The Lone Cowboy by Mary M

#1 in the Lone Cowboy series

Author’s Note: I want to thank everyone for their support and feedback during the long process of writing this story. It gave me the incentive to continue. I also want to thank Jan (Cobalt) for taking the time to post segments when yahoo was playing games with my email, and then to the files of Lancer Writers when formatting prevented me from doing so. I also want to extend a thank you to Ali, for her help in posting segments, and to those of you who offered help and advice when I was trying to find my way around. I hope you enjoy the story, and any feedback is appreciated.

Summary: This story is an AR/AU, set when Johnny is sixteen years of age, already a hardened gunfighter wandering the border towns, and Scott is 20 and living in Boston having just returned from one year at war.

Standard disclaimer: The boys are really not mine, just borrowing them for a bit of fun.

Warning: Some strong language

Word count: 65,000

On this blustery Christmas Eve night, Murdoch Lancer stood outside on the veranda, his eyes drawn to the lush hillside just beyond the curved arch, gateway to the grand estancia. He scanned the land he loved. Lancer was his heart and soul, the mistress that filled the long, lonely hours of an empty life. Everything Murdoch had was poured into this glorious, sweeping ranch. Every waking minute was devoted to Lancer, and has been since the sad loss of two wives and two sons.

Two lives, each so different than the other, both a chance for the family Murdoch had desperately craved, yet each was lost. Alone, angry and bitter, Murdoch turned inward and lived for Lancer, the one thing he had been able to hold on to throughout the years. Yet the loneliness lingered, chipping away at his heart with every passing minute. Thoughts of his sons never left Murdoch’s mind, especially during the holidays.

His mind turned to his oldest, Scott, now 20 years of age and living in Boston. Murdoch had been devastated by the untimely death of his wife, Catherine, shortly after giving birth, the grief further compounded when Scott was whisked away by his maternal grandfather. At the time, Lancer was in the beginning stages of development, and money was short. Murdoch fought Harlan, but he never stood a chance. The man was rich and ruthless, pulling out all stops to insure his claim to Scott.

Murdoch knew that the main reason for Harlan’s deceit was punishment for the death of his only child, a blame he refused to relinquish. In his small, petty mind, Harlan gained a perverse sense of retribution, knowing that Murdoch grieved as deeply for the loss of his only child, as Harlan had suffered upon losing Catherine. Even though Harlan thwarted a correspondence between father and son, he did relent and sent regular reports of Scott’s welfare.

After completing one year of schooling at Harvard, in which he made the Dean’s list, Scott left college to fight for the Union army in the War Between the States. Murdoch was devastated to learn that he had been taken prisoner, and deeply relieved when Scott returned to Boston safely, after serving one grueling year in the service of his country. The war was over, and Murdoch prayed that Scott would continue to pursue his dreams. The sad truth being, he did not know what the boy’s dreams were. Murdoch was proud of his older son, whom he knew would go far.

As much as he missed Scott and yearned for a relationship with him, Murdoch had the comfort of knowing the boy was safe. Harlan, for all his sins, had been good to Scott, always giving him all he needed, from safe shelter, clothing, good food and a good education. Murdoch’s thoughts turned darker, for that could not be said for his younger son, Johnny. The unknown fate of his boy tore at the father’s heart. Johnny would have turned sixteen the previous day, December 23, if he was alive. That crippling thought caused Murdoch’s heart to lurch, a clammy feeling creeping along his skin. There was no greater pain than not knowing the whereabouts and welfare of your child.

Was Johnny even alive? Murdoch knew that his second wife, Maria, died when Johnny was only ten, but what had become of his young, blue-eyed, dark haired son? The child had simply disappeared. Murdoch took a deep, shuddering breath and closed his eyes as a memory took hold. Those eyes. Those mind numbing, blue eyes tugged at his heartstrings.

From the moment Johnny first opened them minutes after his birth and looked up at his father, those large, sapphire orbs fringed by unbelievingly long, dark lashes, brought tears to Murdoch’s eyes. It was like looking into the eyes of his Grandma Kate in Scotland.

The small babe claimed his father’s heart. Murdoch held the tiny body swaddled in a cottony soft, blue blanket, close. Brushing a calloused hand over a full, thick head of jet black hair, Murdoch lifted Johnny to his lips and kissed his son on the side of his baby soft cheek. From that day on, his first and foremost thought was of Johnny. He adored his young son, often taking Johnny with him from the time the boy was three months old.

Maybe that was his biggest mistake. Murdoch had loved Maria, the fiery Mexican woman he met in Matamoras. The petite beauty with silky, raven hair hanging loosely to her waist, filled a void left by the death of Catherine and loss of Scott, bringing feelings once thought buried, to the surface. When Johnny was born, Murdoch’s joy was barely contained. With the baby in his arms, the giant of a man would ride the range, introducing his son to the legacy that would one day be his. Lancer had its heir. And Murdoch had the son he had always yearned for.

As Johnny grew, Murdoch and Maria were stunned by the unbridled energy exuding from the tiny body. Johnny rose before the rooster crowed in the morning and by the time he was five months old, he was crawling. The boy was unstoppable. Maria roared with laughter at the sight of her tall, lanky husband running after a laughing infant scurrying across the floor. If they thought Johnny was fast when he crawled, the young parents were caught unaware when he was ten months old and stood up one afternoon, holding onto the leg of Murdoch’s desk.

He reminded his parents of a colt standing on wobbly legs the first time, and with a mischievous, victorious gleam in his eyes and cry of glee, Johnny was off, running across the floor. Murdoch now laughed at the memory, for Johnny never did walk. At the impossible age of ten months, he took off running and had never stopped. That final thought further saddened his father. Johnny never stopped running.

When he was barely two years of age, Maria left, taking Murdoch’s heart and son with her. As he so often thought over the years, years in which he merely existed without his boy, Murdoch wished that she had killed him before leaving. It would have been easier than dealing with the doubt. The weeks turned into months, and months turned into years. Murdoch was dumbfounded, for how hard could it be to find a young woman and child?

Especially a child of mixed heritage and impossibly blue eyes. The same eyes that were once a great source of joy and pride for Murdoch, could have branded his son to a life of hatred and prejudice. Maria was quick and determined; she fled to Mexico, eluding the Pinkerton detectives hired to find his small family. The woman had his son in a land with no forgiveness; God help his little boy, for Murdoch was unable to do so.

So on this holy night, a lonely father turned his eyes toward the north, a drink held in his hands. The moon was just peeking out from beneath a heavy bank of clouds, ushered past by a brisk blast of wind whistling down from the mountains. Murdoch shivered and pulled the heavy quilt tighter around his shoulders. In the haste to escape the emptiness of the great room, there was no desire to take time to bother with a jacket, the quilt snagged from the back of the couch being all he needed. Murdoch’s heart skipped a beat, a shadow in the distance catching his attention.

A beam of moonlight streamed earthward, illuminating the spacious hillside. His breath caught, and leaning over the adobe wall, he stared. High upon the crest of the hill, hat pulled down low and long jacket pulled tight against the wind, a lone rider in black sat atop a great stallion. The rider was too far off to make an identification, but for some strange reason, Murdoch’s heart began to race.

He knew it was silly, especially considering the great distance separating them, but felt that their eyes had locked for one brief moment in time. A futile thought, for it was impossible for the rider to have seen him in the first place. The estancia was shrouded in darkness, the only light at this late hour a lone lantern hidden in the shadows of the dim foyer. The fire in the great room had ebbed to a soft glow, barely enough light to make one’s way across the room, let alone reveal a solitary body standing in the darkness of the veranda. A brief flash of warmth surged through Murdoch and he reached out with a hand.

He then experienced such a deep feeling of loneliness, a yearning to belong, to have someone care, that a small cry erupted from his lips. Then he wondered, was this coming from him, or had this feeling been imparted by the strange, dark figure barely a speck in the distance? He should have been wary, but Murdoch did not detect trouble. The road was one often traveled, and he pacified his mind by thinking that this was merely a vaquero, or a hired hand from a neighboring ranch, making his way home after a night of celebration in town.

Still, Murdoch stared. Walking off the veranda, he slowly made his way to the corral, drawn to the lone horseman he could not take his eyes off of. This strange feeling erupted into confusion, with one part of Murdoch ready to confront the stranger in his midst, the other declaring that it was merely a tired soul stopping for a moment of rest.

“Home,” Murdoch whispered, eyes welling with tears.

It seemed as if time had frozen, yet only seconds passed. By the time Murdoch reached the corral, he stared up at the hillside again, drinking in the sight of the dark figure, jacket tails flapping in the wind. A hand reached up, pulling the brim of his hat down even lower and the figure shrugged, pulling the jacket tighter around him. Then just as quickly, the horse turned toward the road and the stranger vanished, leaving Murdoch to wonder if he had ever been there in the first place.

And just as quickly, a father stood alone at the corral fence, a feeling of deep loss and loneliness once again descending. Warring emotions conflicting, Murdoch turned back toward the house. A split second later, he felt the urgent need to saddle his horse and head into town.

******

Never before had he felt such rage. Pulling the black leather jacket tighter, and with his head down against the battering wind, Johnny spurned his horse forward. The black stallion he had dubbed Renegade took head and in a light canter, followed the road leading into town. Johnny planned on spending the night in Green River , much against his better judgment, but he was cold, hungry, and too tired to care.

Murdoch Lancer was an uncaring, callous man, who did not deserve to live. That thought alone, brought Johnny north. He has made this journey three times in the past year, with the same intent. Yet he never followed through. If there was a man who deserved to be shot down like a rabid dog, it was Murdoch Lancer. When Johnny was barely two, the man had thrown he and his mother out on the street, leaving them to fend for themselves.

 Johnny might have been born on Lancer, but the great estancia was not home. Johnny did not have a home. Looking down from that dark hillside, he swallowed the bile that burned a path up his throat, thinking of the life that should have been his. By all rights, Lancer was his birthright, one cruelly ripped from him the day his father tossed he and his mother to the street.

“Guess the old bastard didn’t like to share,” Johnny muttered as he stared down at the grand expanse of land.

A life of poverty and abuse that would have broken most, had almost crippled Johnny, but he refused to be beaten down. He was tired of being spit on, called names, and attacked, simply because of the stigma of his birth. When younger, he learned to run fast. Watching and reading people had become a lifesaving habit, one honed to perfection. If he failed to read the signs exhibited, he would have ceased to exist long ago. If a person’s eyes were too hard, the young Johnny would give said person a wide berth. If he caught a flicker in those eyes, Johnny knew they would strike out, and he would run.

Before his mother’s death, Johnny would seek refuge in her arms when she allowed, but as he grew, Maria began to drink more, leaving her son to his own devices. Most days, Johnny was lucky and managed to avoid people, other days, he was caught unaware, cursing himself afterward for being so lax, vowing to never again allow such an incident. By the time he reached the age of ten, a hard, steely, emotionless glint stared out from those large eyes of sapphire blue.

And at the age of sixteen, Johnny Madrid had already earned the reputation of being the deadliest, most feared gunfighter the poverty stricken border towns had ever known. He did not care if respect came from fear, all he knew was that there were few who looked down on him, at least in his presence. Now, he was on a mission.

While he lived a transient life, never knowing the love, safety and security of family, his father had lived like a king. Johnny knew hunger, some nights his stomach aching from a lack of food, yet he doubted the great Murdoch Lancer ever missed a meal. The only homes Johnny had ever known were the dirt floor shacks his mother dragged him to as they drifted from town to town, and a cheap hotel room when he was lucky enough to have the money for such a luxury.

Nights when Johnny sat crouched in front of a small campfire, craving what little warmth offered, he pictured Murdoch Lancer sitting in the great hacienda, basking in the warming glow of a crackling fire. Johnny cursed the man savagely, rage renewed, surging through his veins. Never in his life had he experienced the love of a father, the one thing he has always desired, and would die denying he needed. Shoving such thoughts aside and gaining control of his emotions, Johnny drew closer to town.

To anyone taking notice, it would seem the solitary rider paid no attention to his surroundings, and that was their downfall. Johnny’s eyes darted about from under the shadow of his hat, drinking in everything around him. He scanned every doorway and window, scoured every rooftop and alley, and took stock of every person walking down the wooden walkway. Few turned his way, with fighting the brutal, frigid wind and getting home to celebrate the impending holiday, first and foremost on their minds.

“Dumb bastards, only deluding themselves. Let them have their meaningless celebration, when it’s over, they’ll go back to their empty lives. Don’t need that shit. Guess I’m the lucky one, huh Renegade?” Johnny spoke softly to his mount, gently patting the side of the horse’s neck.

 “Yep, that’s about right. You and me, boy. I’ll get you settled in the livery where you’ll be warm for the night, and will even pop for an extra helping of oats for you. Me, I’ll just head on over to the saloon for a shot or two, and hopefully, the kitchen will still be open. If not, I can wait till morning. Won’t be the first night that I went without,” Johnny said.

Everything that came his way was taken in stride. Johnny didn’t ask for much, and expected even less. If he didn’t look forward to anything, he was never disappointed. If he had food, he ate. If he had shelter, he would be warm and dry. If not, he adapted. Johnny always adapted. Only tonight, he was tired of adapting. Tired of wandering, with no one to return home to, and no one to care.

“Get hold of yourself, Madrid ,” he sneered under his breath. “Emotions get you killed. Got no place in your life for sniveling.”

Angered at the flash of vulnerability, Johnny kicked himself mentally. Hardening his resolve, he dismounted and took a cursory glance around the dim interior of the livery before leading Renegade inside. The owner stepped out from the shadows, shrinking back upon meeting the intense gaze.

“Evening,” the older man stammered.

Johnny approached, grasping the reins. “Got a stall?”

“Yep, slow night,” the grizzled man answered. “I’ll take him fer ya.”

Johnny pulled the reins back. “He’s a might touchy. I’ll brush him down and if you have, would like an extra measure of oats,” he said simply, handing over two bits.

“Help yerself.” The older man nodded toward a darkened corner where a wooden feed bin sat. His gaze was then drawn to the low slung rig on slender hips.

“Don’t need to bother yourself with him, he’ll be fine. “There a room for the night?” Johnny asked.

“Saloon might have an empty. If not, you’re welcome to bunk down in a stall. Won’t charge extra,” the old man replied.

“I pay my way,” Johnny said, tossing the coins to the older man.

The old one sighed and shook his head, stuffing the coins accepted into the pocket of his worn, frayed overalls. Relieved that the young gunslinger had left, he shuffled over to the desk in the corner of the musty room and sat down, weariness lining a rugged, weather scourged face. Should there be no rooms in the saloon and the young man was to return, he just might head on home after all. On second thought, he reasoned that this was the perfect excuse to break open the bottle of Kentucky sipping bourbon hidden in the bottom desk drawer. In a short while, he wouldn’t care one way or the other if the gunhawk returned, or not.

Approaching the batwing doors, Johnny stopped just short of entering, wandering eyes scanning the smoky room, his nose crinkled against the fetid stench of booze, body odor and stale urine wafting in from the open doorway to the back alley. Motioning for a glass and bottle of tequila, he silently dared the dark-haired bartender to refuse him due to his age. A cold stare from those intense blue eyes, sent shivers down the nervous man’s spine. His eyes falling to study the low slung rig, no further urging was needed. What did he care anyway, this wasn’t his kid. Wiping the palms off his hands on the front of a food stained apron, he delivered said items to the back table, where Johnny sat perched on a chair, his back facing the wall to provide a full view of the room and both entrances.

“Steak, well done, with all the fixings,” Johnny said. “That is if the kitchen is still open,” he changed his tone just a bit. As he learned, when asking for food, it was better to exhibit a hint of cordiality. Good manners usually insured not having a surly cook swipe your steak across the bottom of his boot before serving.

“It’s open,” the pot-bellied man answered. “Will have your order up soon.

The bartender departed, leaving Johnny to his drink. A dark stare scanned the room, the sound of an off-key piano and forced laughter, all too familiar. The young gunhawk raised his glass in silent toast to all the lonely, depraved, blackened souls like himself. Lost people who had no one and nowhere else to spend the sacred holiday than this filthy saloon, seeking escape through drink and pleasure from the warm, yielding flesh, offered. A busty woman approached, her lips too full and red, too much rouge on her cheeks and a cleavage Johnny could get lost in. Just the type of woman the young man desired. Age made no difference. When it came to life’s experiences, Johnny was already well beyond his years, leaving him to wonder if he had ever been young. Now, he simply didn’t care.

“You can take your meal in my room, I’ll have Sam send it up,” the lusty woman suggested, then turned to address the bartender.

Licking his lips, Johnny downed a shot and placed the glass between the buxom woman’s voluptuous breasts. Grabbing the bottle, he followed her up the creaking, narrow stairwell. At least he had a warm meal and a room for the night.

******

Murdoch fell into a pensive mood on the ride into town. As usual, his thoughts turned to his two sons, most especially Johnny, this cold, winter night. A smile flit briefly across his face, thinking of Scott. Now that he was home from the war, Scott had a full social agenda, including a lavish Christmas Eve ball at the mansion. A part of Murdoch wished to be in attendance, yet a stronger part held him right where he was, on the lonely, dusty road to town.

All Murdoch has ever wanted was to be surrounded by family. Children clamoring onto his lap when younger, and grandchildren to come along and take their place years later. The loss of his wives was devastating. The loss of both sons was heinous. How could God be so cruel as to take them both, especially leaving the fate of his youngest unknown? Had Johnny suffered? Had he gone hungry, living on the streets, possibly suffering a life of abuse? Did the boy even get the chance to go to school? From the early Pinkerton reports, Murdoch knew that to be doubtful, for Maria never stayed in one place for very long. Why she ever had to run in the first place purely baffled Murdoch, for nothing made sense.

Nothing anyone could do or say brought comfort, for there was no such thing. For the past fourteen years, Murdoch’s world had been cold, empty and at times, meaningless. For a while, he even considered abandoning Lancer to live the life of a hermit. With Scott settled and looking forward to a promising, lucrative future in Boston, and without Johnny to pass the ranch down to, holding on to the land seemed a waste of his life and resources. Here he was, a rich, powerful land baron, and when he died, everyone would say ‘What a shame. Poor man, lived alone and died without a soul to call his own weeping over his grave. And Lancer went with him.’

Murdoch’s resolve strengthened, as if often did. It was about time to light a fire under the Pinkertons. Hell, he might even hit the trail himself. Maybe not come back until he knew for sure. This time, Murdoch would walk through hellfire to find his son, and even lay down his own life if need be. Nothing was as important as finding Johnny. Nothing. Nothing mattered. Nothing would ever matter until Murdoch knew one way or the other. Was his boy alive, or had Johnny died and was buried in some unmarked grave in the bowels of a lonely, downtrodden border town?

******

The streets were empty by the time Murdoch arrived. The residents of Green River were already sequestered behind closed doors, curtains drawn tight against the night, smoke spiraling upward from chimneys and pine wreaths hanging on front doors. Stray flakes of powdery snow fell against Murdoch’s face as he rode straight down the middle of the street, the heavy bank of clouds dispersing, revealing a velvety sky of diamond studded stars.

Even the saloon was quiet, the revelers back home with their families, or sleeping a drunk off in some dark alley. The batwing doors gave a slight squeak when Murdoch walked through, nodding toward Sam.

“You’re about the last person I expected to see walk in tonight,” the bartender said, wiping the bar down.

“I think I’m about surprised as you are. Got a shot?” Murdoch asked.

“Got just the ticket,” Sam said. Removing the stained apron, he reached under the bar. Brandishing a bottle of golden fire, he snagged two glasses. “Keep this for special occasions. Can’t think of one more special than two old bones spending a lonely Christmas Eve together,” he said, handing over a glass of smooth, sipping whiskey. “Here’s to what ails you.”

 Murdoch returned the toast and drained the shot in one swallow. “Sam, there is no cure for what ails me.”

 Frowning, Sam reached over and refilled both glasses. “The boys, huh?” he asked, knowing full well the depth of sorrow his old friend suffered.

“That’s about right,” Murdoch said in a voice more preoccupied than usual.

“Johnny? Did you hear anything new?”

“I wish I did, Sam. I wish I did. I can’t stand not knowing what the hell became of him. You’d think by now, someone, somewhere would have heard something. Don’t make sense, you know?” he asked, downing the drink offered.

“Murdoch, I don’t know how you do it,” Sam said, shaking his head.

“Busy night?” Murdoch asked, anxious to change the subject.

“The usual. Those who could slip away from hearth and home did so, those that have nowhere else to go, were here. Most of them are probably over at the livery by now, sleeping it off. Not a night to be alone,” Sam said, instantly regretting those words.

 Murdoch rose and leaning an arm on the batwing doors, stared out into the dark silence of the night. “Tonight I feel as if I’m one of those that has nowhere to go.”

“Then I’m glad you came here, old friend. I’m in no hurry to go home, don’t rightly feel like sitting alone in front of the fireplace myself,” Sam said. “Not very tired, either. The older I get, the less sleep I seem to need.”

“Sometimes I don’t feel as if I sleep at all,” Murdoch replied, his voice distant.

“Looks like someone else can’t sleep either,” Sam elbowed Murdoch as a young, slim figure walked down the stairs.

Murdoch looked up, noticing the dark haired stranger walking into the room. He frowned at the gun hanging low on the young man’s hip, wondering just what someone that age was doing wearing a rig in such a manner. All he would do was invite trouble. Murdoch’s thoughts were interrupted when Sam tapped him on the side of the arm.

“I’d watch it if I were you. That there’s Johnny Madrid,” he said, nodding toward the table Johnny sat at, his back to the wall. “I’ll be right back, gotta keep the customers happy.” Sam reached behind the bar, coming out with a bottle of tequila.

Murdoch grabbed the man’s hand, a look of disbelief spread across his face. “Sam, what the hell are you doing? That kid’s not near old enough to be drinking that stuff,” he said, eyes flitting between his friend and the dark haired stranger with a bowed head.

Sam stiffened, then pulled away. “Just averting trouble. And if you’re smart, you’ll do the same. Johnny Madrid has been old enough for a long time. You know his reputation. And if you don’t think he’s not watching every move we’re making, you’re wrong. I don’t feel like getting on his bad side.”

Murdoch released the man’s arm and sat back, watching as Sam strode across the room, heavy boot steps a dull thump on the wooden floor. Johnny raised his head, brilliant, eyes of sapphire blue causing Murdoch’s head to snap up, his heart thumping to the point of pain in his chest. For a moment, he could not breathe. A cold, clammy sweat broke out across his forehead and he returned the stare, locking eyes with the cold, intense young man. Anger pooled in those large eyes, so blue Murdoch could drown in them.

The reaction was startling. Murdoch felt as if he would lose his stomach contents and his skin crawled. Reaching for another shot of whiskey, he found his hand trembling. He had seen eyes of that color only twice before in his life. The first time had been in the kind, loving face of his grandmother in Scotland. The second, in his young son. The day Johnny was born, Murdoch swore he saw Grandma Kate in those sapphire jewels. Now all he saw was thinly veiled, smoldering anger.

Could this be his Johnny? If so, how could this cold, hardened gunfighter be his son? His son was Johnny Lancer. His son should be back at the estancia partying with his friends, instead of sitting alone at a table in a saloon. His son could never be a cold hearted killer, he had to be mistaken. It has been fourteen years since he has seen his baby boy, surely he was wrong. Was it even possible to recognize Johnny on sight? Murdoch averted his stare, knowing the truth deep in his heart. All he had to do was see those eyes. Had it not been for those eyes, Murdoch never would have guessed.

He would know those eyes anywhere. Murdoch knew within his very soul, that the dark haired young man sitting across the empty room, was the son he has not seen in fourteen years. Confused by Murdoch’s behavior, Sam glared at his friend and backed away when waved off. Shaking his head, he retreated behind the bar, ready to take cover if lead began to fly. Murdoch was flirting with the devil, and Sam was scared to death for the man.

Murdoch felt like running from the saloon, take cover in the darkness that now cloaked his soul. He almost retched, the malt whiskey burning a hole through his tumultuous, fragile stomach. Swallowing against the bile that rose, he placed the empty glass on the table and stared across the room. His heart was broken, but if this was Johnny, the lost boy he had been seeking for too many years, Murdoch could not turn his back. He would fight for his son.

Johnny poured another shot of tequila, downed it and slammed the glass back upon the table. “You looking at something, old man?” he asked, the challenge issued.

Sam cowered behind the bar, but Murdoch never flinched. “No son, just a lonely old man on Christmas Eve searching for something long lost,” he said, raising another shot in toast.

“Hell of a place to look, old man,” Johnny said in a soft drawl. “Nothing here but the bottom of a bottle, which I’ll find pretty soon.” Tipping the bottle toward his mouth, Johnny took three long, deep pulls of the clear, fiery liquid.

 Murdoch languished in the soft, velvety voice of his son, yet cringed at the rate the young man downed the tequila, caressing the bottle as if it were a long, trusted friend. As if he read Murdoch’s mind, Johnny’s response came as a surprise. “Yep, sometimes this old bottle is the only friend I have besides a good steed. I got one hell of a steed, now I got me this bottle.”

 “Why don’t you just get a good night’s sleep, instead?” Murdoch asked, instantly alarmed at the words. Sam blanched, ready to take cover, yet Murdoch remained steadfast, tipping slightly in his chair.

 Johnny’s eyes narrowed. Anger rolled off of him in waves, yet his voice remained calm, velvet sliding off ice. “If I wanted to sleep, I would. As a matter of fact, I was upstairs all tucked in nice and warm around one of those saloon girls. Nothing better to warm you on a cold winter night, but I decided to come down here instead.” Glaring, Johnny grew silent; for a long, heart stopping moment, that intense stare bore down on Murdoch. “Old man, it’s none of your damned business what I do. Got a problem with that?”

Hands raised in surrender, Murdoch shook his head. “No son, no problem. Just chalk my ill advised remark up to a tired old man who sometimes thinks he can boss the world. I tend to forget that I really don’t have control over everything.”

“No one has control. I never had control over what life dealt me, but I survived. Don’t ever let anyone see you weak, old man. Never. Life is shitty, but you gotta work the hand. Been on my own a long time now, learned that little lesson a while ago,” Johnny said, downing another shot.

“Would you mind me asking how long? You look . . . well, at the risk of getting shot, you look pretty young,” Murdoch said, a small smile breaking out as he gauged his words.

Johnny relaxed, lifting his glass and snickering at the remark. “Old man, most people would get shot asking the questions you are. You’re lucky I’m in a mellow mood tonight. Not right to shoot a man down on such a sacred, blessed holiday,” he said with a sneer, eyes growing even darker. A deep sigh, another shot was downed and Johnny sat back, rubbing his eyes. “Damn, am tired. Know how it feels to be tired, old man?”

“More than you would know,” Murdoch answered, his gaze never wavering.

“Well, old man, I’m old enough to know it’s kill or be killed. Do it to them before they do it to you. That’s the code I live by. In answer to your question, I’ve been on my own since I was ten. That’s been six years, by my reckoning.”

Murdoch was glad Johnny decided to take another long pull on the bottle as the startling words sank in. His gut clenched painfully, his throat constricting with choked anger, a hopeless grief welling at the senseless void that had become his son’s life. His boy had been alone for six years. Six long, heinous years. A boy of ten, on his own, scrounging through the border towns. Murdoch fought with every fiber of his being, not to scream out the injustice that ripped his soul apart.

Six long, godforsaken years when Johnny should have been at the estancia safe and loved, not wandering the border towns and dusty cow towns alone, a gun strapped low on his hip, a horse and bottle of tequila touted as his only friends. Johnny should be home, sparking the girls in town, not sleeping with barmaids. He should be raising cane with other boys his age, attending socials and picnics and working with him, father and son riding side by side. Instead, Johnny was facing down men in a battle of life in death, probably to die young in some dusty town no one knew the name of.

Murdoch Lancer’s son should be sneaking out of the house at night to meet with his friends, attending school and sitting at the dinner table, regaling his father with exploits of his day. Murdoch’s heart was forever shattered at what should have been, the empty years taunting and merciless. Instead, his son was a hard bitten gunslinger, mingling with the toughest and deadliest men known. And Johnny Madrid was the deadliest of them all.

Murdoch clenched his fist until dug in fingernails drew blood. A low growl threatened to erupt, but was squelched by a shot of whiskey. Johnny was alive. Those vibrant blue, sapphire eyes were testament to that fact. No one could tell Murdoch differently, his heart knew the truth. He felt the invisible bond uniting father and son. Johnny was here, but had been alone for six long years. Alone since he was ten years old. Alone, taking care of himself, probably scrounging the streets for food and sleeping God only knew where. Living by the gun, the only way his boy knew. The only means he had of survival in the meanest, dirtiest, roughest land Murdoch had ever seen.

 Yet he saw the raw strength running through his boy, the steadfast determination that kept Johnny fighting. Murdoch knew Johnny had never backed down in his life, and was not about to start now. He had to be careful. Had to choose his words carefully. He could not reveal his identity too soon, and a shake of the head directed at Sam, kept the old bartender silent and polishing a stack of glasses.

Johnny rose and snagging the bottle, turned to walk back up the stairs. “Well old man, can’t say it’s been fun, but I have a warm body just waiting for me to come back, and I never let a woman down. You should try it sometime, warms the cockles of your heart on a night like this. Would do you good.”

With those few words, he was gone. Murdoch sat staring at the wall, listening to the receding footsteps as Johnny walked down the hall. Hearing a door shut, he flinched, closing his eyes as he tried desperately to get churning emotions under control.

******

 Ignoring the questioning look of concern from Sam, Murdoch walked out into the night. He never even heard the man speak. A bitter wind blew down his neck, sending chills along his spine. Paralyzed with anger, confusion and grief, he wandered the empty streets, fists jammed into the pockets of his immense jacket, for warmth. He could not help but wonder if Johnny had such a jacket, or if his son was familiar with the cold. Saloon girl or not, he should be grateful that the boy was warm for the night, giving the father the ease of knowing his child was alive.

His heart was shattered. A father expects so much for his child, will do anything to insure a safe, happy future. Murdoch had so many plans for Johnny. They would have worked side by side, teaching him the workings of the ranch from the most menial chore, to keeping the books. Johnny would be no stranger to hard work, yet Murdoch felt his boy would have shouldered the challenge with ease. Johnny would have had three square meals a day, plus what he could con Maria out of in between, and would have slept safe in his own room at night. He would have had the best of all opportunities; the choices were endless, for in the few minutes Murdoch had spent with the boy, Johnny’s intelligence shown through. He had to be smart and quick witted, in order to survive on his own from the age of ten. The thought was almost unheard of.

Johnny would have had the best education money could buy, and the loyalty and respect due the son of the patron. He would have had all that and more, Murdoch would have seen to it. Then to find out that your beloved son has turned into . . . Murdoch shook his head, instantly ashamed. He had no right to judge Johnny. If the boy had been at Lancer all along, life would be different. But a young child, wanted by neither race, left alone down in the unforgiving border towns, had little choice. It was either fight or die, and as Johnny had said, he learned quickly to survive the hard way. It was no wonder he was filled with rage, sheer neglect was an unjust burden. Had Johnny ever been shown love, or was hatred and rejection the boy’s driving force?

Murdoch should be grateful his boy was alive. There were no guarantees in life. What right did he have to turn away because Johnny did not live up to his standards? Suddenly, standards did not matter. A father’s love was supposed to be unconditional. A father was expected to fight for his child, and fight, he would. Last night he might have met Johnny Madrid, but Murdoch was determined that one day, he would see Johnny Lancer. He just had to try and figure out how.

Another thought stopped him cold. Murdoch turned, staring through the gently falling snow, another storm having moved in over the mountains from the west. His eyes settled on the saloon, trailing up the side of the rough hewn wood to rest on the dark windows of the second floor, shuddering at the thought of his sixteen-year-old boy spending the night with a working girl.

The father in him was ready to storm up the stairs and kick down the door, dragging his wayward son home where he belonged, but a saner side kicked in. Such action would only serve to get him shot. Johnny was his own boss, his own man. Yet he was only a sixteen-year-old boy. The thought was ironic. It was chilling. Murdoch could not help but wonder what in the world Johnny Madrid was doing so far north this time of year. He could go home, but was loath to leave town, yet there was not a force on earth that could drag him away. Knowing that there was nothing to do anyway, he wandered back inside the saloon and asked for a room.

“You all right?” Sam questioned, concern scrawled across his face.

“Don’t rightly know,” Murdoch mumbled, rubbing his forehead.

Leaning on the bar, Sam’s stare was intent. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost. What the hell kind of business do you have with Madrid?”

“Don’t rightly know that, either,” Murdoch admitted, disturbing thoughts and suspicions kept to himself for now.

Weary in body and soul, he wandered up the wooden stairway and walked quietly down the hall. Sam’s warning to tread lightly lest he wanted to eat a bullet from Madrid, ran through Murdoch’s muddled mind. He unlocked the door and dropped onto the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Murdoch fought sleep, laying awake listening to every sound. There was no way Johnny was going to slip past him again.

******

In spite of his intent, Murdoch woke with a start, the blinding sun streaming through the window, snowflakes catching the bright, golden hues. Swinging his feet off the side of the bed, he stumbled to the wash basin, splashing cool water on his face, glad that he had not bothered to undress. He had fallen asleep on top of the covers, barely a wrinkle showing. But for the damp towel draped on the side of the basin, the room looked as if it had never been occupied. His stomach grumbled, and it was then Murdoch cringed at the filmy, stale taste of whiskey, his tongue as dry as cotton. He had not eaten since the previous afternoon, abandoning dinner in the rush to get to town.

Walking up to the bar, Murdoch gladly accepted the cup of coffee and plate of bacon and biscuits served up by Sam. “Knew you’d be hungry as a bear, need something to sop up that rot gut we drank last night.”

“Thought that was your best sipping whiskey,” Murdoch said in jest, downing a soft biscuit slathered in butter.

“That’s when you’re drinking it. The following morning, it all turns to rot gut. Need a good breakfast to stop that burning sensation,” Sam said.

“That the cure?” Murdoch asked, a warm grin offered.

“About all I know,” Sam said with a shrug.

“You ever go home?” Murdoch asked, noticing the freshly washed, slicked back hair and clean apron the man had tied around his paunchy waist.

“Usually earlier than I did last night,” Sam said, waving Murdoch’s look of guilt off. “Don’t worry about it. I always stay late on holidays, something about a holiday that a body tends to want to hang around a bit longer. Must be the excitement and all. And since today is Christmas, thought I’d open early, do a bit of cleaning and see how you were doing. Madrid had one hell of an effect on you last night. Care to talk about it? You have a run-in with him or something?”

“Well, from what everyone says, if I had a run-in with the young man, I wouldn’t be standing here eating your biscuits, would I?” Murdoch asked.

“Nope, can’t say as if you would be,” Sam said in agreement.

“Just got some things to work out,” Murdoch replied.

“You need to talk, I’m here,” Sam said.

“Damn, it’s quiet. Anyone been up and about yet?” Murdoch asked, eyes staring around an empty room.

A part of him hoped that he would find Johnny having breakfast, but that was not to be. The boy was probably sleeping off last night’s drink. Murdoch had never seen anyone put so much tequila away in one shot, and walk upright afterward, but Johnny had climbed those stairs as if he had been drinking water all night long.

“Hell, Murdoch, I was wondering if you were going to ever get up. Never knew you to sleep past five,” Sam snickered.

“What the hell time is it?” Murdoch burst out, grabbing Sam by the collar.

Pulling away, Sam straightened his shirt and stared at his friend. “Easy, Murdoch, don’t kill the messenger. If you wanted me to wake you earlier, you should have said something last night.”

“Sam, I’m sorry, I . . .” Murdoch stammered. Stepping away from the bar, wild eyes scanned the stairs.

“It’s ok, but I wish you’d tell me what the hell is going on with you. If you’re worried about Madrid, then don’t. He’s long gone, and thank goodness. High tailed it out of here over an hour ago . . .”

Before Sam could finish, Murdoch bolted. Crashing through the batwing doors, he raced onto the street, looking for any sign of Johnny. He was so close, he could not let Johnny go now. He needed to find out if his suspicions were true, and if Johnny Madrid really was Johnny Lancer. If so, it would mean an end to his search, but open the door to an entirely different headache. How in the world would he ever be able to accept the fact that his son was the deadliest gunslinger known in these parts? The very thought sickened him.

Murdoch thought it better to just walk away, leave the heartache behind. ‘Leave the gunslinger behind, protect your reputation, your precious reputation. In the end, that’s all you’ll have. Don’t fight for your son. Damned coward,’ he quickly chastised himself. Taking the easy way out meant saving his reputation if his suspicions proved correct, but it meant the end of any hope for a relationship with his boy.

“Merry Christmas,” Murdoch muttered, too disheartened to look, too wired to go home.

Wandering over to the livery, he caught the flash of a familiar figure from the corner of his eyes. As he stared, Murdoch saw Johnny’s retreating back as the young man rode off on a magnificant, regal black stallion. Steps quickening, Murdoch hastened to saddle his mount.

“You weren’t kidding when you said you had a good steed,” Murdoch mumbled, remembering their earlier conversation.

Without a second thought, barely glancing at friends and neighbors wishing him a happy holiday, Murdoch idly returned the friendly greetings and nudged Dakota along, following Johnny before the boy got too much of a head start. Reaching the outskirts of town, the wind kicked up and the first fringes of snow began to fall. Johnny was heading toward the mountains, and with the threat of another storm looming on the horizon, there was little time. Murdoch studied the trail, praying he would reach Johnny before the tracks were buried in the freshly falling powder. Apparently, Johnny was not concerned with covering his tracks, a thought for which Murdoch was grateful. An hour later, three inches of snow already coating the ground, Murdoch felt as if he were closing in.

Without warning, a frightened whinny tearing through the din of the storm, Dakota reared, legs flailing when Murdoch was pulled from the saddle, striking the ground painfully. Kicked in the side, he rolled over, staring up into the steely barrel of a colt inches from his nose.

A vicious, cold sneer covering his face, Johnny pulled Murdoch to an upright sitting position. “Old man, you’ve just about wore my patience thin. You got away with all those damned questions last night, today your luck just ran out. Knew you’ve been following me all along, and I don’t like being followed. Don’t like a back shooter either. Who the hell sent you and what the fuck do you want?” Johnny said, kicking Murdoch in the side.

******

Heart in throat, Murdoch stared, his mouth moving mutely. His finger on the trigger like a tightly coiled spring, Johnny was not one to argue with. Murdoch had to act quickly and talk his way out of the mess he had so blindly fallen into. No wonder Johnny had survived so long, the boy had a keen instinct and was a force to be reckoned with. Demeanor and actions spoke of one more than sixteen years of age, with Johnny possessing a prowess most men did not have.

“First of all, I’m not a back shooter. If you let me show you, I’m not even carrying a gun,” Murdoch said, biting the inside of his cheek not to laugh at the stricken expression such a foreign thought brought, crossing Johnny’s face. One hand held high, the other reached across, opening his jacket. Seeing no weapon, and with Murdoch patting the pockets of his jacket and running his hand along his waistline, he showed those words to be true. Convinced, Johnny kept the gun cocked, but tilted the muzzle upward. Ever watchful, ready to strike in a mili-second, he took a step backward.

 “You got a lot of explaining to do. Like I said, I don’t like being followed. Never brings anything good, someone following you means they want something. Most want my hide. Don’t have the balls to confront me man to man, and usually try and take the easy way out.”

“Young man, I have no intention of shooting anyone in the back, or otherwise. Just traveling along . . .”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed, the gun lowering once again. “And you’re a damned liar. Nothing up this way, all the ranches and towns are south of here.”

“And how would you know?” Murdoch dared to ask, staring at the ever present glinting piece of steel.

Angered that he had tipped his hat, Johnny’s eyes turned darker with rage. “Been around. Not that it’s any of your damned business.”

Pushing his luck, Murdoch dared to ask the next question niggling at his mind. “If there isn’t anything up around these parts, and with a storm getting the better of us, just what are you doing here?” Standing in a world of white, he waited for an answer, praying it did not come on the wings of hot lead boring a hole through his ears.

“What the hell business is it of yours? Old man, I never had to answer to anyone in my life, and I’m not about to start now. Got my own reasons,” Johnny shouted. Snowflakes coated his silky black hair, glistening off the ends of endearing, long eyelashes.

Johnny reached out, grabbing Dakota’s reins before the horse ran off. He was not about to be burdened with the old man. Still, instincts kicked in and even though he felt this stranger meant no harm, trust was hard to come by. If the old man wanted to wander up into the mountains, that was his business, but he had better think twice about following. Hating to relinquish the upper hand, Johnny motioned for Murdoch to stand, yet refused to holster the gun. Tossing the reins over, he watched as Murdoch bent, picking up his hat. Snow was falling in large, heavy wet flakes mixed with pellets of ice. Travel was proving to be treacherous and both men stood, staring one another down. One waiting for the other to make the first move.

Johnny was the first to break the silence. “Best get going, old man. Don’t know where that would be, but it better not be with me.”

“Son . . .”

Johnny whirled viciously. “I ain’t nobody’s son,” he shouted, the gun reappearing.

Murdoch’s heart wept, tears staining his soul. Hiding unsettled emotions, making his face blank, he realized that Johnny shared the same trait. Don’t let your true feelings show. Keep a mask over your inner self. Both men needed that bit of self-preservation.

“Just an expression,” Murdoch stated, trying to diffuse the situation. “I know who you are. Should I call you Mr. Madrid?” he asked, a hint of teasing in his voice.

“Don’t give a damn what you call me, we’re strangers to one another and I intend to keep it that way. Thank your stars that it’s Christmas and I’m in a generous mood. I’m not one to shoot an unarmed man, but I will take you down in a second if you prove to be a danger to me, so don’t try anything. Didn’t survive this long by trusting anyone. We got nothing else to say, so I suggest you ride away,” Johnny said, brushing powdery flakes from his eyes.

Arm held in front of his face, Murdoch shouted over the din of the storm. “I wish I could, but I can barely see the trail.”

“Not my problem, old man. Got places to go, don’t need to be wasting my time on someone like you. You chose to follow along, don’t care to know the reason, either. Got no use for idle curiosity. Only gets you killed. Don’t care to spend time listening to your reasons either. If you want to hire me, you should have spoken up last night. If you’re sizing me up before you ask, just know that I don’t cotton to that, either. You got something to say old man, say it,” Johnny said, finality ringing in his tone.

Johnny holstered his gun and gazed upward at the darkening sky, the storm showing no sign of letting up. If he was lucky, he would reach the cabin before the snow worsened. He happened upon the place quite by accident the previous summer, the discovery spurning a life altering decision. He bypassed the estancia on that trip north, not having the guts to seek his father. Johnny was sickened by the vein of cowardice the man brought out in him. Never in his life has he been afraid to confront anyone, no matter the odds.

Death came to everyone; if it came for him, Johnny would go down fighting, but he would not run. No one lived forever, Johnny was no stranger to death and pain. What he was a stranger to, was the ever present fear of facing Murdoch Lancer. The name brought a sour bile to his throat and made his stomach lurch sickenly. Johnny was ashamed, pulling the mask back down over his face before facing the gray haired stranger again.

All he wanted was to reach the cabin and hole up for a few months as planned. Finding the abandoned, one room log home hidden deep amongst a dense grove of Sequoia Pine trees, provided Johnny with the chance he had been seeking. He was tired. Bone tired of everything that came along with being Johnny Madrid, and the cast-off son of Murdoch Lancer. Johnny wanted the sense of peace that only came from the security of a place of your own. Living in the cabin permanently was not feasible for he was still too well-known throughout the area, but it would provide the time needed to put his mind at ease before heading north.

Johnny wanted a new life and as long as he stayed in Mexico and the surrounding border towns, he did not stand a chance. He was tired of fighting, the challenges and the blood. Johnny would not back down from a fight, but he would not seek one, either. Weathering the worst of winter in the mountains was not the most intelligent thought he might have had, but the quiet solitude was a welcome relief.

The winter months would be spent soul searching, hoping to salvage a bit of the human Johnny prayed was hidden behind the many layers of Madrid. When spring broke, he would head north to Montana, where the grass was lush and green, the sky as endless as the mountains. Hopefully, he would be far enough north where the name Johnny Madrid was not known. If he could just rid himself of this persistent stranger forever dogging him, Johnny should reach the cabin in less than an hour.

With the aid of a rented wagon, he spent the better part of the summer hauling food, supplies, hay and lumber to the cabin. The first thing Johnny did was to build a corral and convert a small shed into a sturdy stable for Renegade. Walls were reinforced and coated with a thick layer of mud to keep the vile winter drafts out, and a new roof was put on. Renegade would be warm, dry, and safe from predators. The horse’s welfare would always come first. The stable was stocked with half a dozen large bags of grain, bales of hay and a trough for fresh water. The stable was warm, but Johnny would still wrap Renegade’s legs against the chill and blanket the loyal horse.

Work began on the cabin next. There was a rope bed Johnny spent tireless hours working on, a new feather tick mattress, pillow, and four quilts. A fieldstone fireplace with a stack of wood at the ready would provide the warmth needed to fight off the chill, and a hutch left behind by the former owner was stocked with enough canned goods, flour, sugar, lard, beans and coffee, to get him through the winter. Johnny was resourceful and hunted venison and rabbit, the meat dried and stored for soups and stews. Herbs were collected and hung to dry for added spice, and there was willow bark and red sage for tea in case of fever or any other malady. Johnny could take care of himself, he did not need anyone mucking up his life.

The cabin had been abandoned for years, with a smattering of furniture left behind. Johnny was thrilled to find the hutch, a table with two chairs, a rocking chair and black cookstove left behind. Once cleaned, the stove worked as good as new, and with a bit of work and cajoling, the pump soon spewed fresh, clear water. Johnny brought his own supply of cookware, a wooden bowl, tin dish and mug, utensils and a coffeepot.

Repairs were made on the roof, windows were replaced and inside shutters were put up to provide extra security and keep the biting wind out. Johnny spent the remainder of the summer chopping and storing enough wood on the front porch, just outside the door. It was a short walk to the stable and outhouse, with a heavy rope strung up to follow in the event of a blinding storm. Johnny might have grown up in Mexico, but he knew the ways of survival.

Old Eb Crawford had seen to that. The elderly, grizzled man was just about the only person Johnny truly let get close. The old geezer had saved his life a year ago when shot in the shoulder. Three to one were odds no man wanted to face and Johnny had pulled it off, but the third man to go down was lucky and got a shot off. Johnny’s bullet struck its mark, sending the man’s shot higher than intended, but the bullet still caught him below the left shoulder blade.

He rode out of Tucson, only to collapse in a played out, abandoned mining town. Three days later, he woke, gazing into a weatherbeaten face staring down. The old man had one eye, the other lid permanently closed, hiding the empty socket. His hair was gray and sparse, and his beard was long, with bits of food caught in the tangled mess. ‘Saving it for later in case I get hungry,’ were the words that brought the first smile to Johnny’s face. Eb walked with a hitch in his step, and his left arm hung uselessly, but that was not enough to stop him. Johnny admired the man’s determination and fortitude.

Old Eb’s voice was gruff, but there was no hiding the compassion and concern. The elderly man was friendly, and sat Johnny up, a bowl of broth shoved into his hands. “Drink up young one, you’ve had one hell of a time of it.”

Johnny turned, setting the wooden bowl down. “Can’t, I gotta go.”

“Now sit your hide right there, and don’t go arguing with me, Johnny Madrid,” Eb said, seeing the surprise register on Johnny’s face. “That’s right, I know who you are, and before you argue, won’t do any good. I outrank you in age, and that gives me the right to lay a whippersnapper like you low until you heal. Now, give an old man a bit of company, huh?” he asked, the longing plain to see.

Johnny could not argue, the old man had gotten to him. He spent the remainder of the fall, winter and early spring with old Eb, befriending the man and sitting around a crackling fire at night listening to an endless litany of stories. Eb sure loved to talk. The delapidated cabin alongside the creek was all but falling down, but it was a haven to Eb and Johnny. When the cool night air blew through cracks in the front door, a blanket was hung to fight the draft. When it rained, Johnny and Eb would set out pots and pans to catch the water, and moved their cots to the dry section of the room. They adapted, and could not be happier. The old man hailed from Montana and entertained Johnny with stories of his misguided youth and life in the plains.

“The sky is the biggest and bluest in the land. They call it Big Sky country and there’s a reason. All you see is miles of endless sky and lush, rolling fields. So many wild horses, you can reach out with your hand and wrangle one by the mane,” Eb cackled.

Johnny’s eyes were lit with wonder as the old man spoke. “Now, the weather in Montana is tricky, you bet. Summer for a few seconds, and boy howdy, winter comes a’blowing down on you. Gets you in its clutches and you’re a goner if not careful. Now I can tell you of blizzards where men were lost just making a trip to the privy. You get yourself in a whiteout, and any sense of direction is lost.

“A trip to the privy or barn, can send you stumbling out into God only knows where, so you have to take what they call them precautions. My father, God rest his hearty soul, said that a man had to be prepared. Said the three p’s would get you dead,” Eb said, chuckling at Johnny’s expression.

“Ok, you got me old man, what the hell are the three p’s?” Johnny asked, playing right into Eb’s hands. The old man loved an audience, and Johnny ate up every minute of the attention.

“My boy, that would be piss poor planning. Yep, my old man would say ‘Son, nothing will do you in quicker than piss poor planning,” he said, much to Johnny’s mirth. “So, I heeded my father’s words and had me a strong rope tied from the front porch to the barn, and one to the outhouse. Never cottoned to the idea of getting lost on the way to do my business,” Eb laughed.

The cherished old one died before April was through, and Johnny buried his friend, tears falling on the old man’s grave. He would never forget Eb, who gave him more than he would ever know. Johnny was at loose ends and made another trip up north, this time bypassing the estancia. Wandering up through the mountains, no particular destination in mind, he stumbled onto a clearing, his heart skipping a beat. An idea came to mind when the old, dilapidated cabin was discovered. It provided both the shelter and solace desired, with Johnny deciding to lay low through the winter and head on north to Montana once the threat of snow was over. It felt good to have something to call his own.

Johnny took Eb’s words to heart. You never knew what life would throw at you and standing in the mountains now, he was grateful for having met Eb and partaking in the man’s knowledge. Thinking back to Eb and how the man of wit and compassion had saved his ornery hide, Johnny stared at the stranger standing in front of him. With the storm worsening and the older man shivering, a soggy hat in hand and ice crystals coating his hair, Johnny softened.

He would do this for Eb, and no other reason. The man was unarmed, soaked to the skin and did not seem to prove a danger. Plus, he did not look like he could take care of himself, let alone make it back down the mountain in one piece. If Johnny had sensed otherwise, he would have laid the stranger out earlier; now he could not turn away and leave the old man to die in the storm. Eb would be ashamed, and Johnny did not want to darken the memory of his friend.

“All right, but only this once. I’m not soft, and I don’t give a damn about anyone, old man. Hear me?” Johnny asked.

“I hear you,” Murdoch answered, his heart quickening. All the while hoping he hid the impending smile and excitement in his eyes.

“I got a cabin less than a mile through those trees. Easy to find, just follow that trail,” Johnny said.

 “Trail? Any sign of a trail is buried in the snow,” Murdoch said, his face twisted in confusion.

“Not so, if you know how to prepare and look. Knew I’d be coming here once winter hit, and didn’t want to be stumbling around.” Johnny wondered just why the hell he was bothering to explain himself to a man he cared nothing about. Johnny Madrid never explained himself, let alone bothered with anyone, yet he could not help it. “If you look at those trees, you’ll see that I tied strings of rawhide every few feet . The pines are thick, they’re easy to find, since the snow isn’t as heavy once you’re under cover of those thick boughs. It’s when you’re in the open you can’t see to piss.”

Murdoch turned to hide a smile at the remark. “Resourceful, aren’t you?”

“Like I said, can take care of myself,” Johnny answered.

Reaching for Renegade, Johnny misstepped. The last words he heard before striking his head on a rock hidden in the snow when his feet slipped out from underneath him and darkness descended, was the stranger calling out his name.

******

Murdoch Lancer was a mountain of a man. Standing taller than most, he proved a formidable adversary, his stature and social standing garnering respect from those he came in contact with. His first wife, Catherine, used to tease that his hands resembled those of a large grizzly bear. Second wife, raven haired Mexican beauty, Maria, was so petite, those large hands could almost wrap around her tiny waist. When Johnny was born, the infant all but disappeared when held in Murdoch’s hands, a giant of gentle means that seemed almost comical. Then Maria left, stealing both his heart, and his son. Now late this Christmas night, with a fire blazing in a fieldstone hearth and winter storm blowing outside shuttered windows, Murdoch sat on the ledge of the hearth, and wept.

He would forever thank God that Johnny had the resourcefulness to string those strands of rawhide, and the presence of mind to tell him how and where to look. To a stranger, they would be unnoticeable, but to one knowing what to look for, the dangling leather ties were easy to follow, leading Murdoch to a small cabin in the clearing with a shed for the horses and stream covered with a thin layer of ice flowing alongside.

It had taken a little more than an hour to make the treacherous journey, before reaching the cabin. Johnny had been knocked unconscious, never stirring when Murdoch lifted him into his arms and onto Dakota’s back. Mounting the horse, Renegade’s reins clutched in a tight fist, Murdoch held Johnny against his massive chest, his heart hammering wildly at the first contact in fourteen years.

The snow was deep, but he urged the horses forth, finding the going easier once reaching the densest section of the pine grove. The heady aroma brought a semblance of peace, the world hushed, sequestered in the midst of heavy, thick boughs. A bed of fallen needles crunched under the horse’s hooves and powdery snow began to collect on the top of limbs, a winter wonderland to dazzle one’s imagination and soothe the soul if so in the mood.

Only Murdoch was not in the mood. For the first time since he discovered that Maria had taken Johnny and disappeared, he was scared to death. He had not been as frightened the previous night in the saloon when the hardened gunfighter stared holes through his hide. Right now, he was an injured youth needing help. Hopefully, Murdoch would have the answers he had been seeking and depending on the ensuing situation, would deal with whatever fate threw his way.

Once he reached the cabin, Murdoch was both relieved and impressed that the place was so well stocked. It was apparent that Johnny had been staying there for quite some time, a thought that brought stinging tears to the older man’s eyes. All this time spent seeking Johnny’s whereabouts, and the boy had literally been at his back door, close enough to come home, yet for some strange reason, refusing to do that very thing. Why would Johnny choose to remain so secluded in a cabin less than a day’s ride from the estancia, when he could have been home? Surely the boy must know about him.

A startling thought struck. Murdoch dismounted and fell trembling against Dakota. What if Johnny did not even know about him? How would he explain that he was, indeed, Johnny Lancer? Johnny was so young when Maria took him away, she could have told the boy his last name was Madrid, and Johnny would have grown up not knowing otherwise. It would explain a lot of questions Murdoch had rumbling around his mind.

Even more disturbing was the thought of Johnny knowing his true identity, yet tossing the Lancer name aside to take the name Madrid. That only meant one thing, Maria had probably spent years filling the boy’s head with God only knew what lies. If that was the case, there might be no chance for a relationship with his boy. Disheartened, Murdoch turned his mind to more important matters. Once Johnny was eased from the saddle and deposited on the rope bed to the right of the fireplace, Murdoch led Renegade and Dakota into the shed. He would tend to the animals once Johnny was settled properly.

Running back inside the cabin, Murdoch dropped his coat, hat and gloves to the floor and kicked the door shut. The room was crisp and cold, their breath, thick plumes of frothy air. In minutes, the cookstove was blazing and a large fire was roaring in the hearth, the warmth permeating the one room cabin. Windows were shuttered, keeping the draft out and upon quick inspection, Murdoch noticed how the seams of the cabin, much the same as the shed, were sealed with thick layers of mud, keeping the vile winter winds out, and heat, in.

Once the room grew warm, Murdoch stripped Johnny of his wet clothing, knowing he risked the gunman’s ire but not caring at the moment, and slipped him under the covers. Three more heavy quilts were found folded at the foot of the bed, and Murdoch put them to good use, relieved to feel the chill leaving as Johnny warmed. Glancing around, it was apparent that Johnny was planning to spend quite a bit of time at the cabin. Why so far north and why this time of year, would remain a mystery he might never unveil.

Satisfied that Johnny was resting peacefully, Murdoch donned a coat and hat and following the rope strung from the cabin to the shed, trekked through knee deep snow. The horses were unsaddled, legs were wrapped and their backs were blanketed for the night. A bucket of fresh water carried from the cabin was placed in the trough, and both animals were given an equal measure of grain. Checking that the shutters were secured, the outer door was pulled tight and latched.

“What the hell were you doing up here, boy? Why here, and why all alone? You had to be planning on spending some time here, stocked up and all. Am I ever going to learn what’s going on inside that head of yours?” Murdoch mumbled to himself as he stomped back into the cabin, this time met by warmth and the still form of his son wrapped in a mound of quilts.

Picking Johnny’s gun belt up off the floor, he placed the rig on a small table to the right of the bed. Picking up the discarded pants and shirt, Murdoch clutched the soggy items to his chest, inhaling deeply to stem the choking sobs threatening to erupt. Laid out in front of the fire to dry, he next reached for the black canvas duster Johnny had been wearing, startled when an aged, frayed picture fell from an inner pocket. His heart ceased to beat as past and present collided. No questions were needed. Murdoch had his answer. Hands trembling, he picked up the picture. Eyes misting over and throat catching, he sat down hard upon the wide, stone ledge of the fireplace and stared.

Murdoch knew the picture well. Three months after their wedding, a traveling photographer came through Green River. Maria had begged for days, with Murdoch finally relenting. Dressed in their wedding finery, the couple drove into town and posed for the picture. Murdoch then requested one of Maria alone. He never could figure out why she took the picture when she left, but he held the missing photograph in hand, and wept.

To date, Maria’s fate remained a mystery, but Murdoch now knew what had become of his son and heavy orbs of tears ran down his cheeks. It should not be like this. He and Johnny should be back at Lancer. Right now, he did not care what had become of Maria. If she had been so unhappy, she would have been free to go, but she should have left Johnny behind. Murdoch no longer considered him to be Maria’s boy. There was no forgiveness for the woman who placed such a burden on his son as to deprive him of his birthright and drive him into a life of hardship and hatred so depraved, he turned to the gun for survival.

Johnny was unconscious and showed no signs of waking. Murdoch was scared, but there was nothing more he could do but keep his boy warm and quiet. Rising on unsteady feet, he staggered over to the side of the bed, a gentle hand brushing back long strands of unbelievingly silky black hair.

“No, there is something I can do,” Murdoch broke down, huge sobs erupting as he slipped one arm under Johnny’s shoulders, the other wrapping around the slim boy from the front. Lifting Johnny, his grizzled face pressed against the boy’s soft cheek, Murdoch inhaled deeply the scent of his son. Eyes closed and holding Johnny closer, his tears soaked the young boy’s head.

******

Segundo Paul O’Brien was concerned. Murdoch had left unexpectedly with nothing more than a note to Maria that he might not return in time for breakfast. Christmas breakfast at the estancia was a regal affair, with Paul, his young daughter, Theresa, Maria, Cipriano and Sam Jenkins, in attendance. The note also said for everyone to carry on without him should the need arise, but there was no reason for worry. So they had breakfast, the seat at the head of the table conspicuously empty, the mood somber.

The fact that Murdoch had left so abruptly, and on Christmas Eve, could mean only one thing, and the staff and hands were understandably anxious. Somehow, Murdoch must have received word about Johnny. Busy with preparations for Christmas, the entire ranch had been in a uproar the previous day, with very little attention paid as to who came and went. Anyone could have ridden in from town with a missive, and no one would be the wiser.

Knowing that Murdoch has taken off at the last minute in the past, Paul prayed that this time, the news would be good and God willing, father and son would be returning to the estancia together. If he did not hear from Murdoch by the end of the week, Paul would ride into town and check around. Turning back to the barn, any worry was shoved aside for the time being.

******

A fire, crackling and bright, brought warmth to the storm ravaged, one room cabin. Long shadows stretched across the walls, a lantern on the hutch casting a soft glow throughout. Winds screeching through the valley rattled the windows. Glancing out, Murdoch shivered, night was setting in, without any thought to the hours slipping away. Earlier, he had pulled the wooden shutters back so that he might peer outside, standing at the large window in the great room back at the estancia, a favorite, soothing pastime. He would sit at the desk for hours, staring out over the land he cherished, always praying for the day his sons would ride in together, other times praying for the miracle that would bring Johnny back home.

Such thoughts brought hope and comfort, but Murdoch knew they were ludicrous. Too many years had passed to think that Johnny would just come riding home. No, Murdoch needed a miracle, one received the previous night. Standing in the warmth of the cabin, his son breathing softly in a bed warmed by the closeness of the hearth, Murdoch flung the shutters open, yearning to gaze outside. With night setting in, the storm increasing in intensity, he drew the shutters tight, latching them against the biting wind and ice.

Walking over to the fireplace, he was relieved to see that Johnny’s longjohns and shirt were dry and toasty. By morning, his pants would be ready, but with the violent whack on the head suffered, Murdoch doubted that he would be going anywhere soon. The boy would have a whopper of a headache for a few days, but thankfully, the wound remained closed so there was no need for stitches. Murdoch snagged the dry undergarment and with tongue in cheek, all the while praying Johnny did not waken, quickly slid the boy’s legs into the longjohns, pulling them up over slender hips. Gangly arms were pulled through long sleeves and Murdoch lay Johnny back down gently, relieved the irate gunslinger never batted an eye.

Murdoch heaved a heavy sigh. “Well, looks like I’ll live to see another day.”

Pulling a chair from the table over, he sat drinking in the sight of his son, the unbelievingly long eyelashes, the soft feel of Johnny’s face against the back of his hand, the ten fingers and toes, albeit a lot larger than the last time he checked. All through the ministrations, Johnny never woke. There was a brief moment when Murdoch thought he would regain consciousness, but after a few flutters of heavy eyelids and a groan, Johnny fell back against Murdoch’s chest, the over indulgent father taking full advantage of the rare, once in a lifetime, opportunity.

“Been dressing you since the day you were born, never thought I’d be doing so again,” Murdoch said with a dry chuckle, his voice soft and low.

Startled by a stirring of sound, Murdoch stared down. His head hammering, Johnny groaned, eyes of sapphire blue fluttering open, in spite of the heavy, dull ache behind his eyelids. The dim light of the room was comforting, yet he felt uneasy and out of place, having no recollection of anything beyond trying to mount Renegade and the excruciating pain in his head before darkness descended. Johnny turned his head slightly, the movement agonizing. Then the nausea set in and a pair of strong hands reached down, turning him to the side, a basin at the ready. Judging from the size of the knot on the back of Johnny’s head, Murdoch felt it best to be prepared.

Johnny’s vision swam and he struggled to see who was with him. Then he retched, and someone reached out, holding his head. Whoever it was knew the three p’s, Johnny’s muddled mind gave pause to old Eb. Seeing a head of gray hair bending over him, a smile came to Johnny’s face. Old Eb had come back to help him. His friend would make him better. Eb always made everything better. He was the only person Johnny trusted, the only one who never judged, knowing full well, his reputation.

The world slipped away as Johnny fell prey to the comforting words and cool cloth bathing his face. Relaxed, he let ‘Eb’ lay him back onto the mound of pillows and drifted off to sleep. Murdoch sat back on his heels, staring in wonderment at his child. Johnny did not fight him as expected, which was a blessing in itself. At the very least, Murdoch thought that he would receive a sharp tongue lashing, a bullet in the brain being the most likely scenario. Yet Johnny had accepted his help without argument and Murdoch swiped the cool cloth across his boy’s face one final time and reached for the basin before standing. Opening the door, the contents were flung out into the storm and he returned to stir the stew simmering on the cookstove.

The intensity of the storm was no match for the fury raging in Murdoch’s mind. Anger, grief and relief all mingled, leaving the man exhausted. Pride also surged forth, for it was plain to see the keen instincts his son lived by. Everything a body needed was in ready supply. Sadly, Johnny did know how to take care of himself. The question being, would he allow a doting father to care for him?

Another sound from the bed drew Murdoch’s attention. Johnny stirred, raising up slightly on his elbows, eyes squinting against the dull throb in the back of his head. Moaning, realization set in as his mind cleared and the tall stranger that had been following him rose and walked toward the bed. A gruff voice brought on a sense of panic Johnny fought down and hid valiantly.

“It’s right here,” the older man said, stunning Johnny into silence when cold steel was pressed into his hand.

Feeling the familiar weight of the colt, Johnny visibly relaxed, yet senses remained alert. Any confusion had been vanquished, a cold glare replacing the accepting eyes of earlier. This was not old Eb. Eb was dead. This was the stranger from the saloon, the sole cause of his recent problems. With the security of gun in hand, Johnny did not feel so vulnerable. Perhaps he did have nothing to fear from this stranger. The next words tore through Murdoch’s soul.

“That’s a picture of my Mama. Give it to me,” Johnny demanded, hand held out.

“I’m sorry, didn’t mean to pry,” Murdoch said, a mask of disinterest pulled down across his face. “It fell out of your jacket when I picked it up.”

“Should have been minding your own business from the beginning. You have no right to touch my stuff,” Johnny said, clutching the picture to his chest. “Should have left me alone.”

Turning away, he fought against the tears that always threatened when thinking of his mother. Murdoch could only watch and wonder just what secret hell Johnny had been pitched into. Earlier, he had been so angry with Maria, he truly did not care what had become of the woman. Now, his heart ached for the fate of the woman he once loved.

“Settle down young man, before you go upsetting your scrambled brains again,” Murdoch’s stern voice boomed out, instantly freezing Johnny where he lay, a dark stare glaring up. “First of all, like I told you earlier, I am unarmed. Your gun has been by your side the entire time, I have no use for it. Do with it what you will,” he said, disheartened that Johnny seemed to revert and withdrawal once true comprehension set in.

In an attempt to gain the boy’s trust, Murdoch turned his back and went to stir a stew of beef, canned vegetables and potatoes pilfered from a root cellar, the trap door discovered during his anxious pacing. He could feel Johnny’s eyes boring holes through his back, but the bullet never came and the boy remained silent. Murdoch gloated, this was the first time he had pulled parental authority over his son, and it had worked fabulously. Johnny heeded his demands. Although sullen and angry, he still quieted down.

“Don’t need your help,” Johnny lay grumbling.

“Should I have left you behind to freeze to death?” Murdoch asked, glancing back over his shoulder.

“And where the hell are the rest of my clothes? You’ve become too familiar, old man,” Johnny groused, smirking at the flush that came to Murdoch’s cheeks.

“I have been doing no such thing, young man. In answer to your cheeky question, I have the rest of your clothes drying by the fire. Now, should I have left you soaking wet and freezing to death?” he asked, eyebrows raised as he walked over to the bed with tin mug of broth in hand.

Turning his head away, a stubborn side emerged ever so gallantly. “Don’t want any. Should have left me alone, like I said,” Johnny snapped.

“Suit yourself, but I am a pretty good cook,” Murdoch replied, knowing that he was being ignored.

“This is my place, when the storm clears, you can leave. Can take care of myself, always have. Whenever sick or hurt before, would lay low until I healed or died. Can do the same now, old man,” Johnny said, a belligerent tone carrying an underlying thread of anger.

Those words ripped through Murdoch, leaving the stricken man to wonder just how many times Johnny had to weather an injury or illness alone, without comfort. Had his son ever known real love? “You sure took care of yourself when you tangled with that ice,” he shot back, baiting the boy.

“I wouldn’t have fallen at all if you had minded your own damned business and left me alone. Would have been settled here without anyone knowing,” Johnny said with a sneer. “Especially nosy old men who have nothing better to do on Christmas.”

Murdoch ignored the jibe and fell deep in thought. Can’t fault you there,” he said quietly, knowing full well that his interference led to Johnny’s injury. Yet, he would not apologize for being with him now. This was a hand to be played carefully.

“What the hell do you want from me? Why were you fol . . . following . . .” Johnny retched, all color leaving his face when the pain of sudden movement and dizziness struck.

Murdoch ran to his side, only to be held back when Johnny waved him off. Arms crossed, he lay back down, turning his head toward the wall. If there was one thing Johnny hated more than being helpless, it was feeling so in front of a stranger. The old man has been dogging him since the previous night and like a plague, he could not get rid of him. He was pissed, in a dark mood and would have thrown the tin mug through the window had it not been shuttered. Murdoch strutted, a look of victorious glee hidden, he walked over to the rocking chair and sat down, ignoring Johnny as he ate.

“That’s my chair,” Johnny grumbled.

“Well then, I know who to thank for the use of it. Mighty comfortable,” Murdoch said between bites of thick meat and potatoes.

“And you’re eating my food,” Johnny said with disdain.

“I’ll leave two bits on the table,” Murdoch quipped, the corners of his mouth lifted in a crooked grin hidden from his belligerent son.

Angered further, Johnny threw the covers over his head and flopping onto his side, lay with his back to the old man who was just begging for a bullet. No one has ever dared to usurp his authority before, yet this cocky bastard was just asking for a piece of lead. If he could only see straight, Johnny would oblige him. The old man had a lot to answer for, beginning with an explanation of who the hell he was and what he wanted to begin with. No one follows Johnny Madrid without a good explanation, and as soon as his head stopped aching and the world set back on its axis, Johnny would get to the bottom of things.

“Dumb ass, listened to everything old Eb said about surviving a storm, but he forgot to warn you about slipping on the damned ice and falling on your ass,” Johnny grumbled, pulling the quilt even higher, spikes of soft, raven hair sticking out.

“No, your head,” Murdoch snorted, stifling laughter at his son’s ire.

“Not funny old man,” Johnny exclaimed, incurring a further chuckle from his father.

If the situation was not so dire, Murdoch would be rolling across the floor because of his petulant teenager. As it was, he wondered just who old Eb was and what influence the man had on his son. Hopefully, time would tell.

Johnny fell into a fitful sleep, with Murdoch never taking his eyes off of him, but to make a quick trip to the outhouse when necessary. Sitting in the rocking chair, heh leaned his head back, listening to the howling outside the cabin. A shrill wind blew through the valley, bringing with it pellets of ice striking the windows. A cozy feeling of peace enveloped Murdoch, who sat staring down at the sleeping form on the bed.

Later that night, with the fire crackling, Murdoch rose from the chair and placed more wood in the cookstove and another large log on the fire. Johnny began to thrash restlessly, mumbling in his sleep. Walking over, Murdoch saw that the boy was sound asleep, yet felt hot to the touch.

“Damn, you always did run high fevers,” Murdoch said, remembering the feverish toddler he used to walk the floors with.

Johnny was too big to walk the floor with, but he was not too big to be helped. Like Murdoch’s brother, Blaine, back in Scotland, Johnny was prone to high fevers. He had his grandmother’s sapphire studded eyes, and his uncle’s penchant for fevers. As worried as he had been when Johnny was a baby, Murdoch was scared to death now, yet it felt good to care for his son. Placing an ear against Johnny’s chest, no congestion was detected, the father in him, relieved.

A pot of willow bark tea was set to simmering, with Murdoch again singing Johnny’s praises where the boys foresight was concerned. If only he was not so damned independent. Then again, if that were the case, Johnny might not have found the fortitude to survive. Murdoch was further saddened by the thought, wanting nothing more than to father the boy who needed it desperately.

“Eb, it’s cold,” Johnny mumbled. Face flushed and clammy with sweat, he swatted at the cloth. “Cold, Eb. Where are you?”

Murdoch leaned over his son, gently swiping a cool, wet cloth across his brow. A lantern placed upon the hutch bathed the cabin in a soft glow of light, a roaring fire fighting off the invading chill. Willow bark tea simmered on the cookstove, a pot of broth set aside for when the fever broke and Johnny was hungry.

“It’s all right, son, it’s all right.” Murdoch knew the words did not register in Johnny’s fevered mind, yet they brought the father comfort. “You’re going to be fine, Johnny, Papa is here. Papa is here,” the older man said, a shuddering breath taken.

Murdoch stared, still not believing the sight before him, the feel of his son. He felt as if he were trapped in a dream, fearing to wake and find himself alone back at the estancia. He was afraid to take his eyes off of Johnny, thinking the welcome apparition would vanish as quickly as he had fourteen years ago. His mind’s eye traveled back through time, captivated by an energetic, dark haired toddler that could steal someone’s heart with a smile.

“Papa, play.” Johnny would run into the room, arms outstretched.

Murdoch would turn from the desk, smiling as Johnny scampered across the room, little fingers clutching his pants as he climbed those impossibly long legs. Yet Johnny was a determined little mite, nothing kept him down for long. A deep laugh resounding through the great room, Murdoch lifted a giggling Johnny high into the air, high pitched squeals of glee breaking out when the small boy was dropped, only to be grabbed up into the strong arms of his father.

“I fly, Papa. I fly,” Johnny said through peals of laughter.

“Just don’t fly away, little one. Just don’t fly away,” Murdoch mumbled, holding the toddler close. The innocence of life faded as he wiped Johnny’s forehead, mourning the loss of the boy that was a stranger to him. “Only you did fly away,” he said softly. “You did fly away.

The hour drew close to midnight, yet Murdoch sat by his son’s side, holding the boy close while wiping a fevered brow. “It’s all right, Johnny. Papa is here. Papa is here.”

******

Johnny vaguely remembered someone by his side throughout the long, fevered night. The voice was gentle, yet foreign, the touch, soft and caring. He did not flinch from the administrations, for a sense of comfort filtered through, and he never fought his instincts. He felt safe, and oddly enough, cared for. Why and from where that thought derived, was a complete mystery. Other than his mother, old Eb was the only person to ever show any kind of caring compassion, yet this stranger was not Eb. Eb was dead. Still, the man present now could have easily killed him off long before this, and he most certainly did not have to stay and care for him.

Johnny did not think the older man knew of the cabin beforehand, if he had, he sure put on a good act when Johnny pointed out the trail shortly before whacking his head. Anyone else would have ridden out and left him to freeze to death, with no one the wiser. Not that anyone would care anyway, for there was not a person left on earth that cared for him. Yet this stranger stayed. Johnny turned his head, finding the gray haired man from the saloon sound asleep in a chair pulled over from the table. The man was huge, Johnny almost expected the legs of the chair to give out and crumble beneath the tall, mountainous frame.

 “Would serve his ass right,” Johnny chuckled, eyes snapping back when the man snorted and woke with a start.

 “What’s that you say?” Murdoch asked, alertness quickly setting in. “Son, are you all right?”

 Johnny did not turn from the words, this stranger, for whatever reason, had proven himself worthy of an ounce of trust, but that did not mean he liked the man. He could do without the company and as soon as the storm was over and he got to the bottom of the man’s reason for following in the first place, one of them would be on their way out of there.

“Am fine,” Johnny muttered, refusing to meet Murdoch’s eyes.

His instincts have never failed him in the past, and he was not about to doubt them now. Besides, he desperately needed to make a trip to the outhouse and then get something to eat. The smell of broth lent his stomach to growling, the reaction not missed by the old man who turned from the cookstove and grinned.

“Broth?”

“Would rather have coffee and tequila,” Johnny replied.

“Too damned young for that shit,” the old man shot back, a wary glance over his shoulder.

“Been old enough for a long time, old man. Can’t and won’t change now,” Johnny said, the challenge in his eyes, clear.

“Be that as it may, I can’t and won’t change you, just won’t give in while you’re recovering. What you do after, is totally up to you,” Murdoch said, the double edged words slipping from his tongue. Carrying over the tin mug of broth, he sat on the creaking chair and helped Johnny to sit up.

Wary, waiting for the first few sips to hit his stomach and settle, Johnny was finally satisfied that the broth would not make a repeat appearance and drank slowly, draining more than half the tin before handing it over. Pleased, Murdoch nodded and returned the mug to the hutch. Maybe later, Johnny would drink a bit more. Seeing the temperamental young man slide his legs off the side of the bed, he instantly strode over.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Outside, if it’s any of your business.” Johnny stood on wobbly legs, one hand reaching for his pants, the other holding his head.

“You’re damn stubborn,” Murdoch grumbled.

“No, I just gotta go. Not a baby, won’t piss in a pot,” Johnny said. “Got one good pot to cook in, and one bucket to carry water in. Won’t do to piss in either. Will make the trip outside.”

“You can piss out the front door,” Murdoch suggested, a wry grin on his face.

“Old man, do I gotta spell it out for you? Damn,” Johnny muttered. Legs slipped into his pants, he slapped Murdoch’s hands away. “ Been doing this on my own since I was two.”

The words bit through Murdoch, his stomach clenched in memory and he fought back a retort. ‘No, you haven’t been doing that by yourself since you were two,’ were the words that instantly came to mind. “Well, at least the storm let up,” he muttered.

“What’s that you say old man?” Johnny asked. Swaying when a step forward was taken, he again slapped Murdoch’s hand away and grabbed for the chair. “Leave it. How the hell do you think I survived this long without you?” he asked, puzzled by the sudden sadness in those pale blue eyes, as the older man turned away.

Walking over to the cookstove, Murdoch kept his head down and eyes averted, yet stole a peek now and then as Johnny staggered across the floor, pulling on the jacket. Knowing any further attempts at help would not only be thwarted, but might incur anger, he relented, yet wanted nothing more than to run to Johnny’s side and help his boy with this most primordial need. Johnny had to be independent, Murdoch was grateful for the fight in the boy, but the man wished he could be a father now.

The door crashed open with a bang, the wind ripping it from Johnny’s hand. Staggering back, speckles of black dancing before his eyes, Johnny turned toward Murdoch, not surprised to find the odd, doting stranger close at hand.

“Do I have to expect to see you every time I turn around from now on?” Johnny asked, falling against the wall. Beginning to slide, he did not have the energy to fight the large, helping hands off. “Head hurts,” Johnny mumbled.

“I don’t doubt that. And you still have a touch of fever. Hasn’t fully broken. Now, I will promise to remain on the side of modesty, should you allow me to aid you,” Murdoch said.

 “Speak English old man,” Johnny grumbled, not realizing that he clutched Murdoch’s arm tightly in his hands.

“I said, I promise not to peek if you let me help you,” Murdoch amended his words.

“Not so proud I’ll ignore help. Even though this is your fault,” Johnny added, mumbling under his breath.

“What’s that you say?” Murdoch asked, biting the inside of his cheek in order not to laugh out loud.

“I said, I don’t rightly feel like passing out and ending up in the bottom of the outhouse. Hell of a way for Madrid to go,” Johnny snickered. “Just give me a hand, will you?”

“I will,” Murdoch said, his face solemn, and heart soaring.

“Just get me out there, I’ll take care of the rest,” Johnny said, his voice wavering. “Damn, hurts worse than I thought.”

“Not too late to . . .”

“Old man, let’s just get this over with. Just wanna go back to bed.”

Murdoch held the door open, cringing at the knee deep, ice encrusted snow. He led the way, long, muscular legs churning through the white mass, blazing an easy path for Johnny to follow. Holding his son by the arm, steadying every move, they walked slowly, resting after each step. Murdoch vowed at that moment to look into indoor plumbing once he returned home. Truth be told, he was growing tired of making endless trips outside, himself. It would be nice to just walk across a warm hall, and not have the chamber pot to empty in the morning.

Turning thoughts back toward Johnny, Murdoch lifted the boy off his feet and against a weak protestation that quickly died on white tinged lips, carried him to the outhouse door, only closing it after making sure Johnny was not out on his feet.

“Look, I’ll be right here. You feel lightheaded at all, just the slightest bit, and I can help.”

“Can you go for me?” Johnny asked, the first mischievous grin Murdoch had been privy to spread across his face.

“No, can’t rightly say I can,” Murdoch snickered.

“Then I’ll take it from here on in,” Johnny said, closing the door in Murdoch’s face.

The older man was astounded, not only did Johnny not throw him out first thing, the boy had asked for, and accepted his help. Perhaps a thread of trust had blossomed sometime during the long, feverish night. There might be hope, yet. If he could only figure out when and where to announce his identity.

“Just have to play it out,” Murdoch said, jumping when the door opened. “You ok?”

“Everything is working just fine.” Johnny flashed a lewd grin, chuckling at the unabashed look of impatience on Murdoch’s face.

He pushed past, heading toward the stable. Only two steps, and the nosy old man was grabbing at him again. “Where are you going?”

“Take care of Renegade.” Head spinning and voice wavering, Johnny was going to take care of his horse no matter what the effort.

“I’ll tend to the horses,” Murdoch offered.

Johnny slogged through the snow. “I’ve been hurt worse and have taken care of him. Not gonna stop now.”

Murdoch could only shake his head at the naked, stark determination in his young son. Responsibility was instilled deep, the boy was not about to languish while his mount went unattended. The fact that Johnny had done so in the past, and had been hurt worse, was a thought the father did not want to consider. He felt as if he was merely chipping at the tip of the iceberg where Johnny was concerned.

“I’ll help. My horse is in there, too.”

Opening the shed door, Murdoch stepped aside as Johnny entered and went straight to Renegade. Caressing the horse, he spoke softly, the stallion nickering in reply. The sturdy steed understood every word and even nibbled at Johnny’s hair.

“You’re a good old boy, aren’t you?” Johnny said, the world growing dark as legs gave out and he began to slide toward the ground.

He never felt the strong hands that reached out, quickly wrapping around his waist, keeping him from further injury. Easily lifting Johnny into his arms, Murdoch carried the boy over to a pile of hay and placed him down. Brushing thick tendrils of black hair back, his heart softened toward this surprising, yet formidable young man.

“A man of many mysteries. I can’t wait to unravel the real you hidden deep inside,” Murdoch said, a hand enveloping Johnny’s forehead. “Well, the horses won’t muck the stalls or feed themselves.”

Picking up a pitchfork, Murdoch threw the rear door open, pitching the manure out into the snow. Finished, fresh hay was spread out and feed bins were filled. Checking to make sure that Johnny was still out, he quickly jogged back into the house and returned minutes later with a bucket of fresh water. Once the horses were fed and watered, Murdoch secured the rear door, picked up his son and left the warmth of the shelter. The outer door was closed and latched, the horses once again secure and warm. Johnny would never forgive him if any harm befell Renegade, with Murdoch vowing to check regularly throughout the day. First thing, he needed to get Johnny back inside and settled.

The call of nature heeded, Johnny should sleep for hours. The canvas duster was removed, quickly followed by boots and pants. Murdoch took his longjohn clad son and slid long, lanky legs beneath the warmth of the quilts. This time, the ministrations were done without any fear of a bullet in reprisal. The coat was hung by the fire, next to that of his father. Johnny’s boots were placed on the hearth, his pants refolded and placed on the bedside table. His rig was close at hand and Murdoch sat tiredly, rubbing his eyes. Once he finished a cup of coffee, he just might spread his bedroll and get some sleep. He would need it. When Johnny woke and became stronger, he would have questions that needed answering.

The boy might still be hurting, but he was becoming more lucid. Murdoch felt as if he were on borrowed time, Johnny would soon demand to know who he was and why he followed in the first place. How he approached that touchy subject remained to be seen, and Murdoch glanced warily at the colt placed upon the nightstand. Maybe he should hide the gun before the truth was revealed. He had been raised believing that the truth was what set one free. It would soon be time to put that old theory to the test.

Not even finished with his coffee, Murdoch began to nod off. He would be of little use if passed out from exhaustion, so the bedroll was spread in front of the warming fire, as close to Johnny as he could get without raising suspicion, and slowly drifted off to sleep. For the first time since his son was stolen from him, Murdoch Lancer felt like a father.

******

The first fringes of dusk cast long shadows across the room, a slight chill felt as the fires began to die down. Shivering, Johnny threw back the covers, determined to add wood to both the hearth and cookstove. On wobbly legs he walked over and tossed a handful of kindling into the black stove, blowing on the flames until they caught. The old goat was still sound asleep, loud snores echoing throughout the small cabin. Walking softly toward the hearth, two large logs were tossed onto the dying embers and Johnny knelt, holding his hands in front of the blazing fire. Warmth emanated from the crackling flames was soon felt, the earlier chill abating.

Walking to the front door, Johnny decided to take the old man up on his earlier idea, stood to the side and pissed in the snow. Chuckling, he turned too quickly and the room began to spin, the black dots, again present. He knew to be more careful, after a long rest, he always felt better upon waking, but moving around too quickly only brought on dire consequences. Holding onto the table until his vision cleared, Johnny ignored the dull, yet receding throb in the back of his head and staggered toward the cot. Sitting heavily, head in hands, muttering from the old man startled him.

“Come back, you little scamp. No horsies. No horsies,” Murdoch mumbled in his sleep.

Johnny stared, uncertain as to wake the old goat or not. He reached out, only to draw back when Murdoch started, a long arm thrashing out.

“Where are you? Where’d you go? Come back, Papa needs you,” Murdoch rambled, head tossing back and forth. “Papa is looking for you. Come back to Papa.”

“Hey old man, you better wake up,” Johnny said. Leaning over, he rustled Murdoch’s shoulder and jumped back onto the bed when the older man woke with a start.

Sitting up, rubbing sleep caked eyes, Murdoch took a moment to stare around the room before lucidity set in and he became more aware of his surroundings. Spotting Johnny sitting on the edge of the bed, he lurched forward, a hand grasping the side of the cot.

“You all right? What happened?”

“What happened is you fell asleep. Was dreaming, too.”

“Dreaming? What do you mean?”

Watching Murdoch rise, the long frame never seeming to unfold, Johnny stared up at the tall figure as he stretched. “More like a nightmare, old man.”

“What did I say?” Rubbing his face, Murdoch staggered over to the cookstove, finding the coffee blessedly hot. Pouring two cups, he walked back toward the cot. “But no tequila.”

“That’s all right, stomach is too empty to want any,” Johnny said, a small smile warming Murdoch’s heart.

“How about some broth?”

“How about something more filling?”

Murdoch stood his ground. “Broth to start with.”

“Why does everyone push broth on you, like it’s some magic cure or something,” Johnny groused.

“Don’t know if it’s magical or not, but it’s a start,” Murdoch said.

“Wanna finish the coffee first,” Johnny replied. “What were you dreaming about?”

Sitting in the rocking chair, Murdoch glanced over. “What do you mean?”

“Kept on saying something about horsies, so you must have been talking about a kid. Don’t know any grown man that says horsies,” Johnny said with a teasing snicker.

A wistful look washed over Murdoch’s face as memories came unbidden, a faraway, lost look in his eyes. “No, can’t say that either.”

Clearing his throat, Johnny asked the question that hit Murdoch hard. “Got any kids, old man?”

His heart clenching, throat catching, he leaned forward, coffee mug gripped tight. “Did once.”

“That who you were dreaming about?” was the next innocent question.

“Could have been. Don’t ever seem to remember my dreams,” Murdoch admitted. “I say anything else?”

“Sort of like Papa is looking, or something like that. Your kid go off or something?”

“Or something,” Murdoch muttered, eyes unable to meet Johnny’s gaze.

“Hey, I’m not prying or anything. Just that you were talking in your sleep, that’s all. Don’t have to tell me anything. Believe me old man, everyone has their secrets.”

Leaning forward slightly, he gauged Johnny’s demeanor, wondering if this was the right time to address the issue, Murdoch felt the need to wait a day or two until the boy was stronger. “Johnny, I did have a son once. I lost him a long time ago.”

“He dead?” Johnny asked point blank.

Murdoch stared for a moment, then slowly shook his head. “Thought he might have been, but just recently found out he wasn’t.”

“So that why you were at the saloon alone on Christmas Eve?” Johnny asked, misguided realization dawning. “And you weren’t following me, were you? You were going off to see your kid and I . . .”

“Johnny,” Murdoch was quick to offer comfort, only to be cut off.

“Been watching my ass so long now, at times I forget to be human,” Johnny muttered, shame instantly setting in. “Thinking you were following me, and you were only going after your kid. Now you’re stuck here, and . . .”

“First of all, I’m not stuck here. I could have left. Second of all, it was stupid of me to take off knowing a storm was setting in. You’re not keeping me from my child, Johnny, you’re making it possible for me to be with him,” Murdoch said with a warm smile. Hand held out, he grinned. “Truce?”

“Yeah, truce,” Johnny said weakly, a strong grip offered.

“No guilt, I mean it.” Murdoch damned the weakness keeping him from revealing the entire truth. “Johnny, I was just riding. Truth be told, my son was on my mind, but I really wasn’t thinking of anything else.”

“Good, didn’t want to mess things up for ya. Been thinking of myself for so long now, sometimes forget to consider others. Then again, the people who do come into my life only want my reputation,” he said, lowering his head to the floor before catching the deep sadness mirrored in Murdoch’s eyes.

“Can’t be an easy life,” Murdoch said, a slight stammer to his voice.

“No, just get real tired” Johnny said in a voice so soft, Murdoch wondered if he had heard the boy at all.

“You’re too young to be tired,” Murdoch replied, voice tinged with sadness.

Shrugging, Johnny chanced a glance upward. “Hope you find your boy. Don’t have a family myself,” Johnny said, easing his long legs back under the covers. “Mama, well, she ain’t around anymore. She got real sick when I was a kid.”

Murdoch stared, hoping his expression did not betray him. Johnny was still a kid in every sense of the word. “What happened?” he managed to choke out, again averting his eyes.

“Don’t know what it was, women in the village thought she might have had pneumonia or something, she just got real sick and feverish. Had a God awful cough. There was nothing anyone could do and one night, when I was alone with her, she died,” Johnny said before turning away.

Murdoch rose and wandered over to the window. Staring out into the dark of night, a lone tear streaked down his cheek. Shuttering the window, he wiped his face and turned back toward the hearth. Settling into the rocking chair, he slowly gathered grief filled thoughts. So Maria was gone, and his son had been alone with his mother the night she died. Could it get any worse? Glancing at Johnny now, he knew that it had gotten worse. Much worse. He could not think of anything more heinous than a young boy of only ten, holding his mother as she died. Then having no one to turn to for solace or compassion. To hold him in their arms and offer loving support, to caress him and hug away the tears. Instead, his son had been alone with his grief. Alone in a harsh, unforgiving world. Murdoch could not help but wonder if that was when Madrid was born.

“Don’t you have any family?” Murdoch dared to ask.

“My old man is a gringo. Never wanted me,” Johnny said with a shrug.

Murdoch vaulted from the chair and walked over toward the hearth, grabbing for his coat. “Gonna go check the horses.”

He left, leaving Johnny laying bewildered, wondering just what he said wrong. He lay back, slapping himself on the forehead. Of course everything he said was wrong. The old man had lost a kid, and his mouth probably brought back old memories. Sometimes, it was hard facing a person when upset, Johnny has had to go off by himself more times than he could remember. The old man probably felt the same way. Johnny should have known better, he detested people prying for information, preferring to keep thoughts to himself. And he had never opened up to anyone before except for Eb, yet the words just tumbled out. In spite of an earlier apology, the older man was obviously upset. Johnny would talk to him again once he returned. Hearing the wind shrieking through the valley, he felt himself hoping the stranger would return. Embarrassed, he shoved such a thought aside, it was best to leave things as they were.

Murdoch raced out to the shed, his chest threatening to explode with anger and grief. His son felt he was unwanted. He could only wonder what lies Johnny was fed. To think that he was unwanted, tore Murdoch apart. ‘Never wanted me’, rang through his mind. ‘My old man is a gringo. Never wanted me’, was the lie Johnny had grown up believing.

“God, no wonder you didn’t want to come home. No wonder you never came home. Didn’t think you had one. How the hell do I even begin to convince you, Johnny? How the hell do I get you to understand that you do have a home, and always have. Did you grow up believing that I threw you out? God almighty, if that is what my boy has always believed, how do I get through to him?”

Thoughts raging, feelings too hurt and mired with grief to deal with, Murdoch blindly cared for the horses, the movements not registering. In a fog filled haze, he realized that the chore was soon finished and other than making a quick trip to the outhouse, there was no other reason for him to remain outside. He did not want Johnny to chance walking outside looking for him.

Once he pulled himself together, a monumental feat he feared not accomplished, Murdoch took a deep breath and opened the cabin door. “Got the horses taken care of.”

“I’m sorry old man,” Johnny said, a smile lighting his face.

Murdoch walked over, a hand placed gently upon Johnny’s shoulder. “What do you have to be sorry for, son?”

“For upsetting you earlier. For talking and making you remember something hurtful. It’s none of my business,” Johnny said.

“You didn’t upset me. I tend to think too much, and then it almost becomes impossible to live with,” he said, seeing the understanding in Johnny’s eyes.

He could not help but marvel at the caring, compassionate heart hidden beneath the veneer of a hardened gunfighter. Johnny had not hit rock bottom, he might be Johnny Madrid, the name instilling fear and dread, but there was more to the boy than met the eye. Murdoch was stunned and amazed. Johnny Lancer had many facets, and Madrid was but one.

Another smile broke Murdoch from his thoughts. “Yeah, know how that feels,” Johnny said. “Can I have some broth?”

Turning an uplifted face toward his father, the teenager once again emerging, Johnny’s smile erased some of the grief felt. “Of course you can,” Murdoch smiled, filling the tin mug.

“You are a pretty good cook,” Johnny said, taking a small sip. Feeling the welcome warmth stream through his body, he drank some more. “Old Eb was, too. Guess it’s something that comes to old men.”

Murdoch frowned at the words, but could not hide the smile in his eyes. Johnny gazed up, a mischievous grin on his face. “Old men? And who is this Eb?”

“Oh, Eb is just an old man I once knew. Saved my ass when I was shot,” Johnny said as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

Another arrow through the heart, Murdoch again fought the revulsion tearing through him. “You were shot?”

“I’m a gunfighter. We do get shot. Was ambushed last year. Caught a bullet in the shoulder. Eb helped me,” Johnny said.

“And where is Eb now?” Murdoch asked, wanting to kick himself for the unexpected reaction.

Blinking furiously, Johnny looked away and shrugged. “Comes to all of us, old man. Eb went to sleep one night and never woke up.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Murdoch replied, sad eyes meeting Johnny’s.

“Like I said, comes to all of us,” Johnny said with a slow, light toned drawl. Eyes narrowing in suspicion, curiosity getting the better of him, he turned toward Murdoch. “Just who the hell are you, old man? Never did tell me your name.”

“I, young man, am an enigma,” Murdoch chuckled, teasing banter lightening his mood.

“You running from the law or something? Think that hiding behind my gun will save your ass? Cause let me tell you something, I might not be what most people would think trustworthy or even a good person, but I am law abiding. When I give my word, I keep it. And I do know right from wrong. Don’t go walking the wrong side of the law, and don’t help anyone else doing it, either.”

“Well, that’s good to hear, and I do commend you,” Murdoch snickered.

“What the hell does that mean?” Johnny asked, eyes narrowing.

“It means that I give you praise,” Murdoch answered.

“Don’t want your praise,” Johnny said, picking at a piece of thread from the quilt. “So why don’t you tell me your name?” he asked, sounding more like a young boy seeking answers to quench a curious streak, than a hardened gunfighter.

Murdoch was enjoying seeing this side of his boy emerge, but knew hard times were still to be had once the truth was inevitably revealed. For now, he would roll with the feeling. “What’s in a name?”

“Don’t pull that shit,” Johnny swore, immediately regretting the harshness of his response as his head began to swim.

Murdoch was quick to lend a comforting hand, wrapping an arm around Johnny’s shoulder and holding his head still, the large, work calloused hand gentler than it would seem. “Just stay still, young man. You’ve rattled your brains good.”

“What do you care?” Johnny argued, this time in a lighter tone and holding still.

“Do I have to have a reason?” Murdoch countered.

“Everyone has a reason,” Johnny said, then quieted, remembering old Eb. He never questioned the grizzled miner’s reason for saving his sorry hide, so why did he bristle against the attempts of this man? “Guess every old man has to mother somebody,” Johnny said, a teasing lilt to his mouth.

Confused by the remark, Murdoch nevertheless accepted Johnny’s calm reasoning. “Sounds about right to an old man. Now, how about some more broth?”

“Okay, but can you put some meat and potatoes in it? I didn’t stock this place just to sip an old man’s broth. I do have teeth, you know,” Johnny argued.

Murdoch tossed his head back in light laughter, his heart lifting at the good-natured grumbling of his boy. How he has yearned for such moments, ached for them. “Tell you what, if the fever goes down more by tomorrow and you manage to not spew all over me when I feed you, then I’ll give you something to chew. That a deal?”

“Guess so, if that is as good as it gets,” Johnny said, mumbling as he sipped the broth. “A piece of biscuit? Please? Just break it off and drop it in?”

Murdoch found it hard to resist the pleading in those large, sapphire eyes, so against his better judgement, reached for a leftover biscuit and tore it into small chunks, submerging them into the broth. “There young man, if you erupt, just turn your head. I don’t feel like getting puked on again, and the only clothes I have are on my back,” he said, a smile breaking out.

“Yeah, well it would serve you right for butting your nose into my business to begin with,” Johnny said, no malice inflicted in his voice.

“Just eat your broth,” Murdhoch said, pointing toward the tin.

“And suck on soggy biscuit,” Johnny complained.

Murdoch rolled his eyes and reached for another biscuit, this time handing it to Johnny whole. “You’re just never satisfied, are you?”

The boy’s eyes lit up brighter than Murdoch thought possible. It amazed the man as to how something as simple as a biscuit of flour and lard could bring such joy. This was proving to be a Christmas holiday he would never forget.

Johnny sipped and chewed, flashing a stolen glance and quick grin in Murdoch’s direction every once in a while. The boy was softening, the man’s heart was soaring. A wall was crumbling, and it began with a thread of trust and a biscuit. Johnny was quiet for a moment. Perhaps he reminded the old man of the kid he lost, the one he was crying out for in his sleep. That would explain the old goat staying behind after he fell. Still, there was the underlying question of why he was in the mountains to begin with.

Perhaps it was pure chance. But if there was a reason, Johnny hoped to get to the bottom of it soon, he was not usually this patient and if his head didn’t hurt so much, he would demand an answer that very minute. Knowing that the man meant no harm, played a big part in the trust that was slowly building, still, Johnny held back. The way this old gray haired man reached out to help did put him in mind of Eb, but there was an underlying difference Johnny could not put his finger on, yet caused no unease.

******

As night set in, with long fingers of flames licking at the logs in the hearth, Murdoch nursed a cup of coffee as he stared at the molten embers spiraling up the chimney. Lethargic from the broth and biscuits, Johnny rolled onto his stomach, chin resting on arms tucked beneath the pillow. He nodded on and off, alternately studying the older man and hypnotic flames. Never before had he felt such peace. Never had Murdoch been so content. Every once in a while the older man looked down, watching his drowsy son.

“Nice night,” Murdoch said softly.

“Yeah, listen to that wind. At least it’s not as cold. Or snowing,” Johnny said, biting back the retort on the edge of his tongue.

It would soon be time for the old man to move on, but Johnny would tell him later. No sense in ruining the night. Never before had he yearned for such company, and from a virtual stranger, to boot. Tomorrow, he would ask the questions lingering on his mind. The old man could answer him, or find the door.

“Will soon be New Year’s Eve,” Murdoch said, taking another sip of coffee.

“Just another day. One year brings on the next, same old shit,” Johnny said.

“Don’t you celebrate?” Murdoch asked. “Have you ever celebrated New Year’s Eve?”

“Gunfighters don’t celebrate nothing,” Johnny said flatly.

“But you weren’t always a gunfighter,” Murdoch countered.

“But I bet you were always nosy,” Johnny snapped.

Murdoch frowned, then quickly looked away. This boy of his was exasperating at times, he could only imagine how life would have been at the estancia. “Too quiet,” he muttered, not realizing he had spoken out loud.

“You talking to yourself again old man?” Johnny asked, eyes opening as he stirred. “Know what they say about folks who talk to themselves. Poco loco,” he snickered.

“I am quite sane and in control of all my faculties, thank you,” Murdoch answered.

“Old man, speak English, damn.”

“I said I am quite sane, thank you. And I know what I’m doing.”

“Doubt that.” Johnny mumbled into the pillow, eyes too sleep laden to stay awake much longer.

Although still a bit on the weak side, the headache had abated and he no longer ran a fever, which was a relief. The old man no longer had a reason to hover. He wasn’t glass, he wouldn’t break. And he wouldn’t disappear. Johnny’s eyes snapped open, wondering where that thought came from.

“You all right?” Murdoch asked, noticing the strange reaction.

Johnny had always been a big believer in fate, even though he had been dealt a rather crappy hand. He relied on feelings, instincts honed to sharp, keen perfection. He could read a man in a minute, and this stranger in his midst was hiding something. Johnny was sure of that, and had the rather unsettling feeling that it had something to do with him. Reading people correctly, allowed him to live this long, and Johnny was beginning to see something in this man. Whether to be liked or not, remained to be seen. The old man meant no harm, but just what the hell did he want? Plus, Johnny just did not want the company.

“You ever celebrate the new year?” Johnny asked, changing the subject.

Murdoch was quiet for a long moment, and Johnny thought he would not answer. Damn, this was unnerving, but the old goat reminded him of himself. Too closed up to share. His business, was just that.

“Yeah, I used to celebrate it quite a bit. Especially back in Scotland.” Murdoch wondered just how much Maria had told their son about him. Letting out a pent up breath, Murdoch fought mixed emotions. He had not tipped his hand too soon, Johnny obviously had not been told about his Scottish heritage. Sadly, Maria seemed to have successfully erased him from the boy’s life.

“Scotland? Is that the place way across the ocean?” Johnny asked, rolling onto his side, his boyish interest piqued. He had always loved a good story.

Smiling, Murdoch nodded. “Yes, it is. Actually, I came over on the boat from a town called Inverness. My Da . . .”

“What the hell is a da?” Johnny croaked, stifling a chuckle.

Feigning a frown, Murdoch glared down at his petulant son. Ever so patient, the tone of voice exhibiting a warmth Johnny did not understand, he answered. “Da is what the children in Scotland call their father. Over here it’s father, pa, or papa. Something along those terms. How did you refer to your father?” Murdoch asked, biting the inside of his cheek.

“Didn’t call him nothing. No need to. Never had a father. Well, did for a while till the bastard kicked me and Mama out. She tells me I was only two, and he gave her the keys to the road one day and said ‘what’s your hurry. Oh, and don’t forget Buster here’. So you see, never had a father and don’t need one. Wouldn’t know how to be with one anyway,” Johnny said before flopping back down onto his stomach.

Murdoch’s grip on the lukewarm mug tightened, his knuckles turning white. He bit the inside of his mouth harder, the bitter metallic taste on his tongue washed down by the strong, biting brew. A tighter rein on his emotions, he never had. “Your mother tell you that?”

“Who else. Don’t wanna talk about it. It’s in the past and done. What matters now is here, me getting my head cleared and moving on,” Johnny said, staring into the fire once more. Still, the need to talk lingered. “Did your kid call you Da?”

A dreamy look came into Murdoch’s mind as he was pitched back into time. “No, the first thing he came out with was Papa, and it kind of stuck. You see he heard all the other children on the ranch calling their fathers the same, so he just followed suit.”

“So you got yourself a ranch. You some kind of rich rancher or something?” Johnny asked.

“Or something. That bother you?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny yawned, rubbing at his eyes with the back of balled up fists. “Nah, a man works hard, he deserves all he can get. Me, I plan on getting me a ranch one day. Gonna raise horses. Can’t see the sense in cows, smelly beasts are stupid,” he said, startled by the booming laughter that rang out.

“That they are, son. That they are,” Murdoch said, chuckling lightly until he fell silent once again.

“You got cows, old man?” Johnny asked, this time the yawn growing wider, his head sinking lower into the pillow.

“Yeah, got a few,” Murdoch said, unshed tears coming to his eyes as he watched his boy hover between sleep and wakefulness.

“You can keep the smelly bastards. Only cow I like is a thick steak slathered in onions,” Johnny said, his voice growing ever softer.

“Sometimes feel the same way myself. But having a few cows, at least I know I’ll never run out of steak,” Murdoch said.

“Yeah, makes sense. I just might get me a stupid cow or two,” Johnny said, his arm slipping out from beneath the pillow as his eyes lost the battle and slid shut.

Murdoch waited a long moment, a tingling warmth running from his head to his toes the mere sight of this boy brought on. So many of these moments were missed, moments he and Johnny would have shared going to the cabin at the lake to fish, or sitting around a campfire at night. Murdoch loved to camp and had planned on taking Johnny once he grew old enough, but never had the chance. He had wanted to teach his boy how to skip a rock, swim and fish. Those cherished moments never came to be and Murdoch wondered if Johnny knew any of those things. And if he did, just who taught him? A tinge of jealousy rose to the surface at that thought, for it meant another man treading on his territory.

Head tipped back, Murdoch stared at the shadows flickering across the ceiling. “You asked if I had a son, and I do. He’s right here, Johnny. I’m looking at him, and I love him even more today, then I did back then, if that is at all possible, for I loved you with all my heart and soul since the moment you were born. Even before you were born. There isn’t a force on this earth that can take this from me, I only wish my heart were larger, because I can’t contain how I feel for you. We’ve lost out on so much. So much,” Murdoch said, closing his eyes against the tears that threatened to spill.

The room was quiet except for the crackling of the fire in the hearth, and the soft, rhythmic breathing of his son. Giving in, Murdoch had never been so tired in his life. Drained emotionally, he could not help but think he had never felt as fatigued after a long day at the ranch. The last few days had been trying, with heavy emotions taking a toll. His head literally ached with exhaustion, so Murdoch spread the bedroll close enough to Johnny without stirring suspicion, and near enough to the flames to keep his body warm. In seconds, he was sound asleep.

Murdoch woke to the smell of fresh baked biscuits and sound of bacon sizzling. Rubbing bleary eyes, he chided himself for sleeping so soundly, he never heard Johnny stir. Glancing over, he frowned at the boy moving slowly around the kitchen, getting a simple breakfast together. Johnny still looked a bit too pale for his liking and should be resting, but Murdoch had the notion that the boy never did anything the easy way. Fortitude was one thing, Johnny was downright stubborn and unstoppable.

Stretching to his full height, Murdoch again rubbed at his eyes and staggered to the table. “Sleep well?” he asked.

“I always sleep well,” Johnny said with a slight grin. Reaching for the coffeepot, he was stopped by a giant hand clasped gently around his wrist.

“Sit down son, let me get it. I should be the one making breakfast,” Murdoch said softly, rewarded by a bright smile. “You should be in bed.”

“Been hurt worse and got up and around before,” Johnny said non-chalantly. “Besides, I didn’t want to have biscuits and frigging broth. Tossed the broth out the front door when I took a piss. Figured if I made breakfast, you couldn’t keep me from eating it.”

Groaning in exasperation, Murdoch faced the boy down, eyes narrowed in challenge. The boy could try the patience of a saint. “Wanna bet?”

Johnny stood tall and firm, his height dwarfed to the point of being comical, but the look in his eyes said it all. Icy and firm, the boy was determined to eat bacon and biscuit, and not even Murdoch would stop him. Eyes flitting to Johnny’s hip and back up again, Murdoch could not help but snicker at the grin that now appeared on Johnny’s face, transforming Madrid back into Lancer. If only Murdoch knew of a way to merge the two favorably and bring Johnny home, he would do so in a heartbeat. As it was, the time for truth was nearing and Murdoch was at a total loss. He did not want to lose his son again.

“So what will it be old man? Don’t need a gun to tangle,” Johnny said, the challenge returned.

“I say let’s sit and eat while it’s still hot,” Murdoch relented. “Especially since you went to so much trouble.”

“No trouble. Been cooking and taking care of myself for years,” Johnny replied.

Ignoring the remark, knowing to ask for details would only raise suspicion, Murdoch pulled a jacket on and after a sip of coffee, eyebrows raised as the strong brew hit his stomach, he made a quick trip outside. Returning, he eyed the coffeepot through narrowed lids, sighed heavily and dared another swallow.

“Kind of strong?” he asked, shaking his head.

“Like it strong. What’s the matter old man, can’t handle it?” Johnny asked.

“Oh, I can handle it, don’t you go worrying about me,” Murdoch said with a chuckle.

The two sat at the table filling their plates with biscuits, bacon and beans. Johnny was a good cook, something Murdoch reluctantly admitted. But then, he needed to be. Finished with the meal, Murdoch poured yet another cup of coffee and sat back, watching as Johnny scraped his plate clean. The boy had a bottomless stomach, leaving Murdoch to chuckle at the sight. It felt good to watch a teenager eat with such abandon. Not having to worry about an expanding middle, left the older man a touch envious.

“What’s so funny old man?” Johnny asked, a quirky grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“You always did like . . .” Murdoch said. Realizing his mistake he stopped mid-sentence, freezing at the darkening glare shot his way.

Johnny sat back slowly, movements precise and exact as he stood, the chair scraping across the wooden floor. A grim silence filled the room, tension crackling in the air. Glaring at the stricken look crossing Murdoch’s face, a nagging suspicion coming to life, the reason the older man had been dogging him rose to the surface. It made sense, morbid, sickening sense. How and why things would come about in such a manner, sent his blood roiling. Murdoch rose, a hand held out, pleading eyes staring back. There was no hatred, there was no remorse, only an empty, lonely soul peeking through.

Johnny’s eyes narrowed and he took a step back from the hand held out. “Guess I don’t have to ask who you are. And just what the hell do you know about what I like?” he spat, an old hatred brimming over.

With a heavy sigh of resignation, all the while praying the truth would not damn him to a life without the boy he loved more than anything on God’s green earth, Murdoch stood tall and proud, not mincing words. Excuses would not work now. Lies would not work now and would only serve to sever the tenuous threads of trust built over the past few days. The truth could do the same, but there was no turning back. Fate and a slip of the tongue brought life altering events full circle between them.

“When you were little, I always knew what you liked,” Murdoch said. Stepping sideways from the table, his movements matched those of Johnny, precisely. His son backpedaled a step or two, and Murdoch walked forward. Johnny stopped, and Murdhoch stood stock still. “Ever since you were a baby, I knew what you liked.

“You loved it when I held you, when I placed you so close to my heart, your soft head rested against my face. You loved to run to me, calling out my name. You made my life complete Johnny, then you disappeared,” he said.

Johnny inched his way to the door, right hand tapping restlessly on the gun just begging to slide into his fingers. It could all end now, he could finally have what he has been seeking all these years. Still, as in the past, he held back. Hatred raged, anger spewed forth, yet he could not pull the gun. Not just yet. Every man deserved a last word.

“That’s right, I’m your father,” Murdoch said, a hand held out, trembling. “You disappeared, Johnny. I used to know everything about you. You’re my son, and I have been looking for you for over fourteen years.”

Johnny’s eyelids narrowed, eyes pinpoints of black, darkened rage. His mouth set in a thin, tight line, he sneered. “My father? You’re Murdoch Lancer? You fucking gringo liar, I outta kill you for what you did to me and my mother,” he said, fingers dancing on the cold, steely handle of the colt.

In a flash, a chair toppled over and Johnny was gone, the door slamming as he ran out into the bright, morning light.

******

The temperature hovered in the mid-forties, feeling rather sultry considering the cold, biting winds they had been experiencing. The mountains were fickle this time of year, vicious and unrelenting one day, tantalizing with sun baked glory, the next. This morning, the sun hung bright and strong overhead, warming the land and turning knee deep ice encrusted snow into a soft, sloppy, mass of white. Johnny strode into the shed. Flinging open the back door, he let Renegade and Dakota out into the sunlight. Unknown to Murdoch, he had already been out earlier to feed and water the pair, but had not possessed the strength to muck out the stalls.

Fury now fueled his strength, adrenaline surging out of control through his veins. Cursing, Johnny picked up the pitchfork and stabbed at a pile of manure. It felt good to thrust the long, pointed tines into something, better a pile of manure caked hay, than the old man. Temper broiling, barely held under control by the tightest of constraints, Johnny took a few deep breaths, let Madrid loose and shoved all emotion aside.

No one could hurt him now. Storming back outside to lean on the corral fence, he watched the horses as they romped through the snow, which was rapidly becoming a field of mud churned slush under a flurry of hooves. The warmer temperature enjoyed the past two days was melting everything the storm had dumped on them and Johnny moved away from the stable, a large drop of water from a melting icicle striking him in the middle of the forehead. Whirling about, hand on gun, he stared up at the roof, fighting the urge to shoot the crystalized offender. He could imagine word getting around about the untimely demise of the icicle plugged by the infamous Johnny Madrid.

“Ahhh, what the fuck.” Johnny whirled back around and in one fluid motion that left Murdoch standing, mouth agape at the sight, drew his gun and fanned the hammer, smashing the dangling, icy appendage to smithereens.

Feeling immensely better, all he needed now was a roll with a good woman and the world would be right. With a quick flick of the hand, the gun twirled and slid back into the holster, the movement so smooth, so adept, it left Murdoch wondering if he had seen it at all. Never before had he been witness to such fluid speed and grace rolled up into one deadly package.

Catching the old man watching in stunned awe, Johnny fought down churning, volatile emotions. For a man of enormous height, Murdoch was across the clearing like a shot from a Winchester. Reaching Johnny by the corral, calling out his name the entire time, Murdoch felt his life ebbing away and was helpless to do anything about it. He could not let this happen. Unable to stop Johnny’s disappearance fourteen years ago, he was ready to fight to the death if need be, to keep it from happening again. Once in a lifetime was too much. He could not fathom returning to the estancia knowing Johnny was lost to him forever.

Like with any father of a missing child, Murdoch had years of hurt, anger and pain to work through. As with any child, Johnny was confused, and rightfully so. The boy just had his life literally flung in his face. Murdoch did not know who was more callous, his wife for stealing Johnny off in the middle of the night, or him, for the ill-timed slip of the tongue. All the while he had been searching his mind for a pathway to the truth, and all it took was an off hand remark to roll out of his mouth.

Johnny was smart, Murdoch saw that when he was a toddler. The boy picked up on anything that came his way, his mind as sharp as a tack. Johnny was walking at the tender age of ten months, and putting full sentences together long before turning two. When Murdoch read to him at night, Johnny would crawl into his lap and listen intently, pointing out pictures and remembering details with a mind like a steel trap. Everything that filtered in, stayed. That sometimes worked to their disadvantage, for Johnny never forgot a thing.

Only he had forgotten, and that was the reason he was running now. Running from the father he loathed, the man whose love touched him for two very short years, only to be forgotten when Johnny was whisked away. Now Murdoch Lancer strode across the clearing, a throbbing heart beating painfully against his chest.

Johnny whirled about, eyes spitting fire, his hand held up to halt Murdoch’s approach. “Don’t come a step closer.”

“Son . . .”

“Don’t call me son! You don’t have that right.”

Shaking his head slightly, Murdoch looked into eyes blazing fire. “Oh Johnny, I do have that right. Fight me if you will, but the fact remains that I am your father. You claim to be good at reading people, so why can’t you see the truth?”

“The truth? As you tell it? The mighty Murdoch Lancer, sits his ass in that rich estancia while his wife and son barely scrape out a living in the dirt of those damned border towns? Where the hell were you, old man, when I needed you? That’s right, you were wallowing in the lap of luxury, and didn’t give a damn.”

Eyes clenched tightly, Murdoch raised his face to the sky, the warmth of the sun failing to reach him. “You’re so wrong, Johnny. So very wrong.” Murdoch then lowered his head and faced the boy slowly edging away from him. “You’re not the only one who can read people. I’ve been able to do so for years. My Gram back in Scotland said that it was a gift. ‘Murdo’, she would say, ‘you have the unique talent of looking a body in the eyes and reading just what is on their mind.’ She was right, to some extent.”

“And when was she wrong?” Johnny demanded.

Murdoch glanced at the gun hanging low on the boy’s hip and chose his words carefully. They would either make or break the tenuous relationship they had managed to build up. They could get him killed. Suddenly, he didn’t care. If finding Johnny came at the expense of his own life, then so be it. He would die knowing that his son was alive and maybe with him gone, Johnny would return to Lancer and claim what was rightfully his. What had always been his. Hopefully, they would make the journey together, father and son riding home.

“I lost that insight when it came to your mother,” Murdoch replied. Noticing the slight shudder that ran through Johnny’s body, he continued before giving him a chance to run. “I guess it was my fault, maybe I didn’t give her the attention she desired or needed, I don’t know. All I know is that I loved her and my little boy.”

It was as if a jolt ran through Johnny and he shot a hardened, hate filled look at Murdoch. “Your boy, huh? When the hell was I ever your boy?”

Gauging Johnny’s reaction, Murdoch mentally prepared himself for the bullet he felt was imminent, all the while praying for the chance to reveal the truth before that final moment struck. “You were always my boy, Johnny. Ever since the night you were born. I wish I knew what happened, but we were happy in the beginning.”

Johnny snapped his arm back when Murdoch reached out. “Don’t touch me! Old man, we never had a beginning.”

Staring steadfast, refusing to lose the chance to explain himself, a desperate Murdoch fought on. “Oh yes we did. We had a beginning, Johnny. Like I said, I don’t know what happened, why your mother left . . .”

“She never left!” Johnny’s incensed rage echoed through the small clearing, the icy words falling heavily upon Murdoch’s ears.

Just as enraged, anger over the injustice done to his life, Murdoch struck back. “She did leave! I woke up one morning and you were gone. I’ve been alone ever since . . .”

Taking a stance in front of this towering giant, Johnny sneered. “Man finds himself alone, he probably deserves it.”

“Not always. You might think that, but it’s not so. Sometimes a person finds himself alone, through no fault of his own,” Murdoch said. Johnny’s eyes softened a bit, the words driving home. “I see you agree, since you’re alone too.”

“What I am is none of your damned business.” Johnny whirled away. Arms wrapped around his torso, head lowered in what Murdoch was beginning to perceive as a protective stance, he quaked with anger and confusion.

Taking a step closer, Murdoch spoke, keeping his tone low and even, as if gentling a skittish horse. “Fate grabs a’hold of us all, Johnny. We can’t fight it, that doesn’t work. It draws people together, it breaks them apart. It can guide actions we are damned and determined to carry through, but can stop us in our tracks before the act is completed.”

Johnny’s arms tightened around his chest, yet he remained stock still, confused as to why he did not run. Rooted in place, he stared at the snow covered ground.

Murdoch was now within arm’s reach of his boy. “Johnny, sometimes what we think is the truth, is really a lie. It’s hard to believe that one’s life was based on the lies of another, but in order to carry on, you have to listen to both sides.”

Eyes spitting fire, Johnny spun around, fingers flexed just above the hard steel of the colt. “Just what the hell are you talking about? Why the hell do you even give a damn? And why the hell are you just standing there, knowing that I can blow you away at any minute?”

Steely determined eyes glaring back, the battle raged on. “Because I can. Because I have to. I’ve been alone for too damned long, and so have you. Johnny, when you were born, you were the most beautiful child God had ever created. I remember holding you after you came into this world, staring into a set of eyes so blue, they saw clear into my soul. I was lost then, lost in the love of my child. I adored you . . .”

Johnny fought the urge to run, his body trembling to the point of pain, a confused mind whirling. The agony of confusion so great, it was as if a knife sliced through his skull, his very soul shredding. He didn’t want to hear anything else. He didn’t want to stand there and listen to what he was beginning to understand, yet wanted to forget.

“I loved my son, Johnny, always have and always will.” Seeking to block Johnny’s escape route, Murdoch took a step forward, then quickly dashed the idea. He didn’t want to trap the boy, he just wanted him to listen. “You were my entire life, only you were stolen from me. Your mother took you away from me, the ranch, and the life you should have had. The life that has always been there for you.”

“Well that just fucking makes my heart bleed for you, old man,” Johnny screamed. He spun back around, anger roiling through his veins, clouding his thoughts, stinting his actions. Fighting to end it all here and now, yet striving to listen, keen instincts refusing to be ignored, kicking in.

“No, it makes my heart bleed for both of us,” Murdoch grimaced. “I don’t know why your mother left. I gave her everything, but she left. I eventually came to terms with her leaving, but the one thing I never came to terms with was her taking you. If she wanted to leave, she could have. I never believed in keeping a body where they didn’t want to be. But she could have left you. She should have left you.

“She tore my heart out. She should have shot me before she left, it would have been easier than living not knowing the fate of my son. I didn’t know where you were, what kind of life you were living, or even if you were still alive. I looked for years. I even hired Pinkerton agents, but they never found any trace of you. Your mother was good, I tell you. She was always one step ahead of the detectives, leaving town so quickly, they never had a chance.”

Shoving past Murdoch, Johnny marched back inside the shed, arms wrapped even tighter around his chest. Standing in the corner of a stall, he fought the urge to scream. Bent over at the waist, body rocking slightly, he stared at the hay strewn, dirt floor. Knuckles jammed into his mouth, Johnny bit down until the pain snapped him back to the present.

Murdoch stood just inside the door, grateful that Johnny had not gone for his horse. Cautiously, he walked closer to the stall, watching every move the boy made. His heart broke, witnessing the shudder to Johnny’s overwrought body, the rapid rise and fall of his chest, containing the sobs that threatened to erupt. Murdoch took another step forward, yet Johnny never flinched. This was his last chance. The end, come what may.

“I never had a chance. Didn’t have much money at the time, and when I did, I either went to Mexico, or sent the Pinkertons. Funny, you’d think that with all of us working together, we would have learned something. Johnny, I’ve spent the last fourteen yeas of my life grieving for the son I lost. Do you know what it’s like to wonder if your own child is dead or alive?”

Johnny snapped upright, facing the man he wished with every fiber of his being, would disappear. “Do you know what it’s like to live with nothing, old man? To know your father despised what you were so much, that he threw you and your mother out onto the streets?”

“I never threw anyone out,” Murdoch shouted. He fought back with everything he possessed, the booming voice rattling the fragile windows.

“You didn’t want a mestizo for a son, the rich gringo didn’t want a fucking half-breed mistake for a kid, so he threw me out like yesterday’s garbage.” Shouting, Johnny fought back just as viciously.

Murdoch was astounded, the foul words spewed from his boy’s mouth, making his stomach lurch. Choking back the bile rapidly rising, he planted his feet shoulder width apart and faced Johnny down. “Mestizo? Half breed? Why the hell would you even think that? When you were born . . .”

“When I was born, you realized what a mistake I was! Didn’t want to hear everyone’s ridicule. How the fuck were you going to explain me to your friends and neighbors?” Shouting as if to block out the truth, Johnny shoved Murdoch aside and stormed past the man.

Heart in throat, knowing this action just might be his last, Murdoch snagged Johnny by the arm and pulled him around, only to stare down the barrel of Madrid’s gun. Undaunted, he stood his ground. “I don’t care what you heard.”

Pulling the hammer back, Johnny faltered, the gun shaking in his hand. Never before, had he been so unsure. It should be easy, he was the one with the gun, the one in control. Standing before him was the man he had been seeking for years, the very man he vowed revenge against, yet could not pull the trigger. Something Murdoch said struck a familiar chord. It made the difference, casting the first doubt Johnny ever had regarding his life.

“Go on, shoot me. Erase me from your life. Will that ease your pain? Will that make all the lies go away? Will that save your own life?” Murdoch challenged. His tone was steadfast, his eyes unwavering. “Go on, that’s what you came for, isn’t it? To kill me? That’s why you’ve come before, isn’t it? How come you didn’t do it then? How come you don’t do it now? Come on, pull that trigger. Erase all you’ve been told, all the lies you’ve been raised with your entire life, if it will make you feel better. But just ask yourself one thing, Johnny. When you ride away after the deed is done, what will you feel? What good will it do for your life? Will it bring the peace you’ve been seeking? Will it be the answer you need?”

Johnny flinched; he had been raised believing that Murdoch Lancer had thrown him out. All his life, his mother spoke of how the man wanted nothing to do with what he said was his biggest mistake. The words rang through his mind now. ‘Miel, you must not seek your father. He is a very rich and powerful man. His reputation is everything to him. I know this is hard to hear, and even harder to understand, but things are better this way. Never seek the man out, he didn’t want a mestizo son before, and he doesn’t want one now’.

Yet, standing before him, refusing to leave, was a giant of a man spouting everything Johnny had been raised to believe, was a lie. Why would his mother lie to him? The one comment made that brought the first inkling of doubt, was Murdoch relating how Maria was always one step ahead of him. Johnny had hated moving. Just when he was settled in one place, his mother would drag them to the next town. They never settled anywhere for long, with Maria often taking him out of town in the middle of the night. Always one step ahead of them. Had his mother known all along that Murdoch had men looking for him? And if he had thrown them out, why would he even bother to send someone after them in the first place?

The sound of Murdoch’s voice drew Johnny from his thoughts. “Son, you’re good at reading people. You’ve had to be in order to have survived for so long. Listen to your heart. Put all you’ve been told all your life aside, and listen. Really listen,” he said, their eyes locking.

“Johnny if I’m lying to you, do you think I would have been searching for you all along, let alone stand here staring down the barrel of that gun? If I’m a liar, I never would have bothered to try to locate you in the first place. After all, aren’t I the bastard that threw you out?

“The bastard that didn’t want a mestizo for a son? Now to find out that he’s not only a mestizo, but a half breed gunslinger, to boot? I wouldn’t have bothered to stay behind and care for you after you were injured. I could have left you laying in the snow and not give a damn. You die, there goes my embarrassment. How easy it would have been for me to walk away. But you see, Johnny, I can’t walk away.

“I can’t walk away, because I care. It would be easier for me if you pulled that trigger now, than to see you walk out of my life again. Johnny, I saw you on Christmas Eve. I was drawn outside and saw you on top of the rise looking down over the ranch . . .”

What the hell,” Johnny stammered. Stumbling on his feet, he pulled away, gun lowering.

“Don’t fight it Johnny. Don’t you see? Fate conspired to tear us apart, now fate is intervening to fix a grievous wrong. We belong together. You’re my son, I love you Johnny. I have always loved you. If I didn’t it would be so easy to walk away, but don’t you see? I can’t do that! I never could. Your disappearance has eaten away at me a little more each day, until I became an empty shell.

“I’m nothing, Johnny. Have been nothing for fourteen years. But the other night, we were drawn together. Can you tell me that you sat atop your horse and didn’t feel anything?” Murdoch asked. The first seed of doubt was sown, and he forged ahead. “You can’t, because you did feel it. You felt something that night, and you feel something now.”

“Don’t feel nothing old man,” Johnny cried out in a voice gone raspy with emotion. He pulled away from his father’s grasp, but the vehement anger experienced earlier had dissipated.

Murdoch took a step forward, a lone tear leaking from the corner of his eye. “Come on, Johnny. It’s not as hard as you think. Just let it happen. Crack the shell, Johnny. Step free of all the anger and hatred that has run your life. Stop running, Johnny. Your mother ran. She ran and took you with her. You were raised on a pack of lies. If they weren’t lies, would I be standing here right now?

“I was free of you, according to your way of thinking. I was free and had no reason to come into town the other night. No reason to be standing here now. But I wasn’t free. I was bound with a grief I carried for fourteen years, one I’m struggling to get past. Johnny, I would rather die here and now, than to see you ride away. Son, please give an old man a chance. Come back into my life,” he pleaded.

Johnny turned, eyes bright with unshed tears. Ashamed, he swiped the back of his sleeve across his face, not willing to let anyone see him cry. Johnny Madrid did not cry. Yet Johnny Lancer had been weeping for years. His father was right. Johnny froze at that moment, listening to his thoughts, the first truth to fall from his heart in years. Looking into the eyes of the giant of a man towering over him, all Johnny saw was the truth he had been denied. He may never know why his mother fed him all those lies, but he did know the truth when it stared him in the face. Johnny was not about to let another person blind him with lies like his mother had, yet he could not deny the words Murdoch Lancer spoke. The words his father spoke.

The man was right. If he didn’t care, if he had never cared, he wouldn’t be standing there now. Never before had anyone stared down the barrel of his gun, unwavering, telling him to go ahead and pull the trigger if he thought everything related, was a lie. A liar ran. A liar never took such a brave stance. Brave or foolish, Johnny thought for a moment. Lifting his face, he stared deeply into his father’s eyes. There was no hint of a lie there. Then Johnny wondered if he had ever looked as deeply into the eyes belonging to his mother. Maria’s love was as elusive as the truth.

She never could look her son in the eyes, always turning to busy herself with one task or another as she hurried to pack them off to a new town, hair hanging down, framing the sides of her face. Only a sidelong glance given to Johnny as she spoke, saying that they had to leave. That his father had thrown them out.

His voice barely audible, Johnny asked the question tugging at his heart. “If you threw us out, would you have bothered to send anyone after us to see how we were doing?”

“What do you think? I would have been well rid of you then, wouldn’t I? But Johnny, look into my eyes. Son, look into my eyes, please.” Murdoch’s touch was gentle. A large hand cupped Johnny’s chin, raising the boy’s face to meet his. “Do you see any lies veiled in my eyes? Do you see the eyes of a man who turned his back on his boy?”

Giant orbs of sapphire blue peered upward, melding with those of his father. Johnny shook his head and once again stared down at the ground. “No,” he said simply. “Never had anyone ever stare me down before, either. Had the gun drawn and cocked, could have pulled the trigger and not given a damn, but you just stood there. What the hell is wrong with you, old man?”

“What do you think, Johnny? Andy why didn’t you pull the trigger? I’m daring you right now. Know it’s not wise to dare someone of your caliber, but I am. Look me in the eyes again. This time on your own, and if you see a liar, you can shoot me down where I stand. I won’t fight it,” Murdoch dared.

A step taken back, he glared down upon the son who lifted his chin, eyes sliding up the massive, lumbering body. Murdoch froze, not a muscle twitched. His heart clenched, he choked against the sob that threatened to break forth. This was the refining moment. The one chance he would ever have to either reclaim his son, or die.

Falling to his knees, gun slipping from his hand, Johnny gouged at his eyes, a choking sob tearing through him. Screaming against the pain the truth ripped from his soul. “Oh God, why?”

Murdoch knelt at his side, arms instantly around his boy. His son. The child he has grieved for all these years, the empty arms that ached to hold his boy, now full. He pulled Johnny’s fists from his face. One arm wrapped around the slim shoulders pulling Johnny to his chest, the other wrapped around Johnny’s head, holding him tight. Rocking his son in arms that had been aching to do so for too many years, his own tears flowing unashamed.

Johnny’s hair was wet with his father’s tears, and Murdoch had never been happier. He wept like a baby, yet his heart had never been fuller. They had a long road ahead of them, and Murdoch did not know what the future would hold, but now was not the time to think about that. Now was the time to hold his son. To hopefully bring his boy home. A father’s prayers had been answered at last.

Johnny let his father cradle him close. He never fought the arms wrapped around him, pulling him to his feet, smashing him so tightly to his chest, he could barely breathy. And he never fought the sensation. He never pushed Murdoch aside, or flinched at his touch. Johnny did not know why, but his own arms wrapped a little tighter around the man, his head resting on the tall man’s chest. Johnny chuckled lightly, he had a bit of growing to do if he was to catch up with his father. Was this what a father’s love felt like? He never wanted to leave the safety and comfort those arms provided, but where did he go from there? Would his father even offer to bring a gunslinger into his home? The man didn’t know what he would be facing, yet Johnny held on.

As if in answer to his thoughts, Murdoch spoke. “Son, I know you’ve been on your own for a long time. Too long, if you ask me. I’m not ordering you what to do, for I can see you’re already a man in your own right. But if you find it in you, will you grant an old man one wish?”

Johnny pulled away, quieting and swiping at his eyes. “What’s that old man?”

Brushing the hay from his pants, Murdoch placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Come home, son. Come back to Lancer with me.”

Johnny’s heart soared, but doubt lingered. “Do you know what you’re asking?”

“I’m asking my boy to return home, where he should have been all along,” Murdoch answered simply.

“You know my reputation. It’s real, old man. Very deadly and very real. I might be blubbering like a baby now, but I haven’t been a kid in a very long time. That don’t just go away. Nothing attached to Madrid, ever goes away. It’s not as easy as returning home, I can’t just walk away,” Johnny argued. “They’ll always come gunning for me. Will always have someone who wants to gain a name for himself, gunning for me.”

“And eventually, that will fade with time. Johnny, everything fades in time. Everything, except my love for you. That has only grown. They’ll forget, Johnny. Eventually, you’ll be able to live a life of peace. If you want to, that is. We’ll face everything else together,” Murdoch again pleaded.

Walking over to the corral, Johnny leaned on the fence and stared to the north. “That’s why I’m going to Montana. I can have a good life there. No one knows Madrid. Not like here. Know it isn’t what you want, but don’t know if I can stay.”

Murdoch’s heart fell, he just found this boy, how could he just let Johnny ride away? Start a new life so far from the ranch, that they would never see one another. As Johnny was only sixteen, he had the legal right to bring the boy home, but that would only work against him. No one corralled Johnny Madrid, and Murdoch had the feeling that Johnny Lancer could be just as headstrong. In what seemed only a matter of a few days, he went from laughing toddler, to bucking teenager, and this teenager had one hell of a kick.

Ambling over slowly, Murdoch leaned on the fence, standing alongside his son. Resting long arms on the top rail, he, too, looked toward the north. “Johnny, we can get through this together.”

Emotions jumbled, Johnny shrugged. “Don’t rightly know. Got some seed money, can make a good, clean start.”

“Johnny, you don’t ever have to worry about money.” Instantly regretting those words, Murdoch silently berated himself. Again, a loose mouth tripped him up.

“Have always taken care of my own needs, old man,” Johnny snapped, his voice tight and terse.

“Have always provided for myself. You really don’t know everything about me. Yes, most of my money comes from being a hired gun, but I always make sure to hire on with the right side. Made money doing other work, too. Ain’t no stranger to working on a ranch, only I prefer horses.” Anger waning, a face filled with pride beamed up at his father.

A natural born cattleman, Murdoch cringed, wondering just where the hell the call for horses, came from. Still, he refused to make an issue of Johnny’s choice of ranching. “Horses, huh? Yeah, seems to me you did mention something about them earlier. Can’t say as if I cotton to them myself. But, I will consider making a concession.”

Face wrinkling in confusion, Johnny turned to his father, voice tinged with a hint of impatience. “Making a what, old man?”

“I would consider the possibility,” Murdoch answered, quickly changing his tune.

A hint of mischief twinkling in his eyes for the first time, Johnny snickered. “That’s what I thought you said. And before you go asking, yes. I can read and write. Can do figures, too. Don’t have much in the way of schooling, but can and do get by. Just don’t go throwing all those fancy words around. Would rather speak plain and easy.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” Murdoch chuckled.

Saddened, yet wanting the best for his son, Murdoch was fighting for Johnny’s very life. The boy has been on his own since the age of ten. True, the choices made were not the wisest, but they had kept him alive. It would not be easy for Johnny to acclimate to living with an authority other than his own, but could he let the boy ride away?

And if he did bring Johnny back to the ranch, knowing the risk that came along with the reputation, would it be for Johnny’s best interest, or his own selfish reasons? Johnny was alive. The boy had a keen instinct and sharp survival skills. He did, indeed, know how to take care of himself. The way he had readied the cabin and stable, were testament to that fact. And in Montana there was a better chance for a quieter life, hopefully one free of the dreaded reputation.

Yet, as Murdoch knew, there were no guarantees in life. He would let Johnny decide what was best for him, as the boy had been doing all along. A true parent always put the welfare of his child first, and if letting Johnny go to Montana was truly better in the long run, then he would send the boy off with his blessing.

******

Johnny sat around the fire, hands held out to contain the warmth. Nights grew cool in the desert, the fire a welcome comfort. The howl of a coyote echoed across the vast canyon, an owl on the wing swooped down on its prey. Johnny sat watching, gauging the precise moment of the kill. The large winged bird plunged to the desert floor, rising with a mouse snagged in hooked talons. A grin spread across Johnny’s face as he cheered the winged victor on. Hearing a noise from the shack, he turned to watch Eb walking through a blanket parted to the side.

Wheezing, a long gouge left in the sand from a dragging left leg, the old man shuffled over to the large rock serving as his seat. “Can see you’re enjoying the fire, boy.”

Poking at charred embers, Johnny answered with a grin. “Feels good. So was dinner. Glad it wasn’t rattlesnake, though. Don’t rightly cotton to snake. Will eat it, but it’s tough.”

“Tougher going without,” Eb cackled.

“Don’t I know it,” Johnny answered with a snicker hiding the pain.

Leaning over to stir the ashes, Eb tapped Johnny on the leg with a long stick. “What’s on your mind, boy? Can always tell when a body got something on his mind.”

“Nothing, really,” Johnny shrugged. Staring up at a star laden sky of velvety black, a thin plume of smoke rising, he fell deep in thought.

Not believing him one bit, Eb persisted. “Boy, I’ve known you for a short bit now. Don’t go thinking you’re smart enough to pull something over on me.”

Tossing the stick used to draw random patters in the sand into the flames, Johnny shifted back onto his haunches, arms resting on gangly legs. “I don’t know, Eb. Not that I’m getting restless or anything, but was thinking of moving on.”

A gnarled, calloused hand clamped over Johnny’s arm. “Now why in the world would you go and do a fool think like that?” Johnny needed someone, as hardened as he had to become, was as much as Eb knew the boy needed someone to care. He was too young to be so alone.

Shifting his weight, Johnny settled back against a wooden crate and turned to gaze at his friend. “I’m Johnny Madrid, Eb.”

With a whoop that sent night creatures scurrying for cover, the old man leaned closer, a smile revealing a missing bottom tooth. Sitting so close, a voice raspy with age, Eb was hard to ignore. “Well hot damn! Let me alert the papers. Or learn me that there tappity code and send an SOS telegram. Save an old man from the dreaded Johnny Madrid. I’m in grave danger from this dangerous gunslinger. Better not look him square in the eyes.” A taunting grin breaking out, Eb leaned closer, the two meeting almost nose to nose.

Johnny could not help but laugh, and playfully shoved the old man off. “All right, stupid idea.”

Cackling, Eb sat back upon the rock. “You got that right, boy. Now, why the hell would you want to go and leave this humble abode?” Brittle laughter echoing across the dark expanse of night, an arm was swept out to the side.

 Johnny chuckled and turned toward the dilapidated, one room shack. A crooked door hung on loose hinges, a thick blanket with a sun faded southwestern design, scourged by years of blowing dirt and sand, tacked to the back. The shack had a dirt floor, which Eb boasted saved him precious time from sweeping. Fingers of light peeked through cracks and knotholes in the walls. A square slab of wood resting on four crates served as a table and a single window covered with layers of grime neither had the desire to wash off, offered a dulled view of the desert beyond.

Shortly after recovering from the gunshot wound to his shoulder, Johnny sought to clean the window, but fell into full agreement with Eb’s reasoning, which made perfect sense. ‘Now tell me boy, why in the hell would I want to clean that there window? Only have the desert to look out on. Can do that by walking outside. Got all the desert you wanna see. Why would I want to stare at it out this danged window?”

Johnny liked the old man’s logic, however, he did manage to keep himself as clean as the sandy empire allowed, and his meager belongings organized. Renegade found a kindred spirit in Sweet Pea, an aged, lazy desert donkey that wandered by every so often, the two animals spending the long, hot days languishing in a small water hole near the shack.

A comfortable home was made in that broken down shack. Eb taught Johnny how to pan gold from the creek and make a rope bed, and Johnny showed the old man how to weave a horsehair halter for Renegade. They shared the chore of cooking, washed dishes from water Johnny carried in with an old, wooden bucket, and stacked plates, utensils and cookware on a shelf next to the sink.

A hutch with three legs, a large stone serving as the fourth, housed a supply of canned vegetables and jelly, for Eb had a sweet tooth that could not be denied and slathered liberal amounts of the sticky sweetness onto biscuits and flapjacks. An old cookstove served to keep the night chill at bay, as well as for use in cooking. When lucky enough to pan a nugget or sprinkle of gold dust, Eb would walk the five miles into town for supplies, a creaky, wooden car pulled behind. Life was simple, and Johnny and Eb were comfortable.

Once Johnny recovered from his injury, he was loath to leave the company of the bristly old man and the first home he had known since the untimely death of his mother. Having just turned sixteen that December, he was ready to settle down. A place to belong and someone who cared, was something the lonely youth drank up. He was tired of roaming, of looking over his shoulder, but could not change. He was still Johnny Madrid, and those looking to own his reputation would come calling. But try and tell that to Eb, the stubborn old man just wasn’t about to buy his reasoning.

“No son, a man can’t rightly run from who he is and what he does. He can move past what he has done if he wants to badly enough, but he can’t run from what he is. Now that don’t mean he can’t change, a cat has been known to change their stripes every now and then, and since you walk with the grace of the sleekest cat I have ever known, you can change your spots, too. Just have to want it bad enough.”

“What about those who come gunning for me?” Johnny worried for his friend, more so than for himself.

Eyes turning darker, the sliver of stick he was chewing on spat to the ground, Eb grasped Johnny’s arm and stared, eyes gone black with determination boring through the gunslinger. “Then gun ‘em back, boy. Don’t go a’looking for ‘em, cause you’ll find ‘em and more, but if those dumb bastards are just stupid enough to draw you out, gun ‘em back.”

“That’s just it, I don’t want to bring danger to your door,” Johnny said softly.

Long, bony fingers dug into Johnny’s skin. “You didn’t bring nuthin to my door that I didn’t want, boy. Don’t go a’talking as such. Don’t let ‘em bring you down. You get low enough, then there’s no coming back.”

“You know what I’ve done, the men I’ve killed,” Johnny said softly.

“Yep, I know. Think the whole damn world a’knows,” the old man said with a chuckle. “Been busy since you were fourteen. Most kids that age are barely weaned from their mother’s tit, and here you come along, all growed up and deadly. But to a man in your profession, you’ve already lived a lifetime. Shorter odds than those damned dog years.” Laughing at his own joke, Eb slapped a spindly knee, causing Johnny to wince and fear the brittle appendage snapping like a dry twig.

He sat listening, eyes wide as the desert sky staring as Eb continued. “Boy, the thing is how badly do you want this? So you’ve killed men. I’ve killed a time or two my own self. Happens to ‘em all, boy. Comes to all of us, yessiree. Comes to all of us. Thing is, what do you want to come to you now? You wanna go back to the life that’ll get you dead quicker than a pig sliding through greased shit, or you wanna make something better of yourself?”

Quiet for a moment, feelings too hard to ignore were brought out. “There was a time when all I wanted was to be Johnny Madrid, good at my trade. The best at my trade, and I just about am. Might be a gun or two quicker, or luckier. There’s always gonna be someone quicker and luckier. Just the way it rolls. Am ready for that, don’t expect to live much anyway.

Eb leaned forward, delivering a quick swat to the back of Johnny’s head. “Boy, if you were a might smaller, I’d tan your stubborn hide but good. Damn hell boy, can’t you see? This is eating you alive. You’ve been alone for too long now. So long that you forgot what it plumb feels like to be cared for. Well, you are. And I don’t rightly cotton to the thought of you riding out just to get your ass in trouble again. Might not be any quicker gun for a long time, but it’ll come.”

Johnny heaved a heavy sigh belying his sixteen years. “Yeah, have sort of resigned myself to that.”

“Don’t go settling boy. Don’t ride outta here cause you’re afraid to do something different. You afraid to change?” Eb challenged.

“Not afraid of nothing,” Johnny snapped. Irritation rising, he vaulted to his feet.

Eb followed suit, shoving Johnny back slightly. “Good, you scoundrel. Get good and hopping mad. Nuthin cleans the blood quicker than getting good and hopping mad. Then you sit your stubborn, misguided ass back down here and think things through. Really think ‘em through. You can change if you want to badly enough. Don’t go letting anyone make up your mind for you. It’s your life, no one else has the right to say which way for you to go. You’re the one to choose, but remember, you’re also the one to live with them there consequences. My Daddy loved to tout consequences,” the old man laughed. Head turned, a long, brown stream of tobacco juice was spat onto the desert floor, dry sand soaking up the splattered mess.

“Con-see-quences?” A frown on his face, Johnny stared at the old man, wispy hair blowing in the light desert breeze, and a long, food speckled beard stained brown around his lips.

“It means you’re the one to pay the piper. You choose badly, you live with that choice. No one else is to blame. A man has a right to call his own life, but don’t go a’thinking that at your young years, living with consequences ain’t one hell of a long haul. So how about it, you ready to change your life?”

Those words ringing through an emotionally drained mind, Johnny sat back against a tree, that long ago night spent sitting under a canopy of stars and full, silvery moon hovering low over the desert floor, fresh in his mind. He could still hear Eb’s voice. Felt the old man’s presence. Knew what he would say if he was there. Eb was right. He was the only one to bring change into his life. The question now was, what kind of change did he want?

The events of the day replayed through his mind, an endless reel of turmoil, truth and jaded lies. Johnny was spent, yet his mind refused to rest. How far was he willing to go? He had already taken a giant leap of faith when deciding to remain with Eb. He would never forget the look of unbridled joy on the lonely old man’s face when he announced he would be staying.

‘Son, never be afraid of life,’ were the words Johnny would never forget.

But old Eb died. One hot morning, the sun baking the sand and lizards scurrying about to find shade, Johnny woke, discovering Eb still laying in bed, a peaceful smile frozen for all eternity across his face.

“Gracias, mi amigo,” Johnny said, patting the final shovel full of dirt tossed upon the grave.

He would leave in the morning, after packing Eb’s spectacles, tin coffee mug, a beaded bracelet and journal into his saddlebags. Everything else would be left behind, ready for some weary soul that happened to pass by and needed a bit of rest. That night, Johnny watched Renegade and Sweet Pea lounging by the pond for what would be the last time. With a quarter moon high in the sky and diamond studded stars twinkling down, Sweet Pea slowly folded tired legs beneath him. With a soft snicker, he nuzzled Renegade and closed his eyes, a long life laid to rest.

Another chapter in his life had ended, once again leaving Johnny alone. His father had kicked him out, his mother died, and just when he found a home with Eb and Sweet Pea, they died. Johnny wondered if he was destined to live a solitary life. Nothing ever seemed to last. No one seemed to want to be around him for very long.

Now he was facing another chapter, one he had never banked on. He leaned back against the tree, toying with the beaded band tied around his wrist. Fringes of raven hair stuck out from beneath his hat, blowing in the sultry, night air, an oddity in the mountains for this time of year. The warmer temperature was a blessing in itself, for after the earlier confrontation with his father, Johnny left the man behind at the cabin, and rode off.

It took some doing, and Murdoch did put up an argument, pointing out the fact that he had barely recovered from a nasty bump to the head, but Johnny was quick to point out that not only had he been looking out for himself most of his life, he had been injured far worse and traveled under less than stellar conditions. A mild night camping in the mountains would not be the death of him.

Johnny had to give the old man credit, for even though he saw the deep remorse etched on rugged features, the hurt clear in his eyes, not one attempt was made to stop him. Any decision would be his alone. The only request being, was that they talk once more when he returned. Murdoch knew it was time to return to the ranch, for a variety of reasons. It would not take long for Paul to sound the alarm bell and put together a search team. He was not ashamed of his son’s past, and would damn anyone who felt otherwise, but he was not about to bring trouble to the boy.

When and if Johnny decided to return home, the announcement would be made in a way that would draw as little attention as possible. If that was even possible. Johnny Madrid was a big name. Learning that he was, indeed, Johnny Lancer, would be even bigger news. Murdoch would do all in his power to keep the eruption to a minimum. In the meantime, he would respect Johnny’s wishes, and began by letting him ride off to clear his mind.

“Don’t be afraid,” Johnny whispered, his voice hushed in the gentle night breeze. “I’ll try, Eb. I’ll try. But it’s hard learning that you’ve been living a lie your entire life. Why did she lie to me? Did she hate my father that much?” he asked, a grief tinged voice, catching. “My father.” Johnny repeated the word, the name and feelings evoked, foreign to his nature.

“My father, Eb. All these years, and I finally learn that the old man wants me. Has always wanted me. Has even been looking. Stupid shit, was even willing to take a bullet from me, stood his stubborn ass in front of my gun, almost daring me to pull the trigger. Don’t know a man alive with the cajones to stand in front of my gun. Most piss their pants and die, but not Lancer. Not Lancer.” Staring up at the darkened sky, his voice carried across the clearing.

He sat against the tree, a tattered mind wondering which trail to take. Which trail would bring the least amount of unfavorable consequences his way. Did he let go and believe Murdoch Lancer, return to the ranch with the old man? Johnny still could not think of the estancia as home, no matter what Lancer said. He has never looked upon the kingdom as such, and wondered if he ever could. And it wasn’t even the fact that he had been alone all these years, as much as it was trying to move past his mother’s supposed lies.

But his mother did lie, and Johnny would never know why. Did she think he would have loved her less? That he would have left her alone in those poverty stricken border towns and go back to Lancer? No matter how rich Murdoch Lancer was, no matter how rich and powerful he had become, Johnny would have lived in abject poverty with his mother simply because he loved her. He loved her.

Maria Lancer never had to fight for her son’s loyalty and affection. All she had to do was know that he had loved her. Johnny did not need riches and a large estancia, he just needed to be loved. And in spite of all her faults, Maria had doted on her young son. She might not have been able to give him much in the way of material possessions, but she did manage to keep a roof over his head and food in his mouth.

It never mattered that it was one roof after the other as they moved from town to town in search of work, or that the food was sometimes nothing more than tortillas and beans. To Johnny, tortillas made by his mother’s loving hands, tasted like a feast fit for a king. And one roof kept him as dry as the other. What did matter, was the way his mother’s face lit up with a radiant smile whenever she looked at him, or the soft voice as she leaned closer, brushing the hair back from his eyes.

Johnny remembered the way her eyes lit up when he ran to her with a desert flower in his hand, or a picture he had drawn when lucky enough to have a piece of paper and charcoal to write with. No, he would never forget his mother’s love, he just had to find a way to move past the lies.

Left alone after her death, Johnny could not remember ever feeling so alone, wondering what sin he had committed to find himself with no one to turn to and nowhere to go. He refused to live at the orphanage, and ran from the small village in the dead of night. Alone and scared, he wandered from town to town, studying the gunfighters as they passed through, yearning for the respect they received. If he became fast enough, no one would dare hurt him again. Blue eyes or not, he would walk down any street he wanted, without worrying about anyone striking out against the mestizo. Especially his father.

The memory faded and the lies he had lived with vanished in a puff of smoke drifting up over the mountains. Johnny’s stomach clenched as he came to the realization that he was not Johnny Madrid, and never had to be. He was Johnny Lancer, loved by his father. And lied to by his mother. The question now being, could he move past those lies?

 ******

A long night passed and Johnny woke before the sun, eager to return to the cabin. Stopping in his tracks, a head shaken in confusion, he wondered just where such a thought stemmed from. His father was waiting. Probably pacing the floors the entire night, while his son slept like a log, wrapped in a waterproof tarp and snuggled down into the bowels of a bedroll, a quilt stuck in for good measure. Johnny loved sleeping with a cool breeze on his face, and relished the warmth of his bed, and the cool night air assailing his nostrils. He woke refreshed, strange after the day he had endured previously.

Anxious to see how his father had fared, Johnny again stopped, the cinch falling from his fingers. “Renegade, don’t know where this is gonna take us, but I do know that I want to get back to the cabin. After that, we’ll see.” Mounting, he took off for the short ride down the rocky mountain trail.

“Got a ten dollar horse and a forty dollar saddle. Heading down the trail for to punch Texas cattle. Hi ho shack, I’m coming in!”

In a soft drawl as smooth as velvet, Johnny sang, not realizing he had reached the cabin so quickly. Vaulting from the saddle, he removed the tack and with a promise to return shortly, let Renegade loose in the corral. “Need a cup of coffee, first, amigo.” Rubbing his hands together, he saw his father waiting in welcome, a hot mug handed over. “Thanks.”

Murdoch’s smile stretched from ear to ear. Johnny stopped, taking in the sight. Other than Eb, he could not ever remember being greeted as such. His mother was always happy to see him, but she never came outside to greet him. Johnny always walked into whatever hut they occupied at the time, and went to her side. Now his old man, in very much the same way as Eb, was happy to greet him, and it felt damned good.

“You sound in good voice this morning. Sleep well?” Smiling over a mug of coffee, Murdoch blew on the hot brew before taking a tentative sip.

“I always sleep well.” Grimacing, Johnny took a deep sip of his own. “Not as strong as I like it.”

Turning a look of reproach on his son, Murdoch snickered. “I wanted to be able to drink my coffee this morning, not scrape it out the bottom of the cup with a spoon.”

“It’s good for you, old man,” Johnny said with a chuckle.

“Might be for you, but I tend to be a bit gentler with my system,” Murdoch replied. With a grin, he followed Johnny into the cabin. “Sit, eat. I have breakfast waiting.”

“Man, can get used to this.” Johnny rubbed his hands together in anticipation and sat down, filling the plate to overflowing.

“You going to eat all that?” Murdoch asked, mouth agape.

Mumbling around mouthful of food, Johnny ignored the slightly amused grin. “Maybe more.” Another spoonful of beans was shoveled into his mouth, followed by the quick gnawing of two pieces of bacon, half a biscuit in one bite, and three hearty swallows of coffee. All in one fluid, perfectly choreographed, movement.

Murdoch stared in astonishment, taking his bank account into stock. If this boy was to return home, he better have enough cash in the coffers to supply the demand. Yet Johnny was as thin as a rail. “Like my brother.”

“What’s that?” Johnny mumbled around a mouthful of biscuit, ignoring the napkin Murdoch dropped by his hand.

“My brother, Blaine. I haven’t seen him since I left Scotland , but you take after him in so many ways. He used to eat the same way, like there was no tomorrow . . .” Clearing his throat, Murdoch took stock of his words before continuing. “Anyway, he had one hell of an appetite. My Da . . .”

“Da,” Johnny again snickered.

Frowning, Murdoch finished his explanation, this time with more emphasis. “My Da, used to say he had better stock the coffers.”

“Bless you,” Johnny snickered.

“What?”

“You sneezed.”

“I didn’t sneeze.”

“Heard you. Coffers,” Johnny mimicked.

Exasperated, Murdoch set the boy straight. “Young man, coffers means something along the line of a chest or a cabinet, or such. I’ve heard the term used both ways. Any place to store things. In Scotland , if your coffers were full, you had enough food and money to get through another winter,” he explained.

“Oh, well, what about Blaine ?”

Sitting back, Murdoch wiped his mouth and took another sip of coffee, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. He was enjoying this side of his son, and purposely vowed to not bring up the subject of decision making. “Johnny, you’re so much like Blaine , it’s amazing. You both share the same eyes, I saw that soon after you were born, and you both have a penchant for running high fevers.”

“Yeah, I do run high fevers. Always have.”

“And I used to walk the floors at night with you,” Murdoch stated, gauging Johnny’s reaction.

Setting his fork down, his mouth falling open slightly, Johnny faced his father. “You did that?”

“Of course I did,” Murdoch was quick to answer. “You used to run the highest damned fevers, Doc said it was your ears, and you would cry for hours. Only thing that quieted you was to walk the floors, and I swear, I walked enough miles in one week to cover the entire state of California.”

“That’s a lot of walking,” Johnny stated. Picking up his fork, he continued with breakfast.

Once finished, he tended the horses while Murdoch washed the few dishes used. Leaning on the corral fence, Johnny felt his father approaching.

“Come home, son. Come back to Lancer with me,” Murdoch asked simply.

******

Johnny closed his eyes, it was too good to be true, and that was the problem. It would be so easy to ride out with the father claiming to want him, yet so hard facing what would inevitably come. And it wasn’t only those that would come looking to call him out. Murdoch Lancer was a proud man, with a stellar reputation known far and wide. Johnny snickered inwardly, the man was almost as legendary as Madrid. Almost. Building Lancer meant incurring both respect and mutual business contacts along the way. Many people looked up to the old man. Johnny would be his father’s downfall.

His father was sure to lose business, Johnny did not want the man to suffer morally, or financially. Not many respectable people would want to do business with a person having such a close tie to Madrid. The name in itself served to drive off many. Lancer would speak big and probably claim that it didn’t matter, but it did matter to Johnny. It might not bother his father at the moment, but that would all change when business fell off and people slowly began to drift away. Johnny refused to let that happen. Then there was the worry about his reputation, itself, bringing harm down around the old man, and those around him. That was a chance Johnny was not willing to take. He only hoped to explain himself in a way Lancer would understand and accept.

His silence was disturbing, but Johnny fought against want and what he felt was morally right. “Do you know what you’re asking?” Turning to face his father, further doubt reigned.

Murdoch’s answer was unshakeable. “I’m asking my son to return home, where he should have been all along.”

“Murdoch, you know my reputation. It’s not that easy, like I said before. I can’t just walk away,” Johnny argued. “Not only will they come gunning for me, looking to make a name for themselves, but what about you? What about your reputation?”

“My reputation?” Murdoch’s deep timbre voice boomed.

In a tone clipped and curt, Johnny faced his father. “Come on Murdoch. Can you stand there and tell me that you haven’t considered what people would say?”

Quiet for a moment, Murdoch again strove to correctly explain himself. “Let me word this in a way to show my true thoughts,” he began. “Yes, Johnny, I did spend the night thinking of what I would say to people and it all came down to one thing. You. I don’t give a damn what people have to say, never did. What I care about is making the transition as easy as possible on you.”

Touched by his father’s concern, Johnny voiced his biggest worry. “What about your business and safety? The safety of all those around you, old man?”

“The hell with business,” Murdoch’s voice rolled across the clearing, leaving Johnny to imagine trees blown over in its wake. “I built that ranch up from nothing, and I did it for myself and my family. No one else! If anyone can’t accept this, then they can go to blazes. Take their business elsewhere.”

“You lose business . . .”

“I’ll find a way to make more. I lose my son again, the business won’t matter,” Murdoch stated. “Johnny I know it won’t be easy, the adjustment will be damned hard on all sides, but in time, those who are truly close to me, truly respect my friendship and understand my needs and wishes, will accept you. I know they will. Those that won’t, well, they won’t matter in the long run.

“Johnny, like I said, the hooplah will eventually fade with time. Everything fades with time. Everything, except my love for you. That has only grown. They’ll forget, Johnny. Eventually, they’ll all forget. You’ll have a good life, everything else will be faced together,” Murdoch pleaded.

“Old man, I don’t know if it will work out. Never had a stable home before. Mama tried, and we did pretty good when she was able to find work. And I made extra money mucking stalls at a livery if they didn’t mind a mestizo working for them.” Johnny smiled in remembrance, trying all the while to ignore the flash of anger in his father’s eyes. “Don’t rightly know if I can settle into one. You’re my father, but I don’t know you. Don’t know what you want, what you expect of me. You’ve shown I can trust you, but is that enough?”

“It is for me,” Murdoch stated.

“So you say now. But I can’t just hang up my gun. There’s always gonna be someone coming after me. When that happens, and it will, I can’t just walk away. Can’t back down. Have to ride it out. It’s a hard dance, old man, one I can’t quit. What will you do then?”

Murdoch sighed heavily and leaned forearms on the top rail. “Johnny, what would you have me do?”

“I’d have you stay the hell out of it. When it comes down to a dance, you need to stand back and keep your mouth shut. There’s no talking anyone out of a challenge, and any interference, even the slightest distraction of just knowing you are there, will get me killed. I don’t think you can handle this. Gunfighters don’t have fathers.”

“This one does.” Fists clenched, jaw tightened, Murdoch pounded the top railing.

Undaunted, Johnny stood his ground. “No old man. You’re my father, but I can’t have a father. Can’t you see the difference? You see, a father fights for their kid. You fight for me, you get you and me killed.”

“Son . . .”

Johnny turned away, the term still foreign and somewhat unsettling.

Changing his tune, Murdoch again approached the boy. “Johnny, I don’t know how I’ll react if and when that happens, but I can promise, as hard as it will be, to stand down.”

“Don’t know a father that can. That’s why it’s best I go. Head up to Montana. Like I said, got enough money to get a small spread. I’m good with horses,” Johnny said, a slight smile coming unbidden.

“I don’t doubt it, but we have horses here, too.”

Johnny stood, the biting wind ruffling his dark, silken hair. “Old man, I’ve seen too much. Done too much. I’m not a kid, never was. Not a teenager like you’re used to. Can’t settle in and go to school, bend to the rules, attend socials on Saturday night and church on Sunday morning. Know right from wrong and don’t go seeking trouble, but I fight back hard. Won’t date the girl next door and drink lemonade. I’m way past that, can’t go back to square one, either. Don’t you see, old man? I’m not your kid anymore. Stopped being that a long time ago.”

Murdoch turned away for the first time, swallowing past the lump of grief rising. Staring upward, the sky was gray and overcast. His entire life was slipping away, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. “Johnny, you’ll never stop being my son. I don’t know all you’ve seen and done, but you’ve lived a hard live. One you never should have been subjected to, but it’s over and done.

“We can’t change the past, but maybe we can work toward something better. Find a way to deal with everything that comes along while creating a better future. Learn to understand, respect and get to know one another. Learn to trust. I know it won’t be easy, but I’ve never been one to run from a fight.”

Johnny leaned in closer to his father, arms touching. “Never been one to run from a fight, either, but know when something will work, or not. You’re asking me to be something I’m not. I ain’t no kid, old man. Don’t think I would know how to be.”

“I’m not asking you to be anything other than what you are.” Murdoch gazed at the vast mountains beyond, eyes burning with unshed tears.

Johnny shrugged, emotions confused and jumbled, yet at the same time, bringing a sense of comfort he had yet to make sense of. “Look I don’t know if I can do this. Might be too set in my ways. No promises, ok?”

“No promises.” Murdoch shook his head. No matter what, he would fight to keep his son home, but would not smother him. He would also let Johnny go if so chosen, as long as the boy promised to remain a part of his life. The boy was alive. And they were talking. Murdoch prayed the rest would fall into place.

“Gonna be getting colder the next few days. Clouds are building over the mountains,” Johnny pointed out.

“Yes, it sure looks like another storm is brewing. Probably late tomorrow night, or come the following morning,” Murdoch replied. “But it will be fine in town and out at the ranch.” Turning, this time he leaned back against the railing. “Think I’ll head on back home come morning, if you don’t mind me staying another night. Been gone from the ranch quite a bit, don’t want anyone worrying needlessly.”

“Won’t they already be worried?”

“No son, they’re used to me being gone,” Murdoch answered softly, a slight shake of the head given.

“Why, you got the wanderlust or something?”

Facing his boy head on, Murdoch offered the stark truth. “Johnny, I’ve been taking off at a moment’s notice, for years. Sometimes in the middle of the night with nothing more than the clothes on my back and a note telling them not to fix my meals, I would let them know when I would be returning.”

“Why?”

“Do you have to ask?” Murdoch’s stare was intent, the plain truth causing Johnny to clear his throat and turn away slightly. “Anytime the Pinks got a lead, I would leave. And when I could not stand being at the ranch any longer, I would leave it in the hands of my Segundo and head out in search of you. I’ve been looking for years, boy. Looking and praying.”

Not knowing how to address his churning feelings, let alone those exhibited by his father, this time Johnny was the one to turn away. Nothing was familiar. Everything he had been raised to believe, was turned upside down. One day he did not have a father, believing the old man had tossed him to the wind, the next, a tall, mountain of a man was revealing feelings Johnny did not know how to accept.

“Sorry.” With that one word, Johnny resumed the protective stance Murdoch was learning all to well.

“Johnny, you have nothing to be sorry for, son. Neither of us asked for this. There are no guarantees in life. I know you’ve been alone a lot. Lost so much. First me, then your mother . . .”

“Didn’t you say it was New Year’s Eve?” Johnny whirled about, changing the subject almost as quick as he drew a gun.

“Why yes, I did,” Murdoch chuckled. Recognizing the need to drop the topic for now, he glanced up at the sky. “Where did the day go? Going on afternoon already. Tell you what, I make a mean beef and bean dish, if you can make the tortillas,” he said, noticing the way Johnny’s eyes lit up.

“Old man, I make one hell of a tortilla. Even got some cinnamon.” Eyes filled with excitement, Johnny turned toward the horses. “Think I’ll bring Renegade into the stable, been a long night, and he’s kind of persnickety.”

“You don’t say,” Murdoch snorted, shaking his head at the horse’s antics.

“Yeah, after a night outside, he likes to be bedded down early. Promised him an extra ration of oats, too.” Johnny’s smile lightened his father’s heart.

“Sounds good, let’s get these guys bedded down, there’s a chill coming on, and I got a bit of cooking to do. Could use an early night,” Murdoch chuckled, eyes twinkling with delight. “Oh, and what are you going to make with the cinnamon?”

“Churros,” Johnny shouted over his shoulder. “For desert!”

“Then I better get started on that pie,” Murdoch muttered under his breath, remembering the jar of cherries spotted on the hutch. “Can’t think of a better way to ring in the new year.”

******

 Johnny sat in front of a crackling fire, hands stretched out to soak up the welcoming warmth. After a trip to the outhouse and final check on the horses, he was ready for a quiet night. Dinner was the best he could remember, with the simple meal of tortillas, beef and beans more like a feast. The churros that went with the meal and the cherry pie enjoyed with coffee afterward, made the boy drowsy and full, a lethal combination when lounging in front of a fire. Head drooping, Johnny slid sideways and crawled into bed. Laying on his stomach, arms hanging over the side, he lifted tired eyes to gaze at his father. Rocking in the creaking chair, the old man was faring no better, his head nodding listlessly.

“Dinner was good,” Johnny said, a lazy smile gracing his face.

“Best I can remember,” Murdoch nodded in agreement.

“Was only beef and beans.”

“As I’ve learned over the years, it’s sometimes the simplest, unplanned pleasures one enjoys the most.”

“Am pretty tired,” Johnny yawned.

“We’ll wake up to a new year,” Murdoch said, his voice catching. A new year with his son by his side. An unplanned, simple pleasure enjoyed by most fathers, was a moment he now savored.

“You have big parties out at the ranch?” Rolling to his side, Johnny crooked an arm beneath his head and lounged back.

“Son, we blow the roof off the rafters,” Murcoch chuckled.

“Then tonight is kind’a quiet for you, huh?”

“But I’d trade all those other celebrations just to have this night. They pale in comparison.”

“At least I know why you followed me from the saloon,” Johnny said. “Tell me, old man, when did you realize that I was your son?”

“Oh Johnny, I knew you were my son the minute you raised those blue eyes of yours and stared straight at me. It was as if you reached into my chest and wrapped your hand around my heart, it was that startling. After all these years, I finally found my son, only how the hell could I tell him that? And it’s not because you’re Madrid, it was because I simply didn’t know what to say, how to approach you. I risked losing you again. Can’t you see that? I knew nothing about you, the life you’ve led, or even if you knew who your father was. You were so young when . . . well, you were so young, I knew it was impossible for you to remember . . .”

Murdoch fell silent, fighting emotions that threatened to spiral out of control. “Johnny, can you imagine how that must feel? To have a child, and not know if that child even knows, or remembers you?”

Johnny’s tone was curt, his manner brusque and painfully truthful. “I knew who you were. Just didn’t know what you looked like. Didn’t think you wanted me.”

Eyes closed a moment, Murdoch heaved a heavy sigh, needing desperately to change a subject that could only end in sorrow. “I’ve never stopped wanting you, son. I’ve wanted you from the day you were born. Used to take you all over the place with me, we would ride the range . . .”

Johnny’s eyes brightened. “You took me riding?”

“Oh yeah, used to settle you in the crook of my arm and take you all over the place with me. Ask any of the old time hands, should you have the chance. They’ll tell you. Johnny, are those the actions of a man that didn’t want his son?” Murdoch stared down, catching a slight shake of his boy’s bed tousled head. “So you see, I couldn’t risk losing you again.”

“So you followed me, hoping to accomplish what?” Demanding answers, Johnny’s stare was direct and intent, any sign of drowsiness vanquished.

“Truthfully son, I didn’t know what I would accomplish, or how to go about it. I thought that maybe if I caught up with you, then I would hopefully find a way for us to talk. I don’t know. Had no idea of what I was doing.”

“You fell prey to the three p’s. That’s what happens when you do that,” Johnny snickered, a mellow mood returning.

Murdoch turned a face contorted in confusion toward his son. “The three p’s?”

“An old friend once told me that the three p’s will do you in every time,” Johnny chuckled.

“And what, pray tell, are those three p’s?” Murdoch’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, wary of the answer his illustrious, slightly mischievous teenager would provide.

“Well, Eb made up the first three p’s, and they do make sense. Only later I took it further, telling him that they should be the six p’s. And he agreed,” Johnny laughed.

Face etched with guarded amusement, Murdoch motioned impatiently with his hand. “Now are you going to tell me what you and Eb concocted, or not?”

“Concocted?”

“Made up,” Murdoch amended his words.

“Well, the first three are piss poor planing,” Johnny answered with pride. Breaking out in full blown laughter, he swiped at his eyes as visions of the old grizzled man danced through his mind.

The laugher infectious, releasing overwrought emotions set in turmoil earlier, Murdoch also succumbed. “Ok, that makes sense. Can see where the three p’s can do a man in if not careful. I fell into the three p’s twice. First in following you without a plan in mind, and second, with that little slip of the tongue.” Motioning toward his lip with a finger, Murdoch cringed.

“Yep, that sure was one of those three p’s,” Johnny snickered.

Murdoch nudged Johnny gently with booted toe, anxious to hear the rest. “And what are your three p’s? The ones you added?”

Johnny brightened, a wide smile gracing his face. “That’s easy old man! Promotes poor performance.”

Murdoch’s laughter rang out, the deep baritone voice rattling the windows. Quieting down, he wiped at watery eyes, while trying to catch his breath. “I had to ask.”

There was nothing stopping the errant teenager in Johnny when on a roll. “So you see, the whole thing is, piss poor planning promotes poor performance!”

“Oh Lord, the wisdom of youth,” Murdoch groaned.

“Hey, it’s true,” Johnny chuckled. Sobering, he grew quiet. “Learned a lot from Eb. He took me in when I was hurt.”

“Johnny, how did you meet the man?” Murdoch needed to know. A long moment of silence passed, leading to worry that Johnny had shut down.

“I was coming out of a hotel in Tucson one morning. Had a bit of trouble the night before. Seemed this rancher didn’t like the idea that I wouldn’t take some job.”

“Job?”

“Yeah, there was this range war brewing, only I didn’t like his side,” Johnny answered.

Murdoch was impressed, from all he had heard about Madrid, he never thought that the man had a soul. Now that man turned out to be his son, and there was more to the legend, than tales. “I take it he wasn’t very receptive.”

“Huh?”

“He didn’t like your answer,” Murdoch reiterated.

“No, he didn’t. I don’t always take all the jobs that come my way. Not like other guys only out for the money,” Johnny explained.

“What are you out for?” Murdoch asked.

“Nothing, really. Just trying to get by.” Yawning, Johnny rolled onto his stomach, both arms wrapped around a pillow fluffed under his chin. “Murdoch, I know what people say, and for the most part, the gunfights are true. Not gonna go into them. But what is true, is that I’m not like some of the others. Don’t go doing that raping and killing shit. Don’t do women wrong. And Don’t kill for the hell of it. That’s just wrong.”

Murdoch fell into his own realm of silence. The gunfighter with a heart. He should have expected as much from his son. “You’re a good man, John.”

“Thanks, not many people think so.”

“Well I do,” Murdoch stated emphatically. “Now, what about Eb?”

“Oh yeah, Eb,” Johnny snickered. “Well, I walked out that morning and was bushwhacked on the way out of town. Took a bullet in the shoulder.”

Murdoch cringed, closing his eyes at the image provoked. His son, barely a teenager and already on his own, fighting for his life. Bleeding in some dusty old border town, without the aid of a doctor or anyone who cared. At that moment, any jealousy toward Eb vanished, with a deep gratitude setting in.

The room fell into a comfortable silence, but for Johnny’s voice as the tale unfolded. “Anyway, Eb said I took a high fever, don’t rightly recollect how long it lasted. Was in the desert, could have been the damned heat. That shack was hot during the day, but we didn’t spend much time inside. Spent most of our time down by the creek. He taught me how to pan for gold.”

“Then you lost him. Johnny, that had to have been hard. I’m sorry, son,” Murdoch said softly.

“And Sweet Pea.”

Murdoch turned, a wry grin on his face. “Sweet Pea?”

“Yeah, an old desert donkey that used to come by the shack every once in a while. Think he was as old as Eb,” Johnny shared a laugh with his father. “He and Renegade hit it off right away. There was this old watering hole just outside the cabin. Used to swim in it. About every few days or so, Sweet Pea would come ambling out of the desert and hang around for a visit. Sometimes would stay a week or more.”

Falling back into memory, Johnny felt his father’s hand upon his shoulder. Turning an uplifted face toward the older man, he couldn’t help but smile. “Renegade And Sweet Pea became compadres. Would spend the day lounging in the watering hole. Lazed the day away.”

“What happened to Sweet Pea?” Murdoch asked.

“Oh, soon after I buried Eb, Sweet Pea wandered by to bid the old man farewell. They were friends for years, you know. Darn nutty jackass, he done played a bit in the waterhole with Renegade, had dinner with us and then later on that night, when things got quiet, he sort of laid down and closed his eyes. Gave old Renegade a goodbye nuzzle and went to sleep.” Turning away, Johnny refused to meet his father’s eyes.

“Damn dusty room,” Murdoch mumbled. Swiping the back of a hand across his eyes, he turned back. “Johnny, the only thing I can promise is that I’ll never stop loving you. Can’t promise I won’t die, no one has the power to pick how or when, but I can promise to be your father as long as the good Lord allows.”

With a mighty yawn and stretch, fluid movements reminding Murdoch of a cat, Johnny curled further under the quilt. “Think I can handle that,” he mumbled as eyelids drifted shut.

Murdoch rocked quietly, flickering shadows of firelight playing across Johnny’s face. The lantern had gone out long ago, the cookstove and hearth burning brightly, keeping the impending chill at bay. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the watch given him by his father.

“My Da, as you would laugh,” Murdoch chuckled, studying his slumbering son. “Well son, it’s midnight. I never thought I would get the pleasure, and I cannot tell you how happy you have made me. For the first time in fourteen years, I feel complete. My heart doesn’t ache. Happy New Year, son.” A single tear trickled down his cheek.

 ******

Johnny woke long before dawn. Skirting around his father’s inert body, he threw another log on the fire, added kindling to the cookstove and set a pot of coffee to simmering. As soundless as a cat on the prowl, the young gunslinger pulled on pants and boots, tucked his shirt in and grabbed his jacket from the hook. The temperature had plunged steadily throughout the night, with the hint of a storm looming on the far horizon. The old man was right, by nightfall, they would more than likely be in the throes of another winter storm.

After a quick check on the horses and side trip to the outhouse, he returned to the cabin and sat in front of the fire with a fresh cup of coffee. His father was still sleeping, the loud snoring reminding Johnny of a grizzly bear he inadvertently pissed off late one summer when traipsing through the woods.

Murdoch snorted, sputtered and sat up, rubbing sleep laden eyes. “You should have woken me.”

“Nah, you looked too cute laying there snorting away,” Johnny said with a low, soft drawl. “Sleep good?”

“I always sleep good,” Murdoch chuckled, mimicking his errant son.

“Now I know who I take after,” Johnny said. Ducking his head, he hid the grin breaking out, but did not miss the smile spreading across his father’s beard stubbled face.

“See you’re up and dressed already. Shouldn’t have let me sleep so late.” Yawning, Murdoch stretched to his full height.

Johnny’s eyes traveled up the tall frame. He had a lot of catching up to do. “Nah, you were snoring too good,” he snickered.

“Young man, I do not snore,” Murdoch stated, a frown spread across his face.

“Tell that to the female grizzly waiting outside, she thought it was her mating call,” Johnny doubled over in laughter, almost falling out of the rocking chair.

“Then I’ll have company on the way to the outhouse,” Murdoch grumbled. Snagging his coat off the hook, he gave the rocking chair a tip, toppling Johnny onto the floor. The boy landed in a gangly heap of arms and legs, clutching his stomach in laughter and Murdoch stomped out the door. “Lord help me, when did I lose control?”

He grumbled, but as his son already knew, his bark far outweighed his bite. Truth be told, a smile crinkled the corners of Murdoch’s mouth as he made his escape. Holding onto the corner of the cabin, he doubled over in laughter, himself. Whatever decision his son made, one thing was certain. Life would never be dull.

Returning to the cabin, Murdoch was pleasantly surprised to find a pot of hot water for a shave. Wiping his face dry, Johnny tossed the towel over and whistling, went to the stove. The aroma of warm tortillas and beans left over from the previous night’s meal assailed Murdoch’s nostrils while shaving, setting his mouth to watering. Ravenous, both dug into the simple meal with abandon, finishing off the last of the churros with a final cup of coffee.

Pushing back from the table, Murdoch patted his stomach. “Well, I better get my things together and head on back to the ranch. Gonna make a quick stop in town for a few supplies.”

“Yeah, got a good day to travel.” Growing quiet, Johnny fought conflicting emotions. Busying his hands, the gun was taken apart and methodically cleaned and oiled.

“There wasn’t much to pack, and in a matter of minutes, Murdoch was fully dressed and ready to leave, saddlebags laid upon the table. “Johnny, look, I . . .”

“Just get it said.”

“All right, here it is. You’re my son, and I’ve spent the better part of the past fourteen years searching for you. When I found you the other night, it was as if a light that had been dimmed, flickered to life. I can’t tell you how much it meant for me to find you, what you mean to me. I also promised not to pressure you into an answer, but I have to ask one thing.”

Head lowered, fingers tinkering with the gun, Johnny found it impossible to meet his father’s eyes. “What’s that old man?”

“You know where the ranch is. God only knows how much I wish you came home all those times you rode out there. God, Johnny! You were right under my nose . . . I’m sorry, forgive an old man. That just came out. But Johnny, I need you. I don’t give a damn about anyone else, I just know what I need. I also know what you’re going through, the decision you’re fighting.

“So I’ll return to the ranch and let you spend the winter here, as planned. As a father, I don’t like it, but I do respect your wishes. You are definitely not an ordinary teenager, and can take care of yourself, but if you decide to head up to Montana, would you do me one favor?”

“What’s that, old man?” Johnny asked, head still lowered.

“Come out to the ranch. That’s all I ask. Just pay me a visit.” Murdoch turned and picking up the saddlebags, headed toward the door. A hand on his arm pulled him back around.

“Hey old man, you stay out of trouble, here? And I promise.”

Murdoch stepped out onto the rickety porch, looking back of his shoulder when a soft voice called out to him. “You gotta know, I believe you.”

Those simple, heartfelt words were more than he needed. They said it all. The stark, emotion displayed in his son’s eyes, said the rest. With a nod of the head and hand placed on Johnny’s shoulder, Murdoch then reached up, caressing the boy’ face with the back of his hand.

“Te amo, mi hijo.”

The door closed with a click and Johnny leaned his forehead against the rough, wooden surface. “Te amo, Papa.”

Silence descended. Johnny paced restlessly for a few minutes before sitting back at the table and reassembling the gun. He rose again and resumed pacing. Suddenly, he no longer felt like being alone in the cabin for the next few months.

In an attempt to remain busy, he cleaned the small kitchen, stacking the plates and utensils on the hutch and swept wood shavings from the logs, into the hearth. New kindling was carried inside, and the woodpile to the left of the door, replenished. Once the bed was made and Renegade was tended, Johnny was at loose ends. The peace and tranquility once sought, now weighed heavily upon him.

He sat at the table, idly sipping a cup of lukewarm coffee. Laying his head down upon the hard, wooden surface, his eyes drifted shut within minutes. “Hey boy, what the hell you doing lazing around in the middle of the day?” Eb cackled, delivering a quick swat to the back of Johnny’s head.

“Eb, it’s hard to make a decision, never had to consider anyone else but myself, before. Good or bed, the decisions made didn’t effect anyone but me. Don’t know if I like having to worry about the welfare of anyone else if a decision comes back to take a chunk out of my ass.

As expected, Eb’s words calmed a tumultuous mind. “Boy, you gonna let the only good thing to happen to you, walk away? And all ‘cause you’re afraid to admit that your entire life has been based on a lie. You’ve carried that anger far too long. Let it go. You have to decide what is right, and what is wrong. And who spoke the truth, and who did not. Regardless, your mother loved you.

“Still, those lies have cast you into a life that should not have been. You’ve been with your father for a few days now. You know how he feels. Johnny, he loves you so much, he’s willing to let you go. Go to him. Give the man a chance. Look deep into his eyes. You’ve always been good at reading people, don’t let fear keep you from doing so now. It will be hard, but remember one thing. You’ve come after Murdoch Lancer before, and something has always stopped you from carrying out your revenge.

“What was that, son? What stopped you? I think the answer is in your heart, and in the heart of your father. Go back, son. Put the fear aside and give the man a chance. Return to Lancer.” Eb’s face vanished, but the word spoken, remained.

Johnny woke, lifting his head from the table. A decision made, he vaulted to his feet. He did not know whether or not he would remain on Lancer, but wanted to spend more time with his father. It was time to let the past go. If the good Lord was stingy on second chances, then Johnny did not deserve one, himself. Was he beyond atonement? What was it that Eb had been so fond of saying?”

“He who casts the first stone,” Johnny mumbled, tears stinging his eyes as images of his old friend again filled his mind. “Lord knows, I’m not one to cast a stone.”

Within minutes, the fire was banked and Johnny threw a pot of water into the cookstove. Stuffing the only extra set of clothing owned and spare ammunition into the saddlebags, he snagged his coat from the hook and loped out to the corral. Sensing his master’s excitement, Renegade pranced anxiously, pent up energy surging. He was ready for a good run. In a flash, they were streaking across the vast clearing, heading toward the woods. Johnny wanted to get off the mountain before the storm struck, relieved to see the heavy, snow laden clouds behind him.

Johnny turned Renegade in the direction of Green River . With a bit of luck, he would catch up with his father. Murdoch could not be that far ahead of him, and if he poked along like other old men, he was taking his sweet old time. Snickering, Johnny rode on. It was mid-afternoon before he reached the outskirts of town, and peeled off the heavy, canvas duster. It was amazing how quickly the weather changed, the sultry temperature enjoyed by the citizens of Green River , like balm to his chilled skin.

Riding down the main road into town, three gunshots rang out, sending Renegade in a blind panic. Rearing, legs flailing, Johnny fought to bring the startled animal under control. Gun drawn and ready, he tied Renegade off and crouched low, ran down the wooden walkway, back against the buildings. Wary eyes scanned the roofs and street for any sign of danger. Spotting a throng of people surrounding two men lying in the dust outside the general store, his stomach lurched and heart swelled into a tightly controlled panic.

Instant recognition sent Johnny into a dead run, his mind screaming. “God no. No. Don’t do this to me old man. Don’t do this to me.”

******

Panic filled the streets, women ran crying, gathering up frightened children in their arms. Shoving through the crowd, Johnny fell to his knees. Eyes squeezed shut, a silent prayer was sent up in an instant, his emotions tightened and shoved aside. Madrid slipped into control. Eyes took in the chaotic scene. Next to his father, two bullets to the chest, lay the prone body of the sheriff. He was gone, of that, there was no doubt. Johnny did not know the man’s name, but the senselessness of the act struck him harshly. Breath catching, he glanced down, watching another stranger pressing down upon a wound to the right side of his father’s chest. Ever so gently, he took Murdoch’s hand, the old man’s head resting in the deputy’s lap. Murdoch looked up, his heart soaring. If this was his death knell, he would go out holding his son’s hand.

“Hey old man, I can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I?” Johnny asked. A sly grin curled the corner of his mouth, yet eyes filled with deep sadness, peered down. He held his father’s hand close to his chest, feeling the man grasp his fingers for dear life.

“Johnny . . . came back,” Murdoch gasped.

“Yeah, I’m here old man.” Johnny tried to smile, the attempt failing miserably. “I’m here.”

“ Madrid, get the hell out of here. You come to see the show?” Chuck attempted to shove Johnny aside. An icy stare befell the crowd that stood back, the deputy’s hand falling from his arm.

“Chuck, leave him,” Murdoch attempted to explain. “He’s . . .”

“He’s got no business here. Don’t you worry, Murdoch. Doc is on the way,” Chuck spoke softly. Glaring at Madrid , he shrank back even further.

“My son . . . my son,” Murdoch wheezed, grasping Johnny’s hand tighter.

“Yeah, just hold on, old man. The Doc will be here. It’ll be all right,” Johnny said.

“Stay,” Murdoch stammered between spasms of pain.

“I’m not going anywhere. Just got business to tend to,” Johnny said. Slowly releasing his father’s hand, he glared at Chuck. “Watch him. You let anything happen to him, you’ll answer to me.”

“I’m not God,” Chuck snapped. More bewildered than ever, he studied the obvious emotions between these two men.

“You’ll wish you were.” Johnny’s reply was crisp and terse as he patted his father’s hand and stood. “They go into the saloon?” he asked, nodding toward the faded building.

“What are you gonna do?” Chuck asked. Eyes traveling down the street, the last thing he needed was more trouble, but the frigid glare Madrid shot his way, froze the man where he knelt.

“What you should have done in the first place,” Johnny snipped.

“Johnny, no,” Murdoch cried out weakly. A hand flailed, eyes fixed upon his son’s retreating back.

Johnny checked his gun, spun the cylinder and strode down the street, colt already back in the holster. A pall fell over the town, shrouding its people in a cloak of grief. Johnny walked with a purpose, shutting out the weakening cries of his father. Reaching the saloon, he stared at the mass of patrons huddled around the doorway, watching the events unfold with morbid fascination.

Yet not a soul strove forth to help. Seeing the hardened gunman’s approach, they parted, granting him way. Standing at the batwing doors, Johnny shoved all thought aside as Madrid stepped through, steely eyes void of human emotion staring around the room. Unwilling to miss the show, a sea of bodies filed back inside, lining the back wall as Johnny walked toward the bar, his steps slow and deliberate, spurs jingling.

Sauntering to the end of the bar, he turned, left arm leaning on the highly polished surface. Sam swallowed nervously, filled a shotglass with another helping of whiskey and bolted it, burning amber screaming a path to his churning gut. A cold, leering grin crossed Johnny’s face as he recognized the three men standing belly to the bar, a bottle passed between them.

The leader of the group, a tall man with chipped, yellowed teeth and long, greasy blond hair, turned and stared. “ Madrid .”

“Stringer. Didn’t expect to find you here, Jones. Get tired of El Paso ?”

“Something like that. What do you want, Madrid ? Got no quarrel with you.” Disinterested, Stringer turned back to his drink.

“We got business.”

“Like I said, got no business with you,” Stringer snorted.

“You killed the sheriff and shot my old man.” Stunned silence filled the room, Johnny’s voice a low, soft drawl. Eyes locked in an icy stare, the intent clear.

Sam’s mouth dropped and he shrank back from the bar, escaping to the stairway. Perched behind the banister, he had a clear view of the impending action. Laughter burst from Jones and the filth laden man turned back to his drink.

Johnny ignored his reaction. “Came to take you in, Jones.”

Laughter exploded from all three and Stringer turned, sputtering whiskey. “Take me in? You came to arrest me? You and who else?”

“Don’t need nobody else.”

People lined the streets, staring in through the massive front window. Heads peered above the batwing doors, everyone too grief stricken to think straight and too frightened to act. Stringer Jones and his men were killers. Paralyzed with fear, everyone turned a blind eye to the outlaws, all the while praying not to become the next victim. Johnny stood, taking on all three. A soft buzz fell into hushed silence. Stringer turned, facing Johnny down.

“Madrid , why the hell would you want to take me in? Since when the hell did you even care? Damn boy, you’re just like us,” Stringer snorted.

Disgust shoved aside, Johnny never broke his stare. “No Stringer, I’m not like you. Never was. You see, I take pride in my trade, and don’t go killing for the hell of it. Don’t rob, or go attacking young girls and women, and don’t shoot people down in cold blood. Only men I ever took down, needed taking down. Just like you. Now, we gonna do this the easy way and make a trip across the street to the jail, or do we end this another way?”

Sam gasped, falling back against the wall. Here was Johnny Madrid, his reputation feared far and wide, yet the gunslinger stood, facing down three men who just robbed the general store, killed Micah, and left Murdoch bleeding in the street. Not a soul in town made a move to intervene, now this young man stood against all three, damned and determined to take them into custody.

“You ain’t taking us in, Madrid ,” Stringer stated.

“Then there’s only one way to settle this. You shot the sheriff. You gunned down my old man. Nobody guns my old man.” Oblivious to the startled whispering filling the room before silence once again descended, Johnny stood, poised and deadly.

Shoving away from the bar, Stringer and his men stood alongside one another, with Stringer in the middle. Johnny stepped to the side, eyes narrowed, a cold, steely grin on his face. Not a muscle twitched. Not a body dared to breathe. Silence fell around them. A trickle of sweat ran down the side of Stringer’s face and it was in that second Johnny caught the glimmer in his eyes and three quick shots rang out, acrid smoke filling the air.

Frozen in place, no one moved. The foul stench of death permeated the room. The smoke cleared and Johnny stood straight, his gun covering the three bodies sprawled across the floor. Wary as he approached, Stringer’s gun was kicked from his hand. Only halfway out the holster, the man never knew what hit him. Dead eyes stared upward and Johnny poked at Stringer’s head with the toe of his boot, satisfied at the slow, death roll. Stringer’s men never stood a chance, their guns not even clear of the holster, one dying with a hand on the handle, the other, not even close.

Sam walked up to Johnny and stared, a new respect for the gunslinger, dawning. He knew a killer’s eyes and while Madrid wore a mask that hid his emotions, the sapphire orbs contained a hint of life vacant in the eyes of many gunfighters. The reputation was deserved, Johnny Madrid was the fastest draw he had ever witnessed, and knew to never see anyone faster. A gunman of Johnny’s caliber only came along once in a lifetime, a mixture of skill, the quickest reflexes imaginable, daring precision, confidence and a heart, all made for a deadly combination.

Pouring a shot of tequila, Sam handed it over with a nod. “I’ll get the undertaker.”

Johnny tossed back the drink. “I’ll be with my father at the doctor’s office.”

No further explanation was offered and Sam froze in place, eyes slowly traveling over the bevy of confused faces thirsty for answers. A dazed mind thought back to Christmas Eve, the only other time he had seen Johnny Madrid. Murdoch rode in that blustery night, which was unusual for the man. Also strange, was the fact that Murdoch was totally captivated by Madrid. At first, Sam was deeply concerned for his friend, but he should have known better, for Murdoch’s behavior was far more puzzling. Now it was slowly coming together.

“Johnny,” Sam called out. Holding his breath, he saw Madrid turn, eyes of the deepest blue he had ever seen, glaring back. Sam’s heart clenched. He had his answer. He should have seen it sooner. Murdoch Lancer had finally found his son.

People lining the streets again parted way, letting Johnny pass. Only this time, looks bearing the deepest respect one could grant a person, met the gunslinger who walked among them. Johnny Lancer had returned.

******

Wary as he peered around the open door, Johnny cautiously entered the doctor’s office, fearful of being tossed out. For his father’s sake, he would not put up a fight, but he would not give up on the old man. ‘Johnny, I can’t promise you that I won’t die. No one has that power’. An eerie echo of Murdoch’s words came back to haunt him. Climbing the steps of the office, Johnny was amazed by the crowd of people already assembled, waiting word on his father. As thought earlier, Murdoch Lancer was respected and obviously deeply loved. Walking through the door, he was even more astounded to find at least a dozen people standing inside.

Chuck was the first to approach. “Heard what you did.”

“He all right?” Johnny nodded toward what he surmised was the sick room.

“Doc says that with a lot of quiet and rest, he’ll be fine. Caught a bullet just below the right shoulder. Was lucky,” Chuck answered. “Madrid . . .”

“What?” Johnny turned, blue eyes darkened and hooded, hid any emotion raging inside.

“Look, I’m sorry about your father,” Chuck began.

“He tell you?”

“Yes, he told Sam and I,” Chuck answered.

“Sam?”

“Old Doc Jenkins. Samuel Jenkins,” Chuck answered with a nod.

“What the hell happened?” With distrust running high, Johnny was not in the mood to be friendly toward the man.

Tall and nigh onto 30 years in age, Chuck had been deputy in Green River for over eight years. Running a hand through a thick head of reddish brown hair, he motioned for everyone to leave. Once the room emptied, he turned toward the window, staring out at the landscape. “Don’t suspect you knew the sheriff . . .”

“Nope.” Johnny stood behind the man, watching as Chuck turned to face him once more.

“Name was Micah Adams. Was a good man . . .”

“He have a family?”

Taken aback by the sharp, curt tone, Chuck stammered. “Ahh no. No, he never married. Has a sister somewhere back east.”

“Ok, just get it said.”

“Well, your . . .”

“Father. You got a problem with that?” Johnny challenged.

Chuck’s eyes flew to the holster, watching Johnny’s fingers idly tapping on the handle of the colt. Heart leaping to his throat, he took a deep, shuddering breath before speaking. “Not my place.”

“Damn right,” Johnny snapped. Catching on to the man’s anxiety, a sly, devious smile curled the corners of his mouth.

“Madrid, I don’t want any trouble,” Chuck said, immediately regretting his words.

Johnny took a step forward, jabbing the deputy sharply in the chest. “Look here, I didn’t come here to start trouble. You got trouble, it’s either of your own making, or your own lack of ability to do the job,” he said, sounding older than his young, 16 years.

“I do my job,” Chuck cried out. Instantly snapping his mouth shut, he turned from the arrogant young man. “All right, I’ll tell it straight. Your father went inside the general store to buy a few things. After paying, he was talking with Micah when Stringer Jones and his men came in. They demanded money, and after breaking up the place and roughing up the shopkeep a bit, they left. Don’t know why the did it, maybe it was the badge, but from what I heard from witnesses, Jones turned and shot Micah down in cold blood.”

“That sounds about right.” Leaning against the window, this time Johnny stared out into the spacious back yard, fingers idly toying with a thread from the lace curtains. Spotting a multitude of faces staring back, he quickly stepped away. “How did my father get shot?”

“Well, he’s not you,” Chuck snorted slightly. “He went for his gun . . .”

“Now why the hell would he do a fool thing like that?” Johnny shouted. Spinning about, he slapped the wall in frustration, anger rising.

“Because that’s the man he is,” Chuck answered. “Madrid, what you may not know is that Murdoch Lancer is a man of principal, he wouldn’t stand by and let those killers walk without fighting back.”

“Like you did?” Johnny snapped. Eyes spitting fire, an angry glare was shot toward Chuck, the main raising his hands in mock surrender.

“Whoa, Madrid. If I was there . . .”

Johnny resigned to the truth. “You’d be dead two. Anyone who tried would have been shot or killed. No one here can stand up to them.”

“No, we’re not a gunslinger like . . .”

“Like me?” Johnny’s head snapped up, his anger rising. This man was wearing the last of his patience thin. He did not have the time or desire to argue, yet he and Chuck started off on the wrong foot, and it looked like things were not going to improve any time soon.

“I didn’t mean that.”

“Yeah, you meant it. Everyone means it.” Johnny turned away, leaning on the door jamb leading into what he surmised was the doctor’s parlor, or resting room as he would say. Standing straight, Madrid once again in control, Johnny turned back. “I know who I am. Know what I can and can’t do. If I had been there, the sheriff wouldn’t be dead and my father wouldn’t be laying in that room right now getting a bullet dug out of his chest.”

“Judging from the way you handled things in the saloon, I’ve got to say that I wish you were there,” Chuck conceded. Staring at the floor, he toed a rose pattern in the well worn carpet.

“Jones and his men were killers. I’m not like that,” Johnny stated.

Chuck raised his face to meet the boy’s eyes. With a nod, he answered. “No, you’re not like them. Don’t know you, but from what I’ve heard, I know that you’ve never done anything like this. Just know you’re one hell of a gun.”

“Know how to handle myself.” Eyes locked, new understanding was met.

“Can see that. You took Jones down,” Chuck answered with a curt nod.

“Was gonna bring ‘em in. But it got down to a dance. Not my choice,” Johnny replied.

A smile of embarrassment came to Chuck’s face. “You know, I’m sorry I was so short with you out there.”

“You didn’t know.” Johnny walked over to the wall. Leaning back, he stared at the closed door, forcing the thought of his father lying inside, from his mind.

“No, but I am glad of one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m glad you were here. Glad it was you to go after Jones and his men. Guess I don’t deserve to wear this badge, cause I didn’t know what to do. Knew there was nothing I could do. Had no back up, a panicked crowd to deal with, and killers who outnumbered me to the point where I was too damned . . . damned scared to take ‘em on alone,” he said, voice catching.

“No, you deserve the badge,” Johnny replied in a voice low and soft. “It takes a strong man to admit his weakness, and where Stringer and his men were concerned, you had every right to feel like you did. I’ve been around men like that for too long now. Know how they think, how they feel. Know what they’re gonna do a split second before they do it. They’re not too hard to figure out, once you know how.”

“And you know how,” Chuck replied with a nod. “I thank you, Mr. Madrid.” Chuck took a step forward, hand held out.

Johnny stared for a moment, and ever so slowly, shook the proffered hand. “No thanks needed. You got my old man here. Took care of him. That’s all I wanted.”

Staring into the young face, Chuck had to chuckle. “Madrid, just how the hell old are you anyway?”

“Too damned old,” Johnny said with a sigh. “Probably already older than you’ll ever feel.

Staring into a set of blue, battle weary eyes, Chuck immediately understood. Madrid was not the man he once thought, and he found himself starting to like the young gunslinger. He already respected the man, who was right. He was older than Chuck, himself, would ever feel, and that was sad, considering Madrid was not even close to being out of his teen years.

“Look, I hope your father is all right.”

“He will be.”

Twisting his hat in his hands, Chuck knew Johnny spoke the truth. If anyone could help Murdoch Lancer, it was this young man standing in their midst. Like Sam had learned earlier at the saloon, Johnny Lancer had indeed, returned home.

“Gonna take a minute to pull myself together, then will go out and see if I can get things settled, although I doubt that. Micah was a dear friend. A dear friend.” With a choked gasp, Chuck’s body shuddered slightly. Unlike Madrid, the man had no idea of how to control an overwhelming grief threatening to tear him apart.

Johnny watched the older man walk to the other side of the room and sit down, any earlier anger felt, vanquished. The man had been outgunned, and he knew it. Johnny no longer blamed the deputy, for not many men were able to stand up to Stringer Jones and live to tell about it. Johnny had heard stories of the bloody gang all along the Texas border. They rode into town, shot it up, and sat back drinking like it was nothing. They owned the town for however long they decided to stay, the townspeople too frightened to fight back. Those who did challenge them, were cut down. They eluded larger posses, hiding out and laying low until the heat passed.

They hung around the border towns, where very few cared. Only now, they were where they belonged, roasting in the bowels of hell. A well deserved punishment, and Johnny had the added comfort of knowing that it was his bullets that sent the three along. No, the deputy had nothing to be ashamed of and one day, Johnny just might tell him so. At the moment, however, he had more important things on his mind.

More than an hour passed, and Johnny stood in the shadow of the outer room, waiting word. Leaning against the wall, arms wrapped around his chest, head hung low and hat shading his eyes, he ignored everything going on around him. The door flung open and Paul O’Brien ran inside, his heart hammering in stark fear as he came face to face with Madrid’s gun.

“He’s ok.” Chuck jumped to his feet, quick to diffuse a potentially lethal situation.

“Shouldn’t barge into a room like that,” Johnny snapped.

“Didn’t expect to come in and find a gun in my face,” Paul argued in return.

Glaring for another second, Johnny reholstered the colt and leaned back against the wall. Pulling Paul to the side, Chuck crooked a finger toward Johnny. “He hasn’t moved in a while. Hasn’t said a word, nothing. Not till you barged in.”

“That’s Madrid. What the hell is he doing here? And what about Murdoch?” Paul stood, demanding answers.

“Murdoch will be fine. Doc says he was lucky, bullet didn’t hit anything vital, just lodged in the muscle under the right shoulder,” Chuck was quick to reply.

Eyes darkening, Paul strode forth, only to be pulled back by a strong hand on his arm. Shaking Chuck off, the Segundo glared. “I’m not afraid of Madrid.”

“Well you should be. He just took down the three men who did this. Alone,” Chuck said. Seeing Paul’s eyebrows lifting in surprise, he continued. “They were Stringer Jones and his men.”

“Stringer Jones!” The loud explosion startled Chuck, but Johnny never flinched. Still, Paul had the unsettling feeling that the young boy was watching intently, totally aware of everything going on around him.

“That’s right,” Chuck said. Steering Paul to the side, he spoke, wary glances cast toward Johnny. “Strange thing is, after Murdoch was shot, Madrid rode in and went straight to him.” A story to tell, Chuck’s eyes were glazed with excitement.

“Madrid?” Paul’s mouth fell as again, he turned to stare at the deadly, immobile gunslinger.

“Yep, vaulted from his horse and ran straight to Murdoch’s side. Strange thing was, Murdoch was right happy to see him. Relieved, even. He even took Madrid’s hand, and what he said . . .” Chuck turned away.

“Come on, Chuck. You’re always good with the story. Well, you got an interested audience now, so spill it,” Paul demanded.

Walking toward the door, Chuck placed a comforting hand on Johnny’s arm, their eyes meeting for but a moment. Johnny gave a slight nod, then the mask hardening, glared at Paul.

“Chuck?” Paul watched the interaction between the two, and further confusion set in. There was more to the story, and the deputy was milking the tale for all its worth. He waited until the man gathered his thoughts and shut the door behind him. “What the hell is going on here? What the hell did he say? And what the hell is Madrid doing here?”

“He gave Murdoch his life back,” Chuck said softly. “And he saved my ass. Saved a lot of people, if you ask me.”

“So he took down Stringer’s men. Doesn’t surprise me. Saw him gun down two of the best in Nogales, once. Was shocked to see he was so young, given the reputation and all, but he’s as deadly as they come. None deadlier,” Paul stated.

“Then you saw the son Murdoch has been looking for all his life, gun down those men. And after today, I’d say he had good reason.”

Paul’s eyes grew large. His heart lurched painfully and his face blanched, void of all color. He gasped and took a step back, faltering as he held onto the white pillar. Hoping that wobbly legs did not give up, dumping him in an unattractive embarrassing heap. Eyes flew from Chuck to the closed door, a raging mind demanding answers.

“Yep, you got it. That kid in there is Johnny Lancer,” Chuck said. Grabbing for Paul’s arm, he pulled the man over to the wide ledge.

“All these years, Murdoch has been looking for him. And to think, I was so close. I saw him, Chuck. I saw him. He shot those men down and walked away like it was nothing. Oh Lord.” Trembling, Paul fell back against the ledge, a thick stand of bushes hiding them from view of the crowd milling about the lawn.

“Now, if you got a problem with him being Madrid . . .”

“No, that’s not it,” Paul waved the deputy off. “Well, it’s one hell of a shock, but that’s not it. It’s what I saw.”

“It’s what you saw, and what these town folk saw when Madrid took down Stringer Jones and his men. They saw a man with the balls to stand up to those killers, when the rest of us ran with our dicks between our legs. Hell, I didn’t know what to do! I was alone, didn’t even know how to approach those three. And I had Micah and Murdoch laying there. God.” Chuck turned, his body once again raging with pent up frustration.

A hand on the shoulder pulled the man back around. “Hell, it probably wouldn’t have been any different if I had been there,” Paul appeased the man. “Chuck, you had one hell of a situation on your hands. Michah was gone, and you were tending to Murdoch. Plus the whole town was going crazy. Still is. This is gonna take a while to get over. I just thank God we didn’t lose Murdoch, too.” His voice cracking with emotion, Paul turned away.

“We could have, and maybe more if Jones hadn’t a been stopped,” Chuck pointed out. “Was drinking in the saloon like he didn’t have a care in the world. Who knows what he would have done next once he got juiced up enough. Can guarantee it wouldn’t have been pretty. But Madrid saw to that. He put a wrong, to right. And I gotta tell you, Paul, you take one look in those kid’s eyes’, you’ll see, he ain’t a cold blooded killer. Nope, is nothing like them, at all.”

“May be, but . . .”

Grabbing the man by the arm, fingers digging in, Chuck pulled Paul back around, the abruptness of his actions startling the grief stricken man. “May be nothing,” he spat. “I felt like that when Madrid first ran over, but I know different now. He’s nothing like those others. Don’t think he ever was. Damned kid’s the fastest gun we’ll ever see in a lifetime, but he used it to set things right. He could’ve just walked away, but thank God, he didn’t. He did more than take down Stringer’s men. He gave us our town back.”

“God Sam, how’d Murdoch take this?”

“Seems he knew before hand, cause he wasn’t surprised to see Madrid there. Hell, he was pure glad. Downright happy. Took the kid’s hand, tried to tell me then, but was too weak. He loves that boy, Paul. And I think anyone who has anything against that or the thought of him being Madrid, will have one hell of a problem with Murdoch. And me, too, for that matter. Kid and I had a rocky start, but reached an understanding. Yep, he’s different all right.” Stopping a minute to gather his thoughts, a deep, shuddering breath cleared the deputy’s mind, and settled a quaking body.

Pulling the exhausted man along behind him, Paul strode toward the door. “Come on Chuck, let’s get back inside.”

 Met by hushed silence, Johnny still leaning against the wall, Paul slowly approached, not surprised by the look of distrust set deep in the boy’s eyes. Fingers tapping lightly on the handle of cold steel nestled in a low slung holster, kept him from coming any closer. “Can see you finally decided to come home.”

His voice was thick with tightly controlled wariness, his eyes, dark and guarded. “Didn’t decide nuthin.”

“Nevertheless, I’m glad to see you came home. Finally.” Paul’s feeble attempt at a smile, faded.

“Like I said, didn’t decide nuthin. And didn’t just finally decide to come home. What the hell business is it of yours anyway?” Johnny snapped, fire shooting from his eyes.

Paul’s reply was soft and low. “Your father is a good friend of mine. As a matter of fact, I’m his Segundo.”

“Can’t see where that makes any of this your business. You seem kind’a personal,” Johnny quipped. Angered at the startling reception received by the man, he held back. The Segundo might be a good friend to his father, but Johnny didn’t know a thing about the man. At the moment, he didn’t know if he even wanted to.

“Nevertheless, I’m glad to see you came home,” Paul’s feeble attempt at a smile, failed.

“Still none of your business.” Johnny bowed his head, leaving Paul standing more confused than ever.

Sam emerged from the treatment room, wiping freshly washed hands on a clean, cotton towel. Quickly intervening, he guided Paul over to a settee in front of the hearth. “Come on, Paul. Murdoch is awake. Let’s keep it down.”

Johnny snapped upright, and Paul vaulted to his feet. Proceeding to enter the sickroom, the man was stunned when Sam held him back. “What the hell,” Paul sputtered.

“Paul, he’s asking for Johnny,” Sam said as gently as he could.

“But he’s out of his head,” Paul stammered. Glancing at Johnny, unable to read any sort of emotion on the boy’s face, he quickly amended his words. “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.” As way of apology, he attempted to place a comforting hand on Johnny’s shoulder, only to have him pull back.

In a tone short and clipped, Johnny addressed a weary Sam. “He ok?”

“Yes son, he’s fine. And he’s asking for you. Want to see him?” Sam’s smile was sincere, his soft tone seeming to tame the snarly, wary gunfighter.

A shadow of a quirky grin tugged at the corners of Johnny’s mouth, before sliding off his face. “Yeah, old man can’t seem to keep out of trouble.

Sam’s laughter broke out as he guided Johnny to the back room.

******

Face blanched with worry, Johnny stopped mid-stride, hesitant to approach the bed. A questioning glance directed toward Sam, and the reassuring nod given in answer, provided the strength Johnny needed to walk across the gleaming, hardwood floor. Never before had he seen such a stark, sterile room. The floor was scrubbed clean and polished to a high gloss. The walls were whitewashed and fresh, lace curtains adorned the large window on the far side of the room. A washstand was placed on the left side of the bed, a table with a tray of instruments and vials of medicine, to the right. A straight back chair was pulled up next to the washstand and Johnny sat, a deep shuddering breath taken before he dared open his eyes again.

He had seen gunshots before and never had such a reaction. His gut ached, roiling to the point Johnny feared losing what little food he had. A quick glance out the window, the long shadows stretching across the floor and climbing up the wall opposite, told him that he had not eaten since breakfast, and it was well past dinner time. But he did not care. Why he even thought of something as mundane as a missed meal, further confused the young boy. Still, it was easier than finally settling his eyes on the prone figure lying on the bed, face void of color, almost as white as the pillow on which his head rested, and chest swathed in thick gauze.

Stiff backed, Johnny sat staring. Fingers entwined, his arms rested on long, gangly legs. Sam chuckled inwardly, the lanky teenager reminded him of a clumsy colt with a bit of growing yet to do. Johnny reached tentatively, then let his hand drop.

“It’s all right, you can touch him. He won’t bite,” Sam said lightly.

“Wanna bet,” Johnny snickered. “This old man has caused me more trouble.” With a shake of the head, a smirk spread across Johnny’s face.

“Sounds like there’s a story here,” Sam said with a nod.

“Yeah, a real humdinger, as old Eb would say,” Johnny snorted.

“Old Eb?”

Taking in the questioning look on the gentle doctor’s face, Johnny again chuckled. “Another story.”

“Well, we’ll have time for them, that’s for sure.” Leaning closer, Sam laid a hand on top of Johnny’s. “Son, I want to hear all about it. Murdoch Lancer has been a friend of mine for more years than you’ve walked this earth. I’ve been through it all with him, the good and the bad. He’s been looking for you, son. Now that he’s found you, I want to hear the full story.”

If this had come from anyone else, Johnny would have deemed the person nosy, but this strange doctor had a calming effect that not only settled his jangled nerves, Johnny needed the reassurance offered. “Yeah, we’ll talk a bit. He gonna be all right?”

“Yes, and like I said, it’s okay if you touch him. Just take his hand son.” Sam’s tone was gentle and patient, broaching compassion and understanding.

Reaching up, trembling fingers raked across the back of Murdoch’s hand before Johnny quickly withdrew, hanging his head to stare at the floor. Another reassuring nod from Sam, and he slowly lifted his hand, letting it come to rest on top of his father’s. A deep, shuddering breath escaped and Johnny could not ever remember being so nervous before. His hand had never trembled as such, no matter the odds of the fight. And raw nerve endings prickling his skin like needles, never got the better of him before. But in this moment, his hand on top of his father’s large, work calloused hand, Johnny fought to keep from screaming. He had not felt so frightened, so alone, since his mother died.

Jumping from the chair, Johnny ran toward the door. One hand on the knob, the other resting on the smooth, flat surface, he leaned his forehead against the hard wood, gasping to get his breathing and raging emotions under control. Feeling Sam come up behind him, Johnny let the kindly doctor grasp him by the shoulders and lead him back to the bed.

“Son, I know how hard this is for you. Everything is so strange,” the tired man began.

“That’s not it,” Johnny muttered. Breath coming in quick gasps, this time Sam led him to the chair and shoved Johnny’s head down toward his knees. Within minutes, his breathing calmed and the room stopped spinning. His stomach settled and the roaring in his ears, ceased. Johnny lifted his head, eyes glazed and unseeing. “Mama.”

Sam understood immediately, and grasping the young boy around the shoulders, forced a glass of water into his hands. “Here, this will settle you.” Johnny drank, and Sam placed a cool cloth on the back of his neck. “Better?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Johnny swallowed the cool liquid, swiping the back of his arm across his mouth.

Sam wondered if he would soon have two patients. If Johnny didn’t get himself under control, there was no doubt. Everything had been happening too fast for the boy. One minute he was a happy toddler running about the estancia, the next, he was gone. Now in the blink of an eye the toddler turned gunfighter found the father he had not seen in fourteen years, and sat at the man’s bedside, praying for his recovery. No wonder Johnny’s head was spinning. The boy was drained, physically and emotionally.

“Young man, you first need to calm yourself down.” Sam was stern, yet there was no hiding the compassionate concern. “And then you need to get something to eat and some sleep.”

Eyes clearing, Johnny looked down at Murdoch, this time his hand slowly covered his father’s. “I will, time enough for that later. Been without both, longer.”

Sam shook his head, a sad, realization only beginning to dawn. “Well, unless you want to end up in my care, then you better listen.”

“Yeah.”

Shaking Johnny’s shoulder, Sam forced the boy to look up. “I mean it, son. You can stay here, sleep in that bed by the wall if you like. I have some soup simmering, my housekeeper makes a mean chicken soup. I’ll give you some time with your father and will send some in. And I expect you to eat every drop.”

“Don’t worry, he will,” a tired voice came from the bed.

Johnny’s face immediately brightened, his hands wrapping around his father’s. “Hey, old man. What the hell did you go and do now?”

“Johnny.” The smile slowly crept across Murdoch’s face, and there was no denying the sparkle in his eyes.

“I see you’re in good hands. Now behave, Murdoch.” Sam chuckled and left with a wink.

“Old man, I don’t know whether to kick you into tomorrow for pulling such a boneheaded stunt, or . . .”

“Or what?” Murdoch teased, a weak voice barely audible.

“Oh, I don’t know. Will think of something,” Johnny blushed, eyes as bright as sapphire jewels hooded by long, thick lashes.

“You came,” Murdoch repeated.

“Yeah, I’m here. Had to, can’t seem to keep yourself out of trouble,” Johnny said, his voice cracking. Shuddering, he tried to pull away, but with surprising strength, Murdoch held tight.

“I know son, and I’m sorry.”

“Scared the hell outta me, old man,” Johnny said between choking gasps. Embarrassed, he turned away, but not before Murdoch saw a lone tear trickling down his cheek.

The gunslinger faded into the background and a young boy sat next to his father’s sickbed, letting tears that had been denied too long, free. Murdoch reached up, wrapping a hand around the back of Johnny’s head. Pulling his son toward him, he reached across his chest and held Johnny close, wincing against the pain, but determined not to let that come between this long awaited contact.

“It’s okay, son. It’s okay,” Murdoch murmured, a hand rubbing slow, soft circles across his son’s back. Johnny’s tears fell and he did not even realize that his own arm had reached across his father’s broad chest, mindful of the injury, but quelling the dire need to be in the safe comfort of those strong, massive arms.

The tears dried and Johnny sniffled, wiping snot and tears on the back of his shirt sleeve, chuckling nervously at the look of reproach from his father. “Sorry.”

“For what, son?”

Quiet for a moment, a grin broke out. “Don’t rightly know. Old man, you not only scared the hell out of me, you did one hell of a foolish thing,” Johnny exclaimed. The teenager melded into the background, and the hardened gunfighter sat demanding an answer.

“Guess I ignored those damnable three p’s,” Murdoch stammered.

“You sure as hell did.” Johnny groaned, rubbing a hand across his face. “Old man, we’re gonna have a long talk when you’re better.”

“Yes sir. I look forward to it.”

“And you’re gonna do what the Doc says.”

“He won’t allow otherwise.”

“Good, cause neither will I. This . . . I thought . . .” Johnny struggled to find the words.

“What is it, son?” Murdoch asked. His energy zapped, he was fading fast, but his boy needed him. Rallying the last bit of strength possible, he struggled to remain awake.

“Mama,” was all Johnny needed to say, for full understanding to set in.

Murdoch slid his hand across the bed, covering Johnny’s easily. He squeezed gently, yet held firmly. Their eyes locked and before taking a shuddering breath and sliding back into unconsciousness, Murdoch sought to comfort his boy. “I won’t, Johnny.”

 ******

The sun set over the battle wary town. Shops had closed early, curtains were drawn tight and a black banner hung across the window of the sheriff’s office. The streets were empty and the few souls that did venture out, wandered down the wooden walkway silent as a ghost. Even the saloon was void of noise, the piano fell silent and this drinking, did so quietly, the only sound the gurgling of liquid fire being poured and the clinking of glasses. Talk was low, sounding more like the buzzing of bees, than grown men. Everyone was grieving deeply.

And the question of the day had everyone’s interest piqued, but very few answers were forthcoming. Paul O’Brien stopped in for a cold beer and bite to eat, but remained tight lipped. If he was even going to begin to try and win Madrid’s trust, he had better start now. Chastising himself, he knew he had better change his tune. This was his best friend’s son, the boy Murdoch has spent the better part of the past fourteen years, looking for. And Paul had been so close. He stood on that dusty street in Nogales, watching Johnny Madrid take down two of what he had thought, were the fastest guns.

He later learned that the duo had been involved in the brutal beating and rape of a well known rancher’s wife. Perhaps there was more to Madrid than originally thought. All he had to do was ask around town. Everyone now seemed to hold the famed gunslinger in high regard. If Paul could only forgive himself.

“Murdoch’s asking for you,” Sam had said earlier, upon coming into the parlor.

Paul jumped to his feet, nervous for the first time he could remember, about seeing his friend. Walking into the room, his attention was riveted to the largest, sapphire tinted eyes he could ever remember seeing. This was, indeed, Johnny Lancer. If Paul had taken the time, he would have seen the truth for himself. Now if he could only face Murdoch. How could he ever begin to tell the man he had been so close at one time?

“He ok?” Paul asked softly.

“He’s alive,” Johnny responded. Barely giving the man the time of day, he watched Paul like a hawk.

“Look, Johnny . . .”

“What?”

Ignoring the curt, clipped tone, Paul took a seat in the chair opposite Johnny. In the few minutes it took Sam to retrieve Paul, Murdoch had drifted off to sleep again. Paul decided to make good use of the moment. “I’m sorry. That’s all I can say. I’m more sorry than you’ll ever know.”

With a snort, Johnny just shook his head. “You really the old man’s Segundo?”

“Yes, I am,” a weary Paul responded.

“Don’t know you, I ain’t real friendly right off. Got no hankering to run around making friends and all. Most people don’t want to bother, can’t blame ‘em. I’m not exactly the kind of guy folks want hanging around. But you work for my old man.”

“Yes, I do. And we’re close friends, actually. I do owe you an apology,” Paul said, gaining Johnny’s interest. “If I had taken the time to think, I should have known not to come barging into the room like I did. I sure didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Didn’t upset me, was just covering my ass.”

Eyes sliding across the bed, a smile came unbidden when Paul caught Johnny clutching Murdoch’s hand. “From what I’ve heard, you are pretty good at that.” Making sure not to tip his hand, Paul thought his words through carefully. Slapping his knees, he stood. “Look, you seem to be about wiped out, yourself. Why don’t I leave you and your daddy alone, and you get some rest. Had something to eat?”

“Not hungry,” Johnny shook his head.

“Well, I’m going to head on over to the saloon and grab a bite. If you need me, you know the way.” Paul pulled his hat on and with a nod of the head, strode out the door. He would visit later when Murdoch woke, but judging the lateness of the hour and knowing Sam as he did, Paul surmised that his friend would most likely sleep through the night. He just prayed to work things out with both men.

******

Johnny did not realize how tired he had become, or hungry he was. The next thing he knew, someone was slowly opening the door, only to be met by Madrid ’s gun. With a soft chuckle and hands held high, Sam shuffled into the room.

“If I had a white flag, I’d wave it.” Arms lowered, he went straight to Murdoch’s bed. “My friend, you sure know how to keep things interesting around here. And I think that pup of yours is the same.”

A sheepish smile on his face, Johnny placed the gun back into the holster and slid long legs over the side of the bed. “Sorry, Doc.” Feeling more at ease with Sam than he thought possible, Johnny was instantly at ease.

“I understand. Always good to keep on your toes. Tell me, does anyone ever get one over on you?” Sam chuckled as he talked.

“Not too often,” Johnny yawned.

“Can see why. Now, if you’re done holding me up, how about something to eat?”

“How is he?” Johnny asked. Nodding toward his father, he stretched, yawned again and staggered over toward the side of the bed.

“Probably asleep for the night. Old fool did it up good this time, so I gave him a good dose of laudanum. Should knock him out for a while. Now, I want to take a look at you,” Sam insisted.

“Me?” Johnny squeaked. Taking a step backward, he tried warding the persistent doctor off, a battle he soon learned was futile.

“Yes, you, young man. Your father managed to tell me that you had one heck of a knock on the head. Now, are you going to let me see how scrambled things are in there?” Knocking on the side of Johnny’s head, Sam forced the boy to sit back down.

Laughing good naturedly, Johnny gave a half-hearted swat to Sam’s hand, but eventually succumbed. “All right, Doc. You win.”

“I always do,” Sam snickered. “Now, how have you been feeling? And don’t tell you you’re all right. Your father tried that, and it didn’t work for him. Never did. You just as stubborn?” A shrug of the shoulders and inability to look him square in the eye, gave Sam the answer. “Thought so,” the older man muttered.

“I feel all right now. The old man said that I was out that first day, and had a fever that night,” Johnny said with a shrug.

“Fever? He didn’t mention any fever. Were you sick at all?”

“Other than puking my guts cause of the knock on my head, I was fine. Had . . .” Blushing, Johnny turned away.

“Had, what?” Sam’s eyes narrowed, his stare too intent to ignore.

“Oh, when I rode into town, I was just getting over a cold. My throat was kind’a hot and scratchy,” Johnny admitted.

“That’s all I need to know. Open.”

“What?”

Motioning with his finger, Sam remained insistent. “Your mouth. What do you think I meant, young man? And don’t answer that! Now open your mouth and stick out your tongue. Say ahhhhh.”

“Ahhhh?” Johnny gagged, startled when Sam took the opportunity to stick a tongue depressor into his mouth.

Tossing the stick into the trash, he stood and walked over to the washstand, ignoring the shocked, impudent look on Johnny’s face. “There, was that too hard?”

“You always stick those things down people’s gullet?” Johnny coughed a few more times before finally settling down and drinking the water Sam handed over.

“Only the ones who refuse to cooperate.”

“I cooperated.”

“You sure did, Son. You said ‘ahhhh’ beautifully,” Sam laughed lightly. “And why in the world didn’t you tell your father that you had a sore throat?”

“I have a sore throat?” Johnny sat gape mouthed. “I mean, is that bad?”

Placing a comforting hand on Johnny’s shoulder, Sam was quick to reassure the young man. “It could be if not taken care of. I would say that the knock to your head was a blessing in disguise. I brought you a few good days of bed rest, and that did the trick. You must have been working on a slight fever during the day and by nightfall, it was full blown. But you’re fine now, your throat is just slightly pink . . .”

Johnny jumped up. “My damned throat is pink?”

Laughing, Sam wiped his hands dry on a towel and turned back to his reluctant patient. “Son, it means that your throat was inflamed, or burning red, but now it has faded considerably. I no longer believe you are contagious . . .”ADVANCE \d4Backpedaling, Johnny blanched. “What the hell is that? Con-tage”

“Contagious, and before you go worrying, it means that what you have is not catching. No, Johnny, I think you are fine. Your throat is healing, there is no congestion in your lungs, and your head is fine. I give you a clean bill of health.” Sam chuckled, clapping Johnny on the shoulder.

Brightening upon the good news, a wide smile broke out. “Gee thanks Doc.”

Wagging his finger, Sam issued an ultimatum. “But the next time you have so much as a frog in your throat . . .”

“Doc, who the hell puts a frog in their throat?” Johnny asked in amazement.

Sighing heavily, Sam swiped at his eyes. This boy was proving to be a handful. Never had he met anyone who took things at such face value. “Johnny, it is just a phrase,” he replied gently, his own smile breaking out. Seeing the confusion, he furthered the explanation. “Have you ever heard anyone with a rough, raspy voice?”

“Yeah, heard that a time or two,” Johnny answered, head hanging in embarrassment.

“That’s what we call having a frog in your throat,” Sam’s smile was gentle and anything but condescending.

“Oh, I get it. Frog in the throat,” Johnny broke out in laughter, the simple innocence of teenager turned gunman, amusing the kind, country doctor.

“Johnny, you are an incredible young man,” Sam said with awe.

“Is that good?” Johnny worried.

“It’s the best. I highly respect you, young man,” Sam said with a firm nod.

Head again hung in embarrassment, this time Johnny felt Sam gently cup his chin, lifting his face upward. “Son, you have nothing to be ashamed of. Take a compliment as it is meant. I cannot tell you how happy I am to finally have you home again.”

“You are?” Johnny managed to squeak out.

The doctor’s smile was not only infectious, it was genuine. “Son, I cannot tell you how happy I am to again have the privilege.”

“Again?” Lifting his head, questioning eyes met the kindest eyes Johnny could remember seeing, other than those of his father.

Tossing his head back, Sam laughed lightly. “Johnny, I know you won’t remember, but I delivered you.”

That little tidbit not only brought a smile to Johnny’s face, but a hint of teasing surfaced. “No, you’re right about that. I don’t remember.”

“Didn’t think you would.” Sam’s compassionate demeanor enveloped Johnny, wrapping the boy in a warm cloak of instant acceptance. No questions were asked, no judgments made.

“Did . . .” Johnny stammered slightly, then looked away.

A gentle hand rested softly upon his. Johnny looked up, finding the courage to ask the question he already knew the answer to, but needed reassurance. “What are you trying to ask, son?”

******

Jangled nerves brought Johnny to his feet. A staccato, restless pacing across the room began, fingers drumming on the handle of the gun. Drawing the colt from the holster, long nimble fingers cradled cold steel. Sam watched intently, not a word was said. Johnny twirled the gun once, slipping the deadly piece back into the holster, a movement so deft, Sam’s eyes crossed momentarily, unable to keep up with the startling, quick motion.

Patting the weapon hanging low on his hip, his back to Sam, Johnny toyed with a loose fringe on the corner of the quilt. “This was once the only friend I had. Spent all my time learning this here gun. Was the only thing I could rely on.”

“Was?” Sam asked. His eyes never left the young boy.

Johnny shrugged. Head hung low, he still refused to meet Sam’s gaze. “Maybe it still is, dunno. Things are confusing, you know?”

Studying the profile in the last filmy streams of fading dusk, Sam felt a sense of loneliness that had his stomach lurching. “Things happening too fast, son?”

“Yeah, kind’a.” Johnny kicked at the chair and sat down. Arms resting on his legs, impossibly long fingers clasped together, he leaned forward, soft raven hair spilling over his forehead. Blue eyes staring intently into orbs of brown, he finally voiced his concern. “It’s true, isn’t it? My father really wanted me.”

Sam was stunned, and could only imagine what the boy was thinking. Something was dreadfully wrong. Pulling a chair closer, a comforting hand was placed upon Johnny’s shoulder. “Son, why in the world would you ask such a question?”

Unable to look Sam square in the eyes, all Johnny offered was a quick shrug of the shoulders. He continued toying with the fringe, and Sam sought to reassure a wounded soul. “Oh son, your father wanted you more than anything else in the world. Johnny, that man loves you. He has loved you since the moment you were born. Before, even. When you came into this world, he paced right outside the bedroom door, refusing to leave. He waited for the instant you were born and like a bull, charged through that door before we barely had the chance to get you cleaned and ready to be presented to the world.”

Blushing, a smile crept across Johnny’s face. “That excited, huh?”

“A more excited, impatient, proud father, I have never seen,” Sam chuckled. Squeezing Johnny’s hand, further solace was offered. “That man loves you, Johnny. We may never know what happened, but one thing I do know is that your father has never stopped looking for you. It took a lot of years and a twist of fate, but he finally found you.”

“Yeah, talk about sudden surprises,” Johnny snickered. Feeling more at ease with Sam than he has with anyone since Eb, he found the camaraderie, easy. “I’m glad I found him, Doc.” The admission wasn’t as hard as Johnny feared. Lifting his face, he repeated the sentiment. “I can’t tell you how glad I am. At first . . .” Rising, his voice choked with grief, Johnny was almost too ashamed to admit his earlier feelings.

“What is it, son? Don’t you know by now you can trust me? I know you haven’t known me long, but when something is told to me in confidence, it goes no further. I’m a good listener, and am very good at keeping secrets,” Sam replied with a wink.

“The old man got a few?” A devilish gleam Sam found hard to resist, came to Johnny’s eyes.

“Young man, you can lead me down a road that would get me into nothing but trouble,” he said with a chuckle. “Let’s suffice it to say, that your father has given me a few restless nights.”

Johnny couldn’t hide the grin tugging at the corners of his mouth, astounded at how light and easy he felt talking with the good doctor. “Well, this is one secret that isn’t good. I told the old man, we talked a bit and cleared the air. And I think he forgave me.”

There it was again. Arms wrapped around his chest, and head hung low. Like Murdoch, Sam easily recognized what was slowly becoming a familiar defense mechanism. He would no longer try to correct the action, hoping that with time, love and security, the habit would vanish. “Now what in the world could you have done that needs forgiveness? And don’t say it’s because you’re Madrid ,” Sam was quick to warn. “Because Madrid has kept you alive, plus saved this town.”

“All right,” Johnny answered, a shy smile slowly blooming. “Doc, I wanted to kill him.”

Taken aback, Sam forced himself to recover quickly. “Why, Johnny? And why didn’t you come home sooner? Surely you knew your father, and where he was.”

Standing suddenly, Johnny walked closer to Murdoch’s side, touching the man’s arm lightly. Finding him still sleeping soundly, he turned back to Sam. “Doc, I know this is going to be shocking, hell, it was for the old man.”

“Now, how in the world does he take to being addressed as such?” Sam snickered at the wanton nerve of the boy.

“Ahh, he got used to it quick,” Johnny laughed lightly, before turning serious. A moment of silence descended, leaving Sam fearing that he had shut down. “Doc, my mother led me to believe that Murdoch Lancer had thrown us out. That he never wanted a mestizo for a son. I was his biggest mistake, you know?”

Feelings never before expressed, even to Eb, surged forth. Trust did not come easy for the hardened gunslinger, yet Sam brought that out in spades. Perhaps it was his kind demeanor, the ability to accept without judgment, or perhaps he was just a nice man. All Johnny knew was that he was drawn to Sam, and talking about his past was not only a way to purge the pain, but to bolster his decision.

Eyes squeezed shut and head tossed back for a moment, Sam took a deep, cleansing breath and fought the rising nausea. He had to get his emotions under control, Johnny needed his support, not sorrow. “Oh God, son. You don’t have to say anymore. I understand. I also know how hard all of this is on you. You are a remarkable man.”

Bright splotches of red adorned Johnny’s cheeks and ducking his head, a grin was hidden. “Yeah, it took a bit, but we talked a lot. Hell, I was so damned mad in the beginning, it took all I could do to keep from shooting him.”

“What stopped you?”

“Probably the same thing that stopped me all those other times.” Johnny’s answer was shocking, but a pat on the shoulder gave him the reassurance needed. “I came here a few times over the past couple’a years. Would sit on that hill overlooking the ranch. Never went down and before you ask, you have to remember I was living my mother’s lies. All I wanted to do was ride down and put a bullet into the old man’s heart for throwing us out.”

Without even as much as a flicker of surprise, a pat on the shoulder gave Johnny the reassurance needed. “Son, you’re home now. We have plenty of time to talk. We’ve done enough for one night. I thank you for being so honest, it answers a lot of questions.”

“My whole life is full of too damned many questions,” Johnny muttered.

“Johnny, you have an entire life to put back in order. But you‘re young and you’re strong. You can do it. I have faith in you.”

Johnny’s heart soared as a burden lifted. Never had anyone been as truthful, or had so much blind faith in him. Most people didn’t see past the dreaded reputation carried. Thinking again, he knew there was one other person. Reaching out, he took his father’s hand. “One of the reasons I was fighting coming back, was because of who I am.”

Sam’s stare was direct. “Who are you?”

“I’m Madrid . That’s what I was afraid of bringing to my father and anyone else close to him. Never had to think of anyone but myself, before. If I made a mistake, no one else suffered. Have no one to consider, there’s no worry.”

“That’s a lonely way to live.”

“Yeah, I guess. But it was the only way I knew. Hell, it’s all I know,” Johnny admitted. Vaulting to his feet, he wandered to the foot of the bed. “Been alone since I was ten.”

Sam squeezed his eyes tightly, willing the nausea to settle and stinging tears to evaporate. “Dear God.”

Johnny was quick to sway further pity. “I survived. I became Madrid , and I’m good at it.”

“So we saw,” Sam replied.

“But I was also afraid that in being Madrid , I would bring harm to my father and everyone else around him,” Johnny explained. “But earlier today, I saw that I was wrong. I didn’t bring Stringer Jones here. He just came.”

“Johnny, what if it was Madrid ? Would you still be here?” Sam asked in challenge.

With a shrug, Johnny answered as honestly as he could. “Probably not. I think I would have ridden out once I knew the old man would be all right. Maybe I would stay, but it would be hard. Guess there is no answer.”

“Exactly.” Sam replied crisply, slapping his leg. “Son, there are no guarantees in this life.

“That’s what the old man said,” Johnny exclaimed, his mouth hanging open.

Reaching over, Sam gently tapped the bottom of Johnny’s chin, closing his mouth. “The old man is right.” How he hoped his old friend did not hear himself being addressed as such. “We don’t know what will happen from one day to the next. All we can do is be here for one another, and muddle through. So, my question is, are you gonna make the old man happy and hang around for a bit?”

Johnny threw his head back in laughter. Wiping his eyes, he smiled at the friendly, albeit determined, older man. “Yeah, Doc, it means I’ll be hanging around a bit. The old man kind’a grows on ya, you know? Besides, he was only away from me for a few hours and look at the trouble he got into! I tell you, he needs a keeper.”

Such stark humor sent Sam into peals of uninhibited laughter, imagining the frown on Murdoch’s face if he heard his son speaking in this manner. In the back of his mind Sam had the inkling that Murdoch had already been on the receiving end of Johnny’s sharp wit. The stubborn old Scot would have his hands full with this one.

Clapping Johnny on the back, he steered the young gunslinger from his father’s bedside. “Come on now, Millie has dinner ready. What do you say we do it justice?”

“Millie?”

“My housekeeper.”

Johnny’s smile was all the answer the good doctor needed. Murdoch Lancer was one lucky man, as Sam had thought the moment he delivered this special person. As they stepped out into the narrow, carpeted hallway, Sam brought himself up short.

Finger waggling in front of Johnny’s face, his earlier intent came to mind. “And young man! The next time you so much as have a frog in that throat of yours, you had darned well better tell your old man. And don’t tell that old Scot that I called him an old man!”

Sam walked down the corridor, chuckling, ignoring Johnny as he followed. So much had been addressed, yet there was a lifetime to get caught up with. Three lifetimes, if you counted Scott, and the Boston bred, young man would surely be counted. Just how and when the issue would be addressed, remained in question.

As near as Sam could figure, Murdoch had his hands full just convincing Johnny to return home, breaking down the barriers years of lies had constructed. Once the boy settled in at Lancer and Murdoch recovered somewhat, Sam knew the matter had to be addressed. Murdoch was probably biding his time, not wanting to fill Johnny’s head with too much. Sam just prayed that the news would be accepted as intended, and would not prove to be yet another parental secret that would push Johnny over the edge.

******

Early morning sunlight streamed in through the window, the gentle rays warming Murdoch’s face. Eyelids fluttered before opening fully, squinting against the invasion of bright light. A soft snoring from the bed next to him drew his attention, a smile creeping across a rugged face at the sight. It was true. He had not been dreaming. The previous evening, he had played possum, catching the tail end of what was supposed to be a private conversation between Johnny and Sam.

Murdoch had not meant to listen, but hearing Sam questioning his boy about whether he planned on staying, it was impossible to turn away. Besides, too stiff and sore to think of moving, and knowing Sam would serve his head on a platter if he tried, Murdoch had no choice but to lay still and listen. He did not want to invade such a special moment between his oldest and dearest friend and his son, so it was easier to feign sleep. Although he almost tipped his hand when Johnny said he would be staying. If he could have, Murdoch would have ran the rooftops shouting his joy for all the world to hear. When he grew stronger, he would broach the subject with Johnny, for the boy would expect as such. There was so much to talk about, the biggest topic, nagging greatly.

Murdoch has never forgiven himself for leaving Scott with Harlan Garrett. At the time, it seemed like the thing to do. Money was scarce, the ranch barely turning a profit. What money was made, had to be put into the daily running of the budding empire. By then, Murdoch was married to Maria, and his dark haired, impetuous son was born. When Johnny was one, Murdoch managed to scrape some money together and went to Boston.

He had not been as prepared as first thought and once Harlan took out the big guns, Murdoch knew that he had been beat. He could not afford one attorney, where Harlan had a team of legal eagles at his disposal. Fearing the man would flee the country with Scott, Murdoch had no choice but to leave the mansion.

Later that night, however, he did make an attempt to steal his son away. Climbing over the eight foot high brick wall in the back of the mansion proved no challenge for the limber Scot, who stood a towering six feet, five inches, but sneaking past the battery of armed bodyguards Harlan had deployed around the estate, proved an impossibility. Again, Murdoch was left with no choice but to leave the way he had come, thinking that in another year or two, he would try again. Hopefully the ranch would turn a bigger profit and he could return with an attorney. If that didn’t work, then he would throw caution to the wind and storm the estate with Paul and a dozen or so hired hands.

Only he never had the chance. By the time the following year rolled around, Murdoch was pitched into a nightmarish hell he would wish on no parent. Not even his own worst enemy, which at that time, was Harlan Garrett. Maria was gone, taking Johnny with her. For years, Murdoch combed the dusty, filthy streets of the border towns and Mexico, but no sign of his young son was ever discovered. One year melded into the next, without so much as a clue.

Time marched right over Murdoch. Scott had a good education, a distinguished service record for serving under General Sherman in the War Between the States, and a promising life in Boston. All Murdoch had were the regular reports sent by Harlan, and a nagging emptiness and desire to know his eldest. There was a time he sent weekly letters, birthday and Christmas presents to Scott, but deep down, Murdoch knew that Harlan had intercepted those attempts, for there was never an acknowledgment from the boy. And knowing Harlan, Scott was the epitome of politeness, no such slight would have been allowed.

The years dragged on. Murdoch alternated between periods of hopeless despair and renewed determination to find his young son, when in the end, all it took, was a quirky twist of fate. The question was, where did they go from here? Johnny had expressed the desire to stay, but did that mean he would return to Lancer with him? And how would he take the news that he had a brother? Maria obviously had not told Johnny about his older brother, another lie to add to a long, sad list.

Then Murdoch worried that Johnny would be angry with him for withholding such information, praying inwardly that he would be able to explain his reasoning before his hot headed, dark haired son rode off in anger. He simply did not want to burden the boy with more than he could handle at the time. Johnny had been overwhelmed with all that had conspired since that fateful Christmas Eve, he simply couldn’t turn to the boy and say ‘hey, by the way, you have an older brother, only he lives in Boston.’

And how in the hell did he explain why he had left Scott with Harlan Garrett all these years, and only knew him through those damned, cold, itemized reports sent by the callous, cold hearted blaggard. That might be just enough to drive Johnny away. Murdoch sighed, it seemed that he couldn’t hold onto his children for the life of him.

A sputtering snort claimed his attention. Like a Cheshire cat warming in front of a fire, Johnny rolled onto his back and stretched, rubbing his eyes as he sat up. “Hey old man, how long have you been awake?”

“Just woke up,” Murdoch said softly, smiling up at the boy sliding a chair over to the side of the bed.

“You feeling ok?”

“Well, gotta tell you, I’ve been better,” Murdoch chuckled, wincing at the pain to his upper chest.

“Gotta remember not to laugh.”

“Yeah, it always hurts when you laugh. I got shot in about the same place that time Eb found me. Only on the other side,” Johnny pointed to his chest. “Was sore as hell for a while.”

Sam came into the room with a fresh basin of water and towels, smiling at the two men in greeting. “Good morning, I see everyone is up and about.”

“Hey Doc,” Johnny smiled.

“Good morning, Johnny.” Sam’s smile was bright as he greeted the young man that had claimed his heart as quickly as he rode into town. The look of wonder on Murdoch’s face, said the rest. Sam couldn’t remember feeling happier. “Sleep good?”

“Sure did, that’s a pretty nice bed. Can get used to a bed like that, only not in a doctor’s office,” Johnny shared a laugh with the two men, shaking his head when his father once again winced.

“Well young man, Millie has breakfast and coffee waiting. There’s a water closet at the end of the hall, so why don’t you get washed up and head on into the kitchen? I want to help your father here.” Sam’s intentions were clear and blushing, Johnny bid a hasty exit, leaving the two men in privacy.

After a second helping of scrambled eggs, ham, hashbrowns and biscuits dredged in fresh honey, Johnny, the irrepressible flirt, heaped thanks and praise on Millie, the woman flitting on a cloud of ecstacy as she bustled about the kitchen. It was obvious the young man had a silver tongue when it came to women, and it didn’t take long before Johnny had the older woman wrapped snugly around his finger.

With a shy grin, Johnny snagged a bowl of broth from the tray and strode down the hallway. Kicking the door open, he strode into the sickroom. “Breakfast!”

 What’s that?” Murdoch groused.

An face splitting grin spreading from ear to ear, and with Sam following in hot pursuit, Johnny strode into the room with a purpose. “Revenge.”

“Revenge. Looks like broth.” Murdoch frowned, studying the contents of the porcelain bowl with a rose etched on the side. “Anything served in a bowl with a rose etched on the side can’t be good.”

“He always this grouchy?” Johnny quipped, finding a partner in crime in Sam.

The older man stood back, arms crossed. It felt good watching Murdoch Lancer getting his comeuppance for a change. “Only when he’s a patient.”

“Then he should’ve ducked,” Johnny stated with firm resolve.

“So that means I eat broth? Sam, I was shot in the shoulder. Not in the gut. I can eat. I do have teeth, you know,” he finished glaring at Johnny.

“Yeah, you do have teeth, but you’re still getting broth, old man,” Johnny stated firmly.

Almost choking on the brazen boy’s words, Sam was speechless as Murdoch sputtered, a tray plopped onto his lap. “What the hell do I do with this?” the cranky man grumbled.

“Eat it,” Johnny shrugged. Sitting down, he made a display of devouring a biscuit stuffed with bacon, snagged before leaving the kitchen.

A sad sense of both relief and sadness washed over Sam, wondering how many times Johnny had to go without a good breakfast while growing. The disclosure that he had been alone since he was ten, led for a long, sleepless night for the doctor, who ached for the lost, young boy. In many ways, the adult version had not changed. Johnny needed love and acceptance so badly, the he had constructed an almost indestructible wall to protect himself. You let no one in, and no one could hurt you.

Now the young man was trying to come to terms with the fact that his entire life had been based on a lie, and the smile and easy banter with his father, hid a well of underlying emotions. To see Johnny eat with such abandon warmed the old doctor’s heart, yet he cried for the starving child Johnny must have been at one time. At the age of ten, the prospect of regular meals was dismal, at best. A child of mixed heritage alone in the world and shunned by both sides, it was a wonder Johnny survived. Sam knew there was much more to Johnny Madrid Lancer, than presented to the world. He could hardly wait to see the boy evolve.

“Since I see you’re in good hands, I’ll leave you to your breakfast,” Sam said, patting Murdoch gently on the shoulder.

“You call this breakfast?” Murdoch shouted after the departing man. Then he turned, glaring at Johnny. “I gave you biscuits.”

A wry grin on his face, Johnny loped to the door and peered down the hall. The coast was clear. “And I’m returning the favor.” Pulling a red checkered napkin from his jacket pocket, Johnny dumped two large, buttered biscuits on his father’s tray. “Sorry, I ate the bacon,” he said, chuckling at the glare shot his way.

The eyes faded to a soft, twinkling glow as a smile came to Murdoch’s face. “Thank you, Son.”

“Da nada,” Johnny shrugged. They ate in silence, and Murdoch suspected that Johnny had something on his mind. Biding his time, he waited until the boy was ready to talk. And he did not have to wait long. “You heard what I did?”

“Bits and pieces, was a bit groggy,” Murdoch nodded.

“Was Stringer Jones and his men,” Johnny said. Rising, he walked to the foot of the bed. Head cocked to the side, he studied his father’s reaction.

“So I heard.”

“Then you know what I did.”

Heaving a heavy sigh, Murdoch squeezed his eyes tightly. “Yes son, I do.”

The familiar stance taken, head hung low, Johnny refused to meet his father’s eyes. “Told you what it would be like.”

“What are you talking about, son?”

“Madrid .”

“Well, if Madrid is what kept you alive all these years and took those bastards down, then I’m damned glad that Madrid rode into town when he did.” Murdoch’s stare was intent, eyes never wavering.

Slowly, Johnny stood straighter, turning slowly to face the incapacitated man. “Yeah?”

“Yes.”

“How can you say that? I killed three men. Didn’t even have to think about it.”

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed, his manner, direct. “Why did you kill those men?”

Standing even straighter, he gauged Murdoch’s reaction, eyes of deep blue boring into the paler eyes of his father. “I did it because I could. It wasn’t even a fair fight, not a one of them stood a chance against me. They never did. Truth is, old man, not many men, do. I’m deadly, and not saying that to brag, it’s just the truth. I know how to handle myself in situations like that, and know what to do. That’s all it is. I did it because Stringer had to be stopped, and I knew I could stop him.”

“You did the right thing then.” Murdoch’s reply came without a moment’s hesitation.

“I did what needed to be done,” Johnny snapped.

“Johnny, why are you so damned angry?” Murdoch asked.

Pounding the mattress, Johnny’s eyes shot daggers at his father. “Old man, I gotta tell you. It was a damned, dangerous thing you did. What the hell were you thinking?”

“What were you thinking when you walked into the saloon?” Murdoch’s question was direct, his demeanor, calm.

“I knew what I was getting into. You’ve never seen me in action . . .”

“I saw you take down that icicle,” Murdoch chuckled in remembrance.

Anger diffused, Johnny snickered. “Yeah, I guess you did.”

“Damned thing never stood a chance. But you’re right, I’ve never seen you in action, but I have seen your moves. You’re quite fast.”

“And that bothers you?”

Shaking his head slowly, Murdoch spoke from the heart. “No, son, it doesn’t bother me. As a matter of fact, I’m damned proud. I remember when we talked back at the cabin. You told me that you don’t rob, hurt women, or kill for the sheer, sick thrill of it. I’m proud of that, son. You’re quick with a gun, and you are a man to be feared by those with half a brain, but you know right from wrong. And you knew you were the only one who could have done something about it. I tried, and failed miserably.”

Johnny snorted, then sat at his father’s side. “Yeah, you sure as hell did.” Silence descended for a moment. “I am good. I know what I can and can’t do. I also knew Stringer Jones from Texas , and know how he operates. Never rode with the man, never really rode with anyone. Every once in a while an acquaintance would tag along, but I’m a lone wolf, Murdoch.”

Murdoch squeezed his eyes tightly, his body heaving as he took a deep, shuddering breath. This was the first time his son has called him anything other than old man. And it felt damned good. Not as good as if Johnny had said ‘Papa’, but it ranked high up there.

A soft voice jarred Murdoch from his reverie. “I know how men like Jones, work. I’ve been around those like him, and those that are worse. Believe me, it’s not a pretty world out there.”

“No son, it isn’t.” Murdoch’s heart clenched, for his young son had been out in that cold, dangerous world far, too long. God only knew how he found the will to survive. There was so much more to talk about on both sides, yet Murdoch felt the need to take matters slow.

“Been up against men like Jones more times than I can count,” Johnny said. Eyes taking on a glassy appearance, he fell deep in thought. “Always came out on top. Not to brag, but I am top at the game, and that can be a problem. Taking down Jones and his men, will only make things worse.”

“How so, Johnny?”

Vaulting to his feet, Johnny resumed his frenetic pacing. “How so? Murdoch, every gunhawk around will hear of what happened. How long do you think it will take someone to come around?”

“Let them come!” Murdoch bellowed, wincing against the sudden intrusion of pain. Fearing losing everything good that had just walked back into his life, he struggled to raise himself up.

“Old man, will you just settle down?” Johnny came to his side, gentle hands helping Murdoch to rest back against a soft mound of pillows.

Wheezing, eyes squeezed shut against the pain, Murdoch grasped for Johnny’s hand. “Son, we’ve come so far.”

“I know.” Johnny sat, head hanging low.

“I don’t give a damn who the hell comes around . . .”

“Well maybe you better!” Johnny snapped.

“Not if I lose my son again!” Murdoch shouted.

Hearing the commotion, Sam came running into the room, finding father and son butting heads. Staring between the two, sullen figures, he could only ponder what life would have been like on Lancer if Johnny had never left, for the young man was every bit the stubborn Scot, as his father. Two mules by the name of Lancer.

Taking Johnny by the shoulders, Sam steered him toward the door. “Tell you what, why don’t you go on outside for a bit, get a breath of fresh air. It’s a nice day. Try the cantina, they’re serving lunch by now. Pretty good, too, if I might add.”

Johnny blinked, unaware that the morning had slipped by. With a grimace, he nodded. “Yeah, gonna wander over to the saloon, could use a drink,” he said, not missing the look of disapproval from his father. “Yeah, like I thought.”

Waiting to hear the click of the door, Sam whirled on his patient. “Damn it, Murdoch. You trying to drive that boy away?”

“Drive him away? Sam, what the hell are you talking about? I’m trying to get him to stay. Get him to see that I don’t think any less of him because of what he did. As a matter of fact, I’m damned proud. Anyone else would have been taking a hell of a chance confronting Jones and his men the way Johnny did, and he damned well took every one of those bastards down. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to do the same.”

“Then what in the world was all the shouting about?”

Deflating, Murdoch melted back into the mattress. “Sam, he thinks every gunhawk around will come gunning for him once word spreads. The problem is, he isn’t afraid for himself.”

“I know he isn’t,” Sam determined.

“He’s afraid of one of us getting caught in the cross hairs. And that’s the one thing that can drive him away,” Murdoch worried.

Always a straight shooter, Sam spoke plain. “Can’t say that it won’t. Johnny would rather leave than bring harm down on you, but that doesn’t mean he will leave,” he said. A hand placed upon Murdoch’s arm, settled the larger man back down. “It’s not going to be easy on either side. Murdoch, Johnny told me what his mother said.”

“Why the hell would she do that? Did she hate me that much?” Murdoch asked, an old hurt rising.

“I have no idea. Who knows why she even left to begin with?”

“She was young. Maybe too young. She wasn’t much older than Johnny is now when she had him. Maybe I should have given her more time, done more for her. I don’t know. I think she was jealous of Scott, she never seemed to want to talk about him much. I wonder if that’s why she left?”

“Because of Scott?”

“Because of having to share Johnny with him. Without Scott, Johnny would have had me to himself. According to Mexican tradition, it’s the oldest son that inherits everything. That would not have been the case, I would have given equal shares to both boys, but I could never tell Maria that. It wasn’t long . . . long after I returned from Boston before she left.”

“That could have a lot to do with it, but if you ask me, it was a number of reasons, not one specific matter,” Sam replied.

”Then why tell Johnny that I threw them out?”

“To simplify her life,” Sam shrugged. Seeing the look of confusion, he was quick to explain. “Murdoch, Maria probably didn’t want Johnny blaming her for the way things turned out. It was obvious they went sour quickly after she left. It wouldn’t have taken long for Johnny to leave seeking you, once he grew old enough to do so.”

“And in telling him that I had thrown them out, she had Johnny all to herself. She didn’t have to share him,” Murdoch said, rubbing tiredly at his eyes. “Makes sense, in a morbid way. But damn it, why wasn’t Johnny told the truth later when she was so sick?”

“How did she die, Murdoch?” Sam asked gently.

“I don’t really know, Sam. From what Johnny said, there was no doctor. He said that she had been sick for days, was running a fever and had a God awful cough. Sounds like pneumonia to me.”

“Sounds about right, but who knows. Those symptoms can cover a range of diseases. Perhaps she was too sick toward the end to think straight. She probably couldn’t tell him the truth,” Sam shrugged.

“I’d like to think that, Sam. Anything else would be too damned cold-hearted. Murdoch, emotions are going to be all over the place for a while, yet. Johnny has a lot to come to terms with and settle in, and so do you. Starting with getting to know one another. There’s so much more to settle, you two have barely started.”

“Scott?” Murdoch asked softly.

“Among other things,” Sam said with a nod. “Let’s start with your feelings.”

“My feelings?” Murdoch cried out.

“I know you were trying to hide it, but your son is one astute man, Murdoch. Can’t put anything past him. He’s good at reading people, had to be in order to survive. I know it goes against your fatherly sensibilities to let your sixteen-year-old son toddle over to the saloon for a drink, even though you tried hard to hide it. Talk to me, my friend. Talk truthfully. You haven’t had the chance to do so since all of this came down. How do you really feel upon learning that your son is Johnny Madrid?”

******

Frustrated, Murdoch slapped the feather mattress with his hand. “How the hell do you think I feel? Catching the stricken look on his friend’s face, he quickly relented. “Ahh Sam, I’m damned sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, these feelings have to come out, and better with me to set your head straight, than with Johnny and risk driving him off. Both of you have a long road ahead, there are going to be confusing feelings on both sides. You’re both going to go through periods of relief, acceptance and even joy, but then the downside will come on.”

“Downside?” Murdoch shifted his weight to the side, relieving the pressure on his chest.

As practiced well over the years, Sam reached out to help. “Yes, a downside. Do you think that you’re just going to ride on back to the estancia as easily as tiptoeing through a garden of roses?” Because you’re not,” he barked. “There are also going to be periods of anger, guilt and even blame on both sides. You blame yourself for not finding your son earlier, and he’s blaming himself for being Madrid.”

“Why the hell would he do that?” Murdoch barked.

“Because he’s your son, and he knows what a good man you are. You also have a high social standing in the community . . .”

“I’m not a snob!”

“Didn’t say you were, but as a patron, and that is how Johnny was raised to see men of your status, he doesn’t want to bring shame down on you.”

“Hogwash.” Murdoch lay back, a frown on his face and arms crossed over a massive chest.

“Nevertheless, that’s how he feels. Then he has the added burden of worrying about someone hurting you or anyone close to you, when coming after him. And you can’t lay there and tell me that you’re not a little bit upset that he’s a gunfighter,” Sam dared.

Deflated, Murdoch let his arms drop to the side. “Of course I’m not happy, but he’s not like those others.”

“No he’s not,” Sam shook his head.

“He’s different. Deadly, but different.”

“That he is.”

“And he’s my son. Madrid has kept him alive.”

Leaning forward, Sam squeezed his friend’s hand. “Amen to that. Nevertheless, there are still feelings to contend with. I can only imagine how hard this is on you.” Sam rose and walking over to the window, peered out from behind a canopy of wispy lace.

“I don’t know if you can, Sam. But you have to remember the circumstances. Johnny has come too far to go back to being the normal, run of the mill teenager. As a matter of fact, we already had this talk. And as he so eloquently put it, he’s not about to drink lemonade, date the girl next door and attend Saturday night socials. He’s well seasoned, Sam, and I can’t and won’t change him, as much as that pains me.”

“And knowing your high ideals, that must pain you a great deal,” Sam replied. He was right, Johnny wasn’t the only one with unsettling emotions to deal with. Murdoch was thrilled to have found his son, but the shock of the discovery, needed to be worked through.

“Sam, what would pain me more, would be to lose Johnny because I start making restrictions. I made the boy a promise. I didn’t pressure him to come home, he came on his own. If he is to stay, it has to be his decision. He’s right, you know. He’s seen too much, done too much, but he is a good man.

“Got there a might quicker than I would have liked, but he’s a man in his own right, in spite of his age. Anyone who has taken care of themselves from the age of ten and has grown to have the caring heart my son tries to hide, is a man. No one has the right to change that, and I respect him. Johnny knows right from wrong. I think he’s proven that.”

“Yes, I think he has proven that. He’s not like those men.” Snapping the curtain back in place, Sam took a seat at the side of the bed.

Fatigue was wearing Murdoch down, yet he fought against it. “Sam, I will and do accept Johnny for what he is. To do anything else, would be to lose the boy. He almost didn’t come home, you know.”

“So I’ve heard,” Sam said with a shake of the head.

“There was a number of reasons. He didn’t want to bring Madrid to my front door,” Murdoch replied.

“Well, you seem to have gotten yourself into a bit of trouble all by your lonesome,” Sam snickered.

“Yes, and that’s what I pointed out to Johnny,” Murdoch admitted. “I don’t like getting shot, but in a way, it was a blessing. At least my son saw that I can get into trouble all by my lonesome, as you put it. And he doesn’t have Madrid to blame. Anything else, will be faced later.”

“You know how people feel, don’t you?” Sam asked.

Face darkening, Murdoch balled a wad of blanket in his fist. “No, but it better not be what I think.”

Patting the clutched hand releasing the fabric, Sam smiled. “It’s not what you think. Everyone has seen what we call the true side of Madrid .”

“True side?” Murdoch’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.

A sly smile flit across Sam’s face. “Let’s just say that we looked past the reputation. Let me rephrase that. We saw the man Johnny has always been. We saw a man ready to stand up for what was wrong, and had the talent, foresight and ability to do so. Thank God for that.”

******

Johnny walked down the dusty street, aware of every eye upon him. A reverent silence descended as he passed by and Johnny swore to plug the first person that bowed before him. It was one thing to be grateful, but he was not a hero. Nodding politely to the women, leaving quickly before he had to stop and shake every hand on the street, all he wanted was a good stiff belt of tequila and a meal so spicy, his body broke out in sweat while eating.

A whistle from across the street caught his attention, the livery owner running toward his direction. “Mr. Madrid . . .”

Johnny winced. Damn Stringer Jones for bringing this attention down on him. All he wanted was to be left alone, not worshiped like some tin star hero. “Yeah?”

The ruddy faced elderly man shuffled across the street, dabbing at a sheen of sweat dotting his forehead. “I apologize, Mr. Madrid . . .”

“For what?”

“We tried to get you, but Chuck said you were with your father. I don’t like leaving a horse out all night . . .”

“Renegade!” Johnny exploded, darting down the street to where the black stallion was hitched outside the livery. So wrapped up in his own problems, he had totally forgotten about the mighty stallion, such neglect was unforgivable.

The saddle had been removed, how, Johnny had no idea, but it had been removed and was lying next to the hitching post. It was obvious that someone had carried over a wooden bucket of water and pail of oats, so his amigo had not gone hungry, but that did nothing to quell the anger and guilt Johnny raged against himself for such wanton neglect. Renegade deserved better, and the persnickety animal was in a huff at being left outside alone all night long.

The nervous little man followed. “We tried to get him inside, Mr. Madrid , we really did.”

Johnny ignored the sniveling man, wishing he would stop referring to him as Mr. Madrid .

“Right after they got your Daddy to the doc . . .” the older man fell silent under the unexpected glare. “I mean no disrespect.”

“Not your fault.”

“Folks are talking, but that don’t mean no never mind.”

“Let ‘em talk.”

Ambling up to Johnny’s side, the old, gray haired man was also not one to be ignored. “I was the one to snatch that saddle off’n his back. Was a might tricky, I tell you, but managed. Took a few snags to loosen that cinch and then had no choice but to stand back and let the durned thing slide off. Ornery cuss, like ta bite me.”

“He would.”

“You don’t say much, do ya?” the old man said.

Johnny stopped dead in his tracks, spinning about to face the gruff voice dogging him. “I do when there’s something to say.”

“Well, my name is Gus. Gus Wilkes. I own this here livery. Know who you are, the entire town knows who you are. Boy howdy, you took those low life cusses down. Gave ‘em what for, all right. Was proud to have a ringside seat.”

Johnny was growing more embarrassed by the second, but there was no stopping Gus, who could yap as much as old Eb. When that desert rat was on a roll, there was not a force on earth that could stop him. “Just did what needed doing.”

An aged, gnarled old hand reached out, a bony finger tapping Johnny on the wrist. He turned, facing the old timer. “Son, let me tell ya sumthin. I’m not the smartest man around, but I know what’s for. Know where the sun rises and sets and do my job. And I know when someone comes along and does a good term. You saved this town boy. Sure you don’t like the hooplah, who does? But folks around here are mighty grateful.”

“Thanks,” Johnny said softly, eyes lowered.

“No son, thank you. We know who you are. Might go by the name of Madrid , and that’s all right. Man’s gotta go by the name that fits him, and that fits. Things might change as your life goes on, but right now, Madrid fits. But we know you’re Johnny Lancer. I want to be the first to welcome you home.” Ever so slowly, a trembling hand reached out in offering.

Johnny scoffed at the remark, cheeks blazing he grasped the older man’s hand tight. “Nice to meet you, old timer.”

“Name’s Gus,” he repeated.

“Gus.”

“Well young feller, I’ll leave you to the care of your horse. Like I said, we tried. Couldn’t get him inside, though, so I carried that there bucket of water and pail of oats out. He didn’t go without. I wanted to get you, but you were with your daddy. But believe you me, if I thought that any harm would have come to this fella, or if the weather turned, I’d have gotten ya.”

“That’s all right.” Contrite, Johnny was quick to put Gus at ease. “He is a might touchy.”

Cackling, the older man’s eyes lit up. “A might touchy? That what you call it? Hell, boy, he’s downright ornery! A one man horse, yep, that’s what he is. A one man horse. Is a blessing to find yourself one of these fellas. Yep, a blessing. But not to anyone else that comes a’sniffing around! No siree, that there fella bites. Gnashes those teeth,” the old man snapped, wriggling his fingers in front of Johnny’s face.

Trying his best not to laugh at the geezer’s antics, Johnny grabbed for Renegade’s reins. “Guess I better make it up to him, then. Got a place?”

“In there, first stall to the right. Got it all purty for him, too. Knew I’d have a royal guest a’coming, so I got it all ready. Fresh hay, water, oats and all.” Spitting a glob of tobacco juice, Gus pointed toward the livery. “No charge, either.”

“I pay my way.”

Bony fingers grabbing for his arm again, Johnny resisted the urge to shake the old one off. “Son, you did a mighty good thing for folks here. Know you’re not asking for some kind of reckoning or nuthin, but you did a good thing. And folks know it. And we appreciate it. Old Micah, he was a good man. A dear friend, and a good man.” Sniffling, Gus swiped at his eyes.

Turning, he motioned for Johnny to follow along. “Yep, a downright good friend. Damned shame, that’s what it is. A damned shame. Bastards would’a tore this whole town apart. No telling who else would’a died if you hadn’t cut ’em down. Damn good thing you coming along. Yep, a damn good thing.” Gus disappeared into the dim, warm confines of the livery, jabbering away a mile a minute.

Shaking his head at the old man, Johnny followed after. Once alone, he turned full attention to the uppity stallion. “Hey fella, I promise, I’m going to give you the best rubdown you’ve ever had. Gonna let you settle in here for the day, know it was a hard spell. I’m sorry for that.”

Scratching behind the silky, black ears, Johnny pampered Renegade. “Things are getting mighty confusing, amigo. Don’t know if I’m coming, or going. Don’t rightly know much of anything, anymore. Not easy learning your entire life is a lie. I know the old man means well, and hell, he did get under my skin, but I feel like bucking right about now.

“Everyone in this here town is grateful for what I did, but it’s smothering. Don’t know if I can do this. Everywhere I turn, everyone wants a piece of me. If it was another gunslinger, I’d know how to handle it. But this is different. People want me here. Never had that before. Nope, never had any of this before. There, all settled and brushed. Let me get you a good measure of oats and some water, and you’ll be set. Probably tired, huh?” he asked the loyal animal, a soft snickering response in answer.

Laying his head against the glossy, sleek coat, Johnny closed his eyes. “The old man wants me, amigo. Thing is, can I do this? Can I go back with him? Right now I’m too damned tired to think straight. Got a lot of planning to do. But one thing for sure, won’t do anything or go with anyone unless I know I got the best for you. Yep, you deserve the best boy.

“And I hear you gave everyone here what for!” Johnny exclaimed, wagging a finger at the finicky creature. “Now what kind of behavior is that? Well, I guess that’s how I taught ya to be. Is good, too, but would’ve helped last night if you worked along with them folk. You could’a been inside here.”

Unable to face anyone at the moment, Johnny walked to the far corner of the stall and plopped down upon a pile of hay. Arms wrapped around his knees, he sat thinking. His mind raged, yet not one coherent thought came to his muddled brain. Everything was just right, and it was all too much. He no longer knew how to act, what to be, or even who he was. At sixteen, that was one hell of a way to feel.

Long shadows stretched across the livery floor. Lifting his head, Johnny realized that he had nodded off. Staggering to his feet, he walked over to Renegade, checking on the horse before venturing outside. He glanced down the road, contemplating whether to go back to Sam’s office, or head on over to the saloon. The grumbling of his stomach helped to make up his mind.

A pang of guilt was shoved aside as Madrid strode across the street. Everyone knew where he was, if needed. The desire to get away on his own refused to be ignored and Johnny took this time for himself.

******

“Sam did you ever feel like a failure?” Turning to face his friend, Murdoch’s eyes were filled with doubt.

“A failure? Murdoch, how in the world can you even think that?” Sam asked, a hand placed gently on his patient’s arm.

A sad melancholy filled his voice. “Not as a businessman, but as a husband and father. Most especially a father. Most especially a father,” he repeated in a whisper.

“Again, Murdoch . . .”

A hand held up prevented Sam from further comment. “Just, look at things my way. I lost Catherine and couldn’t even hold onto Scott. Didn’t have the money and now that I think of it, didn’t have the balls to fight Harlan. The man was powerful beyond any means I had at the time, and I was afraid of him whisking Scott off to Europe. Lord knows he threatened to do as such many times.”

“I can understand your side, but that doesn’t mean you were a failure,” Sam tried to reassure his friend. “Harlan didn’t play fair. And he was clear across the country. You didn’t have the resources you have today, and you had a ranch to take care of. Now I know that the ranch in no way replaced Scott, but Harlan wasn’t playing square. If the man was human, he would have brought Scott to you. Life could have been different for everyone all around.”

“I would have my eldest. Maybe I would have kept both my sons, instead, I lost boy my sons. Couldn’t hold onto either. What does that say for the kind of man I am?”

“One that was dealt a raw hand. Tell me, did you foresee Garret taking Scott from you?” The slow shake of Murdoch’s head was all the answer Sam needed. “And did you know that Maria was going to take off with Johnny?”

“Now how the hell would I know that?” Murdoch barked.

“Exactly. You were dealt a bad hand, my friend. You did nothing wrong, and most certainly did not deserve what happened. On both sides. It’s called life. And sometimes, life is the pits. Now the question is, what are you going to do about it? You now have the power and means to rectify things. If you want.”

Looking toward the window, eyes trained to the east, Murdoch stared. The afternoon was growing late and Johnny still had not returned. “I’m more than ready. And I say it’s about damned time. Should have taken Harlan on years ago.”

“Years ago you were looking for Johnny,” Sam reminded the man. “You knew where Scott was, knew that he was safe and well provided for, but you didn’t know a thing about Johnny. Are you going to lay there and tell me you should have abandoned the search and headed east?”

Sighing heavily, Murdoch fell back against the soft mound of pillows. “Don’t know what to tell you, Sam, and that’s the truth. Bottom line is, I want my boys. I want my boys, Sam.”

“And you’ll have them. I promise,” Sam said, with more confidence that Murdoch felt. “You’re already halfway there.”

 ******

With a groan, Murdoch sat upright, having just woken from yet another nap. Sam had been in earlier with a light dinner of soup and hot tea, leaving the grumbling patient wishing he could bust out of the good doctor’s home and return to the estancia. Sam was like to starve him to death. Looking about the room, dusk was setting in and Johnny was still out. Hoping that his earlier reaction to the boy’s drinking had gone unnoticed, Murdoch could only pray that no damage was done to the budding relationship.

This was just another facet of his son’s life he had to get used to. With a grunt, he realized that there was so much he needed to become accustomed to. His son frequented saloons regularly, drank tequila like it was going out of style, and after Christmas Eve, knew the boy had a lusty libido to satisfy. All the things a father detested his young, teenage son doing, were what Johnny has been partaking in for the good Lord only knew how long.

He missed his young son, and with every creak of the floorboards, eyes flew to the door and his heart dropped when a dark haired, rambunctious gunslinger didn’t come loping through. A knock on the door sent the man’s senses on high alert, and his hopes crashing when Paul’s head peeked through the narrow opening.

“Well come on, open the damned thing enough to walk through.” Murdoch grumbled, arm waving to motion the man inside. A wince of pain cut the movement short, and a string of curses loose.

“Should know better,” Paul said upon arriving bedside.

“How are things?” Hand held over his shoulder, Murdoch rode a wave of pain.

Taking a seat, Paul waited for the agony to pass. “Things are good. Jose rode in earlier and gave a report on the ranch. Been away awhile, boss.”

“Yeah, it has been a time. Haven’t had the chance to catch up,” Murdoch smiled against the pain.

“Got a lot to catch up for.” Paul rose and paced restlessly. Turning back, he started to say something, then changed his mind.

“Paul, what is going on? Is everything all right at the ranch?” Murdoch inquired.

“Things are fine. You know, it’s a slow time of year.”

“I’ve been gone at the height of the season and you’ve held it together for me. I’m grateful,” Murdoch smiled.

“Always will, boss.” Paul’s attempt at laughter fell flat.

Eyes narrowing, an upsetting thought struck Murdoch. “Paul, have you met Johnny?”

“Yeah, we met a bit,” the man answered, still refusing to meet his friend’s eyes.

Not one to beat around the bush, Murdoch spoke plain. “All right, Paul. Out with it. If you have a problem with Johnny, I want to know now.”

Eyes etched with worry and exhaustion turned toward Murdoch. “Boss, you know that’s not the case. I know who Johnny is, and what he’s done. I also know what he’s capable of, but that’s not the problem. He’s your son.”

“That’s right, he is my son, and I don’t care who you are, if anyone has a problem . . .”

“Like I said, it’s not Johnny I have a problem with.”

“Then who is it?”

“It’s me.” Sitting back on the chair, head held low and hands clenched, a troubled soul was bared. “Murdoch, I saw Johnny about a year and a half ago, down around Nogales.” Murdoch fell silent, and Paul’s stomach clenched. “There was this gunfight, Johnny took down two of the best.

“And?”

“Don’t you see? That was your son, Murdoch! The boy you’ve been looking for all your life.” Paul vaulted to his feet, running a trembling hand through his hair. Eyes locked with those of his friend, his guilt ran free. “And there I was, your closest friend, not more than 50 feet from the boy, and I walked away.”

“You waked away.”

“Yeah.”

“Just like that.” Murdoch snapped his fingers.

“Boss . . .”

“And just when are you going to lose that guilt you’re carrying around?” Murdoch asked, his tone matter of fact and hard to ignore.

Paul shuffled his feet, eyes grounded. “What do you mean?”

“Well, let me see. Let me know when to bow down to you.”

“Bow down to me?” Paul barked.

“Well, the only perfect person I know is the good Lord, and I’ll bow down to him. Unless you’re him, you’ll learn that you have nothing to be sorry for. Paul, how the hell could you have known?”

“You knew the instant you saw him.”

 Murdoch’s eyes turned dreamy with remembrance. “It was his eyes. Did you see his eyes?”

“No, I barely saw his face. Sun was in my eyes, and he had this hat pulled down low. Turned to the side and walked away,” Paul admitted.

“Paul, you don’t wear your guilt well,” Murdoch snapped, setting an old friend straight. “You know, the only way you can and will incur my wrath where Johnny is concerned, is if you outright reject my son, or do or say something that will hurt him. Johnny has a long, hard road ahead of him yet, and needs people who care about him to help make the adjustment smoother.”

“Guess me and Johnny have some figuring out to do,” Paul asked rather sheepishly.

Murdoch’s stare was direct. “Yes you do. But I have faith in both of you.”

“Glad someone does.” Paul muttered as he walked toward the door, his back to the bed.

“What’s that you say?” Murdoch asked of him.

“Nothing, just going over a long list of work. But never to worry, it’s all under control.” Paul gave a two fingered salute and bid a hasty exit.

******

Paul found him sitting in the saloon. Bent over a bottle of tequila, back to the wall and wary eyes scanning the crowded, smoky room, Johnny watched Paul’s approach. Kicking a chair out to the side, he motioned to the bartender for another glass. Sam complied immediately, shuffling out from behind the bar, the usual, stained apron wrapped around a stout waist. Johnny wondered if it was the same apron he had seen the man wear on Christmas Eve, and if it ever got washed at all. With a slight shake of the head, he turned his attention back to the drink at hand.

Brown eyes locking with the deepest orbs of blue he could ever remember seeing, Paul tossed the drink back. “Your father ok with you drinking like this?”

“You supposed to be taking care of things at the ranch?”

“I see we have just reached a mutual understanding.” Pouring another shot, Paul lifted the glass in toast.

******

Scott Garret Lancer was bored. Barely one in the afternoon, he paced the cavernous, luxurious bedroom idly, with nothing special to do, nothing to look forward to. A knock on the door signaled what to many would be lunch, but to Scott, was breakfast being served. Having only risen a mere half an hour ago, Scott was fresh from the bath and attempted to run a comb through a head of thick, sandy blond hair.

“What the hell.” Grumbling, he tossed the comb across the room. With nowhere to go, there was really no reason to be this particular about his looks. Yet the well bred easterner strode across the room, retrieved the object of his fury, and resumed pulling the comb through his hair. “Decent, but who cares.”

Ever since his return from the War Between the States, nothing was the same. Scott was not the same. Days spent working under the tutelage of his grandfather, Harlan Garrett, while not in school, no longer appealed to the tall, lanky young man. Staring into the mirror, pale blue eyes glared back. Scott opted to eat breakfast in his room, knowing if he went downstairs while his grandfather was home for lunch, the same old argument would resume.

Nobody understood, especially the grandfather that had raised him. Scott couldn’t talk to his friends, for the only times they journeyed beyond Boston, were leisurely trips to Europe or to the Cape, where only the elite vacationed. They did not know of the atrocities of war. They did not know what it was like to be talking to a fellow soldier one minute, only to be left standing alone the next, a twisted, bloodied body lying on the ground at your feet. They did not know the horrors of being a prisoner, of not having decent food, clean clothes, or even a bed to sleep in. They did not know hunger and have never experienced filth.

But Scott knew. For one year of his life, he had suffered those very atrocities. His grandfather did not want him to go to war, but after many heated battles, the man had no choice but to relent. His headstrong grandson would only have run off in the middle of the night to join the army, so he had no other recourse than to give in. Scott wondered if his father, Murdoch Lancer, even knew he had gone off to fight for the Union. Hell, he wondered if the man even knew of his existence.

After twenty years, not one attempt was made to contact him, let alone inquire about his welfare. This was the only point Scott and Harlan Garrett agreed upon lately. Murdoch Lancer had no interest in his son, leaving the boy to be raised in Boston after the death of his mother. Scott hung his head. No wonder the man couldn’t even ask about him. His mother had died shortly after giving birth. What man would want said child?

Still, he could not help but wonder about Lancer. Having never met the man, or heard anything other than the ‘worthless infidel that stole my cherished daughter away to live out west in squalor’, Scott had no idea of what his father was like. In his present restless state, he now felt a nagging inkling to inquire further. The one attempt to talk with his grandfather the previous evening, had ended in a feud. The old man hated Murdoch Lancer, and the name was forbidden to ever be mentioned again.

That argument led to the one about him returning to Harvard. How the hell could he even think of walking those hallowed halls after being at war? It all seemed so senseless. Scott had always been a good student, earning high honors all through his younger years, and making the Dean’s list the short time he attended Harvard. With one year of college under his belt, and one year of life’s experience earned during the war, Scott felt unprepared to face anything. He did not know what he wanted from life, yet an unsettling void demanding to be filled screamed at him daily. If he only knew how to fulfill that purpose.

Today would be like any other day. Too cold to venture outside, with another ice storm looming on a gloomy, snow laden horizon, Scott ate while sitting in front of a marble hearth, soaking up the warmth of a crackling fire. Upon hearing the sound of ice pellets striking the massive, floor to ceiling window, he flung the heavy velvet curtain aside and watched the onslaught. A cup of coffee in hand, restless, weary eyes scanned the cobblestone arena.

Scott loved Boston, he would always love Boston, and wished his grandfather would understand. Ever since he returned home, Scott felt as if he could no longer stay in Boston. Everything seemed so empty, the lives of his friends, so much like the life he once lived, were pointless. A dizzying round of social engagements throughout the day, and an endless barrage of parties at night.

Instead of meeting up with friends like he had been known to do one short year ago, Scott now ventured down near the peers, drinking until he could barely see straight, and ending up in whatever warm bed with a willing female body, he could tumble into. Returning home, reeking of perfume and stale whiskey, Scott inevitably tangled with old Harlan.

He was tired of the fighting. There had to be more to life. There had to be some sort of purpose, some challenge he could undertake. Some way he could live free of the constraints the idle rich he had been raised with, free of the ruling hand of Harlan Garrett, and free of the mind numbing boredom that had taken the shape of his life.

Scott Garrett Lancer wanted out of Boston. And it couldn’t happen fast enough. The problem being, where was he to go?”

******

It was late when the door to his room finally creaked open, a mop haired, bleary eyed figure slinking in. Murdoch rolled slightly and wincing against the pain, lit the lantern on the nightstand, catching the culprit dead to rights. “Well, well, well. Look who’s dragging in.” The older man chuckled, noticing the bright splotches on Johnny’s cheeks.

“Hey old man.”

“Hey yourself. May I ask if you had a good time?” The hint of a smile tugged at the corners of Murdoch’s mouth.

Johnny shrugged, plopping bonelessly into the chair next to his father’s bed. “I guess.”

“Son, I’m just teasing.” Murdoch’s eyes were twinkling, his smile warm as he watched his youngest squirm. Inside, the man was relieved to have his boy back home. Was this how fathers throughout time have felt?

“Just had a few . . .”

“Drinks. I know. You told me back at the cabin, remember? Johnny, as much as it pains me considering your age, I will concede to your life’s experiences.”

“What?” Johnny’s head shot up, a perplexed look plastered across a slightly inebriated face.

“I said I won’t give you a hard time. I will only ask that you get home safe,” Murdoch said, his heart soaring at the words.

“Home,” Johnny muttered. Rising, he walked over to the window, the familiar stance taken.

“Son, I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about.” Johnny turned, again toying with a fringe of lace while looking out over the slumbering town.

“I’m not pushing, you know.”

“Yeah. I know. Hey, I met up with your Segundo.”

“Oh yeah? Paul’s a good man. I owe him a lot,” Murdoch replied.

“He take care of the place good?”

“I trust him with my very life. Johnny, Paul has run the ranch for me numerous times when I went in search of you. He’s a good friend.” Sensing something on Johnny’s mind, Murdoch patted the side of the bed. “Son, come here. Sit back here in this chair and talk to me.”

“Nothing to talk about.” Johnny answered with a shrug, yet ambled over to the chair and flopped down.

“Son, we have our entire lives to talk about. We know nothing about one another, except what is on the surface and what we’ve revealed since that time at the cabin. You’re my son, and whether you’re home with me or not, I’ll always worry about your welfare. I have always worried,” Murdoch said, patting Johnny’s hand.

“You did?”

“I sure did. Had many sleepless nights.”

“Sorry.” Johnny again hung his head.

“I’m a father Johnny. It comes with the territory.”

“I guess,” Johnny shrugged. Got Renegade all bedded down. Your horse is there too. Gus tried to take care of old Rennie, but you see, he’s kind’a persnickety.”

“You don’t say?” Murdoch’s eyes widened, a grin splitting across his face.

Johnny snorted, shaking his head. “Yeah, you would know. Was wondering about your fingers.

“He is a might touchy. Son, is everything all right?”

“Yeah. Yeah,” Johnny said, his mind wandering.

“What is it, son?” Murdoch worried.

“I was . . .well, I was wondering . . .”

“What were you wondering?” Murdoch urged.

A deep shuddering breath taken, Johnny turned back to his father. “I have a brother, don’t I? Why didn’t you tell me? I thought you weren’t ashamed of me.” Johnny rose to his feet, giving Murdoch worry of him fleeing for good, but he only paced over to the window. “Can’t say as if I blame you.”

Murdoch squeezed his eyes shut, lips moving in silent prayer. Opening them, he saw Johnny in the corner of the room, arms wrapped tightly, head lowered. “Son, come here. It’s not what you think. First of all, before you go thinking otherwise, I’m not ashamed of you. Never was, and never will be. You know the truth. All you have to do is look at me. Look at me son.”

Johnny lifted his head, eyes searching for the truth. “Ok.”

“You know I speak true.”

“Yeah.”

“Son, please come here,” Murdoch again patted the chair. “We have so much to talk about. I’m not keeping anything from you, as a matter of fact, I am ashamed, but it’s not with you. It’s of myself.”

Johnny’s head snapped up. “Of yourself!”

“Of myself. Again, please sit down.” This time Johnny walked over and slowly lowered himself into the chair. “Good. Want a drink?”

“No, had a few of those already.”

“I meant water or coffee,” Murdoch gently chided.

“Murdoch, are you stalling?”

“Yes.” He heaved a heavy sigh, the stall tactics finished. There was no fooling his astute son. “Ok, here it is. Yes, Johnny, you have an older brother,” he said, not missing the way his son’s eyes lit up. Whether with anger, or simply stunned surprise, was too early to tell. “Johnny, I was married before I met your mother. Her name was Catherine and I met her back east.”

“You were back east?” Johnny quipped. Too intrigued to be angry, he forced himself to listen patiently. Johnny had always wanted an older brother, now it seemed as if that one dream would come true. He only hoped that whoever it was, liked him.”

“Remember I told you I came over from Scotland?”

“Yeah, that funny sounding town,” Johnny snickered.

“Inverness,” Murdoch gently corrected. “Anyway, I met Catherine in Boston.”

“What happened?” Johnny asked impatiently.

Murdoch was delighted by his son’s impatience. Johnny squirmed in the chair, anxious to learn more about him. “I’m getting there, John. It’s a long story.” Murdoch took a deep breath and proceeded to regale Johnny with the story of his life. He spoke of how he and Catherine met through a mutual friend, and Harlan Garrett’s instant dislike of him.

Johnny listened intently as Murdoch told of how he had no choice but to send Catherine away when land pirates threatened the ranch, and later receiving news that she had gone into labor and taken ill. Johnny fell silent when Murdoch spoke of how Catherine was already gone by the time he arrived, and Scott was whisked away by his grandfather.

Johnny took everything in and paced slowly, doing a quick snap and turn before resuming his seat. “Scott, huh? How old is Scott? And why hasn’t he been here to see you? Is it because of me?”

Before his boy could flee, Murdoch grabbed for Johnny’s hand, ignoring the searing pain in his shoulder. “Johnny, Harlan took Scott back east.”

“I know you said that, but . . .”

“Son, Scott’s not here because he’s back east.”

“You mean he’s visiting?”

“No Johnny, it’s not that simple. And before you go running off, you have to know that Scott’s absence has nothing to do with you. If anything, the blame falls on me. Hell, it all falls on me.” A hitching breath taken, Murdoch felt a strong hand fall upon his.

Johnny felt the need to comfort the man, who seemed to have suffered almost as much as he had over the years. Stammering at first, the word finally slipped out. “Papa.”

Murdoch’s eyes closed, tears stinging.

Johnny shuddered. “No one knows better than me that life is just plain unfair. Hell, it’s downright rotten. I don’t judge people, cause I don’t want to be judged. Not fair to a person. We gotta learn to like one another, to take a person for what he is.”

His voice catching, Murdoch managed to open his eyes and stare into the face of his son. “John, how I wish everyone was like you.”

“Like me?” Johnny squeaked out.

“Yes son, like you. You’re right, life is a bitch, but when a person goes through all you have, and manages to look at the world with an open, just heart, then that ,my son, is an amazing man.”

“Not amazing, just call things as they are,” Johnny said.

“That, Johnny my boy, is amazing, for most people don’t give a damn about anything past themselves,” Murdoch said, still caught in the wonder of the moment. His son had called him Papa. It took sixteen years, but no word has ever sounded as good.

“So how come you don’t have Scott? Does he know about me?” Johnny asked.

“Son, I truly don’t know, and that’s the shame of it. Like I said, Harlan Garrett . . .”

“Stinking old goat,” Johnny cursed. “Man, he’s got balls to screw with your life like that.”

Chuckling, Murdoch patted the boy’s hand. “All right, you got me there. But like I said, old Harlan has hated me from the beginning. When he took Scott, I was crushed.”

“You sure as hell were, I mean, your wife just died and your kid was stolen.” Johnny jumped up, paced restlessly for a moment, then dropped back into the chair. “That’s low, old man. That’s really cruel.”

“Harlan is a cruel man,” Murdoch replied. “Son, the thing of it all, is Harlan took Scott clear across the country.”

“To Boston?”

“Yes, Boston,” Murdoch’s voice grew dreamy. “I tried to bring him home, Johnny, but hell, Scott was so far away and I just didn’t have the means at the time to travel that far. The ranch was new and not making any money to speak of as yet, so I had no choice but to work and hope to scrape enough money together to go back east.”

“Did you?”

“Yes, I went back. Scott was five and you, Johnny my boy, were a squirming one year old.” Murdoch laughed at the bright splotches of embarrassment scrolled across Johnny’s cheeks.

“Me? I was one?” Johnny asked, eyes brightening.

Murdoch was enthralled at the unexpected bit of enthusiasm exhibited by his son. “Yes son, you were about one. Oh, I would sit you on my knee and tell you all about the day I brought your brother back home. How you two would grow up on the ranch, eventually work right with me. I had visions of the three of us riding home side by side at the end of the day.”

A sense of belonging crept through Johnny, the sensation, pleasantly surprising. “I’d have liked that.”

“Me too,” Murdoch agreed. “Only, well, things didn’t work out like I once dreamed. I was ill prepared to bring Scott back home. There was no way Garrett would let me close enough to see him, let alone bring him back. The one time I saw Scott was the afternoon of his fifth birthday. They were having a party and I was there. Garrett let me see him for only a few minutes, saying afterward that it was the one weak moment of his life.”

“Bastard.”

“That was it. He had a battery of lawyers and probably owned the law, too. If I had tried to get to Scott, there’s no doubt in my mind that he would have had me locked up for kidnapping. Plus, he threatened to take Scott out of the country if I even tried.”

“Did you ever try after that?” Johnny asked. Plucking an apple from a bowl set upon the nightstand, he deftly cut the peel away, slicing the meaty fruit into wedges.

“I tried that night. Old goat thought an eight foot brick wall would keep me out,” Murdoch said with a sly grin.

“Hell, you could tiptoe over that,” Johnny was quick to point out.

“Yes, it proved no problem, but there was a battery of armed guards all around the place. And even if I could have slipped past them ,Scott would have been scared to death. Other than that chance meeting, he knew nothing of me, and if I tried to carry him off . . .”

“He would have screamed his head off,” Johnny finished for him. “Did you ever try again?” Murdoch grew silent, and Johnny began to worry. “Murdoch?”

“Oh son, that’s when the bottom of my world fell out,” was all the older man had to say for realization to set in.

The apple was forgotten, knife and fruit tossed back into the bowl. Johnny’s hands dropped into his lap, his head drooping. “Mama and me left.”

Again, Murdoch found himself in the position to choose his words carefully. Reaching over, he grasped Johnny’s hand. “Son, I don’t want you blaming yourself for anything. Life is what it is. No one asks for what happens, especially a small baby and young boy, but we all try to deal with what rolls along the best we can. That’s what I did. I didn’t have the money, muscle or resources to fight Harlan Garrett. The man had millions.

“And I had a young wife and son. I tried, I really tried, but it all fell apart. I don’t know why your mother left, but I do want you to know that I loved her. John, I loved her. I spent so much of my time looking for you, and it wasn’t a choice of picking one son over the other. It was what it was. Scott was in Boston and whether your mother had taken you off or not, I doubt if things would have turned out differently.

“If Harlan had gotten wind of me even setting one foot eastward, Scott would have been gone before I rolled off of Lancer. He probably had people watching me all along. Wouldn’t have put it past him. He was going to hold onto Scott no matter what came along. This began long before you were born, and you had nothing to do, one way or the other, with the outcome. Do you believe me? Son, you have to believe me.”

Johnny lifted his head, a fleeting smile crossing his face. “Old man, I’ve been kicked around most of my life. Learned to read people pretty good. I had to, it became a matter of live or die. I made a mistake, misjudged someone, then I was dead. Very little gets past me. The truth is one of those things. I know when a man speaks true, and you speak true. I wouldn’t be here if I thought different.”

“Son, I thank you for that,” Murdoch said. His heart felt a lifetime lighter. The truth he feared would break them apart, had actually drawn them closer, Johnny’s dire need for family and security, further cementing their bond.

Johnny groaned, swiping the back of his hand across his eyes. “Oh no.”

Alarmed, Murdoch tried to rise, only to lie back down when pain intervened. “What’s wrong?”

Blue eyes blazing, a devilish smirk on his face, Johnny’s belly rolled with laughter.

“Son, I repeat, what is it?”

Johnny looked square in his father’s eyes, struggling to get his breathing under control. “Old man, what the hell am I going to do with a dandy for a brother?”

All Murdoch could do was stare, mouth agape. The man had no answer for the cocky, young gunslinger sitting next to him. He was left to wonder how citified Scott really was, and then a new worry set in. The more he thought, the more he worried. Was Scott a snob? Murdoch knew the boy had to be refined, for Harlan would not have accepted any less. And how he prayed that Scott was not a mini version of the stuffy old goat, that was unthinkable. Life was growing more complicated by the minute, and the older man’s head spun. All he knew was that he had two boys, and they could not be more different if they had tried.

He and Johnny spoke for a few minutes more, but Murdoch could see that his youngest was fading fast. In spite of partaking in a bit of tequila earlier, Johnny had shown an amazing amount of lucidity, and possessed the eagerness of a young boy hidden inside, that warmed his father’s heart. And he had called him Papa. It was only that one time, but the depth of emotion that came with the word, had caused Murdoch’s heart to skip a beat. They would talk more in the morning, and Murdoch was prepared to ask the one burning question that would change his life forever. Then, he had to figure out a way to bring Scott home. He lay back, feeling every bit a father.

******

Murdoch stirred early. The man was restless and tired of being chained to that infernal bed. A soft snore from across the room drew his attention, fatherly warmth spreading throughout his body as he watched Johnny sprawled on his stomach, left arm and leg hanging over the side of the bed. Never had he seen a more beautiful sight, and if he could have gotten up under his own steam, he would have tucked the boy back under the warmth of the homespun quilts. Johnny had come back to him the previous night, and they had talked.

It should not have come as a surprise that Johnny had heard talk of Scott around town. If Murdoch had been in a stronger frame of mind, he would have considered the possibility, himself. Thank God the boy had accepted his explanation without argument, or crushed feelings. Once he realized the scope of his father’s reasoning, Johnny simply accepted the fact that he had a brother. It was that easy. The boy lived by a simple logic, one that astounded the father.

Johnny was good at reading people, and once he accepted someone into his life, loyalty and understanding were there for the asking. Murdoch was amazed that the boy had turned out so well, given the life he had been thrust into.

Minutes later Johnny stirred and Sam entered the room. Pulling his pants over a well worn pair of longjohns, Murdoch was tempted to tell Johnny to go over to Baldemeros and purchase what was needed and charge it to the ranch. Knowing that Johnny would have been slighted, he kept his mouth shut, yet fought the urge to buy his son the world.

“You ok?” Murdoch asked.

Stretching, Johnny yawned, long black hair spilling over his forehead. “Yeah, am fine. You?”

“Been better, especially if the good doctor will let me out of this bed,” Murdoch grumbled, glaring at his friend.

“So, we gonna contact Scott, or what?” Johnny asked.

Sam’s mouth dropped and he grabbed for the breakfast tray that almost slipped from his fingers. Plopping a tray of eggs and biscuits on Murdoch’s lap, he turned toward Johnny. “I take it you two talked.”

“Well, I kind’a took him by surprise. Hell, took me by surprise. Why didn’t you tell me earlier, old man? You never answered that last night.”

“Sorry, guess I got sort of sidetracked.”

“Is ok. But why not?” Johnny persisted.

Murdoch fussed to straighten the tray before the precious repast was dumped onto the bed. He doubted he would get another chance at a decent meal before lunch. “Johnny, I was going to tell you. I was just waiting for the right time. We have so much to learn about one another, and I didn’t want to put too much on you at once.”

Quiet for a moment, Johnny shrugged. “Makes sense. Oh, do I have any other brothers or sisters hiding anywhere?” That glib remark caught both men off guard.

“God, I hope not!” Sam burst out.

Johnny tossed his head back in laughter, and Murdoch sputtered, coffee going up his nose. “Young man!”

“Just asking,” Johnny teased. “Gonna go get washed up and then check on Renegade.”

“Eat first,” Sam shouted over his shoulder.

“Renegade first, then I’ll eat,” Johnny shouted back.

“I take it you two talked,” Sam repeated, turning his full attention back to his friend. “Oh, and Millie thought you’d enjoy those eggs.

“We did, and I am,” Murdoch replied. Digging in, he closed his mouth in ecstacy, the taste of real food exploding on his tongue. “My son is a remarkable man. Sam, he took everything in stride. He asked about Scott, and I answered truthfully, nothing held back. With Johnny, you can’t hold anything back, he’ll know. And he took it better than I thought.”

“He sure seems to be happy,” Sam noted.

Setting the fork down, Murdoch sipped the first taste of coffee in days. “That, my friend, he is. He told me so, himself. Well, not in so many words, but he did say he had always wanted an older brother, and now he has one.”

“Amazing,” Sam shook his head. “Did he say anything else?”

“No, just wondered what in the world he was going to do with a dandy for a brother.”

“God, I hope he doesn’t shoot him,” Sam said with a hoot, slapping his knee.

“Oh no,” Murdoch groaned, rubbing at his eyes. “I guess I’ll have to find a way to rein him in.”

“Good luck with that! But you better do something, my friend, because I have the feeling that you no longer have to worry about how to contact Scott. I think Johnny will find a way around it for you,” Sam said, almost sorry the words spilled out.

This time the groan was louder and Murdoch’s head impacted with the pillow. “Well, I guess the tactful route is out. I don’t think my illustrious son will hold back. Hell, knowing him, he’ll ride into Boston Common and call Harlan out. And I can’t say that the thought isn’t tantalizing,” he said, sharing a laugh with Sam.

“Oh my, Murdoch, but your life has grown infinitely interesting.” Sam laughed until tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. Then he walked out into the kitchen and sat at the table, waiting to have breakfast with Johnny. He could not wait to hear the boy’s take on his dandified brother.

******

Scott paced the room. Vicious winds battered the great stone mansion, heavy pellets of ice striking the windows. Scott usually loved such storms, preferring to remain awake at night watching mother nature batter the city, only tonight, there was no such comfort. No solace from the brutal onslaught. Tonight, Scott was gearing up to have it out with his grandfather, for he knew that once his decision was announced, it would be met with even less approval than his decision to go off to war. Knowing Harlan Garrett, Scott felt he would probably prefer seeing him rejoin the cavalry, than to undertake the long journey planned.

His grandfather hated Murdoch Lancer, that came as nothing new, for Scott had never heard a good word spoken about the man. Even though his father has made no attempt to contact him, Scott could no longer deny the growing desire. The words ‘go west young man’, had been ringing through his head incessantly. Every time Scott tried to get a handle on his life, the only thing that held a bit of appeal, was a clean break and brand new start.

Not only did his grandfather loathe Lancer, Scott’s decision to leave would be taken as a personal affront by the man. Scott already knew the reaction Harlan would have upon hearing the news and he was willing to endure the fury. Hopefully, all would be worth it in the end. Slicking his hair back and straightening his tie, Scott left the bedroom, the door clicking shut behind him. Heart in throat, he descended the grand, sweeping staircase and knocked at the office door.

“Grandfather, I should like to speak with you,” Scott said upon being ushered into the room.

******

Three days had passed and Murdoch was finally allowed out of bed for short periods of time. He wished to stride over to the livery, grab his horse and ride out to the ranch with Johnny alongside him, but knew Sam would have nothing to do with it. The man was picky. He was bossy and overprotective, and he was clearly the best friend Murdoch would ever have. Still, he chomped at the bit to get back to his regular routine. He was sore, but he could manage.

Johnny came into the room, bearing a tray laden with two plates of roast beef and gravy, creamy mashed potatoes dredged in butter, fresh green beans from Sam’s garden and buttermilk biscuits. He stared at the bowl of salad in confusion, unsure of whether such a dish would be enjoyed, or not.

“Hell, looks like something for a rabbit,” he groused, much to Murdoch’s delight.

Murdoch then had the privilege to do what he has always wanted. “John, eat your vegetables,” he ordered, pointing with his knife. “And pour this over your salad. It’s called dressing and is pretty good. Didn’t you ever have salad?”

“Only time I like lettuce is in tacos,” Johnny grumbled.

“Try it. You don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it,” Murdoch said pointedly.

Johnny stabbed a piece of lettuce with the fork, dressing dripping off the tines. With a grimace, he smelled the offering, staring warily before slowly putting the fork into his mouth. Murdoch watched intently, taking pure delight in the assortment of looks crossing his son’s face from skepticism, to doubt, then to pure delight as new tastes were introduced. It was as if watching a baby exploring the wonder of food for the first time. Having seen Johnny do that when younger, Murdoch was ecstatic to have the chance to introduce his son to something new.

“What is this again?” Johnny asked, licking his lips.

“It’s called dressing, like I said, and Millie makes it. Puts a bunch of spices together, but the main ingredient is buttermilk,” Murdoch explained with a patience he never knew to possess.

“Is good.” Johnny swiped the bowl clean with a biscuit then started in on the main course.

It did Murdoch good to see his son eating with such abandon and most importantly, regularly. Though it was true Johnny was skilled at taking care of himself and the cabin was well stocked, Murdoch now had the comfort of knowing his son was finally cared for the way he should have been all his life. Sam had been out on a call, but once their meal was finished, he returned and joined them for a dessert of Dutch apple pie swirled with fresh caramel and topped with a thick, sweet cream. Johnny’s eyes closed in ecstacy, so many new tastes at once dancing through his mouth. This was one dance he would gladly take on.

Looking from his father, to Sam, Johnny had never felt as content, or accepted. In a way, he looked toward Sam as the grandfather he never had, and wondered when that feeling set in. The man wasn’t much older than Murdoch, yet there was something about his demeanor that lent Johnny the comfort and understanding only a grandfather could give. Johnny shoved all dark thoughts aside. This wasn’t too good to be true. This was true, and whatever else came along, would be dealt with accordingly. Right now, in this moment of time, Johnny had all he could ever ask for.

Having spoken to Murdoch earlier, Sam knew what the man had in mind, and politely excused himself, carrying the tray of empty dessert plates. “I will leave you to alone. It’s been a tiring day, and I think I’ll retire early.”

“Night.” Johnny’s smile further stole the older man’s heart. As often thought, Murdoch Lancer was one lucky man.

“Johnny, I would like to talk with you,” Murdoch began.

“Yeah, thought you had something on your mind,” Johnny sat, arms wrapped tightly around his torso.

Gently prying his son’s hands apart, Murdoch urged him to sit and accept a cup of coffee. “Son, you have nothing to be worried about. I just want to talk, that’s all. Actually, I need to ask you something, so please, indulge an old man.”

“I would if I knew what that meant,” Johnny said with a snort of indignation.

“It means to give me the pleasure of a few minutes of your time to listen,” Murdoch explained.

“Why do people have to use such hard words to say something that is so simple?” Johnny expressed his impatience.

“Son, I wish I had your simple way of doing things. But, I shall try.” Murdoch sat up a bit straighter and accepted another cup of coffee. He was tired. Earlier he had been allowed to walk out to the back porch for a breath of fresh air, aided by both Johnny and Sam. Now he was pleasantly fatigued, and almost ready for sleep.

“What do you want?” Always literal, Johnny was direct and to the point.

“Son, I’m not pushing you into a decision, but I do want to ask. You’ve become such an important part of my life, I don’t think I can stand to see you walk away. But as promised, I will understand and accept any decision you make. I know you were planning on going to Montana and as much as I have cherished you being here for me, if you still feel that’s best, then I will do as you wish.” Murdoch stopped, assessing Johnny’s reaction.

“The man in me will stick to the agreement. But the father in me has to ask you to stay. Johnny, will you come back to Lancer with me? For good? Make an old man happy.” Murdoch held his breath, watching a display of emotions march across his son’s face.

The cup of coffee placed back on the tray, head tossed back and eyes squeezed shut, Johnny fought to bring his emotions under control. “Don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. I’m not easy to live with.”

A hint of a joy glistened in Murdoch’s eyes. He was so close, he was almost afraid to believe it. Johnny didn’t break and run. “Then you take after your old man. Just ask Maria.”

“Your housekeeper. From the same mold, huh?” he asked, seeing Murdoch’s agreeing nod. “Don’t know if it will work out. Never had anyone to answer to before.”

“I haven’t had anyone to order around in a long time,” Murdoch said, the light, teasing tone obvious. “Son, just come home with me. Make an old man happy.”

“Not that old,” Johnny scoffed, a shy smile struggling to break out. Kicking at the leg of the bed, he lifted his face to his father, the smile now full blown.

“You already kissing up to the old man?” Murdoch teased, reaching out to scuffle the raggedy mop of hair.

“Well, you do look kind of pitiful laying there. And you need someone to watch out for you. Look at the trouble you got yourself into,” Johnny was quick to point out.

“Now that sounds like an offer I can’t rightly refuse,” Murdoch exclaimed with unbridled glee. “Johnny, come home. You have a life waiting. It will be hard, adjustment on both sides always is, and you will feel out of place for a while, but never doubt that Lancer is your home. Your bedroom . . .”

Stunned, Johnny felt a surge of acceptance bursting forth. “My bedroom?”

“Yes Johnny, your bedroom,” Murdoch answered softly. “It’s ready for you. Always has been. Only I packed the crib to the attic years ago, knew you’d be too big for it if I was ever so lucky as to bring you home again. But a new full sized bed is now in its place, ready and waiting. Maria even made the quilt and curtains.”

Murdoch realized that he was rambling, using everything he could think of to bring Johnny home. He was not above stopping to a bit of bribery, if needed. Speaking of such comforts, of a room left waiting for the boy to return home, would hopefully sway Johnny’s mind. The smile Johnny turned on him might have seemed foreign to the boy, but it brought new life to the father’s heart. Murdoch didn’t think it could soar any further, the happiness he was experiencing, almost too much to bear, but bear it, he would. His boy should be home now, sitting in front of a warm fire with his old man after stuffing themselves full of dinner and talking about their day. The thought brought tears to Murdoch’s eyes. It was those tears that helped to make up Johnny’s mind.

Looking into his father’s eyes, Johnny saw the love he had been seeking all his life. It might have been denied, but it was there, at the ready to welcome him home. Johnny could not deny the truth, he had always prided himself with the ability to read people, to act on the signs given, no matter how hard. Now, he had to live by his instincts, and those instincts told him not to run. To hang around for a bit and see how things went. If it didn’t work out, he could always leave for Montana, but he would go knowing that he had a place to return to and a father that cared.

“Look, I don’t know if I can do this. Might be too set in my ways, but I’ll come with you for now. No promises, ok?” Johnny asked.

“No promises,” Murdoch shook his head. No matter what, he would fight with everything he possessed to keep his son home, but he would not smother the boy.

“And no pressure,” Johnny added.

“No pressure,” Murdoch agreed.

With a deep, shuddering breath, Johnny looked toward the door, then back to his father. “Could use a place to stay. Could use a warm, safe spot for Renegade, too. Been riding hard, you know?” He spoke with a soft drawl. “Yep, could use a good spot.”

“Sam is going to let me out of here tomorrow. And I know that Maria will have a fire blazing and dinner ready. Better be there on time. Boy, that woman has a fiery temper if I’m not there in time for meals,” Murdoch chuckled.

“She a good cook?”

“The best.”

“Think she’ll be pretty mad if I tag alone?”

Murdoch placed a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Son, Maria was there when you came into this world,” he said, seeing the surprise leap into Johnny’s eyes. “You were her little nino, she adored you. She was broken hearted when you were taken away, and I know that all will be forgiven when you come walking through the door with me.”

“One hell of a surprise, huh?” Johnny scoffed, stunned that there was another person who had not only known him when younger, but had cared. The feeling was strange, but definitely one he could get used to, if he allowed himself the luxury. Trust was hard to come by, and Johnny was hesitant.

“Only the best son. So what do you say, come home to a warm bed and good meals? At the very least, to save me from Maria’s wrath?” Murdoch said, laughing lightly.

Time seemed to stop. Johnny rose and walked to the door, placing his hand on the knob. Murdoch’s hopes were dashed the instant his son’s fingers tightened on the knob, witnessing the inner demons Johnny fought against. Just as quickly, Johnny turned back, his mind made up.

“Sure old man, why not? Like I said, someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Astounded, a joy equaling the birth of his squalling, dark haired boy, took his breath away. Murdoch sat up slowly, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. His face split by a smile, he reached out for Johnny but before contact could be made, a knock sounded on the door.

Sam stuck his head inside. “Gentlemen, there’s someone to see you.”

Murdoch stood on wobbly legs and Johnny faded into the background, gun drawn. A short, pointy faced man with a tall top hat and expensive suit strode into the room. “Are you Murdoch Lancer?”

“And what if he is?” Johnny answered with a sneer.

“I’m a Pinkerton Agent. We find people.”

“Sorry, but he hasn’t lost anyone else lately.” Johnny snorted and Murdoch rolled his eyes.

“May I ask what this is about?” Murdoch was quick to intervene before the man left or Johnny shot him.

“Your son wants to see you.” Seeing that he had caught their interest, the agent continued. “I have a message from Boston. A Mr. Scott Garrett Lancer is requesting permission to visit. I will deliver your answer personally. If the answer is favorable, then Mr. Garrett expressed that you shall see him in three months’ time.” An envelope containing the missive was handed over. “I shall be waiting at the hotel. Good night, gentlemen.”

Johnny’s mouth fell and he stood staring at his father. “Holy shit.”

“Yes,” Murdoch answered, pondering the changes coming into his life. “Quite.”

.

Continued in Lancer, The Return —->

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3 thoughts on “The Lone Cowboy by Mary M

  1. This story is filled with so much love and emotion, and so well written. Thank you for making your stories available to us.

    Like

  2. This was absolutely awesome. I loved this. I love well crafted aus and younger Johnny. You did both masterfully. thank you. Loved this. On to part 2.

    Like

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