The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Crossfire

 

 

 

Murdoch stared at the package with curiosity and some concern. There was no return address which, in and of itself wasn't unusual. Still, if Johnny had ordered something, the package would have a label from the company. He drummed his fingertips on the top then pushed it around the desk a little to try and gauge the weight of it.

This is ridiculous, he thought. It's just a package. Picking it up, he headed upstairs to put it in his son's room so it wouldn't get misplaced. Johnny wouldn't be home for several days from the north range and things had a way of getting lost around the house sometimes. He smiled as he recalled the socks he'd found hanging in the attic door. He never had figured that one out.

As he came back downstairs, Scott was pouring a drink. The younger man turned his head and smiled a little. "Well, did you pry it open?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Murdoch growled then glanced sidelong at his son. "That would've been too obvious."

Scott laughed and poured his father a drink then settled in the chair beside Murdoch. "I'm sure it's just a birthday present or something. Yours is coming up in a few months."

"I suppose."

Scott sighed and shook his head. "He's fine, you know."

"What does that mean?"

"It means you can relax and stop worrying about Johnny taking off. He's not going anywhere, Sir."

Murdoch swallowed his drink and frowned. "What makes you think I'm worried about that?"

"Simple," Scott shrugged, "every time something or someone comes along out of the ordinary, you get that same pained look on your face." He lowered his eyes. "I've seen it a few times, you know, and usually directed at Johnny. Once or twice at me."

Murdoch looked uncomfortably at his son. "Am I so obvious? And is it so wrong to worry about your sons? That's not something that ever goes away. Someday, you might just find that out for yourself."

Rolling his eyes, Scott raised his glass. "Here we go again. The marriage lecture." A grin spread across his face.

Murdoch raised a brow and leaned toward him a little with 'the look'. But, he never got to finish his lecture as the front door burst open and Johnny came bouncing in.

"Hey!"

Murdoch came to his feet immediately. "What's wrong?" he demanded.

Johnny pulled up short and looked wide-eyed at him then glanced at Scott. "Nothing."

"Why are you back so early?"

Scott saw it but he wasn't too keen on stopping Johnny. Murdoch was being a bear. He knew the man was only worried but, Murdoch's worried sounded more like an accusation most of the time.

Johnny took a moment and a breath before relaxing his shoulders and sauntering toward his father. He didn't speak until he was standing right in front of the man. "Well," he drawled, "I got lonesome so I figured I'd just come on home."

Grim-faced, the rancher simply stared at his son for a beat. "I see. Well, as long as you have a good reason."

Johnny grinned at the sarcasm. "It wasn't as bad as you thought. I finished early."

Murdoch's lips twitched a little then he nodded. "So, the water level is alright and the fences are holding?"

Johnny walked over to the sideboard and poured himself a drink as he answered. "Yep. There were only a couple of spots where I had to repair the fence and the Spring rains up in the mountains have filled the water holes almost to overflowing. The cattle are all fat and happy. Now, maybe someone could feed me some decent food so I can be happy, too."

Scott walked over and slapped his brother on the back. "We might be able to find a bucket of oats for you, brother."

"Thanks, Boston. Knew I could count on you."

*

Johnny walked into his room later that night with one thing on his mind. His nice, soft bed. He knew he was getting too comfortable when a few days sleeping under the stars took this much out of him. With a grin, he stretched and started removing his shirt. He turned toward the dresser and saw the package. With a frown, he walked over and looked at it. Yep, had his name on it. Yawning, he decided to wait until the next day. He was just too tired to fool with it right now, whatever it was.

He sat on the side of the bed and pulled his boots off, pushing them just under the foot of the bed then, he started working on his pants. His thoughts went to earlier in the evening when he'd gotten home. Murdoch had sounded like a grizzly, demanding and tough. But, Johnny was learning to try and hold his temper, answer the growls and wait to see the reaction. Tonight, it had worked though, sometimes he just couldn't help himself. He'd fire back as quickly as he'd gotten bit without thinking. It was still a rough ride after what? Eight months now? Yeah, about that. Still, it was a big improvement.

He chuckled a little as he thought of those very early days when he and Murdoch would circle around each other like a couple of mountain lions vying over a fresh kill. They both smelled blood and neither was about to back down. Poor Scott had been caught between them and that fresh kill more times than he cared to think about.

It had always surprised him how Scott would do that. No one had asked him, certainly but, Johnny wouldn't say no to a helping hand where their father was concerned. Hardest man in the world to figure was Murdoch Lancer. At least for him. Scott was a different matter. He either understood Murdoch or had the patience of a saint. Johnny still wasn't sure which.

He laid his clothes on the chair back then turned out the lamp and slipped under the sheets, squirming around until he found just the right position. With a sigh, he closed his eyes, a smile on his face for the comfort.

*

Murdoch's face told the story. He sipped his coffee and looked toward the stairway every few minutes. Scott watched him with some annoyance of his own. His father could be most irritating at times. Breakfast wasn't even ready so Johnny was not late. Not that he didn't have every right to sleep in a little this morning in Scott's estimation. Camping out on the range was tiring in his experience and he didn't think he was any less cut out for it than anyone else. He'd certainly slept on some hard and cold ground in his lifetime.

Murdoch set his cup down particularly hard and Scott saw Maria whirl around from where she stood at the stove, her wooden spoon raised and ready. He could practically see her thinking about the wisdom of bopping the old man and he had to lower his head and suck in his cheeks to keep from laughing outright.

If anyone was more protective of Johnny than him, it was Maria. Scott often wondered at why he felt that protectiveness. Yes, Johnny was his younger brother but he wasn't a child. He'd lived more than a lot of people Scott knew and especially those back east. Johnny had experienced so many things in his life and it seemed to Scott, his brother had learned something from most of those experiences. Some good, some bad but, all lessons were worth the knowing.

He supposed it was because of their father. Murdoch was a tough man on a good day but he didn't seem to have any patience with Johnny. Scott surmised the old man just didn't like a bunch of foolishness and Johnny was full of life and always ready for whatever came along. He enjoyed so many simple things and embraced it all with the zeal of his youth. Smirking, Scott thought Murdoch would never have survived Johnny's teen years.

"Something funny?"

His head jerked up at Murdoch's voice. Clearing his throat, Scott picked his coffee cup up and replied as he brought it to his lips. "I doubt you'd think so, Sir."

"Did you hear your brother moving around this morning?"

"No," he sighed out. "I wasn't standing at his door listening, either. Breakfast isn't even ready yet, you know."

Murdoch blew out a breath then turned and looked at Maria's back. "It's late, too."

Scott grinned as he realized Murdoch was right. Apparently, Maria was dawdling so her niño, as she sometimes called him behind his back, wouldn't be considered late. At the table when the meal is served, was Murdoch's edict.

*

At that moment, the backdoor flew open and Johnny strode in with a smile. "Mornin, everyone!"

"Good morning, brother." Scott tried to hide his surprise and felt a little ashamed of himself. He'd fallen into Murdoch's suspicious nature and assumed the same thing. That Johnny had not yet risen.

The younger man walked over and kissed Maria's cheek. "Breakfast not ready?"

"Si, Johnny." She couldn't help but glance over to see if Murdoch was listening. He wasn't looking but she knew he could hear them. "I am a little late this morning."

"Happens to the best of us, mamacita." Johnny gave her a wink then went to the table.

"Where did you get off to so early?" Murdoch's voice was as casual as a summer breeze.

Sipping his coffee and relishing the taste, Johnny shrugged. "I saw the corral gate latch was about to come off it's hinges last night. Thought I'd better fix it first thing."

Scott dipped his head, the smile on his face spreading quickly. One quick look at his father had told him the man was feeling his own shame.

"Good, son. I'm glad you noticed that. Frank was planning on putting those wild horses in the corral today." Murdoch cast a sidelong look at Scott but saw nothing but the top of his head.

Frowning, Johnny looked between the two men, leaning to his right as Maria placed a platter on the table. "What's the matter with you two, this morning?"

"Not a thing, brother."

Murdoch cleared his throat then remembered something. "Oh, did you see that package on your dresser? It came in yesterday."

"Yeah, I was too tired to open it last night." Johnny forked a slice of ham, a slight smile of pleasure on his face as he anticipated the taste.

Murdoch ventured forth. "I didn't know you were expecting anything."

"I'm not," he replied then popped a piece of ham in his mouth.

Letting out a breath of frustration, Murdoch watched his son, who was paying him no mind, dig into his breakfast more ardently.

Scott couldn't contain himself any longer and he chuckled. Johnny's head came up, a smile for his brother. "What?"

Throwing his son a warning glance, Murdoch piped in. "Your brother seems to have some sort of malady this morning. He thinks everything is funny."

*

Scott regrouped, wiping the smile from his face and shrugging. "Must be something in the air. What do you have planned for us today, Sir?"

Satisfied he was back in control, Murdoch leaned back in his chair a little. "You need to finish that surveying. Johnny, check on the west pasture fence line. We'll be moving the herd in two weeks. When your brother is finished, he can ride out and give you a hand. I want you both home on time tonight. We need to go over the books."

Johnny grunted a little at that information as he brought his cup to his mouth.

"I know it isn't your favorite thing to do, young man, but it's necessary," Murdoch growled.

"So you tell me every single time we do it."

"That would be because you groan every single time I mention it."

Johnny smiled a little at that. "Seems like we go over those books more than we do anything else."

Murdoch tossed his napkin atop his plate. "Then you should be very good at it by now. I need to go over and talk to Aggie about that stream of hers. She's been having some trouble with it damming up and her foreman doesn't seem to be able to figure it out."

Johnny grinned, his eyes shimmering with the devil. "Uh huh. That's what she says, anyway."

Murdoch had his hands on the arms of the chair, pushing himself up when he stopped and sat back down. "What does that mean?"

Johnny looked over at Scott who gave him a disapproving look and a quick shake of the head. He may as well have been invisible.

"Well, seems like she's always asking you over there for something or other. Did you ever stop to think she might just like your company, old man? Maybe, she's got designs." He couldn't hold the laugh back any longer.

Face flushing, Murdoch took to his feet. "Don't be ridiculous. Besides, it's none of your business."

Hand in the air, Johnny tried to be serious. "Hey, I think it's great. I don't know why you haven't done something about that before."

"Johnny," Scott said.

"Let me put your mind at ease on this subject, John. I won't be getting married again to anyone." Murdoch stalked out of the room, his boots striking a hard path across the kitchen tiles.

*

Johnny stared at his plate for a few seconds. "Too far?"

"Way too far, brother."

"Yeah," he sighed out. "He's hard to joke with."

Scott snorted at that. "Then, maybe you shouldn't try. Especially about such a sensitive subject."

Johnny looked over at his brother. "Funny how it's a sensitive subject when we're talking about him but it isn't when he's harpin on us about settling down."

"Yes, funny how that works, isn't it? He's our father, Johnny. You can't expect him to discuss something like that with us."

"I know. Still, you know Aggie is interested."

Scott smiled. "Yes, I know and it's a shame, really. I think she'd be perfect for him. So, what do you think is in that package of yours?"

Johnny leaned back a little, surprised at the sudden change in subject. "I don't know. Why?"

"Because, Murdoch is very curious. He searched the thing for a return address then, tried to figure out what it was by the weight."

A smirk came to Johnny's face. "In that case, I'll be sure not to tell him."

"Aren't you even a little curious?"

"Not really but, it seems you are. Maybe I won't tell you either." He grinned the stood up. "See ya."

Scott threw a sneer at him as he walked out the back door then shook his head.

*

Johnny and Scott rode in as the sun was setting that evening, both bone tired and hungry as bears. As they dismounted, a hand walked over and took their mounts. Johnny didn't give up his reins easily, giving the man an odd look. The hand cast his eyes over his shoulder and Johnny looked over to see Cipriano watching them. The segundo's eyes went to the setting sun and Johnny smiled, shaking his head slightly as he relinquished Barranca.

"I guess he told us," Scott quipped.

"Never met a man who could say more without speaking a word." Johnny rolled his shoulders as he walked toward the front door.

Scott let Johnny get a pace ahead of him then put his hands on his brother's shoulders from behind, squeezing playfully. "Except for you. One of these days, we're going to have to have a conversation with our father about these strict meal times."

"We? No, thanks. You can have that one, brother. That's not a battle I want to wage." Johnny stopped in front of the door and turned to look at his brother. "Wonder why he is so strict about that?"

"Well," Scott sighed, "I think he just wants to make sure we're all together for meals. It's really the only time we have to talk to each other."

Johnny chewed on that a minute then nodded. "Makes sense. So, maybe you shouldn't try having that talk with him. I mean, if it's that important to him."

"Good point. Come on, we're going to be five seconds late if we don't hurry."

Johnny grinned and held onto the door handle as Scott tried to get closer, expecting it to open. When it didn't, he looked into his brother's eyes and rolled his own. "Will you come on?"

Laughing, Johnny opened the door and got himself pushed through. He turned quickly and grabbed Scott around the neck, pulling him toward the great room. Scott was trying to free himself of the hold and he grabbed Johnny around the waist. Both stumbled into the living room, laughing.

Johnny was the first to look up and he stopped dead in his tracks, the smile falling from his face as he released his brother and fully faced his father's stern visage.

Scott looked curiously at his brother for a second before seeing the look on Murdoch's face. He glanced at the grandfather clock. "We're not late."

Murdoch didn't look at him and didn't acknowledge him. His eyes were burning into Johnny's with something Scott had never seen there before. Rage.

*

Johnny's heart was racing but he couldn't tear his gaze from his father to save his life. He had no idea what was going through the man's mind and he decided he wasn't going to ask. So, he waited for the storm to break wide open.

Murdoch started off in a tight, controlled voice. "I've been sitting here for over an hour trying to come up with some reason why you wouldn't tell me about this but I haven't been successful."

Strangely comforted by the fact his father had not raised the rafters right off, Johnny stepped forward, stopping only when he got in front of his father's desk. "Tell you about what?"

Murdoch threw the envelope in his face. "This!"

Scott moved quickly to his brother's side and pressed his hand into Johnny's back, silently asking he not lose his temper. At least, not yet.

Johnny caught the missive by grabbing it and clutching it to his chest. Crumpling it into a fist, he glared at his father a second before taking the letter out. It took a while, longer than necessary to read such a short message. As the words sank in and his reason returned to him, Johnny looked at the front of the envelope. Then, he did lose his temper.

"You opened my mail?" he hissed.

"When I saw the return address, you bet I did."

"Murdoch, you had no right to ..."

"Stay out of this, Scott!" Murdoch shouted, not noticing Scott flinch a little. Looking back at his younger son, he pointed at the paper. "Are you going to explain that?"

It was so fast, no one saw it even happen. The face closed, the eyes hardened, the voice leveled out coldly. "It reads pretty plain to me, old man."

Scott watched the battle rage and wish he knew what it was about. He was more angry with Murdoch than he could believe for so many things and he still didn't know what the issue was.

"You knew what I thought. You knew I thought she was dead. How could you let me go on thinking that?"

Johnny sighed and shook his head. He didn't really know what to say and, right now, he didn't want to say a word so he didn't.

"Why did they send that to you, anyway?" Murdoch went on.

"I think it's more important to wonder how they knew where to find me. More than that, I figure this means she knows where I am, too."

Scott had had enough. His control was completely gone. "WHO!?"

Johnny looked at his brother and shrugged. "My mother."

Nothing could have shocked Scott more. "I thought your mother was dead."

Murdoch leaned over his desk, resting his hands on the surface. "Then it's unanimous. So did I and I think I deserve an explanation about this, Johnny."

He opened his mouth quickly then shut it just as fast. Shrugging his shoulders, he simply said, "what's there to explain, Murdoch? She was in prison."

Scott's mouth fell open and he reached out, grasping for the arm of the chair then sitting down hard.

*

Johnny looked down at his brother and sighed. Tossing the letter on the desk, he walked over to the sideboard and poured Scott a drink. Pausing, he grabbed two more glasses and the bottle.

As he did this, Scott took the opportunity to grab the letter and read it. Why shouldn't he get in on this invasion of privacy, too? He shook his head. Yes, it was short and simple. A letter informing John Lancer his mother had been released and given permission to travel outside the country. Scott frowned. Outside the country? Which country? He felt the nudge on his shoulder and looked up, taking the drink gratefully.

Johnny poured two more and slid one across the desk to his father who had been watching his every move like a hawk. "Sit down, Murdoch. This might take a minute."

Both of them settled and Johnny took a long drink before looking back at his father. "She was sent to prison for theft. She stole from a rurale captain. Stupid move but I guess she didn't think he'd really arrest her since ..."

"Since what?" Murdoch's demanded.

Shooting his father a fiery glare, Johnny decided the hell with him. "Since she was sleeping with him at the time. But, the captain cared more about his gold than her so off she went. Ten years in prison. That's what she got."

"How old were you?" Scott asked.

"Twelve. I went to see her once and she told me not to ever come back again. To do whatever I had to do to survive. So, I did."

"Why would they send the letter here?" Murdoch asked.

"I think I just asked that myself, old man. I don't know. Maybe it's the only place she could tell them to send it. Maybe she figured it would give you a good belly laugh. How the hell do I know?" Johnny got to his feet and paced the room, ending up near the fireplace.

Scott closed his eyes a moment. "Johnny, the letter said she'd been given permission to leave the country. I'm assuming that meant Mexico. So, do you think she'd come here?"

Johnny looked at his brother with something like panic in his eyes. Shaking his head slowly, he answered. "No, she wouldn't dare." Looking at Murdoch, he asked, "would she?"

"You're asking me? I've never been able to tell what your mother was thinking, Johnny."

Scott ground his jaw, frustrated at the sniping. Then, he had another thought. "Do you think that package you got might be from her?"

Murdoch stood up and turned to his younger son. Johnny shrugged and set his glass on the mantle before heading upstairs. Murdoch made to go after him.

"I don't think that's wise, Sir."

"I have a right ..."

"Do you? Like you had any right to open that letter?" Scott came to his feet. "You didn't and you know it."

*

Johnny came back downstairs with the package before Murdoch could answer Scott. He placed it on the desk and took his knife out, cutting the edges. He stopped when it was ready to be opened and looked over at his father for a second. He felt Scott standing beside him and blew out a breath then, opened the box.

"Mierda," he whispered then leaned over the box.

Scott took hold of his shoulder, hoping to provide his brother some strength and support. "Easy, Johnny. Take your time."

Murdoch felt like he was coming out of his skin, waiting for Johnny to pull himself together.

Inhaling deeply, Johnny straightened himself. He started to reach inside then shook his head. He looked at his father then pushed the box closer to the man before walking away. He plopped onto the sofa, leaning back and closing his eyes.   

Murdoch grabbed the box and started looking through it. He pulled out a black mantilla which he recognized easily. He'd given it to Maria as a gift. There was some cheap jewelry, a picture of herself, a book and a small box. Murdoch opened the box to find her wedding ring inside.

Scott had watched as Murdoch took out each item. "What does it mean?"

"I don't know," Johnny answered from across the room. "It's things she always took with her when we'd move on. She'd leave a few things behind. Things she'd gotten each place we went. Nothing worth a damn but she never took any of it with her. She called this box her memories. She never told me where any of it came from but she'd never leave a place without it."

Murdoch put everything back in the box and took it over to the sofa. He sat down, placing the box between he and Johnny. "The mantilla, I gave her. The wedding ring is self-explanatory. I don't remember any of the rest except the picture. I had it made right after we were married."

Johnny looked disinterestedly at the box and shrugged. "Well, I guess that means she's coming here. Like I said, she never left it behind."

Scott walked over, sitting in a chair across from them. "The letter said her release date was three weeks ago."

Johnny snorted. "Well, I'll tell Maria to set another place at the table then."

Murdoch put the box on the floor. "Johnny, why didn't you tell me she was alive?"

"Why would I? What difference does it make to you? It's not like I ever thought she'd show her face here. Fact is, I figured she'd die in that place, anyway. Never thought she'd be able to survive it." Johnny leaned forward and looked squarely at his father. "And just when do you think that topic would've ever come up?"

Murdoch shook his head, his face reddening. "It should have come up right away! She was my wife, you know."

"Yeah, I heard that someplace."

"Stop this!" Scott interrupted. "Sniping at each other isn't going to help anything. Johnny, Murdoch had a right to know about your mother. And Murdoch, you haven't exactly made it easy. You told both of us the past was the past. You can't have it both ways so don't be angry with Johnny for not wanting to tell you. Besides, I can't imagine it would be an easy subject to bring up. But, you should have found a way, Johnny."

Johnny smiled a little at his brother. "Are you sayin we were both wrong, Boston?"

"Yes, I am and it's not funny. Your mother could be on her way here right now. You might both want to think about how you're going to handle that."

Murdoch stood up and rounded the sofa. "Oh, I know how I'm going to handle it."

"Yeah? You gonna strangle her?"

"No, Johnny. I'm going to find out once and for all, why she took you away. And as important, why the hell she didn't send you home when she got herself sent to prison!" Murdoch stalked from the room.

*

"That's a good question, actually," Johnny said softly.

"It would be my first question."

Johnny looked at his brother and saw the anger building. He sighed and stood up. "Not sure I want to see her, Scott."

Surprised, Scott rose as well. "I suppose I can understand that. She disappointed you, I'm sure. Johnny, she had the perfect opportunity to send you home and she didn't. She left you to fend for yourself at twelve years old. You have to want to know why."

"I already know why." He looked at his brother with a pained expression. "She hates him more than she ever loved me."

Scott's jaw twitched and he didn't speak for a long moment. "That's not a good enough reason, brother. I can think of a lot of things she could have done, places she could have tried to get you some help. It sounds like she didn't do any of that."

Johnny's curiosity was piqued. "What things?"

"Well, she had to know about me. She could have told you. She could have sent you to me."

He burst out laughing at that. "Oh, I can see that now. Me showin up at old man Garrett's doorstep. He probably would've had me hauled off to jail before you even knew a thing."

Scott was not amused. "I don't believe that and she wouldn't have known that, anyway."

"Depends on what Murdoch told her about your grandfather. Besides, that's a long ways to send a kid who didn't have a peso to his name."

"Just one more reason she should have sent you home."

Johnny bowed his head then looked back at his brother. "I know you're mad at her, too. Just ... don't jump on her, Scott. Seems to me Murdoch is the one to handle that. Besides, we don't even know if she's gonna bother showing up."

"I think she will if those mementos are as important to her as you think."

*

For a week, Murdoch was unapproachable and neither son tried much. Johnny made a wide berth around his father. Seemed to him every time he was near Murdoch, the man glowered at him, accusing him without a word.

Scott was getting tired of the tension and anger in the house but he knew no way to alleviate it. The only thing that would do that was Maria showing herself. If she ever did. And, of course he knew, once she did, the tension would increase one hundred fold for a while. His prayer was the two men could come out the other side not hating each other. He was curious about her, no doubt. He wanted to see this woman, speak to her and find out what the hell was wrong with her. Scott knew sometimes marriages didn't work out but no child should ever suffer because of it. His brother had, though. Had, in fact, been the biggest loser in this whole pathetic situation.

For no matter what happened, Johnny was going to lose a parent - again. Try as he might, Scott could think of no other viable solution. He was pretty sure Johnny had yet to consider that likelihood and he knew Murdoch hadn't. Though he had not talked to his father about this subject, wont to lose his head, he knew how Murdoch viewed things and the only thing his father was thinking of was having it out with Maria once and for all.

Monday morning, they sat at the breakfast table as they had for the past week. No one spoke, all focusing on eating and getting it over with as soon as possible. No one heard the knock at the front door. No one but Maria. She went to answer, shaking her head at whatever foolishness was going on now. She didn't know what they were all so angry about. All she knew was it was probably something stupido!

She jerked the front door open and froze for second. It didn't last long as she stepped up to the visitor and slapped the woman in the face.

*

Maria Lancer's head snapped to the side, her hand going quickly to her left cheek. Slowly, she looked back at the woman, a vicious smiling forming. "So nice to be remembered, puta."

Maria Sanchez snorted at her. "You have nerve calling anyone else a puta, perra! How dare you show your face here?"

"I see you have not grown any wiser. Still too stupid to figure out the simplest of things. I am here to see my son, of course."

"Your son? Ha! Every dog gives birth. It does not make her a mother!"

Murdoch walked through the dining room and heard voices. "Who are you talking to, Maria?"

The housekeeper turned toward him, her face showing her hatred. Maria Lancer took the opportunity to step past her. "Which Maria are you talking to, Murdoch?"

He stopped and stared openly at her, his fists curling at his sides.

Maria Sanchez grit her teeth. "I will keep everyone else out of the room, Patron."

"Nonsense. I did not come here to see Murdoch. Where is Johnny? Where is my son?"

"I'm here."

She walked further into the room and found Johnny standing beside another man, both looking as if they were ready to kill someone. She forced a smile and walked up to him, folding him into her arms. It didn't escape her notice that he tensed and didn't hug her back.

"Niño, look at you. A grown man and so handsome!"

"No thanks to you," Murdoch muttered as he came closer. He watched Johnny's face and saw absolutely nothing there. When he looked at Scott, he saw plenty.

Johnny just stared at her. Nothing much would come to his mind. Finally, he settled on, "how are you?"

"How am I?" She laughed musically. "I am well, niño. I am well. We have much to discuss, si?"

"Not really. You need to talk to Murdoch, not me. He has a few things to ask you." His voice was as flat as a pancake, not a measure of emotion there.

Her face darkened, her tone growing angry. "No, Johnny. You and I need to speak alone. Now."

"I don't think so. Scott, take your brother outside." Murdoch's voice startled both his sons as well as his wife. She turned and glowered at him then, stared in stunned fascination as Johnny walked out on her.

"Johnny, wait! I said I wanted to talk to you now!"

He did stop and turn back. "You have no right to tell me what to do anymore. If you thought you could just waltz in here and not have to answer for what you've done, then you must've lost your mind in prison." He turned on his heel and walked out, Scott right behind him.

*

Johnny didn't stop until he got inside the barn. He leaned against a wall, his head down, his arms wrapped around his abdomen. Scott eased up beside him, a hand on his shoulder.

"She's still beautiful. I guess prison didn't take all that much out of her."

Scott closed his eyes. He could hear the pain so clearly now. The facade was gone. Yes, she was beautiful. He'd been surprised by that for some reason. Her hair was black as coal, not a trace of gray. He wondered how old she was. The fire in her black eyes spoke of youth. Where she'd gotten such an expensive dress, he didn't know. He found himself curious as to what she'd been doing the past month. Obviously, something to make the money to get here and in such finery. That dress cost a pretty penny and it appeared to have been fitted if the way it accentuated her many curves was any indication. Johnny's voice cut through his thoughts.

"Can you believe she walked in there and started ordering me around like I was still a kid?"

"I guess to her, you are." Scott didn't know what else to say.

Johnny looked at him then pushed off the wall and started pacing, his fingers curling and uncurling at his sides now. "Maybe I should've stayed, Scott. I mean, they might kill each other."

"Brother, it's really best to never get between a man and woman. Especially, a married man and woman."

"They ain't still married. Are they?" Johnny cocked his head to the side with this idea.

Scott raised his brows, he had no idea and could only shrug.

*

"I see nothing has changed here," she said as she wandered about the great room. Her fingers dusted over the model ship as she passed.

"A lot has changed here, thanks to you." She turned and looked innocently at him, a smile lighting her eyes. Murdoch shuddered at how much she reminded him of Johnny. "What could you possibly want of Johnny now?"

"That is between my son and I, Murdoch."

"Don't think for one minute you're going to steal him away again, Maria. I won't have it!" Hands fisted, he took two steps toward her.

She stayed herself, jutting her chin out in defiance, fairly begging him to strike her. "You have no say, Murdoch. You never did. Johnny is MY son and he *will* do as I say. He may have forgotten over the years but, I will remind him."

Shaking his head, he frowned. "Remind him of what?"

"That he belongs to me," she shrugged and moved away, near the fireplace.

"Johnny doesn't belong to anyone but himself."

"Really? Then why do you have the gall to say he will not leave here?"

"Because," he said in a low voice, "I know he doesn't want to. He never did but that choice was never his to make before. Well, it is now. He won't leave Lancer."

"We will see."

"What is wrong with you? You act as if the last twenty years never happened. That you didn't run off in some temper fit then, and maybe even worse, you let him fend for himself instead of sending him home when you wound up in prison."

She laughed lightly. "Temper fit? Murdoch, are you that dense? I did not leave you in a fit. I left you for another man."

"I know about your gambler. How long did he last, Maria? A month? Two? Until you moved on to the next and the next after that. How many times did you drag Johnny from one so-called home to the next? What kind of life did you expect our son to have? Or, did you even bother thinking of his welfare?"

She seethed, her cheeks flaming red. "Johnny was happy with me."

Murdoch actually laughed at that. "Maybe you should ask him about that. I doubt he'd agree. All I really want to know is why you didn't send him home when you went to prison."

She flounced over to his desk, leaning against it. "Why should I? He was better off on his own than having to lay down to you and your rules like a dog!"

Grimly, Murdoch shook his head. "Better off? Better off being a gunfighter?" His stomach flipped when he saw the pure delight on her face.

"Johnny Madrid. Very impressive, I must say. I was surprised to hear he'd done so well."

*

Murdoch lost his mind then. He picked up the nearest thing to him, a small snow globe, and launched it against a wall. "This is not a game, woman! My son spend almost half his life alone, distrusting of anyone, no one to care. I don't even want to think of how many times he could have died all alone with no one there to even witness his passing."

She leaned back against the desk, her eyes wide then, suddenly, she smiled. "I don't remember you being quite so ... violent, Murdoch. It is an attractive quality." She lowered her head then looked back at him with a seductive fire in her eyes.

Stunned, Murdoch just stared at her for a long beat. "You are pure evil," he whispered.

She laughed, tossing her head back in her glee. "Perhaps, I am. But, Johnny is just like me and you know it. How many times have you seen him do something, say something and think of me?"

His eyes flitted away from her.

"That many? I'm touched, Murdoch. Have you longed for me all these years?" She moved toward him, her hips swaying, her hands clasped behind her back. "Tell me. Are you still longing for me even now when you think you hate me? You could never hate me, querido."

Murdoch stiffened as she neared. His resolve weakened when he looked into the eyes of the girl he'd fallen in love with so long ago. Then, he blinked and reality returned. How she'd treated his son and how she behaved now - this was the real Maria. How could he havee not seen it before? "Johnny may have some of your mannerisms, Maria, but he is nothing like you. His heart isn't black."

She stopped a foot from him, her eyes narrowing, her mouth tightening. "Perhaps, I should take the choice from his hands."

Before Murdoch could fathom what she meant, her hand swept from behind her, brandishing his letter opener. She made a downward strike, catching his forearm as he automatically raised it in a defensive gesture. Murdoch staggered back, clutching the arm as it poured blood. She came at him again.

"Stop!"

*

She did and whirled toward the voice. In one second, her eyes filled with tears. She dropped the letter opener and ran to him. "Johnny! Thank God you came in. He ... he was attacking me!" She sobbed as she buried her face in his chest. "He said he was going to ... to take what was rightfully his."

Johnny looked at Murdoch who was gaping in shock at her and he shook his head. Then, he saw the blood. Ice. It was all he felt at the moment. Grabbing her arms, he pushed her back, holding on tightly. "Scott, get in here!"

Scott appeared at the French doors and took in the scene. Stunned but not willing to ask, he went to his father. "Come on, Sir. We need to get this taken care of."

"No! I won't leave Johnny alone with that woman!" Murdoch shrugged off Scott's hold.

"Don't worry about it, old man. I'm more used to her games than you are. Go on. You're bleeding pretty bad." He swallowed convulsively as he looked at his father's arm.

Scott took hold once more and pushed his father toward the kitchen.

Johnny let go of her and walked over, picking the letter opener up and looking closely at it. "What? You don't have your own knife or a gun?"

She sniffed and pulled a lace handkerchief from her sleeve. "It was awful, hijo. He was so angry. Look!" She tossed her head toward the wall behind him. "He threw that glass at me."

Johnny looked at the wall opposite and cocked a brow then shook his head. "Not likely. I'm sure you weren't anywhere near it."

"How can you so easily believe in him and not me? I am your mother, Johnny. I raised you. You've been here less than a year. You have no idea what Murdoch Lancer is capable of. Why do you think I left in the first place? Because of this very thing. His temper is ..." she trailed off, shivering visibly.

He lowered his head, a small smile crossing his lips before looking back at her. "I believe him because you did raise me. I remember your lessons well, Mother. I used them more than once to survive." His eyes darkened with memories.

She walked up to him, putting a hand on his chest. "You are so beautiful, Johnny. I can't believe how handsome you've become."

He sighed. "What do you want? Why did you come here?"

"I came to get you, son. It is time for you to come with me now. It's time to come home."

"I am home. I'm not leaving here."

She slapped his face. "You *will* come with me, Johnny. You will do exactly as I say when I say. If you do not, Murdoch Lancer will be the one in prison for the rest of his life."

The slap didn't surprise him but her words did. He looked suspiciously at her. "What does that mean?"

With a shrug of nonchalance, she said, "I will go to the law and tell them he beat and raped me."

Johnny laughed softly at her. "That's easy enough to prove a lie."

She smiled coldly. "I will make sure there is evidence. Do you think I cannot find a man to do what I need done? I can ensure he is found guilty of any number of crimes, hijo. Even murder. You are coming with me. If you think I will not keep my promise, stay here and watch me destroy Murdoch once and for all." Her smile widened. "And the easterner as well."

His shoulders tensed as he glared at her. "Why? What good could I do you now?"

She laughed and shook her head. "It is very simple. Johnny Madrid."

*

In the kitchen, Maria scowled, cursing the puta to hell as she dressed Murdoch's wound. She'd gotten the bleeding stopped but he scoffed at the mention of stitches. He kept staring at the doorway hoping Johnny would walk through and tell them she'd left.

Scott stood nearby watching Maria nurse the arm. "What happened in there?"

"She's crazy! That's what happened. She came at me. I didn't see the letter opener. She's evil, Scott. We need to get Johnny away from her before she hurts him, too."

"He said he could handle her."

"Well, he can't. He hasn't seen her since he was a boy. What makes you think he has any idea of the devil she is now?"

Scott sat down and sighed. "Sir, she's his mother."

Murdoch turned in his chair to stare at his son. "I hate this, Scott. I wish she'd come here a changed woman. Repentant. But, she's worse than she ever was. I knew she had a mean streak back then but I have never seen such a cold, calculating person in my life. Man or woman."

Scott's eyes went past Murdoch as Johnny walked in the room alone. No one missed the saddlebags slung across his shoulder. Scott jumped from his seat and walked to his brother, the question in his eyes easy to read. "Going somewhere?"

Johnny looked at him quickly before finding his father's eyes. He walked over to Murdoch and handed him a piece of paper. "The partnership agreement. Reckon you can just burn it."

Murdoch came to his feet slowly. "Why, son?"

Johnny wouldn't look at him. "I have to go."

"No, you don't *have* to. I hope you know that. Don't leave, Johnny. It's a mistake, son."

Slowly, Johnny's head came up, pure misery reflecting from his soul through his eyes. "I have to, Murdoch. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"Whatever she said, whatever she threatened you with, we can fight it together," Murdoch said as he grasped his son's arm.

Scott walked over beside his father. "That's right, brother. Together, we can do anything."

Johnny lowered his eyes and shook his head. "You don't know her, Scott. Neither of you know her. I have to go now. I'll try to write or ... maybe not."

Murdoch grabbed him into an embrace. "Please don't let her do this, son. Whatever it is, I can fix it. I swear that to you. I won't let her hurt you."

Johnny clutched the back of his father's shirt in his fist as he hugged him back. "I know you'd try but, I can't, Murdoch. I just can't." He pulled away then looked at Scott. He started to say something then shook his head and walked out.

*

Scott ran out of the house as Johnny was tying off his saddlebags. He glared at Maria sitting in her surrey before going to his brother. "Don't you have anything to say to me, brother?"

Johnny dropped his head then turned around. "Yeah, stay out of trouble, greenhorn." He smiled but his lip trembled.

Scott hugged him close and whispered in his ear. "She's lying to you. If she's threatened Murdoch or me, she's lying, Johnny. We can face anything she throws at us. Don't let her do this again."

Johnny hung onto his brother, his legs shaking so badly, he thought he'd meet the ground soon. "I know but I can't take the chance."

"What does she want?"

Johnny pulled back a little and just shook his head.

Murdoch walked out and headed straight for her. "Maria! Get out of here!"

"I am going. I'm just waiting for the easterner to stop crying all over my son. Really, Murdoch, is he a pansy as well?"

"Johnny isn't going anywhere with you. Whatever you have in mind, Lancer will fight you tooth and nail. Don't think for one minute you can win."

"I have already won, Murdoch. Johnny is coming with me."

He turned and headed to his sons. "I'm not letting you do this, son. Not for me."

"I'm going, Murdoch. You can't stop me." Johnny pulled his hat lower on his head then turned and swung into the saddle. He looked at them for a brief second then stared straight ahead. "Adios," he whispered and spurred Barranca on.

*

Johnny fell in behind the surrey, his eyes burning a whole through his mother's back. Five miles from town, she pulled off the main road onto a rough track. Johnny tensed, his hand dropping to his right thigh, his senses alert to everything around him. He said nothing and waited to see what she was up to. Ten minutes later, she stopped the surrey near a small pond and stepped out.

He stayed mounted, searching the area. He couldn't see anyone but he knew they weren't alone.

"Look at you. Watching and listening to everything. You can feel it, can't you?" She sighed wistfully. "Magnifico, hijo."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

She smiled and walked over, laying a hand on Barranca's neck. The horse turned his head and nipped at her and she withdrew her hand and stepped away. Johnny grinned and patted the palomino.

She glared at the horse then turned back to her son. "I mean you know someone else is here."

"Yeah, I know. So? Who are they and why are they hiding?"

Shrugging, she spoke loudly. "It is alright. You can come out now."

Johnny watched the two men appear from the dense woods, both with rifles in their hands. He almost groaned. "That the best you could do?" They were about as run down as a man could get and still be walking.

"Until now, I'm afraid so. But, they do as I say and have not tried to rebuke me. It is incredible how low a man will sink for a few pecos."

"Or a woman," Johnny threw out.

She gave him a scornful look then put her hands on her hips. "Are you going to stay up there?"

"Maybe. You planning on hanging around here all night?"

"Si, we will camp here tonight and discuss my plans."

Johnny threw his leg over the saddle and slid down. "It would help to know what I'm getting into."

*

Murdoch paced the entire length of the great room several times. Scott thought he would wear the rugs out soon, or himself. He figured he'd just wait and see since he could think of nothing to say to ease his father's mind or heart.

"That has to be it."

"What was that, Sir?" Scott sat up on the sofa.

Murdoch stopped and turned to his son. "I said that has to be it. The reason she wanted Johnny with her."

Scott stared at him for a few seconds. "Well, what?"

"Madrid."

Slumping back on the couch, Scott ran a hand down his face as he blew out a breath. "Damn. Of course, that's it. We know it isn't because she cares about him."

Murdoch snorted then sat down on a chair across from Scott. "It would help to know what she threatened him with."

"Well, we know the threat wasn't directed toward Johnny himself. He wouldn't think twice of telling her where to go if that was the case. It had to be against you or me or both."

"I know, son. It must have been pretty bad, too. Johnny doesn't scare easily."

A small smile flitted across Scott's face. "He does if his family is threatened, Sir. It's about the only time, in fact." He stood up and clasped his hands behind his back as he walked toward the fireplace. "How ruthless is she?"

"Very. From what I saw and heard today, she would resort to anything to get what she wants."

"Which is what we have to be ready for - anything. No matter how cruel or diabolical. I wish I'd had more time to see her in action, so to speak."

"I'm glad you didn't, son. You would have questioned what I ever saw in her."

Scott turned and looked at him with a raised brow.

"She wasn't like that before! She was young and impetuous and, yes, selfish but she was also loving and tender especially, with Johnny. This ... thing she's become; I don't even recognize her anymore. She tried to seduce me, if you can imagine that."

"Yes, I can easily imagine that. Johnny has made some remarks before about her propensity for attracting men. I got the impression she likes using them."

Murdoch sighed tiredly. "We have to get him back here."

"I know. I just don't know how. I think we both need to try and get some rest, Sir. Fresh minds think more clearly."

Murdoch stood with a grunt. "You're right. Just know one thing, son. No matter what either of us come up with for a plan, nothing is too outrageous to be considered. The longer Johnny is with that woman, the more damage she'll inflict."

*

Johnny stared into the campfire, stunned at her words. The anger would come, he knew but at the moment, he was overwhelmed with the idea. When he finally spoke, it was softly. "I'm not in the habit of stealing. Never did it as a profession."

"I'm not asking you to. What I need from you is back up. Someone outside to watch and take down anyone who may interfere."

He looked over at her cold eyes and refused to let his thoughts stray. "Including the law?"

"There won't be any law, son."

Brows drawing together, he sat up straighter. "Don't call me that. Where are you planning on doing this because I'm not letting you rob any towns nearby."

She sighed with frustration. "Do you think me a fool? We will be well away from this valley. I have no desire to be here longer than necessary and it is no longer necessary. I hate this place!" Pulling herself together, she went on. "Nearer the border so we can cross quickly and avoid any problems."

Johnny frowned at that. "How long do you plan on making me do this?"

She gave him a puzzled look then smiled sweetly. "I want you with me forever, Johnny."

He pulled a face at that. "Then, I won't be hanging around in Mexico too much. Your beloved rurales are lookin for my head."

She just shrugged. "They will not find it. I have a very good hideout there. There are other places too, in this country. I have many plans, hijo. Once we have enough money, we will move to South America. Bolivia, I think."

Johnny laughed softly at that. "Bolivia, huh? How much is enough, Maria?"

"I do not like you calling me by my name."

"I don't give a damn what you like. I'm not going to call you mother, you can bet on that and stop calling me son!" He came to his feet and stood over her. "You're nothing to me, woman. Nothing!" He walked away then, into the dark as she stared after him.

*

Scott and Murdoch sat at the breakfast table staring at nothing and listening to Maria mumble. Neither could understand her but they weren't trying very hard. When she brought the platter of bacon to the table, she looked at Murdoch's head. "You should have let me strangle her!"

"If I'd known you wanted to, I wouldn't have stopped you, Maria," he said tiredly.

Scott smiled at that. "We still don't have a plan to get Johnny home."

"Why do you need a plan? Just go get him and drag him back here by his ear! Foolish boy!"

Murdoch's head came up and he looked at the woman as if she'd said the most brilliant thing. "She's right." He looked at Scott. "We'll just bring him home."

"Sir, he won't come back. The threat, whatever it is, will still be there for Johnny."

"We won't give him a choice, son. We'll kidnap him."

Scott straightened his posture and stared at his father incredulously. "Kidnap him? Have you lost your mind?"

"Maybe, I have. I told you last night no plan was too outrageous, Scott. We'll have to find them first, of course. Then, we'll watch and wait for the opportunity. Hopefully, before she has him do something illegal." Murdoch frowned in thought. "We'll have to knock him out somehow. Sam can help us with that. Something that doesn't hurt him." He was talking more to himself at this point and Scott simply couldn't believe this was his father.

Murdoch blinked then looked at his son. "Well? What are you waiting for? Saddle some horses and gather trail supplies. We're already a day behind them. They'll head south, I'm sure of that."

"Murdoch, think about what you're saying. You're talking about kidnapping your own son."

"I am thinking about it, Scott. Johnny didn't want to leave. I don't think of it as kidnapping. Just bringing my son home." He lowered his eyes briefly. "If I'd had this much courage twenty years ago, you would've grown up at Lancer." He stood and walked out of the room then.

Scott sat there for a long moment, his mind whirling with what he'd just heard. Yes, if only you could have found the courage then, he thought. Determination set in and Scott stood, gave Maria a nod and walked out to the barn.

Maria smiled her approval as she went about gathering supplies for their trip.

*

Johnny couldn't believe how stupid these two men were. They had no clue what was going on and seemed content to just do as they were told. He figured they were just happy as larks to be eating regular. Too bad neither of them seemed to want to bathe regular. He had smelled them both before ever seeing them back at that campsite.

Now, two days later, their scent sure hadn't improved any. At least, they were riding behind him. If they weren't so daft, he'd worry about that. But, he had more important things to worry about. Like how he was going to get away with committing crimes. He wasn't, of course and he knew that. Eventually, they'd get caught. That was the way of things. She didn't seem to think anyone could touch them, though. She really believed he could protect her. More than that, she believed he *would*. He smirked at the thought.

He glanced over at her looking like she hadn't a care in the world. He'd been a little surprised when she'd ditched the surrey in Morro Coyo for a horse and donned her britches. Well, why should that surprise him? Apparently, she'd gotten some pretty good tips in jail.

"You must be missing prison," he commented dryly.

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Well, you sure seem in a hurry to get back there. All these plans of yours are gonna blow up in your face sooner or later. I hope you know that. I'm not a thief and I don't know much about how to do it. I'm just sayin."

"I have already explained I don't want you to steal. You are our protection."

"Don't make it any less a crime, lady. Besides, those two aren't exactly masterminds. Do you have to tell them when to take a piss, too?"

"Johnny, don't be so crude! Honestly!"

He looked over at her with a grin. "Sorry, my mother must not have raised me right. Or at all."

She glowered at him. "I did the best I could."

"Well, now, that's just plain sad for so many reasons."

"I am not going to constantly discuss this with you. It is in the past and no longer matters." She turned her head back to the road.

Johnny cringed at the words so familiar. "It matters, Maria. It matters." She didn't answer that and he sighed out. "Well, I have a request." He smirked again as she looked over.

"What is it?"

"Those two yahoos are gonna have to be introduced to some soap real soon. Otherwise, I'm gonna pass out and probably at the worst possible moment."

Her eyes widened for a moment then she burst out laughing. "Very well, querido. Very well."

*

Johnny rolled with laughter as he watched her screaming at them, shoving a bar of soap at one and ordering them into the lake. Both protested vehemently and one even told her he was allergic to the stuff. She finally got them into the water then stalked back to the campsite, brushing stray hair from her perspiring face.

"Dios! They are like children!"

Johnny stopped laughing, the smile wiped from his face instantly.

She pulled up short and watched him curiously for a moment before sitting down beside him.

He cleared his throat and sat forward, scooting away from her a little. "They got names?"

"Clyde and Henry. That's all I know and all I care to know."

"Need to get rid of them. They'll be useless and they'll get us caught, I guarantee it."

She scowled at the order for a second then relented. "Yes, you are right. Can you recommend anyone?"

His head jerked and he looked over at her. "I told you I'm not a thief. I never hung around any, either."

"Of course. Only gunfighters. They are so much higher in class!"

Johnny grinned. "I could introduce you to some real good ones, Maria. Maybe one of them will kill me for you."

"I don't want you dead, Johnny. How can you even think such a thing?" She actually pouted and her eyes welled.

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Then, why are you killing me slowly? Is it more fun that way?"

She shook her head, not understanding him.

He leaned toward her, locking her eyes with his own. "You're killing me by making me do this. I never broke the law unless it was to keep from starving. Might seem strange to you but, I never did. We *are* gonna get caught eventually. I'm only one man and I'm not invincible. I've got the scars to prove it. You're gonna get me shot or hung. I'm not afraid to die but I sure do try to avoid it. Are you that selfish? Never mind. I already know the answer."

"I only want a good life for us, hijo. I only want to be happy and wealthy enough to not depend on a man for anything ever again."

"I don't want your life, Maria. And I swear to God, if you call me hijo one more time ..." he didn't finish, not knowing how to.

She reached out and grasped his forearm. "It is so easy for you now. You have your father's wealth and you are building your own. It is not as easy for a woman in this world, Johnny."

"I've been dirt poor a lot longer than I haven't been. I know what it's like not to have money or food. To wear rags that hang off you in pieces. To not have a roof over your head. That's desperation and yeah, I stole then. I stole food and clothes to survive but, you're not doing this to survive. You could get a job, ya know." He almost laughed aloud at the look of horror that crossed her face.

They both turned quickly to the sound of gunfire, Johnny's Colt in his hand before his eyes could focus.

*

Johnny and Maria came to their feet as the two morons staggered over, dripping wet. One was holding his arm, the other holding that one up.

"What happened?" Maria demanded.

"Sorry, ma'am. We was just foolin around and the gun went off."

She looked over when she heard Johnny laughing. "You're right, Johnny. They are useless. Kill them."

He looked over at her as if she'd lost her mind. Eyes narrowing, he spoke through clenched teeth. "No."

She turned to face him fully, her chest heaving with anger. "I said kill them."

"And I said no. They haven't done anything to get killed over and I'm not your murderer! Maybe we should get a few things straight here, Maria." He stopped and looked at the two men shivering and pale. "Go get that arm cleaned up. I'm not gonna hurt you."

Both men moved quickly. Johnny sighed and turned back to her. "Being a gunfighter doesn't mean I go around killin people because they're stupid. I'm not committing murder for you. I'll be your lookout, I'll throw down lead to keep a posse off but I'm not going to go around shooting people for no reason."

"You will do exactly what I tell you to do, Johnny, or Murdoch and Scott will pay the price!"

He took a step toward her and she backed away. Johnny stopped and smiled. "I'm gonna do what I just said I'd do, Maria. If that's not good enough, let's forget the whole thing. I'll go home and face whatever you throw at my family. What's it gonna be?"

She bit her tongue but her eyes never faltered as she stared at him. Finally, she relaxed and smiled. "Perhaps my temper got the better of me, querido. It would not be wise to leave dead bodies lying around. I will send them on their way."

He nodded as she passed by him then closed his eyes for a second. He wasn't sure what to make of her backing down. Maybe she was worried she couldn't control him. Maybe, she was afraid of him. That would be a plus. He didn't know how he could use that to get rid of her, though. He knew she'd never leave him in peace as long as she thought she could get something from him. Wistfully, he thought he could turn himself in after she did this robbery. Hell, it couldn't be any worse than dealing with her every day for the rest of his life. Of course, she'd take her revenge on Murdoch and Scott. No, he was stuck for now.

*

Johnny watched Clyde and Henry make tracks heading back north and sighed. Now, he was alone with her. Well, it wasn't as if either of those two had contributed to the conversations. He saw her walking toward him so he turned and headed away, toward the lake. He found a few pebbles and started skimming them across the water.

"You never went near the water when you were young."

He didn't look at her, just kept skimming stones. "Too worried I might get tossed in."

"Your eyes have always been your curse."

He turned quickly and scowled at her. "No, *you* have always been my curse!"

As he started to walk away, she grabbed his arm in both hands and pulled. "Please, Johnny. I want so much for you to love me again."

"Why?" he asked, refusing to look at her.

"You're all I've ever had. I have always loved you, querido. Always."

He lowered his head and sighed. "Why did you tell me my father threw us out?" He felt her grasp tighten as she leaned into him.

"I didn't want to lose you. I didn't want you to leave me and go to him. I did the things I did to live, Johnny. To feed us and clothe us. It's all I knew to do."

"You did it well, Maria. Except for that last time, anyway." He looked at her then. "Pretty damned pathetic if ya ask me. You'd rather I was on the streets than to send me to my father. You would rather I starved or got killed than give me any security; any peace."

Her face darkened. "You were better off."

"No, I wasn't and if you weren't so full of hate and anger, you'd admit that. At least to yourself if not to me. Funny thing is, I don't see what you've got to hate Murdoch about. He's a good man. He's hard, tough, yeah but, a good man. An honorable man. I don't understand why you left him in the first place. You had all those things you wanted. A big home, money, a man who would do anything for you."

She let go of him and stepped away a pace. "No, he would not do anything for me, Johnny. All those things I wanted, he would not give me. He expected me to get on my knees and scrub floors. Clean up after him and cook for him."

Johnny snorted at that. "What was he thinking? He expected you to be a wife!"

She turned away and crossed her arms over her chest. Johnny sighed and walked away.

*

He figured if he wanted to eat, he'd have to cook it himself so Johnny went about making a meal. She watched him silently for a while, curled up on her bedroll blanket under a tree.

"I would never have married him if I weren't pregnant."

Johnny froze, his hand hovering over the pot of beans for a second before he went back to stirring them.

"I knew I would not make a good wife. I never wanted to be a wife. Not that kind, anyway. I didn't lie to him about that. I didn't tell him, either but, I didn't lie." She sighed loudly. "The first man I lay with and I get pregnant. Dios!"

"I really don't want to hear this," he said softly.

"You should know. You should know there was no true love between us. Oh, I thought I loved him at first. He was big and strong and handsome and he had his own ranch. He spoke of it as if it were a woman, with such admiration. I suppose I became jealous of the land after a while. But, I knew I could not stay there. I could not be what he wanted and he could not let me be who I am."

Johnny turned a little to look at her. "I hate to break this to you but, Murdoch did love you."

She pulled a face of disbelief and waved her hand. "He was ... infatuated with me, I suppose."

"He's not the kind to walk around with his head in the clouds, Maria. He loved you. If you don't mind, I'd rather not hear anymore of this."

"Why?"

"Because!" He stood up, tossing the spoon on a tin plate. "Just because you can't feel anything for anyone else doesn't mean everyone is like that. I'd like to think at least one of my parents cared for the other at some point. It would be nice to think they didn't hate each other's guts from the get go!"

"Perhaps you are the one with his head in the clouds, Johnny. There is no point in believing lies. Sooner or later, the truth comes out."

"Maybe you should've thought of that when you were telling me my father hated me!" He ground his jaw and swallowed hard. "Damn you to hell," he whispered and walked off, disappearing into the trees.

*

Not much had been said between father and son the past two days. They rode at a quick pace, each keeping his thoughts to himself. Tonight, however, as they sat by the campfire, Scott couldn't keep quiet any longer.

"Are you sure about this, Sir?"

"I'm sure." Murdoch's voice was even and confident.

"Sam said that chloroform can be dangerous."

"I heard him, Scott."

The younger man's brows drew together in anger. "Did you also hear him tell you this was a crazy idea?"

Murdoch scowled at his son. "What would you have me do? Let him go? He won't come back on his own, Scott. We both know that. I realize it's a drastic move but, I just don't know what else to do. If I'd had more time, I would have dragged him upstairs and locked him in his room until that witch left!" He came to his feet and paced about the campsite, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides. "Johnny won't come home if he believes we're at risk. It doesn't matter that we're willing to accept that risk. I don't doubt for one minute that she'll put him in harm's way. So, tell me, son. Tell me what else we can do."

Scott sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Nothing, I suppose. I'm with you, Murdoch. I just don't think it's going to solve anything. He'll just leave again or she'll come back for him."

"I know but it gives us time and gets Johnny away from her. Hopefully, before she makes him do something he can't take back."

Scott frowned at that. He'd thought of nothing else but what she had planned for his brother. What kind of woman ... he let the thought go knowing it would only enrage him to think too much on it. "I'm just worried about what the threat was."

"That's something your brother is going to have to tell us. I just wish he'd trust us!" His fists clenched again and stayed that way.

"He does, Murdoch, but when it comes to protecting his family, Johnny gets this lone wolf persona going and it's hard to break through that."

The older man sighed and nodded. "Yes, I know and I suppose I can understand it some but, there has to come a time when he stops doing that, Scott. There is going to have to come a time when he leans on us."

Scott smiled. It was a nice thought and one he hoped would come to fruition sooner rather than later. But, every time he talked to Johnny about that very thing, his brother would say he was right and that he understood and would do better. But, he never did. Scott wondered if Johnny really meant it or was just trying to placate him. Maybe, a little of both. He'd told his father Johnny only really got scared when his family was threatened. When a man was afraid, he didn't always think so clearly and *that* scared Scott.

*

They rode slowly into the small town of Borrego just before noon. It didn't seem to have anything worth stealing to Johnny. Seemed like every other small town in southern California. They'd skirted San Diego. Maria didn't want to go into the town. Johnny had thought she probably couldn't resist a saloon or a man. He imagined she was getting pretty itchy for both about now. Shaking his head, he pushed the thoughts away and concentrated on his surroundings. Then, he saw the land and mineral offices.

It was a busy place, the busiest in town save the saloon just across the street. Seemed there was traffic back and forth between the two buildings and little anywhere else. Well, must still be gold around here or something else.

"They found silver here a few years ago. Some of the diehard miners still searching for gold lucked into it." Maria explained the scene as if reading his mind.

"And that's your target."

She looked over at him and smiled then reined her horse to the left, down a side street.

Johnny followed her. She must have scoped this place out already. No wonder it took her so long to get to Lancer. She sure seemed to have everything planned out. Seemed to. But now it was just the two of them, he wondered how that would affect her plans. She didn't seem too worried about it and he had to wonder why he cared one way or the other. It was gonna go bad, he just knew it. If not here, then somewhere. She thought she had herself a shield that no one could get past. She was wrong but he couldn't get her to see that.

She stopped in front of a boarding house and dismounted. "The livery is just around the corner. This place is quiet and out of the way. Meet me back here."

He almost told her to go to hell but, he didn't mind taking care of the horses. They sure wouldn't get any care from her. He didn't acknowledge her other than to take the reins she handed him.

Johnny took his time at the livery, talking to the owner and spending a few extra minutes with Barranca. He loathed to go back to her but, after some time, he knew he'd better get a move on. Otherwise, he'd never hear the end of it. He sighed as he walked around the corner and into the boarding house. The woman at the desk simply handed him a key and told him the room number.

*

Johnny opened the door, both sets of saddlebags slung over his left shoulder and her valise in his hand. When he looked up, he stopped and narrowed his eyes at her. "Where's your room?"

"This is our room, Johnny. We can't afford two rooms."

"I can." He turned to walk out until she stopped him.

"We need to stay together so we can plan. Everything has changed now with Clyde and Henry gone."

His shoulders sagged but he didn't turn back. "Maria, I am not sleeping in the same room with you. We can talk half the night but, in the end, we have to sleep sometime."

"What difference does it make? We slept on the trail together."

He turned slowly to her. "What's the matter with you? Seems, you used to have a little decency. At least, you used to toss me out in the street when you had company. I'm getting a room." He grabbed one saddlebag and tossed it at her feet, dropped the valise, then walked out.

Maria glared at the door then picked the saddlebag up and threw it on the bed. She walked over and opened the door, standing in the threshold, waiting for him to come back.

When he walked back up the stairs, he saw her and sighed. "Right next door. Feel better now?"

She harrumphed and followed him to his room then went immediately to the window and peered out.

"If I'd wanted to skip out on you, I could have done it a hundred times over by now."

She turned back and smiled at him then shrugged. "We have been apart so long, I don't want you out of my sight for a moment."

"Sure," he muttered then slung his saddlebags on the bed. "What's the plan now?"

"You will have to help me, querido. But, I think we can do it ourselves. The office closes at six and does not reopen until eight. That gives us plenty of time."

"No guards?"

She shrugged. "One, but you can take him easily."

Johnny rolled his eyes. "Sure, no problem."

"The safe is in the back room."

Johnny stopped and turned slowly to face her. "Safe? How are you going to open the safe?"

She smiled at him and rubbed her fingers together. "I have the combination."

He opened his mouth then closed it. He didn't want to know, he really didn't. After a moment, he asked, "when were you plannin on doing this?"

"Two days. The payroll for the mine workers is kept there, as well. It will arrive day after tomorrow in the late afternoon. The next day is payday."

"And you don't think they'll have extra guards for that?"

"It does not matter. We can handle it."

"And this is your big plan? To get caught?! You're going to need more help, Maria. The two of us can't pull this off."

Her eyes lit with fire. "We would have had plenty of help had you not insisted Clyde and Henry go!"

Johnny dropped his head and rubbed his thumb and index finger across his forehead. "You're giving me a headache. I need to rest a while and think on this. Maybe, I can come up with something, I don't know."

*

He sat in front of the window and tried to focus on robbing the payroll but his mind kept going elsewhere. Had he done the right thing? That question haunted him. He knew what his father's answer would be. Scott, too. But, they didn't know her like he did. She could be very convincing and if she was willing to let someone hurt her just to ruin Murdoch, he knew he'd had no other choice. But this ... this was just a crazy plan.

She hadn't thought it out very well, that was plain. There were so many things that could go wrong even with two more men. Especially, those two. They couldn't even get out of a pond without one shooting the other.

He stared at the back of the office where this great robbery was supposed to take place. There were bars on the windows, a big padlock on the door. Sure, easy as pie. She's crazy is all. Seemed to him, she'd have done better blackmailing him for cash. He would have gladly paid her off but, he knew, it would never be enough. There wasn't enough money in the world for Maria.

Maybe, they could hit the payroll before it ever made it to the mining office. Of course, they'd have to find out what route, how it was being delivered and the exact time. Two days wasn't much to find all that out then plan an escape route. Maybe, if they hit it just as it closed. Maybe a couple of customers to hold as hostage. Dios! What the hell was happening to him?!

He watched the side of the building as a man with a rifle walked the perimeter. Every ten minutes, he went around. He reckoned he could clobber the poor man as he went around the back. Still, they were going to have more than one for that payroll. That was for sure.

He couldn't do this. Dios, he couldn't do this. Johnny lowered his head and rested it on his forearms folded across the chair back. He knew he'd do anything to save his brother or father's life. He'd do anything to keep them from being hurt but, what he was about to do would hurt them. So, how could he go through with it? How could he do that to his father, especially. Murdoch held such respect for the law. Johnny did, too, though sometimes he didn't think the law was right.

He needed to talk to someone about this but there was no one around. His family wasn't around and he felt an aching in his chest. He hadn't thought this through. Hell, he really was just like her! That thought caused a chill to run through his entire body.

He'd panicked. He'd let fear rule him. And he knew if Murdoch had found out what she was holding over his head while still at Lancer, he would have lost all reason. He'd been close enough to it by Johnny's reckoning, as it was. He'd never seen the old man like that. So close to losing control. Well, he couldn't blame him, for sure but, he didn't want it to happen either. He really couldn't say what the man would have done and that could have been a disaster for them all.

Now, he was stuck here with her. Maybe, he could find another way. Get her some cash, enough to appease her for while. His head came up then as an idea hit him hard. Maybe, he could just get her stinking drunk. That wouldn't be hard. He had enough money on him to keep her in tequila all night long. Maybe, even get her hooked up with some poor unsuspecting slob.

Tomorrow night. He'd do that tomorrow night. Then, she'd sleep the next day away and he'd head out. Only, he had nowhere to go. If he went home, she'd follow, mad as hell and looking for revenge. No, he couldn't leave her but he could take her. A smile curled his lips.

Take her to Mexico and dump her ass. And he knew exactly where to do that dumping.

*

Johnny couldn't believe he was escorting her around town like some Dona. She'd stayed away from him the rest of yesterday and he supposed he should count his blessings. She'd put on a dress and fixed herself up but, to him, she still looked cheap. The knowledge that he had firm plans helped a little. Not much, but a little. She had her hand hooked around his arm as she strolled along the street window shopping. They'd stopped for lunch at a cantina she'd found and, he had to admit, the food was very good.

Now, they were one door down from the mining office and she stopped to peer inside the boutique. "Let's go in here, querido."

Johnny leaned over and whispered out of one side of his mouth. "Stop calling me that!"

She squeezed his arm hard. "Don't call me son, don't call me hijo, don't this, don't that. Is that all you can say to me?"

"It's more than I want to say to you."

"Stop it, Johnny. We need to look normal!" she hissed.

He snorted at that then opened the shop door for her, bending at the waist and waving an arm toward the inside."How normal are we gonna look behind bars?"

"There will be no bars. I've found the help we need." She pursed her lips and walked in, head held a little too high.

He stood near the door and stared after her, unwilling to go any further inside when he saw the ladies underthings on display. He could feel the heat rising on the back of his neck and lowered his head, wishing he could simply crawl under something. This was too much for any man to put up with. He cleared his throat and she looked over at him. Tossing his head toward the door, he told her he'd wait outside.

Maria smiled wickedly and nodded, laughing a little as he slipped out the door.

The clerk walked over with a smile. "Was that your husband?"

Without missing a beat, she simply replied, "yes."

Johnny leaned against the building and breathed before looking around and hoping no one had noticed him coming out of there. It was stupid, he didn't know a soul here but, still ... His eyes settled on the saloon and he smiled before heading over. He figured a cold beer and getting the layout of the place was in order. It would help him when he tried out his plan tonight. He just had to figure a way to convince her to go inside - just for a drink, maybe two. And before whoever she'd finagled into helping with this insanity showed up.

He walked inside the establishment as two riders entered the town at the opposite end.

*

"We should head down one of these side streets, Scott. We don't want to chance being seen until we find Johnny."

"I'm sure we don't want to be seen after, either, Sir. We should have waited until nightfall anyway."

Murdoch shook his head as he turned down the first alleyway he came to. "We don't even know if they're here and what they might be up to. I wouldn't be surprised to find Maria in the saloon tonight. It wouldn't do to be spotted by her. We need to check out the town, see if they're here then find someplace to lay low."

Scott bit the inside of his cheek and wondered where his father had come up with all this cunning. If he didn't know better, he'd think the man had experience as a spy or something like it.

They made their way down a back alley parallel to the main street until they found the livery. Leaving the horses tethered behind a building, they walked into the back of the barn and stopped immediately.

"Well, I guess that answers the question," Scott said as he walked over and patted Barranca.

"Help you fellas?"

Murdoch and Scott turned to find the owner, they assumed, standing near the front entry watching them suspiciously. Murdoch walked over quickly, wearing a slight smile.

"We were just admiring that palomino. Is he for sale?"

The man tucked his hands under his apron and looked past Murdoch. "Don't know. He ain't one of mine. Reckon I could ask the man for ya but I doubt he's willin to sell."

"Why is that?" Scott asked as he joined them.

The man made some sort of snorting noise and shook his head. "Real particular about that ones care." He tossed his head toward Barranca. "Didn't seem to give a hoot about the sorrel, though. Just said 'take care of it'. That gold fella had some real specific instructions, though."

A smile tugged at Murdoch's mouth before he made himself scowl. "Well, don't go to any trouble then. It isn't that important. Is there a hotel nearby?"

"Sure, but the boarding house is nicer. That's where the fella what owns that palomino is stayin."

Scott turned sideways, examining the wall with great interest as he tried not to smile. Maybe, Murdoch really had been a spy. He sure was good at getting information from people without having to try all that hard. He heard his father thank the man and tell him they'd be on their way. Scott simply turned and followed his father outside.

*

"You know this is a little ridiculous, skulking about," Scott whispered as they peered around the corner of the boarding house structure.

Murdoch pulled back and pressed his back to the wall. "We have to be careful, son. You can't just walk around town showing your face when you're planning a crime."

Scott cocked a brow. "How do we know Johnny and Maria aren't doing that very thing?"

"It doesn't matter! I'll go inside and get us a room. You walk in after me and create a diversion so I can get a look at the register and find out what room he's in." Murdoch didn't wait for a reply. He stepped around the corner and walked quickly to the entrance, his eyes scanning the street the entire time.

Scott rolled his eyes and sighed. "Yes, Agent Lancer," he muttered then gave his father a moment before following.

The woman behind the desk startled as Scott practically crashed through the doorway, stumbling his way to the staircase and grabbing the newel post. She hurried from behind the desk to his side. Murdoch stopped signing the register and scanned the names, finding his son easily enough. They'd arrived only yesterday. He supposed they were in no hurry. A pain shot through his belly when he saw the signature - Johnny Madrid.

"I'm so sorry. I don't know what I tripped on," Scott was saying. "I'm fine now."

Murdoch walked over to them. "Don't mind him, ma'am. My son is always tripping over something. He's not very coordinated."

As the woman turned to look at Murdoch, Scott shot his old man a withering glare. When she turned back, he smiled sheepishly.

"Well, as long as you're alright. I'll get your room key."

Murdoch wouldn't look at his son. Instead, he made a production of getting the key and making his way upstairs as quickly as possible. Once in the room, he braced himself.

"Why didn't you just say I'm clumsy? Or an idiot? Or mentally ..."

"Scott! I had to say something. We don't want undue attention. That stunt of yours was attention enough."

"What happens if Johnny sees that register? Or worse, Maria?"

Murdoch grinned. "They'll see that Wilbur and Marcus O'Reilly have checked in."

Scott's mouth dropped open and he fell into the chair behind him. Slowly, he shook his head back and forth. "Who are you? What have you done with my father?"

*

Johnny stared at the man across the room as hard as the man was staring at him. He couldn't have planned this any better if he'd tried. He half-hoped someone would recognize him and, maybe, she'd call this crazy plan off. But, there sat Clem Richards of all people and Johnny had wanted to smile, wave at him, hell, shake the man's hand and buy him a bottle. Of course, he couldn't do that. He had to play it cool. So, he stared. Why, he hadn't a clue. He didn't really think Clem was that stupid but the man had a glint in his eye that both bothered and intrigued Johnny. He wondered if Clem was her 'help' but, that didn't seem right to him. Richards was a gunfighter, not a thief.

He knew he needed to go. She'd surely be done shopping for nothing by now. He sighed softly and stood up, giving Clem a slight nod of the head as he headed out the door. He could feel the man's eyes on him and he smiled a little as he stepped onto the street.

Looking across, he saw her standing there and knew she was mad as hell. Johnny cringed a little as he reacted the way he used to when she had that look. Fear flashed through him and that brought on anger at the thought of allowing her to affect him at all. Well, hadn't he been doing that very thing since she showed up? Yes, he had and it was high time that stopped, too. Face showing nothing, he sauntered across the street and stepped up on the boardwalk.

"I should have known you'd be in the saloon."

"Yeah, it's not a bad place. Barkeep said they have a singer in the evenings. Thought I'd head back there tonight." He spoke casually as if discussing the weather then held his arm out for her to take.

She grabbed his bicep and started walking, a subdued smile on her face as she spoke through clenched teeth. "We have to finalize our plans tonight. There will be no time for singing girls!"

"I don't know. He said she was real pretty with the voice of an angel. Haven't heard anyone sing like that since ..." he trailed off, casting a sidelong look at her, his expression one of embarrassment and sadness before lowering his eyes to the sidewalk. Not bad, Madrid, he thought to himself.

Her face softened immediately. "You miss hearing me sing, querido? I would be happy to sing for you. It has been a long time, hasn't it?"

"Don't bother yourself. Like you said, we need to make plans. Besides, it ain't the same without the guitar." He pulled in a long breath and blew it out. "Just forget about it."

They were at the boarding house now and he opened the door for her, still looking down. She could see the sadness on his face and her heart beat a little faster. "Perhaps, after we talk out our plans, it would not hurt to go to the saloon for a while."

He had to be so careful. If he seemed too happy, she'd know it was a setup. If he acted like he didn't care, she'd get mad and not go. He lifted his eyes and looked at her for just a second before walking inside. As they got to the stairs, he said softly, "okay, if you want to."

*

Johnny knew his mother could drink most grown men under the table so he'd decided a little help was in order. As they sat in the saloon and waited for this wonderful singer, he watched her throw back tequila shots like they were water. He could also see her impatience growing and wondered if she might not just get up and walk out. It wasn't something he could control and she wasn't paying attention to anyone or anything but him. She leaned in close to him and he had to fight not to back away.

"Tomorrow at this time, querido, we will be very wealthy."

"Not a good idea to talk about this in public, is it?"

She shrugged and smiled. "Perhaps, you are not as ignorant about such things as you claim."

"Maybe, we should just try to enjoy tonight. Might be a while before we get another chance. You can tell me about these new men later."

She pouted a little. "Where is this angel you were told about? If she does not come soon, I'll have to do something myself."

Johnny smiled slightly. "Why don't you ask the bartender?"

She slapped her hand on the table top and stood up, feeling no pain. "I will!" she proclaimed and walked over to the bar.

Johnny slid the small vial from his pocket and uncorked it under the table then closed his hand around it. He reached over and palmed her glass, dragging it toward him while he emptied the contents of the bottle into the glass then topped it off with tequila.

One hour and five songs later, Johnny was almost dragging her down the street to the boarding house. She was still singing softly.

"They loved me, hijo. Did you hear? More! More! They shouted. Stupid gringos! At least they know talent when they hear it."

Johnny sighed and hitched her closer as her knees buckled slightly. "Yeah, I heard them, Maria. They loved you."

Her head rolled up toward him and she smiled. 'You love me, too. You just have to let yourself remember, hijo. You have always loved your mama."

Johnny ground his jaw and stepped up the pace. "You need to lay down."

He finally got her to her room. Once he had her at the side of the bed, he simply let go and watched her bounce on the mattress a couple of times. He picked her legs up and swung them onto the bed then threw a blanket over her and headed for the door feeling more than a little guilty for some reason.

"Don't leave, querido. I don't want to be alone. It has been so long since I was with anyone."

Johnny froze with the doorknob in his hand. He closed his eyes and felt the guilt fly right out the window. Sure, she probably didn't have a clue who she was talking to but it didn't matter. His stomach still turned. Shaking his head, he said nothing and left the room.

He headed next door, intent on packing his things then heading for the livery to get their horses. He hoped he could keep her in the saddle. Maybe, he should get a surrey but he didn't think that was a good idea. Too much chance she'd sober up before they crossed the border. And he was going to get her across the border one way or the other.  

He opened the door and stepped into the darkened room. Once the door was closed, he sensed it and his hand went to his side. Johnny felt someone cover his mouth and nose with a cloth at the same time as a hand wrapped around his right wrist. He was pulled back against the person as he struggled to get free. The only thing he could hear was heavy breathing then, his eyes started to close and he knew he was beat. The last thought he had was that there was something familiar about the presence behind him.

*

Scott stood by the window of Johnny's bedroom, arms crossed and face full of concern. For three days, they'd kept him unconscious. Every time he'd start to come around, they'd feed him and, Murdoch would add sleeping powders to send him back into blissful ignorance. Now, Sam was examining him and Scott's worry over these days would not ease.

"Well, I don't think there will be any lasting problems." Sam sighed and folded his stethoscope before turning to Murdoch and growling. "I didn't know you were going to keep him out for three days!"

Murdoch's back went up. "That's how long it took to get home, Sam. We went as fast as we could in a Spring wagon. It wasn't like he could ride a horse."

"Perhaps, if you'd given him the option, he would have!"

"How many times do I have to explain this? I had no choice!" Murdoch rounded the physician and sat on the bed. "What did you mean when you said you don't think there will be lasting effects?"

Sighing with frustration, Sam allowed his anger to subside. "I won't know for sure until he wakes up but his breathing is fine, his pupils are responding normally and his color is good. I don't know how you fed him."

Scott moved from the window to the side of the bed. "We basically force fed him broths and bread before Murdoch knocked him out again each time. He didn't have a clue what was going on."

"He'll forgive us, Scott. He has to," Murdoch mumbled.

Scott sat on the side of the bed opposite his father. "I don't know about that. When he does wake up, he's going to be pissed."

"No kidding," the father deadpanned. "We'll just have to explain it."

"No, *you'll* have to explain it. This was your idea, Sir."

"Well, I'll try to stay until he comes around. It shouldn't be much longer so, I suggest you prepare yourselves." Sam gave them both a look of consternation. "I'll be in the kitchen."

*

Less than an hour passed before they heard a sound from the bed. Scott stood from the chair he'd parked near the window and took a couple of steps then decided that was close enough. His eyes darted to the dresser where Johnny's gun lay and he calculated the distance and time it would take his brother to get to the pistol. He should have plenty of time to duck.

Murdoch, sitting in a chair next to the bed, leaned closer and rested a hand on Johnny's arm. He inhaled deeply and held the breath, waiting for his son to awaken.

A frown formed on the youngest man's face then he groaned softly. Slowly, the eyelashes fluttered and slits of blue were seen.

"Johnny? Take your time, son. It's Murdoch. It's alright, John. You're home now."

Scott raised a brow at the softness of Murdoch's voice but he stayed himself right where he was.

Suddenly, Johnny's eyes flew open and he looked around, settling his gaze on his father as he blinked several times, trying to focus his vision and his thoughts.

Murdoch smiled and increased his grip on Johnny's arm. "Welcome back."

He didn't say anything for a long time, just trying to wrap his head around being in his own room, his own bed and just why it was his head felt like it was coming off. At last, he managed to speak. "Welcome back? How the hell did I get here?"

"I'm sure you're a little muddled right now, son. We brought you home."

Johnny frowned then took stock. Aside from his head, nothing else hurt. He hadn't been shot or anything. The memory returned then of being accosted in his hotel room and his eyes narrowed as he raised up on one elbow and leaned toward his father. "You kidnapped me?"

"I brought you home where you want to be," Murdoch stated firmly.

"Dammit, Murdoch! Why did you do that? Why didn't you stay out of it?" Johnny's hand went to his head. The shouting wasn't helping his headache.

"Stay out if? I couldn't stay out of it, Johnny. We had to do something!"

Scott cringed at the 'we' and knew his brother was about to realize he was there. Very soon, he'd be looking into those eyes and he dreaded it.

"I had everything under control." Johnny did turn then and find Scott standing there but his attention didn't stay there long as he looked back at Murdoch.

"Oh you did, did you? What were you going to do? Rob someone or kill them for her?!" Murdoch's jugular vein popped out as his face reddened.

*

Johnny clamped his jaw shut for a second and closed his eyes before glaring back at his father. "Dammit," he whispered. "I was so close to getting rid of her and you ruined everything!"

Silence fell like a veil over the room as father and son stared at each other. Scott finally moved, fairly certain he wouldn't have to duck after all.

"What do you mean by that?"

Johnny scooted up in the bed and leaned against the headboard. "I got her drunk. I was gonna take her to Mexico and dump her. It was a perfect plan and now ... now, I'll never get rid of her."

"That was your great idea? What would stop her from simply coming back?" Murdoch asked angrily.

Johnny rubbed a hand down his face before frowning at his father again. "Where I was gonna dump her, old man. In the one place she can never show her face again. Do you think I'm stupid? Why couldn't you let me deal with this?"

"Because!" Murdoch took to his feet and paced around the room. "It's my responsibility, Johnny."

"How do you figure that?"

Murdoch stopped and faced him. "You're my son, my child. I won't let anyone hurt you if I can help it. And, she was my wife."

Johnny snorted at that. "Well, don't concern yourself about that part. And, I'm a grown man. I don't need you to protect me. You can't anyway. The fact is, I'm the only one who is actually related to her." He paused as a shiver ran down his back. "It's up to me to deal with her."

"By running off with her because she threatened us? No, Johnny, that's not the way."

Scott cleared his throat and sat at the foot of the bed. "What did she threaten, anyway?"

Johnny dropped his eyes and stared at his hands.

Murdoch's heart pounded as he walked back over and sat in his chair. "Johnny? What did she say?"

"She said she'd get someone to beat her up and to ... to hurt her and accuse you of doing it. I told her no one would believe it but, she asked me if I wanted to take that chance." His eyes came up, the pain searing his father's heart. "I couldn't chance it. You know what a good liar she is, Murdoch." He looked at Scott. "Said she'd throw you in there, too, and if that didn't work, she said somethin about murder charges."

"How lovely," Scott sneered.

Johnny's voice was cold as ice. "She's a heartless bitch and she needs to die."

"Not by your hand, brother."

Sighing heavily, he flung the covers back and sat on the side of the bed. "Well, that wasn't the plan but, then again, that plan was blown to hell. You realize she'll just come back here."

"Let her come," Murdoch said as he took to his feet again. "I won't allow her to ruin this family again, Johnny. We stand together."

*

Johnny stood slowly, testing his fortitude and finding it lacking. He was pretty lightheaded and he stood still, head down and eyes closed for several seconds before slowly opening his eyes and looking at the floor. He could see Murdoch's boots as he stood nearby. A slight smile formed briefly on his face as he headed to the dresser where he'd seen his saddlebags. He managed the short distance then laid his hands flat atop the surface and leaned in a little.

"You aren't going to shoot us, are you?"

Johnny laughed softly at that. "Thinkin about it, Boston." The humor died as he thought again how close he'd been to getting rid of her. He opened the flap of his saddlebag and pulled out his clothes before turning to face them. "It ever occur to either of you to talk to me before you pulled off this brilliant plan?"

"It was my plan, son. Your brother wasn't too thrilled with the idea but he went along with it."

"You mean, you made him go along." Johnny sighed and headed back to the bed, plopping on the mattress and shoving a leg in his pants. "It's gonna take me three days to get back, if she's even still there. Who knows how long after that to find her."

"Go back? You are not going back, young man!"

Johnny slowly looked up at his father towering over him, fists planted on his hips. "Don't shout. My head feels like it's comin off as it is. And, I am going back, Murdoch. I'm not gonna live my life knowing she's out there plottin and plannin her next move. It won't be pretty, whatever she comes up with." He held up a hand to stay his father. "Yeah, I know. We'll face it together. Sometimes, a man has to do a thing on his own and it ain't because he doesn't want the help. It's because he's the only one that can do it."

Scott smiled a little as he walked around the bed and sat beside his brother. "A one man deal?"

"Exactly, brother." Johnny's lips quirked.

"Son," Murdoch started as he retook his seat and lowered his voice. "How can I make you understand?"

"I don't know. How can I make you understand? She's my mother, Murdoch. God help me. You don't have anything to do with it anymore." He looked in his father's eyes and hated what he was about to say. "She never loved you. I'm sorry, but that's what she told me."

Immediately, Murdoch began shaking his head. "I don't believe that, Johnny. She was young and wild, I know, but I just don't believe that."

Sighing, Johnny put the other leg in his pants finally then stood slowly and buttoned them. "Scott, would you mind giving us a minute?"

Taken aback, Scott looked at his father then up at his brother. He stood and grabbed Johnny's nightshirt, helping to pull it over his head for him. "Of course. I'll be downstairs with Sam."

*

Johnny sat back down and pulled his shirt on. As he buttoned it, he told his father the truth she'd told him. "I know she lies as easy as breathing but, I know her better than anyone does. I was too young back then to tell or, maybe I didn't want to know she was lying then. But, she told me some things on the trail that I believe. I don't want to hurt you, Murdoch, but you should know." He looked at his father in askance.

Murdoch studied his son's face for a moment, sure he didn't want to hear this but knowing Johnny needed to tell it. He sat back and nodded, his heart seeming to stop beating as he waited.

Lowering his eyes again, unable to face the pain he was about to cause, Johnny sucked in a breath. "She said the only reason she married you was because she was pregnant. She fooled herself into thinking she loved you but she said neither of you loved the other. I told her she was wrong, that you did love her. She said she didn't want to be the kind of wife you expected. She wanted to be waited on, I guess. Anyway, she wasn't expecting to have to work for anything."

He waited, still unable to raise his head. He waited for the explosion or the denial or whatever Murdoch was going to say. But, the silence hung thick around them and he felt like he couldn't breathe. Finally, he looked at his father, stunned by the hurt in his eyes. He knew this would be hard, would hurt his old man but, he didn't realize just how much. Johnny was sure that, in that moment of telling, he'd destroyed his father and he felt like putting his own gun to his head in that fraction of time.  

Murdoch blinked then swallowed painfully at the lump in his throat. He sat forward a little, still watching Johnny. "You know, I've told myself so many stories over the years, trying to come up with some reason for her leaving. So many tragic tales ran through my mind that, sometimes I wondered if I were going mad. Maybe, I did go a little mad from time to time. The only thing that kept me sane was you, Johnny. She told you the truth of why we married so quickly but, that was not the reason I married her."

"I know."

"Do you, son? Do you know I did love her?"

Johnny inhaled sharply and nodded. "I know you wouldn't ... be with a woman you didn't love. At least, not unless," he shrugged, feeling the heat on his cheeks even thinking of his father with a female. Any female. But, he saw the confusion on his father's face and knew he was going to ask for more so he swallowed loudly. "You know, unless she was paid for." He ducked his head and rubbed his hands up and down his thighs.

Murdoch cleared his throat and was sure he'd die of embarrassment any second. He pushed it away as much as he could. This was too important. Most likely the most important conversation he would ever have with Johnny. "She told me she loved me and I wanted to believe her. Maybe, like you said, she wanted to believe it herself. I don't think it matters anymore. The only thing that does matter is keeping you safe and away from her. I wish to God, I'd been able to do that twenty years ago."

"So, you don't ... I mean now, you don't have any feelings for her?"

"Past murder, no, I don't. I'm sorry, son. It's awful for a child at any age when his parents don't get along but this is so much more than simply disagreeing."

A smile lifted Johnny's mouth briefly. "You know," he breathed out, "I get it. I mean, I don't expect or want you to try and get along with her. I don't want her in my life. It's hard, Murdoch. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to face and that's sayin a lot. But, I've thought about it since she showed up here and all the time I've been with her. I've watched her and I know she doesn't have a soul." He looked back at his father and smiled a little more sincerely. "I'm just really glad I take more after you than her. Otherwise, we couldn't even be having this talk."

Murdoch smiled back at him and reached out, grasping his arm. "The more I think about it, the more I realize the only thing you got from her was your looks."

"Well," Johnny said as he looked around the floor and found his boots at the foot of the bed, "I'm still going after her." He managed to get one boot on before the argument started again.

*

After explaining as little as he could get away with to Sam, Scott escorted the man upstairs to examine his patient. He hoped they'd had enough time for Johnny to tell whatever he had to tell. And he prayed his father had taken it well. Scott knocked on the door and was met with a resounding 'NO'.

Johnny shook his head and called out for whoever was there to come in. He wasn't surprised by who it was.

"Well, I see you're letting my patient rest quietly," Sam snarked.

"I didn't tell him to get out of bed and dressed, Sam. You know how stubborn he is." Murdoch's face was a nice pink hue as he huffed.

"Too old to be told when to get up and when to lay down. I'm alright, Sam. A little dizzy is all." Johnny glanced at his father before adding, "not too sure if it's the headache or what causing that."

"What exactly is your intention, Johnny?" Sam asked.

"To leave and go back to what I was doing before I got kidnapped."

"I don't advise it. Not today. You still need to recover."

"Not happening. I figure I got plenty of rest already." He was at the dresser again, strapping on his rig.

Sam sighed and raised his hands in defeat. "There's nothing more I can do, then. All I can say is be careful and God's speed."

Johnny smiled at the doctor. "Just don't help them out anymore, Sam. They're a little too good at bein criminals."

Sam snorted at that and took his leave.

"What are you planning?" Scott asked after a moment of quiet.

"Well, that's a good question. Guess I'll just tell her the truth. Might just give her a heart attack since she wouldn't recognize it."

"And if you can't carry on with your plan? Do you intend to let her make you do whatever it is she's planning?" Murdoch was still livid and unwilling to give up the fight.

Turning to face his father, Johnny grinned. "Well, that plan was shot to hell, too. Then again, I never was going to rob that land company in the first place."

Scott was flabbergasted. "That's what she wanted you for? To commit robberies?"

"Yeah, wants to get enough money to retire to South America. What can I say, brother? She's evil and stupid. Anyway, I plan on somehow getting her back in prison and this time, forever."

"Let us help you, Johnny. We can work it all out on the way then, Murdoch and I can lay low until we're needed."

Johnny walked to the door as he shrugged into his jacket then sighed. "Where's Barranca?"

"In the barn," Scott answered. "We wouldn't have left him behind."

"Knew I'd be pissed enough without addin insult to injury, huh?"

Scott smiled. "Something like that."

"Look. She's probably headed back here already which means I'll run into her on the way. You can't go with me and if you try to follow, I'll lose you. Might take me longer to get her taken care of but, that's all it will get you. You have to let me do this alone, Scott."

Scott looked into his brother's eyes and saw the determination there. Determination to get out of this and get home. He smiled and nodded then turned to their father. "He's right, Sir. We have to trust Johnny to handle this himself."

"And if he gets himself killed, Scott?" Murdoch shot back.

"Then, the problem is solved, old man. I'm not looking to die. I'm looking to get on with my life without that bitch hanging over my head forever! Why can't you understand that?"

"I do! That's why we want to help!"

Johnny paused, his head turning aside. He clenched his teeth for a second. "You can't help me! I don't want your help! Just, leave me alone, old man. This is my life and I'll damned well be the one to decide what I do and where I go. I've had it with you always telling me when to spit and when to polish! I'm done. Christ! And I thought *she* was bad!" All he could do was wink at his father and brother and pray they understood.

*

"If I had known this was all it took to bring you back to me, querido, I would have told you the whole truth about your father and his controlling ways." Maria appeared in the door behind him and Johnny whirled around, feigning surprise at seeing her. She smiled at him and patted his cheek. "I assumed this is where you'd gotten off to."

Johnny snorted. "Gotten off to? That's a pretty way of sayin kidnapped. And don't think you're any prize, either, Lady! Let's just go."

"Not yet, hijo. Your father's interference cost us a great deal of money." Maria eyed Murdoch dangerously as she walked over to Scott. She looked up at the young man with a smile that froze his veins. "Perhaps, your anger with your father will dissuade you from caring what happens to him. But," she turned and looked at Johnny, "there is still this one to consider."

Johnny glared at her. "I don't need to be reminded, Maria. I just want to get out of here."

"Not until I'm compensated for my loss of time and money. Or, we could simply have these two arrested for kidnapping."

"You'll not get a dime from me," Murdoch ground out.

Johnny walked over and grabbed her arm. "I'll figure it out. We're leaving now." He pulled her toward the doorway but she resisted.

"I already have, Johnny. Murdoch will pay you for your third of Lancer and you will sign it over to him and his precious first born. Once he pays, we will leave and I will tell you all about how he pined over the easterner and paid you little mind."

"That is a lie!" Murdoch took two steps toward her.

Johnny put himself between his parents and held a hand up to stay his father. "It doesn't matter anymore, Murdoch. Just draw up the papers and get the money together. We'll be back in a week." He felt her hands on his back and thought he might throw up. All the while, his eyes pleaded with his father.

Murdoch simmered then relented. "Fine! If it's so easy for you to give up and go with her, maybe it's for the best."

"Johnny," Scott called and walked over. "Don't do this for me."

"You know what, Scott? I'm not. Not anymore." Johnny turned and grabbed her arm again, pushing her out the door.

*

Murdoch leaned heavily against the dresser once Johnny had gone. Scott walked over and laid a supportive hand on his shoulder. "He has a plan of some kind, I think."

Snorting, Murdoch straightened and looked at his son. "He's making it up as he goes along. I don't know what to do next."

"Well, I suppose we should make it look good. We don't know if she has more help. Someone may be watching our every move."

Murdoch nodded then walked over and sat heavily on the bed. "I can't believe that's the same woman I married. What have I done? What have I put Johnny in the middle of?"

Scott sighed, suddenly feeling very tired. "Sir, by everything you've said, she's changed a lot over the years or, maybe, she never showed you her true self. This isn't your fault. I hate her and what she's trying to do to my brother but, I can't be sorry you met her. I can't be sorry that Johnny is in my life and I can't be sorry for the man he is."

"That's what stuns me most. How he could have not only survived, but managed to be a decent and caring man."

Scott sat beside him and shrugged. "Maybe, it's in spite of her more than because of her. Maybe, it's inborn. He's a lot like you."

Murdoch's lips twitched toward a smile but he couldn't quite manage to get there. "I'd like to think so, son. I've always felt I couldn't take any credit for how either of you turned out. But, if that's true, if a child gets qualities from his parents simply due to blood then, I have to say I'm grateful your brother didn't get more than looks from his mother."

Scott smirked a little. "So am I."

*

Johnny stared straight ahead as they rode toward town. He could feel her watching him and it made his skin crawl but he wasn't about to speak unless he had to. His mind was churning, trying to figure out a plan to get her to Mexico. More than that, how to make sure his family didn't have to pay for it in money or blood.

"So, they kidnapped you."

He grimaced then sighed. "I ain't proud of it. I didn't think they'd pull a stunt like that, for sure."

"How did they manage to get the drop on you?"

He looked over at her, searing her with his glare. "Like I said, I ain't proud of it. I thought the only problem I might have was a man in the saloon. But, he was still there when we left. They were waiting in my room when I walked in." He sighed and shook his head, a slight smile coming to his face. "Seems the old man's got a lot more to him than I thought. Always figured him for the law-abiding type."

She pulled a face. "Perhaps, it was the easterner's idea."

"He's got a name, ya know."

"Oh, si, Johnny. I know he has a name. I heard it enough times! Scott will come home and we'll be a family. Mierda! I got so sick of hearing about that!"

"That why you took off?" His voice was soft and husky as he queried her.

"No, but it was a bonus. I told you why I left."

"Yeah, you told me. Let's just drop it. We need to find someplace to hole up for a while."

"We could stay at the north line shack. As I recall, it was fairly comfortable."

Johnny looked at her and saw the smile of remembrance. His stomach turned and a lot of things started making sense to him. "Murdoch torched the place. Never got around to rebuilding. Now, I guess I know why. You spread your legs for that gambler there, did ya?"

Maria reined to a stop and dismounted, walking to the side of the road. Perplexed, Johnny followed, wondering what she was pulling now. As he walked up to her, she slapped his face.

"You will not speak to me so disrespectfully! I am your mother!"

She always had been a good slapper, he had to admit. It used to sting a lot more and it used to hurt him but now, it had no affect. "You may have given birth to me but, you're no one's mother, Maria. Don't make the mistake of ever putting your hands on me again, either. I can end all of this in less than a heartbeat. You figure out in your head how you want to call this but, as far as I'm concerned, I'm pretty much your mule. There is nothing more than that between us and there never will be. We ain't family." He turned on his heel and mounted up, looking back down at her with eyes devoid of any emotion. "I know a little cabin where we can stay. Let's go."

*

Johnny wasn't sure how it had happened. He was only sure he was just now realizing it. The past several days, they'd fallen into some sort of routine that was hauntingly familiar to him. He found something to do outside while the sun was up, whether it was minor repairs around the cabin, hunting or fishing or even repairing some fence line he'd found down on Lancer land, though he'd never tell her that. Then, he'd come back every evening to a home cooked meal. Whatever else she was, and he could think of plenty of names, she was an excellent cook. He'd never forgotten that about her. It was one of a very few good memories he had. He was only surprised that she bothered.

But, it was all getting too easy and he had to remind himself what this was and what she planned. Until he could get her further south, he knew he'd have to go along with this plan to sell his third of Lancer back to Murdoch. He hated the idea of handing over that money to her but, at the moment, he could do nothing else. Tomorrow was the deadline so he figured they should talk about what was next.

As they finished the meal, he sat back in his chair and stared into his coffee cup as if it held his answers. "I'll head to the house in the morning and sign the papers."

"I will go with you. That way, we can leave immediately."

Johnny looked up at her and scowled. "Just don't start anything, Maria. I'd like to get in and out as quick as possible."

She shrugged and took a sip of her tea. "As long as things go smoothly, there will be no need for me to say a word." She eyed him from under her long lashes then licked her lips. "I suppose Scott's grandfather was not pleased he came out here."

He looked at her suspiciously then smiled. "Sure he was. Happy about the whole thing. Helped Scott pack and told him he was wrong. That no one had the right to keep a boy from his father." Johnny leaned forward, elbows on the table as he drew nearer. "Leave that old man out of this, Maria. I'd just as soon shoot him as look at him. You can't use him against Scott."

She smiled maliciously. "Are you so sure?"

"Dead sure." He sat back and studied her. "You know something? You could have had an easy life. You're beautiful and willing to sleep with just about anything, I'd wager. You should have spent more time hooking some rich Don than stealing your way through life."

She laughed at that. "It is not so easy to 'hook' a rich man, my son. Most of them would not marry a peasant girl no matter if they actually loved her. They would simply keep her as their mistress."

Johnny shrugged. "Still better than what you have been doin. Better than going to prison."

She stared at the table for a long moment, a frown marring her face. "Anything is better than prison. I have done many things to survive in this world, Johnny. So have you. We were not meant for such riches, I suppose. Certainly not for an easy life. I don't know why. All I know is I've made choices and mistakes." She looked up at him. "But, you were not one of those mistakes. I do love you in my way. I know it is not the usual way a mother loves her child. Most would say it is no way at all but, still, I love you."

"Loving someone means you're willing to do for them above yourself. It means sacrifice sometimes and going without if you have to. You've never done anything close to that for me. Don't tell me you love me, Maria. I don't believe you and I don't want to hear it."

"Do I mean nothing to you, Johnny?"

"Nope. Now, I'm goin to bed."

*

Johnny sat on the low step of the cabin's front porch the next morning, watching the sun rise with coffee in hand. He stared at the sky, mesmerized by the changing colors and allowing himself this moment in time to enjoy anything again. Soon, he knew there would be no joy in his life, like before. She was dragging him into the pit of Hell, he reckoned. Well, that's what she'd done twenty years ago. Seemed like she'd come up with a new tune by now. His mood ruined, he sighed and stood up, heading to the lean-to to saddle the horses.

When he walked back inside the cabin, the first thing he noticed was the empty stove, save the coffee pot. She was sitting at the table, hands cupped around a tin mug, staring at nothing, it seemed. He sighed, 'here we go'. He remembered her sullen moods but hadn't seen one of the really bad ones since her appearance here. He figured he was in for some real nice motherly moments today. Maybe, he should start this dance. Otherwise, she'd pout for an hour.

"I got a bottle if you're strung out." He walked over and pumped water into his empty cup, rinsing it out and drying it then replacing it on the shelf.

"Shut up."

He turned to look at her back, surprised by the whispered voice. He expected yelling. Raising a brow he shrugged. "Somethin wrong?"

She turned her black gaze on him then. "Do you care?"

Johnny smiled then walked over and slid into a chair beside her. "No. The horses are ready whenever you are."

Her face was like a rock wall and Johnny thought she could rival Murdoch's best. An image of the two of them facing off came to his mind and he quickly pushed it away as she stood up.

"I'm ready. Let's get this over with."

*

Scott stood by the French doors, watching the road. "Are you sure this will work?"

Murdoch shook his head slowly back and forth before glancing at their guest. "I don't know but I'm not handing one dollar over to that woman and I'm certainly not handing my son over! Nor will I let him sign away his future."

Scott nodded his agreement but, his mind had been on other things all week. Like where they were and how Johnny was faring with her. He hated the idea of his brother being forced to stay with that woman and certainly not because of him. If he let himself, he'd admit he was more worried about her convincing Johnny to go with her. Or, that his brother would decide he really wanted to be with Maria, after all. He shuddered with the thoughts but he couldn't help them. His mind always went through all possible outcomes to a given situation. That's just how he was and always had been. He walked over and sat on the sofa beside the third man.

"What do you think, Gabe?"

The Spanish Wells sheriff rubbed a hand down his thigh. When the Lancers had come to him earlier in the week with this story, he could hardly believe it. In fact, if it were anyone but Murdoch, he may well not have believed it. Sounded to him like Maria Lancer was just plain evil. "Well, Scott, if things go as planned, you've got a good chance. Only problem I can see is if she decides to stay in the valley. I can't stop her from doing that."

Scott could hear his father's jaw grinding. "That would be a problem. It's not the best plan in the world."

"I don't know what else to do, Scott. I won't let Johnny go with her."

Sighing, the youngest man leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Neither will I, Sir. I just wish we'd known Johnny's plan before we brought him home. It sounded good to me and she could have been out of our lives by now."

Murdoch stood from his desk chair and walked around it, nearer the French doors. "I don't want to go over that again, Scott."

Of course you don't, Scott thought wryly. That would mean admitting it was a mistake to kidnap Johnny. He said none of it, though. It would do no good. He saw Murdoch's shoulders tense and knew the hour was at hand.

*

Johnny waved at Julio and Chuck as they rode into the yard then noticed the scowl on Maria's face. He let out a breath through pursed lips and knew this was going to get ugly. Her mood hadn't improved. Once dismounted, he waited for her to come around the horse.

"Remember, don't start anything. Let's just get in and get out."

She flashed a smile at him and nodded but Johnny was wary. He knew her smiles and that wasn't a happy one. Reluctantly, he headed to the front door.

Scott greeted them solemnly and wordlessly then led the way into the great room. Johnny slowed his steps as he saw Gabe standing by the sofa. Nodding, he greeted the man. "Gabe, what are you doing here? Something wrong?"

"Everything is wrong, Johnny," Murdoch answered as he faced his son and wife.

Sighing, Johnny lowered his head for a moment before looking back at his father with determination. "We agreed on how this would go."

"No, you made a statement and walked out." Murdoch looked past his son to Gabe and nodded.

Before Johnny knew what was happening, he felt the handcuff close around his right wrist. He turned his head quickly as the left locked in place. "What the hell?"

"Johnny Lancer, you're under arrest," Gabe stated.

Maria's face flushed with anger. "For what? He has done nothing!"

"What are you doin, Gabe?" Johnny asked more softly.

"You've been accused of murder, Johnny. You'll have to stand trial. Judge will be around next month sometime."

"This is outrageous! Johnny has been with me for weeks now. He can't have killed anyone!" Maria turned to Murdoch. "This is your doing!"

"The warrant's outstanding from two months ago, ma'am," Gabe explained. "Just haven't been able to catch up with him until now. Let's go, Lancer."

Johnny felt the pull on his arm but he resisted, still gawking at his father. In a whisper so low, even Murdoch had a hard time hearing, he said, "this won't work."

Maria was still ranting as Johnny walked out with Gabe. When they got to the horses, Scott stood beside Barranca. It was the first time he'd been able to look his brother in the eyes. He found he had no words, not in front of her but he tried to tell Johnny what he was thinking.

"Ma'am!" Gabe shouted, finally silencing her for a moment. "You're gonna have to take all that up with the judge when he gets here. There's nothing I can do about it." With that, he turned and helped Johnny into the saddle before taking up his own mount.

"Maria, you're trespassing. Get off my ranch," Murdoch decreed.

"You heard him, ma'am. You're going to have to leave right now." Gabe waited expectantly as she glowered at each of them in turn.

"You think you have won but you haven't. You can't keep him away from me, Murdoch. He is my son. He never belonged to you and he never will!" She whirled around and stormed to her horse, mounting up and galloping away, kicking up a flurry of dust in her wake.

*

"Well, this is all just great but it's not gonna solve a thing. I hope you know that. She wasn't lying when she said she wouldn't give up."

"Johnny, what else could I do? I won't let her ruin your life again and I'm sure as hell not going to hand over a red cent to her."

Scott looked up at him and put a hand on his brother's knee. "It's all we could come up with, brother. It will keep her from making you leave here."

"And when she finds out it's all a lie, Scott? What then? You think she'll just walk away? Have any of you got any idea what that woman is capable of?!"

Scott's face hardened in anger. "What do you want us to do, Johnny!?"

"I want you to take these damned shackles off and stop treating me like a kid who can't even wipe his own nose! That's what I want!" Johnny swung his leg over Barranca's neck and started to slide down when he felt a hand grab his arm and jerk him back a little. He turned and glared at Gabe.

"You're going with me, Johnny. Until this is sorted out and unless you've got a better idea right now, we have to make it look good. Otherwise, she could have my badge."

Johnny's face fell as he realized the man was right. None of this was Gabe's doing. He was only trying to help his friends. He sighed and pulled his leg back, sitting the saddle properly. "No, I don't have a better idea just yet." He turned and looked down at his family. "But, when I do, you're damned well gonna let me!"

Murdoch's face softened fractionally. "I don't want any of this, son. I don't want to lose you. All I'm trying to do is keep this family together."

Shoulders sagging, Johnny dropped his head. "I know that, Murdoch. But, you can't run my life. Haven't we been through this before a few hundred times?"

Shaking his head, Murdoch responded. "No, not like this, son. Nothing like this."

Johnny looked into his father's eyes and saw fear. He hated that, hated all of this and just wished he could find a way to stop it. He offered his father a smile of truce. "We'll get through it, okay?"

*

Johnny plopped onto the cot in his cell. He'd paced the small space until he could stand it no longer. For a week, he'd been cooped up here. Murdoch and Scott took turns coming to visit him but, so far, none of them had been able to come up with a plan. The thing that bothered Johnny the most was, he hadn't heard from Maria. That wasn't like her so, it gave him pause, wondering what she was up to.

He didn't want to get Gabe in trouble but he wasn't sure how much longer he could stay here. Being caged was the worst possible circumstance for him. The sun was long gone, supper eaten and now, the most agonizing part began. Night time was the worst when everything got quiet, the town shut down and the only sounds were the crickets with an occasional dog howling thrown in to spice things up.

He scooted his back against the wall and drew his knees up, drumming his fingertips on them to the rhythm of an old Spanish song that kept running round his head. It had been there, in his mind for a couple of days now, driving him crazy. Maybe, if he hummed the tune, it would go away, he thought. But, before he could remember how the damned thing even started, he heard a different sound.

Johnny sat up then froze, cocking his head and listening hard. He heard a couple of thumps and maybe even a man's grunt before it went quiet. Easing off the cot, he came to his feet and stepped to the cell bars, waiting for whatever was about to happen.

Suddenly, the door swung open and there she was. Johnny's shoulders sagged as he leaned against the bars with one shoulder. He said nothing as she walked up to him, a look of triumph on her face. He frowned at her.

"Did you think I had forgotten, niño?"

He started to correct her but it wasn't as important as the question he posed. "What did you do to the sheriff?"

She shrugged as she slid the key into the lock. "He is alive. Now, it's time to go. We don't have much time."

Johnny backed away from the door, more than wary - his heart was hammering. She didn't hurt Gabe. Couldn't have. Who ... the thought stalled as he saw two men come into the room, guns drawn. These two weren't a couple of fools. Johnny took their measure quickly and knew Maria had found some real help.

"Come on, Johnny. We must go now," Maria said urgently.

"Who are they?"

She sighed, anxious to get on their way. "I took your advice and hired real professionals. I told you in Borrega, remember?"

Johnny's eyes turned to ice as he locked onto her. "Hired them with what?"

"Johnny!" She inhaled deeply then lowered her voice. "We will discuss it later. We must go now."

He wasn't so sure about this. No, that wasn't true. He was very sure he didn't want to leave the cell. "Where's my gun?"

"Right here, cowboy."

Johnny looked at the man who'd spoken and saw his rig swinging in the man's hand.

"You'll get it back when the lady says it's alright. Until then, we need to go before that sheriff wakes up. Unless, you want me to go ahead and kill him."

*

This is such a bad idea. He kept thinking that over and over as they rode through the darkness. At least, they weren't headed toward Lancer. He'd had the idea she wanted vengeance on Murdoch. She may still but, he knew her need for money was her highest priority. He had a ton of questions but, it would have to wait until they stopped somewhere. She had four men in all with her, the other two having been standing watch outside the jail. At least, she was able to learn her lessons.

Without warning, one of the men turned to the right, heading up the mountain and the rest followed. Johnny found himself forced to make the turn by the man on his left. He didn't have Barranca and that irked the hell out of him.

"Where are we going?"

"It's all been planned out, cowboy. Don't worry so much." The man gave him a crooked grin that Johnny found disturbing.

Cowboy. He was the second to call Johnny that. Had she not told them who he was? That would be a definite plus for him but, he had to wonder why and what she was up to now.

Finally, they came to a stop in a large clearing near a mountain stream. He knew where he was but it didn't help. Three men went about setting up camp while the fourth headed back down the trail they'd just traversed without a word. He figured the man was hiding their tracks. Johnny was left standing with his mother in the clearing. He looked all around and sighed. It was a good spot. Out of the way and easy to hear anyone coming up on them.

"Well, what now?"

She smiled and hooked her hand around his arm, gently pulling him to walk with her. She headed to the stream, a ways down from the rest before finding a boulder and sitting down. Johnny stood over her and waited.

"You see I did listen to you, hijo. I found good men to help us. Men who know what they are doing. Oh, they aren't as good as you but, they are capable."

"How do you know they aren't as good as me?"

She laughed lightly and shrugged. He decided he didn't really care. "I want my gun back."

"Of course," she said, waving her hand as if it were inconsequential. "Tomorrow, we will head back to Borrego and take the land office. Murdoch's delay will have us there again a week before the next payroll. We will have more time to plan things out and now, we will have enough help."

Johnny gave her a sidelong look then turned and walked to the edge of the water. "You act like nothing had happened."

"I was very angry with your father for pulling such a stunt. But, I realized something." She stood and walked over to him. "You are wanted for murder and escaping jail now. You cannot go back to Lancer. Not ever."

His blood boiled as he listened to her smug voice, the victory she thought she had so clear in her tone. It hurt him more than he was prepared for. Why he was letting it affect him now was a mystery. But, she was so proud that she'd once again stripped him of his family and home. Johnny fought an internal struggle not to turn and ... do something he probably wouldn't regret. He just shook his head instead.

"Who did you kill?"

He looked over at her smiling at him and wanted to throw up. "No one important." That she so easily believed he was guilty was the other piece, he realized. The other part of why he felt his heart turn rock hard in that second. He also realized he may still be able to get her into Mexico, after all. He had to play along. He had to make her believe he knew he couldn't go back and, he had to be careful about it, too.

"We will rest here for a few hours then head out again. It will be light soon enough and someone will have discovered the sheriff."

Johnny sucked in a breath and said a quick prayer Gabe was really alright. He hadn't had the chance to check on the man. All he'd seen was Gabe lying on the floor, out cold. He lowered his head and just nodded, tensing when he felt her hand on his arm.

"In time you will come to understand this is how it must be, Johnny. How it always should have been. You are my son and you belong with me."

He turned to her, pulling his arm away. "I will never forgive you for any of it, Maria. I will never love you again."

*

Gabe groaned as he wrestled up onto one elbow, the other hand holding his head on his shoulders. Just as he was grappling with the corner of his desk, trying to get on his feet, the door opened.

Scott pulled up short for a second before rushing to the man's aid. "Easy now," he said softly and helped Gabe into his chair. "I'll get Sam."

Gabe waved a hand at him. "No, I'm alright. It was Johnny's mother and she had help with her. They knocked me out last night."

Scott ran into the back room already knowing what he'd find. He came back out, his face red with fury. "I'm still going to get Sam to take a look and let Murdoch know."

Gabe wasn't about to argue, he simply nodded and held his face in his hands, elbows on the desk top.

By the time Sam said Gabe would live, they had a small posse assembled. Gabe pushed his hat gently onto his head as he stepped out of his office, squinting as he looked up at Murdoch Lancer astride his horse.


"Are you sure you can do this, Gabe?"

"I'm sure," he grunted as he mounted up.

"Henry Wilkins said he saw them heading south out of town last night. They're about six hours ahead of us now," Scott reported.

"You sure, Scott? You know Henry ain't in the best shape that time of night."

"He was very sure, Gabe. Besides, it makes sense."

The sheriff nodded and turned to the south, heading out at a gallop without further conversation.

*

Johnny felt a little better with his gun strapped on. He didn't miss the curious looks he got from Maria's henchmen when he settled the rig low on his hips. He just smiled at them, hoping one of them called him 'cowboy' again.

She didn't seem to be in much of a hurry and he was curious about that but he wasn't about to question her. Seemed he'd given her enough sound advice as it was. Evidence was these men. He didn't know any of them but he knew they could all take care of themselves. That much was clear. More evidence of their ability came a few minutes later when one of them rode up alongside he and Maria when the road widened.

"Seems we should be goin a little faster, little lady. There's sure to be a posse after us by now."

She smiled coldly. "I know what I am doing, Senor. There is no need to worry about a posse."

"Why not?" Johnny asked before he could stop himself.

She shrugged. "It is simple. Murdoch will not let anyone come after you. A posse would shoot first and ask questions later. He will not take that risk with your life."

"Don't be so sure. Besides, what makes you think he could stop it?"

She sighed and gave him a pitiable look which made him feel like a fool, just like it always did. "Murdoch runs that valley. You know that."

Johnny pressed his lips together. There was no point in arguing with her. Besides, he wasn't so sure he didn't want his father to catch them up. He'd been thinking all morning about his idea of getting her to Mexico. It would have worked last time but now, with these men backing her, he wasn't so sure he could pull it off. Of course, according to her, he could do anything as long as a gun was involved. He almost snorted aloud at the thought.

"You should be thinking about Borrego and how best to rob the land office while we ride, hijo."

*

"Six horses, not going too fast," Mike reported as he stood back up from his tracking.

"Wonder why they're not in a bigger hurry?" Gabe asked.

"Maybe Johnny convinced her to go slow somehow," Scott opined. The look Gabe gave him told Scott he wasn't impressed with that answer. "I hope you know Johnny had nothing to do with this. I'm sure, with four gunmen with her, she forced him to go."

"I don't know anything for sure, Scott, but that's not what's bothering me. I know Johnny wouldn't put up a fight with you and Murdoch here. It's the others I worry about. Just to be clear, these men are putting their lives on the line," he paused and nodded toward the rest of the posse, eight in all, "and I can't ask them to not defend themselves."

Murdoch nosed his horse up between the two men. "Johnny will go to cover but I would appreciate it if all of you realize my son did not go with these people willingly. It's a very long and sorry story, men but, please believe me. Johnny isn't doing this of his own free will."

He looked around as they all nodded their understanding, each of them knowing Johnny Lancer and his character.  

"Well, if they keep this up, we should catch up by afternoon," Mike said.

*

Johnny leaned against a tree and shook his head at her as she sat by the water. She'd decided they needed an afternoon break so here they sat, in a clearing by the river, plain as day. Might as well paint targets on their backs. He could tell these men weren't feeling very relaxed either. In fact, two of them were in a serious conversation and the other two were keeping a close eye on the trail behind them.

She stood up then and walked slowly to him, ignoring the others. "It is a beautiful day, si?"

Johnny looked up at the sky and sighed. "Yep, nice day to die."

"Do not talk that way, niño. No one is going to die. Everything is falling into place, finally."

"Stop calling me niño or hijo or anything else."

She scowled at him. "That again? Is it so hard to accept, Johnny?"

His eyes darkened with sadness. "It's the hardest thing I've ever had to know, woman. The worst part is what you've done to my family. Bad enough you left me hanging in the wind."

"It is the past! Leave it there!"

He pushed off the tree, his hands curling into fists. "I would if you'd stay out of my face!" Just then, his head jerked and he stared down the road. Within two seconds, he grabbed her and threw her into some bushes nearby as he hit the dirt and rolled that way himself.

*

Maria's men had all heard it, too, and were heading for the nearest cover when the first report was heard.  

Johnny's gun was in his hand as he came up to a crouching position. He scanned the area and saw Maria's men firing down the road. Johnny took aim and fired, sending one gunmen's pistol flying from his hand as the man clutched the wounded appendage to his chest.

"What are you doing?" She screamed as she grabbed his right arm.

Johnny turned to find her brandishing a pistol and scrambling to her feet. He rose, too, and jerked free. "I'm not gonna let them kill Murdoch and Scott!"

"They are our men, Johnny! They are fighting for us!"

"No, they're fighting for you, Maria, not me! Now, get out of my way!"

Face crimson with anger, she moved to stand between Johnny and her men. He pushed her away and fired again, hitting another man in the arm. He saw a third one go down from the posse's bullet and he didn't move again.

Maria watched the two wounded men take off running toward them and knew they were seeking refuge. She saw movement to her left and turned to see the posse drawing down on them. With clarity, she realized Johnny was in the crossfire. A man with a rifle was following the men's progress and her heart nearly stopped. She flung herself in front of her son just as Johnny took one gunman down himself, the other diving for cover in some bushes behind them.

He felt her fall against him, clutching at his shirt. Angry, he grabbed her arm to push her away but her knees buckled and he dropped his gun as he reached out to catch her.

Cradling her in his left arm, Johnny eased Maria to the ground. He looked back up as the posse bore down, the last two henchmen surrendering then, he turned back to her. "Why?" he whispered.

She hitched a breath, blinking rapidly as she looked up at his face. A soft smile came to her trembling lips. "Because, I love you." She closed her eyes and her head lolled.

Johnny pulled her closer, bowing his head low over her, not understanding this woman at all.

"Johnny?" Murdoch knelt down beside them. "Is she?"

He shook his head. "No, she needs a doctor. She saved my life, Murdoch. She jumped in front of me. I would've caught that bullet if she hadn't."

*

Murdoch stared out the large picture window behind his desk, deep in thought when he heard the front door close. He quickly turned his chair to face the room, hopeful his son had returned.

Scott walked in and slowed his gait when he saw the expression then, he gave a little smile. "Sorry, it's just me."

"Always glad to see you, son," Murdoch muttered.

Raising a brow, Scott continued on to the desk, sitting in one of the chairs across from his father. "Yes, I can tell. Please, try to control your enthusiasm, Sir."

Murdoch shot him an annoyed look to which Scott gave a smile of understanding.

"Jose went into town today. He said the judge is expected in two days time. I thought we should go tomorrow and see Johnny."

Scowling now, Murdoch leaned forward and planted his forearms on the desk top. "Why? So he can close the door in our faces again?"

Scott grimaced at that. "He was upset. He didn't want to hear logic at that moment. His mother had just been shot. No matter how we think, Johnny is struggling."

"What I don't understand is why there's anything to struggle with!" He stood and rounded the desk, heading for the liquor table. As he poured two glasses, he went on. "He was just as anxious to get rid of her as we were. He was, in fact, adamant. Now, all the sudden, he wants to be with her?"

Scott accepted the glass as he'd moved to join his father. "Perhaps, if she'd saved your life, you might have a different perspective."

Murdoch rounded on him, anger marring his face. "I am grateful Johnny was saved, Scott. I hate the fact it was her who did it but that doesn't matter. It also doesn't erase everything else. If not for that woman, he wouldn't have had to be saved in the first place!"

Swallowing his sip of whiskey, Scott nodded. "Which is exactly what Johnny is struggling with, I'm sure."

*

Johnny leaned over and laid the cloth on her forehead again then settled back. The days had passed one into the other and he had hardly left her side other than to eat. She didn't seem to be getting any better even though, Sam said she was healing well. She still complained of a lot of pain and said she felt feverish though there was no outward indication. He knew, of course, what she was trying to do. He also knew it wouldn't work.

When the judge arrived, she would stand before him. The fact she was here at Sam's instead of in a jail cell was only due to her constant insistence she was so ill. Still, Judge Mills wouldn't care as long as Sam said she could appear. And, he knew Sam would say just that. Because, Sam didn't lie - ever.

He didn't want the man to lie, either. He wasn't really sure what he wanted now. He owed her his life. Again. A small, bitter smile crossed his face. She'd given him life, dragged him through hell, left him to fend for himself then returned only to drag him back toward that same hell again. Then, as if in an act of last minute contrition, she'd saved him from a bullet that would have taken him in the gut.

Oh, yeah. He'd had plenty of time to think about that, too. Where she'd been hit in the back, the angle she'd been standing when she'd been shot. It all added up to placing that bullet near center of his own gut had she not stepped in. She didn't know that, of course, but Johnny did.  

They hadn't talked much. Just the usual do you need anything type stuff. Nothing of importance. He didn't have any words for her and shouldn't that tell him something? She had said nothing, either and he wondered about that. She hadn't begged him to help her. Hadn't threatened him to get him to help her. She just said she hurt and felt sick and asked for pain medicine and silly things. Things like rose water and makeup of all things. He shook his head. She could never let herself be seen without being made up. He didn't know how she'd survived in prison without her rouge. He snorted softly at that thought. Same way she'll survive this time, he supposed.

He reckoned he ought to be worrying about his own hide. He'd only seen Gabe once and winced at the memory of that bandage around the sheriff's head. Sam said it was a fairly good concussion but Gabe was better now, so he'd been told. What the sheriff hadn't said was if any charges would be brought against him. He hadn't wanted to know then. He still didn't think he wanted to know. Just surprise me, he quirkily thought.

What bothered him more than any of this was his father and brother hadn't been back. He knew he'd slammed the door in their faces but, that was the first night when he wasn't sure she'd live. Why hadn't they come back? Were they that angry with him? He supposed so and wasn't sure he could blame them. She'd put them all through the wringer. They'd never understand why he didn't want to hear them accuse her, curse her, when she lay near death.

His head came up as the door opened and Sam walked in quietly.

"She's still sleeping."

Sam smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Murdoch and Scott would like to see you in the other room."

Surprised wasn't the word for it. He looked back at her then at Sam, uncertainty clear on his face.

"I'll stay with her. Besides, there's a guard outside. She's not going anywhere."

*

Johnny took a deep breath before walking into the room to face his family. Murdoch's eyes fell on him immediately, Scott was looking out the window. "Hey."

"Son, how are you?"

"Okay, I guess."

Murdoch nodded, lips pressed together, his entire body strung tight.

Scott walked over to his brother and gave his arm a squeeze. "How's Maria?"

Johnny gave a half-smile. "Sam says she's healing but she acts like she's taking her last breath. I guess she figures being here is better than being in a cell."

"The judge will be here day after tomorrow."

"I know," he sighed out then paced around the room. "She'll have to go then."

"We talked to Gabe before coming over here, Johnny. He says there are no charges against you since you were basically kidnapped."

Johnny looked at his father blankly then his eyes shone a little. He decided to keep his mouth shut, though. Murdoch didn't look in the mood for teasing so he just walked over to his father. "I'm sorry about the other day. I just couldn't deal with it."

Murdoch nodded then tried to relax a little. "Son, I understand you feel an obligation toward your mother. I just didn't want you to think it was over. You need to face ..."

"I know what's going to happen, Murdoch. I know she's going back to prison. That's what I wanted, right? It's just not so easy anymore. She saved my life."

Exasperation overruled Murdoch's senses. "If it weren't for her, your life wouldn't have needed saving. Can't you understand that?!"

Scott walked over to them, ready to intervene.

"Yes, I understand that! I'm not stupid, ya know. That still doesn't make this any easier. She hasn't tried to talk me into helping her get away. She hasn't talked to me at all!" He stopped and took a breath. "I don't understand her and I don't understand myself right now. All I know is I probably wouldn't be here if she hadn't jumped in front of me like that. Why did she do that?!"

Murdoch looked into his son's tormented eyes. Johnny looked ... shattered. It suddenly hit him. He'd been such a fool! Why hadn't he seen this? Of course, Johnny was tormented. This was his mother! Right, wrong or indifferent as she was, this was his mother and ... and he loved her. Murdoch closed his eyes briefly then reached out, taking a firm hold of Johnny's biceps. "Because, it was instinct. In a fraction of a second, her instinct finally kicked in. Maybe ... maybe she really did believe she had every right to expect you to take care of her. To do as she told you because you're her son. But, when your life was in immediate danger, she reacted."

Scott, standing behind Johnny, rolled his eyes at this explanation. He knew what Murdoch was doing and maybe, the old man even believed it. What mattered was that Johnny believe it. Still, Scott thought this was pushing things a bit.

*

The room was quiet for a moment as Johnny looked into his father's eyes then, he stepped away from the hold on him and shook his head. "Are you crazy? Since when did I ever come first with her?"

Murdoch was stunned. He threw his hands in the air and turned away.

Scott chewed his lip a moment then decided to take the risk. "May I interject a theory?"

Both men turned to him and waited.

"Well, she may have realized there was no escape especially, since Johnny was taking our side. When she saw that Johnny was about to be shot, she figured if she took the bullet, she could get sympathy from the courts." He finished with a shrug.

Johnny and Murdoch looked at each other then back at Scott.

"That makes more sense, brother, but it was a hell of a risk."

"Depends on which you think is worse. A bullet or prison."

"She's never been shot that I know of. If she had, she'd known which was worse and I'd be laying in there or in a pine box." Johnny's lips lifted briefly before he bowed his head. "That still doesn't make it any easier. She still saved me and, when I asked her why out there, she said because she loved me. She'd just been shot. I don't think even Maria can think that fast."

"Maybe, she does love you, Johnny. Maybe, she just doesn't know how to show it, never knew how to show it."

Johnny glanced at his brother and shrugged. "She told me before most people wouldn't understand her kind of love or even think of it as love. She was right about that."

"Son, the point is, how are you going to deal with it when they send her away? You know that's what will happen."

He shook his head and sighed. "Not the same way I dealt with it last time, for sure. It's gonna be hard, Murdoch, I can't lie about that. I know the way I acted before, how I wanted to get her out of my life makes it seem like I ... I never cared about her."

"No, son. We understood that."

"I don't think you did because I don't. As willing as I was to take her back to Mexico and drop her at the feet of the rurales, I was dreading it. I hated it. I just knew it was the only way I'd have any kind of peace about her."

Murdoch went to his son again and hoped he'd do a better job of it this go around. He laid a hand on Johnny's shoulder, light and easy. "I wish I could make this better for you, son, I just don't know how."

"I wish she'd been the woman you thought she was all those years ago but, she wasn't and she's just not capable of it. That's what I have to get through my head and make stick. I keep ... hoping, I guess, that she'll change or something."

The door opened then and Sam stood there, looking apologetically at them. "I'm sorry to interrupt but, Maria is asking for you, Murdoch."

"Me? Are you sure, Sam?"

"Yes, I'm sure I can understand when a woman says 'I'd like to see Murdoch'."

*

He stood at the foot of the bed staring at her without expression.

"Please, sit down," she said and waved a hand toward the chair.

Inhaling deeply, he did so, his hands clasped tightly in his lap. He stared at her for a moment, sitting up in the bed, her long raven hair spilling over her shoulders. It was ridiculous that she looked so beautiful still. With satisfaction, he realized it had no effect on him. "What do you want?"

She gave a soft, breathy laugh. "To be free. To stay out of prison. To not have my son hate me."

"One out of three, Maria. Johnny doesn't hate you. He isn't capable of it."

She gave him a wary look. "He's not happy with me."

"Can you blame him?"

"I suppose not. I went about things all wrong but I didn't think he would willingly go with me now. I'm sure you told him how I lied to him."

Murdoch dropped his eyes and shook his head sadly. "He knows the truth. If he didn't, I'm not so sure I'd be alive today. What amazes me more than anything is that boy's heart and how big it is. How he managed to not only survive in that world but rise above it. How he learned to care about people or see the good in anyone, is beyond me."

"It is beyond me, too. He certainly didn't get that from me. All he could think about when we were together was you and that easterner. All he wanted was to make sure you were both safe." She made a 'pfft' sound.

"He has a name, you know," Murdoch shot.

"How could I forget?! All I heard was Scott this and Scott that from the time we married! Are you sure you even want Johnny? You have your perfectly bred and educated, blond-haired, blue-eyed son! What more could a man ask for?"

Murdoch wasn't sure why he was so surprised by the venom, but he was. "A man could ask that his wife not steal away in the night with another man and take his son from him. A son, as you very well know, Maria, I adored!" He leaned toward her a little. "If you wanted to leave, I wouldn't have tried to stop you. But, taking Johnny away from the love and security he had into that hell is unconscionable!"

Fire shot from her dark eyes. "Do you think I would ever leave him with you?! I would never allow you to win like that!"

He sat back, his mouth hanging open a second. In a whisper of a voice he started. "Win? Win?! It wasn't a game and Johnny was not the prize!"

"Oh, but he was, Murdoch. Of course I know how much you adored him. I saw it every day!" She raised up and glared at him. "I would never give you what you wanted most. Johnny and that other one! Even after I left, I thought you might still get him back if they saw you could care for a younger child without his mother. How stupid do you think I am?"

Murdoch stood so quickly, the chair toppled and clattered on the wood floor. "Oh, you aren't stupid, Maria. You are evil, though. Scott was trying to convince Johnny you cared for him in your own way. Now, I see how very wrong he was about that. You did get yourself shot so you could avoid jail, didn't you?"

She smiled at him. A slow building smile and her eyes danced with delight. "See? You did get that perfect son. So smart! So capable! Why couldn't I have Johnny? He could have taken care of me! No one would have dared cross me with him at my side."

"All you cared about was his talent with a gun. He's a human being, for God's sake! He's your son!"

She rolled her eyes and looked at him as if he were a simpleton. "Madre de Dios! Perhaps you are the stupid one. I married you because I was pregnant. I never wanted children. Not ones I would have to raise myself! He should have had a wet-nurse and a nanny. You have no idea who I am, do you?"

*

"I do. The devil's bitch." Johnny stood just inside the doorway, Scott at his side. He stepped closer, both of them staring at him; one with remorse, one with no emotion.

"How much did you hear, son?" Murdoch asked and he knew, looking at Scott's face, before Johnny ever answered.

"Every word." There was nothing there. No emotion, not even anger, in Johnny's tone or face. He moved past his father, his eyes locked onto her, and grabbed the downed chair. Setting it right and sitting down, he leaned in close to her.

"I was actually feeling sorry for you. I was actually grateful to you for taking that bullet for me. Now, I see just how cold and soulless you are. I get that some women just don't want kids. I get they don't have it in them to be mothers. Usually, they try not to get themselves knocked up. But, you did it on purpose. You wanted to make sure Murdoch married you only, you were wrong in thinking he'd treat you like some queen who never had to raise a finger; never had to bother with the kid once it popped out. It's too bad you were so jealous of a boy you didn't even know and a dead woman who was more mother to him for the second of life she breathed after he was born than you could ever manage. If you'd stuck it out, pretended a little longer, you might have been able to work the old man. Hell, you could have just threatened to take me away. That woulda kept him in line. But, as usual, you didn't think things through. You really are a lousy outlaw.

"You're still a young woman and you might make it through another stint in prison so, I need to tell you some things. I think you knew out there on the trail that, no matter what I said, I still had some feeling for you. I still held out some hope you were human. You worked that every chance you got and, it might've panned out for you if there'd been more time. I don't know about that. But, I want you to look at me really hard, Maria. I want you to look into my eyes right now and I want you to listen closely." He stopped and waited to make sure she was hanging on every word.

"If you get out again, don't come near Lancer. Don't come near me or my family because all that's dead now. As dead as you'll be if I ever see you again. No warnings, no face to face. The second I see you again, I'll put a bullet in you and call it trespassing. Do you believe me?"

She stared at him, mouth hanging open as she looked into his eyes and saw absolutely nothing but ice. Her voice was gone, her body trembling in fear. The exhilaration she'd felt when he first started speaking, first looked at her with that deadly glare was gone in the face of his threat. She nodded her head. Yes, she believed him.

Once she'd nodded, Johnny stood up, turned and walked quietly out of the room and Sam's house.

*

Maria's eyes rolled back in her head and she slumped onto her pillows. Murdoch and Scott looked at each other then walked out, stopping in the front room to take a breath.

After what seemed hours of silence but, in reality, was only seconds, Scott spoke in a soft voice. "I've never seen anything like that before in my life."

"Neither have I."

"Should we go after him?"

Murdoch looked at him as if he were crazy. "Absolutely not. We'll go home and hope he shows up there eventually."

"I don't know, Murdoch. He was so..."

"Scott, I couldn't begin to guess what's going through your brother's mind right now. All I know for sure is no one should be around him. Now, let's go home."

"Are you alright?" Scott noted his father's hands trembling, his color a bit pale and he put a hand on the bigger man's arm.

Sighing, Murdoch wiped his other hand down his face. "No, I'm not alright. That was ... that was not my son. That wasn't my Johnny. I don't know ..."

"Madrid."

"No, Scott. Not even Madrid. That was ... worse."

Scott squeezed his father's arm harder. "He would never hurt us."

Murdoch nodded slightly, not completely convinced at the moment. "I think that was who he would have been if she hadn't gone to prison the first time."

Hand falling from Murdoch's arm, Scott allowed this to sink and, slowly, he nodded. "Yes, I think you're right. We should go home. You were right about that as well."

*

Scott and Murdoch walked into the great room morosely. Both had their heads down, weary and more worried than either had ever been for the youngest Lancer.

"You two are a sorry sight."

They jerked their heads up, mouths falling open at the sight of Johnny lounging in a chair, drink in hand, feet stretched out.

"I didn't think we'd be seeing you tonight, son." Murdoch walked over slowly, trying with everything in him to stay calm as he settled on the sofa.

Johnny shrugged and took a drink. "Done runnin, old man. Unless you're gonna toss me out now."

"Why would I?"

He grinned but it wasn't pleasant. "All this time you thought you'd already seen Madrid. Seen him in action but you never had, not really. Well, now you've seen him. Tell me, what'ya think?" He drained the glass after his question then stood and walked to the sideboard. He didn't stop pouring until the glass was full to near overflowing.

"Wouldn't it be easier to just drink from the bottle?" Scott asked as he took a seat in the chair next to Johnny's.

"Call it a last attempt at civility. You didn't answer the question."

Murdoch sighed heavily and loudly as he leaned forward, elbows on knees and ran a hand down his face. "You scared me in all honesty. I've never seen you so cold. I didn't think that was Madrid but, I suppose you're right. I never really had seen him before."

"It was a sight to behold, brother. I'm with Murdoch. I was shocked. I thought she'd pushed you beyond the edge."

Johnny stared into his glass, nodding lightly. "She did. Thanks for being so honest with me." He looked up at his father with eyes so familiar, so needing, so afraid, it took Murdoch's breath away. "Do you want me to leave?"

"No. Do you want to stay?"

He smiled a little. "Yes."

"Decision made." Scott chimed in. "I'm going to bed, gentlemen."

"Wait a minute, Scott. We need to get this out. I scared you both today and I need to know if that's gonna hang over us."

Scott settled back in his chair and frowned in thought. He glanced at Murdoch who looked in no hurry to speak. "I'd say it will be hard to forget, Johnny. I never thought you capable of something like that. But, I also know how kind and compassionate you are on a daily basis. I think this was an extreme moment in your life and you had to face some ugly truths."

"I'd rather talk about that, son. I don't want you to bury this. It had to hurt to hear your mother talk like that," Murdoch said softly.

Johnny dropped his eyes. "Well, my latest idea is that she sold her soul to the devil and got screwed in the deal. But, if I had to think about it too much, I'd probably lose my mind. Sometimes, Murdoch, it's better not to dwell on things."

"This isn't some fly-by-night love interest you had, Johnny. We're talking about your mother here. You can't just squash this!"

Scott tensed and leaned forward a little, positioning himself to react to whatever may happen.

"What do you want me to do, old man? Want me to cry? Shoot someone? I can't change any of it. I can't make her be what I want her to be. She's dead to me now."

Murdoch gawked at the calm persona before him and wondered if this was that small part of Madrid Johnny sometimes allowed them to see.

Johnny shook his head and sighed. "You're the one who said the past is the past. You can't pick and choose, old man. I really liked the way you got around her assuming it was you who told me anything. That was real slick. But, you can't have it both ways. If you're trying to make me mad, that won't work, either. I'm too tired."

Scott studied his brother's face and saw the lines of weariness and pain. Johnny *was* hurting but he was also refusing to acknowledge it to himself. "I think it may be prudent for all of us to get some rest. You can't have gotten much lately, brother. This really is too much to resolve in one night."

Johnny set his glass down and stood. "Sounds best to me, brother. I'm tuckered." He took a couple of steps as Murdoch came to his feet as well then stopped when the man stepped in front of him.

"We're all tired, I suppose but, I just wanted to say I'm glad you came home tonight."

Johnny looked up at him, puzzlement on his face. "You sure about that? Might want to think on it some more. Goodnight." He moved around his father and headed up the stairs.

*

Murdoch had thought of nothing else but his son during his long, sleepless night. Now, as he sat drinking his fourth cup of coffee, he found he still had no answers. Still didn't know how to help Johnny. Still could not fathom Maria's actions or words. And, he still knew Johnny could not bury this and go on with his life without serious consequences. He just didn't know how those consequences would manifest.

He jumped a little as Maria clanged around the stove, making more noise than usual. He knew she was angry, too, but he couldn't give her answers he didn't have. With a grunting sigh, he picked up the coffee pot and refilled his cup.

"You will have no room for food in your stomach if you keep drinking so much cafe, Senor."

"I'm not sure my stomach is up to food anyway, Maria."

She walked over and sat beside him, her hands folded on the table top. "You may think it none of my business, Patron, but I worry for Johnny."

"You should. He doesn't want to deal with what's happened." He looked at her then, knew how much she cared for his boys and him and tried to give her a smile. It didn't last, never really developed before the frown was back. "She said some things to me yesterday. Things that made my blood run cold. Things Johnny overheard."

Maria lowered her head and made the sign of the cross. "Did she say she did not want to be a mother?"

"How did you know?" he asked, genuine surprise on his face.

"I have always known, Patron. It was clear to anyone who would look. She did not want to be bothered. She only paid attention to him when you were around. When you were not, I took care of the niño."

Murdoch sat back in his chair, stunned then angry. "Why didn't you ever tell me?"

Sad brown eyes met his. "It was not like it is now. I was new to the hacienda and I was afraid to say anything. It was not my place."

He opened his mouth then shut it, realizing she was right. He wouldn't have believed her and would have told her to mind her own business - then. Now, she was very much a part of this family and he valued her opinion. "I suppose that's why Johnny feels so attached to you."

She smiled, love lighting her eyes. "And I him, Senor."

"What else didn't she do, Maria?"

"Does it matter now? You know the truth of her. You know she is soulless and selfish. Perhaps, she thought she loved you. Perhaps she did love you. I do not know. All I know is she did not want to work. If you will recall, Patron, she insisted you hire me." She raised a brow, challenging him to remember that situation.

Murdoch drew his brows together in thought, taking himself back to that time and he did remember. She'd been adamant that she couldn't care for Johnny and the house. It was too much. He had agreed, the house was probably too much for one woman. Still, he hadn't been thrilled with the idea of a full time housekeeper but, she'd cajoled him into it. Seemed to him, she cajoled him into a lot of things. Maybe, if he'd been more firm. No, she would have left much sooner, he was sure. He sighed loudly and shook his head.

Maria's sympathy for this man was an almost tangible thing but she knew her words would bring no comfort. She patted his hand and took to her feet. "I must finish breakfast. The niños will be down soon and hungry."

*

As he waited for his 'niños', fighting a smile from the image that word evoked, Murdoch admitted to himself for maybe the first time that his second wife was the biggest mistake he'd made. He would never be sorry for it because he'd gained Johnny from the union, as brief as their time together so far had been. But, he had a son from it and that was worth the pain and torment he'd endured. He just wasn't sure it was worth his son's pain and torment.

Scott half-stumbled into the room at that moment and Murdoch raised a brow at his disheveled appearance, so out of character. "Are you alright?"

"Peachy," he quipped as he fell into his chair. "I overslept and hurried to get to the table. Sorry." He said all this as he was pouring the coffee and had it to his lips by the last word.

"It's fine, son. Did you sleep at all?"

"About an hour or so which, I would imagine, is more than you got."

"It is. Did you hear Johnny moving around?"

Scott shook his head as he swallowed. "No. I didn't want to check in case he managed to sleep. I thought we could just let him be."

Murdoch nodded his head and was about to comment when his second born walked into the room, clean-shaven and dressed, eyes bright and clear. Suddenly, he felt envious.

Johnny took his seat and grabbed the coffee pot. "You two look like hell."

"Why don't you?" Scott scowled.

Shrugging, the younger man sipped his coffee. "Some reason I should?"

Scott sighed and sat back. "Right, you always sleep well. I'd forgotten."

Johnny just looked blankly at him before focusing back on the cup in his hand. "You want me to check that creek, Murdoch? We talked about it ..." he stopped and frowned, "sometime or other."

"It's been handled, son."

Johnny looked over at him and nodded. "Sure, so what's on for today?"

Murdoch studied him a few seconds before answering. "I thought you might want to take it easy today. You can't have had much rest this past week."

"I don't need to take it easy, old man. I'll check with Cipriano, then." He stood and started toward the living room.

"Don't take it out on Murdoch, Johnny."

He stopped and turned to his brother. "I'm not."

Scott leaned forward in his chair. "Sounds like it to me. He's trying to help you."

"Didn't ask for his help or yours. I just want to go to work. Is that alright?"

"Son, sit down and eat some breakfast. You can't work well on an empty stomach. We'll talk about what needs doing today."

Johnny hesitated a few seconds then walked back to the table. It was quiet for a moment. "Look, I just want to have a normal day."

Scott watched his father and could see the anguish on the man's face, no matter how hard Murdoch tried to hide it. "I understand, son. I need you to check the fence line out by Gravel Switch Road."

Maria walked over and set a platter of huevos rancheros directly in front of Johnny. She put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing lightly then letting her hand slide down his back before turning away.

Johnny closed his eyes at the touch, trying hard not to tense up. He helped himself to the platter and said nothing more the rest of the meal.

*

Murdoch tapped his fork against the tables surface in some sort of rhythm. His eyes were glued toward the front room, moving to catch the time on the Grandfather clock on occasion. Finally, at six thirty, he laid his fork down and repositioned in his seat. "Let's just eat."

Scott was so transfixed on the tapping fork, when it stopped, he was a bit surprised. Murdoch's brusque announcement, however, came as no surprise. Remaining as silent as he'd been the half hour they'd been sitting there, Scott reached over and started filling his plate.

Murdoch gave up on eating after another ten minutes and excused himself from the table, heading outside. He didn't stop there, he went straight to the bunkhouse. He knocked once then walked inside. Every man there stood when they saw the rancher. Murdoch gave them a nod then walked over to Walt.

"Have you seen Johnny?"

"Yes, Sir. We worked together today."

"Well, where is he?" Murdoch fairly shouted.

The young hand took a half step back before squaring his shoulders. "He was still out there. He said for me to come on back in. Said he wanted to work a while longer."

"A while," Murdoch mumbled in frustration. Seeing how his behavior was affecting the men, he forced himself to calm down. "I'm sorry, Walt. I shouldn't have yelled at you. How did he seem?"

The cowboy relaxed a little then shook his head, his eyes sad. "Real quiet and working real hard. Johnny usually jokes with us when we're workin. At least talks but, today, he didn't want to be bothered, that was clear. Bout took my head off when I asked if he was okay." Like you just did, Walt thought but didn't dare say.

Murdoch sighed and nodded then forced a small smile. "Alright, thank you, Walt. And, again, I'm sorry I was ... well, go back to what you were doing, men." He turned and walked out, heading for the barn. If Johnny thought he could simply avoid them, he was wrong. Murdoch was determined the boy not have to deal with this alone. How he could help his son, he didn't really know. But, he at least needed to be with Johnny.

He saddled his horse quickly and led it into the yard. He saw Scott walking over.

"Where are you going?"

"After Johnny. Walt said he stayed out to work. I'm bringing him home."

Scott raised a brow. "And if he doesn't want to come?"

"Then, I'll stay with him."

Lowering his head, Scott sighed softly. "Sir, sometimes ..."

"Don't say it, Scott. Sometimes a man needs to be alone. Well, Johnny has been alone most of his life because of that woman's outrageous behavior. No more, Scott. No more." Murdoch mounted his big bay and settled the horse. "If I miss him, sit on him."

Scott didn't get a chance to respond. Murdoch wouldn't have liked his answer, anyway. He wasn't about to sit on his brother or make him do anything Johnny didn't want to do. That had been part of the problem all along. People making Johnny do things he didn't want to do, taking all his choices away from him with lies. Scott walked back inside, his heart heavy with worry over his brother.

*

Johnny stared at the table top, his hand cupped around the shot glass. Why he thought it was a good idea to come to town, he couldn't imagine now. He didn't want to be around anyone, especially his family. He couldn't stand the thought of sitting at the supper table and the silence, all of them too afraid to say anything. Maybe, too afraid of him. He closed his eyes and sighed. He'd always known it was inside him. But, it always had come like this. A moment in time when he went somewhere and this other person showed up. He'd been wrong when he told Murdoch it was Madrid because he had no idea who that person was. Normally, Madrid was just like Lancer only harder-edged. This ... thing was more like the devil incarnate. In those moments, he felt nothing at all. No anger, no pain, no fear, not one thing.

He was aware of someone watching him and his eyes came up, scanning the saloon until they settled on the barkeep. The man smiled at him but Johnny only stared until he looked away. He knew Jack was only concerned but he didn't want anyone concerned for him. He raised the glass to his lips then threw it back, immediately refilling. Half a bottle of Cuervo and he still wasn't drunk. Damn!

Johnny sighed and tossed the next shot back then slammed the glass on the table. He stood and grabbed his hat, settling it square on his head. He took one step before he was stopped by a gunshot and an excited Tim Preston flying through the door.

"Someone shot the sheriff!" the boy announced.

Immediately, the kid was set upon by the patrons of the saloon. Johnny's heart skipped a beat as he shouldered his way through and shouted over the din to shut up and let the boy talk. He grabbed Tim's shoulders and shook him. "Where?"

"At Doc's. Somebody is tryin to break that lady out. Doc's locked the door and barricaded hisself inside!"

Johnny cussed and took off out the door. He heard Tim yelling at him to be careful, that the man was a gunfighter. Johnny smirked at that. What the hell did they think he was, some rube? He ran down the street and flung himself against the side of the hotel. Slowly, he looked around the corner and saw the man trying to break through the front door. "I'll be damned! Guess she had a back up plan after all," he muttered. Then, he saw Gabe lying on the porch and his blood boiled. He couldn't tell if the man was alive.

Johnny leaned back and knew he didn't have any time to work his way around. It looked like Manny was close to breaking that door down. Must not know the house or he'd try the back. Manny Ortega. Johnny hadn't seen the man since he was a kid but, he'd recognize him anywhere. When did Maria hook back up with him? It didn't matter. All that mattered was making sure Sam didn't get hurt. The very thought of that happening made the decision for Johnny. That, and the fact he was so sick of her, he could spit.

He stepped onto the street and started walking at a normal stride toward Sam's house.

*

Murdoch's eyes found Barranca right off and right where he figured. Johnny was at the saloon. Well, son, getting drunk isn't going to solve a thing, he thought as he dismounted. He patted Barranca's neck as he rounded the palomino then walked inside to chaos.

"Murdoch, thank God! You gotta help Johnny!"

"Help him what, Jack? What's going on?"

"Some gunfighter shot Gabe and is tryin to break that woman out of Sam's house. Sam's barricaded the door and Johnny went down there."

Murdoch drew his gun and started out the door when he asked, "how long ago?"

His answer came in the form of gunfire. Murdoch took off out the door. When he turned the corner at the hotel, he came to a sudden stop, mesmerized by the sight before him. His eyes took in Gabe who was struggling to sit up then leaning against the railing of the porch, taking in the scene as well.

*

" Manny!"

Ortega stopped kicking the door, cussing as he knew one more good kick would gain him entry. He eyes skimmed over Gabe as he turned to see who was calling to him. He squinted in the dimming light, his gun raised at his side. "Who is that?"

"Johnny Madrid, Manny. Remember?"

Ortega's gun leveled at the man walking slowly toward him and he stepped off the porch. "I have heard of you but I do not think we have ever met."

Johnny stopped and smiled coldly. "Well, we have. I'm Maria's kid." He hated admitting that to anyone anymore. A scene flashed through his mind of his father introducing him to Joe Barker. 'Maria's boy', he'd called him.

Ortega's eyes widened then he started laughing hard. "Maria's boy became Johnny Madrid? If I had known, I would have found you long ago, amigo. So, you have come to help me get your poor mother out of here? Bueno!"

Johnny shook his head slowly back and forth. "No, Manny. I put her here. I ain't interested in gettin her out. The only place she's going is prison. You? Well, that depends on you. I'm givin you a choice. Jail or Hell. You choose."

Manny looked hard at him and saw he wasn't joking. "You are sending your own mother to prison? Why, Madrid?"

"That don't matter. What matters is, you shot the sheriff and he's a friend of mine. You're gonna have to pay for that."

Manny smiled but it did nothing to improve his craggy, pock-marked face. "I do not think so."

Johnny was still a good distance from him when he felt the heat of a bullet fly past his own leg. He cocked his gun and fired at the man, seeing him jerk to the left as the bullet found a home in Ortega's left arm. Johnny closed himself off to everything except the man before him and cocked his gun again. He began slowly walking toward Manny and fired, disregarding the danger he'd placed himself in. He felt the dirt skip over his right boot as Manny's bullet drilled into the ground and still, he kept walking and firing.

Ortega's eyes were wide with shock, unable to believe what he was seeing. Madrid seemed oblivious to the precarious situation he'd placed himself in and just kept coming. No one had ever been so bold with him before. It unnerved him and he felt the sweat pop out on his upper lip. He cocked his gun again, knowing his hand was shaking yet unable to control it. Panic welled up inside him, his heart thundering and threatening to burst from his chest. He took a step back and fired again, emptying his gun, then swallowing dryly.

Johnny's hat flew off his head as the last projectile became one with it yet, he didn't jerk, didn't dive for cover, never faltered his step as he continued to walk and fire, walk and fire and watch Ortega's body jerk each time he found his mark.

Finally, he stopped when he was ten feet from Manny, now on the ground with four bullets in him. Johnny stood over the man, lying on his side and curled up, trying to hold every place that hurt. Slowly, he cocked his gun again and aimed it at the man's head.

"Por favor, no mas, Madrid. No mas!" Ortega was shaking all over, shielding his face with one blood covered hand then, he started whimpering.

Murdoch had been slowly making his way down the boardwalk, unwilling to divert Johnny's attention or find himself facing his son's gun. Now, as he watched Johnny trying to make the decision, he knew he had to intervene. Softly, he called out, "Johnny," and saw his son's shoulders tense.

Johnny kicked Manny's gun away then released the hammer of his Colt, sliding it back into the holster. "You have no idea how lucky you are, Ortega."

*

Murdoch sighed his relief then hurried over to Gabe, checking the man.

"I'm okay, I think. Shoulder wound," the sheriff ground out.

Murdoch nodded then went to the door, pounding on it and calling to Sam that it was safe to come out.

The doctor struggled with the nearly destroyed door before wrenching it open. "Murdoch, thank God. How's Gabe?" he asked even as he went to the man.

"Ain't bad, Doc," Gabe assured him as Sam helped him up and inside.

Once Murdoch was sure the two men were taken care of, he walked over to his son still standing over the wounded man. He stood just to Johnny's left side and examined his son carefully.

"I wasn't hit," Johnny said then turned and walked away. "Take care of him?" he threw over his shoulder as he headed inside Sam's.

Murdoch nodded then realized where Johnny was going. He looked at this Manny then back at the door. Well, he needed Sam, though why the man would help him, Murdoch didn't know. Well, yes, he did know. Because that's what Sam did. He sighed heavily and looked around as the townspeople started coming closer. "Someone give me a hand here!"

As two men carted Ortega into the doctor's office, Murdoch stood back a moment, unsure he should disturb Johnny. He knew his son was going to see Maria, he just wasn't sure why. What had him nearly on his knees right now was thinking of what he'd witnessed. Johnny walking seemingly so calmly toward a man who was shooting at him. Out in the open and totally exposed, his son had walked toward the gunman, firing with every other step he took. Murdoch shook his head and wiped a trembling hand over his face. God, please, let this be over soon!

*

Johnny sat in the chair beside her bed and smirked at her 'sleeping' form. He figured she wouldn't be able to stand it much longer and he was right. After a few more seconds, she started to 'wake up'. She put on quite a show of it. Johnny almost laughed but all he had to do was think of Gabe and the feeling passed quickly.

She blinked and yawned a little then, turned her head toward him. Feigning surprise, she raised up a little then, thought better of it.

"You really expect me to believe you slept through all this racket and gunfire?"

"Gunfire? What gunfire, hijo?"

Johnny snorted and shook his head. "Manny Ortega, huh? You're full of surprises, Maria. How'd you make that happen?"

She huffed and scooted up a little to lean against the headboard. "Did you kill him?"

"Not completely but he was beggin me to stop, cryin like a little girl."

She shivered at the wicked grin she received then lowered her eyes. "The judge is here. He will start the trial tomorrow."

"Yeah, try not to get too choked up about Manny. Poor slob. I'll be sure to let him know how many tears you shed over him if he lives."

"Johnny, please. You know I don't care." She looked up at him, her eyes wet with unshed tears. "Will you come to the trial?"

"Only when I have to. Save the tears for the judge, woman. Besides, I hear tell women's prisons here are a lot better than in Mexico. You might even like it." A smile spread over his face until he felt the sting of her slap. Johnny sighed and held himself in check somehow, but his fists were clenched as he glared at her. "Do that again and I'll break your neck."

"Johnny?"

He closed his eyes briefly before turning toward the doorway where Murdoch stood.

"Gabe wants to see you."

Johnny nodded then turned back. "No more tricks, Maria. Soon as Gabe gets patched up, I'm gonna have him move you to the jail. You're fit enough." He stood and looked down at her with nothing in his eyes or on his face then, turned and walked out.

Murdoch stepped aside for him then stood there glaring at her for a beat before joining his son.

*

Gabe was shucking into his shirt awkwardly when Johnny walked in. "Thanks for the save."

Johnny lowered his head and sighed. "Sure thing. You gonna be okay?"

"Yeah, Doc says it'll heal up fine. Won't keep me from workin. I can use a shotgun for a while."

"That's good, Gabe, cause I think it'd be best if you locked her up now."

Gabe didn't even try to button his shirt, he just tucked it in as best he could. "That's what I wanted to tell you. I'm taking her over tonight. Soon as she can get dressed."

"That'll be a battle. I can help you with that."

"I don't think so," Murdoch said as he walked in on the conversation. "I'll help her. That's not something you should be doing, son."

Johnny burst out laughing. He bent over at the waist and held his knees as he cackled. When he gathered himself and straightened, he saw both men looking at him warily. "Sorry, I just think it's funny you're worried about bein so proper with her."

Murdoch used every ounce of strength he had left to keep his self-control. "It's not her I'm worried about."

That comment effectively wiped the smile from Johnny's face and he turned his back. "Yeah, okay, but she ain't gonna like it. You're in for a fight."

"I think I can handle it, son. Why don't you go home? Scott's worried."

Johnny turned back and smiled a little. "That why you're here? Because Scott's worried?" The look he got from his father stopped him from saying another word. Johnny settled his hat on his head and looked to Gabe. "Sorry about all this. Let me know when you'll need me to testify." He didn't wait for an answer and left.

"How's the gunman?" Murdoch asked.

"Don't know yet. Sam's still ..." Gabe stopped when the doctor walked in.

"He didn't make it."

Neither of the men had anything to say to that. Murdoch inhaled deeply. "Well, I'll get Maria dressed. You may as well relax, Sheriff, and get a cup of coffee. This will take a while."

*

It turned out to be close to forty-five minutes and Gabe was just thinking of going in there when Murdoch walked out, dragging Maria by the arm. Gabe immediately saw the scratches on the rancher's neck and grimaced. Without a word, he walked over and slapped handcuffs on Maria then took her arm.

"Ma'am, I've had one helluva night and I'm not in the mood for your foolishness. You know there's no way you not gonna end up in a cell tonight so, let's make this as easy as possible."

Maria tossed her head, her hair flying about her shoulders, and jutted her chin out. She turned to Murdoch and sneered. "I hate you. I am so glad I kept Johnny from you. I only wish I'd had him killed when I went to prison!"

Gabe jerked her arm and propelled her to the door before Murdoch got a chance to do what the sheriff wouldn't blame him for doing. He wasn't sure Murdoch Lancer was capable of hitting a woman. He didn't think so but, he was taking no chances.

Murdoch fell back against the wall and hung his head, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Sam took it all in then walked over and laid a hand on his shoulder.

"What in the hell did I ever see in that woman?"

"Exactly what she wanted you to see, my friend. Come on, let's get some coffee," Sam said gently.

"No, I need to get home. I only pray that's where Johnny went."

"After I clean up those scratches. For all we know, she dug them into dirt somehow first just to ensure an infection." Sam hated being that petty but, this woman seemed to bring it out in him.

She'd been compliant up until today but, he figured that was so she could stay in a comfortable bed and be waited on. She'd played it to the hilt, he had to say, and he'd allowed it out of deference to Johnny. Now, he knew that was a waste of time. Johnny, rightly so, couldn't care less. Sam wondered how the young man would deal with all this. He sat his friend down and grabbed a cloth and medicine then started cleaning the wound. "I take it Johnny was the one who stopped that man."

Murdoch looked sideways at him since he couldn't move his head. "Yes."

Cocking a brow, Sam stopped and looked at him. "Yes? Just yes?"

Sighing from weariness, frustration and a deep-abiding pain for his son, Murdoch described the scene outside to Sam who looked a little pale by the end.

It took the doctor a few minutes to form his words. "That doesn't sound like Johnny."

"It isn't my Johnny. It's hers. It's Madrid. That's what she did to my boy, Sam."

The physician heard the quiver in his friend's voice and knew Murdoch was close to losing it. He squeezed the man's shoulder but he had no advice to offer and he felt like a failure.

*

Murdoch went to retrieve his horse and stopped short, surprised to see Barranca still tethered outside the saloon. Damn! he thought and headed inside. He found Johnny where he expected. At a back table with a bottle of tequila, his head down. He noticed some of the nearby tables had been rearranged, moved further away from Johnny's and wondered if he'd ordered it or the men there simply had brains.

He ordered a beer and settled across from his son. Johnny didn't show any sign he even noticed. Murdoch waited for his beer and took a long pull, sighing once he'd swallowed. "I thought you were going home."

"Just wanted to make sure Gabe didn't have any trouble." Johnny raised his head, his eyes narrowing. "I see you did."

Murdoch reached up and touched the scratches gingerly. "Yes, well, she wasn't happy about it."

Johnny snorted at that then took a shot.

Murdoch noted the bottle was nearly empty and marveled a little that Johnny had drunk that much in such a short amount of time.

"Jack saved it for me from before I put Manny down. He dead?"

Blinking a few times and wondering again at how Johnny did that - saw without looking, he answered slowly. &"Yes. Sam's taking care of it and Gabe already knows."

"Reckon there's nothin left to do then. Nothing except get drunk and I can't seem to get there."

"Did you eat?"

Johnny chuckled a little at that. "Nope." His eyes came up again, that teasing glint in them that Murdoch so adored. "Gonna snitch me out to my daddy?"

Murdoch sighed at the sarcasm and didn't answer what wasn't a question. "Let's go home, son."

"What's it gonna take, Murdoch? How much more do you have to see before you understand what I am?"

He held that gaze, knowing with everything he was, if he didn't, he'd lose Johnny right there. "Can we talk this out at home, son? Away from prying ears?"

Johnny kept looking at him, a bit stunned. He grabbed the bottle and upended it, draining the remainder then slamming it on the table with a loud sigh. "Sure, old man. Whatever you want." He stood noisily and walked out without a backwards glance.

*

Both men remained silent on the long ride home. Murdoch kept an eye on his son who stared straight ahead. He was sure Johnny wasn't looking at a thing, though. When they arrived at the house, Johnny handed his horse off to a hand and headed inside.

Murdoch sighed and did the same then followed his son. He found Johnny facing Scott in the great room. Scott had a questioning look on his face and Murdoch knew he'd already asked something.

"What happened to your neck?" Scott asked when he saw his father.

"It's nothing, son."

"The witch scratched him. Does that mean you're gonna turn into some kind of monster, too?" Johnny shot.

"What happened?" Scott asked, the dread evident in his tone.

"Old boyfriend tried to break her out, shot Gabe, tried to knock down Sam's front door. I shot him, he died, she's in jail. I'm goin to bed." Johnny turned and headed for the stairs.

"Is Gabe alright?" Scott asked, his tone clipped and crisp.

Johnny stopped and turned back. "Winged him. He'll be okay. Already back at work. You want to know anything else, ask Murdoch."

Scott's scowl deepened as did the blush of his cheeks. "You know something, Johnny? You aren't the only person this is affecting. Did it ever occur to you that Murdoch is going through hell, too? That he may not want to have to retell your story?"

"Scott!" Murdoch yelled.

"No, Murdoch, it's alright," Johnny said, holding a palm out toward his father. He stepped closer to Scott. "You know something, Scott? I don't give a rat's ass who else this is affecting. Until you have a mother from the bowels of hell, I suggest you back the hell off me!"

"I'm not afraid of you, Johnny," Scott ground out, his fists clenched at his sides.

A smile curved up Johnny's mouth. "No? You were the other day. If you'd been there tonight, you would have been again. Remember that, *brother*, and we'll get along fine. Now, I'm goin to bed and I don't want to talk about this anymore!" He turned on his heel and strode out, taking the stairs two at a time.

Scott stared after him, completely stunned and more than a little frustrated.

"Did that make you feel any better, Scott? Your brother is going through enough without being interrogated."

"Murdoch, he has to talk about it and so do you. It isn't fair of him to dump this all on you."

Shaking his head slowly, Murdoch walked up to his son. "It isn't his to dump, Scott. It's mine and Maria's. We did this, not Johnny. Don't you understand? This isn't about Johnny. It's about what she and I did and how things happened between us. It's about the choices I made and the mistake ..." he stopped and bit his lip before going on. "I will never regret marrying Maria. I won't because it gave me Johnny. If not for him then, yes, I would wish I'd never met her but I can't. Do you see?"

Scott breathed out hard and dropped his head. "Yes, Sir. Yes, I understand and I know how much this is hurting both of you. It hurts me to see it. I just want to help him; help both of you but I don't know what to do. I've always been able to talk to Johnny before. It's like I don't even know him anymore."

"We have to give him some room, son. We can't do anything right now. He's too raw. Come on, let's try to get some rest. Tomorrow will be soon enough."

*

Johnny wandered around his room, staring at the floor, hands clasped behind his back. Why was this bothering him so much? He'd spent so many years blaming Murdoch for the way she acted when, all along, it had been her. He'd always known she wasn't a good mother. At least, he never thought she was; not after he got a little older and saw other mothers with their kids. They'd scold their children, smack their behinds when needed and scoop them up in big hugs right out in front of anyone on the street. Maria - well, Maria was never out on the street with him much and when she was, she ignored him. She let him run wild, do whatever he wanted then swoon and whine to whoever had caught him when he got up to his tricks. Yeah, she always managed to make out like she was the victim. It was the same tired story.

The gringo had promised her the world then threw her out when the boy looked too Mexican after being born. How he'd treated her so shamefully and left her with not a peso to her name. How she had to scrape out a living as best she could and how she couldn't manage such a disobedient son. He'd heard many people tell her she should take him to an orphanage. A few even suggested she simply kick him out. He'd wondered then why she didn't but, now he knew why. There was a chance he'd speak his father's name to someone and be sent home. That wouldn't do at all. She couldn't take the risk of Murdoch getting what he wanted; what he deserved.

It was hard, so very hard for Johnny to wrap his mind around his father really wanting him all those years. He had come to care so much for the old man but, he had to admit to himself, that doubt was always there, lurking in the shadows of his mind. Did he really want me or did he need my gun? Even now, when he knew the truth finally, it stuck in his throat. He reckoned all those years of lies could sure sound like the truth. And that's all he'd ever had to go on, her word. What a joke that was!

He stopped pacing and leaned against the wall by the window, crossing his arms over his chest. Taking in a deep breath, he let it out slowly. It was clear to him now. Why he hadn't turned out worse than he had. It was because she'd gone to jail. If he'd stayed with her, he had no doubt he'd still be a gunhawk but, it would have been so much worse. With her 'teaching' him, he didn't want to think about the slow, tortuous death of his soul at her hands. He shivered in the warm air and clutched himself tighter. And he knew, he'd destroyed anything good in his life now.

Letting them see Madrid fully had been a mistake but he couldn't handle her any other way. He'd seen the sheer excitement in her eyes for those few seconds before he'd terrorized her. He didn't feel the least bit bad about doing that. But, he hated that his family had seen it. He smirked. Scott said he wasn't afraid of me. That was a lie. He'd seen their faces yesterday. Dios! Had it just been yesterday? Suddenly, he felt so tired, so completely wrung out. He pushed off the wall and stretched his arms over his head, rolling his shoulders as he dropped them back down. He couldn't sleep yet, though. There was something he had to know and only one man who could tell him. And he figured he'd know if he was just being told what he wanted to hear or what that man's guilt wanted to say. He'd know if Murdoch was being honest with both of them.

*

Once in the hallway, Johnny hesitated outside his brother's door. He could see the light coming from underneath the closed door and he considered inviting Scott to this dance. Just as quickly, he negated the idea. This was between him and Murdoch. He turned and walked down the hall, stopping outside his father's bedroom. Johnny took a moment, head down, eyes closed and steeled himself for what was about to happen. Slowly, he raised his hand and knocked.

His head came up when the door opened and he rethought this grand idea once he saw his father in his robe. Looked like he was almost ready for bed. Still has his pants on so, I can talk to him, I guess. He smiled a little at the thought. "Tired?" he asked in a whisper of a voice.

"Not as tired as you. Why aren't you in bed, son?"

Johnny swallowed back the laugh and shrugged. "I need to talk to you but, it can wait if you're too tired."

Murdoch studied him for a beat then stepped aside, opening the door wider.

For only the second time in his life, Johnny stepped into his father's bedroom. His eyes took in the room in a flash then settled on the dresser. With a smirk, he noticed the picture of his mother was gone. Catherine had the dresser to herself again. Like it always should have been, he thought with an ache in his chest. He let out a stuttering breath then walked over to sit in one of the overstuffed chairs by the open window, relieved to catch the breeze on his hot face.

Murdoch closed the door and joined him, settling in the chair across from Johnny. His face was lined with fatigue and much more.

Johnny glanced up at him then stretched his legs out, crossing his ankles and resting his hands lightly across his abdomen. "We never really got to the heart of things. What I asked you before downstairs? I still need an answer and I think you just said what you thought I wanted to hear."

Murdoch drew his brows together and shook his head slowly. "I don't know what you mean."

"Well, you saw something you'd never seen before. Something I haven't been for a very long time and never very often. I think if I'd been around her all that time, Madrid would have been just what you saw all the time. So, I guess I should be grateful she was carted off all those years ago. The thing is, I have to wonder about now. How you're handling what you saw and what you think of me now."

Murdoch let out a soft breath. He was too tired for this, he thought selfishly, then shoved that idea away. He needed to be completely honest with his son now, no matter how much it hurt. "I won't lie to you, Johnny. I've never liked that you were a gunfighter but, after you came home and we got past those first few hard months, I liked what I saw. I stopped thinking of you as Madrid so much and just focused on my son. Seeing you yesterday and tonight was a shock and I was afraid - for you, son. I think that's what Scott meant tonight, too. We were afraid *for* you, not *of* you. We both know you would never hurt us."

"Do you?" Johnny asked softly then looked into his eyes. "I mean, after what you saw, how can you be so certain?"

Smiling a little, Murdoch leaned in. "You said it yourself. You were never that man very often. I have a feeling it was only in these kind of circumstances when things were so extreme, you had no choice but to completely turn yourself off and to ... well, scare the living hell out of people."

Johnny blurted out a laugh at that then the smile faded quickly. "I want to believe you. I just ..."

Murdoch reached out and laid a hand on his knee. "You just don't want to be hurt by us or disappointed. I understand that. I have never lied to you, John. Not ever. Whenever you've asked me a direct question, I've tried my best to answer. I know I haven't been open about your mother before this or the past. It's very hard to talk about, son. I never knew why she left. Now, I do and it's worse knowing." He lowered his head. "Then again, a lie of omission is still a lie. Not telling you was probably as bad."

"We're both guilty of that. I didn't tell you where she was. You never wanted to talk about her so I just figured it was best you didn't know. Hell, I never thought in a million years she'd show up here." The frown was back on his face.

"I think what you want to know is do I really want you here? The answer is the same, son. Yes. I kidnapped you so I think that shows I wanted you." Murdoch leaned back and waved a hand to stay his son. "I know, I know. I hadn't seen Madrid then. Well, now I have and I still want you."

Johnny shook his head, trying to understand the why of this.

"Sometimes, parents are horrible people. Sometimes, children turn out to be horrible people and sometimes both are. I don't think I'm a horrible person and I know you aren't. Don't measure yourself against your mother, Johnny."

He snorted. "If I did that, I'd figure I should get angel wings. Just about anyone would compared to her." He ran a hand down his face. "I believe you, Murdoch, and I'm grateful to you. I'm just sorry this happened at all."

"So am I but, are you alright?"

He shook his head and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs and hanging his head. "Not sure. I don't want to talk this to death. Matter of fact, I don't want to talk about it again. I get what she is and I get it isn't my doing or yours. We can't change what is, Murdoch. All we can do is go on from here - again. As for my 'feelings', don't worry about that. I don't have any for her. Not sure I ever did much." He looked up and saw the surprise on his father's face. Johnny smiled a little.

"All my life, I blamed you for everything bad that happened to us. I even blamed you for her getting locked up. If you hadn't thrown us out and all that. So, it was hard to come to terms with knowing it wasn't you. It had never been you. I still hadn't really done that when she showed up. I guess that's why I was trying to have some feelings for her deep down. But, to tell ya the truth, they just weren't there. It was just some imaginings, some dream I tried to come up with. Never quite made it and I'm glad about that. Murdoch, she was a lousy mother. That's the truth of it. I'm not gonna miss her and I'm not gonna think about her anymore."

Murdoch wasn't surprised by these revelations but it hurt to know his son hadn't known a mother's love in his childhood. "Will you make me one promise?"

Johnny leaned back in the chair and look at him warily. "What?"

"Promise me, if you do start feeling troubled about her or you need or want to talk about her, you'll come to me. Don't let it fester, son."

A soft smile caressed Johnny's face. "Yeah, okay." He stood up then and looked down at his father, the same smile still there. "Get some sleep, old man. You look like hell."

Murdoch chuckled a little at that as his son left his room.

*

The next morning, Murdoch realized he probably needed to head Scott off before he saw his brother. Always an early riser, he knocked lightly on Scott's door just before dawn. Receiving no answer, he struggled with disturbing his son's sleep then, he figured Scott would be up in a few more minutes anyway so he eased the door open and looked inside. A smile of affection came to his face as he saw his son lying on his back, one arm dangling off the bed, the other crooked above his head. Stifling a chuckle, Murdoch walked into the room and headed for the window where he opened the drapes, lighting the room fractionally.

He heard Scott sigh and turned to watch his son come to wakefulness. It wasn't something he ever had much opportunity to do before so he was fascinated by the process.

The blond head moved to the side then the arm above his head slowly came down, the hand rubbing lightly over his face. A soft throat-clearing noise could be heard then, the other arm came up and across his abdomen. A full inhalation followed that then, a big yawn and more industrious scrubbing of the face now. Then, the eyes came half-way open and, Murdoch was sure, the rest wasn't his normal routine.

Scott's eyes flew open and he bolted upright in bed. Sucking in a breath, he frowned deeply. "God, Murdoch! Don't do that!"

The rancher tried to suppress a laugh but was unsuccessful. He walked over to the bed and settled on the mattress. "I'm sorry, son. I wanted to talk to you before the morning got started."

Scott calmed himself, unuse as he was to being observed by his father while he slept. He took a few breaths then scooted up in the bed, positioning his pillow and leaning against the headboard. A serious expression graced his face as he studied his father. "Alright, what's going on?"

Murdoch dipped his eyes for a second before looking back. "Johnny came to talk to me last night. We got a lot of things said and, although he's not as okay as he wants to think, we need to give him some time to work through this without ... harping on it. He said he doesn't want to talk about it anymore."

"Of course he doesn't want to talk about it, it's too hard."

Scott's grousing was an instinctive reaction to the news and Murdoch waited for his son to work it out. Again, he was captivated as he watched the expressions fly across his son's face. Scott was deciphering and dissecting the statements, working it all out in his head before speaking again. So different from his brother's more 'spur of the moment' reactions. Finally, his son took a breath and opened his mouth.

"He really talked to you? I mean more than saying he was fine?"

Murdoch's mouth quirked. "Yes, son. We had a ... I almost said a good talk, but it was definitely enlightening."

Scott nodded and scooted around a little for a better position. He rested his hands loosely in his lap. "I suppose that's better than his normal reactions." He gave his father a sidelong look. "What happened in town last night?"

With a grimace, Murdoch stood and walked about the room. He shook his head as the images sprang into his mind. Images he'd tried very hard to erase last night and again, this morning. He struggled with telling Scott about it, knowing it may well negate Scott's seeming acceptance to let things lie. "Let's just say Johnny took care of any remaining problems last night. Maria is in a jail cell now. The judge is holding court today."

"Will Johnny have to be there?"

"We don't know yet. Gabe will send word if the judge wants to talk to him."

"I guess it would be too much to hope she'd just plead guilty." Scott sighed and scratched his head.

Murdoch threw him a look. "Well, I'll let you get ready. Just ... let Johnny be for now."

Scott dropped his eyes and nodded. It went against his grain but, he believed his father knew the right thing to do, of course. He looked up and gave the man a smile as Murdoch stood at his open door. "Yes, Sir."

*

Breakfast was eaten in near silence. Murdoch laid out the plans for the day and that was the end of any conversation. Johnny kept his attention on his plate, his shoulders hunched. He was coiled tight, just waiting for one of them to start. But, as he finished his coffee and wiped his mouth, no one had said a word. Still, he wasn't going to let his guard down just yet. He scooted his chair back. "Well, guess I'll get to it, then."

"Have a good day, son."

"See you at supper, brother."

Johnny looked at each of them in turn then his shoulders fell and he nodded, turned and walked to the front of the house.

"Thank you, son," Murdoch smiled.

Scott just shrugged. "I trust you know what's best."

Murdoch cocked a brow at that, a smile tugging his lips. "Since when?"

Scott laughed softly and scooted his own chair back. "Well, in this instance. I should get going, too."

"I'll walk out with you." Murdoch got to his feet and, as Scott came astride of him, he wrapped an arm around his son's shoulders.

*

Johnny stood in the yard and watched the rider approach, his gut twisting. He knew what it was about, knew he wouldn't get off so easy. He stood stark still, not even turning when he heard the front door open.

Scott and Murdoch walked out together, both hesitating a fraction when they saw Johnny. Then, their eyes went to the road. Murdoch sighed under his breath and felt like cursing. He glanced at Scott and saw the tight lips and stern face. In unison, they stepped up beside Johnny.

"It's Drew," Johnny said unnecessarily as Gabe's nephew rode in. "Reckon I won't be gettin to that fence today, old man."

Murdoch looked at him, the tone was enough but he needed to see Johnny's face. It was Madrid, the one they'd always known, standing there. "I want to go with you."

"So do I," Scott added.

Johnny turned and looked at them. "Well, hell, why don't we all just pack up and go? Forget the ranch. It can run itself, right?" He didn't wait for a response, instead turning and walking over to Drew.

"Scott, saddle our horses."

Turning to his father, Scott gave a wary look. He said nothing and headed for the barn as Murdoch walked over to Johnny.

"Johnny, Uncle Gabe sent me out. Says the judge wants you in court." The young man smiled affably, unaware of the problems. Drew was unaware of a lot of things. He was simple and usually, Johnny had a smile and encouragement for the boy. Usually.

"When?" Johnny clipped.

Taken aback, the boy opened his mouth twice before the word would come forth. "Now."

Murdoch pressed a hand in Johnny's back and his son looked up at him. All it took was that one look and Johnny sighed heavily. He turned to face Drew again, forcing a smile. "Okay, thanks, Drew. You did a good job."

Instantly, the smile was back and the boy nodded his head. He mounted up and waved at them both then, he took off without another word.

"Sorry," Johnny mumbled.

"No need, son. You know he doesn't understand, though."

"Yeah, I know. I also know you don't need to go with me. I think you've been through enough with this."

Murdoch put a hand on his shoulder and shook his head. "It's like I told your brother, this *is* my problem to deal with, son. For so many reasons. I want to be there and, your brother wants to stand with you."

He didn't feel like arguing and knew it was a lost cause anyway. They'd just follow him. Johnny gave one nod and walked toward the barn.

*

Scott was reminded of the meal they'd just had as they rode toward town. No one spoke, no one looked at anyone else, all eyes straight ahead. He felt the tension growing in his neck and shoulders and he cast a glance heavenward, a quick and sincere prayer sent up. It seemed to take an eternity to reach town but, they finally did, riding up to the sheriff's office where the judge held court.

Johnny dismounted and stepped onto the boardwalk to await his family. When they joined him, he tried again. "I can take it from here."

"Now, brother, are you trying to deprive us of our right to witness open court?" Scott's smile was tight and forced and it didn't last long under Johnny's glare. "We just want to stand there with you, show a united front."

"You want to keep me from actin crazy."

Murdoch put a hand on his arm. "We want you to know you are not alone here, son."

Johnny sighed heavily and removed his hat. "I know that, Murdoch. Well, come on. Let's get this over with." He turned and walked into Gabe's office, his heart in his throat. He hesitated in the doorway as he took in the judge and Gabe. Then, he saw Maria sitting in a chair to one side of the desk. She smiled at him and he scowled.

"Come in, gentlemen, and thank you for joining us," Judge Mills greeted. "I think we should just get down to business. Johnny Lancer, you are being called to testify. Have a seat." He waved his hand toward a chair on the opposite side of the desk from Maria and Johnny took it quickly. The judge swore him in and began.

Scott looked at Gabe, his eyes going to the sling on his left arm. When he turned his attention to Maria, he'd swear she was giving him the evil eye. Scott couldn't help but smile unpleasantly at her. He moved to stand at the far wall with his father, watching the judge swear Johnny in. Judge Mills was a fair man in Scott's estimation. In his late fifties, his full head of salt and pepper hair lay neatly about his head. He always wore a black suit and long coat no matter the weather so, when he traded his coat for robes, there wasn't much difference. Scott assumed it was intentional so people would know he was a judge. His gray eyes seemed to penetrate a person and he could be intimidating when he wanted. Scott hoped he didn't want to with Johnny because, he was sure that wouldn't work on his brother. The judge was speaking and Scott focused his attention.

"To keep the record clear, please state your full name and residence then, your relationship to the accused."

"Johnny Madrid Lancer. Lancer Ranch. Morro Coyo, California. The 'accused' gave birth to me." He finished with a grimace as if he'd just tasted something foul.

An hour later, Johnny bolted out the door as the judge finally released him. He walked to Barranca, swung into the saddle and took off out of town as if the devil were chasing him.

Murdoch and Scott stood on the boardwalk and watched him, knowing they could do little else.

"That went well," Scott said sarcastically. "Should we go after him?"

"Why? He won't talk until he's ready, if he's ever ready. I think we should just wait for the judge's decision. That way, we'll have something to tell him."

"That was very painful to watch. I can't imagine what Johnny was going through." Scott blinked then looked at his father. "While we're waiting, perhaps you'd like to tell me exactly what happened last night."

*

Johnny rode full out for several minutes before winding down to a decent trot. He didn't know where he was going, didn't know where to go. The only thing that came to his mind was - home. He still didn't think Murdoch was as understanding as he said. He couldn't imagine seeing something like the man had seen without it affecting him. Murdoch had seen him become this cold, unfeeling monster more than once in a short amount of time. How could the man live with him now? Scott, either.

Both kept telling him they understood and knew he wouldn't hurt them. That much was true. Johnny would cut his right hand off before he ever caused harm to his family. Still, he had seen the fear in their eyes and he didn't blame them for it. Truth be told, he scared himself when he was like that. Always had. He never knew where it came from; not back then. Now, he knew. From her; Satan's spawn.

He'd never hated anyone as much as he hated her. Not even back when he hated Murdoch did he feel this level of intense repulsion. He wanted to blame his father, too, for choosing her but he knew the man had been fooled. She fooled a lot of people with her beauty and charm. And if she couldn't charm them, she'd simply bed them. Must be one helluva roll in the hay because she always managed to get them to do what she wanted. Even his normally sensible father had been poisoned by her venom.

Well, she was done now. Surely the judge would send her away after everything he'd told the man. And he'd told it all from the time he could remember. He'd told Judge Mills all about his life with his mother and, in those moments, he didn't care who heard. He refused to look at his family or at her. He stared at Gabe's boots the entire time, only glancing up on a few occasions to glare at her.

And she sat there all calm and flashing those eyes at the judge every time Mills looked at her. Johnny shook his head in disgust. She was figuring out how to bed the judge, too, he was sure. She had no decency, no moral fiber at all. All he could do was pray the man wouldn't succumb because, if Mills let her off, Johnny knew he'd have to do something drastic.

While he was pretty sure he couldn't really kill his own mother, he would have to come up with a plan. She would never leave him alone. He'd never see any peace as long as she was free. He knew that now. Why he'd never thought about it before was a mystery. He supposed he'd honestly thought she'd never show her face at Lancer.

He sucked in a breath and looked around, shaking his head as he realized he was about to ride under the arch. Well, guess I did know where to go after all, he thought.

*

It was late when Murdoch and Scott walked into the great room. The sun was nearly abed and the shadows were long against the walls of the room. A single lamp was lit, burning low on Murdoch's desk and Scott headed for it, turning up the wick to brighten the room.

"Well?"

Both men startled a bit then turned to find Johnny sitting in a chair, a drink in his hand and a bottle at his feet. Murdoch grimaced a little as he approached his son. Sitting down heavily, he let out a soft grunt.

"She got twenty years."

"Shit!"

"Easy, brother," Scott said as he sat on the sofa across from them both.

Johnny glared at his brother. "Easy, hell, Scott! She'll still be alive in twenty years! How come she didn't get more?"

"I'm not a judge, Johnny. I don't know!" Murdoch sucked in a breath then sighed out heavily. "Son, twenty years is a long time. She'll be pretty old by then if she does survive it."

"How old is Maria?" Scott asked.

"Who the hell knows? If you asked her, she's twenty-one!" Johnny scoffed.

Murdoch ran a thumb down the side of his nose. "I think she's closer to forty."

"Well, as Murdoch said, it's a long time. She probably won't be so spry and I'm sure she won't be as ..." Scott bit his lip then lowered his head.

Johnny looked hard at his brother. "As what? Beautiful? Evil?"

Scott just shrugged and figured nothing he said was going to help the situation.

"It's over, Johnny. We need to try and move on. What do you think it will take for you to be able to do that, son?"

Glancing over at his father, he sighed. "I don't know. I can't seem to stop bein mad. I guess it'll ease up on it's own."

"Well," Murdoch said and stood up, "Scott and I ate in town. I'm going to bed. Did you eat anything?"

Johnny shook his head and raised his glass. "This is all I can stomach tonight."

"Try to get some rest, son." Murdoch reached over and patted his shoulder then gave Scott a discerning look before heading upstairs.

*

Scott waited until he couldn't hear Murdoch's footsteps anymore before speaking. "I suppose he wants me to try and talk to you but, honestly, I don't know what to say."

"Nothing to say. Go to bed, Scott. I don't want to talk about this anymore. It doesn't do any good."

"Maybe, maybe not. I'm afraid I've never run across anything quite like this before."

Johnny looked over at him, a crooked, sad smile on his lips. "Glad I could surprise you."

Scott quirked his lips then frowned. "You did surprise me. Why didn't you ever tell me about the real Madrid?"

A grimace of pain crossed Johnny's face then he lifted his glass and took a long swallow of the whiskey. "Didn't think you'd believe me for one. Didn't see any point in it for another."

"Because you didn't think we'd ever have to see it?"

"Yeah," he sighed out then crossed his ankles. His glass dangled in his right hand hanging off the armrest. "Ever been anywhere near that, Scott? Ever felt absolutely nothing but ice?"

Slowly shaking his head, Scott answered. "No, I haven't. I've been in some bad situations before but, I've never closed myself down so completely." A soft huff of air escaped. "There was a time when I wish I could have done that."

Johnny nodded, knowing he was referring to Libby. "It's not an easy thing to do. It's pretty damned scary. Never sure if you'll be able to get back."

Scott's eyes came up and he looked closely at his brother. "How do you? Get back, I mean."

Johnny shrugged. "Don't really know. It just happens. It's like turning something on, or off. Whichever, it just seems to happen."

"Well, I'm glad of that. I don't think I like that man, in all honesty."

"Me neither but, he comes in handy." Johnny leaned forward then came to his feet, grabbing his bottle on the way up. "I'm goin to bed, brother." He started toward the stairs but stopped just as he passed Scott by. "If you ever feel like you can't live with me, I want you to tell me."

Scott craned his neck and looked up at his brother. He didn't know what to say to that so he just nodded. It seemed to satisfy Johnny as he headed to the stairs.

*

Scott sat on the sofa for a long time afterward, thinking about everything that had happened and everything he had learned about his brother and Maria Lancer. She still boggled his mind. He would never understand her but, he thought he could understand Madrid and why Johnny needed that man.

He thought it odd the things that stood out in a man's mind after something so incredible or unbelievable happened. The one thing he recalled was something Johnny had said to his mother the first time Scott had seen that darkest side of him.

//It's too bad you were so jealous of a boy you didn't even know and a dead woman who was more mother to him for the second of life she breathed after he was born than you could ever manage.//

How did Johnny know that? How would he know Scott's own mother was more mother to him in that second? He guessed Johnny just assumed it but, it still rattled him. At the same time, it brought Scott some comfort to think of his mother loving him from the second he was born through the last breath she took. He didn't even know if she'd ever seen him but, he was going to believe that she did. He was going to believe she'd gotten to hold him if only briefly and he was going to believe she loved him with a full heart.

Scott sighed softly into the silent room then stood and headed off to bed. Tomorrow was a new day and, he could only pray his brother would be able to let go of his anger and leave that woman behind again.

*

Johnny wasn't a bit surprised he couldn't sleep. He wondered what kind of liquor he'd have to drink to actually get drunk. Tequila didn't do it and neither did Murdoch's whiskey. Maybe, it was just his mad that kept it from happening. Didn't make any sense but then, what did? He let out a disheartening sigh then got out of bed, pulled his pants and boots on and shucked into his shirt, leaving it unbuttoned. Leaving his room quietly, he headed downstairs and out into the garden, hoping the cooler night air would help him relax some.

He wandered aimlessly around the rose bushes and plants, inhaling deeply of the fragrances but, his shoulders were still tense, his fists still clenched. Dammit! Suddenly, he felt a presence and thought it odd he felt no threat. He turned as the kitchen door opened fully and light illuminated the yard. A smile came unbidden to his lips when he saw her and Johnny stepped closer.

"Late, isn't it?" he asked.

"Si, but not so late. You could not sleep?" Maria walked out and settled on a bench, setting her lamp at her feet.

"No," he shook his head, "can't seem to settle. You?"

She shrugged and patted the seat next to her. "Not yet. Sit with me a while, Johnny."

He settled beside her with a grunt and stared into the night. "You knew her then."

It wasn't a question but she answered anyway. "Si, she insisted your father hire me to help with the house and you."

Johnny nodded. "So, you raised me for a while?"

She looked at his profile and put a hand on his knee. "I loved you very much, niño, I mean, Johnny."

A smile curled his lips up. "I know you call me that behind my back. I guess I don't mind it."

She laughed lightly and shook her head then leaned over and kissed his cheek. "You were such a happy child."

He sighed heavily. Ordinarily, he wouldn't want to hear about that time of his life that he couldn't remember. It had always been too painful, it still was. Tonight, though, he needed to hear it. "Tell me about then. About Murdoch."

She squeezed his knee, patted it then rested her hand back in her own lap. "He frightened me when I first came here. So tall and so gruff, it seemed. But, that did not last long. When I saw him with you, the gruffness was gone and he was a man enamored. You had his heart, querido. Sometimes, he would take you riding with him, not far but you loved it. You laughed the whole time you were on the horse. When he stopped, you would be ... well, unhappy with him." She laughed again. "You could throw some wonderful temper fits, my boy."

Johnny smiled at that. "Yeah? Guess some things never change. So, he really ... I mean, he ..."

"He adored you. His face lit up every time he saw you and you would run to him immediately. He would swing you up and toss you in the air. I can still hear your laughter. You were the heart of this house, Johnny. When you were gone, the house seemed to die. Not until you and your hermano came home, did it begin to breathe again."

He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, working every tool he possessed to maintain his dignity.

"When you would fall or hurt yourself, your cries struck terror in his heart and mine. Oh, you were never hurt badly but neither of us could stand to see you cry. Your papa would hold you close to his chest and croon so softly. I was always amazed at how gentle he was with you. This mountain of a man so stern and serious, would melt into a puddle."

Johnny leaned over suddenly and rested his head on her shoulder. "Then, I did have a mother and father who loved me back then. Thank you, mamacita. Thank you for taking such good care of me then and now."

Maria wrapped her arms around him and rested her cheek atop his head. "Si, niño, mio. Si, you were and still are much loved in this house."

*

Johnny stayed where he was on the bench for hours after she left him. He thought about what she'd said and believed her every word. Maria had always seemed fond of him even when he first came home and others were in doubt. His father included. He couldn't blame Murdoch, they didn't know each other. But, maybe that's why it had been fairly easy for him to accept the man, see him for who he was and not hate him almost from the moment he walked in that house. Well, after a day or two. He smiled a little at that.

Leaning his head back to rest on the wall, he stared at the starry sky. Maria had been his mother then. How he wished things had stayed that way. She was the kindest woman he had ever known. Her heart as big as the sky above. For the first time in his life that he could recall, he'd felt warm and safe in the arms of a mother this night. He sighed and felt a little lighter, a little more at ease.

He leaned forward, thought about going to bed when the door opened again. Surprised, Johnny looked over to see his father walking out. He leaned back in the shadows and watched the man meander about the garden. Murdoch reached out and touched a rose, rubbing a pedal between his thumb and forefinger. Johnny was stunned at the resemblance to his own quirky little movements. Why hadn't he ever noticed that before?

He heard a heavy sigh escape his father then the man hung his head and brought his hand up, rubbing his eyes. Johnny couldn't believe what he was witnessing and wished fervently he could just melt into the wall. He knew he could leave and Murdoch would never hear him if he didn't want the man to. But, he was transfixed by the sight before him, unable to breathe much less move a muscle.

After a moment, Murdoch reached in his back pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, wiped his eyes and sniffed before tucking the cloth away and staring out into the dark.

Slowly, Johnny came to his feet and walked over, standing behind his father and wondering if the old man would belt him for simply being startled. A soft smile came to his face with the thought. Just as he was about to lay a hand on Murdoch's shoulder, his father turned around quickly and took a step back.

"Johnny! You scared me to death! Where did you come from?"

Far from being upset at the shouting, knowing where it was coming from, Johnny smiled a little. "I came from the best father in the world."

Shocked, Murdoch could only stare at him, his mind a blank. Then, Johnny stepped up and wrapped his arms around his father, hugging him for a long moment.

When he stepped back, Murdoch's hand caressed the side of his face, a warm smile on his lips. "Thank you, son."

Johnny shook his head. "No, thank you for loving me and wanting me all those years. For being a man I'm so proud to have as a father."

His smile widening, Murdoch had to ask. "Where is this all coming from?"

Johnny bowed his head for a second before looking back up at his father. "Let's just say I finally talked to the right Maria. How about we try to get some sleep?"

Understanding transformed Murdoch's face and he wrapped an arm around his son. "Yes, I think I'll be able to do that now, son."

 

~end~
2009

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