Johnny smiled and settled on the sofa.

Jelly plopped himself down on one side of Johnny as Murdoch sat in the chair on the other side. Teresa and Scott carried the packages in from the dining table and laid them out before the man of the hour.

"Oh, wait!" Teresa said. "You haven't even eaten yet."

Johnny laughed softly. "Somehow, I'm not hungry anymore. Can't expect a man to eat when there's presents to be opened."

She smiled broadly at him and sat down, leaning forward in anticipation.

Johnny opened last year's presents. There was a strong atmosphere of sadness in the air during this. He made all the proper acknowledgements. When he came to Scott's, he hesitated briefly.

Ripping the paper away, he stared at the gift. Swallowing hard as he picked it up. He remembered that day so well. They were in Sacramento. It was months before his birthday and Scott had insisted, practically dragging him through the streets.

He stared at the likenesses. The two of them smiling, arms around one another. Such a happy time. The silver frame was beautiful as well. His closed his eyes for a minute then looked at Scott.

But Scott was staring at the floor, embarrassed and worried Johnny might just give it back.

"Thank you, Scott. I remember that day. You were sure set on gettin this done. Now, I know why." His voice was husky with emotion.

Scott looked up and smiled sadly. "You're welcome," was all he could whisper.

Murdoch felt the tension in the air and decided they needed to get past this awkward moment. Though,   part of him hoped it would remind both young men of how much they stood to lose.

"Well, let's see what this year has brought," he smiled.

Johnny sat the picture down with great care then turned back to Teresa who had taken the task of handing him his gifts.

Once more, she saved Scott's gift for last. And once more, Johnny was hesitant to open it. Unsure what might be inside.

When he did manage to tear through the paper and string, his hands were shaking a bit. He laughed nervously at himself, silently cursing as well.

Johnny pulled it out of the box and held it, unwilling to share just yet.

"Well, what is it?" Jelly asked.

Johnny's eyes went to his brother's. Scott was looking directly at him now, hope and longing drowning the gray-blue hue.

Jelly tried to reach over and take the object but Murdoch slapped his hand away. When Jelly looked over in aggravation, Murdoch's face told him to hush and leave the brother's be.

Johnny's heart seemed to be skipping a beat here and there as he couldn't seem to look away from his brother. A small smile lifted his mouth and he nodded to Scott with understanding.

At long last he held the gift high enough for them all to see it was a timepiece. His shaking hand offered it to his father for appraisal.

Murdoch took it, ever watchful of them both. It was a beautful gold pocket watch. He opened it and smiled, then turned it over.

"Time heals all wounds," he read the inscription. "From Scott, with respect," he finished huskily.

Johnny stood up and took the few steps to stand before his brother. "Reckon it does at that," he said softly, extending his hand.

Scott smiled and accepted the handshake. He looked into Johnny's eyes and he knew. Time was what they needed. Time would indeed heal them. Though they may never get back what they had had, somehow, he thought it might be even better now.

He understood many things more clearly now and felt he understood Johnny much more deeply than before. Never had anything come between them like this. Never had he been so close to losing his brother forever. Nothing had ever scared him this badly. And he had learned some valuable lessons about himself as well as this incredible group of people. His family.

For far too long, he'd felt disconnected from them. As if they lived on different continents. Never again, he vowed to himself. There was nothing that could separate them again. Of this, he was sure.

He and Johnny would grow past this. Learn about each other all over again. Gain more insight into what made each other tick.

Scott Lancer felt hope for the future for the the first time in a long time. He no longer felt lost.

 

 

~end~
2005

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