The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

Adjustments

 

 

 

Second in the Surrogate series, following The Surrogate

 

He smiled ever so slightly as he laid down the full house, his eyes meeting those of his opponent. The young, blond man sitting across from him sneered and threw his cards, face down, on the table then pushed his chair back noisily.

"You half-breed bastard. You cheated!"

The smile never left his face as he slowly stood, eyes still on his adversary. "I don't think so," he replied icily in his singsong tone of voice.

"I say ya did and I'm callin you out!"

The bronze-skinned man only nodded then backed away, toward the door as the blond stalked past him into the street.

Out in the street, the two men faced off as a crowd gathered to watch the action. It wasn't a long wait as the blond man lay dead in the street a few seconds later.

The victor turned and walked slowly back toward the saloon where another man waited, leaning against the hitching post and grinning.

"What was that you were sayin about me not bein good enough to be a professional?" he asked.

John Wesley Hardin's smile grew bigger as he shrugged. "Still say you're alright for a half-breed Injun but, you ain't no Johnny Madrid."

Brown eyes so deep they appeared black, glared at Hardin as he sneered. "Guess we'll just have ta see about that."

Hardin shrugged again. "Reckon so, Dallas. I reckon so."

Dallas Rayne said nothing more but simply turned and mounted his horse in one smooth motion. Turning back, he looked down at Hardin and nodded. "I'll let ya know real soon."

Hardin watched him ride out and wondered why he'd sicced this dog on Madrid. Maybe, he'd cared more about his little brother than he'd thought. He smirked at the idea. He knew Johnny's reputation was well-deserved and Pete had been a fool to try him. But, the boy was good. Not as good as Dallas and maybe that's why he'd done it. Maybe he wanted some retribution for his kin after all. Whatever the reason, he saw no point dwelling on it. Everyone had to die sometime and, whoever won, he figured it was meant to be. Besides, one half-breed gunhawk was more than enough.

*

"Are we going to town or are you going to play all day?" Scott stood, hands on hips as he watched his brother.

Johnny grinned and went right back to it. Another six shots rang out, another six metallic pings and he slid the gun effortlessly into the holster before pulling it back out and reloading.

"Why do you do that? You know you have to reload."

Johnny shrugged. "Habit, I guess."

Scott rolled his eyes. "Well, if you don't come on, Murdoch is going to make a habit of taking your ears off."

Laughing softly, Johnny rolled the chamber easily before holstering. "Too late, it's already a habit with him. Besides, I wouldn't want to disappoint him by doin somethin that won't aggravate him."

"Sometimes, brother, I think - no, I know - you do that on purpose."

He cocked his head to the side and squinted as if in thought. "Maybe," he said noncommittally. "But, I have to practice and Saturdays are about the only time I get a chance."

Scott turned his profile to his brother, staring across the landscape. "Do you?" he asked softly.

Johnny bowed his head and let out a soft sigh. "Thought you knew that."

"I suppose so. Well, come on. There are other more enjoyable things to practice." Scott smiled and winked at his brother and Johnny laughed, wrapping an arm around him and playfully pushing him around the side of the house.

Both young men slowed, disentangling from each other as Murdoch's stern expression came into view. The man stood, arms crossed, beside his horse as he waited.

Scott glanced at his brother and fought back a smile but Johnny couldn't and he grinned at the tall man then walked past him. Mounting up, he reined Barranca still.

"Well, are you comin? Don't know why it is we have to wait on you all the time."

Scott coughed loudly to cover the laugh as he watched his father's face fall into disbelief.

Jerking the reins free of the hitching post, Murdoch mounted his bay and looked over. "I guess I'm just inconsiderate." With that, he slapped the reins and trotted off leaving the two younger men chuckling in his wake.

*

Johnny and Scott started toward the saloon, arms thrown around each other's shoulders as they compared the saloon girls†performances the Saturday before. Tonight, they were both hoping for an encore.

Smiling and laughing, neither noticed the man stepping into the street a few yards away and sauntering toward them.

"Hey, Madrid," Dallas called out in a casual voice.

Johnny stopped and turned toward the voice, his arm sliding off his brother, curiosity coloring his expression. He said nothing but waited.

Scott didn't move though he knew it was expected. Not until he felt the slight nudge on his arm from his brother. Then, he quietly backed away to the boardwalk.

"Somethin I can do for you?" Johnny finally asked.

"Yeah, there is," Dallas replied softly as he positioned himself in the street. "You can give me your reputation."

Johnny smiled a little in appreciation then his face fell flat. He quickly sized the man up. Half-Indian, half-white with eyes almost as black as his long straight hair. It was the coloring that gave him away. Too pale for a full Indian. Strong face, hard jawline. His stance, his demeanor, everything about him exuded confidence. Johnny had to respect that and he did.

Murdoch stepped out of the general store just in time to see the face-off. He walked quickly down the street to where his first born son stood watching the drama unfold. Worried looks were exchanged between the two elder Lancers as both men held their breath.

Johnny knew they were there but he pushed that knowledge aside, concentrating on the task at hand. He didn't know this man, had no idea who he was but, he was ready.

"Seems you know my name but, I ain't had the pleasure," Johnny drawled.

"Dallas Rayne," he smiled. He, too, had an appreciation and respect for the man he was facing.

"You sure you want to be doin this?"

Dallas smiled again. "Very sure."

Johnny only nodded once then waited for the man to make his move.

Dallas stood still as death for a split second then drew his gun. Johnny reacted; a little surprised he hadn't been able to read the move beforehand. Dallas had given nothing away.

A second later, Johnny felt the hot burn in his right arm as his body jerked in that direction, his gun just clearing leather before his fingers uncurled on their own and he fell to the ground, striking that right arm hard on the earth. White light exploded before him then, his eyes rolled back and blackness claimed him.

Murdoch and Scott stood in shock for a few seconds before reacting, both running to Johnny lying so still in the dust. They hovered on either side, checking for signs of life.

Dallas watched the family kneeling over the body, the father's head lowering and he nodded in satisfaction then, twirled his gun once around his finger before sliding it smoothly into the holster. He mounted up and rode quietly out of town as people on the street stared at him in awe. He couldn't help the smile that grew on his face as he reached the outskirts.

"Reckon I'm good enough now, Hardin," he spoke aloud to himself.

*

Murdoch gently rolled Johnny onto his back then leaned low to listen for breathing for a long moment. Closing his eyes briefly, he sighed then looked up at Scott and nodded.

They could hear murmurs growing louder all around them as the townsfolk edged closer, all wanting to get a look. All surprised at how things had happened.

The Lancers ignored it and carried Johnny to Sam's office in a near panic. Neither man could believe what they had just witnessed. Johnny had lost a gunfight. A fair gunfight.

Sam opened the door and took two steps out, black bag in hand when he saw them coming toward him. He stepped back in, holding the door wide as Murdoch and Scott carried Johnny into the exam room.

"I heard gunfire and was on my way to see what happened," Sam explained.

Neither Lancer replied to the statement instead, stepping back to give Sam room.

He ripped the shirt away from the wound and probed the bleeding hole in Johnny's right arm, just below his armpit. Glancing behind him, Sam said, "This could take a while. Go wait out front."

*

Scott paced slowly back and forth across the length of the room, his head bowed. Occasionally, he would shake it as the scene replayed in his mind again and again. Johnny had practiced just that morning; his usual quickness and confidence easily seen. He tried to recall a moment in time where something had distracted Johnny but nothing came to him.

There were no distractions. No noise or sudden movements. No interference. No sun in his eyes or wind to kick dust into them. There was nothing but two men facing off in the street. And Johnny had lost.

He stopped short then turned sharply toward his father sitting in a chair quietly.

"Why did he leave?"

Murdoch looked up, surprised at the sudden sound and shook his head. "Who?"

"That man. Why did he leave? Why didn't he stay and finish the job?"

Again, Murdoch shook his head. "Maybe, he thinks Johnny is dead. He seemed confident that he'd hit his mark." The grinding teeth through which he spoke made his words muffled.

Scott considered this and nodded. "That's a good thing, I suppose."

Murdoch stood and stretched out his back then walked nearer his son. "I can't believe he lost. He's said before there's always someone faster but, I honestly never believed anyone could beat him in a fair fight."

Scott threw him a sidelong glance. "It was a fair fight, wasn't it?"

"Yes, it was," he acknowledged.

"I hope that man never finds out Johnny survived," Scott said forlornly.

Gabe walked in just then and removed his hat. "How is he?"

"We don't know yet. He was hit in the arm. Do you know who that man was?" Murdoch asked.

Shaking his head, the sheriff answered, "never heard of him before but, I gotta say I ain't never seen anybody so fast."

"We were just talking about that," Scott said.

"I didn't see but the end, the actual fight. Did anything happen to start it?" the sheriff asked.

Scott's face turned a little red. "He just called Johnny out. Said he wanted his reputation. That's all it was about, Gabe. A stupid reputation," he spat.

"I'm sorry, Scott, but it could've been a lot worse. He's still alive. Don't know why exactly. Fella must be just startin out if he didn't bother to make sure ..."

"That Johnny was dead. We know," Murdoch finished for him. "He looked young. Maybe eighteen, nineteen."

Scott turned away from them, unwilling to continue the conversation that seemed so blithe to him. He didn't care how old the man was or how long he'd been doing this. All he cared about was his brother.

"Well, the crowd's broke up but a lot of folks are worried about him. I'd like to be able to tell them Johnny's okay."

"He's alive, Gabe. In my book, that makes him okay. He was hit in the arm so I can't imagine it's life threatening," Murdoch said.

"I'll let 'em know, then. You know there's nothing I can do. It was a fair fight," the sheriff remarked.

"We know. Thank you for checking in," the rancher replied.

*

Sam walked out two hours later, rolling his shirt sleeves down and buttoning the cuffs. He looked up at them from over the rim of his glasses with a redoubtable expression.

"Sit."

Scott looked at his father then sat beside him on the bench.

Sam pulled a chair over to sit directly in front of them. "I removed the bullet and he'll survive but..."

"But what, Sam?" Murdoch asked tersely.

"There was some nerve damage, Murdoch. I can't say how much use he'll have of his right arm. He most likely will never fully regain the use of it. Only time will tell."

Scott lurched from his seat and stared at the doctor. "Are you telling us his gun arm is useless?!"

Unfazed by the outburst, Sam answered calmly. "I'm saying he will probably never be able to draw a gun again. Certainly, not as well as he did."

Scott sat back down hard as the magnitude of Sam's prognosis rolled over him like a tidal wave. He looked to his father, saw the stern expression and hadn't a clue what the man was thinking.

"How soon can we take him home?" Murdoch asked.

"In an hour or so. I want to watch him, make sure nothing unforeseen happens. You know the routine, Murdoch. Any fever or changes send for me and keep him in bed for a couple of days. He needs to rest then, that arm *must* be kept in a sling when he's up. I'll come out in a few days to check on him and answer any questions he may have."

Scott snorted. Questions he *may* have? Johnny was going to...he stopped. He didn't know how Johnny would react to this. Nothing like this had ever happened that Scott knew of. He'd never lost a gunfight and now, he'd lost the use of his arm.

How would Johnny take the news? Scott shivered a little knowing, however his brother reacted, he and Murdoch would have to try and be prepared. He jerked his head and stared at his father who was shaking his arm.

Murdoch frowned deeply, irritation evident in his countenance. "What's wrong with you?"

Scott sat back a little and gawked at him. "What's wrong? Did you hear what Sam said? How is Johnny going to deal with this?"

"However he takes the news, Scott, we need to get him home where he's safer. I hope that man is heading as far from here as he can go but, we don't know that. If he hears Johnny is alive, he may come back. Now, please go get a wagon so we can take your brother home."

*

Murdoch sat beside the table where Johnny lay so still. His right shoulder, arm and chest were swathed in white bandages. Murdoch concentrated on the rise and fall of his chest as he thought.

His mind whirred through not so unfamiliar territory. Though he'd never had to deal with Johnny losing the use of his arm, many nights he had wondered if his son was still alive. If someone had killed the boy in some dusty street in some no name town along the border.

Since Johnny's return home, Murdoch's confidence in his son's abilities had grown into a healthy respect of the man he was still getting to know fully. But, he had never doubted Johnny could handle himself in most any dangerous situation. Now, that was all changed.

How would he take the news? How would he handle living with the knowledge that Johnny Madrid truly was no more? Murdoch had come to believe Johnny wanted Madrid gone but, he also knew it couldn't happen like this.

Johnny's life was now in constant danger. Not everyone would come to him as this man had. Face to face. Man to man. There were many who would sweep in like vultures, ready to pick his bones clean now that he couldn't defend himself. Murdoch shuddered with the thought.

Scott walked into the room, taking in his father's pensive mood and knew the man was thinking the same thoughts he himself was thinking. He walked up and touched Murdoch's shoulder.

"The wagon's ready. Sam said we could take him home as soon as he checks him one more time."

Murdoch nodded and stood as Sam came in and examined the wounded man.

"He can go just be careful of that arm. Do your best not to jar it or bump it against anything. It's going to be very painful for awhile yet."

*

Scott kept glancing back, checking his brother's condition on the ride home. He hadn't spoken to his father the entire trip and now, they were approaching the Lancer arch.

"We need to talk about how we're going to get him through this," Scott spoke out.

"I know, son, but we can't really do that until we see how Johnny takes this. He'll be upset at first, naturally but, he may surprise us."

Scott raised a skeptical brow at that. He had a very good idea how this was going to play out and he wasn't looking forward to it.

As Murdoch set the brake on the wagon, Jelly came around the house frowning at the three horses tied to the back of the wagon and the lower count of Lancers.

Scott quickly explained the bare essentials. Johnny was hurt, shot, and they needed to get him to bed. He hadn't considered the rest of the family. He'd been too wrapped up in worry for his brother.

Once Johnny was settled, Scott pulled Jelly into the hall and explained the situation. The old man's response was no surprise. Scott calmed him and made sure he understood no one else was going to tell Johnny about this but he and Murdoch.

*

Johnny awoke slowly that evening, his mind confused, his body aching which is why he was confused. Eventually, he remembered the gunfight and looked at his bandaged arm. It hurt bad and he wondered at the intensity of the pain. Then, he focused on the fight itself.

He hadn't seen the telltale sign of a man about to draw. Hadn't been able to gauge when it would occur. He's really good, he thought then frowned. What was his name? Dallas. Dallas Rayne. Yeah, that was it. Damn! He was fast!

Suddenly, another thought occurred to him. He was alive and that wasn't right. Why was he still alive? By all rights, he should be in a pine box. It was a fair fight and he'd lost.

That wasn't an easy thing to take. It had never happened to him before. Obviously, since he was still breathin after all this time. But, now he'd lost and he was still breathing. Why? It was the only thing he could think about at the moment.

The bedroom door opened and every muscle in his body tensed except his right arm. He barely noticed and the thought only fluttered through his mind.

Scott pulled up short as the blue eyes fixed on him. He thought he saw alarm there then it was gone as Johnny recognized him. Scott smiled but he didn't move. He was thinking he should get Murdoch.

"Lettin the flies in," Johnny smiled.

Scott returned the smile though it was weak and not heartfelt. He counted himself a coward as he took a step back. "I just ... I'll be right back," he said, holding up his index finger and quickly backing completely from the room.

Johnny frowned and sighed, wondering why Scott was acting so strangely but, true to his word, the older brother reappeared a moment later.

He walked in and sat on the mattress at the foot of the bed, smiling that same sad smile.

Johnny watched for a few seconds, unamused. "What?" he finally snapped.

Scott swallowed. Why was he acting this way? Johnny wouldn't be angry with him but he didn't want to see what he was about to see in his brother's eyes.

"Murdoch will be right here," he answered.

"Okay." Johnny drew the word out, his tone confused.

Scott was saved any further lone discomfort when the rancher entered the room, grabbed a chair and sat next to his ailing son.

"How do you feel, Johnny?"

"My arm's on fire. But, thanks for askin," Johnny said and shot an irritated look at his brother.

Murdoch smiled briefly then his face fell into a somber mode. He put his hand firmly on Johnny's left arm then lowered his head as he searched for the words.

Johnny watched it all then looked at Scott who was staring at his own leg. Anger surged forth from some unknown source and he couldn't wait for them to screw up their courage.

"What's wrong?" he demanded.

Murdoch's head shot up at the terse tone, glaring for only a second before calming. "It's not an easy thing to say, son."

His eyes grew dark as his heart hammered then slowed, his breathing easing into a normal rhythm as he waited to hear some dreaded news. What, he had no idea.

"Well, it's about your arm, John," Murdoch started then licked his lips.

"What about it?"

"It's...there was damage, son. Nerve damage. Sam said it will never be the same."

The mask stayed in place, no cracks seen. He said nothing.

"Sam says he's not sure how much use you'll get out of it but, you'll never be a hundred percent again."

His jaw twitched but his eyes never wavered. "What does that mean, exactly?"

"It means you'll never be able to draw your gun like you did before," Scott said hurriedly then looked away again.

Johnny stared a hole through him, refusing to allow the words into his mind. Slowly, he shook his head back and forth. He felt the hand on his arm grip tighter and he looked at his father.

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

"No, it ain't. I've been hurt before. I'll heal. Just need a little time, is all. I'll be fine," he answered harshly.

"Johnny..."

"That's enough, Murdoch! Sam don't know what he's talkin about! How can he know what's gonna happen? I ain't even seen him yet. I just need a little time. A week; two at the most and I'll be right as rain. You'll see."

Murdoch saw the determination in his boy's eyes and he saw the fear, too. He couldn't argue the point right now. Maybe Johnny was right. He'd faced hard times before. He'd been hurt or sick before and always managed to pull through. He was so strong, so tough!

"Alright, son. We'll wait and see how that arm does."

Scott's head came up, a sharp disapproving glare aimed at his father. But, Murdoch matched his glare with one of his own and Scott relented, staying silent.

*

For a week, Johnny took things slowly. He was out of bed on day three and wore the sling religiously. The pain was almost unbearable at times but he was determined to let the arm heal completely. Then, he'd start working on getting himself back in shape. No, in better shape.

He'd lost but he was still alive. A mistake Rayne would rue one day, he thought as he sat on the bench under the huge oak in the front yard.

He watched Sam drive up, anger ruling him as he stood and walked over to confront the man. Sam barely got his feet on solid ground before Johnny started in on him.

"What do you mean tellin Murdoch and Scott my arm's dead? How can you know somethin like that when I hadn't even woke up yet?"

Sam backed up a step then brought himself under control. "Johnny, listen..."

"No! I ain't gonna listen to you! You listen to me, Sam. I know myself. I know..."

"Quiet!" Sam shouted. He looked around, noting some of the hands staring at them. "Let's go inside and talk this out, please."

Johnny looked around, too, then nodded and stalked inside.

*

Murdoch looked up, concerned at the anger on his son's face. His unasked question was answered a few seconds later when Sam walked in.

"If you'll sit down and calm down, Johnny, I'll explain what I saw in your arm," Sam said then sat in a chair and waited.

Johnny walked over and slumped onto the sofa, crossing one leg over the other knee. "Talk."

Sam ground his jaw and looked up at Murdoch who came over to join them. "The nerve in your arm was damaged. This nerve affects your arm, hand and shoulder. Now, nerves can heal but it takes a very long time. Months, sometimes. The fact is, I saw the extent of the damage and this nerve will never completely heal. That means your arm will be limited in it's range. How far it can move. You should recover enough to handle ranch work but the motion needed to draw and fire a gun ... I'm sorry, son. It just isn't going to happen."

Murdoch watched the turmoil on his son's face, the words sinking in and the struggle to deny it all.

"You said they can heal, though. You said that," Johnny argued softly.

"Yes, I did but, not how you want, Johnny. I'm sorry. Truly, I am."

Johnny stood up slowly and began to pace the room, his head down, his left hand tapping his thigh. He breathed in and out, in and out. He didn't want to think about anything else. He didn't want to think at all and he couldn't accept this. He just couldn't. He stopped and faced a wall, staring at the adobe.

He felt his father's presence behind him and prayed the man wouldn't touch him right then.

"What can I do for you, son?"

Johnny's head dropped and he sighed out heavily. Shaking his head, he whispered, "nothing."

He turned, tortured eyes seeking some solace that wouldn't overwhelm him; wouldn't reduce him to what he was so close to at the moment.

"I don't understand why I'm still alive. Why didn't he finish me off?"

Murdoch shook his own head. "I think he believed you were dead. That's the only thing I can come up with. Scott and I ran to you as soon as it was over and he just rode away. He never came near you."

Johnny could only nod and walk away.

*

Johnny wandered the garden, his left hand rubbing at his right arm. He stopped and looked down, only his hand visible from the sling and he tried to make a fist. Pain shot up his entire arm and he grunted loudly, gritting his teeth and trying to walk off the agony. Slowly, it subsided until he could breathe normally again. He wiped the sweat from his brow and sat on a bench by the back door.

How could he survive this? The man should have finished it. He must be pretty new to the game to walk away without being sure like that. He was good. Really good and if he did find out he'd missed, he'd be back. Johnny shuddered at the thought. He'd be a sitting duck; useless and defenseless. He'd be better off hiding.

He sucked in a breath and held it. Hide? He'd never hidden from anything in his life. Never ran from a fight. Blowing out the breath, he thought he'd never been so scared, either. Oh sure, he could admit to himself he was afraid. He'd be a fool not to be. He had something now, something worth fighting for. Before, it wouldn't have mattered as much but still, it would have mattered. He may be reckless at times; cheated death more times than he could count and even laughed about it. But, he'd never wanted to die and he didn't want to die now. Especially now.

He allowed himself to fully realize what had already been pestering the back of his mind. Even if he never saw Dallas Rayne again, it didn't matter. Soon enough, people would hear he'd been beaten and that his right arm was basically dead. They'd be coming for him and he had no idea how he was going to handle that. He sure as hell wasn't going to let his family stand up for him and he wasn't going to run. So, what was left?

Left. Left? Slowly, the thought began to develop into a concrete idea.

Could he? Johnny held out his left arm and stared at it. Slowly, he turned it back and forth then made a fist. His left arm had never been as strong as his right but then, he was right handed. If he worked at it...practiced. He sat back against the adobe wall behind him and chewed his lip. Shaking his head, he stood back up.

It would never work. He'd never be as good with his left as he'd been with his right. Still, it was a damned sight better than nothing at all. At least he'd have some chance.

At the moment, he felt like a dishrag. It had only been a week since the fight. He knew he wasn't up to doing this right now. He headed inside and up the back stairs to his room.

*

Scott stared out the French doors as he listened to his father retell the conversation with Sam and Johnny's reactions. A frown stayed on his face the entire time and, when Murdoch finished, there was a long silence.

"What are we going to do when some gunfighter comes looking for him?" Scott finally asked in a soft voice.

Murdoch's pensive face turned to look at his son's back from his desk chair. "Tell them he left. Tell them he..."

Scott turned, the frown still there. "He what? Ran? What do you think Johnny will say about that?"

Murdoch stood up and walked to the sideboard, pouring himself a large whiskey. "I don't know what else to do, son. He can't fight anymore. Not ever again. Who's to say what's going to happen?" Turning to once more face the young man, he donned a determined expression. "All I know for sure is I will protect him whether he likes it or not."

Scott smiled and walked across the room to his father. "So will I but you know Johnny. You know he's going to do what he wants regardless."

"That's what worries me. He may decide it's too dangerous for him to be there. Now that he can't protect himself or us, he may think the best course of action is to leave."

"Well, we just have to convince him otherwise ... somehow."

Murdoch gave him a curious look. "What are you thinking?"

Scott turned away, unable to look at his father at the moment. "So many things," he answered in a whisper. Raising his tone to a normal one, he expounded. "They won't leave him alone. Someone else may have to stand in for him."

"No!"

Both men turned quickly toward the doorway. Johnny stood staring at them, fire shooting from his eyes.

He stepped into the room and walked up to Scott, standing toe to toe with the man. "No one is standing in for me, Scott. Is that understood?"

"Johnny, it may come to that," he gently argued.

"No, it won't. I'll stand for myself, no matter what. If I can't fight then so be it."

"Do you know what you're saying? How many of those men will respect the fact that you can't shoot a gun? How many will draw on you anyway?" Murdoch fired the questions.

Johnny quirked his mouth. "Only one. That's all it'll take."

Murdoch ground his jaw. "This isn't funny, Johnny."

"No, it ain't funny, Murdoch. But, it's my problem and neither of you is gonna take my place. You can't, anyway. Ain't nobody gonna want to gun one of you down instead. There's no point to it."

Scott silently acknowledged the truth of that statement but Murdoch wasn't ready to let it go.

"I could hire someone."

Both young men gawked openly at him and Johnny had to take a step back, simply stunned.

"Hire someone? You? Mister violence begets violence? I can't believe what I'm hearing," Johnny finally said.

"Believe it. You can call me a hypocrite if you want but I'll do anything to keep you alive, Johnny. Anything."

His head went down and he sighed heavily then glanced back up. He couldn't hold his father's eyes in that moment. Not and keep control of his emotions. Something that he'd been having a whole lot of trouble doing lately anyway. He shook his head slowly.

Scott did look at his father with admiration and deep affection along with gratitude. He smiled and nodded his approval.

"I can't let you do this. I won't be babysat, either. I'm sorry this happened and I'm sorry I lost but, I have to deal with this my way." His voice was husky and hard to hear. Both men leaned in a little.

"We're not ashamed or disappointed in you, brother. I hope you don't think that for a second."

"No, but the fact is, I lost. That's not easy to live with and by all rights I shouldn't even be alive." Johnny looked at his brother and nearly pleaded. "Just let me deal with this my way. Right now there's no danger and that's really all I can handle."

Scott glanced at his father then looked back into his brother's eyes. He wasn't sure how long he could stand that look on the usually solid, strong face. "I think we can do that but, if something does happen, we will be at your side."

Johnny smiled gratefully, nodded and went back upstairs.

*

Dallas Rayne sat back and smiled as he tipped the glass of whiskey to his lips. He couldn't believe it. At least, he could admit that to himself. Everyone else, he told how easy it had been. But, it wasn't really. Facing Madrid was hard but he'd beat him and not just by a split second. He reckoned a full two seconds judging by where Madrid's gun was when he fell to the ground.

He'd always known he was good; fast. Just never how fast. He'd never faced anyone worth a damn until now and there'd never been any real challenge. But, Madrid had been a challenge. Someone whose talent he respected, someone he wasn't sure he really could beat. And he did it. It had been a thrill but it hadn't lasted as long as he thought it would.

Not long after leaving Morro Coyo, the exuberance had left him. He felt nothing much, really. He'd beaten the best and now, there was no one to test him. At least, not yet. He was a top gun now so it would be his turn soon. They'd come for him and come hard but he didn't mind that. Death was only another path to walk. Another journey to take. That's how his mother's Navajo tribe saw things and he believed it, too. His white father's beliefs were as foreign to him as the man who'd sired him.

The anger seared through him as it always did when he thought of that bastard who'd taken his mother without her consent, leaving her pregnant and alone. Her tribe, her family turned their backs on her as if it had been her fault! Left to raise a half-white child in this prejudiced world, she'd managed to make it until he was fifteen before the whites killed her. No reason, just for the fun of it.

If he'd been there...he let the thought trail away and tried to make himself stop thinking about it. No good ever came of these memories and he'd been left with tribal beliefs but no tribe. Family loyalty but no family. Love but no one to return it. She was gone and he'd burned her body in the ritualistic ways she'd taught him. The only thing white she'd ever taught him was to speak English. He figured that was the best gift she'd given him. That and her love. At least she'd never blamed him for his 'father's' actions. He supposed it helped that he didn't really look all that white. His coloring was lighter than full-blooded Navajo but everything else about him was Indian.

He looked up as the saloon doors swung open and a smile erupted on his face. He'd been waiting for this. Waiting for the man to make an appearance so he could tell him just how wrong he'd been. And here he came, straight to the table.

"Well, it was a good try, breed," Hardin grinned.

"Try? What the hell are you talkin about? I beat Madrid," he answered indignantly.

"Yeah? Maybe nobody explained to ya how it works. You're supposed to kill your opponent, not just damage him." Hardin leaned over, nearer his face and smirked. "Madrid is alive."

Dallas glared at him, leaning in himself. "That's bullshit!"

"Did ya check? Did you walk over to his body and see if he was still breathin? No, you didn't. Know how I know that? Because, Johnny is alive. I just heard. Now, you winged him and good. Hear tell his right arm is bum now. Reckon you should head back north and finish what you started, breed. Otherwise, don't even try to claim you beat Madrid."

*

He figured he'd pass out any second as he pulled himself upright once more. Barranca's gait was sure and steady but Johnny didn't think he could take much more of this. He didn't want to even do it but he had no choice. He couldn't go to Morro Coyo, though. He was too ashamed. Part of him said it was ridiculous. That anyone can be beaten in a gunfight and the professional side of him knew that well. But another part, the man himself, felt embarrassed and he couldn't shake that.

He reined to a stop in front of the Spanish Wells gunsmith and sat there for a few seconds before dismounting. It jarred his right arm, still in a sling and he closed his eyes for a moment, leaning heavily on his horse. Looking around, he could see people turning away quickly, pretending they weren't staring but he knew better and it angered him. Pulling himself up, he walked into the shop.

He had other things to worry about than gossip anyway. If his family knew he was out alone like this, they'd have a fit. He smiled a little at that as he closed the door behind him.

"Stan," he nodded to the smithy.

"Johnny! Uh, hello," he stammered then, with sincerity, asked, "how are you?"

How he managed not to take the man's head off, he didn't know. But, he allowed himself to understand Stan really was being sincere so he smiled tightly. "Comin along. I was hopin you could help me."

"Anything I can do, Johnny. Anything at all."

He stepped close to the counter and locked eyes with the man. "This is strictly between you and me. No shop talk with the missus at the supper table, no idle conversation with your friends, okay?"

Stan Connors' curiosity rose even higher but he nodded. "I swear it."

"I need a gunbelt - for a lefty. And I need it to be exactly like this in every other way," he said as he stepped back and laid his rig on the counter.

*

Johnny sighed as he rode home. Stan really had done a great job. The rig was identical to his old one in every way except, it was all backwards to him. He knew he was fooling himself. That he'd never be anywhere near as good with his left hand but he had to try. If he couldn't do well enough to get by, he might just have to leave Lancer for his own safety as well as his family's.

He glanced back at the carefully wrapped package containing the rig and a lot of ammunition which Stan had tied to the saddlebags for him. How the hell was he even going to load his gun? he wondered.

He felt naked and completely vulnerable riding alone with no weapon. His rifle was there but he couldn't use it either. He ground his jaw as he seethed. Damn you, Dallas Rayne. Whoever the hell you are.

He pulled up when he saw the rider at the turn off to Morro Coyo. Chills ran down Johnny's spine and he reckoned learning to use his left hand wasn't going to be a problem after all as he recognized the man coming toward him. He made himself relax and wait. He would not run.

A smile lifted his lips when the man came close. "Forget somethin?"

Rayne laughed aloud, truly tickled at the question. "Well now, I reckon I did. Seems I forgot to check somethin before I headed out."

Johnny's smile widened as he nodded. "Guess so." With that, the smile slid away and he simply looked at the man and waited to die.

Dallas looked at the sling for a long beat before finding the eyes staring back at him. "You're a half-breed, too."

Johnny only nodded once.

"Guess we have a few things in common."

"A few."

Dallas shook his head. "I can't do it. I thought I'd just ride in and clean up my mess but I can't."

Blue eyes narrowed as the hard-edged voice broke the quiet. "Don't do me any favors."

Rayne looked at him in surprise then smiled. "Don't plan to. But, I do have to give you somethin. It just ain't right, is all. Can't take advantage like this. How about I give you say ... a month to heal up? Then, we can finish this proper like. Same place, same time."

Johnny considered the man then shrugged his left shoulder. "And if I don't oblige?" He almost looked at the sky, the darkness that fell over Rayne's face came about that fast. Johnny was sure the sun had been covered by rain clouds. Only, the sun still shone on him.

"It was a fair fight and you know it. You don't wanna finish it, I kill everyone on your ranch." He leaned forward a little, black eyes burning like brimstone. "I'll start with your old man then your brother and every living thing there until there's nothin left but the grass. I might even burn that. So, you got some choices. Face me in a month's time or run. But if you run, it'll be the last time you see anyone you care about alive."

Johnny's shoulders tensed even as pain ignited in the right one. Icy eyes bore through Rayne. "I don't run."

"One month, then," Rayne nodded and turned his horse, galloping back the way he'd come.

Johnny watched him disappear then allowed himself to breathe. He closed his eyes and hung his head as goosebumps covered his entire body. He could feel himself shaking and he cursed the heavens and everything else. He knew Rayne would do what he promised. Looking back up, Johnny knew he had one month to live. Quirkily, he figured that's more notice than he thought he'd ever get.

*

With a shaky sigh, he turned Barranca toward home as he thought about what just happened. He'd sure like to know who told Rayne he was still alive. It didn't matter, though. And, he figured Rayne was the one man who deserved to come after him anyway. It was his own stupidity or maybe, 'innocence' that caused this. He should have made sure Johnny was dead.

His thoughts turned to his family. Should he tell them? The quick answer was no and he stuck with that; at least for now. When the time got closer, he'd tell them. In the meanwhile, he was going to take this chance Rayne had given him to practice. He'd lose, there was no doubt. But at least, he'd lose facing Rayne like a man.

He should use this opportunity to somehow make amends to his family. He didn't know how to do that. How to make any of this better for them and he knew it wasn't even possible. But, he could tell them how much they mean to him. He hoped he could. Those words were never easy for him to say; especially, to those two men. He figured they knew but sometimes, the words needed to be said. Like when you're gonna die, he thought ruefully.

But he couldn't just come out and say it. For one, they'd think he was loco and for another, they'd know something was wrong. Then there was the fact he was pretty sure he'd choke on those words anyway. It wasn't that they weren't true, it's just he'd always been afraid of the reaction he'd get especially, from his father. He knew they cared for him. Lately, since this had happened, he'd been touched by how much they'd supported him.

Murdoch, particularly, had floored him. Wanting to hire a gunhawk to protect him. Outraged as the thought made him, it was the offer that nearly drove him to foolishness. He'd known that day that he was going to lose it. If he'd had to take much more, he would have for sure. That was another thing about saying those words. He'd get all mushy and that just wasn't right.

He shook his head then turned Barranca south so he could come in from the back. Getting yelled at for being out alone wasn't a good way to start off the last few days of your life.

*

"God, please," he whispered as he fumbled with the bullets. His right hand was trembling, the fingers not doing as he bade and he was about to give it up when the bullet slid into the chamber. "Well, that's one. Reckon I'll be at this all night," he muttered to himself.

He really didn't know how long it had taken but it seemed an eternity. Usually, he didn't even think about this chore. His fingers simply did the task quickly and efficiently. Now, he had to figure it out, work hard at it. Hell, it hadn't been this hard the very first time he'd loaded a gun and he'd had no idea what he was doing then.

Johnny wiped the sweat from his brow with his shirt sleeve and picked up another bullet with his left hand, transferring it to his right and raising the gun to meet his fingers. Twisting the projectile, he slid it in and smiled. Think I got this figured out. About time, he thought.

Four more times he performed the task and, with each bullet, it got easier. Finally, he was ready and he looked around, ensuring himself no one was about. This was his place and nobody ever came here but you never knew when that would change.

He looked at the tin cans and smirked. Half of last night, he'd sat on his bed and cocked the hammer over and over. His left thumb was sore as hell and there was a blister starting to form. He smirked again, remembering this particular chore from years ago.

Figuring he was putting it off, he raised the gun, cocked the hammer, aimed and fired. His hand jerked hard and he frowned at the suddenness. Damn! It really is like starting all over, he thought. He wondered what, if anything, he'd hit out there then tried it again.

As the hours passed, familiarity grew. He still wasn't hitting anything but at least the action itself was a little easier. He didn't think a month was going to be enough time. He thought he should ask for an extension then burst out laughing at himself.

Johnny sobered and walked over to sit on an old tree stump. His right arm hurt bad and he tried to rest it inside the sling. It wasn't helping much and he reckoned it would just have to hurt. Maybe it always will, he thought. That idea depressed the hell out of him until he remembered 'always' wasn't gonna be all that long anyhow.

"What the hell am I doing?" he asked the wind but it didn't answer other than to lift a stray strand of hair off his brow. The rest was plastered to his head, sweat stains under his arms and down the middle of his back.

He glanced at the sky and knew he should head back before Scott and Murdoch got home. He needed time to cool off so he looked like he hadn't been doing a blessed thing all day. That's what they expected of him.

*

Johnny came downstairs for supper looking cool and calm. He pulled up short when he saw Sam Jenkins sitting on the sofa in the living room. Bracing himself, he walked in and smiled a little.

"Johnny, how are you feeling?" Sam started right away.

"Lousy. How are you?" He sighed and felt like kicking himself. "I'm sorry, Sam. I'm sorry for the other day, too. It's not your fault."

"I understand, Johnny. It's easy to blame the bearer of bad news and I didn't take it personally."

He smiled at the man genuinely this time and sat down. "How long is it gonna hurt?"

Sam cocked his head to one side. "Well, I'm afraid I can't really say. Everyone heals differently and with nerves, it's really a guessing game. A month more, I'd say."

Johnny nodded and thought that was just great. Pain for the rest of his life.

"Have you been moving it at all?" Sam was asking.

"Once I tried to make a fist. That was plenty," he replied, making a face.

"That's what you get for not following doctor's orders," Scott reprimanded lightly.

"Oh, is that what I get? Thought I got a lecture," he retorted.

"I'm sure I could oblige with that, as well."

"Alright, boys, that's enough. Sam may be family but that doesn't mean he wants to hear the two of you going at it all night," Murdoch berated.

"What I would like is to examine you, Johnny," Sam smiled. He never minded the two of them 'going at it'. In fact, it made him feel good to see these young men so easy with each other.

Johnny half-shrugged and he and Sam went upstairs.

*

"Well," Sam sighed as he helped Johnny button his shirt. "The wound itself is healing very well. I was able to take all the stitches out. It's a little swollen, though. Are you sure you haven't been trying to use it?"

"I have to button my shirt, get dressed, things like that," Johnny snipped.

"It would be better to get someone to help you," Sam said and knew he was about to be blasted.


"Sure, Sam! Why don't you come on out every day and do this," he said, jerking his head toward the last button Sam was finishing up. "My pants, too, while you're at it. Morning and night, okay? Then, you can cut my meat for me and feed me like a baby!"

Undeterred, the older man stood up straight and looked down at Johnny. "I would if I had the time but you don't live alone, Johnny. Scott or Murdoch would be more than happy to help you and you know it. Pride is a fine thing in measure but too much will always fell a man. Now, do you want that arm to heal or not?"

Johnny wouldn't look at him, knowing the truth when he heard it and not liking it a bit. "What difference does it make?"

Sam cocked a brow then grabbed a chair and sat in front of him. "Pity isn't like you, son. I know how hard this is for you. Especially for you, John. I wish to God I could fix it but I can't. You have to learn to adapt. Relearn to use that arm to the best of your ability."


"I hear you, Sam, but it ain't that simple."

The doctor smiled. "I know it isn't but it's possible people will leave you alone. Who wants a reputation when it's not worth a plug nickel?"

Johnny looked up at him; anger, pain, fear all swirling in his eyes. "Plenty of people. It ain't that so much as I don't want anybody else getting hurt because of me."`

"They won't let you go."

Johnny stood and paced the room, frowning. "They don't have a choice. I'm not gonna leave, Sam, but I can't stay either."

"What does that mean?"

He stopped and looked at his friend with a small smile. "I don't know. Just talking crazy, I guess. I need a little time to get a handle on this and they're so worried someone's gonna come after me tomorrow. I feel..."

"Trapped?" Sam offered.

"Yeah," he breathed out. "That's it exactly. I know they don't mean to but, that doesn't help much."

"You know they're scared for you."

He nodded and smiled. "I know. Guess none of us is doin too good right now."

Sam walked over and put a hand on his left shoulder. "Time is a great healer. Now, how about we have some supper."

*

Johnny waited for them to leave the next morning and thought they may never get going. He didn't know how he was going to pull this off when Murdoch decided to stay home as he sometimes did. Well, he'd cross that bridge when he came to it. He still hadn't told them anything at all but he wasn't ready. Wasn't sure he ever would be. How do you tell your family you're going to be killed and there's nothing you can do to stop it?

He walked out to the barn and flagged down a hand to saddle Barranca for him. He held his saddlebags in his hand, not wanting anyone to see him wearing the rig until he felt confident enough to use it. Snorting lightly as he waited, he thought that would be never.  

The young man walked the palomino out and handed off the reins. Johnny dropped them and slung the saddlebags on, knowing Barranca wouldn't fuss too much. Mounting was the hard part. The sling didn't help though he didn't need his arm to get on but, it hurt like hell. Once seated, he looked down at the hand and winked. This was their little secret and Johnny had made sure the boy told no one. It helped a little to know he still swung some weight around the ranch if no place else.

Once he arrived at his practicing spot, he pulled the gun from the saddlebag and walked over to his mark. Here we go, he thought as he started shooting.

He stopped after five minutes and hung his head. He had to stop this. Had to push everything away and concentrate on what he was doing. Too many thoughts were crowding his mind. His family, Dallas and dying all fought for supremacy. It was too hard to find Madrid now.

He sat on the stump and tried to get it back. Maybe Madrid really was dead. No! He refused to believe that. He needed that part of himself now more than ever and he wasn't going to let it go. He understood now more clearly than ever that he'd never let go of Madrid. That part of himself was what made him who he was. That *is* who I am, he thought.

It didn't matter what name he went by. All that mattered was the lessons, the life he'd lived up to and including the day he'd lost. He closed his eyes and went inside, back to the days of riding the trail, fighting range wars and street battles. Back to the man he'd grown to be and always was. With a slow sigh, he opened his eyes and stood up. He was ready now.

He cocked the hammer and aimed. Unable to fan the hammer as was his usual style, he adapted to a more commonplace method. With a slight grin, he didn't think he was very commonplace. His confidence came back slowly as he started hitting the targets with more accuracy. It was a start anyway.

He finally called it a day and headed home. He still knew this wasn't going to keep him alive but at least, he'd be able to stand there and face the man with dignity. He wouldn't be cut down like a dog.

He felt drained and he knew he wasn't doing his right arm any favors. Sam had seen the swelling but he was trying not to use it too much. Still, he had to load the gun. He didn't know how he was going to get that gunbelt on though. He thought he'd practice that tonight once everyone had gone to bed.

*

Murdoch kept looking at him at the supper table. Something was different. Johnny seemed more himself today. More ... at ease and maybe, confident was a good word. He wondered about it but wasn't sure he should bring it up.

"What?" Johnny asked softly without looking at Murdoch.

"I'm sorry?" Scott asked, surprised at the break in the silence.

Johnny shook his head and looked at his father. "You been starin a hole through me all night. What?"

Murdoch grimaced. "You seem different. Well, actually, you seem yourself."

Scott looked hard at his brother and agreed then chastised himself for not noticing.

Johnny only looked at his father, not knowing how to respond to the statements.

"How's your arm feel?" Murdoch asked.

"About the same."

"What did you do today?"

He smiled a little. "Want me to write you a report? Oh, wait. I can't."

"There's no need to be sarcastic, son."

He gave a reticent look. "Sorry. Just tired of it. I know it hasn't been long but, it's still hard."

"Well, Sam took the stitches out. That's progress," Scott tried.

Johnny bit his tongue and held himself in check. "Yeah, guess so." He gave them both a small smile and pushed his plate back a little.

"You didn't eat much, son."

"Murdoch, please don't baby me. I can't stand this as it is." He sighed and sat back in his chair. "Look, I know none of us knows how to deal with this but, maybe you could just treat me the same as you always did."

"I suppose that's best but you have to promise you'll do as Sam says and you'll tell us if there's a problem with that arm."

"I promise," he sighed. This wasn't working out like he'd hoped. He wanted things to be easy between them. Wanted the familiarity back but everyone was strung so tight, he figured one or all of them would simply break at any minute. "Think I'll get some air. Excuse me."

"He's not doing as well as he says," Scott spoke out once Johnny had left.

"I know but there is something different. He's a little more like himself. Maybe, if we try and do as he asks, he'll come back all the way."

Scott wasn't sure about that. He didn't think Johnny would ever be the same person again. And he dreaded the day they all knew was coming. When someone would come along and challenge him. It hung over the house like a black cloud that wouldn't go away.

*

He rested his head on the cool adobe wall as he stared into the inky night. A light breeze played with his hair and he closed his eyes for a moment in appreciation. If he could just stop feeling so wrung out, that would help a lot. He didn't understand that part. Why he wasn't feeling stronger than he did. His arm shouldn't be causing such a problem even though, it hurt all the time. Maybe he wasn't sleeping as well as he'd thought. Deciding that was probably exactly the problem, he realized there wasn't a thing he could do about that.

Well, he could get rip-roarin drunk every night, he reckoned. A slight smile flew across his face. Or, he could take the laudanum they were always tryin to shove down his throat. He didn't smile at that. Something had to give, though. He couldn't keep hiding this from them. A thought suddenly came to him and he raised his head as he worked it through.

"Johnny?"

He jerked around, his right arm trying to move to his side. Inhibited by the sling and the exquisite pain shooting down his arm, he figured he didn't need that much reminder there was no gun there to draw.

Murdoch stepped quickly to him, taking his left arm and guiding him to a seat. "I'm sorry, son. I didn't mean to startle you." His voice was laced with regret and guilt.

Johnny leaned forward a little, sucking in air as he tried to master the pain. Finally, it subsided and in that moment, he knew what he had to do.

Murdoch was rubbing his back and he inhaled deeply, blowing it out slowly. "I'm okay," he whispered and leaned back.

"That was thoughtless of me."

Johnny raised his left hand to still the man. "It's a good reminder. Murdoch, I was thinkin maybe I need some time alone. Maybe go up in the mountains for a week or two. Get my head right about all this."

"Alone? That's not a good idea, son."

"You can't protect me. I know you want to and I appreciate it but, it ain't gonna happen. No one has to know where I am. I can ride and ... I really need this."

Brows creased in thought, Murdoch finally nodded. "Your brother is going to have a fit."

Johnny smiled. "That's always fun to watch."

*

Scott stood with arms crossed, frown firmly in place as Murdoch tied off Johnny's saddlebags, bulging with what they thought were extra supplies for the mountain cabin.

"I should come up in a week and check on you," Scott tried once more.

"Might get yourself in all kinds of trouble, Boston. I plan on riggin up some traps. Can't say you won't lose a foot," Johnny replied casually. He turned and faced his brother with a more serious expression. "Don't, Scott, okay? I need to be alone. Who's gonna find me up there? Nobody outside the family even knows about that cabin. That was the whole point of having it, remember? Besides, I'll probably get tired of myself pretty quick and be home before you know it."

Scott still frowned at him, unwilling to relent. "And if you get into trouble?"

Johnny lowered his eyes then glanced behind him. "I'll send Barranca home."

"What if you can't?"

Johnny sighed in frustration. "Look, leave me alone, alright?"

Scott's arms fell to his sides as he took in the anger on his brother's face.

"I'm sorry, Scott, but I can't have you hoverin over me right now."

"When do you ever let anyone hover?"

He smiled crookedly. "When I'm too sick to argue about it." The smile faded and he gave his brother his most pleading look. "I need this."

It worked and Scott's shoulders relaxed. He smiled a little and stepped up to his brother, a hand going to his left shoulder. He held tight, unwilling to release the young man from his sight. "This isn't easy for me either, you know. I worry. But, I promise I'll leave you alone for as long as you need."

Johnny nodded, grateful for the words. "And I promise to come home soon."

Cocking a brow, Scott spoke. " *As long as you need* means no more than two weeks. Did I forget to mention that?"

Laughing, the younger man nodded. "Yeah, you did but, that's okay. I figure that's plenty of time."

Johnny turned and found his father standing behind him.

"Everything Scott just said goes for me, too."

"I know. I'll be alright, I promise. I ..." he stopped. He couldn't say the words even now. But, he figured - hoped - there'd be time when he returned to say them.

*

It wasn't right and it wasn't fair and he knew it. He should be spending every precious moment he could with his family. But, sometimes a man had to do things his own way without prying eyes. This was important to him. He'd never cared that much about the reputation he'd earned. At least, not when he'd gotten a little older. In the beginning it was all consuming, the need to be respected and feared. But it was short lived and he'd grown to realize there was more to life than a reputation.

He had that life now and it was nearing its end so, he should be with them. He should be telling them how much he loved them. How grateful he was for their presence in his life if only for this short time they'd known each other. But, a bigger part of him; the part that made him a man told him he had to do this. He had to give it everything he had. It didn't matter that the end result wouldn't change. He had his pride and he reckoned Sam was right. It would fell him. But, he also had dignity and he would not give that away for anything. Not even his family.

For Johnny Madrid Lancer would never back down, would never turn tail and run and would never give up. He needed to practice away from any distractions. He needed to not worry about anyone seeing the pain or jumping all over him for what he was doing.

He stopped in the middle of the road and closed his eyes, listening to the world around him and searching for unnatural sounds. He heard nothing that shouldn't be there, like a horse or footsteps. Opening his eyes, he scanned the landscape closely. Satisfied no one was following him, he turned off the road and headed up into the mountains.

Two hours later, he reached his destination. Smiling at the cabin and remembering when they'd built it last fall, he dismounted slowly. It had been Scott's idea and Johnny was all for it. Murdoch took a little convincing but, in the end, the brothers had come out the victors. Talking Murdoch into anything that didn't turn a profit was always hard but, they'd used their ace. Telling him this was a place they could come in the winters to hunt and just be together was enough to pull at the old man's rope-tough heartstrings.

Scott's idea again to use that ploy. Only Johnny hadn't thought using himself was such a good idea. Scott had told him all he had to do was be very sincere and Murdoch would fold like a bad poker hand. The young man had doubted that highly but, once again, his brother had been right. Johnny snorted.

Well, they hadn't ever had a chance to use it. They'd just finished when a heavy snowfall kept them from coming back up last winter. Maybe this winter, he thought then stopped breathing for a second. Well, he sighed out, maybe Murdoch and Scott could come up. Maybe raise a glass to him. He smiled sardonically at that then untied the saddlebags.

"Be back in a few minutes, Barranca," he said then entered the cabin.

*

The gunbelt was turning out to be the hardest damned part of the whole mess, he decided. He'd spent last night standing in the middle of the cabin working on just getting it on. Well, he'd managed that but getting it just right on his hips wasn't working and he wondered if he could do this at all.

Unsaddling Barranca had been a piece of cake. Though, the whole time he was thinking of how he'd get that saddle back on with one arm. Still, he couldn't leave it there for two weeks certainly. He figured he wouldn't be doing any riding at all so Barranca wouldn't need too much care.  

Johnny finally made the decision and eased his arm out of the sling, holding it with his left hand and easing it to his side. He placed the end of the belt in his right hand then started manipulating the buckle. It felt backwards, too, and he had to think the whole thing through for several minutes.

Eventually, he got it where he wanted it and figured he'd never take it off again. He put the sling back on and thought the pain wasn't too bad. At least, no more than usual so that was good. Grabbing his bag of tin cans, he walked over to an open area and set them up.

Wryly, he wondered what the point was but, he had been hitting them occasionally and he needed something to aim at. "Just a waste of time and bullets," he muttered as he walked away and made his stand.

For a moment, he stood there and let himself go to that place where he felt comfortable. Then, he drew and fired. For three hours he didn't stop then, he sighed, wiped his brow and rubbed his left hand down his pant leg. It was sweaty and sore as all get out. He looked up at the sky and realized he was hungry. Leaving the cans where they were, some on the ground a few feet away, he went back inside.

Now this was not fun, he decided as he fixed his lunch. It took an hour to make the sandwich and coffee. He had no intentions of getting any fancier than this while he was up here. Too much trouble, he reckoned.

Once he'd eaten, he soaked his left hand in cold water for twenty minutes then rested it another hour. Sitting in a rocker he'd insisted on when they'd built the place, he listened to the pure natural beauty, the silence around him, and allowed himself to doze a while.

*

The week passed quickly as he kept busy with his practice. Wearing himself out every day made sleep much easier and he found he felt rested for the first time since this had started. He felt stronger. He was getting back to himself and Johnny couldn't be more pleased about that. At least, his last week with his family would be more pleasant. He would relax when he got home and just enjoy the time he had left.

He had no intentions of being sullen and he'd concluded he wasn't going to tell them about Dallas, either. Not until the appointed day. They'd only argue with him, cajole and even torment him unintentionally. It was better this way. Better for all for them.

Something else was happening, too. Something that simply astounded him. He was actually getting pretty good using his left hand. His aim was more true, his reflexes awakened on the left side as they'd always been on the right. Drawing was getting easier, smoother and, though he wasn't near up to his potential, he figured he wasn't bad. Maybe good enough for a third-rate gunhawk. He smiled a little at that.

He was a hard taskmaster, stopping only for meals and to care for Barranca. As long as there was light in the sky, he practiced. His hand wasn't sore anymore, either. He reckoned at this rate, he might make a decent enough show. At least, enough to retain his dignity and pride. He figured no one would expect this much from him so he was ahead of the game.

He was also very happy he'd stuffed his saddlebags with ammunition. There'd been nothing else but a change of clothes and his rig in there. If he'd run out, he'd have been pretty pissed at himself. He chuckled a little at that then focused on the task at hand.

Smoke and the sound of gunfire surrounded the cabin daily. The scent of gunpowder never completely evaporated during the night before he was back at it again. Johnny was becoming obsessed. He thought of nothing else but practicing and had even considered doing it at night. Common sense took over at those times as he knew he needed rest as much as practice. He had to be mentally fit as well as physically.

His right arm felt numb and tingled sometimes but he was able to flex his hand without the searing pain. It hurt but nowhere near like it had. He didn't use it anymore than was necessary, though. Maybe saddling Barranca wouldn't be as tough as he thought. That would be a nice change.

*

During the second week of his self-imposed retreat, something he could only describe as miraculous happened. Ten days after coming to this peaceful place, Johnny's draw was incredibly fast, his aim perfect. He stood staring at the tin cans splayed about the ground in amazement.

He looked over at Barranca in the small corral. "Did you see that?" he asked, but the palomino just chewed his hay. "I hit them all, Barranca. I hit them all and one right after the other! You think I can be as good as a lefty as I was?"

The horse didn't answer him, he was too busy with his lunch and Johnny laughed a little then grew solemn. He walked over to the porch and sat in the rocker. Could he be as good? He shook his head. It didn't matter. As good wasn't good enough against Dallas Rayne. He had to be better than before. He wasn't so sure he could pull that off. Still, he hadn't thought he could do any of this yet, he had.

Johnny stood back up and stared at the cans. With a determined nod of his head, he walked out and set them up again.

It was full on night before he realized he couldn't see the cans anymore. The half moon didn't cast enough light to keep going so, reluctantly, he stopped. He was starving and remembered he hadn't had lunch. He walked over to check Barranca who was asleep then went inside and fixed his supper.

He checked his supply of ammunition, satisfied he still had enough then fell onto the cot and was asleep in seconds.

*

He stood there stunned as the smoke rose heavenward all around him. He heard a whinny and looked over. Barranca was watching him, eyes bright and aware and the horse nodded his head enthusiastically.

Johnny walked over and stroked his face then scratched behind his ear. "You think so? I mean, I do but, it's hard to judge. Maybe I want it too bad. Maybe I can't really tell."

Barranca leaned over the rail and pressed his forehead against Johnny's chest, nickering softly. Johnny rested his own forehead against the white mane and sighed out.

"Yeah, you're right. I can't believe it, ya know? Well, I still want to practice. Need to keep this going, boy. I need to be as fast as I possibly can. No need in gettin all arrogant about it." He patted Barranca's neck and walked back over, setting up his targets.

It was so easy now, he thought. As easy as it had been with his right hand. Just as natural to him, too. And, as he kept going, he came to realize it was true. He was faster than he'd ever been. How could that be? Why am I even questioning it? I should just be grateful.

Tomorrow, he was going home and he felt more alive than he had in weeks. But, he still wasn't going to tell them. He'd practice away from the house but, he knew they wouldn't believe him. They'd think he was fooling himself and he'd thought that, too, so he wouldn't be able to blame them for it. But now, he knew better.

For the first time since Dallas Rayne had returned, Johnny wasn't afraid to face him. He frowned as he understood he had been afraid. It wasn't a new feeling for him. He'd been scared plenty of times in his life but he'd never let it show. He knew he hadn't shown it to Rayne that day on the road, either. That pleased him but now, it was even better because it wasn't there at all.

That feeling he got when he was facing a man in the street was back. Knowing he might die in the next few seconds had always been part of it but, he'd never been afraid of it. Death was something Johnny had faced so many times in his life, he'd come to accept it as inevitable. That didn't mean he went looking for it. It was simply there. Something that was going to happen at some point and something he had no problem facing.

He was at peace with this gunfight. No matter how it turned out now, he would know he'd done his best. Just like he had the last time. It was only sheer luck or, maybe the grace of God, which had kept him alive. He couldn't ponder the why of it. He just accepted it as he always had whenever he walked away from a fight unscathed or, at least, alive.

That didn't stop him from casting his eyes to the heavens and thanking all that was holy for restoring his gift.

*

Johnny rode under the Lancer arch as the sun was dipping behind the mountains to the west. He'd spent the morning practicing a little more then saddled Barranca with less difficulty than he'd imagined. It had still been a chore but, he'd done it and the horse had been cooperative. He smiled. Seems Barranca always knew when he needed him most.

He saw his brother step into the yard followed closely by Murdoch and Johnny's smile widened. He'd missed them and it was good to be home. The fact that he felt better about his chances at keeping this life made it all sweeter.

Scott was watching his face closely and he saw the change. Johnny seemed happy and, as glad as he was of that, he was curious as to what had caused it. He reached out and took hold of the bridle as his brother stopped in front of him.

Johnny dismounted carefully and glanced at Jose who hurried over to take Barranca. He grabbed the saddlebags the hand had untied for him. "He needs a real good brushing and his hooves done."

The man nodded, smiled widely then led the animal away.

"How do you feel, son?" Murdoch asked and immediately regretted it. He figured Johnny would be angry but the young man only smiled.

"I feel good, Murdoch. Real good. Arm's doin a lot better."

Scowling, Murdoch asked, "you didn't use it, did you?"

"Well, just a little bit but I had to. It doesn't hurt near as much and I can make sort of a fist without passin out," he reported, still smiling. "Hope I'm in time for supper. I couldn't do much cookin up there."

"Just in time, in fact. I suspect that was on purpose," Scott smiled then tagged his left arm. "Welcome home. You look ... rested."


"I am, Boston, I am. Feel tons better about everything," Johnny replied then walked into the house.

Scott turned and watched him, noting his step was lighter. "What got into him?"

"I don't know but, I'm very glad for whatever it was. He seems like his old self again. I guess he really did know exactly what he needed," Murdoch mused.

*

Murdoch found his younger son on the veranda after supper, sitting on the wall. He noisily walked outside.

Johnny laughed softly and turned to look at him. "Makin noise for me, old man? I'm not as jumpy as I was."

"I've noticed. You seem happy. Maybe even at peace." The question was there.

"I am."

His face was serious but his eyes still danced and Murdoch had to smile at him. "I guess I don't need to know the particulars but I'm very glad you're feeling so much better."

Johnny looked back into the night and let out a soft breath. "There's somethin I've been thinking I should tell you. Even now that I've got my head back on straight, it's important. The danger is still out there." He turned back, moving his seat so he could fully face his father.

Murdoch sat in a chair near him and waited with held breath.


"This is not easy for me. I know it's not an easy thing for you, either. We don't say it but, sometimes in some situations, I think it needs to be said."

Completely confused, Murdoch could only wait.

Johnny looked down and picked at his conchos, swallowing hard and licking his lips. He gave a short laugh and shook his head. "See, I can't ... I mean, I can. I want to, it's just..."

Murdoch reached over and touched his knee. "Son, whatever it is, you can tell me."

He sighed and looked at his father. "I don't want you thinkin I'm goin soft. Or that maybe there's somethin wrong with me. I just feel the need to tell you. It's just that it's a pretty big deal, at least to me, and I'm not sure how you're gonna take it, is all."

"Well, neither do I until I hear it," Murdoch smiled softly.

Johnny nodded and took a deep breath. "I spent most of my life hating you and I didn't even know you. That was wrong but it was all I knew then. When I met you and started gettin to know you, that all changed. So, it's important to me that you know that I really do care for you a lot. You mean the world to me."

The crickets sounded especially loud in the silence between the two men. Johnny couldn't look at his father, sure the man was thinking he was loco.

Murdoch's head spun as he embraced the words. He'd longed to hear this from his son for so many years but had come to accept he never would. He understood Johnny's phrasing, knew how hard saying what he'd said had been and exactly what he meant. He heard the ocean rushing in his ears and he knew he needed to say something before Johnny mistook his silence as denial. Swallowing dryly, he opened his mouth.

"I'm sorry, son. I'm just surprised - and pleased. I never expected ... I've always hoped you knew how much I've always loved you and always will." He watched the shoulders relax and knew he'd come very close to ruining this.

"I do now," Johnny said softly then looked up and smiled. "Hope you don't think I'm mushy or somethin."

Murdoch chuckled a little. "No, son. No, I don't think that at all. Thank you for telling me. I know how hard that was and that makes it even better to hear. I know how hard it's been for you coming home. I, um, I wasn't sure you'd ever get to a place where..." he trailed off, knowing he wasn't making a bit of sense and feeling very foolish.

"Can't blame you for that. I'm glad we got it said, though. Now, we can pretend it never happened." Johnny's smile lit up the night and Murdoch laughed out loud.

"Must be a good joke. Can I hear it?" Scott asked as he joined them, hands full of glasses he passed off to each of them.  

"Oh, just your brother being your brother, son."

Scott smiled and sat beside his father. "That's the best news I've heard in a while."

In the comfortable silence that ensued, Johnny felt warm and at peace. Moreso than he'd ever felt before with these men. He knew they cared for him but saying the words and hearing his father's reply made it so much more real to him. And he wanted to hold onto that. He intended to hold onto that. Maybe, that's why he was doing so well with his gun. He sighed out quietly in contentment.

Murdoch watched his face in the darkness, shadows covering a portion of his profile. Yet, he could tell his son was happy and it gave him a sense of wellbeing. He could only hope it lasted. Whatever had happened on that mountain, it had eased his son's tortured heart. Maybe, they really could let go. Forget about Madrid and any problems they could conjure in their imaginations. Who was to say any of it would come to fruition? For now, he'd be happy and know his son loved him. It was a precious gift Johnny had given him tonight and he reveled in it.

*

For the next week, Johnny continued to practice daily and by Friday, he was impressed with himself. Not one for self-adulation, he had to admit, he was better than he'd ever been. It perplexed him. Hell, life perplexed him a great deal of the time. But, he wasn't going to drive himself crazy with it. He had a real chance now. All he had to do was tell his family about Dallas.

Saturday morning, Scott hitched up the wagon for the monthly supply trip into town. He walked around the back of the wagon, checking for any problems when he saw his brother walk outside looking like he was going somewhere. Maybe he's decided to come along, he thought.

Johnny gave a quick wave as he went to the barn and Scott reconsidered. Guess he's just going to see Barranca. Part of him was a little disappointed. He thought Johnny was avoiding facing the townspeople. While he understood, he'd hoped Johnny was past feeling any shame about what had happened six weeks ago.

He sighed. Six weeks. It seemed like forever some days, just yesterday others. Johnny no longer wore the sling, his arm was mending and he was able to raise it halfway now. He still wasn't working on anything more strenuous than the ledgers but that was Sam's orders. The fact that his brother hadn't bucked was what had Scott so intrigued.

He stopped, staring intently as Johnny walked a saddled Barranca out of the barn and over to the hitching post in front of the house. He thought it odd the saddlebags were in place.

"You're going?" he asked.

"Yep. Why? Ashamed to be seen with me?" Johnny grinned.

"Never!" Scott's demeanor was much too serious in Johnny's estimation.

"I was just kiddin, Scott. Jesus!"

Reticent, Scott smiled a little. "Sorry, but you have nothing to be ashamed of, Johnny. Why don't you ride in the wagon with Murdoch? I can saddle Remmie."

"I'd rather ride if you don't mind."

"Not at all. That arm is doing better all the time."

Johnny nodded then looked around. No one was about and he wondered if he should bring up the talk he and Murdoch had. He wanted to tell his brother the same thing but it was different with Scott. Seemed he just understood how Johnny felt. His eyes found his brother's and they stood there just looking at each other for a long moment. Johnny smiled warmly and Scott reciprocated and he knew his brother understood how important he was. He supposed sometimes, the words really weren't necessary.

"Are we ready?" Murdoch interrupted, slowing a little when he saw the palomino. He said nothing about it and climbed aboard.

Scott sighed and shrugged. "I guess so."

*

Johnny was quiet the entire trip to town. He kept trying to figure out just when he should tell them. They'd be mad. Hell, mad didn't come near covering it but, he knew he had to do something before they rode in there. One mile from town he made a different choice and spurred Barranca on to get in front of them then, he stopped in the middle of the road facing the two men.

Scott pulled to a stop and set the brake. "What's going on?"

Johnny looked at him then at the sky then at Murdoch before turning his gaze on his brother again. "Well, I'll tell ya, Scott, I think I'm gonna ride in alone. Just so nobody thinks I'm using you for cover. I know you think it's crazy but, guess that's just how I feel about it."

"We understand, son. Not too far behind us, though?"   Murdoch spoke up.

"Not too far behind. Thanks," he smiled and moved to the side of the road.

Scott smiled at him as they drove past and Johnny watched them disappear around a curve in the road. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

It had occurred to him near the end of the trip that he couldn't tell them about this. One or both of them would try something foolish with Rayne and Johnny knew that would put him at a disadvantage. He dismounted and pulled the rig from the saddlebag. Checking the Colt and, satisfied it was operable, he wrapped the belt around his hips and buckled it, tightening it once. Habit, he thought and shook his head.

He stood there a while longer, giving them time to get to the Feed and Seed before showing his face. He knew Rayne would be watching for him. He knew there would be no time to prepare once he rode down that main street. He paced for a bit, readying himself inwardly and outwardly. He figured there'd be a few turned heads when they saw him and noticed the rig. He only hoped his family didn't see him first.

But, he was pretty sure they wouldn't. They'd be too far away to make a difference anyway but he had to say a quick prayer they wouldn't try to intervene. Under normal circumstances, he'd never worry about that. But, this was far from normal.

After a few practice draws, he figured he was as ready as he'd ever be so he mounted up and rode down the trail.

*

His mind wasn't obeying him. That's how it felt. Thoughts of his family raced through his head. He realized now that he'd made a mistake not telling them about the gunfight. He could very well lose and then he wouldn't be around to explain his reasons. Johnny sighed and cursed himself for his foolish pride.

Why couldn't he have just trusted that they'd understand? Even if they didn't, he knew he could have convinced them to stay out of it. The more he thought about this, the more convinced he was that he was an idiot. What made him think he'd just waltz in there, take care of Rayne then stroll over to his family and explain himself? It was crazy, that's what it was.

He allowed the idea of losing to enter his mind for the first time in over a week. His confidence was back in full force but, he'd been confident the first time, too. That didn't turn out so well. He reined to a stop and bowed his head, breathing rapidly as his heart raced.

Stop this! You can't be doin this. Especially right now. He felt the cold grip of fear cramping his chest and took the minutes he needed to calm himself. It was all so new to him, this feeling of uncertainty. While he'd always known there was a chance of losing, it had never happened before so he'd never had to face it. He thought he'd dealt with that but apparently, he wasn't done with it. Well, it's time to get done with it, that's all, he berated himself.

He reached inside and found his anger. All he had to do was think of Rayne's threat to wipe out his family, their friends and home and the ire was reborn. Johnny gritted his teeth, his jaw muscles twitching as he pictured the young gunfighter in his head. Imagined a cocky expression on his face and an evil smile. The image did the trick and Johnny felt the cold come over him.

It was calming, this special brand of iciness. He allowed himself to feel nothing but grim determination. His face was set in stone, his mouth tight, his eyes hard. He was Johnny Madrid and no one would ever take that away from him. Not even in death.

*

Dallas stood by the batwings in anticipation. He knew Madrid would show and it was nearly time. He watched with a frown as the Lancers drove by in a wagon and thought briefly maybe the man wasn't going to come after all. That would be a shame since he had the father and brother right in his sights. Surely, Madrid wouldn't leave them swingin in the wind like that.

Maybe they didn't know. They sure seemed comfortable. Not a care in the world, looked like to him. Yeah, he decided, Madrid kept this to himself. Sounded reasonable to him. He smiled a little then turned to look north, his lips spreading wider when he saw what he'd been waiting a month for. He stepped outside and leaned against a support post.

Johnny saw him emerge from the saloon like clockwork. He kept his eyes straight ahead as several people watched him ride in. He could hear the mumbling, the whispers and he wanted to smile but he didn't. He reined to a stop across the street and just a little further down.

Confidence poured off him as he dismounted and turned, walking into the middle of the street and facing north. And he waited.

Dallas stepped into the street and faced him ten feet away. It was only then he saw and he burst out laughing.

"Are you kiddin me, Madrid? You're no lefty."

"Well, I am now thanks to you, Rayne. I'm here just like you wanted. Let's get this over with. I could use a cold beer." Johnny smiled ever so slightly.

Dallas' eyes hardened with the implied threat then he relaxed as appreciation settled over him. "You're good, Johnny. All icy and smooth. But, you had your day. Now it's my time. Too bad, really. I think we woulda been friends if things were different."

Johnny shrugged as if it made no difference to him one way or the other - and it didn't. He took his usual casual stance, his left hip a little lower than his right as his hand hovered over the holster.

It grew eerily quiet as the two men faced off. Spectators were hiding behind posts, peering out windows and doors, holding their collective breath.

*

Scott threw the sack of oats in the wagon bed and stopped to take a breath. He looked down the street and every fiber of his being went on alert. He blinked, unable to fathom what he was seeing for a few seconds. With sudden understanding, he turned toward the store. "Murdoch!"

The rancher ran outside. "What?"

"You'd better take a look down the street, Sir." Scott's voice was full of agitation.

Murdoch frowned as his eyes searched and found the scene playing out before him. "Oh my God," he whispered. His legs felt weak and he wasn't sure they would carry him but, somehow, he managed to make them move toward his son.

Scott was beside him until they got within five feet of Johnny, who had his back to them then, he reached out and took hold of his father's arm in dismay. "He's trying this left-handed!"

"We have to stop him!"

"We can't. It's too late," Scott admitted and pulled his father onto the sidewalk. There was nothing they could do. He'd learned long ago to stay out of Johnny's battles. Even this one. He knew he was watching his brother's final seconds on this earth and his veins caught fire.

Murdoch didn't want to watch this but he couldn't look away, either. He knew Rayne would not leave without making sure Johnny was dead this time. He was watching his son die and it was even worse than watching him shot out of the saddle when he'd first come home. His mind raced for a way to stop this but he knew he couldn't. Not without destroying Johnny's dignity and self-worth. His son had spent years honing his craft and, whether Murdoch liked it or not, Johnny was very good at what he did and the young man had pride in his trade.

He understood now the conversation he'd had with Johnny less than a week ago. His son had told him he loved him because he knew he'd never get another chance. Murdoch pinched the bridge of his nose and prayed as his heart seemed to stop beating.

*

Time had a way of standing still sometimes. This was one of those times for Johnny. He looked in the other man's eyes and knew he'd see no warning. This time, he wasn't going to wait for one. He had one more surprise in store for Dallas Rayne and he used it.

Dallas smiled a little. "Sorry, Madrid."

"No need to be. Just part of the game," Johnny replied softly then drew his gun without so much as a blink.

Scott and Murdoch both jumped two inches when the report exploded in the silence surrounding them. Neither had noticed that silence until it was violently ripped away. And neither could seem to move once the smoke cleared. They were shocked still, so familiar was the scene before them.

His gun was in his hand, just at his waist and not quite level when it fell to the ground with a soft thud. His eyes went to his opponent, a curious expression adorning his face. Then, he looked at his chest and watched in fascination as the crimson stain grew larger. He tried to suck in a breath but it would only go in halfway. Then, he simply crumpled to the ground.

The dark-haired man walked over and knelt down, tossing the gun across the street as he found the eyes that were almost dead staring at him.

"Makin sure," he managed to groan out.

"Lessons learned the hard way, I guess."

"I ... guess you earned that ...reputation," he breathed out then closed his eyes for the last time.

"Earned is right," Johnny said coldly as he felt the man's neck for a pulse and found none. He stood up and slid his gun in the holster then half-turned and looked at the spectators gawking at him in awe. He saw respect and fear and figured that was about right.

He turned completely around to face the men he knew were there. But, he had nothing to say. Not here in the middle of town. Inhaling deeply, he walked over and looked up onto the boardwalk searching for something akin to redemption, he supposed.

Murdoch stepped down and faced him. "There's a lot you have to explain, son. Right now, I'm simply grateful you're alive. The supplies can wait for another day. Let's go home and talk this out. Maybe by then, my heart will have started beating again."

Johnny smiled briefly then looked at his brother, seeing the anger he'd expected. But there was so much more in Scott's eyes and he had to look away.

"I'll get the wagon," was all the older sibling said.

*

Johnny stared out the picture window behind Murdoch's desk. There had been not one word spoken on the way home. He could only imagine their thoughts and he was ashamed of himself for not allowing their feelings to be counted. He heard them pacing, the both of them, and figured he wasn't going to start this talk. He let out a soft breath as he waited and wondered why they hadn't lit into him yet.

"Why didn't you tell us?"

He turned to face the rancher asking in a surprisingly soft voice. "I wasn't sure I could do it. Been practicing since that first week."

"You've known all this time Rayne was coming?" Scott asked in disbelief.

Johnny shook his head. "No, but I knew someone would. Didn't know about Rayne until just before I went to the cabin. That's all I did while I was there."

Murdoch stared at him for a long moment. "I don't understand, son. Why didn't you tell us any of this?"

He breathed out heavily through his nose and ran a hand through his hair. "I couldn't. I didn't think you'd like it much but I had to try. I can't live here unable to defend myself, Murdoch. It would be different if I was just a rancher but I'm not."

"Johnny, you could be."


"No, I can't," he said softly yet firmly. "Try to understand. I will *always* be Johnny Madrid and that doesn't bother me. But Madrid with a bum arm is just a dead man walkin."

Scott walked over to stand face to face with him. "Did it occur to you that you might lose? Do you realize he wouldn't have been so careless this time? Have you any idea how we felt when we saw you standing in that street facing that man down? How could you leave us hanging like that, Johnny?"

He could only stare for a long time, actually grateful his brother was yelling at him. He fought back a smile of relief and allowed that Scott had every right. "I know. I know I messed up. It seemed like a good idea at the time but, after you drove off, I realized how stupid it was."

"I can't imagine what we would have done if..." Murdoch stopped, he couldn't even say the words.

"I'm sorry. I really am. I just didn't want to argue with you about it. You would have told me how crazy it was and tried to stop me."

"Of course we would have!" Scott exploded then turned and paced away before facing him again. "But, if you had told us or shown us you could do it, we would have understood better. We would have supported you, Johnny. We both know how hard this has been for you. We've tried ..." he stopped and took a breath.

"Don't you ever do anything like that again! It's bad enough when someone calls you out but to have known all this time and not said a word...it's inexcusable! If you'd died, we wouldn't have known any of this. Do you understand that? Did you even think about that?!"

The level of Scott's anger stunned Johnny for a moment. Under other circumstances, he may have thought this comical as Scott rarely got so angry. Standing there, fists on hips, glaring at him. That was the part that wasn't funny. Scott was glaring at *him*. He bowed his head and closed his eyes, finding some balance inside before looking at them. It took a few seconds before he could raise his head.

"Not until it was too late, Scott. I swear I won't ever keep anything from you again."

The genuine sincerity in his voice took the wind out of Scott and his shoulders slumped. Aggravated by this turn of events, Scott tried to get his anger back but it wasn't there any longer. All he felt at that moment was intense relief and residual fear for this young man, so reticent, standing before him.

"See that you keep that promise," he said softly. His anger may have abated but, Scott felt he had the right to the last word, at least.

Murdoch walked over to his son and surveyed him. "I would appreciate it if you kept that promise, as well. Maybe we would have told you it was a crazy idea but, you would have proved us wrong. Watching you standing there today, not knowing what was going on in your head ... you scared me, Johnny."

His head went down again for a few seconds before finding his father's gaze. He couldn't help but wonder why the man was being so calm about this whole thing. Why he hadn't ripped Johnny's ears off like Scott had done. He deserved to and Johnny knew he would've stood there and taken it from his father. "I should have told you. I just didn't want you gettin between us. He would have killed you to get at me. He threatened to wipe out the whole ranch."

Scott shook his head. "Stubborn," he muttered then walked over to his family. "What am I going to do with you, brother?"

Johnny grinned at him. "Put up with me, I guess."

They fell quiet, each man working through all that had been said and all that had been done until Scott smiled just a little. "I think you're faster now."

Johnny grinned and nodded. "I am. Don't know how or why but, I am. I was pretty surprised by that." Growing somber, he added, "it was a fair fight."

"Yes, it was," Scott agreed. "So, you're a lefty now," he teased.

Laughing softly, Johnny replied, "Well, sometimes, you just have to adjust."

******

John Wesley Hardin sighed and shook his head then threw a shot of whiskey down his throat. He wasn't a religious man at all but he reckoned he believed in some sort of fate. And he supposed Johnny Madrid had a guardian angel or some such shit like that. Seemed the man would not die. Well, the hell with it. He wasn't that interested in revenge in the first place.

Rayne had always bothered him. He'd thought more than once of just killin the kid himself. Why he hadn't, he couldn't fathom. With all the breed's self-proclaimed prowess, Wes figured it wasn't a bad idea to sic him on Johnny. One way or the other at least one of them would be out of his hair. So, he reckoned he shouldn't worry about which one. He smirked a little.

No, he thought, there's no point in worryin about Madrid. He'd see him soon enough when they both got to hell. With that decision made, he growled at the bartender to refill his glass. As he waited, he looked into the mirror behind the bar just in time to see the sheriff in the doorway pull the trigger, the gun aimed at his head.

 

 

~end~
2007

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