The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

The Cost Of Justice

 

 

 

Murdoch hesitated outside the front door then, heaved a sigh before he walked into the house with a grim expression and a heavy heart. He found his sons sitting on the sofa in the great room, awaiting the evening meal and he nodded to them both.

Scott and Johnny eyed each other then both watched the man pour himself a scotch before settling in his favorite chair.

Scott ventured in. "Bad day, Sir?"

He took a healthy drink of liquor before looking at his sons. "I heard something disturbing in town today. It seems there have been two murders in the valley."

Both younger men leaned forward at this.

"Mike Wilson's son, Jake, and Roy Carver's son, Larry, were both gunned down while they were out working their ranches. Both within a day of each other."

Johnny reached over and squeezed his brother's arm.

Scott gawked openly at the man for a moment then, sucked in a breath and gave his brother a glance of acknowledgement. He leaned back on the sofa and ran a hand down his face before asking. "Does anyone have any ideas of who might have done it?"

Murdoch shook his head. "None so far. Val is working on it since those ranches are in his jurisdiction. There's just something very odd about it all."

"Something is always odd about murder, Murdoch," Johnny broke in.

"Odder, then. It appears they were specific targets. That's what Val thinks."

Johnny leaned back against the sofa, his shoulder touching his brother's. "Well, Val's pretty good at this kind of thing. I hate to hear about Jake and Larry, though. They were good men."

"And good friends," Scott added, a deep frown on his face. "Do you know anything about the funerals yet?"

"Jake's is tomorrow, Larry's the next day. Both will be held at their homes. We'll need to leave early tomorrow to get to the Wilson ranch in time."

*

Scott leaned against a column on the veranda, brandy in hand as he looked at the night sky. A fleeting thought about the brilliance of the stars went through his mind but, he couldn't focus on the beauty right now. All he could think about was his friends and, the anger just wasn't there - yet. He knew he'd feel that at some point but, all he felt at the moment was a deep sadness and sense of loss. Jake, especially, had been a confidante.

A loud sigh escaped his lips as he pushed off the column and ambled into the yard. He headed no place in particular, just watching the ground as his boots stirred up small puffs of dust. Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew he should be in bed, trying to rest before tomorrow. It would be tough seeing the Wilsons. Tougher to watch them put Jake in the ground. A shudder went through him and he stopped, taking a long swallow of the brandy.

Johnny watched his brother from where he sat under the big oak tree. He knew there wasn't much he could do to help right now. No one could ever really help people when they were mourning. He knew that all too well. Still, he felt like he should at least keep Scott company, if he wanted that. He stood up from the bench and walked over slowly, not wanting to startle the man.

Scott turned his head and saw his brother heading for him. He tensed a little then relaxed. He shouldn't have been surprised to see the young man, he supposed but, he wasn't sure he wanted to talk to anyone right now.

Johnny stopped when he reached Scott's side then, looked out over the land. There wasn't much moon tonight but, he didn't need one to see Lancer in his mind's eye. "Tough day."

Scott nodded and stared into his brandy snifter. "Yes."

"Not gonna be any better for awhile, I guess."

"No."

Johnny looked sideways at him. "Should probably try to get some rest."

Scott nodded again. "Yes."

"You should probably stop talkin so much, you know."

A slight smile lifted Scott's lips briefly. "I don't really have anything to say, Johnny."

"Yeah, I didn't think so but, well," he sighed the last word out. After a brief pause, he added, "you know where I am if you change your mind."

Scott looked at him for the first time then, reached out and patted his arm. "Thanks, brother."

*

The next day, the Lancers attended the funeral of Jake Wilson. Scott thought it was one of the saddest funerals he'd ever attended. Of course, they were all sad but, Mike Wilson was taking it very hard. Jake was his only son. He still had two daughters but, it would never be the same for the man. Scott walked over to him during the reception and extended his sympathies.

Mike accepted the condolences and the handshake grimly. "Jake always liked you, Scott. He thought you were a fine young man."

"Thank you, Sir. I thought highly of him, as well. If there's anything I can do."

Mike looked directly in his eyes. "Find the bastard that did this. I want to see him at the end of a rope."

Scott nodded. He wanted that, too. He wanted justice for his friend. But, he was worried about this man, as well. He'd aged dramatically, the lines around his mouth deeper, his eyes dull with grief. He wished there really was something he could do to help but, he knew there never was. People always offered but, really, nothing but time would heal. Maybe, it wouldn't heal this at all. He thought about his own father and how he must have worried about Johnny all those years, never knowing if his boy was alive or dead. Himself, Murdoch always knew his whereabouts or, mostly. He was actually glad his father didn't know about his time in Libby until well after the fact.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find Johnny beside him, a concerned look on his face. Scott smiled a little and let his brother walk him away.

Johnny slid his arm around Scott's shoulders as they walked toward a small gathering of young men under the shade of a giant oak. "The boys have been talking about who did this. Sounds like there might be a lynch mob if they ever do find the murderer. I thought maybe you could talk to them."

Scott pulled up short and looked at him. "Why me?"

Shrugging, Johnny let his arm slide off Scott's shoulders. "You have all the right words, Scott. You can make them see how pointless it would be. I mean, if they do find the killer, he'll surely hang by the law."

Looking past his brother, out into the wide open spaces beyond them, Scott thought about that. "It might be hard to convince them when I'm feeling the same way myself right now."

Johnny hung his head for a minute before looking back at Scott. "You feel that way right now because it's all still fresh. I know you, Scott. You want things done legally and that's how it should be. Everybody will sleep better that way."

Scott took in a deep breath. He knew Johnny was right but, he kept seeing Mike Wilson's face and it was very hard not to want vengeance. "I don't think I can do it right now, Johnny. Maybe later. Like you said, it's all still fresh and, Mike is having a very hard time."

"Yeah, okay, brother. I know this is hard for you, too. They were both your friends."

Scott lowered his head and nodded. "I didn't spend as much time with Larry but, Jake Wilson, yes, we were good friends."

Johnny knew why that was. Jake had served in the war and he and Scott had a connection from that. Something about military men who'd fought for their country; it bonded them like nothing else. Johnny understood that and, he was glad his brother had Jake to talk to. Scott would never really open up to him about that and, he knew it was because Scott didn't think he could understand. Maybe, he couldn't really. He didn't know. His own wars were a lot smaller than that. "Come on, brother. Let's get out of here. Take a nice long ride somewhere."

*

For the second day in a row, the Lancers attended a funeral. It was as bad as the first. Larry's parents were devastated and his younger brother was inconsolable. At twenty-five, Larry was just about to head off to college. His parents had finally saved the money for him to go and he'd been so excited to be leaving that very Fall. His brother, Jeremy, hadn't been thrilled with the notion but Larry had convinced him it was going to be fine.

Johnny remembered finding Jeremy sitting alone sulking one day not two months ago at the annual orphanage charity picnic. He'd talked to the boy about his brother's leaving and had promised to be available for the boy whenever he needed someone to talk to. At twelve years old, Jeremy thought the sun rose and set on his big brother. Johnny kind of knew what that was like. He couldn't imagine Scott leaving home for such a long time now and was glad his brother had finished any schooling he wanted before they'd met.

Now, Johnny watched the kid sitting alone again. He probably didn't want any company but, he felt like he should offer. He was about to go over when Murdoch and Scott walked up to him.

"Roy says the boy won't talk to anyone and runs away when they try," Murdoch told.

Johnny sighed. "Well, I guess I shouldn't try then." He turned to look at Scott. "How you holding up?"

With a shrug, Scott answered. "I don't know. I feel a bit numb, actually. Like it's not really happening. Two in two days. It's insanity!"

"Sure is."

All three men turned to find Val Crawford standing behind them.

"What have you found out, Sheriff?" Murdoch asked.

"Nothing, really, Mr. Lancer. There's no witnesses, but the shells I found at both sites are from a Spencer rifle. Most men around here use Winchesters or Remingtons. It's not much, hell, it's not anything."

"Was it close range?" Johnny asked.

"Yeah, which is kind of strange. I mean, why didn't he use a pistol?"

"Maybe, he doesn't have one," Scott replied.

"Well, it don't make any sense, that's for sure." Val looked over to where the Carvers sat at a picnic table, the Wilsons at their side. "I don't know what to tell them."

"If there's nothing to tell, maybe you shouldn't talk to them yet, Val," Johnny suggested.

Val looked at his friend and sighed. "I have to. They been eyeballin me for an hour. I can't avoid 'em any more."

Johnny gave him a sympathetic look. "I'll go with you."

As they started to walk toward the bereaved parents, a rider came galloping in, shouting for the sheriff.

Val turned and walked over to the man, glaring at him. "What's the matter with you? Don't you see there's a funeral goin on here?!"

"Sorry, Sheriff, but I had to get ya. There's been another murder."

*

The entire group of funeral goers advanced as the man caught his breath. Each one straining to hear.

Val waited as long as he could stand for the man to get himself together. "Well, spit it out, Tully!"

The blacksmith who had volunteered to watch over Green River while Val attended Larry's funeral sucked in one last deep breath. "Homer Reynolds just rode into town with his grandson, Chase, slung over the saddle. Said he'd been shot while out fishin."

Murmurs started then grew in frenzy. Murdoch heard the anger and hatred that poured through the crowd.

Johnny wavered and felt Scott's hand press into his back.

"He was just a kid," someone said.

Johnny lowered his head and walked away from the others. Chase Reynolds *was* just a kid. Barely fourteen years old and, Johnny had grown attached to him. The boy followed him around whenever he went into the Reynolds' hardware or, if he happened to see Johnny in town. Scott had made more than one joke about hero worshipping but, Johnny never thought of it that way. The boy just didn't have anyone else to talk to about 'grown-up' things. His grandfather was pretty old, his own parents both dead for years and his younger brother was just six. Homer did the best he could and he did a fine job but, a fourteen year old boy needed more than an old man and a small child to talk to.

Johnny felt his own anger rise up, along with a resolve firmer than any he'd ever felt. He turned back to the crowd and could see they were ready to lynch someone; anyone would do. Suddenly, he calmed, his blood turning cold, his eyes darkening. He whistled loudly and the crowd grew quiet. "Before anyone starts making a noose to throw around the first poor slob that happens to pass through this way, you better make damned sure you've got the right man. Because, if anyone around here kills an innocent man for this, I'll be the first one at Val's side to bring them in, however it has to happen."

Mike Wilson stepped out from the crowd and faced Johnny. "We got a right, Johnny. We got a right to want justice!"

"Yes, you do, Mr. Wilson. So do the Carvers and Homer Reynolds. But, I've seen this happen before and I've seen an innocent man die because of this kind of fear and panic. None of you would be able to live with yourselves if that happened. All I'm saying is, let's do this the right way. Let's make sure we have the right man then ..." his eyes went to Val, "then, we'll make sure that man gets what he deserves in the right way. I'll promise you this. I'll do everything I can to help Val catch him, as long as he wants that help."

Scott stepped up beside his brother. "That goes for me as well. Jake and Larry were my friends and I want their killer brought to justice as much as anyone here. But, if we don't do this the right way, we'll be the ones to suffer. We'll be the ones unable to sleep at night, unable to look our neighbors in the eye."

Murdoch let out a breath, grateful his sons had kept their heads. He knew about Chase and Johnny and, he'd been worried about Scott's state of mind with the loss of his friends. Both his sons were being affected by this. Both were making him very proud right now.

Val walked over to Scott and Johnny. "Folks, this whole thing needs to end but, I can't do my job if everyone else thinks they can do it, too. Now, I'll take the Lancers help because I need good men with me but, unless I ask ya, I need you all to just be patient and let us figure this out. I know it's hard but, you all need to stay calm." He turned to the Lancer brothers and nodded. "Let's go. Johnny, you know where Chase liked to fish?"

Johnny nodded and pulled his hat from his back by the stampede strings then adjusted it on his head as he walked to Barranca. He had his lower lip between his teeth, working very hard to keep himself together.

Scott watched his brother and knew what he was feeling. As hard as it was to lose his friends, something was very wrong with killing a child. He felt cold and that was all. Just cold. Nothing else except sheer determination coursed through Scott's veins.

*

They arrived at the fishing hole and Johnny dismounted first, walking over to their secret spot. That's what Chase always called it. Only he and Johnny knew about this particular place and they always caught something there. He knelt down beside where the fishing pole still lay half in the water and touched the red stain on the grass. Rubbing it between his fingers, his head dropped and he sucked in a breath.

Scott walked over and knelt beside him, a hand on his shoulder.

"Just a kid!" Johnny stood up quickly and walked away.

Scott sighed and started to stand as well when something caught his eye in the bushes beside him. "Val, you'd better take a look at this."

Val Crawford walked over and took the small piece of paper from Scott. He squinted against the midday sun as he read. "Looks like it was ripped from a bible."

Johnny had heard his brother and walked back over, taking the paper from Val. "It's from Exodus. An eye for an eye, a life for a life." He blinked and looked up at them both. "Or somethin like that."

"Now how do you know that? All I can read is the book and chapter number," Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged. "Just know the verse is all."

"Of course you do."

Val scowled at them both then looked across the stream. "Don't that crazy ole miner still live over there in a shack? What's his name? Otto somethin or other."

"Yeah, he does." Johnny answered.

Val headed for his horse, stuffing the paper into his shirt pocket.

Scott hesitated beside his brother a moment. "You know something? He's very good at this."

"You should see him track," Johnny said, giving his brother a tap in the gut before going to catch up with the sheriff.

*

As they arrived at the ramshackle building, Johnny looked over at Val. "You know he's loco. Might not make much sense."

"Sometimes, Johnny, it's the crazy people who make the most sense."

"You should know." Johnny grinned despite the serious nature of their business.

Val rolled his eyes and dismounted, wondering why he ever thought bringing Johnny along was a good idea. Aside from his mouth, he knew this was hard on his friend. He also knew Johnny was covering like he always did. He stepped on the small stoop and knocked loudly on the door. "Otto!"

They waited a full minute with no answer and Val knocked again, pounding on the door this time.

"I don't think he ever leaves this place, does he?" Scott asked.

"If he saw somethin, he might be layin in there dead." Val waited no longer and turned the doorknob, shoving to get the door opened. He froze when he heard the cocking of a rifle.

"Who's that?" came the graveled voice.

Val sighed and pushed the door fully open. "Sheriff Crawford and the Lancers, Otto. Need to talk to you."

The old man shuffled to the door, putting himself into the light of the sun from the dark shadows of his shack. "You sure it's jest you? Ain't no preacher man with ya?"

"Preacher man?" Val asked, his heart thumping a little in anticipation.

"Yeah, that goddamned killin preacher man what took the boy. I know he done saw me. Looked right at me through the trees. I was crouched down but, I know'd he saw me. Been jest awaitin fer that bastard ta come back."

"What did he look like?" Scott asked.

Otto raised his watery gaze to the young man. "What'd he look like? Why, he looked like a preacher man, you idiot! Black suit, white collar, spoutin off somethin or 'tother to the boy about the Lord. Then, he jest pulls out his rifle and bam! Shot the boy dead is what he done."

Johnny turned his back for a second before facing the old man again. "Did you see his horse?"

"Shore. Black as his eyes, it was. Had a white collar, too, sorta. But it was a blaze instead, a course."

"Did you hear anything he said to the boy? Any names?" Val asked.

Otto scratched beneath his long white beard as he thought. "Wahl, reckon he said somethin about the boy's grandpa and ... what was that word?"

Val and the Lancers were ready to choke the man but, they found their patience somewhere.

Otto snapped his fingers and pointed at Val. "Retribution! That was it. Retribution. Didn't know what the hell he meant by that."

"Anything else, Otto. Anything at all," Scott pressed.

The old man shrugged. "Ugly cuss what with that scar on his face."

"What scar?" came a chorus of three. They all looked at each other before turning back to the old man.

Otto rolled his eyes. "Whole left side of his face was burnt. Nasty lookin. Don't reckon I'll be forgettin that anytime soon."

"Alright, Otto. You need to come with me now. I'm puttin you in protective custody." Val took hold of the man's arm.

"The hell you say? I ain't leavin my home, Sheriff. If'n he comes back here, I'll shoot 'im right between the eyes!"

"No, you won't. You're gonna testify against him in court. He's already killed three people. He won't think twice about killin you, old man. Now, come on!"

*

Val plopped behind his desk with a tired sigh then leaned back and observed the Lancer brothers. A sorrier sight he'd never seen, he was sure. "Go home. Nothin more to do today."

"Nothing to do? We need to find this man, Val."

"I know that, Scott. You want to tell me where we should start lookin in this entire valley?"

Scott scowled at the man. "Pick a direction! It's better than sitting here doing nothing!"

Val leaned forward, glaring hard at him. "I know you're upset about your friends, but ..."

"Knock it off, both of you!"

Both other men stopped their staring contest and looked at Johnny.

"Why don't you just tell him what you got planned, Val? It's the only way to shut him up."

"I woulda if he'd give me the chance."

"Alright, what am I missing?" Scott asked, now angry with his brother, as well.

"He's hopin this preacher will come here and try to get rid of the only eyewitness."

Scott frowned at that. "Do you really think he'd come to the jail? That's quite a gamble, Val."

The sheriff shrugged. "Maybe but, like I said before, where should we start lookin? Ain't like he's stayin in a tight circle. I might've thought that before the Reynolds boy but, he lives in town, miles from the two ranches." Val stood up and eyed them both. "Matter of fact, the only thing all three really have in common is a close relationship with you two."

"They were all the oldest," Johnny mumbled.

"How's that, Johnny?"

He looked at his friend. "I said they were all the oldest son or, grandson."

"So?" Scott shrugged.

Johnny blew out a breath. "Nothing, I guess. It just hit me. I don't guess it matters."

"Well, that's the second thing they have in common, then. Of course, one of them was the only son, period so, it might not mean a thing."

Sighing, Scott put his hat on. "Well, whether it means anything or not, we still need to search. He has to be camping out somewhere in this part of the valley."

"That's a lot of miles, Scott. I ain't against it, exactly, I just think we'd be chasin our tails more than anything," Val said.

Johnny walked to the door and put his hand on the knob. "You two do whatever you want. I need to see Homer." He stepped outside without awaiting a response.

*

Scott lowered his head, the grief hitting him again with Johnny's exit. He sighed loudly. "What kind of man is this? It's bad enough to gun down two innocent grown men but, a boy?"

Val sat back down and clasped his hands on the desk top. "Think I need to get all the families together and see if there's more of a connection here than we know about. All three of 'em have been here a long time."

Scott nodded and walked over to the desk. "I'm going to ride out around where Chase was killed, see if there are any tracks we missed."

"I'll go with ya. I can get Shep to watch Otto. He's more than able to handle himself."

Scott smiled, knowing that was true. Shep was a formidable foe, if anyone were crazy enough to go against the man. "You realize, this man may not have seen Otto at all. He said he was crouched in the trees."  

Val grunted as he came to his feet. "Hell, Scott. That old man may act crazy but, I got a feeling, he's as sane as me." He walked around the desk and grabbed his hat.

Scott bit his lip, holding back the quip that jumped to mind with that comment as he followed Val out the door.

*

Johnny walked down the alley behind the hardware store, taking the shortcut to the Reynolds' small home. He found people milling around outside and standing in the open door. Dios! He hated this stuff. He worked his way through the crowd and inside the house which was filled with more people. The Widow Hargis was sitting next to Homer, holding his hand and talking softly to him. Johnny was surprised the woman was able to talk so softly. She was usually a force to be reckoned with. Bobby, the six year old, was clinging to his grandfather's other side. Johnny knelt down in front of the boy.

"Homer, I'm so sorry."

The old man looked up and gave him a nod. "Thank ya, Johnny. Chase thought the world of ya."

"I thought the world of him, too." He looked at Bobby then patted the boy's knee. Before he knew what was happening, Bobby threw himself into Johnny's arms and started sobbing. He wrapped the boy up, looked at Homer and received a nod then stood with the boy and walked outside.

Johnny went around the back of the house and into the woods with Bobby still clinging to his neck. When he got to the creek, he knelt down and put the boy on his feet, prying his arms free and sitting down. Bobby sat next to him and Johnny pulled him in close to his side. The boy laid his head on Johnny's chest and sighed then sniffed.

After a long silence, the small voice piped up. "Why'd that man shoot my brother?"

"I don't know, son. It doesn't make any sense, does it?"

Bobby shook his head and sniffed again. "Who's gonna teach me how to fish now? Chase promised when school was out next month, he'd do it. He promised, Johnny."

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Well, I reckon I'll have to keep that promise for him, won't I?"

"He was always talkin about you. Said you reminded him of our pa. I don't remember pa. I don't remember ma, either."

Johnny looked up through the trees, trying very hard to hold himself together. He didn't know what to say to that.

"I wish I was older. Then, I could kill that bad man."

"He'll be caught, Bobby. The law will take care of him. That's how it has to be."

Bobby pulled back and looked up at Johnny. "Will the law hang a preacher, Johnny?"

*

He froze and simply stared at the boy for a few seconds. "How did you know he was a preacher?"

The tears welled in the child's eyes again. "I seen 'im."

Johnny took hold of his arms and looked him in the eye. "You saw him when?"

Lower lip trembling, the boy let out a sob then hitched a breath. "I seen 'im kill Chase."

Johnny's shoulders fell and he closed his eyes briefly. He pulled the boy to him again and rocked back and forth a little. "Did he see you?"

Bobby shook his head. "I was hidin cause Chase woulda been mad if he knew I'd followed him. He was always goin on about your secret fishin hole and I wanted to see it. I was hidin in the bushes near that big boulder. You know the one?"

"Yeah, I know the one." He sighed, hating to do this but, he had to. "What did he look like, son?"

"He was dressed like a preacher and he was holdin up a bible when he talked to Chase. I couldn't hear a lot of what he said but Chase looked scared. I ain't never seen him look scared before, Johnny. I didn't know what was goin on. Then, he put the bible away and pulled his rifle out. I couldn't move! I just couldn't!"

Johnny held him tighter as he started crying again in earnest. Finally, the boy quieted a little. "I'm sorry, Bobby. I'm sorry I have to ask. Was there anything else strange about him?"

"His face was burned. I saw it when he turned his horse around. Poor horse."

Johnny tensed. "What was wrong with the horse?"

"He had a big scar, too. On his side. Same side the man's scar was."

"Was it a black horse?"

"Uh huh. With a white nose."

Johnny nodded and hugged the boy again. "Bobby, are you for sure he didn't see you?"

"I'm sure, Johnny. Real sure."

"Did you tell your grandfather about this?"

"No! He'd be mad at me for followin Chase. He says Chase needs his time without a little brother doggin him."

Johnny smiled a little at that. "I don't think he's going to mind that now, son. He needs to know. Come on, we best tell him."

*

It took a little while to calm Homer down after telling him Bobby had witnessed his brother's murder. Johnny didn't even want to think of how that was going to affect this boy for the rest of his life. He couldn't go there right now. He headed to the sheriff's office where Shep directed him to Val and Scott. He rode up to a spot near the boulder where Bobby had been hiding and dismounted. Walking through the bushes, he found evidence of where the boy had been sitting then, small footprints where Bobby had run, it looked like. Of course he ran!

He lowered his head and sighed. This was turning out to be the longest day of his life, he felt like. He heard horses then, and stepped out to the road.

Scott saw his brother emerge from the bushes and, the look on Johnny's face made his heart skip a beat. He hadn't seen his brother this ... sad in a long time.

Val dismounted and walked over to Johnny. "What's wrong?"

He waited until Scott joined them then told them about Bobby Reynolds.

Neither man had any words, both looking ready to kill just about anyone at the moment. Scott finally found his voice.

"We found some tracks but they don't lead anywhere."

Johnny looked at him then turned and gave Val a harder look.

"He's right. Just around in circles. He did a good job of covering but, I'm comin back out in the morning. I'll figure 'em out. Just gettin too dark now."

Johnny nodded and sighed. "Well, we might as well stay in town tonight, brother. Unless you want to tell Murdoch about Bobby."

Scott shook his head. "No, thanks. He'll find out soon enough."

*

Early the next morning, just before the sun rose, Johnny eased out of the hotel room, silently closing the door behind him so as not to disturb his brother. He knew Scott would be pissed but, he was also exhausted from the past few days. Johnny had noticed his brother sporting saddle bags under his eyes and, he figured a tired Scott would do him no good, anyway. At least, that was what he planned to tell the man when Scott laid into him later.

He saddled Barranca and Milagro then led both horses over to the sheriff's office. He saw the light through the window and smiled a little, glad he didn't have to go roust Val out of bed. That was never a fun thing to do and, sometimes, could be dangerous. The smile widened a bit as he stepped onto the boardwalk after tethering the animals. He stopped and took a deep breath, allowing himself to remember why he was even here then, walked inside with a glum face.

Val was standing by the stove, sipping a cup of coffee so, Johnny walked over to join him. After receiving his own cup, he blew into the steaming java and braced himself to drink the mud Val called coffee.

"Where's Scott?"

"I let him sleep."

Val raised a brow at that but said no more about it. "Well, it's gettin light. Better get to it before someone destroys half those tracks."

Johnny only nodded and set the cup down, still half full. He was pretty sure he wouldn't need any more coffee for a week.

By the time they arrived at the murder site, the sun had shown itself completely. No shadows were cast at the angle they were searching and Val was glad of that. He didn't want to waste anymore time. Both men studied the hoof prints for fifteen minutes before Val stood up straight and looked to the south.

"Yeah, that's what I saw, too," Johnny said.

As one, they mounted up and headed southerly along the banks of the stream while watching for more clues. Val pulled to a stop and leaned further over the side of his horse. "He turned east here, across the stream."

They went twenty feet further before crossing to avoid disturbing any tracks on the other side then backtracked to where the killer likely landed. This time, Johnny dismounted and studied the ground.

"There, up the hill. Looks like he's headed in the direction of Lancer." He frowned at that, but was unwilling to make assumptions just yet.

For forty minutes they continued east, watching for any sign he'd changed direction. Then, they came upon a recent campsite. Both men dismounted, drawing their guns. Johnny squatted over the fire ring and held his hand out. "Still warm."

Taking opposite directions, they walked the perimeter of the site then met back up.

"Horse was over there. Fresh bootprints. Looks like we missed him by no more than an hour."

Johnny sighed and shoved his gun in the holster. "So, he got going with the dawn. Might mean he's got some more calls to make."

"Or, he's tryin to get away from here," Val opined.

"Beats the alternative, I guess. Well, let's get after him. He's still heading toward Lancer."

*

Scott yawned widely, stretching his arms out as he awakened. He rubbed his face then, blinked several times before turning aside to awaken Johnny. Quickly more alert upon seeing his brother's bed empty, he sat up and scanned the room in one second. Throwing the covers off, he got up and began dressing quickly, all the while cursing his brother silently.

He forwent a shave and simply splashed water on his face, drying quickly before donning his shirt. He was out the door in five minutes and heading for the livery. When he got there, he found Johnny and Val's horses gone. Angrily, he asked the liveryman to saddle Remmie as he headed to Val's office.

Inside, he found half empty cups of coffee, still warm and nothing else. Damn them! Why didn't they wait for me? he wondered. Furious, he walked out the door only to nearly run right into Shep who informed him Val and Johnny had ridden out an hour earlier. He headed back to retrieve his horse then, rode to the stream.

Scott scanned the area and, picked up the tracks they'd found yesterday evening. More easily, he found Barranca and Milagro's tracks. He mounted up and followed.

Almost an hour later, Scott rode into the campsite and mimicked the moves made earlier by his brother and friend. Hands on hips, he thought through what he'd found and where they were headed. Toward Lancer. Scott paused as Johnny's words drifted into his mind. 'They were all the oldest.'

He cleared his head and became keenly aware of his surroundings. Eyes peeled and ears wide open, Scott mounted Remmie and headed after his brother. I'm the oldest, he thought. Guess I'd better not talk to any strangers. A rueful smile flittered across his face before the determined set to his jaw returned.

*

Johnny looked down on the hacienda and frowned. It looked normal from here. Everything looked like it always did.

"He circled from here, heading around," Val called.

Nodding, Johnny reined Barranca and walked the palomino over next to Milagro. "Think Scott's his next target?"

Val gave him a frown. "Well, I've been thinkin about that. If he is targeting the oldest male child, there's gotta be a reason. Something all these families have in common."

"Scott's still in town so, he won't find him. Maybe, we should talk to Murdoch. If he's skulkin around here, it's a good bet Scott's on his list and that means, the old man should know something."

"Probably but, I think we should head after him first, Johnny. We're close and, if we can catch him, he can tell us himself."

Johnny took in a deep breath then let it out. "Yeah, you're right. Let's go."

"Of course, you could go on down and talk to Murdoch and I can go after him."

"No, Murdoch ain't goin anywhere, Val. If he is after Scott, I want him stopped. You're right, we are close. We can cut across and pick up his trail, be that much closer. If he's just bypassing the ranch, we'll need to find him before he finds his next target."

Val didn't say what he was thinking, that Johnny wanted to watch his back. Instead, he scratched his jaw and tried to push back his irritation. Simply nodding once sharply, he let Johnny take the lead.

They crossed the valley and Johnny waved to some of the hands out working who'd spied them. He didn't want them more alarmed but, everyone was on edge now. Especially, after Chase had been killed. His stomach turned at the thought of some crazy man out shooting down kids. Grown men were bad enough!

Val looked over and saw the anger and grief on his friend's face. Sometimes, it was hard being a lawman. He wanted to kill the sonofabitch doing this but, he couldn't. Not and keep his job, anyhow. Of course, if the man fought them, he'd be justified. He kind of hoped that would happen. There was no reason good enough in his mind to murder three innocent people. Whatever the man's reasons, it just would never wash.

They rode up a small hill and stopped, looking back at the ground they'd just covered. Val let his eyes take a likely route then reined to the right, searching for tracks. Johnny separated himself from Val, giving them a fifty foot distance between them to cover. He figured the man surely had come out around here somewhere. That was, if he was scoping out Lancer. If not, Johnny thought, he was heading for the Saylor ranch. His stomach flipped as he thought of Fred Saylor. He was a good man and, he had a son. He stopped and peered at the ground then dismounted.

"Val!"

The sheriff jerked his reins and headed over to where Johnny was crouching.

"Here. Dammit! He's heading for the Crooked S!" He vaulted into the saddle but stopped when Val shouted at him.

"You don't know that for sure!" Val said once he came alongside Johnny.

"He's headed away from Lancer and the Crooked S is the next ranch."

Val stared at him a beat. "And Fred Saylor has a son." Johnny nodded at him but, Val wasn't sure. It was likely but, if they were wrong and he was targeting Lancer ... "What if you're wrong? What if he's just findin a place to hide out til he can spot Scott?"

Johnny swallowed hard and looked away, taking in everything around him. "Scott's in town. We have time to ride over to Fred's."

Val was impressed that Johnny was thinking this clearly. Usually, when it came to his brother's safety, he was all about focusing on Scott. "Alright, let's ride over there, then."

*

Johnny unlatched the gate and let Val through before locking it again. They were now on Crooked S land and, they headed toward the house. He only hoped Shane was there but, he was probably out on the range somewhere. Hopefully, they'd find him before anyone else did.  

"Can't tell if anyone else's used the gate, can ya?"

Johnny shook his head. "We use it a lot so, no. Come on, we still have five miles before we get to the house."

Val pressed his horse into a canter as Johnny matched his gait. They topped a small hill and Johnny quickly came to a stop.

"What?" Val asked.

"Thought I saw something over in those trees." His eyes scanned the area but, if he had seen something, he couldn't see it now. He looked down the hill and saw Shane Saylor wrestling with a tree trunk. "Damn! There's Shane."

"Go, I'll head to those trees." Val didn't wait for an answer or an argument. He set out at a gallop, drawing his gun.

Johnny put his spurs to Barranca and the horse galloped down the hill full out.

Val saw something move in those trees, he'd swear it on his life. It didn't make sense to him. So far, the man had done all his killing at close range. Could be, he was watching Shane, making sure no one else was around. Or, could be, he knew Shane Saylor was more than fair with a gun. Val stored that information in the back of his mind for later, hoping he was about to catch this bastard and wouldn't need to think about it, after all.

Shane Saylor swiped the sweat from his face knowing it was useless. It was dripping off him and wasn't likely to stop any time soon. He sighed then paused. Standing up straight, his right hand went to his side as he saw the rider bearing down on him. Then, he relaxed when he recognized the palomino and its rider. Raising his right hand in greeting, his smile widened.

Johnny saw his friend wave to him and he shouted. "Get down! Get down!"

Shane frowned but, he dove to the ground, knowing Johnny Lancer didn't play games. The tone of his voice left no room for guessing. Johnny was dead serious. Shane pulled his revolver as Johnny flew out of the saddle, rifle in hand. He scuttled over to Shane then, raised his head and saw Val closing in on the tree line.

"What the hell, Johnny?"

"Hang on," he managed to say through the heaving breaths.

Val slowed to a walk as he got to the tree line, then, he pulled his rifle from its scabbard and dismounted. Slowly, he made his way into the woods, using the tree trunks for cover. He got about ten feet in when he heard the sound of a horse galloping away. Cussing under his breath, he ran further into the copse to the other side. He saw the black horse a good hundred yards away and moving fast.

*

Scott rode up to the hacienda, knowing his brother wasn't there. But, he felt the need to let Murdoch know what was going on and, he knew Johnny was with Val. As he dismounted, Murdoch walked out of the house.

"Where's Johnny?"

"He and Val are tracking the killer. We got a lot more information yesterday and Val picked up a trail from the stream where Chase was killed. It was getting too dark to follow so, they headed out first thing."

Murdoch nodded, deep frown lines creasing his forehead. "Why didn't you go with them?"

Scott's frown matched his father's. "Johnny slipped out on me this morning. I don't know why but, I followed them until I got to the rise." He turned and looked back. "They headed across the valley but, I thought I should stop and let you know what's happening."

"I appreciate that, son. I hope they catch up to whoever this is and soon." He looked closer at Scott then smiled a little. "I think I know why Johnny gave you the slip."

Scott stared at him and waited.

"You don't look very well, son. You're exhausted."

With a heavy sigh, the younger man gave his father a most exasperated look. "We're all tired. If that's the reason then, Johnny is going to get an earful."

Murdoch fought back another smile. "Well, come inside and tell me everything."

Once in the great room, Scott told everything he knew, including Bobby Reynolds part in all of this and, Otto's. When he began describing the killer, Murdoch paled. "Sir, are you alright?"

Murdoch leaned forward in his chair and slowly shook his head. "Dear God, it can't be," he fairly whispered.

"Can't be what?" Scott's voice was demanding.

Looking sharply at his son, Murdoch stood and walked to the hearth. "Ten years ago, there was a young man in the valley who raped and killed a girl. There was no law here then so, a group of ranchers took it upon themselves to try the man. They found him guilty and hanged him. It was a fair trial, I will say but, I was against it at the time."

"Why?"

He looked back at his son. "Because, we weren't lawmen or judges, Scott. I wanted to send to Sacramento for the US Marshal but, the others insisted that would take too long. They were afraid he'd escape or, somehow get away with the crime. You see, his father was a preacher."

Scott stood up slowly and stared at his father.

"Josiah Crump is his name and, at the time, he swore vengeance on every man involved. I'd gone ahead and sent for the marshals while the others carried out their justice. Crump did try to kill one of the ranchers, Mike Wilson, in fact. By then, the marshal was here and he arrested Crump. He was sent to prison."

"Let me guess, for ten years," Scott interrupted.

"That's right. He must have gotten out just recently and came right back here."

Scott sighed. "So, now, he's killing the oldest son?"

Murdoch sighed and ran a hand over his hair. "His idea of justice, I suppose." It dawned on him then and he closed his eyes briefly before staring at Scott. "You're the oldest."


"You weren't involved, Murdoch. You just said you'd been against it."

"Yes, but I'm the one who sent for the marshal."

*

Val ran back to his horse and jumped into the saddle, heading after the killer.

Johnny got to his feet as he watched his friend take off then cussed and whistled for Barranca.

"Johnny, what the hell just happened?"

"Go home, Shane. Stay there and don't go anywhere, especially alone. I'll explain it later."

Shane grabbed his arm as he started to walk past. "Is this about the killings?"

"Yeah, I think you're on his list. I don't know why but, maybe your old man does. Let him know what's going on. I have to go after Val." Johnny pulled free and grabbed Barranca's reins, leaping into the saddle. "Get home, Shane. Talk to your pa."

Shane Saylor watched as Johnny tore across the pasture then, he headed for his own horse.

Johnny had to slow down going through the small woods but, once he cleared them, he took off again. He spotted Val ahead in the distance but, saw no one his friend was giving chase to. Must be too far ahead, he figured. He wasn't closing in and he offhandedly regretted giving Val such a fast horse. Stupid thought but, there it was.

They'd gotten to the road leading to Green River and Johnny followed. He heard a gunshot and pressed his horse into a faster gait. As he rounded a curve, he pulled back hard on the reins, causing Barranca to some to a skidding halt. The horse snorted then whinnied as he shied away from Milagro.

Johnny was sure his heart had just stopped. He dismounted and drew his gun, scanning the area as he knelt beside the sheriff. "Val?" He got no response and chanced glancing down before going back to his survey. With a sigh, he grabbed Val by the back of his collar and dragged him to the side of the road, under a sapling.

Once there, he looked more closely at his friend, finding a steady stream of blood trailing down the left side of his face. He looked at Val's chest and could tell he was breathing. Johnny leaned over and saw the cut, relieved it wasn't a bullet wound. As satisfied as he could be for the moment, he moved, keeping to the edge of the road.

Just as he made it to a fallen boulder, he saw the rider far in the distance, across the field. Then, the man disappeared. Johnny dropped his shoulders and headed back the way he'd come. He walked over to Barranca and grabbed his canteen then, fished around his saddle bags for an extra shirt.

He cleaned the wound and tore a strip off the shirt, bandaging Val's head. As soon as he tied it off, he heard a groan. Johnny closed his eyes in relief then opened them to find Val watching him. "How ya feelin?"

"Dizzy. Did he get away?"

Johnny nodded. "Think you can ride. We're almost to town. Might as well see if Sam's around."

Val sat up slowly and choked back a moan. "What for? You sick? Come on, let's get after him."

"He's gone, Val. We're not gonna catch him now. Come on, let's head back to Lancer, at least." He stood up and went to retrieve their horses. It was only then, he saw.

Johnny stared at the animal for a long moment, praying it wasn't as bad as it looked. Milagro was bleeding from his right shoulder. Slowly, Johnny approached the skittish animal and soothed it with whispers. Taking hold of the reins, he examined the wound and thought it wasn't so bad, after all. Still, the horse shouldn't be ridden.

"What's the matter?"

He turned quickly to find Val behind him, blinking more than he should. "It's a flesh wound, looks like."

"He shot my horse?! That son of a bitch!" Val winced and his hand went to his head.

Sympathetic but trying not to show it, Johnny took his arm. "Come on. You can ride with me. Milagro doesn't need the extra weight. We'll take him to the vet in Green River and get him fixed up."

*

Fred Saylor pounded on the door of the hacienda, anger and fear ruling his head. When Murdoch opened the door, he scowled and started right in. "Murdoch, what the hell is going on around here? Shane just came home and said Johnny told him someone was gunnin for 'im and to lay low."

"Fred, come in and calm down. I've figured out who it is and, it won't be easy to hear."

Saylor stomped into the house, nodding sharply at Scott when he eyed him. He stood in the middle of the room and waited for Murdoch to explain, his anger unabated.

"Josiah Crump."

Fred's face fell as it sank in. Those two words calmed him instantly as his blood turned to ice. Then, he walked over and slumped into a chair. "Crump! He's doin this? Why is he after the boys?"

"Revenge, Mr. Saylor. He's killing your oldest sons because you killed his."

Fred looked up at Scott, frowning again. "It was his only son far as I knew."

Murdoch raised a brow at that. "You're right. I wonder why he decided on the oldest."

Scott shrugged, not knowing if it really made a difference at this point. "Maybe, he does have another son somewhere. Maybe, he's just insane."

"Well, he is that!" Fred proclaimed. "So, he's after Shane. That means, he'll be after you, too, Scott. And Floyd Townsend."

Scott sat on the sofa and regarded the man. "You remember the names easily."

"That ain't somethin I'm likely to forget, son. Seems like just yesterday, now." Fred stared off, lost in a memory for a few seconds. Then, he inhaled deeply. "Crawford after him?"

Scott nodded. "And Johnny."

"Well, I best get home and keep that hot-headed boy of mine in the house." He stood and made for the door.

Murdoch went with him. "Be careful, Fred. Make Shane stay down until this is settled. I know he's a very capable young man but, so were Jake Wilson and Larry Carver."

*

Val Crawford had never looked so mad, Johnny thought. And he'd seen the man with steam comin out of his ears. As they stopped in front of the vet's office, Val slid off the back of Barranca and nearly went to the ground. Johnny got down quickly and took hold of him.

"I'm alright! Just get the doc."

Sighing, Johnny shook his head and tied the horses off before going to the man's door. He didn't get a chance to knock as Doc Witten stepped outside. Old as dirt, Johnny had always thought, with his thick, wavy white hair and gray eyes sharp as a well-honed knife. The man knew his business.

"Thought I heard a commotion out here. Hello, Johnny, Val."

"Doc, we've got a problem. Milagro's got a flesh wound," Johnny explained quickly. He knew Val was about to lose it and waiting for pleasantries to be exchanged would send the man off fast.

Doc Witten went immediately to the animal and examined him. "Yes, that's what it is, alright. Doesn't appear to be any permanent damage done. I'll take care of him, Val. He'll be good as new in a couple of days."

Johnny watched his friend's shoulders slump and knew it was from relief. Although, Val Crawford would never let anyone see him worry over a horse.

"Thanks, Doc. Let's get me a horse, Johnny. We need to find out what the hell is goin on."

"I'll meet you there. I need to check and see if Scott's still around."

Val nodded and wished he hadn't. His head felt like it was coming off. He walked toward the livery, staring at the ground and thanking the good Lord Milagro would be alright. Reckon he'd picked the right name for the animal. The anger came back as he thought of what kind of man would shoot a horse. It just wasn't done, that's all!

It took less than a minute for Johnny to find out Scott had left the hotel early that morning. He supposed his brother had followed them but, he must have gone on home. Otherwise, they would've met up with him by now. He sure hoped Scott was at home, anyway. He knew his brother wasn't stupid or reckless and, after all, the killer had been a little busy this morning. Scott was safe for now. Johnny was more convinced than ever this man was targeting the oldest son of the ranchers. Why, he could not fathom.

As he headed for the livery, he spotted Sam Jenkins coming out of the cafe and veered off to intercept him. Taking the man by the arm, he explained what was happening with Val as they walked to the livery.

"It'll do," Val groused as the liveryman went to saddle the chestnut gelding. He turned to find Johnny and Sam standing behind him. "What're you doin here?"

Sam gave him a hard stare. "Don't be stupid, Val. Unless you're having side effects from that head injury in which case, I'll overlook it. Now, sit down over on that bench and let me take a look at Johnny's handiwork!"

Val reared back and glared at Johnny and, in that second, he saw enough in those eyes to take the air right out of him. He sighed and walked over to sit down without a word.

Johnny quirked his lips while Val wasn't looking. Wonder if he'll ever find out how much I manipulate him sometimes? He walked over and stood beside Val as Sam looked him over. "Scott's gone. I imagine he went on home. We should head to Lancer and hook up, see if he or Murdoch know any more about this."

"Yeah, sure. Reckon, we'll have to start all over anyways. We need to talk to the Saylors, too. You sent Shane home?"

Johnny nodded. "I just hope he went. Still, preacher's been too busy takin potshots at you to go back."

"You did a fine job of this, Johnny. Val, you should be resting but I suppose that won't be happening. You might be dizzy for a while and have some headaches but, I don't think it's too serious." Sam turned to Johnny, "If anything worse happens, though, get him to me or me to him as soon as you can."

"I will, Sam. Thanks."

"Head's too hard to worry about," Val groused.

*

Scott stared out the French doors then turned and went back to his pacing. He watched as his father took his place by the doors and, he had to smile a little. He hoped the reason Johnny wasn't home was because he and Val were locking up Crump. He hoped. But, it was getting late now and, no word. He sighed for the millionth time, it seemed, and ran a hand down his face.

Murdoch's shoulders tensed as he opened the door. "It's Johnny and Val."

"Thank God," Scott muttered as he walked outside with his father.

As soon as the men had dismounted, Scott walked up to Val. "What happened to you?"

"Fell down."

Johnny smiled a little and shook his head. "The killer took a shot at him, hit Milagro and Val hit the dirt. He'll be alright."

"Milagro or Val?" Scott asked.

Johnny laughed softly. "Both."

Scott wasn't very amused with his own joke. "And Crump?"

"Who?" Val asked.

"Come inside, men. I know who this man is."

Johnny and Val perked up as they stared at Murdoch's back. Giving each other a glance, they followed the other two men inside.

Once they'd told their exploits of the day, both listened intently to Murdoch. Val just nodded when Murdoch finished telling his tale. The room was quiet for a spell then, he cleared his throat and looked at Johnny, simply raising a brow.

With a smile, Johnny stood and walked over to the sideboard, pouring his friend a drink and making it four. He passed the liquor around, leaving his father for last. He looked into the man's eyes as he handed off the drink. "And you think Scott's a target because you brought in the law. Didn't Crump want that to happen?"

"He did. He nearly begged, in fact, for the men to wait for the marshal. It was a bad situation. The girl was barely sixteen and a little backward. Isaac Crump kept swearing she'd been willing and then had attacked him. He said he was only defending himself and it got out of hand but, he wasn't very convincing."

Val swallowed the elixir he'd been craving for an hour. "Well, don't reckon I can blame the ranchers for what they did. From what you said, they did it as lawfully as they could."

"How many men were there, Sir?" Scott asked.

"Six. Wilson, Carver, Reynolds, Saylor, Micah Townsend and Henry Conway."

*

Johnny looked up at that last name. "Henry didn't have any kids, did he?"

"No, he and Aggie were never blessed with children."


"Well, that's one he won't be able to avenge," Scott commented.

"Maybe," Val muttered. He looked at them all watching him and shrugged. "If there's no male child, would he go after Mrs. Conway?"

Murdoch took to his feet with that thought. He was at the door shouting for Frank in an instant. He ordered the man to take a crew over to the Conway ranch and bring Aggie to him, kicking and screaming if need be.

Scott walked over and took hold of his arm then addressed Frank. "Tell her it's urgent she come to Lancer right away." When Frank left, he looked at his father. "Do you want to scare her to death?"

"Telling her it's urgent won't?" Murdoch retorted.

Scott stared at him a moment then let his hand drop. "It's better than forcing her. Try to settle down, Sir."

Johnny rolled his eyes at the both of them then slumped back in his chair. Crossing his ankles, he rubbed at his temple, frowning in thought.

Scott walked back into the room and looked at Johnny, then Val sitting in the chair beside him. He was a little stunned to notice they both had the same look on their faces and were almost sitting the same way. It was eerie and, he thought, a little too odd. Shaking his head, he focused on the problem. "I think we need to get everyone that's left together and talk this out."

Murdoch nodded and headed for the door as he spoke. "I'll send word to Micah and Fred."

Scott perched on the arm of the sofa. "While we're waiting, perhaps you'd like to tell me why you snuck out on me this morning, brother?"

Johnny slowly raised his eyes and smiled. "Didn't want to disturb you. You were sleeping so pretty."

Scott's face turned to stone. "I'm serious, Johnny."

He sighed and shrugged. "You were worn out, Boston. I figured you wouldn't be of any use to me so, I let you get some rest."

"I wasn't any more tired than you. Or, maybe, you just didn't think I could handle it?"

Johnny made a 'pfft' noise and waved his hand in dismissal of the idea. "Truth is, Val and me work better just the two of us."

"The truth is, he already figured out someone was gunnin for the oldest male child of the families in the valley and he didn't want you out in the open," Val explained. If he was going to have to listen to them argue all night, it might as well be about the truth.

Johnny glared at his friend who returned the look in kind. Both looked over at Scott when he started laughing.

*

"Thank you, Val. At least one of you knows how to tell the truth." The smile faded as he looked at his brother but, there was something else in his eyes now. Affection. "While I appreciate the sentiment, brother, I don't need a babysitter."

"Didn't think you did. Just didn't think there was any need for you to be out there when you didn't have to be, is all." He dropped his eyes. "Anyways, we need to figure out where this crazy man is and stop him."

"I was thinkin of somethin when I was goin after him before. The first three, he killed at point blank range. But, he was ready to ambush Shane. I wondered about that and thought maybe, he knew Shane is pretty good with a gun."

Johnny raised his brows at that notion. "Makes sense. I don't think the man has a death wish or, at least, he's bent on finishin what he's started first."

"That probably means he'd go after Scott the same way."

Johnny nodded his agreement. "You know, at some point, he would want everyone to know who it was and why. I mean, he wouldn't count on Murdoch figuring it out, do you think?"

"What are you getting at, brother?"

Johnny repositioned himself in his chair. "I'm not sure. I just think he'd want credit. Maybe, with the last killing. He'd want everyone to know it was him. He has to have a plan."

Val considered that a moment. "If we get the rest of his list here, he'd have to come to Lancer."

"You mean have Floyd Townsend and Shane stay at Lancer, too?"

"Yeah, Scott. I mean, if your old man is willin. We could have a nice party waiting for him."

"He ain't stupid, Val. You think he'd just ride in here knowin how many men are at this ranch?" Johnny asked.

"No, I don't think he'd just ride in here. I do think he'd try pickin 'em off, though. We could set him up."

Scott thought about that. It sounded good. They'd have to detail it more but, it could work. "Let's see what Murdoch thinks."

At that moment, the rancher walked back into the room looking pale. All three other men came to their feet.

He looked at them grimly. "Floyd Townsend is dead. Shane Saylor has been shot and it doesn't look good."

Johnny fell back into the chair, his hands curling into fists.” How the hell did that happen?"

"Apparently, Fred sent for Micah and Floyd and, as soon as they rode up to the ranch, a sniper shot both boys."

"Aggie?" Scott asked in a near whisper.

Murdoch shook his head. "I don't know, yet."

"He couldn't have got her, too. Not that fast. Her ranch is too far away from the others," Val said.

Murdoch walked over to Scott and put a hand on his shoulder. "That leaves you, son."

*

"What the hell kind of preacher was he, anyway?!" Johnny blurted. He stood up and paced the room, his hands still curled in tight fists. "I mean, preachers don't know how to kill like that."

Murdoch sighed as he regarded his son. "He turned to the ministry later in life, Johnny. Before that, he was an outlaw."

Raising his hands, then dropping them, Johnny stared at his father for a beat. Then, he turned on his heel and headed for the door.

"Where do you think you're going?" Murdoch demanded.

Johnny stopped and turned back to him. "I'm gonna track him down if it takes me the rest of my life. He's done, Murdoch. Done! He's not getting anywhere near Scott or Aggie!"

"Not alone, you ain't," Val piped up.

"You ain't in no condition, Val. I've been watching you, ya know. I don't need to be worrying about you fallin out of the saddle. This has to stop right now."

"Johnny," Murdoch said as he walked over to his son, "I know you're upset and worried for Scott but, Val's right. You shouldn't be out there alone."

"He's only one man, Murdoch. No one else is better qualified to find him, are they?"

The rancher knew the answer to that and he hated it. "I'll go with you."

Johnny shook his head. "I do better on my own, old man. I'll be alright. I'm going over to Aggie's first. Make sure the boys have her and she's on her way here. Then, I'm going after him."

"No."

They all looked at Scott, the fierceness of his tone surprising all.

"I'm the one he's after, Johnny. I'm going with you. Together, we make a better team and you know it." He dropped his eyes for a moment. "Maybe, you and Val do work better together but, you and I do pretty well, don't we?"

"You're the one he's gunnin for, Scott."

"Which will bring him right to us, brother."

"Bait? No way, hermano."

Scott walked over to stand toe to toe with his brother. "I'm going with or without you. Now, which will it be?"

Johnny's jaw twitched and he looked to their father for intervention. Surprised to find none, he glared at the man.

"Scott's right. You should work together. I hate either of you going out there, though. At least, wait until morning. What could you hope to accomplish tonight?" He hoped it would work. That not arguing about Scott going would make Johnny rethink, at least stall them through one night. Hopefully, by morning they would decide it wasn't the best idea. That they would let Val handle this or, at least, he'd be well enough to go with them.

"He's right about that, you know. We won't be able to do a thing in the dark," Scott conceded.

Johnny sighed heavily and leaned against the wall behind him. "Yeah, I know. Well, I can at least set guards for the night." He turned to walk outside and felt a firm hand come down on his shoulder.

"Don't sneak off on me, son."

He smiled a little and a small laugh came out. "I promise. I won't leave the ranch. I'm just going to talk to the boys, is all, Murdoch."

*

Johnny left the bunkhouse and the vaqueros to work out their schedules for guard duty. He watched as the first assigned headed for their positions and sighed in relief for the loyal men of Lancer. He started back to the house then heard Barranca in the barn. Grimacing at the thought of Milagro and hoping the stallion really was going to be fine, he headed inside to his amigo.

Johnny stroked the white mane but, Barranca seemed upset and unable to settle. "What's wrong, boy? What's got you so worked up?"

"I suppose that would be me. Don't move, Mr. Lancer."

Johnny froze at the voice then, started to turn until he heard the command followed by the cocking of a rifle.

"Hands up nice and slow."

Johnny did as instructed and felt the Colt leaving his holster then a thump as it hit the ground. He tightened his jaw and waited.

"Turn around slowly, Mr. Lancer. No sudden moves, please."

Please? How polite! Johnny thought angrily. He did turn, almost anxious to see this man. He quickly remembered the description and steeled himself not to react to the man's face. He looked blankly into the dark brown eyes. So dark, they looked black, like Otto had said. He was all black, his clothes, his hat and his hair though, Johnny noted some graying at the temples. The scar was gruesome, taking most of the left side of his face. He said nothing, waiting to see what the man would do now.

"What? No grimace? No disgust?"

Johnny remained passive. "Oh, I'm disgusted with you, Mr. Crump. If you're talking about the scar, it doesn't bother me. I've seen worse."

Crump smiled, only one side of his mouth capable of turning up which made it look more like a sneer. "You know my name so, you must know why I'm here."

"Murdoch figured it out only, I think you've messed up. See, I'm the baby of the family." Johnny smiled at that idea.

"Yes, I know. Scott is who I'm after. But, since you've figured me out before I was ready, I'll have to improvise. You and I are going to leave here together and no one will see us. If they do, I'll have to kill you and your father. It would be a shame since, he's the one who should suffer but, a man must do what he must."

Johnny cocked his head to one side. "Funny, Murdoch said he wanted to call in the law. In fact, he did call the marshal in. So, how come you're after him?"

"That law was a little late! And they ended up putting me in prison for ten years!"

"You're blamin my old man for the marshal not comin in time? He's good but, he's not that good."

"He could have done a lot more but he didn't want to go against his neighbors. Oh, he objected but, he could have stopped it. Lancer is the top dog around here and always has been. Enough talk! Walk out the back way."

Johnny sighed and headed for the back door. He looked back to find Crump keeping too much distance between them. He had no chance to rush the man with that rifle pointed at his back.

*

Murdoch stared out the French doors, his face sullen as he wondered about his boy.

"He promised, Sir."

Murdoch nodded at his son then turned his attention to Val when the man snorted. "What?"

Val shrugged. "He promised not to leave the ranch."

"So?" Scott asked then, his face fell. "It's a big ranch."

Murdoch headed for the front door. "I'm going to kill that boy."

Scott went to follow, hearing Val coming up behind him. All three headed into the barn then, pulled up short.

Murdoch winced, chagrined. "Well, I guess he really didn't go far. Barranca is still here."

"Maybe, he's still in the bunkhouse with the men?" Scott suggested.

Val walked further in, noticing Barranca acting nervous, and reached out to the palomino. "Easy, boy. What's goin on?"

Scott joined him, running a hand over the horse's shoulder and feeling a quiver. "He's not acting right."

Murdoch frowned. Any other horse and he would shrug it off but, not this one. He didn't think they needed anyone else over there trying to comfort the animal so he walked around the area, head down as he wondered where his son had gotten off to. That's when he saw it.

"Scott!"

Whirling around, Scott glared at his father just as Barranca balked at the loudness. "What?!"

Murdoch bent over and picked up the gun then turned and extended his arm to show his son. "It's Johnny's. It was just laying here."

Val moved closer then he turned to the back door and walked purposely over, jerking it open and peering into the night. He saw nothing under the half-full moon and he literally growled. Turning back to the others, he saw them staring at him like he was loco. He made to step back inside, glanced down then, stopped and knelt on one knee. "Dammit!"

"What is it?" Scott asked, walking closer.

Val stood up and handed him the concho. "Johnny must have dropped it there to tell us which way he went."

"Doesn't appear he needed to. How did you know he left out the back?" Murdoch asked.

Val simply shrugged. "You kept starin out the doors practically since he walked out. I figured you woulda seen him if he came out the front."

Murdoch grumbled, "I wasn't looking the entire time. I didn't see him come into the barn."

Scott rolled his eyes. "It doesn't matter. He's gone and, he didn't leave of his own free will, obviously. We need to find him!"

"We know who's got him, Scott, and we can guess why. Trade you for Johnny."

"And, what do you think he'll do to Johnny before that, Val?" Scott scowled.

The sheriff didn't answer that. Instead, he grabbed a lantern and turned up the wick then walked back out the door, searching for tracks. When he neared the corner, he saw the paper stuck on a nail in the side of the building. Snatching it down, he held it to the light then cussed.

*

"Nice, don't you think?"

Johnny shrugged. "I've seen it before. It is my line shack." Crump laughed and it sounded cold to Johnny's ears.

"Of course, of course. Now," he paused and stuck his hand in his jacket pocket, pulling out a pair of handcuffs, "put your right wrist in and lock it." He tossed the cuffs to Johnny.

Scowling, Johnny did as told then waited. He watched Crump reach inside his jacket with his left hand and produce a pistol then, lean the rifle against the wall.

"Turn around, Mr. Lancer, and put your hands behind your back. Don't try anything. It won't hurt my feelings to kill you right here."

Johnny quirked his mouth then turned around, calculating his chances. He didn't feel Crump near him but, he felt the second cuff click tightly over his left wrist then, the right one tightened.

"Nice try," Crump sneered as Johnny turned back.

A grin appeared on the young man's face. "Can't blame me."

"Sit down and let's have a chat. I didn't get to find out much about you and your brother. I do know you haven't lived here all that long."

Johnny took the seat in the straight-backed chair by the kitchen table, perched close to the edge as he couldn't lean back comfortably. "Two years or so, I reckon. How long have you been around here?"

Crump smiled that half-smile. "Oh, I've been around a few months, watching and learning."

Eyes hardening, Johnny stared at the man. "Yeah? Did you learn how to kill a fourteen year old boy or is that something you always knew?"

The man simply shrugged. "It is the price one pays."

"The boy did nothing," Johnny seethed.

"Do you know the bible, Mr. Lancer?"

Johnny grit his teeth and nodded. "Yeah, I saw the piece you left near Chase Reynolds. Exodus. An eye for an eye and all that. But, you ain't a judge, Crump. Hell, you ain't even a preacher. Thou shalt not kill, right?"

Crump came out of his chair and glowered at Johnny. "You have no idea what it's like to lose a son. You have no idea what it feels like to stand there while they hang your boy, begging them to stop! Those men took the law in their own hands, why shouldn't I?"

Johnny sneered at him. "Maybe, because none of those you killed raped and murdered a young girl." He tried to duck but it was too late. The butt of the gun smacked against the left side of his head and Johnny went crashing to the floor. He struggled to stay conscious, lifting his head and blinking his eyes but, very soon, he knew he was losing that battle. His head banged the floor and he knew no more.

*

"Scott, the note said to wait until eight o'clock."

Scott tightened his cinch then turned to his father. "I'm not in the habit of following the instructions of a lunatic, Sir. He has Johnny and I'm going to get him back!"

Val walked out of the barn then with Barranca saddled and ready to go. "No, *we* are gonna get Johnny back. You're gonna ride in there like he said and I'm gonna have your back."

Murdoch sighed. "We are going to have his back."

Turning back to Remmie, Scott's frustration unleashed more. "Whatever! Let's just go!"

Murdoch took hold of Scott's arm and turned him back to face him. "Son, I know you're upset and blaming yourself for this but, none of it is your fault. You need to calm down before facing Crump."

Taking a deep breath, Scott held his father's gaze. "I will be calm when I get there, Murdoch. Right now, I need to be uncalm, if you don't mind."

Val's moustache twitched and he looked away.

Frustrated beyond belief, Murdoch let go of his son. "I'll saddle my horse."

Scott walked over and leaned against the corral fence as the sun began to lighten the sky. Val joined him and watched the day begin.

"You get more like him every day. Might want to be careful of that."

"Murdoch? I don't think I'm much like him."

Val shook his head as he turned aside to face Scott. "Not Murdoch. Johnny."

Scott turned his head to the man and gawked then, a smile adorned his face. "I'll take that as a compliment."

"Yeah? Cause I meant it as a warning." Val chuckled a little.

Scott's face fell and he turned away again. "He shouldn't have to deal with this."

"Neither of ya should, Scott. It ain't anything you did. It ain't anything your old man did, even. Crump is loco, is all. Sometimes, you just have to deal with crazy people."

*

As the three men rode toward the line shack, they discussed how this would work. The disagreements started immediately.

"Scott, if you ride right in there, he'll shoot you before you can even get out of the saddle," Murdoch pointed out.

"I don't think so, Sir. I think he'll want to explain his actions, make sure everyone knew who did this and why."

"We already know that, Scott. Your old man is right. You shouldn't ride in. You should walk in."

Both Lancers turned their heads and stared at Val. He sighed and smirked. "Because," he started as if he'd been asked why, "he ain't gonna expect that and, you'll have both hands free to draw without worryin about a horse in the way. Now, tell me about this line shack and what kind of cover we're gonna have."

*

Johnny winced as the water hit his face. He blinked and opened his eyes, seeing a pair of black boots in front of him. Turning his head, he looked up at Crump.

"Need to wake up, boy. I need you lively. Your brother will be here soon."

Johnny's attention was captured by that and he struggled to a sitting position. His hands were numb from the tight cuffs and the awkward position, his left side throbbed where he'd been laying on it. Clearing his throat, he licked his lips. "What time is it?"

"Time for justice."

He scowled at the man then sighed heavily.

Crump dragged the chair over then grabbed Johnny under his right arm, hoisting him up and into the chair.

His head started spinning immediately and he bit back a groan, closing his eyes and praying he'd stay conscious. He could hear Crump pacing and it was getting on his nerves. "Could I have some water?"

The man stopped abruptly and turned to him, catching the dulled blue eyes looking at him dispassionately. He brought Johnny a tin cup of water and held it as the young man drank his fill.

It helped or, Johnny convinced himself it did as the pain in his head seemed to ease up. Crump was staring at him and he felt uneasy under that gaze. "So, what's the plan? You just gonna murder my brother as soon as he rides in here?"

That sneering smile appeared on his face again. "Do you think me a fool? I know Scott Lancer won't ride in here alone. Oh, I won't see anyone else but, your father and, most likely that sheriff will be around somewhere. Don't you worry about my plans, Mr. Lancer. Worry about yourself. I'm still deciding if you should live. Of course, it wouldn't be fair to your father but, at the moment, I'm not feeling very fair."

Johnny didn't know what to say to that. He was still trying to figure a way out of this before Scott arrived. Unfortunately, he'd let his temper get the better of him and, he'd paid for it with a headache and loss of precious time. Now, according to Crump, there was little time left to him. He was fairly certain of where Murdoch and Val would position themselves outside to their best advantage. But, it wouldn't work unless Scott did ride in here. After that, it would be up to luck to keep his brother alive long enough for them to do anything.

*

Scott dismounted and tied Remmie off then, walked into the small yard area of the shack. He stood to the far left side of the door and waited a full minute. Then, he shouted out. "Crump! I'm here. Let my brother go!"

Johnny's head came up and he looked at Crump, seeing the man's shoulders rise then he walked to the door and picked up his rifle, cocking it and looking out the small window. "Stand in front of the door, Lancer!"

"I'm not a fool, Mr. Crump! I want to see Johnny in one piece first!"

He smiled at that. it wasn't going to work but, it was a nice effort. He calculated how long it would take him to reach Crump from where he sat and how long it would take the man to react. If he could distract Crump, maybe even knock him down, it would be some kind of chance anyway.

"I'm not a fool, either, Mr. Lancer! I know you aren't alone out there! Now, either you walk into this shack in the next minute or, I'll kill your brother!"

The man spared him a glance then went back to watching Scott. Johnny bunched his muscles and readied himself then, he bolted. Charging Crump full on, he saw the man turn, a look of surprise registering for a split second as he moved to aim the rifle at Johnny. But, Johnny reached him first, connecting his right shoulder with Crump's gut. He heard a whoosh of air as the man slammed against the door.

Crump was quicker on his feet than Johnny gave him credit for. He pushed away from the door and used the rifle to knock Johnny backward. Off balance, the younger man fell to the floor. He saw the rifle come to bear and rolled toward the kitchen table. The bullet gouged a deep rut in the table's leg and Johnny scooted to the other side, using his shoulder again to upturn the table and crouch behind it as the room fell quiet.

A moment later, the door flew open and Scott stood there, Colt in hand and searching the room. "Johnny!"

"Here!" he called as he stuck his head over the table and looked around. "Where'd he go?"

Scott moved to the back of the shack where he found an open window. He looked right and left before sticking his head out a little then, pulling it back quickly. "He's topping the hill out back on his horse. Dammit!" He made toward the door and ran headlong into Val and Murdoch.

"Where is he?"

"He went out a back window. I saw him go over the hill just now. If we hurry, we can catch him," Scott explained quickly even as he moved toward the door, Val just ahead of him.

Murdoch's hand clamped on Scott's arm. "Where's Johnny?"

"I'm right here. Go. I'm okay."

Scott looked at his brother, then his father and received a nod from the older man. He rushed out the door to catch up with Val.

Murdoch hurried to his son and knelt beside him, looking him over head to toe.

"Think you can find something to get these handcuffs off with?" Johnny asked, wincing as his head throbbed.

*

Johnny pressed the cool cloth against his forehead as he lay on the sofa, a glass of lemonade beside him and Murdoch sitting on the coffee table in front of him. He felt a little uncomfortable under his father's eagle eye yet, at the same time, it was oddly comforting. "They've been gone a while."

"I know. I was just thinking of sending some of the hands out to find them, give them help if needed."

"Val and Scott can handle it, Murdoch."

The older man bowed his head and shook it slowly then met his son's eyes. "Scott is his target. Nothing says he won't circle around behind them and lay in wait."

Johnny looked at the man for a beat. "Val would never let that happen."

"Johnny, I know he's your friend and a fine lawman but ..."

"But, nothin, old man. Val's the best tracker I ever met. If Crump tried to circle around, he'd catch it in a heartbeat." He took the cloth off his head and rubbed his sore wrists.

"You don't seem to be very worried."

"Oh, I'm worried. That man is loco. He thinks he has every right to just kill whoever he wants for whatever reason. It's all your fault, by the way. You should've stopped it, bein the big dog and all."

"He said that?"

"Yep." Johnny raised up slowly, grunting as he swung his legs around and sat up. "Where's Aggie?"

"She's resting. She was up all night with us. Scott wanted to leave before dawn."

Johnny smiled fleetingly. "Blaming himself?"

Murdoch only nodded.

Sighing, Johnny got up and walked to the French doors, leaning into the glass as he stared at the yard. He pressed his forehead against a pane and closed his eyes. They'd been so close to getting the bastard. Why didn't he think about Crump having a way out? Of course, he would. He hadn't talked like he was ready to die and he knew Scott wouldn't come alone. You're slipping, Madrid. He opened his eyes and looked back out then stepped back and opened the door quickly. "They're back."

*

Johnny could see by the look on both their faces they'd been unsuccessful. He waited for them to dismount and walk up to the veranda. "No luck I take it."

"No, he managed to give us the slip," Scott said tiredly. "Are you alright."

"Sure," Johnny shrugged.

Murdoch stood behind Johnny and took in his older son. "Why don't you get some rest, Scott? You look worn out. You, too, Val."

Scott sighed and nodded. "I am tired. Maybe for a couple of hours." He gave his father a smile then walked into the house.

Val made no such move and turned to look back out at the road.

Johnny stepped out to stand beside him. "What are you thinkin, amigo?"

"I'm thinkin that man don't accept failure."

"The guards will stay posted, Val. You should get some rest before you fall over."

Val turned sharply and gave Murdoch a glare. He received the same in kind then, relented.

Johnny raised a brow when he saw his friend's shoulders slump. His mouth fell open when Val walked in the house without another word. He just stood there for a moment, staring at the door.

"What's the matter with you?"

He blinked and looked at his father. "Just never saw Val give in like that." A frown crossed his face. "I think I'll check on him and Scott."

*

Johnny found his brother lying across his bed, fast asleep but, Val was not in the room he usually used. Johnny was worried about his friend. He hadn't had a chance to recover from the head wound and that bandage had looked pretty pathetic. He touched his own head and shook it lightly. Walking into his bedroom, he pulled up short when he found Val sitting in a chair staring out the window. "Headache?"

"Yeah."

"I figured. You gave in too easy to the old man."

Val turned and looked at him flatly then sneered before going back to looking out the window. "Looks like you got a headache of your own."

"It's not too bad now. You should rest, Val. Need to be sharp." He walked over and sat on the bed then grinned and patted the mattress.

Val rolled his eyes and turned properly in the chair, leaning back and resting his head. He studied Johnny through half-open eyes. "Just what happened in that shack?"

Johnny told him about his conversations with Crump and what he'd done that morning. When he finished, Val stayed quiet and thoughtful, the frown on his face deepening. "Val, lay down, will ya? And let me change that rag on your head."

Blinking, the man looked at him then reached up and pulled the bandage off. "Don't need it."

Johnny got up and walked around to the chair, inspected the wound and agreed with the man. "Looks okay. Now, lay down. I'll wake you in a couple of hours. Hell, I might even feed ya."

Val growled and he made his way to the bed and plopped down on the side. "What about you?"

Johnny pulled a face as he sat on the arm of the chair. "Crump knocked me out, remember? I had plenty of sleep."

"What'd ya say for 'im to do that?"

Indignant, Johnny stood and put his hands on his hips. "Just go to sleep, will ya?" With that, he strode out of the room, hearing Val snicker before he clicked the door closed.

*

Johnny found his father in the kitchen with Aggie Conway who looked to him like she was trying really hard not to cry anymore. Her eyes were already red and puffy. He smiled at her sympathetically. "They're both down."

"I just don't understand how that man can think this is some kind of justice!" Aggie declared.

Sitting across from her, Johnny glanced at his father before pouring himself a cup of coffee. Seemed the old man had no more of an answer than he did.

"Do you really think he'd try to kill me, Murdoch?"

"I don't know, Aggie, but we aren't taking any chances. If we'd gotten the Saylors and Townsends here sooner ..." he didn't finish. What could he say?

"Heard anything about Shane?" Johnny asked softly.

Murdoch shook his head. "Not yet. I don't suppose Crump told you anything?"

"Nothing we didn't already know. I didn't ask about you, Mrs. Conway. I didn't want to give him any ideas."

She smiled sadly at him. "It's just so tragic, is all. His son was the criminal. Brutalizing that poor girl like he did."

"What about her folks?" Johnny asked.


"They moved away shortly after the hanging. Said there were too many bad memories here," Murdoch replied. "Do you have any ideas what he'll do next, son?"

Johnny looked at him in surprise. "How should I know? I ain't crazy." His lips turned up briefly. "Ask Val." Murdoch's face told him he didn't find any humor in that statement. Johnny was about to apologize when the back door opened. He was on his feet, gun in hand in one second. Shoulders dropping, he shoved the gun in the holster. "Dammit, Doc!"

"Johnny!" Murdoch admonished, his eyes going from his son's to Aggie.

Sitting back down, Johnny looked at the woman. "Sorry, ma'am."

Aggie stood, smiling a little at him. "No need, Johnny." She walked over and took Sam's arm, guiding him in. The man seemed a little shaken up to her. Sitting him beside Johnny, she went to the cupboard. "Sam, how is Shane Saylor?"

Sam cleared his throat, shooting Johnny an unpleasant look. "He's alive. If he's lucky, he'll stay that way." He sighed and shook his head. "Martha is sitting with him and Fred is trying to console Micah."

Murdoch closed his eyes, unable to fathom what these families were going through.

"He's having to sit on Aidan. The boy is ready to shoot anyone and everyone."

"I don't blame him," Johnny said then shrugged. "No one would be able to sit on me if it was Scott."

"You didn't see anyone on your way here, did you, Sam?" Murdoch asked, unwilling to reply to Johnny's comment.

"No, not a soul. I did see your men out there. Fred's set up guards, as well."

"Good idea. If Crump hears Shane's still alive, he might make another go at him. He's not gonna stop until he's finished or, we stop him." Johnny stood up and stretched. "I'm goin to talk to the hands."

"How's Val?" Sam asked.

"He's upstairs resting. His head looks fine." Johnny paused then, laid a hand on the doctor's shoulder. "Sorry if I scared you."

"You did but, I understand why."

Johnny smiled at him then headed for the back door.

"Johnny?" Murdoch called and waited until his son turned back. "Don't leave the *immediate* area without talking to me first?"

A smile adorned the young man's face. "Yeah, okay. If anyone pulls a gun on me, I'll tell them that, too." The smile left, anger with himself replacing it as he turned and walked outside.

*

Scott sighed then opened his eyes. Blinking several times, he frowned as memory returned. He sat up on the side of the bed and stretched then went to the dresser and washed up. His mind was focused on only one thing. Finding Crump and stopping him. And, this time, Johnny would not be giving him the slip. He was still a little angry with his brother even though he knew Johnny only had his best interests at heart.

Still, his brother had never mothered him, had always allowed Scott knew how to handle himself. For some reason, Johnny seemed to think this situation was different. Only, it wasn't. Well, there was no sense beleaguering the point to himself. He'd need to talk this over with his brother once Crump was taken care of.

He slipped into a fresh pair of pants then pulled a shirt out but, paused before donning it. Why him? Why was he the only one left standing? Why had Crump saved Lancer for last? He didn't know that it mattered, really but, he did feel some guilt over being alive when most of the others hadn't been so lucky. That four people had to die, another he wasn't even sure was still alive, before they'd found the man was unconscionable. And, nothing said Crump wouldn't succeed. Only a fool was arrogant enough to believe he'd survive when others hadn't.

Scott shook his head and pulled his shirt on. As he buttoned it, he walked over to his window and peered out. He saw the guards around the perimeter then, he spied his brother in the yard talking to Frank. Glancing to his right, he saw Sam's surrey and hurried to finish dressing. He only hoped there was good news about Shane.

He hadn't known Floyd Townsend well. The man hadn't been home very long from his studies in San Francisco. He did know how very proud Micah was of his son, who had just passed his bar examination and was planning on opening a law office in Green River.

Johnny and Shane had become friends quickly. Well, quickly for Johnny, anyway. Fred Saylor was the first man to openly - and loudly - welcome Johnny to the valley after they'd settled in at the ranch. Scott knew his father had been a little worried how their neighbors might react to Johnny Madrid. He knew because Murdoch had confided in him. At the time, Scott had been both pleased his father looked at him as a confidante and, worried for his brother. Fred's stamp of approval hadn't guaranteed no problems for, Johnny had experienced some uncomfortable moments with a few of the more narrow-minded inhabitants of this valley. But, he also knew how much Johnny appreciated Fred's efforts.  

He stepped into the kitchen to find Murdoch, Aggie and Sam sitting there sullen and distraught.

*

After learning of Shane's condition, Scott headed into the great room then, looked out the French doors to find his brother on the veranda. Johnny was standing there, just looking over the land, it seemed to Scott. He stepped outside and walked up beside his brother.

"You shouldn't be out here, Scott."

"It would take more than a Spencer rifle to hit me from here. The men have the perimeter."

Johnny glanced at him. "No sense in taking chances."

"I could say the same. I'm sure he's not too happy with you for spoiling his fun this morning."

Johnny made a noise. "Yeah, I really kept him from takin anymore lives, didn't I?"

"That's hardly your fault." Softer, Scott added, "I hope Shane makes it."

Sighing, Johnny stepped away from the wall and found a chair deep inside the veranda. He sat down and crossed his ankles then smiled a little at his brother.

Scott gave him a sidelong look then joined him, knowing Johnny was trying to get him out of view.

"You didn't sleep long."

"I feel much better. You don't want to talk about Shane?"

"Nothing to talk about. I'd like to go see him but, it doesn't sound like he's doing too good. His family will want to be with him now."

Scott nodded then stared at his boots. "I guess I feel a little guilty about being the only one left standing."

Johnny's lips twitched. "Want me to shoot you?"

"No, thank you. I'm sure I'll get past it on my own."

Silence hung between them for a long moment before Johnny spoke again. "Sam says Aidan's ready to start shooting anything that moves. I can't blame the kid."

Scott smiled a little then looked at his brother's profile, his own face falling as he took in the worry there. "We'll get him, brother."

"We'd better." Johnny turned and locked eyes with him. "I don't want to have to leave here but, if you get killed, I'll be tearing this valley apart before I'm done. That's all I'm sayin."

Scott smiled and laid a hand on his arm, squeezing tightly. "If you do, I'll haunt you."

Johnny took to his feet quickly and began pacing the veranda, his boots clicking on the tiles, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. "I can't sit here and wait anymore, Scott. I can't just sit here while he's out there planning your murder. I have to do something!"

Val stepped out the door and stood in front of Johnny, stopping his tirade. "Then, get us some horses and let's get it done."

Scott came to his feet and looked the sheriff over, satisfied he looked fit. "Sounds like a plan to me."

Val looked at him hard. "Not you, Scott. You're the target and we don't need no bait."

"Wait a minute, Val. I'm not going to hide here like some frightened child. This man is after *me* and I intend to be in on the hunt."

Johnny stepped up to his brother and took his arm. "Listen to me, okay? I understand what you're sayin and I know I've been trying to protect you too much but, Val's right. We know exactly what to do, Scott. I need you here because, we're going to push him right to you."

Scott's eyes widened and he looked at the sheriff who was nodding. "Like Pardee?"

With a smile, Johnny shrugged, "something like that, yeah."

"Alright, brother. But, just so you know, that is the only way I'd stay behind."

Johnny laughed a little. "Yeah, I know."

*

"No, absolutely not!"

Everyone in the room cringed a little at Murdoch's bellowing. Johnny glanced up to see if the ceiling might fall down on their heads.

"Murdoch, it's a good plan. Johnny and Val will push him right to us. We'll have him outnumbered and definitely outflanked," Scott explained.

The rancher scowled at his son but said nothing immediately.

"It worked before," Johnny pointed out.

To this, Murdoch whirled around and gave his other son a scathing glare. "Worked? I don't call you catching a bullet in the back working, Johnny!"

The young man dipped his head then looked back at his father with a wisp of a smile. "One lousy kink."

Murdoch gave him a look of disbelief then paced the room, his face a portrait of stubborn. "There has to be a better way."

"Well, if you come up with one, let us know." Johnny walked over to where his father had stopped, staring at a blank wall. "Look, Val and me know what we're doing, old man. If I'd had him with me the first time, I would've been fine. I just didn't know how much I could count on the two of you then. Now, I do and I know all we have to do is get him running in this direction. We have the easy part."

Val rolled his eyes at that line of bullshit then, saw Scott watching him. He grimaced a little but, wasn't about to say a word.

Murdoch turned to his son and shook his head slowly. "He'll come here on his own, Johnny. Don't you see?"

"When? Tomorrow, next week? Are we supposed to stay in the house, let the ranch go to pot, have Aggie move in permanently and let her ranch go? How long do we let this madman run our lives, Murdoch?"

The rancher didn't know what to say to that. He looked to Aggie, the question in his eyes.

She smiled softly at him. "I can't tell you anything, Murdoch. These are your boys."

Murdoch blew out a breath then looked squarely at Val. "If anything happens to him, don't bother coming back here." With that, he stormed out of the room taking most of the air with him.

Val raised a brow at that ... threat then, looked expectantly at Johnny.


"He didn't mean it."

Scott walked over to his brother and hooked an arm around his shoulders. "Oh, yes, he did."

*

As Val and Johnny rode under the Lancer arch, the lawman looked over briefly. "It ain't like I care about ever showin my face at Lancer again, anyway."

Johnny's lips twitched but, he said nothing.

"I mean, I don't need to ride all the way out here for nothin."

Johnny only stared straight ahead.

Val didn't look over at him. "But, just so ya know, if anything *does* happen to ya, it won't bother me none to kick your ass, shot or not!"

He finally lost control and laughed outright then, looked over at his friend. "Okay, Val. Now that I know I got an ass kickin to worry about, I'll try really hard not to get myself shot."

Val nodded his head in satisfaction then, looked out over the land. "He was at the Saylor's last so, he might still be in that general area."

"I don't know. He knows we've already seen him over there."

"Yeah, but there's a lot of places where he could set up camp and be close enough to keep an eye out, too."

Johnny shrugged and reined to the left, heading back across the valley floor they'd traversed just the day before. As they topped the rise, both men began searching for fresh tracks. There was nothing new there and, after half an hour, Johnny shook his head and looked to the east.

Val noticed him staring off and walked his mount over. "What?"

"I don't know. It just seems like he'd set up someplace different. Someplace closer to the house where he could see what's goin on." Johnny turned and looked at his friend. "It won't be easy to get him herded in the right direction. He's not stupid."

"I don't plan to herd him anywhere, Johnny. I plan on catchin the man outright."

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out. "I figured that. Just didn't see any sense in lettin Scott and Murdoch know."

"Well, if they need to know at any time, youâ€ll be the one explainin it. Not my job."

Johnny smirked at him. "Come on. We're losin daylight."

*

Scott paced the living room, hands clasped behind his back as he wore a rut in the floor. His head was bent down slightly, a deep frown on his face. Murdoch watched it and wondered what, in particular, was troubling his son. He was afraid to ask, frankly. Scott had been doing this ever since he'd returned from the kitchen and a long argument with Aggie over her cooking supper. She'd won, of course, and that's where she was now. Murdoch smiled a little, recalling Sam sitting at the table, charged with peeling potatoes. The man seemed happy enough with the task, though. His eyes came up as he noticed Scott had stopped pacing. "Have you figured it out?"

His head came up and he found his father's eyes. "Sir?"

"Whatever it is you've been chewing on, son. Have you figured it out?"

Scott pulled his shoulders back, the frown still firmly in place. "Oh, yes. I certainly have."

That got Murdoch's attention and he leaned forward in his desk chair. "And?"

Walking over, Scott sat opposite his father. "And, I hope it won't bother you too much to only have one son. I'm going to kill the other one. You might also start thinking about a new sheriff because, I'm going to kill him, too."

Murdoch gawked at him for a beat. "I'm afraid you're going to have to explain that one."

"Johnny ... snookered me to use his own phrase. He let me believe they were going to push Crump right into our arms."

"And you don't believe that now?"

"It doesn't make any sense, Sir. Now that I've had time to think about it." He paused, his anger easily seen. "Now that Johnny isn't smooth talking me. Damn him! I know better. Why did I let him do that?"

"Scott! Calm down and tell me what you mean," Murdoch ordered.

The younger man settled a little but, he was still most unhappy. "Why would Val chase him to the house? If they find him, they'll make a stand right there. Our sheriff doesn't need any help doing his job, especially with just one man. He let Johnny talk me into this and went right along with him."

Murdoch sat back and sighed. He knew there was something off about this whole plan. "So, he lied to us and went off to do what he wanted. Well, I'm not going to stand for that." After a pause, he looked at his son. "But, you do understand why he did it, don't you?"

Scott glanced at him then stared at his hands. "Yes, I understand he was trying to protect me but I don't need his protection, Murdoch. He stood right there and said he knew he shouldn't be doing that. All the while, that's exactly what his plan was."

"Your brother can be quite devious at times. And stubborn. If he thinks he's right, there's no talking him out of it. And Val. I swear sometimes, I think those two can read each other's minds."

Scott grimaced at that but, he wasn't about to comment. "I'm going after them."

"No, you're not and for several reasons. Not the least if which is, they aren't expecting it and, one of them could shoot you by mistake."

Scott stood and walked to the French doors. "I suppose that's true. Still, I am going to kill them both."

*

Murdoch chuckled a little then turned his head as Sam walked in the room.

"I snuck out while she was in the pantry. I don't know why that woman thinks I have a clue how to cook." The doctor took in both men then, walked over to Scott. "Has something happened?"

"Not that we know of. But then, we won't know until it's over, I'm sure. You had better stay here, Sam. Johnny and Val are going to need your services once I get hold of them."

Sam raised a brow and looked to Murdoch.

"Scott doesn't think they have any intentions of driving Crump to the house. That they plan on taking him themselves and, I have to agree."

Sam made an 'ah' gesture then, smiled a little as he turned to look at Scott's back. "You know he's only ..."

"I know what he's doing, Sam. It isn't his place and he has no right to keep me out of this. I don't have a death wish, certainly but, I can handle myself."

Sam stepped up beside him, unwilling to talk to the man's back. "Yes, you are most capable, Scott. Johnny does know that but, you see, it doesn't make any difference. You're in danger and he'll move heaven and earth to help you whether you want it or not."

Murdoch smiled. "He's right and, you'd do the exact same thing, Scott."

The younger man turned his head a little in their general direction. "I wouldn't tell him fairy tales to keep him safe." He closed his eyes a moment before turning to face Sam. "I can't believe I fell for it."

The physician laughed a little and patted his arm. "Why don't you sit down? You're going to wear yourself out. There's really nothing to be done but wait now, is there?" He took Scott's arm and started to walk to the sofa with him when the glass shattered behind them and, both men went to the floor.

Murdoch flew from his chair, drawing his gun and moving quickly to the French doors. He didn't see anything other than his own men reacting to the shot. They spread out, searching the entire area. Murdoch kept low and glanced at Scott and Sam. Neither was moving. "Scott?"

"I'm alright, Sir," he answered as he rolled to his side and sat up. "Just knocked the breath out of me." He looked beside him and reached out. "Sam, I think it's okay now."

The man didn't move and Scott leaned over him as Murdoch knelt on his other side.

"Oh, God!" Murdoch exclaimed as he rolled the man over a little. "He's been shot!"

*

Johnny's head jerked up from where he was kneeling over some tracks when he heard the shot. He came to his feet and paused only a split second. Long enough to find Val's eyes and see a nod. He vaulted into the saddle and took off toward the hacienda. He saw Val in his periphery as the chestnut matched Barranca's gait. Both men drew their guns as they rode.

Val was cussing himself, Crump and anything else he could think of as he kept an eagle eye on their surroundings, making sure they weren't about to be targets for that crazy sonofabitch. How could he have broken through the guard line? Lancer had more guards on it right now than a gold shipment. He told himself they didn't know what that shot was about yet. But, he couldn't convince himself it was anything else. The idea of riding in there and finding Scott dead ... he shut his mind to the thought. He had to concentrate because he knew Johnny only had one single purpose in his mind right now. Getting to his brother.

It can't be. It can't be. Johnny kept telling himself the same thing over and over. There's no way he got through their defenses. No way! Dammit it to hell and back, he was gonna kill that bastard if it was the last thing he did!

They rounded the back of the house side by side then, Johnny jumped from the saddle without breaking Barranca's stride. He tumbled and rolled through it, coming to a stop just a few feet from the veranda.

Val couldn't believe what he'd just seen. Johnny was on his feet now and had disappeared inside. He already had his horse stopped and he yelled at a hand to catch Barranca and bring him back. Val's feet landed hard on the earth and he took off toward the front door.

He skidded to a stop as he saw Johnny standing in the middle of the living room, perfectly still. Val's heart pounded as he walked up beside his friend. Johnny was staring at the floor and Val saw the large blood stain there. He put a hand on the tense arm which only hardened under his touch. "We don't know a thing yet. Come on. He's gotta be upstairs."

Johnny sucked in a stuttering breath then, nodded and turned, heading to the stairs.

*

Aggie ran up the back stairs as fast as she dared with the hot water. Entering Murdoch's room, she set the pan down and immediately went to Sam. "This is bad. Do you think you can get the bullet out, Murdoch?"

Near-panicked when he'd discovered his friend's injury, Murdoch had found his grit and gotten down to business quickly, barking orders and carrying Sam upstairs with Scott's help. "I don't know, Aggie. I just don't know. I can't tell how deep it is until I get in there." He shook his head. "I can't believe this."

"Neither can I," Scott said. "I'm going to check with the men, Sir. We need to find this animal before he hurts anyone else."

"Find Sam's bag for me first, Scott. I'm going to need it."

The young man nodded sharply and stepped into the hallway only to be nearly run over by his brother.

Johnny righted himself as Scott grabbed his arms to stop his forward momentum. A smile came to his face as he saw his brother unharmed then, quickly fell. "Murdoch?"

Scott took a deep breath. "No, Sam was hit."

"Sam?" Val blurted out then slumped against the wall behind Johnny. "Damn!"

"I need to find his medical bag. I don't suppose you two found Crump?"

Johnny shook his head. "We picked up his tracks. How the hell did he get through?!"

"I don't know! I've been a little busy! Look, we can think about this later. Right now, Sam needs help. Go talk to the men. Find out what happened and find that bastard!" Scott skirted around Johnny then stormed down the stairs.

Johnny fell against the wall and took a deep breath then, turned to Val. The fire in his own eyes matched Val's, he was sure. Together, they headed back downstairs and outside.

*

Murdoch sat on the mattress and put a gentle hand on his friend's chest, watching it rise and fall with each breath. He closed his eyes and said a prayer then felt Aggie's hands on his shoulders.

"You can do this, Murdoch. I know you can."


"I'll need your help, Aggie. God help us all if I make a mistake."

She squeezed his tight shoulders. "You won't. We won't. We'll get him through this. I just can't believe that man would try and kill a doctor!"

Murdoch looked up at her when he heard the ire in her voice. His own tone was sad. "He wasn't. Sam was standing right next to Scott and they had just started to move away from the doors. He was aiming at my boy."

Her face fell and she tightened her jaw, determined not to waste senseless tears when there was important work to be done. "Alright. Let me set things up so we'll be ready when Scott gets back."

Murdoch helped her clean the wound, high on Sam's right chest. He hoped it had only hit muscle but, he couldn't be sure about that lung. Sam was breathing alright for now, though. He looked up when Scott returned with Sam's bag under his arm and a pot of steaming water.

"I boiled everything. I didn't know what you might need," he explained as he set the pot on the table Aggie had prepared. "Johnny and Val are back and they're checking things outside."

"They know about Sam?"

Scott nodded. "Yes, I told them. I think I know what murder looks like before it happens now."

Murdoch looked hard at his son but, he found he couldn't argue the point. His eyes went to Sam, pale and unconscious. He sighed heavily. "Alright. Scott, you'll need to handle the ether. I'll need Aggie on this side with me."

*

Johnny stormed out of the house and walked over to the nearest man he could find which was Walt. "What the hell happened? How did he get through?"

The young hand took a step back from the menacing growl and shook his head. "He didn't. It was long range."

"Long range? From where? How did he get close enough to use that rifle, Walt?" Johnny grabbed his shirt in clenched hands and shook the man. "How?!"

"Johnny!" Val shouted as he wrenched the man's hands away from Walt who staggered back. "It ain't his fault! Now, cool off before I hafta cool you off!"

Johnny turned on his friend, his eyes dark as a thunderhead, heat radiating from him. He said not a word.


Val narrowed his own eyes and glared right back. "You're gonna make a mistake if you don't settle down. Find it, Johnny. Find it right now!"

The younger man continued to stare at him for another few seconds then, he turned on his heel and walked away a few feet. Val sighed and looked at Walt. "Sam Jenkins was shot, Walt. You can understand how Johnny's upset about that. Tell me where the shot came from."

Walt's eyes widened at the news then, he shook his head to clear it and turned, pointing out to the north. "Out there. Frank's gone out with some men to track him but, I ain't heard nothin from them yet, Sheriff. I don't know how he managed to get that close. We had a man out there."

"Who?" Johnny walked back over, his eyes no longer smoldering, his demeanor calm, his entire body relaxed.

Walt only stared for a beat at the change then, "Luke had that area."

Johnny nodded once then looked around, finding Barranca tethered to a hitching post. He frowned for a second. "Saddle us two fresh mounts, Walt. Ours have had it for now." As the young man started to the barn, Johnny took hold of his upper arm. "I'm sorry."

Walt gave a little smile and a nod then went to carry out his orders.

Johnny gave Val a sidelong glance. "Thanks."

Val simply nodded. "Is this Luke a good hand?"

"He's young, still learning but, he's been doing a good job."

"How long's he been here?"

Johnny screwed his face in thought. "About three months. Why?"

Val shrugged and walked around a small circle. "Nothin. Just need to know if he's trustworthy."

"He's not workin with Crump, Val. I'd stake my life on that. He's a good kid."

*

Murdoch cussed under his breath then bit his lip as Aggie wiped the sweat from his brow. "I can feel it. I'm just having a hard time getting hold of it."

Scott watched his father digging in Sam's chest with a frown. "You'll get it, Sir. Just be patient."

Their eyes met briefly and Murdoch nodded his appreciation. Scott's encouragement helped and he took a deep breath, settling himself down. He just had to stop thinking about who he was working on and concentrate on getting that damned bullet ... "Got it!"

He held the bent metal up to the light to ensure it was all in one piece before dropping it on a cloth Aggie provided. "Scott, pour some of that water in the wound. I want to make sure there's nothing bleeding too badly in there."

Scott grabbed the rest of the once hot water and slowly poured it into the wound as Aggie mopped it up with towels. Murdoch nodded and both stopped as he examined the wound.

"Looks good. Is there any carbolic?"

With a wince, Scott rifled through Sam's medical bag and pulled out the bottle, handing it off then checking Sam's condition. "His breathing is still good. His pulse is awfully fast, Sir."

"I'm sure it is," Murdoch mumbled as he poured the carbolic into the wound. Funny how much he'd learned just by helping Sam over the years when one of his hands would be injured then, more recently, his sons. The frown deepened on his face, pulling his brows even closer together.

"If you've got this now, I'll go check on Johnny and Val."

Murdoch paused as he held the needle and thread in hand. "I'll need your help with the bandage, son. I'm sure Johnny and Val will let us know when they have something."

"Will they?" Scott snarked then, lowered his head for a second. "My apologies, Miss Aggie. I'm a little perturbed with my brother and our good sheriff at the moment."

"I understand, Scott. We're all very upset over Sam and everything that's been happening. It's all such a senseless waste of life. But, I think it's most important to care for Sam right now."

His shoulders sagged and he smiled at her. "Of course, you're right."

Murdoch looked over at her with a most grateful expression.

*

Johnny and Val met up with Frank and the hands halfway across the field. Johnny didn't stand on ceremony. "Where's Luke?"

Frank Jackson lowered his eyes and shook his head. "It's my fault, Johnny. I never should've let that kid stay out there alone. We found him right at his post but ..."

"But, what?" Val asked.

Frank looked at the sheriff. "He's dead. Throat was cut ear to ear."

Johnny dropped his head then looked away from them all.

"Found one shell casing from a rifle," Frank continued, fishing in his pocket and pulling out the piece of metal then handing it off to Val.

Val looked at it briefly. "Same as the others. No surprise there. Tracks?"

"Yeah, but we lost 'em in the river."

Johnny's head came back around. "The river? He went through the river and no one saw him? No one caught him? What the hell were you all doing?"

Frank's eyes fired. "We were at our posts, Johnny. We can't put all the hands on guard all the time. Somebody's got to work, too."

Val's moustache twitched as he listened. He admired the man for standing his ground especially against his boss. He looked over at Johnny who was simply staring at Frank.

Johnny felt all their eyes on him and, he knew Frank had every right to say what he'd just said. He needed to get hold of himself and right now. A smile came to his lips unbidden as he looked into the proud yet, angry eyes of this man. He might have laughed if things weren't so bad right now. Softly, he asked, "which way did he head?"

Frank relaxed his whole body then jerked his head to his right. "Upstream."

Johnny nodded, started to rein his horse to his left then, paused. "Pull the crews in and reset the perimeter. Double the guards. No one works on anything else until this is finished."

*

Val grimaced as the cold water splashed up on his legs. He crossed to the opposite side and searched for where Crump came out of the river. He wanted to laugh, tease Johnny about being told off but, damn if he could find the gumption to laugh about much right now.   Maybe later, maybe in a year or so. Maybe not. The deaths that had occurred in this valley were weighing heavy on his shoulders. He felt like he'd been running in circles since the very first one.

Jake Wilson then, one day later Larry Carver. Then, three days after that, Chase Reynolds. He'd tried for Shane the same day. Sure was in a hurry. Of course, it didn't matter one bit to the man that they knew who he was and were on his trail. Almost had him at that shack. Val was still pissed about that. What did Crump expect to happen if he managed to kill everyone he was after? Did he think he'd just ride away? He might have if ole Otto and the Reynolds kid hadn't seen him. Now, he was set on killin Scott to round out his little spree.

He wondered how Sam had managed to get in the way. Of course, from that far off, Crump couldn't be for certain who he was shootin. He couldn't be sure Scott was dead, either. Val wondered, too, if he knew Shane Saylor was still alive. IF he was still alive. With Sam down ... he shook his head. He couldn't think about that right now. Hell, he didn't even know if the doc was alive. Frustrated nearly beyond his limits, Val glanced over at Johnny, scouring the earth as he slowly rode along the bank across from him. Then, his friend stopped and dismounted.

Val pulled back on his reins and waited what felt forever before Johnny looked off to his right then, back at Val. He waved for Val to join him and the sheriff frowned. He's bein quiet, he realized. Slowly, he moved his horse into the water and crossed as quietly as he could then, leaned over as Johnny stepped up to him.

"He came out here and headed off into those trees. The tracks are real fresh. Could be he's right over there now," Johnny explained.

Val nodded then looked straight ahead. "Be best to move on then come back around. Try to get behind him if we can."

"If he's watchin us, that won't matter and he'll have time to get away."

Val gave him a cross look. "What're you thinking, Johnny?"

"I'm thinking of riding right in there while you go on. We can argue about it, make him think we're at odds."

Val kept his voice low but, the growl was still there. "We *are* at odds. It's a stupid thing to do!"

"We need to stop this, Val!"

"Ain't gonna stop it by gettin yourself killed, Johnny! Just another notch for Crump! Or do ya want your old man to have to dig a bullet out of you like he's doin to Sam right now!"

Johnny dropped his eyes but not his head. When he looked back at Val, there was nothing on his face. "What do you want to do?"

"Just what I said. Move on then circle back. Once we get around that bend up there, we can wait a while to see if he spotted us then, go on around."

Johnny sighed, hands on hips as he regarded his friend. "It'll be dark in less than an hour."

"I know but, we ain't got no choice. He ain't leavin until he's sure he's done what he came to do. Might be a good idea to send someone over to the Saylor place when we get back. Check on Shane."

Johnny said nothing, just turned sharply and mounted his horse then, moved on down the river bank.

*

They hovered near the bend for fifteen minutes but, saw no movement. Johnny's patience reached its limit and, without a word, he spurred his horse forward and rode into the wooded area, gun drawn.

Val cussed under his breath then, followed him. It was much darker in the woods, the already setting sun giving no light to the dense forestry. He knew it wasn't a large woods but, it was big enough to get lost in if a man wanted.

They picked their way slowly as both tried to find any hoof prints. Val pulled to a stop when Johnny dismounted. "What is it?"

Shaking his head, Johnny looked back at him briefly. "Nothing. I don't think he came through here."

"He had to."

"Well, then, he sprouted wings and flew through. There's only so much room to ride a horse through here and, there ain't no tracks to find, Val."

The sheriff ignored the sarcastic tone, knowing it was his worry that caused it. He bowed his head a moment then, looked up. "Probably went the same way we just did, then. Come on, we might get lucky for a change."

Johnny mounted up, disgusted with himself. What the hell was happening to him? He couldn't get this man right. Usually, he could figure out a man's plan at some point but, this one was all over the place. Hell, maybe he didn't have a plan anymore. If that was the case, they were really in trouble.

By the time they returned to their former spot, the sun was well down. Val sighed and pulled his hat off, scrubbing his scalp before jamming it back on. "Can't see a thing. Let's head back to your place. See about Sam and send someone over to the Saylor ranch."

Johnny didn't say anything, just fell in beside Val as they headed to the hacienda. After several quiet moments, he swallowed his pride. "I'm sorry, Val. It's my fault he got away. If I'd listened to you instead of arguing, we would've picked up his trail."

Val said nothing, just stared straight ahead.

Johnny watched his profile for a moment, chewing his own lip. "I guess it's just ... well, Sam and how Crump managed to get that close. Think I'm losing my edge."

Val pulled to a stop then and shifted in the saddle, turning to face him. "Bullshit. Yeah, you sure let your feelins for Sam get in your way this time but, you ain't losin nothin, Johnny. You just gotta find a way now to separate things out. You never had to do that before. Now, there's a lot of people in your life to care and worry over. Things are a lot different but, you ain't thought about that. Maybe, this is a wake up call for you." He stopped and let out a harsh breath. "I shouldn't have let you call this one. I knew better. But, it was my idea to wait it out. Guess I got some changin to do, too."

Johnny smiled a little and nodded. "Guess neither one of us is too good at this yet. Don't worry, Val. We'll get there."


The man hmmphed. "Sure, if we live through the night. Come on. I need some coffee bad."

*

Murdoch stared out the bedroom window, seeing nothing. The sun had set and he hadn't really noticed. Now, as the night grew darker, his worry rose. Johnny should have been back by now unless they'd either found Crump or were close on his trail. He hadn't heard any gunfire so, that was a good sign, he supposed.

A grunt from the bed broke through his reverie and he moved quickly over, sitting in the chair beside Sam. Placing a hand on his friend's arm, he waited as Sam awoke. "Easy, my friend. Just don't move around."

Sam frowned, a fiery pain awakening in his chest. Or, had the pain awakened him? He didn't know why his chest was hurting so badly. Then, he heard Murdoch's voice, felt the touch and forced his eyes open. Blinking several times, he brought the man into focus. Before he could ask anything, Murdoch had moved then, he felt the man's hand behind his neck, lifting his head and a glass was pressed to his lips. He drank a little, finding it hard to swallow at first. Then, as his throat was wetted, he tried to inhale the glass.

"Slowly, Sam. You'll get sick."

The doctor scowled as Murdoch eased his head back onto the pillows. "I believe that's my line. What happened?"

Murdoch glanced sidelong at him as he busied himself at the bedside table. He measured out a dose of laudanum and held it to his friend's mouth. "Take this and we'll talk about it."

He almost refused then, he nearly laughed at himself. He'd never live that one down. So, obediently, he opened his mouth and took the bitter medicine. "Alright, now what happened?"

Sitting back in his chair, Murdoch sighed. "You were shot. Crump managed to get close enough to use that rifle of his. I'm sure he was aiming at Scott but, you got in the way. Sam, I am so sorry."

"Is Scott alright?"

"He's fine. Johnny and Val went after Crump. They haven't come back yet."

Sam nodded then winced at the movement. "How long have I been out?"

"A few hours, my friend. I took the bullet out, cleaned the wound and sewed you up. We didn't give you a lot of ether. I'm sure, when you're feeling better, you can tell me how I did it all wrong." A smile tugged at the rancher's lips.

Sam smiled more fully. "Yes, I'm sure I will." Soon, a frown replaced the smile. "That man needs to be stopped."

"I know but, that's turning out to be quite a chore."

"Well, I'm sure Val and Johnny can handle it."

Scott stood in the doorway, more than pleased to hear Sam's voice sounding fairly strong. When he heard the man's last comment, he almost snorted out loud. "I'm not so sure about that." He moved on into the room and sat gently on the mattress. "Welcome back, Sam. I can't tell you how sorry I am."

Sam waved his unaffected arm at the young man. "It wasn't your doing, son. Why aren't you so sure about Johnny and Val?"

Scott looked over at his father before answering the doctor. "Frank told me Johnny was a little out of control. That Val had to rein him in hard. Then, Walt said Johnny grabbed him and was yelling at him."

Murdoch frowned deeply at this news. "That doesn't sound like Johnny."

"Yes, well, I think Sam being shot sent him spiraling." Scott patted the physician's arm. "I know it did me."

All three turned their heads toward the doorway as they heard the sounds of heavy bootfalls in the hall.

*

Johnny pulled up at the threshold and eyed the three of them before going to Sam's side as Scott stood and moved away to give him room. He knelt beside the bed and looked forlornly at the man. "I'm so sorry, Sam."


"Will everyone stop apologizing? None of you shot me. It's not your fault, any of you. I'm going to be fine. Your father missed his calling, I think. He could have been a vet." The scowl fell from his face at the last and he smiled warmly.

Johnny laughed at that then looked at Murdoch who didn't find it amusing. "Are you really feelin alright? Tell me the truth, now."

Rolling his eyes, Sam knew he was in trouble. "I suppose you think you're going to give me a taste of my own medicine now? Well, that can work both ways, young man."

Johnny sneered at him then smiled. "We'll see, Doc. We'll see. Best thing for you to do is get some rest. Plenty of fluids and some nice broth is what you need."

Sam managed to smack his arm before Johnny stood up. "That sounds like excellent advice. You must have learned it from a very intelligent man."

Scott was grinning at their shenanigans. It felt good to have something to smile about. Still. "Alright, you two. This could go on all night. Sam needs his rest and, we all need to talk."

Murdoch nodded his agreement. "Aggie will be in soon, my friend. Do you need anything?"

"Just a little peace and quiet, Murdoch." Sam reached out and squeezed his arm. "Thank you for saving my life."

Dipping his eyes briefly, Murdoch looked back at the man and nodded then, stood and eyed the other three men in the room. They all moved through the doorway. As he pulled the door to, Murdoch glanced back at Sam who had already closed his eyes. He looked relaxed and comfortable. Murdoch only hoped it stayed that way.

*

Once in the living room, Murdoch looked his younger son over head to toe. "I understand you lost your temper with Frank and Walt."

Johnny bowed his head a moment. "Yeah."

"Johnny, I know how proud you are but, if you can't handle this ..."

Johnny's eyes turned to ice as he stepped up to his father. "I can handle it just fine, old man." He knew he'd just lied to his father and he turned away. "Yeah, okay, I lost it for a while but, I'm alright now."

"I'd hate to see what you would've been like if Scott had been the one shot."

Johnny sighed and looked back at the man. "Yeah, you would've hated that, for sure."

"We lost his trail when it got dark," Val said suddenly. He didn't want to stand there and listen to them all nag each other. "Figure he's still close by or, maybe at the Saylor's. Johnny sent a couple of men over there to check things out."

"How would he know that Shane is still alive?" Scott asked.

"How the hell does he know anything, Scott? The man moves around like a ghost. Nobody sees 'im until it's too late. Slippery bastard." Val muttered the last as he headed toward the kitchen. "I need some coffee."

"You need some rest, Sheriff. Both of you. I don't think you've stopped for two days."

Val turned and looked at Murdoch. "I had a couple of hours earlier. Johnny might need to fall down somewhere for a while. Nothin else we can do tonight, anyway, except keep a sharp watch."

"The guards are doubled. No one is posted alone." Johnny paused and looked at Murdoch. "I told the men there'd be no ranch work until this was over. That they all needed to stay close to the house." Murdoch nodded and he breathed a sigh of relief. "Well, think I will try for a couple hours shuteye. Wake me up, Scott?"

"I will, brother. By the way, when this is all over, you and I need to have a little chat."

Johnny cocked his head aside and eyed his brother closely. He didn't like the look he was getting and he turned to his father. "I got a feelin he's not going to wake me up."

"You'll be lucky if he doesn't throttle you in your sleep, young man." Murdoch walked over and squeezed his shoulder. "I'll make sure you get woke up, son."

Johnny nodded then headed upstairs, figuring he should probably lock his bedroom door. He knew why Scott was pissed at him but, right now, he couldn't deal with that. He was exhausted and mad as hell.

*

Val walked back into the living room with a pot of coffee and his cup. He slowed his gait as he noticed Johnny wasn't there then, he settled in a chair, putting the pot on the coffee table.

Scott raised a brow at the pot then shook his head. He sat in the chair next to Val and eyed the man.

After a long moment, Val, without looking up, asked, "what?"

"You know what."

"You're thinkin if you'd gone with us in the first place, Sam wouldn't've got shot."

Scott leaned forward a little. "That's part of it."

"And that you're grown and can handle yourself," Val continued.

"That's the other part of it."

He finally looked over at Scott, sitting there scowling at him like it was his doing. "Well, Scott, you're gonna have to talk to Johnny about that one. I don't mean to hurt your feelins or nothin but, the simple truth is, we do work well together."

"I realize that, Val. Do you honestly think I'd get in the way of that?"

The man studied him a while before answering. "That don't have anything to do with. I know you don't like it and, he'd be the same way if things were turned around. The fact is, Johnny is gonna do whatever he has to do to protect you. Don't matter if it's what you want, Scott. Maybe it ain't right but, that's how he is. You should know that by now."

Scott shook his head. "He's never been this way before. Not like this."

"Never had a madman killin half the damned valley before, neither." At Scott's cocked brow, Val shrugged. "Well, he didn't know ya then."

He simply nodded, knowing Val was always going to go along with Johnny on this sort of thing. He supposed it was just the way their friendship was and, he knew Val didn't want to get in the middle of family business. "I sometimes wonder if he ever will really know me."

Val looked over at that, damned near rolled his eyes at the man then, smirked. "Reckon you'd have to be willin for that to happen, Scott."

"Now, what does that mean? I'm perfectly willing."

Both men heard a snort from across the room. Murdoch stood from his desk where he'd been listening quietly to their conversation and walked over. "Son, you aren't the easiest person to get to know. None of us are. It takes time and patience, I suppose. But, think about this. If Johnny were the one this man was after, how would you handle it? And while you're pondering that, think about this as well. Your brother is willing to put his life at risk to save yours. Now, gentlemen, I'm going to sit with Sam awhile."

Scott frowned at his father's retreating back then turned to look at Val with his head slightly lowered and moustache twitching. "Oh, shut up!"

Val snickered then laughed.

*

Murdoch eased the door to his bedroom open then paused when he spied his son sitting at the bedside. Shaking his head, he walked over and laid a hand on Johnny's shoulder. Only then did he see the young man was holding a picture of his mother which Murdoch kept on his dresser. The squeeze increased a little.

"He's sleeping good. No fever," Johnny whispered.

"You should be sleeping yourself, son."

He shrugged then, sat up straighter and rolled his shoulders. "Can't settle. I guess Scott scared me." He looked up at his father, a teasing grin on his face.

Murdoch chuckled a little at that and patted his shoulder. "I know you're worried about him. So am I, but, you have to rest, Johnny. You won't be worth a nickel if you don't."

"I know," he breathed out then, stood and faced his father. Head lowering, he stared at the picture a moment longer then, handed it to Murdoch. "I'll try again."

Murdoch watched him walk out the door then, looked down at the likeness of his second wife with a frown. What had Johnny been thinking when he walked in here? It wasn't about Scott, he was pretty sure. Not the way he was holding this picture and staring so hard at it. He sighed and walked over to the dresser, replacing the photograph. No, they didn't know each other all that well. Not at all.

"Murdoch?"

He turned and went to the bedside. "How are you feeling, Sam?"

He wiped a hand over his face then let his arm fall to his side. "Not great but, I'll recover. I thought I heard Johnny talking to me. Was I dreaming?"

"I don't know. He was just here when I came in. He wasn't talking then but, maybe before. He said you don't have a fever."

Sam nodded. "That's good." The frown deepened on his face. "I'd swear he was talking to me. I don't know what he was saying but, he sounded sad."

Murdoch let out a soft breath. "He was holding a picture of Maria. Maybe, he was confiding in you. It's a lot easier to do that when the other person isn't awake."

A cocked brow met that statement. "And, you would know?"

Chagrined, Murdoch nodded then, decided to change the subject. "I was just telling Scott how much his brother cared for him and how he'd probably react the same were the roles reversed."

"They'll be fine, my friend. They always are." Sam moved a little and hissed. "You know, I've never been shot before. I don't like it one bit."

Murdoch laughed outright at that. "Maybe now, you'll have a better understanding of what your patients are going through."

*

Scott watched with some amusement as Val's head bobbed then rolled to the side against the chair cushion. He stood and leaned over, easing the coffee cup from the man's hand and eliciting only a mumble. He set the cup on the table then walked over near the French doors or, what was left of them. Standing to one side, he peered into the night knowing he'd see nothing.

With a sigh of frustration, he ambled around the room, deep in thought. This was all happening because of him. Regardless of who was to blame or that this man was a lunatic, it was him Crump was gunning for. So far, he'd had very little say in how this was handled and he was tired of that. This was his life and, his friend had paid for it. His family could well pay, too, before it was over. Nothing said Crump wouldn't get what he was after.

Scott was determined to stop the man however he had to. Not one more drop of innocent blood would be spilled by that man. He grimaced as he thought of Luke. He was just a boy, really. Like Chase. Scott's hands curled into tight fists as he thought of everyone who'd been murdered by this maniac.

He walked over to the gun rack and selected a Winchester then, grabbed a box of shells. Sparing a glance at Val and satisfied the man was still asleep, Scott walked to the front door and eased it open then, slipped out.

*

It wasn't happening. Johnny rolled onto his side, raised up and pounded his pillow then sagged back against it. He laid there a few more minutes. Nope, it ain't happening. With a near growl of frustration, he sat up on the side of the bed and leaned forward, stretching his back muscles. They ached, hell, everything ached. He was bone tired but, maybe he was too tired to sleep. Wouldn't be the first time.

But, he knew that wasn't really the problem. The problem was out there in the dark, lurking and waiting to kill his brother. He couldn't believe Sam had been shot. He couldn't believe Crump had gotten that close, killed Luke so cold-blooded then got away again! He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. And, he couldn't believe how he'd acted with Walt and Frank. He hated himself for that. He'd have to make it up to both of them. Maybe, give them some time off and pick up the slack himself. It was the least he could do.

He stood up and tucked his shirt tails in as he walked to the window. Pulling the curtain back, he could see little past the yard directly below him. Then, he saw a shadow move. Johnny tensed and moved to the side of the window, squinting at the movement.

"Son of a bitch!" he whispered when he saw his brother headed for the barn. He grabbed his boots and shoved them on then picked up his gunbelt. Wrapping it around his hips, he jerked his door open then proceeded to buckle the rig even as he walked hurriedly to the stairs.

Johnny glanced quickly into the great room and saw Val sleeping. He hesitated then, shook his head and opened the door. He didn't have time to wake Val. It was never an easy task anyway. The man would most likely come up swinging and he just didn't have time to deal with that.

*

Scott slipped quietly into the barn then peered into the semi-darkness, leaning the rifle against the wall near the door. Remembering how Crump had hidden out and gotten the drop on Johnny, he grabbed a lantern and turned up the wick, holding it in his left hand while he drew his gun and searched the barn. Satisfied no one was in the structure, Scott replaced the lantern, lowering the light so as not to draw attention to himself.

He grabbed the rifle and walked over to Remmie's stall. The chestnut came up to him and blew softly. "Sorry, my friend. I know it's late but, we have work to do." Scott laid his rifle down once more and went about saddling his mount quickly.

He'd just tightened the cinch when he thought he heard a noise. It was soft, barely discernible, and he wasn't sure he'd heard it at all. He stepped out of the stall and looked around but, in the dimmer light, he could see nothing. It was quiet now and he decided he was hearing ghosts. A small smile flew across his face replaced by a frown as he thought about Crump.

Maybe he was being arrogant or, maybe he was simply facing up to his responsibilities. Either way, Scott felt an obligation to stop this man after all the pain he'd caused. It was up to him and it was that simple. He knew no one would agree but, he couldn't help that. Johnny was not going to sit on him like some wayward child. He was still angry with his brother. No matter how many people explained it, the reason didn't matter in the end. Saying this was just Johnny's way wasn't nearly a good enough reason to Scott's mind. He could take care of himself.

He grabbed the rifle and shoved it into the scabbard then gathered up the reins. Then, he froze. He'd definitely heard something then. Scott pulled his Colt and stepped slowly from the stall.

*

Johnny eased through the small opening he'd allowed in the door then closed it quickly. His eyes adjusted to the low light as he scanned the interior of the barn. He settled his gaze on his brother who was watching him and he shook his head as he walked over. "Goin for a ride, brother?"

Relaxing his shoulders, Scott walked over to him. "I thought I might."

"Not very smart, is it?"

"Well, since I'm the one being hunted and you haven't had any luck, I thought I should at least give it a try."

Johnny's face darkened and he turned his back on Scott, walking away a few paces toward the stacks of hay in the west corner of the barn. "I'm trying, Scott."

Sighing, Scott shook his head. "I know that, Johnny. I'm not going to hide anymore, though. I can't sit around while you and Val are out there. Look, this is about me. Do I deserve it? Of course not. But, that doesn't matter. Crump is after me, not you, not Murdoch, not anyone else now."

"I know, Scott. But, if you ride out there, he'll kill you sure as the world. You won't see him, won't hear him. That's how it is. He knows you aren't some kid and he knows you're ready for him so he won't ride up to you."


"You must think I'm some kind of fool, Johnny."

He turned then and stared at his brother, confused by the statement.

Scott stepped a little closer, his features marred with anger. "I don't need you to tell me what he's going to do. I'm not an idiot. I have had some experience, you know. I don't have to be a gunfighter to be able to handle myself."

Johnny's brows raised at the onslaught. "I never said you did."

"Maybe not in words but, the way you and Val have been shouldering me out of this, it's the best conclusion I can come up with. You keep saying you know I can handle myself but, that isn't true. If it were, you wouldn't have tried so hard to keep me on ice."

Johnny glared at his brother. "Maybe you are an idiot, Scott, if you don't get why I've been trying to keep you alive."

"I get that but, you have never treated me this way before. I don't like it one bit and I'm not going to stand for it anymore. That's all there is to it. And if you can't 'get' that, we have nothing else to discuss!"

Johnny ground his jaw, trying to get himself under control before he said anything else he'd regret. He opened his mouth then, his eyes slid past his brother and he tensed.

Scott was ready for whatever Johnny threw at him. He almost looked forward to hearing his brother state again that he knew Scott could handle himself. At the moment, he was livid and all the grief and worry of the past days were culminating into a monumental blow up. He knew it, knew he'd probably regret it later but, right now, he wanted to fight with Johnny. But, he never expected what he saw next. Scott watched with disbelief as Johnny drew his gun, cocking it as he brought it to bear and aiming it directly at him. His eyes widened then, he threw himself to the ground as the Colt exploded in the near silence of the barn.

Johnny crouched with the second shot, fanning the hammer as he continued firing four more times. He stayed where he was a few seconds as the smoke cleared then, slowly straightened as he reholstered his weapon and walked past his brother to the downed man. Kneeling, he pulled the rifle from the man's grasp then tossed it away before turning him off his side and finding himself staring into the black depths.

A slow, crooked smile slid up Crump's face as he opened his mouth, a gurgle escaping at first. He swallowed down the blood and tried again, managing to croak the words. "Thank you for finishing this." With that, his eyes rolled back and he sighed out.

Johnny frowned at the words then pressed his fingers to Crump's neck for several seconds. He sighed and pushed his hat off his head. "Well, I guess that arguments been settled, brother." He turned to look at Scott with a small smile that fell away when he saw his brother still on the ground, his back to Johnny.

He moved quickly to Scott's side, taking his shoulder and rolling him over. Scott had his hand clamped against his own neck. "Scott?"

The pale blue eyes blinked then, focused on his brother leaning over him. Eyes wide with shock, he swallowed hard. "You got him?"

Johnny leaned closer, pulling Scott's hand away then, immediately pressing it back when the blood gushed. "Madre de dios!" He grabbed Scott up in his arms and ran back to the house.

*

Murdoch's head jerked up and he looked around confusedly. His eyes settled on Sam who looked stricken.

"It was gunshots, Murdoch. Somewhere outside."

The rancher flew to his feet and looked out the window, peering into the night. He was about to turn and leave the room, head downstairs when he saw someone coming out of the barn. It took a second for him to realize what his eyes were seeing. "Oh, my God," he breathed.

"What? What is it?"

"It's Johnny and he's carrying Scott!" Murdoch exclaimed as he ran out the door.

Sam watched him go then pulled the covers back.

*

Val sat straight up in the chair then came to his feet, gun drawn and scanning the room, trying to figure out where the shots had come from. He was headed for the front door when it flew open. Gun cocked and aimed, he cussed when he recognized Johnny. "What the hell happened?"

"Help me get him upstairs, Val. He's shot in the neck!"

The lawman didn't hesitate. He took Scott from Johnny, feeling the heat coming from his friend. He glanced at Scott as he headed up the stairs, a grimace flying across his face.

Murdoch stopped midway down when he saw Val carrying his son. He turned wordlessly and headed back up, going to Scott's room and throwing the covers back. As Val laid the man down, Murdoch asked, "where?"

"Neck," Val replied then, sat on the bed and pulled Scott's hand back. It was a miracle to him that the man was still conscious and able to hold pressure to the wound. As soon as Scott's hand moved, blood spurted. Val clamped his own hand over it. "Christ! He's gonna need Sam."

"Sam is no in shape, Val," Murdoch growled as he filled the wash basin and sat on the other side of the bed. Ringing out a cloth, he nodded to Val when he was ready and the sheriff moved his hand. Murdoch grimaced as he got a quick look. His stomach turned as he thought of how he could possibly fix this. He wasn't qualified and he knew it.

"We gotta have Sam, Mr. Lancer. I don't think you want to take this on and I know I don't."

Murdoch looked up at him then, his eyes went past Val who turned around.

Johnny walked in with Sam, his arm around the doctor, holding him up.

"Val, I need hot water. Get my bag and boil all the instruments then, get me a hot knife. Move, man!" As Val ran out of the room, Sam turned to Murdoch. "Keep pressure on it. A LOT of pressure! Johnny, grab that chair and put it as close to the bed as you can."

Murdoch watched as the doctor settled into the chair, already sweating from the effort of getting to the room. "Can you do this, Sam?"

"I have to, Murdoch. Johnny told me where the wound is and I don't want you to touch it. I'm sorry, but, this is nothing you can handle." Sam turned and looked over his shoulder at the young man hovering over him. "Go find Val and bring my bag up."

Johnny nodded. He kept his head down, unable to look at either his father or brother. He left the room quickly.

"Not his fault."

Sam turned back and leaned over Scott, smiling a little. "I know, Scott. He'll know, too, one of these days. Right now, we have to get you fixed up."

Scott swallowed and winced. "It's bad," he whispered.

Sam kept his face blank. "I know, son. That's why I'm here. For the bad things. Now, close your eyes and try to rest."

*

For fifteen minutes, Murdoch kept heavy pressure on the wound. He was sure his arm was going to fall off but, it would have to before he let go of his boy. He couldn't believe where Scott had been shot and he wanted to know how it had come about. Right now, however, all his attention was focused on stopping the bleeding or, at least slowing it down. He looked over at Sam and wondered if the man really could do this. Sam was sweating and pale and, his hand was shaking. Murdoch swallowed dryly. "I can do it if you tell me exactly how."

Sam blinked and looked up then, shook his head. "No, Murdoch. I'll be alright. I know I look like hell but, I have to do this. If it isn't done just right ..." he stopped and looked down at Scott, "he'll die. Once I cauterize it, you can to the rest."

Murdoch nodded though he wasn't so sure Sam could pull this off. Was he willing to put his son's life in the hands of a man so recently injured himself? He found he wasn't able to easily answer that question. He looked up as Johnny and Val came back.

Johnny set the water on the bedside table and looked at Sam with a frown. "You okay, Doc?"

"Yes, I'm fine."

He doubted that and, finally looked at his father, that doubt showing in his eyes.

"Sam says once he cauterizes it, we can do the rest. However, I can't say I'm not worried. Your hands are shaking, my friend."

Sam glared at him then went about preparing himself. "I told you what will happen if this isn't cauterized precisely. I'm perfectly capable of doing it and it won't take but a few seconds. Now, we can sit here and debate it while Scott bleeds to death or, you can hush and let me get on with it. Which will it be?"

Murdoch returned the glare with one of his own then looked to Johnny. "What do you think, son?"

Surprised he was even being asked, Johnny sighed. "Let Sam do it, Murdoch." He figured if Scott did die, at least their father wouldn't blame himself. He knew exactly where the blame lay and he felt like there was a boulder on his back. Johnny felt a hand on his arm, tugging at him. He looked up at Val.

"Let me get in there, amigo. I can help Sam."

Johnny nodded and moved around the bed to his father's side. He looked at his brother for a long moment then, began to pray.

*

Sam cleared his throat and swiped at his forehead. Taking out the bottle of ether, he handed it to Val who pressed a clean cloth to the opening then, laid it lightly over Scott's mouth and nose. Sam watched the young man, his fingers pressed to Scott's wrist. "Alright, that's good, Val. I don't want him too far under. Murdoch, when I say, take the cloth away then, be ready to put a new one on."

Johnny grabbed a cloth and wet it, ready to pass it to his father.

Sam took up the hot knife and grasped it firmly then, leaned over Scott. "Turn his head just a little. Good, now, move."

Murdoch hesitated a fraction then, took the cloth away. He winced as the blood began to spurt again. It was only seconds as Sam went to work and, suddenly, the bleeding stopped.

Sam leaned back and sighed, Val's hands on his shoulders now. "Got it on the first try. Alright, clean that wound thoroughly and put some salve on it. Same as you used on me then bandage his neck. Not too tightly. Get him awake as soon as you can and get fluids down him. He lost a good amount of blood. Some laudanum would be good, too." He looked over at Murdoch. "For both of us."

Val increased his hold on the man's shoulders. "Yep. Come on, Doc. You did your part. Time to go back to bed now."

The doctor nodded and got to his feet with Val's help. Slowly, he headed to the door then stopped when Murdoch called out.

"Thank you, my friend."

Sam smiled a little and nodded then, let Val take him back to his room.

Johnny walked over and fell into the chair Sam had vacated, his head resting on his right hand for a second before he sucked in a breath and grabbed Sam's bag. He fished the salve and some bandages out. "How does he get all this stuff in here?" he mumbled then, held his hand out expectantly to his father.

Murdoch blinked when he saw the hand then, passed the clean, wet cloth over. He watched as Johnny cleansed the wound with carbolic then, applied the salve gently. A grimace appeared on his son's face as he ran his fingers over the wound.

"If you can hold his head up, I'll wrap his neck."

Murdoch stood and repositioned himself so he could lift Scott's head with both hands, keeping it stable.

Johnny moved quickly as he put the bandage on then, nodded for his father to ease Scott's head back on the pillow. "He looks pretty comfortable, I guess."

"What happened, Johnny?"

*

His head was down again and he closed his eyes at the question he knew was coming. Slowly, his head came up and his eyes, full of sorrow and remorse, found his father's. He opened his mouth but, the words wouldn't come out at first. Finally, he whispered. "I shot him."

Murdoch sat back. He couldn't be more surprised. Now, he understood what Scott had said about it not being his fault. But, he didn't understand how it had happened and he waited for Johnny to explain himself.

Johnny watched the reaction and figured it was better than he expected. He was about to explain when Val came back in and sat on the trunk at the end of the bed. He nodded at his friend then turned back to his father.

"I saw Scott from my room. He was headed out to the barn so I went after him. He was going to ride out and find Crump. We got to arguing and, all the sudden, Crump was there, behind Scott in the shadows. I saw him and his rifle aimed at Scott's back. I drew and Scott dove for the ground but ... but, I guess I must've clipped him with that first shot." Johnny inhaled a stuttering breath. "I didn't realize he'd been hit until after I'd checked Crump."

"He's got four bullet holes in his chest," Val said. When they both looked at him, he simply shrugged. "Had to check it out."

"It should've been six," Johnny said with a frown. "He was still alive when I checked him. He thanked me for finishing it. I thought he meant for ending him but now, I think he was talking about me shooting Scott."

"It was an accident, son."

He looked at his father and sighed. "I don't think Scott would agree."

"He told us it wasn't your fault."

Johnny raised a brow at that then, his shoulders sagged. He looked over at his brother who was much too pale. "Sam said we needed to wake him up."

Murdoch sighed and reached over, pouring a glass of water. He gently shook Scott's shoulder and called his name.

*

Scott frowned, the fire in his neck making itself known. He tried to turn his head but, that only made things worse. He could hear Murdoch calling to him and a soft sigh parted his lips. Slowly, he opened his eyes and found his father leaning over him.

"Scott, I know you'd rather sleep but, Sam said you needed to drink. You lost a lot of blood, son."

The words sounded a little distant to his ears. It took him a moment to understand their meaning. He started to nod then, thought better of the idea. In a croaking voice that surprised him, he replied, "yes, Sir."

It was an effort just to let his father raise his head for him. The pull on the wound intensified the burning sensation. Swallowing wasn't easy, either. He was confused to say the least. He knew he'd been shot but, he didn't really grasp what they'd done to him. After finally catching his breath, he looked sleepily at Murdoch. "Neck burns."

The rancher nodded, sympathy on his face. "Sam had to cauterize it to stop the bleeding."

Scott frowned then, everything came back to him. In a matter of a few seconds, he was able to recall the argument with his brother and Johnny drawing his gun. He'd known in that moment that he was in danger and, it wasn't from his brother, certainly. He remembered diving for the ground and ... yes, he remembered feeling the shot. He looked back at Murdoch then, tried to turn his head, knowing his brother was beside him.

Murdoch laid a hand on his shoulder. "Easy, Scott. Don't move around. We couldn't stitch the wound. The last thing you need is to bleed any more."

"Johnny," Scott whispered.

Johnny closed his eyes briefly then, stood and walked around the bed. He eased onto the mattress and forced a smile. "Hey, Boston. Just take it easy and do as you're told now. Be a good patient, like I always am."

Scott smiled at that then reached out and touched his brother's hand. "You okay?"

"Sure, I'm alright. Crump's dead and you're gonna be fine."

"Sam?"

"Fell asleep soon as I put him to bed," Val supplied. "He says he'll be fine. Sounds like somebody else I know."

Scott grinned. "Must be contagious."

"Well, just don't you catch it, brother. Drink some more water then, go to sleep. Everything will be better tomorrow."

Scott looked into his eyes and knew Johnny was forcing himself to be positive. Soon enough, his eyes drooped and he felt his body relaxing even as Murdoch held the glass to his lips again. He drank almost automatically then sighed out and closed his eyes completely.

As soon as he was sure Scott was asleep, Johnny slid off the bed and walked quietly out of the room.

Val watched him go across the hall and disappear behind his bedroom door. He sighed and ran a hand over his face then looked over at Murdoch who was watching Scott closely. Yep, just like he ought to, Val thought as he stood and followed his friend.

*

Val knocked once and walked into the bedroom to find Johnny splayed out across the mattress. "Tired?"

"Never been so tired."

The lawman walked closer, the tone of Johnny's voice had him a little worried. He sounded kind of defeated. "Well, it's over now, at least. Scott'll be alright. Crump's dead. None too soon, either."

Johnny didn't say anything to that, just stared at his ceiling, too tired to think.

Val pursed his lips then, walked to the window. He stared out at the night as he spoke. "Sounds like it was a pretty tight spot you two were in. Not much else you coulda done."

"I could've said something. I just drew my gun and fired."

"No time, I figure."

Johnny rolled onto his side and pulled the pillow under his head. He tucked a hand under the pillow and stared at Val's back. "I don't know. Maybe."

The sheriff turned and looked him in the eye. "It's not like you to second guess yourself, Johnny."

"I've never shot my brother before, Val!"

He raised a hand at the louder voice. "It ain't like you meant to, amigo. Shit happens sometimes and all you can do is be sorry for it. But, you did stop Crump and now, maybe this valley can heal up some. All I'm sayin is, Scott doesn't blame you and you shouldn't blame yourself."

"That's real easy to say but, all I can see is Scott not moving as fast as he did and turning him over to find him dead." Johnny sucked in a breath. He could see Val was about to get going on a lecture. "Look, I'm tired and I'm not thinking too clear right now. I just need some sleep."

Val stared at him, knowing Johnny simply didn't want to hear reason right now. Well, that was alright - for now, he guessed. "I'm gonna take Crump to the undertaker then let the ranchers know what's happened. I'll see ya in a day or two."

Johnny rolled over on his back and nodded. "Yeah, okay. You get some rest, too, huh?"

Val walked to the door then hesitated, turning back to his friend. He opened his mouth then shook his head before leaving the man alone.

*

Johnny sat straight up in the bed and stared at nothing for a long beat. Then, he gasped for air as his heart thundered in his chest. Blinking rapidly, he brought a shaky hand up to his face and wiped the sweat away. He sat there a while longer, letting the nightmare dissipate before swinging his legs over the side of the bed and making his way to the dresser. After washing his face, he stared at himself in the mirror then averted his eyes. He couldn't even face himself.

The dream had been so real. He'd knelt next to Scott and turned him over to find dead eyes staring straight at him; accusing him as surely as any words could have. A shiver ran through him and he straightened his shoulders and his clothing before leaving his own room and walking across the hall.

In Scott's bedroom, he found Murdoch asleep in the chair by the window. As quietly as he could, he moved to the bed and sat next to his brother. He felt Scott's forehead with the back of his hand and felt a little better at finding no fever. The bandage was clean and Scott seemed pretty relaxed. Probably laudanum, he thought morosely.

His head turned at the sound of the door squeaking a little. Johnny pulled a face as he stood and walked over to Sam. "You should be in bed, Doc."

"I wanted to check my patient and, I do feel better. Very sore, still, is all."

Johnny shook his head and walked next to the man, an arm hovering behind Sam in case he faltered.

Sam settled in the straight-back chair by the bed then looked at Johnny as he retook his place on the mattress. "You look like hell warmed over, boy."

Johnny ignored that and stared at Scott as he spoke. "No fever and he seems pretty settled. Soon as Murdoch wakes up, he can tell you more. He must've been in here all night."


"Well, it's where he should be," Sam sighed. He pressed his fingers to Scott's wrist for a minute as his eyes stayed glued to the man's chest. Finally, he sat back. "Good. Very good."

Johnny relaxed with that. "Well, I'll see about some breakfast. Can he eat or are you gonna force broth on him?"

Sam chuckled. "If he feels up to it, he can eat but, he may not want anything too heavy. I, on the other hand, am starving."

Murdoch watched the three of them, listened to Sam's assessment of his older son then, smiled at the doctor's empty stomach. He sat forward then made his way to his feet as the two of them looked over at him. "That's all good news. Where's Val?"

"He left last night, took Crump and said he was going to let the other ranchers know what happened." Johnny stood and walked to the door. "I'll see about breakfast."

Murdoch met him at the door and laid a hand on his shoulder. He didn't say a word, just gave the young man a gentle squeeze and a smile.

*

Sam managed to somehow talk Murdoch into leaving Scott's room and sitting at the table with them for breakfast. There wasn't much talk as they ate and, the doctor was worried about his third patient. He knew Johnny wouldn't want to talk about what had happened. He never wanted to talk about a damned thing. Sam didn't know how he was sane, quite frankly. But, then, they were all the same way. He shook his head a little then sipped his coffee.

Johnny watched his father, waited until he was finished eating then, spoke up. "I'm gonna get the ranch up to speed again. Tell Scott I'll check in on him later?"

Murdoch caught his eyes and nodded. "Let me know how things are."

"Maybe, Johnny shouldn't put in a full day just yet," Sam input. "He's been going for days with no sleep and little to eat."

"I slept all night, Sam. I feel fine. Besides, the ranch can't stop forever. Bad enough we had to pull the men for two days." Johnny stood up, dropping his napkin to the table as he looked down at the doctor. "Don't you ever take a day off?"

"I could ask the same thing, young man. I think you'll find you aren't feeling as fit as you think once you get out there. Just give yourself time to ease back into things."

Johnny looked at his father while shaking his head slowly. A grin played at his lips. "He acts like I was shot or something."

"Maybe, you don't remember that knock on the head you got?" Sam questioned.

He started back-stepping to the door. "Hell, Sam, takes more than that to crack my skull. I could've already had half the herd rounded up by now if you'd just stop doctoring for five seconds." With that, he disappeared through the doorway.

Sam scowled after him then looked at Murdoch who held a pensive expression. Without a word, the man got up and followed his son and the doctor's frown turned to a self-satisfied smile.

*

Murdoch walked to the foyer where Johnny was strapping his gunbelt on. The young man glanced up at him then went back to what he was doing. "Did you ever reload?"

Johnny froze for a second then nodded before he grabbed his hat off the hook.

"Son, maybe Sam was right. You did get knocked out. Now, I know how hard your head is but, another day won't hurt anything."

A soft sigh came out as Johnny turned to his father. "Sam is really good at dishing out the guilt, isn't he? Murdoch, my head is fine. it doesn't hurt. I'm not dizzy. I only see one of you and I'm thinking perfectly clear. Anything else?"

The rancher raised his brows. "It seems you're a little irritable."

Johnny quirked his lips. "That's got nothing to do with getting coldcocked. I just want to get things back to normal, ya know?" As he opened the door, he muttered, "the sooner the better."

Murdoch frowned then followed him out into the yard. "Well, at least pay attention to how you're feeling, alright?"

Johnny clamped his mouth closed tightly to keep something he'd regret from spilling out. He knew Murdoch was only concerned but, he just wanted to get out of there for a while. He made his shoulders relax and was about to turn back when he noticed a rider coming down the road. His shoulders tensed right back up again as he took a couple of steps toward the corral.

"Oh, Lord," Murdoch whispered as he watched Fred Saylor ride up and dismount. He fell in step with Johnny as they approached the man. 'Please, don't let Shane be dead,' he prayed.

Johnny's stomach turned as he walked to Fred. He didn't think he could take any more deaths and he couldn't imagine Fred would leave Shane when he was in such bad shape.

*

Saylor kept his back to them for a moment, taking an inordinately long time tethering his horse.

Murdoch couldn't stand much more. "Fred, how is Shane?"

Slowly, the man turned to them then took the two steps to stand in front of Johnny. Without ceremony, he pulled his arm back and punched Johnny in the mouth.

"Fred!" Murdoch shouted as he grabbed the man and held him back from going after his son again.

Johnny hit the dirt flat of his back, stunned for a second then, he looked at Saylor with wide eyes. He scrambled to his feet but, he didn't try to retaliate. He just waited to hear that his friend was dead.

"Calm down!" Murdoch shouted. "What the hell is wrong with you? Johnny didn't shoot your boy!"

Fred stilled at that then, stared at Murdoch for a beat. "I know that!"

"Then, why did you hit him?" Murdoch finally let go as the man seemed to settle.

Fred pointed his finger at Johnny. "You killed Crump. The sheriff said so. Why the hell couldn't you have done that three days ago?! You're supposed to be such a fast gun. Everyone is supposed to be so afraid of Johnny Madrid. Well, that didn't do any of us any good, did it?"

Johnny stared at the man. He didn't know what to say or, really, what was going on.

"Fred, I'm sorry ... we didn't know Shane was ..." Murdoch was at a loss, unable to fathom what he'd nearly faced himself last night.


"Shane's not dead, Murdoch. But four young men are. Four fine young men are dead and for what?" He looked back at Johnny. "You could've stopped this with Chase. Floyd would be alive and my boy wouldn't be fighting for every breath. Scott wouldn't be half dead either if you'd just done your job!"

Johnny finally found his voice. "My job?"

Fred's face turned a deeper rubor. "I welcomed you to this valley with open arms, Johnny. When others were worried you'd bring nothing but trouble, I stood up for you. You've sat at my table, became friends with my son and I've always treated you good. I knew if anything like Pardee ever happened again, you'd be right on top of it. But, you didn't do that with Crump. You couldn't keep us safe from that madman. Why? All I want to know is why?"

Johnny just stared at the man, his mind whirling with all Saylor had said. Then, he dropped his head and shook it. Slowly, he looked back at the man, his eyes cold and empty. "Maybe, you should've explained to me why you were bein so friendly, Mr. Saylor. I guess I didn't understand what you expected of me. The job wasn't laid out too clear. Well, since I reckon I'm 'fired' now, how about you kiss my ass!"

*

Murdoch was stunned silent by Saylor's tirade. He looked at his son when he started speaking and saw the ice start to melt. Saw the hurt in his boy's eyes peek out just a little. His own jaw clenched in anger.

Saylor sneered at Johnny. "What did you think, boy? Why wouldn't I want someone who was supposed to be so skilled close by? But, I guess all those stories were just that. I guess you ain't such a hot gun, after all. What you are is a total failure!"

That did it and Murdoch punched the man in the mouth. As Saylor fell back against the corral fence, Murdoch clenched his fists at his side. "Johnny and Val did everything they could to find Crump. He nearly killed both my sons in the process. How dare you? Get off our land, you self-righteous sonofabitch!"

Fred wiped his lip with the back of his hand then glared at them both. "You won't get anymore support from me. I won't stand up for you again when the rest are badmouthin you, Madrid. Stay away from my family." He turned and grabbed his reins, mounted up and galloped away.

Johnny turned sharply and headed to the barn. He didn't think he'd ever been so angry in his life. Angry and ... he shook his head. No, he wasn't going to do that; wasn't going to think about it at all.

Murdoch watched Saylor tear down the road for a moment before turning to his son. His eyes raked over the yard then he spied Johnny walking into the barn. His heart was in his stomach and he couldn't imagine what his son was feeling right now. Well, he wasnâ€t going to let Fred or anyone else hurt Johnny again! He strode determinedly to the barn.

As he walked in, he saw Johnny leaning against Barranca's stall, his head low. He approached his son and put a hand on each shoulder, kneading the tight muscles he felt under his touch. "Don't listen to him, Johnny. He's angry and afraid for Shane. He isn't thinking clearly."

Johnny pulled away from his father and unlatched the stall gate. He stepped in and began readying his mount.

"No one could have done more than you and Val did, Johnny. No one *did* do as much." Murdoch waited for his son to speak but, Johnny said nothing. "Son?"

"I'm alright, Murdoch. I've got work to do now. Can't be jawin all day long about things that don't matter."

Murdoch sighed, at a loss for what to say. He watched Johnny saddle Barranca faster than he'd ever seen a horse saddled.

Johnny stepped out, leading Barranca, his head still down. "I'll have a full accounting for you tonight."

Murdoch grabbed his arm as he started past. "Look at me, son."

Johnny closed his eyes briefly then, looked up at his father. "I'm alright. Thanks for standing up for me." With that, he pulled away and walked out.

*

Scott watched his father stare out his bedroom window until he couldn't take it any longer. "Sir, what are you looking for out there?"

"Johnny," Murdoch replied without thinking. He cursed himself for it. He didn't want Scott worrying about anything but healing. He forced a small smile as he turned to face the young man. "Sam was a little worried because of the blow to the head your brother took. But, he was feeling fine this morning." Well, it wasn't a complete lie. He was feeling fine for a while, anyway. "You know Johnny."

Scott smiled a little. 'You know Johnny' seemed to be the explanation of all explanations when it came to his brother. Soon, the smile faded as he remembered the argument they'd been having in the barn before Crump showed up. He still wanted to finish that conversation. "I'm sure the hands will sit on him if they have to."

"That would depend on his mood. They may find it healthier to give him a wide berth." Murdoch sat in the chair and looked hard at his son. "How's your neck?"

"About the same as it was when you asked half an hour ago," Scott teased. "I feel a little weak, I suppose. Dizzy, when I move my head too much."

"Sam said that's from the blood loss."

"Yes, I know. I've drank an entire ocean of water, though. I still can't believe Sam operated in his condition."

"I have to say, he was amazing. I thought he'd pass out before we got everything he needed but, once he was ready to start, his hands were as steady as ..." he frowned, looking for a comparison.

"As steady as Johnny Madrid's?" Scott grinned.

Murdoch's frown deepened then, he looked down at his hands. "I suppose."

Scott didn't like that reaction and, he realized maybe Murdoch was more worried than was normal. He was about to ask when they heard a noise in the hallway. He watched his father spring to his feet and head quickly to the door, jerking it open. Scott's mouth dropped open when he got a look at his brother who had his hand on his own doorknob.

"Good heavens, son! What happened to you?" Murdoch gawked at the man. His shirt sleeve was torn nearly off, his pants were covered in dirt and, when Johnny turned to face him, he had scratches all over his face.

"I need to get cleaned up," was all Johnny would offer.

"No kidding," Murdoch deadpanned then stepped across the hall. When Johnny just stared at him, he said, "well, come on."

"I don't need any help, Murdoch. I'm gonna get some clothes and take a bath."

His eyes went down and he grabbed Johnny's sleeve-torn arm. "Son, some of those scratches look deep. Did you keep any of the skin?"

Johnny jerked his arm away and glared at the man. "I think I can take a bath without your help! In fact, I'm sure I can't fail at it!" He turned the knob and walked across the threshold before slamming the door in his father's face.

*

Murdoch just stood there, staring at the oak panels for a long moment. Then, he sighed and turned back to find Scott staring at him. He walked back over and sat in the chair.

"What was that?"

"I guess he's in a bad mood."

"A bad mood? He looked like he wanted to kill someone, Murdoch. What's going on?"

Murdoch glared at him. "How should I know? I wasn't out there with him all day. Just leave him be, Scott. Once he's cleaned up, I'm sure he'll be in a better frame of mind."

Scott gave his father a hard look. "Something else is going on. You were too worried about him all day."

Both men looked over as Johnny's door opened and he walked out with some clothes.


"Hey, brother," Scott called.

Johnny stopped then, looked into the room. "Hey, Scott. I'll be up in a little while, okay? Gotta get some of this dirt off."

Scott nodded then smiled. "Make sure you put something on those cuts or, I'll sic Sam on you."

Johnny smiled thinly and nodded then walked down the hall.

"Sure, he's fine," Scott snarked.

*

Johnny hissed loudly as he eased his body into the hot water. He kept his left arm dry, turning it to examine the area just below his elbow. He shook his head. Goddamn cows! Leaning his head back and closing his eyes, he knew it wasn't the cows that had him so mad. All day, he hadn't been able to concentrate much on what he was doing. Fred Saylor's words kept haunting him. Bastard! Like it was his fault Crump went on a tear. He didn't hang the man's son. Maybe, Saylor should look at his own self!

And that's exactly why he'd gotten torn up. Because he wasn't paying attention to the cattle or anything else.

He took in a deep breath. This wasn't helping him relax but, he didn't think anything would. Truth be told, it hurt to hear the man's words. Hurt to know he was only pretending to be a friend. He'd rather have every one of them tell him to his face they didn't want him around than to know one of them was a lying snake. No, not just Saylor. All of them because not one had told him the truth.

He wondered if Micah Townsend hated him now, too. Or, maybe, he always had like Saylor. Shit! For all he knew Sam Jenkins couldn't stand him, either. No, he didn't think that was true. His eyes opened and he leaned forward, grabbing the soap. Might as well get it done. There won't be any enjoying this bath.

Besides, he needed to spend some time with Scott. He wasn't really looking forward to that. Wasn't sure he could act all happy and shit when he felt this way. He couldn't remember a time in his life when he was so angry. His job! Hell, if he'd known that, he would've charged Saylor - all of them. He snorted at that then wondered if Shane felt the same way as his old man.

He heard the knock on the door and cursed. Why couldn't they leave him alone for even a minute? Must be Murdoch. He couldn't deal with his father right now. He just couldn't. "Be out soon!" What the hell else could he say besides 'come in' and he didn't want that.

"It's Sam, Johnny. Scott is worried about some cuts?"

He rolled his eyes. "I ain't dying, Sam. It's a lousy scrape. I'll be out in a while."

There was no answer for a beat then, "I'll wait for you in Scott's room."

Johnny didn't say anything to that but, he thought he'd really like to break something right about now. If they kept at him, he didn't think he'd be able to take it. Well, might as well get on with it, he thought and stood up.

*

Johnny walked into Scott's room and found three sets of eyes on him. He frowned and walked over to stand in front of Sam then extended his bandaged arm. "It was just a scratch but, if you want to take this off and look for yourself, go ahead. Since I don't have sense enough to come in out of the rain, I reckon I must need a babysitter."

Sam raised a brow as he looked at the young man. "I don't usually try to doctor grizzly bears. Not my area. I'm sure it's either fine or will fall off, depending on how well you care for it."

Johnny stared at him a beat then, his lips tugged. But, he refused to smile, dammit! He was still mad at all of them; at everything and he just wanted to be left alone with it.

"I'd hate to be the bee that stung you, brother. What has you in such a state?"

Johnny narrowed his eyes as he glanced at his brother then settled on his father who gave him a slight shake of the head. His shoulders relaxed as he realized Murdoch hadn't shot off his mouth about Saylor. He puffed out a breath then, settled on the mattress at the foot of the bed. "Guess it's just been one of those days, Boston. You don't look so pale."

Scott smiled at that. "I am feeling stronger just not quite ready for a day like you've had."

"Nobody's ever ready for that." Johnny turned his attention to Sam. "You don't look so pale, either, Doc."

"I'm much better, thank you. In fact, I'll be leaving in the morning. The stitches have been in long enough not to worry over and, I need to see to my patients. I do want to check on Shane Saylor."

*

Johnny's eyes darkened for a second before he dropped them to the bed.

Murdoch cleared his throat, hating to speak it but, they would probably want to know. Well, Scott would. "Floyd Townsend's funeral is tomorrow."

Scott dropped his eyes and shook his head. "I hate to beg off but, I don't think I'm up to that yet."

"No, you aren't, young man," Sam agreed. "I'm sure Murdoch and Johnny will be enough to represent the family and I'm sure everyone will understand."

Johnny looked over at his father with a scowl on his face as he shook his head very slightly.

Murdoch bit his lip and decided to avoid this conversation until he could talk privately with Johnny. "Well, we'll figure it out, son. I'll give Micah your sympathies."

Sam stood up slowly. "Good. Now, I'm going to bed. Murdoch, would you give me a hand?"

Standing, Murdoch rounded the bed. "Are you sure you're ready to leave, Sam? You shouldn't push."

"Yes, yes. It really wasn't that bad a wound though I'm sure you thought so. I've been working on my strength. I'll be fine. Besides, I am the only doctor in this valley."

Murdoch took his arm as they walked to the door. "We should talk about a remedy for that. You need help on a good day with the area you have to cover."

*

Scott smiled a little as he listened to Sam preach about how capable he was of handling his patients. Once their voices faded, he turned back to his brother who was staring at the bed cover again. "So, you're not as prickly, now?"

Johnny looked up, a bit surprised then, shrugged. "I'm fine."

"Then, maybe we could talk about something that's been on my mind."

He took a deep breath and blew it out hard. "Scott, you don't know how sorry I am. I should've said something, warned you."

Scott held up a hand to stop his brother. "You did warn me, Johnny. I saw you look past me and, well, drawing your gun was a big warning. I just wasn't fast enough. I'm not upset with you about that."

Johnny leaned back against the bed post. "Guess that means you're upset with me about something."

Face full of determination, Scott nodded. "We never finished our conversation."

"Are you kiddin me? You want to get into that now? Look, I know you feel better but, I was just being nice before. You look like hell, Scott. You should be resting."

"I am resting and, I feel alright. This is important, Johnny."

He took to his feet quickly and walked to the window. "It'll keep."

"I can't stop thinking about it and we need to clear the air."

Johnny looked out the window then back at his brother. "I need for you not to go at me right now, Scott. I mean it. I can't do this now."

Scott gave him a quizzical look. "Why not? What's really going on with you? It's more than having a bad day."

"Nothing you need to worry about. Just believe me when I tell you I can't talk about this now. I'm gonna see about supper." He headed toward the door then, pulled up when Scott spoke.

"Whatever is going on, it doesn't change the facts. We *will* need to talk and soon, brother."

Johnny closed his eyes and wondered if just giving into Scott would work. Probably not and he couldn't work up the gumption to try, anyway. "Yeah, okay," was what he settled for as he walked out of the room.

*

Johnny walked into the great room after checking on Scott's supper to find his father sitting in a chair, most likely waiting for him. "I'm not going to that funeral." He walked over and poured a tequila.

"Floyd was your friend and so is Micah."

He threw the drink back, swallowed and let out a breath. "Shit, I don't have any friends, Murdoch. Didn't you hear?"

Murdoch closed his eyes for a second. "Watch your language, son. And just because one man spouts off doesn't mean everyone feels the same."

Johnny poured another drink before turning to his father. "Not according to him. My biggest fan, right? Always standin up for me. Always with a smile and a pat on the back, that's Fred Saylor, alright. Hell, if he's a snake, I don't hold out much hope for the rest of 'em."

"Did you like Floyd?"

He paused at that then, took a seat on the sofa. "Sure, he was alright, I guess. What do I know?"

"Johnny, I know you're angry and you have every right but, the sarcasm isn't helping anything. Floyd was a friend to you and, unless he rises from the grave to say differently, you should go to his funeral and show your respect for the man."

He took a drink before answering. "I think it's the family you show the respect to, right? Best way to do that is to stay away."

Murdoch shook his head. "I never thought you'd tuck tail and run like this."

Johnny's eyes came up, flashing with anger. He stood slowly and glared at his father. "What did you say to me?"

"You heard me, boy. Go ahead, get mad. But, while you're at it, remember that when people are angry and hurt, they say things they don't mean. Sometimes, they even lash out intentionally just to make sure someone else is hurting as much as they are. It's not right but, it is human. I want to believe that's what Fred did today but, I don't know that for sure. But, you've never avoided people just because one person doesn't like you. You're not a coward, Johnny. You need to show your face and hold your head high at that funeral. YOU stopped Crump. No one else."

Johnny stared at his father, speechless as he watched the man's face. He saw the determination, the belief in what he was saying and, he saw pride in his father's eyes - for him. His shoulders sagged. No, he wasn't a coward. "I really hate it when you make sense like that."

Murdoch's face broke into a grin and he chuckled as he stood and walked up to his son. With a gentle hand to Johnny's shoulder, he gave his boy a little shake. "I really like it when you listen to my sense."

*

Early the next morning, Scott started in. "I think I can do it, Sam. As long as I stay in the surrey, it should be fine."

Sam looked closely at his young patient. His color was better, his eyes were alive and clear this morning. Of course, that could just be the sunlight shining in them. He smiled a little at that thought. "What if you get out there and fall ill?"

Scott dipped his eyes a moment. "We'll be at the Townsends. I'm sure Micah won't mind if I lie down a while, should I need to. I really feel like I need to be there to support Johnny. Something is going on with him and he isn't talking. This funeral can't make it any better for him."

The doctor nodded his agreement with that assessment. it was obvious last night with Johnny's foul mood. He was rarely in such a state and, Sam could think of few things that would set him off like that. He didn't think it was even the fact he'd shot his brother, for that was a true accident and, he believed Johnny knew that. Still. "I'm sorry, Scott. I can't go along with this. You lost a lot of blood from that wound. I'm sure you feel better but, you also haven't been moving around."

Scott frowned but, he wasn't ready to give up just yet. "I promise I'll do whatever you tell me, Sam. My word as an officer and a gentleman."

"Uh, oh. It's never good when he says that." Johnny grinned as he walked in. "What did he snooker ya into, Doc?"

"Nothing but, he's trying to get me to let him go to the funeral."

Johnny's face fell at that. "Why, Scott? There's no need for you to be there. Murdoch and I can handle it."

Scott shrugged a little. "I just feel it's the right thing to do. As long as I'm able, I see no reason not to and no excuse."

"You got an excuse. You were just shot in the neck!" Johnny turned on Sam. "I can't believe you. You won't let me out of bed for weeks for a stupid graze but, you're gonna let him up two days after bein shot? Does Murdoch know about this?"

The vein in Sam's temple began pulsing visibly. "Firstly, young man, I have no intentions of agreeing with this. Secondly, if I were it would be because Scott actually listens and follows my instructions, Johnny. I don't have to worry about him getting into a gunfight or bar fight while he's still healing!"

Murdoch appeared in the doorway, fists on hips as he glowered. "What is going on in here? What's all this yelling? Scott needs his rest."

Johnny pointed at his brother. "Tell him. He wants to go to the funeral."

The rancher's scowl deepened as he looked expectantly at his friend. "Sam?"

Sam rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. "No, Murdoch. I said no." Looking back at Scott, he said, "and I expect you will stay put because you know it's the most prudent thing to do. A twitch of a smile came to his lips as he went on. "Johnny on the other hand ..."

"Johnny on the other hand, what? Go ahead and say it, Doc. The bad seed, the black sheep. The half-breed bas..."

"Johnny!" Murdoch shouted then, grabbed his son's arm and pushed him out of the room.

Scott stared after them, slack-jawed as silence shrouded the room for several seconds.

"What the devil was that all about?" Sam asked.

*

Murdoch didn't let go until he had Johnny in the living room. Once he released his son, Johnny kept going until he reached the hearth. Laying a hand on the mantle, he leaned in and rested his forehead.

"I must be the stupidest, blindest idiot in the world."

"Sam did not mean anything like what you're thinking and you know it! What's the matter with you?"

Johnny turned his head and looked at him, his eyes cold and distant. "Wonder why it is you ain't seen it yet? Or, have you and you just can't say it?"

Shaking his head, Murdoch was at a loss. "I don't know what you mean, son."


"Oh, come on, Murdoch! Everything I do is wrong. Every idea I have, every ... move! It's all wrong for this valley. I don't fit in here and I wish you'd just say it!"

"I'll do no such thing and you need to stop feeling sorry for yourself!"

Johnny's face turned a deep purple as he moved his hand, still on the mantle and felt an object. He wrapped his fingers around it then, launched it across the room. The glass still contained a small amount of whiskey from Murdoch's late night drink and, it exploded on the wall to Johnny's left. Slowly, he raised a hand and pointed his finger at Murdoch. "Don't you *ever* say that to me again!"

Eyes wide with fear for his son, Murdoch's throat had closed and he found he couldn't force one word out. He sighed with relief when he heard another voice and turned toward it.

"What the hell is goin on in here?"

Johnny whirled around, hand on gun as he spied Val standing in the doorway.

Val had heard the crash and Johnny's last words but, the look in his friend's eyes was what motivated him across the room. He took Johnny's arm in an easy, loose grip. "Come on, amigo. Let's get outta here for a while."

Johnny didn't move for a moment. His eyes landed on his father then, he pulled out of Val's hold and stormed out of the house.

"Tell me fast," Val said.

Murdoch explained quickly what Fred Saylor had said to Johnny, Sam's words upstairs and, their conversation of minutes earlier. He watched Val cringe when he got to the last part.

"Okay, I hafta find him now." That's all he said and he moved quickly, leaving Murdoch even more perplexed.

*

He didn't need to ask anyone if they'd seen Johnny. Every hand in the vicinity was staring at the tack room where it sounded like a war was going on. Val raised his eyes upward for a second before going to the door. He hesitated, wondering if he shouldn't just let Johnny be. Deciding that was exactly the thing to do, he leaned against the wall and waited.

Eventually, the noise died down and Val pushed off the wall, squared his shoulders and opened the door to the small building off the barn. He stepped just inside and looked around, finding Johnny sitting on a table in the middle of the room, shoulders hunched, head down. His legs were swinging back and forth a little. Val stopped beside the table and looked around at the mess. He didn't say anything.

"I think I'm going crazy, Val. Don't know why I'm so damned mad all the time."

"Think it might have to do with Saylor betrayin you."

Johnny didn't react to that.

"It's not easy for you to trust anyone and, when you do, you expect them to keep that trust. Saylor maybe ain't a real close friend but, he always stood up for you and you respected him. Now, that's all gone. Of course, there's the other reason."

Johnny's head came up and he turned it aside to look at Val. "What other reason?"

Val shrugged and looked at him. "You shot your own brother, Johnny. Accident or not, that's a helluva thing to deal with. No matter what Scott says, it don't make the thing go down any easier."

A soft sigh parted his lips and he lowered his head again. "He just shrugged it off, said he should've moved faster."

"And you think your aim shoulda been better."

"Yeah, it should've been. I ... I missed, Val. When it counted the most, I missed!"

Val nodded and walked around to stand directly in front of him. "I remember once when we was in a firefight and I was gettin hammered from three sides. That one fella got a bead on my back and I saw you stand up and, for a second I thought you were aimin at me! But, you squeezed off that shot and took him right down. I also remember the time those two yahoos decided to take me on at the same time. You walked out of nowhere just as we were all drawin and you reacted. And ya missed!"

Johnny grinned a little at that. "You healed."

"So will Scott." The grin disappeared as quickly as it had come and Val felt something strange in his chest. "Of course, that was just me not your brother."

"Don't do that. You know that's not true."

"Well, it must be. If it's alright to be human then and not now, what else can I think!"

Johnny slid off the table and stood in front of him, eyes locked. "I get it, okay? It wasn't alright to miss then, either and I did feel bad about that. I just didn't tell you, is all."

Val nodded. "Well, I reckon it's all of it then. Crump, Chase, Scott, Saylor, all of it. It's finally hittin ya. Now, if you're done wrecking the room, your old man is scared shitless about you."

Johnny made a 'hmmph' noise at that and started toward the door when he felt an iron grip on his arm. Turning back, he frowned at Val.

"You scared him, Johnny. He wasn't afraid of you but, he was afraid for ya. Now, get in there and make it right with your old man."

He sighed and nodded. "Thanks, Val."

"Just playin my part as second in command."

Johnny looked oddly at him. "Huh?"

"Well, it's usually Scott talkin some sense to ya. Can't tell you how glad I am about that, too!"

Johnny grinned and threw an arm around his friend as they walked outside. He pulled up when he spied the black stallion. "I thought Doc Witten said a couple of days for Milagro."

Val shrugged, a smile coming to his face, despite himself. "He said it wasn't as bad as he thought at first. Said the horse needed exercise so ..."

Johnny smiled and nodded. At least something was going right.

*

Scott scowled as he let it all sink in. He'd heard the chaos downstairs and had threatened to go find Johnny himself if Murdoch didn't spill it. So, the man had acquiesced and told Scott all about Fred Saylor but, he couldn't say why Johnny had gotten so violent downstairs. Scott wasn't sure either which was why he wanted to find his brother. He didn't care if Val was with Johnny. He needed to check on the young man, see for himself and talk Johnny down if need be. It wasn't necessary, as it turned out. Johnny appeared in his doorway looking reticent.

Johnny didn't hesitate. He knew Val would put his boot in his ass if he did so, he headed straight over to his father who had stood up when he entered the room. He forced himself to look the man in the eye. Not usually a difficult task for him but, he felt like an idiot. "I'm sorry, Murdoch. I didn't mean to ... be so disrespectful. I guess I just let everything build up til it boiled over on me."

Murdoch gave him a small smile and laid a hand on his shoulder. "It's understandable, son. I've just never seen you like that before. I hope you're feeling more settled?"

Johnny sighed. "Well, I don't know about that but, I won't go loco on you again." He looked to his brother. "Sorry, Scott. I know you have enough sense to know what you can handle. I was just worried about you, is all."

Scott nodded, his eyes resting on Val, who had moved to the foot of the bed, for a moment. "I understand, brother. I worry over you when you're hurt, too. Murdoch told me about Fred Saylor and, I can't say I'm not livid, as well. Just talk to us, okay? Don't let it fester."

Johnny nodded then walked slowly around the room. "For the record, I still don't think it's a good idea for you to go to the funeral. Besides all the obvious stuff, it'll be late before we get back home. I don't think you really thought through how long a day this will be."

"I have to agree, Scott. I really don't want you to go," Murdoch said.

"Well," Scott sighed out, "maybe, you're both right. Besides, I have a feeling if I tried, Sam would amputate my head. Tell Micah how sorry I am." He hoped they'd buy that. Since he knew what was bothering Johnny now and that his brother was doing better, he didn't feel the need to watch out for him so much. Of course, Saylor would be there but, Johnny could handle that.

Johnny's face relaxed into a smile. "Well, we should get goin, I guess."

Scott smiled at him and nodded. He waited until they were almost out the door. "Val, could you wait a minute? I'd like to ask you something."

The sheriff turned back and shrugged then looked at Johnny with a comical expression as he closed the door.

*

Val took the seat beside the bed and looked expectantly at Scott.

"How bad was he?"

"Well, the tack room is a shambles. He tore it up good. But, he's doin better, Scott. Now that he let it sink in what all was really botherin him."

"What do you mean, let it sink in?"

"Just that. Johnny don't stop and think sometimes about why he's mad. He might think it's just one thing that shouldn't have gotten his feathers so ruffled. But, it's always more than that. This time, it was shootin you."

Scott's eyes widened. "I thought he was okay with that."

Val's lip curled up. "So did he. But, he thinks he failed because he missed. For Johnny, missing a shot at a real critical time is the worst thing he could do."

Closing his eyes, Scott nodded. "Of course. And the rest was Saylor, Crump and all the people he killed."

"Yep. See, I told 'im. I was just playin second in command til you're back on your feet." Val quirked a grin. "Anyways, I should get goin. If Saylor says one thing, I'm gonna lay into him like he's a Thanksgivin turkey!"

Scott laughed at that. "Chew him up and spit him out?"

"Somethin like that."

Scott nodded then fell serious. "Just one more thing, Val. I was upset with Johnny about how you two handled this whole Crump thing and left me out of it. If I were honest, I *might* admit I felt like neither of you thought I could take care of him."

Val ran a hand through his hair. "You might want to think about lettin that go, Scott. Ya know, Johnny's got a lot still goin on with Saylor and all these dead people."

"Yes, I was thinking that would be wise."

Val nodded then walked to the door and opened it. He paused at the threshold and turned back. "Maybe, if you was really bein honest with yourself, you'd admit it bothers you some that it was me that was able to talk Johnny down. It shouldn't. He thinks you hung the moon and keep it risin every night. I'll see ya."

Scott watched him close the door, slightly stunned by the man's words. A chagrined expression came to his face.  

*

Against his better judgment, Johnny agreed to ride in the surrey with Murdoch. For some reason, his father thought a surrey would be more respectful. Johnny didn't think it mattered one way or the other but, he was stuck with it now. Well, if things got really bad, he could always steal one of Townsend's horses or, better still, Milagro. He almost smiled at that.

He was really curious, too, what Scott had wanted to talk to Val about. His friend would say nothing and, he hadn't asked. Johnny glanced over at Val riding alongside them. The man was scowling but, he hadn't been when he'd come downstairs so, he figured Val was pissed about something new. His head swung around when his father spoke.

"When we get there, just try to avoid Fred."

"Don't worry, Murdoch, I'm not gonna hit the man or anything. Not at a funeral unless, he hits me again. Then, I'm not promising anything."

Murdoch just nodded, knowing he could ask no more than that of any man. He squinted as he looked down the road. "Looks like we caught up with Sam."

"He's not ready, ya know. Maybe, he'll see that now. He should've been way ahead of us. He better never preach to me again."

"Johnny," Murdoch said in his most paternal voice.

Johnny pulled a face and slumped down further in the seat. "It's the truth."

Murdoch's lips twitched. It was the truth. Sam was as stubborn as any of them. He'd always known that, of course. The man had to be stubborn as a mule to deal with his younger son. "Be that as it may, don't fuss at him. Sam feels a deep responsibility to the people of this valley." Under his breath, he muttered, "even if some of them don't deserve it."

Johnny heard it and he grinned and shook his head. He sat up straighter in the seat as they gained ground on the physician. "I'm gonna jump out, Murdoch. I can catch up with him on foot and drive the rest of the way."

Murdoch nodded and slowed down a little more for his son.

Johnny hit the ground easily and jogged up beside Sam's surrey. Without a word, he hopped in beside the man and reached over, taking the reins easily. One look at Sam nearly had him pulling over but, they were almost to the Townsend ranch now. "Confounded mule," he mumbled.

"What was that!?" Sam growled.

"I said you're a confounded mule, Doc! Are you tryin to get yourself put in the ground with Floyd?"

Murdoch clearly heard his son and shook his head then looked over at Val who was laughing at the whole thing.

*

Johnny had always admired Micah Townsend's drive. It was lined with trees and rose bushes that provided cooling shade in the hottest part of summer. He used to wonder why his father hadn't done something like that until it dawned on him. Murdoch wouldn't have the same view of the land if he covered the road with trees and such. A half smile came to his face. Ole Murdoch sure did love that ranch.

He didn't come to a stop until he was almost directly in front of the door. When he did stop, Johnny jumped down and hurried to the other side of the buggy then, helped Sam down. He had to grab the man around the waist when Sam's feet touched the ground. Johnny looked at his face and didn't think he'd ever seen that color gray before. He waited for Murdoch who was already out of the surrey.

"Alright, Sam. Let's get you inside and lying down," Murdoch said gently as he took over the man's care.

Johnny stood back and watched them walk into the house, a frown of concern mixed with anger on his face. He felt Val walk up behind him. "I'm not that bad."


"Oh, yes, you are! Now, ya know how they all feel when you pull stunts like this."

Johnny turned to look at him, a most unhappy expression on his face. He sneered and started to walk off.

"Where are you goin?"

"Anywhere but in there. Everyone's in there. No sense in tempting fate."

Val sighed as he put his hands on his hips. "Gonna hide out the whole time?"

Johnny stopped, his shoulders tensed but, he didn't turn around. "Don't start with me, Val. This ain't about me or Saylor. It's about Micah and his family. It's not right to throw more on the fire. I'll pay my respects to the man and I'll sit through the funeral but, I don't have to be sociable."

Val didn't say anything to that because Johnny was making perfect sense to him. He looked up at the sky then sighed. "Well, reckon I'd rather hang out with your sour puss than be around all them snakes."

*

Inside the house, Micah helped Murdoch bed Sam down. Once the man was comfortable, he fell asleep quickly. Micah shook his head then nodded toward the door. He closed it softly behind him once he and Murdoch were in the hall. "What was he thinking?"

"That he's indestructible and indispensible. We tried to tell him but he wouldn't listen. We caught up to him on the road, he was going so slowly. Johnny drove him the rest of the way in."

"Where is Johnny?' Micah asked and looked around as if expecting the man to materialize.

"I don't know. Outside with Val, probably." Murdoch looked at his friend and wondered if he knew what had happened with Fred Saylor. He decided now wasn't the time to bring it up. "Micah, I'm so sorry about Floyd. I haven't had the chance to come see you."

Micah put a hand up to stop the man. "You've had your hands full, Murdoch. How is Scott?"

"He'll recover."

"Thank God for that! At least someone survived this." He walked away toward the end of the hall a little. "I feel responsible for my own son's death, Murdoch. If we hadn't hung Crump's boy, none of this would've happened."

"No one could predict this, Micah. All of us did what we felt was right then."

"We should've listened to you, Murdoch. Not only did most of us lose a son, from what I heard, you almost lost both of yours."

"It's always easier to say what we should have done in hindsight." Murdoch frowned as a thought occurred to him. Was Fred blaming himself and trying to unload that guilt on Johnny? It didn't excuse the man's actions but, it might explain them.

"Well, we should get this started. Martha hasn't been holding up very well. I'm worried about her, I don't mind saying."

Murdoch out a hand on his friend's shoulder. "If there's anything we can do, Micah."

He nodded and sighed forcefully as he headed toward the front of the house. "Aggie is with her now. She's been here since she left your place this morning. It's been a help to Martha."

"And you?"

Micah stopped before entering the living room and shook his head. "I don't know. I haven't really ... I don't think it's really hit me yet. It's funny but all I can think of is how grateful I am that Shane is recovering and now, Scott."

Murdoch frowned at that, worried about his friend. He knew sometimes grief didn't always hit a person right away. That, sometimes, it took days, even weeks to start feeling a loss. He promised himself to be available for his friend until Micah could deal with this worst of losses. He blinked as Townsend's next words reached his brain.


"Fred wasn't sure he'd be able to come today."

"Is Shane still that bad off?"

"From what I hear, he's doing better. I hope that's the case."

*

Johnny sat on the top rail of the corral fence and watched the horses meander about. Val leaned against the fence next to Johnny's legs and sighed out of boredom.

"Boy, I didn't realize this was gonna be such a riproarin time."

Johnny looked down at him, expressionless. "It's a funeral, Val. Not the best time to party."

"I ain't seen Saylor's nag anywhere. Ain't seen his Sunday surrey, neither."

Johnny looked back out at the horses. "Maybe, he's not coming. Do you think Shane might not be doing so good?"

Val shrugged and turned aside a little. "I saw one of their hands last night. He said Shane was doin real well. Said he's up and movin around some."

"That's good news. Maybe they had to sit on him."

"Could be. Seems that sort of thing is goin around these days." Val cast a wary look Johnny's way, relieved when he saw a quirk of a smile on the man's lips.

"Aggie's here. Must've come straight from Lancer."

"Yeah, reckon she needed to be around sane people for a spell." Val stretched his arms and yawned widely.

"Boy, you're feelin your oats today, ain't ya?" Johnny reached down and slapped him in the gut as he stretched.

Val grunted and bent over a little then threw him a glare. He was about to say something when he heard a horse. Turning, Val spied Fred Saylor and his eyes narrowed.

"Just ignore him, Val."

"I will if he will."

Johnny grinned a little. "You sound like a kid."

Val looked at him, cocked a brow and leaned in a little. "If this wasn't a funeral, I'd show you a kid."

With a snort, Johnny swung around and dropped to the ground beside Val then leaned against the fence, facing the house. Saylor had dismounted and tied off his mount. He stood there a second then turned to look at Johnny. He didn't move, just stared for a while then, lowered his head and walked into the house.

Val crossed his arms. "Well, what'ya think that was all about? He looked guilty as hell."

*

Murdoch found Aggie and got an update on Martha Townsend and, his friend's take on the other ranchers feelings toward his younger son. Aggie assured him she hadn't heard or felt any underlying animosity for Johnny. This news greatly relieved the rancher. He trusted Aggie's instincts as much as he trusted anything. He looked up as Fred Saylor walked in and a scowl immediately came to his face as he turned his back on the man.

Just then, the minister spoke. "Ladies and gentlemen, we're ready to start. If you'll all follow the family out to the graveside."

Murdoch took a deep breath then offered his arm to Aggie. They lingered while the others filed out of the house then, brought up the rear. Murdoch wanted to be sure he could see where everyone was located once outside. He wanted no repeat of Saylor's behavior at Lancer the day before. He felt Aggie squeeze his arm and she looked up at him knowingly. He smiled and patted her hand as they approached the circle gathered around the freshly dug grave.

Johnny stepped up beside his father, removing his hat as he did. Murdoch gave him a small smile then, eyed Val standing on Johnny's other side. A slight nod of the head was given to the sheriff, only a token gesture of the gratitude he felt for this man's unfailing friendship to his son.

Johnny kept his head down during the service, praying silently for everyone who'd been touched by Josiah Crump's hatred. Once the minister had finished the final prayer and invited the family forward, Johnny stepped back, put his hat on and walked away.

Val watched him for a minute then, looked at Murdoch, shaking his head. He stepped closer. "Best to leave him be for a while, I think."

"Yes, I was thinking the same thing. As long as everyone else does, too."

Val's face darkened. "I'll make sure of that."

*

Johnny walked around to the front of the house and stepped inside. He wandered down a hallway, checking rooms until he found Sam. He smiled a little at the sleeping form then, closed the door and walked over to the window. He probably shouldn't have been snooping around someone else's house but, he sure couldn't stand there and offer condolences to a man who might not want him there in the first place. And, if he was wrong, Micah wouldn't notice one person missing.

He laid his head against the wall beside the window and looked sideways out the glass. He reckoned Val had pegged him pretty good. Yeah, hearing Saylor say those things sure hadn't felt good but, that wasn't the reason he'd been so ... what? He still didn't know what had happened to him. He'd never felt so angry before in his life. But, he supposed it was because he hadn't come that close to destroying someone he cared about before.

It was one thing for Scott to get hurt by something or someone else but, he'd hurt his brother himself. It didn't matter to him if it was an accident. The thing he couldn't forgive himself for was missing that shot. He'd made it before plenty of times but, not that time. Not when it counted the most. He needed to start practicing again and not just here and there when he found the time like he had been doing. No, he had to set a schedule and stick to it no matter what else was going on. That's all there was to it.

Being a gunfighter had given him certain skills and those skills came in very handy no matter what a man was doing. He intended to make sure he kept sharp from now on. No more slacking off; no more lazin around. No more thinking he could leave it all behind because he'd been thinking about it all wrong. He associated being a fast draw with Madrid, with a gunfighter but, that didn't have to be true. He could still be Johnny Lancer. He'd just be a rancher who happened to have a different skill. Shit! Why had it taken shooting his brother to get that?

Sam watched the expressions fly across the young man's face for several minutes. He didn't want to startle Johnny or disturb him. It seemed he was thinking very hard about something. Then, he saw what looked like decision on the man's face. That and something he didn't like at all, pain. "Johnny?"

His head came up and he turned to the bed. "Hey, Doc. Feelin better?"

Sam sat up and ran a hand down his face. "I do, actually. Come sit down."

Johnny walked over and sat at the foot of the bed. "Can I yell at you now?"

Laughing a little, Sam shook his head. "No need. I was a fool and I don't know what I was thinking."

"Murdoch says you feel responsible for your patients. Well, you were the patient this time and we all felt responsible for you."

A smile of affection came to the man's face. "I appreciate that, Johnny. I'm sorry I was so bullheaded and, I'm sorry for what I said this morning."

Johnny dropped his eyes and picked at the quilt. "Well, that was my fault, I guess. I mean, I was in a really bad place and I took it out on you."

"Maybe, but not without merit. I was thinking about that on the ride here and, I decided my judgment was way off. I shouldn't have tried teasing you when you were so obviously upset. Scott didn't come, did he?"

"No, we talked him out of it. I think he was more worried about me than bein here."

"It's not easy to be so loved, is it?"

Johnny's eyes shot up then, he narrowed them as he watched a grin break out on Sam's face. "You and Val must be related. You both got a mouth on you."

*

Both their heads turned when the door opened. Johnny relaxed when he saw his father.

"I thought this might be where you'd gotten off to." Murdoch walked in and grabbed a straight-back chair, setting it beside the bed before settling down. "Micah is asking for you, son."

Johnny's brows went up. "What for?"

"He asked after you earlier, too. He's glad you're here, Johnny. You should go pay your respects to the man."

He bowed his head and sighed then nodded and stood up. "Guess so. Sam already realizes he was wrong so, no need to bawl him out."

Murdoch chuckled at that. "And I was looking forward to it."

Johnny smiled and walked to the door then, hesitated. "You don't have to ... I'm okay." With that, he walked out the door.

Murdoch frowned and shook his head. "Sometimes, I don't understand that boy."

Sam smiled as he settled back on the pillows. "Neither do I but, that doesn't mean we won't keep trying."

Looking back at his friend, Murdoch's smile widened. "Are you going to finish your recovery here?"

"I'm going to rest a while longer. I'd like to check on Shane Saylor then, go back to Lancer and check on Scott."

Murdoch shook his head. "Val heard Shane was up and about some and Scott is doing very well under the circumstances. How about you just come back to Lancer and heal, my friend."

Sam scowled at him but, he didn't argue.

*

Johnny stood in the doorway to the living room and looked for Micah. He spotted him finally, across the room talking to Saylor. Johnny grit his teeth then squared his shoulders. He wasn't going to hide just because Fred was around. Screw him, he thought as he made his way toward Micah. He had to stop and say hello to a dozen people before he finally made it across the room. It irked him that he wondered with each of them if their friendliness was genuine.

He stepped up to the bereaved father, not sparing a glance Saylor's way. "Mr. Townsend, I'm so sorry."

Micah took his extended hand and shook. "Thank you, Johnny. And thank you for ridding us of Crump. I'm just glad Scott and Shane were spared."

Johnny lowered his eyes a moment before looking back at the man. "I'll tell Scott. He's sorry he couldn't be here. He almost came."


"Well, I'm glad he didn't. I'm sure he's in no shape for that. Tell him I said not to be as stubborn as his father."

Johnny laughed a little at that. "I'll tell him."

Micah put a hand on Johnny's shoulder. "I know how hard you and Val tried to stop this and I know we're all grateful for it. I think we made the perfect choice for sheriff."  

Johnny couldn't help it. He just had to look over at Saylor. What he saw surprised him. The man looked embarrassed as hell. His eyes went back to Micah. "Val's the best, no doubt about that. I'm just sorry we couldn't do more. It's gonna take a lot for everyone to heal up from this."

Nodding, Micah looked at him with sad eyes. "Do we really have anyone to blame but ourselves? We took the law into our own hands back then. I'm ashamed to say, that's exactly what I felt like doing again. You, Scott and Val showed us the way this time. I only wish we'd listened to your father then."

Johnny let out a soft breath. "Mr. Townsend, it's real easy to say what you should've done after you've had time to think on it. I'm not so sure what you did was wrong exactly. Maybe, you should've taken some time, I don't know. But, what Crump's son did is about the worst thing a man can do to my way of thinkin. I wasn't there so, I can't really say."

Micah looked over at Fred then nodded toward Johnny. "The next generation. I think they have more sense than us." His face fell and he shook his head sadly. "Floyd would have been part of that."

Johnny dropped his eyes as silence surrounded them. People were still talking in their small groups but, to Johnny it seemed like there was no other sound, no air after Micah's statement. He needed to get out of there. "Well, think I should go make sure our good sheriff hasn't eaten everything in sight."

Micah forced a smile then patted his back. "Thank you, son."

*

It took ten minutes to find Val. Johnny figured he should've known to check the kitchen first. The ladies always seemed to know where the men were and they had directed him to the side of the house where a group was gathered, passing a bottle around.

Val saw him immediately, took in his demeanor and relaxed back against the wall he'd been leaning on. He nodded and held the bottle out to Johnny as he approached.

Shaking his head to the nonverbal offer, Johnny greeted the other men.

Shep Olsen patted Johnny on the back and grinned widely. "Heard how you took care of that bastard, Johnny." The smile faded as he added, "hope Scott's doin okay."

"He'll be alright. Thanks, Shep."

"How's Sam?" Val asked with a bemused expression.

Johnny threw him a smirk. "He says he feels better but he's coming back to Lancer all the same. Finally got him to admit it was a stupid thing to do, riding over here."

"Boy, you'd think a doctor would be smarter than to push himself like that," Shep opined. "Might have to remind him of that next time he gets on me about somethin."

Johnny grinned wickedly. "I think you should do just that, Shep. Make sure he doesn't forget."

Val chuckled a little, knowing Johnny would get his revenge on the doc in some form or fashion. He hadn't really gotten the chance before to tease the old doc and, Val figured if anyone owed Sam, it was Johnny. He looked past his friend and the smile disappeared suddenly, replaced by a fierce scowl.

Johnny saw his friend's face and didn't have to wonder why he looked that way. He just didn't know why Fred Saylor would dare come near him. As he saw Val straighten himself, he figured he was about to find out.

No one else missed the change in the sheriff, either, and they all looked at Saylor as he walked over.

Nodding at the men, Fred met Johnny's eyes and relaxed his own jaw. "Can I talk to you for a minute, Johnny?"

He looked the man over for a long moment then, simply said, "nope," and walked away.

Saylor dropped his eyes to the ground then, looked back up with determination. He took one step before Val countered him, blocking his path.

"I think the man said no."

Fred figured by the murderous glares he'd been getting from Val all day that he knew about yesterday. "I heard him, Sheriff. Does he need you to run interference for him?"

"It would appear so since you can't seem to hear too good, Saylor. I think you've said enough to him as it is."

Fred glanced at the small group, all of whom were looking curiously at him. "I made a mistake and I know it. I'd like to talk to Johnny. Now, I'm goin to find him. If you want to try and stop me, that's up to you."

"Try?" Val asked sarcastically. "Saylor, I'll drop you like a bad habit if you bother Johnny anymore."

The stand off continued a while before Saylor slumped his shoulders in defeat. He wasn't fool enough to go against Val Crawford. Whether he could take the man or not was up for debate but, mixing it up with the law was never a good idea no matter the circumstances. "Would you tell him I want to apologize?"

Val raised a brow at that then, studied the question. Finally, he nodded and turned, heading in the direction Johnny had gone.

*

It didn't take much investigating to figure out where Johnny had headed. Val simply walked to the Lancer surrey where his friend was sitting, staring off in the distance. He slid in beside the man and let his eyes travel the path where Johnny was looking. "Nice scenery."

"It's okay. What did he want?"

Val glanced over at him then went back to staring. "Well, you ain't gonna believe this but, that jackass wanted to apologize to you."

Johnny turned and looked at his friend, his surprise easy to see. "You're right. I don't believe it."

"Yeah, I wasn't buyin it either. He tried to come after ya."

A grin came to the younger man's face. "What did you do, Val?"

With a shrug, he looked at Johnny. "Not a thing. Just told him he wasn't gonna bother ya. Reckon he saw the wisdom in that. Anyways, he asked if I'd tell ya so, I told ya."

The smile lingered on Johnny's face for a moment. He could just imagine what Val had said to keep Saylor away from him. He was lucky to have Val. The smile faded as his thoughts turned to another man he was lucky to have. "I wish Murdoch would come on. Scott shouldn't be left alone too long."

"Reckon he might do somethin stupid?"

Johnny snorted. "My brother doesn't do stupid."

Val looked at him like he was crazy. "What'ya call tryin to go after Crump?"

A sigh escaped and Johnny shook his head. "I'd call it a man taking care of his business. He did just what you or I would've done, Val. You know, I've been trying to figure out why I was treating him like some snot-nosed kid who can't wipe his own nose. Haven't come up with anything, yet."

Val shifted in the seat, slumping down and crossing his leg over the other knee. "I figured it was because you're better at trackin and havin Scott out there would've been like puttin a target on his back."

"I don't know. Maybe. Maybe, I just ..." he stopped and looked away.

Val opened his mouth then closed it, figuring Johnny would say whatever it was if he wanted and in his own time. His patience was rewarded shortly.

"I think I just didn't want him out there with us. Maybe, I didn't want ... it doesn't make any sense and, saying it makes it sound even worse."

Val made a noise. "Well, that was clear as mud!"

Johnny glanced over at him with a small smile then, leaned forward and rested his forearms on his knees. "I didn't want you two gettin too friendly."

Val was stunned for a beat then, he grinned a little. "You don't want me tellin him any stories about the old days." He elbowed Johnny gently.

"No, I didn't want to ... share you. Either of you."

The smile left Val's face replaced by a frown of incomprehension. "Share us? What are you talkin about?"

He took a deep breath then leaned back and let it out. "You and me, we have somethin different. You know me better than anyone, including Scott. But, him and me, we have somethin just as different. See, both of you know me but, in different ways. I like that. I like havin you to back me up in a fight because you know exactly what I'm gonna do. I like havin Scott for all the family stuff." He shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest. "I told you, it doesn't make any sense."

"That must be why I understand what you're sayin." He smiled at the frown Johnny gave him. "You got me for Madrid and Scott for Lancer."

Johnny's arms fell into his lap as he stared at the man. "Yeah, that's it exactly."

Val nodded then looked back out over the land. "Seems to me, you've kind of put those two together now. But, maybe part of ya doesn't want to let go. I remind you of that time so, I'm sorta your link to your past."

Johnny looked down at his hands then nodded. "Is that wrong?"

"Wrong? Ain't right or wrong, it just is. Johnny, you don't have to hide who you were from anyone. Not even your old man. I thought you were past all that."

"Sometimes, I think I am. But, I also know Murdoch wouldn't like it if he heard this conversation. He's okay with it as long as he believes I've walked away completely. But, it ain't just about bein a gunfighter. That's not even really a part of it."

"I know." Val looked over at him and smiled. "I get it but, Scott might not. Especially, if you don't explain it better to him than you just did to me!"

"And that's the whole thing, Val. You get it. Scott doesn't know that life, he doesn't know who I was before or what I did. It's not something you can sit down and tell someone. It's just a way of livin. I guess that's why I wanted to keep you two separate. So, *I* could keep it separate."

Val put his hand on Johnny's shoulder and gave him a sympathetic look. "You do know you're loco, don't ya?"

Rolling his eyes, Johnny pulled his shoulder away and smacked Val in the gut. "Long as you know it, I don't have to, right?"

*

They both fell quiet, just looking out at the landscape. Finally, Val sighed and looked over at Johnny. "You gonna talk to Saylor?"

"Why the hell should I?"

"Because, sometimes when people are hurtin, they say stupid shit, Johnny. I don't have to tell you that, do I?" Val leaned toward him and cocked a meaningful brow.

Johnny pulled a face and shouldered Val. "No, you don't have to tell me that. I just ... I'm not sure I want to listen."

"He said some pretty nasty things. Your old man told me about it. I reckon it was hard to hear someone you thought of as a friend talkin to you like that." Val looked straight ahead then, his eyes slid to the side for a second. "I guess he ain't really a friend ,though. I mean, a friend would never talk so hateful to ya."

"Stop it, Val. He ain't a friend like you are and, you've never said anything like that to me."

The man raised his brows and shrugged. "Maybe, your memory is failin ya. We've had some bad times, Johnny."

"I always knew why, though, and so did you."

"You know why now. His boy was shot and his best friend's son was killed all because of somethin he did. That's gotta be hard to take."

A heavy sigh was the only answer Johnny had at the moment. He rolled his shoulders then slid out of the surrey. Turning back, he leaned in a little and looked solemnly at Val. "You do know I hate it when you make all this sense. It worries me."

Val assumed a superior look. "I told you years ago, I'm older and smarter than you but, you just can't get that through your thick skull. Ain't my problem if you can't learn."

Johnny grinned at that. "Well, maybe I just need someone that can teach."

"Hmmph! That'd be your brother."

The smile went away, replaced by a cocked brow. "Don't tell him that. I won't be able to live with him."

Val sighed and rolled his eyes. "Go on, will ya? Before your old man shows up, ready ta leave."

*

Johnny walked back to the last place he'd seen Fred Saylor. As he rounded the corner, he spied the man sitting off by himself in that ... what had Scott called it? A gazebo? Stupid name. He sighed and headed over to the man, hoping he could keep his temper in check. Getting in a fight at a funeral would not make Murdoch happy. Wouldn't make him too happy, either. He stepped up on the elevated floor and stopped, crossing his arms and waiting for the man to notice him. It only took a few seconds as Saylor's head came up then, he stood.

"Johnny, thank you for seeing me."

He only nodded and waited.

Saylor's eyes dipped then, he met Johnny's gaze. "I wanted to apologize to you. I didn't mean a word of what I said. No one I know talks about you. I just ... I've been so worried for Shane and Micah and all the rest. When I heard you'd taken Crump out, I was so relieved. Then, when I told Shane he said something that got me thinking."

That got Johnny's attention. "What did he say?"

The man shook his head. "It was just a comment. Something like, too bad they couldn't have gotten him before he killed Floyd. He didn't mean it in a bad way. He's been pretty torn up over Floyd. You know those boys grew up together."

Johnny relaxed a little and nodded. "Go on."

Fred sighed and walked around the small space a little. "Well, like I said, he's been so torn up and in a lot of pain though, he'd never admit to it much. When he said that, I thought, why didn't they? You and Val had been after him for days and, still, he got to my boy. Johnny, I just needed someone to blame. Someone alive that I could yell at, take it out on. I was hopin you'd bring Crump in alive so I could thrash him before he was hanged. But, that didn't happen so I took it out on you. I said what I knew would sting the most. I didn't mean a word of it, Johnny. If you wanna take a swing at me, well, go ahead."

Johnny shook his head. "Mr. Saylor the only reason I didn't fight back yesterday was because of Shane. The way you rode into Lancer, I thought he'd died. Then, when you said he hadn't well, Murdoch took the honors. I don't want to hit you now. I don't want anything from you. I understand people say things sometimes when they're hurt or mad that they don't mean but, usually there's some truth in there somewhere. I think you really did welcome me so you'd have your own personal gunfighter nearby."

Saylor dropped his eyes from that gaze. "Yes, I suppose that was true at first." Looking back up, his eyes implored Johnny. "But, once I got to know you, that wasn't it, anymore. I genuinely started liking you, Johnny. When you and Shane became friends, I was very pleased. Yes, some of the ranchers were worried at first but, it didn't take long for them to settle down about you. Most of them, anyway. That was the only truth in what I said."

"What about Shane? Does he know about this?"

"No, I didn't tell him. I realized what an idiot I was after I left your place yesterday. I've been trying to figure a way to apologize to you ever since. Shane would go crazy if he knew I'd talked to you like that. I ... I understand if you can't forgive me, Johnny. But, I hope you'll still consider my son your friend."

Johnny shrugged. "I don't really know what to say to you. It's hard to believe you. Right now, I can't worry too much about it. There's still a lot of healing goin on and I guess there will be for a long time. This is worse than Pardee to my way of thinkin because it was personal. Maybe, with some time ... I don't know. Tell Shane I'm thinking about him."

Fred sighed heavily. "I understand, Johnny. Maybe, you could come visit Shane in a few days? I'll make sure I stay out of your way."

Lowering his head, Johnny spoke softly. "Maybe."

*

Murdoch saw his son standing in the gazebo and frowned. Johnny was talking to someone but, he couldn't tell who it was. As he walked nearer, he saw Saylor and he nearly growled. "Johnny?"

Johnny turned at the voice and nodded. "Hey, you ready to go?"

Murdoch stood at the entrance, not stepping in. "Yes, I'm ready. Are you alright?"

"Sure. Everything's alright. I'm gonna go see Mr. Townsend real quick." He stepped down as Murdoch moved aside for him then walked back to the house.

Murdoch watched him closely. He didn't appear to be upset but, with Johnny it was hard to tell sometimes. He focused his attention on Saylor, a deep frown etched on his face. "What did you say to him?"

Saylor stepped out of the shelter and faced his old friend. "I apologized. I don't think he can accept it right now. Maybe, with some time." He blinked and sucked in a breath. "I owe you an apology, too, Murdoch. All I can say is I lost my mind. I just wanted someone to yell at, I guess. Since Crump was dead, I picked Johnny."

Murdoch sighed out through his nose. "I think you were feeling some guilt about all of this. I know Micah is."

Lowering his head, the other man nodded. "Yes, I surely am. We all are."

"Maybe, that's what Johnny needs to know and understand. I don't like the way you spoke to my son one bit, Fred. I'll not soon forget it, either. My hope is that we can all move past this in time and be able to get along."

Fred looked back at him with a glimmer of a smile. "I hope so, too, Murdoch."

*

Murdoch wanted to talk to Johnny about Saylor but, that was hard to do when his son was driving Sam in his buggy. He smiled as he watched them. He couldn't hear what was said but, he could tell Johnny was giving Sam the devil from the doctor's rather animated movements. At least Sam's feeling better. He sighed out, still stunned by all that had happened. And, very grateful his sons had not fallen ultimate victim to Crump's insanity. His eyes came up when he heard Val ride up alongside him.

"What is Johnny doing up there?"

Val laughed. "Oh, you know. He's messin with Sam. Givin him instructions on his care and recovery."

Murdoch smiled. "And what is his prescription?"

"Well, everything Sam's ever told him to do for anything, including when he had that bad cold. Sam is tryin to explain to Johnny that breathin in steam ain't gonna do a thing for his gunshot wound."

A laughed emitted from the rancher. "And what was Johnny's reply?"

Val bit his lip and shook his head. He swallowed hard before answering. "He told Sam he needed to hush and listen to what he's told and not ask questions. That he didn't need to know the why of it."

Murdoch frowned at that. "Sam has never said that to Johnny."

"I know but, there was this doc down in Tucson once that tried that on him." Val laughed heartily. "I think he gave up doctorin and became a farmer."

Murdoch roared with laughter as they drove under the arch. Johnny had already stopped Sam's buggy and the doctor was throwing his hands up at Johnny, shooing him away. Johnny was following the man into the house and Murdoch wiped at the tears streaming down his face. He couldn't stop laughing and, Val's raucous laugh wasn't helping anything.

*

Scott frowned and opened his eyes. He looked around the room, wondering what had woken him. It didn't take long to discern the noise was out in the hall as he heard Sam then Johnny. He strained to hear the words but, the next thing he heard was a slamming door. Soon, he heard a peck at his own door as the knob turned. Johnny's head appeared in the doorway.

"You awake?"

"I am now."

Johnny grimaced as he walked in and sat at the foot of the bed. "Sorry, I was teasin Sam. He doesn't take it too well."

Scott smiled at that as he settled back on the pillows. "You probably shouldn't do that, brother. He's not a man who forgets anything."

Johnny's eyes widened then, he shrugged. "Sam's problem is, he cares too much to get revenge."

Scott shrugged or, tried to then, realized he probably shouldn't do that. He winced as the wound to his neck stung. "How was the funeral?"

Johnny lowered his head and picked at the blanket. "Sad. Micah's all torn up but, he's holding it together somehow." He looked back up. "Well, today anyway."

"What about his wife?"

He shook his head. "She's a mess."

Scott sighed at that. "Well, thank God it's over now."

"Yeah," Johnny breathed out. "Listen, I wanted to tell you, well, that I'm sorry for the way I treated you."

Scott was surprised, that was evident. He raised up a little and Johnny moved to the head of the bed, adjusting his pillows and helping him get comfortable. "Thank you. That's much better. Now, how did this epiphany come about?"

Johnny sat back at the foot of the bed and leaned against the post. Shrugging, he looked around the room then looked squarely at Scott. "I talked to Val and worked it out." He watched closely for any reaction but, Scott didn't show any for a moment then, he gave Johnny an expectant look.

"I'm going to need more information than you talked to Val, Johnny."

"I'm not sure I can explain it where you'd understand, Scott. Besides that, it's kind of stupid." He bowed his head again, embarrassed.

"Now, I'm intrigued. I'd like you to try, Johnny. I need to know."

He looked back at his brother, had heard the pain in his soft voice and he winced. "Well, did you ever have two friends who were so completely different, you wondered how you had 'em?"

Scott stared at him and thought he was right. This was stupid. "I don't think so."

Johnny smiled. "You and Val couldn't be more different but, you're both my best friend. It's just that he's a friend from before and, that's kind of special to me. Mostly, because it's a miracle but, more than that."

Scott's face took on a knowing look and he smiled. "I get it, brother."

*

"You do?"

"I do. Val is for Madrid."

Johnny rolled his eyes. "Maybe, you ain't so different after all. That's just what he said."

"And, maybe you'd like to keep that friendship just for yourself. Having me out there with the two of you was like having a stranger trying to wheedle in."

"No, Scott. Don't make it sound like I don't want you around."

Scott raised a hand to stay his brother. "I didn't intend to but, it's the truth, isn't it? I'm not offended, brother. I understand how important Val is to you."

"I don't think I really knew why I was doing it. I kept thinking I was trying to keep you alive but, when we got to arguing in the barn the other night, I knew I was wrong. I would've done exactly what you were trying to do so, it wasn't right for me to try and stop you."

Scott smiled. "I'm very glad you've figured out your motivations, brother. And, I'm certain it won't happen again but, keeping me out of it could have ended worse than it did."

"Maybe. It's not like we didn't know what we were doing. I get what you're saying. It was you he was after so you had the right to be in on it. That's true. It won't happen again." Johnny grinned as he came to his feet. "From now on, if someone is trying to kill you, I'll stay out of the way."

Scott gave him a sidelong look then pulled a face. "Thanks, I think."

Johnny's grin faded as he walked over to the bedside table. "You been drinking water?"

"Like a fish."

"Make sure you don't turn your head too quick or, move around too much."

Scott pursed his lips. "Yes, Doctor."

Johnny kept staring at the water pitcher. When next he spoke, his voice was whisper-soft. "And don't ever scare me like that again."

Scott reached out and squeezed his arm. "I won't. Next time, I'll duck much faster."

A ghost of a smile crossed Johnny's face. "I'm so sorry, Boston."

Scott closed his eyes for a second. "Johnny, don't. It was an accident. You didn't have time to do anything else. We settled this already."

He took in a deep breath and nodded then, ambled around the room. "Sam nearly fell out. We caught up to him on the way to the Townsends. I drove his buggy the rest of the way. He was better after some rest." He turned back. "He said he's glad he didn't let you go to the funeral."

Scott frowned at that then, grimaced at the last. "Maybe, I was being too optimistic. Truthfully, I wanted to be there for you. I knew something else had happened that had you so angry."

"Yeah, but, it's over now. Sorry I was such a bear. It's all worked out, though."

"Care to tell me about it?"

"Not really. Just that I talked to Saylor at the funeral and he apologized. Right now, I think I could stand a nap."

Scott chuckled at that. "Sounds like a good idea to me."

Johnny smiled as he walked over to the bed and knelt beside it. "I'll leave my door open if you need anything. Sam's probably out cold and I don't know where Murdoch is."

"I'll be fine, brother, but I'll give a yell if I'm not."

Johnny nodded then stood and walked to the door. Making sure it was left ajar, he went to his own room and fell on the bed.

*

Scott slowly made his way to the side of the bed the next morning. It felt good to sit up. He let his bare feet touch the floor and smiled from the coolness. Now, he thought, all I have to do is get dressed before anyone catches me. A soft laugh followed that as he stood up gingerly, testing his fortitude. His head spun for a second but then, everything seemed to level out. Taking a deep breath, he started walking toward the dresser. One step at a time, Scott, he cautioned himself.

With delight, he made it to his destination then pulled a drawer open, grabbed a shirt then started to turn to the wardrobe. He caught his reflection in the mirror and stopped, turning back fully. Leaning in, he shook his head slowly. You're a mess! His fingers touched the bandage, grateful it was clean then, he pressed just a little and felt the sting again. With a soft sigh, he went back to his chore. He couldn't shave, that was clear but, at least he could clean up a little and get some clothes on.

As he selected a pair of pants and tossed them on the chair back, his thoughts turned to his brother. He didn't think Johnny was okay at all. He'd said Saylor had apologized but, he never said he'd accepted it. Scott was pretty sure it would take more than an 'I'm sorry' to assuage his brother. He walked back to the dresser and poured water into the wash basin. Grabbing a cloth, he washed around the bandage as best he could. It wasn't nearly satisfying but, it would have to do for now.

After donning his shirt, he lowered himself into the chair and pulled on his pants, raising his hips as he thought it easier than standing up again. He was feeling much weaker from just that little moving around he'd done and, it was disappointing to say the least. He'd hoped he'd be able to stay up but, if he wasn't able to at least appear to feel better, they'd never go for it. A wry grin came to his face. It wasn't stubborness, it was simply a need to get out and move around; to be a part of everything and everyone. As he buttoned the trousers, he realized this must be what his brother felt whenever he was hurt. He'd always attributed it to Johnny's innate restlessness but, maybe that wasn't it at all.

He settled back, leaning his head against the chair cushion and closing his eyes. He just needed to rest for a minute, catch his breath then, he'd feel much better, he was sure.

Suddenly, he jerked his head a little, wincing at the pull to his wound. His hand went to his neck as he focused his eyes. Something had awakened him. Something he'd heard or, felt ... he sighed and let himself look over at the doorway. A guilty smile graced his face.

*

Johnny leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed and a look of consternation on his face as he stared at his brother.

"Good morning," Scott said cheerfully.

A grunt escaped Johnny's lips as he pushed off the door and ambled slowly toward his brother. "Mornin. Are you ready to go back to bed now?"

Scott raised a brow at that. "I just got up a few minutes ago."

"Try an hour ago, Boston. You've been asleep for a while now."

The light blue eyes widened at that information then, narrowed suspiciously. Was Johnny pulling his leg? His brother didn't appear to be in the mood to joke, though. "Well, I just needed a little rest from getting dressed, is all. I'm sure you know what it's like."

Johnny didn't say anything to that. He settled on the trunk at the foot of the bed and clasped his hands between his knees. Slowly, he looked over at his brother. "How are you really?"

Scott smiled softly. "I am better. Tired, of course but, I was hardly dizzy at all when I stood up and it passed very quickly. I'll be fine, brother. I just need to get some fresh air. I hate being secluded."

Johnny watched a dark cloud pass over his brother's face with the last statement. "Well, I'm sure once you explain it to the old man, he won't beat on you too bad. I'll get you some breakfast."

"How about helping me downstairs so I can get my own?"

Johnny hesitated then, shrugged. If it were him, he'd appreciate any support he could get. Usually, though, Scott was the one harpin on him to stay down. Well, he thought, I'll just show him how it's supposed to be done. A smile lifted his lips as he walked over and extended a hand to his brother.

Scott stood with little difficulty and only a slight woozy feeling in his head. He leaned against his brother briefly then, straightened himself. With a slight nod, he indicated he was ready.

*

Johnny couldn't recall ever going down a flight of steps so slowly. He could recall a few times when he'd gone down way too fast. Usually during some brawl or other. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling, not wanting his brother to think he was amused by his cumbersome gait. He had his arm securely around Scott's waist as the older man took one step at a time. They finally reached the landing and he heard a heavy sigh beside him. "Need to rest?"

"Yes, just over there in that chair," Scott answered, waving a hand in the general direction of the living room.

Johnny nodded. At least he's better at admitting it than I am. He herded his brother toward a seat, still with a near death grip on the man who was leaning on him more and more with each passing second.

Murdoch pulled up short beside the dining room table as he watched his sons. He refrained from yelling like he wanted, afraid he'd startle them into a disaster. Holding his breath, he waited as Johnny eased Scott into a chair then, stood up. "What do you think you're doing, son?" He was pleased with himself, he hadn't even raised his voice much.

Johnny looked over at him, a blank expression on his face. He had no intentions of answering. He was pretty sure Murdoch wasn't talking to him, anyway.

Scott didn't try to look. He knew that would be a mistake. "Just trying to get a little freedom, Sir. I'd like to sit at the table for breakfast."

Murdoch walked around so he could face Scott then, looked down at him with obvious disapproval. He cast a glance at Johnny before speaking. "Sam hasn't said anything about freedom, yet."

Scott frowned and lowered his eyes. "Sam isn't feeling too well, himself. I'm alright, Sir. I dressed myself and everything."

Johnny turned to look at a wall.

"How long did that take?"

With a sigh, Scott looked up at his father with consternation. "I'm a grown man, Murdoch. I know how much I can do. I was very careful and rested when I needed to."

The rancher stared at him a moment then, walked over and grabbed a chair, positioning it so he sat in front and very near his son. "I'm well aware of your age, Scott. I hope you're just as aware that I'm concerned for you. We all watched you bleed and we all only want to ensure you heal as you should."

Chagrined, Scott thought this was the very thing he'd been considering earlier. This concern. He gave his father a smile. "Of course, I appreciate that, Sir. Very much. But, since I'm already down here ..." He didn't finish, just gave his father an impish look.

Murdoch chuckled at that then looked up at Johnny who had finally turned back around but, was staring at the back of Scott's head. "Yes, it would appear so, son. Alright, when you're ready, let's go to the kitchen."

"I'm ready now." Scott patted his flat stomach. "And, I'm starving!"

Johnny grinned at that then started to move to his brother's side but, Murdoch pushed his own chair back and extended an arm of assistance. Shaking his head, Johnny stepped back, figuring he'd have to remember Scott's words for future battles of his own. Seemed like Murdoch was more accepting of soft talk than their usually rafter shaking arguments. Of course, that could just be the difference between them. His brows pulled together as he wondered how his old man would react to him acting like Scott just had. Maybe, he should try it just to shake the man up. Okay, enough crazy thinkin, he decided as he watched his father and brother walk slowly toward the kitchen.

*

As Johnny started to follow, a knock at the door pulled him up and he turned direction. "I got it," he called then stepped into the foyer. He half expected to see Val standing there so, he was surprised to find a stranger at the door. A young stranger, at that. He was about Scott's height with brown hair and eyes, unremarkable looking aside from the fact he was skinny as a rail. He also looked scared. "Can I help you?"

The young man's eyes darted around before landing on Johnny. "I'd like to see Scott Lancer."

Johnny's instincts immediately awoke as he stared hard at the man. "He's not up to visitors. What do you want?"

He took a step back at the harsher voice then, his Adam's apple bobbed up and down. "I, uh ... well, I just wanted a word."

"Who are you, mister?"

"I'll come back when he's feeling better. I'm sorry to have disturbed you." He turned and headed back into the yard.

Johnny didn't like this one bit though, why he couldn't say. He followed the young man, spying the buggy he was headed for. His gait slowed when he saw Val leaning against the corral fence. Val gave him a shrug and Johnny sighed. "Wait a minute." He paused as the man slowed then, stopped.

The stranger didn't turn back around so, Johnny decided on a different approach. "Look, I'm sorry if I was rude but, my brother's been through a lot. We all have and, seeing a stranger at the door right now, well, I'm a little cautious. Maybe, if you tell me what you need, I can help you."

The stranger turned and looked closely at him. "You're Johnny?"

"That's right."

"Then, you've already helped me more than you could ever know."

The frown on Johnny's face deepened as he shook his head. "You lost me."

He smiled a little and it helped his appearance. "You killed Josiah Crump and that was an immense help to me, God forgive me for saying."

Johnny only stared for a moment then, his face relaxed, eyes widening a little before he donned an expression of indifference. "You his kid?"

*

Taking a deep breath, the young man nodded. "I'm afraid so. I'm Israel Crump." The darkness which fell over Johnny's face was sudden and disturbing to the young man.

"What do you want with Scott?"

He swallowed hard again. "Well, to apologize and wish him well, all of you. I didn't know my father very well. He didn't raise me for much of my life. As I'm sure you know, he was in prison for nearly ten years."

"Yeah, I know. I wondered if he had another kid since he was going after the oldest sons."

Israel sighed then bowed his head and shook it sadly. "He was ... disturbed. He wrote to me at my aunt's. My mother's sister raised me mostly after she died. I didn't have much contact with him until he went to prison. That's when he started writing to me. His letters were full of venom and hatred but, he never actually said anything about exacting revenge that I know of."

Johnny cocked his head to one side. "What do you mean, that you know of?"

He shrugged and turned aside. "I stopped reading the letters about two years ago. I just couldn't take anymore. He never asked how I was, never wrote a word of concern for me. It was all about my brother and how he'd died. He called it murder. It got to the point that my stomach would turn when I saw the envelope. I started burning them, unopened. Maybe, if I'd read them ... he may have said something about his plans. I could have warned you all."

"It's not your fault," Johnny said abruptly. As the young man turned to him, he shrugged. "You're not responsible for what your father or brother did. But, I have to tell you, I don't think it's a good idea for you to be here. This valley is hurting pretty bad. If anyone found out who you are, they might decide to take it out on you."

Israel again swallowed hard. "I suppose that's why the sheriff insisted on escorting me here. Perhaps, it is best if I go. I do hope you'll extend my condolences to your brother and, maybe some day, the rest of the victims."

"Maybe, someday," Johnny muttered then, smiled a little. "You're not from around these parts?"

"I grew up in San Francisco. I've just passed the bar and am an attorney now. I start my apprenticeship next month. That's how I found out about my father." He lowered his eyes. "I went to law school with Floyd Townsend. His father wired one of our professors who had been a mentor and friend to both Floyd and me to tell him what happened. He asked for the professor's legal opinion so, he went into great detail. I don't believe I've ever seen such a lengthy telegram."

Johnny raised a brow at that. Micah must really be blaming himself for all this. It disturbed him and he thought to let Murdoch know. Maybe, he could help the man somehow. "Floyd's father is taking it hard, alright."

Israel nodded. "I should go. I'm sorry about all of this. You've been very kind to even talk with me. Thank you, Mr. Lancer, for you benevolence."

Johnny shook the extended hand, a slight grin on his face. "I think you'd get along well with my brother. He talks fancy, too."

Israel laughed at that then, fell solemn. "Well, I'm sorry not to meet him but, under the circumstances, you're right. I'm sure my timing could have been better as well. Goodbye."

Johnny stepped back from the buggy and nodded at the young man. He sure wasn't anything like his father, thank God. He watched as Val mounted up and rode alongside as Israel made his way toward the main road. Then, he heard the front door open and turned to see Murdoch walking out.

"Who was that?"

Johnny sighed. "Believe it or not, Israel Crump." He almost laughed at the look on his father's face. "Come on, I'll tell you all about him over breakfast. Scott's not the only one hungry."

Murdoch turned to follow his son back into the house but, he kept his eyes glued to the buggy for a moment as it grew smaller in the distance.

*

Val didn't say anything for a while. Not until they reached the top of the hill overlooking Lancer. "You plannin on stayin the night?"

"I hadn't thought about it, Sheriff. I suppose I'll have to wait for the next stage."

"Might want to think about usin a different last name when you sign in at the hotel. I'd rather nobody know who you are."

Israel looked up at him solemnly then, nodded. "Mr. Lancer said something similar. I appreciate your assistance."

Val sighed and repositioned his hat. "Lots of people around here would just as soon take their anger out on you as anything. It ain't right. In fact, it's exactly what your old man did but, they won't see it that way."

The younger man didn't say anything for a while then, he sucked in a breath. "I've spent a good deal of time learning the law and how to practice it. I've read about vigilantes and I find it more than disturbing. It's disheartening that men will go so far as to take the law into their own hands."

Tensing his jaw, Val thought about that for a minute. "I reckon a man can be driven to just about anything if his kin is threatened or hurt. Those law books of yours don't account for folks' feelins. Some people think the law moves too slow."

Frustrated, Israel countered. "Perhaps, but, it's better to move slowly than to punish the wrong person, isn't it?"

A crooked grin slid up the sheriff's face. "That's lawyer talk. Life ain't that easy. There's too many bad people in this world, Mr. Crump. Too many that think they can do whatever they want and get away with it. Some of 'em do get away with it. Happens a lot."

"I suppose you see a lot of that in your work."

"I've seen a lot of it in my life whether I was a sheriff or not. There's just some plain bad hombres around."

Israel frowned at that negative outlook. "And people who decide to take care of those hombres themselves. But, there are more good people, I feel. Like you and your friends, the Lancers."

Val started to tell him he wasn't all that good a person but, there was no sense in scarin the man. It didn't look like it'd take much to have him runnin for the hills anyway. Then again, might be a good thing. He quirked a smile as a thought came to him. "I can tell ya about bad hombres and men who've taken care of 'em their own way. Might help ya to see the way things really are."

Israel smiled a little, intrigued. "Alright, sheriff."

Val licked his lips then started. "Well, there was this young gunfighter down on the border ..."

 

 

~end~
2009

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