Lancer, The Return by Mary M

#2 in the Lone Cowboy series

AR/AU
Standard disclaimer applies, no money made, but I am taking the boys for a bit.
Warnings: Throughout the story, might be some rough language here and there.
Summary: This is the sequel to my story, The Lone Cowboy, and picks up with Johnny returning to Lancer, and Scott’s subsequent arrival

Word count: 83,745

They rode out of town together, a father sitting tall and proud in the saddle, his young son by his side. People on the street, stopped. Women smiled and waved, men tipped their hats. Johnny nodded politely, head lowered to hide the embarrassing flush on his cheeks, but he could not contain the smile scrolled across his face. His thoughts ran wild, never in his most inebriated state or wildest dream, could he have imagined Johnny Madrid actually riding from town with a grin the whole world was witness to.

Too proud to hide any longer, he raised his head. He was still Johnny Madrid, would always be Johnny Madrid, but Johnny Lancer was riding home with his father. They rode past the saloon, waving to Sam through the glass. The stout man wiped his hands on the familiar stained apron before returning the greeting. They passed the widow Hargis. The feisty older woman stood on the front stoop of her store and winked at Johnny as he rode by.

Ignoring the perplexed look from his father, Johnny flashed his most seductive smile. The widow waved him off and strutted back inside, feeling like someone had handed her a million bucks. Truth be known, she had flirted slightly with the young gunslinger, but would beat anyone over the head with a broom, if they so much as suggested as such. They passed the livery and waved to Gus, and stopped for a quick moment to chat with Chuck.

Turning to look over his shoulder, Johnny saw Sam Jenkins standing on the front stoop of his home. Murdoch waved and bid a final farewell. Sam scoffed, shook his head and turned to go back inside, but could not hide the smile on his face. He had been bested. Now faced with two stubborn Lancers to contend with, he could not be happier.

Earlier that morning, Sam walked into the sickroom to find Murdoch nearly fully dressed. “What in blazes do you think you’re doing?”

Pulling on a boot, Murdoch stood, tucking the tail of his shirt into his pants. “I am going home with my son.” Leaning over he clapped Sam on the shoulder.

“That you are, my friend. That you are.” If Sam’s smile grew any wider, his face would have split in two. His heart was soaring and his blood raced with excitement. If he felt as such, he could only imagine how Murdoch was faring. One look at the man’s twinkling eyes and he knew. Murdoch was flying on a cloud. “Let’s get that son of yours and have breakfast. Then we’ll see about asking Gus to send over a buggy.”

Murdoch stopped dead in his tracks. “Whoa, hold on there Sam. No buggy for me.”

“Now Murdoch.” Sam looked out the window. Sighing heavily, he scowled and closed his eyes at the sight. Johnny bounded up the steps after tying off Renegade and Dakota to a hitching post near the back door. “I can see I’m outnumbered.”

“He don’t need no old lady wagon,” Johnny said. after hearing the tail end of the conversation.

“Sam, I am riding home today, and am doing so with my son by my side.” Murdoch wrapped an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “And I will do it sitting tall in the saddle.”

Sam shook his head. “How can I fight that?”

Turning to Johnny, Murdoch led him down the hallway leading to the kitchen. “Son, when we reach Lancer, I want to do so with you riding next to me. I want to sit on that hill looking down over our home and finally share the beauty of Lancer with my boy. My boy.” He stopped; spinning Johnny around, both hands were placed upon the boy’s shoulders.

Blushing furiously, Johnny had to look away, but made no move to pull loose from his father’s grasp. It felt too good, almost surreal, until they came closer to the ranch and a familiar unease set in. Refusing to look at his father, head bowed, Johnny wondered what in the world he was doing. Sure his father cared, more than he was led to believe, but he really didn’t know the man. What was it like to live with the great Murdoch Lancer on a day to day basis?

What did the man expect of him, and would he really live by the promises spouted so easily in the heat of the moment, trying to get his son to stay? Johnny did not know if he could do this. In his mind, he was losing almost as much as he had to gain. True, he would finally have the home he had always yearned for, but at what price?

Freedom was a privilege Johnny cherished. Never before had he been relegated to remain in one place, day after day, night after night. The same routine, the same everything. Would life on the ranch grow boring? Would he be confined, performing to the crack of the whip? Just what the hell was he getting into?

Johnny had always lived free, with a fiery streak of independence he refused to relinquish to any man. Would his father really, truly accept this side of him? Maybe he should cut and run. Visit the ranch for a month or so, but before things got too serious, just ride out when the mood struck. After all, he had promised to return to the ranch with the old man, but he never promised to stay.

An unfamiliar fear swelling in his chest, Johnny swallowed the bile rising from a nervous stomach and rode, head hung low. To anyone watching, he seemed unaware of his surroundings, but in spite of the worst case of jitters ever experienced, he was alert and aware of everything around him. Then shame set in. Johnny Madrid did not get the jitters. He was perfectly calm, cool, collected in thought and demeanor. He knew what he wanted, and how to get it. He also knew how to handle every situation he was thrust into. But Madrid was thrown into a tailspin. He had been in a lot of tight spots in his life, faced more than one man in a battle of life and death, but never had he felt such fear. Life was so much easier when there was no one else to consider.

Murdoch was fighting his own case of nervous anxiety. He felt his son’s unease, and prayed the boy did not pick up on the tumultuous emotions he was experiencing. As he had proclaimed earlier, the initial adjustment would be hard, but given time, life would settle down and Johnny would feel at home. He just prayed the boy would ride it out and not bolt. It was one thing to agree to coming home, and another to actually do it.

The early morning mist had burned off and the day was growing increasingly warm. They cut through a field of knee deep grass and came to a halt at the top of the hill. Johnny’s breath caught. Murdoch pulled up alongside him and sat quietly for a moment. His shoulder ached and a sheen of sweat had broken out across his forehead, yet he refused to acknowledge the pain.

Lifting his arm, his entire body quaking with a mixture of fatigue and pride, he pointed toward the mountains in the west. “There it is son. Lancer. As far as they eye can see.” His voice caught and arm lowered.

Johnny felt an strange stirring in his stomach, with too many emotions assailing. Looking at his father, a sly smile broke out. “You’ve been busy old man.”

Murdoch threw his head, laughter echoing across the valley below. With a firm, yet gentle hand, he grasped Johnny by the arm. “Come on son, let’s go home.” The words he had been yearning to say his entire adult life, brought renewed hope to the older man.

And as they had when riding out of town, father and son rode side by side toward their domain. Murdoch felt as if he were leading a skittish colt, forever fearful the animal would cut and run. Johnny was lost in thought, taking in every sight, the lush, fertile fields, the lake shimmering under a late morning sun, the vast herds grazing quietly, and the vaqueros whistling as they rounded up strays.

Everyone within sight turned and waved. Johnny bristled, not used to such attention. Murdoch leaned in closer, offering silent support. Reaching the crest of the hill Johnny had perched upon that cold Christmas Eve, they came to a halt. “Johnny, it will be all right. I promise you.”

“Am ok,” he shrugged.

Murdoch knew when someone was holding something deep inside, yet did not provoke. “Son, I’ve been waiting a long time to say this. To do this very thing.”

“What’s that, old man?”

“Come on son, let’s go home.” Murdoch kneed Dakota and they rode on.

Johnny paused briefly, then followed along. They crossed under the Lancer arch and he felt his stomach tighten. The estancia came into sight, a bell clanged and a vaquero shouted, announcing their arrival. The Patron had returned.

Johnny’s heart lurched, for it was then realization struck. He was not only returning home, he was the Patron’s son. The son of a highly successful, respected hacendado, and all the responsibility that comes along with the title. Johnny felt like vomiting. No one told him that people would be looking up to him. No one ever mentioned any of the catches that came along with a father of Murdoch’s status. Johnny doubted he could live up to the reputation.

He scoffed inwardly at the thought of living up to another man’s reputation, but in the wake of his father’s shadow, Johnny felt like he was shrinking. And he didn’t like the feeling one bit. He only hoped that in returning home, his identity was not lost. Johnny shut down, watching all the activity around him with interest, and fighting the biggest case of nerves yet. Upon first glance, no one would know he was wound tighter than a top ready to spin loose. He jumped inwardly at every sound, his senses on high alert.

Glancing at his father, the man looked like a victorious soldier marching home, a hard fought prize by his side. Johnny mumbled under his breath. “The conquered son.” Just as quickly, he was ashamed of such a thought, but when nervous or cornered, he tended to get prickly.

Paul ran from the house, taking Dakota’s reins as they drew close to the hitching post in front of the grand estancia. Johnny’s eyes grew large, yet the reaction remained hidden. Never, not for one instant in his life, had he expected to live as such. He was lost in a world foreign to him, so different than the one room shacks he lived in with his mother. He no longer had to wonder where he would sleep, or when his next meal would be.

The cabin was the first bit of security to come into his life. Other than the brief time spent there, Johnny always took life as it came. Sometimes he had a roof over his head, sometimes he did not. There were days he ate, and days there was no food. And as comforting staying at the cabin seemed, it was nothing compared to what he had now. Johnny’s throat caught. This is what his life should have been. This is what it could be. The thought was too overwhelming to comprehend.

A shrill cry erupted from the house, a blur of motion whirling past. Johnny reached for his gun, dismissing the idea when Renegade reared. Startled, the great horse shrieked in fright. Johnny fought the reins, spinning the horse to the side to avoid a small pigtailed body whizzing by. A long arm reached out, jerking the wriggling body back, an angry voice admonishing the tiny whirlwind. Renegade hit the ground and reared again. Murdoch’s heart went to his throat as Johnny wrestled with the reins, finally turning Renegade in a tight circle before settling the stallion down.

Angry blue eyes glaring, Johnny jumped from his mount and strode forward, itching to draw down on the mischievous young girl with large brown eyes and a braid of long brown hair hanging to her waist. A smile on her face, she stood with Paul’s arm wrapped tightly around her shoulders.

“Johnny, I’m sorry. She knows better, don’t you, Teresa?” Paul turned his attention to the small girl.

“She yours?” Johnny asked in a clipped tone.

A heavy sigh exuded, Paul shrugged. “Yes. I’m afraid so,” he snickered with Murdoch.

Teresa literally bubbled over. “Hi Johnny.”

Staring even closer, Johnny wondered just how sorry the child was. As a matter of fact, her father was the only one to apologize. “You never learned not to run in front of a horse like that? Whether it’s a strange one, or not?”

“Yes, Daddy told me,” Teresa answered meekly, eyes lowered. Just as quickly, she raised her head, and Johnny saw that she was far from contrite. In his eyes, she looked a bit too mischievous for her own good. He flashed his best ‘ Madrid ’ stare, and she retaliated with a giggle.

“You could have gotten hurt.”

“But I didn’t.”

“You could have.” Teresa smiled and he had the feeling that the young girl was not only good at getting her own way, but had both her father and Murdoch wrapped around her finger. “Well, looks like I’ll have to take matters into my own hands”

Johnny tied Renegade to the post. Reaching out, he snagged Teresa around the waist and before any protest could be made, threw the startled child over his shoulder and marched toward the horse trough. Paul’s eyes grew wide with disbelief and Murdoch’s mouth gaped in stunned astonishment. Kicking and screaming, Teresa was ceremoniously dumped into the murky water. Johnny added the finishing touch by shoving her head under.

Sputtering, she broke through the surface and vaulted to her feet. “Look what you did to me.”

“That’s what you get for scaring my horse half to death and almost causing me to break my neck. And you’re lucky I’m a good rider.”

Work around the ranch ceased as all those within close proximity paused to watch. Johnny strode past Paul, clapping the man on the shoulder. “She got off lucky. Anyone else would have been shot,” he snickered, much to his father’s chagrin. “Oh, I’ll take care of my horse. He bites.” Before either man could react, Johnny grasped the reins.

Mouth puckering like a floundering fish, Murdoch turned to the Segundo. “When the hell did I lose control?”

“My friend, I don’t think we ever had it. Is this the right time to welcome you home?” Paul could only gape in surprise. The horse bit. It figured. He made it a point to warn the men. No one needed to go missing a finger or two. Still, there hasn’t been a horse yet that he couldn’t handle.

“Is it ok if I put Renegade in the barn over there?” Johnny asked, head crooked to the side.

Paul was quick to intervene. “You don’t have to do that Johnny, I’m sure I can take him for you. Why don’t you get your Pa on up to bed? Looks like he’s about to keel over.”

“I would if I knew where his bed was,” Johnny snapped. Regret winning over, he quickly brought his emotions under control. “Look, I meant it when I said he bites. You’ll be lucky to walk away with your fingers.”

Murdoch felt Johnny’s unease and in spite of his steadily weakening condition and pain, he sought to reassure the boy. Coming home couldn’t be easy, and Johnny was as jumpy as a cat surrounded by a pack of mangy dogs. Only he would put his money on his son over those mangy dogs any day, but Johnny looked as if he was ready to crawl out of his skin. The last thing Murdoch needed was for him to light upon Renegade and tear out under the arch. In his present state, he would be unable to chase after, and would not allow it, anyway. The boy needed time. This wasn’t easy on any of them, as displayed by Teresa’s temper tantrum when she flounced into the courtyard wing shared with her father.

Murdoch couldn’t help but chuckle. In all the scenarios imagined, he never expected the homecoming to be as such. Teresa was as stubborn as they came, and had not been bested until she met Johnny. This was going to be interesting, indeed.

“Son, Paul can help me to the couch . . .”

“Murdoch, you need your rest,” Paul argued.

“Paul, I know you mean well, but this is the first time in fourteen years my son will be walking into his home, and he won’t do it with me laying upstairs in bed. I’ll be fine on the couch.”

Paul knew when he’d been beat, and relinquished. “John, I have a stall in the far end of the barn ready for Renegade. It’s to the right. You’ll find all you need. Take your time getting him settled. You need anything, just ask.”

“Am fine.” Johnny took up Renegade’s reins and walked toward the barn.

Murdoch watched, fighting the urge to run after and help, but the thought was a futile one. Sadly, Johnny was almost grown and could find his way around a barn. There was so much the father in him wanted to do. Murdoch wished to whisk Johnny into the house, make introductions all around, give him the welcome home grand tour, but he did none of those things. Knowing Johnny, Murdoch felt it better to allow him time to settle in, and accustom Renegade to his new surroundings, the horse’s welfare always first on the boy’s mind. When he was ready, Johnny would come inside. It was better to take things slow.

Murdoch ambled into the house where Maria was waiting to fuss. The woman had watched the grand arrival through the french doors, reluctant to impose on what had to be a daunting moment for her nino. Yet her heart wept with joy and she ached to again hold Johnny in her arms, as she had when he was first born. The happy toddler she once chased after seemed so sullen and lost, all she wanted to do was run outside and wrap her arms around him, erasing a lifetime of loneliness. Instead, she bustled over to Murdoch and helped him to settle on the couch. Maria wished to take the stubborn Scot up into his bedroom where he would get the proper rest needed, but knew to fight, would be to lose. She wondered just how stubborn the newest Lancer arrival was. Clucking, Maria hurried out into the kitchen to prepare a tray of coffee.

  ******

“Well boy, how do you like your new digs? Told ya I’d have you living in style one day. Guess we both really fell into it this time.” Whistling, Johnny looked around the spacious barn. “Will you look at this place? It’s better than some of the shacks I used to live in. I knew the old man was rich, but this is something else.”

Johnny led Renegade into the stall and proceeded to remove the tack. He placed the saddle over the railing, along with his saddlebags, blanket and reins. Digging out a curry comb, he spent the next half an hour brushing Renegade down, the comfort and solace always experienced when in the throes of such simple actions, settling his nerves immensely. It did not take long for a smile to come to his face, and the earlier excitement to build.

An entire new life awaited, one that did not always involve his gun. Johnny knew he had to remain in top form, for it was foolish to think that he would never be called out again. And one never knew what situation they might fall into. It was better to always be prepared. Just because he was the son of a rich hacendado, did not mean he could allow himself to become sloppy. He needed to remain sharp, in control of himself and his life, while settling into Lancer. All the while hoping such a balance could be achieved.

Cocking his head to the side, his senses were soaring. Sliding the gun from the holster, Johnny stepped to the right of Renegade and peered around the corner of the stall. “Come on out, tag along. Show yourself,” he called out to the slight figure he knew was hiding on the other side of the door.

Squinting through the dim interior, he slid the colt back into the holster and watched as Teresa stepped through the door. Her hair was patted dry and braided, and she was clad in blue jeans with a calico shirt hanging loose, the shirttails reaching her knees.

“Maria said you would be thirsty. Are you thirsty?” Large brown eyes peered upward.

Johnny’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What is it?”

Teresa clutched the icy glass in her hands. “It’s lemonade.”

“Did you make it tag along?” Johnny asked.

“No, Maria made it.”

Johnny tossed his head back in laughter. “Looks like I’ll be drinking lemonade anyway, but I won’t date the girl next door,” he said, chuckling at the confusion on Teresa’s face.

“Well do you want it?” Teresa stamped her foot.

“Give it here, tag along.” Johnny reached for the glass, resisting the urge to ask if she happened to know of any tequila tucked away in the barn. He had probably overstepped his boundaries when he dunked Teresa in the trough, and did not want to push his luck. “Can see you’re all dried out.”

“That was mean.” Teresa pouted, kicking at a clump of hay.

“What you did was dumb. Both of us could have been hurt.” Johnny’s retort was quick and sharp.

“Well we weren’t.” Teresa’s impudent side once again won out.

“No need to go stirring up a horse,” Johnny snapped.

“You don’t have to be a crybaby about it.” Teresa turned and flounced away.

“Thanks for the lemonade, tag along,” Johnny shouted at the slight, retreating figure. He downed the drink with parched greed, droplets of lemonade trickling down his chin. “Guess I should learn better manners. Be more refined,” he chuckled, turning back to Renegade.

“Well, the old man already has me drinking lemonade. But got to admit, it went down pretty smooth. Not as smooth as if it had tequila in it, but was ok. Well, amigo, you just rest here and relax a bit. I have a feeling that come tomorrow, we’ll be riding all over. Gotta check out the place, you know? This time, we’ll be looking at things a lot differently.”

Quiet for a moment, Johnny leaned against Renegade’s massive, silken neck. “You know amigo, this time, I’ll be looking at something that is a part of me. Has always been a part of me, only I didn’t know. Damn, I wish I knew. Things would have been a lot different for us.

“Now that I’ve had some time to think things over, it feels pretty good. Place is still strange, but so is every new place we wandered into. We’ll get our bearings, it’ll get easier. And if it doesn’t, we can always leave. But what do you say we give it a shot? Don’t want anyone saying Johnny Madrid backed down.”

Leaving Renegade chomping his way through a bin of oats, Johnny strode across the main yard, head held high, back straight and shoulders pulled back. If he was the son of the Patron, it was time to act the part. He was a Lancer, and a Lancer did not slouch. A Lancer walked with pride.

Determination renewed, he walked through the tall, glass french doors Paul led his father through earlier, and stood in the shadows, letting his eyes adjust to the light. A rapid burst of Spanish broke out, and before Johnny could react, a pair of strong, plump arms wrapped around him, squeezing the air from his lungs as they pulled tight.

He heard his father’s chuckle from somewhere to the right. “Now Maria, leave the boy in one piece,” the old man spoke kindly. The arms unwound, but the hands held tightly. “Johnny, this is Maria. She’s a, uh, little happy to see you.”

Once his eyes adjusted to the dimmer interior of the room, Johnny saw his father laying propped against a massive mound of pillows. Looking down, he stared into the eyes of the robust woman, her head barely reaching his shoulders. Large eyes of the deepest brown brimmed over with tears, then lost the battle as giant spheres ran unchecked down her face. Maria gasped, crossed herself, then held him tightly against her.”

“Nino, you have returned home. My nino.”

“You remember me?” Johnny asked in a voice small and shaky.

Maria stepped back, this time winding her hands around a flowered apron. “My nino, I would never forget you. You look like the young boy so full of mischief, he never let me sit still a minute. My fiery little nino, how I have missed you.” Hand covering her mouth, Maria turned to run from the room. She stopped, turning back to face the men. “I will bring a tray, nino. You are much too thin.”

Murdoch chuckled, and Johnny blushed. “Too thin?” he finally managed to croak. The thought of someone else actually remembering him, and with such fond memory, was overwhelming.

“Son, come here and sit by me,” Murdoch patted the overstuffed, leather chair Paul had pulled closer to the sofa. “Maria thinks everyone is too thin. She would mother the world if given the chance. And you’re right, she never did forget you. As a matter of fact, remember I told you how she kept your room?”

“Yeah,” Johnny stammered. Emotions reaching the breaking point, he hung his head and clasped his hands. Every once in a while, his shoulders hitched. Then he regained control, and lifted his head. “So, I see you’re settled. You comfortable? Should I help you up to bed or anything?”

“No son, I’m fine,” Murdoch smiled.

Nervous energy winning out, Johnny rose and started walking around the room. Murdoch watched him move about, wondering against hope if anything jogged his memory. “I never changed a thing. Kept the room exactly as it was.”

“Why?” Johnny turned about, holding a porcelain figurine in his hand.

“Because I wanted everything to be as you knew it. I wanted you to come back to the home you remembered, but so much time has passed, you can’t possibly.”

 Johnny shook his head and replaced the figurine. “No, I don’t.”

“It’s all right, I didn’t think you would. You were so young. But this is your home. Boy, how you would tear through the place.” Murdoch chuckled at the memory.

“This belong to someone?” Johnny asked, poking at the figurine of a young maiden, long flowing gown of white and hair of gold hanging to her waist.

“That was Catherine’s,” Murdoch said softly.

“Scott’s mama.”

“Yes, son. I bought that for her shortly after we were married. It reminded me of her.”

“She must have been beautiful.” Johnny slowly wandered along, his hand running over the mantle.

“Yes, she was, Johnny. And that crystal rose belonged to . . .”

“Mama,” Johnny said so softly, Murdoch wondered if he had heard the boy. Again, his voice crackled with emotion, his finger trembling as he reached out to gently stroke the delicate surface. “She loved roses. Red roses.”

“That’s why I bought that for her. Beautiful, delicate and vibrant, just like your mother.” This time Murdoch’s voice was the one to crack.

Shaking the hair from his eyes, Johnny tossed his hat onto the massive oaken desk he perceived to be his father’s, and stood in front of the large picture window offering a grand overview of the ranch. He then turned to study the map hanging on the opposite wall. In a few quick strides, he cleared the room and reached out with a finger, tracing along one of the many routes. Just as quickly, he snapped about and walked over to what had caught his attention earlier. Too nervous to stand close, knowing how clumsy he could be, Johnny gawked at the intricate workmanship of the majestic ship.

“You do this?”

“Yes, I built that long ago. Started it when I first came here. Took the better part of a year, but it offered a way to relax after a long day of work. It reminds me of the ships I would see in the harbor back in Scotland.”

“Sort of like the one you came over on?” Johnny asked, turning back to his father.

“Yes, exactly,” Murdoch answered with a nod.

Taking a seat, Johnny leaned elbows on long, gangly legs. “Wonder what Scott will think of the place. What it will be like for him.”

“How do you mean, son?”

“Well, I was born here. Don’t remember it, but I sort of have a tie. And I’ve seen the place a few times before,” he said, a sly smile hidden. The ruse didn’t work and his father scowled. “Well anyway, Scott has never been here before.”

“How do you feel?” Murdoch was almost afraid to ask.

“Dunno.” Shrugging, Johnny sat back. Maria arrived with a tray of coffee, then flit back into the kitchen. “Doesn’t feel bad.”

“There now, was that so hard?” Murdoch burst out in laughter, wincing when pain shot through his shoulder and Maria scurried back into the room. Johnny feared for his father’s welfare as the woman scolded, a wooden spoon waving wildly. Now he knew who ruled the roost at Lancer.

“What are you laughing at?” Murdoch frowned at his impudent son.

“Nothing, absolutely nothing.” Johnny waved his arms in surrender.

Maria returned, this time carrying a tray of soup and sandwiches, which was placed on the heavy, mahogany table. Johnny helped his father settle with his food and they ate together. Maria peeked around the corner, welling tears once again spilling over when observing the caring, patient way Johnny helped care for his father. Sniffing back a heavy sob, she bustled back into the kitchen. Tonight, she would make a special dessert for her nino.

  ******

Scott descended the massive staircase, a checklist in hand. With any luck, he would be ready to leave by week’s end. It would be a long, tiring trip, but he had spent the last year of his life sleeping on the ground, and should be able to handle a trip across the country. The tailor had just delivered the new suit purchased for his arrival, along with an extra one for special occasions. Not knowing his father’s lifestyle, Scott felt it best to be prepared. Just that morning, he purchased a pair of red plaid pants and soft pullover sweater. All he needed was a new pair of boots and hat to complete the outfit. He was not going to meet his father and brother looking like a ruffian.

His brother. Scott’s heart still raced at the thought. All this time, and he is told by a Pinkerton agent that he had a brother, a tidy little fact his grandfather had failed to mention over the years. That made the decision to leave a little easier. After the startling revelation, Scott began to wonder just what else his grandfather had failed to mention.

Harlan Garret was a hard man. He was a shark in the business world, often cutting and cruel to obtain what he wanted. And what he wanted was total control. He thought to have had that over his grandson, but Scott began kicking up his heels when he declared he was breaking loose and going off to fight for the union army. Why his grandson was concerned over people that were obviously beneath him, befuddled and angered the older man, but Scott looked at the world and everyone in it, differently. Freedom was a precious right, one he fought for valiantly.

Considering the wealth and lifestyle in which he had been raised, one would perceive him as conceited, thinking himself a higher class than most, but they couldn’t be further from the truth. Most of his friends were far too arrogant for his taste, a fact that Scott became aware of as they grew older, becoming more pronounced upon his return from the war. Their lives were as empty and shallow as their snobbish minds, and Scott quickly grew tired of them. Now he was traveling clear across the country, too bored to remain in Boston any longer.

That led to a bitter fight the previous night. Scott stormed out the door of his grandfather’s office, but not before he saw the older man reach down to unlock the bottom drawer of his desk, after cautious eyes flit back to the door for one brief second. Scott faded into the woodwork, peering through the merest of slivers between door and jamb. His grandfather placed a thick file on the desk, then reached down, pulling out a square box. This was placed upon the file, and after again glancing about to make sure he was not being observed, Garret opened the box, pulling out a strange pile of letters, the envelopes yellowed with age.

Unwilling to risk being caught, Scott slipped back up to his room, plotting his next move. He had enough of being under his grandfather’s thumb. He had seen the man destroy enough lives through underhanded business maneuvers, and shatter many a reputation with his sharp edged tongue. Scott began to have his doubts about Murdoch Lancer, and wondered just why he had stayed away. Then another unsettling thought struck. What did his grandfather do to the man? And how in the world did Scott end up back in Boston?

Always intelligent, quick witted and with a knack to look beyond the obvious, Scott knew there was more to the story. Much more. And if Harlan Garret wasn’t talking, he would make the trip out west and give his father the chance. First, he would see what was in that box. There were so many questions. The most trying being, why the hell didn’t his grandfather ever mention that he had a brother?”

“Easy, he didn’t want to share you,” Scott muttered to himself. “And in not telling me, he lied. And if he could lie about that, what the hell else did he lie about?”

Scott had the mansion to himself. His grandfather had gone to the office, and the servants never paid him any mind. He snuck into the office and locked the door behind him. Wielding a hammer and chisel, Scott proceeded to break into the secret bottom drawer that had taunted him his entire life. He didn’t care if the wood was destroyed and a mess of shavings and jagged splinters littered the shining marble floor. He was through playing his grandfather’s games and intended to confront the man head on. This time he wanted answers. Then he would ready to leave. Reservations were already made in a hotel across town, for after this final confrontation with his grandfather, Scott would no longer remain in the stifling mansion. He was ready to break free.

  ******

The fire burned down low, so Johnny added another log. Sparkling embers swirled upward, the welcome warmth toasting his chilled body. Johnny usually stayed further south this time of year, and second guessed his earlier decision to spend the coming months sequestered in the mountains. Looking about the Great Room, peace filled his soul, but there were no memories of his previous life. How he wished to make that connection.

Earlier, Johnny helped Murdoch up into his room, his eyes opening wide with disbelief at the total splendor of the adobe home. He had yet to enter his own bedroom, opting to sleep on the couch that night. He just wasn’t ready for that final connection, and chided himself on such cowardice.

“Johnny, you room is right across from mine. Would you like me to show you?” Murdoch had asked as Johnny helped him shuffle down the polished, tile floor.

Johnny hesitated for the briefest of moments, his grip tightening on his father’s elbow. “Why don’t we just get you settled in your room? You got to be tired, old man.”

Astounded at how quickly he became attune to his son’s feelings, Murdoch understood. There was only so much a body could absorb in one day. There was time enough tomorrow. “I understand, son. But where will you sleep?”

“Well, that couch looked mighty comfortable. Had a hell of a time getting your ass out of it,” Johnny snickered.

“Can’t argue with you there. It is mighty comfortable, and there were times when I have spent the entire night there.” Murdoch grunted, biting back a slight groan of pain, but there was no fooling his boy.

“We almost there?” Johnny asked, concern etched on his face.

“Yeah, this door,” Murdoch gasped.

Johnny’s eyes almost fell out of his head at the sight of the large, comfortable room. The bed was big enough for a bear, and considering his father’s bulk, it was just right. Johnny snickered, thinking of a story his mother used to tell about a golden haired girl and three bears. He thought she was awfully uppity. After all, she broke into their house, picked at the food until she found the bowl that suited her taste, and griped about the beds until she found just the right one. Spoiled little girl, was what he thought. He would have been satisfied with any bowl of gruel, even a cold one, the nights there was no food. And a lumpy bed was better than no bed. Somehow, tonight he had the feeling he was walking into the papa bear’s den. Even the armoire was oversized, tall enough to reach the ceiling, and wide enough for a body to lounge comfortably sequestered inside.

Catching Johnny staring at the oversized piece, Murdoch snorted in laughter. “You once hid inside there when you were little.”

“I didn’t,” Johnny blushed.

“Oh, yes you did. You scared the bejeezus out of me, young man. Your mother put you down for a nap one afternoon, but little did we know, you had suddenly learned how to clamber out of the crib. You were such a scamp,” Murdoch chortled. “Anyway, when your mother came in to wake you up, the crib was empty.

“She ran screaming, someone had stolen her nino,” Murdoch stammered. Eyes welling, his stomach lurching at an old, sad memory, he shuddered, then just as quickly, tossed the thought aside.

“What happened?” Johnny asked softly.

“What happened was you turned the entire ranch upside down. Ask Paul. He came riding in from the south pasture to hear all the commotion, and rang the fire bell. We combed every inch of the place, looking in the corrals, behind hay bales in the barn, up in the loft, everywhere we could think. Your mother sat and cried, and Maria tore through the house, shouting for you. I was at my wits end and ready to send for the sheriff, when I went upstairs to change my shirt for the ride into town.”

“Oh no.” Johnny groaned, rubbing his eyes.

“Oh no is right, young man.” Murdoch laughed, lost in a happier memory, for this was one time he found his lost son. “Imagine my surprise when I opened this armoire.”

“Arm what?”

“Armoire. Okay, cabinet,” Murdoch amended his choice of word. Falling silent, his mind drifted back in time. ‘Hey there little man, come to Papa.’ The large man reached down, cradling his young son in his arms. Johnny rubbed his sleepy eyes, a bright smile emerging.

“What happened then? Murdoch?”

Snapping back to the present, a smile came to the older man’s face. “What happened then was, I opened this cabinet and there you were, curled up in a pile of quilts stacked on the bottom, sound asleep. Had the whole blessed ranch turned upside down, and slept through it all. I tell you what, from then on, Maria took a large basket stuffed with a quilt into the kitchen, where you napped so she could keep an eye on you.”

Sadness descended for a moment. “Guess she should have kept me sleeping there more often, huh?”

“Son, it’s over. You’re home now.” Murdoch’s comforting hand fell upon Johnny’s arm.

Before a dark mood had the chance to press in, Paul knocked at the door, a questioning face peering inside. “You two okay? Need any help before I head out to the barn?”

“We’re ok,” Johnny replied with a slight smile and a nod. He was beginning to see the close, trusting relationship between the two men and surprisingly, was happy that his father had such a good friend to rely on all these years. “I’ll be out soon to take care of Renegade.”

Paul stepped through the door. “Johnny, that horse of yours is awful persnickety.”

A wry grin curled the corners of his mouth. “Yeah, but he’ll be okay. I’ll have a talk with him.”

“A talk with him?” Paul’s face crinkled in astonishment.

“Don’t ask, Paul,” Murdoch shook his head. “Don’t ask. Let’s just say that Johnny has a special way with that horse, and leave it at that.”

“Will do. And good night you two. Johnny, if I don’t see you before I turn in, have a good night. It’s good to have you back.”

Johnny suddenly remembered that Maria wasn’t the only one who knew him when he was small. Being in the company of so many people that seemed to remember him, yet he could not recall a one, should have been unsettling, but Johnny embraced the warm feeling of comforting acceptance without hesitation. “Thanks. Good to be back.” The shy remark brought a bright smile to his father’s face. Paul beamed, nodded, and quietly left the room.

Murdoch could not be happier. His boy was home, and had spent the entire afternoon hovering. Whoever would have thought that a man with a reputation such as Johnny Madrid had earned, could be so patient, caring and compassionate. Murdoch had refused to leave the couch until well after dinner, much to the displeasure of Maria.

She was another story. Once Johnny got over the sudden, unexpected greeting received from the woman, he soaked up every ounce of attention. Maria clucked and fussed. And Maria was finally, truly happy, for she had been blessed. The young boy she had never stopped loving, never stopped grieving his disappearance, had returned. She would never understand Maria Lancers’ decision to leave and take her young son, but she learned long ago that a body had to accept what the good Lord gave them, and ask for courage to continue on. Now that Johnny was home, life on Lancer felt complete again.

As if that wasn’t enough, when Murdoch informed the feisty woman that Scott would soon be joining them, Maria fled the kitchen in a torrent of tears. Johnny was upset at first, until his father explained that not only did Maria cry at the drop of a hat, but they were happy tears.

“Seems funny, you’re supposed to smile and laugh when you’re happy, and cry when you’re sad. That woman sure has things mixed up, she balls over every little thing,” he had laughed with his father.

Murdoch could not help but agree, for his son was right. Maria sure knew how to turn on the waterworks, yet there was no one more loyal, hardworking and loving. She was the one bright spot in Murdoch’s life, often filling the lonely hours by her mere presence. Johnny wasn’t the only person Maria spoiled, and Murdoch did all he could to make the woman comfortable.

Having lost her husband to a tragic accident shortly after he lost Catherine, and with no children of her own, Lancer became Maria’s family. She resided in a small wing near the garden that Murdoch had built especially for her, no expense spared. Maria had a home, and her loyalty knew no bounds. She ran his household, cooked his meals, hovered when he was injured or ill, and was a trusted, loyal, valued member of the family. With Johnny home, their lives were more than complete. Both Maria and Murdoch were fulfilled, and could not wait for Scott to arrive.

If Murdoch thought Maria hovered, that was nothing compared to how his son stuck by his side the entire day, leaving only when necessary and to check on Renegade. How he has always yearned to have his boy around to care for him, talk to him, fill the lonely moments and make him laugh. He kept on pinching himself to see if this was true, or only one of the many wistful dreams he often had. When Johnny helped him with lunch and dinner, Murdoch knew that he was awake, and his son was there to care for him.

The ride back to the ranch had been long and painful, but Murdoch would do it again in a heartbeat if it brought about the same results. Nevertheless, he was exhausted and his shoulder throbbed. Too stiff to move much, Murdoch struggled to do such simple tasks as butter a roll and cut the roast served for dinner. Sensing his father’s need, Johnny reached over without a word and performed those simple, invaluable tasks.

Now Johnny helped him over to his bed, supporting Murdoch as he sat, wincing against the pain. “Guess you did too much today. Should have come up here sooner.”

“Not on your life.” His clothes were dropped into an untidy pile on the floor, and a nightshirt was pulled over his head. Murdoch felt Johnny’s strong arms reach behind, helping to ease him down onto a mound of plump, feather pillows. “Thank you son.”

“De Nada,” Johnny said softly. “You ok? Need anything?”

“If you don’t mind, I would like a bit of water.”

Johnny lit the lantern and finding a pitcher of fresh, cool water on the washstand, poured a glass and brought it to his father. “More?” He asked when the empty glass was handed over.

“No son, that was just fine.” Murdoch laid back, gathering his thoughts. “Johnny, at the risk of getting overly emotional, I have to say that I have not been this happy in a long time. Thank you. I’m not used to having a son around to take care of me.”

Johnny studied the older man’s face for a moment, a smile coming unbidden. “Then get used to it old man.”

“Gladly.” Murdoch’s smile faded as he sank into feathery softness and fatigue finally won out. Just before closing his eyes, he felt Johnny take his hand, squeezing it tightly. Too weakened to grab his son and never let go, Murdoch returned the squeeze and drifted off to sleep.

Johnny sat with his father for a moment, then quietly rose and left the room. Pausing at the door, he studied Murdoch’s sleeping form, wondering where this strange feeling of deep, abiding love came from. He never asked for it, never sought it, and was quite frankly, surprised at the depth of his feelings. Maybe the saying was right, Johnny always heard that there was a thin line between love and hate. Sometimes the emotions grew too confusing to figure out, yet they were both strong. Other than his mother, he had never felt such a feeling before.

He stood and stared, sudden realization setting in. His father. Father. The walls came tumbling down, the fear, loneliness, anger and hate all dissipated into thin air. The feeling slammed into him. Something he had yearned for his entire life, spent the last few weeks learning about and getting to know this strange mountain of a man who had insinuated himself into his life, and this is what it all came down to. After all the lies, all the betrayal, hurt and pain of those lonely years, Johnny was home with his father where he belonged. And he vowed to protect his newly found family with every fiber of his being.

Feeling lighter than he had in a long time, Johnny went back down to the great room. Maria had already retired for the night, basking in the praise of a magnificent dinner of roast beef with all the trimmings. The chocolate cake served with warm, sweet cream drizzled over the top, was received with such vigor, the new tastes almost bringing Johnny to tears of ecstacy, that Maria was walking on a cloud and already planning the next day’s menu in her mind.

Lounging back on the couch, nodding on and off as he watched the fire, Johnny pulled the quilt over his body, reaching for his gun when the sound of footsteps came from the foyer. “Your father know you’re here?”

“Uh huh.” Skipping into the room, Teresa flopped into the chair.

“What do you want, tag along?” Johnny taunted.

“Why do you call me tag along?” Teresa sat back, short legs swinging back and forth, her small body almost lost in the large chair.

“Because you’re a pest.”

“I’m not a pest.”

“Isn’t it past your bedtime?”

“Daddy always comes and gets me when he’s done in the barn.”

“You gonna bother me every night?”

“I’m just visiting,” Teresa replied.

“You’re just visiting,” Johnny muttered. Sliding the colt back under the pillow, he laid back, sighing contentedly.

“Are you sleeping there?” Teresa asked, her eyes widened in surprise.

“Yeah, what’s it to you?”

“Don’t you want to sleep in your bed?”

“Don’t you ever mind your own business?”

“Just asking.”

“Well, since you’re here, would you hand me that cup of coffee?”

“Okay.” Happy to be of help, Teresa hopped from the chair. Carefully handing the mug over, she knelt next to the couch, elbows resting on the edge of the sofa, chin propped in her hands.

“Where did you live before?” she asked innocently, doe eyes gazing upward.

Knowing the young girl meant no harm, Johnny carefully gathered his thoughts. “Tag along, that’s a long story.”

“I like stories.”

“I’m sure you do, but I’m kind’a tired tonight.”

“So’s Uncle Murdoch. I visit him every night when my Daddy goes out to the barn. Sometimes he tells me a story. But he’s tired tonight, too. Will you tell me sometime?”

“Yeah, sometime,” Johnny replied absently.

“Do you like cookies? Tomorrow’s Saturday, I don’t have school. Maybe Maria will let me make you some cookies,” she said, eager eyes peering upward.

Johnny couldn’t help but chuckle. Suddenly, his life got a whole lot noisier. “Yeah, I like cookies.”

“What kind?”

Johnny wondered if the girl ever ran out of questions. “Surprise me.”

“I’m good at surprises,” Teresa giggled with delight.

“I’m sure you are,” Johnny said. Startled by the slamming of the front door and subsequent heavy footsteps, Johnny relaxed upon seeing Paul stride into the room. There was an entire routine to grow accustomed to.

“Come on young one, it’s your bedtime,” he said, holding a hand out for Teresa. “I hope she didn’t bother you. She’s used to coming in every night and visiting with your father while I tend to the chores.”

“Nah, it’s all right,” Johnny yawned. “Good night tag along.” A devious glint to his eyes, Johnny gave a lock of Teresa’s hair a tug and booted the young girl in the backside, shoving her toward the door. She ran to her father, long hair swinging out to the side. Johnny rolled his eyes and reconsidered the decision to stay on. His father never mentioned anything about Teresa. She just might be the death of him. With a chuckle, he lay back and closed his eyes. Was this how it felt to have a pesky, younger sister? If so, he just might get used to the idea. Maybe.

  ******

Scott allowed for extra time during his journey across this vast country. With so many sights to see, so many interesting places to visit, he basked in the pleasure. After all, one never knew when they would have the opportunity to do so, again. Even though he grew up in Boston, Scott loved the sea and stopped at many of the harbor towns along the east coast. Standing on the end of a long pier, he would lean on a barnacle covered pylon, salty brine in his face, the smell of the sea in his nostrils, and the ocean breeze ruffling through his hair. Quiet moments of contemplation were snatched, a brief respite from the journey.

A history buff, Scott planned a route that would take him through Pennsylvania, where he visited Philadelphia’s Historic District. He spent three days perusing the city, reading up on the history and studying the intriguing architecture. He visited Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted, and the United States Constitution was drafted and signed. After fighting in the war between the states, Scott studied the documents with a new perspective on life, liberty and hard fought freedom.

Tears came to his eyes as he stood silently in front of the Liberty Bell. After the Civil War, Americans sought a symbol of unity for their country. The flag was one such symbol, and the Liberty Bell, adopted as another. In an effort to heal the wounds inflicted by war, the Liberty Bell was soon slated to travel across the country. Scott was humbled, and he stood proud, sending up a silent prayer for all those who had fallen in the recent war he had been lucky enough to survive, and for all past wars, honoring those who have fought for the freedoms enjoyed so liberally.

“Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Scott read the hallowed words and a brief history of the bell which tradition touted that on July 8, 1776, chimed loudly throughout the town, heralding the first reading of the Declamation of Independence by Colonel John Nixon.

Visiting a bookstore, Scott purchased a copy of the Declaration, and a book on the history of the Liberty Bell. He also chose a book on the American Revolution to read along the way, proud and intrigued by the story about the birth of a free nation. On a whim, he purchased a copy of the Declaration for his father, and after browsing for almost an hour, contemplating what to buy his younger brother, Scott made a decision.

A smile came to his face at the thought. This was the first time his younger brother was real to him, the first time he bought the boy a present. Scott knew Johnny was sixteen, four years his junior, yet he knew nothing about him other than what his grandfather flung in his face in heated anger. Thinking of what a young man born and raised out west would like, and not knowing anything further of his brother, Scott chose a book on horses. Every young man liked books on horses, he felt he couldn’t go wrong.

At lunchtime Scott enjoyed a meal and pitcher of ale at the Man Full of Trouble Tavern, and visited a house on North 7th Street, where Edgar Allen Poe had lived from 1838 until 1844. On a whim, he returned to the bookstore and purchased a collection of the man’s works.

Ensconced in history, Scott was reluctant to leave the marvelous city, but there was an entire country yet to explore. And with such a long journey stretched before him, he wanted to make the experience as pleasurable as possible, the side excursions helping to rid his mind of the last night spent in the presence of his grandfather. Try as he might, once the tour through Philadelphia came to an end, Scott boarded the train heading west, and the shattering memory returned.

He had never felt so betrayed in his life. He was also angry that he had been duped for so many years. Scott had always known Harlan to be a cruel man, but he had never shown Scott anything other than loving concern. Harlan was not openly demonstrative with hugs, kisses and other signs of deep affection, but the older man had always possessed a gentle, caring way when speaking to his grandson, and a desire to share the better things in life with him. They took various trips throughout Europe, and shorter trips to the Cape, but no matter where they went, Harlan always made sure that Scott enjoyed the time immensely. No expense was spared where Scott was concerned, from his food, clothing and schooling, to toys, trips and whatever necessities life demanded.

Scott never had any reason to distrust the man, and had always taken Harlan at his word. He never knew the cutting tongue, or conniving mind would stretch so far as to destroy his family. It was no wonder his father never came for him. Scott blanched, sitting back in the seat of the private car. His father had come for him. Scott did not remember their meeting, but at the height of battle, Harlan told how Murdoch Lancer had arrived on his fifth birthday, only to walk off and never return.

“He laughed in my face, Scotty, and would have done the same to you if I had allowed it. Imagine, a man so driven by hatred and contempt that he had the nerve to show up at my home and tell me to ‘keep the brat, I have no use for him’.” Harlan sat behind his desk, lips curled in a snarl, hatred pouring from his eyes.

Scott cringed at the cruelty of such words, the emotional wound inflicted, cutting deep. He clutched the faded envelopes in his hand, the box tucked securely under his arm. “Grandfather, as long as I live, I will never understand why you have lied to me all these years, and why you felt it necessary to destroy what is my family.”

“Was your family, Scotty. You’re above that half breed brother of yours . . .”

Scott whirled about, eyes lit with a silvery glint of rage. “My brother. And he is not to be referred to as anything else. Johnny Lancer is my brother, and it will be a pleasure to get to know him.”

“You mean Johnny Madrid Lancer,” Harlan emphasized. Rising slowly from behind the desk, an evil smirk on his face, he approached Scott, the young man taking an involuntary step backward. “You see, Scotty, you know nothing about your so-called brother. Johnny Madrid Lancer is a cold blooded killer.”

“No, you’re lying again.” Scott paled visibly, his stomach churning.

“I’m not lying, as you will soon learn.” Harlan tapped the document clutched tightly in Scott’s hand. “As you have already learned what you had no right finding out.”

“If you mean I had no right finding out what you did to my father all those years ago, and I don’t mean taking me back east with you and denying me my birthright, then you’re so wrong. So damned wrong.”

“I will not have you speaking to me in such a tone,” the older man shouted.

“I will speak to you in any way I wish. Grandfather, you raised me, you gave me everything a person needs, and I will always be grateful for that. But what you did, is unforgivable. Do you expect me to look past that? To say it was okay to put such a heinous, cruel plan into action? My God, Grandfather. Don’t you have a heart? I can’t, for the life of me, fathom that you have let hatred make you stoop so low, that you felt the need to carry such a chilling crime out.”

“A crime? How dare you.” Harlan spat.

“Yes, a crime.” Scott’s anger grew to momentous proportions. Waving the yellowed document in the older man’s face, this time it was Harlan who took a step backward. “I should have you arrested. You could spend the rest of your days in jail, if I let what is in this document be known, and don’t go thinking I won’t.”

“Scotty, please,” the older man begged.

Scott was dumbfounded. Never in his life, had he seen Harlan Garret reduced to pleading, yet the pale tinge to his face showed he knew he had been beaten, and was scared to death. A strange thought, considering it was his grandfather he was referring to, but Scott knew that he held the man’s future in his hands. And no matter how cutting, how heinous and cruel the man could be, his grandfather would never do anything to hurt him. However, he might turn on Johnny and Murdoch, a thought that suddenly sickened him.

“Grandfather, I’m only going to say this once. If you wish to remain a part of my life, you will listen, and listen good. You will also obey . . .”

“Obey?”

“Yes, obey. I won’t go to the authorities, but know this. I fully intend to keep this document on hand at all times. You want it back, you’ll have to have me killed. I won’t give it up under circumstances less that that,” he said, watching the man further blanch. “And you also won’t put my family in jeopardy. I’ve seen you in action, Grandfather, and I won’t have you hurting my family again. You’ve already done enough.

“When you mess with people’s lives, when you cut them down, altering their fate forever, destroying a family as you did, that is a crime against humanity. There is always a price to pay, and the price this time, is me. You try anything, you lose me forever. How dare you, Grandfather.”

“How dare you, young man. You think you know so much, but you know nothing.” Harlan stiffened his spine and regained control. “You want to go west, then go. Leave and go in search of your so-called father and brother. Only know this, I speak the truth.” Eyes narrowed, he took a step forward. “That brother of yours is a killer, only he did not go by the name of Lancer. He’s Johnny Madrid, a notorious gunfighter. Once you’re finished with those reports you deem so important you had to destroy my property in order to gain access, you’ll know I speak the truth and will come running back.”

“I doubt that,” were the last words Scott spoke to his grandfather. He turned and marched out of the room, and never looked back.

Hailing a cab, he checked into the hotel where his luggage had been delivered earlier and tucked the stack of envelopes, unread Pinkerton report, and the document in his grandfather’s handwriting, into the bottom of his valise. If his brother was a notorious gunfighter, Scott would deal with that when the time came. All he knew was that Johnny was at Lancer with their father, and that was all that mattered. The one daunting question on his mind, was whether to reveal what he had learned, or keep it hidden in his heart.

It was a tortured young man that made a long journey toward what he prayed would be a new beginning. How in the world could Scott ever tell his father what he had learned? Sometimes the truth did more harm than good. It might be better for everyone involved, to keep this startling discovery to himself.

  ******

He lay on the great couch, lost in comfort, a quilt pulled snugly under his chin as a chill wind blew across the yard. Watching the sun rise over the mountains to the east, a soft light filtering through the window, he heaved a sigh of contentment. Upon opening his eyes, Johnny had to pinch himself to make sure he wasn’t still dreaming. Only this was real. He was at Lancer, home where he belonged, unaware that his father felt the same way.

Hearing a muffled giggle coming from around the corner of the doorway leading into the kitchen, Johnny played possum. Closing his eyes, he waited for the right moment to pounce. Another giggle erupted and he yawned, pretending to rub sleep laden eyes. Light footsteps resounded across the floor, followed by another giggle and a jab to the shoulder. Growling, Johnny flung the covers back and attacked. Peals of unadulterated laughter echoed throughout the hacienda. Johnny flung Teresa over his shoulders and strode toward the french doors.

“No, don’t dunk me again. Please.”

Placing Teresa down, Johnny crossed his arms and stared at the child. “Give me one good reason why. Disturbing a man’s sleep like that.”

“I wasn’t disturbing you. Maria told me to wake you so you could get washed for breakfast.”

“Now why do I have to get washed for breakfast? Can’t I just go eat?”

“No, you stink.” Teresa shrieked. Making a break, her laughter ringing out, she darted past Johnny and disappeared into the kitchen. “I’m going to tell Uncle Murdoch to dunk you.”

Dumbfounded, Johnny shook his head. Smelling his shirt, he realized that Teresa was right. Damn, were kids always this honest? Snorting in laughter, he walked out into the kitchen, received a sympathetic smile, washcloth, towel and bar of soap from Maria, and trudged off to the bathhouse, snagging his saddlebags on the way out the door. By the time he returned, fresh and clean, the only extra pair of clothing he owned on his back, Johnny smiled sheepishly.

“Por favor, Mamacita, where can I take care of these?”

“Give them here, nino,” Maria said. Snagging the bundled clothing before Johnny could protest, she pushed him toward the table. “Come, have some coffee and eat. You are much too thin.”

“You don’t have to wash my clothes, I can do that myself,” Johnny shouted to no avail. The woman bustled from the room, muttering under her breath about the threadbare condition of the pink shirt.

“It’s not pink. It’s red. It’s just a little faded, that’s all, and it’s comfortable,” Johnny voiced his reply, again, to no avail.

“Hehehe, a pink shirt.” Teresa’s giggle came from around the corner.

Spinning about, Johnny glared. “Are you always going to be here?”

“It’s time for breakfast,” the child said, taking her accustomed seat. “Uncle Murdoch sits there, and Maria said you should sit next to him.” She pointed to the two place settings, one at the head of the kitchen table, the other to the right. “We always eat breakfast and lunch here. Sometimes we even eat dinner here, but mostly in the dining room.”

Johnny felt he would soon learn the workings of Lancer from the chattering child. “You always talk this much?”

Sticking her tongue out, Teresa grabbed for a biscuit, slathered it with butter and took a large bite. Johnny frowned and reached for a biscuit of his own, all the while fearing that Madrid had just met his match. Teresa had to be about the only person alive that did not wither under his deadly glare.

Maria bustled back into the room. “I have your clothing soaking, nino. You must buy new clothes. Perhaps you can take a trip into town soon.” Maria had succeeded where Murdoch failed, the blush coming to Johnny’s cheeks having no effect on the determined woman.

“I have clothes,” Johnny stammered.

“Yeah, a pink shirt.” Teresa giggled behind her hand.

Johnny glared and she flashed a cheeky grin.

“Nino, you have need for more. Much more. What will you do today if those should get wet? It is chilly outside, and it promises to rain later on. This time of year, it does well to have more to fall back on. No, you must ride into town, your father has an account at Baldemeros.”

“I can buy them,” Johnny argued lightly, embarrassed at the hint.

“Nonsense, nino. You must save your money. Indulge your father. It gives a man great pride to provide for his family. No matter how independent and capable that family is.” Maria placed a gentle hand on Johnny’s cheek. “Let your father have that pleasure.”

Maria had paved the way and Johnny reluctantly agreed.

  ******

Murdoch woke to the sound of laughter rumbling up from the kitchen. Paul strode through the bedroom door, ready to help him get up and dressed, in spite of his better judgement. “Guess you haven’t changed your mind.”

“No, and I won’t. I want to have breakfast with my son, and it won’t be in this bed. Now, are you going to help me get dressed and make a trip outside, or do I have to do it myself?”

Paul shook his head. He once thought Murdoch Lancer to be about the most stubborn man he ever had to contend with. That was until he met his son. “Can see our quiet mornings are a thing of the past.” The man could not help but chuckle at the obvious chaos the kitchen must be in.

“Yes, and it’s about time,” Murdoch bellowed. “Now, are you going to help me?”

Murdoch grunted when he got to his feet, too stiff to stretch to his full height. Leaning a bit on Paul, he walked across the room. By the time they reached the hallway, his body had loosened up a bit and he walked steadier, on his own. After a trip outside, which further resolved his determination to add a water closet, Murdoch finished getting washed and dressed. That simple, everyday routine left him winded, yet the stubborn man refused to get back into bed.

“I’ll brave Maria’s well wielded spoon,” he laughed with Paul on the way down the stairs.

Maria converged before he even reached the table, waving the spoon. “You should be in bed. You stubborn man. What good will you be if you do not get well? You have a son to help take care of things here, and what do you do?”

“Maria, I only want to have breakfast. Then I’ll go and lay down,” Murdoch sought to appease the woman.

“In your bed.” The short woman stood, hands placed on rounded hips.

“On the couch,” Murdoch mouthed.

“The couch. It is always the couch. Then you go lay on the couch, we will see who gets better.” Maria served up breakfast, chattering all the while. “And the nino will be going into town today.”

“Maria . . .” Johnny fought to protest, and withered under threat of the spoon. He wondered what effect that would have on some of the morons who called him out, only were too dumb to know that they didn’t have a prayer. It sure would save him a lot of trouble. Maria drew and waved that spoon quicker than he drew his gun.

“Son, there’s no arguing,” Murdoch chuckled.

“But you argue,” Maria said in a huff. “The nino, he is good. He listens.”

Blushing, Johnny turned to his father. “Maria says I need clothes.”

Brightening, Murdoch owed another one to Maria, who peered back over her shoulder and winked. “Well, that sounds like a good idea. We can . . .”

“You can do nothing.” Maria whirled about, spoon raised high. “You will go to that couch and you will stay there. You ride a horse, you will be on the ground before you reach the gate.” Before she even wound down, she turned on Johnny. “And you will buy many clothes, yes? You will need everything. Shirts, pants, plenty of socks, a warm jacket . . .”

“I have a warm jacket,” Johnny pointed out.

“He has a warm jacket,” Murdoch agreed.

“Then he will buy another.” Maria spoke her mind. “And you must buy undergarments.” This time she shook her finger at Johnny. “The pair I put in to soak are cut off and so threadbare, you can see through them.”

“Maria.” Johnny almost burst a blood vessel, his face a deep, scarlet red.

“Heehee, just don’t make them pink like your shirt,” Teresa giggled. A hand clamped over her mouth, brown eyes twinkled with devilment.

Johnny reached across the table and tugged at her braid. Teresa stuck her tongue out and in pulling back, her elbow hit a glass of milk, which promptly spilled into Paul’s lap. He jumped up, his chair clattering to the floor. A kitten ran in from outside to lap up the mess, droplets of milk splashing onto its golden head. Murdoch watched any sense of decorum they might have had, fly out the window, his mouth again gaping like a puckered fish. It seemed whenever his son and Teresa came into contact, there was no peace, and he was at a loss for words.

John.”

“Teresa.”

“What?” Both answered in unison, innocent faces turned in the direction of their respective fathers.

  ******

She sat on the adobe wall, watching Johnny tighten the cinch on Renegade. Every once in a while, he whispered into the ear of the mighty stallion, and the large beast swung its head around, baring its teeth at Teresa. Johnny snickered, and Renegade glared.

Teresa slid off the wall. Having learned her lesson, she stayed well out of harm’s way. “Your horse is mean.” She stamped her foot, arms folded at her chest.

Johnny turned, a devious smirk crossing his face. “And if you keep on following me everywhere I turn, I’ll teach him to bite you in the butt.”

“Oh, you’re mean. I’m going to tell your father.”

“Go ahead.”

Perplexed, Teresa’s frown grew. “Aren’t you afraid of getting whooped?”

“Nope.” Securing the saddlebags, Johnny mounted Renegade in one graceful leap. “Know what happens to tattletales?” he asked, looking down upon the pouting, young girl. “Their tongues swell up in their mouths and if they don’t choke to death on ‘em, they fall out.”

Teresa paled, clamped her hands over her mouth and ran to the house screaming, pigtails bouncing wildly behind her. Laughing victoriously, Johnny rode off. She just might leave him alone when he returned. Then the guilt set in. Perhaps he did cross over the line this time. He would make it up to her when he returned from town.

“Maybe she likes licorice whips.” He brightened, snapping his fingers. “Yeah, that’ll do it.”

Relishing the first taste of freedom in weeks, Johnny leaned low over Renegade and without hesitation, the horse took off like a shot from a cannon, a blur of black streaking across a field of tall grass. Melding, they rode as one, man and horse merging into one beast, one heart, one mind. Raw energy surged from Renegade, matching the fire in Johnny’s heart.

They ate the ground at a heart stopping pace, not even breaking stride when clearing a five foot wide gully that would have had most men stopping to assess the situation. Johnny and Renegade never stopped to assess, they lived for the moment, embracing the freedom, the sun on their faces and wind in their hair, a silky black mane and shimmering raven hair flowing freely. They were made for one another, this man and beast, two spirits joined as one.

Johnny reached the top of the hill and reining Renegade in, the stallion snorting in protest, he looked out over the ranch. It wasn’t that long ago that he sat on that very spot, damning his father and everything Lancer stood for, and now, he took back those words, asked for forgiveness and vowed to never let his father down. He would make the man proud.

There was so much to explore. 100,000 thousand acres, exactly. It would take a bit, but as Johnny had joked with Murdoch before leaving, he had time enough to explore every nook and cranny, and intended to do that very thing. Johnny knew he should be learning the day to day routine of running a ranch of this size, but since he already knew how to ride, rope and herd, everything else would fall into place.

First and foremost, he wanted to become familiar with the land that was to be his legacy. Maybe when Scott arrived, they could explore together. Johnny’s heart soared at the thought. The older brother he had always wished for, would soon be joining them. He only hoped they got along, and Scott could look past is reputation, a worry set aside for later.

“Come on boy, we have some shopping to do.” With a whoop, Johnny spurred Renegade forth and they blazed a trail to town.

Reaching the outskirts of Green River, flashbacks of the fateful afternoon Stringer Jones and his men rode into town, ran through his mind. Looking down the dusty main street, he heard the gunshots and saw his father sprawled on the ground. Shaking his head to clear the disturbing memory, Johnny stiffened his spine and rode on. It would not do to be caught daydreaming, lost in a bad memory that would only take his mind off his surroundings.

Johnny might have returned to Lancer, but Madrid was always aware. He winked at the Widow Hargis as he rode by, the feisty old woman smiling and waving him off. Spotting Gus, Johnny turned Renegade in that direction. “Now remember boy, you behave yourself and don’t go biting the old coot. Like I told you, it won’t hurt to be a bit social. Don’t mean you have to go kissing up to everyone, just be good to Gus. He’s all right.”

Snorting, his head bobbing, Renegade allowed Johnny to hand over the reins. “Well glory be, if that ain’t the damndest thing,” Gus chuckled. “How’s your father, Johnny?”

“He’s fine. Wanted to come into town, but Maria wouldn’t let him.”

“That’s good to hear. If anyone can keep that stubborn codger in line, it’s that woman. You going to be staying long?”

“Nah, just going to head on down to Baldemeros. I’d usually leave him tied to the post, but he ran awfully hard and needs a good rub down.”

“Think he’ll let me?” Gus grinned, wriggling his fingers in Johnny’s face. “Got awful attached to these things, and want to keep ‘em attached,” the old man cackled.

“I had a talk with him.”

Gus shook his head and to his amazement, Renegade bobbed his head and snorted in reply. “Then that about does it. Come on there, let’s get you settled. Good to see you, Johnny.”

“Yeah, thanks Gus.” Johnny gave a two fingered salute and strode down the wooden walkway. Glancing in the direction of the saloon, he decided to drop in for a beer. The ride was long and dusty, and he was parched. Water just didn’t cut it. Not even giving his father a thought, Johnny strode across the street and paused at the batwing doors.

Eyes darting about, he walked up to the bar. There were few patrons that time of day, the stray wrangler needing a cold beer to cut the dust, was about all the business until after sundown. Sam stood wiping down the bar as he approached. Johnny snickered, either the bar or glasses, the man always seemed to be wiping down one or the other.

“Johnny, good to see you. How’s your father?” Sam asked in greeting.

“He’s fine, Sam,” Johnny said in a low, soft drawl. “Beer.”

“You got it.” Sam paused for a brief moment. “Ahh, your father won’t be coming after me, now will he?”

“No, Murdoch and I reached an agreement. He won’t try to change me, and I won’t let him know what I’m doing.”

A burst of laughter roared forth and Sam served up a tall mug of frosted beer. “Sounds like a good agreement, to me. You’re in luck. Old Wilt brought this block of ice over not more than an hour ago. Had the keg sitting in that tub as pretty and cold as you can be.”

“Oh man, that cuts it.” Johnny drained half the mug in one breath, swiped the back of his arm across his mouth and relaxed, leaning on the bar. “Things quiet in town?” If there was anything he had learned, when you wanted to gauge the atmosphere in town, the best place would be at the saloon.

“Pretty much, but with Micah gone, Chuck has his hands full.”

“Trouble?”

“Nothing more than the usual drunks at night, a few rowdy fellas stirring up a fight or two. No big trouble.” Sam flung the towel over his shoulder and leaned on the bar. “I tell you, Johnny, what we need is a sheriff.”

“What about Chuck?”

“Nope, he’s not up for the job. Said so himself. He was good with Micah, but old Micah really knew how to run the show. That is, until Stringer and his men showed up.”

“Not many people could stand up to him. I’ve seen him take down plenty lawmen who tried to stop him.”

“But you stopped him,” Sam leaned forward, a knowing glint to his eyes.

Johnny refused to meet the man’s gaze. “I ain’t no sheriff. Hell, my father would burst a nut.”

“Well, you got me there,” Sam chuckled. “But you’d make one hell of a sheriff.”

“Even so, I’m only sixteen, don’t forget,” Johnny pointed out. “You know many sixteen-year-old sheriffs?”

“Nope, but I don’t know many sixteen-year-old gunhawks that can take down the likes of Jones and his crew without batting an eyelid,” Sam said in retaliation.

“Sure, I can see my father now. Hey Murdoch, guess what? Seems I rode into town to buy a few things, and came back a sheriff. Man, he’d really blow up,” Johnny chuckled.

“Well, I suppose he would. But it’s good knowing you’re around,” Sam smiled.

A strange flash of pride rushed through Johnny. “Ahh hell, tell Chuck that if there’s any trouble, he knows where to find me.”

What seemed in an impossibility, the smile creasing Sam’s face, grew wider. “Now that I can do. And believe me when I say, we’re deeply appreciative.”

“Thanks, but I better get going. Got a lot to do today.” Johnny downed the rest of his drink and tossed a coin on the bar.

Sam snagged the coin and threw it back. “You’re money’s no good here, Johnny. Not after what you done.”

“Sam, I always pay my way.”

“Well, consider your way paid for a hell of a long time. This town owes you, Johnny, and we know it. I know it.”

“All right, Sam, but don’t make a habit of it.” Johnny flashed a quick grin and slapped the bar. “Wonder if Baldemero will charge me for new duds,” he snickered on the way out.

An hour later Johnny left the store laden with packages. Maria would be pleased with his purchases, especially the six pairs of socks and longjohns he had wrapped and stashed in the bottom of the parcels. He never had so many clothes in one time, his entire life. With two pairs of new black pants, another pair of soft suede pants with bright conchos, four shirts, a buckskin jacket, work gloves and four bandanas, his head was spinning.

The only thing he refused to buy, was a nightshirt. He didn’t care how many whacks he got from Maria’s spoon, he would not wear a nightshirt. He has spent his entire life without one, and wouldn’t start now. He would sleep in longjohns now that the nights were cool, and in the warmer months of spring and summer, would sleep in the buff. And unless Maria peeked, she would never know.

A whistle from across the street drew his attention and Johnny turned, watching a red haired, freckle faced boy, running toward him. “Got a telegram for your Pa,” he called out, waving the missive.

“Thanks, kid.” Johnny snatched the message and tossed the boy a quarter.

Eyes as round as saucers, he whistled again. “Wow, I hope you get more, Mr. Lancer.”

“It’s Johnny,” the boy was gently corrected. “Mr. Lancer is my old man.”

“Thanks, Johnny.”

“What’s your name?” Johnny asked as the boy turned to run off.

“I’m Tommy. Tommy Miller. My daddy runs the telegraph office,” the carrot topped youth answered, before spinning around to run back.

Johnny shook his head, wondering if he had that much energy when younger. Looking around the town, for the first time, he suddenly realized that he was not only accepted, he was respected, something quite strange for the young gunhawk.

“And Sam wants me to be sheriff,” he snorted. Tucking the telegram in his pocket, he made one more stop before retrieving Renegade and heading toward home.

  ******

Riding in, Johnny took care of Renegade before going into the house. Arms laden with packages, he kicked the french doors open and strode inside, seeing the welcoming smile on his father’s face.

“Did you have a good trip, son?” the older man asked, his tone broaching mock seriousness.

“Yeah,” Johnny hesitated to answer. “You got a telegram,” he said, handing the message over.

“Thank you. How are things in town?”

“Ho boy, things are quiet. I think I bought Baldemero’s out, though,” Johnny snickered.

“Good. Good,” Murdoch replied. “Ahh John, did you tell Teresa that you would train Renegade to . . .well, bite her in the butt?” he finished, stammering slightly and trying not to lose control.

“Yep.” Johnny grinned at his father, tone clipped and not containing an ounce of remorse.

“And did you tell her that her tongue would swell up and fall out if she told on you?”

“Yep. Oh, and I also told her that she could choke on it, too.” Johnny’s retort was glib.

Murdoch sighed. “John, I think you owe Teresa an apology.”

“Murdoch, she’s a pest. I can’t take two steps out the door before she’s on me,” Johnny whined.

“Johnny, she’s just a child. She likes you.” Murdoch strove to turn his son’s feelings around.

Johnny muttered under his breath. “Don’t mean I have to like her.”

Murdoch leaned a bit closer. “What’s that you say?”

“I said she has to learn to stay to the house. Maybe go play with her dolls or something.”

“She doesn’t like dolls,” Murdoch chuckled. “I suppose that’s our fault, growing up on the ranch surrounded by men, and all.”

Johnny deflated. “I’ll go talk to her.” Reaching into the sack, he pulled out a smaller bag.

“What’s that?” Murdoch asked, eyebrows raised.

“Nothing, just something I picked up.”

“For Teresa?”

“Murdoch, I didn’t mean to upset her or anything. Guess I’m just not used to being dogged all the time. Anyone else dogs me, they get their asses shot.” Johnny ignored the grimace given. “I’m just not used to having a kid all over me. Didn’t mean to hurt her or nothing, was just playing around. She outside?”

“In the barn.” Murdoch crooked his head to the right.

“Best to get this over with. Oh, what’s the telegram say?”

“Yes, I seem to have forgotten.” Opening the massage, Murdoch’s face brightened. “Seems Scott had a change of plans. He left Boston early and will be here within three weeks time. Said he would wire us when he got closer to give us ample time to prepare for his arrival.”

“What the hell is ample time?”

“Enough time,” Murdoch mouthed.

“Oh, another one with the fancy words. Glad I’m not like that. Hey, we got a lot to do to get ready. Oh, and did I tell you that they want me to be sheriff?” Johnny shouted that last part over his shoulder, leaving his father laying on the couch, too stunned for words.

  ******

He found her sitting in the corner of the barn, sunk into a pile of fresh hay. Stray stalks stuck out from her long braid, a tear stained face hidden in her hands. Johnny’s heart softened at the sight. He had not meant to hurt the child, he only meant to tease her a little. Only this time, he realized he had gone too far. Nodding to Paul, who he hoped didn’t take his head off, he walked over to the haystack and sat next to the small, quivering figure.

“Know something, tag along, sometimes I have this big stupid mouth that words seem to tumble out of before I can stop them.” Reaching out, he flecked a piece of hay from her hair.

“You hate me,” Teresa sobbed.

Johnny sat back, legs stretched before him. “Oh man, I don’t hate you.”

“Yes you do. You’re going to teach your horse to bite me.”

“That was one of the stupid things I said. Teresa, please look at me.” Johnny waited a moment for the girl to regain a bit of composure, and lift her head. When she looked up, he took a deep breath. “This is so hard for me. You asked me before where I lived, and I said it was a long story. It is, and I might tell you one day, but what I will tell you now, is that I really didn’t have a home.”

“But you had your Mama,” she said, sniffing the tears dry.

Johnny’s arm snaked around Teresa’s shoulders, an act so natural and free, she settled against him. “I did for a little while, but she died when I was younger than you.”

“I know. I forgot,” Teresa hung her head.

“It’s all right.” Johnny tightened his grip around her. “But I didn’t know I could come here, didn’t know my father wanted me.”

“Oh, but he did. You really didn’t know?” Teresa gasped, turning to stare into Johnny’s eyes.

“No, I didn’t know. Someone lied to me, and those lies kept me away. But we’ll talk about that another time. Thing is, I’ve been alone for so long now, that I sometimes don’t know how to act or what to say to other people. What I thought was a joke this morning, hurt you. I’m sorry. Forgive me?” Johnny smiled, thrilled to see the twinkle come back into Teresa’s eyes.

“It’s okay, Johnny. I know you’re not mean. Besides, my tongue didn’t fall out and I didn’t choke on it.” Teasing, she glared up, sticking her tongue out again.

Johnny tossed his head back in laughter and handed the bag over. “Well that’s good, ‘cause then you couldn’t eat these.”

Teresa squealed in delight. Opening the bag, she immediately stuck a licorice whip into her mouth and handed one to Johnny. “Why not,” he shrugged, snagging the candy from her fingers. “Come on tag along, lets go inside.”

With a cry of delight, Teresa was swung onto Johnny’s back. Murdoch and Paul watched dumbfounded from the great room, stunned by a sight they never thought to witness. Walking across the yard was a hardened, deadly gunslinger with a young girl on his back and a red licorice whip stuck in his mouth. And, the boy was laughing.

  ******

Today, Murdoch Lancer truly felt like a father. He had breakfast with his youngest son and was anxiously awaiting the arrival of his eldest. The morning meal had been anything but quiet, with the entire kitchen thrown into total chaos by two laughing, squabbling youngsters. And if the hardened gunhawk at the heart of the turmoil caught wind of being referred to as a youngster, there would be hell to pay.

When Johnny left for town soon after, Murdoch experienced a sense of longing that kept him watching out the french doors, relaxing only when he saw Johnny come riding back in under the arch. If he could have walked outside without incurring Maria’s wrath, he would have been there to welcome the boy home. Words could not express how good he felt. Murdoch was proud when Johnny strode out to the barn, a bag of candy in hand. In spite of all his arguments, he knew the boy cared for Teresa, but considering their ages, life at Lancer would not be quiet for a very long time, if ever again. And it was about damned time.

Johnny had not meant to be cruel to Teresa, he was merely testing the waters, and that was perfectly understandable. Children always let off steam, pushing the limits to see just how far they could go, what they could get away with and what behavior was totally unacceptable. There was no need for correction, Johnny had already corrected himself. He returned with a bag of candy and judging from the time spent in the barn, a lengthy apology.

Murdoch laid back, Johnny’s last comment ringing through his mind. ‘Oh, and did I tell you that they want me to be sheriff?’ Murdoch was astounded. All this time spent worrying whether people would accept his son given his deadly reputation, and he returns home from his first trip into town, informing him that the good people of Green River wanted him to be sheriff. The idea brought a sense of pride to the father, who knew full well that Johnny would prove more than capable of handling the job, but the only sticking point was his age.

The boy may have moved beyond his years a long time ago, but in the eyes of the law, he was still only sixteen. No matter how he lived before. No matter his life’s experiences, what he was capable of doing, what he has seen and done, he was still only sixteen. Then Murdoch grinned, imagining being the father of the youngest sheriff ever known. While most sixteen-year-old boys were still in school and sparking the girl next door, Johnny would be protecting the town, shouldering all the responsibilities that come with the badge.

If anyone could do the job and do it well, Murdoch knew his son was more than capable. He had only seen a glimmer of Johnny’s true potential, which he knew went far. If Johnny had only been allowed the privilege of a formal education, there would be no limit to the boy’s accomplishments. Johnny was not only compassionate, loyal, strong and true to his word, he possessed a keen intelligence that astounded his father.

Murdoch shifted the weight off his sore shoulder, readjusted the quilt Maria threw over his lap and smiled as Johnny came back in from the kitchen. “I’m proud of you son.”

Blushing, Johnny’s eyes dropped. “Ahh, she’s only a kid.”

It was on the tip of his tongue to say the same about Johnny, but Murdoch quickly regained his wit. “So, are you going to show me your purchases?”

Johnny grabbed a shot of whiskey, flashed a wry grin at his father, and sat down. “Hey, everyone in town is asking about you.”

“I can imagine they were,” Murdoch answered, wagging a finger toward the bar. “Would you mind?”

“Not at all.” Johnny poured his father a shot, got a refill for himself, and sat back down.

Murdoch could not help but visibly cringe, yet he held his tongue. He did not like the idea of his teenage son drinking so freely, but not only did he remind himself of earlier promises, he knew that Johnny was already a man in his own right and more than capable of caring for himself. Murdoch then softened, the last thing he wanted was to have Johnny skip out on the first full day home. The boy was too independent, another trait the father had to grow accustomed to, leaving him to wonder if there would ever come a day when Johnny truly needed him.

Murdoch pointed toward the pile of packages. “Looks like you bought the store out.”

“Yeah, Mr. Baldemero made sure that I had everything I needed.”

“Even?” Murdoch again wriggled his finger, this time the motion was directed toward the heavily laden bags.

“Yes, even that. And lots of socks.” A crimson blush crept across Johnny’s cheeks.

“Good.” Murdoch stifled a smile.

“I did kind’a . . .”

“What son?”

“Well, you said to charge them to you.” Johnny hung his head, his cheeks flushed with shame.

Reaching out instantly, grimacing at the sudden movement, Murdoch clapped Johnny on the knee. “It’s what I wanted. I wanted to send you to the store when we were in town. I wish I had, it would have been a lot easier, instead of having you make another trip today.”

“That’s ok, it felt good to get out.”

“To get away from the old man, huh?” Murdoch teased lightly.

“No, not that. Just felt good to be out on my own. Grew kind’a used to that,” Johnny replied.

“Yes, I guess you have. And don’t feel that that’s a bad thing, son. Lots of people feel that way. We all need time to go off by ourselves. Some need it more than others. There is nothing wrong in that. So let me see. What did you get?”

“Well, I got these shirts.” Johnny bubbled over, excited by the wealth of purchases.

“I see, they’re a bit colorful,” Murdoch snickered.

“Yeah, I do like bright colors, but these aren’t so bad,” Johnny replied.

Pulling a soft, green pullover shirt from the bag, he handed it to his father, followed by a shirt of light blue with small flowers, and a white shirt embellished with bright embroidery. Murdoch nodded his approval of the two pairs of black pants, then frowned and shook his head when spying the pair of soft, brown leather, with bright conchos down the legs. His son had definitely inherited his mother’s taste for the flamboyant.

Johnny’s head drooped and he spoke in a low, soft drawl, his hand brushing the soft leather. “Boy, I ain’t ever had so much at one time.”

Murdoch had to look away. His child should never have been so deprived, that a few simple purchases reduced him to such deep emotion.

Johnny quickly regained his composure. “Oh, and I got this jacket. Figured it would be easier to wear than the long duster when working around the ranch. And I got these here work gloves, and a warmer pair for riding. Kind’a left mine behind at the cabin.” He laid the purchases on the table next to his father. Cocking his head to the right, Johnny shouted across the room. “Do you approve, Mamacita?”

A rapid burst of Spanish and a wooden spoon waved in the doorway, heralded the presence of the nosy woman who hustled back into the kitchen. Johnny snickered. “She was peeking.”

“Nothing gets past Maria,” Murdoch chuckled. “No nightshirts?” He raised his eyebrows in question.

Johnny’s answer was steadfast and final. “No, and I won’t buy any, either. Hate the damned things. Never had any use for them.”

“They’re comfortable,” Murdoch replied.

“So’s sleeping in the buff,” Johnny said, again seeing a frown cross his father’s face.

“It’s cold this time of year,” the older man reminded him.

“Then I’ll wear longjohns. Murdoch, no one will see me. And if they do, they deserve to be embarrassed for spying.” Johnny sat back, arms crossed, a look of stubborn determination plastered across his face.

In lieu of such stark determination, Murdoch relented. “Well son, I’m glad you got what you needed. I almost can’t wait to see how Scott’s taste in clothing goes.” The older man grew concerned at the pale tinge to his son’s face. “John, are you all right? John?”

Snapping to attention, Johnny floundered. “Murdoch, what if . . .”

“What, son?”

“I’ve seen men who lived in cities, some of them dress real sissified. Ruffles, funny tall hats and all.”

“Top hats,” Murdoch corrected.

“Top, bottom, who the hell cares. They’re funny hats. What if he wears those funny hats?”

“Would that bother you?”

Johnny cringed. “Man wears a funny hat like that, they get shot off. I know, I’ve seen it happen.”

Murdoch had to laugh at the antics of an overwrought sixteen-year-old. “Just as long as that someone isn’t you.”

“Well it might be.”

“Now John.”

“He probably wears nightshirts.”

“I wear nightshirts.”

Johnny cringed further. “Oh man,” he said, slapping his forehead. “Well, I’ll just have to show that brother of mine the ways of the west.”

“Yes, see that you do,” Murdoch glowered.

  ******

Winston Avery rolled out of bed. Belching, he picked at the seat of his pants, hitched a suspender up over his shoulder and tucking in the tails of a filthy, tattered shirt, staggered across the floor. The north wind blew across the harbor, the sound of a lone foghorn rendering an eerie pall over the land. The bell hanging just outside the front door clanged in the stiff northern breeze, and the salty brine clung to his skin and chilled his bones. Avery should have left Boston years ago, but he didn’t trust Harlan Garret as far as he could throw him and as long as he stayed close, he could monitor the man’s movements.

Standing just under six feet tall, Avery was wiry in build, and at 45 years of age, a thick head of straight, jet black hair was now peppered with gray, and thinning. His eyes were brown, and his face was thin, resembling that of a ferret. The pinky finger on his left hand was missing, a casualty of a lifetime spent working the docks, and a hook shaped scar, the result of a barroom brawl, cut across his right cheek. Avery was a quiet man, but shrewd and calculating when the need arose. He looked out for himself, and would do just about anything if the price was right, with no qualms about morality, for Avery did not possess morals. He also didn’t give a damn about anyone else, and left them alone unless he was paid to do differently, or they pissed him off.

He was not an educated man, and never had the chance or desire to attend school when younger. Growing up on the docks, no one cared. That privilege was reserved for the well-to-do of the elite, Boston families. The lower class knew their place and scratched out a living the best they could. His mother did teach him how to read and do sums so that no one might cheat him in the future, and he even knew a bible verse or two, but that was as far as a formal education went. Still, Avery knew how to be suave and sophisticated, a smooth player, when needed. And when he was cleaned up, he played the part well.

Lighting a freshly rolled cigarette, Avery took a deep drag and flicked the ashes into the hearth. The calming effect always delivered, shot through his body, yet he could not shake the unease experienced earlier. Walking back along the wharf, Avery had the sinking feeling that he was being followed, but his booze sodden brain failed to tune in on any sense of danger, although his gut felt differently. He jumped at every sound, a cat screeching in a nearby alley, the sound of music filtering out from the pubs. Waves lapped against the thick, barnacle covered pylons, moored boats thumping against the weatherbeaten, solid wood.

The whisper of a sound he failed to make out, yet alone comprehend, was there. Glancing over his shoulder, shadows darted every which way, his eyes playing tricks on him. Avery finally reached home, and much to his relief, felt no resistance when slamming the door behind him.

Hearing a thump outside, he jumped, the flesh along his bony body, prickling. Avery flicked the burned out nub into the fireplace and when bending to stir the waning flames, fell forward when the front door was kicked in and a heavy body slammed into him, driving his head into the stone hearth. Stars swam before his eyes and in spite of his earlier inebriated state, he possessed enough presence of mind to swing out with his arm. Connecting solidly, bone on bone, he felt the crunch of the assailant’s nose, and the unmistakable, warm flow of blood running down his arm.

With a growl, a tall hulk of a man attacked, this time driving a fist into Avery’s midsection. Gasping for breath, he stumbled backward, barely fending off the swipe of a knife grazing along the flesh of his upper arm. Reaching out blindly, fingers wrapped around a hot poker and he swung in a wide arc, striking the head of an approaching, dark figure. A cry of pain rang out, the knife clattered to the floor and the dark man fell to his knees. Avery brought the poker down repeatedly, feeling the rewarding crunch of the man’s skull beneath his hands. The fallen assailant had sorely underestimated his prey.

He took a moment to catch his breath. It was time to get out of Boston. In a controlled panic, Avery threw what few clothes he possessed into a frayed carpetbag, retrieved the money hidden in a glass jar behind a crock of molasses, and grabbed his overcoat, hat and gloves. Turning back, he flung a kerosene lantern against the far wall, struck a match on the bottom of his boot, and tossed it into the room. A trail of flame erupted, licking across the floor and up the wall. Avery pulled the door shut behind him and walked away. To the rest of the world, Winston Avery was dead.

This time it was too close, he barely escaped with his life. He should have bumped Garret off years ago after the old man paid him to kidnap that Mexican brat. He should have drowned the half breed whelp, and then gone back after Garret, instead of living in fear that the old man would either be found out one day, or would reveal the documents in his possession. Evidence showing that on the night of January 7, 1852, he was paid to kidnap the then two-year-old Johnny Lancer from his bedroom after everyone was asleep. Garret then worked his charm on Maria Lancer.

Shortly after midnight, the woman went into her son’s room, only to find the crib empty and Harlan Garret skulking in the shadows. Grabbed from behind, a strong hand clamped over her mouth, Maria was then told to leave the estancia immediately, or she would never see her boy alive again. And if she ever returned, he would be killed. No matter where she went, men would be watching. It would make no difference how long they stayed away, they would never be safe if they came anywhere near Lancer again. Murdoch Lancer had robbed Garret of his daughter, and he was paying the man back in kind. Whisked away in a carriage, with only the nightclothes on her back, an overnight bag containing a few necessary garments, and the little money Garret allowed, Maria Lancer disappeared from her home forever.

Now Winston Avery was terrified of being discovered. He was not going to spend the rest of his life in prison. After all these years, if Garret found it necessary to kill him off, the old man had to be running scared. In some way, Garret had failed to cover his tracks, and found it necessary to eliminate everyone involved. With his partner and the carriage driver already dead, Avery was the only person alive who could point the finger at Garret. Well, the old man had his chance. Now it was his turn. Wrapping a bandana around the wound on his arm, Avery stumbled from the alley and headed toward the other end of town. There, a friend would hide him until his arm healed and Avery regained his strength. He would take his time, for this could not be rushed. He would watch and wait. And very soon, when the time was right, Avery would journey to the mansion on Beacon Street and pay old man Garret, a visit.

  ******

The following three weeks literally flew by. One day melded into the next as Johnny worked alongside his father, learning the ways of the ranch. Murdoch was proud, Johnny was a hard worker and did not shirk even the grungiest of jobs. He rose early and worked until it was time to return to the ranch for dinner. Given time, Murdoch would give Johnny a crew of his own to handle, but for now, the boy was doing fine learning the daily routine from the bottom up.

He met Cipriano, the ranch foreman, who had just returned from a grueling two weeks spent clearing a rockslide that demolished the north line camp. The crew was stunned and happy to finally meet Johnny. Everyone knew of Murdoch’s heartache over his missing son, and had also heard of Madrid. As one cowboy joked, ‘it’s nice to meet ya both’, with a hand held out in greeting.

Johnny cleared creekbeds, helped Cipriano build a new bridge over the river cutting through the east pasture, strung a fence line, rounded up strays and spent hours exploring Lancer, riding alongside his father some days, and going off on his own, others. And everywhere he went, Teresa tried to follow. When he mounted Renegade to ride off for the day, she sat on the adobe wall, watching his departure. Johnny would whisper in Renegade’s ear, and the horse would turn and gnash its teeth at Teresa. The young girl squealed and ran, and Johnny rode off victoriously. Both Murdoch and Paul had given up on the two long ago.

Johnny was granted a brief reprieve when Teresa went off to school, and considered talking the teacher into keeping classes going all year round, foregoing any vacations or holiday breaks. Now Teresa was pestering for a pony and Johnny prayed that would not happen for a very long time. As much as he cared for the child, the last thing he needed was to see her around every turn. He would need to speak with his father on that very matter. His days were full and by night’s end, he was filthy, hungry and tired, but had never felt better. Johnny embraced Lancer, and everything the name stood for.

He woke with a bounce in his step every morning and looked forward to each day, ready to face whatever challenge came along. Invaluable time was spent getting to know his father better, and the two fell into a natural, comfortable relationship. They worked side by side during the day and rode back under the arch when dinnertime beckoned, as it should have been all along. Murdoch’s heart swelled with pride and he rode with his chest puffed out for all the world to see. He was riding the range with his son, and together, they returned home. Nothing ever felt better. This was what he had always dreamed of.

With the dawn of a new day, Johnny woke and rolled off the sofa. Stretching, he stumbled outside to begin his morning routine. Washed and dressed, he staggered back into the kitchen and snagged a cup of coffee. “You going out on the range today? Cipriano and I are gonna ride out to the east pasture. He wants to check that creekbed and round up any strays,” he said, talking around a mouthful of flapjacks.

Wiping his mouth, Murdoch glared lovingly at his boy and made a distinct show of swallowing first. “No my son, I have bookwork to do.”

Johnny frowned, eager to get outside before his father changed his mind and snagged him to help with the books. He scraped his plate clean, downed the last of the coffee and followed Murdoch into the great room, buckling his gunbelt along the way. Standing by the desk, he cringed. “Man, I would hate to have to do sums on a day like today. Can’t you save it for a rainy day? Or tonight?”

As much as Murdoch would have loved to jump onto his horse and follow, the bookwork beckoned. And with Scott due to arrive by week’s end, he wanted to clear his desk. “Son, I really have to get this done. I don’t want to be up to my eyeballs with figures when Scott gets here. I want to spend time with my boys.”

“Yeah, well I can think of better figures to be up to my eyeballs with,” Johnny snickered.

“John.” Murdoch shot a quick warning glare.

“Anyway, I hate doing sums. Told you that back at the cabin.”

“Yes, I also seem to remember that you mentioned being able to read in both Spanish and English, but you never seem to bother with the books.” Murdoch nodded toward the bookcase.

“Can read good enough, I’m just not interested in scouting through them there books. Would rather live my own life story, than read that of another. Never made sense.”

“I see. A story can be interesting,” Murdoch pointed out.

“Yeah, but life is pretty interesting, don’t you agree?” Johnny flashed a smile of faux innocence his father could not resist.

“Yes, son, I agree. You win, and I won’t push those books on you. However, it never hurts to explore other horizons . . .”

“Not about to ride off anywhere,” Johnny teased.

“That’s not what I mean,” Murdoch sighed.

“Oh, you mean the books.” Johnny teased, wriggling a finger toward the bookcase.

Murdoch prayed for the patience to continue. “Son, what I am trying to say is that even though I won’t push you to read, I would like to see you with a good book every once in a while. There’s nothing more relaxing after a hard day’s work.”

“I guess,” Johnny shrugged.

“Just think about giving it a try one night.”

“We can relax over a game of checkers. Or chess.”

Murdoch was delighted. “You play chess?”

“I dabble,” Johnny grinned.

“Well then, we’ll definitely have to break out the board one night soon. However, just remember that the books are there for the offering. Now, how about these sums?” Murdoch grabbed Johnny by the wrist before the boy could make a break, holding out a pencil and paper. The man wouldn’t force the issue, but he would try whatever subtle way he could, to teach.

“What’s that for?” Johnny asked, diligently chewing on an apple.

“To figure up that line of equations.”

“Line of what? All I see is numbers, old man. Speak plain, no need to be fancy.”

“All right, to add that line of numbers,” Murdoch corrected himself.

“Don’t need to.”

“Don’t need to, what?” Murdoch frowned.

“Don’t need to write it down to figure.”

“John, that’s a month’s worth of receipts,” Murdoch replied gently.

“Yeah, was wondering what that was. So, that’s how much you spent?”

“It is.”

“Oh, then why didn’t you just ask?”

“Just ask what?” Murdoch sighed.

“For the answer.”

Murdoch sat back, staring at his son. Johnny’s eyes traveled down the line of numbers, then back up again. A moment later he stood back. “$1, 892.54. Man, you spent a lot.”

Murdoch stammered, the words refusing to budge. He snagged the pencil and worked the column of daunting numbers. Eyes opening in shocked amazement, he turned slowly to stare at his son. Johnny sat calmly nibbling around the apple’s core. “That’s astounding.”

Johnny grinned.

“You’re right.”

“Of course I’m right. Numbers are easy, it’s just counting or taking away in your head.” Johnny stood, and tossing the apple into the wastebasket, flashed a final grin over his shoulder and sauntered out the door, spurs jingling across the wood floor.

Murdoch sat muttering to himself as Johnny rode off. “Bought new breeding stock. Those bulls were pricy, but I needed them. Had to rebuild the pens for the calves, Maria needed a new chicken coop, plus I had a bridge to fix and a north line shack to rebuild. Not to mention those repairs to the barn. A fence in the south pasture was down, and the stock needed feed. Then there was everything else needed around the estancia.”

  ******

The following morning Murdoch woke with renewed vigor. The entire ranch was thrown into a state of controlled chaos, preparing for Scott’s arrival. Maria was cleaning everything in sight, employing Teresa and any hand she could drag inside to help move the heavy furniture. By the time Murdoch was dressed and walked down the stairs, Johnny and Teresa were already squabbling. A biscuit flew across the table, striking Teresa solidly between the eyes, Johnny’s aim ever true. She squealed and reached for a pat of butter, ready to launch the gooey missile in retaliation, when Murdoch put an end to the foolery. Both fell silent, albeit muttering to themselves and stealing sidelong glances throughout the meal.

The change in Johnny was amazing. With every passing day, he grew more confident and at peace with himself, yet retained a steely edge that kept him sharp, his instincts alert and finely honed. He practiced his draw every chance he got, making it a priority at least four times a week. There were nights he played poker with the hands, and quieter times when he challenged his father to a game of chess, or trounced Teresa in checkers.

When restless, Johnny prowled the grounds of Lancer, never tiring of the place he now called home. On Saturday night, he rode into town to unwind with a beer and some female company. Not wanting to flaunt his trysts in his father’s face, Johnny slipped up the back steps of the saloon and spent the evening in the arms of a very buxom, willing female. He longed to stay the night, but it was better to go home. Johnny meant no disrespect, but he had come too far in life to change now.

Yet for all his accomplishments, there was one unsettling matter he needed to address. For some odd reason, Johnny still could not bring himself to walk into his own bedroom. He had been close a few times, but had yet to cross through the threshold delivering him into a realm a two-year-old child once inhabited.

Instead of putting the clothing purchased upon his arrival away properly, Maria folded the items neatly in a basket stored in the corner of the washroom. Johnny would rise in the morning, snag his clothes and make a trip outside. He would then walk over to the bathhouse, where he washed and dressed for the day. Returning to the house, the dirty clothes were placed in a large tub in the washroom, where Maria would have them cleaned, dried, folded and placed back in the basket by day’s end.

No one said a word, no questions were asked. Murdoch yearned to help his son face whatever demons kept him from fully coming home, but did not want to push the boy. He wondered if it had something to do with the night Johnny had been taken away. Perhaps some old memory lay buried, dormant until he walked into that room. There was no visible reason that Murdoch could see, yet the boy paled visibly every time he mentioned going into the room, always claiming to be busy with some other matter. It just did not make sense, yet Johnny was troubled and the reasons were very real to the boy, so they more than mattered to the father. And if Johnny could never face going into his own room, there were plenty more to choose from.

He had no problem going into Scott’s room, or that belonging to his father, but when any mention of his own bedroom was broached, Johnny skirted around the subject, went off to busy himself elsewhere, and slept on the couch again that night. Murdoch was at his wit’s end. This was Johnny’s home. He deserved to feel comfortable in his own space, have a room for privacy, and when in need of a quiet moment. He deserved to make his mark on the room, and hang his saddlebags up for good.

When breakfast was over, Maria whisked everyone from the kitchen. Paul took Teresa by the hand, leading her from the room and giving both Johnny and Murdoch a modicum of peace and quiet, while Johnny followed his father into the great room.

“Is there something on your mind, son?” the man asked, taking a seat behind the massive desk.

Johnny snickered. When he sat in what he called ‘the catbird seat’ the previous evening, he all but disappeared in the volumes of plush leather, but his father fit perfectly. “Yeah. I know we’re busy with Scott coming and all, but I thought, well . . .”

“What’s that, son?”

“Well, I thought it was about time I got settled in my room,” he said, wondering why this was so hard. It was his bedroom, after all.

Murdoch was quick to rise. “I think that’s a great idea. I can help you bring your stuff up.”

“Thanks.” Johnny grinned, trying to hide quaking emotions. “I suppose I seem kind’a dumb.”

“Son, nothing about you is dumb. We all do things in our own time,” Murdoch reassured the boy.

“Yeah, I guess it’s about time. As comfortable as it is, I can’t sleep on the couch forever.” Then a devilish grin broke out. “Plus, my bare skin would stick to it in the summer.”

Grimacing, Murdoch determined not to provoke his petulant son. Johnny’s mouth often landed him in enough trouble without anyone egging him on. “That being said, let’s grab some of your stuff and head on upstairs.”

Murdoch followed, their arms laden with clothing. Johnny stopped just outside the door, fighting the urge to flee, and confused as to where the unsettling feeling stemmed from. His gunfighter’s instincts on high alert, he was ready to draw his gun to take down any unseen predator that happened to be lurking. This was silly. He was home, and his father was by his side.

Johnny Madrid was not scared of things bumping through the dark of night. Only this was the light of day and with a sheen of sweat breaking out across his forehead, cursing his inability to retain control, Johnny kicked the door open.

He expected the room to be musty at best, then remembered Murdoch saying that Maria came in regularly to clean. The air was fresh and crisp, the large double bed warm and inviting. The floors and furniture were polished to a high gleam he could see his face in, offering a lost soul a place of rest after a weary journey.

Johnny was home, his journey was over, but for the life of him, the room brought out nothing but an unspoken fear that crept up his throat. His eyes burned and swallowing furiously, he vowed not to spew the food rumbling in his stomach. Nothing about the room was comforting. A chilling presence greeted him, drawing Johnny back into its ominous fold. He wanted to run, a small child fleeing a nameless, faceless danger. This was a foe even Johnny Madrid was incapable of taking down. This was more than Johnny Lancer wanted to face.

Realizing Murdoch’s hand was gripping his shoulder, worried eyes peering down, Johnny pulled away. Walking over to the bed, he sat cross-legged on the floor. Groaning, Murdoch eased his tall body down alongside his son, long legs splayed out in front of him. To Johnny it was like a mountain falling and he flinched involuntarily, unable to meet the mighty man’s eyes. They sat quietly, the son trying to bring quaking emotions under control, the father mystified as to how to help the tormented boy.

Johnny spoke so suddenly, the older man jumped. “Don’t know why I don’t like this room, but it makes my skin crawl. It’s not right. You’ve given me so much, I have no right making things harder on you. Shouldn’t be so ungrateful, ‘cause this is more than I’ve had my whole life. Well, what I can remember of it.”

Murdoch fought to keep his arm from wrapping around Johnny, fearing the act in itself, would drive him off. “Son, you don’t have to explain your feelings other than they are your feelings. And you have every right to them. I don’t know why you can’t face being in this room, but you don’t have to stay here. Hell, I have eighteen extra rooms to choose from.”

“Wanted a large family, huh?” The unintended slip of the tongue, sent Johnny into a deep remorse, the joke falling flatter than the pancakes Teresa tried to make the other morning. “Sorry, that was stupid.”

“John, nothing about this is stupid,” Murdoch sighed heavily. “These are your feelings, they need to be dealt with in a way that makes it possible for you to feel comfortable in your own home.”

“My home,” Johnny said with a hitch to his voice. “I came home, but a part of me feels it hasn’t been complete ‘cause I’m still sleeping on the couch, and I don’t know why.” Johnny vaulted to his feet and Murdoch groaned, lumbering to catch up with him.

He stretched to his full height, back and shoulder screaming in protest. “Son, maybe we can find the answer together?”

“I don’t know, Murdoch. Don’t know what to do. All I know is that I have to get over this someday. Don’t want Scott to see me like this.” Johnny flushed with embarrassment.

“Son, you have nothing to be ashamed of. If your brother is half the man I think he is, he won’t look down on you. Perhaps he can be of help.”

“Yeah, he is the older one. Always wanted an older brother.” Walking over to the window, all the while keeping his eyes averted from the door, Johnny stood, staring out over the land he loved more with every passing day. “Always wanted to make a connection with the place, find or remember something that helps me to remember being here before. I know I was young, but is it possible for a person to remember something from their childhood? I mean, if you lived it, doesn’t a part of it remain in your mind somewhere? You can’t erase a life.”

Murdoch shuddered at those very words, for there was a time he felt that Johnny had been erased, disappearing from Lancer without a trace. “I wish I had an answer for you.”

“That’s just it, maybe there isn’t an answer.” Johnny closed his eyes and fell silent. Staring at the open door, he backed further into the corner.

Alarmed at the pale tinge to his features, Murdoch strode forward, only to be held back by Johnny’s upheld hand. “John?”

“Don’t. Don’t come near me.” Hearing his father’s approach, Johnny ordered the man to stop, in total confusion as to the strange words and actions, the sheer fear experienced. “Just don’t.”

Murdoch reached out nice and easy, a gentle hand placed upon his shoulder. Johnny seemed to be trapped in a time and place that refused to rise to the surface, having happened so early in his life, yet refused to relinquish its torment. “Son, what is it? What do you see?”

Johnny fell back against the wall, head hung low and arms wrapped tightly around his torso. “Don’t really see anything, yet something is there. It’s always been there. When I was smaller, I used to have nightmares of this large giant and before you ask, it doesn’t have anything to do with you,” he said, a small grin emerging.

Murdoch chuckled. “Son, if you haven’t noticed, I can be very intimidating to a small child.”

“Yeah, but you’re not evil. Kids go by feelings, more than anything. At least, that’s how I feel. If you sense someone is good, no matter what they look like, you’re not scared of them. But if they are evil, you know that and do your best to stay away. You can’t hide evil.”

A sadness enveloped Murdoch. His son, while forever fascinating him, had a keen insight about people and things that got by most folk. “Son, you said something about nightmares.”

“Yeah, only sometimes, they seemed real. It was a giant. He was always standing in the shadows looking down at me. Then he came closer and closer.”

Murdoch felt the trembling in Johnny’s body, and the boy pulled away. “It’s all right, I’m here,” he said, determined to help Johnny deal with the trauma tormenting his soul.

“Then I wake up. Sometimes I wondered if I ever slept at all, ‘cause it seemed so real. He seemed so real.” Johnny’s voice faded to a mere whisper.

Murdoch reached out. Cupping Johnny’s chin gently, he forced him to look up. “Son, what seems so real?”

“He’s always behind a door. Sombra. Diablo sombra.” Johnny spun on his heels and walked from the room.

Murdoch gasped, a mind numbing fear piercing his heart. “Devil shadow,” he muttered under his breath. What in the world could have instilled such a heinous, gutwrenching horror that kept his son from entering his own bedroom? “God almighty, John. What the hell happened to you? You’re afraid of your own room, to the extent that you can’t stand being in here. It’s like some thief in the night came and stole you away.”

Murdoch clutched his chest. His stomach rebelled and he staggered across the room. Snatching the wastebasket from under the desk, he promptly lost his breakfast. It took a while, but he eventually regained control and stared around the barren room, his skin crawling. God help them, if he felt such a way, then he could only imagine how Johnny felt. No, he had seen for himself. Of all the things to remember about his home, did it have to be fear? There was no way Murdoch would ever ask Johnny to move into this room now. With a firm plan in mind, he pulled the door shut behind him and stomped down the stairs. There was a lot to do, and he knew just the person for the job.”

“Maria.”

  ******

By late afternoon, Murdoch knew he had made the right decision. After explaining what needed to be done, with no questions asked, Maria sprang into action. Teresa came home from school and after a snack of milk and cookies, was sent upstairs with a mop, dustrag and pail, while Murdoch went outside and rounded up half a dozen men. Johnny had ridden off to Black Mesa, where he often went to think. It was all the better, for Murdoch wanted this to be a surprise.

He asked Maria what room to choose, and was thrilled with the woman’s decision. Murdoch’s room was the first on the right at the top of the stairs, with what had once been the nursery, directly across the hall. Once that room was emptied, he vowed to lock the door and throw away the key. Whatever upsetting presence plagued his son, would be sequestered away for as long as he drew a breath, or Johnny changed his mind. Judging from the boy’s earlier reaction, Murdoch reasoned that the room would remain off limits for a very, very long time.

The tiled hallway wound around to the right, with six bedrooms on that wing, the two largest at the end, adjacent to one another. Both opened onto a balcony overlooking the courtyard, and Murdoch could have kicked himself for not thinking of this earlier. Both Johnny and Scott were grown men, and would have the freedom to access their rooms from the outside, as well as preserving a very delicate sense of independent freedom Johnny cherished, and he thought Scott would, as well. It would also allow the boys to be closer to one another.

A flurry of action erupted as six hands burst onto the scene and Maria whisked Murdoch off. Windows were opened, the wide ledges and walls were scrubbed clean. The floor was then swept, polished and buffed to a high gleam. Teresa diligently polished every fingerprint off the furniture as it was carried in, her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth while she worked, making sure to get every intricate nook and cranny. Maria had taught her well, and she was ecstatic to help.

Once the furniture was in place, the hands left to resume ranch work, and Maria set about placing clean linens and a thick quilt on the bed. Knowing that her nino did not like the cold, another heavy quilt was folded across the foot of the bed. Having spent most of his life in warmer climates, Maria was not about to let Johnny become chilled.

The windows were washed clean and fresh curtains hung in place. Teresa returned with a large vase of colorful wildflowers, the scent permeating the room, mingling with the aroma of soap and polish. By the time dinner rolled around, the room was finished. In order to grant her the time to fully embrace the project, Maria had enlisted Consuela and Juanita to prepare the evening meal, which consisted of chili with tortillas and cornbread, tamales, and cinnamon dusted churros for dessert.

Teresa skipped across the room, too excited to sit still, in spite of the hard work. Shadows descended and the sound of a rider approaching, caught their attention. Waving her apron as if gathering her chicks, Maria ushered Teresa, Paul and Murdoch into the great room while Johnny rode into the barn to bed Renegade down for the night.

“Quick, the nino has come home. He will be here soon,” Maria clucked as she flit about.

Johnny came into the room slowly, suspicion rising as he stared at a sea of guilt ridden faces. Teresa was bouncing impatiently. Maria appeared more flustered than usual, and his father looked as if he was about to jump out of his skin. For a moment, Johnny thought of putting them all out of their misery.

“Ahhh . . . hi,” he stammered.

“Son, nice to have you home,” Murdoch beamed.

“Johnny, come on, we have a surprise for you.” Breaking the ice, Teresa acted before anyone could stop her and grabbed Johnny by the hand.

“It was a combined effort, son,” Murdoch shouted from somewhere behind him. “I hope you like it. Just go with the flow, son. Go with the flow.”

Johnny hesitated but for a moment, then realized that they were moving down the hall, beyond his old room. Turning the corner, he almost mowed Teresa down when she came to a sudden stop. Murdoch, Paul and Maria caught up, with Paul unsuccessfully trying to pull Teresa back.

With more patience than he felt to possess, Johnny knelt next to the bouncing child. “What did you do?”

“I helped. It was Uncle Murdoch’s idea, but I helped. We all did.” Teresa fairly squeaked. “Come on.”

She opened the door and Johnny walked inside. Suddenly overcome with more emotion that he felt comfortable displaying, he stood surveying the grand room. Larger than his previous room, this one had an outer door leading to the balcony, and a staircase to help him slip away at night, should a carnal urge strike. Johnny dashed that idea for now, there was no sense in riling his father.

His bed was placed in the middle of the room, facing a massive stone fireplace. Johnny couldn’t believe his eyes. It was apparent they had gone through a lot of trouble, and he was eternally grateful, not realizing that he grasped Teresa’s hand a little tighter.

Looking down at the child, his eyes brimmed over. “You helped do this?”

“Uh huh, and I even picked the flowers,” she said, pointing to the vase next to the bed.

“Well, I’m not used to flowers, but they sure are pretty,” he said softly.

Johnny turned slowly, surveying the room. Finding his father leaning next to the door, he walked over. “Gracias, Papa.”

Maria fled the room in tears, and Paul led Teresa out into the hallway, Johnny’s hand resting on top of her head for a moment. Murdoch cleared his throat and reached out, pulling his son tightly against him. “Te amo, mi hijo. Te amo.”

Johnny slowly pulled away and lifted his head to face the giant of a man. “Looks like I’ll be sleeping in my own room tonight.”

“Looks like it,” Murdoch smiled.

“Hey, this is great. Now Scott and I can be closer to one another, and we’ll both have new rooms to get used to.”

While Johnny disappeared down the staircase, the enticing smell announcing dinner wafting up from the kitchen, Murdoch took a quiet moment for himself. Indeed, very soon now, both his boys would be close, and each would have a new room to grow accustomed to. He could think of nothing better.

Gathered at the dining room table, Johnny pulled his father aside, whispering in his ear. With a nod of approval, the older man grabbed an additional place setting, and Johnny escorted Maria to the table, where Murdoch stood holding out a chair. The woman wept openly and Johnny laughed, wondering if she was going to eat her food, or drown it in tears. Dinner was a rousing success. The food was eaten with unbridled abandon by all, and Johnny and Murdoch filled their plates three times.

Once the splendid meal was over, Maria set about putting her kitchen back in order. She placed a hand gently against Johnny’s face and blushing, he gave her a quick peck on the cheek. Paul went out to the barn to tend to the chores, and Murdoch relaxed on the veranda with a brandy and cigar. The sound of laughter drifting over from the corral, caught his attention. Intrigued, he walked over to the wall, a smile brightening his face at the sight. Leaning on the smooth adobe, he watched Johnny, bathed in the shimmering glow of the moon, walking along the top rail, arms spread wide for balance.

Both he and Teresa erupted in peals of laughter when he lost balance, arms flailing wildly to keep from falling. “Whoa Teresa, I fall, I’m gonna squish you.”

“If you fall, you’re going to end up in the trough and get a dunking.” Teresa jumped forward, resisting the urge to grab Johnny by the ankle and topple him into the water, and he jumped back, barely keeping his balance.

Their laughter was like a soothing balm to Murdoch’s heart. It was good to hear Johnny laugh as such, leaving him to wonder if he every truly had the chance to be a child. This is how it should be. This is how it should always be, and always should have been. Safe at Lancer, Johnny was finally allowing himself to be the child hidden deep inside, seemingly without a worry in the world. If only life could stay this simple. Murdoch wondered how and when it all became so complicated. Not willing to mar the moment, any upsetting thoughts where shoved aside and he laughed, watching his son and Teresa at play.

Johnny certainly was not what he expected. The boy’s intelligence and quick wit amazed him. His keenly honed instincts and survival skills brought a deep sense of comfort, knowing that the boy was more than capable of handling just about any situation, and life could get pretty crappy, pretty fast. Nobody knew that better than Murdoch. So there he was . . . Johnny Madrid Lancer. One minute deadly gunfighter, able to paralyze a man with fear with just one look, the next, mischievous teenager walking across the top rail of a corral fence, laughter echoing across the yard. Murdoch stared, if only the moment could last forever. Then Johnny cried out, stumbled and fell, his booted foot landing in the trough. Teresa doubled over in laughter, and Johnny sat up, shaking the dust from his head. He never stopped laughing.

  ******

“A shadow behind the door. Sombra. Diablo Sombra,” Murdoch said softly. “Devil shadow. Lord help us, was there really a shadow? The shadow of a man? That’s impossible,” Murdoch stammered.

It couldn’t have happened. They were surrounded by people. Although not as large as today, the ranch was a beehive of activity. Surely anyone skulking about would have been spotted. And Johnny’s room was directly across from his own, there was no way anyone could have gotten inside without him hearing something. Any little sound would have sent him running. Ever since Johnny was born, Murdoch slept with one eye open, as his dear mother always proclaimed. He woke at the slightest sound, yet that night, he slept the sleep of the dead.

That thought alone chilled his blood, a stinging bile rising. If that wasn’t enough, his earlier words echoed throughout his mind. ‘Like a thief in the night. It’s like some thief in the night came and stole you away.’ But there was never a clue, never a note for ransom. If Johnny had been kidnapped, there would have been a ransom demand, yet there was nothing. Nothing but a dark void in Murdoch’s life that followed him the next fourteen years.

Then Murdoch thought of something he never considered before. “The sleep of the dead.” Rising, he began a frenetic pacing, tapping nervously at his legs as he walked back and forth across the floor. “The sleep of the dead, I never woke that night. Never heard a thing. Sure I had a hard day. Back then the ranch was just starting up, and every day was long. But that never stopped me from hearing anything at night. I always woke at the slightest sound.”

But that night, Murdoch never did wake up. He lost all semblance of reality even before his head hit the pillow, pulling him into a slumber so deep, the world went by him. Murdoch slept as one drugged, and his world walked right out the door. Now the man slowly lumbered up to bed, wondering if he would sleep at all that night. Johnny was home and back in a room claimed as his own. What thief would come along this night, and whisk him away? Murdoch shuddered, wondering if he would ever sleep again. Johnny was home, they should be at peace. But God help him, at the moment, Murdoch felt anything but peaceful, and he could not fathom why. Johnny might have been too young to understand, or even remember what really happened, but he remembered the fear. That cannot be forgotten.

  ******

An ear shattering scream, followed by a string of curses and something slamming against a door sent Murdoch tumbling out of bed. Tangled in the sheets, he didn’t even take the time to bother with a robe as he flung the door open, barely missing Teresa as she streaked past. Moments later, clutching his pants with one hand while pulling his shirt together with the other, Johnny stumbled down the hallway, the hounds of hell his escort. Murdoch’s mighty arm reached out, snagging the wild haired, barefoot pursuer.

“What in blue blazes is going on here?” Murdoch demanded.

“That’s it. This time she done it.” Johnny disentangled himself from his father’s grasp, but before he could flee, Murdoch’s beefy hand clamped down around his neck and pulled the boy into his room.

“Son, what the hell happened?” Eyes wild from the shock of his abrupt and rather harsh awakening, his hair askew and clad in only a nightshirt, the giant of a man stood demanding an answer. “Sit.” He pointed to the bed and reached for his robe. Johnny made a move to flee, but Murdoch whirled around, his glare keeping him rooted in place. Now Johnny knew where Madrid had inherited that particular trait. “At the risk of repeating myself, what the hell happened? Mind you, I was sleeping quite nicely. And I don’t appreciate being woken as such,” he said, not realizing he was rubbing his backside until it was too late.

“What’s the matter old man, fall out of bed?” Johnny’s lips curled in a grin that quickly faded

.

“If I don’t get an answer, my backside won’t be the only one hurting.” Murdoch flexed his hand.

Johnny’s eyes grew wide at the horror of Madrid getting a whooping.

“I see we understand one another.” Murdoch stood with arms crossed.

Johnny jumped to his feet, but did not make a move to escape. Instead, too much adrenaline pumping through his veins, he paced. “Damn it, Murdoch. You gotta do something about that girl. Here I was, all nice and happy in my own room, minding my own business, I tell ya.”

“Go on,” the man urged when Johnny stopped to catch his breath.

“Didn’t anyone ever teach her to knock?” Johnny shouted, an arm flung in the air.

A smile tugged at the corners of Murdoch’s mouth, but was quickly wiped away.

“Like I said, I was minding my own business. Had my clothes laid out all nice and fancy for this morning so I wouldn’t waste time digging for ‘em, had my face washed and even shaved. Just pulled on my skivvies, and I’m damned lucky I had the time to cover my bare ass, cause as I was stepping into my pants, here comes little Miss tag along, as breezy as you please right into my room. My room. There I was, my almost bare ass hanging out, stumbling around shouting for her to get the hell out and pull my pants up at the same time.”

“I heard a thump. Please tell me that wasn’t Teresa.” Murdoch remained as stoic as possible.

Johnny glared. “No, that was my boot. And is that all you have to say old man? Guess I’ll have to take matters into my own hands.”

“Get your boots on first, young man,” Murdoch shouted at the figure stomping from his room.” It was going to be a long day.

By the time a bit of semblance was restored and Murdoch sat down to breakfast, it was apparent by the red rimmed eyes and sniffling nose, that Teresa had been duly chastised by her father. Paul sat glaring at the young girl, almost daring her to misbehave. Johnny approached the table, and ate in sullen silence. A wicked curl to his lips, he maneuvered a small wedge of fried potato to the edge of his plate with his forefinger and after seeing that neither his father nor Paul were paying any attention, took aim and flicked the greasy object, pegging Teresa on the end of the nose. Since he couldn’t shoot her, this was the next best thing.

  ******

Life returned to normal quickly after Johnny’s breakfast attack on Teresa, with the two squabbling as both readied to go out the door. Teresa perched on the wall, glaring at Johnny and Renegade whirled about, gnashing his teeth at the petulant girl. She squealed and Johnny rode off, the sound of devious laughter echoing across the yard.

This morning, he had a special errand to take care of. After speaking extensively with his father on the subject, Johnny knew he made the right choice. Worrying about Scott settling into life in the west, he was heartened to learn that his fear was ungrounded. Although he was upset to learn that Scott had fought in the War Between the States and had been taken prisoner, he was ecstatic to discover that his brother had been an officer in a cavalry unit.

“An officer, huh? That must mean he can ride pretty good.” Johnny had grinned the previous evening. It was late, he was pleasantly tired and his new bedroom beckoned.

“Yes, I suppose it does, son,” Murdoch said. With an arm over Johnny’s shoulder, the two ascended the steps together.

Johnny stopped outside Murdoch’s door. “Would you mind if I skipped out on work tomorrow? I wouldn’t ask, but it’s important.”

“What’s that, son?” Murdoch had asked.

“Well I wanted to do something for Scott, sort of something to welcome him. And something he can call his own. I mean, it’s all gonna be strange. Not just being home, but being out here to begin with. He’s a city slicker, Pa. “

“Don’t underestimate him, son,” Murdoch chuckled.

“I’m not doing that, just saying that this is gonna be different for him, you know? So I wanted him to have something to call his own.”

“And that is?”

“If you give me the time off, you’ll find out. Oh, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to camp out tonight.”

Johnny’s face was alight with an excitement the father couldn’t refuse. “And where is that? Not that I’m being nosy, but I would like to know a general area and when to expect you back, should something happen.”

“Yeah, makes sense,” Johnny agreed. “But I’m not gonna tell you what I have in mind.”

Murdoch expected an argument, at the very least. “Fair enough.”

“Gonna go to Black Mesa, figured I’d camp out.”

“It’s going to be a chilly night,” Murdoch pointed out.

“Been out in worse. But there’s no snow on the ground, like there is in the mountains, and I have those new longjohns to keep me warm,” Johnny laughed.

“That you do, son. That you do.” Murdoch chuckled, remembering Johnny’s embarrassment when Maria had pointed out that little fact. “So when can we expect you back?”

“I should be back in plenty of time for lunch, if not earlier. Want to get back as early as I can to . . . well, just want to get back early.”

Murdoch granted permission, heartened that Johnny had asked to begin with. All his life, the boy has made his own decisions, acted on impulse and done what he wanted. For him to ask, spoke volumes concerning their relationship, and he vowed then and there to make sure Johnny retained that sense of freedom he so cherished. The boy was settling in fine, but needed time and space to be himself. You could only rein a wild horse in so much before they bucked.

Murdoch also had an idea of what Johnny had in mind, and his pride knew no bounds. The boy was concerned with his brother’s feelings, wanting to give Scott something to hold onto when he arrived, not realizing that their bond had already started to form.

Johnny rode off, racing across the pasture. Cutting across the western range, he waved at a work crew driving a herd of strays and amongst a burst of cheers and applause, cleared a fence and subsequent five foot gully without breaking stride. Quite the horseman, Johnny reveled in the praise, lowered himself against Renegade, and picked up speed, a black blur streaking across the open field. As much a showman as its master, Renegade was pleased to respond to the command.

It did not take long to reach Black Mesa and standing atop the plateau, both horse and master caught their breath before descending the steep ridge and riding into the valley below. Johnny led Renegade over to a gurgling stream, taking the time to rest and partake in the sparkling, crisp water. He cocked his head listening, hoping they were there again today. While at the mesa the previous afternoon, he spotted a herd of wild mustang running through. His heart raced, and mind soared with joy. He closed his eyes, envisioning himself on the back of the mighty steed, streaking across the sky, flying so high, neither man nor beast could touch him as their minds melded and bodies became one.

Then he saw them. A varied herd containing the most beautiful creme colored mustangs Johnny had ever seen, took his breath away. Squinting through the bright haze of sunlight, he watched the mighty bay leading them through the valley. Its coat glistened with a sheen of sweat, the sun reflecting off sleek, rippling muscles. Stating dominance, the stallion snorted, plumes of dust spewing from its nostrils. It was powerful, raw and enigmatic. It was mighty and proud. Johnny stood tall, paying homage to such power. The animal was sleek and magnificent, staking a claim on the herd.

Nudging Renegade forward, he rode downwind. He had no desire to go after the bay, his sights were set on a buckskin grazing near the back of the herd. The regal horse stood 16 hands tall, with a black mane, tail and lower legs.

Lasso at the ready, Johnny approached. This was one dance he embraced heartily. Sensing the impending danger, the bay whinnied, shaking its mighty head. He broke and ran, the herd following. Johnny raced after, cutting the buckskin out. The horse put up a strong fight, but was no match for Renegade’s blinding speed. In one fell swoop, the lasso settled around the mustang’s neck. Snorting angrily, strong legs cutting through the air, Johnny kept the rope taut and Renegade safe from flailing hooves.

He dismounted and the fight was on. The horse charged and Johnny dodged, pulling the rope tighter. The frantic animal attacked once more, and Johnny again avoided the sharp thrusts. After a few minutes of speaking softly, his voice low and melodic, the animal settled down. Skittish, eyes wild with fright, the buckskin pulled tight against the rope, but Johnny’s singsong voice slowly worked its magic and the wild one stilled. The first time Johnny reached out with his hand, the animal flinched. The second attempt was accepted, and Johnny stroked the side of the quivering animal’s neck. Once satisfied that the horse was settled enough and Renegade was in no danger, Johnny mounted and tying the rope off on the pommel, led the buckskin out of the valley.

He followed the trail back up the mesa, wanting to ride as far from the herd as he could before making camp. Two hours later, Johnny reached a slow flowing river and let the animals drink their fill before tying both off underneath a stand of trees, allowing enough lead so they might graze to their content. Johnny had packed some oats and offered both horses an equal measure. The buckskin was coming along nicely. There was a long way to go before total trust was met, but the horse was already allowing human contact and accepting food. Once separated from the herd, a mustang usually accepts companionship easily, unwilling to remain solitaire for long.

Once the animals were settled, Johnny shot and skinned to rabbits and roasted them on a spit above the fire. His bedroll was set out, and just as he was settling down, a strange horse wandered into camp. Pulling his gun, wary eyes darted around the landscape, but there was no sign of anyone near. He rose slowly and walked over to the animal, snagging the reins.

“Whoa there boy, what are you doing out here all by your lonesome?” he said in a soft drawl, instantly calming the frightened animal. It was clear to see that he was well taken care of, pampered, more like. Considering Renegade, Johnny knew he had little room to talk. Speaking while stroking the animal softly, his heart clenched, the gun once again in hand when spotting blood on the saddle.

“Well boy, whatever happened, you’re pretty scared. Let’s get you taken care of.”

Removing the saddle, Johnny gave the horse the same care he would give Renegade. Brushing the animal down, his eyes darted about, hoping to catch sight of something in the distance, yet he remained alone. He led the horse to the water and once the animal had its fill, gave it a measure of oats and tied it under the trees to graze. With gun in hand, wary eyes scanning the area, Johnny walked across the clearing until he reached a bend in the river.

Hearing a groan, he looked to the right, spotting a crumpled figure on the ground. Ever vigilant, Johnny stood over the body, toeing it gently with booted foot, before satisfied that there was no unwelcome response. Still, the first thing he did was rid the man of his gun. A trail of blood led from the right upper hip, down his legs. Johnny had no choice but to grasp the man under his arms and pull him to his feet.

“Man, you weigh a damned ton.” He wheezed, dragging the dead weight back to camp. Not knowing who shot the man, or even if the shooter was still in the vicinity, Johnny’s senses remained on high alert.

By the time he reached camp, he laid the man on his side and proceeded to inspect the wound. “Well, you had to pick there to get shot?” With a heavy sigh, he removed the man’s rig, frowned when undoing the belt and taking a deep breath, tugged at the pants. Pulling the blood encrusted longjohns down as far as he could without further embarrassing himself, he saw seven deep holes in which buckshot had pegged the man. “Didn’t your mama ever teach you to duck?”

Johnny did the best he could, removing four of the seven pellets and thanking the Lord above that the man had remained unconscious the entire time. He didn’t need any scathing remarks, and could think of better places to poke around in. Using gauze from a first aid pack Maria insisted he bring along, he covered the wound, readjusted the man’s pants and rolled him onto his back. Never again would he doubt Maria’s instincts. Grabbing a blanket from the stranger’s bedroll, Johnny covered him and stoked the fire.

While the man slept, he put the finishing touches on dinner, even going so far as to make broth, snickering the entire time. Now that he had learned the wonders of this miracle cure people gained such devious delight pushing off on him, he was not about to pass up a chance to impart that torture on another. Besides, he didn’t think the man’s stomach could handle much more, judging from the loss of blood, and obvious pain he would experience upon waking.

Against his protests of being perfectly capable of living off the land, Johnny unwrapped the food Maria packed. Chuckling, he sat back staring at the feast. Never before had he eaten so well on the trail. Two fattened rabbits roasted on the spit, and biscuits leftover from breakfast, two apples, a wedge of cheese and a cloth sack of cookies, rounded out the meal. The woman even had the foresight to pack a slab of bacon for breakfast.

Johnny sat back eating, thinking about the fortunate turn his life had taken. No one has cared for him since his mother died. The loneliness carried deep within had dissipated, and the relationship with his father was growing stronger with every passing day. It felt good knowing that someone cared, that he had a home to return to after a full, satisfying day on the range. He even relished the hard work. Muscles that once screamed in protest were now sculpted and chiseled. Johnny felt complete. He felt blessed, and even though he was not a religious man, thanked the Lord for a second chance in life.

Maria fussed and Maria clucked, and he ravenously ate up the attention, having been starved for love so many years. Once the barriers of his mother’s lies were broken down, Johnny grasped onto Lancer like a drowning man grabbing a lifeline. He cherished his life, loved his family deeply, and was anxious to meet his brother. He had lost so much in life, now it was time to live again. Once Johnny was satisfied that the wounded stranger would not be waking any time soon, he went down to the river to wash, checked the horses and turned in for the night, staring up at a star laden sky before drifting off to slumber.

He woke suddenly, peering through a thin slit in his eyes. Johnny heard the stranger groaning as he woke, knowing the man had to be in pain. He only hoped that the wounds were not becoming infected, but the last three pieces of buckshot were too deep for him to feel comfortable removing. Hopefully, he would be able to get the man to Lancer and send someone for the doc before infection set in.

After a quick trip into the bushes, Johnny walked the horses down to the water and let them drink. Tying them back off under the stand of trees to graze in the shade, he turned his attention back to other matters. The fire was started and within minutes coffee simmered and bacon sizzled. Johnny heated up the broth and grabbing a bandana, proceeded to wipe the man’s face down, relieved to find no sign of fever.

“Oh man . . . who the hell are you?” the surly stranger asked upon opening his eyes.

“Drink this.” Johnny held the cup to the man’s mouth, careful to allow only a few swallows.

“Hey, I’m thirsty.” The cup was pulled away and the stranger glared.

“That’s enough for now,” Johnny replied, his tone clipped and curt.

“You’re a prince,” the man groused.

“I try. At least I saved your sorry ass.”

“Like I said, you’re a prince.”

“You always this prickly?”

“I try.”

“What the hell happened?” Sitting back on his haunches, Johnny rested his arms atop his knees.

“Got ambushed.”

“Robbed?”

“Had nothing worth robbing. If I still have my horse and bedroll, then I wasn’t robbed.”

“You got both. Don’t have to worry about your horse, he’s tended.” Johnny peered about. Not sensing any immediate danger, he settled down. “You know who?”

“Have a good idea. Let’s just say it was a job gone bad.”

“Yeah, noticed the rig. But don’t recognize the face.”

“My mama does, that’s what counts.”

“With a mouth like that, it’s a wonder she didn’t shoot you in the ass,” Johnny replied. Rising, he turned the bacon and poured a welcome cup of coffee.

“Ahh hell, it’s not like I got hurt on purpose.” The unkempt, bewhiskered man grumbled, an irritated glare shot Johnny’s way. “Guess I just forgot the three p’s.”

Johnny spun around, stopping dead in his tracks. Mouth gaping, he stared at the foul tempered stranger, not quite believing what he heard. “What the hell did you say?”

“The three p’s,” the man reiterated. “They’re . . .”

“I know the three p’s,” Johnny said softly, kneeling next to the stranger.

“Now just how the hell do you know the three p’s?”

“How the hell do you know ‘em?” Johnny argued back, just as cocky and stubborn. “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to be . . . what the hell is your name anyway?”

The man rose to his elbows. “Crawford. Val Crawford. Don’t have to ask yours, gunhawk.”

“Guess you know everything then, don’t ya? Excepting for them three p’s. The first one telling you not to stick your ass up in the air when someone’s shooting. That don’t make for good planning.”

“Didn’t go sticking my ass or nothing else up for that matter.”

“You sure did something. Got shot in the ass.” Johnny poked at the man’s hip.

Shoving his hand away, Val glared. “I took some buckshot to the lower hip.

“Well, it’s still piss poor planning,” Johnny said with a devilish snicker.

“Just what the hell do you know about it?”

A mischievous gleam in his eyes, Johnny rocked back on his heels, a cry of glee breaking out when sudden realization set in. Pointing, he laughed. “Ahhh, I know where you’re coming from. You’re just like him. Yep, kind’a all grizzled and gnarly. He was a slob, too.”

“Who the hell you calling a slob?”

“Don’t mind being called grizzled and gnarly? Just a slob?” Johnny taunted.

“Damn it kid, if I could . . .” Val sputtered, struggling to rise.

“If you could what?” Johnny asked, eyes of bright blue dancing in merriment.

“You never answered my question. How the hell do you know about the three p’s?” Val asked again.

Johnny grew quiet. “Man named old Eb told ‘em to me. Right after he saved my life.”

Silent for a moment, Val cleared his throat before speaking. “That’d be my uncle, well, my great uncle, on my father’s side. Good old Eb. He was kind’a grizzled and gnarly, but was one hell of a man. You say he saved your hide?”

“Yeah, in an abandoned mining town just outside of Tucson .

“Yep, was wondering where he ended up. Got the gold fever. Mix that with a wanderlust that won’t quit, and a man’s sure to disappear. Took off when I was barely in my teens.”

“Gee, that long ago?” Johnny taunted, dodging a swat of the hat by Val.

“Smart ass. Like I was saying, took off when I was younger, and was never heard from again.”

“Guess I’m returning the favor then, huh?” Johnny asked, a cheeky grin offered.

“Yep, a real prince,” Val muttered. “Hey, is . . . well . . .”

Johnny shook his head. “Sorry, Eb passed on more than a year ago. Was peaceful, and I did right by him.”

“I thank you for that.” Val’s voice caught, heavy with emotion.

Feeling the need to change the subject, Johnny reached for a cup. “Here, have some rabbit broth.”

Val took a sip, screwing up his face at the taste. “Rabbit broth, huh? Tastes like horse piss.”

Johnny shrugged. “Had to season it with something.”

Gagging, broth running up his nose, Val flung the contents aside and turned toward Johnny. “You’re a real smart ass, ain’t ya? Enjoying it too, huh?” he asked, receiving the same cocky grin in response. “So, Mr. smart alec, what are you going to do now?”

Johnny leaned against the tree, nursing a tin of coffee. “Well, I could leave your sorry ass here, but don’t wanna poison the buzzards.”

“Kid, if I could,” Val again grumbled, trying in vain to grab Johnny, only the boy was too quick on his feet.

“You’re not in shape to do anything. Let’s see about getting you home.”

“Home? Last I heard you didn’t have a home.” The minute the words were out, Val was sorry.

Johnny whirled about, eyes darkened with smoldering anger. Then the boy softened, and Val visibly relaxed. “Can’t help but speak the truth. I got no room getting mad about it, either. If you know about me, then you’ve probably heard about my vendetta against my old man. No secret that I’ve been on my own since I was a kid.”

Val held back a snort, Johnny still was a kid, but by his standards, he was all ‘growed’ up. “Hey look, I’m sorry. This damn mouth of mine. Here you are trying to help, and I go shooting off at ya.”

“No worry. It’s only the truth. Look, I’m trying to leave that life behind.” Getting up, Johnny kicked dirt over the fire, emptied the last of the coffee on top of the smoldering flames, and proceeded to break camp.

Val whistled. “You are? No shit.”

“Yeah, surprising, huh?” Johnny flashed a grin, a hint of sadness, detected.

“Yep, but can’t say that I’m sorry. Always felt you was too young to be out on your own. Not that you can’t take care of yourself, don’t know anyone that can do it better, just that you were too damned young to be so alone.”

A smile crossed Johnny’s face. “Well, I’m not alone anymore, and I’m going to take you home. Get you some doctoring.”

“Just get me to the nearest town,” Val grumbled.

“No doing. Got me a wild one over there, gonna take him home to train. Won’t do any good to go traipsing into town toting you and that mustang through the streets. Besides, Lancer is closer.”

Johnny saddled Renegade, and proceeded to do the same with Val’s horse, whom he learned was called Scout. Val put most of his weight on Johnny’s shoulders, and managed to toddle over to the horse. Pain shot down his hip with every step and his stomach barely contained its meager contents of broth and water.

“Gonna hurt like hell to sit.”

“Didn’t think it’d be a walk through the roses.”

“Then let’s get it over with.” With a grunt, Johnny helped Val onto Scout, and mounting Renegade, they headed toward Lancer.

The trip took longer than Johnny liked, but by late morning, the Lancer arch came into sight and he breathed a sigh of relief. He would soon be able to get Val settled and the Mustang into the corral. Then work would begin in earnest.

Johnny waved Frank over. “Wanna send one of the hands for the Doc?”

“I don’t need no Doc,” Val complained.

“You got a bullet in your . . .”

“I know where the danged bullet is. And it’s nowhere no one is gonna be poking around in.”

“Oh, that made a lot of sense,” Johnny snickered.

“You don’t like it, leave. What’d you do, eat a dictionary for breakfast? Don’t like the way I talk, Mr. High and Mighty?”

Johnny laughed so hard, he almost rolled right off of Renegade. “Man, I’ve been called a lot of things over the years, but never high and mighty. That bullet sure scrambled your brains.”

Glaring, Val leaned over. “Talk about me being scrambled. That buckshot clipped me in the ass.”

“Exactly.” Johnny gave a hearty whoop and spurned Renegade into a slow canter. Holding the reins to Val’s horse in his hands, they headed toward the house. “Hey Murdoch, look what followed me home.”

  ******

“Son, what do you know of this man?” Murdoch asked as they walked from the room. Sam followed, eager for an answer.

“Is he going to be all right?” Johnny asked.

Sam snapped his bag shut and placing a hand upon Johnny’s shoulder, walked down the hallway into the great room. “Yes son, he’ll be all right. And like your father, I would like to know a bit more, if you may. It’s not every day you come riding in with someone who’s been shot.”

“John?”

“It’s not what you think.” Quelling the rising irritation, Johnny fought to get his temper under control. Eyes flashing, he turned to his father. “You think this has something to do with me?”

“That’s not what we said, John. We just want to know what happened out there,” Murdoch was quick to anger. Breathing deeply, he got his temper under control. Worry raged, yet he had to know the full story, first.

“Look, this had nothing to do with Madrid, so you can stop thinking the worst of me,” Johnny replied tersely.

“Son, no one is thinking the worst of you.” Sam was quick to pacify the boy.

Turning toward his father, Johnny demanded answers. “Are you going to think of Madrid every time something happens?”

“Of course not.” Murdoch felt the entire situation getting out of control. “Look, John, that’s not what I meant. Now before we both go off saying something we’ll be sorry for later, can we just stick to the matter at hand? If I came riding in here with a wounded man, wouldn’t you ask questions? Hmmm?”

Johnny’s temper deflated. “ Yeah.”

“All right then, can we get on with this? I’m sure Sam has other things to do,” Murdoch replied.

“Don’t know much, but I do know I owe him,” Johnny said softly.

“Owe him?” Murdoch queried.

“Well, maybe not him, but Eb.” Johnny’s voice trembled, as memories of the cherished old man surfaced.

Murdoch immediately softened. “Son, what does Eb have to do with this?”

“Murdoch, it’s the damndest thing.” Johnny immediately brightened. “But that’s Eb’s nephew. Well, great nephew. On his father’s side.”

Murdoch’s mouth fell. “Eb’s nephew? Are you serious?”

“That’s right. Like I said, damndest thing. You see, I was just settling down to have dinner. Had the horses all fed and bedded down nice and cozy, and was just getting ready to eat. Boy, I ain’t never eaten so good out on the trail before. Maria sure does spoil ya.” Johnny chuckled, his laughter as smooth as his drawl.

“Son, can we get on with it?” Murdoch jarred Johnny from his daydreaming.

“Oh yeah, I was just saying how Maria spoiled a person . . .”

“And had you eating good. We know that,” Murdoch interceded. “And?”

“Oh yeah.” Johnny smiled, getting back to the story. “Was just spooning up and this here horse comes a’wandering into camp. Gotta tell you, my hackles went up. Never take anything for granted, you know?” he asked, continuing without waiting for an answer. “Never let your guard down, so I got my gun and scouted around, by the way, his name is Scout . . .”

“John,” Murdoch glowered.

“Ok,” Johnny chuckled. “Anyway, Scout comes a’wandering into camp and once I was satisfied that no one was gonna get the jump on me, I got him all taken care of. Then went in search of whoever was shot out of that saddle.”

“Shot out of the saddle?”

“Murdoch, there was blood on the saddle. What else would I think?”

“Yes, what else,” Sam snickered.

“You’re not helping.” Murdoch flashed a look of indignant irritation at his friend. “John?”

“See? Sam agrees.”

“John . . .”

“All right. Geez. I searched around a bit, and found Val laying there. Shot in the a . . .”

“We know where he was shot, son.”

“Yeah, so does he,” Johnny snickered.

“John, will you get on with it? I do want to find out what happened before I reach old age.” Murdoch just wished his son would get to the point and get this over with.

“Nothing else to say, Murdoch. He mentioned something about the three p’s, and I said I knew the three p’s, and he asked how I knew the three p’s. I then asked him how the hell he knew about the three p’s, and that’s when I found out he was Eb’s nephew. Val Crawford. Damndest thing, huh?”

Murdoch’s mouth fell and Sam rubbed his temple as they tried in vain to keep up with Johnny’s story, with both reluctant to ask any further questions.

“He said that Eb left home years ago, had a bit of gold fever.”

“Where did he say where home was, John?”

“Didn’t.” Johnny downed a shot of tequila. “Was shot in the ass and passed out.”

“John, I know where he was shot,” Murdoch groaned. “I think we know all we need.”

Johnny was quick to bounce to his feet. “Good, because I have a lot to do this afternoon.”

Before either man could react, Johnny was out the door. “Give me strength, that boy can try the patience of a saint,” Murdoch moaned.

“But you love him anyway, my good friend,” Sam grinned.

Murdoch took the shot of whiskey offered, a smile coming unbidden. “You’re right about that, old friend.. You’re right about that. Sam, he’s still so damned touchy about the subject of Madrid,” he sobered.

Sam leaned in a bit closer, a reassuring hand resting on Murdoch’s shoulder. “Did you think he wouldn’t be? You have to remember, Johnny is Madrid. He’ll always be Madrid. I know you’ve come to terms with that, but for true acceptance to materialize, you have to remember that. Johnny is Madrid. There’s no changing that Murdoch, and it’s not like it’s some dreadful malady. It’s who your boy is. As well as being Lancer. You don’t have to make him choose to be one or the other, because in doing that, would be to accept one, and reject the other. Do you want to reject any part of your son?”

Murdoch sat heavily upon the chair, new realization dawning. “No, I don’t. I love that boy, Sam. I hope he knows that.”

“He does, but this is hard for both of you. You’re only in the beginning stages of learning and accepting one another. There is sure to be spats. Nothing worthwhile in this life is fraught without a battle. And he’s a teenager, to boot. Do you know any teenager that doesn’t give his parents fits?”

“No,” Murdoch chuckled. “It’s what they’re made for. So I have a hormonal Johnny Lancer, doubled with a steely edged Johnny Madrid. And I love them both.”

“Then accept both. You once said you would kick anyone in the ass that didn’t accept Johnny, did you mean yourself, also?” Sam challenged, eyes narrowing.

Murdoch softened further. “Especially me. I guess I got scared, thinking that someone was coming after him.”

“Then let them come.” Sam’s sudden outburst stunned Murdoch when the older man slammed the shotglass down on the desk. “And good for him, because Johnny will be the one walking back home. Don’t have doubts about that boy, Murdoch. He has fought his way through hell and back, and always came out on top. Can you name any other ten-year-old boy that can survive the border towns like your son has? Murdoch, that boy is special. I’ve always said that, and I mean it more now. The more I see of Johnny, the more I like. Don’t try to change him, Murdoch, just grow with him.”

“My friend, when did you become so wise?” Murdoch rose and with a hand on Sam’s shoulder, guided the man to the door. “I wish you could stay and have dinner with us.”

Placing his bag back upon the desk, Sam turned about. “You know, that’s the best thing I’ve heard all day. I think I will. Don’t have any pressing rounds, and everyone knows I’m here if they need me. What do you say we go outside and watch that son of yours in action? From the sound of all that cheering, I take it he’s putting on one hell of a show.”

“He sure does, Sam, he sure does.” Chuckling, his heart lighter than it has been in days, Murdoch led Sam through the french doors and over to the corral, where they watched Johnny work his magic on the most beautiful buckskin Murdoch had ever seen.

There was one heart stopping moment when Johnny went flying through the air, doing a tuck and roll before skidding to a stop, shaking the dust from his hair. Before his father or Sam could even think of checking him over, he sprang to his feet and mounted the buckskin for another round.

Murdoch threw his hands up in the air and a bit too pale for Sam’s liking, strode off toward the house. “That boy is going to make me old before my time.” were the words that sent his friend into peals of laughter.

  ******

If Murdoch thought things would settle down once dinner was ready, he had another thing coming. Sent upstairs to hail Johnny down for the meal, Teresa went skipping up the stairs. Minutes later, screams echoed down the hallway and Teresa again shot past, with Johnny hot on her heels. Maria shouted at both, waving her wooden spoon at whatever body was the closest. Johnny rounded one end of the table, and Teresa quickly scampered to the other side. Maria attacked, giving Johnny a solid whack on the backside when he lunged across the table, grabbing for the young girl.

Growling, he rolled off the side and dodging Maria and her mad wooden weapon, chased Teresa around the table. This time Maria landed a solid swat on Teresa’s hind end as they ran past. Just as Johnny made a grab for her again, she scampered under the table and flew out the other side, chairs toppling in her wake. Teresa squealed, Johnny shouted and Maria chattered, losing all control as she chased both from the house, all three streaking across the yard.

Paul froze, not quite believing what he saw. Murdoch flew out the french doors, watching the melee in gape mouthed silence, and Sam laughed until tears rolled down his face. Hearing the commotion, Val hobbled to the window, watching the scene with a devious grin on his face. Madrid had finally met his match. First in the form of a small, forgetful, but loveable young girl, and most notably, in the form of an irate housekeeper wielding a wooden spoon better than most men handled a gun.

Dinner was eaten with Johnny slouched forward, an arm wrapped protectively around his plate, eyes shooting daggers, and Teresa sticking her tongue out in retaliation. Murdoch had heartburn before the meal was even over. If he felt he could get away with it, he would send his son to bed without dessert.

Having the time of his life, Sam leaned over to whisper in Murdoch’s ear. “At least he didn’t shoot her.”

Too add insult to injury, Murdoch inhaled his wine, sputtering as the burning liquid was snorted up his nose. Throwing down the napkin, he first glared at his friend who was proving to be no help, then at his wanton son, catching the smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. With all the dignity he could muster, Murdoch carefully wiped his mouth, folded the napkin and upon laying it down, stood slowly and abruptly left the table. Tonight, he would be having brandy in his room.

  ******

“What in blue blazes is going on?” Murdoch shouted down the hallway, hearing a volley of pounding coming from Johnny’s room. The boy walked by briskly, hugging the far side of the hallway to avoid his father’s long arms.

“All under control, Murdoch. Just doing a little rearranging,” he said before disappearing down the hall.

“Do it a little quieter. I would like to relax a bit before retiring. You should be thinking of getting some sleep, we have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow,” he shouted at the disappearing figure.

Minutes later, Johnny returned, a grin Murdoch did not trust on his face and cloth covered package in his hands. “A snack.”

Murdoch glared. “A snack, huh?”

Johnny again disappeared, this time to be heard stomping down the outside staircase. Murdoch rethought the decision to give his boys a room with outside access. This time when Johnny returned, the sound of a chair being dragged across the floor had Murdoch on his feet and stomping down the hallway. Pounding on the door, he was rewarded with Johnny’s cherubic face peering through a narrow slit.

“What in blazes are you doing, boy?”

“Just like I said, rearranging.”

“May I come in?”

“Uhhh, can’t.”

“I can’t?”

“Nope.”

“And why not?”

“Chair’s in the way.”

“Then move it.”

“Can’t.”

Exasperated, Murdoch stepped back, arms crossed in front of him. “And why not?”

“Uhh, the table is right behind it. Have to move that first.”

“Uh huh. You seem to be very busy son.”

“Just getting ready.”

“For what, pray tell?”

“Scott’s coming tomorrow,” Johnny replied, appearing as innocent as possible.

Murdoch wasn’t buying it for one second. “Son, will you please let me in?” Without waiting for an answer, he shoved through the door.

Horrified, Johnny jumped back, cursing as he ran for the nearest escape. The door flew open and before Murdoch took one step inside, he was assaulted from above. A cry of rage that shook the mountains in the distance, the mighty giant of a man stood in the doorway, shuddering as a slimy goo cascaded down upon his head. Molasses slowly oozed down his face, the sticky goo coating him from head to toe. A poof of feathers followed.

“JONATHAN IAN LANCER.”

Sitting in front of a crackling fire, Sam couldn’t believe his eyes when a molasses sodden Murdoch Lancer stormed down the steps. Coated with feathers, the man looked like a deranged chicken.

“I’m going to take a bath.” With a poof of breath, a feather flew from his mouth and Murdoch stormed out, leaving the good doctor sitting in stunned silence.

  ******

Johnny peered carefully into the kitchen. Maria stood, hands on hips and foot tapping when she caught sight of him. The most innocent smile he could conjure up was plastered across his face as he took a seat at the table, wary of his father’s arrival. Paul and Teresa sat across from him, the older man trying his best not to snicker. Murdoch’s trip to the bathhouse was a sight to behold, and Paul thought to have seen everything. Never in his wildest dreams, could he imagine Murdoch Lancer tarred with molasses and feathered.

His father came to the table, dressed and feather free. Johnny ducked his head. Murdoch glared. “Good morning son. I trust you had a good night’s sleep?”

“Yeah, I did all right.” Johnny stammered, unable to look the man in the eyes.

“I didn’t hear you come back in last night.”

“Well, Renegade was a bit lonely, so I stayed in the barn.” Johnny kept his eyes averted. All it would take was one look, and he would break out in peals of laughter. The image of his father storming across the yard in a flurry of feathers, refused to budge.

“And how is everyone today?” Murdoch glanced around the table, studying the gathering of stoic, devious faces.

“Ahh, it’s nice to see you in fine spirits.” Sam raised his coffee cup in toast. “What a glorious day.”

“Yes it is. Couldn’t ask for one better. My eldest will be arriving on the noon stage, and my youngest has returned home again.” Murdoch leaned over and crooking an arm around Johnny’s neck, squeezed a bit to tight for the boy’s comfort. “Isn’t that right, son?”

“Yeah,” Johnny managed to squeak out before breaking free. Tugging at his collar, he took a shuddering breath. “You, ahhh, you ok?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. I have everything a father could want.” Murdoch’s smile put Johnny on guard.

It wasn’t long before he cracked. Jumping from his seat, he pointed. “It’s all her fault. If Teresa would just learn to knock and not barge in on me all the time, then it wouldn’t have happened. She should have been the one coated with molasses and feathers,” was all Johnny had to say for everyone to collapse in fits of laughter.

“Oh Murdoch, of all the sights I have seen, and believe you me, I have seen many, the sight of you flapping your way across that yard coated in feathers, will remain ingrained in my memory forever.” Sam laughed uproariously. Swiping at his eyes, it took the man a few moments before regaining composure.

Seeing his son’s bowed head, Murdoch caved. “Now I know how a chicken feels,” the man laughed. Johnny lifted his head, peering cautiously. “Son, just rein it in. Or the next time I won’t be feeling so generous. And Teresa, learn to knock, or next time I won’t look the other way. I think that is all that needs to be said about the matter.” All heads nodding in agreement, breakfast resumed.

  ******

With breakfast over, Johnny went up to visit with Val, finding the surly man in bed, pouting. “Morning sunshine.”

“Good morning, sugar,” Val groused. “You folks running a looney bin or something? ‘Cause I gotta tell ya, you are about the looniest bunch of people I’ve ever seen. Last night I look outside seeing you chasing down that little gal, and that crazy woman is coming after you both with that spoon, chattering away in Spanish. She sure was riled.”

“Yeah, we had a bit of a disagreement,” Johnny snickered.

“A bit of one? Kid, what‘s it like when you’re really pissed?” Val quipped. “Then there was the damndest sight. Biggest chicken I ever saw.”

“That’d be my old man.” One leg propped up on the side of the bed, Johnny laughed, arms wrapped around his aching ribs.

Val leaned up on one elbow. “Kid, you really had him going. What do you do for fun around here? Always were one to stir things up.”

“I try. Hey, how’s the a . . .”

“It’s fine.” Eyes narrowing, Val was a might touchy on the subject. “And it’s the lower hip.”

“You’d better learn to duck the next time. Wanna get washed up?”

“I’m fine.” Crossing his arms, Val frowned.

“Course you are. He was too,” Johnny chuckled lightly in remembrance.

“He?”

“Old Eb,” Johnny said fondly. “Didn’t like to shave, either. Always had these bits of food in his beard.”

“That’s Eb, never seen him without bits of food in his face hair.” Val smiled at the memory.

“Said he was always . . .”

“Saving it for later,” Val finished.

“That’s right,” Johnny replied.

“So, how long were you with him? How was he?”

“He was Eb,” Johnny said with a grin. “And I was with him for a few months. Was in a shootout with three other fellas, took one to the shoulder.”

“I take it those three other fellas weren’t so lucky,” Val countered.

“Nope, took ‘em down. They deserved it, too. Raped and killed two young girls from one of the larger ranches down there,” Johnny replied.

That remark caught Val’s interest. “The Cummings place?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

Val grew quiet, gathering his emotions. “Cause I was down around El Paso about that time. Everyone heard of that. Bastards got clean away.”

“No they didn’t.” Johnny’s eyes grew cold and dark, sending a chill through Val’s body.

“Good for you, kid. Now what about Eb?” Val quickly changed gears, the one thing that brought the man down, was talk of two, young, teenage girls brutalized in such a fashion. There was just no need.

“I tell ya, he saved my hide. Then had me stay on. Gave me the first home I ever had.” Johnny’s head lowered, and he coughed, swiping at his eyes.

“Damn dusty room. You folks ever clean?” Val managed to croak out.

“Tell you what, I got a lot to tell you about old Eb, but I don’t have the time right now. Got an older brother coming . . .”

“Didn’t know you had a brother,” Val’s interest was piqued.

“Neither did I. He grew up in Boston.”

“Boston.”

“Yeah, bet he’s a real dandy, but I’ll show him the ways of the west,” Johnny crowed.

“I bet you will,” Val grumbled.

“I’ll check on you later when I get back, will tell you more about Eb,” Johnny promised.

“And who says I’ll still be here? Ain’t crippled, you know. Don’t need to stay in this bed, neither.” Val’s loud complaints followed Johnny out the door.

“Got nowhere else to go, ass is too sore to sit a saddle,” Johnny shouted over his shoulder, before shutting the door.

A grin crept across Val’s face as he lay back, arms crossed behind his head. “Smart ass.”

  ******

Waiting for the stage to arrive, Murdoch could not help but chuckle at the impatient shenanigans of his youngest. Johnny paced the wooden walkway, stopped to kick at the dirt, then resumed the frenetic pacing Murdoch was quickly growing accustomed to. Spinning around, Johnny marched up to his father.

“Murdoch, what are we going to do if he’s a dandy? I mean, he could be a sissy,” Johnny said, hoping nobody else heard. The last thing he wanted to get around was that the brother of Johnny Madrid, was a sissified slicker.

“Johnny, I’m sure Scott will be fine. Just because he was raised in the east, doesn’t mean he’ll be a sissy,” Murdoch strove to reassure the boy.

“Well, at least we know he can ride. But can he shoot a gun? Hell, Murdoch. What if he can’t shoot a gun? He won’t stand a chance out here. Its bad enough you had to come in that fancy buggy just to bring him home. I tell you what, won’t get me in one of those damned things.” Johnny was far from finished, and his father’s head was spinning.

Placing a comforting arm around his son’s shoulder, Murdoch had to laugh at the boy’s antics. After a brief argument earlier that morning, Murdoch had conceded and climbed into the surrey, while Johnny followed along on Renegade. “Johnny, a buggy can be fun.”

“Like when?”

“Oh, like when you have a lovely young lady to court,” Murdoch replied.

Stepping out from under his father’s arm, Johnny stared in disbelief. “If, and I say if, I ever decide to court someone, and believe you me, it won’t happen in this lifetime, but if I ever did, I would make damned sure she could ride.”

“Johnny my boy, you’ll be surprised by how a lovely woman can sway you,” Murdoch chuckled.

“Don’t need no swaying.” Johnny grumbled, a frightening thought setting in. “Murdoch. What if he shows up wearing a funny suit with one of those ugly hats rich people wear?”

“Johnny, it will be fine, believe me.” Murdoch did his best to appease.

“Or worse. He could show up with ruffles. I tell you Murdoch, if he shows up wearing ruffles, I just might have ta shoot him.”

Bellowing with laughter, Murdoch slapped at the back of Johnny’s head. A shrill whistle and sound of thundering horses racing through town heralded the arrival of the stage. Murdoch’s mouth went dry and his heart stopped. He could only remember being this nervous one other time, and the result of that anxiety stood next to him, craning his neck to get a better look. With a groan, Johnny hung his head and rubbed his temple. Two large women exited the stuffy, wooden shell, followed by a monk and wimpy traveling salesman with an armful of leaflets and satchel in hand.

Time seemed to stop for Murdoch. He gasped and their eyes locked. A tall, slim man with sandy blond hair and eyes of the palest blue, stepped from the coach. Dressed in a suit of fine silk, ruffles at the sleeves and throat and top hat clutched in hand, the man was elegant, standing tall and proud. Murdoch stepped forward and Johnny slapped his forehead, his right hand snaking toward his gun. Just as quickly, Murdoch snagged his youngest’s hand, holding Johnny tightly by the wrist.

“You have your mother’s eyes,” Murdoch said softly. Lost in the wonder of his son, the child he never thought to see again, all cognizant thought left his mind.

“Yeah, well I got my mother’s temper,” Johnny muttered under his breath.

Murdoch delivered a quick swat to the back of Johnny’s head

“You’re Johnny,” the cultured voice proclaimed. Taking in the sight of the young man with dark hair and blazing eyes of blue, Scott’s eyes raked down Johnny’s torso, shocked by the shirt of salmon pink, and soft leather pants with silver conchos down the side. Then his eyes came to rest upon the low slung rig, confirming the reports about his brother that he had read. Still, the young man wasn’t what Scott expected, and he felt an instant desire to get to know his brother better.

“And you must be Scott,” Johnny snipped, cringing at the sight.

His own eyes traveled his brother’s figure from head to toe, cringing inwardly at the sight of ruffles and silk. He just hoped Scott didn’t place that stupid looking hat upon his head. If he did, Johnny thought that someone would probably shoot it off, since his father would most certainly frown upon him doing that very thing.

Scott was immediately drawn to his younger brother, although baffled by his appearance. He knew of Johnny Madrid and wondered why Johnny chose such a moniker, but that was neither here nor there. There was time enough for such thoughts, later. Whatever he was, this younger brother was a force to be reckoned with. Scott doubted there would be a dull moment while in his presence. Eyes flickering to the low slung rig tied around the boy’s slim hips, Scott quickly averted his stare and focused on the giant of a man standing in front of him and extended a hand.

“Sir.”

“Scott.” Grasping the proffered hand, Murdoch was surprised by the strong, firm grip. At least the boy didn’t look like Harlan. For that, he was forever grateful. Shoving Johnny ahead, Murdoch motioned for Scott to precede him. “I’ve reserved a table at the café. You can freshen up and we can have a bite to eat before leaving for the ranch.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Scott answered, the epitome of politeness.

“Yeah, I thought it was a good idea,” Johnny smirked. “Besides, whenever we’re in town, I always try and get the old man to pop for a meal.

Murdoch glared and shook his head. Johnny flashed a brilliant look of faux innocence and followed his brother through the door. Murdoch followed close behind, fighting the urge to boot his youngest in the backside. While Scott went off to freshen up, Murdoch and Johnny enjoyed a cold beer. Ten minutes later, the easterner reemerged, fresh and spiffy for their meal. Again,

Johnny chuckled and Murdoch swatted the back of his head.

They followed the hostess to the table and took their seats. Johnny slouched, tearing a piece of bread into bits, elbows resting on the table, while Scott sat poised, hands resting on his lap. Johnny tried his best not to laugh, and Murdoch shot daggers at the cocky boy.

When Scott pulled his jacket open, Johnny’s eyes almost fell out of his head. “Hell, Murdoch, he’s not wearing a gun. Not even a hiding gun.”

“No, I have never worn a gun,” Scott replied distinctly.

“Never wore a gun. What kind of way is that?” Johnny burst out.

“Johnny, things are different back east,” Murdoch reminded his youngest.

“Then I’m glad I’m right here. It’s not natural,” Johnny hissed.

“On the contrary, it’s perfectly natural,” Scott replied.

Appeased somewhat, but confused, Johnny addressed the issue. “On the what? You mean there is a place called the contrary where they wear guns?”

This time it was Scott’s turn to be confused. “No, on the contrary is the same as saying on the other hand.”

“Then why didn’t you say so?”

Murdoch sighed. “Scott, you’ll soon find that Johnny is quite literal.”

“That better be good, old man,” Johnny took affront.

“It’s good,” was all Murdoch was willing to address at the moment.

Satisfied for the time being, Johnny reached for the butter and slathered a thick layer on a wedge of fresh bread.

“What do I call you?” The question direct and succinct, Scott turned to Murdoch.

“Hell, I just call him the old man,” Johnny scoffed. Taking a large bite, he sat back chewing, a sly grin tossed his father’s way.

Murdoch frowned and Scott’s mouth fell open. Never before had he met anyone as brazen as this younger brother, and was intrigued. He also could not help but wonder at the trouble the boy must have gotten into over the years. Lunch was served and they ate in silence. Johnny sat with his back against the wall, the curious way his eyes scanned every person in the room, further intriguing the well bred easterner.

“That’s enough young man,” Murdoch pointed with his fork.

“See? Works both ways,” Johnny flashed another cocky grin at his father. The frown deepened, but the twinkle never left the older man’s eyes. Scott grew ever more curious.

“Scott, this whelp here has taken to calling me by my given name. You’re welcome to do the same. Murdoch is fine.”

Both forearms resting on the table, Johnny lifted his head, flashed an easy smile in their father’s direction, then resumed eating. Scott was amazed at the easy banter between the two. He also felt a twinge of jealousy, which he fought down.

“So Johnny, how long have you been at Lancer?” Scott asked. Johnny’s head dropped and he stopped eating, poking at the food with his fork.” “I’m sorry, that was ill of me. You have my apologies.”

“Nah, that’s ok. You only want to know,” Johnny muttered.

Leaning forward, Murdoch tapped Johnny on the hand. “You ok, son?” he asked, the gentle tone further stunning Scott.

“Yeah, am fine.”

If there was one thing about this strange, younger brother of his, it was the way he swung from one mood to another. One minute he seemed every bit the mischievous teenager, the next, a cold, icy presence took its place. It was as if the boy pulled a mask down over his face, while stark, deadly eyes scanned the room. And he pulled the mask down even lower when Scott inquired about his past.

Tossing down his napkin, Johnny faced the problem head on. “Look, Scott, let’s not play games. You can either take it, or leave it, up to you.”

“Did I say something wrong?” Scott worried.

“No, just telling it straight,” Johnny replied. “I’m a gunfighter, Scott. A damned good one. Not gonna hide that, ‘cause I’m not ashamed. It’s what I am.”

“I heard you were very good.”

“I am.”

“Again, I apologize for being so crude. And for the record, I knew of you before you said anything. Suffice it to say, the way I found out is the main reason I am here, but that can wait until later.”

Johnny sat shaking his head. “Boy, you toss those words around almost as quick as I draw my gun. Well, you know. I didn’t grow up on Lancer. My mother took me off when I was only two. Didn’t come back home until a few months ago. That’s a long story, but not now. Bottom line is, I was raised in Mexico and the border towns.”

“Border towns?” Scott’s eyebrows raised in confusion.

“Yeah, like Tucson, El Paso, the towns down around the Mexican border. Hot, dry, dusty and deadly. Not safe places to be. Man will kill you for your hat, even if he didn’t need the damn thing, but because it was something to do.”

“And you let him live there?” Turning to glare at his father, the older man tensed and Johnny sat back, eyes gone icy and dark, staring across the table. Scott slowly placed the napkin down and looked between the two.

“No, he didn’t let me do anything, Scott. If you must know, Murdoch didn’t know where I was until a few months ago. He’s been looking for me since my Mama took me away. There are reasons I didn’t come home, but don’t wanna get into them yet. Just know that it wasn’t Murdoch’s fault, and we’re working things out.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.” Scott’s poise was formal and stiff.

“Yeah you did, Scott. Don’t say you’re sorry for questions you meant to ask. I don’t like that.” The cutting edge to his tone made Murdoch nervous. “Scott, let’s tell it like it is. You’re here and you’re my brother. That means something to me. If it doesn’t to you, that’s fine. Am used to not meaning much to folks.”

Murdoch was quick to intervene. “Boys, emotions on both sides are running high right about now. This isn’t going to be easy, but the bottom line is, there is a lot to settle on all sides, and we have plenty of time to do so when we get back to the ranch. Scott, as Johnny learned, life isn’t always as it seems. You’re told one thing, only to find out that what you grew up believing, wasn’t the full truth.”

“Fair enough,” Scott nodded. “I know Grandfather wasn’t totally honest.”

“Hell, he was as crooked as they come,” Johnny snorted.

“John,” Murdoch slightly admonished his younger son. “Scott, your brother has been looking forward to meeting you, and I, for one, am damned glad to finally have you home.”

“Sir, I know Grandfather lied to me. Can’t say I’m not upset, but . . .”

“But all of this is a lot for you to take in at once. Believe me, I understand. Let’s just eat lunch and then ride back to the estancia,” Murdoch suggested.

“So, little brother, what do you do on the ranch all day?” Scott asked with a twinkle in his eye.

“Oh, I manage to keep busy. I tell you, cows have to be about the dumbest creatures on the face of this earth. And you have to watch out for Teresa,” Johnny snickered. Head lowered, he cast sidelong glances toward his father every few seconds.

“Teresa? Who’s Teresa?” Scott asked.

“Teresa is my . . .”

“Teresa is a pain in the ass,” Johnny promptly interrupted.

Another frown shot in the direction of his youngest, Murdoch was quick to explain. “Scott, Teresa is the daughter of my Segundo.”

“Segundo?”

“Yeah, the second boss,” Johnny snickered. “Only he calls the tune.” Crooking a finger toward Murdoch, who was quickly losing control, Johnny chuckled.

“Scott, she’s eleven and she’s curious,” Murdoch replied.

“She’s a kid and a brat.” Johnny exploded. “Damn near got me killed one time, and she’s always trying to follow after me. I tell ya, if she could snag a horse, she’d follow me clear out to the range. And she doesn’t know how to knock. The other day, she barged into my room and I was in my skivvies. That was a fine thing. I almost fell on my ass hopping around trying to pull my pants up and avoid her. But she comes breezing in, asking what I was going to do that day. I tell you what I was gonna do, I was gonna ride off if I could’ve gotten dressed. Johnny was on a roll, and both Scott and Murdoch were pleasantly entertained.

Pointing a fork at his father, the rant continued. “I tell you old man,” he said, the use of such a moniker bringing a grin to Scott’s face. Never before had he met anyone as bold and forthright as this complex younger brother. “If you and Paul get her that pony, I’ll never get a moment’s peace. You really should do something about that girl. I just might have to shoot her.”

That did it. Scott lost all control then, having lifted a cup to his mouth, coffee spurted up his nose and across the table. Johnny started laughing, tossing a napkin in his older brother’s direction. Murdoch rubbed his eyes, wondering just how things had gotten out of control so quickly, and Scott caved. Wiping the coffee dripping from his chin, he tossed his head back, he and Johnny lost in a fit of laughter.

Johnny leaned across the table, a finger flecking at a spot of coffee staining his brother’s shirt. “Didn’t mean ta mess up your outfit.”

Scott frowned, glaring at his younger sibling. “Can’t be helped.”

Murdoch groaned and tossed down his napkin, the meal at an end. Johnny scraped his plate clean. Flashing a cocky grin at Scott and a look of unabashed innocence at his father, he rose and stretched. The trio left the café, stepping out into the bright sunshine. Scott could not help but notice the easy, comfortable way his father and Johnny reached out to one another, walking from the quaint establishment, the older man’s arm around his brother’s shoulders, and Johnny’s arm snaking across their father’s back. How he wished for such contact, but a stiff, Boston upbringing kept Scott from reaching out to anyone in such a manner. Harlan Garret was not a man known for kissing skinned knees and giving hugs. Scott was well cared for, but was raised in a prim and proper environment that did not allow for such displays of emotion.

Everything changed in an instant. They heard the shout from across the street. Murdoch reached out, violently tugging at Scott’s arm. The man never had the chance to warn his older son about how to act when the time came. Everything had been quiet for months, and Murdoch deluded himself into thinking Johnny was finally safe, that no one would come after him. Why today, of all days, did this have to happen.

At first, Murdoch thought he had been hearing things, but Johnny stiffened and walked off, putting as much distance between himself and his family, as he could. Scott’s heart skipped a beat. He could barely look into his brother’s eyes and wondered why any man would even want to under such circumstances. Didn’t they see the deadly predator coiled and ready to strike? Did they fail to notice the death hidden within those dark, lash fringed eyes? Scott’s blood ran cold, and he sought to reach out to his brother.

“No, Scott, come with me,” Murdoch demanded.

“But . . .”

“No. Now.” Pulling the stunned man down the street, Murdoch kept his eyes averted and mouth shut, praying all the while he was wrong and had only been hearing things. A second later, that thought proved futile.

“Madrid.”

  ******

Time froze. A hushed pall fell over the town. The streets were deserted in the time it took a heart to beat, and people took cover inside shop buildings or peering out from alleyways. Murdoch ducked into an alley, pulling Scott behind him.

Johnny stood in the center of the street, masked eyes void of emotion, staring. “Jones, got no quarrel with you.” His peripheral vision scanned the rooftops and alleys. Marty Jones fought dirty, and Johnny knew the man wasn’t alone. A coward never was.

“You took my brother down.”

“Your brother asked for it. He gunned my old man.”

“Talk was, you was ready to do that yourself,” Jones said with a sneer.

Scott froze, his mouth dropping as he turned to stare at his father. “Sir?”

“Later, Scott.” Murdoch was unaware that he had been holding his eldest’s arm tight, the entire time.

Scott glanced down, but made no move to pull away. The sun grew cold and daylight dimmed, while two shadowy figures faced one another in the middle of the street, rigs slung low on their hips and hands poised to strike. Upon hearing the name Jones, Murdoch froze and slowly drew his gun.

“Now I know why Johnny was shocked I don’t have a gun. Seems to be a way of life.”

“Not always son. But it is a different world out here. Different challenges, different rules.” Murdoch’s hand tightened, and his mind raged. ‘ Why today? Why today, of all days?’ There never would be a good time for his son’s life to hang in the balance, but today, of all days. Murdoch cursed the fates that tore Johnny from him, pitching him into a life no one should have to endure.

But endure it, his son did, and he now stood in the middle of a dusty street, fighting for the right to ride out of town alive. Johnny was hard, and Johnny was cold. He instilled fear into the hearts of those who challenged him and took down those who dared to face him. And he stood as if he didn’t have a care in the world, where Jones licked his lips and stiffened visibly. And that was the man’s downfall.

Johnny saw the flicker before Jones made a move. He drew and fired, Jones’ gun barely out of the holster. Dropping to the ground, Johnny rolled to the left as a bullet from the mercantile roof whizzed past his head, pelting the ground just inches away. Johnny, Murdoch and Chuck shot at virtually the same time. Smoke filled the street and the man fell from the roof. Rolling again, Johnny stood and darted to the side when another gunshot rang out from the alley, this time the bullet cut a swath across his ribcage. Teeth clenched, he turned and fired. Chuck dropped to his knees and Murdoch charged forward, both firing down the darkened alley.

Clutching his shoulder, the last shooter stumbled out, grasping a post in front of the Widow Hargis’ store. He was brought to his knees by an attack from behind. Waving a broom wildly, the Widow burst through the door, felling the stricken man with a solid blow to the back of the head. The shooter attempted to rise, and she struck again, this time breaking the broomstick in half. She continued to pummel the man with what was left of the handle, until satisfied that he wasn’t moving any time soon.

In the resulting melee, Johnny darted down the side alley and wound around the rear of the livery. Mounting Renegade, he galloped out of town, clutching his chest, blood soaking through his shirt. Teeth clenched against the pain, he headed for the northern most section of Lancer, where he would lay low in a line shack for a few days, before riding out. Scott had only been in town less than an hour, and could have been killed while in his presence. It just wasn’t safe to have him around.

Murdoch ran down the street, eyes frantically scouring every face. “Johnny.”

Catching a movement out of the corner of his eyes, Scott was momentarily stunned to see Johnny riding off. ” This your horse?” he asked of Chuck.

“Yeah . . .”

“Thanks.” Before his stunned father could utter a word, Scot vaulted upon the chestnut mare and took off after his brother. He was definitely not in Boston anymore, this rather tumultuous introduction to life in the west driving him forth. Scott doubted if he would ever know a moment of boredom again.

By the time Murdoch found his voice, both sons were gone. Gasping for breath, hands resting on his legs, Chuck straightened, wiping the sweat from his brow. Kicking at the prone body, he cursed. “Marty Jones. As vile as his brother. Damn. Why the hell would Johnny take off? He’s not in trouble here.”

“Chuck, he left because he’s Johnny Madrid.”

“Well hell, we all know that. Ain’t no reason to run.”

Preoccupied, eyes trained in the direction his sons took off, Murdoch spoke so softly, Chuck wondered if he heard right. “He feels he’s too dangerous to be around. Damn it to hell,” he snapped, spotting Sam running toward them.

“Too dangerous? Hell, he’s the one who saved the town. Quite possibly, again. No telling what this lowlife would have done if he hadn’t a been here. Not that I wanted to see Johnny in a stand off, but Jones would have probably taken the town apart. Bastard fights dirty, too. Nothing lower than having men shooting from a hiding spot. No different than a bushwhack. Johnny was expecting it though. He knew it was a’coming, and from where. You see him shoot and roll? Never saw anything of the like.” Chuck shook his head and walked off toward the undertaker. “Tell your oldest that I want my horse back. And don’t worry, they’ll be fine.”

Murdoch had his doubts. Johnny was on the run from himself and Scott was in a strange place. And here he stood, helpless to do anything but think of his boys. With no horse and no idea of which direction they headed once they rode out of town, he was at a loss of where to start. This was definitely not the homecoming he had planned. Scott was a stranger to the area, if he didn’t find Johnny, there was no telling what would happen.

Murdoch heaved a heavy sigh and turned to Sam. “Gonna ride back to the ranch. If they’re not there soon, I’ll put a search team together and head on out. It will be like looking for a needle in a damned haystack. Don’t even know where to start.”

“You start by trusting your sons,” Sam placated the man.

“But Scott doesn’t even know the area,” Murdoch argued back.

“True, but he’s a capable young man. Murdoch, I doubt Scott is the city slicker Johnny feared,” Sam chuckled. “And don’t forget, he was in the war, that had to have taught him something. He may not know the area, but I doubt he’s a foolish man. Come on, let’s get you home.”

  ******

Expertly wielding the horse out of town, Scott cut to the north, where he saw Johnny heading. This strange, intriguing, mystifying and totally impulsive younger brother had quickly wormed his way into Scott’s heart, immediately filling a void the lonely older brother had experienced throughout his life. Suddenly, Boston seemed so boring. All Scott could think of was how much he wanted to get to know this brash young man.

Life was definitely becoming infinitely interesting. He didn’t care if he was a stranger to the area, Scott knew north from south and could take care of himself on the trail. He had learned that the hard way during the war, scrounging a meager living off the land when there was nowhere else to turn, and he had no qualms about riding off alone. Leaning lower, he spurned the horse on. With any luck, he would soon close in on his brother.

Johnny fled without second thought. He couldn’t bring anymore danger down around his brother and father than he had, and needed to get away. There was no telling who could be hurt the next time someone called him out, and it would happen. Johnny had warned the old man. Sometimes loving someone meant that you had to leave for their own good. You needed to consider their welfare, placing it before your own wants and needs. Johnny had been on his own before, and could do so again. Only this time, it might not be so bad. This time he would leave knowing that there were people who cared, that he mattered to someone, and belonged somewhere. He would visit, there was no need to stay away from Lancer forever, but he needed to start life anew, a fresh start in a place where no one knew of Johnny Madrid. A place where his family would not be caught in the middle.

Hackles rising, Johnny grimaced in pain as he pulled Renegade off the road and drew his gun. Shrouded in a thick canopy of trees, he watched the rider approach. Groaning, Johnny put the gun back in the holster and accosted the ruffled rider drawing near. As much as he wanted to turn and run in the opposite direction, he could not leave Scott to his own wiles in a strange place. Wincing against the pain pulling at the side of his ribcage, Johnny rode back onto the road and continued at a slower pace.

Upon spotting his brother, Scott immediately closed in, frowning at the pale, clammy tinge to Johnny’s face, and the blood seeping through his fingers. “Come on, time to go home, little brother.”

Johnny looked up, eyes glazed with pain and anger. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Chasing you. What do you think I’m doing, boy?” Reaching out, Scott gently pulled Johnny’s arm aside. “Well, looks like you found yourself a bit of trouble. Now tell me, what did you think you were doing by riding off?”

“What I always do. Gonna lay low.”

“Until what, you heal or die? All by yourself?” Scott shot back, his anger rising. Why Johnny felt it better to be off by himself, not only put his protective instincts in motion, the obvious rejection, angered him further. Grabbing the reins, he pulled Renegade up short. “Not this time, little brother.”

Johnny glared, eyes as cold as ice. “He bites.”

“So do I.” Scott returned the glare, a sly smile appearing. “And I’m not one to give up on a person, especially someone I’d like to get to know better. So little brother, you’re coming back with me.”

“Not safe being around me.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“All right, Boston ,” Johnny sneered.

“Boston?”

“Beats being called little brother.”

“Yes, I suppose it does,” Scott grinned. “Which way is home?” Johnny turned Renegade and nodded toward the east. “Over that way a bit. A long bit,” he chuckled.

Scott followed his gaze, curious eyes drinking in the lush landscape. Back in Boston, they would be up to their eyeballs in snow and ice, with frigid temperatures chilling one to the bone. Yet here, the fields were lush and green, and although there was a chill to the air, it was nothing compared to the bone biting winter back east. “Where are we?”

“We’re on Lancer. Was heading north.”

“North?”

“Yeah, there’s a line shack up there,” Johnny explained.

“What’s a line shack?”

“Well, most places just build a crude one room shelter on the further reaches of their ranch so that the hands have a place to stay, but Murdoch goes one better. He’s pretty picky, and built these small cabins all over the place. Fully stocked too. Thought I’d lay low there a few days and then head out.”

“Head out where?”

“Now if I told ya, I’d have to shoot ya,” Johnny said in a menacing voice, soft and low.

“Like to see you try, little brother. Like to see you try.” Scott shook his head.

“You always come running to the rescue decked out in ruffles?” Johnny scoffed.

“Not always. I tend to leave the ruffles at home,” Scott retorted.

Johnny gave a low whistle. “Whooee, that’s good to hear. But I gotta tell ya, if you put that fancy Dan hat on your head while I’m around, I’ll just have to shoot the damned thing off.”

“You always this cordial?”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed.

Scott was quick to reiterate. “Are you always so . . . outspoken?”

“Only when needed, Scott. Only when needed.”

Johnny pulled Renegade to a stop at the top of the hill. His father’s face flashing through his mind, he was suddenly ashamed of running out on the man, and realized how much he wanted to go home. A smile crossing his face, he nudged Scott and pointed. “There. As far as the eye can see. Lancer.”

“Old man’s been busy.”

In spite of the pain, Johnny collapsed into a fit of laughter and slapped his brother on the back. “That’s just what I said.”

“What do you say we go home, little brother?”

“You got it, Boston.”

Fatigue from loss of blood and spent nerves set in and by the time they rode under the arch and reached the estancia, Johnny was leaning against Scott. Murdoch ran outside to greet them, the widest smile possible on his face.

“Better send for the doctor, Sir,” Scott said, refusing to relinquish hold.

“He’s already here.” Murdoch set to worry. Gentle hands reached up, easing his son from the saddle. Carefully pulling the shirt away, he frowned at the long, furrowed wound. “Boy, what the hell were you thinking?”

“Oh Murdoch, just thought I’d take a ride in the country with my brother,” Johnny said in a low, soft drawl, before passing out in his father’s arms.

  ******

Scott took a drink of the whiskey offered, and continued to pace. “Don’t know if I can ever get used to this.”

“What, being out here?” Murdoch asked.

“No, this infernal waiting. Sir . . . Murdoch, I hope that brother of mine doesn’t make a habit of it,” Scott worried.

“Well, he definitely makes life interesting,” Murdoch said. Clearing his throat, his nerves on edge, he turned toward Scott and leaned on the edge of the desk. “Scott, I know things are strained, and this has to be awfully hard on you.” Murdoch took a moment to gather his thoughts and Scott stood stoically, mouth set in a firm line as he stared.

“One thing your brother learned, is that life not only has two sides to every story, but things aren’t always as they appear. I’ve had the better part of six weeks to get to know Johnny, and we’ve had a lot of long talks. Believe you me, it wasn’t easy in the beginning.” Murdoch stood, and with arms folded across his chest, began to pace. “Scott, Johnny believed that I threw he and his mother out.”

Scott swallowed painfully and turned away.

Murdoch misconstrued his feelings, and strove to reach out to his eldest. “Son, please, I just want to make things easier on you. We can go more into detail, later . . .”

“No, don’t need details,” Scott managed to croak out. His heart hammered and his mind screamed. He was a coward in his father’s home.

“All right, I can see where this is all overwhelming. What I’m trying to say, is that Johnny learned differently. He had been raised to think I didn’t want him. Why, I have no idea.”

Scott walked over to the window and stared out over Lancer. Guilt and fear of the truth that could destroy his father and brother, kept the sordid secret locked inside. How could he let anyone get close, when he had the power to destroy them? When his grandfather had done that very thing.

Murdoch’s hand on his shoulder caused Scott to jump slightly. “Are you all right?” Handing over another drink, he waited until Scott sat on the chair next to the desk, before resuming. “I can’t imagine how overwhelming all of this is for you, son. I’ll get right to the point. We’re strangers to each other, maybe that’s my fault, maybe it isn’t. All that matters is the here and now. We’re together, Scott. I wished it had happened sooner, and although it might be hard to believe, I did try, son. I wanted nothing more than to have my sons with me.”

This time Scott was the one to reach out. “Sir, I know you tried,” he said, surprising the older man. “I don’t know all the details, but I know my grandfather lied to me. It’s not something I’m proud of, and I was rather angry when I left,” he said, barely able to get the words out. “That’s why I had to come. I had to see if I had a chance here.”

With his hand on his shoulder, Murdoch reassured the boy. “Son, you’ll always have a place here. You always did. I just wish . . .”

“I’m here now, that’s what matters,” Scott was quick to intercede.

“Yes you are, and I can’t tell you how happy that makes me,” Murdoch replied. He squeezed Scott’s shoulder, grateful that the boy didn’t pull away.

Maria came into the room, followed by Paul. Introductions were made and she approached slowly, tears streaming down the sides of her face. She took Scott’s hands in hers, turning to stare between he and Murdoch. “Welcome home, nino, we have been waiting a long time.”

“Thank you,” Scott stammered, emotions robbing him of words.

“Scott, nice to meet you,” Paul said.

“My pleasure. My father told me all about you. And I gather this is Teresa?” Scott wriggled a finger toward the young girl who suddenly turned shy and hid behind her father. Peering out, a smile crossed her face before pulling back behind him again.

“Yes, this is Teresa, and suffice it to say, she’s on her better behavior tonight.” Paul glared down upon his child, and Scott stared with raised eyebrows. “Let’s just say that she and your brother have made things quite lively around the ranch.”

“So I gathered,” Scott stated.

They were interrupted by Sam walking down the stairs, wiping his hands on a towel. “Well, he’ll live. And believe you me, I gave him an earful.”

“He needed it,” Murdoch bellowed. “What the hell was he thinking? Riding off like that was bad enough, but to ride off wounded, that’s unheard of.”

“Not for Johnny.” Sam took the proffered drink. “He told me he’s had worse and rode on, and sorrowfully, I believe him. Murdoch, be easy on the boy. He’s not used having someone to care for him.”

“Sam, he’s home now. Doesn’t he know that? What will it take for the boy to truly call Lancer home? All I’ve ever wanted was to have my boys back, and now that I do, I find I’m in danger of losing one again. He’s got to learn that he doesn’t have to run at the first sign of trouble.”

His father’s words cut through him and Scott turned to stare out the massive window. He had to get a grip. Either tell the truth, or clam up once and for all. What happened, happened. It was in the past where it belonged. Right or wrong, it was over. What good would it do to dredge things up now? His grandfather had no longer had any leverage over them, and Johnny was finally home where he belonged. What good would it do to reveal the truth, only to clear his conscience? Men have lived with darker consciences before, he could, too. It was time to bury the past, and all its dirty little secrets. Then his stomach turned. Scott detested a coward.

“Can I go up and see him?” Scott turned and asked.

“Sure son, and let me tell you that I’m very glad to have made your acquaintance,” Sam replied, offering his hand in greeting.

Scott nodded, clasping the older man’s hand. “Thank you.”

He walked up the staircase, following the directions to Johnny’s room. Scott was hot, tired, and in dire need of a bath to cut three days of road dust, but all that could wait. Right now, he felt an intense need to be with his brother. Sitting next to the bed, he marveled at how young Johnny looked. Hell, he was young. The boy was only 16, yet he had the demeanor, strength, compassion and courage of a man. He was also self-sufficient. Scott found that bit of information hard to fathom, yet after knowing his brother for only half a day, he saw that immediately. Johnny was more mature than any teenager Scott knew back in Boston. In his eyes, Johnny was more of a man than most of the adults he came across.

Scott shut his eyes, pressing upon them with closed fist. With a deep, guttural breath, he fought to bring his emotions under control. A lifetime had passed. A lifetime that belonged to he and his brother. Johnny had been pitched into a living hell, and Harlan Garret had put him there. At that moment, when the brevity of the act perpetrated against his family struck him with stark reality, Scott knew that if he never saw his grandfather again, it would be too soon.

  ******Murdoch was quiet when he came into the room, unshed tears stinging at his eyes when watching his sons together. Johnny was sleeping soundly and Scott sat forward, elbows resting on his knees and chin in hand. “Son, I had Cipriano bring a tub up to your room. Why don’t you go take a hot bath and we’ll have something to eat.”

“Cipriano?” Scott lifted his head, eyes blurry with fatigue peering out.

“My foreman,” Murdoch chuckled lightly. “Oh, and I had locks installed on your bedroom doors. As your brother would agree, they are a necessary evil against a certain little whirlwind.”

“I take it we’re talking about Miss Teresa.” Scott brightened for a moment.

“None other. Let’s just say those . . . ahh, episodes are legendary. And after last night, I decided to put an end to the fiasco altogether.” Murdoch frowned, but his eyes were soft as he looked down upon Johnny.

“Sounds like there’s a story there.” Scott’s smile held a hint of sadness.

Murdoch reached out in the patient way he had honed since Johnny’s return. “Scott, I know everything is very overwhelming. I just wanted you to know that I’m very glad to have you home, and I’m here should you wish to talk. We have so much to catch up on . . . so much to straighten out.”

Clearing his throat, Murdoch tackled the matter headlong. “Johnny and I have gotten through that hurdle, and I’ll tell you what I told him. There is nothing you can’t come to me about. I’m here for both of you. Johnny had so many issues, and as you can see, we still have a long way to go. But whatever comes along, will be faced together, as a family. That goes for both of you.”

Overwhelmed, fighting against the lump rising in his throat, Scott had to turn away. “You’re right Sir, everything is a bit overwhelming, as I thought it would be. This isn’t easy; even so, I wanted to come. I, well, suffice it to say that I should have gone against Grandfather’s wishes a long time ago and contacted you myself.”

“Scott, don’t blame yourself. You were young, and busy with school. Then the war came along.” At that point, Murdoch had to turn away. The next words were literally ripped from his throat. “It was hard, but your grandfather was gracious enough to send regular reports on your welfare.”

It was on the tip of Scott’s tongue to shout ‘of course it was the least he could do. He should have done that, and more. He should have let us live our lives. He could have been a part of all our lives, instead of being the selfish, vengeful bastard he was. Only he had to destroy us, yet he remained poised and proper. Always proper.

‘Hell, you’re too damned scared to let the truth out;’ Scott silently chastised himself. Then turning to his father said, “I only recently found out that he sent those reports. I can honestly say that I wish things could have been different. When I confronted Grandfather, I remembered meeting a very tall stranger on my fifth birthday.”

Murdoch’s eyes widened in surprise. “You remember that?”

“Maybe I was supposed to remember, if you believe in the fates,” Scott replied softly. Turning to look down upon the sleeping form of his brother, he brushed a hand across Johnny’s forehead. “He feels warm, Sir.”

Leaning over, Murdoch frowned. “This boy. He’s like my brother Blaine in Scotland . Runs a fever if he stubs a toe.”

“A family trait?” Scott scoffed. “One I’m glad I didn’t pick up on. I’ve had my share of fevers, but not to the extreme. I’ve been quite fortunate in that regard.”

“Then you take after me,” Murdoch said fondly. “It takes a lot for me to run a fever. But my brother was a different story. So is this one here” he said, lovingly caressing Johnny’s hand, while patting Scott on the shoulder. “I have both my boys back. Now, why don’t you go and get washed? It’s been one hell of a day.”

“That’s putting it mildly, Sir. But, aside from the gunfight and the injury Johnny suffered, a hectic routine will be relished. It was growing quite boring in Boston ,” Scott chuckled lightly for the first time since his arrival.

He stood at the door for a moment, smiling at his father before walking over to his own room. He had been inside for a few minutes earlier, marveling in the rustic, warm appeal. The fireplace would be a welcome comfort on a chilly night, and Scott planned on spending quiet time reading while basking in the warmth offered. Thumbing through the crate of books he brought out west, he wondered if Johnny was as avid a reader. If so, then Scott could not wait to debate the classics and newest releases. If not, then he hoped to introduce his brother to a favored pastime.

As he climbed into the tub, Scott was beginning to have a slight change of heart. Maybe things would be all right after all. The crimes perpetuated against his family were done by Harlan Garret. Scott began to realize that he was just as much a victim. Only where Johnny was living in stark poverty, he was shrouded in brash luxury. Riches or not, his life had been empty.

  ******

Johnny thrashed, his body ravaged by fever, his tired mind besieged by nightmares. “Mama, por favor, Mama. I don’t want to run. I don’t want to leave, don’t run, Mama. Por favor. Sombra. Diablo sombra.”

Murdoch’s fist clenched in rage, the fear of a young child still carried through to the present in nightmarish form. Johnny thrashed and cried out, fighting the demons of his mind. He dropped the cloth, his hands shaking when Johnny screamed his name.

“Papa. I want my Papa. I want my Papa.” Fever glazed eyes stared upward, unseeing.

Murdoch wet the cloth and ran it over Johnny’s forehead, wondering how many nights his young son had cried out for him in the dark. He offered the comfort he was unable to so many years ago. “Shhh, little one. Papa is here. Papa is here,” he said, speaking to the child trapped in Johnny’s nightmare.

“Diablo sombra, Papa. Diablo sombra.” Johnny calmed, but turned to Murdoch muttering. “Diablo sombra, papa.”

“Shhh, there is no more Diablo sombra, Johnny. Papa chased him away.”

“Shoot him,” Johnny demanded.

Murdoch could not suppress a snicker of amusement. “All right, Johnny. Papa will shoot him.” He peered beneath the nightshirt, frowning at the ugly red gash slicing across his son’s chest. Feeling a presence behind him, he turned to see Scott. “Son, will you please wake Sam? It’s the third door on the right in the wing off the kitchen.”

“Yeah, right away. Is he . . . will he be all right?” Scott hesitated but a moment.

“The last time he had a nightmare was when we were in the cabin. He was running a fever then, to,” Murdoch explained softly, all the while gently caressing Johnny’s forehead.

“Then you are right, Sir. It seems my little brother does tend to run a lot of fevers,” Scott replied.

“I’ll tell you about that night when things quiet down. It was right after our auspicious meeting,” Murdoch chuckled. “Scott, the first time I saw your brother after fourteen long years, he was sitting in a saloon on Christmas Eve, swilling tequila.”

Scott’s face registered his shock.

“That’s another story and hard to fathom in one so young, but sadly, this boy hasn’t been a boy in a long time. He’s had a hard life, Scott. But he’s home. Thank the Lord, you’re both home.”

“I look forward to our talk. I’ll go get Dr. Jenkins . . .”

“Sam,” Murdoch smiled. “And thank you.” Grabbing Scott by the hand, he kept the boy from leaving right away. “For more than I can say, Scott.”

Eyes shining with emotion, Scott gave a curt nod and turned to walk off. He paused at the door, watching the loving, gentle way his father cared for Johnny. How in the world could such a man like Murdoch Lancer be the monster his grandfather had touted all these years? It was a shame, for hatred had not only destroyed his family, it turned his grandfather into a cruel, callous, empty man Scott had no desire to continue a relationship with.

“Sir, what is he saying? Sadly, Spanish is a language I have not studied,” Scott requested.

Murdoch paused, then took a deep breath. “He’s asking his mother not to run anymore, he doesn’t want to run. Then he called out for me.”

Scott’s stomach curdled. “And what was sombra? Diablo sombra, I believe he said.”

Murdoch’s eyes grew dark with rage. “I don’t understand the context, or what happened to instill such a fear, but it’s something very real to your brother. It kept him from going into the room that had once been his, and we therefore switched him to this one, right next to you.”

“Sir?” Scott gently prodded.

Eyes gone dark looked upward, and Scott felt he could crawl out of his skin. “It means shadow. Devil shadow.”

“Devil shadow,” Scott whispered. He jogged down the hallway to hail Sam, then went outside to the other side of the garden, where he promptly vomited.

  ******

By morning, Murdoch was relieved to find that Johnny’s fever had abated. He sat by the boy’s side the entire night, bathing his hot skin and keeping him calm when the nightmares struck. Murdoch wondered if they would ever stop. Johnny woke to find his father by his side, a smile at the ready.

“You sit there all night, old man?” the soft voice washed over Murdoch.

“Pretty much.” Murdoch stretched and yawned. “You were running a fever.”

“I always run fevers. Had worse. Didn’t mean you had ta sit up all night.” Trying to sit up, Johnny grimaced at the pull to the stitches across his torso.

“Son, you are relegated . . . you are going to stay in this bed . . .”

“No need.”

“John, will there ever come a day you don’t argue with me?” Murdoch sighed heavily. This time, the prize winning grin did nothing to sway his mind. “Young man, you have a lot to answer for, and you are not getting out of this bed today.”

Knowing it would do no good to argue, Johnny settled back against the pillows. “Will you at least help me get my pants on so that I can make a trip outside?”

“That I can do. Oh, and I was giving thought to that new water closet.”

“Hot damn.” Johnny burst out, again forgetting the stitches adorning his chest.

Murdoch chuckled, rubbing his back. “Son, I think you are your own worst enemy.”

The boy was stiff and sore, but that was to be expected. Although the bullet had failed to penetrate, it dug a ten inch groove across his ribcage. Murdoch helped Johnny down the stairs and out the door, only to repeat the process a few minutes later when his son emerged from the outhouse. “Yep, indoor plumbing is definitely a good idea,” Johnny grumbled.

“Been thinking along those lines myself. Should have pursued the matter seriously weeks ago, but it’s better to be late, than never,” Murdoch chuckled as he helped Johnny remove his pants and climb back into bed. Maria had a fresh pot of coffee and biscuits at the ready, and Johnny inhaled the heady, steamy aroma. His mouth watering, he took that first satisfying sip.

A knock sounded at the door and Val stuck his head through. “You up for company?”

“I’ll leave you to your visitor.” Murdoch frowned upon leaving.

“Man don’t like me none,” Val grumbled as he staggered in.

Johnny shrugged. “What’s to like?”

“That’s gratitude for ya.” Val reached for the coffee and poured a cup. “And here I was all set to ride out after ya yesterday. What the hell you take off like that for?”

“Had my reasons,” Johnny replied.

Val glared, knowing the reason right away. “Kid, you’re a damned fool. It had nuthin to do with Madrid, but it had everything to do with keeping the peace.” Val remained steadfast as Johnny stared. “And save that Madrid glare, I know you’re pissed, but it don’t work with me. If you’d a’been a sheriff that took Stringer down, then they’d come a’gunning after you, and not looked for Madrid . Can you say different?”

Johnny hung his head and exhaled deeply. “No, I can’t. Had no quarrel with them. They didn’t come seeking my gun. Never did before. They came for revenge.”

“Then be glad it was you and not that sniffling deputy,” Val snickered.

“Ahhh, Chuck’s a good egg. Just not like us,” Johnny replied.

“Like us?” Val’s eyebrows raised.

“Yeah, he’s not hardened. Didn’t see what I did. We strike out, they see bad and still have a glitch of conscience before striking out, and that’s their downfall. We know what needs to be done and do it without second thought. We come out alive.”

Val sat rubbing his chin. “Yep, can see where that makes sense. So now that you have your head out of your ass, you gonna stick around? Folks here are mighty jumpy you’ll leave.”

Johnny sighed and stretched, again wincing when pain sliced through him. “Might.”

“You’re lucky your old man didn’t hand it to ya. He was mighty worried. Like to burn a hole through that floor with all that pacing he did. Now to find out you’re hurt and all,” Val grumbled.” Hey, where in tarnation were you going to go off to anyway?”

Johnny shrugged, toying with a piece of biscuit. “No where special. Montana , maybe. Old Eb talked a lot about Montana .”

Val quieted. “Yeah, he would. Old geezer loved the mountains. Was surprised to hear he turned out to be a desert rat. But he sure did love them mountains.”

“Guess when a body finds a place to settle in after all that traveling and panning, you sort of stick to it.” Another knock at the door, and this time Scott walked in to the room. Johnny’s eyes bugged out and his jaw dropped.

“What the hell is that?” Val stared slack-jawed as Scott came into the room carrying a breakfast tray.

Gazing down at his choice of clothing, Scott grew confused. “I can’t imagine what you are talking about.”

“That. Those duds.” Val pointed and Johnny lay back, his fingers toying with the edge of his gun.

Frowning at the man who seemed an older version of his pragmatic brother, Scott bristled. “If you don’t mind, I have dressed for the day.”

“For a day at the circus you mean,” the grizzled man gawked. “Don’t make no sense. You’re wearing those, and I’m the one that gets shot in the ass.” Val snickered, wriggling a finger in Scott’s direction.

Stepping back, a look of indignation on his face, Scott bristled. “And what’s wrong with my clothes?”

“Well, if you’re planning on staying out here, brother, plaid just ain’t the fashion,” Johnny quipped.

“Of course I’m planning to stay,” Scott snapped.

Pointing, Val chuckled. “Then it looks like they’ll have to be buying you some new clothes. Those duds would have come in handy last night if we had ta go after this one here. Would have glowed in the dark and lit the way.”

“And you found him.” Scott glared at his brother, crooking a finger toward Val. “Had to bring him here.”

“Yep.”

“That explains it,” Scott replied curtly. “You’re both a bit too much alike.

  ******

Val made his excuses and left Scott to have breakfast with his brother. Johnny cringed every time he looked at those dreaded plaid pants, wondering if everyone in Boston dressed in such a manner. If so, he was glad to have been raised in Mexico . At least he knew how to dress. Perhaps he could sway Scott to change before he went outside and anyone could see him.

Ever clothes conscious, Scott placed the coffee mug down and addressed the subject. “So, these really don’t fit in out here?” he asked, picking at a thread on the pants.

“Not unless you want someone to hang you by the ass and use you for a piñata. Or better yet, we can make a funny plaid flag out of you. Would scare the hell out of any army. Or, we could use them on the scarecrow Cipriano is making. I tell you, that’d keep them crows out of Maria’s garden. That woman would be mighty grateful. Yep, I just might get some tamales for dinner, seeing how I not only saved her garden, but am wounded.” Johnny rubbed his chin thoughtfully, a stolen glance in his brother’s direction every few seconds.

Scott sat stone faced. “You finished?”

“You gonna were them pants in public?” Johnny’s eyes narrowed.

“That look don’t work on me, little brother.”

“It will if I shoot you in the ass for wearing them pants, Boston .”

“All right, I’ll go into town later today . . .”

“Hey, that’s a great idea.” Shoving the empty breakfast tray out of the way, Johnny slid out of bed, clutching his chest protectively. “We can go into town, make a night of it, damn, hell, that hurts.” Bending over, he wheezed.

Scott grabbed for him, only to have Johnny slap his hands away. “And spend the night doing

what?”

“You don’t get laid in Boston , brother?” Johnny quipped.

“That’s one way of putting it, but to answer your question, I am not adverse to being in the company of a willing female,” Scott replied.

“Well, if that means you’re willing, then we can head out after lunch,” Johnny brightened.

Scott grabbed him by the arm, guiding him back to the bed and with a hand on both shoulders, shoved Johnny back onto the mattress. The willful boy tried to stand, only to be shoved down in the same manner. “First of all, you’re in no condition to travel anywhere, and I doubt any willing female will appreciate having you bleed over her like a stuck pig.”

The anger dissipated and the mask melted away. “Yeah, suppose you’re right. But next Saturday, for certain.”

“We’ll see. And are you telling me that our father lets you go out drinking and whoring?” Scott asked, direct and to the point. “And aren’t you a little too young?”

Johnny’s eyes hardened. “Scott, I’ve been too old for a long time now. Told the old man before I came home that he takes me as I am. I drink, I go to saloons, play poker and have been with too many bar girls to stop now. Can’t change, and won’t change for anyone. Gonna tell it to you straight, like I told the old man. You take me as I am. I’m a gunfighter, Scott. Always have been, always will be. Killed my first man when I was 11, and have a long line of bodies from Mexico through the border towns.

“Not a pretty life, but it’s the only one I know. The only one I had. Won’t make excuses, won’t beg for anyone to accept me, and will be damned if anyone will change me. Don’t need Lancer. Want to be here, but don’t need it. Need no one or nothing but myself. Don’t mean I don’t want anyone in my life, ‘cause I do. I won’t set out to change you, well, but for them fancy Dan plaided out pants, and don’t expect you to change me.

“Only thing is, you try to make me give up my conchos, you got a real fight on your hands. Then again, no one will shoot me for wearing ‘em. I don’t care what people think of me, Scott. Haven’t cared in a long time. Someone don’t like me, then I make tracks or ignore them. This is a big ranch, I can easily get lost in it, if you wish. I’ve seen a lot, Scott. And I’ve had a lot done to me. I’m hard. Know how to fight, and ain’t afraid to do it. And I’m loyal. Someone messes with me, then I fight back.”

“You done?” Scott asked, sitting when he saw Johnny nod. “Good. Johnny, I’m not about to try and change you. You’re not the only one carrying baggage. I might not have had the life you did, but it was hard in its own way. Garret might have taken care of me, but I was alone most of the time. But that’s not worth going into right now. You know as much about me, as I do about you. I didn’t have the hard life you did, but I did go to war.

“That was when I learned there was more to life than what one sees on the surface. And that’s why I’m here. I’m looking for a place to settle in as well as you are. Johnny, my life changed after the war. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I do know that I couldn’t stay in Boston after . . .”

“After what, Scott?”

Scott bristled at the abrupt directness of the question.

“I know what happened to you in the war,” he said, seeing Scott turn from him. “You were a prisoner.”

“What if I were?” Scott whirled about, incensed at the blunt demeanor of his brother.

“You know, brother, each man has his own prison.” Johnny toyed with the stampede string from the hat hanging on the bedpost.

Scott could only nod and wonder how in the world a young, teenage boy without a formal education could be so astute. “I suppose you’re right.”

“Prison can come in many shapes and forms, Scott.” Sighing, Johnny slid down the pillows, wriggling to find a comfortable position. Scott helped him to place a fluffed pillow behind his back. “Thanks, brother.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Undaunted, Johnny continued. “Some of us are lucky enough to get released. If not, then we escape. Sometimes neither is possible and we just have to accept what comes along and find a way to continue on. Thing is, no one picks their prison. Yours was the war, mine was life. We both suffered, we both saw and did things that no one should have to, and we’re both out. You were freed, I was rescued. But we’re out, Scott.”

“Are we?” Scott turned and stared at his brother for a minute.

“We are if we let ourselves,” Johnny said with a nod.

Scott’s earlier impression of his brother was reaffirmed. Johnny was a unique person, he had a simple way of looking at a problem and offered an answer. He found that the more time he spent with this complex individual, the more he wanted to learn. “Who was the man you fought?” Scott asked.

Johnny sighed, leaving Scott to believe no answer was forthcoming. “That’s a long story, Scott.”

“I got time.”

“The afternoon I came into Green River to look for Murdoch, I heard gunshots.” He began to explain the tale of the fateful day he took Stringer Jones down.

When finished, Scott sat back whistling. “All three? By yourself?”

“Yep.”

“And you weren’t scared?” he asked, mouth gaping.

“Nope. Knew what I was doing. Knew I could take ‘em.”

“What if you knew you couldn’t?”

“Would have tried anyway. Might not have gotten all three, but would have taken one or two with me. Stringer would have been the first.”

“From what you said about him, I’m glad you took them down. I heard the good people of Green River wanted you to be sheriff,” Scott said, too proud to laugh.

“Where’d you hear that?”

“Oh, I talked a bit with Sam last night when Murdoch was up here with you. You ever consider it?”

“Scott, I would be the first to say hell yeah, I can do it, but beings I’m only 16, others might get prickly.”

“You’re the oldest 16 I ever met,” Scott laughed.

“Been told that, too,” Johnny flashed an impish grin.

“And I’ll never forget the way that older woman came flying out of the mercantile screaming and waving a broom around like a sword.” Scott laughed as he relayed the story. “I tell you, it’s a good thing she was on your side, she sure took that man down.”

Johnny laughed so hard, he lay back clutching his ribs. “That was the Widow Hargis. She sure is something else. Draws that broom as well as I draw my gun.” Leaning closer, a devilish glint lit his eyes. “She has a thing for me, Scott.”

Enlightened by his brother’s unabashed audacity, Scott threw his head back in laughter. “You sure do have them all wrapped around your finger, don’t you?”

Murdoch stopped outside the door, his heart lightening at the sound of laughter drifting out. Scott seemed to be settling in better than he could have hoped and given time, he prayed the boy would open up to him. There was something obviously bothering his eldest, and Murdoch wondered if it had played a part in his sudden decision to leave Boston . He was thrilled to have Scott home, but never thought the boy would walk away from the only life he knew, to start over in the west. Whatever the reason, the father in him was beyond ecstatic. Murdoch felt complete, especially when he heard his younger son’s admission about the Widow Hargis. Frowning, he shook his head and walked away. Only Johnny had such a way with the women. He would have to keep an eye on that boy.

Later that night, tormented and alone, Scott sat in the dark of his room, staring at Lancer through the window. A sudden thought sickened him, and he never felt so alone. He doubted if he would ever forgive his grandfather. The act was cruel, heinous and undeserved. Scott believed in people being free to marry whom they wished, love is not something to pick and choose. It happens, like it did with his mother and father. When it does happen, one is blessed. No one has the right to interfere or take that love away. And no one has the right to take another man’s child.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized that his grandfather had done that twice. First when he stole Scott away to Boston and refused any contact with his father, the second time when he stole Johnny away in the middle of the night, leaving he and his mother to live a dangerous life of depraved poverty, in a place where his brother was not accepted by either race.

How Johnny survived, and has since the age of ten, was a miracle. What further curdled Scott’s blood was that his grandfather had known where Johnny was every single minute of his life, and probably basked in the glory of the young boy scrounging in the dirt of hate filled towns to survive, while he wined and dined in lush extravagance his entire life.

Would the truth set them free? Would it bring the peace of mind Scott so dearly craved, or would it serve to tear apart the fragile relationship he was beginning to build with his father and brother? If that happened, he would truly be alone, with not a soul in the world to care for him. A single tear ran down his cheek as Scott realized that this was how his brother had probably felt at one time. But where he was a grown man, Johnny had been only ten.

  ******

Harlan Garrett sat behind the massive desk, a vulture waiting for its prey. He should have known that Winston Avery would prove formidable, at the very least. The man had more lives than the docks had thieves. Never before had the older man felt such unadulterated rage. The night he stole Maria Lancer and her half breed brat from Murdoch Lancer, he thought his troubles were over. Then he realized his fatal mistake. He should have killed the miscreants when he had the chance.

At the time, Garrett had considered doing just that, but the knowledge of the Lancer heir and his mother living in squalor, made his heart sing. While he dined on lobster and fine caviar, Maria Lancer and her son were starving in the streets. Every once in a while the woman made a few pesos here and there, after all, he couldn’t allow them to starve to death, could he? Then his fun would be over. Garrett waited in perverse glee for the glowing weekly reports on Johnny and Maria.

If only the woman hadn’t taken ill and died at such an early age, he had been enjoying her misery. But the highlight of his life was learning that the boy had not returned home, and had run from the orphanage. For a while, the little bastard had even gotten past the Pinkerton agent paid to keep tabs on Maria, but then he resurfaced, in glorious, bloody fashion. At the age of 14, Johnny Madrid stood on a dusty street in Nogales and gunned down his first man.

A legend had been born, and Garrett almost danced the Common in demented glee. The half breed son of the high and mighty Murdoch Lancer was nothing more than a common, uneducated, cold blooded killer, with a reputation feared far and wide. Garrett should have been scared to death at the turn the boy’s life had taken, but he was too ecstatic at what Lancer’s reaction would be, should the boy ever be found.

Then Scott did the unthinkable. He left Boston, abandoning the grandfather that raised him for the bastard that killed his mother. Garrett was out for blood, and Murdoch Lancer would be the first to fall. One way or the other, Garrett would make sure that Scott saw his father for the man he was, a cold blooded killer, just like his youngest son. Fresh off the boat from Inverness, without a penny in his pocket or any prospects for the future, the man took his dear sweet Catherine from her home and dragged her clear across the country to die in a barren, lonely, uncivilized wilderness. Garrett would not stop until justice was met. And with the help of Winston Avery, vengeance would soon be served.

A knock at the door, and Garrett lifted his head, beady, lifeless eyes staring out. “You’re late.”

“You’re damned lucky to be alive. Now, are we going to spar all night, or are we going to get down to business?” Winston Avery took a seat opposite Garrett, kicking booted feet atop the desk. Leaning back, he glared, eyes gone dark with rage peering out from a pale, bearded face.

“You better get cleaned up,” Garrett declared.

“Only after I eat. I don’t have a home, remember?” Avery growled. Sliding his feet off the edge of the desk, he sat forward. Thanks to Garrett’s hospitality, he now had a place to rest his weary head.

The morning after the fire, Avery showed up at the mansion ready to exact his revenge. Upon learning that Garrett’s grandson left Boston with the documents in hand, there was no alternative but to join forces.

“I intend to destroy Murdoch Lancer, something I should have done years ago,” Garrett decreed.

“What about your grandson? You said he had the documents.” Grabbing a decanter of brandy from the desk, Avery did not bother with a glass. Garrett glared, but Avery did not give a damn. The old bastard was lucky to still be breathing. Once this was over, it would be a different story. Winston Avery was loyal to no man.

“The hell with those documents. They mean nothing to me now. They can’t hurt me. And as far as the rest of the world is concerned, you are dead. The law can’t come after a dead man. No, I’m going after Murdoch Lancer because once again, he took something precious from me. It wasn’t enough that he took my dear, Sweet Catherine, but he had to take Scotty. This time, I won’t stop until Lancer is destroyed.

“Scotty will return to Boston where he belongs. You must remember, he just returned from a rather traumatic experience suffered during the war. Given time, he will come around. Once he sees his father’s true colors, he will come back. Those lowlifes are beneath my Scotty.

“He’s angry with me right now, thinking I cheated him out of something precious, but he will soon see that I did nothing but protect him from that man, and gave him the life he deserved. You’ll see, once he sees his father and that so-called brother for what they really are, he’ll come home.”

“Why the hell would he take those documents in the first place, if not to turn them over to Lancer?”

“Scotty was angry and not thinking straight. He sees my actions as a betrayal, but will soon see that they were done with his best interests at heart. He hasn’t been himself for a long time and was acting out of anger. But he will never betray me. I have faith in that. Once he thinks this through, he will do the right thing.” Harlan leaned forward, rising slightly from his seat. “And even if he does turn those papers over to Lancer, it will already be too late, for I will squash that man like a bug. They will never stand up in a court of law. Besides, what court will care one way or the other about a damned Mexican whore and her stinking breed?”

“Cheers.” Avery lifted the decanter, draining almost half in one breath. “So, when do we leave for California? I’m getting damned sick and tired of this fucking cold and snow.”

  ******

Bouncing on one foot, Johnny kicked the door to Scott’s room open and leaned against the jamb. With his shirt unbuttoned and hanging open, he balanced precariously and pulled on a boot. His face was washed, but his hair, although combed, spilled down over his forehead.

Wiping his razor on a towel, Scott turned in the direction of the intrusion. Murdoch was right, locks were a necessity. “Come on in.”

With a wide grin, Johnny entered the room. Suddenly, Scott was no longer bothered by his brother’s lack of manners. After all, wasn’t this what younger brothers were supposed to do? Irritating, yes, but his life had been too orderly for too long, and the impulsive, brash behavior of his pesky younger brother, was like a breath of fresh air.

“How are you feeling, did you sleep well?” Scott asked.

“I always sleep well.” Smiling, Johnny sauntered into the room. “Hey, lookie here. A twenty dollar gold piece. Old man likes to leave these laying around. Sort of like guest money. Keeps you from having to ask.”

“Nice custom,” Scott replied as he set about getting dressed.

Smiling, Johnny fidgeted with the piece. “Teaches you something. Teaches you never to pass up a twenty dollar gold piece.”

Scott turned with a grin. “Keep it. It’s yours.”

“Thanks, I blew mine on poker last Saturday.” Johnny pocketed the money and walked across the room, poking through Scott’s belongings.

“Poker?” Scott smirked, an eyebrow cocked in question.

“Yeah, went into town last Saturday night. Got into a real friendly game, then got real friendly with Brenda Jean, if you get my drift.” A lewd smile on his face, Johnny sat on the edge of the bed, picking up a framed picture from the chest.

Scott smirked. “Sounds like a night.”

Although he was not used to sharing such talk, let alone partaking in certain activities with a younger teenage brother, Scott knew from speaking briefly with Murdoch, that Johnny was well beyond his years. The boy was an enigma, one minute a very needy, mischievous, overly emotional teenager, the next, a deadly, steely eyed, unwavering, formidable opponent. One Scott did not want to go up against.

“You’ll have to come next time.”

“Will do.” Scott gave a two fingered salute. Reaching down to the desk drawer, all the while watching from the corner of his eye, Scott slid the key out of the lock and into the pocket of his trousers. Johnny’s voice jarred him from darker thoughts.

“Hey, look at you all smarted up,” he said, a wide grin across his face. “Who’s this in the picture with you?”

“That’s General Sheridan. I served in his unit,” Scott replied.

“You’re very pretty.” Johnny placed the picture back on the trunk and in one fluid movement rolled across the bed, his feet coming to a rest on the other side.

“I photograph well.” Scott frowned.

“Not if you’re wearing them plaid pants. Hey, what’d you do with them anyway?”

A quick knock at the door and Teresa stuck her head inside. “Maria said for you both to hurry down to breakfast.”

Johnny threw a pillow, Teresa ducked, stuck her tongue out and shut the door. Scott shook his head, picked up the pillow, tucked in his shirt and snagging Johnny by the collar, pulled the boy up off the edge of the bed and guided him toward the door. “Come on brother, we’ve been hailed.”

Murdoch was waiting in the dining room, where a special welcome home breakfast was waiting. Standing, he greeted both boys with a smile on his face and a hug. “Scott, welcome home, son. We usually have breakfast in the kitchen, but Johnny and I talked and decided to have it in here. After all, this is a special occasion.”

Touched by such thoughtfulness and warmth, a slow smile crept across Scott’s face. “Thank you, sir. But you didn’t have to go through so much trouble.”

Teresa ducked her head behind her father’s arm. “I picked the flowers.”

“And they’re very pretty, thank you.” Scott gave the back of her hand a kiss, then held out a chair.

“She better not get used to that,” Johnny grumbled, earning a well deserved elbow nudge from his father. Even the most innocent grin he could muster failed to work, and he withered under Murdoch’s warning glare.

Ignoring the scowl on Johnny’s face, Scott again winked at Teresa, with the young girl giggling behind her hand. All eyes turned to the head of the table when Murdoch stood, clearing his throat. Motioning to Maria, who stood waiting in the wings, he garnished everyone’s attention.

The table was set formally with a silver candelabra gracing the center, crystal goblets filled with chilled, fresh squeezed orange juice, and place settings of delicate bone china rimmed in gold. Johnny sat to his father’s right, which has been done since his arrival, and Scott sat opposite his brother, to Murdoch’s left. Sam Jenkins had arrived earlier and sat next to Johnny, with Val seated on his right.

Paul and Teresa sat next to Scott, and Murdoch didn’t know which was the lesser of two evils, Teresa placed next to Johnny with the inevitable tumble ready to ensue, or the young girl seated on the other side of the table, two adversaries facing one another, ready to strike using whatever ammo was at the ready. A look of reproach from his father, cut Johnny to the quick and he sat looking very angelic, a glimmer of mischief in his eyes, and hands folded in his lap.

“Friends and family . . .”

“No one said the old man liked making speeches,” Johnny whispered to Scott behind his hand.

Murdoch continued with a glare of warning. “I have called my closest friends and family together for this special breakfast, the first with both of my sons by my side.” Murdoch took a moment to smile at Johnny, who sat slumped over and blushing, and Scott, who remained tall and stoic, the grace of his Boston upbringing, shining through. His boys were as different as night and day. One called him ‘old man’ and the other called him ‘sir’, yet they were both cut from the same cloth, and took after him in so many ways.

Johnny raised his head and smiled, the sudden flush of embarrassment over. Taking a deep

breath, he looked toward his father. Scott offered a small smile, bringing further relief to the younger brother, who never did like being the center of attention. The awkward moment over, Murdoch continued.

“This is a special moment for me. All my life, I have dreamed of having a family. There was a time when I thought that dream to be over, but the good Lord was looking down upon me, brought me through the dark place I have been in for too long now, and blessed me by bringing both my boys home.

“And I want to share this special moment with my closest friends. Sam, you have seen me through my darkest moments, and have even put me back together body and soul, many times. Without your quiet strength, I would have been truly lost. Paul, I know it hasn’t been easy for you to pick up the reins all those times I left, but you were here, never giving up on hope, or on me. And Teresa, you have been a special part of my life. You helped fill some of those lonely moments but sadly, the pain never truly disappeared.”

Murdoch looked further down the table, where Val sat next to Johnny. “I also want to take a moment to welcome our new friend, Val Crawford. I owe your uncle a great debt of gratitude. He once saved the life of my youngest. Without him, Johnny would not be sitting with us today.” Murdoch’s voice caught and Maria buried her face in her apron, muffled sobs bringing a sting of tears to the older man’s eyes.

“Seems to me, the favor was returned.” Val’s voice was gruff and his eyes downcast as memories of the grizzled old man known in his youth, rose to the surface. “Besides, old Eb did have a habit of rounding up strays.” A welcome burst of laugher served to lighten the mood.

Murdoch ruffled Johnny’s hair. “Well, this is one stray I’m glad he picked up. Now, since everyone is starving, I want to say, welcome home boys. It’s been a long time in the making. May we grow stronger and prosper.” Juice glasses were raised in toast.

Clapping her hands, Maria stepped aside as Juanita and Consuela served the food. Large platters of steak, ham, eggs and fried potatoes were carried in. Flapjacks and biscuits followed, served with fresh churned butter, honey and syrup. Scott’s eyes widened in amazement, and for the first time since he could remember, his appetite raged. Johnny dug in, ravenous from a day of broth and a light dinner. Both brothers made quick work of the meal, filling their plates twice.

Murdoch beamed, seeing the color returning to Scott’s cheeks, and the easy camaraderie his sons were finding with one another. Still, Scott seemed a bit restrained, and the older man could only wonder what was on his mind. Surely the adjustment would not be easy. As with Johnny, Scott was slowly learning that everything he had been raised to believe, was far from the truth. He would make it a point to talk with the him soon, for as old and wizened as Scott was, he needed his father. Murdoch was ready for the challenge, no matter what it brought.

Scott was testing the waters, watching and studying everyone around him. The papers locked in the safety of a drawer in his room, came to the forefront of his mind, marring the moment. Why in the world would his grandfather keep the letters Murdoch wrote to him, all these years? Surely if the man had no intention of handing the missives over, wouldn’t he have burned them?

Another unsettling thought came to mind, and Scott laid down his fork. Not wanting to draw attention to himself, he cleared his throat and held his coffee cup out for a refill. The only reason he could think of for his grandfather holding onto the letters, was to feed his hatred of Murdoch Lancer, the man he declared had ruined their lives. Studying his father now, Scott’s doubts were solidified. And his grandfather had a lot to answer to. He needed to speak with his father, and soon. Scott had never been a coward before, and was not about to start now. As soon as breakfast was over, he would ask for a private meeting.

No sooner was the thought out, when Johnny’s chair scraped back and he stood, tossing his napkin on the table. “Come on Scott, I have something for you outside. Oh Val, you can come too.”

“Gee, that’s so grand of you,” Val groused, the twinkle in his eyes belying the frown.

Sam reached out and snagged Val by the arm. “Oh no you don’t. You shouldn’t be up and around anymore than that scamp there. Come on, upstairs. I want to check you out. And you’re next.” Whirling about, his eyes locked on Johnny.

Murdoch reached out, snagging his son by the arm. “You should still be up in bed. Being out of bed for breakfast is enough for now. “

“Murdoch. This is nothing but a scratch . . .”

“A scratch with ten stitches,” Murdoch reminded him. “And you will be sorry if you pull any of those ten stitches, out.”

“I won’t pull them out, come on Scott.”

Before Murdoch could even react, his nimble son slipped from his grasp and headed toward the door. With an apologetic look at his father, Scott shrugged his shoulders and followed. Dogged

by Sam, Val grumbled as he went back upstairs, but truth be told, it was still too uncomfortable to sit for long, and was ready to lay back down. If he had his choice, he would ride out that very minute, the restless urge that plagued him, the same as the one running through Johnny. Both were the worst patients Murdoch had ever known, until he thought of himself.

Teresa jumped from the chair, only to be held back by her father. “Teresa, let them have the time.”

“Come on nina, you can help me make a special dessert for Senor Scott tonight.” Again, Maria stepped in to save the day, leaving both Murdoch and Paul shuddering at the thought of life without her loving touch and guiding influence.

Paul left to tend to business, while Murdoch followed his sons, ready to corral his youngest. That boy sure knew how to run him in circles, there hadn’t been a moment’s peace since he returned home, and Murdoch could not be happier. This is what he needed to feel young again. Still, Johnny could try the patience of a saint. The boy was too much like him.

Trailed by his father and brother, Johnny walked over to the corral and launched himself effortlessly over the fence before his father could utter a protest. A smirk crossed Scott’s face as the studied the older man rubbing his eyes. For some reason, Murdoch looked like he needed a nice long nap. As thought earlier, life was proving to be a whole lot more interesting, and Johnny always seemed to be in the center of things.

“That boy will be the end of me yet,” Murdoch grumbled. “He thinks he’s invincible.”

“Yes Sir, I have to agree. But to me, he seems like any other teenager in that regard. Some of my friends in Boston have younger brothers, and they don’t act any differently. I guess it comes with the age.”

“I suppose so. I keep on telling myself that it’s only a phase, then he goes and pulls something else. Oh well, let’s go follow that brother of yours before he comes . . . well, you’ll see.”

Much to Murdoch’s horror, a green broke buckskin burst through the barn door. Johnny lay low across the saddle. The horse streaked across the corral and bent lower, Johnny cleared the fence without breaking stride and raced across the open range. Seconds later, he turned on a dime and came racing back, again jumping with the same degree of ease. Nearing Scott, he brought the buckskin to an abrupt stop, the animal snorting in protest. It wanted to run, that one small lap around the yard was but a taste of what the animal was capable of.

“Went camping up in a place called the Black Mesa last week, and caught this guy from a herd grazing thereabouts. You should see them, Scott. The leader is the most magnificent bay you ever saw, and the herd is a mixture of cremes, buckskins and a few chestnuts. Look sort of like a rainbow when they run. I cut this guy out, knew he was special, and he is. Was easy to break and needs to be trained, but I’ll leave that to you.”

“To me?” Scott was barely able to squeak out.

“Yeah, the training is a personal thing between horse and master. I mean, I can train him to a degree, get him all calmed down and obeying commands, but the ride belongs to you. Here, he’s yours.”

Scott shuffled forward slowly, taking the rein. Leaning in, he caressed the horse’s muzzle, laying his face alongside the soft, silken creme coat. “You are a beauty, aren’t you? Never did see a horse quite like your color.” Turning to his brother, Scott was speechless. “Johnny, I don’t know what to say.”

“Say you’ll keep him,” Johnny scoffed. “Do you like him?”

“Like him? Johnny, I’ve been given a lot of gifts in my lifetime, but never have I been given a gift so straight from the heart. This far surpasses anything I’ve ever had. Never has anyone thought so much of me as to grant me something of this magnitude.”

A smile on his face, Johnny turned to his father. “That sure was a mouthful, and I take it he likes the horse.”

“He likes the horse,” Murdoch confirmed.

“Felt with everything so different and new out here, you outta have something to call your own,” Johnny said, shyly dipping his head.

“I shall cherish him.” Scott clasped his brother’s hand, then pulled Johnny into a quick embrace, clapping the boy lightly on the back. “Thank you, brother.”

“There’s only one thing to do now.” With a look of demented glee plastered across his face, Johnny turned and whistled.

Renegade burst through the barn door at a full gallop. Slowing as it neared, Johnny lit upon its back in one fluid motion and took off across the corral, a blur of speed and grace as they flew over the fence and disappeared into the distance. Leaving his father behind in a cloud of dust, Scott took off after his brother like a shot, the buckskin quickly closing the distance between the two. It had been on the tip of Murdoch’s tongue to suggest that it was now time for Johnny to come inside and rest, but the boy had other plans. Johnny was not about to be reined in, and Murdoch wouldn’t change a thing. His boys were home. That was all that mattered.

This having been one of the best days of his life, Scott attacked his dinner, cleaning two plates to his brother’s three. Murdoch was in his glory, talk at the table was light and jovial as his sons relayed the events of their day. Irritation at Johnny riding off against Sam’s orders waned as the day passed and both boys returned home, riding under the arch side by side. Murdoch strode outside to welcome them home, and together, they walked into the house. Grousing as usual, Val joined them at the table, as did Paul and Teresa. The only one missing was Sam, who had been called out to a neighboring farm. Scott had never known a table to be so welcoming and carefree. For the first time, all thoughts of his grandfather were forgotten.

Later that evening, Scott came into the great room, bearing gifts of his own. “I wanted to present these to you both my first night here, but suffice it to say, we were rather busy.”

Murdoch placed the book he was reading down, and Johnny rubbed his eyes and sat up, slinging his legs over the side of the couch. After studying the massive collection of literature his father had accumulated over the years, Scott knew he had made the right decision where Murdoch was concerned, yet he still wondered if he made the right choice in regard to Johnny. In comparison to the magnificant horse his brother had given him earlier, a book seemed like a sorry offering.

“Son, you didn’t have to do this,” Murdoch argued lightly.

“I took some extra time for the trip, and seeing as the weather was holding off, I managed to visit a few major cities along the way. I’ve always been a bit of a historian myself . . .”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed in suspicion as he glared at the fine bred easterner. “A what?”

“A historian. It’s someone who studies history,” Scott explained.

“Oh, why didn’t you just say so?” Johnny shrugged, quickly losing interest. “Don’t have to read to know history, just have to keep your eyes and ears open. What happens today, will be history tomorrow.”

“What about events that happened in the past?”

“Always got some old timer ready and willing to share a story or two,” Johnny reasoned.

Scott rolled his eyes, his brother sure had a unique way of looking at the world, and he hoped Johnny liked the book he had picked out. “Anyway, I spent a few days in Philadelphia . . .”

“Where’s that?” Johnny again interrupted.

Ever patient, Scott answered. “It’s a city in southern Pennsylvania, on the east coast. I can show you a map later if you wish.”

Johnny thought for a moment. “Yeah, I would like that. Maybe you can show me Boston, too. I’ve seen the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, but never the ocean in the east.”

“The Atlantic, you mean,” Scott replied, his demeanor informative, and anything but condescending. For an educated man, Scott was not arrogant, and refused to flaunt his knowledge, yet he loved to share what he had learned.

Murdoch studied his eldest. He saw Catherine in the steely strength Scott possessed, the patient demeanor used when addressing his brother, the sharp wit when speaking. She even came through in the inflection of his voice, and in the friendly, easy way he extended himself to another.

Johnny instantly gravitated to his brother’s side. “Would like to hear more about what it’s like. I have no desire to go back east, but I like to hear about different places.”

“I would love to tell you about it,” Scott offered. “Let’s start with Philadelphia.” Taking a chair next to the couch so that Johnny could lay back down and ease the soreness of his chest, Scott spent the next half hour giving his brother a short version of the history of the city and the Revolutionary War, the Liberty Bell and the Declaration of Independence.

Johnny listened with rapt attention; eyes lit with wonder, he soaked up every word. Murdoch sat back amazed, never had he seen Johnny so caught up in anything, that the boy failed to fidget. Maybe one day, his youngest would allow him to bring in a tutor. One could only hope, for the intelligence that had been stifled for so long, was just begging to flourish.

“And this Constitution, that tells us our rights?” Johnny asked.

“Yes it does,” Scott answered with a nod.

“Sounds like something they need in Mexico.”

Scott sat back in the chair, studying his brother. “How’s that?”

“Well, this country fought for its freedom almost 100 years ago, and the poor people in Mexico have been waging a revolution against the rurales . . .”

“Rurales?” This time it was Scott who interrupted.

“Yeah, the federalies . . . the law . . .” Johnny explained, with full understanding setting in. “Only the rurales aren’t from a foreign country, they’re Mexican, and I don’t know if that makes it worse. Sort of like the War between the States.” The minute the words were out, Johnny was sorry. Scott paled, and he stopped, hanging his head. “Sorry. I get dumb sometimes.”

Scott rallied quickly. “No, you’re not. As a matter of fact, I’m very impressed with how intelligent you are, Johnny. Don’t be sorry for what you said, and don’t feel sorry for me. I was in the war, yes. And I was changed when I got out, that’s no secret.”

“Am sorry you had to go through that.” Johnny raised his head, their eyes locking.

“It sounds like what’s happening in Mexico is similar,” Scott replied.

“In a way, it is. The rurales need to be stopped. They don’t care who they hurt, they take what they want, but the problem is, folks down there are already so poor, they don’t have much to begin with, but that doesn’t stop the rurales.” Johnny spoke a bit more about Mexico before anticipation took over.

Anxious to hand out the presents, Scott picked up the brown paper wrapped packages. “We’ll have to talk about this again. I would love to learn more, but right now, I’d like to present these. Murdoch, when I was in a bookstore in Philadelphia, I saw this and thought you would like it. I have to admit, I did purchase one for myself,” Scott chuckled lightly.

Unfurling the parchment, Murdoch’s smile grew even wider. “Scott, this is magnificent. I’ll have to go into town and look for a frame. Thank you.” His heart thumped against his ribs, as emotions threatened to overtake him, this being the first gift from his eldest.

Johnny craned his neck to see. “Hey, is that the paper you were talking about?”

“Yes, that’s a copy of the Declaration of Independence,” Scott said with a grin as Murdoch handed the document over for Johnny to study.

Murdoch was just as delighted by Scott’s choice of reading material, and planned on starting the book as soon as they settled back down. It was obvious, at least, that his eldest shared the same love of reading, for which Murdoch was grateful. Maybe Johnny would soon follow suit, he had such high hopes for the boy.

Johnny was quiet as Scott handed a small package over. “I saw this and thought of you.”

Eyes downcast and head hung low, Johnny reached out and accepted the package. The paper fell away and he ran a hand lovingly over the cover. Tremors quaked through his body, and the walls felt as if they were closing in. His heart hammered painfully and his breath caught. Johnny rose and quickly fled the room, leaving Scott and Murdoch behind in stunned silence.

“I’m sorry, did I do something wrong?” Scott finally found his voice. He should have known that a paltry book was a poor choice given the magnitude of the gift Johnny had bestowed earlier.

“Maybe I should to talk to him. Sometimes, I can’t figure that boy out,” Murdoch sighed as he rose.

A hand on his arm, pulled the older man back. “No Sir, let me.”

Broaching no argument, Scott strode through the double french doors, turning in the direction he saw Johnny heading. Walking into the barn, he found Johnny sitting in the corner of Renegade’s stall. Ignoring the nipping teeth, Scott glowered and gently patting the stunned stallion on the side of the muzzle, sat next to his brother. Johnny was silent as he clutched the book to his chest.

“Johnny?” Scott received no response and thought the best recourse was to sit quietly until he was ready.

Unknown to both, Murdoch had followed and stood just inside the barn door. Seeing his son’s side by side in a pile of hay, he waited patiently. It seemed like hours before Johnny lifted his head slightly and spoke, the words causing their hearts to weep.

“I didn’t mean to run out on ya, I’m sorry for that. Just had to get out of the house.” Before Scott could ask why, Johnny continued. “It’s nothing you did, it’s me. I’ll always treasure this, brother.”

“Johnny, it’s just a book,” Scott said softly.

“No, it’s not,” Johnny shook his head. “It ain’t just a book, Scott. It will never be just a book.”

The deep emotion pouring from the boy, caused Scott’s breath to catch. He never knew something as small and insignificant as a book could make such an impact on someone’s life.

“It’s more than just a book, Scott,” Johnny continued. “It’s the first present you ever gave me.” Then in a quieter voice, his hand running softly over the cover, Johnny clutched the book even tighter. “It’s the first present I ever got. Never had a present before. Mama worked hard, but she was too sad and poor all the time. And nobody else ever cared.”

Scott bit back his emotions, but could not contain the lone tear that ran down his cheek. For the first time since the war, he looked beyond himself and saw the need of another. Suddenly, the riches in which he had been raised, seemed garish. That one small book meant the world to a young boy who never had anything more in his entire life. Scott’s arm slowly wrapped around his brother’s shoulder and they sat quietly, leaning back against a soft pile of hay. Quiet voices drifted out into the night as they looked through the book, a head of sandy blond hair resting against one with hair as dark and silken as a raven’s wing. Murdoch’s eyes teared at the sight and ever so quietly, he left the barn.

Never had he known there could be so much fulfillment in life. Never had he thought of the sheer poverty faced by some. His young son had survived a lonely existence, only to find treasure in the pages of a book. Something Murdoch has always wanted for the boy.

  ******

The following morning Murdoch and Scott grabbed a few quick minutes for themselves. The older man could not help but hide a grin when spotting his youngest chugging a quick cup of coffee and heading toward the barn to tend Renegade, before enjoying his own breakfast. The boy had a set routine he was unwilling to break, so Murdoch opted to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee before breakfast was served. What brought the smile to the father’s face was the book sticking out from Johnny’s jacket pocket. Murdoch had always wanted the love of reading instilled in his youngest and thanks to a book from his older brother, it looked like that one wish would be fulfilled. With a little luck, Johnny might find an interest in some of the other literature tucked away on the massive shelves.

“Good morning Sir.” Scott came into the room, decked out in his new western garb, which thankfully, was easier on the eye than the lace and plaid exhibited earlier in his wardrobe. “Is Johnny outside? I stopped by his room, but it was empty.”

“Yes, that boy insists on taking care of his horse, before he takes care of himself. Guess old habits are hard to break.”

Murdoch’s reply almost sounded forlorn, urging Scott to question further. “Old habits?”

“Son, Johnny had a hard life, but I take it you know about that. Sadly, that horse was all he had for a long time.”

“Yes, I am aware of his background,” Scott bristled.

Misconstruing Scott’s reaction, Murdoch sought to explain. “Scott, that’s through no fault of your own. Is there something wrong?”

“Well sir, there is a matter I would like to discuss. Perhaps later?” Scott only hoped that the words wouldn’t stick in his throat.

“Son, it’s no secret that we have a lot to talk about. I would like to explain what happened . . . well, just know that I care, I have always cared.” His voice cracking, Murdoch had to turn away.

“Like you said, there’s time enough to talk alter,” Scott replied, having as much trouble finding the right words, as his father. His heart hammered and his throat went dry. Scott hoped to hide the trembling in his hands, at the thought of the future discussion.

Murdoch’s chuckle soothed Scott’s frayed nerves. “Johnny sure took a liking to that book. I have to thank you.”

“Thank me? There’s no need to thank me, I was glad to do it.” Pouring another cup of coffee, this time Scott swiped a biscuit from the platter before sitting back down.

“My thanks is for a different reason, son. You see, Johnny didn’t have much when he was younger. I wish I could have found him sooner.” The minute the words were out, Scott froze. Sensing the young man’s unease, Murdoch chose his words carefully. “Scott, there’s no reason to feel guilty. That’s the last thing Johnny would want, other than having someone feeling sorry for him. That young man despises pity. No, what I am thankful for, is purely selfish on my part.”

“How so, Sir?” Scott managed to croak out. Without knowing it, his father was hitting on a subject that instilled dread in his very soul.

“Ever since Johnny returned, I’ve been trying to get him to read. That scamp . . .”

“Scamp?” Scott chuckled. “Somehow, I don’t think he would find it agreeable to be referred to as a scamp.”

“No, you are quite right,” Murdoch agreed. “But he is a scamp. One that has dunked Teresa into the horse trough, waged a full scale war with food converted into a weapon, and has tarred and feathered me with molasses. No, he might not like it, but he is a scamp.”

Doubled over in laughter, Scott looked at his father, picturing the man covered in feathers. “I’m sorry sir, but did you say feathers?”

“Yes, I said feathers.” Murdoch glared, his mouth set in a thin line.

“You should’a seen him running and a’squawking across the yard.” Much to Murdoch’s displeasure, Val chose that moment to limp into the room. “There I was upstairs resting real easy like, and all of a sudden there’s a clatter that raised the roof. Next thing I know, that gunslinger brother of yours is running for the hills, chased by a . . .”

“Don’t say it.” Murdoch’s eyes narrowed.

“Chased . . .” Val fought for breath.

“I’m warning you.”

“By the gal dangdest, biggest chicken you ever did see.” This time Val and Scott lost all decorum, the well bred easterner falling against the scruffy man who had taken a seat next to him.

“Sir?” Scott guffawed.

“Yes?” His voice deadpan, eyes lit with fire and his mouth set in a firm line, Murdoch faced his eldest.

“Feathers?”

“And molasses,” Val chimed in.

“If you two are finished, I would like to enjoy my breakfast,” Murdoch groused.

Val glanced about the room, pleased to find that they were alone. “And if that wasn’t enough, you should’a seen poor Maria chasing little Teresa and that brother of yours across the yard, whacking them both across the ass with that wooden spoon. I tell ya, old Madrid met his match in that woman.”

Scott laughed so hard, his ribs ached and tears leaked from the corners of his eyes as Val related the story. By the time the two settled down, Johnny returned from the barn, followed by Paul and Teresa.

Johnny glowered and Teresa stuck her tongue out. “Just wait till I leave. Renedage’ll get you this time.”

“He ain’t ever gonna get me.” Teresa’s saucy answer brought a warning glare from her father.

Still fresh from the embarrassment over the molasses fiasco, Murdoch stared at this youngest, almost daring Johnny to start something. To his displeasure, the boy still insisted on wearing his gun in the house and at the table, a habit Murdoch sought to break.

“Son, did you forget something?” Murdoch asked quietly.

“Nope.”

“You really don’t need to wear that gun in the house.”

The minute the words were out, Johnny slowly slid his chair back and stood, tossing the napkin down. “Excuse me.”

Before another word could be said, he turned on his heels and left the room, his spurs clicking against the floor as he strode out of the house. Sitting in stunned silence, Scott heard Renegade leaving at a fast clip.

“If only he wasn’t so damned bullheaded.” Murdoch rose suddenly, the chair scraping against the floor. “I’ll be at my desk.”

“Is my brother always this volatile?” Caught between wanting to run after Johnny or confronting Murdoch, he settled for talking with Paul, figuring the man would be the lesser of two stubborn evils.

“They haven’t butted heads yet, but I always felt it was a matter of time. Murdoch is a proud man, and lives by certain standards. He’s a stickler for the law, believes rules are to be obeyed at all times, and has certain restrictions he would have enforced, if given the chance. He also has deep moral values, and I know that having a sixteen-year-old son engaging in such activities as your brother does, and is unwilling conform, is eating away at him.”

“Surely, that is no fault of Johnny.” Scott defended his brother.

Upset at the sudden turn of events, Maria whisked Teresa off into the kitchen to finish her meal. Both Scott and Paul pushed their plates aside, and Val slammed his cup of coffee on the table.

Doing a slow burn, he stood on wobbly legs and turned toward Paul. “Now you listen here, mister high and mighty. You got no right talking of Johnny like that. It ain’t none of your business what he engages in, and if conforming mean’s changing who and what he is, I’d much rather he stays the way he is, even if it pisses you all off. Johnny don’t need to change nothing, and if this is the way any of you feel, I’m glad he walked out of here. Not many folks know much about Johnny, including me, but I look past what some folks feel things should be and see the man he is. Sometimes age just don’t make a difference, cause I know plenty of people who claim to be grown up, but they’re the biggest bunch of jackasses I ever had the misfortune of knowing. No need labeling a person by age. Label them by what they are.”

Moved by those contrite words, Scott cleared his throat. “He might only be sixteen, and I know that I haven’t been here very long, but I think my father realizes that. Johnny might live by his own rules, but is that really so bad? From what I’ve seen of my brother, he’s a bit rough around the edges, grew up too fast, but is a good man. During the war, I learned to pick my battles. To weigh the outcome against what I wished at the present. Is the battle worth it? If so, then you fight. If not, then you draw back and regroup.”

“That’s what I think I will do,” Murdoch said. Coming back into the room, he had listened to both Val and Scott. “And I’m sorry it came to the point where my son left without a meal. A boy that has missed too many meals in the past. I guess it didn’t take long for me to break a promise.”

“What was that sir?”

“Scott, I had one hell of a time getting your brother to agree to come home. He was ready to leave for Montana . He wanted to start a new life in a place where he could be free of Madrid . The chances of someone recognizing him that far north were slim, but here, it’s a different story. Everyone knows of Madrid . Johnny knows that, and it’s one of the reason’s he refused to come home at first.

“He was afraid of bringing Madrid to my door. Then he told me in no uncertain terms that he was not like other boys his age, and never would be. He’s been through too much, has seen and done too much to change now. He has made his own decisions since he was ten, and never had to answer to anyone.”

“That’s pretty amazing, because at a time when I was going to school and playing with my friends, Johnny was taking care of himself. Judging from what little I know of him, he managed to do a good job,” Scott replied.

“And you’re right about picking one’s battles, I promised Johnny that I would accept him for who and what he is,” Murdoch lamented.

“But he must certainly know that there are certain rules every household lives by,” Scott pointed out.

“Yes, and as a whole, he does live by them. He has manners when needed, is gracious to Maria, more than pulls his own weight around here, and we’ve been working on a close relationship. He’s even opened up to me some. I guess I just can’t get used to him being such an old sixteen, I think is the best way to put it. Other boys his age are sparking the girl next door, and at the risk of being indelicate, let me just say that Johnny has moved past that stage. But he warned me how things were, that he has been taking care of himself for too long now to change, and was not about to change. Guess you can’t go from being a resourceful, self-sufficient adult, to a young teenager living by certain standards. Damn, this is so hard.”

Paul hung his head in shame, only to smile when Teresa snuck back into the room and grasped his hand. “Please, accept my apology, Murdoch. I spoke out of turn, but it was only done due to my worry for an old friend. You know that I would never slight Johnny. I regret my words and believe me, they are not how I truly feel. I just know how you feel about certain things, my friend, and I forgot the man Johnny was. I care for that boy, always have.”

“Papa, Johnny isn’t real mad. He just didn’t like being told in front of everyone.” With those profound words, the young girl skipped away.

Murdoch closed his eyes, silently chastising himself. “Of course. Any proud man takes offense when dressed down in front of an audience. I think I would have walked, too.”

Unknown to Murdoch and Scott, Val slunk up the back stairs to his room and retrieved his gear. As sore as he was, was as great the need to get away. All that family drama was wearing thin, and he could only imagine how his friend felt. He has only known Johnny for a short period of time, but recognized the restless, determined spirit in the boy. Johnny meant no trouble, he showed no disrespect, but he was not about to tow the line and live by certain rules and standards.

That gun was a part of the boy. To take it off, no matter where he was, or how safe others deemed him to be, was akin to cutting off his air supply. All Madrid had to do was slip once, and it was all over. There was always someone waiting in the wings to pounce. On the way out the door, Val stopped to impart that bit of wisdom.

“Mr. Lancer, I thank you for your hospitality, but I think it’s time to leave,” the scruffy man stated, saddlebags slung over his shoulder.

Murdoch rose and crossed the room in four great strides. “You shouldn’t be traveling yet.”

“The way I figure is that you need time as a family. This here dandy just arrived and things have been turned upside down, he deserves time to get to know ya. I guess that’s life, though. I mean the being turned upside down part. Now mind you, I don’t make a habit of sticking my nose in other people’s problems, but seeing as to how I was sort of in on seeing everything, I’ll just give my piece of mind, and you can take it as you like.

“Scott, those were right words you used when saying to pick your battles, seems to me if more folk went by that, this world would be a better place. Them’s wise words to live by. Pick your battles, choose what’s important, I guess is the thing to say. Now I know that Johnny is only sixteen in years, but he hasn’t been a kid for a long time, Mr. Lancer. He’s your boy by blood, but he’s his own man by life. Once you reach the point he has, there’s no turning back.

“Now you gotta think, isn’t it better to have your son sitting at the table with that gun, than to be sitting there all alone? Chew on that one a bit. There’s no changing a man into a boy, and Johnny’s a man. Just thought I’d point that out before I take my leave. And I do thank ya.” Val tipped his hat and limped out the door.

“Where are you going ?” Murdoch asked, taking off after the man.

“Oh, round abouts. That’s what I’m good at.”

“You ready for a word of advice from a tired old father? Or old man as my younger son loves to point out,” Murdoch asked.

“Sure why not. You let me speak my piece.”

“Why don’t you hang up your gun? Settle down somewhere. Settle down here. I can offer you a job.”

“Mr. Lancer, I thank you for the offer, but I’m not a cow pusher. You can keep them ornery critters, got no use for them unless they’re a thick piece of steak slathered in onions.”

“Now you sound like . . .” Murdhoch’s words caught in his throat.

Val took a step forward. “Like?”

“My son. Johnny,” Murdoch acquiesced. “And why did I pick now? It’s not as if he hasn’t worn the gun to the table before. This morning was no different, but I made it different. It didn’t take long for me to break a promise made.”

Rubbing his jaw, Val placed his hat on his head, slung the saddlebags over his shoulder and turned to Murdoch one final time before taking leave. “No, don’t think Johnny looks on it that way. He’s bullheaded, and would rather skip a meal than to show up without a gun on his hip. And you asked why this morning? Well, maybe, without meaning to, you looked at your two boys and saw the difference. Now I mean no slight, but they are as different as they can come. Were brought up different, lived different, have different rules they lived by, but that don’t make one better than the other. Just makes ‘em different.

“Don’t look at one, and wish that for the other. I think you might have done that this morning. Johnny felt that. My dear mother, God rest her soul, said the only thing that needed to be compared in this life was food. If it was good, you kept it. If it turned bad, then you rid yourself of it. When I grew, I understood what she meant. Everyone is their own person. And there are only two types of people here on this earth. Good and bad. And your boys are both good. That’s all you need to think on. Different, but good. Johnny needs that gun, Mr. Lancer. Don’t ever let him get so comfortable he loses sight of his own self. Don’t ever insist he be something he’s not. He’s Johnny Madrid Lancer. He’s found a way to combine the two. Can you?”

  ******

It was mid-afternoon when he walked into the saloon, finding a familiar figure sitting with his back against the wall. Lifting a drink in toast, Johnny threw back another shot of tequila and beckoned for Val to join him. “Well, lookee here, all right as rain.”

“Not really, hurts like hell to ride, but I’ve had worse.”

“Seems to me, I’ve said that a time or two,” Johnny snickered.

“Guess we’re just two peas in a rotted pod then, huh?” Val sneered as he took a seat, snagging the bottle from Johnny’s grasp. “Shit will stunt your growth.”

“Then guess I’ll never catch up to the old man.”

“You sitting here licking your wounds?”

“Nah, just came for a bite of lunch.”

“Seems to me you could have had a perfectly good meal back at the ranch. Breakfast, too.”

“Looks that way.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

“Nothing to say. In some ways, I guess the old man won’t ever accept Madrid . Oh, I know he’s glad as hell to have me home, but I’m still Madrid , and I don’t take this gun off for any man. The old man knew that.”

“And he’s feeling poorly about it, too.”

“Not the way he sounded before.”

“Something else going on?”

“Nope.”

“Tell that to someone who believes ya. You’re so damned out of sorts, you reek.”

“Look Val, it’s nothing I can’t handle. Just needed to get away. Sometimes . . .”

“Sometimes that ranch gets to you a bit, huh? All that work, responsibility being the patron’s son, is a hard row to live up to.”

Johnny flahsed a slight grin. “Something like that.”

“And then this fine, Boston dandy comes along . . .”

Johnny’s eyes turned dark, his face freezing. “Scott’s all right.”

“Didn’t say he wasn’t.” Val threw back his own darkened stare, eyes unwavering as the two locked. “And it don’t work on me.”

“It should.”

“Guess I’m a slow learner.” Val reached for the bottle. “Look, the old man’s feeling poorly right about now.”

“This isn’t about him.”

“Then what’s it about?”

Johnny was quiet for a moment, leaving Val to think he wouldn’t answer. “What it’s always about. Madrid . Johnny Lancer. Trying to tow the line and fit in.”

“Thought you fit in well.”

“I am.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“You ever feel you had to run from yourself?”

“Just about every minute of the day.”

“Truth is, I don’t know why I feel like this. I’m not jealous of Scott or anything, but this morning, when the old man said something about the gun, I saw that Scott didn’t feel he needed to wear one. Felt real low, I gotta tell ya. Sometimes I feel like a damned prisoner to this gun, other times I feel like it’s a lifeline I can’t live without. Won’t live without.”

Val sat quietly, nursing a drink as he listened.

“Then I saw Scott in a different light. Even though the old man didn’t raise him, he was raised proper. Knows his manners, which fork to use, don’t have the temper I do, is good to Teresa . . .”

“Now that one’s a stretch,” Val snickered.

“Yeah, but he’s good with her. Don’t rile things up the way I do, and he’s a hell of a lot smarter. I look at the old man, and I see something in his eyes. He wanted what Scott had, for me. The proper raising, schooling, living by the rules. A real blue blood he can be proud of. What the hell does he have to be proud of where I’m concerned? Hell, I have the possibility of getting any of them killed.”

“Blah, blah, blah. And your father can walk into a mercantile on a peaceful day and a minute later, he’s shot and the sheriff is dead.”

Johnny hung his head. “Guess I’m kind’a feeling sorry for myself, huh?”

“We all do that. Only I don’t call it feeling sorry. I call it a way of purging the poison from our system, and getting our feelings right. Can’t do that without a battle,” Val reasoned.

Johnny heaved a heavy sigh of emotional exhaustion. “Val, sometimes I get damned tired. Was gonna take off for Montana. Nobody knows me up there. Nobody knows Madrid. I can sit at a table in my own house and leave the gun hanging on a rack.”

Val kicked back, long legs resting on the chair opposite. “Yeah, know the feeling. Fellas like us, we get real downright tired at times. Tired of always looking over our shoulders, tired of always waiting to hear our name called out from across the street. Damn tired of all the blood, not having a set place to rest our head, and always running and looking to make sure we’re not followed. But you have a chance.”

“So do you.”

“Too damned old and grizzled.”

“Oh shit, you mean that’s gonna be me one day? Kicking back in some damned saloon trying to talk sense into some young gunslinger?” Johnny snickered, but the look in his eyes was anything but teasing. “Val, I’m only 16, and I’ve already done more than Scott will ever come across in his whole life. I drink too much at times, have a taste for whores, and am just not the kind of a son a man can be proud of. The old man cares, that’s not in question. But Scott is the kind of son he needs.”

Val was quiet for as long as he could stand. “You’re right about one thing. Right now, Scott’s a damned sight smarter than you. That make you feel better? Here you are, sitting there all pitiful for yourself, whining how your brother is this and your brother is that, when the truth is, you got bent out of shape this morning and hightailed it out of there.”

Johnny’s tone was low and deadly. “Careful, Crawford. Not many men can talk to me like that and walk away.”

“Limp away you mean,” Val chuckled. “And you know I’m right, otherwise you’d have shot me in the other ass cheek.”

The remark brought a soft chuckle from Johnny. “Yeah, yeah, you’re right about that. Guess you’re a straight shooter. Tell it square, and I know when someone’s talking square. Scott and I are different, will always be. He’s settled and all fancy educated, and I’m what I am. But sometimes I still wonder, is staying at the ranch and working day and night, what I really need?”

“I think you walking out of a damned fine breakfast like this morning, is more than just getting a bee up your butt about wearing that there gun.”

Deep in thought, Johnny finally relented. “Guess you’re right. I have a home, Val. For the first time, I have a real home. Then I think of you, you’re getting better and got no ties. Can just up and ride on outta here.”

“You and I both know that it isn’t that easy. Is that what you really want? Not have a home again?”

“But you see, that’s just it. This time, I know I have a home. A place to stay, a place to always come back to. A place where people care and where I belong. But . . .oh hell, if I have all that, whey the hell do I feel the need to light out?”

Val leaned forward, helping himself to another shot of tequila. “Is it the need to light out, or the need to follow something else?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Seems to me, this town needs a sheriff. I don’t give a damn about your age, you’re more than able. Probably can handle it better than most. Folks saw it the day you took Stringer down. Heard you went in trying to take him over to that there jail. Wasn’t looking to gun him, was looking to bring him to justice. Fella makes another choice, he gets what Stringer had coming.”

“Oh man, I can hear the old man now.” Johnny snorted at the thought, his eyes slowly widening. Val wriggled under his stare, but Johnny was relentless. An idea took hold, a slow smile spreading across his face as he pointed. “Ahhhh. Sheriff. Hey Val, you’d make one hell of a sheriff. Come on, what do you say?”

“I’d say you keep talking like that, I just might have to shoot ya in the ass.” Val sat back, arms folded and a scowl plastered across a beard stubbled face.

They talked for two more hours, chewing over Val’s options, which were few. Johnny left safe in the knowledge that the man wasn’t going anywhere soon. Considering the fact that all Val had was a few dollars in his pocket, an extra change of clothing in his saddlebags, and nothing but hardtack and nights spent sleeping on the ground to look forward to, he gave the notion serious consideration.

Johnny helped Val settle into a room and placed Scout in Gus’ capable hands. After a side trip to Sam’s office, advising the kindly doctor that his patient was now languishing in a room over the saloon, the devious gunslinger bid a hasty retreat before Sam could give him the once over, and the dressing down he deserved.

Dinner was on the table by the time Renegade was bedded down and Johnny washed up. Tucking his hiding gun under the waistband of his pants, he made a production of hanging his rig on a hook near the front door. In this manner, Madrid was well armed and felt secure, and the old man was happy. Nodding a greeting, Johnny took a seat and tucked into the meal. All the while, he could not ignore the smile lighting up his father’s face. Later that evening, he would have to run the idea of Val as sheriff, by the old man.

  ******

Murdoch was enjoying a peaceful moment while allowing a sumptuous dinner of sirloin of beef tips, roasted red potatoes and peach cobbler dredged in sweet cream, to digest. His stomach pleasantly full, he fell into a deep state of contentment as he sipped the fine scotch. Finding his father alone, Johnny sauntered into the room.

Pouring a shot of tequila, he pulled the ottoman to the side of his father’s chair. “Murdoch?”

“Yes son?” Murdoch smiled down upon the boy.

“I wanted to apologize for the way I acted this morning.”

“Son, I would like to apologize, also.”

“No, you don’t have any reason to apologize.”

“Johnny, I broke my promise to you.”

Johnny lifted his eyes, the love welling deep within those blue depths, taking Murdoch’s breath away. “No, you didn’t. You gave me my life back, Papa.” Those words alone made the older man’s throat grow tighter. “You didn’t do nothing but bring me home. I didn’t have anything, or anyone who cared, and you care. You’ve always cared. I know you’re not trying to change me, but asking a man to abide by certain rules in your house, isn’t changing him. It’s asking something of him.”

“Our home, Johnny. Not just a house, but our home,” Murdoch gently reminded his son. “Thank you for hanging up your gun.”

“Well, ahhh, that one.” A smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, his cheeks dotted with bright red splotches of embarrassment, Johnny dipped his head.

Murdoch cocked his head to the side, trying to hide the twitching of his own mouth.

“That one?”

“Yeah, can’t lie to you old man. Won’t ever lie to you. Don’t back shoot and I don’t lie.

Yeah, I did hang up my gun, but I had my hiding gun.”

Murdoch lost it then, tossing his head back in laughter. A hand the size of a grizzly paw cupped the back of Johnny’s head, pulling him closer. “Son, don’t change. Don’t ever change. I guess it’s the old saying, out of sight and out of mind?”

“Yeah, yeah. Something like that. We ok, Papa?”

Murdoch’s heart leaked tears of joy. “Yes, son. We’re all right.”

“Hey, where’s Scott?” Johnny brightened.

“He’s in the bathhouse.”

“Boy howdy, he takes more baths than anyone I know,” Johnny whistled.

“Seems to me . . .” Murdoch smirked.

“Yeah, I’m headed there soon. Can’t wait till that water closet is finished.”

“All in due time, son. All in due time. Once the pipes and fixtures arrive next week, construction will be underway.”

“Scott tells me he had his own water closet. Now, I’m not being ungrateful, I’ll be more than happy to share . . .”

“Son, that is mighty generous of you,” Murdoch nodded.

“I thought so.”

Murdoch glared, and Johnny remained undaunted. “Boy, he had marble floors, a tub you could swim in, and this wide ledge around it to set drinks on. Said the help would light candles on the ledge, but I told him I wouldn’t like that, on account of taking the risk of burning some very delicate body parts . . .”

“John.” Murdoch was hard pressed not to laugh, then gave in. “I can’t help but to agree with you there. If the tub edge is wide enough, you can set your drink on it. If not, we can always have a table brought in.”

“That’d work.”

“I’m glad I can please you, boy,” Murdoch teased.

“Hey, before I go to the bathhouse, I wanted to talk to you about something.”

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Standing up, or sitting down?”

“You can sit. I was talking to Val today.”

“How is he doing?”

“Fine, all settled in a room in town,” Johnny said, omitting the location of said room.

“He didn’t have to leave, you know.”

Johnny stood and began a restless pacing Murdoch recognized all too well. He also knew to remain quiet, and his son would soon talk. He didn’t have to wait long. “I know the feeling, Murdoch. Don’t mean to upset you, but it’s one I feel. Have always felt, not that I’m gonna act on it or anything, cause I got a family now, but the feeling is a part of me.

“He’s restless, felt it was time to move on. But then we got to talking, and it came out I felt the same way, but instead of wanting to move on, we both got to realize that moving on wasn’t the answer at all. He needed something to move on to. Something to do, you know?”

Murdoch’s head spun and the quick stab of fear faded into a deep feeling of relief. “Son, I don’t know if I understand, simply because I have never felt as such.”

Johnny resumed his place on the ottoman. “Papa, it’s not a matter of a leaving type of moving on, but moving on to something you feel the need to do.”

“Are we talking about you, or Val?”

“Right now, Val.”

“And what about you?”

“I don’t know, and that’s the puzzling thing. I love it here, I love Lancer, but I feel the need to do something else. Something that’s nagging at me, but we can figure that out together later.”

Murdoch was elated at the opportunity to help his son plan out a portion of his life, hopefully set goals to work toward, together. He had a feeling of what Johnny felt was missing, and would move heaven and earth to help. “Son?”

“Well, it’s no secret that Green River needs a new sheriff. I know they asked me, well kind’a unofficial, but there was talk. Gus even mentioned it again today, and the Widow Hargis, too.”

“I see.”

“Then Val and I came to an understanding.”

“And that is?”

“Murdoch, Val would make a great sheriff. I know he would. He’s everything you need in a sheriff. He’s strong, dependable, loyal to the end, and he’s a straight shooter. Isn’t as good with a gun as I am, but he’s damned good, and he knows how to read men the likes of Stringer Jones. Knows how they work and how to bring ‘em down. He’s brought a few down in his time, and isn’t a man to mess with.

“He’s what the town needs, Murdoch. Don’t back down from a fight, and can stand up to the worst of them. Would be a hard man to get past, I tell ya. Wouldn’t want to try, cause even though I can outgun him, it’d be a hell of a fight. He’s a pretty good tracker, too, which is a plus. Murdoch, we need him.”

Sitting back, a mighty, work calloused hand clenching his chin, Murdoch fell deep in thought. Dropping his hand, he took a slow sip of scotch before facing his son. “John, I think you have one hell of an idea there. Think he’ll take it?”

“I know he would.” Johnny practically jumped out of his boots.

“Well, the next meeting of the cattleman’s association is the day after tomorrow, why don’t I run it past them?”

“Whew. Wait till I tell Scott.” This time nothing stopped Johnny. Running across the room, he came to a skidding stop. “Thanks Pa.”

  ******

Fresh from the bath, Johnny and Scott stood side by side at the corral fence, shoulders lightly touching. A gentle breeze lifting his still damp hair, Johnny shuddered against the chill.

“Come on boy, we better get you back inside. No sense in you catching a chill after a hot soak,” Scott grinned.

“Yeah, can’t wait for that water closet, we can soak in luxury. Boy, I can’t imagine what that would feel like.”

Scott couldn’t help but think that if Johnny was a cat, he would purr. Agile and lithe, his movements boasting a graceful fluidity, Johnny reminded his brother of a black panther on the prowl, ever watchful, always ready to pounce.

“Well, except for the mountains north of here, you don’t get winters like back in Boston . Believe you me, if you did, you sure wouldn’t stand outside leaning on a corral fence after a bath,” Scott laughed.

“Yeah, you told me about the snow. Only saw it in the mountains this past year, didn’t like it much, if I stayed up there, I would have only gone outside to do my business and take care of Renegade. Would have been perfectly fine to stay inside by the fire. Even had a round wooden tub in the corner of the kitchen and running water in the pump. Now that, brother, is luxury.”

“I can see your logic,” Scott laughed before quieting.

“You ok, Scott?” Johnny read the swing in mood instantly.

“Yeah, just got to thinking. Here, take this.” Scott threw his jacket to Johnny.

“What about you?”

“Well brother, I will probably soon learn that you can handle the heat far better than I can, it will be an adjustment. It gets hot in Boston, but not like I heard it gets here. Now I’m more used to the cold, and where you’re shivering here, I’m quite comfortable. Plus, my hair is dry. And after being so sick with fever only a few days back, I think Murdoch and Maria will have both our heads if you take a chill. Let’s get to the house.”

“In a minute, you have something on your mind,” Johnny resisted.

Stopping, Scott turned to lean back on the fence, this time staring up toward the mountains in the north. “How can you tell?”

“I read people well, Scott. Know what they’re gonna do before they do it, and can tell when they’ve got something heavy on their mind. It’s what kept me alive all these years.”

“Johnny, you ever learn something about someone else, something you had nothing to do with, were too young to even know what had happened, and then didn’t know what to do with it?”

“Murdoch?”

“No, just something I learned. You settled in so easily,” he said, striving to sway the subject.

Not believing the tactic for one minute, Johnny nevertheless, went with the flow of conversation. Sometimes you had to skirt around the subject, in order to bring it out. “You can, too. Did you think it came easy? Well, maybe it did, but that’s only what you see on the outside. Inside, I was all torn up. Still am, sometimes. Are you jealous of me, Scott?”

“Of you? No, Johnny, I’m not jealous, I just wish I could relate to our father as easily as you do, I guess.”

“You just got here. You guys didn’t even talk yet. I take it what’s on your mind is something you want to talk to Murdoch about?”

“I won’t lie.”

“Can’t with me. I’d know. So I guess I got my answer. Scott, none of this came easy for me. I didn’t grow up in the lap of luxury. I didn’t have anyone but my mother, and she died when I was young. After that, all I had was myself and this gun.” Patting his hip, Johnny began to pace restlessly. “Then Murdoch sort of found me, and once I got past the lies, it got kind of easy.

“It was hell, at first. I had to learn to live again. Had to accept that everything I grew up believing, was a lie. Don’t know why my mother said what she did, but that’s in the past. Thing is, once Murdoch and I got past all that, I came home. I really came home. The first time I had a true home since I was ten. Don’t be jealous of that, Scott. Don’t be jealous of what I have now with our father, because for a long time, I didn’t have a thing.”

Scott couldn’t face his brother. What the younger man thought was jealousy, was really guilt over the role his grandfather played in their lives. And like pawns on a chessboard, they all fell into checkmate.

“Johnny, I’m sorry. I guess like you, I’m just trying to settle in. You’re right, I never wanted for anything while growing up, but that didn’t mean I was truly happy. I know things about my grandfather that make it impossible for me to think of the man without growing angry. Don’t know if I can get into any of that . . .”

“We all have our burdens, Scott. If you can face them, good. You don’t owe me any explanations.”

Scott wondered how his brother could be so generous. Would he be, if he knew the truth? That was a chance Scott as unwilling to take. “Anyway, I needed to break away from Boston.

Something was missing in my life. Something was always missing. At first, I thought it had something to do with my mother, but that’s not it. And I spent so much time being angry at Murdoch, but that’s not it, either. Like you, I’m learning that things were not as I was taught. What was missing, was you. When I found out I had a brother, I felt complete. My grandfather lied and kept that from me. I never knew about you until shortly before leaving Boston . It’s one of the main reasons I left.

“I had to come out here. I had already decided before I sent the Pinkerton agent with the request, but once he returned and confirmed your existence, I made up my mind then and there. I had a brother I needed to meet and get to know, and nothing was going to keep me from doing that.”

“You sorry?”

Scott thought Johnny to be angry, but upon second glance, saw the taunting smile and hint of teasing in the boy’s eyes. “Yeah, you’re a sorry excuse for a brother.” Wrapping an arm around Johnny’s neck, he pulled him close, grinding his knuckles against his skull.

Johnny wrestled from Scott’s grasp and in one quick motion, reached out, snagging him by the wrist and flipping him to the ground. Scott laid still for a moment, gazing up in utter, stunned fascination, the pressure of Johnny’s booted foot upon his chest.

The movement was so quick, so unexpected, had Johnny been a formidable foe, Scott would have been dead in that instant. Johnny was teasing brother one minute, deadly predator, the next. He was definitely not a man to be toyed with, and his survival skills went far beyond his prowess with a gun.

“Where the hell did you learn to fight like that?” Scott gasped. Brushing his pants off, he stood, catching his breath.

“On the streets, Boston . On the streets. It was do it to them, before they do it to you. Only way to survive out here.” Johnny flashed a cocky grin and without making a sound, strode stealthily across the yard and into the house.

Scott followed, perhaps it was the right time to speak with his father. Pouring a cup of liquid libation, he turned to the man dozing in the oversized, leather chair. Murdoch snorted and woke with a start. “I’m sorry, Sir. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“Nonsense son, I’m just enjoying the quiet.” Struggling to stifle a yawn, Murdoch sat up and rubbed at his eyes.

“Seems to me that the quiet lulled you into a slumber deep enough to have you snoring to wake the dead,” Scott snickered.

“Oh no, not another one,” Murdoch muttered, wincing.

“Another, what?” Scott turned a questioning glace in his father’s direction.

“I do not snore,” Murdoch said, punctuating every word.

“Tell that to all them mama bears lumbering down from the woods, old man,” Johnny shouted over his shoulder. After snagging a handful of cookies and glass of milk, he took the back stairs up to his room.

It did Murdoch’s heart good to see his son raiding the kitchen. “Now that he’s out of our hair, what’s on your mind?”

“You were resting, Sir. . .”

“Scott, dispense with the ‘sir’ business,” Murdoch groaned.

“All right, but it will be quite taxing.”

“Not as bad as you think.” Murdoch sat a bit straighter. “Funny, Johnny fell into calling me ‘old man’ right off the bat, and ‘sir’ rolls so easily off your tongue. You two are so much alike, yet so different.”

“Sir? I mean, Murdoch,” Scott corrected himself. “If you’re tired, we can talk in the morning.” Quaking in his boots, Scott poured a drink to stop the trembling of his hands.

“Son, I’m never too tired to talk to my boys. Come on, sit down. I know what’s on your mind.”

“Sir?”

“We never had the chance to talk yet. I can only imagine how many questions you have. Plus, I haven’t given you the time you deserve. I plan on rectifying that tomorrow. We’ll talk a bit tonight, but tomorrow you and I will take a ride around Lancer. You’ll have my full attention.”

“I shall enjoy that,” Scott said with a smile.

“As will I, son. Scott, you have to know that I didn’t forget about you. I never forgot about you, son. And I never turned my back on you. Well, I did, but . . . damn it, Scott. How the hell can I sit here, proclaiming to be a father that loves his son, has always loved his son, yet left him for another man to raise.”

Scott was quick to reply, his words stunning Murdoch. “Father, we can dispense with all the reasons and guilt, because I had it out with grandfather shortly before leaving. You see, I learned some things. I . . . I learned that I, too, have been living a lie. For years I thought you didn’t want me.”

“Another son who spent his youth believing that.” Murdoch’s voice barely registered. “Just like Johnny. I’ve always wanted you son. I want you.”

“I know, and I know you’ve tried. As was discussed earlier, I know you were in Boston on my birthday.”

“Your fifth,” Murdoch muttered.

“And I know the levels my grandfather stooped to.”

“Scott?”

“I know what he did, Murdoch.” Placing his drink down, Scott walked over to stare out the great window.

“Scott, since we can dispense with all the reasons and excuses, I do have to tell you that after a while, I truly didn’t know what to do. I was all set to return to Boston and fight to bring you back and raise you and Johnny here, on Lancer, where you both belonged, but my life fell apart when Johnny disappeared. I was torn, and I just didn’t know what to do.”

Scott whirled about, fire shooting from his eyes. Damned or not, he couldn’t contain himself any longer. “That’s just it, Murdoch. Don’t you see? I’m glad you went after Johnny. You did what you needed to do. What I would have done. If I was old enough and was able to, I would have searched for my brother. I would have done anything to find him. Please forgive me, because what I have to tell you know, I only learned a few days before leaving Boston.”

“Scott?” Murdoch’s heart skipped a beat, his mouth growing dry. He tried to down a shot of whiskey, but the smooth liquor turned sour, burning a path down his gullet.

“You did what was right. The only thing you could have done after what my grandfather did.” Poison flew from Scott’s lips. In a fit of rage, he flung the empty glass against the hearth, shards of glass skittering across the floor. Eyes wild with fright, twinkling with rage, turned back to stare at his father.

Murdoch’s world came to a screeching halt, and he swayed unsteadily, his mind off kilter. His face contorted with rage. “Son? What do you mean what your grandfather did?”

“You can throw me out after I tell you, I deserve it.” As quickly as it surfaced, the rage quelled and shame set in.

Taking Scott by the shoulders, Murdoch felt the great need to reassure his boy. Scott was stiff at first, but soon relaxed and melded into his father’s strong arms. “Scott there is nothing in this world you can say that will make me want to turn my back on you. Nothing. My love for you is unconditional. You’re my son, that goes without saying. Something is weighing heavily, and I need to hear it.” Pushing Scott back, both took a seat. Scott on the couch, Murdoch leaning forward in the chair.

“Please don’t tell Johnny. It will kill him, Sir. It almost killed me. I almost didn’t come here. On the train west, I damned the mild weather. Almost turned back a hundred times, telling myself that I have the money, I can start a new life anywhere. Anywhere free from my grandfather. The vile, filthy, cruel, callous man he is.

“Funny, I never used to think of him like that.” Scott rose and began a slow pacing, so unlike his frenetic brother. “I used to think he hung the moon. The lies he fed me. But he loved me, and he gave me everything. Everything but what I really needed, which was my father and brother. I could eventually forgive him that, if that was all it was.”

Murdoch froze, yet forced himself to stand and face his son. What was about to be revealed was something he did not want Johnny to learn at the moment. If ever. “Scott, what is it, son? What was it the man supposedly did?”

Scott again whirled about, teeth clenched in rage as he spoke, fisted knuckles turned white from the strain. “Murdoch, please, please, this is the hardest damn thing I have ever faced. I would rather face another year in Libby, than to reveal this.”

“Scott, just get it out, boy.”

Military straight, eyes affixed on his father and mouth set in a thin line, Scott spoke. “Everything that was wrong in our lives, was because of one person. My mother died because of my grandfather. Because of his insane hatred for you, he took her off in that damned wagon, because he wanted to get her away from you. I know, we had one hell of a fight, and he told me. I figured it out, knowing that if he had stayed she might have lived. Then again, she might not have. Then he kept me from you.”

“Scott, is that what all this is about? Your mother?”

“No, that’s only the beginning, the sad, perverted beginning.” Scott spat the words, and Murdoch’s blood chilled with an intense, icy fear creeping up his spine. “Grandfather did not care what he did to people. You’re not the first one he destroyed. Lies, greed, revenge, hatred, it did not matter. If he wanted to, he would destroy you. Hell, he didn’t even need a reason.”

“Scott, what did he do?”

Standing ramrod straight, his resolve strengthened, Scott let the words that have been tearing at his soul, out. “Maria Lancer never left here of her own free will. She didn’t leave you, Murdoch. She never would have left you. If it hadn’t been for my grandfather, she might be here to this day. Johnny would have grown up on Lancer, and none of you would have suffered.”

“Scott?” Murdoch’s tone was deadly, his anger rising. “What the fuck are you talking about?” Words so out of character for the staunch, proud Scot spilled forth. Taking his boy by the shoulders, ever mindful to keep the rising anger at bay, Murdoch shook him.

“The night Johnny disappeared, you were drugged. Somehow, Grandfather had someone slip into the house and put something in your drink. From Catherine, he knew you had a penchant for that fine sipping whiskey, and the decanter was drugged.”

“The salesman.” Murdoch’s hands fell, and his heart dropped.

“Sir?”

“There as a traveling salesman that day. For years, I’ve gone over that day minute by minute, from the time I woke and took a piss, until I fell asleep that night. Back then, I was in the habit of bringing a nightcap into my bedroom. While Maria was settling Johnny in bed, I would enjoy a quiet drink. Then I would kiss him good night and sit with him for a while. Only that night, I . . . that night, I remember never feeling as tired, before. It was a hard day, but every day was long and hard back then. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I barely slipped out of my boots and clothes, and collapsed into bed, asleep before my head hit the pillow. That night I never. . .” Murdoch turned away, staring out the same window Scott had occupied just moments before.

“You never, what, Sir?”

A lone tear trickling down his cheek, Murdoch stared at the floor. “That night, for the first time since he was born, I didn’t kiss my little boy good night.”

Scott slowly collapsed onto the couch, covering his face with his hands. Explosive sobs threatened to break through, but now was not the time to fall apart. As much as he had loved his grandfather, was as much as he despised the man now. At that very moment, if Harlan Garrett dared to show his face, Scott could have picked up a gun and blown the man’s head off, and not feel an ounce of regret. A person who stooped so low as to destroy a family in the manner of his grandfather, did not possess a soul. Did not even deserve to walk the same earth on which they lived. Murdoch’s words startled him when they broke through a heavy veil of grief and regret.

“Scott, there was a traveling salesman that day. Nothing unusual, they always came by. He never came inside that we know of, but Maria did leave him by the back door just long enough to get some change from her room.”

“Just long enough to sneak in and drug your whiskey.”

“What else happened? What did they do to my little boy? My baby?” Murdoch was reduced to tears, the anger gone, a heavy sense of grief claiming his soul. Grabbing Scott by the shirt collar, he pleaded for answers he did not want to hear. “What did that bastard do to my baby?”

“From what I gathered, after you were drugged, my grandfather had men waiting in Johnny’s room.”

Murdoch felt like tearing the skin from his bones, nerve endings so raw, burned through his flesh. “Diablo sombra.”

Scott quaked at those words.

“My poor baby. My poor little boy. He should have been safe in his room. He should have been safe here. I cannot imagine the sheer terror he must have experienced seeing strange faces in his room. Johnny was a friendly child, but he didn’t like strangers. Once he warmed up to you, he was fine. He wasn’t shy, he just hung back studying people. He always studied people. Even then. But I don’t need to wonder what the fear was like, because I saw it.

“Shortly after he arrived, Johnny slept on this couch for three weeks before even attempting to go into his room. And once he did, I saw a terror unleashed that no one should ever experience. He might have been too young to know what was happening or why, and he is too old to remember the experience, but he remembered the horror. He remembered someone taking him off. Doesn’t remember the act, but he remembered the fear. Diablo sombra. Devil shadow. The devil shadow that hid behind the door. Came out and stole my son. Took a small baby from the only security he knew, from the only arms he felt safe in. From me.” Murdoch collapsed into the chair, leaving Scott to fear for his very health.

“I’m getting Sam.”

“No.” A hand like a vise clamped down on Scott’s arm. “No. Not Sam. Not tonight. I don’t want anyone to know tonight. I don’t want Johnny to know tonight, if ever.”

“How are you going to keep this from him?”

“I don’t know if we can, but I can’t do this tonight. Scott, just remember that this isn’t your fault. You were a victim, too. That man destroyed both my sons. Robbed you both. He took my baby, didn’t he? He had those filthy, vile bastards possessing no soul whatsoever, put their fucking hands on my baby and carry him off in the night, didn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“And Maria?”

Scott almost choked on the words. Murdoch handed him a shot of whiskey, which was belted down in one swallow. “She came into the room to check on Johnny.”

“She always did. Three, four times a night.”

“She went in that night, only to find the crib empty and my grandfather sitting there.”

Murdoch squeezed his eyes tightly, weeping for the woman he had loathed all these years, the woman he had blamed for the disappearance of his son. He had hated her for taking Johnny from Lancer, only to live a life of sheer, stark poverty. He never understood, and had damned her actions. Now he wept for the ugliness of it all. Maria never left him. His lovely, vivacious Maria, never turned away from their love. She never walked out of his life, and she never stole their son.

“What happened?”

“Grandfather told her that if she ever wanted to see Johnny again, she was to leave Lancer and never return.”

“I’ll fucking kill him.”

“He gave her enough money to get by on for a while, but after that, she was on her own. He didn’t care. He didn’t have any pity. Didn’t have anything but hatred and a warning to never return. If she did, if she ever contacted you in any way or even tried to return, Johnny would have been killed.”

“I’ll fucking kill him.” Murdoch strode across the room, wringing his hands. “I’ll rip his fucking head off with my own hands.”

Scott was untouched by the anger.

“Now I know.”

“Know what, Sir?”

Murdoch turned slowly, hot tears streaming down his face unbidden as he spoke. “All the questions I had over the years. He had men watching her all this time?”

“Yes.”

“Even when she was so sick and died? And didn’t help?”

Scott shook his head. “He didn’t care.”

“He knew Johnny was alone.”

“Yes.”

“And he did nothing. He knew about Johnny all these years, ones I spent searching and grieving. He knew, and he still did nothing.”

“He knew. He didn’t care. I think he even relished the thought.”

“All of it makes sense now. Maria’s leaving, her telling Johnny that I never wanted him, to never seek me. That I had no use for a half breed son.” Murdoch sneered, the vile words dripping off his tongue. “She told him that I threw both of them out, that they were an embarrassment to me. Johnny grew up hating me. He never came to me. Was alone from the time his mother died, and never once came to me for help, believing I despised him. And now I know why. Maria lied to save our son’s life.”

Murdoch fell into the chair, and Scot t resumed his seat on the couch. It seemed like a lifetime, before Murdoch started talking again. “All my life, all I ever wanted was my family. I lost your mother. Oh God, did I love her, son. Never wonder about that.”

“I won’t.” Scott listened to the words of a beaten man, a man who suffered a loss so terrible, he feared for Murdoch’s welfare.

“I was trying to bring you back home. Bring you here to Lancer. I wanted my boys. I loved both my boys. I never had the chance to hold you in my arms, and to this day, the ache of the emptiness is still there.” Murdoch’s head hung low, his voice hitching as he spoke. “All I wanted was my boys. My two boys.”

“I know.” Scott felt his father’s hand wrap around his neck, pulling him close.

“I love you son, never doubt that. You’re all that is good in me. You and your brother. I don’t know how to deal with this now, or if I can. To bring the law to Harlan, would be to bring this all out for Johnny. It will spread like wildfire, and the entire world will not only know where Madrid is, but what happened.”

 A new fear rose in Scott’s chest. “Johnny would die if word got out.”

“I can’t do that to him, Scott. I can’t do that to either of you. That bastard stole my son. He stole both my sons.”

“What the fuck are you talking about, old man?” A soft voice intruded, startling both Scott and Murdoch. Striding forth, his fingers dancing on the handle of his gun, Johnny demanded an answer.

Trying with everything he possessed to pull himself together, knowing all the while that the ruse would not work, Johnny saw through the false facade of bravado in a second. “I thought you went up to bed, son.”

“No, I went upstairs. Not to bed. Don’t toy with me, old man. You never can. Just what the hell are you two talking about? What the fuck did you mean when you said that bastard stole my sons?”

Mute, Murdoch stared at his boots.

“Answer me, old man.”

  ******

“That what you wanted to talk about earlier, brother? Out there by the corral? That what you learned about someone, only you switched the talk around to me?” Eyes gone dark and cold, Johnny advanced. You know something about me, brother? Something about my life?”

“Johnny, it isn’t . . .” Scott stammered.

“It isn’t what, brother?” Johnny demanded, this time shoving Scott back. “What you couldn’t tell me earlier?” Turning toward his father, Johnny’s tone was cold and deadly, ringed with pent up anger. “Someone who stole both your sons away?”

“John, we didn’t want for you to hear it this way,” Murdoch strove to appease his boy.

Johnny shoved the older man’s attempts back. “Mean for me to find out what? That someone stole me away? Stole both your boys? I gotta tell you, secrets are on the same level as lies. I don’t like secrets that can hurt a man. Confidences are one thing, you help someone through a hard time, listen to their feelings and are trusted to help. But if I know a wrong, I don’t keep it to myself. A body has a right to know what was done to his life.”

“Son, sit down, please,” Murdoch pleaded.

Too incensed to accept comfort, Johnny threw his arm up, shoving that of his father, back. “I don’t want to sit down. Scott, you’ve had something on your mind since you arrived. I figured it had something to do with you being left in Boston, and wondered if you knew the truth. But your not wanting to talk about it, made me sense something more. Could feel it, could see it in your eyes.

“Now I think I know what that more is. The real reason you left Boston. You might not have had anything to do with it, but you knew something about me, and you didn’t come clean. I don’t like that, Scott. Either you didn’t trust me, or . . .”

“Or what, Johnny?” Scott asked softly, his heart breaking.

“Or you thought so little of me, that you felt Madrid would bring about revenge on you. People don’t care much for Madrid. They judge, and they act without knowing me at all. Is that it, brother? You know something about me, only you didn’t trust me enough to come clean?”

“Johnny, I . . .”

Scott stammered, but before he could find the right words, Johnny whirled about on his father. “And you, what did you mean that bastard stole both my sons? What the hell did you mean?” Johnny advanced, grabbing his father by the front of his shirt. “What happened to me, old man?”

Gently pulling Johnny’s hands away, Murdoch’s fingers wrapped around his wrists. Looking down into the eyes of his youngest, eyes that pleaded for the truth, yet held a fear at the words waiting to be spoken. Lord help him, those panicked orbs of brown tore at his soul.

“What happened to me?” Johnny asked, quieter this time.

Leading Johnny over to the couch, Murdoch sat him down, gratefully accepting the drink Scott handed over. Johnny shook his head, refusing the libation. He only wanted one thing, and Murdoch knew there was no way around the truth, as hard as it would be. The fear for his youngest, outweighed the fury raging in his own soul.

“Johnny, son, there is no easy way to say this,” Murdoch began.

“Old man, you don’t have to tell me. I heard you. I always wondered why Mama left, but she didn’t have a choice, did she? She never wanted to leave, but someone made her leave. Someone who stole her son. Diablo Sombra.” Johnny rose slowly and walked over to the drink cabinet. Pouring a shot of tequila, this time he downed it in one gulp. Throwing the glass against the wall, he drank straight from the bottle.

“I’m not stupid, and I’m not one to be treated like I’ll break apart if I hear the truth. I always wondered if there was something about those nightmares. Don’t remember that night, but remember being scared. Remember . . . remember a dark shadow I didn’t like. That fucking shadow has been following me my entire life.” Turning, he stared at Scott. “Who was that shadow, brother? You know. Now tell me.”

Again, Scott stood straight and tall, his face set in chiseled stone. “My grandfather.”

Johnny snorted, then tossed back another burning swallow of tequila. “That’s great. Just great. Your grandfather. Fucking Harlan Garrett.”

“I’m sorry Johnny . . .”

“What for, brother? Did you put him up to it? Did you send him to take me away and force my mother into a life she didn’t deserve?”

This time Murdoch attempted to intervene. “John . . .”

“Don’t, old man.” Johnny’s anger raged out of control. “You telling me that my Mama never left on her own? That she was forced to?” Johnny stared at his hands, speaking so softly, both Murdoch and Scott had to lean in closer. “It all makes sense now. Sickening, sense. We moved all the time. As soon as we settled in one place, Mama would be in almost a blind panic, saying we had to leave. I always felt she was running, but I didn’t know what from.

“Then as I grew older, I thought it was from you, old man.” Tortured eyes met those of his father, for one heart stopping moment. “She told me you threw us out, that you hated us. I always thought she was running away from you.” Rage set in and Johnny jumped to his feet, shoving both his father and brother aside.

“It didn’t have to be that way. My mother suffered, and it was all because of that bastard. He knew all along? He knew, and he didn’t give a damn? Our lives didn’t have to be that way. Mama never should have had to suffer, and try and scrape a living out of nothing. We had little, sometimes we had nothing.

“And when we did have food, Mama used to make me eat, and would go without food for days sometimes, just to make sure that I had something in my stomach, no matter how little it was. I used to cry, telling her that it was all right. I would share. We could both be half hungry. Half hungry was better then her being so starved, her clothes hung from her.” The words poured from Johnny’s lips, causing his brother to turn away, unable to face the deepest sorrow he had ever known, and the father to sit, hands clenched, staring at the floor. Both felt as if the very breath had been robbed from their bodies. Both felt the injustice and pain Johnny had harbored all his life, a bit more keenly.

“And my Mama told me that you didn’t want me, she led me to believe that you hated me, that you threw us out, and now it makes sense. She lied to protect me. She was afraid that if I came home, I would have been killed. But she was wrong. She was so wrong. Even before she died, I didn’t need anyone to protect me.”

Eyes darkened with deadly rage, stared out from a face gone pale. Johnny turned to his father and brother, revealing a dark secret kept tucked away for years. “I always took care of myself. Everyone knows of the first man I killed in a gunfight, but they don’t know about the first man I killed.”

Murdoch’s head raised slowly. “The first man?”

“Like I said, I never needed anyone to protect me. I learned to take care of myself from an early age. Very early. From the time I was about five, I used to take on the kids that would try and beat me because of what I was. A breed in the border towns doesn’t get a fair chance. Folks don’t want a breed. Kids would try to beat me up, but I learned to fight, and I learned to fight dirty. When I was seven, I broke the arm of a boy who was twelve. His name was Carlos, and he and his gang would jump me every chance they got. That day, I decided it was time to take Carlos down, and when he attacked, I fought back. I snapped his damn arm like a twig. They never bothered me again.”

“God, son, I’m . . .”

“You’re what, Murdoch? You’re sorry? Sorry that because of that bastard, I was nine when I killed my first man? That’s right, I was nine.” Murdoch shuddered, and Scott backpedaled, but Johnny carried on. “I knew we were being followed. At first, I thought it was you, then when I looked through the billfold, I saw it was a Pinkerton hired to follow us. Only I was wrong about who did the hiring. Figured it was you making sure we didn’t go back to the ranch, so then and there, I decided I’d never go back.”

A sordid truth fell from his lips, further clarifying the true reason for Johnny staying away from Lancer. “All I knew was that I didn’t like being followed. Didn’t like anyone tailing my mama, and one night, when he made the mistake of hiding in the shadows on the outskirts of town, I took him down. Didn’t have a gun, wasn’t Madrid yet, but what you don’t know is that I’m as deadly with a knife and my hands, as I am with a gun. He squealed like a stuck pig, only he didn’t tell the whole truth. Didn’t get the chance. Once I knew he had been following my mother, I made him pay. Nobody bothered my mama.

“She thought she was the one taking care of me, but early on, I made a vow that no one would ever hurt her again. I would do what was needed to make sure no one got close. I protected her at all costs. Made sure to stay alive, too, so I fought back even harder. Learned to be quicker, stronger, sneakier and deadlier. Learned to do it to them, first. I had to. If I died, then mama would have been alone. I had to take care of her. And I did.”

The room was pitched into an eerie silence, sorrow and grief so thick, it hung in the air, choking the three men standing there. Murdoch attempted to reach out to his youngest, but Johnny balked. Spinning about, he eluded the older man’s grasp, and avoided his brother at all costs. They were innocent in this, that he knew in his heart, but his mind could not wrap around what had been done.

“My life didn’t have to be that way, but I don’t give a damn about me. Never did. Only stayed alive to take care of Mama. After that, whatever happened to me, happened.”

“Son,” Murdoch managed to croak out, his throat feeling as if it was coated with shredded glass.

“No. Don’t. Just don’t. Don’t touch me. Don’t talk to me, and don’t try to tell me that everything will be all right. Everything won’t be all right. It never will be again. I always wondered why Mama left, now that I know, I wish I was back in that place where there were no answers. When all I knew was that she left, and I did what I could to take care of her. That’s it. That’s all I want to know. Don’t want to know no more.

“That bastard you call a grandfather took me away from here, but worse is what he did to my mama.” As wrong as he knew it was, Johnny whirled about on his brother. “She never had to suffer that way. You never should have kept that from me. You should have told me from the beginning.”

“Would that have made it easier, Johnny?” Scott asked, advancing on his brother.

“Yes. No. I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. Don’t think I ever will again. How the hell could he do that? Did he hate you that much, that he had to hurt my mama like that?” Johnny turned on his father. “And for what? Because you married his daughter? You are right, he did steal both of your sons, but he killed my mama. Killed her as sure as if he had done it himself. Only he did do it himself. He knew where we were all the time, knew that she was sick, but didn’t lift a finger to help. I did all I could. The women in the village helped, but there was nothing anyone could do. My mama died in my arms. I held her when she took her last breath, and what kills me, is that she didn’t have to suffer that way. My mama never had to suffer. But she did, and it’s because of that man.”

Johnny turned away and Murdoch fought to reach him. “That’s right, son. Because of that man. Not because of me, you, or your brother. It was because of Harlan Garrett. His insane hatred toward me.”

Johnny pulled away, not wanting any contact with anyone. “Don’t touch me. Damn, don’t touch me. I can’t do this. I can’t take this, don’t know if I can get past this. If this is what families are like, then I don’t think I want to be part of one. I think it’s easier on my own. Every time I look at this place now, I’ll think of mama. I’ll always be reminded that she should have spent her life here, she might even be here now. This was her home, she never should have been taken away. No matter what, no matter how much time passes, I don’t think I can ever be here without thinking that.”

Johnny was crushed, everything good in his life always had to come with a price. And they ended far too soon. Feelings he did not know how to deal with, surged through him. His heart raced and his head ached. His throat grew as dry as the Mexican desert and his eyes stung. A deep, shuddering breath taken, he shoved past his father and brother and burst out the french doors. Disappearing into the night as he had done fourteen years ago.

  ******

Val twisted his hat and knocked, standing back when a bedraggled Murdoch peered cautiously outside. “Johnny’s not here,” he said, before swinging the door closed.

A booted foot kept it from shutting completely. “Yeah, well I gathered as much.” Shoving his way inside, Val was shocked at the sight. He was done in earlier by Johnny’s disheveled appearance following a week of self-imposed solitaire. Seeing the unkempt hair, beard stubbled face, and glassy, dazed eyes, it was clear Murdoch wasn’t faring any better.

“Breakfast?” Murdoch barked, which was about as hospitable as he could get.

Val took a seat and tossed his hat on the table. “Already ate, but I will take you up on some coffee. Thanks,” he said as Scott handed over a steaming cup.

“Don’t mention it,” Scott grumbled. Neither man looked as if they had slept in days, and judging from the untouched food on their plates, they had not eaten much, either.

“I saw Johnny.”

Murdoch’s head snapped up. “Is he all right? Where the hell is he and why didn’t you bring him with you?”

“Boy’s having a hard time of it, Mr. Lancer.”

“He belongs home. He’s been running all his life, and what does he do? He runs again. It’s about damned time he stopped running.”

“He had good cause.” Val shouted back, his moustache twitching. “That boy’s been through hell and back. Trust don’t come easy for Johnny, and he was just beginning to trust life again. Never stopped trusting either of you, and the first thing he did was give me a message for Scott.”

“What is it, Val?” Rubbing his face, Scott looked as if he were about to fall over. A week’s worth of sleep would cure that quick.

“Said that he ain’t mad at ya. Never was. Is just having a hard time coming to terms with all of this,” Val relayed the message.

“All the more reason for him to come home,” Murdoch snapped.

“Mr. Lancer, with all respect, Johnny don’t know how to deal with this. He looks like hell, ain’t eating right or sleeping much, and to tell you the truth, he has me worried. It’s not easy learning to live a new life, and that’s what he was doing. His world was turned upside down a few weeks ago. Mind you, it was a good upside down, but it was still an upside down. Now he learns the reason, and he don’t know what to think.”

“That’s why he needs his family,” Murdoch repeated. “We can help.”

“Don’t you see, Mr. Lancer? That’s just it. Johnny is a good man with a big heart. He knows how to help folk, but don’t know how to let them help him,” Val replied. “Now, getting back to my message. Scott, he said that he don’t blame you none, and if you’re feeling guilty, then he’s gonna have to kick your ass clear across that there yard. You ain’t got nuthin to feel guilty about. Weren’t your fault.”

A slow smile spread across Scott’s face.

“What?” Val bristled.

“Don’t you see? Him threatening to kick my ass, that means he’s planning on returning at some point,” Scott replied before falling silent. “I just wish I knew when that was. Val, where is he? Maybe I can talk to him.”

“Don’t rightly know, and that’s the pure truth. All I know is that he said when he needs, he’ll come to me. Didn’t say when or where, so we’re all pissing in the wind. But I gotta tell ya, Johnny is trying to figure out his head. Sometimes a man needs to be left alone to do just that. You folks might not like it, I know you want him home here, Mr. Lancer, but you gotta realize that this is Johnny’s way of figuring things out.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Murdoch argued lightly.

“What about Garrett? Now that I’m sheriff, and I thank you kindly for the chance, I can look into how to approach this.”

“We’re not going to approach this,” Murdoch stated firmly.

Val looked as if the man had two heads. “Did I hear you right? You’re just gonna let that bas . . . man walk?”

“Val, think about it. If this goes to trial, it’s going to be big. Harlan Garrett is a rich and powerful man. Johnny has his own past to deal with, once people get wind of this, his life will be picked apart for the world to dissect. Not to mention the gunhawks that will come crawling out of the woodwork. Johnny won’t be able to show his face anywhere if that happens. No, it’s best for my boy if this never comes to trial.”

Val sat back with a groan. “I don’t like it, but I gotta agree. The last thing Johnny would want is people butting into his business. Can’t argue with ya there. But that means Garrett is gonna walk free as a fat old jaybird.

“Val, my eldest came out here carrying a terrible burden. He found out what his grandfather did all those years ago. He discovered files containing Pinkerton reports on Johnny’s whereabouts, letters from Catherine, and a journal detailing his part in the kidnapping.”

“Where are those papers now?” Val asked.

Taking a deep, cleansing breath, Scott sat up a bit straighter. “My grandfather destroyed my family. He kept me from my brother, and that’s something I can’t ever forgive. All my life, all I have ever wanted, was a brother.”

“Kind’a wanted to play the big brother, huh?” Val snorted.

“Yes, something like that,” Scott chuckled lightly, then turned serious. “I’m just getting to know Johnny, and the one thing I can tell you is that I care about him deeply. I want to get to know him better, to forge a strong relationship with him. The bond is already there, we felt it immediately, and I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to lose my brother again. We already lost so much.”

“Son, are you all right?” Murdoch noticed the pale tinge to Scott’s face. Leaning forward, a strong hand firmly grasped Scott’s, giving the young man the reassurance and strength of contact, he had always yearned for.

“Yes, I am now.” Scott smiled at his father before turning back to Val. “I almost left the morning after I apprised my father and brother of what my grandfather had done. I couldn’t stay and face them.”

“What changed your mind?”

Scott turned his smile on Murdoch. “My father. He helped me to see that none of this was my fault, and I shouldn’t carry the burden of someone else’s guilt.”

“He’s right,” Val said with a nod.

“I know that now, but it wasn’t so easy at first. I’m not going anywhere, Val. And I’ll never forgive my grandfather. Let that be his punishment. Murdoch and I burned those papers . . .”

“Ya burned ‘em.” Val yelped.

“Now calm down,” Scott sought to appease the man. “We thought it best. We didn’t want Johnny to ever find them. He knows everything anyway, but he doesn’t have to see his entire life splashed across the pages of some damned, jaded report.”

“I s’pose you’re right, but that was some damned fine evidence,” Val grumbled.

“I agree, but I care more about my brother.”

Val stretched his legs out, one arm resting on the table, the other crooked over the back of the chair. “Mr. Lancer, what if old man Garrett comes after ya?”

“Let him come.” A mighty fist crashed down on the table, toppling glasses and sending silverware skittering across the floor.

Maria fled in tears, her entire household had been disrupted, the Patron and his eldest were not taking proper care of themselves and her nino had run off. And it was all because of the evil deed done by the diablo gringo.

“What about Johnny?”

“He’ll never get to Johnny. He might have taken my son before, but he couldn’t bring him down. He’ll never bring Johnny down. No sir. Not my son. Not Johnny. Garrett may try, but he’s tried before and failed. He’ll fail again.”

“Well, Johnny sure as hell can take care of himself,” Val was quick to agree.

Murdoch leaned forward, eyes blazing fire. “I get a whiff of any stink blowing in from Boston, I’ll eliminate it myself.”

“Johnny ain’t bothered about himself. He’s feeling mighty poorly about his mother. That boy never cared much about himself . . .”

Murdoch rubbed at his temple, the dull throb slowly turning into a full blown ache. “I know, and that’s the sad part. I wonder if he’ll ever think much of himself. None of this needed to happen. This shouldn’t have happened, but it did, and Johnny is left with the sad reminder that his mother never had to suffer in such a way.” He pushed away from the table, pacing the floor in the same frenetic manner his youngest was so famous for doing.

This time it was Scott who reached out to his father, offering comfort. If there was one good thing to come out of this entire mess, it was the close, blossoming relationship between the two. Scott was finding the love, strength and reassurance from his father, that he had yearned for all his life. The morning after Johnny left, Scott came downstairs, suitcase in hand. Murdoch was having none of it. He had already lost his sons to Garrett once, and with Johnny missing, he was not about to let Scott walk away. Murdoch reached out to his son that morning, and Scott knew he could never leave. He had truly come home. Now if his brother would only return.

“Well, if there’s anything I can do for ya, let me know.” Val pushed away from the table. “Gotta get back to town. Left Chuck in charge,” he snickered.

“Will you let Johnny know that we want him home, that we can find a way to work this through if he will only let us in?” Murdoch pleaded. “I need my boy back, Val. I need my boy.” Murdoch’s voice caught, and Scott reached out. An arm around his father’s shoulder, he pulled the older man close.

“Will do, Mr. Lancer.” Val turned from the scene, his own emotions threatening to embarrass him. Scrunching his hat upon his head, he strode out the door.

  ******

He had been harboring the feeling for the better part of a week. Someone was watching. Someone he strove to keep away from Lancer, not wanting to bring trouble down around his father and brother. The feeling did not surprise Johnny; that it took over a week, did. Still, it was a long way from Boston, so he allowed the time for travel. The one thing he could not get a grip on was the identity of the stalker. He doubted it was Garrett, for the old buzzard was in the habit of hiring people to do his dirty work. That the man worked for Garrett, turned Johnny’s stomach.

He recognized the feeling when he came into town at the beginning of the week. Someone was watching. Sneakier than most, Johnny had no trouble slipping away, but tonight, he was ready to end it one way or the other. In a brazen display of showmanship, he slithered into the saloon and sauntered up to the bar. Three strangers were inside, two standing at the bar ,and one lone figure sitting in the shadows. Johnny tipped his hat, gave the man a one fingered salute and strode upstairs to see Val. Peering down around the corner, he saw the stranger hightailing it out the batwing doors. A smile on his face, Johnny knocked and went into the room.

“Let the game begin,” was muttered as he kicked the door shut.

  ******

“Evil stains the land and its souls weep,” Johnny muttered, rubbing the half empty bottle of tequila between his hands.

“What’s that you say?” His eyes bleary and words slurred, Val leaned in closer.

In a voice soft and low, a velvety drawl rolling across the darkness of night, Johnny said, “Evil. It stains everything it touches. Leaves a lot of broken souls behind. They weep. Some cry, some shut down. The evil never leaves. Its putrid stain hangs over the land.”

“Damn hell, boy, you’re giving me the willies,” Val shuddered. “Go home.”

“I plan on it,” Johnny said, his tone clipped.

“When?”

“Soon.”

“When soon?”

“When the time’s right.”

“Boy, the time was right two weeks ago,” Val snapped, snagging the bottle of tequila from Johnny’s hands.

Eyes of ice narrowing, Johnny glared. “You make a habit of that, I’ll shoot you in the other ass cheek.”

“Like I care,” Val said with a snort. “Your Pa and brother need you.”

“I know. Wasn’t avoiding them.”

“What the hell do you call it?”

“Playing the game.”

Val did not like the low, menacing tone of Johnny’s voice. “What kind of game are you playing, boy?”

Johnny lowered his head, hooded eyes boring through Val. “The one I play best. I’m drawing him out tonight.”

Val’s heart slammed against his ribs, his throat suddenly as dry as hot dessert sand. “Draw who out, boy?”

“The man that’s been following me.”

The calm, non-chalant manner angered Val until he remembered who he was dealing with. “Who are we talking about?”

“Don’t know his name, just know I’m being watched. Can feel it when I come into town. That’s why I was laying low. I’m not easy to follow, you know.”

“No shit,” Val smirked. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

“Ok, try this on,” Johnny replied. “Did you really think old man Garrett would give up this easily?”

“Was chewing on that.”

“Then chew on this,” Johnny replied, his tone curt and clipped. “He won’t stop until he does me in. I don’t think he would do anything to hurt Scott, but there’s always the chance Scott will get in the way. Can never tell what will happen then. But he will pull out all stops to take Murdoch out. I’ve been keeping an eye on the ranch.”

“Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” Val shook his head in awe of the sheer audacity and depth of skill Johnny possessed.

“So far, no one’s been around. They’re after me. Garrett was after me in the beginning, so it stands to reason I’m the one he’ll take out now. No better way to destroy Murdoch, than to destroy me. He’ll let the old man live, thinking it’s the perfect revenge. He blames Murdoch for taking Catherine away from him, and wants my father to suffer the same grief for the rest of his life.”

“Yep, can see the reasoning in that. Gets rid of you, Murdoch is torn apart and will suffer the loss of a child, and Scott will come home.”

“Give the man a cigar,” Johnny chuckled. “Old bastard probably thinks that once I’m gone, Scott will go back to Boston. Garrett never thought much of my father, and probably feels Scott won’t, either. So I’m the target of choice, and I won’t bring that to Lancer.”

“And you’re just enjoying the hell out of this dance, aren’t ya?”

“Always liked a good dance.” Johnny lifted the bottle in toast. “Puts me in mind of old Eb. He once told me something useful; not that I needed reminding, but these past few weeks, it helped to get my head straight. All my life, I did it to them before they did it to me. Learned that early on. Saved a lot of hurt . . .”

“I bet it did.” Val belched, pounded his chest and stood. “Gotta take a piss.” Shuffling across the dim room, he picked up the chamberpot, having the decency to turn his back before letting loose. Mindful that the pot didn’t slop over, he toed it back under the bed, hitched his longjohns back in place and stumbled over to the table. “Boy, you gotta break this habit of waking me in the middle of the night.”

“It’s not that late.”

“I was tired.”

“Sorry.” The head dropped, and Johnny sat motionless.

Immediately contrite, Val handed over the bottle. “Here, good for all that ails ya.”

“Yeah, Eb said that, too. You remind me of him.” Johnny slowly sat upright.

“Eb was a good man. I’m glad ya got to know him.”

“Me too. Eb knew I wanted to leave the life. Said if they came gunning me, to gun ‘em first. Val, it’s coming down. Maybe not all, I don’t know if Garrett is around or not, hell, for all I know he’s still sitting back in Boston and sending his goons. He did that before, too.” Taking another deep pull of the bottle, Johnny proceeded to tell Val of the agent Garrett had following him in Mexico.

Rubbing his tired, scruffy face, Val thought he had heard it all. “Can’t say as if I blame ya, none. I’d have done the same if’n someone was after my mama. Johnny, just get your ass home. Anything goes down, you’ll at least have your family.”

“Val, that’s why I stayed away. It’s coming down soon, and I plan on ending it. Don’t like being watched, don’t like people knowing my business. Don’t want anyone to know. Old man Garrett fucked with me for the last time. If I have to go to Boston and take the bastard down, I’ll crawl across the damned country to do it. Nothing will stop me. Once I know my family is safe, I’ll take care of the rest. Val, promise me something.”

“What’s that, Johnny?”

“Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone. As far as I know, only my father, brother and you know about it.”

“Only other person is Doc Jenkins, but he won’t say a word.”

“You said my father is all right?”

“Yeah, wasn’t sleeping much, so the other day Doc and me paid a visit and we slipped your father and brother a good ole dose of sleeping powders. I was gone before they woke, but I bet they were as crotchety as two bears,” Val’s hoarse laughter sent Johnny off into a fit of hysterics.

“Oh man, I wouldn’t want to be you or Sam the next time you come across the old man.”

“You got that right,” Val said with a snort. “But they needed it. From the looks of ya, I’d say ya could use a good dose, yourself.”

“Try it, and I’ll shoot you in the cajones.” Johnny’s eyes narrowed menacingly.

“That’s what I thought,” Val chuckled, before growing somber once again. “But not to worry, the old man and your brother both decided that no one else will know. Oh, I forgot, Maria and paul know, but none of the rest of the help, or the hands. Not even little Teresa. We’re keeping the lid on this.”

“Good, this gets out, I leave for good. No one will ever find me again,” Johnny’s warning was issued.

“That’s what we thought. Johnny, don’t you know that you don’t have to do this alone, anymore?”

“I know.”

Val’s eyes narrowed, a chilling thought coming to mind. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t ya? This is your life’s blood. You’re playing the game.”

The smile creeping across Johnny’s face was all Val needed. The boy was having the time of his life. The feral cat baiting its prey, and the astounding thing was, the prey, whoever and wherever it was, had no idea. This was what got Johnny’s blood pumping, the thrill of the hunt, the sheer, all consuming feeling of total control. Val felt his blood freeze in that second. He was glad to not be standing opposite Johnny on a dusty street, and wondered why any man would.

Setting the front legs of the chair he was tipping back on the ground, Val leaned forward, hand held out for the bottle. Taking a deep swig, their eyes locked. “Mi amigo, go home. They need you.”

“Yeah, I know.” Reaching into his pocket, Johnny took out the book Scott had given him. “Know what this is?”

“Hell, I might not be the brightest bulb in the turnip patch, but I think it’s a book,” Val snickered.

“No, it’s not just a book. Val, Scott didn’t even know me. He stopped at this city called Philadelphia on his way over.”

“Hey, isn’t that where they have that cracked bell?” Val brightened as an age old memory resurfaced. “My daddy told me about that.”

“Yeah, the Liberty Bell.” A slow, sincere smile crossed Johnny’s face. “Scott told me a bit about it. Gonna tell me more, might even read up on it one day. Would make the old man happy, he’s been shoving books at me since I came home. But this book is special. He didn’t even know me yet, but he stopped and bought me this book. Thought I’d like it.”

“Do you?”

“Val, I want to be buried with this book.”

“Damn hell, boy. You trying to jinx yourself? What in tarnation you go a’talking like that for? What the hell kind of thing is that to say?”

“Comes to all of us.”

“Don’t go inviting it sooner than ya need to.” This time Val needed a double shot.

Johnny shoved away from the table and stood. “Will meet up with you soon.”

“You going home?”

“Yeah, it’s time.”

  ******

He rode as if the very hounds from hell were lashing at his feet. Bent low over Renegade, Johnny raced through the dark of night. Renegade ran on instinct, a practice well honed over the years when Johnny felt the need to flee. Two weeks ago, he fled in a similar manner, wanting to put as much distance between himself and the truth, as possible. Tonight, he was racing back home, anxious to be in the company of his family.

Val had proven to be a trusted friend, one Johnny knew would watch his back. That did not come easy to the young man. Other than his father and Scott, there wasn’t anyone Johnny trusted besides Old Eb, and since he was dead, it didn’t count anyway.

The truth had hit hard. Johnny felt the urge to run from emotions raging out of control, unable to fully grasp what had been done to his life, and too damned afraid to stay and try to sort things out. Guilt at running from Scott and Murdoch ran deep. Johnny had been angry, but it had not been at them. It was just too bad that they were the only ones within close proximity of his temper. He had always heard the old adage about shooting the messenger, and that was exactly what he had done.

Scott was an innocent in all of this. He was only five at the time, and had lost almost as much. It made no difference that he spent his life in luxury, being shrouded in riches did not ease the pain of a lonely existence. Johnny could not fathom Harlan Garrett being a loving, compassionate, trusted caregiver. He would live his meager life with his mother over again in a heartbeat, than to live with Garrett as Scott had. It was a wonder his brother had turned out so well. Johnny knew a good man when he met him, and was ashamed at the treatment given his brother. When this was over, he would make it up to him.

As Renegade galloped down the road leading to Lancer, Johnny’s mind cleared and instincts sharpened. Being deadly did not come on the lunch, Madrid needed to remain in total control. His mind snapped shut and emotions froze, tucked away in the darkest confines of his heart.

Feeling the hair on the back of his neck prickling, Johnny reined Renegade back. The animal veered to the right, the instincts of both kicking in. Renegade obeyed immediately and fell into a slow, stealthy walk, not even a snicker of a sound made. Johnny lay low across the mighty stallion, the hair bristling on the back of his neck. Then he felt it. A moment before the bullet skimmed by his head, he slid from the saddle and hit the ground. Rolling, gun drawn, he pulled Renegade into a stand of trees and crept along the road toward an outcropping of boulders.

He heard a scurrying of feet, the sound of a rifle butt striking the boulder. A sloppy attempt, at best. The sound was barely audible, and would have been missed by most men, but Johnny had the senses of a panther on the prowl. Very little got past him. He also snickered at the stupidity of the shooter for inadvertently revealing his position before knowing the status of his quarry. Dead or alive, it made a big difference. As Johnny learned long ago, never leave anything in doubt, or to chance. Both had the tendency to get you killed.

The shooter moved to the left. A corner of the moon peeked out from behind a break in the clouds, affording Johnny a better look at the ridge. The assailant was unsure, not knowing whether to stay, or make a break and run. Being unsure of your actions, was what got you killed. Madrid was never in doubt. He had expected as much, and was not disappointed. He only wondered what took old Harlan’s shooter so long. He doubted the old man would sully his hands with such an act. Garrett loved whipping out his wallet and paying others to do his dirty work. One day, he would hire someone worthy of the challenge of taking on Madrid.

Renegade stood as still as a statue, anyone randomly passing by would never guess that a stallion of such stature stood a mere ten feet from the main road. Johnny crept along, in the mood to toy with his assailant. Picking up a stone, he heaved it to the right, laughing inwardly when the shooter took a shot toward the sound, a bright flash from the muzzle betraying his exact position. This was almost too easy. It would take more than this rank amateur to take him down.

Scaling the rocky incline, not a sound was made as Johnny neared his prey. A sly grin crept across his face and he straightened, standing in a bright shaft of moonlight. Dead and flat, a voice void of emotion, Madrid accosted the shadowy figure leaning over the boulder, frantically scouring the hillside.

“You missed.”

The body froze. It had all been for naught. He had traveled day and night by train, never stopping. And tonight, he had been sloppy. He was out of his element, this strange new land not only had him out of sorts, he suddenly had the sickening realization that he had seriously underestimated the little bastard. He had been watching for days, sometimes spying on Johnny when he slipped into town, other times sitting on this hillside, hoping Madrid would decide to return home. Knowing the man’s reputation, this was the only way to bring him down. Spotting the black steed, this was his chance. Only nothing came easy.

His finger froze on the trigger. He should have snapped the breed’s neck fourteen years ago. In the split second it took to turn and stare at the owner of that deadly, silken voice, he knew that he was dead.

“Dance is over.” Johnny sent Winston Avery straight to hell with a bullet between the eyes.

  ******

Johnny could hear the old man barking clear out on the portico. A sly grin spread across his face, he snickered, it did not sound like the sleeping powders had put Murdoch in a good mood. Silent as he pushed the French doors apart, Johnny stepped into the room. His father and brother froze. A bright smile slowly snaked across Scott’s face as he stood back from the sofa, but Murdoch outdid his eldest. Quicker than either thought the old man could move, Murdoch darted around the corner of his desk, easily cleared the ottoman and grabbed Johnny in a hug so fierce, the young man felt as if the stuffing was coming out of his ears.

“Boy, you came home. You came home.” Murdoch’s voice choked, huge gulping sobs threatening to break forth as tears streamed down his face. There was a time when Murdoch felt he was too proud to have anyone see him cry. Now, he did not care. Let his boys see the true depth of his emotions. Let them see the love he carried, had always carried for them. No, Murdoch Lancer reasoned that real men did, indeed, cry.

He shoved Johnny back, huge hands clamped down on his arms, then pulled the boy close again, relishing in the closeness of contact. “Son, are you all right?”

“Yeah, Papa.” Those were the only words Johnny could muster as he pulled back, glaring at Scott. Eyes narrowing, he stepped forward. “I gotta carry out my threat?”

Scott saw the smile that tried to remain hidden, having trouble keeping his own face straight. “Just try it boy.”

“Seems to me I bested you before. You were laying flat on your ass out there.” Johnny crooked his head toward the doors.

“Shut the hell up,” Scott burst out. Grabbing Johnny by the arm, he pulled his brother close, both embracing fiercely. Then in brotherly fashion, Scott ground his knuckles against Johnny’s skull, and Johnny gave two quick jabs to his midsection.

Laughing, Murdoch pulled both apart, an arm draped around each.

“No one’s to know about this.” Johnny stated.

“No one,” Murdoch reassured his son.

“Goes no further than those that already do.”

“Never will.” This time, Scott was the one to reply.

“I’ll tell you both what I told Val. It gets out, it’ll spread like wildfire. My business is just that. No one needs to know. This happened to us. No one else. Not anyone’s business. It does get around, then I leave. No one, and I mean no one, will ever see me again. I can disappear, you already know that old man, but this time, there will be no chance meetings. I know how to vanish and never resurface. I’ll do that again. This will be the only time I speak of this, we’ll deal with things on our own, but I’ve said all I need.”

The threat was anything but idle, Murdoch had no doubt of Johnny’s ability to vanish into thin air. I had happened before, and although it was not by the boy’s choice, this time it would be different. Johnny meant it when he said he would never be found.

Murdoch faced his boy. “Lancer takes care of its own.”

“Good. Then take care of this,” Johnny said, tossing a billfold onto the desk.

Both men froze, neither had been in the full presence of Madrid before, not even during the gunfight in town the day Scott first arrived. The young boy that dumped molasses and feathers on his father, walked across a corral fence at night while taunting Teresa and was chased across the yard by a mad, spoon wielding Maria, had all but disappeared. The hardened gunslinger emerged in full blown glory. Both could only wonder what had transpired to cause such a transition, and looking into Johnny’s eyes, neither felt as if they wanted to know.

“What’s this?” Murdoch asked, a trembling hand picking up the tattered wallet.

“Billfold of the man I just killed.”

Scott felt the bile rising. Murdoch stared, mouth agape. “The man you just killed? Johnny, what happened? Are you all right?”

Johnny’s voice fell to a tone so low, both men had to strain to hear. “I’m fine. Just know that the reason I stayed away once my head was cleared, was to keep you both safe. I knew I was being followed, and tonight, he made his move.”

Scott visibly paled, yet reached out to his brother. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

The concern in his brother’s eyes broke through the façade. Johnny softened, and gave a slight nod of the head. “Yeah, I’m fine. Bastard tried to bushwhack me out on the road leading in. Knew he’d make his move soon, could feel the tension building. He’s been watching for about a week now, would feel it when I slipped into town, but he never could get a handle on me to follow, so I knew he’d be laying in wait.”

Murdoch knew the instincts of his youngest to be beyond the realm of an ordinary man, and felt he was not even beginning to grasp the true potential of the young man standing in their midst. The next words sent the older man stumbling to the bar.

Johnny sat down, his voice trailing off as his eyes fell to stare at folded hands. “Diablo sombra, Papa. Diablo sombra.”

Murdoch set the bottle down and was by his son’s side in an instant. Seeing the slight trembling take hold, Scott poured a double shot of whiskey, offering the glass to his father. “Johnny, are you sure?”

“Don’t know for sure, was just a feeling I had when I saw him lurking behind that rock. Was hidden in the shadows, and when he stood, it all slammed into me. And I sent him straight to hell where he belongs.”

“Scott, I could use one too,” Murdoch requested.

“Yeah, me too,” Scott stammered.

“Don’t blame you two. Never did. Scott, you did nothing wrong. I know how hard it was for you to tell what you found out. You didn’t know us. Can’t just waltz into a man’s life and drop information that will blow things apart, into his lap. You told us when the time was right, I didn’t leave because of you. Just had to get out,” Johnny explained.

“I know, Johnny.” Scott dropped next to his brother’s side.

“You’re my brother, Scott. That means a lot to me. Don’t want to lose that.”

“You won’t.” Scott gave his brother’s arm a squeeze, then dropped his hand. Having been raised without so much as a hug of comfort, this was strange to the young easterner, but he was learning to let himself go, ride his emotions as his volatile, emotional brother did so well.

Father and brother sat on either side of Johnny. “Don’t trust much. I made the mistake twice. First when I was two, not old enough to know that I was in danger in my own crib. My own crib, Papa.”

“Johnny,” Murdoch stammered, his arm slinking around his son’s shoulders, holding him tight.

Undaunted, Johnny continued, needing to purge unsettling emotions. His head drooped and voice cracked. He could barely breathe, yet the words slipped out. “Mama never left, did she? She never left on her own. She should be here now, but because of . . . instead, she’s laying in the cold, dark ground. It didn’t have to be this way. It never should have happened.”

“No son, it never should have happened, but instead of the three of us dwelling on what has been done and what should have been, why don’t we get rid of any blame and guilt we’re feeling, and look toward the future.”

Johnny vaulted from the couch with a speed that took both his brother and father by surprise. Right hand slapping against his leg, he strode over to the large window, spurs singing with each step. He whipped about, eyes blazing. “Forget about it? Get rid of the guilt? Tell me something old man, have you always been this laid back? Just forget it? Forget everything that happened?”

“Johnny, that’s not what I meant,” Murdoch stammered.

“Is that what you did after this happened? Forget about me? Make one quick trip to Boston, but things get too tough so you forget about Scott?” Johnny never meant it, but anger flared.

“That’s enough.” Murdoch snapped, his own anger taking over. “I never forgot about either of you.”

“Murdoch, how the hell can you expect either of us to forget this?” Johnny shouted back.

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it. I’ll never forget any of this. And I sure as hell didn’t forget about you.”

Johnny pulled away from the hand reaching out, shoving his father back and ignoring the want in his brother eyes. He had never been one to deal with his feelings, any trouble was dealt with directly, and there was no room in Madrid ’s life for regret and sadness. Such emotion was easily hidden behind the facade of the mask that fell over his face in the time it took to draw a breath. Snagging a bottle of tequila from the shelf, he sat back down on the couch.

“Mixing drinks like that can make you sick,” Scott warned.

“Scott, life makes me sick, not mixing drinks.” Madrid was firmly in place. Icy blue eyes stared up at his father. “Tell me, Murdoch, how the hell am I supposed to forget this? How the hell am I to deal with the fact that my life could have been different, that I didn’t have to become Madrid? Sure he’s kept me alive, but I could have been just as keen, strong and determined, if I was Johnny Lancer.

“That’s just the way I am. Lancer or Madrid, no one will kick me around. No one. I try to leave one life behind and live another, and now I’m finding that life was a lie, too. Is there anything I can hold that’s the truth? That’s the real me? And who the hell is the real me?

“One minute I’m Johnny Lancer, asleep in my crib. Next, I’m kicking around some border town slitting men’s throats so they won’t follow my mother, and breaking kid’s arms so they don’t beat me into next week. Scrounging through garbage and just plain stealing when there wasn’t any other way around it, so I could have a mouthful of food, instead of going to sleep with my stomach gnawing at my backbone.

“Then I come back and find out it’s all for nothing, it never had to happen. I never had to become Madrid , Mama never had to suffer. She never had to work her fingers to the damned bone, and could be here right now. Today. This minute, sitting by the fire. Safe and comfortable. But she’s not. And I’m not. Now I’m left wondering just who the hell I am.

“Then the answer comes. I’m Johnny Madrid. Always will be. And I’m good. Damned good. The only problem is, being that good, they all come after ya. Every stinking one of them. Even some bastard from the East comes after me. And they keep coming, and coming.” Johnny stood and with bottle in hand, again went to stand at the window.

Peering out from behind a piece of cloth pulled back, he said, “And every time they come, I fight. I leave ‘em laying in the dirt. The thing is, every time I walk away, I leave a part of myself behind. Old Eb said if they come a’gunning for me, to gun ‘em back. Well, I gun ‘em back. But he never told me what to do when I left a piece of my soul behind every stinking, fucking damned time.”

Johnny’s head drooped. Like the toss of a coin, his head lifted and Madrid slipped away. Johnny Lancer smiled back, beckoning his brother and father into the kitchen. “Hey, got anything to eat? I’m starving.”

Murdoch was dumbfounded, he had never seen a person switch gears so easily, but he quickly regained his composure. If this was Johnny’s way of dealing with a difficult subject, he would play along for now, but one day soon, they would talk. Following his boys into the kitchen, Murdoch set about pulling leftovers from the pantry.

Johnny ate with abandon, he had forgotten how good Maria’s cooking was. It beat trail food hands down, and he would miss it. The meal finished, Johnny pleaded fatigue and with Scott and Murdoch following, disappeared up the stairs. Soon after midnight, he slipped from his room and only after making sure his father and brother were sleeping soundly, shoved two sets of clothes and extra ammunition into the saddlebag. Pulling the canvas duster from the back of the closet, he donned the jacket, adjusted his rig and stole down the back stairs.

He had one more stop to make and was soon standing inside Val’s room, the weary man once again rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “You sure about this?” Val muttered, stumbling across the room.

“Sure as I know it has to be done. I’m a lone wolf, Val. Always have been,” Johnny determined.

“Well, can’t say as if I blame ya none. This is either a job for a small army, or one man. And if you ask me, you’re both rolled int’a one. I’ll do what’s needed here. Don’t ya worry none.”

“Good, I’ll contact you when I’m ready.”

“Will be waiting.”

“Murdoch is gonna skin you alive.”

“Reckon I can handle it.”

”I appreciate this mi amigo,” Johnny extended his hand.

“Just take care of yerself.” Val kicked the leg of the bed. “Ahh hell, Johnny. What are you getting us both into?”

“Nothing you can’t handle. You got my back?”

“Yeah, reckon so,” Val sighed. “Not like ya don’t know where to find me. Now, you’re not gonna up and disappear, are ya?”

Johnny hung his head. “Don’t rightly know that.” He stood and paced the room slowly, his hand running over the surface of the table, washstand, and headboard before he stopped. “I looked forward to Scott coming out so much. Can’t tell you how much. Then when I found out everything, it all changed.”

“How you feel about Scott?” Val asked, confused by the startling revelation.

“No, not how I feel about him. Or Murdoch. Just things in general. It’s hard to accept something that never should have been, and see shadows of your life, a life you were robbed of, when roaming that estancia. Can’t rid myself of the feeling.”

“So you’re gonna rid yourself of something else,” Val reasoned.

“Has to be done.”

“Can’t argue there. Johnny, that old man of yours is gonna be crushed. So will Scott. You two never got a chance. Did you give them any thought? Scott is gonna be blaming himself something fierce, and it’s not even his fault.”

“Yeah, I know, Val, but I gotta think of other things first. I can’t let that stop me.” Johnny reached into his jacket pocket, pulling the book out. “Here, will you give this to Scott with a message?” he asked, handing the book over.

“Depends on what the message is,” Val muttered.

“Tell him to keep it safe for me.”

“For when you get back?” Val needled.

“Just keep it safe.”

Johnny picked up the saddlebag dumped onto the table. “Got extra clothes, ammunition and some money. Enough to get me by.”

“Or get started on a new life?”

“If need be.”

“Johnny, it don’t need to be this way.”

“Yeah, it does.”

“You got a family now that can help.”

“Not with this.”

Retrieving the articles wanted, Johnny sat at the table and began to write. An hour later, he folded the letters, addressed each to the respective party, and handed them over to Val. “Take care of these for me?”

“You know I will.”

“Make sure they don’t come after me. They won’t find me. Tell ‘em, make sure they knew that if I don’t wanna be found, I won’t be. And I don’t wanna be.”

“Won’t like it, but I’ll do it,” Val grumbled.

“Thanks, and here, I thought you’d like these. They’re from Eb. Took this here tin mug, his specs, although the old coot never wore ‘em much but for the rare time we had an old paper to read. Didn’t get to town much. Got this here journal of his, but never did read it. Thought those were his private words when he was alive, no sense in me snooping now that he’s gone. Just took it ‘cause it felt like he was still with me.” Johnny’s head dipped and a hand ran lovingly over the cover before clutching the book against his chest. “Val, why does life have to be like this?” He lifted his eyes, stunning Val when the façade of Madrid melted away and a heart wrenching sadness stared out, instead.

“Don’t have to be, Johnny,” Val replied, this time his voice cracking.

Johnny fingered the rawhide around his wrist. “Then I took this here set of beads. Old man wore them all the time. Suppose I shouldn’t have taken them from him. I’m not a grave robber or anything, just wanted something to remember him by. But reckon they belong to you, beings your kin and all.”

As Johnny began untying the bracelet, Val placed a strong hand over his. “No sense in doing that. They’re yours. You was a part of his family, too. Eb took you in, sounds like you two were good for each other. Needed one another. You keep ‘em boy, and I’ll hold the journal for ya. Like you, I don’t feel the need to read it, maybe we’ll read it together when you return. Would kind’a like to hear some of old Eb’s stories. Was always a good one for stories.”

Johnny chuckled lightly. “Yeah, yeah. That old desert rat.”

“But tell you what, since I don’t need the spectacles and would probably end up breaking ‘em anyways, so why don’t I take this here tin mug? My coffee is probably as bad as the old man’s was, so the mug will be used to it.”

“His coffee was pretty bad. I took to making it,” Johnny snickered. A slow smile came over his face as he pocketed the spectacles and journal, and handed the mug over. “If your witch’s brew is as bad as his, then I know it won’t burn a hole in the bottom.”

“Well, you’ll have to stop by one day soon and see. Maybe I’ll be all set up and fancy in that there jail.”

“I hope so. They need you here.”

Val cleared his throat, his voice low and gruff. “We need you too, boy.”

Val couldn’t watch him leave. The thunder of hooves outside his window faded and feeling like he had aged ten years, he slowly rose to his feet and stumbled over to the bed. Scott and Murdoch would be going nuts come morning, and he almost dreaded delivering the letters. Those two just might turn and slaughter the messenger. Val was angry, but he understood. Sometimes a man just had to go off and take care of business on his own. Part of him wanted to shake Johnny and tell him that he had no right running off as such, then he calmed. Reasonable thinking set in and there really wasn’t any way Johnny could stay. With nothing to do until morning, Val blew out the lantern and slunk off to bed.

A lone figure sat atop the hill overlooking the back portion of Lancer, hat pulled down low over his eyes, hair blowing in the gentle, late night breeze. Pulling the jacket a little tighter, he nudged Renegade into a slow canter.

Johnny Madrid Lancer prayed that one day soon, they would forgive him.

  ******

Harlan Garrett lay in bed clutching the telegram, a smile creasing his pasty, pudgy face. His gray hair had thinned to the point where a bald spot was visible through the thin strands gracing the top of his head. His nose was pointed and his neck was squat, giving the appearance of a penguin with his head pulled into his collar, a lipless mouth and beady eyes peering out.

His Scotty was coming home. The first telegram had arrived one month ago, and Garrett has been on cloud nine ever since. He knew Scotty would come around. Knew it would not take long for the astute, world wise young man to see the true colors of his jaded family. Scotty was above both of them, they did not even deserve to be in the young man’s presence. Now Scotty was due on the morning train, coming home where he belonged.

The weather had taken a turn, a nor’easter churning up the coast hammered the city with heavy, flooding rains, storm force gales and high, surging tides, but that was normal for Boston this time of year and any Bostonian worth his salt, took such weather in stride. Scott had stated that he would hire a carriage to bring him to the mansion, as there was no telling if the train would be delayed.

Harlan had pulled out all stops getting the mansion ready. Extra help was hired, cooks had spent the previous week preparing Scotty’s favorite menus, and the grand, ornate home was cleaned from top to bottom. Fresh lobster would be brought in first thing in the morning, with that evening’s menu consisting of lobster bisque, a green salad with watercress and endive, topped with a delicate sauce and chunks of lobster and served with the cheesy biscuits Scotty adored, and cracked lobster dripping with fresh butter, for the main course.

The old man’s eyes twinkled with devious glee. He had won. He knew that all he had to do was remain quiet, not push Scotty to return, and the boy would see his father for the sloth he was. And as far as the half breed gunslinger the worthless Scot had bred was concerned, Scotty should not be reduced to breathing the same air as that vile smudge of humanity.

No, Scotty was coming home, and life would soon be back to normal. He had so many plans for the boy. Maybe Scotty would even possess the desire to return to Harvard, but that would remain to be seen. Scotty had a good head on his shoulders, and Harlan had no doubt that the boy would go far, especially since he had purged his body and mind of the desire to go west.

The first telegram had arrived on a Friday evening, the simple words setting Harlan’s heart on fire. ‘Grandfather. Stop. Was mistaken. Stop. Would like to return home. Stop. Will wait for reply. Stop. Your grandson, Scotty. Stop.

Harlan’s heart soared. In his own simple way, without wasting time with useless missives that would take too long to arrive from California , Scotty was asking for forgiveness. But there was no need. Harlan assumed that every young man had to wander now and again, seeing for himself that the best life could offer, was found at home. No time was wasted and within five minutes of receiving the message, Harlan sent his butler off with a reply. ‘Scotty. Stop. I look forward to your arrival. Stop. Yours truly, Grandfather. Stop.’

The reply was almost immediate, arriving less than two days later. ‘Wonderful. Stop. Will leave immediately. Stop. Will inform you of my arrival in due time. Scotty. Stop.’

Harlan could have framed those simple messages, for with Scotty coming home, he could rid himself of Lancer forever. He never heard from Winston Avery again, but presumed that since Johnny Madrid was still alive, the man had met his just demise, saving him the trouble. That was one he would tip his hat to Madrid for. Now, he just did not care. He had won. Scotty was returning home and as far as he was concerned, Madrid and Murdoch Lancer could rot out in California . It was obvious that Scotty had no use for either, so they were no threat to him.

Judging from the fact that neither had sent the law after him, Scotty had not revealed the information he had left with. A sly smile curled the corners of Harlan’s mouth. He had raised the boy right. Scotty had left with information that could have destroyed everything he had built up his entire life, but the boy was astute. He judged the playing field before making his move, and after deciding that neither Lancer nor Madrid were worth the time or effort, conceded the game and was returning home. In Harlan’s eyes, his grandson was the winner.

Another telegram arrived three days later, this time from Spring Mills, a town forty miles east of Lancer. ‘Grandfather. Stop. Took the stage from Green River . Stop. Will be on the morning train. Stop. Will be in contact in two weeks. Stop. Scotty. Stop.

Two weeks later, the final, long awaited, message arrived. ‘Arrival time, Monday, April 5. Stop. No need to meet me. Stop. Will hire a carriage. Stop. Scotty. Stop.’

Garrett was in his glory. Tomorrow was April 5, and when they sat down to dinner, Scotty would be in his accustomed seat. The privileged always prevailed. Tucking the message in the top drawer of the nightstand, Harlan rolled onto his back with a grunt, wriggling his short, round body under the silken, goose down comforter, until satisfied. Warmth trickled from the tips of his stubby toes, to the blackened core of his soul. A sigh of contentment, and he closed his eyes.

The creaking of the door drew his attention. Eyes growing wide with fear, his throat constricted and spittle dried in his mouth. A dark figure emerged, spurs jingling. His right hand toyed with the low slung rig hanging from his hip. Standing in the shaft of light trickling in from the street lamp outside the window, his mouth crinkled into a wicked, soul searing grin and blue eyes gone black with hatred peered down. A shank of soft, raven colored hair fell over his forehead and with the grace of a cat, he moved forward.

“Hello, Grandfather. I see you received my messages. How nice of you to go through so much trouble to welcome me home. Oh, I know this hasn’t been my home. Could have been. If you had been of a mind to share. I could have come out here to visit my cherished abuelo, oh, that’s what we call our grandfathers in Spanish. We could have become good friends.”

Johnny stood over the shrinking figure, the finger of his left hand tracing down the side of Garrett’s face. The old man lunged to reach for the derringer kept in the nightstand drawer, but Johnny was quicker. The gnarled hand was snagged and the cold muzzle of a colt was pressed into his mouth, his eyes bugging out with fear.

“Now you would have been my abuelastro, my step grandfather, but I would have loved you all the same. Just like you would have loved me. Oh, the wonderful life we could have led. Summers in Boston, winter in California. Yes a grand life indeed.”

The gun slipped further into Harlan’s mouth and his scream was cut off by a hand encircling his throat. “Now, we don’t want to make a fuss, do we?” A smile snaked across Johnny’s face when Harlan shook his head. “Good, I knew we’d understand one another.”

“I know I said I would be arriving tomorrow afternoon, but I wanted to surprise you. I assume you will forgive that little breach of . . . what do you call it . . . etiquette?” A voice as smooth as velvet, with a low, slow drawl chilled Harlan’s blood.

“Yep, I learned that word from Scott. Oh, by the way, Scotty is fine. Don’t know I popped in for a visit, but he’s fine. Besides, you can’t deny me the chance to get to know my dear, abuelastro, now can we? Maybe show me around town? Introduce me to your friends?” Johnny’s laugh was low and deadly, the widening of Garrett’s eyes, the answer he expected.

“Oh, we could make everyone accept me in time. They would grow to love me, like you will grow to love me. But you see, I don’t have the time. And neither do you. What a pity, for life could have been so different for all of us. But as the good book says, oh, and yes, I do know a bit about the good book. Not too keen on religion, but I do know the book. What was it? Oh yes, an eye for an eye. Yep, that one fits.

“Oh, and the most important, the point I want to stress tonight, is something I learned a long time ago. Hell, old man, don’t you know that you always reap what you sow? You sow good seeds, you get a good crop. You sow ugliness, you get that back in kind. Cruel acts manifest over time, and come back to bite us in the ass, and fucking with Madrid only gets you dead.”

Harlan sought to scream, but feeling the finger bearing down on the trigger, his body relaxed, falling back onto the overstuffed feather mattress with the limpness of a rag doll. A boneless mass of putrid flesh peered up, tears of fear trickling from of the corners of his eyes. Johnny’s face loomed closer, his warm breath tickling Garrett’s neck when he spoke.

“Di ablo sombra, abuelastro. Diablo sombra.”

Harlan’s choked scream was cut off. Grabbing hold of the man’s throat, Johnny pulled the writhing body up from the bed, arms flailing as he struggled for air. “Do you know what it’s like to be carried off in the middle of the night? Just when you were safe in your bed, someone steps out from the shadows and pulls you from the only security you knew? The only family you ever had?

“Then to have your Mama suffer and work until she died a slow, painful death. She didn’t have to die, old man. She never did anything to you, but did you care? You never cared about anyone past yourself. She would be alive today if you had left her alone. I learned a long time ago not to care about myself, and I can thank you for that.

“I should have been left at Lancer, not scrounging down around those damned, stinking border towns with my Mama. You brought all this down, you filthy bastard. All of it. You set my life on a path that I’ll never be free of. And I’ll be damned if I’ll spend the rest of it knowing what you did . . .” Seeing the shocked surprise in Garrett’s eyes, Johnny’s lips curled in a snarl.

“Oh yeah, how would you know? Yep, Scott spilled his guts. Told me and my father everything. Shocked, huh? Probably just as shocked as you were to see me step out from behind that door. But isn’t that how things are done? Is that what they call the Boston way? Well, you old fuck, you’re about to learn the Madrid way.

“Never let your guard down, old man. Funny, that’s what I call my father. Old man. Only it’s different with him, I think he even gets a chuckle out of it. You see, you lose. We’re happy. All three of us. I have the family I’ve always wanted, the one that was ripped from me, and you’re about to get the one you asked for a long time ago. Never think you’re safe, ‘cause you never are.

“No one is ever safe. You’re deluded if you think you are. For a while there, you thought you owned the world and everyone in it, but you’re nothing more than a speck of fly shit on the wall. And now you’ll have to deal with me. See what it’s like to be taken from your bed in the middle of the night and put into a life that doesn’t have to be. You fucked with me, old man. And you did wrong by my Mama. For her, you will pay.”

The hand left his throat but before Harlan could utter a sound, he was gagged by a filthy, sweat stained bandana. “Sorry, was the cleanest one I had. But count yourself lucky old man, at least I didn’t wipe my ass with it. Or my horse’s ass.” Harlan’s horror filled, muffled screams brought a smirk of delight to Johnny’s face.

“Oh man, I can see we’re gonna have fun getting to know one another.” Shoving Garret back onto the pillows, Johnny twirled the gun and let it slide effortlessly into the holster. “Good, aren’t I? Can show you a lot of tricks. Yep, you and me are gonna be real good friends. You’ll get to know me real well. Yep, real well. I’m really an easy fella to get to know. Lots of folks say I’m kind’a likeable. Imagine that, Johnny Madrid, likeable.”

Leaning closer, Johnny’s eyes danced with devious glee. “And there are others that just piss in their pants at the mere mention of my name. Fuckers don’t have to see me, they just hear Madrid and they run to the hills with piss running down their legs.”

Johnny reached into his pocket and pulling out a long strand of rawhide, bound Garrett’s hands. Shoving the quivering man back onto the bed, he strode to the closet and after pulling out three pairs of pants, some shirts and a warm, dry coat, threw the articles onto the bed. He shoved the clothing into a pillowcase and threw a pair of boots retrieved from the bottom, across the room.

“Put those on,” he clipped.

Hands trembling violently, Garret struggled, losing his balance when trying to stand. Not showing an ounce of mercy, Johnny shoved the man toward the chair. “Can see I have to do this myself.” First one foot, then the other was jammed into the expensive leather. The boots were made for show, not for walking, all the better, Johnny surmised. Not bothering with socks, the old man would surely grow some festering blisters in no time.

Striding over to the dresser on the far wall, he snickered, finding several pairs of fancy, silk underwear tucked inside the top drawer. “Man oh man, silken bottoms. I tell you what, you sit around in nothing but these britches, you’re sure to slide clean off the chair. Whew, you sure do live high. Well, this will be the last time you’ll wear something like these, so we’ll take them along and see how long they last. Get used to rags old man, ‘cause once these clothes wear out, you’ll be a’wearing them. You see, I’m not totally heartless. You let my mother bring along a bag of clothes, and even had enough clothes to last me a while, so thought I’d return the favor.”

Harlan’s eyes grew wide and his eyes bulged with unbridled fear. He could feel his bowels turning to liquid and screamed, hot tears scalding his face when Johnny reached down, plucked him from the bed and pulled him to his feet.

Nose to nose, Johnny’s hot breath blew across Garrett’s face. “You’re gonna walk outta here, you old fuck. Just like you made my mother walk out of her home. She never wanted to leave, she never would have left. She was happy. She was safe and she was loved. She had everything a body desires, three meals on the table every day, a roof over her head and a warm, soft bed, and you took it all away. So you see, I’m returning the favor.

“You know, none of this had to happen. My father never did anything to you. He fell in love and got married. He was good to your daughter, something you were too damned blind and stupid to see. It all could have been so different. Didn’t have to be this way. Don’t know why some folk just live on pure hate. You might think that sounds funny coming from me now, but when you think about it, you’ll see that justice comes in many different forms. I didn’t just set out to do this, I have a reason. It didn’t have to be this way.

“You’re gonna walk from this house, and you won’t look back. Just like my mother, you won’t get the chance. You do, you try or fight, and I’ll kill you. Slow and painful.” Pulling a knife from an inside pocket of the duster, Johnny pressed the sharpened blade against the soft whiteness of Harlan’s face. His legs gave out and he slid toward the floor, only to be pulled up roughly.

“Won’t be that easy, old man. You know what it’s like to be skinned alive? Or maybe a Mexican hanging? Both would serve you well, and you’ll get one or the other if you give me a hard time. I got two horses outside, all I need to do is loop a rope around your neck and tie it off on one horse, and one around your feet and tie that off on the other. Just let ‘em loose, and your head will pop off like a cork. So you see, you have no choice. You’re gonna walk on outta here, like you made my mother walk outta her home, or I will make sure you’re not around to see tomorrow.”

He leaned closer, empty eyes of ice, staring out. “I’m good, old man. Very good. You made sure of that. Because of you, I became Madrid. One might say you were the one who brought Madrid out. So it’s only right that you suffer at the hand you created. Like my mother, your life will never be the same. And later on, don’t bother to ask where I’m taking ya, because you have no choice in the matter. Just like my mother had no say. It all comes around, old man. Life isn’t over until the circle is complete. And I came to complete it.”

Shoving Garrett toward the door, Johnny grabbed for the pillowcase. Snagging a lantern off the nightstand, he turned to fling it against the wall, when a sound at the door caught his attention. Gun in hand, he turned toward the noise, his mouth gaping at the sight of a giant, mountain of a man standing in the doorway.

“Hello son, you should have invited your father along.” Eyes fixed on Johnny, Murdoch strode into the room.

Stepping out from behind his father, Scott entered the room. “Johnny, I see you’ve been busy. Hello, grandfather.” The older man’s eyes pleaded for help, but went ignored as Scott stepped closer to his brother. “My brother was right, grandfather, none of this had to happen.”

Eyes widening with shock, a shrill scream was choked off as Garrett gagged. Johnny held onto the older man and without taking his eyes off his father and brother, set the lantern down. “What the hell are you two doing here?”

“You’re not the only sneaky Lancer, Johnny,” Murdoch answered. “If you had stayed around the ranch, we would have told you that your days as a lone wolf are over.”

“Murdoch is right, Johnny. Like he said, Lancer takes care of it own.” Turning to his grandfather, a hint of sadness was quickly quelled by the sheer knowledge of all the pain the older man has caused his family, and countless others. The love Scott had once felt, vanished in an instant. “Grandfather, I can’t help you. You took so much from me. You gave me as much as you took away. You gave me a life, but you took the life I should have had. A good woman is dead as a result of your actions, and my brother led a life no one should have been subjected to. It could all be so different.”

Murdoch approached his son, placing a hand upon Johnny’s shoulder. “We were so damned worried that you were going to come here and go after this useless . . . well, suffice to to say, we didn’t want you to face him alone. But, we can see you have things well in hand.”

“Yes, the lantern would have been a mighty fine touch, place burns down, no one else would be hurt since grandfather was here alone. He never did like the idea of servants living under the same roof as him, so they were all safe in their quarters. Everyone would think he perished in the flames, and I would have received a sad telegram. Oh, by the way, where are the guards?” Scott dared a look around.

Johnny’s lips curled in a devious grin. “Same place as the servants, sleeping the sleep of the dead. Like this buzzard did, I covered my ass. Been watching the place for days, got to know the routine. Am good at slipping in and out of places . . .”

“So we see,” Murdoch replied dryly.

“Saw that they all had coffee and dessert before retiring for the night, and slipped a sleeping potion into the pot.”

“Divine justice,” Murdoch nodded.

“So it seems.” Johnny snapped. Still irritated that his father and brother had intervened, he nevertheless felt an overwhelming sense of comfort, knowing that he was not alone. “Tell me, did you also come with a plan?”

“Yes, but first, let’s get my grandfather out of here. I have a carriage waiting down the road.”

“A carriage, huh?” Johnny scoffed. “Well, I got Renegade and another horse waiting in the alley.”

“We know, you can pick them up along the way,” Scott replied, an arm around Johnny’s shoulder.

“How the hell did you find him? And how the hell did you know where I was? I usually know when I’m being followed.”

Scott snickered, but was quick to put his brother’s worries to rest. “You’re not slipping, Johnny. You weren’t being followed. We were waiting.” Noticing Garrett’s eyes widen with stunned shock, Scott laughed lightly. “That’s right, Grandfather. I’ve been here all along. A train is quicker than a horse,” Scott said, turning back to Johnny. “And since we didn’t pose a threat, you had nothing to fear. You haven’t lost your edge, your instincts are fully intact.”

“That better be good,” Johnny scowled.

“It sure is, little brother,” Scott clapped him on the back. “It mean’s you’re as sharp as ever.”

Murdoch jumped in, picking up where Scott left off. “Son, we gambled on the chance that you would come here, and can see we were right. You’re not the only one with a keen instinct, your old man is pretty good too, once he opens himself up to the ugliness of the world and refuses put those blinders back on.”

“And what if I didn’t come here? I almost didn’t,” Johnny shot back.

“Oh? And where would you have gone?” Scott asked.

“Was thinking of going to Arizona.”

“Eb?” Murdoch asked softly.

“Yeah, but he would have been a’screaming for me to hightail it out here and settle this once and for all before this bastard hurt anyone else. I doubt we’re the first.”

“I know we’re not the first,” Scott replied sadly. “And to answer your question, if you never showed up, it wouldn’t have made a difference. We did have an alternate plan.”

“An alternate plan, huh?” Johnny clipped.

“So little brother, you coming along, or what?” Scott’s arm swept out to the side and Murdoch strode through the door, followed by Garret, with Johnny shoving him along, and Scott, who closed the bedroom door.

With a quick glance around, they disappeared into the dark of night.

  ******

A heavy bank of clouds hid the moon, yet the strange entourage traveled through the murky fog rolling in off the ocean. Johnny hated fog. The few times he had encountered it had been enough, he had no desire to live where such a night was almost a common occurrence. Things lurked in the fog. It hindered a man’s defenses, clouded his instincts and sent his heart racing with dangers hidden inside the nightly shroud.

Johnny followed the dark carriage, windows shuttered with shades pulled down low. To his amazement, Scott sat atop guiding a team of two horses through the cobblestone streets, but in thinking, it made sense. His brother had to know the area like the back of his hand. Johnny knew that if he were in Mexico or the border towns, he could make his way blindfolded, so he put his trust in his brother and stayed close to the carriage, all the while praying they didn’t make a wrong turn and end up in the ocean. If there was one thing worse than the fog, it was floating in the cold seawater while buried in the thick, impenetrable mist.

An hour out of town, Scott pulled off the deserted road. Johnny sidled up alongside, and Scott leaned over. “I’m going to pull off just a short distance ahead. It’s sheer cliffs once we get another five miles down the road and I don’t want to take a chance in the fog.”

“Sounds good, I hate this shit,” Johnny shouted back.

“I’m used to it brother, but that don’t mean I like it,” Scot smirked. “Usually spend a foggy night in a brothel.”

“Only way to do it.”

The camaraderie warmed Murdoch’s heart, and caused Harlan to cringe. The one thing he detested, the one fear he had, was Scotty lowering himself enough to consort with Murdoch’s uneducated, half breed whelp. The boy was nothing more than a cold blooded killer, and possessed no manners whatsoever. Murdoch sat opposite Garrett; eyes locked, he silently dared the shaken man to challenge him. The gag had been removed and a canteen of water handed over. With trembling hands, Garrett accepted.

“You know, if it weren’t for Scott, I’d kill you in an instant.”

“You’ll never get away with this. Scotty will see you for what you are,” Garrett gasped.

Leaning forward, icy eyes pinpoints of frigid blue, glared. “My son has seen you for what you are. What a waste. This entire thing. A sheer waste. You’ve spent your whole life using people, playing people, tossing them aside when they could no longer serve you, and disposing of them when you deemed them to be in the way. Is that what you did to my wife? Hmmm?”

“I did what was necessary,” Garrett rasped.

A loud croaking laugh broke out. “And even after all this, you’re still a pompous, arrogant ass. Still think that you won’t pay. Well let me tell you. You’ll pay.” Leaning closer, Murdoch sneered. “You will pay.”

“And you will hang.”

“Who the hell said we were going to kill you? It’s more fulfilling to drag the punishment out,” Murdoch declared. Having heard enough, he pulled the gag back up over Garret’s mouth. Tapping the side of his face, he sat back, arms crossed.

  ******

They traveled another mile before Scott pulled into a break in the trees. Pulling the carriage to a stop, he tied off the team while Johnny tended Renegade and the sorrel.

Starting a fire, Johnny noticed how quiet Scott had become. Knowing how hard this had to be on his brother, he sat down, offering a bit of jerky. “Hungry?”

“Thanks.”

“You ok?” he asked, a lame attempt to end the uncomfortable silence.

“Will be.”

“Tossing the jerky on the ground, Johnny sat back, waiting for the coffee to brew. “Look, Scott, I can’t say I’m sorry, because that would be a lie. I came to exact revenge on . . .”

“I know why you came.”

“Well what do you want me to say? I’m sorry? I said that I can’t. But I am sorry you had to be a party to this.”

“What were you going to do, Johnny? Kill him and let me get a telegram?”

Johnny bristled, forcing himself to remain calm. “Scott, if this drives a wedge between us, then so be it. I know he’s your grandfather. He raised you and you love him, but don’t forget, he killed my mother. If he had left us alone, she might be alive this day. She didn’t have to suffer. I know you didn’t know your mother, but how would you feel if this was you?”

Scott remained silent for a while, then turned to face his brother. “That’s not why I’m angry. I wish this didn’t happen to any of us. But it did, and grandfather should be punished. Maybe we should take this to the law . . .”

“Maybe,” Johnny clipped. Anger rising, he threw a stick into the fire.

“Then again, he would get away with it. I know my grandfather, Johnny. We could have all the evidence in the world, but he owns the courts. He would either find a way to destroy the judge, or buy him off. Or his team would find a loophole. Probably declare him insane.” Scott stopped, studying his brother as a slow, evil grin crinkled the corners of his mouth. “Just what were you going to do?”

“What were you going to do?”

“I asked first.”

“First you tell me why you’re mad.”

“Johnny, I hate this. I’m in the middle here. I did love that old man, probably still do somewhere under all the anger and disappointment. I’m not the monster he is, and it hurts. It hurts in ways I can’t express. I feel cheated and betrayed. I also lived a lie. He took you off, making you live a life that shouldn’t have been, and he kept me from a life that should have been. I’m so damned angry with him, I could . . .”

“You could what, Scott?” Johnny’s question was issued in the form of a challenge his brother bucked against.

“Nothing, I don’t know. I just don’t know. What do you want me to say?” Scott dropped the hands from his face and stared at his brother from across the fire. “That I want to kill the man? That I will turn my head while you exact your revenge?”

“Who said I was going to kill him?” Johnny asked quietly in a voice void of emotion. “If I wanted to kill him, I would have done that back at the mansion. Burn it down and hide the evidence. No one would ever know.

“No, Scott, I don’t play that way. Don’t mean I don’t have a plan, just means I’m not the cold hearted prick the old bastard pegged me for. I will, however, pull out all stops to make sure that he doesn’t hurt anyone again.”

“Johnny, I’m sorry. I can’t forget what he did to you. To us, you me and Murdoch. And he did it all to keep me. He lied about our father in order to keep me. And he had you kidnapped to insure Murdoch would stay in California. Figured that as long as you were missing, our father would not leave California and try to claim me. I can’t live with what he has done, and I don’t think he should get away with it. So yes, I’m mad. I’m mad at him for everything he has done to you, me, Murdoch and every other family he has destroyed through the years.

“Do you know that one of my grandfather’s partners committed suicide?” Scott asked, seeing the sad surprise in Johnny’s eyes. “That’s right. Grandfather was working on a hostile take over.”

“Yeah, heard of them, instead of taking a ranch, you take a business. Same spin as a range war, different rewards,” Johnny shuddered.

“That’s about it,” Scott agreed. “Anyway, Marvin Hurd, his partner, didn’t want anything to do with it, and when he threatened to go to the authorities, Grandfather destroyed the man both morally and financially. Won’t go into detail, but Marvin’s wife left him, his children refused to ever speak with him again, and he lost everything.

“Was penniless and blackballed. There wasn’t a financial firm that would hire him. He couldn’t even get a job shoveling manure at the stables. Everyone was afraid of grandfather and what he would do if they hired Marvin, so the poor man didn’t stand a chance. One day he went and hung himself in his study.

“My grandfather took the news without so much as a hint of sorrow. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, he gloated. Sat behind his desk with a smirk on his face and fingers entwined saying ‘Well Scotty, that’s what happens to those weaker than us’. No Johnny, now that I’m finally looking at my grandfather with open eyes, I see the sad truth. I see all the sad truths he has been hiding over the years.”

“Then you’re mad at me,” Johnny surmised.

Flinging his cup to the ground, Scott vaulted to his feet and walked away. Before he got more than a few feet, he spun back around. “Yes, damn it. I am mad at you. You left us hanging, Johnny. Nothing but a damned letter. Oh, you want me to read it to you? Just wait a minute.”

Scott stood and pulling a crinkled paper from his pocket, sat closer to the fire. “Dear Scott,” he began, flashing a quick look in his brother’s direction. “I see you remembered your manners. Started it with ‘Dear Scott,’ he huffed. “So let’s see, here it is. ‘Dear Scott, I’m sorry things have to be this way and hope you understand. You’re my brother . . .”

“Well no shit.” Scott burst out, shooting an angry glare in Johnny’s direction. His younger brother withered and Scott continued. “And that means a lot to me’. Probably not enough to get you to stay, huh?” Scott challenged.

“Let’s see what else it says. ‘I don’t mean to leave like this, but I need time to think. Don’t worry, I’m not mad at you or Murdoch, you’re hurting too. I just need to take off for a little while and think. Please understand. Your brother, Johnny’. And that’s supposed to make it all right? And we weren’t supposed to worry?”

By this time, Johnny was sinking slowly into the ground, his head hunched as close to his shoulders as he could manage. Scott stood, glaring down at the chastised youth. “You go and take off like there’s nothing to it, not caring about our feelings, not considering how we would worry, and making us wonder just what the hell you were really up to, and we were just supposed to forget about it?

“Johnny, I could throttle you. You ever try a stunt like that again, I’ll hunt you down and kick your sorry ass from where you are, clear back to Lancer. Hell, I just might do that anyway. I don’t give a damn what happens from here on in, that’s what you’ll get if you take off like this again.”

Scott stood breathing heavily. Johnny slowly straightened, lifting his eyes to peer up at his brother, finding the slim man standing with hands on hips, plumes of chill frothing from his mouth. “I’m sorry,” was all he could muster.

Scott flung his hands up in the air and plopped back down. “Is that all you have to say? You’re sorry? Johnny, when are you going to realize that you’re not alone? You don’t have to be alone.”

Johnny hung his head, poking a stick idly into the fire as he spoke. Lifting it, he blew on the burned out nub. “It’s hard to change a lifelong habit, Scott. Been on my own for so long now, don’t know how to be any other way. Didn’t mean to turn from you and Murdoch, just used to being on my own. Raised myself since I was ten. Never had anyone else to consider, just myself. If I had a roof over my head, I slept good. If not, then I learned to adjust. If I had food, I ate. If not, I was used to going without.

“I took care of myself, learned how to a long time ago. Taught myself right from wrong, know that sounds dumb coming from someone with my reputation, but I chose my fights, Scott. You know that. I was on my own, and had no one else to blame for what happened.”

Scott sat a bit straighter, a hand placed upon Johnny’s shoulder. “Yes, you do have someone to blame. You have my grandfather. He’s the one at blame, here. You just have to learn not to go off on your own, anymore. Johnny, if you have a problem, you can come to me. What do you think big brothers are for?”

“A problem solver, huh?” Johnny smirked.

“Yes, if I can. If I can’t, then I’m a good listener. Together, we’ll face what comes our way. Johnny, I’ve always wanted a brother. I might have had a life of privilege, but I was lonely. Grandfather chose my friends, made sure they lived up to his standards, but they were dolts. My true friends never came to the mansion.

When I was old enough, I would sneak out at night and go down to the docks and meet up with them. They were my true friends. They were the ones who knew how I felt, the ones I could talk to. They didn’t run their lives around social engagements and such. They might have been poor, but they were good and hardworking, which is more than I can say for the so-called friends my grandfather approved of.”

“Sounds lonely.”

“It was.”

“So, you followed me here?”

“We had a pretty good idea of where you were headed and thought we’d beat you here. Like I said, we were already here and waiting when we saw you the other night. We tried to intervene then, but you slipped away before we could get close.”

“Yeah, I am pretty good at that,” Johnny chuckled.

“Not funny, Johnny.” Scott’s intense glare sobered the wanton youth immediately.

“Sorry Scott.”

“We were afraid for you. We didn’t think you would be dumb enough to go in there and gun Grandfather down in cold blood . . .”

“I wouldn’t.”

“We knew that, Johnny, but we still didn’t want you to confront him alone. You don’t have to. I still should kick your backside clear back to California.”

“Would like to see you try,” Johnny smirked. “So you’re not mad at me for going after the old goat?”

“How can I be?” Scott resigned himself to the truth, no matter how much it hurt. “I’m not happy about any of this. It shouldn’t be, but I doubt if he’s even sorry now. That scares me, Johnny. If someone can do the things my grandfather did and not feel a slight bit of remorse, then there’s something seriously wrong with him. I hate to say it, but he’s deranged. He probably thinks we deserved everything he did.”

“We were beneath him. And in his eyes, we were beneath you. There was no way he was going to let you come to California to be with Murdoch, even with me out of the picture.”

“I’m afraid you’re right,” Scott replied sadly. “He deemed so many people to be beneath him. I doubt Grandfather truly liked anyone. Maybe we were all possessions. I don’t know what my grandmother was like, but from what her sister, my Aunt Judith, said, she was nothing like Grandfather.

“She was a loving, kind woman. Sort of like my Aunt.” Scott’s eyes lit up as he turned to Johnny. “Do you know what she did?”

“No, what?”

“Johnny, that woman is all of 76 years old, and she sailed her own boat in a Regatta last year.”

”What’s a Regatta?”

“Well, it’s a fancy boat race. She had a sailboat, manned the sails herself,” Scott replied proudly.

“I’ve seen sailboats down in the Gulf Coast. Been in one once, they’re hard to handle,” Johnny grinned.

“She’s something. Still rides, you’d love her horses. Maybe one day . . .”

“Yeah, I’d like that.” Johnny fell silent. They shared a pot of coffee, than Johnny began to speak, soft velvety tones floating on the crisp breeze. “I wasn’t gonna kill him, Scott.”

“I know.”

“But the world would have thought him dead.”

“Understood.”

“And you would have inherited everything,” Johnny scoffed.

“Looks that way,” Scott replied, a sly grin emerging. “So, what was your plan?”

“What was yours?” Johnny countered.

Trying to hide the sheepish grin that broke out, Scott hung his head, poking at the dirt with a stick. “Well, uh . . .”

Johnny’s eyes grew wide and his mouth fell. “You didn’t have a plan. Holy shit, you didn’t have a plan.” Slapping his forehead, he stared in disbelief. “You came all the way out here, and didn’t have a freaking plan?”

“Looks that way,” Scott blushed.

“Scott, you always gotta have a plan.”

“We thought we’d sort of wing it.”

“Wing it? Maybe wing it? Hell Scott, nothing lets you wing it. You didn’t have a plan, and you say I need a big brother to look out after me? Hell, you need a frigging keeper.” Johnny gawked.

“We sort of figured you had a plan, and were gonna follow along.”

“And what if you didn’t like it?”

“Well . . .”

“Let me guess, you were gonna wing it. What were you thinking?” Johnny cringed, rolling his eyes.

“What’s your plan?”

“Shot in the ass now that you stopped me, Johnny grumbled.

“What do you mean, shot in the ass?” Scott stammered.

Johnny jumped to his feet. “Shot in the ass, Scott. It was perfect, all laid out. No one would ever know. After I took the old coot, I’d burn the mansion down and the world would think him dead. Never mind he would go on insisting he was Harlan Garret, ‘cause where I was gonna stick him, no one would know of Harlan Garret, and wouldn’t give a rat’s ass to begin with.”

Scott’s eyes narrowed and ever so slowly, he rose to his feet. “Just where were you gonna ‘stick’ him?”

Johnny tried to hide the sly grin, only to fail miserably. “Well, I was gonna go to San Francisco and have him shanghaied.”

“Now that would have been fitting,” Scott smirked.

“Then thought hell, he’d find a way to buy the boat and slip away.”

Scott threw his head back in laughter. “You’re probably right. So, pray tell, what are you gonna do?”

Johnny hung his head, instantly ashamed of his plans for the man that had raised Scott, and knew his brother still loved somewhere deep inside. “Maybe it’s a good thing you found me. Maybe can stop me.”

“What are you going to do?” Scott’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Because I have to tell you Johnny, that man in there deserves to pay for his sins. He’ll walk otherwise. I can’t let that happen, there’s no telling what he’ll do next. He’s dangerous, and has already proven that. I’d rather make sure he’s somewhere he can’t ever hurt anyone again, because we know he will. He already has. I can’t and won’t take the chance of him coming after you or Murdoch, again.”

Johnny raised his head, eyes locking with those of his brother. “I was gonna go deep into Mexico, down by the border near Guatemala.”

Scott’s blood turned cold, yet he needed to hear. “Go on.”

“I know the area like the back of my hand, and the people in that small town, Los Nombre, owe me a debt. They would never betray me, and vowed to help me should I ever need it. Without question, Scott, and even if it took the rest of their lives.”

“That’s pretty heavy, brother,” Scott said, impressed that an entire town would turn out in such a manner.

“Yeah, and I know I can trust them. But since you and Murdoch came along, that’s shot in the ass.”

”There we go again, it’s all shot in the ass. Johnny, what the hell are you talking about?”

“Scott, everyone is supposed to believe Garret is dead. That happens, you get the money and he loses the control. He has no way to get to any resources, not that he will anyway, but it stops a lot of questions, there won’t be an investigation or anything. It would be cut and dry. The mansion burns down, Garret is believed dead, and you’ve got the money.”

“And you’re free to carry out your plan, if you ever get to telling me what that damned plan is.”

Johnny literally squirmed where he sat. “It’s perfect, Scott. You see, there’s this old asylum in the town,” he began, as Scott’s eyes grew wider. “And since the old man is deranged anyway, I was gonna stick him in there.”

Scott’s mouth fell and his eyes bulged. “How old is this place? And is it still in use?”

“Yeah, it’s still in use. And they’re tight, Scott. Someone gets in, they never get out.”

“So you are going to take my grandfather to an old asylum on the most remote section of Mexico and lock him up?”

“Yep. Deep in the bowels of the dungeon. Oh, I’d make sure he had all the amenities. A cot to sleep on, a chair to sit in and a table to eat off of. He’ll have a sink to wash in and a pot to crap in, but that’s about it.”

Scott put his head in his hands. “Oh man, brother, remind me not to get on your bad side.

“Guess that’s off now,” Johnny said, hanging his head. “Should have come to you first. He’s your grandfather. I’ll leave it up to you.”

Seconds stretched into minutes as the two brothers sat in silence, one secretly hoping, the other lost in deep contemplation. Finally, Scott dropped his hands and lifted his head. Turning to face his brother, he said, “Just how long do you think it will take to get there?”

Johnny bristled with excitement. “Well, brother, we can make better time if we ditch the carriage and go on horseback.”

“It’s done.” Scott poured another cup of coffee and stirred the beans put on earlier. “Wonder how Grandfather will take to a diet of beans and hard tack?”

“He’ll learn to like it. If not, then he’ll learn the hard way what hunger is. Let him feel a bit of what my mother and I went through. Let him sleep in the dirt, without a roof over his head, and with his stomach gnawing at his backbone. Let him wonder when and where the next morsel of food will come from, and lay awake at night so damned scared of trying to survive and tired of fighting, that he’s ready to cash it all in. I want to break him, Scott. I want him to suffer the same things I did. I lock him up, he’ll never get out of there. Those people can’t be bought. Their loyalty can’t be bought. And he won’t have the money or means to do it.”

“And you do?” Scott asked. “I really don’t care about him right now, just want to make sure this doesn’t come back on you.”

“It won’t come back on me. Not only do the people of that town owe me, I’m giving them money.”

“You sure they’re all still there?”

“I’m sure. People like that, they don’t leave. They got nothing to leave to. You don’t leave nothing, for nothing. You got nothing to go to, then you stay where you are.”

“Well, I guess there’s only one thing to do now.” Scott stood, scarfed the last of the coffee and dusted his hands off on his pants.

“What’s that?” Johnny followed, stretching out his stiff back.

“Will be quicker getting back to town on horseback. That sorrel looks like a good mount,” he nodded in the direction of the horse.

“He is,” Johnny followed his brother’s gaze, his eyes widening in surprise.

“Then you stay here and keep a lid on things, and I’ll make a trip back to Boston.”

“They won’t see you?”

“Won’t be dawn for hours yet, I’ll get in and out quickly.”

“You sure you can do this?”

“As sure as you are about your plan. I put a crimp in it earlier, and I plan on rectifying my mistake.”

“You sure? Scott, you were raised in that house,” Johnny hedged. “Was different if I was gonna do it.”

“No, I’ll be setting something right. I have a home now, the mansion is only a house. I took all that was of value to me when I came to Lancer, and have the keepsakes given me by my grandmother, my books and pictures. Everything that meant something is home. No, this is a way of purging myself of the past. I’ll be back in a few hours. Keep the fire warm.”

Before Johnny could utter a protest, Scott mounted the sorrel and was off. The sound of hoofbeats fading in the distance, Johnny turned back to the fire. Shivering, he pulled his jacket tighter. He had so much to be thankful for. So much to do, and a long road ahead of them. He sat back, sipping another cup of coffee, after handing one to his father.

A little over an hour later, the sky to the east lit in a bright orange glow and a slow smile snaked across Johnny’s face. Harlan Garrett was officially gone.

  ******

Scott returned just before dawn. Brushing past Johnny and motioning for Murdoch to leave the carriage, he sat facing his grandfather. “I had to do it. God help me, I had to do it. For the first time, you have to see the consequences of your actions. You’ve hurt so many people over the years, and I turned a blind eye. Deep inside, I knew. I saw the things you did, but was a fool. I refused to think badly of you.

“Then when I returned from the war, I knew you were wrong in what you did, in the people you hurt, and you didn’t care. You didn’t feel. Do you feel anything, Grandfather? I saw a lot of suffering during the war, and see my fellow man in a different light. For the first time, I see him as he should be, a human being, not someone beneath me because of my so-called privileged status.

“The life I led sickens me, because I was not only shielded from reality, I had too much. It was pompous. Privileged is all right, but if that privilege comes on the wings of someone you destroyed, then I can’t live with that. There’s no shame in being rich, the shame comes from how you gain those riches, and how you use them afterward.

“I loved you, Grandfather, and I think I still do somewhere deep inside, once I get past the anger, hate and disappointment. You gave me so much, but you took so much away. How can you say you love someone, when you took what would have been so precious? To both of us.” Scott stared deeply into his grandfather’s eyes. With no sign of emotion, he gave up.

“You were alone ever since I could remember, but if you had let my father into our lives, and saw my brother for the man he is, not the man you created in your mind simply because of his heritage, our lives would have been enriched beyond our wildest dreams. And I wouldn’t be sitting here cursing you for what you did. I’m a person, not a possession. I wasn’t born to be used as a wedge between you and my father, so that you could keep me to punish him.

“There was no need for punishment. My mother loved my father, and I came of that love. What you did, jaded everything in my eyes. I spent my life hating a man who didn’t deserve that hate, and serving a man that did not deserve to walk free. You had money and power, and you used that to destroy. When I think of the good that money and power could have been used for over the years, I want to scream. I saw people die needlessly in the war. Father against son, brother fighting brother.

“There was so much sadness, so much grief, suffering and death. Can you imagine how it felt when I learned what you did, and finally admitted all the sorrow you have caused? It was needless, and never had to happen. And it made me ashamed of you. None of this had to be. I don’t know what the future holds, Grandfather, because believe it or not, my brother is torn apart, too. And so is my father. I think you should really look back on your life.”

Before leaving, Scott turned back to his grandfather one more time. “Like I said, I had to do it. How can I look back on that place as home, when I know what it was built on? Lies, deceit and the pain of others. How can I hold that sort of heritage dear? A life of privilege that comes from the pain of others is one to be ashamed of, not cherish. Not to hold in your heart. Maybe you can, but I can’t.”

Scott climbed down from the carriage and Murdoch returned. Drained, Scott walked over to the fire and sat by his brother. Not a word was said as a cup of coffee and plate of beans was passed. Scott ate with abandon, realizing that he had not eaten since lunch the previous day.

Johnny handed two plates of beans and warmed tortillas to his father, and fixed one for himself. Setting the plate aside, Scott drained the tin mug of coffee. “We’ll use the carriage for now. I don’t want anyone to recognize Grandfather.”

“What about you?” Johnny pointed out. “Aren’t you afraid of being recognized?”

“Not really, I’ll have my hat pulled down low. And first of all, everyone thinks I’m in California. Besides, no one would expect to see me driving a carriage dressed like this. I was usually the passenger, dressed in . . .”

“Ruffles and lace,” Johnny shuddered. “Don’t remind me.”

“All right, brother, I’ll let that lie with those red plaid pants, “Scott snickered.

“Please tell me you burned them, “Johnny groaned.

“No, but you piss me off again, next time I come looking, I’ll be wearing them, along with that fancy ruffled shirt and top hat, ” Scott threatened.

Johnny hid his face in his hands. “Remind me never to leave Lancer again.”

“Yeah, me too, after this, “Scott said softly.” As soon as we eat, we’ll get going. We’ll stick to the carriage for now, especially through the New England states. You know, the quickest, easiest route to Mexico would be by boat. “

Johnny cringed, the skin around his mouth turning slightly green. “Nah uh, no way, brother. I’m sticking to land. Besides, you’ll never get Renegade on one of them boats, and you’d have to kill me to get me to leave him behind.”

Garrett heard those words and thought that if he could only get the chance, he would be happy to oblige.

“All right, point well taken. But it’s gonna be one hell of a long trip.”

“Yeah, I was thinking on that. Maybe we will keep the carriage, won’t eat up that much time, but it could provide shelter when needed. Least this way, we get caught in the rain or something, we got it.”

“You know little brother, you’re getting pretty good at using that head of yours,” Scott teased, ruffling Johnny’s hair.

A bashful smile was offered as Johnny glanced up. “At least I had a plan.”

“That you did. That you did, little brother,” Scott said softer this time, falling deep in thought, a tin mug of coffee clutched in hand.

“Thanks, Scott.”

Scott turned to face his brother. “What for, Johnny?”

“For standing by me when you didn’t have to. Believe me, I know what this is costing you.”

“And I know what it has cost you,” Scott reminded him. “We’re brothers Johnny, there is no stronger bond. I would die for you.”

Almost too choked up to speak, Johnny’s eyes watered as he again met those of his brother. “Until Murdoch, I never met anyone who cared that much before. It’s hard, knowing I have people that care. Maybe that’s why I ran.”

“Why’s that?”

“Cause, sometimes things are really too good to be true.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way, Johnny.”

“Will be if he’s still around,” Johnny nodded toward the carriage. “He’d find a way to ruin things again. As long as you remained at Lancer, he’d find a way. And even if you did go back, he’d find a way to destroy us again, so you wouldn’t think of ever returning.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right about that. Hell, you are right,” Scott agreed, tossing a handful of dirt onto the dying flames. He gathered the tin plates, not surprised to see that his grandfather had refused to eat, and packed everything away. “Well, brother, we had our break, let me make a quick trip into the bushes, and we’ll get on the road.”

“Sounds good, I’ll get the horses ready.”

Harlan had never seen this side of his grandson before, and frowned at how adept he was at living rough. He knew he should have fought harder to keep Scott from going off to war. The boy had picked up some rather distasteful habits, and sadly, seemed right at home eating outside and relieving himself in the bushes like some animal. Grimacing, he turned away from the small window.

Johnny banked the fire, kicking dirt over the dying embers. Renegade was saddled and the sorrel was tied off on the back of the carriage. In a role befitting a guard, Murdoch shoved Garrett into the bushes, chuckling at how degraded the man had to be without his luxurious water closet, and vowed to make the one for his sons, even better. Murdoch accepted his post for the duration of the trip, secretly delighted to be the one keeping tabs on Garrett. Nothing pleased him more, for now he was the one in control. Garrett’s reign was over and soon the man would be locked up where he belonged, never to be heard from again.

There was no possibility of escape, and with no identity, clothing, boots, a horse and money to make the long, almost impossible trip north, the man didn’t stand a chance. Rich and in control of the world and those around him one minute, now Garrett was as worthless as the dust beneath their feet. And like that dust he could be brushed away. Shoving the man back toward the carriage, Murdoch strode triumphantly, saluting his boys as he stalked past.

With a flick of the reins, the long journey was underway.

  ******

After five weeks of laborious travel, they reached the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. Endless days on horseback had earned Garret festering blisters in places he would rather not have blisters, and his complaining had ceased shortly after he realized he was on his own, there was no caring compassion, no servants at the ready to tend to his every want and need. He lived like an animal. He rode one all day long, ate food cooked over a campfire, slept outside and did his business in the bushes, with Murdoch Lancer standing guard over him every stinking minute.

His pride was shot, his dignity, gone. Garrett had been reduced to the slovenly levels of his fellow man, where once he thought to be lord and master over all. His hatred festered, as did the blisters. At first, he tried to talk with Scott, but after three days of pleading and crying, his grandson had shut him out. Any attempt at contact was thwarted by Murdoch, there was no way around the sturdy Scotsman, who was as fierce as a mother grizzly on the prowl.

They stopped for two days of rest, in which Murdoch contacted the ranch via telegram. The response was received the following morning, with Val ducking into the telegraph office three times a day looking for a message. He was the liaison, something set up by Johnny, and Murdoch was ever appreciative of his son’s foresight. They kept Val appraised of their welfare, and he reassured them that Paul and Cipriano had everything under control at the ranch, there was no need to worry.

Val had sad news from Boston regarding Scott’s grandfather, and informed the attorney that in their absence, he was the one to contact. Scott was on a cattle drive and would be unreachable for the better part of the next three months. As soon as they returned, Val would make sure to give Scott the message. In the meantime, Val was informed that Scott’s interests were looked after, and the attorney would wait for his reply.

Val knew the absence would be lengthy, and made it his personal goal to keep watch over Lancer and its inhabitants. He owed Johnny at least that much. Johnny and Scott spent the night in New Orleans, purchasing supplies and satisfying their raging libido. There was no better aphrodisiac than revenge, and both brothers spent the night in the arms of a sultry, Cajun beauty.

“Boy, there sure is something to say about spice,” Johnny flashed a lewd grin, adjusting his gunbelt.

“Brother, one day we’ll come back here for a vacation, and I’ll show you some of New Orleans’ finer points, ” Scott chuckled, an arm draped around Johnny’s shoulder.

“Finally, food as spicy as I like it,” Johnny answered as breakfast was served. “Oh, I asked them to fix something for Murdoch.”

“That’s good,” Scott dared a questioning glance.

“And the old fart,” Johnny grimaced.

“I thank you,” Scott nodded.

“Don’t thank me if he gets the shits.”

“And him without his water closet,” Scott laughed.

“Brother, I do think you have found your devious side.” Johnny raised a coffee cup in toast. “And I never thought I’d like coffee with cream.”

“It’s laced with sweet cream. I kind of grew a liking to it myself,” Scott replied in kind.

“Sounds like you been here before,” Johnny pointed out.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I’ve spent considerable time here. Should we come back, I’ll have to show you the French Quarter. There’s no other place like it,” Scott replied.

“Hey, I’m up for anything,” Johnny grinned.

Breakfast was enjoyed and once the needed supplies were purchased and the requested meals were delivered, Scott dared his next suggestion. “Brother, I know you are going to balk, but trust me, it will be fine.”

Eyes narrowing, Johnny waited. “What is it?”

“We can cut considerable time off if we go by boat. It’s a straight shot down.”

“Scott, you know how I feel about boats,” Johnny whined.

The argument went back and forth for the better part of an hour, with Scott stubbornly standing his ground and Johnny losing his footing. In the end, a trip to the docks ensued, passage was booked and Johnny was more than surprised when Renegade marched up the ramp, snorting and shaking his silken mane.

“Show off, but I don’t blame you. It would have been a hell of a trip, and I know you’re glad to be a passenger this time. And don’t you worry, I’ll stay with you every minute, and will even sleep in the stall next to you at night. I’ll take good care of you, amigo,” Johnny said, laughing as Renegade nibbled at his hair.

The carriage was ditched, the sorrel, bay and roan led aboard, and they were on their way . . . Harlan Garrett sailing southward aboard a cattle boat. Three weeks later, they landed at a small port near the Mexican town of Villahermosa.

Six days later, tired, dirty and hungry, the straggly group reached the facility of Almas Perdidas, or Lost Souls. The gray, weathered stone building with bars on the windows and a forty foot adobe wall surrounding the building, stood starkly against the brilliant blue of a sultry summer sky.

Wiping the sweat from his brow, Johnny dismounted and walked over toward Scott. “We can still walk away. Call it one hell of a family vacation, if you want. I don’t want to risk losing mi hermano, over revenge. I’ll live with Garrett, and he’ll have to live with me, ‘cause I won’t ever let him get the better of me again. For you, I’ll walk away.”

Scott dared one look at his grandfather, and shook his head. “No, it’s either this, or prison for the rest of his life, he’ll never be free again. And I doubt if he’ll ever be punished if he walks. No, Johnny, I can’t risk him hurting anyone else, and I fear that this time, he won’t stop until he kills you and Murdoch. I knew that before this began, and I know it now. We have to do this. I hate it, but we have to do it.”

“I hate it too, Scott. He could have been my abuelo, my abuelastro, stepgrandfather. I would have liked that.” Eyes saddened beyond their years, Johnny had to look away.

Garrett had remained silent during the entire trip, but when pulled from the sorrel by Murdoch, turned to Scott one final time. “Scotty, please. Don’t do this to me.”

“And what have you done to me, grandfather? Do you feel any shame? Any remorse?” Looking into the older man’s eyes, Scott had his answer. “No, I didn’t think so. I can’t let you hurt anyone else again. I can’t let you hurt me again. Grandfather, you gave me so much, but you took away more. Goodbye.” Scott mounted his horse and looking down at Johnny said, “I’ll be in town. Meet me at the cantina. I’m sure I’ll find one somewhere.”

Johnny gave a curt nod and with his father walking behind Garrett, took the old man by the arm and led him through the main gate. “Pedro, good to see you.”

A small bow executed, Pedro grasped Johnny’s hand. “Johnny Madrid, I never thought to see you again. I owe you much, Johnny. I will never forget how you saved my family from certain death.”

Murdoch gave a questioning glare, thinking he might never know what happened, and settled for just knowing his son. He followed Johnny inside and stood back as his son handled matters.

“Pedro, this man is very delusional and very dangerous. He is insane. He has killed many, all for the sick need of money and power. Don‘t let him lead you to believe the lies that he is a rich man, for through his deeds, he has lost it all and is penniless.”

“I understand,” Pedro answered, a slight nod given. They followed him into the office, and waited while the proper papers were pulled out to be signed.

“Pedro, I feel obliged to tell you what he did, for I know it will go no further.”

“Johnny for you, I will remain silent. May my mother be struck dead if I ever speak the words given in confidence.” The proud man of middle age and raven black hair peppered with gray took a seat and listened intently.

Harlan stood in front of the desk, his head hanging low, and Murdoch stood right behind him. Johnny cleared his throat and began. “You know of my life, of what happened to my mother, so there is no need to go into details. What you don’t know, is that this man kidnapped me from my home when I was two. He forced my mother out of our home. This is my father, Murdoch Lancer.”

“Mr. Lancer, I am pleased,” Pedro said, a hand offered.

“As am I,” Murdoch replied, returning the shake.

“Don’t be fooled by this man, Pedro,” Johnny said, jabbing Garrett in the ribs. The older man lifted his head, hate filled eyed peering out. Pedro took a step forward, ready to intervene if necessary. “He has harmed many and doesn’t deserve to walk among decent people. He killed my mother and has destroyed the lives of many. He isn’t sorry, and would do it again if given the chance. He will destroy you and your family should he be set free. So don’t let his lies lure you into turning him loose, my friend. He is not fit to live among civilized people.”

Pedro glared and handed the papers over. “I will not listen to his lies, and I will not let the man who had destroyed Johnny’s life free ever again. I owe Johnny Madrid a great debt, one I will never repay in a million lifetimes, and this is one service I can do him. Come, you must go.”

Pedro led Harlan Garret down the darkened, dank hallway. Johnny followed, hesitating only briefly. “I don’t want to do this,” he whispered to his father. “I can only imagine how Scott feels, because this is killing me. I just have to keep on reminding myself of all the people he has hurt, the lives he has destroyed.”

“And will destroy again should he be set free. No, my son, we were the judge and jury, and this is a fitting punishment. Let’s go.” Murdoch followed Pedro down the stairwell leading to the lower level.

Garrett’s legs failed and he cried out, pummeling Murdoch on the chest. “Let me go. Don’t do this to me, Murdoch. Don’t do this.”

“Did you listen to the pleas of my wife the dark night you forced her from her home?” Murdoch asked, eyes locking for one brief moment.

Seeing the hidden rage, Murdoch knew the punishment to be just. Garrett was whisked away to a cell of stone walls and floor. The one small, square window was shuttered with heavy iron bars sunk into ten feet of cement. There was no escape.

He whimpered with fear, his legs turning to jelly, his bodily functions betraying him. Looking at the primitive facilities, Harlan Garrett fell to his knees screaming. Hearing the heavy iron door clang shut, he rose, hair askew, eyes blackened with rage shooting fire. Johnny walked to the cell and Garrett glowered.

“I will kill you for this, Johnny Madrid. Do you hear me? I will kill you. If I have to claw my way out of this place and take down anyone who gets in my way, I will do it. You are a dead man. How dare you lock me up like a dog? How dare you breathe.”

“Enough. Close the door. Do not listen to those vile words. The man is dangerous and seriously demented. He is a raving lunatic, and his threats are gospel. Do not let your guard down, for it will be the last thing you do,” Pedro warned the guards.

The door was closed and they walked away, Garrett’s cries diminishing until they vanished altogether. Johnny and Murdoch climbed the heavy stone steps and reaching the outside, stood breathing deep of the fresh, midday air. Scott approached slowly, a curt nod all the response he was capable of.

“Come on boys, let’s go home. Let’s really go home,” Murdoch said.

They walked to their horses, and turning to Pedro, Johnny handed the reins of the sorrel over. “Here, if I remember right, your son is about fourteen by now, isn’t he?”

“Yes he is,” Pedro stammered, confused as to the inquiry.

“Then he will enjoy this horse. And I hope the money I left on your desk is enough. If not, you contact Isabel Ramirez in Mexico City. She knows how to get hold of me. Vaya con dios, mi amigo.” Johnny tipped his hat, and without another word, rode away, his brother and father following.

It was a long way home, and Johnny thought to speak with his father and brother about the return trip. He hated the thought of crossing the barren dessert that awaited, and didn’t think Scott or Murdoch would mind another voyage. He knew Renegade would be deeply appreciative, the persnickety stallion had grown a liking to the briny, sea air. It would be good to reach home.

Once they reached the main road, Murdoch turned toward Johnny. “Son, I have to ask. You said that Pedro owed you a debt of gratitude. What did you do?”

Johnny hung his head, giving pause to the question posed. Just as Murdoch gave up on receiving an answer, a soft drawl caught his attention. “Right before I came to Tucson, two friends and I were just riding around Mexico. We got the idea to head to the coast, we had seen the Gulf of Mexico, and wanted to see the west coast.”

Johnny fell deep in thought as memories assailed. “We came to the village late one night. Pedro, his younger brother and wife, and Pedro’s two teenage daughters were just walking home from the pier. A band of comancheros had been tearing up the coast, and attacked them. Unfortunately, they dishonored Pedro’s sister-in-law, and beat his brother senseless.

“My friends and I heard the noise and we did what we could. There were six men in all, and we took them down. Bastards would have slaughtered Pedro and his family once they were done, if you know what I mean.”

Murdoch closed his eyes, again amazed at what his younger son has done in his short life, the people he has touched, the lives he has saved, and knew he would never think of Johnny Madrid as a gunslinger again.

“You know,” he began, looking at both sons. “They say that something good always comes from something bad, and I believe that to be true in this case. If there was one shining thought from you being taken from me, it’s the lives you have saved. For that, I am grateful. What do you say we go home?”

.

Epilogue

Murdoch sat at his desk rubbing the sides of his temple. What in the world ever prompted him to think that having both boys home would simplify his life? Looking at the two boisterous young men grappling with one another as they strode in from the barn, a smile crossed Murdoch’s face. His life will never be quiet again, and for that, headache aside, he was grateful.

He could hear Johnny’s hoot of triumph as he once again eluded Scott’s attempt to pull him into a headlock, but the wiry easterner was not one to give up easily. As Johnny had found out earlier, Scott might have dressed like a dandy at one time, but not only did he acclimate to life in the west as if he had been here his entire life, he was also a force to be reckoned with.

“Not quite so fast, little brother,” Scott’s laughter rang out. Before Johnny could break free, a long leg wrapped around his shins and he was swept off his feet. Laying on his back, he looked up at Scott towering over him, eyes blinking in surprise. “Don’t know how to flip anyone like you can, but I’m pretty good at tripping people.”

“My head,” Johnny gasped. Wincing, he closed his eyes, feeling Scott bending lower. He heard his brother’s voice, but did not make a sound.

Warm breath trickled across his face and fingers gently prodded, when Johnny snagged Scott around the back of the neck and with a quick tug, pulled him off his feet and into a complete somersault. Flat on his back, Scott blinked in shock. Whipping his body around, this time it was Johnny who stared down at the prone body lying in the dust.

“Never underestimate your opponent, Scott,” Johnny laughed, making a beeline for the house, his brother in hot pursuit.

The French doors slammed open and Murdoch was on his feet in seconds. “Boys. There will be no running in the house.”

“You better check Scott, he’s wounded,” Johnny snickered, poking at his brother’s head.

”You better examine this one, because I believe he has just lost what little brains, he had,” Scott shot back, shoving Johnny off.

Murdoch chuckled, wondering if this is what life would have been like if both boys had been raised at Lancer. “Oh, I somehow think you’ll both survive.”

“He’s sneaky,” Scott crooked his finger toward Johnny.

“And he’s too easily fooled. Hey Murdoch, you should have heard Mack when he got his foot stomped by that cow.” Johnny chuckled over an earlier mishap, his mind switching gears almost too quick for his father and brother to keep up. “See Boston, I told you cows were dumb. Now you know why I want to raise horses.”

Forgetting their wrestling bout, Scott laughed lightly in response. “Yeah, he sure squealed.”

Wiping the sweat from his face, Johnny tossed his hat onto the desk. “Oh man, I didn’t know it was possible for someone to shriek so loud. You’d think that cow stepped on his cajones.”

“John.” Eyes raised to peer at his mischievous son, Murdoch’s warning was biting and clear.

Too wound up to remain silent, Johnny flashed a wry grin of jaded innocence. “I’d have to get mine stuck in a vice to reach that pitch.”

“Jonathan Ian Lancer,” Murdoch warned.

“Or smashed on an anvil.” Scott interceded, every bit as straight faced as he could manage.

“Now you’d have to be standing mighty close to that anvil, brother,” Johnny snickered.

“Well, it’s more plausible than getting stuck in a vice . . .”

A face alight with devious glee, Johnny grabbed his brother by the arm. “Hey, how about a really angry woman?”

“That’d do it,” Scott snapped his fingers.

“Uh oh, you’re both going to get your mouths washed out with soap,” Teresa squealed. Breezing into the room, she hid behind the couch, listening to the brother’s teasing. Laughter overtaking her, the young girl stood, a hand clamped over her mouth.

“BOYS.” Murdoch’s stern shout sent both into peals of laughter.

Scattering, they bid a hasty retreat. Johnny dashed through the open French doors, while Scott made a daring escape through the front door. Giggling, her face flushed with a hint of devious humor that refused to be denied, Teresa quickly turned about and disappeared through the kitchen door, finding refuge in the garden. At the age of fourteen, the girl was growing too quickly. Murdoch would have to have a talk with Maria.

Silence descended as the older man stood, running a hand through his hair. “When the hell did I lose control? And horses bite.” Having shouted that small bit of retribution over his shoulder, he felt victorious and poured a good, double helping of Scotch.

Three years have passed and both Scott and Johnny settled in nicely, growing closer with every passing day. Murdoch was amazed at how well they got on with one another, and was proud of both. Johnny worked hard to put his past behind him, and was learning to trust in his father and brother.

Much to Murdoch’s surprise, he returned from town six months ago, displaying the silver badge pinned to his chest. ‘Chuck decided he had enough and is moving to San Francisco,’ Johnny proudly heralded, confirming earlier rumors the rancher had heard buzzing through town. Murdoch should not have been surprised that Johnny had slipped into the role of deputy, the boy finally finding the niche he had been seeking. He and Val made a good team.

Also to the father’s delight, Johnny requested to further his education. The first year at Lancer was spent in the company of a tutor. Johnny worked tirelessly both at the ranch and with his studies. He even went so far as to impress his father by reading almost every book on the massive shelves, discovering a hunger that demanded to be sated.

Many a night Murdoch beamed with pride at the dark haired boy bent over another classic. With Scott added to the mix, it was inevitable that a rousing discussion would ensue. Murdoch treasured those moments more than he could express, and it came as no surprise when Johnny finished his studies a year ahead of schedule and earned a high school diploma.

It was a proud father and brother that threw a party in his honor, not missing the pride on Johnny’s face when the diploma was framed and proudly displayed on the wall over Murdoch’s desk. Murdoch had offered to send Johnny to college, but the boy did not want to leave the ranch.

‘Don’t think I ever want to leave Lancer again, even if it is to go to school,’ Johnny’s cheeks flushed red at the admission.

Murdoch reached out and embraced his son, his heart full to the point of bursting. ‘That’s all right boy, I don’t want you to go either. But if you want, we can arrange for someone to come in.’ So another tutor arrived, this time with Johnny professing a desire to learn more about animals.

He pursued a course in animal husbandry, to further his knowledge in the practice of breeding and raising livestock. Murdoch secretly hoped that Johnny would reconsider and pursue a career in veterinary medicine, but his son had come far, and he would not pressure. Johnny’s knowledge was put to good use in furthering the stock, thereby guarantying the further success of Lancer.

Scott was instrumental in his brother’s education, and spent hours every night helping Johnny with his studies. Heated debates would ensue, and it was then Murdoch realized just how much his boys loved to spar, bouncing ideas and opinions off of one another, while he acted the mediator. Those were times cherished, no longer did he sit alone in front of a crackling fire at the end of the day.

Scott’s 24th birthday would be celebrated in two weeks, and three days after that, Johnny would turn 20. Both had bright futures ahead of them, and Lancer was booming. The dark days were over. Shortly after returning from South America, a memorial service for Maria was held, giving both Johnny and Murdoch the chance to bid the woman a tearful goodbye. They sought solace from one another, and Scott offered comfort to both. The three became inseparable, and the lonely, empty days were forgotten.

Murdoch had his family, finding peace and love in the form of his two sons, and Lancer had its heirs. The name would go on, passed down through a new generation when he was gone, and a proud patriarch poured another scotch and sat in his chair overlooking the land he loved almost as much as he loved his sons.

He went to bed a happy man. Hearing a soft knock on his bedroom door, Murdoch lowered the book he was reading and smiled when a dark head peered into the room.

“Johnny,” he said long and slow, fondness dripping from that one word.

“Hey Murdoch.”

“Come on in son. What’s on your mind?” he asked, laying the book aside.

“Reading in bed, huh?” Johnny snickered.

Murdoch frowned, but the battle was quickly lost. “You should try it sometime. What can I do for you?” Seeing his son fully dressed, with rig slung low and hat in hand, the frown reappeared. “I thought you weren’t on duty tonight.”

In a voice barely above a whisper, a restless glint in his eyes, Johnny walked over to the bed. “I’m not. Just wanted to tell you that Scott and I are sneaking off to town.”

Murdoch’s eyebrows raised. “Sneaking off? Son, if someone is sneaking off, they usually don’t let anyone know. Why are you telling me that you are sneaking off to town?” the man asked with emphasis.

“Didn’t want you to worry.” Johnny shrugged, and before Murdoch could answer, was out the door like a shot.

Murdoch lay back snickering. The boy never ceased to amaze him. He didn’t ask for permission, as much as that went against Murdoch’s strict morals, but he did have the decency to let him know where they would be, and knowing Johnny, Murdoch did not expect either back any time that night.

Two boys, both from the same cloth but a different cut. One called him ‘old man’, and the other called him ‘sir’. Yet, in Johnny’s quieter moments, when they were alone, he would call him Papa, as easily and natural as could be. And every once in a while, the same word slipped from Scott’s lips.

Murdoch Lancer was a happy man. The demons of his life had been laid to rest, never to raise their ugly head. With a sigh of deep contentment, he blew out the lamp and snuggled under the covers, asleep almost before his head hit the pillow. His boys might be grown, but it was an exhausted father that slid into bed at day’s end.

Lancer takes care of its own.

.

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~ end ~

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Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Mary directly.

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One thought on “Lancer, The Return by Mary M

  1. I loved this beautiful story. The characters are so real and the momentum never faltered. Thank you so much for making your writing available.

    Like

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