The Right To Choose by Mary B

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Word count: 9,530

He woke up cautiously. Keeping his eyes closed and his breathing slow, he began assessing the situation before revealing his state of consciousness.

He was laying on something. Too soft for the ground, too hard for a bed. And he smelled canvas. Okay, so he was on a cot, in a tent. He didn’t hear or feel anyone near him. Carefully, he slitted his eyes open. Definitely in a tent, and definitely alone. And it was daylight. So why was he on a cot?

He tested his body for injuries. His left knee hurt, as well as his right hip, right shoulder and his head. Didn’t feel like any bullet wounds. A fight? His jaw moved okay, his face didn’t feel swollen. A fall, then. Or thrown from a horse.

His shoulder concerned him. It hurt the least but worried him the most. Too much depended on his right arm. Even alone he moved his right hand only enough to fell that his rig was on the cot next to him. Not strapped on, but handy. And even if not loaded, there were bullets in the back of the belt. So, he was not among enemies.

Voices came from outside the tent. A least a couple of men. There had been several times when he had hired out during range wars that enough men were working together that they had set up a base camp with tents, cook and farrier.

Not enough voices or sounds for a camp. Just the couple of men, and yes, a woman. Slowly, he sat up on the cot and looked around. It was a large tent, with three other cots. His boots were sitting neatly within easy reach. Good thing, ‘cause even reaching that far made his head swim.

Once his boots were on, he quietly buckled on his gunbelt, took a deep breath and stood up. And almost fell back down. Great. Probably a concussion. Which lent itself to the horse thrown theory. And why he didn’t remember the fall itself.

The fact that he didn’t remember the tent or how he got to it was much more troubling. The people outside knew more than he did and that left him much too vulnerable. Oh, well, since he couldn’t make out enough of their conversation to learn anything, there was only one way to find out more. He picked his hat up off the end of the cot and put it on. It didn’t feel too good on his aching head, but he knew the sun in his eyes would feel worse. Testing the stability of his knee, he opened the flap and stepped outside.

And old man and a young couple looked up at him in surprise. They had been seated on logs near a cook fire. The two men got to their feet.

“Good morning!” the younger one said cheerfully. “I wondered if you were going to sleep all day.”

Before he could think of a retort, the older man said, “How’s your head, son?” His tone was friendly and concerned.

Now the girl frowned at his lack of response. “Johnny? Are you okay?”

“Let me guess,” the young man continued his teasing, ‘the answer is ‘I’m fine’.”

The old man was frowning at his silence as well. “John?”

Caution be damned. “Who are you people?”

All three froze. And exchanged shocked looks.

“You don’t remember us?” the young man asked, now very serious.

He searched their faces. The surprise seemed genuine. Damn. They had a lot more information than he did. “I reckon by that, I’m supposed to,” he drawled, keeping the panic out of his voice.

“Come and sit down,” the older man gestured to the log. When he hesitated, the man added, “More comfortable than falling down.”

He must look as shaky as he felt. “Okay.” He walked slowly to the log, ignoring the aches and pains of his knee and hip, and sat far enough away to draw if he had to.

The other man nodded to a pot on the fire. “Coffee?”

“Answers,“ he countered.

A nod. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Johnny squinted, thinking. “I was working around Sonora. I was thinkin’ about heading south.”

“Before the revolution?”

Johnny’s lips compressed. What should he tell these gringos? “People talk about it a lot. Nothin’ happenin’ so far.”

The old man nodded again, as if that non-answer meant something. “That’s were my agent found you.”

“You brought me here?”

“Yes.”

Okay. That was something. At least he knew who he was working for. Sort of. “So, did I do the job before I got busted up?”

The man blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“I mean if you paid me up front and then I fell off a horse or something, I’m just wonderin if you want your money back. If so, I gotta tell ya, I don’t remember where it is.” Damn. That was too much to say. Why did he trust this guy?

“No, no. The job was well done.”

“Sir…” the young guy cautioned.

Shut up, Blondie. Johnny thought to himself. I’m finally getting somewhere.

The old man continued. “You’ve been with us for a year now.”

“A year! Ain’t never stayed on a job a year!”

“It’s not exactly a job. You stayed because I asked you to.”

Some warning went off in Johnny’s head. Something was very wrong. He should jump on his horse and get out of here…except he didn’t know if he had a horse. And he didn’t know where ‘here’ was. Against his own better judgement, he pressed on. “What are you talking about?”

“I wanted you to stay because…you’re my son…”

Johnny sucked in his breath.

“…I’m Murdoch Lancer.”

At that, he did jump up and reach for his gun…and blacked out.

****

He woke up, again. He was on the cot, again. But this time, his head hurt worse. And he was not alone. Someone put a cool cloth on his forehead. It didn’t dim the ache much, but it helped. He must have sighed.

“You’re awake?”

Johnny reached up and moved the cloth enough to see the blond man sitting by the cot. They looked at each other a minute before the blond cocked his head.

“Where’s the old man?”

“Outside.”

“So, who are you?”

He paused before answering. “My name is Scott. I’m Murdoch’s other son.”

Johnny removed the cloth completely. “Come again?”

“He was married once before. She died when I was born.”

Johnny stared at him. Damn. Damn. Damn. He hated killing people with families. Then it struck him. Scott was his family as well. “Which makes us…”

“Brothers.”

Johnny took a breath.   Funny thing is my mother was around til I was 10 or 12. She never mentioned another kid.”

Scott shook his head. “I wasn’t there. I lived with my mother’s family in Boston.”

About a hundred questions popped into his head at once. H couldn’t even begin to sort through them all the way his head felt, so he went with the simplest. “Boston, huh? That’s back east somewhere.”

“Yes. It is. Very far east.”

Voices from outside reminded him. “So, who’s the girl?”

“Our sister for all practical purposes. Her name is Teresa. She’s our father’s ward. His daughter in all but blood.”

“Blood,” Johnny snorted.

Scott leaned forward. “Johnny, I understand that you don’t remember it right now, but it’s all true. Murdoch did ask you to come and you did stay.”

“Why?” he asked, angrily. Why would he stay and let Lancer live? He had been swearing since his mother had died that the man responsible for the life they had lived would pay with his own.

“You need to talk to Murdoch about that.”

That was curious. “You call him by his name?”

“I told you. I didn’t grow up on Lancer either. Actually, we met him at the same time last year.”

Johnny blew out a breath and put the cloth back over his eyes. “I don’t know which is making my head hurt worse. Whatever rock I hit, or your story.”

Scott stood up. “Take it easy, br…” he stopped himself and said instead, “It’ll make sense in time.” He stood for a second. Johnny could almost feel him staring before he finally went outside.

****

They left him alone for a while after that and he must’ve dozed off. When he woke next, it was evening. There was no one in the tent with him and it was quiet outside. He got up and slipped out. His body was stiffer, but his head felt better. At least it didn’t ache as much. The thought that he had lost a year of his life made him feel a little panicky. Most of his sense of security lay in being in control of a situation. H was totally out of control here and that felt much worse than a headache.

Absently he rubbed his hand on the top of his gun handle for the sense of control, hence comfort, it gave him. Something was different. He took the gun out and looked at it. Nothing appeared to be wrong with it. Frowning, he looked at his hand. It was covered in callouses. Not just the normal ones from handling his Colt day in and day out. He raised his left hand and looked at it. I looked the same. And there was a scar across the back of his hand that he didn’t recognize. It was true. He had lost quite a lot of time. And it looked like he had been doing hard work during most of it.

The panic started to build. He wanted to run, but the only people who seemed to have any answers were right here. To find out more, he would have to stay and talk to Lancer.

He found that he had wandered over to the stringline that held the horses. Saddles and tack sat in a small wagon nearby. He loved horses and these were nice ones. One especially caught his eye.

At the sound of footsteps behind him, he spun around, gun in hand. Lancer stood there, calmly unafraid. Stupid old man.

“I didn’t mean to startle you. Feeling better?”

Johnny put his gun away and looked past Lancer to the empty logs. “Where is everybody?”

“Scott and Teresa took a walk. They’re not far.” He gestured to the horses. “The palomino is yours.”

Johnny turned part of the way back around and looked at the beautiful animal, a small smile of appreciation on his lips.

Lancer continued. “His name is…”

“Barranca,” they said in unison

Lancer took a happy step toward him. “You remember?”

“Nah. I just always…” he stopped himself. He was trying to get information. Not give it.

“You were thinking of riding off.” It didn’t sound like a question.

“Maybe. What does it matter?”

“It matters,” the old man said with a sigh. “Although it wouldn’t be a surprise.”

“Why’s that?” Even he didn’t know which statement he was questioning.

“Because I know how you felt about me when you came last year. I know you came with the intention of putting a bullet between my eyes.”

Johnny blinked. He knew that? So why…?

“Let’s sit down and talk.”

He didn’t want to sit. He wanted to stay on his feet and keep his options open. But the horse wasn’t saddled, and he still had no idea where he was, and his head was beginning to hurt again, and…he sat.

“Okay, old man. You’re gonna explain why I didn’t put that bullet in your head then, and why I shouldn’t now,” he said coldly.

Lancer paused. “I had almost forgotten what it was like to talk to Madrid. I’ve gotten so used to Johnny Lancer.”

He stiffened. “You better start makin some sense soon.”

Lancer looked him in the eye for several moments. Johnny stared back. He hadn’t lost a contest like that since he was a kid. This was no exception. Lancer broke first and looked down at his hands. ‘” I don’t actually know why you didn’t kill me outright. I’m pretty sure that was your plan. Take the money, shoot me and go.”

“What money?”

“I offered you a thousand dollars to come and meet me.”

Johnny gave a low whistle. “A thousand dollars! That’s one stiff bribe!” He gave a sarcastic little smile.

Murdoch Lancer gave a small smile in return. “It worked. You came. And stayed. Maybe partly because of your brother…” Johnny snorted in disbelief “…maybe partly because you were ready for a change. And a home.”

“I could’ve had a home a long time ago!” Johnny bit out angrily.

“I know, Son. I don’t…”

“Don’t call me that!” Johnny stood up. “Look, I don’t see any thousand dollars this time. So maybe I’ll just be on my way.”

“Johnny, please!” Murdoch said forcefully. “Hear me out. I think you know time has passed. And I’m still alive. You must have had a reason. Please listen. You have so much at stake.”

The old man was pleading, but oddly enough, not for his own life. At least not only his own. He sat back down. “I’m listening. This better be one hell of a story.”

“Yes,” Lancer said, almost to himself. “The whole story. I did it so wrong the first time. It is one hell of a story, as you say. Can I have your word you’ll listen to all of it?”

“You’ll take my word?”

“Absolutely.”

There was no doubt in the old man’s tone. Either he knew Johnny very well, or he didn’t know him at all.

“All right. You have it.”

Lancer took a breath. ‘It began more than 25 years ago in Boston.”

“Where Scott’s from,” Johnny interrupted, mainly to establish he had some understanding in all of this.

Murdoch gave a short nod and continued. “I married Catherine. Her family disapproved to say the least. But we came west to start a ranch together. I bought a few acres of an old Spanish estancia. We moved into what was left of the house and began working to build a life. I invested in a few head of cattle, sold them and bought more acreage.

“When Catherine told me she was expecting our child, I felt like my life couldn’t get any more perfect.” He paused obviously entranced by the memory.

“And?” Johnny prompted.

“And then some landgrabbers started causing trouble for all of the ranches in the area. Things got ugly very quickly. People were shot at, cattle was run off…”

Johnny looked down briefly, acknowledging he was familiar with the tactics.

“I felt it was unsafe for Catherine. I contacted her father. He was to come out and take her to San Francisco until it was safe.” He paused again and took a sad breath. “They never made it. Scott was born early. In the wagon. On the road. Catherine died. Her father had her buried there and took Scott to Boston. To safety.

“I cannot express how devastated I was. I had always envisioned Catherine caring for our children while I built the ranch. I couldn’t do it alone.”

“So, you left him there.”

Murdoch hadn’t realized he had slowly dropped his gaze to his lap until Johnny’s words jerked it back up. “Yes. For a while. Until he was old enough, I could take care of him. Until the ranch was safe. Until my heart had begun to heal.”

“And when all that happened?” Johnny’s voice was devoid of emotion except a hint of curiosity.

“And when all that happened, I contacted Harlan, her father, and I was told he had started legal action to keep Scott permanently. Harlan Garrett was and is, a prominent business force in Boston. If I had liquidated the ranch that day, I wouldn’t have been able to hire the caliber of lawyer it would take to fight him. I tried reasoning with him, pleading with him. I went to Boston to try and just take Scott. He was 5 by then. I got in the house and saw him, but that was as far as I got. I had to come back to the ranch to keep it going to have any hope of having the means to claim Scott and care for him.

“At this point I was twice devastated. I had lost my wife and now I continually lost my son. I felt empty. Dead inside…… Then I met Maria.”

His sudden smile caught Johnny by surprise.

“Maria was fire and life and everything I wasn’t. She made it worth waking up in the morning. She was young and beautiful and exciting. We married quickly and I brought her home to Lancer. And when you were born, I felt like I was being given another chance at being a husband and father. I spent every moment with you I could. And I redoubled my effort to get Scott back. I thought surely Harlan would see that now I had a home and family to offer Scott.” He stopped so long Johnny didn’t know if he was going to continue. And when he did his voice was so low Johnny leaned forward to catch his words. ‘I don’t know when it started to go wrong. When it wasn’t enough. Maybe Maria was right in a way. Maybe she felt I pushed her away. I needed to keep the ranch growing, I needed to communicate with Scott, I needed you…I never considered what she needed.

“My foreman, Paul, told me I was losing her. I wouldn’t listen. She took a lover. A gambler. More exciting than a working rancher, I guess. Then one morning, I woke up and she was gone. And you with her.

“I assumed she would head for Mexico. I followed. I searched for weeks, but either no one had seen you or no one was telling. Eventually I came home. I went back out a few more times, but I never found a trace.

“Time passed. Scott was growing up out of my reach in Boston and you were growing up out of my reach in Mexico. Paul had Teresa and, and lost her mother as well. But we had Teresa. Two bitter, broken men raising this beautiful little girl. She saved our sanity.

“It was Paul who suggested using the Pinkerton’s to find you. I kept them on retainer. A line item in my budget. It wasn’t until they discovered that Johnny Lancer had become Johnny Madrid that they were able to piece together your life.” His face crumpled in grief. “Oh, Johnny, when I heard some of the things you had gone through…” he shook his head. “And then the ranch came under attack again. Paul was killed. I was so very tired of losing those I loved. I told the Pinkerton’s to contact Scott directly and offer him the thousand dollars to come and see me. Since I had never had any return letters or communication from Scott, I could only assume he wanted nothing to do with me. But I had to see him face to face.

“I authorized the same offer to you. But it was a while longer until they caught up with you.”

“I moved around a lot,” Johnny felt compelled to say.

Murdoch nodded. “Scott wired to say he was coming. I never heard from you. Teresa went to town to meet Scott’s stage, and to everyone’s shock, you were both on it. I must confess, the sight of both of you standing together in my home overwhelmed me. I fell back on the very thing I wanted to be rid of. Anger, bitterness and pride.

“But I was desperate for you both to stay. To help save the ranch since it was the only inheritance, I had for you, but mainly because I wanted, I needed my sons home.” He stopped. Spent.

Johnny took a shaky breath. “You said before the job was well done. Does that mean we saved your ranch?”

“Yes. But it’s OUR ranch. I legally divided it between the three of us.”

“You…” Johnny swallowed. “You know who I am?”

“I know you were Johnny Madrid, fastest gun this side of the Mississippi, and I thank Johnny Madrid for keeping you alive all those years so I could have Johnny Lancer back.”

Johnny became angry again. “Just like that. You want me to be somebody else and I’m supposed to just do it?!”

“But you have done it. And no, not just like that. It was hard. For both of us. For all of us. Scott knew all about discipline and command from the army, but nothing about ranching. You knew life out here but had never lived with constraints and boundaries. And I, well I knew nothing about being a father to two strong willed, angry young men. We learned together Johnny. And we became a family.

“You gave us a chance before. Will you give us one again?”

Scott and Teresa had come up behind Murdoch early in the storytelling. Johnny looked at them and back at Murdoch. He breathed slowly and deeply, trying to keep all the conflicting emotions at bay. He was surprised, confused, betrayed, hopeful… But mostly he felt…trapped.

He actually believed the old man. Even though it meant he was calling his mother a liar. Or maybe it was just their point of view. But whether or not Murdoch had really wanted and accepted him, and whether a year ago he had wanted and accepted Murdoch didn’t mean he could do it now. And that’s how he felt. Pushed to decide on a whole new life right this minute.

He stood up and paced a few steps. He needed time. Ultimately, a lot of time, but a few moments right now with the pressure off would help. He glanced at Scott. “So, you’re older than me.”

“Yes.”

Murdoch turned at Scott’s voice. Teresa came and sat by him.

Johnny nodded at her. “And you’re younger.”

She nodded back.

“Making you,” Scott said, “the proverbial middle child.”

Johnny looked at him blankly, knowing that sentence should mean something witty and being a little pissed he didn’t understand it. He turned back to Murdoch and gestured at Teresa. “You said you divided the ranch into three. Don’t she get some? Or don’t gringo treat their daughters the same?” Johnny hoped, probably in vain, that they would not recognize this emotional floundering for what it was. He didn’t really care much about the financial future of this unknown girl, but he had to get the focus off of himself for a moment at least.

Murdoch looked a little taken aback at the question. “Yes. She is well taken care of. By her daddy and by me.”

Teresa smiled at him. “Do…do you want to come back with us, Johnny? It’s your home, now.”

He stiffened again, the trapped feeling coming back strongly. So much for a diversion. But before he could think how to answer, Scott came to his rescue. “That’s probably a lot of information for one concussed brain to process. It’s getting late. What do you say we call it a night?” He looked at Johnny. “Who knows. Maybe a good night’s rest will help sort things out.”

Murdoch got to his feet. “Alright, Scott. You may be right. It’s been a long day.” He put his arm around Teresa and took a step toward the tent, then turned and looked at the boys expectantly.

“Seems I already had a lot of sleep today,” Johnny said. “I think I’ll sit out here a spell.” Murdoch raised his eyebrows and tried not to look at the horses. “I ain’t leavin yet, Ol Man. Still got a bunch of questions.”

His father nodded and turned his glance toward Scott.

“I’ll be in,” he answered evasively.

After the tent flap closed behind them, Johnny turned coldly to his ‘brother’. “What are you up to? I don’t need a babysitter. My head’s not that busted.”

Scott turned away from the tent. “Come with me.”

Johnny paused a moment, then followed. Scott led him a short distance away where several large boulders sat near a small lake. He leaned against one.

Johnny looked around, then opened his hands in a ‘what now?’ gesture. “So?”

“So, I figured you needed a little breathing space.”

“How do you figure that?”

“I’ve seen the look before.”

Johnny’s defenses snapped back into place. “What look?”

“That look,” Scott nodded at his posture. “Like a trapped animal.”

Johnny wanted to deny that this man could real him so easily, but he was right. “It’s just…” he put his hands on his hips and sighed. “I can’t do what I don’t remember doin.”

“I know this has to be hard. Murdoch is trying to fit the whole past year in a few sentences.”

“Yeah,” Johnny breathed agreement. “That was some story. I never heard nothing like that.”

“Me neither.”

Johnny frowned at him. ‘Somethin wrong with your head, too?”

Scott smiled. “No. It’s just that he’s never put it all together like that before. It was quite a different scene when we all met last year.”

“How’s that?”

“He…how shall I say this respectfully. He was an ass.”

An honest laugh escaped Johnny’s mouth at that. “Respectful, huh? And what do you call him when you’re bein disrespectful?”

“Nothing.” Scott told him. “To his face.” He smiled again, but then turned serious. “I suppose it was as he said. He had been working for that moment for so long and hard that it was overwhelming to have it accomplished all at once.”

“What did he do?” Johnny gave a little half bow towards Scott. “Respectfully speaking, of course.”

“Of course. He was gruff, short tempered, only listened to his own opinion. You and he had an especially hard time getting along at first. He never explained himself to either of us, though. Nothing to help us understand our fatherless pasts.”

Johnny sat on a rock. “You lived with your ma’s folks” Didn’t you have family?”

“For the most part, just my grandfather. And if Murdoch had been dead, it would have been enough. But he wasn’t. He was alive out there, somewhere, not wanting me. I never understood why.”

Johnny glanced back at the tents. “He said he tried to get you.”

“And I knew nothing about it. My grandfather seemed to think it was in my best interest to intercept any letters or communication. Letters in both directions, it seems.”

“Why?”

Scott shrugged. “Why did your mother tell you he threw you both out?”

Johnny jerked to his feet at the insult to his mother. Scott didn’t react other than to hold very, very still. Oddly, it helped Johnny’s state of mind that Scott understood what insulting Madrid could mean.

“I’m sorry. I only meant it is something you and I have always had in common.”

“What? That the person we trusted most hated Murdoch Lancer enough to deprive us of our father?”

Johnny’s words surprised himself as much as they did Scott. H took a long breath and sat back down. ‘Still don’t mean I can go be his good little pup on this ranch of his.”

“Ours,” Scott smiled.

Johnny shook his head in honest confusion. “So, why’d he really do that?”

“Give us each a third of his private empire? I suppose after we defeated Pardee…”

Johnny raised a hand. “Whoa! Wait. Pardee? Day Pardee?”

“Yes, that was who was trying to take Lancer.”

“And we stopped him.”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“We each had different plans on how to address the situation. I led him to believe Lancer was undefended. You attempted to take him down from the inside. Ultimately they worked together.”

When he paused, Johnny said, “Go on.”

“After he had killed some of our neighbors, I led most of our hands out following the trail they had left for us. Then we doubled back and got to the ranch ahead of them. Meanwhile, you had signed on with Pardee and led his men down into our trap.”

Johnny snorted again. “Well, either you’re flat out lyin, or not telling half of it. See, Day wouldn’t let anybody lead his gang. Not even me.”

Scott raised a brow at that last statement but didn’t comment. “Well, I don’t know any more of it than that. And you weren’t up to telling it for awhile as you were recovering from Pardee’s bullet in your back. But we gathered that you did or said something that angered him enough to chase you down into the open where we could pick them off. We lost four hands and counting you, had four more wounded. They lost nearly everyone. Including Pardee.”

Johnny shook his head in disbelief. “I sided with the old man against Day Pardee.”

“Yes, you did. And because you did, we won.”

Johnny blew out his breath. “Man, oh, man.” After another minute of thinking things over, he looked back at Scott. “Okay, I got two questions.”

“Anything.”

“Why are we living out here in a tent? And what did I bust my head on?”

Scott blinked. “In all the complicated information we have hurled at you today, no one ever explained those simple facts?” He shook his head in apology. “Well, we don’t typically live in a tent. We’re actually on a little family holiday. A fishing trip.”

Johnny stared at him. “Fishing.”

Scott indicated the water behind them. “Fishing.”

The absurdity of it overcame his defensiveness. “Did I catch anything?”

“Ah, no. you seem to lack the basic, how shall I say it…”

“Patience?”

“Patience. That’s a polite word.”

Johnny had to grin at the mental picture of himself sitting calmly with a fishing pole. More likely he would just… ”What did I do? Shoot ‘em?”

Scott grinned back. “As a matter of fact, you did. It infuriated Teresa.”

Johnny let himself enjoy the lighthearted moment before pressing his other question. “So how did I fall?”

“Off of Barranca.”

Johnny blinked in disbelief.

‘I know, I know,” Scott agreed. “You can sit any horse, wild or tame. And nobody saw the whole thing. Apparently, you were in the process of dismounting when a snake struck, causing Barranca to rear and you to fall off onto some of these rocks.” He patted one for emphasis. “your horse dispatched the snake and you got up pretty quickly. To be honest, we were so glad neither of you were bitten that maybe we didn’t check your injuries as well as we should have.”

“Wouldn’t have changed anything,” Johnny commented, then wondered why he felt compelled to assuage this man’s conscience.

“Maybe not. Either way, you said you were fine and just wanted to lay down for a bit. We were beginning to be concerned with you sleeping so long when you got up, and, well…”

Johnny sighed and looked down at his boots. “What if…?” he didn’t finish.

“It doesn’t come back?” Scott said it for him. “I don’t know, Brother. I wish I knew how to help. I really do.”

*****

The next morning, after a fish and pan bread breakfast, they broke camp to head home. Johnny stubbornly didn’t want to appear too helpful.  Although, he had to admit to himself, that if this was a camp of hired guns, or even complete strangers, he would have pulled his own weight without question.  But this being surrounded by people he “should” know, was unnerving.

Murdoch made a few comments about him taking it easy, which grated on his nerves. Scott always seemed to be close at hand to smooth things over. It made Johnny wonder just how often he had to do that between the two of them. Teresa seemed to waver back and forth between absent minded affection and being on the verge of tears. He tried to be pleasant to her.

And any spare moment when no one was watching, he worked his sore shoulder to make sure he could depend on it if the need arose.

*****

After about an hour ride, with Murdoch driving the small supply wagon and the rest mounted, they paused at the top of a hill. It seemed to be a ritual of some sort.  They all looked out at the valley and mountains spread out before them and took a large breath.

“There it is, Johnny,” Murdoch waved his arm. “Lancer. Your home.”

Even he couldn’t pretend he wasn’t impressed. “All this, huh? How big is it?”

“One hundred thousand acres.”

Johnny glanced at Scott who gave a small nod of confirmation. “Guess you could afford that bribe money.”

To say his father looked disappointed was an understatement, but with no further comment, they continued down the road cut into the hills to the valley where a large white hacienda sat. As soon as they had ridden under an arch bearing the Lancer name, vaqueros and hands waved and called out to them.

Murdoch nodded in return and Teresa waved happily and answered a few by name. As they pulled into the main courtyard, men came to take their horses. An older man in tattered vest and cap ambled over.

“Well, yer all home a might soon. What d’ya do? Fish the lake dry?”

Murdoch smiled. “No, Jelly, we had a bit of a misadventure and decided to come back.”

“Oh? What happened? Somebody hurt?” He peered at everyone worriedly until he came to Johnny. They locked eyes briefly and Jelly frowned. “What happened to you”

Johnny wondered how he could tell something was different. No one seemed to be able to answer the man simply, so Johnny finally said, ‘I fell off my horse and hit my head.”

Jelly snorted. “You don’t fall off Barranca lessin yer shot off. Somethin must’ve happened.”

“A snake apparently happened,” Murdoch explained. “Johnny’s a little shook up. He doesn’t remember the fall,” he paused. “or us.”

“Don’t remember!” Jelly sputtered and looked at Johnny again.

“Let’s keep this in the family for now, Jelly” Murdoch added. “No need to get it spread among the hands and have a hundred wrong versions by nightfall.”

Johnny looked at him at that. So, this guy was more family? A scruffy old uncle or something? No one had mentioned him in any stories. Murdoch seemed to realize the same thing.

“Johnny, this is Jelly Hoskins. Officially the ranch all ‘round handyman, but more accurately a well-loved part of the family.”

Jelly snorted again. “Well loved family. I’m so well loved thy took me fishin’ didn’t they?”

Johnny had to smile. He had always had a soft spot for cantankerous old coots. They had more often than not been the most accepting of him in his past.  “Probably didn’t want you showin em all up.”

“Damn right,” Jelly hitched his pants up and nodded in Johnny’s direction. “Nothin wrong with his head.” He turned to go.

“Jelly…” Murdoch called after him.

“I won’t spread it round. You oughta know I wouldn’t do nothin to hurt Johnny. Now, unlike some people who gets holidays, I got work to do.”

They all smiled at the handyman’s retreating, then headed inside.

Johnny walked into the great room slowly, taking everything in.  The large fireplace with the Lancer brand above it, the map, the ships, the huge desk, the rows and rows of books and more fancy furniture than he’d ever seen. He blew out a breath. “A year, huh?” he said to no one in particular.

Scott touched his arm. “Come on, Brother. I’ll show you where your room is.”

“Sure.” With only a quick glance at his father, he followed Scott up the stairs.

The bedroom seemed pretty standard. A saddlebag draped over a chair, a small carved horse on the nightstand and a couple of shirts and pants in a drawer were the only signs that it was inhabited.

“You travel light,” Scott offered.

“Always did.” Johnny sat on the bed and bounced a little, testing the springs. “So now what? I got chores or something?”

“We can figure that out. Since we’re back a bit early, Murdoch will have to get with Cipriano and decide how things stand and what needs attended to.”

“Cipriano?”

“Ranch foreman. ‘Segundo’ I believe it’s called.”

Johnny nodded. “Reckon I could go take care of Barranca. Jelly could show me around the barn.”

“Sounds like a good idea. Think you can find the barn?”

“That big building outside full of hay and horses? Yeah, I can manage.”

“I’ll come and find you for lunch in a bit.”

“Bien.” And with that, Johnny slipped away from his keepers for a little while. He breathed a sigh of relief when the heavy wooden door closed behind him and he headed to the barn in search of Jelly.

*****

Brushing the palomino was soothing, and Jelly’s nonstop prattling told him more about the ranch than he had figured on learning in one day. Besides who was who and who did what, the old man’s mutterings also included a few anecdotes of daily life. Johnny asked a question here and there, but mostly just listened, absorbing it all. Every now and then something seemed almost familiar and he would stop brushing and try to remember but couldn’t.

“Jelly?” he finally asked during a pause in the monologue, “I’m…am I happy here? Bein on Lancer?”

Jelly came around the end of the stall. “I gotta tell ya, Johnny, I didn’t know ya before I come here. I’d heard of ya. Knew who Madrid was and all, but I didn’t even know that was you til I’d been here a bit. But for as long as I’ve known ya here, you’ve been happy. Course you and Murdoch don’t see everything eye to eye all the time, but you and Scott are as close as can be.”

Johnny nodded his thanks and went back to grooming his horse.

*****

Lunch was quiet and a bit awkward. What talk there was consisted of Scott and Murdoch sorting out ranch business. Once Murdoch forgot and asked Johnny’s input on something. Seeing the blank stare he got in answer, Murdoch apologized curtly and changed subjects.

Johnny continued to stare. It wasn’t that the mistake upset him. It was the fact that his father had quite naturally asked for Johnny’s opinion that threw him. Like he valued what his son had to say. Like he mattered. The old man’s accidental slip meant more than a day’s worth of intentional speeches. That plus Jelly’s observations of happy family life turned his world upside down. Even more.

After lunch everyone seemed to have things to do, so Johnny wandered back into the great room and sat on the couch, staring at the empty fireplace.

Murdoch came in and stood awkwardly for a moment. “Are you feeling up to a ride around the ranch?”

Not really. But he had nothing else to do. “Yeah. Okay.” He stood up and started for the door, then stopped and turned back. “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“You asked me what I remembered last. And about the revolution. Why?”

“I was trying to find out how far back your memory loss went.”

That was probably true, but Murdoch seemed uncomfortable.

“What else?” Johnny persisted.

Another pause, while Murdoch seemed to weigh something before answering. ‘There was a revolution. And you were involved in it.”

Scott wandered in and listened in silence. Murdoch continued. “The people lost.”

“My side,” Johnny guessed.

His father nodded. “You were arrested. When the Pinkerton agent found you,” he paused again.

“Go on,” Johnny said, although he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to know.

“You were standing in front of a firing squad.” He swallowed. “A few more seconds and I would’ve lost you forever.”

That part of it was obviously the most upsetting to Murdoch, but Johnny was doing some other calculations. “And that was a year ago.”

“Yes.”

“Then the revolution must’ve been a few months before that. And if I don’t remember the revolution…then I’ve lost more than a year.” His arms were wrapped around himself and he looked down at the floor as he thought. After the spark of hope he had felt at lunch, this was even more depressing. How much of his life had he lost?

Teresa, evidently hearing the conversation, had joined them again as well and stood by Scott. “I don’t understand,” she frowned. “How do you know it was months before,” she faltered at saying the words ‘firing squad’. “The revolution, I mean.”

Johnny shrugged. “The Ruales never put a man up as soon as they arrest him.” He looked at Teresa’s innocent face and decided to skip how some of the soldiers entertained themselves at prisoners’ expense. “Guess I’m lucky I don’t remember that part,” he began, then caught sight of Scott’s expression. “What’s wrong?”

Scott, pale and staring, swallowed. “I spent months in a prison camp at the end of the war. I still have nightmares. Whenever you hear me, you always come and wake me up. There have been many times, Little Brother, that you sat up with me the rest of the night when I couldn’t bear to go back to sleep. In all those nights, listening and comforting me, you never once said you had been there too.”

Johnny froze in shock at Scott’s words. But for a different reason than his brother’s. “All night,” he repeated. “In your room.”

“That’s right,” Scott confirmed.

“Playing chess,” Johnny said slowly.

Scott blinked. “Yes,” he said carefully. “You play very impulsively. It’s quite annoying.”

Johnny grinned. “Especially when I beat you.”

“Especially,” he agreed. “And very humiliating for the former Harvard Chess champ.”

Johnny dropped his gaze. “Sorry. Might be kinda like some young green horn out drawing me.”

Scott’s brows went up at the comparison. “Although not so deadly. But if you’re truly sorry, I’ll take a rematch.”

Johnny laughed so honestly and naturally, that Murdoch caught his breath. But the sound broke the moment, and a suddenly serious Johnny turned wary eyes on him. “What?”

“Nothing. It was just so good knowing you remember something.”

Johnny brushed it off. “It was just a chess game.” But his heart was pounding.

“But it’s a start!” Teresa exclaimed. “Maybe it will all come back soon!”

He looked at the hope in her eyes. What had he ever done to deserve that? “Maybe,” he repeated softly.

“Johnny,” Murdoch said, “I don’t know how you would feel about it, but I did send for the doctor. To see if he has any suggestions.”

“I don’t…” he began angrily, then saw that precious hope fade from her eyes. He sighed. “I don’t reckon he can fix anything, but…” he shrugged reluctant agreement.

“It will be a couple of hours until he could get here. Are you still up for that ride?”

“You know, not really. Alright with you if I just,” he waved vaguely at the couch, “relax? Unless people on ranches don’t relax.”

Murdoch smiled. “Not a bad idea to rest your leg. I saw you were limping a bit.”

Johnny didn’t answer. He couldn’t very well deny his leg hurt right after asking to rest.

“Yes,” Scott agreed. “Rest up, Brother, so you’ll be ready for that rematch.”

“Sure,” Johnny smiled. “Just tell me when.”

After his father and brother left for some sort of ranch business and Teresa returned to the kitchen, Johnny sat back down on the couch for all of five minutes before he was up wandering around the room. He looked carefully at everything, picking up items and trying to imagine if he had seen them before. But nothing else sparked a memory.

He expanded his wanderings to the whole, huge, hacienda. Why on earth Murdoch needed such a gigantic home for four people, he didn’t know. He ended up back in his own room, sitting on the bed, playing with the little horse. Tiring of that, he checked in his saddlebags for supplies, then sat at the table by the window and cleaned his gun. The familiar task had the same soothing affect that brushing Barranca had. When he was finished, he sighed, leaned back in the chair and dozed off.

*****

“Look straight ahead,” Sam Jenkins ordered while feeling Johnny’s skull.

Johnny contained his irritation and complied, mostly to hurry the exam along. So far, the old guy had not told him anything he didn’t already know. He had twisted his knee, bruised his hip and shoulder and had a mild concussion.

The doc put his hands on his hips. “Thank you.”

“For what?” Johnny frowned.

“Co-operating. I know you don’t like examinations.”

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed, coldly.  “About as much as I don’t like people knowing me and I don’t know them.”

The doctor raised a brow at the tone. “We’re friends, Johnny. I can’t pretend we’re not.”

“Were we the first time you tended to me?”

“No,” Sam admitted. “You were rather short with me, as I recall.”

“There you go. For me this is the first time.”

“I see. That must be pretty frustrating.”

“I don’t need talked down to, doc. I need fixed. So, I can go on with my life…whatever it is.”

The doc stroked his chin as he thought. “Do you understand that there is a possibility that it won’t’ be fixed? You may have to start here and move forward.”

Johnny got up and paced, running a hand through his hair as he walked. “I can’t…I feel like I’m stupid or something. The only one that doesn’t know what’s going on.”

“You’re not stupid Johnny. You are one of the brightest men I know. Anything you learned here before you can learn again.”

“That’s just it!” he snapped back. “Everybody assumes because I gave up my life and stayed here before I’m gonna do it again. Like I don’t have a say in it.”

“Have you talked about this with Murdoch?”

Johnny sighed. “No. He just talks about how glad he is we’re all here and how terrible it was for him before.”

“So, you feel guilty about wanting something different than he does?”

“I don’t know what I’m gonna decide. I just want the right to decide it.”

The old doc nodded agreement. “Tell him that. Exactly that.”

Johnny looked at his boots. “I don’t know. Everyone is pretty much agreed that me and him butt heads. Maybe I should tell Scott.”

“Tell them both. You all need to be working through things together. Whatever you decide is going to affect them.”

“Damn. Not use to having to consider everyone else.” He stood with his hands on his hips. “Why the hell did I stay here?”

Doc Jenkins stood up to face him. “What do you want me to say? You have been told that you and your brother and father have learned to be a family. To care for and about each other. How that happened inside your head and heart, I don’t know. No one else does. But you’re right. It’s your decision which life is more appealing.”

*****

After dinner, Johnny went out to the barn. He sat in Barranca’s stall, occasionally petting the big animal, but mostly just thinking. Eventually he admitted to himself that he was hiding and got up off the tack box he had been sitting on. Glancing down, he saw initials on the lid that he hadn’t noticed when he came in.

JML

He sighed and headed into the house.

He found everyone sitting in front of the fireplace. Murdoch seemed to be reading a ledger, Scott a novel and Teresa was sewing. He saw a chessboard set out on the ottoman.

“Johnny?” Murdoch asked.

He continued to stand just outside of their circle. He took a breath. “Can I talk to you a minute?”

“Of course.” He closed the ledger.

Scott closed his book as well. “Do you want us to go?” He nodded towards Teresa.

“Nah. You can hear this.” He looked down at his boots and took another breath. “I’ve been thinking. And I don’t…” He looked up and made himself look

Murdoch in the eye. “I don’t know if I want to stay here.”

Murdoch didn’t move. Teresa gave a little gasp.

Scott stood up. “Do you mean you don’t want to stay? Or that you don’t know yet?”

Before he could answer, Murdoch said quietly,” It’s only been a day, Son. You haven’t even looked around to see what is even here.”

“I know.” He glanced at Scott. “I mean I know you want me to give it more time. And maybe that’ll help. I just want you to understand that maybe it won’t.”

“But this is your home, Johnny,” Teresa pleaded. “You belong here.”

“Well, I don’t feel like I belong. Everybody from you all and Jelly and even the doc keeps tellin me how we worked together and made ourselves a family. We saved the ranch together and learned to get along.”

“That’s right,” Scott agreed.

Johnny gave an exasperated sigh. “But you see, from where I stand it was you all who did that and I wasn’t here. Wasn’t part of it. And maybe that was why I stayed. Cause we were all on even footing so to speak. All learnin together.

“But now, you all know what’s going on and I’m this outsider that you all think you know, but I don’t know anything!” He looked at their faces and could see they didn’t understand. “I know you want your Johnny Lancer back, but I don’t know where he is. And if I can’t find him real soon…. I’m gonna go back to what I know.” He hated the hurt on their faces, but he forged on. “And if it comes to that, I wanna know up front what’s mine. Like I said, I don’t know about the money, or how I got Barranca.”

“You don’t owe me any money,” Murdoch stood up as well. “And the horse is yours.” He worked his jaw angrily for a moment as if he wanted to say more. “I think I’m going to turn in.” He started to walk past Johnny. “Will I see you in the morning?”

“I ain’t runnin out in the middle of the night.”

“It wouldn’t…” Murdoch cut himself off. “Good night, “he said instead. They all watched him walk out stiffly.

Johnny turned back to the others. “I have a right to choose my life.”

“Yes, you do, Little Brother.” Scott told him. “Just make sure it’s life you’re choosing.”

*****

He stuck it out a few more days. With his head and knee feeling better, he rode all over the ranch. Mostly with Scott, but sometimes with Murdoch and sometimes Jelly. On the rides with Jelly or his brother, Johnny felt like, from all their not so subtle comments, that they truly wanted him to stay. His father, on the other hand, barely spoke to him at all.

At the end of another uncomfortable dinner, with Murdoch mostly staring at his plate, Johnny stood up and threw his napkin on the table. ”That’s it.”

“What?” Murdoch began.

“What nothing. It seems like you already consider me gone.”

“I’ve never said…”

“You sure have, old man. You have made it loud and clear that you only want me here if I turn back into someone else. It’s not me you want. It’s him. Your precious Johnny Lancer. And if I don’t measure up to him, I’m not good enough.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. It sounds like you just want an excuse to leave again.”

Johnny blinked. “What do you mean, again?”

Scott glanced at his father, then answered. “A short time after we arrived here, you were having a hard time adjusting to a workday schedule and the pressure of co-owning a ranch. You decided to leave.”

Johnny frowned. “But I’m here.”

“Yes. You came back.”

Johnny stared at him. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me that before?”

“Does it matter?” Murdoch all but growled.

“Matter?! Of course, it matters! It means I’m not… I don’t have to…” a wave of dizziness caught him off guard and he grabbed the back of the chair.

Scott looked concerned. “Are you alright?”

Johnny straightened up. “I’m fine,” he said coldly. “I’m just fine.” And with that he turned and headed out to the foyer. Once around the doorway, he sagged against the wall for a moment before tackling the stairs. He could still hear them talking.

“Sir, maybe we…”

“No, Scott. He needs to decide who he is. Who he wants to be.”

“It doesn’t feel like we’re helping him with that decision.”

“Since when does your brother want help with anything?”

“I just meant…”

Johnny didn’t hear what Scott meant because he bolted up the steps. He got to his room, shut the door and leaned against it, his head still spinning. ‘He has to decide who he is’ kept echoing in his mind. He could hear Murdoch saying it, but it wasn’t at the dinner table. It was in the great room. There had been a shooting. And a horse. And Wes. Wes was dead. Scott was hurt. Murdoch’s old friend had…no that was a different time.

There was a wagon with a girl. Polly? No. Julie? Glory? No…those were different. He stumbled forward and sat on the bed. Who was he? Johnny Lancer? Or Johnny Madrid. ‘Who are you more?’ someone had asked.

Stringing fences. Clearing creeks. Branding calves. He looked at his calloused hands. He pulled out his gun. Isham was dead. He had killed Isham.

Suddenly his head cleared. He stood up and looked out the window. At the fields, and the hills, and the road beyond them. And he knew who he was.

*****

Murdoch and Scott were still having a tense conversation when shots rang out. They both grabbed their own weapons and ran to the French doors.

Johnny was standing in the yard, shooting at the fence. Six holes, evenly spaced appeared along the top board. Then, faster than they thought possible, he had reloaded and holstered his gun. He spun around and did it again, each new hole directly under the first.

And then he did it again. And again.

His family stood mesmerized by the sight. He got to the sixth bullet, but this time he didn’t stop. Over and over again he pulled the trigger. Aiming and clicking the empty gun. Until at last with a cry of anguish, he threw the gun over the fence into the corral and sank to his knees in the dirt.

Scott started towards him, but his father beat him there. Getting down on his own knees, he faced his distraught son.

“Murdoch, I can’t…” Johnny panted.

“It’s okay Son. It’ll come back.”

Johnny shook his head. “It’s back. All back. My whole life. Everything I’ve ever done. Out there, here, everything.” His head was bent down low. “Murdoch, I came here to kill you that day. I could’ve done it the other day when I woke up. How can you…? Do you really know what I am?”

“You’re my son.”

Johnny shook his head again. “It’s not enough. I can’t stop being Madrid. I keep thinkin it’s gone, but it’s not. I’ll never be… I’ll never be what you want.”

Murdoch closed his eyes in pain. “Oh, son. I am so sorry I have handled this so wrong. When you are hurt, you revert to Madrid for protection. When I am hurt, I revert back to being an ass.”

Johnny looked up at that. Behind Murdoch, Scott raised his eyebrows at the admission. And at obviously having been overheard at camp.

But Murdoch wasn’t done. “Yes, you are Madrid. But you don’t stop there. You are Johnny Madrid Lancer. And you are what I want. I want your humor, I want your way with horses, I admire how you always help people. God help me, I was thrilled at the way you just handled your gun.

“Johnny Madrid is a strong man. I have been so wrong in trying to tell you to leave it all behind. It’s your history, your foundation. You don’t have to destroy who you are. Just build on top of it. Grow beyond it. Just please, please, Son, do your building and growing here. With us. I give you my word, I will be less of an ass and more of a father.”

Johnny took a deep, cleansing breath. “I want a father, Murdoch. I want my father.”

Sitting in the dirt, Murdoch put his hand on his son’s shoulder. Nothing more needed to be said. They got to their feet and found Scott watching them, a warm smile on his face.

“Well, Boston,” Johnny told him, “it looks like it’s life I’m choosing.”

Scott’s smile stretched to a grin. “I never thought I’d be glad to be called that again. Welcome back, Brother.”

Murdoch put an arm around each son, and they walked into their home together.

.

.

~end~

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