The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

The Devil's Advocate

 

 

 

Johnny worked at the underbrush in the dry creek bed with fervor. He was determined to come out on top in this struggle. So intent on the task at hand, he didn't realize someone was riding toward him until they were nearly on top of him.

He squinted in the midday sun but didn't recognize the rider. "Can I help you?" he asked.

"Yes, Mr. Lancer, you certainly can. You can drop your gunbelt and step away from it," the man smiled.

"Now, why would I do that?" Johnny asked, his instincts on high alert.

"Because if you don't, my men will cut you down and neither of us really wants that," he said, nodding his head toward the road.

Johnny looked over at the side of the road and saw a man with a rifle. He heard another rifle being cocked and looked over his shoulder to find a second man training a Winchester on his back.

He smiled slightly and unhooked his belt, letting it fall easily to the ground and took two steps back.

"Excellent! Now, don't be surprised by the movement behind you. He's just going to tie your hands," the man said.

"What's this all about, mister?" Johnny asked.

"That will become clear as time goes on, Mr. Lancer," he replied.

Johnny was hoisted up on the back of a roan. He looked longingly at Barranca.

"I'm afraid we'll just have to leave your horse here. I'm sure he can find his way home, though. In fact, why don't you tell him to run along. I know he's well-trained," the man stated with self-assurance.

Johnny smiled at the man and whistled through his teeth. "Barranca, go home!" he called and the palomino took off.

*****

Murdoch strolled across the yard from the barn, heading for the coolness of the estancia. His attention was diverted by the sound of a horse running hard. He put his hand to his forehead to block the sun and stared wide-eyed as the palomino ran toward him riderless .

"Scott!" he bellowed.

Scott ran out of the barn with his gun drawn. "What's wrong?"

"Barranca's coming in alone," Murdoch pointed.

"Wasn't Johnny working on that creek bed up by the pass?" Scott asked.

"Yes, he was. Saddle the horses, son," Murdoch said as he started to the house.

Five minutes later, they were riding toward Johnny's last known whereabouts. It took almost an hour to reach the spot and when they did they could see signs he had indeed been working there.

There were four sets of horse prints that they could discern. Scott looked around the area more closely. What he found in the bushes, made his heart jump.

"Murdoch, look at this," he said, holding up Johnny's empty gunbelt .

Murdoch dropped his head and closed his eyes in a quick silent prayer, then took the rig from his son's hands.

"He would never have left it. The gun's gone, though," he said quietly, mostly to himself.

Murdoch looked out over the land and straightened himself. "It's too late to start looking now. We'll have to wait until morning and gather the men to help. We should go back to the house and go over the map. Try and figure out what direction they took," he said impassively.

Scott wanted to object, wanted to look for his brother that very minute but his common sense took hold and he knew his father was right. It would be dark soon and they'd have no chance of finding him.

*****

The sun was setting when they finally reached their destination. One Johnny knew well. It was an old line shack no longer used at the ranch. At least he was still on Lancer land and that was some comfort. He could not imagine what these men wanted but he was sure he'd find out soon enough.

They were met by two more men who came around the side of the shack to greet the man in charge.

"Is everything ready?" he asked.

They nodded and took the horses around back.

"Well, Mr. Lancer, the fun begins," he smiled.

"I love a good time. What's on the menu?" Johnny said sarcastically.

"Why, you are!" the man laughed.

Johnny shuddered inwardly at that laugh. He thought he'd never heard anything quite so ... evil.

"My name is Aidan MacLean and you are my prisoner. Please, step this way," he said flatly.

Johnny walked into the room and he could swear it was daytime. There were more lamps illuminating the inside of the room than he'd ever seen in his life. He noted the heavy black curtains hanging on the windows which explained why he couldn't see all the light from outside.

"Have trouble with your vision, Mr. MacLean?" he asked sardonically.

MacLean laughed. "No, not at all, Johnny. Oh, you don't mind if I call you Johnny, do you?"

"I don't care what you call me," Johnny said coldly.

"No, I don't suppose you do. After all, I'm sure you've been called many names in your life. The light is for you, Johnny. We can't have you falling asleep, you see."

"No, I don't see. What's this all about?" Johnny shot, tired of this game.

"All in due time, Johnny, all in due time. Now, I'll be leaving you. Two of my men will stay with you all night to make sure you stay awake. They have orders to do whatever is necessary, short of life-threatening injury, to keep you from sleeping. Oh, one more thing. Did you have lunch today?"

"No," Johnny answered the odd question.

"Good! Well, I'm off," MacLean said and left.

****

Johnny took in his guards. They were both big and ugly and mean and he wasn't looking forward to mixing it up with them.

"Are you gonna keep me tied up all night?"

"Yep," one answered.

"Can I at least sit down?"

"Sure," the other one replied.

"Talkative ain't ya?" Johnny snipped.

One of the men joined him at the table while the other stood back, watching.

"We can talk yer ear off if ya want but I think we'll save our voices til we need ' em to keep you awake."

"What's the deal with that? Why do I have to stay awake?" Johnny asked.

"Boss's orders. That's all I need ta know," the man shrugged.

"Great," Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch and Scott hadn't slept much that night and by dawn they had the ranchhands ready to go. They had plotted out the search, sending men in every direction with instructions to notify them if anything was found.

"Murdoch, wait," Teresa called as she ran out of the house. "I fixed some sandwiches for everyone," she said with a trembling voice.

"Thank you, sweetheart," he smiled down at her.

"Just ... bring him home," she said.

"We will," Scott said with a certainty he did not particularly feel.

She exchanged hugs with them both and waved them off, retreating back into the safety of the estancia.

"We will find him, Scott," Murdoch said as they rode along.

"Yes, Sir, I just wonder in what shape," Scott replied glumly.

****

Johnny was tired but he'd had sleepless nights before. If MacLean thought this was going to get him anywhere, he'd misjudged Johnny.

"Good morning!" MacLean nearly sang as he walked into the shack. "How was your evening?"

"Wonderful. I could use a cup of coffee, though," Johnny grinned.

"Oh, I'm afraid not, Johnny," he smiled then turned to his men and simply nodded.

Johnny was pulled out of the chair and walked outside. There wasn't much difference in lighting so he had no trouble seeing what was laid out before him. He looked sidelong at MacLean.

"Have you had any experience with Indians, Johnny?"

"A little," was the short reply.

"Ah, then perhaps you'll recognize the stakes. The Indians have some wonderful techniques," MacLean said slyly.

" You planning on staking me to the ground?"

"Indeed I am. You are a smart young man," he replied with glee.

"If you would just tell me what you want, we might make this easier on everyone."

"Not yet, Johnny. You aren't ready," MacLean said mysteriously.

*****

Scott and Murdoch picked their way along through the tall grass, searching intently for any clues. It seemed as if the tracks at the creek bed went off in all directions, then simply disappeared. No broken twigs, no horse prints, no nothing.

"This is useless," Scott said, disgruntled.

"If you have another suggestion, I'm listening," Murdoch retorted.

Scott shot him a look but bit his tongue. "No, I don't."

"Let's stop for a while. We're both on edge," Murdoch suggested.

"I'm sorry, Sir. I'm just worried," Scott said after they had dismounted.

"I know, son. So am I. Someone took him, that's obvious. Why, is the question. "

"Do you think it was someone from his past?"

"I don't know what to think at this point, Scott. All I know for certain is Johnny didn't go willingly."

*****

The noon sun beat down on Johnny's naked chest. His arms and legs were stretched tight and tied snugly to the stakes driven into the ground. He was thirst and hungry but he would not ask for anything.

He tried to figure out what was going on here. Why this man he didn't know was doing this. He was sweating profusely from the heat and his eyes closed.

"Wake up!" the guard shouted.

Johnny started at the loud voice and looked menacingly at the man. "Just resting my eyes," he said softly.

"Not allowed," the man said.

He sighed and looked away from the man, taking in his surroundings. Stupid, he thought. There was plenty of cover here when Murdoch and Scott found him. Easy to ambush these jerks.

He wondered though, if they would find him. Remembering the way MacLean had his men ride their horses in all directions, kicking up dust then taking off and meeting up half an hour later. He knew they were trying to cover the trail. He could only hope it hadn't worked.

"How's it going, Johnny?" MacLean asked.

"Oh, pretty good. I'm gettin a nice tan," Johnny drawled.

"I'm glad to hear it. Tired?"

"Not really," Johnny grinned.

"You will be," MacLean said and Johnny thought he heard some frustration in the man's voice. This pleased him greatly.

*****

The sun began to set and Johnny was losing his sense of timing. He felt like he'd been out here for days but he knew that wasn't right.

They untied him and stood him up, allowing him time to feel his legs again. They led him back into the shack which was lit up brightly once again.

"What now?" Johnny asked.

"Same as last night, cowboy," the same guard that had kept him company last night replied.

"You boys don't have a clue what's going on here, do you?" Johnny smiled.

"Don't need to. Boss pays well, that's all we need to know," he said flatly.

"Well, got a checker board?"

The man smiled and retrieved the game, setting up the pieces in anticipation.

Johnny lost every game, he couldn't concentrate on the checkers. He could barely focus on the board at all. His eyes slid shut and he found himself being shaken violently.

"None of that, cowboy. Stay awake," the guard said.

"Easier said than done, mister," Johnny mumbled.

*****

Scott and Murdoch returned to the ranch house empty handed. They checked in with the men who had no better news.

Disheartened, they went inside to tell Teresa they'd had no luck.

"I don't understand. How could he disappear into thin air?" Teresa distressed.

"He didn't, honey. We just haven't found him yet, but we will," Scott said.

Murdoch walked over to his desk and sat down in the chair, burying his face in his hands.

"Sir, why don't you try to get some rest? We'll start out again first thing in the morning."

"Start out for where, Scott? We've covered so much land already and not a clue, not one damned sign!" Murdoch exploded.

"Murdoch, Scott is just worried about you," Teresa said gently.

"I'm sorry, son," he said humbly.

"No need, I understand," Scott smiled slightly.

*****

Dawn broke and Johnny felt miserable. His stomach rumbled with hunger and his mouth and throat felt like cotton.

"Good morning!" MacLean said as he entered.

Johnny merely looked at him hatefully.

"I see you're starting to feel the effects of lack of sleep. That's good. We can start now."

"Start what?" Johnny whispered.

"Your training, Johnny. Now, it's time to go back outside."

Johnny was once again stretched out and tied to the stakes. He didn't try to resist, knowing it was futile and drained of any strength.

MacLean brought a chair out from the shack and sat down next to him. "Now then, I'd like to tell you some things you don't know ....about your father.

"My father? Is that what this is all about?" Johnny asked, amazed.

"Yes, that is what it's all about, Johnny. Murdoch Lancer. Now, shall we begin?" MacLean answered, thoroughly enjoying his power.

"Sure, just do me a favor. Don't tell me this is about some woman or something stupid like that," Johnny said wryly.

MacLean's laughter filled the calm air around them and Johnny once more was reminded of something dark and evil.

The sun was still low in the sky so he wasn't feeling the full discomfort of the heat yet. He could still concentrate for short periods of time but it was becoming more difficult. He knew MacLean wanted him disoriented and weak but he still didn't know why.

"Well, let me give you some background," MacLean was saying. Johnny turned to look at him and used all his reserves to listen to the words.

"You see, Johnny, I knew your father in Scotland . We lived on the same street, grew up together. We were best friends."

"Okay," Johnny said simply.

*****

MacLean stopped for a moment and went into the shack. He returned with a canteen, sat back in his chair and took a long drink.

" Ahhh , refreshing," he smiled.

Johnny's face remained impassive. He knew what the man was doing and he would not give him the satisfaction. He simply stared into MacLean's eyes.

"Now, where was I? Oh yes. Best friends. We came to this country together. Has he ever mentioned me?"

"Nope."

His eyes grew dark then and in a flash he was on the ground next to Johnny. "Don't think for one minute I won't kill you. I know you have a brother and he'll do just as well," he whispered hatefully.

Johnny glared at him with blue glaciers. "But then you'd have to start all over. You don't have time for that."

MacLean sat back and stared at him in astonishment. The boy was more clever than he'd been led to believe. He wished he'd had more time to find out about them both, their personalities, but his thirst for revenge was too great.

"Perhaps you're right. No matter, you will do just fine," he smiled and recovered himself. Sitting once more in the chair, he continued his story.

"Now, we arrived in America bound for glory. We had made a pact, you see. We would work the docks, save our money and head out west together. We had it all planned out. We would buy some land and build an empire. Only, I was left behind."

"Why?" Johnny asked.

"Murdoch got married. No, no, it wasn't like that," he said as Johnny started to speak. "I wasn't vying for Catherine's affections. I was happy for them. In fact, I was his best man at the wedding. Then he came to me and said things had changed. He was heading west earlier than we had planned. He said he wanted to start his new life with his bride and was anxious to get started.

â€I hadn't saved as much money as he had yet. I asked him to wait for me but he wouldn't. He said he would let me know where he settled and I could come out when I was ready." MacLean had a faraway look in his eyes, as if remembering not only that time but a more distant past.

"So, why didn't you come?" Johnny asked, desperately trying to hang on.

*****

MacLean blinked several times and brought himself out of his nostalgia. "He never sent word where he was. He never wrote. I spent a great deal of time trying to find him. It wasn't easy. By the time I had made my own fortune in Boston , ten years had passed. That's when I began looking for him, fifteen years ago. Then, one day, I met a man who I remembered hearing about all those years ago. It's ironic, really. We belonged to the same gentlemen's club for years but had never met until a year ago. He walked right into me, literally. He seemed quite distraught so I asked him to sit and have a drink.

"We began talking and he told me his troubles. It seems his grandson had left him to come to California and live with his father. When he told me the name of the man, I nearly fell out of my chair. That's right, Johnny. That man was Harlan Garrett, Scott's grandfather. You can imagine my surprise. Oh, I didn't let on. I wanted to see how much more he would tell me. He told me everything in the end, after a few more drinks. I started making my plans that very evening and here I am." MacLean stated with victory.

"Nice story. So what is the plan?" Johnny asked disinterestingly .

"Harlan told me about you. He hates your guts, by the way. That's why I chose you, Johnny. I felt sorry for the man and I could relate to the betrayal. I didn't want to hurt his grandson so you were the likely choice."

"How kind of you, but that doesn't answer my question," Johnny sneered.

"You're not ready yet, Johnny. You certainly have a mouth on you. I did try to get Harlan to tell me more about you but he could barely speak you name without nearly vomiting."

Johnny had to smile at this. It pleased him to know he had such an effect on the old geezer.

"No, I think after another long day in this sun, you'll be ready to hear what else I have to tell you about your father. I have learned some things about him that will be very interesting to you in particular," MacLean smiled.

He held the canteen over Johnny's face and allowed a few drops to spill onto his cheek, just where he couldn't reach. Then he stood up and took his chair back into the shack.

*****

Johnny looked up and noticed the sun was reaching its apex. Nearly noon , he surmised. So that's the plan, torture me then what, kill me to get his revenge on Murdoch? Simple but effective, he supposed. That was what bothered him, it was too simple. Too easy for a man who obviously had so much hate in his heart. No, something else is going on here. But what?

Johnny tried to think, but the stifling heat of the day was getting to him and he couldn't seem to concentrate. His thoughts rambled from one subject to another in disarray. He closed his eyes and felt ice cold water splashing over his torso.

"Wake up!" the guard shouted.

His eyes shot open and he tried to focus on the man looming over him but it was impossible. He knew he was going to pass out any minute and he wondered idly how they were going to deal with that.

His thoughts were a jumble, he felt like he couldn't breathe and he wished there was a little breeze to stir the humid air surrounding him. He looked over at the stand of trees nearby and thought he saw something move. His eyes locked on the area and he stared at it for what seemed like forever. Maybe it was Murdoch or Scott. Please let it be them, he prayed.

"Lancer!" the guard shouted in his ear.

" Qué ?"

"Huh?" the man asked.

"What?" Johnny slurred.

"Stay awake, boy," the man said in a normal tone.

"Soy," Johnny mumbled.

"How is he?" MacLean asked the guard.

"Just about gone, Sir. He keeps staring at the trees and when I talk to him, he speaks in Spanish. Can't understand what he's sayin but he's talkin to the trees in Spanish, too," the guard grinned.

MacLean smiled at this. "I think it's time to let Murdoch know where his son is."

MacLean wrote his long thought about note to Murdoch Lancer. He made several drafts until he found just the right words. He knew Lancer would come no matter how he put it but this was for his satisfaction. His words would be a sword that cut Lancer's heart out. Once he finished, he sent one of his men to the ranch with his instructions.

The man rode at top speed to deliver his missive. Approaching the estancia, he slowed to a trot until he reached the yard. He dismounted and approached the front door, raising his hand to knock.

The door swung open before he had his chance however, and a tall imposing figure towered over him.

"What do you want?" Murdoch demanded.

"I got a message for Murdoch Lancer. I'm supposed to tell him that if he don't follow the instruction inside to the letter, he won't never see his son again. And, if I don't return, he won't never see his son again," the man recited.

" Mission accomplished, now get off my land," Murdoch growled and slammed the door.

*****

"Scott!" Murdoch shouted as he walked into the living room.

Scott ran out of the kitchen with his cookie. "What is it?"

"A message just came about Johnny," he reported as he tore the envelope open.

Murdoch's heart froze as he read the words. Closing his eyes, he whispered, "Dear God."

"Murdoch?"

He handed the note to his son and found a chair to fall into.

Murdoch,

     I'm sure you're surprised to hear from me after all these years. Perhaps you had forgotten your betrayal. I have not. I have your son, Johnny. But I'm sure you already figured that much out, after all, you're so much smarter than I. It is past time to pay for your treachery. Twenty-five years past time. You will come alone to the abandoned line shack above south mesa tomorrow morning at ten o'clock . It would be unwise and fatal for Johnny if you ignore these instructions. He is already in dire straits so it wouldn't take much to send him on to the next life. Come unarmed and, as I said, alone. If I see your other son, Scott, or anyone else, Johnny will die a most horrible death. I look forward to our meeting.

                                                                             Aidan MacLean

Scott read the note quickly and looked up at his father. "Who is this MacLean?"

"Someone I knew a long time ago, Scott. Someone who hates me now. We were best friends once. He was even my best man when I married your mother. We planned on coming west together, building a ranch, but he wasn't ready to leave. He never could save his money, always hitting the pubs every night. I told him more than once that he needed to be more responsible.

â€When Catherine and I married, I was ready and I told him I'd let him know where I ended up. But I never did. I was so busy with the ranch and then your mother was carrying you and so many things were happening all at once, I ... I forgot about him." Murdoch hung his head in shame.

"So now he wants revenge? After all this time, he comes here. Why?"

"I don't know but I suppose I'll find out tomorrow."

*****

"Not alone you won't," Scott said determinedly.

"You read the note, son. South mesa is the highest spot on the ranch. They can see everything from there. It's not possible to get you in undetected."

"Nothing is impossible, Murdoch," Scott replied. "Johnny and I have ridden up there many times. There's a back trail that leads up from the road to Modesto . It's overgrown with brush and hard to see, but I can get through."

Murdoch walked over to the map of Lancer where Scott was standing. "I'd forgotten about that trail. But what if McLean has found it?"

"It's highly unlikely, Sir. I'm sure he chose that spot because of its direct vantage point. If I leave tonight with some of the men, we could be in position before you ever arrive. With any luck, we may even be able to get Johnny out before you get there."

"Alright, but Scott, I don't want you taking any chances with your life or your brother's," Murdoch warned.

"Understood," Scott nodded.

*****

MacLean's messenger rode up and reported he had delivered the note. Smiling with satisfaction, MacLean walked over to Johnny and leaned down near him.

"It's time to resume your lessons, Johnny," he said and motioned for his men to untie him.

Johnny was taken back into the shack although it was still daylight. He didn't realize it however, as his perceptions were in total chaos. He was seated in 'his' chair.

MacLean took a seat beside him, pulling his chair close to Johnny.   

"Your father will be here in the morning, Johnny, so we must get started," McLean began.

"Murdoch?" Johnny whispered through dry, cracked lips.

"That's right, Murdoch. Now, I have to tell you some things that are going to be distressing and hurtful. I don't want to but I can't let you go on thinking your father is a moral man. Johnny? Listen to me!" MacLean raised his voice and took Johnny's chin, turning his face toward him.

"Si," Johnny whispered.

"Good, good boy," he smiled. "Now, I want you to take a deep breath through your nose."

Johnny did as he was told and inhaled deeply. He immediately began coughing as the powder choked him. He finally recovered and looked up at his captor.

"What was that?" he asked feebly.

"Just something to help you stay awake and concentrate. Now, listen carefully."

*****

"Now then. I know you were told your mother ran out on Murdoch but it isn't true, Johnny. That's the lie he convinced everyone of. The truth is what she told you. He did kick you both out. He didn't want a half-breed son and a Mexican wife. Oh, he tried to be noble and marry her because she was pregnant, but he couldn't go through with it in the end. He hated her more every day. He took his anger and hatred out on her, Johnny. He abused her in every way. He hit her, berated her, even ... took his pleasures without her consent. I know it's hard to believe but it is the truth, Johnny. I have spoken to several of her friends who she confided in."

Johnny was shaking his head, unwilling to believe these lies. He felt more awake now and able to at least focus on the words MacLean was saying.

"I know, it's difficult to hear but it's true. There are other things. He told you he had searched for you over the years but that was a lie, too. He manufactured those Pinkerton reports so he'd have proof when you came back. He only wanted you here to save his ranch. He hoped you would leave afterward. He only wanted Scott because of his education and breeding. He didn't want you hanging around, sullying his name. He's always been that way, Johnny. Even in Scotland , we would talk of the future, of marrying and having children. Murdoch said over and over that he wanted strong, intelligent sons of pure Scottish heritage. He was dismayed when his dalliance with your mother produced you."

******

MacLean watched him slowly giving in to the soft lull of his voice. A lull he had carefully orchestrated to lure the young man into his web. It was working and he knew it. Pleased with himself thusfar , he continued.

"There's more, Johnny. Much, much more. When you decided to stay at Lancer, Murdoch decided he would do everything he could to drive you away. Has he ever been affectionate with you? Does he speak to you the same way he speaks to Scott? Does he listen to you like he listens to Scott? The answer is no and you know it's true. He has no respect for your ideas. He has no respect for you. To him, you're a pest, something to be trapped and gotten rid of. How many times has he argued with you, dismissed you out of hand? He wants you gone, Johnny, but he wants to make it look like it's you who disappointed him. You who ran out on your father. He can't chance the community finding out he would do such a vile thing as throw his own son out. The same as it was twenty years ago when he threw your mother out and made it look like she ran out on him. You see, he paid that gambler to take you both away."

Johnny frowned at this information. No, it's a lie, he thought.

"Remember, Johnny, I've known Murdoch Lancer all my life. We grew up together, were the best of friends. I know him better than anyone alive. He knew you were stubborn, like him. He knew it would take some time to get you to leave. He's been planning and conniving this whole year. Think about it, Johnny. Think about the way he treats you. How different he is with Scott. It's Scott who is his legacy. It's Scott he wants to own half of Lancer. Once you're gone, he'll give Scott half. He's already prepared the paperwork, just waiting for the day you ride away from Lancer forever. He hates you and everything you represent. You remind him too much of your mother and he can't stand to look at you, can he?"

****

Johnny found himself realizing that some of the things this man was saying rang true. His befuddled mind could easily see the truth in what he was hearing.

" Por favor, parada ," he whispered.

"I'm sorry, Johnny, I don't speak Spanish," MacLean said sympathetically.

Johnny could only shake his head.

MacLean kept up the diatribe throughout the night. Telling Johnny horrible things about his father over and over until he could no longer discern the truth from the lies. By morning, he was unable to think at all.

Scott Lancer rode down the road to Modesto as quickly as the half moon would allow. With him were Cipriano, Anton and Carlo. The three best sharpshooters on the ranch, except for Johnny, of course.

He had some trouble spotting the trailhead in the dark but after passing it once, he found the entry. They decided it would be best not to try and lead the horses through the overgrowth so they tethered the animals beside the road and started out on foot.

Scott wished he had a lantern but he knew that would be too dangerous, too much chance they would be spotted. He prayed he was right and MacLean had not found the nearly unseeable trail.

"Senor Scott," Cipriano whispered. "Are you sure about this trail?"

"I'm sure. Johnny and I have been here a hundred times. I know it's hard to see but it will lead us right to south mesa," Scott whispered back.

" Espero tan," Cipriano mumbled.

******

Murdoch strode across the yard to the barn at eight o'clock . He had not slept at all and the hours crawled by after Scott had left. He stifled a yawn and thought about the gallons of coffee he had drank through the night, wishing it would do its job.

He saddled his horse and removed the rifle scabbard to ensure MacLean could see he was unarmed. He prayed Scott had been able to get through the trail during the night and would be in position to help.

No matter, he would trade his life for Johnny's. He was ready, had come to terms with the possibility of dying today as long as it meant Johnny would survive. He thought about what his son might have been going through these past three days and he shuddered at the morose thoughts that ran through his mind.

Leading the horse from the barn, he heard the small footsteps approaching quickly.

"Murdoch, what's happening?" Teresa asked anxiously.

"I'm going to get Johnny," he replied nonchalantly.

"Where's Scott?"

"He's gone ahead to make sure your brother comes home safely. Don't worry, darling. Johnny will be home, today. I swear it."

"And you?" she asked knowingly.

"I have to go now, Teresa."

"Murdoch?"

"Please, honey. Everything will be alright," he assured her as he mounted up.

*****

Johnny felt the cool liquid touch his lips and he grabbed for the canteen, drinking as much as he could before it was snatched away again.

MacLean watched him closely, humor dancing in his eyes as he waited to see Johnny's reaction to the too small amount of water. Seeing there wasn't much reaction at all, he offered the canteen again.

He repeated the process three more times before he was convinced it was enough to keep the man alive a little while longer.

"It's almost time, lad. He'll be here soon. Are you ready?"

Johnny nodded his head in response.

"Excellent. Now there will be more water and food for you when the task is done, just as I promised," MacLean reminded him.

Johnny once more nodded his head.

"Before the day is out, you will own half of Lancer with your brother. Won't that be wonderful?"

Another nod.

"Alright, now just like last night. Take a deep breath of this," MacLean said gently as he placed the white powder under Johnny's nose.

*****

Murdoch rode through his ranch at an easy gallop, taking in the surroundings for what might be the last time. He had worked hard all his life to build his dream. Now, it was a thriving, successful business he could leave to his sons.

The thought of his boys brought a smile to his lips. Johnny and Scott, so different yet so alike. Inexorably bound by blood, love and friendship. They had bonded so quickly and he had been immensely pleased. So many times he wondered of the consequences of his sons not liking each other, maybe even hating each other. Thankfully, that was not the way it happened.

Johnny had been distant, distrustful of them all at first. It was Scott who had managed to earn his trust so quickly. Once Johnny trusted you, it was a done deal. If he didn't, it was virtually impossible to break through the barriers. Murdoch still didn't know how Scott managed it but he was grateful to his elder son. Without him, Johnny may not have stayed.

That thought upset Murdoch. He knew Johnny would not have stayed with him without Scott's intervention. He knew he would not have been able to break through the barriers that were still between them. Oh, things were better. Johnny seemed to trust him, a little anyway. It was a slow process but one he was willing to undertake as long as it kept his boy at home.

The thoughts of his sons had kept him so occupied, he was surprised he had reached south mesa already. Slowing to a walk, he approached the line shack.

*****

MacLean walked out of the shack as Murdoch rode up. The smile on his face gave Murdoch goose bumps.

"Hello, Murdoch. How are you?" he greeted.

"Where is my son, Aidan?" Murdoch said curtly, as he dismounted.

"Now is that anyway to greet an old friend? He's inside for now but you just stay right there," MacLean said, pointing a gun at him.

Murdoch noticed with astonishment that it was Johnny's gun MacLean had trained on him.

"Why Aidan? Why use my son? Why not just face me man to man?"

"Where's the fun in that? Johnny and I have been having a wonderful time together. We've had some nice long talks about you, Murdoch. I've told him all about the man you really are. Now he knows the truth and I don't think he's going to be very happy to see you," MacLean grinned.

"He's a fine young man, Murdoch. Very smart and capable. Absolutely delightful. Although, he has a bit of a smart mouth. Well, I should say he did. He's much more sedate now," MacLean continued the taunting.

Murdoch's hackles rose at this. "What have you done to him?!"

"I told him the truth. It wasn't pleasant but at least he knows what kind of man you are!"

"I want to see him, now!" Murdoch ordered.

"Oh you do, do you? I'm calling the shots here, Murdoch, not you! You'll see him but you will wish you hadn't. So, are you ready to pay for your sins?" MacLean said smugly.

****

"Sins? That's a bit strong, isn't it Aidan?"

"No, I don't think so. You left me in Boston , didn't give me a second thought once you'd left with your new wife. You built your dream, leaving me to work and sweat for ten years in that city until I found my way out," MacLean spat.

"And what was your way out?"

"Marriage. A very wealthy woman, too. She left me her fortune when she died so unexpectedly," he replied with a wicked smile.

Murdoch stared into the eyes of his former best friend. He could see the madness behind the brown orbs and his anxiety for Johnny continued to grow.

"Aidan, my son has nothing to do with what's between us. Let him go," he said gently.

"Let him go! Oh, Murdoch, I can't do that. He is the perfect instrument to exact my revenge, you see," MacLean smiled.

"I don't understand," Murdoch said, confused as to what this man was planning.

"You will, very soon," MacLean said venomously.

*****

Scott watched the conversation between his father and MacLean. He could hear every word and his anxiety for his brother heightened with each passing second. He looked over at Cipriano and held up a hand to tell him to wait.

He did the same with Carlo and Anton and they nodded their understanding.

Throughout the night, they had positioned themselves on three sides of the shack, leaving the back exposed as there were no windows or doors there.

MacLean was in their crosshairs and he didn't have a clue. The only thing keeping Scott from taking the man down was that he had not laid eyes on Johnny yet.

He was about to get his chance as he saw MacLean walking to the door of the shack.

MacLean called inside the shack and five men exited. Four of his and Johnny. Three of the men dispersed aside with their guns at the ready and aimed at Murdoch. MacLean and the fourth man walked Johnny out into the yard of the shack.

His head was bowed and Murdoch couldn't see his face as MacLean practically held him up.

"Johnny?” he called but he got no response.

MacLean nudged Johnny a bit. "Johnny, Murdoch's here. Don't you want to see him?"

Johnny shook his head no.

"Remember our agreement, Johnny. Remember what I told you. Now, take your gun," MacLean spoke softly.

Johnny's right hand curled around the weapon as his head came up and he stared dispassionately at his father.

Johnny blinked a few times and tried to focus on the image before him. He knew it was Murdoch but his vision was blurred.

****

"What are you trying to do, Aidan?" Murdoch asked, totally confused by the man's actions.

"I'm not doing anything, Murdoch, Johnny is. Now, Johnny, do as I told you," he cajoled.

Johnny shook his head weakly and MacLean became frustrated.

"You must. You remember what we talked about? The ranch, how he really is, how he really feels about you. Now, do it!" he yelled.

Johnny held the gun at his side and pulled back the hammer. He raised it slowly and aimed it at Murdoch's heart. He felt like he was in a dream, a nightmare. None of this is real, he had convinced himself. So, it doesn't really matter if I pull the trigger. It isn't real.

"Johnny, what are you doing, son?" Murdoch asked, stunned.

Johnny only stared at him and Murdoch could see there was no understanding in those eyes. Johnny had no idea what he was doing.

"Johnny, it's me, Murdoch. Come on, son, let's go home. Scott and Teresa are waiting for us. She's been baking for you for three days. She misses you, son, we all do," Murdoch said gently.

*****

Scott watched in stunned amazement at the proceedings. What had MacLean done to his brother to make him draw down on their father? Would Johnny really shoot Murdoch? As the questions flooded his mind, he pulled his rifle down and trained it on his brother's leg. The slightest twitch from Johnny and he'd be forced to shoot his own brother.

Cipriano saw what Scott was doing and he tensed immediately. He aimed at MacLean's heart and dared him in his mind to continue this farce.

"My God, what have you done to him?” Murdoch asked.

"I've made him see you for who you are and now, he hates you. Isn't that right, Johnny? You hate him just as you have all your life. This is your chance. Kill him. Kill him for what he did to you and your mother. Kill him, now!" MacLean demanded.

Johnny closed his eyes and swooned back a little as MacLean held onto him, watching.

The blue eyes opened and Murdoch thought he saw a change. Something was different but he couldn't read the look. Then he saw it and he prepared himself.

*****

Johnny steadied the gun on his father, then turned his head and looked at MacLean.

"There's something you didn't know, MacLean. Lancer takes care of its own," Johnny said coldly as he turned the gun and fired a bullet into MacLean's chest.

Murdoch moved faster than he thought possible as he lunged toward his son. He toppled Johnny onto the ground as the shots began to ring out all around them.

Murdoch grabbed Johnny's pistol and started to fire, then he realized the gun was empty. MacLean had allowed Johnny one shot to carry out his revenge.

Suddenly, everything went quiet and Murdoch raised up to see Scott and Cipriano emerge from the trees. Scott ran over to them as Cipriano and the men checked on MacLean's henchmen.

"How is he?' Scott asked breathlessly.

Murdoch took stock of his youngest who was out cold. "Johnny?" he said softly, patting the boy's cheek.

He got no response at first but after a few more tries, Johnny started coming around.

"Scott, get some water."

*****

Scott returned with the canteen as Johnny's eyes began to open.

"Here son, drink," Murdoch said, holding his head up.

Johnny grabbed hold of the canteen for dear life. Murdoch had to fight him to take it slowly and he knew his son had been deprived of food and water.

"Easy now, you'll get sick."

Johnny forced himself to slow down and allowed Murdoch to control the precious liquid. Finally, he had all he could take and he waved his hand to indicate he was done.

"How do you feel?" Scott asked.

"Tired," Johnny mumbled. "Ain't slept for three days," he explained.

Murdoch and Scott exchanged concerned looks.

"Let's get him home," Murdoch said.

"We'll need a wagon," Scott proposed.

"No, he'll ride with me. I don't want to wait that long. Cipriano, head into town and get the doc and the sheriff," Murdoch ordered.

Scott helped get Johnny in the saddle in front of his father who wrapped one arm around him before setting off for home. It would be a long, slow ride as Johnny was in no condition to help his father. His head lolled to the side as they set out and Murdoch maneuvered himself to get Johnny's head lying back against his chest.

*

They made it home in three hours time. Scott slid Johnny down and waited for Murdoch as they carried him in the house and up to his room.

"Is he hurt?" Teresa asked.

"He's exhausted and dehydrated but he doesn't have any wounds. I sent for Sam. He'll need some broth, I imagine," Murdoch answered.

"I'll start it right away," Teresa said as she ran from the room.

Working together, Scott and Murdoch undressed him and covered him with a quilt. They sat on either side of the bed and waited. Nothing more could be done until the doctor arrived or Johnny woke up.

The latter happened before the former as the young man moaned and fidgeted in the bed. Both guardians instinctively laid a hand on each arm for comfort.

Johnny opened his eyes and started.

"Easy son, you're home now. Everything's alright."

"MacLean?" Johnny whispered.

"Dead and the rest are either dead or headed for jail," Scott replied.

"Want some water?" Murdoch asked.

"Please," Johnny said and once again drank hungrily.

*****

Once he'd had his fill, he laid his head back and sighed.

"Johnny?" Murdoch said, concerned.

"Never been so tired in my life," he whispered in response.

Murdoch smiled and smoothed his hair. "Go to sleep, son. Sam will be here in a little while to check you out."

"I'm okay," he mumbled as he eyes slid shut.

"Sure you are," Scott smiled.

Johnny's breathing became rhythmic and they knew he was sound asleep.

"What do you think they did to him?” Scott asked quietly.

"Besides lack of sleep, no food or water, I don't want to think about it. Did you see the stakes in the ground?"

"Yes, but I don't understand," Scott frowned.

"It's Indian style. They tied a man to the stakes and left him in the blistering sun all day. See his skin?"

Scott closed his eyes at the thought of his brother enduring so much.

"It's a good think he's dark-skinned. He would have burned to a crisp. He's pretty red as it is," Murdoch commented, his voice graveled with anger.

****

Doc Jenkins arrived shortly and walked into Johnny's room.

"Didn't see anyone downstairs so I figured this would be the most likely place. What happened this time?" he asked.

"I don't find anything amusing about my son being hurt, Sam," Murdoch groused.

"Sorry, just trying to lighten the mood. So?" Sam apologized.

"We don't know for sure. All he's been able to tell us so far is he hasn't slept for three days. He's dehydrated and I assume he's not had anything to eat, either," Scott reported.

"Why?" was the simple question.

"Someone kidnapped him," Murdoch said curtly.

Sam shook his head, not wanting to know the details just then and approached Johnny's bedside. He listened to his heart and lungs and pinched the skin on his forearm, frowning when it did not snap easily back. He shook Johnny gently, then harder to arouse him.

"Huh?" Johnny said, nearly bolting out of the bed.

"Easy there, it's Doc," he shushed.

"Hey, Doc.”

"How do you feel, Johnny?"

"Tired, hungry, thirsty."

"I can imagine. Tell me," Doc said.

"Tell you what? I haven't slept, eaten or had anything to drink for three days," Johnny said curtly, though his words were slurred.

****

"Take it easy, son. Doc just needs to know what he's treating."

"It's alright, Murdoch. He's irritable, that's perfectly understandable. He needs food but nothing heavy. Just some broth for now," Doc said.

As if on cue, Teresa entered the room with a tray.

"Oh, what about biscuits? I brought him some," she asked.

"Well, soak them in the broth and it should be alright. Johnny, go slow now. Your stomach will rebel if you put too much in it at once," Doc advised.

Johnny went as slowly as he could but it didn't take him long to feel full. He pushed the tray away and Teresa grabbed it up and disappeared.

"That was good," he said.

"I'm glad you enjoyed it. Now, the best medicine for you is sleep, eat and sleep for at least a few days. Understand?" Doc furrowed his brows in consternation.

"Yes sir," Johnny replied as he slid back down in the bed and pulled the quilt up on his chest.

*****

Johnny slept for most of the next three days. He was awakened at intervals to eat and drink, slowly building his strength. Murdoch noticed he wasn't very talkative at these times. In fact, he barely opened his eyes when they brought him food and drink.

When Sam arrived to check him again, Murdoch questioned the doctor.

"Well, Murdoch, I tended to those two men that survived from the shootout and one of them told me some of what happened. It seems they used some drug, probably opium, to keep him awake at the end. He said this MacLean man spent the better part of that last day and night filling Johnny's head with all sorts of things about you. I'm sure he's having a hard time dealing with all he's been through," Sam told him.

"Is the drug going to be a problem?"

"No, I don't think so. He only had a couple of doses. What he really needs is to talk about the experience."

Murdoch raised two doubtful eyebrows. "You know how he is, Sam. He doesn't like to talk about things."

"Then make him! Dagnabbit , Murdoch, that boy has been through hell! He needs to get it out. Especially since it didn't have anything to do with him," Sam huffed.

Murdoch pulled his shoulders back defensively. "I'll try," he groused.

****

Sam awoke Johnny for his examination and found himself looking into the saddest eyes he'd seen for awhile.

"What's troubling you, Johnny?" he asked gently.

"I'm fine, Sam," Johnny said and attempted a smile.

"No, you're not. You need to talk about this. Now, you can talk to me or Scott or your father or whomever, but you have to get it out."

Johnny lowered his eyes and stared at the quilt. "Why? What good will it do ?"

"It'll make you feel better. If you have questions for Murdoch...well, you should ask them."

"Never did me any good to ask before," Johnny mumbled.

"He might surprise you this time," Sam said knowingly.

Johnny looked suspiciously at the doctor. "Why?"

Sam shrugged. "He just might. Now, let me get a good look at you."

*****

Scott came in as Sam was finishing his examination. "How's the patient?"

"Much better, but I still want him to stay in bed. Sleep as much as you feel you need to, Johnny. Have you been able to ...use the facilities?" Sam asked discreetly.

Johnny nodded his head.

"Good. I was worried about your kidneys. Well, it looks like everything is getting back to normal. Physically, anyway," Sam said and shot Scott a look. He said his goodbyes and left the brothers alone.

"Well?" Scott asked.

"Well, what?"

"What did he mean by 'physically anyway'?"

"He said I needed to talk about what happened."

"I see. Okay, so start talking," Scott said as he plopped down at the foot of the bed.

"Not now, Scott, I'm tired," Johnny mumbled as he slid back under the covers and turned away from his brother.

Scott sat motionless for a moment. "Alright, but I will be back and we will talk about it, little brother," he warned.

The next morning, Scott went to check on his brother and found him still sleeping. Resisting the urge to awaken the young man, he shut the door and headed to the kitchen.

"Good morning, son," Murdoch greeted.

"Good morning. Johnny's still asleep."

"I know, I was just in there," Murdoch affirmed.

"Sam said he needed to talk about what happened. I tried to get him to talk to me yesterday, but he said he was too tired."

"He told me the same thing but you know your brother," Murdoch shrugged and took a sip of coffee.

This nonchalant action infuriated Scott for some reason. "I would think you would be interested in what your son had to put up with in your stead, Sir!"

Murdoch glared at his elder son. "I am! But I'm not going to force him to talk!"

"No, of course not! That would involve you listening to Johnny for once! Excuse me," Scott said, throwing down his napkin and storming out of the room.

"What in the world got into him?" Murdoch mused, stunned by his normally stalwart son's outburst.

*****

Teresa eased into the bedroom and sat the breakfast tray on the dresser. She walked quietly to the side of the bed and touched Johnny's arm lightly.

Johnny's head jerked up as he blinked and quickly took in his surroundings.

" Mornin ," he mumbled.

"Good morning, sleepy head. Ready for some breakfast?"

"Guess so, coffee for sure," he mumbled again.

Teresa smiled warmly at him and brought the tray over as he sat up in bed, rubbing his face vigorously.

"Thanks, Teresa," he smiled.

"You're welcome. Um, you might want to play possum for awhile this morning," she said surreptitiously.

"Why is that?" Johnny raised a brow.

"Well, Scott and Murdoch just went a couple of rounds."

"What's this? What about?" Johnny asked, waking up.

"You."

****

"Good morning, Johnny," Murdoch said as he walked in on their conversation.

Teresa gave Johnny a warning look and made an excuse to leave the room.

"How do you feel?" Murdoch continued.

"Pretty good," Johnny said through a mouthful of biscuit.

Murdoch hesitated, seemingly unsure of what to say. Johnny watched him fidget about the room with some amusement.

"Little bird told me you and Scott got into it over me this morning. What was that about?"

Murdoch stopped pacing and turned to see the humor dancing in Johnny's eyes.

"We disagree on how to handle things."

"Didn't know I needed handling."

"Well, Sam seems to think you do," Murdoch tried.

"Oh," Johnny said, casting his eyes down. He sighed heavily and seemed to be deep in thought for a moment. "He said I needed to talk about it. Don't see much point in it myself."

"Don't you? I'd um ... well, I'd like to know what MacLean said to you," Murdoch stumbled.

****

Johnny looked into his father's eyes and saw something unfamiliar. Fear. He didn't like that look in those eyes, it disturbed him a great deal.

"Can you sit this on the dresser for me?" he asked, holding out the tray.

Murdoch took the tray away, then turned back and waited.

"You might as well sit down. This may take awhile," Johnny half-smiled and patted the bed.

Murdoch took the proffered seat beside his son.

"Well, he said you lied about my mother runnin off. Said you paid that gambler to take us away and covered it with everybody around here with that story," he started.

"It wasn't a story," Murdoch defended.

"If you want me to tell you what he said, you're gonna have to listen, Murdoch. I didn't say it, he did," Johnny said firmly but without anger.

"I'm sorry, son. Go ahead," Murdoch said quietly.

"He said you never wanted me here. That you hoped I wouldn't stay after Pardee was taken down. He said you were makin it hard on me so I'd leave. That you couldn't just throw me out cause that would look bad on you. He said you planned on giving Scott half the ranch because he's the one you wanted here." He spoke as if reciting a story relayed to him by someone else. As if it hadn't been he who'd had the experience.

"What was my reason for that?"

Johnny smiled a little and went on. "Oh, you wanted Scott because he's educated and well-bred, not a half-breed gunfighter."

*****

Johnny held up his hand to stop Murdoch from commenting. "He said you ...abused my mother in ... all kinds of ways," he said, dropping his eyes.

"Dear God, that man was evil," Murdoch whispered. "What else?"

"A lot of things about how you stole this land from the Mexicans, how you murdered a lot of men and drove out the rest so you could have all the land. Junk like that," Johnny shrugged. "Made you sound like Pardee," he added.

Murdoch took a deep breath and blew it out slowly through pursed lips. "Anything else?"

"Yeah," Johnny said softly. "He said you had all the paperwork ready to sign over half the ranch to Scott as soon as I left Lancer. That you had always just wanted it to be him even before you knew I was gunfighter. He said you only married my mother because she was pregnant and you were trying to be noble but that you couldn't put up with her, or me, any longer."

Murdoch noticed Johnny was not looking at him any longer. "Johnny, what do you think?"

Johnny shrugged his shoulders but didn't speak.

"You don't believe any of that, do you, son? You know I have always wanted you home with me, don't you?"

Johnny still did not speak.

"I loved your mother, Johnny. I could never do anything to hurt her. I never stopped looking for you," Murdoch said gently.

"He said you faked the Pinkerton reports so it would look like you'd been lookin for me," Johnny whispered.

"What do you say?" Murdoch tried again.

"I don't believe ... I ... it's just that," Johnny sighed, frustrated at his inability to be straightforward with this man.

"Tell me, son," Murdoch urged softly.

"Well, you do treat me differently than Scott. You don't pay any attention to anything I say about the ranch. You don't respect my opinions," Johnny said hurriedly.

*****

Murdoch was about to deny all allegations, but he stopped and thought about what Johnny had said. Finally, the silence was palpable.

"Maybe you're right. Maybe I do treat you differently. I guess MacLean had to get some things right to make it ring true for you. But, Johnny, you are different from Scott. I treat you, or I try to treat you both according to your personalities. I suppose I haven't been very fair to you in the past. I guess I'm always afraid you'll leave so I get defensive and yell. Only, I'm not doing either of us any favors, am I?"

"No," Johnny said softly.

"How do you think I should treat you?"

Johnny looked up in surprise then, grinned.

"What's funny?"

"Sounds like youâ€re asking me what I think my punishment should be," he laughed.

Murdoch chuckled. "I suppose it does, but it's a fair question."

"Look, I just want you to give me a chance. Listen to me. I ain't sayin I know everything in the world, I don't know a lot more than I do. But, don't shoot me down before I even open my mouth. I just want you to trust me," Johnny said, lowering his voice at the end.

****

"I was thinking about that very subject the other day. Trust. How quickly you seemed to trust your brother and how maybe you were beginning to trust me a little, too," Murdoch smiled.

"I do trust you, Murdoch. I just don't think you trust me. "

Murdoch locked eyes with Johnny for a long moment.

"I just realized something, Johnny. When I was on my way to meet MacLean, all I could think about was getting you out of there. I didn't know if Scott had been able to get up that old backtrail . I wasn't sure what condition you were in but I figured it couldn't be good. But when you were standing there, pointing that gun at me, I knew. I knew you wouldn't shoot me."

"I'm glad you knew, because I didn't. I kept trying to convince myself it wasn't real so I couldn't hurt you even if I pulled the trigger. I couldn't think, just kept hearing MacLean's voice inside my head, telling me all that stuff about you.   But, I guess if you were convinced then, you really do trust me," Johnny said, smiling.

"With my life, son," Murdoch said, returning the smile.

"But not the ranch," Johnny laughed.

Murdoch laughed with him then, turned serious. "How about this? I promise to listen to you from now on and, even if I don't agree, we'll talk it through."

"I'd really like that," Johnny said softly.

"Can you tell me about what he did, besides the lies, starvation and lack of sleep? I saw the stakes in the ground. You've got some sunburn on your chest."

******

"That was it really. He threatened Scott once but other than that ..." Johnny stopped and frowned. "He gave me something, some kind of powder."

"Sam thinks that was opium to keep you awake. He said he didn't think you would have any problems from it and if you did, we would have seen it by now," Murdoch explained.

Johnny frowned. "I hate drugs."

"You said he threatened Scott?"

"Oh? I'd like to hear about that," Scott said from the doorway.

"Stop sneakin around, Boston ," Johnny grinned.

"Who's sneaking? I just walked in," Scott teased back. "Now, what's this about me?" he asked as he sat on the bed opposite his father.

"Well, there is somethin I need to tell you, Scott. But first I have to say that I don't think he knew anything about this plan of MacLean's," Johnny started, suddenly serious.

"Well, that was clear as mud," Scott frowned.

"Well, it's about your grandfather."

*

"My grandfather? What does he have to do with this?" Scott asked in shock.

"Nothing, really. It's just that he's how MacLean found out where Murdoch was. He said he ran into Harlan at some club they both belonged to last year. Said Harlan seemed pretty upset so he offered an ear. Your grandfather told him you had just left to come out here and, well, we all know he didn't like it. He told MacLean about Murdoch and me. MacLean didn't tell him he knew Murdoch, he wanted to get as much information out of Harlan as he could. I just told you so you'd know it wasn't his fault and that it was the reason he picked me. Said he felt sorry for your grandfather so he didn't want to hurt you."

"Well, how thoughtful of him!" Scott exclaimed. Calming a bit he added, "I suppose grandfather couldn't have known."

"No, son. There's no way Harlan could have known the man's plan. He was just blowing off some steam, I'm sure. Sometimes, I guess it's easier to tell a stranger your troubles," Murdoch said comfortingly.

"I'm sorry I blew up at you this morning, Sir," Scott smiled.

"I'm not, you were right."

"Oh sure, he's always right!" Johnny grinned.

"Watch it, brother, or I won't tell you what I've got for you," Scott teased.

"What is it?" Johnny asked excitedly.

*****

"Well, I figured you might be feeling a little grungy, so I have you a nice hot bath waiting. That is, if you're interested," Scott grinned.

" Boy, am I! Thanks, brother," Johnny replied, throwing back the covers.

"Whoa, boy. Go slow, you're still weak," Murdoch chastised as he leant Johnny a hand.

"I'm fine, really. Maybe just a little wobbly," Johnny smiled as he tried to stand, ending up hanging onto his father's arm.

"Maybe just a little. Come on, I'll walk you down," Scott laughed.

Johnny sank into the hot water and sighed as he allowed his muscles to relax. A bath had never felt this good before. His arms ached from the stakes and the ropes that had constantly bound him and he closed his eyes. He heard the door open and frowned.

"Aw, come on, Boston . I ain't even been in here a minute," he protested.

****

"You've been in here for over thirty minutes," Scott said as he walked in.

"Already? Well, I guess I'm ready to get out," Johnny smiled.

"Your clothes are on the bench. I wasn't sure if you wanted to get dressed or go back to bed."

"Dressed. I'm sick of being in bed," Johnny said and wrinkled his nose.

"You could have been there a lot longer, little brother."

"What does that mean?"

"Well, I was worried for a second that I'd have to shoot you in the leg out there," the blond grinned.

"You were gonna shoot me? Scott!"

"Well, I would have had to, brother. You were about to gun down our father," Scott explained.

"You didn't really believe that, did you? I could never do that!" Johnny exclaimed.

"I don't know, Johnny. I wasn't sure what was going to happen," Scott said with a sidelong look at his brother.

Johnny watched him and a spark ignited in his eyes. "Well, it wouldn't have mattered anyway," he shrugged.

"Why is that?"

"Cause you couldn't hit the side of a barn!"

Johnny received his towel at a faster rate of speed than he would have preferred. Then he received a hug from his brother whom he summarily pulled into the tub on top of him.

 

 

~end~
2003

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