Cold Shoulders, Hard Choices
by  VNapier



SERIES: Second story in the MOMMY DEAREST trilogy


FEEDBACK: Always. E-mail me at KIANA1@NETACS.NET

DISCLAIMERS: Standard disclaimers. Lancer and the characters are not mine, but the story is.

SUMMARY: Scott and Catherine continue to get acquainted, and Harlan arrives from Boston. After the dust settles, Murdoch, Scott and Catherine head for Lancer, where they arrive just in time for the dust to start flying again. 



Although Murdoch's stomach was making unhappy, demanding noises, it was hardly the thought of the upcoming breakfast that had his face softened with an unusually warm smile of contentment. No, it was the vision of his son pulling out a chair for his mother that was the source of his delight. Such a simple task, one most fathers would take for granted, were they to even notice. For himself, it was a sight he would gladly watch over and over again. This was not even a dream come true; this miracle was something that even his most wistful of dreams had dared not create.

The first meeting of mother and son had been a strain on both mind and heart, but this morning was the dawning of a new day. Words could never express how thankful to God he was that things were progressing so smoothly between Catherine and Scott. Both mother and son had spent so many years wanting nothing more than to be with each other; now that they were together, even the bitter reasons for their separation could not undermine their love. It would take a while for their natural parent/child love to grow into the adult love they could now share as friends, but they were off to a good start.

Glancing up he saw Scott was looking rather amused in his direction. "What are you grinning about?" he asked with a smile.

"You two." Scott's grin widened as he unfolded his napkin and settled it in his lap. "All these 'darling' and 'dear's make you sound like a pair of love-sick newlyweds."

Scott's teasing gaze shifted to his mother, where his grin instantly faded. Alarmed, Murdoch's attention immediately turned to the woman between them. Catherine had turned a ghostly pale and was looking towards the restaurant entrance. Her expression spoke of a profound sense of hurt and confusion, but when Murdoch looked in the direction of her stare, he saw nothing.


Catherine did not respond to Scott's gentle inquiry, and Murdoch called to her, deeply concerned. "Catherine?"

She looked over at him, and for a moment he knew she had no clue where she was. The moment faded quickly, and she smiled, but her eyes remained sad with worry. "I'm sorry, Murdoch. I saw..." she looked back toward the entrance, her thought left unfinished.

"Saw what, Mother?"

"A lost little boy," she whispered as if she was speaking to herself. Her head jerked a little, and she looked over at Scott. "I'm sorry, I thought I saw...I don't know...maybe..." She took a deep breath and gave him a weak smile. "It must have been my mind playing tricks on me."

"What do you think you saw?" Scott pressed, both his voice and his expression full of concern. "What did you mean by 'a lost little boy'?"

Before she could answer, a waiter appeared out of nowhere. "Good morning, madam, gentlemen. Are you ready to order?"

Seizing the opportunity to allow Catherine a few moments to gather her thoughts, Murdoch nodded. Relying on his memories of their time together at the mission in Mexico, he ordered a Spanish omelet for Catherine, who nodded when he looked questioningly for her approval. For himself, he chose the steak and egg house special, which Scott opted for, as well. Juice and coffee rounded out the order.

The waiter departed, and after a few moments of silence Scott reached over and took Catherine's hand. "Mother?"

The concern in Scott's voice mirrored his own, but Murdoch said nothing, willing to let his son take the lead for the moment. Catherine responded with a forced smile, and placed her other hand on top of the Scott's.

"I'm okay, Scott. Really." She looked over at Murdoch, and smiled. "Both of you, I'm fine."

Not the least bit convinced by her claims, Murdoch pressed on. "What did you see, Catherine?"

After exchanging a stubborn stare, it was Catherine who relented. "There was a young man standing in the doorway. He looked...he looked lost and alone and," she choked a little, but managed to go on. "His expression was...for a second it was like I was looking into the face of another child being abandoned at the mission. They always looked the same - confused, betrayed, wounded. Then..." She paled even more.


"He looked right at me, Murdoch. It was like..."

After another short silence, Scott prompted, "Like what, Mother?"

"For that one moment, it felt like I was the cause of his pain. That whatever hurts he was enduring were somehow my fault. I blinked, and he was gone." She shook her head and took a deep breath. "I'm not even sure there was anyone there. Maybe it was just leftover anxieties playing tricks with my mind."

A solemn stillness enveloped them in a tension that was both eased and enhanced when Scott began speaking. "Mother, I can't promise you that the there will not be times when my understanding isn't what it should be, and I'm not saying that those time won't be difficult for both of us," Scott paused, swallowing hard before he added, "But I can promise you that I will not change my mind about wanting you in my life."

Catherine nodded, but her expression was that of regret. "Are you sure, Scott?"

"If you had known I was alive," Scott glanced briefly at Murdoch before returning to his mother. "If you had known Murdoch was alive, would you have willingly stayed away from us all those years?"


There was no hesitation in her response, only a steadfast conviction that brought a renewed smile to Scott's face. "As long as I know you always wanted me, I'll be able to work through the rest. Am I still confused? Yes, there are a lot of questions that I need to have answered. I am not, however, feeling betrayed or abandoned."

"Thank you," Catherine whispered as she blinked back her tears.

Their waiter's streak of impeccable timing continued. He arrived with their orders, which allowed them all time to compose themselves from what was sure to be the beginning of a very long string of emotional moments. "Would you care for some pepper sauce?"


The waiter had been looking at Murdoch, and was surprised when Catherine was the one to answer. Murdoch laughed and nodded. "Her palate can probably tolerate it better than mine." Prompted by the waiter's confused look, he added, "She has recently returned from an extended stay in Mexico."

The waiter nodded his understanding and gave Catherine a sly grin. "Our chef returned only yesterday from a trip to New York City. He brought samples of a new pepper sauce that he swears is the best he has ever tasted. Very hot, but very tasty."

"New York City?" Catherine appeared amused by the very idea.

The waiter blushed slightly. "The sauce is actually made in Texas, or maybe it is Louisiana. I'm not sure which one. I will bring you a bottle."

"Thank you."

Sugar and cream were added to coffee, toast and biscuits were buttered. Just as they all got settled, the waiter returned and presented a small bottle to Catherine. "The chef would be most interested in your opinion, madam. He warns that you use it sparingly, as it is extremely hot."

"I'll be careful, I promise." The waiter moved away, and Catherine removed the stopper and poured a generous sprinkling onto her omelet, before passing it over to Murdoch.

Accepting the bottle, Murdoch held it up and read the label. "Tabasco sauce. It's made on Avery Island in Louisiana. I think Joe Barker and I took a fishing trip around there when I was down in Texas. The name sounds very familiar." Glancing over at Catherine, he took the look of approval on her face as endorsement enough, and decided to give the new sauce a try.

"This is really good," she remarked after swallowing the first bite. "Scott, you should try some on your eggs."

Holding up both hands, Scott shook his head. "No, thank you. I prefer my food *not* set my mouth on fire."

"It's hot," Murdoch gasped as he grabbed at his glass of water. He had often tasted the hot pepper sauces Maria and some of the vaquero's wives had made, but had not been prepared for a commercial product to be so potent. "It is also very good," he added after drinking nearly half the glass water.

"I can tell," was Scott's wry reply, and then he laughed. "Maybe you should take a bottle back to the ranch, for Johnny. It might help get you back on his good side."

Although there was no malice in Scott's tone, Murdoch knew his son was using the opportunity to remind him that he fully expected his father to make amends with Johnny as soon as they returned home. Although slightly annoyed by the innuendo, he held his tongue.

Catherine, in the meantime, quickly seized the opportunity Scott had presented. "Tell me about your brother, Scott. I'd really like to know something about him before we get to Lancer."

From across the table, Murdoch saw Scott tense up. "It's okay, son. Your mother knows about Johnny...and Maria." Scott looked him dead in the eye, his silence asking the more pertinent question. "She knows about Johnny's past, too. There's nothing you need to worry about saying."

"Scott, the last thing I would ever do is pass judgment on your brother," Catherine added. Scott visibly relaxed, and so did she. "What Johnny may or may not have done before he came back to Lancer isn't important. I would like to know what he is like now. From what your father has told me, you and Johnny are very close."

Her assertion of unconditional acceptance brought a grateful smile to Scott's face. "What is Johnny like? That is not an easy question to answer, Mother. There is just so much to say, I hardly know where to begin. Johnny is, quite frankly, the most remarkable person I've ever met. He had very little formal education, yet he is as sharp as anyone I knew back in Boston. He has the ability to see the good in just about anyone or anything, yet he's not naive, by any means. He can be hard as nails on the outside - it was a matter of survival - but underneath it all he is so softhearted that sometimes it is hard to believe how easily he can be hurt."

Murdoch felt Scott's eyes on him, but did not meet his son's gaze. Recalling the hurled accusations of the previous evening, he realized Scott's last comment was for his benefit as much, if not more, than his mother's. It also reminded him of a very important appointment he needed to attend to as soon as possible, which made him wonder how he could explain an abrupt departure to Scott and Catherine. However, this was something he felt he had to do alone.

There was no need to upset anyone at this point; not before talking to Jarrod Barkley and finding out exactly how upset any of them needed to be, if at all. His hope was that Jarrod was in his San Francisco office this week, and not back at his family's ranch in Stockton. While there were plenty of attorneys from whom he could seek counsel, the nature of this particular issue made Jarrod Barkley the only real choice. His family had recently been faced with some of the same issues, in a round about way, and would be more willing to put the personal time into such a sensitive case.

Maybe he could use the suggestion of giving Catherine and Scott some private time together as his excuse for leaving long enough to make a quick trip to Jarrod's office? He did want Catherine and Scott on the firmest footing possible by the time Harlan arrived, which he expected to be the next day or the day after. While he never enjoyed being around Catherine's father, this upcoming confrontation promised to be uglier than any other.

Having decided on a course of action, his thoughts returned to the present, where Catherine was saying, "I'm so sorry that you and Johnny were kept apart for so long, but now that you're together, it's wonderful that you get along so well."

"It's not just that we get along, we respect and trust each other - unequivocally. There is nothing I wouldn't do for Johnny, and I know there is nothing he wouldn't do for me. For Johnny, loyalty is everything."

"He sounds like a very fascinating young man. I'm really looking forward to meeting him." Although her words said one thing, her tone rang with an easily discernible uncertainty.

Scott answered with a smile sympathetic to her fears. "Don't worry, Mother. Johnny will adore you. It would be enough for him just to know that I'm happy, but he'll be overjoyed to know there will be another vote in his favor on how spicy our meals should be prepared. When it comes to food, any ally is welcome at Johnny's side."

Although Murdoch chuckled along with them, inwardly he was less than amused. Scott's revelation that Johnny had been upset by his messages - something which he still did not fully comprehend - combined with his own concerns over the status of his marriage to Maria, made him even more worried about what Johnny's reaction to Catherine would be. While he did not doubt the depth and strength of his sons' love for each other, he couldn't help but worry that this issue would not go over as smoothly as Scott believed. 

*** *** *** ***

Despite the total lack of creature comforts, Johnny was actually quite thankful that he had been able to catch another freight train headed east. He had no use for annoying passengers or busybody porters. He just wanted to be alone. He had to have some time to mentally prepare himself for the struggles to come.

This train ride had cost him a whopping fifty dollars, but even the thought of rubbing Murdoch's frugal nose in that extravagance brought him no comfort. For the duration of the trip he felt trapped and restless. It was only when he reached Cross Creek and collected Barranca from the livery stable that he found any sense of peace.

Riding fast and free, the wind blowing in his hair and the mighty palomino surging beneath his saddle, was the only solace he allowed himself, but it was only a fleeting reprieve. Nothing could assuage his feelings of betrayal. With every mile crossed, he vigilantly clung to his anger, keeping it in the forefront of his mind, stoking the embers with fresh images of those he once trusted whenever he felt his resolve begin to waver.

Anger was all he had left. His anger and his pain, but he would not allow them to see his pain. Falling back on old habits he had hoped would never be needed again, he buried the hurt deep inside himself, locking it away in a place even he did not go. He promised himself that he would never give them satisfaction of knowing how deeply they had wounded him with their lies.

Mostly, though, he refused to allow their betrayal to destroy him. While he might have to rely on the instincts of Johnny Madrid to weather this storm, he was not about to let anyone push him back into that life. If only he could get himself past the deepest of those hurts; for that, Johnny Madrid would be of no help.

His father's actions he could understand. It wasn't like Murdoch had ever made him feel like he belonged at Lancer, more like he was tolerated because there was no choice. Everything was a struggle with that old man, even the most minor of infractions became major issues, to be hashed and rehashed as the mood struck, with each ending always being the same - he could use what ever name he liked, but he would never be a proper son.

No, what hurt Johnny the most, what tore his at his insides and made him feel as if he were at the butt end of the entire world, what turned his stomach a twisting inferno of nerves that had twice expelled its contents, was being witness to Scott's participation in this rejection. Murdoch's betrayal he could deal with, but not his brother's.

Not since that first day, down by the lake, when his pride took the worst beating of his life. With his jaw throbbing from his brother's punch and his ears ringing with Teresa's declarations of how and why his mother really left Lancer, Johnny had felt totally unworthy of being a Lancer; now he felt unworthy of being alive.

This was not a new feeling, though. He had been unworthy all his life, always having to fight against those who deemed him as such. He hated the fighting, but he hated what he had been even more. He would fight them as he had all the others, only this time it was for more than just his pride. Unworthy or not, he was a Lancer and at Lancer he would stay.

He scoffed at his own foolishness. He had allowed himself to believe every word Scott spoke of loyalty and brotherhood and acceptance. He had wanted to believe, he had needed to believe, that Scott could actually trust him, could really accept him without condition or reproach. In wishful ignorance he had eaten up Scott's seemingly genuine affection, had basked in Scott's false unconditional faith, had found security in Scott's deceptively protective shadow, even though that shadow was more illusion than substance. He had believed, but he would believe no more. Never again would he make the mistake of trusting anyone but himself.

The sun was just beginning to slip behind the San Benito Mountains when Johnny began the final leg of his return journey. His bitterness mounted as Barranca trotted up the road towards the grand hacienda; a place he had mistakenly allowed himself to think of as his home. He passed under the stone archway for what was to be the second to the last time, and a deep chill swept over him, beginning in his chest and quickly radiating outwards until his fingers and toes ached from the cold.

The last year had weakened him, leaving him unprepared to face the bitter cold of loneliness; the aching chill of rejection that at one time had been the only constant in his life. For a year he had allowed the warmth of a false sense of belonging to overtake the frigid reality, but no more! Cold he might be, but it would be an honest cold.

Bypassing the barn, he pulled Barranca to a halt in front of what he viewed as the enemy's home turf. He would remove all traces of himself from this treacherous house, but it would be over his cold dead body that he would be taken off this land. After dismounting, he removed his saddlebags and tossed them over his shoulder. Entering through the front door, he headed straight for the stairs. He was halfway up the flight when Teresa appeared at the bottom.

"Johnny, where have you been?" she called up to him.

Although she sounded concerned, sounded like she really cared, Johnny refused to allow any feeling beyond his own anger. "Gone," he snapped without turning around. Instead he stuck to his plan. He would not let her bogus air of concern to derail him. Upon entering the room he had stupidly called his for over a year, he headed straight for the dresser and began stuffing the rest of his clothes into his saddlebags. A gasp resounded from behind him, but he finished his task without turning around.

"Johnny, why are you packing your things? Where are you going?" Teresa pressed, her voice high-pitched with fright. "Please, Johnny, you're scaring me?"

Those three little words instantly sparked the life back into his waning fury. Turning on his heels, he faced the young woman he had once been foolish enough to look on as his sister. "Then I guess it's a good thing I'm leavin'," he growled. Throwing his saddlebags over his shoulder, he headed for the door, stopping only when she reached out and grabbed his arm. "Now, you won't have to be scared of nothing no more."

Teary confusion filled the soft brown eyes staring up at him in horror. For a moment his resolve wavered, but only for a moment. In the reflection of the watery depths, he saw himself, he saw a family he had tried to claim as his own, and a family that had pushed him aside like yesterday's trash. His anger flared again and he pushed his way past her.

"Johnny!" Teresa cried out from behind him, but he kept walking. He didn't stop until a pair of trembling hands clawed at his arm. "Johnny, what happened? Why won't you talk to me?"

Unable to trust himself not to give in, Johnny refused to turn around. He refused to look at her, even when she pushed her way in front of him. Instead, he kept his eyes focused on the front door, his avenue to safety just a few feet away. Before he could make his escape, though, there was something he had to do; something that dug down in his already wounded spirit, making his unbearable hurts even more intense.

Steeling himself, he spoke the words that had to be said. "You want me to talk, then listen up, 'cause I ain't gonna be repeating myself. There ain't nothing I can do to stop that old man from cutting me out of this family, but he ain't gonna push me off Lancer. I own part of this ranch, and I'm stayin'. I'll be calling that north line shack home from now on, it's the furthest one away from *this place*," Johnny spat out the last two words with pure venom. "You can tell my *partners*," another word issued with contempt, "that Lancer's gonna be getting in the horse business, whether they damn well like it or not."

Steeling himself on the foundation of his revitalized fury, he finally let himself look down at Teresa. He needed to leave knowing he had faced down his enemy. He ignored the shock plastered across Teresa's horror-stricken face. "Be sure to tell the old man I'm keeping the Lancer name. It's mine, no matter how much he wishes it wasn't."


Ignoring Teresa's outcry, Johnny took the last few steps to the front door, opened it, and walked away from his pain. 

*** *** *** *** 

After making a quick trip to the water closet, Scott reentered the suite's common area and was surprised to see his mother standing alone by the window. During breakfast, and even the short walks to and from the hotel restaurant, he would have been hard pressed not to notice the way Murdoch seemed to be extremely proprietary in his closeness to her. He couldn't imagine why that would have changed now that they had returned to the privacy of their suite.

"Where's Murdoch?" he asked casually as he joined her.

"He left a few minutes ago," she replied pleasantly. "He said that he had some business to discuss with one of the local attorneys." She looked at him in loving affection, but with a definite air of curiosity. "I assumed he had already mentioned his plans to you."

Scott knew nothing about any legal issues Murdoch would be pursuing. However, he could easily see this as his father's way of excusing himself so he and his mother could have some time alone together; as usual, it would have been too much trouble for him to just come out and say what he had on his mind. However, Scott was a little curious as to why his mother would assume he knew about this mysterious legal matter. "Why would you think he had discussed his plans with me?"

"Your father said it had something to do with what you two spoke about last night, when I was in my bedroom getting the liniment for his back."

That made no sense at all. Thinking hard, he tried to recall the exact words of that extremely brief exchange. His mother had only been out of the room for a short time, just long enough for him to decline chaperone duty for the therapeutic massage. That was basically it, so what could he possibly have said... Suddenly, like a ten ton load of cow manure, the realization came crashing down around him, leaving him stunned in the putrescence of its damnable reality.

With his emotions reeling, he moved slowly over to the divan and sank down onto its cushioned surface. No, his mind shouted in agony. He would not be the cause of this. He would not be the one to rip away the one source of dignity Johnny had managed to cling to through his otherwise miserable life.


Looking up he saw his mother standing next to him. Her expression spoke clearly of her concern, but his befuddled mind could think of only one thing - Johnny. "He's my brother..."

Confusion gave way to total bewilderment. "I don't understand, Scott."

Despite her compassionate tone, Scott shot to his feet and glared down at her, unwilling to accept her uninformed lack of comprehension. "No, you don't understand!" he yelled, his frustration and fear overruling all sense of propriety. "You don't understand what it's like to live with the knowledge that I always had everything, while my little brother had to struggle just to survive on next to nothing. You know full well how I grew up - the same way you did. No need went unfulfilled and nearly every want was satisfied. While I was being pampered and catered to, there were times when Johnny went to bed hungry."

His anger faded as quickly as it flared, and he sank back down onto the divan. His devastation choking the life out of the joy he had experienced only a few hours ago. "The only want I never had fulfilled was you. I wanted my mother so badly I could taste it. I have you now, but it's my brother who is going to pay the price for my happiness. It's not right!"

With his thoughts firmly focused on how he could have been so stupidly blind, Scott barely noticed when she sat down next to him, just as the warm hand on his arm hardly registered with his frustrated brain. "I told Murdoch that you didn't need a chaperone because you two were married," he explained, absentmindedly returning to the original conversation.

Her brows crinkled as she looked at him. "But we aren't, Scott. Not anymore."

Her words, meant to placate, only stirred Scott's anger. "And just how do you figure that, Mother?" he snapped. "Don't tell me you divorced Murdoch while you were living in Mexico?"

"Of course, I didn't. I thought he was dead."

"Well, since both of you are very much alive and no divorce proceedings ever took place, exactly what is it that makes you think your marriage is no longer valid?" he demanded.

"I would say the fact that your father remarr..."

Scott watched as she turned several shades of pale. Obviously she had figured it out, too, but he felt the need to point it out to her, just to make it perfectly clear how brutally ugly this situation had become. He needed someone else to feel his pain. "If you and Murdoch are still married and have always been married, then Murdoch's marriage to Johnny's mother could not have been legal. In the eyes of the law, and everyone else, Johnny will be considered illegitimate."

"I never considered..." Catherine began, only to stop mid sentence. She looked over at him, her expression mirroring the horrible realization of his own devastation. "I'm so sorry, Scott. From the moment I saw that cow, from the moment I realized that you and your father might still be alive, I never once believed that I could still be married to Murdoch after all these years. Then, when he told me about his second marriage...I just...I..."

Scott reached over and took her hand, squeezing it tightly, even as he felt her squeezing his back. It was a feeling that sent waves of conflicting emotions coursing through him. How could something that felt so right, that made him so explicitly happy, also be the source of so much potential pain and despair?

"It's not your fault, Mother," he said softly, almost as much for his benefit as for hers. "You couldn't have known, and Johnny wouldn't blame you for seeking out the truth. He would never expect you to stay away from me just to protect him." A choke caught in Scott's throat. "He would want me to be happy, no matter how much it hurt him." Scott's emotions turned cold at the fresh reminder of his brother's ever-annoying habit of self-degradation. "In his mind his feelings never matter," he said bitterly.

"They do to us," she quickly countered his bitterness with a confident assertion. A second later a burst of hope flittered over her face. "Scott, if your father felt the need to seek out an attorney, maybe there's a chance this situation isn't as bleak as it seems right now."

Although Scott wanted more than anything to buy into her optimistic observation, something in his gut told him it would just make the hurt all that much harder to bear when the truth turned out to be as bad, or even worse, than he was already imagining. "Johnny's been through so much, Mother. He's fought for everything he's ever had, and for things no one should ever have to fight for-" A loud knock at the door resounded through the room.

With a desperate sigh, he stared at the door. "Who could that be?"

Stiffly, Scott stood and traversed the short distance to the door. His emotions were still raw and his mind in turmoil; the last thing he wanted was to have to deal with anyone or anything else. Hopefully it was just the bellboy, returning something else one or the other of his parents had dropped. This was not to be the case, though, as he discovered when he opened the door and was jolted by yet another shock.


Reacting on pure instinct, Scott immediately slammed the door in his grandfather's face. Whirling around to face his mother, he saw she was already on her feet, her hand over her mouth and her eyes wide with horror.

"Father! He can't find out like this," she gasped. "The shock would kill him."

Another series of loud knocks shook the door. "Scotty!" his grandfather's voice bellowed from behind the solid barrier.

"In the bedroom!" Scott hissed. In a flash, she was moving, her skirt billowing behind, as she rushed for the other side of the room.

"Scotty, open this door immediately!" Another muffled shout came from the hallway.

As soon as the bedroom door closed behind her, Scott took a deep breath, steeling himself for the wrath that was to come. With a great deal of trepidation he opened the main door; as expected, his grandfather lit into him immediately.

"Scott Garrett Lancer, what is the meaning of this barbaric behavior?!" Stepping into the room, Harlan glared disapprovingly at him. "Close the door. I believe we have already provided the other hotel guests with a more than adequate demonstration of ill-mannered behavior."

With the door closed and the danger of any further public explosions past, Scott quickly gathered his thoughts. "Grandfather, what are you doing here?"

"What am I doing here?" Harlan bellowed, then continued with an indignant air. "That father of yours sent me a telegram. He practically demanded that I drop what I was doing and come out here immediately."

It was hard for Scott to decide which he was most: amused or shocked. "And you did as Murdoch asked?" Even to his own ears his question sounded incredulous.

"Summoned, you mean!" Harlan huffed indignantly. "Like I was some lackey to come running at his every whim. Who does he think he is?" Slipping off his overcoat, he draped it over the back of the divan, and then laid his hat on the end table. "And what that uncivilized heathen has done to you is deplorable. The young man I raised had impeccable manners." Harlan's eyes grew wide. "I cannot believe you actually shut the door in my face! You never would have dared behave so crudely back in Boston."

Revealing the real reason for his rude behavior would defeat the purpose of having behaved that way in the first place, so Scott settled for trying to shift the subject away from that unfortunate, but necessary, action. Not to mention the fact that he was more than just a little wary about what the contents of that telegram Murdoch had sent to his grandfather might be. He could only hope that it wasn't nearly as ill conceived as the message Johnny had received. "What exactly did Murdoch's telegram say, Grandfather?"

Looking annoyed, but not longer ready to spit pen nibs, Harlan sat down on the divan. "He stated that he had some vital information concerning your mother, and that it was of the utmost importance that I meet him here immediately." Looking around the room, Harlan snorted. "I travel all this way and he doesn't even have the common courtesy to be present. The man is completely uncivilized! What my precious Catherine ever saw in that oaf is beyond me."

All things considered, Scott had to give Murdoch credit for being tactful. While this relieved him in some ways, it infuriated him in others. Murdoch absolutely despised Harlan Garrett, yet he somehow managed to be more sensitive to the older man's feelings than he had been towards Johnny's. In this matter, he had to agree with his grandfather - Murdoch was an oaf.

Mending the rift between his father and brother would have to wait, though. Right now he had to find a way to tell his grandfather that the daughter he had thought dead for a quarter of a century was not only alive, but was also waiting for them in the other room. He could now more fully appreciate the nervousness Murdoch must have felt when it had been time to tell him about his mother.

"Grandfather, we need to talk." This was the man who had raised him, the man who had been his father for most of his life, and Scott addressed him with respect and affection. His tone had the desired effect, and Scott almost sighed audibly when his grandfather's expression softened and his tense posture visibly relaxed.

"What is it, Scotty?"

Sitting down at the other end of the divan, Scott searched for just the words. "Grandfather, Murdoch sent for you because we..." he used the word 'we' to keep himself in the picture, and his grandfather's obsessive hatred for Murdoch out of it. "We've found out something about my mother that..." Once again the sheer magnitude of it all threatened to overwhelm him. "It's something you are going find extremely shocking, but in a very good way."

"Scotty, you know I loved your mother with all my heart. She was the light of my life, and in her absence, you became that light."

As always, Harlan Garrett was most humble when he was reflecting on his lost child. Scott could remember the many occasions in which he had been totally captivated by his grandfather's stories of how his daughter had been the center of his world. Scott was a close second, and he knew it, but it never bothered him to know that his mother would always occupy the true center of his grandfather's heart. In fact, he felt it imbued the usually cold man with a sense of warmth that few people were allowed to see.

"Grandfather, did I ever tell you that when I was growing up I would pray every night that there had been some mistake, that my mother was not dead and that one day she would find her way back to me." The hard old man, the Harlan Garret that others saw, simply vanished into thin air. It was the compassionate grandfather who kept Scott safe and tried to make his life happy in every way that was now sitting next to him.

"Scotty, I would have given anything for that prayer to come true. For many years that was my wish, too. I wanted my daughter back more than anything."

This was it. The moment of truth, the moment of revelation was only a few words away. Scott's heart was pounding so hard in his chest it almost hurt, and the lump in his throat was making it impossible to breathe. "Grandfather, what if-" A rattle at the door made him stop. Before he could even think, much less react, the main door opened and Murdoch walked in.

"Harlan!" Murdoch's expression registered his total shock. "What are you doing here?"

In an instant, the caring concerned man who was Scott's true grandfather disappeared, and the cold, bitter man who despised Murdoch Lancer with a passion returned. "Murdoch, have you become so senile that you don't even remember sending for me?" Harlan snapped indignantly.

Across the room, Murdoch's face turned red. "That wasn't what I meant, Harlan," he replied with more civility than his expression would have suggested could be possible. "It's only been four days since I sent that telegram. I just wasn't expecting you for a couple of days."

"Yes, well, I was already in Chicago on business. My personal aide forwarded your message to me there." The bitter memories of past transgressions returned with a vengeance. "I do hope you have a very good reason for dragging me out here. I was in the middle of a very lucrative business negotiation," the old man's eyes narrowed, "with someone who has the common decency to be on time for meetings he has arranged."

Sensing the impending blowup, Scott shot to his feet and rushed over to his father. "Grandfather, you did arrive earlier than could have been expected," he interceded with a lame placation.

As he approached his father, he caught Murdoch's curious glance, and replied with his eyes, letting his gaze briefly shift to the closed door of his mother's bedroom. Thankfully his father wasn't nearly as inept as his grandfather would like to believe, and a visible look of relief washed over his father's tight features.

"Have you told him?" Murdoch whispered.

Rolling his eyes, Scott fought back his frustration, and somehow managed to keep his reply in a hushed tone. "Does he look like a man who has just been told his deceased daughter is still alive?"

Murdoch's gaze briefly flickered over to the man from Boston. "I'm not sure," he replied sarcastically, then immediately became contrite. "I'm sorry, son. That was totally uncalled for."

"Yes, it was," Scott whispered loudly. "And your timing couldn't have been worse, either."

Murdoch paled. "You mean?"

"Another few seconds and he would have known."

Another wave of remorse passed over Murdoch's face. "I'm sorry, son. My meeting..." Murdoch stopped abruptly, as if he had started to reveal more than he intended.

"I know about your meeting with the lawyer, and why you wanted to talk to him," Scott said coldly. "We *will* be discussing that later, but right now I have to find some way to tell my grandfather about my mother, and in a way that will not give him a heart attack."


Scott interrupted with a firmly whispered objection. "No, Murdoch, I said *I* and I meant *I*. You can go in there and keep her company, but I will be the one to tell my grandfather."

Scott was totally serious and would not compromise on his position. For a brief moment it looked as if his father would object, but to his relief, Murdoch nodded his agreement. Without a word to either Scott or Harlan, Murdoch slipped across the room and disappeared into Catherine's bedroom. Scott briefly wished his parents could have found a less intimate location to wait, but the die was cast and there was no changing it. He knew he would have to deal with that part of his grandfather's indignation later.

Returning to the divan, Scott couldn't help but notice the hateful scowl on his grandfather's face. The hushed conversation across the room followed by Murdoch's 'rude' departure would have the man seething for quite some time. Why couldn't Murdoch's meeting with that attorney have lasted a few more minutes? The length bothered Scott for many reasons, but the most pressing one was in front of him, and on the verge of exploding.

"I am waiting for an explanation," Harlan stated bluntly.

Retaking his seat, Scott wiped his hand over his face. He had to find a way to get his 'real' grandfather back out in the open, but with Murdoch so close, he did not see that as being easily accomplished. He could no longer keep count of the number of times he had wished that dealing with his family did not carry the feel of a field exercise in combat tactics and battlefield diplomacy.

"Scott, I'm still waiting."

His grandfather's impatient tone voice pulled Scott back from his thoughts with the realization that there really was going to be no easy way to do this. "Grandfather..." He started to say 'If there was one wish you could have come true,' repeating his father's words of the day before, but decided against doing so at the last minute. His grandfather was already agitated; playing guessing games would not help matters.

"Grandfather," he began again, only to find himself drawing a blank.

"Scotty, I've never known you to have trouble voicing your thoughts." Although still tense, there was a definite lessening of hostility in the old man's tone. "Whatever your father has done, I'm sure we can work through it."

Scott sighed in frustration. "Grandfather, this isn't about Murdoch."

"If that's the case, then why was he the one who sent me the telegram?"

Scott sighed softly. This was not going well at all. If only Murdoch had stayed away a little longer, but he hadn't, so Scott was just going to have to find a way around his grandfather's stubborn bitterness. "Grandfather, Murdoch sent the telegram because he found some new information that raises some, well, questions about the circumstances surrounding my mother's death, something that-"

In an instant Harlan was on his feet, his face bright red with indignation. "I cannot believe you would take that man's word over mine! I raised you, Scotty! I loved you when your blessed father was too busy to be bothered with his own child! If it wasn't for that man's selfishness and foolhardy dreams, your mother would be alive today!"

Before Scott could formulate a reply, he heard the door handle to the bedroom jiggle, a creak as it opened halfway, then flinched when it was slammed shut. The only other sound was that of Murdoch's commanding voice issuing a one word order - NO!

His grandfather was staring at the door, a mixture of perplexity and indignation on his face. The situation was spiraling out of control, and if Scott didn't do something soon, disaster would be the end result.

"Who else is in there?" Harlan demanded.

Jumping to his feet, Scott placed himself between his grandfather and the open path to the bedroom door, just in case the older man had thoughts of answering his own question with by taking a peek for himself. Then he took his grandfather by the arm and tried to guide him back into his seat.

"Grandfather, please sit down," Scott pleaded. When Harlan made no move to comply, Scott lowered himself to begging; something he hoped would shock his grandfather back to his senses. "Please, Grandfather. Do this for me. Please."

Shock didn't begin to describe the expression that overtook the old man's face. The resistance faded, and Scott was able to get them both settled back down on the divan, at which point his grandfather looked over at him with a deeply concerned frown on his face.

"Scotty, you've never begged me for anything in your life."

"I've never needed to," Scott answered with a solemn honesty that tore at his heart. "But now I need you to listen to me. I need you to forget all the reasons you hate my father. I need you to find the love you have for my mother and hold on to it with all your might. What I have to say is going to be very shocking, and I don't want to lose you. Not now."

There hadn't been many times in his adult life that Scott could remember his grandfather being demonstrative with his displays of affection, but when the old man's arm slipped around his shoulder, he knew he had finally reached the part of his grandfather that would be able to accept the truth, hopefully without having a heart attack or stroke.

"Talk to me, Scotty."

"Mu..." Scott paused as he decided using his father's name could be counterproductive. "There are some things that have come to light that indicate there was a...a problem in Carterville, when I was born. That you might not have been told correctly about what happened when my mother died." Despite his own contradictory knowledge, even putting voice to those words was stressful. Next to him, his grandfather's shoulders sank. His face was more haggard than Scott could ever remember.

When he began speaking, he sounded tired and defeated, like he was drowning in a pool of very old sorrow. "I wasn't told about your mother's death, Scotty. She was in my arms when it happened. I was holding my little girl, willing her to live with all I had in me, but...but it just wasn't enough. I could hold on to her body, but I could not hold on to her life." Harlan choked on his words. "I was right there with her when that life slipped away. I can still remember that moment like it was yesterday. As she took her final breath...she was looking up at me, her eyes full of tears. She whispered your name, and then...and then she was gone."

The arm around Scott's shoulder tightened and he could feel his grandfather's agony as he never had before. While his grandfather had told him many times of the circumstances of his mother's death, he had never gone into this much detail; he had never bared his own grief so openly.

Removing his handkerchief from his breast pocket, Harlan wiped at his eyes and coughed lightly. When he continued, his voice still shaky, but not nearly as emotional as it had been only moments before. "My precious daughter left this world, but she did not leave me alone. She left me the most priceless gift imaginable - you, Scotty. I cherished you every minute of every day, loving you not only for myself, but for her, as well. It was my promise to her; a promise I made in those last few seconds of her life. I loved her so very much."

To Scott it felt like he was drifting in a dream. He couldn't see; he had no concept of his surroundings, no sense of being anywhere. There was only his grandfather's voice and his own heartfelt pain. An image began to take shape in his mind. Slowly it's hazy outline became the clear picture of his mother's terrified expression when her father had appeared unexpectedly at the door, the fear of setting the stage for a reaction so shocking that it could possibly take him away from her again.

"She loves you, too," Scott whispered with absolute certainty.

"Yes, Scotty, I know she did. She was the best daughter-"

"No, Grandfather, not past tense; she loves you, here, now." Suddenly realizing that he had spoken without thinking, Scott hurried to explain. "If you'll listen for a minute longer, I can tell you something that will help you understand."

Although Harlan looked skeptical, he nodded. "I'm listening, Scotty."

"When I was in the war, before I was captured, I remember our unit stopping to give assistance to a small group of wounded soldiers. During a brief battle with a Rebel unit, one of the men had fallen and hit his head. His captain refused to leave his body behind, and they were dragging him along on a makeshift travois. We were just about to lend a hand, when the 'dead' soldier sat up and asked for some water."

Even now he could remember the chill of terror that had coursed through him at that precise moment. It was like finding oneself in the middle of a horror story; only it wasn't just a story. "Needless to say, we were all shocked out of our socks. Afterwards, though, our unit's field medic explained that sometimes a person can appear to be dead, but in fact, they are really in a deep state of unconsciousness. He had even heard that sometimes shovels were put in the coffin with the deceased if the cause of death was unknown, just in case they 'woke' up and needed to dig their way out."

Harlan sighed softly. "Scotty, that's all well and good, but what does that have to do with your mother. I do understand your grief, your desire for things not to be the way they are, but-"

Scott would not be put off so easily. "Don't you understand, Grandfather? Even doctors make mistakes. Sometimes a person can appear dead when they really aren't. That's what happened in Carterville. You just thought my mother died."

Dismayed was the only description for Harlan's bleak expression as he looked sympathetically at his grandson. "Scotty-"

"She's not dead, Grandfather," Scott blurted out before he could stop himself.

Harlan took a deep breath. In that same affectionate, but somewhat patronizing tone, he said sadly, "Scotty, that's just what you want to believe."

"It's not just what I want to believe anymore, Grandfather. It's what is real." All the emotions of the prior evening came crashing back down on Scott's shoulders. "I held her," he choked as he fought back his tears. "Right here in this very room. And she held me back. My mother held me, Grandfather. Don't you understand? *My* *mother* *held* *me*!"

A warm hand grasped Scott's shoulder. "He's telling you the truth, Harlan," Murdoch's voice interceded from above. "Catherine is alive."

Shaking his head, Harlan looked up at Murdoch, for the first time ever without hatred in his eyes. "That can't be," he choked. "I was there. I...she died in my arms...I saw her die..." The old familiar hatred returned with a vengeance. "Murdoch, if this is your idea of a cruel joke-"

"It's not a joke, Father."

All three men turned their heads towards the sound of her voice. The next sound to be heard was the loud gasp of a father going into shock. "Catherine?" Twisting out of his seat, Harlan stood up, his legs visibly shaking as he faced his daughter. His expression was a whirl of emotions, shock, fear, disbelief, and love. "Catherine?" Staggering slightly, Harlan's hand reached out and grasped the back of the divan.

Scott watched with a curious joy as his mother moved to her father, where she slipped her arms around his waist and hugged him tightly, a move his grandfather returned after only a moment of hesitation. "Father," she said softly. "I've waited for this day for so long."

" can't be," he disputed, but did not release his hold of her. " was there. How is this possible?"

"We were hoping that was something you could tell us."

Murdoch's solemnly spoken words instantly filled the room with an ominous tension. Scott felt it even before his grandfather's head jerked around, and his heart skipped a beat, already knowing full well the argument that was about to begin. This was not the way he intended for this to happen.

"How would I know what happened?" Harlan stated with confusion. Then his eyes narrowed as he glared at his old nemesis. "Are you suggesting I had something to do with faking my own daughter's death?" he snarled at Murdoch.

"Father," Catherine chided firmly.

More diplomatically than seemed possible, Murdoch repudiated the angry accusation. "No, Harlan, I'm only suggesting that you were the only one actually present at the time, and the only one who might have any idea of what really happened. Now that you know Catherine did not die, maybe you can remember something that may not have seemed significant at the time, but now would make more sense and would give us some clue as to what really happened. She doesn't remember, and Scott and I both would like to know. As would she."

Scott watched his grandfather carefully for any signs of physical distress. At first he had been irritated at his father for broaching such a sensitive subject so abruptly, but his grandfather's anger towards Murdoch seemed to have pushed aside the enormity of seeing his supposedly dead daughter very much alive. With his fears that the shock would be too much for his grandfather's health all but gone, Scott could breath a little easier; providing this new argument did not escalate into an out and out war. To his relief, and surprise, his grandfather's attention returned to Catherine without any further comment to Murdoch.

"You don't remember anything?" he asked gently, his voice full of pain and compassion as he held both her hands to his chest.

Her face relaxed, too, as the storm seemed to have been averted. "Let's sit down, Father. I have a lot to tell, and then you may be able to fill in some of the holes."

Scott returned her smile when she looked over at him, sharing both her relief and reassurances. For the first time he felt like he truly had an ally in the family wars he had endured alone until now.

He almost laughed aloud as she easily guided his grandfather to the far end of the divan, despite his grandfather's concerted efforts to place himself between her and Murdoch. As it was, all three sat on the divan, with Catherine between the two men who had only three things in common - their love for her, their love for Scott, and their contempt for each other. Pushing his amusement aside, Scott prepared himself for what promised to be a very nerve-wracking conversation.

"For starters, Father, no one believes that you are guilty of anything," she said with more conviction than Murdoch's pursed-lipped scowl indicated he was feeling. "Something happened, but whatever it was, I know you would never do anything to hurt me."

"Of course I would never do anything to hurt you," Harlan reiterated her words. "You, you are my daughter." The old man took a deep breath, still visibly shaken by the reappearance of his deceased daughter. "This is all so sudden, so unnerving. I can't believe you're here, that you're alive. You must know that I would have done anything to save you, to prevent whatever happened from happening. I would never have willing allowed Scotty to be deprived of his mother."

Murdoch's face turned a deep shade of red, but just as he opened his mouth to speak, Catherine's hand moved to his leg; her fingers turned white as they dug into the cloth-covered flesh just above his knee. Nothing was said, and Scott was astonished that his father actually backed down. It was hard to imagine Murdoch choking back the hateful rebuttal of how Scott had been deprived of his one remaining parent, which had no doubt been on the tip of his tongue.

Scott made a mental note to remember to thank his father for his restraint, even though it was something that would not have happened without his mother's interference. Still it was totally unexpected, and was a tremendous relief to his already fraying nerves.

Harlan, having missed the curbed unpleasantness, continued on with his thought. "But where have you been, Catherine? Why didn't you contact me? Surely you knew I would have done anything, paid any price to get you home safely?"

With a gentle pat to his arm, Catherine began her story. "I've spent the most of the years since I supposedly died in Mexico, living at a mission near Lake Chapala."

"Mexico?" Harlan gasped, his face contorted by a bitter frown and his eyes flashing brightly. "How in Heaven's name did you ever end up in such a barbaric place?"

Catherine sighed, and Murdoch took her hand. They exchanged a brief smile, and then she turned back to her father. "I don't remember. Everything from the time you took me away from Morro Coyo, until several years after I was taken to the mission, is still a blank."

Shaking his head, Harlan questioned her further. "You can't remember anything at all?" He seemed astounded by this fact, and even very disturbed.

"Nothing," she confirmed sadly. "All I know is that a very compassionate padre saved my life. I've been living in his mission every since." This time when she looked over at Murdoch, there was a brilliant smile on her face. "I thought you all were dead until a few months ago when I saw the Lancer brand on a cow that had been brought to one of the small villages near the lake. That's when I realized that maybe I had been misled about you..." She paused and her smile faded.

"Catherine?" With his brow furrowed with concern, Murdoch leaned over and kissed her lightly on the temple.

"I'm okay," she said softly, responding to him with a smile, a nod, and a death grip on his hand as she clutched it in hers.

From his seat in the chair across the coffee table, Scott watched his mother and father interacting so affectionately. He realized that the one hope he had held on to for most of his life was true - his parents had loved each other very much. That love was now springing back to life, and he could see the miraculous effect it was having on his normally stoic father.

"What were you told about me?" Harlan huffed somewhat indignantly.

Catherine took a deep breath. Her gaze met Scott's, and she returned his smile of encouragement before once again facing her father. "I was told that I had killed you."

"What!" Harlan gasped, wide-eyed with disbelief. "How could you believe such utter nonsense? What kind of immoral cretins would tell you such an outrageous lie? What kind of mission was this horrid place you were held captive?"

His mother looked up at him again, and Scott could read the apology in her eyes as clearly as if he had been seeing it all his life. He nodded, giving both his support and approval for the omission to come. He couldn't imagine his grandfather's reaction to hearing how she had been treated at the hands of the men from whom she had been rescued, how she had been...he couldn't even bring himself to think the words, much less ask her to say them.

"I wasn't held captive, Father. The mission was a wonderful place. I lived in peace and had a very nice life. It wasn't there that I was mistreated. The padre told me what he had heard when he saved me, which is all I know about what happened before I came to the mission." A sad, apologetic smile was shared between mother and son. "It was my choice to believe the lie for so long. I'm sorry for being such a coward. I believed that if you and Murdoch were alive, you would have come for me."

Harlan responded by wrapping his arms around her and pulling her to him. "You are anything but a coward, my dear. *I* would have come for you if only I had known," the look of disdain aimed at Murdoch as Harlan glared at the man over Catherine's shoulder was clear to all. "My dear child, what you've endured at the hands of those heathens. Well, you're safe now. Once you're safely back in Boston, you'll soon forget all that wretched business."

Having reached the end of his endurance, Murdoch's silence came to an abrupt end. "You're not taking her anywhere, Harlan. Catherine will be returning to Lancer with Scott and me."

Harlan's expression could only be described as mortified. "You will not take her back to that backwoods excuse for civilization, not after all she has endured! Catherine is coming back to Boston, where she should have been all this time. This is your fault, Murdoch Lancer. You brought her out here in the first place. If it weren't for you, she never would have been through such hell at the hands of those heathens. You've stolen enough years from her life-"

Faster than Scott could ever remember seeing Murdoch move, his father was on his feet, glaring down at Harlan with pure contempt in his eyes. In that instant, Scott knew that the explanation was over, and the same old war was about to begin.

"I stole her life?" Murdoch roared. "I wasn't the one too concerned about stealing a child away from his father to make sure the daughter he claims to love so dearly was really dead." Pacing over to the window, Murdoch continued his bitter tirade. "No, you just handled things as you always have, by throwing money at them. By the way, the head stone is very nice," Murdoch's contemptuous gaze turned nearly murderous as he yelled, "too bad it marks an empty grave! You took my son away and left your daughter there for strangers to bury, and you have the nerve to call that love!"

Like two territorial bull moose going at it, Harlan stood and squared off with his long-time adversary. "How dare you question my love for my child; you who didn't even try to see your own child when you knew exactly where he was every moment of all those years!"

"I tried and you damn well know it! I wasn't going to make Scott pay for your stubbornness. You would have torn him apart dragging him through the courts, and all because you supposedly loved him so much!"

Harlan scoffed. "He was five, Murdoch. Where were you before that? For five years I barely heard a word from you, but then I suppose you had more important things on your mind. Does Scotty know that your precious ranch was more important to you than he was? Did you tell him how you replaced him with a second family; that foreigner you married and your second child that you're now trying to pawn off as Scotty's brother!" Harlan ground out that last word as if it were more than he could stomach just saying it.

"Murdoch, Father, that's enough!" Catherine intervened while Harlan took a breath and before Murdoch could begin the next volley. Stepping between them she gave each of them a disapproving glare. "This isn't solving anything. Unless I'm mistaken, everyone here is well aware that both of you behaved atrociously in the past, so there is no point in rehashing it all now."

"Catherine, dear, this is not your concern." Harlan's tone was condescending, at best, which also made it totally insulting.

"Not my concern? This is entirely my concern. In case you two have forgotten, Scott is MY son, too." The anger and frustration rang clearly in her voice as she faced off with both men, and what couldn't be understood from her tone, could not have been missed in the pure outrage of her glare.

Ignoring her indignation, Harlan placated her as if she were a small child. "Of course I haven't forgotten dear. And once you are both safely back in Boston-"

"Neither one of them is going back to Boston with you!" Murdoch reiterated. "When are you going get that through your thick skull? They're staying here, where they belong."

"Yes, Murdoch, you would selfishly keep them out here," Harlan retorted. "Catherine needs time to recover from her horrendous ordeal, and Scotty has been stuck out here all alone in this God forsaken wilderness for too long as it is."

Scott was still basking in the unexpected joy over his mother's claim on him - 'Scott is MY son'. Just four simple little words, but the meaning was everything. The joy was short-lived, though, and now it was time for him to speak up for himself. "Grandfather, I've never been all alone out here. My family is at Lancer-" he protested, only to be interrupted.

"Your family! You couldn't possibly mean a father who could not even be bothered with you until he needed you to risk your life to save his precious ranch. Or are you referring to that filthy half-breed scum you've been browbeaten into calling your brother? It was his kind that kept your mother away from you all these years. That man is not fit-"


The nearby window glass rattled at the force of her blow, and Harlan was sent staggering backwards against the wall, looking more shocked than he had been when Catherine had first presented herself to him. As for his mother, she was visibly trembling, her fists clenched tightly at her side, and her face red with rage.

"Is that what you really think, Father?!" Catherine snarled. "Have really I spent half my life mourning for the loss of a self-righteous bigot?!

Harlan gasped in disbelief. "Catherine, you struck me!"

"And I'll strike you again if you ever dare say anything so despicable and hateful in front of me! Who are you to judge anyone? Who gave you the right to label anyone as less worthy than yourself? And to think that I once wished myself dead in your place!" Without batting an eyelid she raised her arm and pointed towards the door. "Get out!"

With eyes wide with surprise and disbelief, Harlan turned his indignation on his daughter. "Catherine, I'm your father. I can see all that time spent living amongst those Mexican heathens has destroyed your sense of honor and manners. You are not to speak to me in that-"


The second slap was no less forceful than the first. This time however, Harlan managed to keep his footing.

An angry swipe of Catherine's hand pushed away the loose strands of hair that had fallen across her face. "Don't you dare tell me how to behave! You're the one who needs lessons in propriety. All the manners in the world can't take the place of a heart, a soul, a little compassion for those less fortunate than yourself. You make me sick!"

Whirling around, she was at the door before any of the men could react. "If you won't leave, then I will." Yanking the door open, she paused just before exiting. "You make me ashamed to be a Garrett!" The slamming of the door punctuated her departure with a loud bang.

"Catherine!" Murdoch called out after her. "You stay here with your grandfather," he instructed Scott in a near murderous tone. "I'm going after your mother." Waiting for neither agreement nor argument, he grabbed his coat and headed for the door.

Stunned, Scott stood in place, not moving, not blinking, maybe not even breathing. He was too astonished, not only by his mother's unexpectedly physical reaction to his grandfather's remarks, but by those very remarks, as well. During his grandfather's first and only visit to Lancer, Scott had gotten the impression that he did not exactly care for Johnny's heritage, but there had been no indication that his grandfather's attitude had been just short of camouflaged bigotry.

"Did you mean what you said about Johnny, Grandfather?" he asked without looking up. He could not bear to see the truth.


"Don't 'Scotty' me, Grandfather." Although his grandfather's tone had already given his heart the answer, his head still had to hear his grandfather say the words. "Did you mean it when you called my brother a filthy half-breed?"

"That man is a killer, he's not worth-"

"That man is my brother!" Scott countered forcefully. Inside his anger was vying for supremacy over his heartbreak. That the man who had raised him, the man who had treated him as he would his own son, could be so narrow minded and intolerant was more than he could take. "Johnny is my brother and he will always be my brother. I'm proud of him, and if you would put aside your prejudices, you would see that he is a warm and compassionate human being."

"I am not prejudiced!" Harlan denied indignantly.

Scott was floored by the absurdity of such a contradiction. "How can you say such a thing? Not five minutes ago you made the most prejudicial statement possible, and now you have the audacity to stand there and deny it?"

"I spoke the only truth. Johnny Madrid is a killer. He was paid money to relieve men of their very lives, although it's not like one could expect anything more from his kind. How dare you challenge me to see him being fit to associate with civilized people. That's not prejudicial, that's just plain common sense."

It was all Scott could do not to follow his mother's example, but as angry as he was he could not bring himself to hit his grandfather. "His name is Johnny Lancer," he stated as civilly as possible. "Yes, he has done things in his life that he is not proud of, but he was only surviving the best way he could. You cannot begin to understand what his life was like because you've never made the least little effort to find out. You know nothing about 'his kind', so you have no right to judge him. No right at all."

The walls were beginning to close in around him. The turmoil and upheavals of the last two days were taking their toll, and he had to get away. He had to have time to think, to pull his thoughts together before he did or said something he would regret. As his father had done not too long before, Scott grabbed his coat from the back of the chair and headed for the door.

"Where are you going?" Harlan demanded.

"Out. I believe that room over there is yours," Scott said as he pointed to the door next to his father's bedroom. He didn't know what else to do, and at the moment, he didn't really care. "If Murdoch and my mother come back before I do, tell them I went for a walk." As he shut the door behind him, he heard his grandfather call his name, but he kept going. He could not face him again until he was more sure of his own mind.

*** *** *** ***

In the bright light of the full moon, Murdoch finally spied a familiar figure standing at the far end of the pier. He had been looking for her for nearly an hour and in relief he rushed down the pier. "Catherine," he called out as he drew near, but she did not respond to his voice. Once he was close enough, he put his hand on her shoulder. To his surprise she jerked away from him, but not before he felt the tremors surging through her body.

"Is this what I came back for, Murdoch?" she demanded in a shaky voice. "A former husband...a current husband..." throwing her hands up, she shook her head in dismay, "...a man who has turned off every wonderful part of himself that made me fall in love with him all those years ago? A father who has lost all his compassion and become someone consumed by hate? A son..." this time she choked back a sob. "A grown son who I don't know anything about?"

Murdoch took a step forward, and reached out to touch her, but she pulled further away. "Don't touch me!"

Turning away, she leaned into the railing, as if she no longer had the strength to stand on her own. "I should have never contacted you. I should have ignored that stupid cow and stayed in Mexico where I belonged." A huge sob racked her body and this time the tears would not be held back. "I should have died back in Carterville like I was supposed to."

This time when he went to her he was determined not to let her push him away. She did not even try, though, allowing him to pull her to him, encasing her in his arms as she cowered against his chest. "If it was meant for you to die in Carterville, you would have," he stated firmly. "You were spared. You were given another chance, and this has to be the reason for that chance."

Taking a deep breath, Murdoch inhaled the salty air blowing in off the sea. She had said he had turned off the parts of himself that she loved the most, and no matter how much it hurt he would find a way to bring those parts back to life. Starting now.

"Catherine, a long time ago I lost most of my faith in just about everyone and everything but myself. After losing you and Scott, then having Johnny stolen away from me so abruptly, I became very angry with God, even at the whole world. I couldn't see that my own bitterness was hurting me more than all the other transgressions combined." He tightened his hold around her as her trembling grew worse. "It took me many years to make peace with the Lord, and even now I'm not sure my version of peace would be viewed very highly by most people. Sometimes I still get bitter, but not nearly as angry."

Her shoulders quaked beneath his protective embrace, and he did the only thing he could; he let her cry. She had been so strong through all of this; it was amazing that she had not broken down before now. Not since that day by the lake, when she had revealed the terrible circumstances of how she regained her memory, had she shown the least bit of weakness.

Physically she had endured the ravages of her queasy stomach during the trip from Mexico, and emotionally she had endured not only the retelling of her devastating story twice, but she had also shouldered her son's and her father's emotional reactions to her sudden reappearance. Granted she had broken down when it appeared Scott might not accept her, but that was personal between her and him.

This breakdown was due to the overwhelming pressure of the entire situation, something else he blamed entirely on Harlan Garrett. Her father claimed to love her, yet he was the one who was causing so much needless pain and suffering. Not that Murdoch ever expected anything less from the man he knew far better than he cared to admit.

"Murdoch," her voice called out softly, her tone deceptively calm, in contrast to the hand that tightly clutched at the front of his jacket. "I just want you to know that I do not have any intention of going back to Boston with my father."

While thankful for her words of reassurance, at the same time, he was truly amazed. Even during her own time of upheaval, she was worried about those around her. This time it was his feelings that she was trying to soothe. "I was hoping you would feel that way," he said with a tender honesty that stirred deep in his own soul.

A few moments later she pulled away, releasing her hold on his coat to wipe away her remaining tears. When she looked up, her face was a mask of confusion and pain. "If I felt differently, if I decided I wanted to return to Boston, you would let me go, wouldn't you?"

A deep-seated fear seized his heart, but he could not deny the truth. "Yes. If you truly wanted to leave, I would not stand in your way. I can't promise I wouldn't try everything in my power to change your mind, but I would never force you to stay if you didn't want to."

"Thank you." Leaning closer, she rested her head against his chest, and sighed heavily. "My father wasn't always so narrow-minded, you know."

He tensed and her head shook against his chest. "He wasn't, Murdoch. You remember him at his worst. He was fighting to keep his only child with him, and you were taking that child to the other side of the world. Can you really blame him for trying to keep me there?"

How could he explain to her how much he could blame Harlan, and did for so many things? The truth was he couldn't, not totally, anyway. "I can't blame him for wanting you to stay, but I can and do blame him for making you miserable when you chose to live your own life. Or are you forgetting about the way he treated you, how he virtually made you a prisoner in your own home, how he wouldn't even attend our wedding?"

Slipping her arm around his waist, she let him lead her as they began walking slowly back down the pier. "No, I haven't forgotten any of that, Murdoch. My father was never one to be very demonstrative with his love, and, yes, there were times when that hurt me more than anything, but he was always there when I really needed him. I can't forget that, either.

"I can't just forget the man who stood with me in the rain, holding my hand while we buried my kitten in the back yard after a neighbor's dog killed it only two months after he gave it to me for my sixth birthday. I can't forget the man who bought an old worn out horse from a street peddler who was working it well beyond it's useful life, just because it had me in tears. I kept that horse for two more years, never once being able to ride him, but always having a friend I could talk to just the same. I have a whole childhood full of such memories. Wonderful memories of a man who is as different from the one we left behind this evening as night is from day."

Easing them to a halt, Murdoch slipped out of his coat and wrapped it around her trembling shoulders. "If you're going to make a habit of running off in the cold, you really should remember to grab a coat on the way out," he teased, purposely ignoring her defense of a man he saw as nothing but a manipulative weasel.

Grasping the edges of the coat closed in front of her, she leaned back into his embrace as they began walking slowly down the oceanfront boardwalk. "It's so much more romantic to allow my gallant knight to offer me his," she said softly.

As he laughed, he spied a bench just off the boardwalk, nestled under a large tree and flanked on each side by some very bushy shrubbery. Guiding them toward it, they sat down together, his arm around her as they watched the waves crash in on the shore. In a way, he did feel like her gallant knight, only he wasn't sure that he was doing the title justice. If he were, she would not be hurting so badly.


Glancing down, he saw that she was looking up at him, her face illuminated by the moonlight and there was no mistaking the look in her eyes. He had seen it before, many years ago, on another moonlit night on the other side of the country. "I love you, Catherine," he whispered softly.

"I love you, too."

Unable to quell his intensifying urge to claim her as his own all over again, Murdoch let his head move downward, and was overjoyed to see hers rising up to meet him. Their lips touched and the feeling was overwhelming in its intensity. It wasn't their first kiss by any means, but it felt like is should be. There was so much love, so much tenderness, he couldn't believe he had lived without these feelings in his life for so long.

Her fingertips lightly caressed his neck as she seemed to melt into his embrace. Holding her, feeling all the exciting emotions he had missed for so long was intoxicating, even heady as it overwhelmed his senses. However, just as he moved to deepen their kiss, the sound of approaching footfalls on the planks of the boardwalk caused him to pull away.

Catherine giggled lightly against his chest. "Just like back in Boston, only then it was my father we were worried about finding us, not some poor stranger having problems sleeping."

The night echoed with the rhythmic clump of heals against wood as the footsteps continued to move closer. A few seconds later the figure of a man emerged from the shadows of the nearby foliage. Murdoch was startled to see that the unwanted interloper was their own son, wandering by, head down, not aware enough of his surroundings to notice his parents sitting on the bench just off the pathway. "Scott?"

The blond head snapped up, and for a minute it looked like he might bolt away from them. Instead he moved slowly in their direction. Scooting over, Murdoch made room for Scott to sit between them. After hesitating for a moment, Scott sat down, but still said nothing. He smiled weakly when Catherine placed her hand on his arm, but even that comforting gesture couldn't seem to lift his downtrodden spirits.

Although at the moment he could not care less about the man, Murdoch felt the need to make the inquiry, for Scott's sake as well as Catherine's. "Son, where is your grandfather?"

"Back at the hotel, I would imagine."

Scott's voice was dejected and tired, and confirmed Murdoch's worst fears. "You and your grandfather had words?"

This time Scott snorted. "You could say that. Do you know he actually had the gall to tell me he wasn't prejudiced? I had to get out of there before I..." Scott's voice trailed off and he looked almost sheepishly over at his mother.

Catherine bowed her head. "Scott, I'm so sorry I lost my temper like that. I still can't believe I actually hit him. I just could not stand there and do nothing while he said such vile things." When she lifted her head, her eyes were filled with tears. "My only defense is that I've witnessed so many brokenhearted little children fall prey to the horrors of bigotry. I can't count the number of nights I held them in my arms as they cried themselves to sleep, unable to understand what they had done to deserve to be treated with such contempt. I..." She shook her head in dismay. "Still, I shouldn't have done it."

"Yes, you should have," Murdoch interjected. He had been trying to push this particular thought aside from the moment Catherine's hand first impacted Harlan's cheek. Maybe he would have better luck if he just admitted to his own failings and got it over with. "More importantly, though, *I* should have been the one to do it. Maybe if I had been more forceful the first time Harlan spoke about Johnny is such a derogatory manner, he might have been more reserved about doing so now."

"The first time?" Scott inquired defensively.

Murdoch nodded sadly. So far Catherine had taken his honesty very well, even the least flattering parts, and he hoped Scott would, too. He was actually beginning to enjoy being himself again, living the openness of his youth without fear of being hurt or rejected, but he knew he had a long way to go, and a lot of bridges were behind him that would have to be rebuilt. "It was last summer, when your grandfather came for a visit. While you and Johnny were tending to the horses, Harlan and I had a little chat. He was upset about you giving up your legacy in Boston so you could share any inheritance from me with a half-breed brother."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Scott demanded in an accusing tone.

Murdoch could not blame Scott for being angry, and could only hope that Scott would understand his motives, even if, in hindsight, he had to admit that they were not that well thought out. "For the same reason I didn't say anything to him about his remark - I didn't want to cause problems with your visit."

Scott was on his feet in a heartbeat. He took two steps away from them, then turned and looked back towards Murdoch in disgust. "Cause problems? Don't you think I had the right to know my grandfather's true feelings about my own brother? Granted, he was anything but polite when I introduced him to Johnny when we met him in town that first day, but that was expected. He wasn't happy about my decision to stay in California, and was bound to project that hostility towards you and Johnny. I expected that. What I did not expect," Scott ground out, "was to be kept in the dark about any such bigoted comments, especially in regards to my own brother. What if he had said something like that to Johnny's face?"

If the old man from Boston had made any additional racial slurs, Murdoch was certain he would have heard about it before now. "Harlan never said anything to anyone else. Just to me."

"That you know of," Scott countered, before taking the argument in another direction. "And did you even think to consider what would have happened if Johnny had somehow managed to overhear that conversation? Can you imagine how Johnny would have felt if he had heard his own father let a complete stranger come into our home and belittle him without so much as a token battle in his defense?"

The fact was Murdoch had thought of little else ever since Catherine had shown more courage than he had in the face of Harlan's bigotry, and in defense of a man she had not even met. Still, Johnny had not overheard them, so it was a moot point, at best. "Scott, you know full well Johnny would not have wanted to become an issue between you and your grandfather."

Scott shook his head. "This has nothing to do with my relationship with my grandfather. This has to do with someone being allowed to come into Johnny's home and degrade him like he was nothing but trash, without some much as a word of reproach from his own father." Scott ran a frustrated hand through his hair and turned away. "Sometimes, I can't help but wonder if you love him at all."

It took only two of Murdoch's ground-eating strides to put him directly behind his son. He could feel the protesting twinge shooting up his leg and across his back, but it was nothing compared to the pain coursing through his heart. Fighting back the urge to jerk Scott around, he instead spoke to the back of his son's head. "I made a mistake, Scott. I admit it. I let my fear of losing you blind me into allowing that despicable action to go unchallenged. I can't change the past, all I can do is try to make the future better."

At this point he did grasp Scott's shoulder and forcibly turned him around. "My first goal will be to make sure you know that I do love you and your brother very much. I may never come close to being the best father in the world, but I will not have anyone calling into question my love for my sons. I never stopped loving either one of you, and I never will."

Scott's eyes narrowed. "Those are big words, Murdoch, but they're just words. Your recent actions have already hurt Johnny more than you realize, which is the saddest part of this whole thing. Before you think about making apologies for mistakes that could have, but did not have a chance to hurt him, there are more than enough real injuries that need to be dealt with."

A mask of determination enveloped Scott's features. "Starting with, what did you find out at that attorney's office this morning? And don't you dare tell me it's none of my concern."

Blindsided by the mention of a subject that was still unresolved, Murdoch took a deep breath and stepped back. He had wanted to have the answers ready before broaching this subject with anyone, but fate did not seem too willing to comply with his wishes. In fact, fate had seemed to be hellbent on undermining every plan he had made since arriving in San Francisco. Feeling somewhat defeated, he returned to his seat.

Catherine gave him a reassuring smile, but although she remained silent, he could sense her anxieties over that same issue. He waited for Scott to rejoin them, but when he did not seem inclined to so on his own, Murdoch gave him a gentle nudge by saying softly, "Scott, please sit down." 

*** *** *** *** 

After a slight hesitation, Scott did as he was asked. When he sat down, his mother reached over and took his hand. He was grateful for the confident squeeze, along with her reassuring smile, both of which he returned in kind before turning to face his father. "Mother and I have already figured out that her presence has the potential to become very damaging to this family, both legally and emotionally. Are our worries founded in fact?"

"I don't know," Murdoch sighed. "I must have lost track of the days at some point. I didn't realize it was Sunday when I went to Jarrod's office."

"He wasn't in?" Catherine was disheartened by the news.

"Actually, I did get to talk with Jarrod, but just briefly. He has an office and a house here in San Francisco, but his family has a ranch just outside of Stockton. He had just stopped by the office to gather a few files for some cases he was working on before heading back to Stockton for his sister's birthday tomorrow. I was able to tell him all the facts as I knew them, and he promised me he would find the answers we needed. He said he would personally bring them to Lancer no later than the end of the week."

"The end of the week?" Scott was anything but pleased by such a delay. "Couldn't we find another attorney?"

Murdoch shifted in his seat, and frowned. "Yes, we could, but I think Jarrod would be the best qualified for this case. Jarrod has dealt with a somewhat similar situation in his own family. Not only will he be more driven to find all the facts, he'll also be more inclined to dig out the more obscure legalities that could either benefit us now, or come back to haunt us later. I feel more comfortable waiting for Jarrod than I would handing this case over to someone who couldn't possibly understand the far-reaching effects it could have on all of us."

Not completely satisfied with Murdoch's answer, Scott inquired further. "How similar a situation?" It didn't seem possible that too many families would find themselves dealing with issues as complicated as theirs had become.

Murdoch hesitated, before answering reluctantly, "Normally I would never repeat any of this. I do not gossip about my neighbors, however, it is pretty much common knowledge-"

"Worry about the neighbors some other day," Scott protested adamantly. "All you need to be worrying about right now is the need to convince me why there isn't another attorney capable of handling this matter."

Defiance flashed in Murdoch's eyes, but he did not protest the interruption or the uncharacteristic display of temper from his older son. "During the spring before you and Johnny arrived at Lancer, when things with Pardee were just beginning to heat up at Lancer, there was some trouble up around Stockton. The Coastal and Western Railroad was fighting to finish their part of the transcontinental railroad, and in the process were using unsavory practices to force the ranchers off their land. The Barkleys led the fight to resist the railroad. They won, with the help of a newcomer who was looking for more than a victory in that war. He wanted his name, and his heritage."

"Why would he have to fight for such things?" Catherine asked.

Again Murdoch seemed reluctant to continue. "Tom Barkley was Victoria Barkley's husband. He was the father of her three children, one of whom is Jarrod. A little over twenty years ago he had an affair with a woman who had saved his life. It was the child born of that affair that showed up at Victoria's door. I believe I heard his name is Heath."

"What happened? Did she turn him away?" Catherine asked a bit coldly.

Murdoch shook his head. "Hardly. In fact, from what I heard at the last CCGA meeting, Victoria not only took him into her home, she did so over the protests of her own children. Eventually, they all have come to accept him as a member of their family, and Victoria treats him no differently than any of her own children.

Looking up at the moon, Murdoch sighed softly. "I had known Tom and Victoria a long time, but the last few years we just never kept in touch like we did before. Then Tom was killed, Pardee showed up and you boys came home, and I just lost track of the time. I had to admit I felt very disappointed when I heard Tom had been unfaithful to Victoria. She didn't deserve that."

"She sounds like a woman I wouldn't mind getting to know," Catherine said softly. "Anyone who could take in their husband's bastard child has a very good heart. It couldn't have been easy for her, knowing how some people talk."

Scott felt nothing but indignation swelling inside his chest. He would not allow himself to believe the Barkley's situation was even remotely similar to what was happening to them. Ignoring his own previously arrived at conclusions, Scott declared angrily, "Johnny is not a bastard."

Murdoch's frown deepened. "As much as I hate to say it, Scott, Johnny could be considered just that in the eyes of the law. It all depends on how the legal systems views my marriage to Maria."

Leaning forward, Scott rested his arms on his knees. "But you didn't know my mother was alive when you married Johnny's mother. Surely that's got to mean something." His mother's hand pressed against his back, a warm spot against the chill of the night. She didn't say anything, but he could feel her support for him through the gentleness of her touch.

It was Murdoch's voice that brought back the cold chill of reality. "Honestly, Scott, I don't know if it will make a difference or not. Sometimes the law shows very little tolerance for ignorance. What I do know is that Jarrod has lived through this nightmare. He knows how hard it was on his brother, even though Heath had known all his life that his parents were never married. It was a difficult situation for his whole family. Jarrod promised me that if there was any way to keep the validity of my marriage to Maria intact, he would find it. Now all we can do is wait, and hope for the best."

Murdoch's hand appeared on Scott's right shoulder, and the gentle squeeze that followed was another balm to Scott's aching heart, as were the words that followed. "Scott, we will always be Johnny's family. No one can change that, not even the California judicial system. Do you still want to seek out another attorney?"

Although still unsettled by the delay, Scott couldn't deny that Murdoch's logic in picking Jarrod Barkley was very sound. Someone with such a similar experience would be more considerate than someone who was just doing a job, but that still didn't make the impending wait look any less bleak. "No, we'll wait for Jarrod," he said glumly.

His mother's hand rubbed his back gently before coming to rest his left shoulder. "Scott, I'll do everything I can to help Johnny. I know he's going to see me as the enemy for a while, but I won't let him push me away. I promise."

Scott reached across his body with his right arm and laced his fingers with hers as they rested on his shoulder. Just that little, seemingly insignificant contact, gave him strength, but not hope. "It's not him pushing you away that scares me. He would never do that because of me. I'm scared that he'll push us all away by taking off and never coming back."

"Then we'll just have to make sure Johnny has more reasons to stay than he has to go." A determined edge appeared in her voice. "I will not let my return cost you your brother."

Scott sat upright, but did not release his hold of her hand as it slid down his arm, both their hands coming to rest in the crook of his elbow. He wished with all his heart it could be that easy; that just wanting it to be so would be enough. "If Johnny decides he's leaving, nothing can stop him."

With her free hand, Catherine cupped Scott's cheek and turned his head to face her. "I'm a very stubborn woman, Scott. I've been known to be a very formidable 'nothing' a few times over the years. Between the three of us, your poor brother doesn't stand a chance."

Scott smiled weakly at her, then twisted around and hugged her tightly. "Thank you. I still don't think we have a chance of standing up to my brother, but thank you for being willing to join in the fight. That means more to me than you'll ever know."

For several minutes they held each other. He felt his mother's hand slip past his waist as she reached out to Murdoch. He had his mother and father with him, supporting him, giving him everything he had dreamed of throughout his youth.

"I don't know about the two of you," Catherine said as she stifled a yawn against Scott's shoulder. "But I'm ready for a good night's sleep."

"I'll second that motion," Murdoch agreed. He stood and stretched, while Scott helped his mother to her feet. Together they began the short walk back to the hotel. Scott walked between them, one arm around his mother's shoulders and the other clinging loosely behind his father's back. Each of his parents had an arm around him, too. For a short time things felt like they might just work out.

"When can we leave for Lancer?" Catherine asked as they crossed the street in front of their hotel.

Scott stiffened, the good feelings suddenly gone. "What about Grandfather?" he asked warily, uncertain of his mother's response, or even of his own feelings towards the man he had always loved.

"We still don't have any answers from him," Murdoch answered less than gruffly, but not very charitably, either.

"I don't care anymore," Catherine sighed. "What difference does it really make anyway? Nothing he could say will change what happened in Carterville or give us back any of those years. I'm not sure I even want to see my father again, much less hear anything else he has to say. If there is a train in the morning, that would be soon enough for me."

Murdoch moved away, opening the door to the hotel so Scott and his mother could enter unhindered. As soon as they were inside, Murdoch's arm returned to his shoulder as they walked up the stairs. Scott couldn't help but wonder at Murdoch's lack of commentary, but was grateful for the reprieve. The last thing he wanted or needed was to hear the same old arguments yet again.

His mother's attitude, however, made his heart sink. He could understand her disappointment, even her anger, to a point, but no matter what Harlan Garrett had done, he was still her father. "We can't just leave without any explanation," he said as they made their way down the hallway towards their suite.

"No we can't." Surprisingly, it was Murdoch who added his voice to Scott's.

The group of three came to a stop at the suite's door, but no one made a move to enter. Scott looked over at his father, only to see that Murdoch's attention was focused squarely on Catherine. Shifting his attention towards his mother, Scott noticed the pained expression on her weary features. When she looked up at him, and the conflict was clear in her gray-blue eyes.

"I know you don't like what he said," Scott said softly. "Neither do I, but he's still your father. He's still..." Looking down at the floor, Scott tried to find the right words to explain the unexplainable.

"He's still wrong," came the determined reply from his mother. "Isn't there a train leaving in the morning?"

"No," Scott only half-lied.

"Monday is a late schedule," Murdoch explained. "The train doesn't leave until a little after noon. We wouldn't be back at Lancer until after dark."

Gray-blue eyes met gray-blue eyes, neither backing down and neither admitting defeat. They were both right and both wrong, but that did not make it any easier. At the edge of his peripheral vision, Scott noticed Murdoch retrieve the room key from his coat pocket.

"It's late and we can finish discussing this in the morning. We've all had a rough day, and I'm sure after a good night's sleep we'll be able to come up with an acceptable course of action."

Murdoch opened the suite's door, and waited for Scott and Catherine to enter, which neither did. "Catherine? Scott?" his words dripped with concern. "You've only just found each other. Don't let this come between you," he pleaded softly.

Scott blinked first, but his mother wasn't too far behind him. Moving to her side, he slipped his arm around her waist. He was grateful when she returned the gesture and leaned in to his embrace. "I don't like this any more than you do, but I can't just forget everything he's done for me."

A curiously sheepish smile played on her lips. "Thank you, Scott."

"For what?"

"For throwing my own words back at me."

Not understanding, Scott frowned, but did not miss the knowing glance that passed between his parents. "Why do I get the feeling I've missed something?" Even as he uttered the words that he did not expect to be answered, he gently urged his mother forward and the three of the entered the darkened hotel suite.

Although no candles were lit, the moonlight streaming in through the huge window on the opposite wall was more than enough to let them all see that the room was vacant. "I guess Grandfather had already gone to bed," Scott needlessly whispered. "I told him that room was his before I...before I walked out. We never really discussed it, but I assumed that's what you had in mind, Murdoch."

"Yes, that's fine, Son." Although clearly not pleased to have the old man still present, the situation appeared to be acceptable enough. "Maybe we can get something cleared up in the morning?"

Scott appreciated the offering, but in his heart he knew that was not very likely. There were too many issues coming from all sides for that to happen anytime in the near future. With a heavy sigh, he hugged his mother and kissed her lightly on the forehead. "Good night, Mother."

She hugged him back and returned the kiss, only to his cheek, which was more within her ability to reach. "Good night, Son."


"Good night, Son," his father responded with a nod.

The tension eased only slightly as Scott slipped into his bedroom. He slowly undressed by the moonlight, but one look at the bed he had found so comfortable the night before told him he would not be getting much sleep this night. Foregoing what would only be a wasted effort, he leaned against the wall by the window, staring out at the sleeping city stretched out before him, hoping that tonight's mind-numbing turn of events were not an omen of things to come. 

*** *** *** *** 

Unable to sleep, Johnny wandered out onto the small wooden porch. The rough planks hurt his bare feet, but he did not care. In the light of day he could fight off the pain in his heart, but as night had descended, so had those abilities. Now he was left him alone and vulnerable, with only his worst nightmares to keep him company.

He snorted at his own weakness. When he had been just plain Johnny Madrid, he was able to withstand any anguish. In those days he would be sleeping soundly, totally oblivious to the mournful wail of a coyote in the distance that echoed the ache in his heart. Even the chirping of the nearby crickets would not have been enough to disturb his slumber.

So where was Johnny Madrid now that he really needed him again? Where was that strength he had relied on for so many years? Was it really possible that in such a short time Johnny Lancer had succeeded in destroying the man it had taken a lifetime to create?

It felt like he was starting all over again. What was this, the third, or maybe it was the fourth time. Whatever the number, he was once again having to define who he was to himself and to the world. The world? He snorted again and stepped off the porch and onto the soft grass. He already knew how little the world cared.

In the light of the full moon, a movement at the edge of a nearby stand of woods caught his eye. His right hand moved instantly to his hip, only to find nothing but empty air. "Yeah, you done got real soft," Johnny muttered to himself. There was a time when he never would have been so stupid as to venture out without his gun.

Running his fingers through his hair, he watched in silent wonder as a lone raccoon continued his forages. The small animal didn't care if he had a gun or not, and the truth was, Johnny didn't really care either. If he was totally honest, he would have to admit that it was not soft that he had become, it as comfortable.

He had never been comfortable before. He had never known the security of not having to be constantly on guard. He had never known the pure joy of working for himself, of building something instead of tearing it down. He had never known peace, but he did now and it was a feeling he would not give up without a fight.

That was not to say that he was totally free of the shadows of Johnny Madrid. He doubted he ever would be. The difference was that now those shadows were just that - shadows. They snuck back into his life at times, but they were not a part of his life anymore. Johnny Madrid was his past, while Johnny Lancer was his present, and his future. The shadows could dog him all they liked, but they could never put back the ache in his heart that had driven him for so many years. That ache was gone, as was the wound that had caused it.

Since coming to Lancer, he had found a part of himself he never knew existed; the part that could be at peace with himself. With that peace came a family, a name, and a home. The family had walked away from him, but his name and his land were his to keep. Johnny Lancer may not be nearly as formidable an opponent as Johnny Madrid, but he would be in a box, his body cold and dead, before anyone took him off his land.

Determination won out in the battle with his heartache, and Johnny headed back into the cabin with a new sense of purpose. Lighting a lamp, he pulled some paper and a pencil out of his saddlebags and began working out the details for Lancer's horse operation. A year ago he wouldn't have had the slightest idea of where to begin. However, he had learned a lot since becoming Johnny Lancer again, and now it was time to put those lessons to the test.  

*** *** *** *** 

Startled by a sound in the other room, Scott jerked awake. It took a few moments to reorient himself enough to realize that he was still leaning against the wall in his hotel bedroom. It was still late in the night, or maybe it was early in the morning, he wasn't sure. Another clinking sound from the outer room had him moving towards the door, but not before he grabbed his robe off the foot of the bed and quickly slipped into its soft warmth. After pulling the belt tight, he eased the door open, curious to see who else was up lurking about at such an indecent hour.

Though the moon had shifted and its bright light was no longer shining in through the window, there was still enough illumination to see that the room was empty. Another noise caught his attention, but this time he knew what it was. A door had closed on the other side of the room, which narrowed his choices down to his father or his grandfather.

His gaze landed on his grandfather's bedroom door, and he found himself unable to look away. He so much wanted to talk to the older man, to try to find some way to understand how he could be so different from the man he remembered from only a few short years ago. It was impossible for him to grasp that he had been so blind to his grandfather's intolerance.

As if moving of their own volition, his legs began walking in the direction of that door. His mind hoped that it had been his grandfather stirring around, because he really needed to talk to him. Something had to be settled before the morning meeting, or else there would be nothing but another senseless upheaval. Whenever Murdoch Lancer and Harlan Garrett were in the same room, a heated argument would always be the end result.

Pausing at the closed door, Scott rapped his knuckles lightly against the wooden surface. He didn't want to wake his grandfather if the older man was asleep, but he could not enter unannounced either. That was one 'bad' habit he had adamantly refused to pick up since coming to Lancer. He was just about to decide that it must have been his father up and about, when the door beside him cracked open.

"Grandfather?" he whispered.

The door opened wider. "Scotty," was all his grandfather said, but that was all that needed to be said. Entering the darkened bedroom, Scott was thankful that the moonlight was just barely enough to let him avoid walking into any of the furnishings, but not so bright that he could see much more than shadows. Somehow he felt more at ease knowing that he would not be able to see his grandfather's face.

"We need to talk, sir," he said as he sat down in the chair by the small table.

"Yes, Scotty, we do," came the disembodied voice of his grandfather from somewhere across the room. The sound of bedropes creaking was the only indication of his grandfather's location.

"Grandfather, I know you did not approve of me coming out here," Scott began, unsure of where to start except at the beginning. If he had stayed in Boston, none of this would be happening now. "This was something I needed to do. I couldn't explain it to you at the time, because, quite frankly, I wasn't sure of what was driving me back then, either."

"But you are sure now," Harlan said with a weary sigh.

"Yes, sir, I am." Scott understood, but he had doubts that he could explain his feelings to his grandfather, but he had to try. "I needed more than Boston could offer. I needed a purpose, a sense of accomplishment, a reason for being that was bigger than anything I could find in Boston. The war changed me, Grandfather. There was no longer any satisfaction in a routine that was so..."

"What, Scotty?"

Instead of ire, there was only a deep need to know in the old man's inquiry, which thrilled Scott more than he would have imagined. This was the kind of conversation he wanted to have with his grandfather; the kind they had shared for many years. "So 'safe', I guess is the only way to put it, although I'm not sure that's right either."

"If you can't think of a word, then tell me what you mean with as many words as you need. I do want to understand, Scotty."

This was exactly what Scott had yearned to hear. *This* was the man who had raised him, taught him how to think for himself, supported him steadfastly and without hesitation. This was the man he had missed since leaving Boston. "I needed a challenge, to both my body and my mind. I needed to do something that I felt would make a difference."

Believing this explanation was still woefully inadequate, Scott continued with the rest of his thought; a thought that would bring them full circle to the crux of the entire problem. "Boston wasn't always the way it is now, Grandfather."

"No it wasn't, Scotty. It took hard work and perseverance. When I first arrived in Boston it was a mere shadow of what it has grown into today."

"That's what I mean, Grandfather, but I'm thinking even farther back than that, to a time when Boston was no more than California is today, and even less so. Before Boston was a bustling seaport, it was a wilderness, an untamed land that had to be conquered before it could be molded into a civilized community. If it weren't for the dreamers of days long since gone, men and women willing to leave everything behind to take on the unknown, where would you be now? Still back in England?"

"And you see yourself as one of these dreamers, Scotty?" Although not overjoyed, Harlan's voice was beginning to reflect a begrudging understanding of the situation.

"Yes. I don't care if my name is ever recorded in history, but on the day I die, I want to know that I left a ripple, that my life was worth more than a few dollars and some accumulated possessions." Now came the hard part. "I've come to understand Murdoch Lancer's dream, just as I've come to understand why my mother was not only willing, but determined to be part of that dream at all costs."

A deafening silence enveloped the room, and Scott held his breath, hoping that his grandfather would at least try to understand that nothing he had done, nothing his mother had done, had ever been a rejection of him or his life, but was merely an acceptance of who they were inside. "It's not something a person learns to be, it is who they are. Until I lived through the war, I didn't realize that's who I was."

"It is hard to lose someone you love." Harlan sounded subdued in his response, but not totally defeated.

"I know that, Grandfather. Leaving you to find my father, and myself, was the hardest thing I've ever done. Even more so than going off to war. In the war there were other needs besides my own, a cause I believed in, and the hope for a triumphant return."

"You knew before you left you would not be coming back, didn't you." Although it was subtle, there was accusation in those words.

"Yes, and no," Scott answered as honestly as he could. "I hoped I would find the challenges I had been yearning for, but no, I did not know for certain that my father would turn out to be someone I could trust." Unable to avoid the burning question any longer, Scott felt the time was right to request an answer. "Why didn't you ever tell me Murdoch came for me when I was five?"

Another long silence. The bedropes creaked and Scott wondered if it was nervousness or the desire for comfort behind his grandfather's movements.

"He did not deserve you, Scotty."

The truth at last, but it was an ugly truth. "Grandfather, this has got to end, preferably here and now. Your hatred for Murdoch and, to a lesser extent, his for you, has cost me enough already. I know you love me, I know you felt you were going to lose me to Murdoch just like you lost my mother, but that was not your decision to make. I deserved to know that my father had not completely turned his back on me."

A disgusted snort echoed through the room. "He came *once*, and then he let an idle threat scare him away."

Scott reined in his anger before answering. Losing his composure would only defeat his purpose. "Idle threat? Even I know you would have carried through with that threat."

"You can't seriously believe I would have dragged you through the courts in a custody battle?"

The sincerity behind those words tore at Scott's soul, but not nearly as much as the lie they hid, apparently even from his grandfather. "You would have, Grandfather. When it comes to Murdoch Lancer you have never had any other motivation, any other goal than to best him. Even my pain would not have stopped you from fighting him just so you could win."

This was going to be the hardest thing he had ever said to his grandfather, but it needed to be said, just the same. "You have let your hatred of Murdoch become an obsession. You can't even see how much you go out of you way to hurt him. Look what you did to Julie, blackmailing her and threatening her father, all in the name of getting me away from Murdoch Lancer."

"I did those things to get you back to Boston where you belonged," Harlan protested, but not nearly as vehemently as he would have only moments before.

"No, Grandfather, you did those things to get me away from *him*. If any of this had ever been solely about me, you would have talked to me the way you are now, the way we should have talked before I left Boston in the first place. As long as Murdoch Lancer was involved, all rational thought was lost."

Scott couldn't help but laugh, although it was a sad reflection of a sad truth. "Do you realize that you gave less of an impassioned plea to keep me from going off to war, than you did to keep me out of the clutches of my own father. Think about it, Grandfather. Really think about it; then tell me that your hatred for Murdoch hasn't become bigger than your love for me."

Scott stared out the window across the room as his grandfather remained silent in the darkness. It had been his intent to address his grandfather's attitude towards Johnny, not rehash this old argument, but somehow this subject had snuck out before he realized it. However, the more he thought about it, the more he began to realize that this probably was the real issue.

He still could not believe his grandfather could have always been this narrow-minded without it showing before now. Granted, he could be a bit prudish and would have had a few unsavory thoughts due to the low social standing of Johnny's upbringing, but to be downright prejudiced? This had to be something new, something that had been built out of his intense hatred for Murdoch. A hatred that had been reignited when Murdoch had sent for him in Boston.

It all seemed so clear now. It was the only thing that made any real sense. There would be no reason for Harlan Garrett of Boston, Massachusetts to harbor such harsh feelings towards Mexicans in general, just one in particular. This had to be something his grandfather had picked up for no other reason than he perceived Johnny to be a threat.

He wanted to hurt Johnny because Johnny was a part of the hold that he saw that Murdoch had on his grandson. If only he could accept that the decision to come to California and to stay here had been his, Scott Garrett Lancer's, and that it had been made freely and without duress. Until that happened, there was no hope for resolving any of the rest of it.


His grandfather's softly spoken voice broke into Scott's thoughts. "Yes, Grandfather?" he answered.

"I'm sorry."

Scott wanted to be relieved, but he couldn't. Not just yet. "Sorry for what, Grandfather?"

"For...for so many things. For not trusting your judgment, for putting my needs ahead of yours, for not listening to you."

Scott's heart sank. "But not for hating Murdoch."

Anger mixed with bitterness to taint the voice in the darkness. "He took my daughter from me."

Defeat permeated Scott's entire being. He had not gotten through to the man at all. "No one took anyone from anybody. My mother left Boston because she was in love with both a man and a dream. If it hadn't been Murdoch, it would have been someone else. She would not have stayed in Boston forever, and if she had, she would not have been happy. It's the same for me, too. Even if Murdoch hadn't sent for me, I can't see myself as still living in Boston. I needed more."

"More what, Scotty? What did I fail to give you?" his grandfather asked in a wounded tone.

Scott laughed. He was too saddened to do anything else. "Grandfather, you didn't fail me. It's just that what I needed you could not give to me."

"But Murdoch Lancer could." The anger was back, and along with it, the obsessive resentment.

"You're not listening, Grandfather. No one - not you, not Murdoch, not anyone - could give me what I needed. Murdoch merely provided the opportunity, but I'm the one who did the rest. Back in Boston I would never have had to prove myself to anyone. With your name in my corner, I could have done or been anyone - anyone except me. Out here I don't have that limitation."


"Yes, limitations. At Lancer I had the option to fail. I could fall flat on my face, which I have done on several occasions. I never gave up, though. I struggled, I learned, I reached deep inside myself and found the courage to overcome all obstacles, but mostly, I *earned* the respect of the people around me. Murdoch Lancer's son or not, I was never given a free ride. That's what makes Lancer so special - I've earned the right to call it my home. That is the one thing I could never have achieved back in Boston."

A stony silence ended with a somewhat curt, "I see."

"Do you, Grandfather? Do you really?"

"I...I am trying, Scotty."

Despite his grudging admiration for his grandfather's honesty, the lack of understanding was extremely discouraging. Scott had so hoped he would be able to get through to his grandfather, but that did not seem possible. "I guess that's all I have the right to ask."

Feeling completely drained, Scott stood to leave. If he couldn't get his grandfather to see this point, it was senseless to even bring up the issue of his feelings towards Johnny. Scott simply did not have the strength to argue that point right now. "Good night, Grandfather," he said as he reached for the doorknob.


"Yes, Grandfather?"

"I do love you."

With those four words Scott's heart broke. Even though the darkness afforded both of them a reprise from having their deepest emotions on display, Scott had heard the sincerity in his grandfather's words. If only those very words that brought him such comfort, had not so totally destroyed his hope, too. "I've never questioned that, Grandfather, just as I would hope you have never questioned my love for you. I do love you. My leaving Boston never had anything to do with not loving you, or loving Murdoch more than you. Until you can understand that, you'll never be able to understand me."

Feeling like a total failure, Scott left and returned to his own room. He was too tired for sleep to remain elusive, but it would not be a peaceful slumber that would accompany him into the new day. 

*** *** *** ***

Having been awakened by a noise, Catherine slowly opened her bedroom door, hoping to see who it was that was up and about at this hour. Decently covered in her robe, she normally would not have been so covert in her actions, but she was not ready to face her father again.


Recognizing Murdoch's voice, she opened the door. The moonlight was not nearly as bright as it had been earlier, and she could barely make out Murdoch's form standing just outside his room. After pulling her door closed, she carefully made her way across the main room. "I thought I heard a noise," she whispered as she came to a stop next to him.

"I did, too, but it seems quiet out here now." After a furtive glace at first Harlan's door, then across the way to Scott's, Murdoch slipped his arm around her and guided her into his room. Closing the door behind them, he led her over to the bed, where they both made themselves comfortable with their backs resting against the large oak headboard.

"Having trouble sleeping?" Murdoch asked softly.

Catherine almost laughed at the absurdity of his understatement. She would have, too, if her heart weren't so burdened with guilt. "I can't stop thinking about what a mess I've made of everything."

"You?" Murdoch said in shock. "You haven't done anything wrong, Catherine. I'm the one who has mishandled this whole situation, from the very beginning. I'm the one who left the boys a note - a note that was so easy to misinterpret - instead of waiting to explain in person. I'm the one who should have waited to send for Harlan until we got to San Francisco, so you and Scott could have more time together before he arrived."

"But, Murdoch, you had no way of knowing my father would already be nearly half-way here when you sent for him," Catherine interrupted. There was no way she was going to let someone else take the blame for her mistakes. "If anyone is to blame, it's me. I should have been the one to come to you, instead of staying in Mexico because I was too afraid to find out that you..."

When she didn't continue on her own, Murdoch prompted her with a gentle, "What were you afraid you would find?"

Tears filled in her eyes, and she was grateful for the cover of darkness. More than anything, she hated being a weepy woman. "I was afraid I would find someone who hated me. I didn't dare hope to find you alone, and I didn't want to cause trouble with your family." She laughed. "Isn't that ridiculous? There's no way my reappearance could not have caused you trouble, yet I still sent you that message."

"Are you sorry you did?"

The dejection in Murdoch's voice cut her like a knife, but even if it weren't for that, she couldn't lie to him. "No, but I am sorry that everyone is hurting because of me. There are so many issues I never once considered, and now Scott is at odds with his grandfather, and even with you, and as for Johnny...I haven't even had a chance to meet him, and I've turned his whole life upside down."

Next to her Murdoch sighed heavily, but made no effort to refute something that could not be denied. There was not much he could say, after all, but still his arm tightened around her shoulders and she anxiously snuggled closer to his warming comfort. She so wished she could make things right again, but how could she when it was her very existence that was the problem?

"Johnny is-" Murdoch began, only to abruptly end his thought.

Although somewhat afraid of the answer, she had to know. "Johnny is what?"

"I was going to say Johnny is a lot tougher than we like to give him credit for most of the time," Murdoch said sadly.


"As Scott said at breakfast this morning..." Murdoch shook his head. "Was that really only this morning?" he asked incredulously.

It did seem too hard to believe. "By now that was probably yesterday morning, but I know what you mean. It doesn't seem possible that everything that has happened could actually fit into just one day. I feel like I've lived a week since meeting Scott." After taking a deep breath, she guided the conversation back to the subject he seemed to be trying to avoid. "Scott said Johnny was very soft hearted and easily hurt."

"Knowing all I know about his past, sometimes it's almost impossible to fathom how he could be that way, but he is. Physical injuries he can withstand better than anyone I've ever known, but emotionally he is very easily wounded. That's where I keep making mistakes - forgetting that Johnny is not nearly as tough on the inside as he is on the outside."

The regret in Murdoch's voice seemed almost alive in its intensity. She had hoped to revive the sensitive and caring man she had known in years gone by, but she was now realizing that this revival was going to be very painful for him to endure. "Scott has mentioned a few times that Johnny is already hurting, and he seems convinced that it's because of something that you've done. What is it, Murdoch?"

"An easier question would be what haven't I done to hurt him," Murdoch said in a self-damning tone.

"Talk to me, darling."

"Catherine, I had no clue what I would really find in Mexico, so I left a rather vague note for the boys; something to the effect that I would be gone for several weeks and that communication might not be possible. It never occurred to me when I mentioned that I would be in Mexico that Johnny, and apparently Scott, too, would conclude that what I was doing had something to do with Johnny's past."

She could see how that would make sense to the young men. The real purpose behind Murdoch's trip would have been incomprehensible. "Has Johnny's past been that much of a problem?" she asked cautiously.

"I've thought a lot about that in the last few hours. Yesterday I would have answered that with an adamant 'yes'.

"And today?"

" I can see that Johnny's past has not been nearly as much of a problem as my attitude about that past. Looking back, I'm ashamed of how I've reacted to just about everything that's ever come up from his life before he returned to Lancer. Those reactions, more than the events themselves, are the real problem." He snorted in disgust. "That and my downright insensitivity to his feelings. It's going to take a long time for me to make this up to him, especially when he finds out about you."

She could feel his anguish growing, and it tore at her heart. "Are you sure you're not being a little hard on yourself?"

"You don't know how much I wish I were, but, no, Catherine, I'm not. When we docked in San Diego and I sent that telegram to your father, I also sent one to Johnny. At the time it," a pause and a remorseful sigh interrupted his thought. "At the time it seemed like the most logical step to take, but now I can see how heartless it was."

"What did you write to him?"

"I gave him the name of an attorney in San Diego, and, I ordered Johnny to send him the location of his mother's grave."

"Murdoch!" She jerked up, only to find a hand over her mouth.

"Sshhh, you'll wake the whole hotel," Murdoch admonished before removing his hand.

More quietly, but just as intensely, she demanded, "What ever possessed you to do a thing like that?"

"I...I had come to realize just how much I wanted us to be together again. At that time I hadn't even considered that the law might consider us still married, and after having one dead wife come back to life, I just needed to assure myself that there was no chance of Maria becoming an issue for us. Verifying that she was dead and buried seemed like the best way to go about that."

"But to ask her son something like that? And by way of something as cold and impersonal as a telegram."

"I know, Catherine. It was heartless and insensitive. All I was thinking was that Johnny was the only one who could provide that information."

"You've never asked him before?"

"No. I've always been too relieved to know Maria was dead to care about any of the details."

"Murdoch, you've got to let go of your hatred for her. Not just for Johnny's sake, but for your own, too. She is a part of Johnny's past, and from what you've told me, a very important part of his life. Whether you think it's deserved or not, Johnny loved her. You can't expect him to bury his feelings for his own mother just because they contradict your feelings for her as your wife. That's not fair to Johnny."

"No, it's not, but would it be any more fair of me to lie to him?"

Although the darkness cloaked his expression from her view, she could hear the frustration in his voice. There was only one answer to this dilemma, but it would not be an answer he wanted to hear. "Murdoch, you've got to talk to Johnny about your feelings for her. I know you think he'll leave, but he won't, not if you're totally honest with him and make him understand that what happened between you and her has nothing to do with your relationship with him."

"That will be hard to do, since it's not quite true - as you very well know."

"Then you've got to make it true. You're going to lose your son if you don't. You've got to get Maria and Johnny separated in your mind, as they are in your heart. The best way to do that is to talk to him, get it all out in the open so he can finally understand why you react the way you do. Give him some credit for being able to see things from your point of view, then listen, really listen to his. Let him tell you about the mother he loves so you can understand why he can't hate her the way you do."

"Johnny would never tell me about her. He's very private about his life before Lancer. He rarely even talks to Scott about those days, and if he would tell anyone, it would be his brother, not me."

"You've got to try, Murdoch. You've got to trust Johnny with your feelings, only then will he be able to trust you with his. You've got to help him understand that your feelings for him have nothing to do with your feelings for his mother."

"I can't, Catherine. What I would have to say would hurt him too deeply."

"How so?"

She listened in silent horror as Murdoch revealed details of how life had been with Maria after Johnny's birth. How she had been so loving of her unborn child, only to turn cold towards him after he was born. Could it be possible for a mother to despise her own child for no other reason than he had been born a boy instead of a girl?

She shivered when he told her of Maria's exhausted words, 'you have your son, you raise him', spoken only minutes after Johnny's birth. How Maria had been unable, or maybe simply unwilling, to nurse her own child, and how she seemed to go out of her way to avoid being around him at all. By the time he revealed the final words Maria had written to him in her 'farewell' note, he was holding tightly to her and tears were streaming down her face.

"Now do you understand why I can't tell Johnny about her?"

Her heart broke for him and for Johnny. However, that only made what she had to say even more necessary. "You have to tell him, Murdoch."

"Catherine, how can you say that? How can you expect me to tell Johnny his own mother didn't want him?"

"You don't know that, Murdoch. You can't know how she felt. You have to leave out the personal opinions and stick to just the facts. Let Johnny draw his own conclusions. The truth hurts, but it is a pain that lessens over time. You've been hiding the truth from him for over a year, and what has that gotten you? There's a wall being built between you and your son that isn't going to go away. It's getting stronger with each passing day, and before long it will become too much to overcome. Share your memories with him, and be willing to listen to his in return, that's the only way to keep her memory from hurting either one of you any more."

"I don't know, Catherine."

"Just promise me you'll think about it."

"I'll think about it, but how-"

Reaching up through the darkness, she pressed her fingers firmly against his lips, halting the denial before it could be spoken. "You'll know when the time is right, Murdoch."

Content in the knowledge that she had done all she could for now, Catherine snuggled closer against Murdoch's sturdy frame. His arm tightened around her, and a cheek nuzzled her hair. She had missed this kind of intimacy, this kind of reciprocated affection between adults. Many children had come and gone over the years, most taking a part of her with them, and all touching her with the sweet innocence of their souls, but her needs had mostly gone unfulfilled.

She had been a wife; she had known the splendors of marriage and the intimacies associated with that most special union. As much as she wanted to be a mother to her son, she also wanted to be a wife...she wanted to be Murdoch's wife again. She wanted to share his life and his bed, his foul moods and his most playful moments. She wanted to grow old with his protective arms around her as they watched their grandchildren playing at their feet. Maybe she wanted too much, but for now she would let her dreams soar on the wings of hope.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a door opening and closing. After a brief pause, a door opened and closed again, although it sounded more distant the second time. As much as she hated to acknowledge the fact, it seemed that their interlude was over. Life was about to come crashing down on them again, although what more it could possibly bring to them was more than she wanted to contemplate.

"Sounds like your father is up and about," Murdoch mused in an annoyed tone.

"I guess I should get back to my own room. My father might decide to stay up next time he comes out." She moved to get up, but Murdoch's hold remained steadfast. "Murdoch."

"I don't want you to go."

"I don't want to, either, but I have to. You know that."

"Catherine, when this mess is all straightened out, I would like for us to be together again." Murdoch sighed softly. "I don't even know if I'm supposed to propose to you, or not. It would be rather silly if it turns out we've been married this whole time."

"But it would be a first," she teased.

"Only because you're very stubborn-"

"Resourceful," she interjected.


"Decisive," she countered his counter.

A firm hand slipped under her chin, lifting her face up as a warm puff of air rushed over her cheek. Then his lips were on hers, laying his claim with a passionate kiss that she eagerly returned. For a short while she allowed herself to become lost in his touch, to revel in the feel of his hands and his body, his hunger for what she too desired so much. If only her father wasn't in the next room, or their son just across the suite. But they were, and with her last ounce of self-control she pushed him away.

"Murdoch, we can't, not now."

"Catherine," he called out for her, his voice full of yearning. "I need you," he added so softly she barely made out his words.

"I'm yours, darling. I always have been, and I always will be. For now, though, we have to consider our son and his feelings. We have to wait."

"What happened to the resourceful woman I fell in love with?" Murdoch asked in a frustrated voice.

"She became a wiser woman who isn't about to let us do something we could possibly end up regretting. There will be time enough for that later, Ducky." She kissed his cheek, then moved away, this time his arms allowing her to slip off the bed. "But if you make me wait until February, I'll make you pay for it very dearly."

She had just reached the door, when she felt his hands on her waist. "I didn't make you wait the first time, Darling," he whispered softly in her ear. "And if you had held back for one more day."

"Yes, I seem to remember you saying something like that, but I had already made up my mind that you were going to be my husband. I am stubborn, remember?"

"Resourceful," he murmured softly in her ear.



"Murdoch," she protested weakly as he nibbled at her neck.

"I know." He kissed her one last time, on the cheek. "I just wanted you to know that I hadn't changed my mind."

"From the bed to the door?" she laughed. "It better take a little longer than about thirty or forty years." Knowing that she was very close to losing her resolve, she opened the door before turning towards him. "I love you," she whispered.

"I love you, too," came the equally soft reply.

Determined to listen to her rational mind instead of her desperate heart, she slipped out the door and quickly closed it behind her. After glancing cautiously around the suite area, she made her way back to her room.

Although she was grateful to have been able to spend a few precious minutes in Murdoch's arms, she knew she wanted more. The only thought that sustained her as she climbed into the cold loneliness of her own bed, was that one day soon she would never have to do that again. Her bed would be his, and then her loneliness would be gone forever.  

*** *** *** ***

It was nearly noon by the time Johnny rode into Morro Coyo. Having spent most of the night and well into the wee hours of the morning making plans, he was now ready to get the necessary materials to carry out those plans. He was saved from what had promised to be an emotional trip back to the ranch by remembering that the blacksmith was working on one of the Lancer buckboards, replacing an axle that had snapped a couple of weeks back.

It should have been fixed by now, and Johnny was hoping that with all the bosses away, no one had thought to come to town to retrieve it. Even if they had, though, it wouldn't make any difference. The more he thought about it the more he didn't care. Given the level of extravagance in which he had seen Murdoch indulging back in San Francisco, he would rent a wagon and charge it to the ranch's account; and dare Murdoch Lancer to say one word to him.

Stopping at the hardware store first, Johnny presented Mr. Baldemero with his list. He couldn't help smiling when the old man's eyes lit up. It was a rather extensive amount of materials, but there was a lot to do at the line shack. With the shack being the furthest from the hacienda, there was already a small barn, but it would need to be expanded to at least twice, if not three times, its current size. The corral would also need to be enlarged, though not nearly as much, which was why he had decided that would be his first order of business.

After daybreak, he had spent the better part of the morning staking out the perimeter of the new corral. Using broken tree limbs tipped with tied strips of cloth made from an old blanket he found in the shack, he had marked out the location where each post needed to be set. A knotted length of rope had kept the spacing between posts consistent, and he had been rather proud of his efforts when he was able to step back and see the outline of the new corral.

Just as he left Baldemero's store, Johnny felt a small niggling at his conscience, but quickly shoved it aside. He had made adequate provisions to keep the ranch running smoothly until the Lancer family decided to return, so there was no reason for him to feel the least bit guilty for walking away from where he was not wanted in the first place. Even before leaving on Scott's trail, he had put Jelly in charge. There had been numerous times that Murdoch had trusted Jelly to run things when the three of them had been off the ranch for a few days. He didn't see how Murdoch would have any grounds for accusing him of being irresponsible.

Besides that, there wasn't anything major going on at the time - just the usual fence mending and checking for strays and a gully in the north section that needed clearing. Anything else that might come up, Jelly could handle as well as he could. The best part of all was that the gully that needed clearing was on the opposite side of the ranch from the line shack he had appropriated as his base of operations. It would take the hands most of the week to get it cleared out, which would give him a good start on getting things set up without being interrupted by a bunch of nosy do-gooders.

In addition to the building materials for the corral, Johnny had included some other supplies on his list. This was a business he was starting, and it was also part of Lancer, which meant that he had two partners who would no doubt want to inspect the results of this venture. With this thought in mind, he had made sure to get a supply of paper, a quill and some ink, and even a ledger book.

He hated the bookkeeping part of ranching more than anything; nothing about those endless columns of numbers interested him, or even made much sense for that matter, but he reckoned it was a necessary evil. Murdoch seemed to think so, anyway. Scott did too, for the most part. Of course, since his grandfather was an accountant, Johnny didn't find that too surprising. What he had found surprising, what had torn through his heart, was the way Scott had looked back in San Francisco.

Sitting there at that fancy table with that woman, Scott had never looked happier. Johnny didn't expect Scott to hate her over him, but Scott hadn't looked the least bit disapproving of the fact that he was the only one invited to meet Murdoch's new woman, that he was the only son worthy of such an invitation. Never had Johnny felt so betrayed as he had by the brother he willing allowed into his heart, had trusted as he had trusted no other, and had come to love in a way Johnny had never thought himself capable. Scott's presence in his life was...had been the greatest source of joy he had ever experienced.

Steeling himself against the pangs of affection, Johnny entered the blacksmith's shop. The days of brotherly camaraderie were gone, and the sooner he accepted it the sooner it would stop hurting so bad. Murdoch had decided that he wasn't good enough to be part of the family, and Scott didn't seem to have any problems with it, so what else was there to do? Johnny would make a life for himself on Lancer, but away from those who saw him as nothing more than an embarrassment. He would keep on surviving the same way he had all his his wits and his determination.

An hour later, Johnny drove the heavily laden buckboard out of town, with Barranca trailing behind. The blacksmith had finished the repairs just the day before, and, as fate would have it, another of the ranch wagons had popped an axle and was hauled in while Johnny was at Baldemero's store. Upon arriving at the blacksmith's, Johnny had immediately appropriated the two draft horses, thereby solving his final transportation problem.

Fate? Johnny pondered the uncharacteristic benevolence fate was showing him on that day. Baldemero's store had received a shipment of supplies the prior day, without which half of his materials list would have gone unfilled. The wagon he needed to haul those supplies back to the shack was just repaired, and the horses he needed to haul the wagon were conveniently delivered right to him. It made him a little antsy.

Fate had never been his friend, or even an ally he could count on in a pinch. In fact, fate had usually been his enemy, throwing him bones only to have them yanked away, or just not giving him any bones at all. Not since that day a little over a year ago, when Murdoch's hired detective had saved him only minutes before his execution, had fate seemed to be so solicitous towards him.

Maybe things had really changed this time, or maybe this was just fate's way of making amends for the recent losses in his life. His heart told him that the trade off was anything but worth it, but his pride kept telling him to accept fate's offerings and get on with his life. If they didn't want him, then why should he care? If only that little voice that kept telling him he did care would go away. 

*** *** *** ***

Having boarded the train for home with Murdoch and his mother, Scott gazed out the window while they patiently waited for the impending departure. He was torn about leaving San Francisco. It did not feel right, leaving without having had the chance to say goodbye to his grandfather, but there really was not much else he could do. The short note found in his grandfather's bedroom stated that the older man would be attending to some unexpected business, and that he would try to stop by Lancer before returning to Boston. What possible business could have come up in San Francisco that would require his grandfather's immediate attention?

Outside, a small boy ran across the boarding platform before being grabbed from behind by his father. The boy was hoisted onto his father's shoulders and they both laughed and smiled before disappearing into the station. Catching his reflection in the glass, Scott saw his own rueful smile at the loving display. Sometimes it still hurt when he thought about all he had missed not having his father around when he was growing up.

It wasn't that he really had any room to complain, though. He had never felt anything but loved by his grandfather, who had treated him like a son in every way. Why, though? He pondered this though for what had to be the millionth time. Why had his grandfather even told him his name was Lancer? Why not just let him grow up thinking he was Scott Garrett? For all the hatred his grandfather held for Murdoch Lancer, that was the most striking inconsistency in it all.

Granted, it might have proven difficult to explain without casting shadows on Catherine Garrett's reputation, but Scott had no doubt that this grandfather could have come up with some socially acceptable reason for his grandson having the same last name. He could have just said Murdoch was dead, and that he had Scott's last name legally changed to Garrett in honor of his mother.

The train's whistle blew, long and loud, pulling his thoughts back to his current situation, and away from the question that might never be answered. Glancing to his right, he was somewhat surprised to see his mother looking at him with a curious smile.

"You seemed to be very deep in thought, Scott," she said even as her hand came to rest on his arm.

Scott shot his father, who was seated across and facing them, a shy glance, then returned his attention solely to his mother. "I was just thinking about my grandfather," he said honestly. He had never hid his feelings for his grandfather from Murdoch, and he wasn't about to start doing so with his mother.

Next to him his mother sighed, but the steadfast ire that he remembered so vividly from the night before did not rematerialize. Instead, she patted his arm and smiled warmly. "He did say he would stop by Lancer on his way back East. By then I'm sure we'll have found a way to straighten out this whole misunderstanding."

Scott couldn't help but be surprised, but his surprise evaporated as soon as his mother's smile faded into a sad frown. It warmed his heart to realize that she really did regret the unpleasantness of the previous evening. "It will work out," he said with a conviction he really did not feel, even though he wanted it to be so more than anything.

"Tickets," the porter said as he stopped at by their seats. Murdoch pulled out their tickets and handled the matter while Scott let his attention return to his mother.

When she had taken the seat next to him instead of sitting next to Murdoch, Scott had found more comfort than he would have expected from such a simple act. Even now, as she sat with her hand resting easily on his arm and her attention focused on Murdoch and the porter, he felt a growing connection with her. It was getting harder and harder to maintain any level of disappointment in her for letting an unfounded fear keep them apart for so long. After all, the past could not be changed, so there was nothing to do but make the most of the future.


Startled, Scott looked up to see Murdoch's steady gaze on him. "I'm sorry, Sir," he apologized. "What were you saying?"

"Your mother and I were just discussing the ranch, and she was wondering if we thought Teresa might resent her presence. I'm confident Teresa will be quite pleased to have another female around. What do you think?"

"She'll love having you around, Mother." Scott winked at his father. "It's the rest of us who might need to be worried, what with having two such strong-willed women around to gang up on us."

"We still out number them," Murdoch mused in mock sincerity.

"How do you figure that, Sir? By my calculations, we started out in the hole with just Teresa. Now the pit will be that much deeper."

"I think we have a very smart son, Murdoch," Catherine chimed in sweetly. Both men laughed, and had the decency to blush slightly. "Now, if you two are through trying to be funny, I am quite serious. Teresa may not appreciate an intruder coming into what has been her territory all her life."

In response to the concern in her voice, Murdoch voiced his certainty that her fears were completely unfounded. "You won't be viewed as an intruder, Darling. Teresa will welcome the help, as well as the companionship. I know she has missed out on having the influences of a mother figure to guide her."

Murdoch's expression became contrite and his tone full of regret. "Paul did the best he could by Teresa after her mother ran out on them. No father could have loved her more. I always tried to help as much as I could, but the truth is that Teresa became saddled with all of us at the expense of her own freedom. Unless you are too heavy-handed, which I don't see happening, I'm sure Teresa will view your presence as a much welcomed gift of personal freedom from dealing with the Lancer men."

"I have to agree with Murdoch, Mother," Scott added his voice to the reassurances. "Teresa will be much more willing to accept invitations from her friends knowing that someone else is available for taking care of us poor, incapable menfolk," Scott teased.

With a gentle slap to his arm, Catherine laid her head on Scott's shoulder, ignoring Murdoch as he chuckled over Scott's satiric comment. "I'm not sure I would call any Lancer man 'incapable'," she explained sweetly, "but I do remember a few instances when one in particular could be rather demanding of attention." Her eyes twinkled with mirth as Murdoch become rather subdued by her innuendo.

"Is that so?" Scott inquired with interest. "In what way? Specifically."

"I think it's time to change the subject," Murdoch dictated.

"I don't know about that, Sir," Scott challenged. "I think this subject is rather interesting, and could use some in depth analysis."

"Well, I don't," came the almost terse reply.

"Don't worry, Scott," his mother whispered softly. "There will be plenty of time for such discussions once we get to Lancer. Besides, I'm sure Johnny would want to be included in the exchange of information, as well."

An audible groan came from Murdoch's direction. "Why do I suddenly get the feeling that I'm not going to have a moment's peace from now on?"

"Because you're not," Catherine replied sweetly. "And just think how much more interesting your life is going to be."

Before Murdoch could respond to that statement, the train lurched forward and their journey began. They each seemed to settle into their own thoughts, and Scott found himself experiencing a deep sense of comfort as his mother clenched his arm more tightly each time the train's motion jolted them in their seats. Reveling in the feeling, Scott was content to remain silent as he looked out the window watching San Francisco slip by. Ahead lay a road of uncertainty that could turn very bitter, but for now he was willing to forget those unsettling possibilities and simply enjoy the peaceful companionship of his parents.

The rolling hills, carpeted in the green of the new seasons grass, stretched out for as far as the eye could see. In front of them lay the outer fringes of the San Benito Mountains, the same mountains that flanked the western border of Lancer. Those were the same mountains that greeted him every morning from his bedroom window, and left him more contented than he had ever dreamed possible.

Unaware of how long he had been allowing his thoughts to wander, Scott turned to face his mother just in time to see her head jerk up as she forced herself back awake. "Sleepy?"

"The train's rocking is very soothing," she said with a sheepish grin. "It's not the company, Dear, I can assure you."

With a nod of his head towards the opposing bench, Scott agreed. "Looks like Murdoch finds the rocking soothing, too."

Scott watched his father for a moment, wondering how anyone could manage to sleep on such uncomfortable seats. Then again, he recalled, Murdoch had been known to fall asleep in his desk chair on occasion. Teresa swore it was something all men could do, but Scott had never been able to do so, himself. He figured it had more to do with age. Before he could comment on those thoughts, his mother's fingers tightened around his arm.

"Scott, I know we didn't have any time to really talk before your grandfather showed up, but how do you feel about this? With my presence at Lancer? With the possibility that your father and I might wish to give our marriage another try?"

Placing his hand over hers as it clung tightly to his forearm, Scott laughed softly. "How can I be upset by my mother and father wanting to be together? Isn't that what every son would wish for?"

"True, but you're not just any son, Scott. And you've got one very big reason for not being overjoyed by the prospect."



With neither the desire nor the will to patronize her, Scott stated soberly, "Mother, the truth is out and it can no longer be denied. You are alive. Whether you and Murdoch decide to live as husband and wife or go your separate ways, it isn't going to change anything for Johnny. Not now. All we can do is wait for Mr. Barkley to tell us how bad the situation really is. It could turn out to be nothing more than Johnny's hurt feelings, in which case, we can help heal those."

A light snore floated to them from where Murdoch was sleeping across from them, and a tender smile tugged at Scott's lips. "It's like watching our father become a smitten young man."

The answering smile from his mother was just as tender, but not the least bit reserved. "He makes me feel like a smitten young woman," she said as she gazed affectionately at Murdoch as he snoozed across from them. "It's as good if not better than our first courtship. We've both grown up, learned so much about life and about ourselves. That's not to say that we were just..." she sighed.

"Foolishly young and in love?" Scott supplied with a touch of humor.

This time her sigh was more resigned. "My father thought I was a complete fool," she said sadly. "He couldn't see how much I loved Murdoch, or how much I needed what he was offering."

Her words reminded Scott that he had said much the same thing to his grandfather during their late night conversation. "Grandfather only acted so possessively because he loved you and was afraid of losing you." Guilt tugged at his heart, but he could not deny his partial acceptance of his grandfather's motives for wanting to keep her in Boston. "I not saying his actions were appropriate, but I think I can understand his reaction when it came to your leaving, though."

"How so?"

"That was a long time ago, Mother. Before telegraphs, and when the transcontinental railroad was just someone's dream, and far from a plausible reality for the general public. A simple visit would have taken at least a year, which made a visit practically impossible. Grandfather was literally facing never seeing you again."

Scott swallowed hard, and couldn't bring himself to look at her, even though he could feel her gaze on him. "I'm not saying he was right or that he handled the situation well, just that he was looking at losing his daughter forever. That has got to be hard for any father to face gracefully."

"I guess I never thought of it that way," she said barely above a whisper. "But I wasn't leaving him."

"I know, Mother, believe me." Scott hurried to reassure her. "I won't deny that there was a time when I didn't understand, but now I do. I've changed, and with that change has come an understanding I wouldn't have believed possible. I know full well why it was necessary for you to leave Boston."

"What changed for you, Son?"

"The war." Scott was glad he had already discussed this once, because now it was so much clearer, even to himself. "I learned more about myself during that year in Libby than I realized, that is until I came to Lancer. I don't think I ever liked being just Harlan Garrett's grandson before that, but I would have accepted it and just gone on as best I could to make a name for Scott Lancer. I honestly don't even think I would have responded to Murdoch's invitation if I hadn't spent that year there."

"Where is Libby?"

At first Scott was amazed that his mother did not know about the infamous Confederate prison, but he quickly realized that such details of the United States civil war would probably not have spread too far into Mexico. "Libby was the Confederate prison in which I was incarcerated after my unit was captured by enemy forces."

"Oh, Scott," she gasped.

His mother's fingers dug into his arm and Scott patted her hand in reassurance. "It's okay, Mother. I survived, and I like to think I'm a better man because of that experience than I otherwise would have been if I had chosen to remain safely tucked away in Boston. It's not something I ever want to relive, but my time there taught me that I could never be happy being just Harlan Garrett's grandson. It was that experience that gave me the courage to accept Murdoch's invitation when it finally came."

"Finally?" she said with a raised eyebrow.

"I was almost twenty-four years old before I ever heard from my father. I've found out since then that Grandfather made it impossible for him to claim me, but..." Scott struggled to quell the old resentments he had thought he had shed, but which had apparently just been buried in the back of his mind. "It hurt for a while, especially after I found out how hard Murdoch had searched for Johnny. He hadn't even bothered to write to me, even though he always knew exactly where I was."

"You said it hurt for a while. When did the hurting stop?" she asked gently.

"I don't know, exactly. I think it just faded over time, maybe as I got to know Johnny and Murdoch better. I don't think I really noticed it was gone until the day Johnny left for a time after he and Murdoch had words. Murdoch wouldn't admit he was wrong, but I could see the pain in his eyes. It nearly killed him not knowing where Johnny was, and that's when it really hit me as to how hard it must have been for him not knowing where Johnny was all those years. He knew precisely where to find me, and with that knowledge came the security that I was being well cared for and that I was with someone who loved me. With Johnny he had no such assurances."

Fighting back the tears that stung his eyes, Scott turned to his mother. For the first time in his life he felt the maternal bond shared between a child and his mother. It was almost overwhelming, even to a twenty-five year old man who had survived the horrors of a war. Nothing had ever felt better.

Recollections of words spoken to Johnny came back to him, and with them came the knowledge that he could tell her anything and it would always be all right. "I also know now that Murdoch stayed away, not because he was cold or didn't want me, but because he loved me enough not to force my grandfather into doing something that would have hurt me more than being without my father."

"The custody battle?"

Scott wasn't sure why, but that she knew about that detail surprised him. It also annoyed him. "Murdoch told you about that?" he asked curtly.

Only patience and understanding could be seen in her eyes. "Scott, your father and I always talked openly and honestly with each other, and we will continue to do so. That was one of the main things that attracted me to him in the first place. He wasn't like the men in Boston that my father wanted me to marry. Those men talked at me, not to me. I wasn't expected to think for myself, and was actually discouraged from doing so. Your father was the first man to ever ask my opinion on anything of any relevance, and be sincerely interested in my response, too. We spent many nights just talking, discussing what we wanted and deciding how to get it. But it was always *us*, not just him."

Not knowing whether or not he really wanted to know the answer, Scott hesitantly inquired. "Does that include grandfather?"

"To a lesser degree, yes," came the equally hesitant reply. "My father loved me, I know that, but there were very few times that I felt he respected me. I had the best education of any woman in Boston, but then I was denied the use of that education. Women were not supposed to 'worry their pretty little heads' over things that were 'beyond their place'."

The sadness in her voice caused a lump to form in Scott's throat. Too many times he had become frustrated during his engagement to Julie when she had so willing accepted her role as a 'helpless lady'. This had been the very issue that had started the last argument they had, the one that provoked Julie into breaking off their engagement. "It's not just grandfather," he tried to defend the indefensible with the only excuse available. "It's society as a whole."

"Don't worry, Scott. I'm not blaming my father for the ills of society. I was simply trying to help you understand that just because Murdoch told me about his dealings with my father concerning you doesn't mean we have been conspiring against him." She sighed and looked over at Murdoch, her face practically glowing with love and admiration. "Scott, as a man you can't begin to understand how refreshing it was for woman to be treated like a real person, and not just a possession or an ornament to be put on display."

In this, she was so very wrong. He knew all too well how that felt. After all, he had spent his life in the starring role of 'Harlan Garrett's heir'. In the years between the war and leaving for California, he had begun to wonder if anyone in Boston even knew his real name. "I do understand, Mother. It's just that the Murdoch Lancer I know isn't the man you're describing." He tried to keep the bitterness from his voice, but failed miserably. "Murdoch does not talk about anything personal. Ever."

"He used to, Scott, back before his heart was battered to the point he had to close himself off just to keep from becoming a bitter old man." She paused for a moment, then looked up at Scott. "Give him another chance, Son. He has seen what he's become and he doesn't like it. He's trying, he really is. He's so different today from the man he was just a few weeks ago when he first arrived at the mission. I didn't care for that man at all, and would have found another way to contact you if I didn't see any hope of regaining the man I knew he once was."

"I'll bet you didn't tell him that," Scott lamented rather sarcastically.

The look Catherine gave him was nothing short of a challenge. "Exactly how much are you willing to lose on that wager?"

The sheer confidence of her response startled Scott, but at the same time, it told him that this was exactly what she had done. He couldn't begin to count the number of times he had witnessed Johnny challenging Murdoch, but not once had Johnny been the victor if winning was defined as getting Murdoch to back down. "And he listened to you?"

"Not happily, but, yes, he listened. He realized that he had let the actions of others - my father and..." she hesitated for just a moment, then forged on, confident in her right to talk about anything with her son. "My father and Johnny's mother turned him into what he is today, Scott. The real Murdoch Lancer, the man buried under all the pain and heartache caused by those two selfish individuals, is very warm and caring and understanding. He laughs and he listens and he talks openly about his hopes and dreams and fears. I loved that man with all my heart, and I still do." Her fingers tightened around Scott's arm, but she had eyes only for Murdoch. "He is still that man, Scott."

Scott's gaze followed hers, and he took a very good look at his father. So much understanding had come during the last year at Lancer, yet know he felt like he had overlooked some of the most important things. It was as if a veil had been lifted by her assurances, and he could suddenly see his father much more clearly. What he had previously considered to be indifference, had really been a man who couldn't bring himself to put his heart at risk again. With that knowledge came comfort, but also a deep sense of pain. "Why wasn't my love enough? Or Johnny's? Why weren't we enough for him to take the risk?"

"Scott, it isn't that his sons' love wasn't enough. What made me successful where you feel you and Johnny failed is that I know the man he used to be. Even then, it was a fight for me, too. Neither one of you knew he could be anything more than what he was, so there was no reason for you to look. You have no reason to feel you failed in any way."

He found some measure of relief in the knowledge that it had been a fight for his mother to reach Murdoch. He had gained a huge amount of insight into such tactics from living with Johnny for the past year. Johnny made a more conscious effort of keeping his walls in place; only Scott had learned early on that those walls could be very transparent; if you were willing to make the effort to look. What he couldn't understand was why he had never been able to even see his father's defenses, much less try to get passed them. The only answer possible was not very flattering. "I never bothered to look," he murmured his dismay.

Misunderstanding his comment, his mother tried to appease him with a gently spoken, "You didn't know there was anything there to see."

Feeling anything but encouraged by her words, Scott replied in dismay, "I didn't know any more about Johnny when we first met, but I saw through his act almost from the first day."

"Which makes perfect sense."

Scott was genuinely surprised by her comment. "How so?"

"Son, I know my recent actions have fallen far short of showing it, but I do love my father. I am not blind to his shortcomings, though, and I do remember what it was like growing up under his influence. You never knew Johnny existed, so you had no preconceived notions about him that could blind you to his attempted deceptions. When it came to your father, however, can you honestly tell me that your grandfather did not force his own dislike for Murdoch on to you?"

While his initial instinct was to deny the allegation, something made him hold his tongue. Memories from his childhood flooded his mind, but he was now able to see them with a more discerning eye. While his grandfather had never blatantly degraded Murdoch to his face, he was beginning to realize that there had always been sufficient innuendos floating around to keep him convinced his father was cold and unfeeling towards him.

At the time, his grandfather's seemingly innocent commentary on how well his friends got along with their fathers, how much time those fathers spent with their families, how wonderful it was to see a man put his family above his business, could now be discerned for what they really were - the careful manipulation of Scott's thoughts into a pattern of doubting his own father's capacity to feel anything for him. The lack of communication from Murdoch made that task easy enough, but he was the one who had allowed his own hurt feelings to maintain the lie, even though he could have done something to find out the truth. He had never written to his father, either, demanding justification for his abandonment.

While it would be easy to place all the blame at his grandfather's feet, Scott knew he had to shoulder some of the responsibility, too. He had done nothing to verify any of the facts as he assumed them to be, nor ask any of the questions that had tormented his mind and heart through the years. Instead, he had simply hated his father before becoming so indifferent he could not even feel that much. By the time he finally met Murdoch face to face, he had expected nothing and had looked for even less.

"Scott, your grandfather loves you. I could tell that just from the short time I saw him with you yesterday, but he is also a very stubborn and willful man - and a very possessive one, too. He does not like to lose, and he had already lost me. If he had ever lost you, it would not have been to Murdoch Lancer."

In her words Scott found the ally he so desperately needed to help reach his grandfather. "You understand why he kept me away from my father, and why he said those things about Johnny, don't you?" Although phrased as a question, Scott knew the answer even before the slightly graying blonde head nodded before coming to rest on his shoulder.

"He has let his hatred for Murdoch become his obsession," she stated what they both already knew. "I've seen that kind of hatred many times. It is unfounded, but still strong enough to wash aside the very feelings that were supposedly its inspiration. After talking to your father last night, I began thinking that there was no other rational explanation for my father's attitudes. The only thing that made any sense was that he has allowed his hatred to cloud his own vision, making him do things he would normally not do and justify them as being right."

Scott laughed very softly, making a concerted effort to avoid interrupting his father's sleep, but at the same time, needing the emotional release of such a gesture. He wanted this time alone with his mother. If he were truly honest with himself, he needed it, too. And to find that they both thought so much alike was even more of a pleasure.

"What's so funny?"

"You were in Murdoch's bedroom last night, weren't you?

She gasped, then chuckled lightly. "How did you know?"

"I heard the doors opening and closing after I left Grandfather's room."

This remark got her attention and she lifted her head from his shoulder, her eyes searching his in desperate hope. "You talked to your grandfather last night?"

"Yes, and I arrived a the same conclusions you did." He couldn't keep from smiling. "It's nice to finally have someone around who can see things as I do. You're my mother, and I love you for that, but I'm beginning to realize just how much I need your friendship and your counsel. I'm so anxious to get to know you better, to..." The enormity of it all threatened to overwhelm him, and he had to look away in order to ward off a highly inappropriate emotional outburst.

"I wish more than anything that I could have been there for you when you were growing up, but that is past and we only have the future left to us. Being your mother now, and having the opportunity to be your friend, too, is the most precious gift I've ever received."

Scott felt her fingers brush through his hair over his ear and down to his neck, where they tenderly caressed his skin before beginning the same motion again. He could feel her love flowing to him through her touch, making his battle to contain his emotions even more difficult. There was so much he wanted to change, so many things he wanted to be different, but they just couldn't be undone.

Choking back his tears, he turned back towards her. Instead of pulling away, though, she remained where she was, looking up at him with love and pride, while she continued to rake his hair with her fingers. The warmth of her other hand gripping his forearm brought him even closer to losing control. Giving her a weak smile, he gave up all attempts at pretense and settled for keeping his reactions from getting out of hand.

"I just realized that you touch me more than anyone ever has." Even as he spoke those words, he realized they could be very easily be misinterpreted. However, instead of pulling her hands away, as he feared she would do, his mother kept up her caresses, her smile saying without words that she knew exactly how good it made him feel.

"I've got a lot of years to make up to you, my son," she said softly. Tears filled her eyes, but they only managed to magnify her look of love. "I missed so much not being there for you. I want to make it all up to you, to both of us."

Scott slipped his arm around her, hating that in doing so he would lose the touch of her fingers brushing through his hair, but wanting to offer her the same comfort as he was receiving. Pulling her close, he knew he would never be lost again. With one of her hands still at his forearm, and the other now at his chest, he experienced an overwhelming sense of joy that nearly took his breath away.

Very gently he took lifted her hand from his chest and raised it to his lips. He kissed her fingers as she snuggled closer to him. "I love you, Mother," he whispered breathlessly.

"I love you, too, my precious son."

Clenching her hand in his, he held on to her as she cried in his arms. She wasn't upset, simply finding a release from the intense emotions in her own way. He did the same thing, but instead of shedding his tears, he kept them in check, while letting his gaze take in the passing scenery as his mind regained control of his emotions in the silent comfort of her nearness. Later, after this storm had passed, they would have much more to talk about.  

*** *** *** *** 

The air around him was hot and muggy, sometimes making even the effort of breathing enough to sap the strength right out of him. Long before the first hole became an actual hole, Johnny was already bared from the waist up, his deeply tanned skin glistening with sweat in the afternoon sun. He couldn't remember too much about the weather of the previous spring, his first at Lancer, but he was certain that it could not have been this stiflingly sticky.

"This must be how one of them roastin' chickens feels like when it's about half-baked," he lamented aloud. Resting himself against the handle of the shovel, he took a short breather, hating to do so as his task was far from over. After wiping the sweat from his brow with his already slick forearm, he lifted the shovel and began scooping away the earth again. He was just about finished with that particular hole, when he heard the sound of approaching hoof beats.

He didn't even have to look up to know who it was. His heart sank, even as his mind steeled itself for the argument to come. He had known this would happen, in fact, he was a little surprised it had taken this long. The horse and rider came right up to him before coming to a halt.

"Jelly," Johnny said neutrally. He watched the older man dismount, but said no more.

"Boy, you wanna tell me what this here nonsense is all about?" Jelly asked in lieu of a greeting. "Teresa's plumb beside herself with worry." Then his concerned toned hardened. "Ya had no call talkin' ta her like that. I don't care what Murdoch done this time. Ya should be ashamed of yerself."

'Johnny, you're scaring me', Teresa's words came back to haunt him, bringing with them a bitter jolt of reality. "Better she's beside herself than scared of me," he stated evenly. Lifting the shovel, he set to go about his work, only to have the wooden handle yanked from his grasp.

"Johnny Lancer, yer talkin' plain crazy. Where'd ya take off to the other day? And what in tarnation happened when ya was gone ta give ya that danged fool idea that ya been kicked outta yer own family? Ya jes ain't makin' no sense, boy."

Grabbing the shovel back, Johnny glared at Jelly and dared him to even try to lay a hand on it again. To his relief, the older man had enough sense to back down. He wasn't sure he would be capable of matching an action to his threatening stare. Not against Jelly. "I've had lots of experience knowing when I ain't wanted around someplace."


"Listen up, Jelly. It's the way things are, so you might as well get used to it. Now, you get back on that horse and go back to doing the job you're being paid to do. I'm not gonna have anyone accusing me of stealing away his ranch hands. When I need some help, I'll hire my own men."

Jelly bowed up, like he was about to let loose on Johnny with the tongue lashing from hell, but sank back down before asking, "What's this all about, Johnny? Ain't no secret you and Murdoch butt heads on occasion, but what yer sayin' just ain't somethin' he would do. He loves you."

Johnny laughed, a brittle sound that hurt more than it conveyed any sense of mirth. "He tolerates me, Jelly, an even that he don't do too well sometimes. He needed me and my gun to help save his ranch, but now he don't know what to do with me. Guess he figured I'd get myself killed and save him the hassle. Too bad Day's aim-"

"You jes shut yer mouth, boy!" Jelly roared. "I ain't got no idea what ya done hit yer head on, but ya ain't thinkin' straight. Or maybe ya just ain't thinkin' at all. Yer father loves you, and you darn well know it."

"He's asham-" Johnny caught himself mid-word. He was not about to get into this with Jelly, or anyone else for that matter. In his world, actions always spoken louder than words, and Murdoch's actions proclaimed his feelings loud and clear; Johnny was a son to be hidden away from things that did not require his fast gun. He had never been any more to his father than a hired gun. Denying it wasn't going to change the facts.

With a grunt, Johnny shoved the tip of the shovel down into the hole he had been digging, but before scooping out its load, he looked up at Jelly. "I got work to do and I'm through talking. You can stand there with your mouth open if you like, but don't count on me to warn you before a bee flies in. You want any more answers, you can ask Mr. Lancer when he gets back."

Jelly couldn't have looked more shocked if he'd been struck by lightning. "Mr. Lancer?"

"Yeah. If I ain't good enough to be his son, then he ain't good enough to be my father." With that comment, Johnny returned to his digging, hoping Jelly would leave him alone before he lost what little control he had left.

Shock gave way once more to concern. "Johnny, ya know I'm yer friend. Whatever's got ya so worked up, ya knows I'm in yer corner."

Johnny sighed. "I know that Jelly, but you're not going to be doing me any favors if he gets back and there's a heap of work that shoulda been done still sitting there undone."

After scratching at his beard, Jelly looked at him hopefully. "What if I was ta come back after I gets off his clock? Would you be willin' ta talk to me then? Maybe I could even help ya dig a few a these holes."

Inhaling sharply, Johnny released he breath slowly, struggling with all he had not to release his anger on the old man who wasn't any part of the family from which he had been ostracized. "Jelly, I know you mean well, but I've got a lot of work to do. I don't have time for talking, and wearing you out doing my work isn't going to get me anything but more grief from the old man."

"Guess that's a sight better'n 'Mr. Lancer'."

To this Johnny could only snort. "Doubt he'd think so. You can ask him when he gets back. If you want any more answers, you can ask him for those, too."

"More?" Jelly grumbled under his breath, but just loud enough for Johnny to hear. "That'd be inferrin' I got some of them answers ta begin with, which I ain't." Grasping the reins, he remounted his horse and stared down at Johnny. "I'm leavin', but only cuz I know yer too derned stubborn fer yer own fool-headed good. But I ain't givin' up on you, so you can jes throw them foolish notions right outta yer head."

Although Johnny could tell Jelly wasn't happy about leaving and that he meant every word about keeping at him, he was relieved when the older man whirled his horse around and galloped away. He couldn't help but wonder how much of the stubborn old man's resolve would still be there when Murdoch returned all happy and content with his new woman, and with Scott's seal of approval, too. 

*** *** *** ***

"Well?" Teresa asked as she rushed out the French doors towards the hitching rail, letting loose a barrage of questions as soon as she stopped. "Did you find Johnny? Did he tell you what was wrong? When is he coming home?"

Jelly dismounted with a heavy sigh, then turned to face the music. He knew he had failed her, had failed Johnny, too, but things were evidently a whole lot more complicated than he had first believed. "Yeah, I found 'im. No, he didn't tell me what got him so stirred up, and..."

"And what?" Teresa demanded

Hedging, Jelly knew he had to tell her, but that didn't mean he wanted to. Nope, he didn't want to at all. "Teresa, it 'peers ta me he's settlin' in up there, real good. From the looks of things, I'd say he meant it when he said he'd be callin' that place home from now on." After flipping the reins over the rail, he wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders and together they walked back into the house.

"Now, Teresa, I know most a what's been goin' on 'round here since Murdoch up an' took off, but I gots me a feelin' there's somethin' I don't know." After getting her settle on the sofa, Jelly took a seat in the chair by the fireplace. "Thing's changed the other day when Johnny decided ta knock out that wood pile out back, only no one seemed too inter'sted in sharin' what happened. You wouldn't happen ta know somethin' 'bout that, would ya?"

Teresa nodded glumly. "Johnny got a telegram from Murdoch."

"Musta been some message," Jelly mused more to himself than to Teresa. "I ain't never seen that boy so worked up 'fore."

"Murdoch wanted Johnny to telegraph the location of his mother's grave to some attorney in San Diego," Teresa informed him in a disheartened voice. "He didn't say why he wanted to know, or anything else, and..."

"And the boy was a might upset," Jelly finished for her.

Teresa tried to smile at the understatement, but failed miserably. "That's putting it mildly," she lamented sadly. "Then, Saturday morning another telegram came, only this time it was for Scott. Murdoch wanted Scott to meet him, but not Johnny."

"Meet 'im? Where?"

"I don't know. Scott wouldn't tell me. He said he didn't want Johnny to know and he wouldn't ask me to lie for him. Then Johnny up and disappeared until yesterday evening. It was when he came back that he acted so hateful."

"Reckon Johnny found out where Scott went an' follered after 'im?"

"How would he find out? Scott didn't even tell me. I never saw the telegram. I can't see Scott leaving it here where Johnny might find it, so either he destroyed it or took it with him. No one except Scott knew what it said." Teresa was sounding more despondent with every word.

"Scott, and the man who was operatin' that there telegraph machine," Jelly suggested.

At first Teresa was shocked. "But Evan would never tell anyone what a telegram to someone else said. That would be unethical." Her brow furrowed in thought. "I think it might even be illegal."

"An' you think either one a them 'scuses woulda stopped Johnny once he'd made his mind up?"

"No," Teresa sighed. "I just hope he wasn't too hard on Evan."

Jelly frowned but then shook his head. "Didn't hear no chatterin' in town Saturday evening, so I'm figurin' Evan was smart nuf ta forgo a few a them ethics to save his hide."

"Even if Johnny did follow Scott, what could he have possibly found that would make him believe Murdoch wanted to kick him out of the family? That doesn't make any sense. I know Johnny and Murdoch have their bad moments, but they love each other. I can tell."

"I know ya can, honey, jes like me an' Scott can, too. The only two who can't see it is Murdoch and Johnny.  

*** *** *** *** 

"Next stop, Cross Creek!" The porter's voice boomed through the passenger car. 

"Almost home," Murdoch said to Catherine as he held her close against him 

Scott smiled, noting the possessive stance, but more importantly, the pure joy in his father's expression. Not long after he and his mother had finished their emotionally charged conversation, Murdoch awoke, taking away any chance for further discussion. There were many things they still had to learn about each other, but for now Scott preferred to keep them between himself and his mother. As a result, the decision was made to use this opportunity to put his newly found insights to use. This allowed Scott to begin seeing his father from an entirely different perspective.

A few hours before that they had been served a late lunch, and his mother had taken the opportunity to move over to sit beside Murdoch. This was something that Scott had found both amusing and interesting. He remained silent for the most part, taking his mother's advice and reevaluating his previous perceptions of his father. He had to admit, Murdoch did seem more relaxed than Scott had ever seen him. Of course, the remainder of the trip was spent discussing a more pleasant subject - Lancer.

While Murdoch told Catherine all about the ranch, Scott listened intently and slowly came to understand what his mother had been trying to tell him about how she and Murdoch talked things out. Even now, twenty-five years later, her eyes lit up whenever Murdoch mentioned that something that they had discussed all those years ago had become a reality, just as her disappointment was all too clear when he told her of a plan that had turned out to be impractical. They laughed and joked, and at one point she even faked a pout when Murdoch informed her that he had drastically changed her plans for the layout of the kitchen. Scott had barely been able to contain his own laughter as Murdoch hastened to explain what his mother's teasing glance told him she already understood.

The conversation was brought to an end when the train jerked to an abrupt stop. Looking out the window, Scott saw the familiar sights of the Cross Creek station and marveled at how good it made him feel. This was the last stop before Lancer, the last stop before they reached home.

Home. The word echoed in his mind. Even his grandfather's house, where he had lived his entire life until a year ago, had never evoked this sense of comfort and longing. Now, he could not imagine living anywhere else - Lancer had become the home he had never known he was missing, and now he sorely missed his home, even after such a short time away.

"Scott, while I see to collecting our baggage, why don't you go down to the livery. I wired ahead this morning that we would need to rent a buggy, so they'll be expecting you."

"Yes, sir." Scott exchanged a smile with his mother, then quickly departed the train car.

As he made his way to the livery at the other end of town, he couldn't help but think about what lay ahead. According to Murdoch, Mr. Barkley said it would be no later than the end of the week before he arrived with an answer to their questions, but Scott hoped with all his heart that it would be sooner than that. The longer Johnny had to stew on the possibilities, the more potential there was for a blow up between father and son.

Johnny had been extremely hurt and angry, and Scott knew his abrupt and unexplained departure would have only made matters worse. It was going to be like getting a welcome home from an ornery badger, but he still held onto the hope that, once things had been explained, Johnny would understand and be happy for him...that is until the negative potential of the situation had a chance to sink in. By then Scott was counting on having Johnny's anger at Murdoch for his rather insensitive behavior laid to rest. The law might be the law, but having his father's steadfast and absolute support would do Johnny more good than anything.

Upon reaching the livery stable, Scott pushed those unpleasant thoughts aside and busied himself with the business at hand. As expected, the buggy was ready and waiting for their arrival. All that was left to be done was to hitch up the horses, and while the livery man did that, Scott checked on his own horse, which he had stabled before leaving for San Francisco.

After making payment for both the buggy rental and Charlemagne's upkeep, Scott made a quick assessment of the room available and decided that if his saddle was stood on end and just to the back of the rear seat, there would still be enough room for all their baggage. Saddling Charlemagne was an option, but not one he preferred. His horse would be much more comfortable without such a needless encumbrance. After he finished his task, he departed the stable and drove slowly down the dusty street, with Charlemagne prancing energetically from behind.

When he arrived at the train depot, he easily spotted his father's imposing form at the end of the boardwalk. Next to him was the shorter figure of his mother, and Scott had to choke back a sudden onslaught of emotion. His parents. Both of them.

Never in his wildest dreams had he even dared to imagine anything like this. In his mind his mother had always been permanently out of reach, nothing more tangible than an image in the pictures that decorated his grandfather's home. He didn't even realize he had reined the buggy to a halt until he felt his father's firm hand on his shoulder.

"Scott?" The concern in Murdoch's voice was evident.

Shaking off his revere, Scott smiled at his father, feeling somewhat sheepish about his lapse. "I'm sorry for staring, Sir. It's just going to take some getting used to," he explained as best he could. "Seeing the two of you together."

Two encouraging and sympathetic faces met his gaze. "It is, however, something that is definitely worth getting used to," he added with a radiant smile.

 *** *** *** ***

After slightly intense discussion while the baggage was being packed, Murdoch helped Catherine into the front seat. Scott rolled his eyes and climbed up next to her, taking the reins in hand while Murdoch settled himself in the rear seat. Scott had thought him silly, but Murdoch insisted on this arrangement because he wanted to sit back and enjoy watching Catherine and their son interact, seeing the bond developing as it should have done all those years ago. From that first day in the great room at Lancer, he had noticed Scott's striking resemblance to Catherine, but now, having them together like this, it was even more amazing how much they were alike in so many other ways.

The way they smiled, their reactions to stress and anger, even the inflections of their voices were so similar it was easy to forget they had just met. What he found most comforting, though, was the way Catherine was always touching Scott in some manner; and if Scott's dazzling smile was any indication, he was more than happy to have her hand on his arm, shoulder, or just brushing the hair back over his ear. It was the way it should have been all those years ago. It warmed his old heart and made him feel young again.

"All settled?" Scott's cheery voice called back to him.

Before Murdoch could reply, a blast of warm air rushed over his cheek, and his hat was knocked off from behind. Catherine laughed, and Scott smiled over his shoulder as Murdoch replaced the hat Charlemagne had so abruptly dislodged from his head.

"He's just bored," Scott explained as he snapped the reins. The buggy jerked a little, then began moving smoothly forward. "He's not used to being stabled for three days in a row."

Catherine twisted around and sat sideways, facing Scott and letting her arm rest on the back of the seat. She looked back at Murdoch, then at the feisty chestnut. "He is a lovely animal," she said as her hand came to rest on Scott's shoulder. "What's his name."

"Charlemagne," Scott answered, then laughed. "Johnny prefers to call him Charlie, but I know he just does it to get a rise out of me."

"And does he succeed?" she asked amused.

"Oh, I let him think so," Scott chuckled, "but that's just a tactical measure to keep him from thinking up some other little-brother tactic to annoy me."

Catherine's smile was full of wonder and love. "You really enjoy having Johnny for a brother, don't you?"

Scott nodded and sighed in contentment. "Yes, Mother, I do, very much. It wasn't always that way, though. I can honestly say I wasn't very sure of Johnny in the beginning. There was an arrogance about him that made me want to wring his neck. He seemed so sure he was right and everyone else was wrong. It didn't take me too long to figure out that most of his attitude came from the fact that he had always had to handle things alone simply because there wasn't anyone around who he felt he could trust.

"What with being on his own for so long, it had become a means of self-preservation for him. It's taken time and perseverance on both our parts, but I think he's finally beginning to accept that he can depend on others without getting hurt. We've had a few spats over the subject, but he's learning, and I think he's actually coming to enjoy the experience of not having to keep everyone at arm's length."

Catherine patted Scott's shoulder with pride, but Murdoch barely noticed as his mind was making a rather painful analysis of his older son's words. He had never really thought about it, but that Johnny had a difficult time trusting people was very understandable. It wasn't like he had many reasons to trust anyone, whereas there was a lifetime of reasons not to. From what little Murdoch had gleaned about his son's prior existence, that he had picked up a gun and fought back was not too surprising. Unpleasant for a father to discover, but it should not have been surprising given the circumstances leading up to that decision.

Along with many other things Murdoch laid the blame for all of this squarely on Maria's shoulders. Johnny, however, did not see it that way. Despite the fact that Johnny seemed to accept that he and his mother had not been thrown off Lancer as he had been told, there was no doubt in Murdoch's mind that Maria was at the root of most of their problems. In Johnny's mind, Murdoch was certain that his son put most of the blame at his feet, although he had no idea why.

Suddenly Murdoch's hat was once again falling towards his feet. Catching it quickly, before the wind could blow it out of the buggy, Murdoch turned and glared at the trouble-making horse. "Do that again and Johnny will be finding something else to annoy his older brother about." Although irritated, he did realize the futility of the effort and laid his hat on the seat beside him.

Both Scott and Catherine began laughing, but Scott was the first to regain his composure. "Charlemagne, behave," he ordered in mock sternness. "It took me long enough to find an acceptable mount to replace that nag my doubting little brother picked out for me."

"Do I sense a story here?" Catherine asked with interest.

Murdoch chuckled, remembering that morning like it was yesterday. "Johnny made the mistake of jumping to the conclusion that because Scott was from back East he would not be an experienced horseman. From what I understand, Johnny convinced Cipriano that Scott needed a more sedate horse than the one that had originally been selected for him."

"Sedate?" Scott complained indignantly. "If that horse had been any more sedate, it would have needed help breathing."

"Now, Scott, that mare was a good cow pony in her time. One of the best, as a matter of fact." With a wink at Catherine, Murdoch continued with the story. "Johnny didn't know Scott had been in the cavalry in the war, so when Scott took Barranca over a series of very difficult jumps, Johnny and the rest of the hands were in total awe. It really was a spectacular sight, and I was quite impressed, myself."

"Thank you, Sir," Scott said proudly.

The pride in Catherine's expression was just as heartwarming. "Scott, what happened to Barranca? Or did you just find Charlemagne to be a more suitable horse?"

Scott chuckled as he flicked the reins when the horse pulling the buggy seemed to want to stray off the road. "Barranca is Johnny's horse. Johnny had just broken him that morning, and I felt I needed to make a statement - not only to my brother, but to the rest of the hands, as well. That one act gained me the respect I needed to get through the next few months of learning how to be a rancher."

A wave of pride washed over Murdoch. He had always thought Scott had made that bold statement with Barranca for the sole purpose to show up Johnny, but now it seemed that he had already figured out that earning the respect of the ranch hands would make his transition into the role of a rancher much more easy. His tactical mind had served him well on that first morning, and later, in the fight against Pardee. Seems he might have been underestimating both his sons.


Scott's voice sounded so pensive that Murdoch's contemplation of his older son's insight was instantly forgotten. "What is it, Son?"

"I intended to bring this up with you privately, but there never was an opportunity," Scott looked at his mother, then down at his hands. "Even if I had, though, I assume you and mother would have discussed it between yourselves, so there really isn't any reason not to bring it up now."

Although Murdoch had no idea what Scott was talking about, his guess would be that it had something to do with Johnny. Still, the implication of Scott's words left him feeling a little unsettled. He had every right to discuss anything in his life with Catherine, and Scott was the last person he would have believed would challenge that fact. However, just as he opened his mouth to voice that particular thought, Catherine gave him a warning look and shook her head slightly. It appeared she knew something he did not, so he conceded to her unspoken suggestion. "Go on," he said cautiously.

"I think it might be best we discussed what to expect from Johnny upon our arrival."

"How can we discuss what we don't know anything about, Scott? We can 'what if' this situation into oblivion, but until Johnny actually meets your mother we can't be certain of anything."

"I'm not talking about Johnny's reaction to my mother. I'm talking about his reaction to you."

Though tempted to voice his indignation, Murdoch won the battle to control his urge. In his heart he knew his actions had hurt Johnny, but his mind still argued adamantly that he had more than adequate justifications for each and every one of those actions. "I realize I upset your brother, Scott. I'll do my best to explain it to him, and to try to make him understand why I...why I behaved the way I did."

"Thank you," Scott nodded hesitantly, as if he wished there had been more to Murdoch's admission. Still he continued on with his thought. "However, I'm more worried about things getting out of hand before you can even get to that point."

This time Murdoch was at a loss to understand what Scott was trying to say. "How do you mean?"

"Murdoch, Johnny isn't just upset, he is extremely angry at you. And since I left with even less of an explanation than you did, I don't see how he's going to be any happier with me. I guess what I'm trying to say is that he is probably going to need to blow off a little steam and..."

Now Murdoch understood. "And you don't want me to take offense and get into an argument with your brother before we have a chance to explain the situation to him."

"Exactly. You know that Johnny will listen, eventually. I'm just not sure he's going to be ready to do so right off. There was a lot of hurt and anger built up before I left, and it's bound to be even worse with me making the same effort to protect him as you. Johnny doesn't like to be coddled, and you know it. He's going to see our actions as an indication of our lack in faith in him."

Scott snuck a glance at his mother, only to find he was on the receiving end of a very supportive, very understanding smile. She patted his arm, but said nothing to interrupt his train of thought. "Johnny is going to need you, Murdoch. Until Mr. Barkley arrives with the answers to the questions of the legalities we're all facing, Johnny is going to need your support, and if the news turns out to be bad, he is going to have to know that you still accept him as your son, no matter what the law says."

Scott paused, but even from the back his rigid posture forewarned of the severity of his next statement. "Johnny has got to believe that you love him, no matter what."

"I do love Johnny," Murdoch protested Scott's use of the word 'believe'. "He's my son. He knows that. It goes without saying."

The taunting laughter of his own conscience resounded in Murdoch's head, even as a deep-seated guilt tried to worm its way out of the furthest recesses of his mind, only to smash head on into the wall of his stubborn denial. He loved his son, but at the same time, just as he had confessed to Catherine, he purposely kept his feelings securely tucked away. He was too leery of Johnny's similarities with his mother to ever allow Johnny to be in a position to hurt him as Maria had done. Of course, he was positive that Johnny knew nothing of his conflicting feelings, and neither did Scott. Only Catherine knew how he both loved and resented Johnny - how he basked in the joy of having his son back home, while actively shunning the man he saw as a creation of Maria's selfishness.

Scott's voice was tense as it broke the silence to Murdoch's contemplations. "More precisely it has gone without saying for too long."

"Scott," Catherine interjected.

There was a warning in her voice meant for Scott, but which Murdoch read just as easily. It made him rethink the angry retort that had been about to be unleashed in response to Scott's subtle accusation, but he had too much practice fighting the truth to give in without a battle. "Johnny knows I love him."

"No, Murdoch, Johnny doesn't know that. In fact, he doubts it most of the time, but that is because you've never given him any reason to do otherwise. From the very beginning, you've ridden him harder than anyone else, including me. His mistakes are pointed out with angry disappointment, while mine are explained with patient understanding. He left once because of that kind of behavior, or have you forgotten?"

Forgotten? How could Scott even think he had forgotten about that incident; it was just one event in a long string of events that made it impossible for him to forget his son's past. "I haven't forgotten anything," Murdoch snapped bitterly.

"No, sir, you haven't," Scott snapped back. "You get your back up whenever anything is mentioned that has to do with Johnny Madrid."

"And you blame me for that? Am I so wrong for wanting to keep Johnny's past away from Lancer?"

"Murdoch, you are the one who has difficulty letting go of the past. You always expect Johnny Lancer to revert back to Johnny Madrid at the least bit of provocation, so that is what you see."

That wasn't true. "I'm only seeing what's there," Murdoch countered.

Scott's shoulders remained rigid in defiance, but his voice was sad and resounded with defeat. "You need to look again, sir." After a long silence, Scott added dismally. "When you refuse to accept Johnny as he is now, you are punishing him for what he used to be - what he had to be."

"I have never punished Johnny for anything," Murdoch began, only to be cut off by a soft, but firm voice.


This time Catherine's warning was meant for him and him alone, and Murdoch looked up at her in annoyance. He was already irritated by his son's questions, but was made even more so by her condemning glare. But she knew the truth, and her expression told him he better start remembering it himself or she would become part of this conversation. Not one to take being rebuked lightly, Murdoch bristled under the unspoken threat. "Catherine, this matter is between me an my sons."

"Not when one of those sons is mine, too," she stated calmly, but with a determined air that sizzled with a barely controlled anger. "And not when my son's brother is being hurt. You said you wanted me in your life again, well for me that means all of your life, Murdoch, not just where you deem suitable. And if you think for one minute I will meekly sit by and not say a word while you do something you know you'll regret later, then maybe we need to reconsider rekindling this relationship. I was not that kind of a wife twenty-five years ago, and I will not be that kind of wife now."

Furious with himself and Catherine, Murdoch ignored the expectant look Scott gave him from over his shoulder. Scott was a very intuitive young man, something that Murdoch had discovered very quickly upon meeting his first born as a man, but he was not ready to discuss his feelings with his sons, either one of them. He couldn't, and Catherine knew why. So why was she pushing a futile point? If she thought she was protecting Johnny, how could she ask him to reveal truths that would hurt Johnny more than... More than believing he was unloved by his own father?

Could anything be worse for any son to face, much less one with Johnny's history? Johnny had already been forced to confront his mother's deceit - the part that he knew about, anyway - and the horrible truth that his life could have been so much better if Maria had left him at Lancer when she ran off with that other man. There was still so much that Johnny did not know, though; things that Murdoch knew in his heart he could never tell his son, even if those revelations could put an end to Johnny's false impressions of what had happened back then. He couldn't do that to his son because of the pain it would bring down on Johnny, but also because he didn't feel he should have to justify himself.

*She* ran off! Maria left him, damn it, so why was he the one who was supposed to feel guilty? What had he done? What hadn't he done? She never told him, so how in the hell was he supposed to know? But Johnny thought he should. He had seen it in his son's eyes too many times; the disbelief, the barely concealed accusations, the demands for answers that simply weren't there to give.

"It's not Johnny's fault either."

Startled, Murdoch looked up to find Catherine's eyes on him. Only there was no more defiance in their gray-blue depths, just an unending supply of understanding. She seemed to know what he was thinking more times than not, which unsettled Murdoch even more. It was like having a living, breathing conscious, not badgering, she was helping him to see what he did not want to see, helping him accept that which he found too painful to accept.

"What's not Johnny's fault?" Scott demanded, his irritation at being excluded from a conversation that he had started filled the air around them.

Catherine broke eye contact with Murdoch, and momentarily met Scott's expectant stare with an apologetic smile. Then she focused her attention forward, silently telling both men that she would not reveal Murdoch's secrets for him.

"Nothing, Scott," Murdoch answered after a long pause. "It's my fault. Everything is my fault."

In front of him, Catherine's shoulder's sagged. She shook her head sadly, but did not turn around. "Shouldering the blame that isn't yours is just as foolish as laying it at the feet of someone who doesn't deserve it."

Exasperation took over, and Murdoch snapped. "What would you have me do, Catherine? Destroy my own son to save myself?"

Catherine was resigned when she replied, "The truth hurts, Murdoch, but it heals in time. It's the lies that destroy absolutely, leaving no hope of reconciliation."

A shadow cast by the setting sun crossed over them as they passed under the arch at the entrance to the Lancer hacienda. Scott had either sensed that there was more going on than he knew and was wisely waiting for more information before speaking, or the impending arrival and prophesied clash between father and brother had him too nervous to comment. Either way, he guided the buggy forward with a grim look on his face, but not a word on his lips.

"Murdoch! Scott!" Teresa ran out to meet them even before the buggy came to a stop at the hitching rail. Leaning into the buggy, she wrapped her arms around Murdoch's neck and began crying. "Thank goodness you're back. Everything is falling apart!"

"What's wrong, Teresa?"

"It's Johnny. He's gone," she cried against his chest. "He left and he said he's not coming back." 

*** *** *** *** 

Just as they were about to make the introductions between Teresa and Catherine, a huge gust of wind blew in from the west, and within seconds the small group found themselves drenched from the deluge of cold rain it brought with it. Murdoch ordered the women into the house while he and Scott retrieved the baggage. Teresa escorted Catherine to one of the guest rooms where she could change into something dry, before hurrying off to her own room for the same purpose. Murdoch took care of distributing the baggage, while Scott headed back out to tend to the horses.

The rented horse and buggy would have to be returned to Cross Creek in the morning, but for the time being, he hurriedly stowed the buggy in the carriage shed and bedded down the horse in the barn. The only available stall was Barranca's, and Scott flinched as he led the strange animal into the domain of his brother's faithful mount. He felt like he was trespassing, though logically he knew the sentiment was absurd. It was, however, a stark reminder that Johnny was not home, and according to Teresa, would not be coming back.

The ill-timed downpour had effectively cut off any explanation for Teresa's heartrending statement, leaving Scott feeling frustrated and worried as he tended to the necessary chores. He knew Johnny had been upset, but to leave? That was more drastic than Scott had imagined. Something else had to have happened, but he couldn't figure out what that might be.

All he could do was cling desperately to the scant hope that Johnny could be found and would return with them, once he was informed of why things had been handled as the had been. Unfortunately, his brother's former life had supplied him with many unique talents, not the least of which was his ability to disappear without a trace. Murdoch's hired detectives had learned that well during the years it had taken them to track down Johnny Madrid.

Already soaked to the skin, Scott paid little heed to the driving rain as he made is way back to the house. Once inside, he headed straight for own room. He felt a slight twinge of guilt over dripping water on the floor as he made his way down the already water-splattered hallway. It was a mess, but one that could be cleaned up with a few towels and a little effort. Compared to clearing away the emotional mess that was to come, removing the water would be an easy matter.

Closing the door to his bedroom, he stripped out of his wet clothes, tossing them into a soppy pile at the foot of his bed. If the situation were not so dire, he would never have allowed himself to commit such a slovenly act, but like the floor, his clothes could wait. There were far more important issues at hand than some damp clothing.

Due to Teresa's rather annoying propensity for barging into a bedroom unannounced, he very seldom made a habit of walking around totally undressed. It had become almost a ritual to get out of one set of clothing and into the next as quickly as possible. Tonight, however, he doubted she would be bothering with him when there was a guest in the house to be attended to.

Also, the pile of towels lying on the foot of his bed was a rather blatant indication that she had already come and gone, thus allowing him to feel relatively safe taking his time to thoroughly dry himself off. Nothing was more irritating than trying to wear dry clothes on a wet body, not to mention the hardship of getting those clothes on in the first place.

Unwilling to press his luck too far, Scott wrapped one of the drier towels around his waist before crossing the room to his armoire. After selecting a suitable pair of pants and his favorite blue shirt, he laid them out on the bed and released the towel, letting it fall to the floor. A clean pair of drawers was quickly retrieved and hastily donned. Only then did he relax. Being caught in just his drawers was better than in nothing at all, should Teresa get the sudden urge to bring him something else, or be sent to summon him from his room.

Sitting on the edge of the bed he slipped on the pants he had laid out. Standing, they were pulled up over his hips, fly buttons were buttoned, and finally the button at the waistband. His blue shirt was pulled up over broad shoulders, buttoned, and then the tail was tucked in to his pants.

This was the first shirt he had bought after arriving at Lancer, other than his initial outlay for the proper western attire. Since that first rather 'energetic' shopping trip, his body had become leaner in some places, more brawny in others. Over the past few months he had found it necessary to replace his wardrobe yet again, as it became too tight in some places, and too loose in others. Sinewy muscles filled out his shoulders, arms and legs, and his stomach had never been so flat and hard.

The work of a rancher had been nothing short of tortuous at first. However, as his body adapted to these new demands, he found that he not only could do more with less effort, but that he enjoyed the physical labor immensely. There was nothing that compared to the satisfaction he got from looking back on a section of freshly laid fence line, or at a torrent of water gushing freely through the creek bed, recently cleared of a dam of debris.

With a frustrated sigh that, Scott forced himself to push aside these pleasant thoughts, and prepare himself to face the uncertain task ahead. He couldn't help but wonder how Teresa and Jelly were going to react to such a startling turn of events. Would they be happy?

He was pretty confident that they would be, but then again, he had been certain that Johnny would be here when they all arrived from San Francisco, too. He wanted so much to share his exciting news with his brother, his best friend, the person he felt closer to than anyone else, but that now that would have to wait until they could find his wayward brother.

He gave his hair a quick comb through, and then headed out the door and down to the great room. With the growing list of explanations to be shared, he knew that would be where Murdoch would call the family meeting. He was just descending the stairs when Teresa emerged from the kitchen with a tray of coffee.

"Here, let me take that," Scott offered, and quickly relieved her of the heavy burden.

"Scott, who is that woman?" Teresa grabbed his arm and demanded in a hushed tone. "Is she why Murdoch left so suddenly, and why his messages were so cold? Is she the reason Johnny got so angry and left?"

It was hard listening to someone unjustly accuse his mother of being responsible for something that was beyond her control. The fact that Teresa was only doing so out of ignorance was the only thing that kept him silent. Well, that and the fact that he couldn't very well just come out and say 'please don't talk about my mother that way.' In Teresa's mind, Catherine Lancer had been laid to rest a very long time ago.

Nodding towards the entranceway to the great room, Scott said reassuringly as his fraying nerves would allow, "She's not the enemy, Teresa. Murdoch made some mistakes in handling the situation, but we're going to do our best to correct them. We'll have Johnny back here before you know it. I promise." The earnestness of his tone belied the doubt in his own heart as he led the way into the great room.

Teresa served the coffee as efficiently as ever, even managing to sound gracious when she asked Catherine if she preferred cream or sugar. However, her surreptitious glances towards the newcomer while she otherwise played the perfect hostess were noticeable to all. Finally, she sat down in the chair by the fireplace and looked directly at Murdoch. "Well-"

"Teresa!" Jelly's voice boomed into the room as the old man slipped in the front door, slamming it closed behind him to keep as much of the driving rain out as possible. "Don't know whose buggy that is in the shed, but ya better be makin' plans ta have some overnight guests. Ain't nobody goin' nowheres fer-" he abruptly stopped speaking when he saw Murdoch standing by the fireplace. "Boss! Yer home! Where ya been! You had us all plumb worried to death."

Murdoch sighed, as if he realized that it would be much easier to explain to everyone at once, instead of having to tell and retell the same story. "Jelly, why don't you go get dried off? There are a few explanations to be made, and you might as well hear them, too."

Jelly scanned the room, his eyes barely lighting on the stranger seated on the sofa next to Scott, before he was moving in their direction. "Tain't no need ta wait on accounna me," he stated firmly. Grabbing the blanket off the back of the sofa, he wrapped it around his shoulders and hurried over to the fireplace and the warmth of the fire. With a challenging glare, he looked up at Murdoch, then gave the rest of them a curt nod. "I'm jes fine like this. Been waitin' long enough for someone ta do some explainin'; ain't about ta let a little bit a rain git in th' way, neither."

Teresa's skeptical frown and Jelly's gruff tone created exactly the confrontational mood that Scott had hoped to avoid. In the back of his mind he had always known there would be more than just Johnny's ire to be faced, but he had hoped to get his brother's ruffled feelings soothed before having to deal with the rest of the family - so much for wishful thinking.

"Well, ya gonna start explainin' or not?" Jelly huffed after what seemed an interminable silence.


"Murdoch," Scott headed off his father's rebuke. "Teresa and Jelly have every right to be a little impatient. They've been waiting a long time for some answers." With a sigh, he began the startling revelation in the only manner he could - straightforward and to the point. "There simply isn't any way to make this any easier to say, to make it any less shocking to hear, but I'm hoping that you'll be as happy as I am when you find out why all the subterfuge was necessary."

Looking first at Teresa, who was staring at him with that doe-eyed innocence that always took him by surprise, then at Jelly, whose expression wasn't anywhere near as innocent, rather much more guarded, Scott said softly, his voice laced with affection and pride. "Teresa, Jelly, I'd like you to meet Catherine Garrett Lancer; my mother."

Teresa gasped and Jelly's mouth fell open. Neither one of them spoke, but their disbelief was clear as they each studied the strange woman with eyes wide open.

"Something happened in Carterville when I was born," Scott continued without waiting for the obvious question to be voiced. "We found out that my grandfather thought my mother had died, and he left with me before she was buried. It turns out, however, that she was not dead. What happened after that, we don't know for sure, just that my mother ended up taking sanctuary in a mission in Mexico. She couldn't remember anything for years, and even when her memory returned, there were still some gaps. We don't have all the details, but the important thing is that she's alive." Scott looked at his mother and gave her a small smile of reassurance. "And she's back where she belongs."

Teresa was the first to speak, addressing Catherine with less suspicion, but still with a small amount of wariness. "That's why Murdoch left so secretively? You remembered and sent for him?"

"Essentially-" Scott began, only to be interrupted by both his mother's words and her hand on his knee.

"No, Scott, there have been enough half-truths floating around," Catherine said, before answering Teresa. "The complete truth is that I've had most of my memories back for almost fifteen years. I never tried to contact Murdoch or Scott because I was told they were dead. In fact, I was told that I had killed them both, as well as my father, after Scott was born. I believed that if I ever dared return to the United States, I would be hanged, or that if the American authorities found out were I was, they would come and take me back to pay for my crimes."

"How awful! And you've been in living in Mexico all this time?" Teresa asked as she put things together in her own mind.

"Yes, I've spent the last twenty years living in a mission not too far from Guadalajara. A few months ago some cattle were brought to the market in a nearby village. One of those cows bore the brand I remembered Murdoch designing for Lancer. It was only then that I found the courage to seek out the truth. One of the padres at the mission agreed to come to California to find out if Murdoch was alive. He came here and brought Murdoch back to Mexico."

Catherine's tone shifted from calmly informative to a gentle plead for acceptance. "I'm sure you can understand Murdoch's hesitation to reveal the true nature of his journey. It isn't every day that a stranger appears at your door and tells you that your deceased wife is not dead. He had to be sure before he told Scott something that had the potential to be very heartbreaking if it had turned out to be untrue."

"Yes, yes I can understand that," Teresa admitted a bit hesitantly. "It's just that this is all so sudden, so 'unbelievable'." Standing, Teresa walked over to Scott and leaned down to give him a hug. "I'm so happy for you, Scott. I can't even begin to imagine how wonderful you must feel."

"Thank you, Teresa," Scott whispered in her ear.

After giving him a congratulatory kiss on the cheek, Teresa shifted around towards Catherine. "It's hard to know what to say. I mean, it's wonderful, and...well, this is just the best news." The two women hugged and Scott felt like a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

"Thank you, Teresa. It's a pleasure to meet you, too," Catherine said as soon as the hug ended and Teresa sat down beside her on the edge of the sofa cushion.

Stepping forward, Jelly wiped his hand on the blanket and then held it out towards Catherine. "It's real nice ta have ya here, ma'am," he said politely. After holding her hand for a moment, he nodded and stepped back. "Scott's gotta be happier'n a calf loose in a corn field. I jes cain't imagine what it'd a been like ta have ta think them things ya was told. Whatever devil varmint concocted that lie outta be hog tied and horse whipped."

"Yes, it must have been horrible, spending all those years believing such awful things," Teresa emphatically agreed. "I'm just so glad that cow showed up, or you and Scott might never have found each other." Suddenly she broke out in a brilliant smile. "We should organize a party to introduce you to everyone. We can invite all the neighbors and-"

"Maybe it would be best to hold off on planning a party for a little while, Teresa," Catherine interrupted when Murdoch's expression began to darken.

"But why?" Teresa asked in confusion. "This is such wonderful news. Why would you want to keep it a secret?"

Murdoch's expression grew more tight, and Scott decided it was time for him to step in. The last thing he wanted was for Murdoch to make any harsh statements that could end up causing his mother's best intentions to get her on Teresa's bad side, not to mention the fact that he really didn't want to bring up the potential problems that could arise because of his mother's presence. They need answers, not more uninformed speculations.

With this in mind, Scott tried to head off any discussions of parties for the time being. "Teresa, it's not so much the need to keep this a secret as it is to give the family time to get used to each other before all the neighbors descend on Lancer like a pack of cats sniffing out a scent."

"Scott Lancer!" Teresa reached across Catherine's lap and swatted at Scott. "That's no way to talk about our friends. You're going to have your mother thinking we're surrounded by a bunch of nosy busy bodies."

"Well..." Scott lamented suggestively.

Murdoch, however, did not seem to appreciate the humor. "Teresa, I think what Scott and Catherine are failing to say is that we should wait for the party. We're not saying there can't be one, eventually, just not for a little while."

"Reckon ya oughta at least wait 'til the rest a the family is here?" Jelly interjected in a terse tone.

Murdoch's gaze was hard as he stared over at Jelly, and Teresa's happy smile faded away. "I forgot all about Johnny," she admitted somewhat shamefaced, before casting an expectant look at Scott, and then back to Murdoch. "But he'll be home, tomorrow, right? You and Scott are going to ride up to the line shack and bring him back, aren't you?"

Scott's brow furrowed. "Line shack?"

Teresa shook her head and frowned. "I'm sorry. In all the confusion over the storm, and then your happy news," she managed a small smile for Catherine before continuing, "I didn't get a chance to tell you where Johnny went after he got back from following Scott."

"Johnny couldn't have followed me, Teresa," Scott objected. "No one knew where I went."

"Evan knew," Jelly piped up smugly.

"Johnny wouldn't-" Murdoch began, only to stop short, glaring at Jelly with a dark look of reproach. "Johnny threatened Evan to divulge the contents of a confidential telegram, didn't he?"

Under the pressure of Murdoch's steady gaze, Jelly's cocky stance faded away. "We don't know fer sure, but that's how me an' Teresa got it figured. Johnny musta found out somethin' else besides the truth yer tellin' us, cuz he sure was fit ta be tied when he got back."

Scott could sense Murdoch's hackles rising, and quickly hurried the discussion along. He hoped that the more they could find out, the less reason Murdoch would have for being...well, for being himself, his old self, anyway. Scott still wasn't too sure how the newer version of his father would react. "What exactly did Johnny say when he got back?"

With a heavy sigh, Teresa proceeded to explain in a weary voice. "Johnny wasn't going to say anything. He was just going to pack his things and leave, but I...well, I forced him into telling me what happened, only what he said didn't make any sense. He said you and Murdoch had kicked him out of the family, but that he was not going to let you kick him off his land. Then he told me he was moving out to the north line shack and that he wouldn't be coming back. He even made a point of telling me to make sure that Murdoch knew that he was keeping the Lancer name."

Looking accusingly at Murdoch, her final words were issued directly to him. "Johnny seemed so sure that you didn't want him for a son anymore. If you never saw him, how would he ever get such a notion?"

"I don't have any idea," Murdoch growled in frustration. "What I do know is that if Johnny had stayed here like I asked him to do in the first place, he wouldn't have had any reason to be upset, and especially not about something that is not the least bit true."

"Maybe not, but even if he hadn't a follered Scott, he'd still have a mighty good reason ta be upset 'bout somethin' else, now wouldn't he?" Every eye in the room turned towards Jelly, who didn't actually back down, but did let go of some of his edgy attitude. "I know you an' Scott got every right ta be plumb tickled pink to have found his mamma alive, an' ain't no one begrudin' ya that. Not at all. But ya cain't stand there an' tell me ya don't know exactly what this is gonna mean fer Johnny, her bein' here," Jelly nodded towards Catherine.

Teresa looked confused. "What do you mean, Jelly? Johnny will be just as happy as we are for Scott. I know it," she added with confidence.

Murdoch, however, ignored Teresa's unenlightened commentary. "At this point we don't know anything for sure, Jelly. I hired an attorney before leaving San Francisco, who assured me he will have us the answers we need by the end of the week. Until then, there is no point in borrowing any unnecessary trouble."

"That's easy fer you ta say, yer not the one whose name is on the choppin' block!"

"You hired an attorney? Why? And what does that have to do-" Teresa's expression instantly became a mask of horrified disbelief. "Johnny was right! You *are* trying to take his name away from him, aren't you?"

"No, Teresa, I am not!" Murdoch spat. After taking a deep breath, he continued in a slightly more civilized tone. "If you must know, the only reason I hired an attorney was to protect Johnny."

"Protect Johnny from what?" she demanded suspiciously.

At this question, Murdoch hesitated, but who could blame him. It was a rather inappropriate subject to be broaching with a young girl. Fortunately, he was spared the effort of finding a tactful explanation. "Maybe you should let me explain it to her, Murdoch? Woman to woman."

Murdoch's relief was obvious. "Thank you, Catherine."

"Explain what?" Teresa demanded again as she glared angrily at Catherine. "What does your being here have to do with Johnny? You haven't even met him yet, so you can't have a good reason for wanting him gone."

With the same determination and compassion that she had tackled everything else up to this point, Catherine broached the unsettling subject. "Teresa, first off, you need to understand that the issues we are concerned about are strictly legal matters, and have nothing to do with how anyone feels about Johnny. Murdoch loves both his sons, and I would think you know that better than anyone."

The anger slowly faded from Teresa's expression and she nodded slightly, her lips pursed into a subdued frown. "Yes, I know that very well, but why would the law say anything different?"

"Think about it, Teresa," Catherine urged her gently. "Murdoch has been married twice, first to me, then to Johnny's mother. He believed he was a widower when he met Maria, but in reality, he was not. That being the case, the law may not be willing to acknowledge his second marriage."

"But that would mean..." Tears flooded Teresa's eyes. "This will kill Johnny."

"No, it won't," Catherine calmly countered, before Teresa's understandable but unsubstantiated fears could take over. "There is going to be some heartache, of that none of us have any doubts, but no one is turning Johnny away. Even if the law makes the worst of the situation, Johnny will always be Murdoch's son, and he will always be a Lancer. Nothing can change that."

"But it's not fair! Johnny's life is just turning around, he's finally finding out who he really is, and learning to accept that he isn't a bad person. And now you," she glared at Catherine with a renewed hostility, "you have to come along and spoil everything!"

To Scott, Teresa's angry declaration felt like a slap in the face. Didn't his feelings count? Didn't he have a right to have his mother in his life? He tensed and attempted to stand, but a firm hand on his shoulder, his father's hand, held him in place. Temporarily confused, Scott couldn't recall exactly when Murdoch had moved beside the sofa, but there he was, looking somber and tired.

If Catherine noticed Scott's distress, she didn't let on, but she did attempt to make Teresa see the hurt her words had caused. "We will do all we can to help Johnny, but you shouldn't forget about Scott. You care for him, too, don't you? Should he be denied the chance to have me in his life simply because there *might* be some legal complications?"

"No!" Teresa's frustration resounded in her loud outburst. She looked over at Scott and apologized. "Scott, I didn't mean it that way. I know you deserve to be with your mother, and I am happy for you. Really. I love you both so much, but..." her expression crumbled as the hopelessness of the situation took away her ability to express her fears.

Having already experienced some of those same conflicting emotions, Scott easily forgave the unintentional transgression. "Teresa, Johnny is my brother and I would never want to see him hurt, but this is my mother and we should be able to be together. Johnny would be the last one to deny either one of us this opportunity. For now, all of us - my mother included - have to stand together as a family to deal with whatever legal consequences might arise for Johnny."

"I understand. I'm sorry for what I said," Teresa made the comment to the room in general, but her apologetic frown was aimed solely in Catherine's direction. "I'm sorry for all you've been through, and I am so glad you found Murdoch and Scott. Scott deserves the chance to get to know you, and you deserve to be with your son. I just wish..."

"We all wish that, dear," Catherine agreed sympathetically.

The room was suddenly illuminated when a series of lightning bolts flashed across the night sky. A loud clap of thunder shook the windows seconds later, completing the ominous setting. For the next few moments everyone was silent, while Mother Nature's fury put on vivid display of light and sound that sent a chill through everyone in the hacienda.

"Figered somethin' like this was gittin' ready ta happen," Jelly remarked with the confidence of someone who had seen just about everything in his long life. "Weather's been a might peeculer lately, an' that's always a sign that somethin's a brewin' up somewheres."

As if on cue, Murdoch stepped forward. "Well, it is getting late, and we all could use some rest. There's not much more we can do tonight." He held out his hand and helped Catherine to her feet. Teresa stood too, and Murdoch guided them out of the room and up the stairs before Scott could protest.

Irritated, Scott looked over at Jelly. "You better get out of those wet clothes before you catch pneumonia," he stated as he walked over to the big window behind Murdoch's desk. From there he starred out at the stormy night, debating what he should do next.

"Reckon so," Jelly nodded. With the blanket still wrapped tightly around his shoulders, Jelly headed for the door, but stopped just shy of the threshold. "You really think things is gonna turn out okay? I mean, that lawyer fella Murdoch hired, is he really gonna be able ta make this right fer all a us?"

Scott knew Jelly really meant 'for Johnny', but was tactful enough not to step on anyone's toes as blatantly as Teresa had inadvertently done earlier. "I hope so, Jelly. I know how I want things to be, but..." Scott's voice trailed off, unable to put words to the thought that finding his mother could very well cost him his brother.

Thankfully Jelly had the good sense to say 'good night' and continue on his way. Scott was finding it more and more difficult to accept the harsh realities that could be headed their way. Although he had known about the potential problems since before leaving San Francisco, coming home to find Johnny gone had forcefully brought home the possibility that things might not work out - that Johnny could very well leave and not come back.

His mother's assurances that such a possibility could be averted through sheer determination provided him with no comfort at all. That she meant well wasn't in doubt, but she did not know Johnny. She did not know how stubborn and impulsive his younger brother could be, especially if he felt cornered. She had no way of knowing that Johnny was a force all his own, and that if he decided to leave, no one could stop him.

"Scott, you should be getting to bed, too," Murdoch's concerned voice called out from the doorway.

Although his sensibilities agreed with Murdoch's assessment, Scott's heart was not nearly as compliant. "What about Johnny?" he asked bluntly.

A weary frown pursed Murdoch's lips as he walked over to stand at Scott's side. "Scott, it would be pure foolishness to go out in this weather. That line shack is one of the best on Lancer, and you know it. Johnny will be just fine until morning."

Be that as it may, Scott was not happy about having to wait to go after his brother. "Come first light, I'll be heading out."

Murdoch arm came to rest around Scott's shoulders. "I plan to go with you, Son, not try to stop you."

If nothing else, Murdoch's support and concern made Scott feel guilty for his stubborn defiance. "I'm sorry, Sir. I guess I just want this to be over. I want my mother and my brother to be happy, and right here, in this house, where they both belong." He laughed sadly. "I guess I want too much."

"No, Son. You can't think that way. Until Jarrod gets here and we know the specifics of what we're facing, we can't let the negative possibilities drag us down."

Scott stared out the window as the storm raged around the sturdy sanctuary of their home - a home that was missing one of its occupants. "Johnny is out there all alone, and he's hurting."

"I know, but we'll bring Johnny back tomorrow, Son. It might take a while to ease his hurt, but at least he'll know he's not alone."

Long into the night, father and son stood in silence, watching as Mother Nature put on a spectacular display. The wind could be heard rushing all around them, but the driving rain was seen only when the bright flashes of lighting crackled through the night sky. The sound of the thunder booming in the distance was both soothing and distressing. If only Johnny were there with them, where he belonged.  

*** *** *** ***

Stepping out onto the line shack's small porch, Johnny inhaled deeply, taking in the pureness of the night air blowing down from the nearby mountains and letting his mind fly free as the eagles who inhabited them. He had not felt this at home since...well, since he first arrived at Lancer.

Those first few weeks had been hard, but very settling to someone who had not had a place to call home in a very long time. That feeling didn't last long, though. As soon as he was on his feet and back to work, the tensions between him and his father began escalating. They quarreled and disagreed more often than not, but still, for some reason Johnny couldn't bring himself to give up on his dreams.

For some reason? He laughed at that notion. He knew exactly why. The taste of having a family, of being part of something bigger than himself, had left him unwilling to go back to the dismal existence of his days along the border. Back then he had lived his life from day to day, not caring about or even expecting a future. It had been enough for him when he didn't know any better, but now he knew what it was like to build today for the gains of tomorrow. He could not see himself ever going back to being a just another gunhawk. No, he would stay at Lancer, or he would die trying. In his mind, there were no other options.

Pushing those thoughts aside, he looked out into the night. The moon was almost full, and it's light was almost green as it filtered through the thin layer of clouds seeping in from the west. The wind wasn't exactly gusting, but every so often a strong breeze would sweep over the porch, each seeming to come from a different direction, and each bringing a different level of coolness to his skin. As he gazed out into the shadowed darkness, a painful twinge in his left shoulder made him wince, and the weather was quickly forgotten.

The pain was sharp and the hurt penetrated deep into his muscles, but at the same time, the ache felt good, satisfying. After working the last half of the day digging holes for the posts of his new corral, he was exhausted and his entire body protested the strenuous abuse. His trip to town had cost him more than half a day that he could have been working, so he had labored steadily all afternoon and well past the dusk of evening. He had stopped only when the light disappeared during that time between when the sun set and the moon began to rise. At that point his weary body was grumbling very loudly that it had endured more than enough abuse, and demanded to rest.

A dip in the nearby stream and a meal of beans and roasted rabbit had left him feeling refreshed and invigorated; well, more alive than dead, anyway. Mentally he was ready for more, his thoughts shifting swiftly from one subject to the next, plans formulating and then reformulating as he thought hard on all aspects of the daunting task he had undertaken. His body, though, would have none of it, and emotionally, he reveled in his exhaustion; the sleep that had so painfully eluded him the night before would not do so tonight.

In the light of the full moon, he could just make out the ghostly mounds of dirt that marked each hole he had dug. Twenty six post holes had been dug that day - a number that might not sound all that impressive in light of the more than a hundred he would need to dig before he was finished. It had taken him seven solid hours of backbreaking toil to get this far, and he was more than satisfied with his accomplishment.

For the most part the ground wasn't all that rocky, but several times he had spent too many precious minutes fighting the earth for each inch he carved into its surface. All in all, he had managed a steady four holes an hour, which was no more or no less than any other hand on the ranch could hope to achieve on a good day.

At this rate, it would take him two more days to finish digging the holes, providing he could keep up the same pace. Then the posts had to be set and the rails nailed into place. Only then would his corral be ready for the wild horses that would be gentled within its interior. He figured a week at best, and that hinged on there being no unforeseen obstacles to get in his way.

Another cramp sent a jolt of pain shooting up his back. He twisted, slowly and deliberately, stretching the tensing muscles that were already objecting to his optimistic timetable. His body he could handle, though. Ignoring its protests had been a habit developed early on in life. The unforeseen obstacles did not concern him, either; he was adaptable. However, his mind could not completely push aside the one foreseen obstacle he knew without a doubt would be coming his way before too long.


Johnny both dreaded and looked forward to that confrontation. For over a year now he had been giving in, biting his tongue and shouldering criticisms with just a shrug for the most part, and erupting into an argument only when the load became too much to bear. Mostly, though, he had given all he had to becoming the son Murdoch could be proud of, yet nothing ever seemed to be good enough to earn him that status.

He had thought on that subject a lot during the tedious afternoon of digging, and now he could only wonder if Murdoch's attitude towards him could be mostly his own fault. Maybe giving in too often, backing down when he knew he was right, letting the old man walk all over him for the sake of keeping the peace, maybe all those things had been mistakes. Maybe Murdoch had to respect him before he could be proud of him. Being the old man's doormat hadn't encouraged much respect, and it was obvious there was very little, if any, pride in his father's heart where he was concerned.

Images of that devastating morning in San Francisco flashed unbidden through his mind. Even through his shock, he had seen how Murdoch looked so happy, and a whole lot younger, too. He couldn't remember ever seeing the old man so relaxed. Whoever that woman was she sure had made an impression on him, that was for certain.

"Guess he deserves it, after what my mama did to him," Johnny mumbled to himself before the bitterness returned. "Then again, she had her reasons. Wouldn't blame any woman for wanting to get away from that."

An all too familiar battle began raging inside him again. He had long since lost count of the number of times he had tried to find a common ground for his feelings for both his parents. He simply could not reconcile the woman Murdoch hated so vehemently, with the woman who had loved him so tenderly; just as he could not reconcile the stalwart man who had the respect and admiration of the entire community, with the man who had treated his wife barely better than a common whore.

It was a no win situation at best, and a source of never ending turmoil at worst. He wasn't sure he would ever be able to reach any kind of peaceful coexistence for his feelings. For now all he could do was deal with his thoughts as best he could, keeping them separate and never allowing them to intermingle in his mind; it was the only solution he had been able to come up with. Johnny tensed as he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye, but quickly relaxed when he determined the source.

"Hey there little fella," Johnny whispered softly to the cautiously approaching raccoon. In the near-full moonlight, he watched the furry critter shuffle towards him, sniffing at the ground, then into the air, searching for a whiff of anything that might be considered edible. When the raccoon was just a few feet away from the end of the porch, he stood up on his hind legs, his nose twitching as he took in Johnny's scent.

A tired smile formed on Johnny's lips as he stood totally still while the raccoon appraised him. Most wild animals were more afraid of man than not, but this critter seemed more concerned about finding something to eat than in steering clear of a potential form of danger.

"You ain't gonna make it too long out here if you keep taking these kinda chances," Johnny said barely above a whisper. "You let your hunger overrule those instincts of yours, and you're gonna end up in some cowhand's pot."

While he was speaking, Johnny had slowly been inching his way backwards. He had left the door open when he came out to enjoy a brief night breeze and figured, if he moved slowly enough, he just might be able to slip back inside and grab those beans he had leftover from dinner. Wasn't much, but coons weren't known for being too picky when it came to what kind of scraps they ate.

Once inside, he ditched his caution, and quickly grabbed up the plate of beans. Just for a moment, as he was staring down at the drying scraps, he wondered what Teresa was serving for dinner down at the hacienda. It had been a long time since he had been forced to survive on his own cooking, and while he wasn't nearly as bad as Scott tried to make out, nothing he could cook would ever match the bountiful meals Teresa served them each night.

"Forget it, Madrid," Johnny scolded himself, then realized his own mistake and rebuked himself with a firm determination. "It's Lancer, not Madrid. No one's ever going to take my name away from me again. I earned it and it's mine."

Fighting off the negative thoughts that were threatening to push him backwards into a pit of lonely despair, Johnny headed for the door. With the same stealthy precision that had kept him alive in some of the most treacherous of border towns, he slowly made his way to the end of the porch, deposited the plate near the edge, and then backed away. All the while the raccoon watched his movements from his position a few feet from the shack.

Retaking his previous position by the support post nearest the door, Johnny watched the raccoon watching him. A fond smile of remembrance appeared on Johnny's face as the furry animal finally began making his way towards Johnny's offering. "You kinda remind me of a guy I met in a bank back in Texas. He waddled a little when he walked, too, and he even wore a mask kinda like yours."

By then the raccoon had reached the porch, took one sniff of the beans and dove into them eagerly. Johnny couldn't help but laugh. "He didn't have much sense, neither. Was all set on robbing that bank, only he wasn't no good at it. Didn't think it through at all, kinda like you jumping up here. Raccoon stew is gonna be on the menu in your future, only you ain't gonna be the one eating it."

The raccoon made quick work with Johnny's leftovers and then stood up on his haunches and looked around, as if he was expecting more. "Ralph!" Johnny said a little too loudly, causing the raccoon to scurry off the porch and into the darkness. A slight movement in the shadows by the barn told Johnny that his friend had not left entirely.

"Don't like the name Ralph, do ya?" Johnny laughed. "Well, Ralph might notta been the smartest bank robber every to pick up a gun, but he sure was the most likable. I've had me many a laugh remembering that particular hold up."

Even as he spoke, the memories of that encounter floated through his mind. Ralph had been a really nice man, just a little too desperate for his own good. A chuckle rumbled in Johnny's chest. 'You know I can't give this back to you?' Johnny could hear his own words from back then, just as he could see the dazed look of uncertainty that had appeared on Ralph's face as soon as those words had been spoken.

It had been after the bank manager had opened the safe, and Ralph had been confronted with the dilemma of how to hold a gun on his hostages - which included only the bank manger, a teller, and one gunhawk named Johnny Madrid - and at the same time, empty the safe. Johnny had been standing the closest to the safe, and helpfully suggested that Ralph let him hold the gun while he loaded the carpetbag with the money. He had meant the comment as a diversion, but to his total amazement, Ralph had actually handed him the revolver.

Totally bemused by the outrageous turn of events, Johnny listened as Ralph actually introduced himself as he began emptying the safe of its contents. Ralph continued talking the whole time, telling Johnny how he had come west for adventure but now was desperate to get back home to Maine - someplace back East, as well as he could recall. Then he got into why he felt the need to stoop to bank robbery.

It seemed Ralph's father's fishing business was about to go belly up, and he was acting out of need. Ralph swore he planned on returning the money, once he got home and there were profits enough from the business to make it possible.

Through it all, Johnny had listened intently, only pointing out the flaw in Ralph's plan when the bumbling robber turned towards Johnny, his bag full of money in hand and a innocent grin on his face. Even when Johnny had told him that he wouldn't be giving him the gun back, Ralph had not been mad. With a sad frown, he simply handed over the bag of money and bowed his head in shame.

The next part of the memory was one Johnny seldom let out. Tonight, however, it came to the forefront of his mind with a mighty rush, causing Johnny's smile to fad into a sorrowful frown. It could have been so easy to undo what had been done. The bank manager had stood by the whole time, fighting to keep from laughing at Ralph's ineptitude, and Johnny was sure he could talk the man into just letting Ralph go, seeing as how no one was really hurt and the robbery had been more entertaining than dangerous.

Unfortunately, the town's sheriff picked that particular moment to walk into the bank, only to find Johnny Madrid, holding a bag of money in one hand and a gun in the other, with what appeared to be a nervous bank customer cowering in front of him. Earlier in the week, the sheriff had warned Johnny that he did not want any trouble in his town from the famed gunslinger. His reaction to the gunslinger turned bank robber was to pull his gun. He immediately took a shot in Johnny's direction.

"I'd a been killed, too, if Ralph hadn't stepped in front of that bullet," Johnny mumbled aloud without even realizing it.

With bank manager as a witness that Johnny had not been the robber, but was, instead, the one who talked the gun away from the real robber - the man who had been shot and killed - the sheriff had no choice but to let Johnny go. He was none too happy about having to set Johnny Madrid free, and if Johnny hadn't felt so downhearted over Ralph's unnecessary death, he might have hung around that town a few more days, just to rile up the stubborn lawman. Ralph, the would be bank robber, had met an early demise, and Johnny had no doubt the fearless raccoon who reminded him so much of the eager young man would fall victim to the same fate.

A huge yawn forced its way out, and Johnny figured his mind just might be settled enough to let his body rest. He had just made it through the door when a sharp clap of thunder just about startled him out of his boots. From out of nowhere, the wind whipped up, sending the still open door crashing into him with a force that almost knocked him off his feet. It hadn't been just a gust, though, and instead of fading away, only became more intense as it billowed in around him.

Outside the thunder boomed loudly in an unceasing cadence of noise, while the lightning strikes lit the sky, one right after the other. A deep rumble emerged from the rest of the sounds, sending a ripple of fear coursing through Johnny's entire body. The roaring continued to gain in volume, sounding like an approaching train, before taking on the warning of a more impending danger. Johnny had no fear of most men; he could handle any taker with a fast draw and a good aim. What he knew was coming, though, couldn't be taken down with any amount of lead.

Struggling against the wind, Johnny staggered towards the barn. He had seen winds like this only once before; the twister they spawned had totally obliterated an entire town. Not a building had been left standing, and the occupants of the saloon, men he had shared a beer with only an hour before, had all laid dead under the rubble.

Johnny reached the barn and unlatched the door, only to have it ripped open and out his grasp. Inside he could hear Barranca's nervous whinnies mixed in with those of the two draft horses, and the echoes of hoofs kicking against the barn wall as the animals' instincts told them to flee from the ensuing danger.

Once inside the structure, Johnny opened the stall doors and shoed the draft horses out into the rain. Barranca was in the stall at the far end of the barn. Just as Johnny reached the stall door and grabbed hold of Barranca's halter, he heard the sickening sound of breaking wood. Before he could even look up the entire structure toppled down on top of them. 

*** *** *** ***

It was still night when Johnny finally regained consciousness. The first thing he noticed was that it had rained, although the rain had ceased falling for the moment. Still, he shivered hard as the cool breeze blew over his soaked body. He took a deep breath and tried to clear his muddled head, which was pounding fiercely, feeling as if it had been split wide open. With his left hand, he felt for a wound, but there was no blood he could find. Even so, the throbbing hurt like the devil, and each breath he took sent stabbing pains shooting through his skull.

After a few minutes of forced relaxation, he was able to get a better grasp of his situation. He was lying on his stomach in the mud, and there was a constant pressure pushing down against his lower back. He could still feel everything, though, so he wasn't too worried about a crippling injury - not yet, anyway. It was the shooting pains in his legs that worried him more. His left was broken, he could tell without seeing it. The right felt like it might be, but he wasn't nearly as sure.

His right arm was securely wedged under what appeared to be one of the barns main support beams that was lying beside him, but the arm did not feel injured, just trapped. Another piece of wood extended over his shoulders, and while it wasn't actually lying on him, it made it impossible for him to do much more than lift his head off the ground; in other words, he was totally trapped. While he fought to get his thoughts straight, a low groan rumbled from beneath the rubble to his left. A few seconds later it came again, and in a flash Johnny made the connection.


With only his left arm free, Johnny reached over and tried to pull the debris away from the pile where the ghastly moan had come. The broken wood cut into his palm, but he ignored the pain. He clawed and grasped until the wood finally moved, sending pain shooting down his back and through his legs as it landed on top of the beam that had Johnny pinned to the ground. It was the sight he had uncovered that filled him full of grief.

One of the support beams had Barranca was pinned, and from under the palomino's shoulder ran a river of blood, cascading over the wooden debris, and fading to a light pink as it became even more diluted in the puddles on the rain-soaked ground. There was too much of the blood for it to be coming from any minor abrasion. The reality of his worst nightmare hit Johnny with more force than the barn that had collapsed on top of him - his horse had been wounded, and by all indications, very severely.

A heart-rending moan rumbled from deep within Barranca's chest. The horse tried to lift his head, jerked his neck hard, and with another groan, fell back to the ground. A fresh stream of blood poured out from under the wounded horse, providing even more evidence of the damage that could not be seen. Images of speared flesh and a golden coat made red with blood, made Johnny's heart skip a beat.

A mind made hard to the ravages of emotional loss spoke relentlessly about what had to be done. Even if by some miracle wound itself wasn't severe enough to cause the horse to bleed out - an excruciating and cruel form of death - the weight of the fallen beam was propped perniciously across Barranca's rib cage. The labored breathing had and ominous rattle, as each breath became a battle just to draw.

"¡Dios, no!" The echo of his voice carried off into the distance, disappearing into the darkness and taking Johnny's heart with it.

This would hardly be the first time he had been required to take such definitive action. There had been many times before, each instance being just as difficult as the first, but all of them together could not bring him more pain than what he was about to face. This was different; Barranca was different. Tears stung his eyes as he slowly worked his left hand under his body, his fingers searching for the hardness he could feel pressing into his right hip. His heart ached more with every beat, but still he refused to give up on doing what needed to be done, what had to be done.

Several agonizing minutes later, his hand reemerged, bringing forth an old faithful friend in its grasp. This time, however, when Johnny looked at his gun he saw only the cold steel of his tormented soul. This time one friend would be used against another; a gut-wrenching feeling he had never faced before, not at this level, anyway.

Barranca groaned again, his noise not nearly as loud or as forceful as before. The labored sound of the horse's agony snapped Johnny out of his pit of self-pity. As much as he hated what he had to do, he knew there was no other real choice. To do otherwise would betray the trust that had always been between man and mount.

His had shook as he lifted gun and took aim down the barrel. "I won't let you suffer no more, mi amigo. You've been the best compadre I ever had, next to Scott, but even Scott don't come to a whistle anywhere near as good as you." Humor in the face of disaster had always worked before, but this time Johnny could find no comfort, not even in thoughts of his brother. Barely able to see the sights through the haze of his pain, he said his final farewell. "Adios, mi amigo fiel."

With his eyes clenched tight, he pulled the trigger, and Barranca's final groan was drowned out by the retort of the gun. With no hope and no will, Johnny's spirit broke, shattered by all he had gained, only to have taken away again. His father, his brother, his beloved Barranca, and the only real home he had ever known; everything was gone, and he was alone once more.

Turning away from the gut-wrenching sight he could not bear to see, Johnny fought to control the waves of nausea that threatened to overtake him. He couldn't look at Barranca; he couldn't gaze upon his failure, his fault. He didn't want to see the brilliant yellow sheen of Barranca's silky coat, now marred by both bullet hole and blood.

He fought against the tears that were threatening to fall, unwilling to allow his grief to become his weakness. The sky showed him no mercy, though, sending another deluge of water pouring down on his already washed out world and leaving him unable to tell if it was tears or raindrops sliding down his face.

In a final act of desperation, Johnny prayed for the first time in years. He prayed that he would drowned, that his misery would finally end, but even as his mind screamed the words, he knew his prayer would go unheeded. They had always gone unheeded by a God who had always deemed him unworthy. This was his punishment, his slap in the face for daring to try to be someone he was not. Maybe the best thing he could do would be to use one more of those bullets and put an end to it all.

In that instant, a fear more intense than he had ever felt before seized him in an icy grip. Never, in all the years of living as Johnny Madrid, had he ever contemplated taking his own life. Not once. Not even in jest. That he could do so now shook him to the very core, unsettling senses that were already badly shaken.

Instincts honed for self preservation at all costs also kicked in, and with a flick of his wrist, he sent his gun tumbling beyond his reach. For a moment he stared at the gun, the bringer of death - both necessary and evil - now lying beyond his reach, and for a moment, wished he had not been too cowardly to do what he should have done a long time ago.

The rain continued to fall, but he did not notice, nor did he care. His eyelids slowly slipped down over unseeing eyes, something else he did not notice. The thunder claps faded in the distance as the storm moved away, also taking with it the lighting that had at one time rendered the sky over head as bright as day. In the pitch darkness, with his world decimated around him, Johnny gave up on death even as he gave up on life. 

*** *** *** *** 

Three riders were well on their way north when the early morning sun first cast its golden rays over the dense tree tops. The air was fresh and clean, smelling of spring rains and blooming flowers. The only traces of the previous night's storm were the puddles along the trail and a few trees that had been left worse for wear by the raging winds and blowing rain. 

"Ya know, he ain't gonna be none too happy ta see us come ridin' up," Jelly finally spoke, his tone offhand and with a touch of trepidation. This was the first attempt any of the three had made at conversation since leaving the hacienda. Previously, speaking had been limited to the few curt exchanges that had been necessary for getting their mounts saddled and ready for the ride north.

"I didn't think for a minute that he would be."

Murdoch's reply was too gruff to be just the result of rising too early, and it was all Scott could do to choke back the bitter rebuke that immediately came to his mind. He couldn't help wondering what happened to the caring and concerned father that had stayed up with him for most of the night, worrying about the same son who now appeared to be the source of his grumpy disposition.

This abrupt turnabout in temperament had Scott worried. As Jelly had just pointed out, Johnny would not be happy to see them, and would be on the defensive as soon as he saw them. The one thing that would make matters worse would be for Murdoch to immediately start in on Johnny for running away, not following instructions, or just being something other than what Murdoch thought he should be.

Thinking back, Scott wondered if maybe they should have held off their departure for an hour or so. Convincing Murdoch to forego the normal breakfast ritual had taken all of Scott's considerable negotiating ability, not to mention a few guilt-inducing comments from Jelly. In their haste to bring Johnny home, it appeared they may have made inadvertently pushed Murdoch into a mood foul enough to achieve exactly the opposite result.

Scott reached forward and pulled a fallen leaf from Charlemagne's mane. What was done could not be undone, so he would have to make the best of the situation at hand. If Murdoch's mood did not improve by the time they reached the base of the trail leading up to the line shack, he decided that he would go on from there alone. It didn't matter if they had to hogtie Murdoch to a tree, there was no way Murdoch would be allowed within shouting range of the shack as long as there was even the remote possibility that he would pick a fight with Johnny.

They were about halfway to the line shack when a noise off to their right startled Charlemagne, who sidestepped into Jelly's mount, almost jarring the older man out of his saddle. When the noise repeated, Scott reached for his rifle, but stopped just short of removing it from the scabbard when the unmistakable form of a horse emerged onto the trail. He relaxed further when he saw it was Frank and Lester, with Diego following closely behind.

Frank was one of Lancer's best hands, and the foreman of the work crew assigned to clear out the north gully. The previous winter's heavy snowfall had led to a spring thaw that swept an inordinately large amount of debris down from the mountains. The gully supplied water to both the north pasture and the river that fed the western fields. It was vital to keep that particular waterway clear, and the former slave turned top cowhand was just the man to get the job done. Frank was an honest and hard worker, and every time Scott found himself working with him, he couldn't help but feel a small measure of pride over his role in the fight to free the black man from the oppression of slavery.

The other men were newer hands, Lester and Diego. Lester was the son of a Georgia cotton farmer who had moved West just before the onset of the War Between the States, while Diego was the nephew of Luis Baldemero, the owner of the general store in Morro Coyo. Both were just out of their teens and were hard workers, although sometimes they lacked the discipline to finish a task without supervision. Last fall, Frank had chosen both of young men for his crew. They had worked well together all through the winter and into the spring. All in all, the two young men would make top cowhands if they continued learning under Frank's firm but patient hand.

"What are you men doing up here?" Murdoch asked as the two groups of horsemen met up at the side of the trail.

As the foreman, Frank nudged his horse forward, and spoke for the group. "We came to check on Johnny, Mr. Lancer. Them horses he used to haul the supply wagon out of Morro Coyo yesterday showed up over at the gully we been clearing. They was pretty beat up, an' looked like they had been runnin' for quite a spell."

"Wagon?" Murdoch queried as he looked pointedly in Jelly's direction. "Just how many supplies did Johnny bring up here?"

Jelly shifted in his saddle, looked helplessly at Scott, then answered curtly, "'nuf fer what he needed, I reckon."

A storm cloud of angry emotions floated across Murdoch's craggy features. "That shack was fully stocked not a month ago. One of these days that boy is going to have to learn how to listen." Spurring his horse forward, Murdoch headed up the trail, leaving the rest of them staring at his back.

Ignoring Murdoch for the moment, Scott questioned Frank more thoroughly. "How bad was the storm up this way?"

Frank's frown was grim. "Pretty bad, Scott. We've seen downed trees all along the north section, and we're gonna have to start all over with the gully. Even before we headed out this morning, it was already full of more limbs and underbrush than when we started clearing it out last week." Frank paused, but otherwise ignored the uneasy glances between Lester and Diego. "Anyway, with those horses showin' up like they did, we figured things might a been real bad over this way, too. I decided it might not be a bad idea to check up on Johnny."

Scott nodded appreciatively. "How did you know that Johnny was up here?"

This time it was Diego who spoke up. "I saw Señor Johnny leaving town yesterday. Señor Jelly had told me to leave a busted wagon with the blacksmith and pick up the one that was fixed, only the blacksmith said Señor Johnny had already taken it. He said Señor Johnny mentioned he was gonna be hauling some supplies up to one of the line shacks. Although he did not say which one, we figured this one was the best bet."

With Murdoch safely out of earshot, Scott turned to Jelly and repeated his father's previous inquiry. "Just how many supplies did Johnny bring up here?"

Jelly didn't answer right away. "Frank, you and the boys might as well tag along, seein' how ya come this far already. Don't like it that them horses was runnin' loose, and yer right, there could be trouble up there." With a small wave of his hand in the direction of Murdoch's retreating figure, he added, "Me an' Scott'll catch up with ya in a bit."

Frank nodded and he and the other two men headed out to follow Murdoch. Only then did Jelly turn back to Scott. "Teresa forgot ta mention somethin' last night."

A sense of foreboding descended on Scott. "What's that?"

"Johnny's done decided ta turn that shack into a breakin' camp."

"Breakin' camp?"

Jelly nodded. "Yeah, ya know, fer wild horses. He charged a whole mess a supplies at the store for makin' a bigger corral, and I bet he's got plans for makin' the barn bigger, too"

The knot that had been forming in Scott's stomach grew bigger and tighter. There was no more bitter bone of contention between Johnny and Murdoch than Johnny's desire for Lancer to become an established horse ranch. The palominos were Murdoch's only dalliance into the business of horse trading, and in that area he was very selective in his breeding and selling, going for quality over quantity. It was not a lucrative sideline by any means, but what Johnny wanted to do was something entirely different.

Johnny wanted to capture the wild horses that roamed free on the range, break them, and sell them to the army or at auction as cow ponies. Murdoch, however, was dead set against any such operation. Scott had found it easier on his nerves if he stayed neutral in the matter, usually excusing himself to his room whenever the subject was broached between the two stubborn men. He hated to admit that he had never bothered to find out if any of Johnny's arguments had legitimate merit; a decision he had the sinking feeling he would come to regret very soon.

"This is bad, ain't it?" Jelly asked in a concerned voice.

"Yes, Jelly, this is bad. Of all the things Johnny could have chosen to do, this is the one thing that is sure to get Murdoch all bent out of shape." With a frustrated sigh he looked up the trail where Murdoch and the hands were just disappearing around a bend in the trail. "Why does Johnny always have to be so intractable?"

"Ain't exactly sure what that means, Scott, but there's somethin' ya might wanna consider. Yer brother's hurtin'. Real bad, too."

"I know that, Jelly."

"Do ya, Scott? Cuz I can tell ya I ain't never seen Johnny lookin' so down like he was yesterday. Sure, he was making lotsa noise about wantin' ta be up there, but he don't. He don't want it at all. I'm figerin' he's thinkin' that he just ain't got no other choice. An' when he finds out what's really been a goin' on, he's only gonna feel that way even more."

Scott opened him mouth, but this time Jelly cut him off before he could say anything. "Now don't go gettin' yer feathers all ruffled. Like I done told ya last night, I ain't sayin' I ain't happy ya found yer mamma, 'cuz I am. Cain't think a nothin' you deserve more'n that kinda happiness. I jes cain't help but feel bad fer what Johnny's gonna havta face."

Jelly's horse moved restlessly. He reined the antsy gelding back into place next to Charlemagne, but not before the chestnut gave a warning nip for getting too close. "Scott, you know Johnny ain't never had much a nothin' ta call his own, an' that 'fore he come home again, mosta what he did have was his pride. It ain't gonna be easy fer him, not when folks 'round here find out he's...well, that he ain't rightly a Lancer no more. Might even be more'n he kin take. There's only so far ya can push a man 'fore he cain't take no more pushin'."

There was no denying the truth in Jelly's words. It would be better for everyone if there was some way to keep the news a secret, but Scott knew that wasn't about to happen. They had tried that with Johnny's past as a gunfighter, and it hadn't worked at all. Too many people had seen Johnny in the cantina with Pardee's gang. A few of them had no doubt even heard the band of land pirates calling Johnny 'Madrid'. The rumors were already circulating by the time Johnny recovered and showed up in town using the name Lancer. In this case, however, there was just as good a chance that the legal aspects of the situation would not turn out to be against Johnny.

"Jelly, we don't know if that's how this is going to turn out," Scott said without looking at Jelly. "We'll deal with that possibility when and if it becomes a reality. For now, though, my main objective is to get Johnny back home." Urging Charlemagne forward, he added over his shoulder, "And the only way we're going to do that is to keep Murdoch from getting into a fight with him."

"An' jus' how in tarnation is we supposed ta stop that? Murdoch's been 'bout as cuddly as a grizzly bear all mornin', if ya ain't noticed." Jelly called out as he followed Scott up the trail.

"We will keep them apart if we have to, but I'm not going home without Johnny." Scott ignored the muttered, "hope ya like Johnny's cookin'," that Jelly grumbled from behind him. There had been few things on which he had taken a real stand on against Murdoch, but this was one time he would not give in. He wished Frank and the other men hadn't shown up, though. He didn't like the thought of taking on Murdoch in front of the hired help, but he would if Murdoch forced his hand.

It took only a few minutes to catch up to Murdoch and the other men, and Scott eased in next to his father. Neither man spoke, but the set of Murdoch's jaw and the determined stare that never once left the trail in front of them told Scott that he better be prepared to carry through with his plan to keep the two men apart; if not, come dinner time he would be eating Johnny's cooking.

While Scott was formulating the best way to deal with his father and brother, Jelly managed to work his way ahead of them. He reached the top of the mesa trail before Scott and Murdoch, who were in line a little behind him, with the three other men bringing up the rear. "Dear God Almighty!" Jelly's alarmed cry shattered the strained silence. 

Almost as one, Scott and Murdoch spurred their mounts forward. As soon as Scott's line of vision cleared the last rise of the trail, he gasped in shock. The sight before them was like nothing he had ever seen. There weren't just broken tree limbs and uprooted bushes lying around as was normal in the aftermath of a severe storm. Before them lay entire trees, uprooted and broken into pieces. Trees that had once towered fifty feet or more over the land, now lay scattered before them like so much leftover kindling.

"Over there!"

Letting his gaze follow the line of Murdoch's pointed finger, Scott saw a group of trees, upended and leaning haphazardly against the large outcropping of rocks where Johnny had killed a mountain lion a few months before. The rocky tower rose up about thirty feet above the ground. At the very top was what, at first glance, appeared to be a mass of broken tree limbs. A closer inspection, however, revealed a horrifying image - although broken and twisted, there was still enough definition in the wreckage to recognize it as the man-made roof of a building.

The line shack! Fear gripped Scott's heart, driving away all thoughts of staving off the impending fight between his father and brother. There was only one thought on his mind, one drive in his soul - finding Johnny!

As fast as they could, the group made their way through the maze of debris. It took almost half an hour to travel the distance that would normally have taken only a few minutes. A stand of trees once separated the mesa into two clearings, with their destination being the other side of that stand; those trees now lay scattered in their path, presenting a perilous obstacle course that had to be traversed with care. One wrong step and a horse could get a leg caught among the twisted limbs and break it before getting free.

Scott was in the lead when they reached the clearing on the other side of the fallen stand. As soon as he saw the twisted wreckage of what had once been a building and a barn, he recklessly spurred Charlemagne through a path of relatively clear ground, only to rein him in sharply at the edge of the first pile of rubble. Mud was still flying from beneath the chestnut's sliding hooves when Scott's feet hit the ground.


Nothing but silence answered Scott's call.

"The shack would have been over there," Murdoch said, pointing at a pile of wood and trees about ten yards away from where Scott was standing. "If the twister hit last night, then Johnny was probably in there asleep. That would be the best place to start searching."

Scott nodded. To his overwhelming relief, there was no hint of anything but worry and fear in Murdoch's voice. The grumpiness was gone, as was the anger and disappointment. Murdoch was once again the concerned father from last night, and for that Scott was eternally grateful. If only it hadn't taken something like this to bring that part of him back.

"Don't step on anything until you're sure what's under it," Scott warned the others. "If Johnny is buried under this mess, we don't want him hurt anymore than he already is."

For the next half hour the six men carefully scoured the remains of the line shack. They found a few cooking utensils, a crushed coffee pot, and Johnny's hat, but nothing more. There was always the possibility that Johnny had been sucked up into the twister and carried away from the area; a mind numbing thought that no one had the courage to mention.

"Ya know, I was jes thinkin'," Jelly said as he tossed aside a small piece of what looked like the seat of a chair. "If Johnny woke up an' realized what was a happenin', ya know what his first thought woulda been."

"Barranca!" Scott shouted the answer. Instantly, he was rushing towards the wreckage of the small barn, the rest of the men followed quickly, but not at such a reckless, break-neck speed. There they began the search anew.

Just as they had done with the shack, they began a painstaking search, again taking great care not to further harm the man who might be beneath any of the numerous boards and beams. They worked without speaking unless it was to ask for assistance in moving a particularly large piece of the debris, going as quickly as prudence would allow, each of them hoping to find Johnny alive.

"Murdoch, over here!" Standing up straight, Scott held up his find - Johnny's gun.

"That's Johnny's," Jelly pointed out needlessly.

Like vultures on a fresh carcass, the others descended on the area and hurriedly cleared away the splintered wood and fallen timbers; still there was no sign of Johnny. Scott felt his panic rising, and desperately fought to keep it at bay. Johnny needed him to be calm, to be rational and clearheaded, something that was becoming harder after a thorough search left them with just Johnny's gun, but still no sign of the man to whom it belonged.

"He's got to be under here somewhere," Frank muttered in frustration. Taking a step back, his boot slipped on the wet timbers and he lost his balance and fell backwards, landing in a small patch of clear ground with a splat. "Great," he grumbled over his now muddy and wet rear end, but as he shook a glob of mud off his hand, a glimpse of something under a nearby piece of wood caught his eye.

"Over here!" His soggy backside all but forgotten, Frank attempted to lift what appeared to be one of the barn doors.

"Be careful!" Scott warned as he joined in the effort. A beam had to be removed from the opposite end of the door, which Lester and Diego handled with relative ease. The wood was moved aside, and Scott froze, his mind taking in the ghastly sight he had not once considered finding. Although still mostly covered in debris, Barranca's head was in plain sight. The molten-gray tongue hung limply out of the side of Barranca's mouth. That, along with the conspicuous bullet hole between the palomino's eyes, told the tragic story

"Oh, Lordy, kin it get any worse?" Jelly asked in a dull voice.

"Johnny's got to be here. Keep looking," Murdoch ordered almost frantically.

Scott heard the others moving around him, but his eyes refused to look away from ominous dark circle that stood out starkly against the golden color of the horse's golden coat. There could be only one source of the bullet that had ended Barranca's life, and that was the gun he had tucked in the belt of his pants - Johnny's gun. And there was only one hand that could have been there to pull the trigger - Johnny's hand.

"Look! I think I see Johnny!" Diego shouted. From where the young man was crouched near Barranca's hindquarters, he pointed towards a pile of lumber a few yards beyond the dead carcass, where the other barn door lay perched on top. Just under the edge of one of the boards there was a hint of faded red, the same faded red as the shirt Johnny so frequently wore.

Scott's heart was pounding so loudly that he could hardly hear anything as he rushed towards the pile of rubble. Finding Barranca dead, even if it wasn't directly caused by the storm, had rattled Scott more than he would have imagined. He couldn't begin to fathom how he would react if they found Johnny dead, too.

Landing on his knees in the mud, Scott had to crawl under the overhanging boards to reach his brother. Trembling fingers pressed against the cool flesh of Johnny's neck, probing for any movement, any tremor that would tell him that blood still flowed, that Johnny still lived. He held his breath; certain that he had felt a slight pulse. There it was again. "He's alive," Scott breathed in relief.

As soon as Jelly and the other men shifted the door back to reveal Johnny's torso, Scott sat up and slipped out of his coat. Murdoch, who had just joined him in the mud, had already seen the problem and did not need to be told what to do. Scott watched his father's trembling hands reach out for the man they both loved in a different way, large fingers slipping under a pale cheek, pushing aside the mud that was very close to closing in around Johnny's mouth and nose. As soon as there was enough clearance, Scott slipped his jacket under Johnny's head, providing a protective barrier against the wet ground.

In the meantime, Jelly and the other men had finished removing the barn door, only to uncover a maze of twisted beams and boards still lay between them and their ability to move Johnny away from the wreckage. "This ain't lookin' too good, Boss," Jelly said as he surveyed the pile of wood. On the other side of the pileup, Lester and Diego were shaking their heads ominously, while Frank bit his lip as he studied twisted mess lying between them and Johnny.

Murdoch made an attempt to rise, but groaned and ended up back on his knees. With a determined frown, he hesitantly placed a hand on Scott's shoulder, and tried to push himself up again. Scott tensed his entire body, giving Murdoch the sturdiest surface possible against which he could push. Another groan later, and Murdoch was on his feet.

Although Scott did not want to leave Johnny, his need to know what they were facing was too strong. Rising to his feet, being careful not to slip or slosh any more of the wet mud onto his brother, Scott surveyed the scene, and quickly saw what already had the others concerned.

Under the lesser debris, two beams lay across Johnny's body, one across his legs and the other at his lower back. The problem was that those beams were laced in with the large number of the smaller boards, making it impossible to get to either beam without pushing the other down onto Johnny. A back injury or crushed legs could leave Johnny crippled for life, and that was simply was not an option. With more men and equipment they would not have too much trouble, but neither of those commodities was within quick or easy access.

After studying the maze for a moment, Scott started pointing at certain boards and issuing orders. "We can't remove the debris without causing further injury to Johnny, so we need to lift up the whole pile just up enough to be able to pull him out from under it. Frank you and Lester take that one. Diego can handle that smaller one there," Scott pointed to one board, but Diego reached for the one on top of it. "No, the other one, the end is just poking out from under the one you've got your hand on." Diego touched the right board and Scott nodded. "Yes, that one."

Motioning for Jelly to join him at the end of the second beam, Scott looked over at Murdoch. "You'll have to pull Johnny out once we lift the weight off him."

Murdoch nodded his understanding of Scott's implied question - would his back allow him to pull Johnny free. "I can get Johnny out, but should we?"

This time it was Scott's turn to read his father's mind. With a confident nod, he pointed through the rubble to a mud-covered object just to the left of Johnny's prone figure. "Johnny's saddle prevented that beam," Scott pointed to the one across Johnny's waist, "from coming to rest fully on Johnny's back. It's got him pinned down, but that's all. The one over his legs is another story, but any damage there is already done. We'll deal with that once he's free."

It wasn't until Murdoch visibly relaxed that Scott realized the true extent of his father's worries. While Scott had been on the ground checking Johnny for signs of life, he had also had a much better view of the underside of the pile up, and knew that Johnny's back had been afforded some manner of protection from being crushed by the fallen beam. He had not known why until he crawled back out and noticed Johnny's saddle wedged under the far end, keeping it high enough off the ground to prevent what could have been an otherwise crippling injury.

"Let's get this done," Murdoch ordered solemnly. The other men waited while Murdoch got himself situated. Crouching down on his haunches just in front of Johnny's head, Murdoch leaned forward and slipped his hands under Johnny's shoulders. As soon as he felt comfortable with the grip he had under Johnny's arms he looked up at Scott and nodded.

"All right, on my count lift your appointed beam. Don't let go until Murdoch gives us the all clear." Instead of answering, all five men leaned over in tandem and took a firm grip on the planks that would, theoretically, lift the entire pile just enough for Murdoch to pull Johnny free. With his fingers wrapped tightly around the rough edge of the beam that lay across Johnny's back, Scott glanced up at the others. One by one he got an affirmative nod. "On one, men. Three. Two. One." In unison, the five men lifted their appointed burden.

Scott's voice still echoed in his own ears as he focused himself on the task at hand. Ominous sounds of creaking wood drifted up from the pile as the planks were stressed and strained, while the men responsible for that stress gasped to catch their own breaths under the heavy load. For Scott it seemed like an eternity as his muscles screamed their protest, but they remained strong, shouldering the weight because it had to be done.

"He's out!" Murdoch's shouted.

Scott dropped his load and moved quickly to where his father lay, sprawled out on his back, with Johnny's unconscious form stretched out top of him. With his body lying between Murdoch's outstretched legs, Johnny's head rested on Murdoch's stomach. Obviously, Murdoch had used the fall backwards to give him enough room to pull Johnny free of the pile. Otherwise, Murdoch would have had to pull Johnny part way out, reposition himself, and then finish pulling Johnny the rest of the way free. This maneuver may not have been the most graceful, but it had accomplished the task in the least amount of time.

After a quick touch to Johnny's face, just to reassure himself, Scott slipped his arm beneath his brother and let Murdoch roll out from under Johnny's limp form. Scott continued holding Johnny up while Murdoch struggled out of his coat and spread it out on the ground for Johnny's head to rest on. Scott's coat had been caught up under Johnny's body as he was pulled forward, and was now bunched up under Johnny's legs, covered in mud.

The others looked on with concerned faces as Murdoch pulled up the shirt Johnny had obviously thrown on in a hurry, not even bothering to tuck the tail into his pants. Yellowish bruises were already turning purple and black on Johnny's back, most notably along his waistline where the beam had lain. His shoulders and upper arms were becoming black and blue as well, probably from the initial impact of the barn when it collapsed on top of him.

Scott carefully moved Johnny's arms out of the way so Murdoch could probe his sides, looking for any signs of less obvious injury. "I don't think there are any broken ribs," he said after a few minutes. At least his voice sounded optimistic, even though his face was still tense with a worried frown. "Despite the severity of the bruising, I think you're right about his back not being injured. Still, we should be careful until Sam can look him over."

A clicking sound startled Scott and he looked up to see Lester urging his horse away from them. He hadn't even noticed the other men walk away while Murdoch was examining Johnny, but Frank and Diego were off by the remains of the line shack, sifting through the rubble as if they were looking for something. Before he could ask, though, Jelly hurried over and kneeled down beside Scott.

"I sent Lester on ta fetch some help," Jelly explained.

"Good idea," Murdoch agreed with an unsettled sigh. "I should have thought of that as soon as we had Johnny free."

"How's he doin'?" Jelly's gaze was directed at Johnny's back.

"We're still checking him out, but so far his back looks okay, and there don't appear to be any broken ribs," Scott said quickly, almost needing to hear his own reassurances as much as Jelly did.

"While you an' Murdoch are takin' care a him," Jelly's voice cracked a little under the strain, but he only grimaced a little as he looked down at Johnny's unmoving form, then continued on with his thought. "Me and the boys'll get some scraps a wood put tagether so's we can use 'em fer a stretcher. Don't see no other way a gittin' Johnny outta here. Ain't gonna be no gettin' a wagon any closer than the top of the mesa trail, not with all them trees in the way." Without waiting for a reply, Jelly rose to his feet and hurried off to where Frank and Diego were already implementing their part of the plan.

After Jelly departed, Scott reluctantly climbed to his feet, leaving Johnny in Murdoch's care while he went to retrieve the canteen from his saddle. A second thought made him grab Murdoch's canteen, as well, before he returned to find his father examining Johnny's left leg. "Is it broken?" Scott asked as he pulled his handkerchief from his pocket pants pocket.

Murdoch didn't answer right away, but continued with his gentle probing of Johnny's bare leg, his brow creased tight with worry as he concentrated on detecting the least little abnormality. His frown deepened when his fingers moved over on particular spot along the inside of Johnny's leg, a few inches above his ankle. "I'm pretty sure this one is broken. The right one just seems to be badly bruised, although it might be cracked and I just can't tell."

Pouring some water from his canteen onto his handkerchief, Scott nodded. "A broken leg isn't the best news, but all in all it could have been much worse." Leaning forward, he was about to wipe some of the dirt off Johnny's face, when a sharp pain in his gut made him wince. Jerking upright, he looked down at Johnny's gun, still tucked securely his belt, the hammer of which had been pushed painfully into his stomach when he bent over.

Scott pulled the gun free of his belt and stared down at its gray metal with unseeing eyes. It could have been worse? Had he really just said anything so totally ridiculous? The pieces to the puzzle had fallen into place, and like a bolt of lightning Scott realized what he had missed seeing before; Johnny's physical wounds were nothing compared to the mental anguish he had endured over putting down Barranca. Nothing else could explain Johnny casting aside his most valued possession. "I guess I don't have to wonder how Johnny feels about his gun now," Scott muttered.


Looking up, Scott saw that Murdoch had pulled Johnny's pant's legs back down, but had left them unbuttoned for the treatment to come. A splint would be necessary for one, and a good idea for the other, just in case it had an undetectable break. For now, though, Murdoch was staring over Johnny, looking at Scott with a concerned frown on his tense features.

"Johnny killed Barranca."

"Johnny did what any decent man would have done," Murdoch replied firmly. "I know how much that horse meant to your brother-"

"Do you?" Scott interrupted, knowing with everything in him that Murdoch did not have the slightest clue that a mere animal could have meant more to Johnny than most human beings. "Johnny threw this away." Scott held up the revolver, waving it in Murdoch's face for emphasis. "Do you realize what it would take to get Johnny to throw his gun away? He was trapped and helpless, yet he discarded his only means of defense because he had used it to kill Barranca."

Murdoch remained calm in the face of Scott's damning certainty. "We don't know that's what happened, Son. Maybe the storm-"

"I know!" Scott snapped, his self-control finally overrun by his frustrations. "Johnny had this gun in his hand AFTER the storm hit. I know that for a fact because Barranca did not shoot himself, and I refuse to believe someone else came along, put Johnny's horse down, and then just took off. Johnny pulled the trigger, and then he threw his gun away. If you would just stop and think about it objectively for just a minute, you might realize what all this really means."

Unable to deal with any more denial in the face of what Scott considered to be painfully obvious, he blocked out his father. Murdoch would never be able to understand how much Johnny had really lost in the preceding night's storm, so Scott focused his attention totally on his brother.

Scott's hand shook as he gently wiped the dirt from Johnny's face, and all the while his mind kept repeating the same phrase - he threw his gun away. How could anyone who knew Johnny not realize the terrifying implications of such an action? How could they not realize how distraught Johnny had to have been to do such a thing? Thankfully, Murdoch did not press the issue, and remained silent, helping Scott clean up Johnny as best they could while Jelly, Frank and Diego prepared the means to get him back home where he belonged. 

*** *** *** ***

It took over an hour for the small group to make their way through the fallen timbers that lay between them and the trail on the other side of the mesa. The boards they were using as a makeshift stretcher added to the weight they had to carry, as did the crude splints they had secured to both of Johnny's legs with strips of cloth, torn from the remnants of a horse blanket Diego had found in the wreckage. The burdensome weight, combined with the challenge of just getting through the maze of fallen trees, made it necessary for them to take turns carrying Johnny.

Whoever wasn't carrying the stretcher was clearing the path as best they could for those who were, or leading the horses from behind. All five men were breathing hard and were dripping with sweat when they reached the small clearing on the other side of the fallen stand of trees. The trail down off the mesa was a few hundred yards ahead. It was there that they planned to wait for Lester to return with help from the ranch.

"We probably still have a couple of hours to wait," Murdoch said as he watched Frank and Scott carefully set down the stretcher. Both men stretched stiffly after discarding their load, but while Frank moved away to walk out his aching legs, Scott kneeled down next to Johnny, checking him for fever first, then making sure the splints had not jarred loose during the trip.

Suddenly, as if to prove Murdoch wrong, Lester appeared at the mouth of the trail. He was on foot and ran towards them. "Mr. Lancer!"

"Are you okay?" Murdoch asked as soon as Lester came to stop. "Did your horse throw you?"

"I'm fine, Sir," Lester gasped between breaths. The short young man was skinny as a rail in the first place, but being winded as he was he looked like he might fall over at any minute. "You ain't gonna believe what I found a few miles up the road."

"Lester, what we needed is help from the ranch," Scott replied tersely.

The young cowboy bowed his head. "Sorry, Scott, but I figured we needed a buckboard more'n anything else. When I found the one Johnny'd been using, I hightailed it back here as fast as I could. Thought we could use it to get Johnny home while someone rode ahead to fetch the doctor."

Murdoch stepped up, he too sounding dismayed over the young man's poorly thought out plan. "I understand what you're saying, Lester, but even if the buckboard was usable after being thrown around in that storm, we don't have a horse to pull it. Or the harness, even if we had the horse."

Again, the young man looked contrite in the face of his boss's disapproval. "Wasn't nuthin' wrong with the buckboard, sir. It's like it was just picked up and set down at the edge of that field just below the creek. That's how I found it, just sitting there right perty as ya please. It's waitin' down at the bottom of the trail with my horse. I'm sorry if I done something wrong, but I honestly-"

"Yer saddle horse'll pull a wagon?" Jelly asked in surprise.

Lester frowned a little and nodded. "He don't like it none, but he does okay in a pinch. I figured if this ain't a pinch, then ain't nothing ever gonna be."

Scott had been listening to Lester's explanation, seething in anger one minute only to be overwhelmed with relief the next. Still, it didn't seem possible what the man was claiming. "Lester, are you telling us that you found the buckboard just sitting in a field in perfect condition? And the harness just happened to be with it?"

"Yes, sir," Lester answered nervously. "The harness was laid out in the back, just like Johnny always does when he unhitches a team away from the ranch."

"I heard something like that once," Frank spoke up. "When I was traveling through Kansas after the war. Some old man in the saloon was talking about a twister that had destroyed his house. Said he came home to find the house flattened, his wife and son dead, but the kitchen table was sitting a few yards away from the house, under a tree, with the breakfast dishes still laid out. He claimed there was even a cup of coffee on the table that hadn't spilled a drop. I have to admit I never believed that part, even though the rest of the men in the bar backed him up."

Murdoch nodded knowingly. "We don't get many twisters around here - its been a good fifteen years since the last one hit, and that was up closer to Stockton - but when I was in Texas I heard quite a few stories like that. Things too farfetched to believe, but too numerous to discount, either. 

"Does any of that really matter? If the buckboard is usable, what are we waiting for?" Scott demanded as he moved over to where Johnny still lay unconscious. Frank followed suit, taking the other end of the stretcher and within a half hour they had Johnny off the mesa and loaded into the buckboard at the bottom of the trail.

"Scott, you ride in back with Johnny." Murdoch looked at Lester, giving him a grateful smile and a nod of approval. "Lester, since it's your horse and he's only green broke to harness, you better drive. Frank, you ride ahead to the ranch. Have Cipriano send someone to town for the doctor so he can be there when we arrive. Have them tell Sam that Johnny has one broken leg for sure. And tell Teresa to get Johnny's room ready. Diego will stay with us, just in case we run into trouble."

"Yes, Sir!" In a flash, Frank was mounted and headed off in the direction of the ranch.

As much as Scott wanted to be with Johnny, he couldn't ignore his father's limp, which had become more pronounced since the perilous trek to get Johnny across the mesa. Murdoch had carried Johnny's stretcher as long, if not longer, than any of the rest of them, and the strain was showing. Slipping close to Murdoch's side, he suggested in a low voice, "You should ride in the buckboard with Johnny, Sir. I'm not sure your back or your leg is going to withstand a couple of hours in the saddle after all the strain they've already endured."

Defiance flashed in Murdoch's eyes, but the verbal outrage never came. "I hate feeling useless," he muttered under his breath.

As a man, this was a sentiment Scott understood all too well. "You won't be useless, Murdoch." Another thought struck Scott, and he added, "If Johnny wakes up, just knowing you're nearby will do him a world of good. There are a lot of misunderstandings that still need to be worked out."

Father and son shared a knowing look. Their fight for Johnny had only just begun. Getting his body home was only a small battle to be won, keeping him at Lancer was going to be a much more difficult task, especially if Jarrod Barkley did not bring them good news at the end of the week. The best place to start the daunting task, though, was to reassure Johnny that his father had not turned him away, and that was something that only Murdoch could do.  

*** *** *** *** 

Back at the hacienda, Teresa entered the great room, stopping beside the dining table when she saw Catherine pacing in front of the French doors. She almost laughed in spite of herself, then felt guilty for finding humor in another's anxieties. It seemed Teresa had become used to the waiting; such times had become so much more frequent since the arrival of Scott and Johnny. 

Murdoch, Scott and Jelly had left before daybreak, and a good two hours before Maria said Catherine had made her way down to the kitchen. Teresa had missed seeing Catherine, since Scott's mother had finished her breakfast and retreated to the great room before Teresa had returned from gathering eggs. Watching her now, Teresa thought she looked rested, but was obviously worried about the day to come.

She was wearing a simple green skirt with a matching bodice. The deep emerald color accentuated the golden blond hair that was pulled back and off her shoulders in a loose bun. The hairstyle was practical, but not as severe as the tight buns worn by the older women in Morro Coyo and Spanish Wells. The comb that held it in place reminded Teresa of the one Maria wore so often when working in the kitchen.

What impressed her the most, though, was Catherine's stance. She had that same straight-backed posture as Scott, something that Teresa had just assumed Scott had picked up during his time in the army. Now, however, it seemed that this might be a natural carriage, or maybe something learned from birth in places like Boston.

Teresa had met a few uppity sorts during her visits with Murdoch to Sacramento and San Francisco who carried themselves the same way. They had made her feel uncomfortable, even intimidated, but Scott had never made her feel that way, and so far, neither had his mother. They both carried themselves with a strong sense of grace, but never seemed to give off that arrogant air of superiority that could be so hurtful when used as a means to humiliate others.

From that first day Scott had given her the impression that he had a very strong sense of self-confidence, but never at anyone else's expense. Only time would tell if his mother possessed this same quality, but so far there had been no indication that she did not.

Across the room Catherine stopped her pacing and was standing just to the side of the French doors, staring out at the scenery with an intent look on her face. The late morning sunlight was still streaming in through the polished glass, making the older woman's hair sparkle like the gold jewelry Teresa has so admired in the store windows during her last visit to San Francisco.

Scott's hair had been a darker blond when he first arrived at Lancer, though Teresa didn't recall it ever being quite as dark as his mother's. However, the months of working in the hot California sun had lightened Scott's hair considerably. Still, they were both light haired people in a world where most of the inhabitants were like herself, dark haired.

Although her head was turned slightly, Catherine had not noticed Teresa's presence. From this angle, Teresa could see a vague resemblance to the face in the picture that had sat on the corner of Murdoch's desk for as long as she could remember. The picture had most likely been there as long as the desk, which had been always for her. The more striking resemblance, however, was between Catherine and Scott.

During the excitement and shock and turmoil of the previous evenings revelations, she hadn't bothered to notice that there was such an uncanny likeness between mother and son. The way they both held their head high without making them seem pretentious was only a small part of it. The elegant angle of their noses that was neither too sharp nor too blunt. The high cheekbones that could very easily seem too sharp, but for some reason didn't. All of it was the same.

They even had the same mouth, the same lips that could easily form the most heartwarming of smiles, only Scott's didn't seem to do so nearly as easily as Catherine's, but that might be more of a difference in their ages and gender than anything else. Still you always knew it was there. Scott's eyes did more of his 'smiling' for him. There was a twinkle they had, that while his lips remained elegantly straight, and you just knew he was smiling on the inside.

Maybe that was more due to Scott's Boston upbringing, and maybe, as it could have happened with his mother, time and distance would fade the no-nonsense demeanor Teresa had recognized immediately in Scott's grandfather during his visit last fall. She shuddered as memories of how close they came to losing Scott flooded her mind; either at his grandfather's side back in Boston, or dead at the hands of those awful men who tried to kill Scott. Thank goodness Catherine did not seem to be anything like her father. At least not from what little she had seen so far.

"That won't get them back any sooner," Teresa said softly as she stepped forward and made her presence known.

Catherine jumped, then turned around, startled. "A watched pot never boils," she said with a wry grin.

Teresa couldn't resist laughing. "Not around here, that's for sure." Moving into the room she sat down in the chair by the fireplace. "Did you sleep well?" she asked graciously.

"Yes, thank you."

Another pang of guilt twitched in the back of Teresa's mind. She had spent most of the night tossing in a fitful sleep, or dreaming of how things were going to change now that Murdoch's first wife was back at Lancer. She didn't like to think of herself as a jealous type, but that's how she felt. She had never given a second thought to welcoming Scott and Johnny into her life, but they were different. Murdoch's sons had their place and she had hers. With Scott's mother here, though, would she still have a place at Lancer?


Startled from her thoughts, Teresa looked up to see that Catherine had taken a seat on the sofa, and was looking at her curiously. "I'm sorry. I guess I was just wondering-" Teresa stopped short, stunned by what she came so close to saying, however, Catherine didn't seem to notice.

"You seem to have done a lot of this, Teresa; waiting, I mean."

In response to such an accurate observation, Teresa could only sigh. "More than I like to think about. There are plenty of hazards that come with just living on a ranch, but-" Teresa stopped short again, only this time for an entirely different reason.

A small smile tugged at Catherine's lips. "But having two young men like Scott and Johnny around have made things more interesting?"

The knowing gleam that twinkled in Catherine's eyes made Teresa look away, feeling as if she had been caught revealing a deep dark secret. "They do tend to get into quite a bit of trouble," she admitted a little hesitantly. "Doc Jenkins has even taken to stopping in whenever he's anywhere in the area. He says it's because he loves Maria's coffee, but I think it's just his way of trying to stay one step ahead of Scott and Johnny."

Catherine chuckled lightly. "I don't suppose Murdoch ever gets into any trouble."

"Oh, of course not," Teresa denied with a teasing grin. "That's what he has two sons for."

A loud bang at the front door was followed by the abrupt entrance of Cipriano. Teresa knew instantly that something was wrong and headed for where the segundo was standing at the foyer entrance. He looked rather uncertain as his gazed followed Catherine, who had followed Teresa but at a less frantic pace.

"Señorita Teresa," Cipriano said with hat in hand while his fingers fiddled with the brim.

"Cipriano, this is..." Teresa hesitated for only a moment, "This is Catherine. She returned from San Francisco with Murdoch and Scott." A more accurate introduction could be made later, when Murdoch was around to decide exactly how that should be done. By revealing that much, Teresa hoped to soothe away most of Cipriano's unease.

"Señora," Cipriano said politely to the woman he believed to be a visitor, then turned back to Teresa. "Señor Johnny has been hurt."

Teresa gasped. "Is it bad?"

"El Patrón sent word that Señor Johnny's leg is broken, and for you to prepare his room. I have already sent Miguel for the doctor. They are bringing Señor Johnny in from the north section, and will not arrive for a couple of hours. That is all I know."

Teresa nodded, her mind already sorting through the numerous preparations that would have to be made. "Gracias, Cipriano. I'll have everything ready."

"Sí, Señorita." Another respectful but curious glance was spared for Catherine. "Señora." Then he departed.

For the next half hour, the hacienda was a flurry of activity. Johnny's bed was stripped and remade with fresh linens, bandages and medical supplies were laid out on the table in his room to wait for both patient and doctor. A clean stack of towels and a fresh basin of water were placed on the chamber stand in Johnny's bedroom. Her final task was to set a huge pot of water was set on the stove. It would be ready to put on the fire when it was closer to time for the wounded Johnny to arrive. With the preparations completed, there was nothing else to do but wait.

Teresa looked out the French doors for what had to be the hundredth time. She was worried about Johnny, but couldn't help being relieved by the way Scott's mother had helped her at every turn, yet had not tried to take over. This surprised Teresa, who had been prepared to do battle with the woman if she had interfered in any way. This was her territory, and taking care of her family was her job, and... "Not any more," she mumbled aloud.


Teresa looked up to see Catherine watching her from the entranceway to the foyer, and she instantly felt guilty for her previous thoughts. So far Catherine had done nothing to deserve being thought of in a bad light. She had helped prepare for Johnny like she she was preparing for her own wounded son to be brought home. If only she could believe that Scott's mother really wanted Johnny here. Everyone said she did, but there had to be some reason why Johnny had so firmly believed otherwise.

"Are you okay, Teresa?"

"I'm fine," Teresa lied, then for some reason, felt compelled to tell Catherine the truth. "This is the part of waiting that is the hardest for me."

"Once you know for a fact that one of your family is hurt," Catherine responded sympathetically.

Again Teresa wasn't sure how to react. She felt threatened by this woman, but at the same time, hadn't Catherine just acknowledged that this was Teresa's family, too? Maybe talking would do both of them some good, not to mention, help pass the time until Murdoch and Scott arrived with Johnny. It might even give her some insights as to what Catherine really expected from her. "Johnny isn't a very good patient," Teresa said with a heavy sigh.

Catherine moved closer and placed a supportive arm around Teresa's shoulder. "Most men aren't, Dear. Given what I remember about Murdoch's limited ability to heed medical advice, I would expect nothing less from any of his children. I'm sure you've discovered a few secrets to keeping them in line, though."

Despite her still-fresh misgivings, Teresa felt herself liking Scott's mother. "They do have to be handled properly if you expect to stay ahead of them in any way. With Murdoch, all I have to do is get him to think it is his idea and he'll do anything I want."

"Now, that does sound like the Murdoch I remember." After the ladies resettled themselves in the seats they had occupied before Cipriano's arrival with the distressing news about Johnny, Catherine asked, "And what about the boys?"

To this, Teresa couldn't help but smile. "Well, Scott is probably the best behaved, to a point, anyway. He will listen to reason most of the time, but you have to be very careful about taking what he says at face value him. Just because he seems to give in, doesn't mean he really has."

This commentary piqued Catherine's interest. "How do you mean?"

"Well, for instance, Scott got a really bad chest cold last fall. He didn't want to stay in bed because he didn't feel all that bad, but Doctor Jenkins insisted that he was on the verge of getting pneumonia and needed bed rest to beat it. A couple of days later, Murdoch was going into town and asked me if I wanted to ride along. Scott promised me that he would stay off his feet unless it was absolutely necessary, so I went with Murdoch."

Teresa snorted softly as she remembered that homecoming that was anything but pleasant. "After we got back, we found out that Scott had driven a buckboard out to where Johnny and the men were branding some strays from the fall roundup. Scott swore that he was only on his feet long enough to walk to the buckboard, which he pointed out was absolutely necessary, since crawling on the ground would have stirred up dust and aggravated his breathing. The rest of the time he argued that he was sitting, which is what he would have been doing in bed, anyway."

Catherine laughed. "I've heard almost that exact excuse before."

"Oh?" Teresa looked surprised. "From who?"

"A rather precocious young man who grew up at the mission in Mexico. He was very charming and thought he could talk his way out of anything. His problem was a twisted ankle, not a chest cold, and his diversion was a trip to town, instead of delivering some work supplies. He had his mind set on getting to town that day because it was market day and he wanted very much to see a certain cute little Señorita. She was new to the village and had all the young boys interested in courting her, even though most were too young for such nonsense."

Twisting in her seat, Teresa pulled her leg up under her and looked at Catherine with interest. It might be kind of nice having another woman in the house, after all. "What did you do about him leaving?"

"Maybe I should be ashamed to say it, but I took advantage of his extremely good heart," Catherine admitted with a slight amount of embarrassment. "I pointed out that there was no dust on the mission floor, so that argument would only work *after* he was out the front door. Between his bed and the front door, he had gone back on his word and I would find it very difficult to believe him in the future." Catherine's bright smile faltered into something more melancholy. "Mateo never once lied to me again."

Teresa found this hard to believe "Never?"

Catherine shook her head. "Not even when I asked him if a dress I had been working on for weeks looked nice."

The sour look that appeared on Catherine's face made Teresa smile. "What did he tell you?"

"That it would make a very nice feed bag for Clarita, the mission's mule at the time."

"He didn't!"

"He did," Catherine sighed. "Of course, he was right. It did look atrocious. It was my very first attempt at making a dress on my own, or at least that I knew of. The sleeves were way too small and the-"

Catherine almost laughed and Teresa couldn't resist pressing her for more details. "The what?"

A deep shade of red rose high on Catherine's cheeks. "Well, let's just say that I can't imagine any woman who could properly fit in that blouse being able to stand up, much less walk around without falling flat on her face."

For a moment Teresa was confused, then she realized what Catherine was saying and turned an even deeper shade of red.

Catherine laughed, then asked almost hesitantly. "What about Johnny? How do you handle him when he's ill?"

"Not very well, I'm afraid. Johnny can be both the easiest and hardest one of all, depending on how he feels at any given moment. You have to keep your eye on him at all times or he'll do something he shouldn't, but he's also the easiest to guilt into behaving himself. Of course, that only works temporarily, but it does help when no one is available to sit with him constantly. After he gets better, I always end up feeling guilty for making him feel bad. I know I've baked at least a half-dozen chocolate cakes trying to soothe my own guilty feelings."

"So Johnny has a sweet tooth?"

Images of Johnny helping her clear away the breakfast dishes just so he could take a shot at getting her to add one of his favorite desserts to the supper menu brought a smile to her face. It was usually chocolate cake or butterscotch pudding, but she knew he would settle for anything sweet. He was such a tease about it, too, but only in the most innocent of ways.

"Johnny is special to you, isn't he?"

Catherine's question took Teresa a bit by surprise. "No more so than Scott or Murdoch," she stated adamantly. At Catherine's raised eyebrow, Teresa became even more defensive. "When Scott and Johnny first came to Lancer, I told them to think of me as a sister, and that's exactly how I feel about them. As brothers, I mean."

"I'm sorry, Teresa. I didn't mean to imply anything."

As the apology seemed sincere, Teresa felt she might have been hasty in her assessment of Catherine's intent. She had felt baited for a brief moment, as if Catherine were trying to trap her into saying that Scott wasn't as important to her, which just wasn't true. Now she just felt embarrassed by her overreaction. "No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped at you like that. I just...well...I wouldn't want you to think that I care any less for Scott."

"I didn't think at all. Scott and Johnny are different people, so it's only natural that you would relate to them differently." A profound look of sadness descended on Catherine's features. "Does Scott have a favorite dessert?"

Teresa looked at Catherine and any anger remaining instantly disappeared. How hard it must be for a mother to have to ask someone else about her own son's likes and dislikes. Having spent the last year observing Murdoch's struggle to get acquainted with grown sons he didn't know, Teresa could read the signs very clearly. "I'm not sure if he does or not. Scott hasn't ever asked me for anything in particular. He always compliments my cooking, and Maria's too, but he never has requested anything special."

Catherine nodded, but didn't say anything. Her disappointment, though, was abundantly clear. Obviously she had hoped to find out something about her son, and Teresa's heart ached for her. She knew most people had missed it, but she had seen how Murdoch sometimes became overburdened with his own feelings of inadequacy for being unaware of things he felt he should know about his own sons. It had to be even harder for Catherine, as a woman and a mother. Men could be hurt over emotional things, but not like women could. All of a sudden, Teresa felt a desperate need to help Catherine get to know Scott.

"Scott prefers cream and sugar in his coffee, but only first thing in the morning. He's gotten used to doing without on the trail, and doesn't even ask for it when they are here for lunch, which isn't very often. For dinner he prefers wine, red usually, as beef is a main dish at just about every meal. Later, after dinner, he'll either have another cup of coffee by the fire if the weather is cold, or if it's warm enough outside a glass of sherry out on the veranda.

Barely stopping to catch her breath, she rattled on. "If he has coffee in the evening coffee, he'll spice it up with a little cinnamon, and on occasion, a vanilla bean, the Mexican way. He hated it that way when he first came here, but I think Maria has worked him into it. He usually only drinks one brandy of an evening, but will have another later on, if he and Murdoch or Johnny are up late talking." She couldn't fully suppress a giggle at this point. "Scott doesn't get along too well with tequila, and avoids it if Johnny will let him."

In a flurry of thought, Teresa gestured towards the large selection of books across the room. "Scott's already read over half of the books in Murdoch's collection. He reads something most every night after going to bed, and is constantly trying to get Johnny interested in the ones he calls 'the classics'. I know Scott is particularly fond of books by a Mr. Thoreau and anything doing with history. He brought several books written by Mr. Thoreau with him when he came from Boston. Johnny tries to show some interest, but I'm not sure he's as impressed as Scott would like him to be." Teresa took a deep breath, then realized she had pretty much been spouting on about Scott like a chattering little child. "Oh, and his favorite color is blue," she added as a final touch.

Catherine looked like she was about to cry and her voice was heavy with emotion when she spoke. "Thank you, Teresa."

At that moment, Maria rushed in, providing a distraction from the highly emotional conversation. In a flurry of Spanish, she informed Teresa that she would put the kettle of water on to boil, and added that she had prepared the herbs for a poultice for Johnny's leg. Then, as quickly as she came, she hurried back towards the kitchen in a whirl of rustling skirt and muttered prayers.

"Depending on how badly Johnny's leg is broken, it may take several poultice treatments to keep the swelling down," Catherine mused aloud.

For a moment Teresa was startled, then was only confused. "Can I ask you something, Catherine?"

"Anything at all, Teresa. I'm not sure I'll have an adequate answer, but I can try."

"Why don't you speak Spanish more often? Your English is spoken so well, it's hard to believe you spent so much time in Mexico. I had even forgotten, until you understood what Maria said about the poultice."

"I have always tried to speak as much English as possible. I made a conscious effort to speak only English as a way of helping teach the Mexican children at the mission to speak the language, but in the beginning, I," she hesitated, and a sad frown brought lines of worry to her face. "At first I used it as a way to hold on to who I was. I couldn't remember anything about where I came from, so my being the only one in the area who could speak English made the language a part of me, something that reminded me that I did have a past, somewhere. I refused to learn any Spanish at all until my memories returned." 

Catherine's eyes sparkled with unshed tears when she looked over at Teresa. "It made things more difficult for everyone, but I couldn't let it go. It was all I had left, and the nuns and padres at the mission seemed to understand. They never pushed me to speak Spanish and spent many hours learning English for my sake."

In the face of such a revelation, Teresa didn't know what to say. She couldn't imagine what it must have been like to know that you didn't really belong where you were, but not to know where you did belong. And on top of that, to be the only non-Spanish speaking person around - life had to have been much more difficult than Catherine was letting on. It was easy to see how anyone in that position would have been desperate enough to hang on to anything they had left of their former life.

If only the memories Catherine had regained had been complete. Then maybe she could have returned to Lancer sooner. Surely Scott's grandfather would have let him come home to his own mother, no matter how much he hated Murdoch. Maybe...Teresa's heart skipped a beat, and she struggled to remember all they had been told the night before.

"What is it, Teresa?" Catherine's concerned voice broke into her thoughts.

"Nothing. I was just thinking how awful that must have been for you," Teresa half-lied, then could not resist trying to disprove her horrendous assumption. "How long was it before you got your memories back?"

"Almost seven years. Why?"

"It's nothing. Really," Teresa said quickly. At least there was some measure of comfort in knowing that, even if Catherine had remembered everything and returned sooner, some things would not have changed.

Catherine leaned forward, her expression full of concern. "Please, Teresa. If you need to know something, I'll do my best to explain it to you. If I'm going to stay here, we all need to feel comfortable with each other. However, if you have doubts about me, that can't happen. This is an awkward situation at best, so, please, tell me what's bothering you."

Wishing she could disappear into the chair cushions, Teresa shifted nervously, pulling both leg up under her as she tried to explain her awful thoughts. "I don't want to upset you."

"You won't. I promise."

Despite Catherine's assurances, Teresa still felt like a complete heel. "But it was such an awful thing for me to think." When Catherine said nothing and merely looked expectantly in her direction, Teresa caved. "I thought how wonderful it would have been if you had gotten all your memories back and then would have known you didn't do those awful things. You could have come back, and Scott could have been raised here like he should have been."

Catherine smiled, but her expression was that of misunderstood confusion. "What is so awful about that, Teresa?"

"I...I changed my mind because," Teresa turned away, feeling betrayed by her own mind. "I changed my mind because I couldn't remember when you said you got your memories back, and if you had come back too soon..." Torn by the conflicting emotions raging inside her, Teresa couldn't bring herself to finish her thought.

"Too soon?" Catherine ventured curiously.

The frustration became too much, and Teresa found her release in a torrent of words. "If you had come back too soon, then Murdoch would never have met Maria. He would not have married her, and Johnny wouldn't be here. You would be here and so would Scott, and Murdoch never would have been so hurt when Maria ran off with that other man, but-" Horrified, Teresa stopped speaking, too scared to continue.

"Teresa, you haven't revealed anything I haven't already been told. Murdoch told me all about Maria; how she left him and took Johnny away with her," Catherine assured her. "And you're not expressing any ideas that haven't already been considered. Wishes are nice because most of them can't come true. There's nothing wrong with wishing good things for Scott, any more than there is in wishing that Maria had never left with Johnny."

Teresa was stunned. In over a year, Murdoch had barely spoken to Johnny about his mother. She was an unmentionable subject as far as all of them were concerned. While it would have been difficult for Murdoch to explain Johnny's presence without mentioning Maria, surely Murdoch wouldn't have told Catherine everything. "What did Murdoch told you about Johnny's mother?"


The ominous finality in the older woman's one word response made Teresa shudder. For reasons she could not fathom, Teresa strongly believed that Catherine actually knew more than she did about the woman who had given birth to a man she now considered her brother. In a way this made her mad, even more so than relieved that Murdoch had finally opened up to someone. That someone should have been Johnny, not Scott's mother. "Murdoch loved her very much," she said almost for spite.

"I know. 

"It hurt him deeply when she left."

"I know."

"Johnny still loves her."

"I know that, too, Teresa."

Unsure of what to make of Catherine's calm, Teresa conceded defeat and let her true feelings show. "Murdoch doesn't like it, though. I used to think he still loved Johnny's mother, but during the last year I've come to doubt that belief. Murdoch doesn't seem to understand that, as much as Maria hurt him, she still loved Johnny."

Anger flashed in Catherine's eyes. "Did she really?"

"According to Johnny she did," Teresa countered defiantly, her previous concession flying out the window. "And since Johnny was the only one who was around her to know, I'm not going to doubt his word. I can understand you not wanting to believe that, but you really have no right making judgments about Johnny's relationship with his mother. It's not your place."

"No, it is not my place, and you're wrong if you think I don't want to believe Johnny was loved."

"But you don't believe it, do you?"


"Well, I guess it's your right to believe what you want, but don't you dare try to use Maria as an excuse to come between Murdoch and Johnny," Teresa warned, her eyes narrowing as she stared Catherine in the eye. "There's one thing I forgot to tell you about Scott - his loyalty is beyond compromise. If you try to drive Johnny away from Lancer, you'll lose your own son instead. If you don't believe me, just ask his grandfather."

From outside, the commotion of the arrival they had been awaiting cut off any response from Catherine, not that Teresa cared. Jumping to her feet, she hurried towards the front door, not caring if Scott's mother followed or not. For now her main concern was Johnny, and getting him healthy and happy again.  

*** *** *** *** 

Outside the hacienda, Lester pulled the buckboard to a jerky stop and quickly locked the brake into place. In front of him his horse danced nervously and strained against the harness as he had done for most of the trip. 

Scott dismounted and spared the unruly animal a wary glance, but didn't say anything about behavior that would have been less than acceptable from any of the regular harness horses. In this instance, the animal had done its duty well enough to earn a little leeway. Johnny was home.

"We'll leave Johnny on the stretcher for now. It will make it easier to get him up to his room," Murdoch ordered as he climbed down from the buckboard.

Johnny had remained unconscious for the entire trip, and Scott couldn't decide if he was more relieved or concerned by that fact. Pushing those thoughts aside in deference to the more important matter at hand, he climbed into the back of the wagon and, with Jelly and Diego's help, maneuvered the makeshift stretcher off the end of the buckboard. Diego took one end, and Scott the other and they headed for the front door. Teresa stood by as they entered the hacienda, a worried frown marring her pretty face and tears in her eyes.

"Johnny's room is ready," she told Murdoch when he entered behind Scott. "Sam should be here any time, providing Miguel was able to find him in town."

A blur of green off to the side caught Scott's eye, and he was almost startled when he looked over and saw his mother standing in the great room, just beyond the arch. During the panicked effort to find Johnny and the ensuing struggle to get him home, Scott had completely forgotten about her.

Although disturbed by how easily she had slipped his mind, he couldn't help but notice that she looked so beautiful standing there, the emerald green of her dress shimmering in the sunlight that was streaming through the French doors. The wall dividing the great room and the stairway took her from his sight, but the flash of a welcoming smile before her expression returned to that of a worry and concern had done it's job - he felt a sense of peace for the first time since they had returned home last night to find Johnny gone.

Teresa slipped by them as they carried Johnny down the hall, holding the door open to Johnny's bedroom so they could enter without delay. "We need to rest the stretcher along the edge of the mattress," Scott said as soon as they had the stretcher in the room.

"Sí," Diego agreed with a nod.

Murdoch and Jelly entered behind them, and the sound of rustling material told Scott his mother was there, too. "Murdoch, you and Jelly move Johnny onto the bed, but be careful of his leg." Scott and Diego positioned the stretcher alongside the bed and held it steady while Jelly and Murdoch completed their task.

Murdoch had to climb onto the bed from the other side so he could grab Johnny's shoulders, while Jelly leaned over the footboard and took hold of Johnny's bare feet, being particularly careful of the broken left leg. Johnny had not bothered to pull on his boots before running out into the storm, and Murdoch had removed the wet and mud-splattered socks during the ride back to the hacienda. They took their time, with Murdoch easing himself back off the bed as Johnny's body was gently shifted onto the mattress.

With a little extra maneuvering, Johnny was finally laid out on his back in the middle of the bed. Murdoch joined Scott off to the side, while Diego and Jelly took the stretcher out of the room, letting Teresa prepare Johnny for Sam's arrival. With Catherine's help, Teresa soon had Johnny's shirt and pants removed and then began getting him cleaned up properly.

Scott watched silently from his place by the window, marveling at how well his mother and Teresa were working together. Despite the assurances he and Murdoch had made to her during the trip from San Francisco, he had still harbored a few reservations as to how Teresa would react to having not only another woman in the house, but also a woman who very possibly could become the lady of the house. Should his parents decide they wanted to live as man and wife, something that Scott sincerely hoped they would, then the running of the hacienda would shift from Teresa's shoulders onto his mother's.

"Teresa, can you get some more hot water?"

"There's plenty right here, Catherine." Teresa reached for the pitcher on the floor.

A quick glance from Catherine towards Murdoch, then back at Johnny, had Murdoch intervening calmly, but with a hint of embarrassment. "Teresa, honey, could you bring up another pitcher of water? And while you're downstairs, check with Cipriano and see if there is any word on when Sam might be arriving."

Scott tensed as a defensive frown pursed Teresa's normally soft features. The young woman glared at Catherine for a moment, then grabbed the empty water jug and headed for the door. She was clearly upset by the turn of events. Before he could question his parents about their actions, though, the answer became clear when Murdoch moved closer to the bed to assist Catherine.

"I'm sorry, dear," Murdoch muttered as they began removing Johnny's soiled drawers. The mud and rain had left the undergarment wet and filthy. Unfortunately, the splints on Johnny's legs made removing them the normal way impossible, so with deft fingers, Catherine ripped the treads loose from a couple of seams, and with Murdoch's help, pulled the garment free of Johnny's hips. "I should have said something to Teresa before you had to."

"Everything will work out, Murdoch." In silence they finished cleaning the last remnants of mud and grass from Johnny's body, then Catherine pulled a sheet up over his lower regions.

"Sam just arrived," Teresa announced triumphantly as she walked back into the room. One look at Johnny's covered body, however, had her turning a cold shoulder to both Murdoch and Catherine. "Since I'm not needed here anymore, I'll be in the kitchen."

"Teresa," Murdoch called out to her, but she ignored him, disappearing down the hallway in a flurry of rustling skirts and bristled feelings.

Sensing his mother's distress, Scott hastened to offer her some solace in the face of what had to have been a difficult choice for her to make. "Don't worry, Mother, Johnny will appreciate your concern for his modesty," he informed her confidently.

To his dismay, his mother's distress did not fade any in light of his words. "It's not Johnny I'm worried about," she answered with regret.

"Teresa will understand, too," Murdoch assured her. "I'll talk to her later, after Sam leaves."

"Well, I figured things out here had been too quiet for too long," Sam lamented as he walked through the door and headed straight for the bed without stopping for preamble. "What's that boy of yours gotten himself into this time, Murdoch? Frank said something about a broken leg, but what's this about him being unconscious since sometime last night?"

"Sam, we don't know for sure how long he's been unconscious," Murdoch corrected. "There was a twister up on the north mesa."

"A twister?!" Sam whistled in surprise as the set his bag down on the bedside table. "It sure has been a while since we've had one of those around these parts." Sam pulled out his stethoscope and slipped the ear tips into his ears. Sitting on the bed, he pressed the chest piece flat against Johnny's chest.

"Johnny was in the barn up near the line shack and it collapsed on top of him."

"Sshhh. I can't hear anything."

Murdoch took the scolding well, and remained quiet until Sam released the chest piece to dangle in front of him, before pulling the ear tips from his ears. Then he couldn't stay silent any longer. "How did he sound?"

"His chest sounds clear enough for now, but you know how quickly that can change. We'll have to keep an eye out for any signs of pneumonia. He doesn't get it often, but when he does it's never an easy bout."

After returning the stethoscope to his bag, Sam leaned over Johnny and gently pulled his eyelids open, one after the other. "His pupils look good, too." Using his fingers, Sam began probing around Johnny's scalp, feeling for any lumps or indications that he had sustained a blow to the head.

"I didn't feel any lumps when I checked him over on the way back from the mesa," Murdoch volunteered.

"Maybe, but that bruise on his cheek is going to smart for a while. It's already beginning to swell a little. Where's Teresa? We should get a poultice on that as soon as possible."

Sam finished his exam in silence, then looked over at Murdoch, not smiling, but not frowning, either. "I don't find any indications of a blow to the head, so I'm hoping that means we can discount a concussion. How long do you know for sure he's been unconscious?"

Murdoch shot an uncertain look towards Scott, who was already sorting out the timetable of the morning's events. "It took about two hours to get back here once we got Johnny to the buckboard. Before that, it was probably two hours or more to get him out from under the debris and carried out to the edge of the mesa. We had been on site at the line shack searching for probably an hour or more before we found him. All together, I'd say only about five or six hours for certain, but I'm almost positive that it was much longer, probably not long after the storm hit."

In the middle of taking Johnny's pulse, Sam spared Scott a curious glance. "What makes you say that, Scott?"

"Well, sir. Johnny's hands were muddy, but there were no signs of fresh mud on any of the boards around him; there would have been if he had made any effort to free himself, which he would have if he had been conscious enough to do so, and any effort he had made early on would have been washed away by the rain, which stopped late last night. Also, mud smears on his face had dried and were crusted over, as were the ones on the backs of his hands. The only fresh mud was where he was in actual contact with the ground."

Sam didn't seem too happy with the news, but nodded anyway. However, he said nothing further and instead, turned his attentions to Johnny's legs. He lifted the sheet to pull it back, but then let it fall back into place. Instead, he lifted the sheet from the edge draped over the foot of the bed, thereby leaving Johnny's dignity intact.

"The left one I'm sure is broken." Murdoch approached the bed and let his fingers run lightly up the outside of Johnny's left leg about five inches above his ankle. "It's right in here."

With knowing fingers, Sam gingerly probed the area before nodding his head in agreement. "It's not as bad a break as I was expecting. I'm going to need a couple extra hands to get this taken care of, though." For the first time, Sam seemed to notice Catherine's presence. "I see you have company, Murdoch."

Murdoch and Catherine shared an uneasy glance, then Murdoch sighed and gave her an awkward frown. "This isn't going to be easy, is it?"

"I'm afraid not, Dear."

Taking a deep breath, Murdoch moved closer to Catherine and put his arm around her shoulder. Then he made the startling introduction to the first real non-family member. "Sam, I'd like you to meet Catherine Lancer, Scott's mother."

Sam turned pale, his eyes got wide and his mouth fell open. He looked at Catherine very carefully, and then bobbed his head rather jerkily. "Yes. Yes, I can see the resemblance." He took a deep breath, and then shook his head. "I can only guess there is a rather long story to go along with this startling revelation, but I've got a patient to tended to. In the meantime," he reached over Johnny and extended his hand towards her, "it's a pleasure to meet you, Catherine."

Catherine accepted his hand. "It's very nice to meet you, too, Doctor Jenkins."

"Why don't we stick with just plain 'Sam'," he scoffed with a friendly grin. "As much as Murdoch's boys," Sam stopped and shook his head again. "As much as your son and his brother get into trouble, there's no need to stand on formality."

"Thank you, Sam."

On the bed, Johnny moved slightly. Catherine was immediately kneeling on the floor at his side, her hand on his forehead. Johnny made no more movement or sounds. Fingertips very lightly caressed the now black and blue cheek. "You mentioned the need for a poultice," She said softly. "The swelling seems to be getting worse."

At this point Scott stepped forward. The fact that Sam was accepting his mother at face value was very encouraging, but as his mother's actions were pointing out, there were more pressing issues to address first. "I'll see about the poultice," he volunteered. "Sam, you seem to have enough help in here, and," he spared a look towards Murdoch, "I think it might be better if I tried to talk to Teresa."

Father and son shared a long stare - one pair of blue eyes demanding an explanation, the other pair giving it with confidence. The older eyes looked away first. "Maybe," came the reluctant almost admission.

Before Scott left, he touched his father's arm and jerked his head towards the door. Once they were safely away from where Sam and his mother were working on Johnny's leg, he looked his father squarely in the eyes. "Murdoch, do you remember how you felt when we came across what was left of the line shack this morning?" he asked in a low voice.

Fear flashed in Murdoch's eyes and answered the question before his words could. "Yes, I remember."

"If Johnny wakes up, be sure you think about that before you say anything," Scott warned. "Your reaction could very well decide whether he stays or goes. Choose your words wisely, Sir."

Murdoch looked away, his gaze fixed on the still form lying across the room. "I will, Son. I promise." 

*** *** *** *** 

The sincerity in Murdoch's words was still ringing in Scott's ears when he entered the kitchen. Teresa was sitting at the table hacking away at a bunch of carrots with a vigor that made him rethink getting too close. He stood in the doorway for a moment, watching her, and planning his next move. For good or bad, Johnny was in Murdoch's hands, which left him the dubious task of addressing the one remaining problem of the day. "Teresa?"

"Don't say it, Scott," Teresa snapped, her words accentuated by the increased fervor of her chopping. "I'm not a little girl and I don't need any of your big brother advice."

Despite knowing that Teresa was not very happy, the pure venom in her voice cut Scott deeply. Taking care to keep the stove between himself and the angry young woman wielding the very big knife, Scott picked up the coffee pot and poured himself a cup of dark brew. On a hunch, he poured a second cup, and added cream and sugar to both.

Teresa usually drank hers black, and only 'fixed it up' as she put it, when she was feeling sad. He most always drank it black after his first cup at breakfast, but since they hadn't taken the time for even coffee this morning, he felt justified in indulging himself.

Risking Teresa's wrath, he sat down across from her and slid the second cup of coffee towards her. "Truce?" He jumped in his seat when the knife impacted the table with a loud bang, slicing through all six very thick carrots in the process. "Teresa, try to think about how you would feel if you were badly hurt and woke up to discover that Johnny or I had undressed you, had seen you completely...well, without any clothes on at all, not even your undergarments."

Teresa had the good sense to blush, yet the angry scowl remained in place. She didn't say anything, but the hard line of her squared shoulders did give way just a bit. Finally, she looked up at him with betrayal in her eyes. "I've helped care for Johnny whenever he's been hurt since he came back last year. Why is it a problem now?" Her voice easily conveyed her anger as she stared at him, trying unsuccessfully to glare through tear-filled eyes.

Scott fingered his cup, tipping it slightly until the coffee nearly spilled over the rim, before setting it back on its base. Only when he had formulated a response did he respond to her accusation. "Teresa, there simply weren't any options before. Johnny understands that, but, even with that being the case, it hasn't made it any easier for him to accept that you may have seen more of him than he cares to consider. It..." Scott paused to take a deep breath. "Well, it is something that would make any man feel extremely uncomfortable."

Most of the anger disappeared from Teresa's eyes. "Johnny said that?"

"Well, not in so many words, but..." Scott admitted reluctantly as he gazed into the milky coffee in his cup. He felt as if he was betraying Johnny's confidence, but he didn't see any other way to make Teresa see that she was actually helping Johnny more by not helping in this instance. For the most part, he was just thankful that his injuries always seemed to be in the arm or shoulder. He had never had to face waking up naked, wondering who exactly had gotten him that way.

"Why hasn't Johnny ever said anything to me?"

With a yielding sigh, Scott reluctantly had to accept that no part of this situation was going to be easily resolved. "Teresa, what exactly was Johnny supposed to say? He's not even sure of precisely how much you've seen, or done, and he couldn't very well come out and ask you, now could he? I'm not even sure, myself, not that he would have asked me, either."

"Then how do you know that's how he feels?"

"I've picked up on little things he's said after being hurt, not to mention that I know how it would make me feel. I can say with almost absolute certainty that Johnny would feel the same way. I do know for a fact that he would never risk embarrassing you by discussing anything so inappropriate."

Teresa played with the knife in her hand, even managing to cut a few more slices of carrot while she mulled over everything Scott had said. "When you put it that way..." She looked up at Scott before she continued. "But your mother is a woman, too. Why is it okay for her?"

Thankful that one thing was going according to plan, Scott easily addressed the anticipated question with what he hoped would be an acceptable answer. "I wouldn't say 'okay' would be the best choice of words, but it will be more acceptable, the main reason being that my mother isn't seventeen years old. She's more like a mother-figure than a sister."

Scott studied her closely, not knowing if he would be correct in his next assumption, but willing to take the risk. "Given the choice, if someone had to do to you what was just done to Johnny, would you prefer that Murdoch care for you, or one of us."

"None of you!" Teresa almost yelped. "Maria always takes care of those things for me."

"But if Maria wasn't around and it had to be done?" Scott pressed.

Teresa glared at him from across the table. After a minute or two, though, her bitter scowl turned into a reluctant frown. "I guess I would have to say Murdoch."

Scott was only able to muster a tentative amount of relief from this admission. "Does that mean you're not upset at my mother anymore?"

"Yes," Teresa huffed, but the resignation on her face gave a more accurate assessment of her averse acceptance.

Scott picked up a piece of carrot that was lying away from the pile, probably flung there in the fury of Teresa's attack with the carving knife. He fingered the small orange circle and wondered if he should settle for that much of an admission from Teresa, or if he dared press his luck for more. Deep in thought, he was startled when Teresa's hand suddenly appeared near his. She plucked the bit of carrot from his grasp and when he looked up at her, she was smiling, not brightly, not happily, but somewhat reassuringly.

"Scott, I'll apologize to your mother. I can see that she was only trying to help." She quickly scooped up the chopped carrots and put them in the bowl that had been sitting next to her elbow. "I overreacted, but I just felt..." Instead of finishing her thought, she grabbed the bowl and started to stand.

Scott leaned forward and reached across the table to grab her by the arm before she could turn away. "Dinner can wait Teresa. Sit down and tell me how you feel." Teresa looked at his hand on her arm, but did not move one way or the other. "Please."

Even in the face of his earnest request, she hesitated before returning the bowl on the table. Only when she had settling back into her chair, did Scott release his hold of her arm.

"I don't want you to think I'm not happy for you. I am. Really." Her head was bowed and she refused to meet his eye.

"But you think having my mother here is going to create problems."

Teresa nodded, but still would not meet Scott's gaze. "Scott, I feel...well, I think I know how Johnny must have felt...why he left. He couldn't have known she was your mother, but I still think he found out there was a new woman in our lives, and he thought..." Finally looking up, she pinned Scott with the stare she usually reserved for Murdoch when he was doing something she didn't like. "Scott, whose side will you be on if your mother tries to force Johnny away from Lancer?"

Taken aback by the bluntness of her question, Scott reacted more defensively than he intended. "That will not happen, Teresa. You need to understand that my mother does not want Johnny to leave, or you either, for that matter."

Images of his mother slapping his grandfather over Johnny, her vehement claim that she would help them prevent Johnny from leaving, and her defensive response to Murdoch on the ride back to Lancer, flashed through his mind. Reaching back across the table, he took Teresa's hand in his. "Teresa, my mother has defended Johnny in ways I don't feel comfortable revealing right now, but you can believe me when I tell you that the last thing she wants to do is chase him away. All she wants is her life back."

"She defended Johnny?" Teresa mumbled as if she were in a daze.

"Yes. On more than one occasion, too."

Teresa inhaled sharply, then exhaled very slowly. Penitence weighted heavily in her next admission. "I think I owe your mother more than one apology."

This unexpected confession renewed Scott's concern. "How so, Teresa?"

"Just before you all arrived with Johnny, your mother said something about Johnny's mother that I may have misinterpreted."

"What did she say?"

Before Teresa could answer his question, Catherine entered the kitchen carrying the large water basin from Johnny's room. "The doctor said this should be cleaned out immediately to keep the plaster from drying and becoming stuck in the interior."

"Over here." Teresa pointed to the large sink on the other side of the stove, even as she was moving quickly in that direction.


Catherine turned towards Scott and finished drying her hands on the towel Teresa had handed to her. "Johnny is going to be fine, Scott. The doctor confirmed that his left leg is broken, not badly, but enough to warrant putting it in a cast."

"A cast?" Teresa asked suspiciously as she pumped fresh water into the basin.

To this, Catherine frowned and shrugged. "I've never seen anything like it either, but Sam said a colleague of his from back East sent him the supplies and the medical journals on its use. It has supposedly been used very successfully in Europe and in the bigger hospitals on the East coast for quite a few years.

She gave Scott a pointed look over her shoulder. "Evidently Sam had mentioned, either in a letter or during one of those medical conferences, how difficult it could be to convince ranchers and cowboys to lay off work long enough for their bones to heal properly. The product's manufacturer is trying to expand the market, and enlisted the help of doctors familiar with its use to convince those more skeptical physicians. His colleague offered to send him a sample and Doctor Jenkins said he would give it a try."

Scott wasn't sure he liked having his brother used as a test subject. "What's involved in this 'cast'?"

After brushing back a stray lock of hair that had drooped down across her eyes, she smiled reassuringly. "Nothing painful, dear. The bandages were rubbed with this powdery substance, then soaked in water before being wrapped around Johnny's leg. To be honest, it looked like a big soggy mess to me, but Sam swears when it dries it will be hard enough to hold the bone firmly in place until it heals. If it works, I can understand how something that would actually conform to the shape of the leg would be much more effective than just a splint."

Teresa scowled. "Well, it doesn't sound too comfortable to me."

"Sam did mention there could be some itching under the cast, but warned that we are not to allow Johnny to stick anything under the cast to try to scratch it. He could injure himself and we'd never know until the infection had set in enough to produce a fever." 

Although not totally convinced of the cast's merits, Scott could only trust Sam's best judgment. He had never done Johnny wrong, and was considered a good friend, as well as the family doctor. "Did Johnny ever wake up?"

His mother shook her head. "No. Sam seemed a little concerned about that, but was mostly relieved that Johnny hasn't developed a fever from laying out in the rain and the cold night air. Since no one knows for sure how long he was buried under the barn, there is-"

"Buried under what barn!" Teresa interrupted, her eyes wide with disbelief as she glared accusing at Scott. "What happened? I just assumed Johnny had been thrown from a horse or something."

Scott exchanged a worried look with his mother, knowing that she probably knew most of what had happened from listening to Murdoch's explanation to Sam. Taking Teresa gently by the arm, he led her back to the table. "Teresa, why don't you sit down?"

After a slight hesitation, Teresa retook her seat. Scott sat down next to her and when his mother made no move to join them, he twisted around in his chair. "Come sit with us, Mother. After I tell Teresa what happened, you can finish filling us in on what Sam said." He waited until she sat down in the seat across the table, where he had been sitting when she came first came in.

"Teresa, the mesa was hit by a twister. The line shack...everything was destroyed."

"No!" Teresa turned a ghastly shade of pale. "Johnny..."

"Johnny was in the barn," Scott hesitated. If anyone would recognize the significance of what he was about to say, it would be Teresa. "He was trying to save the horses. A couple of the horses got free, but-" The lump that instantly formed in Scott's throat choked off the words he did not want to say. He had seen the body, he knew it was fact, but retelling the awful truth only made it seem more real.

"Scott?" Teresa's voice faltered.

"Barranca is dead."

"Oh, Johnny!" Teresa looked like she just might pass out. "This is going to kill him when he finds out."

"He already knows," Scott mumbled reluctantly.

At this news, Teresa's face grew even paler. "How? I thought Johnny had been unconscious ever since you found him. I know that's what I heard Jelly telling Sam just before I went upstairs to let you all know that Sam had arrived."

Scott looked over at his mother and was only slightly surprised to find her blue-gray eyes filled with sympathy. Through her support, he found the strength to say what had to be said. "There was blood all over the place, Teresa. Barranca...he was wounded pretty badly when the barn collapsed and..." he had to pause again to swallow another lump. "We found them near each other. Barranca had been shot."

"No!" Leaning into Scott's arms, Teresa buried her face against his shoulder as she cried.

Solemnly he held her while she openly expressed the same hurt that he was feeling deep inside his chest. Again, Scott found himself looking across the table at his mother, searching her eyes for his own shoulder to lean on, which he found. Not only did he see her love and sympathy, but an empathy he longed to see in Murdoch's eyes. His mother did not even know Johnny, had never seen him interacting so affectionately with the beloved palomino, yet her glistening tears spoke of a genuine understanding of his brother's pain. Why couldn't Murdoch be as understanding?

After a year of living, working, and getting to know his son, why was Murdoch too blind to see any of the things that made Johnny the man that Scott had come to love and respect more than any other? He had met Johnny only a few hours before meeting Murdoch, yet as close as he and Johnny had become, it seemed like Johnny and Murdoch barely knew each other any better than they did on that first day. The anger and resentment had disappeared, somewhat anyway, but there wasn't any depth to their relationship. Could last night's twister actually have been a cruel harbinger for the more damning emotional storm to come?

"Scott?" Teresa's voice cracked, but the unspoken question was easy to decipher.

"I don't know, Teresa. We won't know how bad it really is until Johnny wakes up. Even then, all we can do is be prepared to help him deal with his grief."

Voices could be heard in the hallway, and seconds later, Sam and Murdoch entered the kitchen. Scott stood swiftly, but kept one hand on Teresa's shoulder. "How is he?"

"Ladies," Sam nodded to Teresa and then Catherine, before answering Scott's question. "So far your brother shows no signs of a fever, which is a very good. We might just luck out and not have to deal with any side effects from the rain and cold. The casts have set up nicely, but it will be a day or so before they're completely dry. Oh, and before I forget, they have to be kept dry. Any moisture at all will cause them to crumble into pieces."

"Casts? As in more than one?" Catherine stood suddenly, her eyes searching Murdoch's face for an explanation.

After making his way around the table, Murdoch slipped an arm around Catherine's waist and kissed her lightly on the forehead, seemingly oblivious to the hastily averted eyes around him. "After you left the room, Sam thought he felt what could be a slight fracture in Johnny's right leg. There was some swelling just below the knee that wasn't there when I checked Johnny over up at the line shack." Murdoch explained. "It might just be a strained muscle - Lord only knows what Johnny went through before that barn collapsed, or even afterwards - but to be safe, Sam decided to put it in a cast, too."

A sour look skewed Teresa's features. "Johnny has these cast things on both legs?"

"Don't worry, Teresa," Sam assured her with a light chuckle. "I've studied the literature on the use and results, and I have absolute faith in this method of immobilizing broken bones. I wouldn't use it if I didn't. Another plus is that the plaster is quite heavy, and having both legs weighted down will make it much easier to keep Johnny off his feet. This will allow the bone we are sure is broken the proper time to heal. I didn't find any broken ribs and his back seems to be fine, too, which I consider rather miraculous, given the description Murdoch gave of how you found Johnny."

Although Sam's confidence was enough to alleviate most of Scott's fears, there were still more that Scott needed to know. "His legs have been tended to, and so far pneumonia isn't an issue, but what about all that bruising on his back? Some of them seemed to be very deep." Scott's expression turned somewhat embarrassed. "I forgot to ask Teresa about the poultice for Johnny's cheek."

Sam merely raised an eyebrow at the oversight. "They are, Scott. Especially the ones on his shoulders. Murdoch told me about a saddle keeping that beam from crushing Johnny's back, but there was still some kind of insignificant contact, or maybe Johnny struggled quite a bit before he lost consciousness. Either way, the bruises on his lower back are more noticeable because they are mostly surface bruising. His shoulders, though, seemed to have born the brunt of the collapse, and the bruising is quite deep. While Teresa is making the poultices for his back, she can make one for his cheek, too."

"A banana peel will also draw out the bruising." Catherine's comment was met by four pairs of raised eyebrows. She looked from one skeptical expression to the next. "All you have to do is place the peel over the bruised area and keep it in place for an hour or so. It may take a few treatments over several days on the deepest of the bruises, but it really is quite effective."

"A banana?" Sam asked with interest.

"It grows on trees. It's yellow. You peel it and eat the..." Catherine stopped and looked rather amused. "I take it from the dumbfounded expressions that there are no banana trees this far north.

Murdoch shook his head. "I've never heard of anything that even resembles what you're describing."

"Then I suppose there isn't any guacima around here, either?"

Four heads slowly shook a resounding no.

"Another bruise remedy from south of the border?" Sam inquired curiously, and without any sense of disapproval. He was a good doctor and had never showed the least bit of disdain for home cures, most of which had been used successfully for more generations than modern medicine would ever see. It was also evident that Murdoch had been able to explain a little of Catherine's history before the two men joined them in the kitchen.

"Yes. It's too bad you don't have any here," Catherine sighed. "The dried leaves can be brewed into a tea. It tastes awful, but is very effective at reducing fevers. When boiled down into a paste, the mixture can be applied externally to wounds and skin irritations, including deep bruises. I know it's probably not very conventional, but it is effective."

Murdoch shook his head, and Catherine asked somewhat hesitantly, "What?"

"It's just a little unsettling to hear you talking about such things, and with such authority," Murdoch admitted. "Your views were more, well, formal, last I knew."

"Around here we use a comfrey poultice," Teresa interjected helpfully. "If it's in season, I add some macerated cabbage, as well. The two work well together to heal most bruises."

"Parsley is also very good," Catherine suggested, then added rather sheepishly, "you do have parsley around here, don't you?"

"Parsley?" Sam looked on with interest. "I love it in stew, but I've never heard of using it to reduce bruising before."

"All you have to do is crush some fresh leaves and apply to the bruised area. The treatment has to be repeated when the leaves become dry, but it only takes a few days to clear up the skin. Parsley works best on surface bruises. In the absence of banana peels, a comfrey poultice is usually more effective for deeper bruising."

Sam looked intrigued, then turned to Teresa. "It will probably take at least a double, or even triple amount than you usually mix up. There is a large area to cover - all across Johnny's shoulders and his whole upper back. If you think you might run short of comfrey, why not try that parsley suggestion on Johnny's lower back, where the bruises are more superficial? I have to admit I'm very curious to see just how effective it is. Parsley is very plentiful most of the year, and comfrey can be difficult to obtain at times."

Teresa nodded, and looked over at Catherine. "Perhaps you can help me prepare the comfrey poultices, and then show me what to do with the parsley. Anything that will make doctoring this group easier will be a more than welcome addition to the medical supplies."

Catherine nodded, but before joining Teresa at the sink, she addressed Sam. "If Johnny does develop a fever, I have a small supply of guacima I brought with me from Mexico. The way you and Murdoch made it sound, Johnny doesn't care for taking medicine at all. Guacima tea might be a way around that."

"Wouldn't hurt to give it a try, although I'm hoping it won't be necessary. Johnny doesn't seem to have a middle ground when it comes to being sick - either he fights it off early on, or it hits him like a runaway train."

After casting a mournful look at the coffee pot on the stove, Sam commented rather sadly. "I was headed out to the Fredrick's place when Frank caught me just outside of town. Seems Martha is having a few problems with the baby, and wanted me to come out and have a look see. Sounded like the colic to me, and since your place is on the way, I stopped in to check on Johnny first. Now, however, I have to be going."

Sam and Murdoch departed the kitchen, with Murdoch expressing his appreciation for Sam's prompt attention. He also promised him a hot pot of coffee, a fresh piece of pie, and if the timing was right, a place at the dinner table, should the doctor want to stop back by on his way back to town.

Scott watched Teresa and his mother for a moment, then, satisfied that any misunderstandings had been put aside, headed for the doorway. "I'll leave you ladies to your medicinal pursuits."

"Don't go too far," Teresa warned over her shoulder. "We're probably going to need some help getting Johnny onto his stomach."

"I'll be in Johnny's room. I want to check out those casts." 

*** *** *** ***

With comfrey poultice and fresh parsley in hand, Teresa and Catherine made their way up the stairs to put their medicines to good use. Just outside Johnny's door, however, Teresa stopped. "Catherine, I just wanted to apologize for my behavior earlier. Scott explained things, and...well, I just wanted you to know that I'm not upset anymore."

Shifting the load she was carrying onto her left arm, Catherine placed her right hand on Teresa's shoulder. "Teresa, I don't want to push you out of your life," she said softly. "Or away from the family you belong to even more than me. All I want is..." Catherine paused, unsure of how to proceed without sounding like she was contradicting her prior claim.

Teresa turned around and looked at her, studying her very closely before offering an understanding expression that made unnecessary the words she was about to say. "You want your life back," she said with firm conviction. "And you should have it, too. There will be some adjustments that have to be made, but," Teresa's face melted into a warm smile, "it will be so nice to have some help with these men. They can be rather trying at times."

Catherine laughed, feeling a burden that had been weighing on her mind all afternoon slip from her shoulders. "I'm sure they can be."

As soon as the two women entered the room, Teresa gasped at the sight of Johnny's legs wrapped in the bulky plaster casts. Even Catherine, who had helped wrap the left leg, was a little taken aback by how debilitating Johnny appeared now that there was one on each leg.

"I'm not sure turning him over is going to be practical, or advisable," Scott said as they laid out their supplies on the bedside table.

"I believe you're right, Son. Sam did say it would take at least twenty-four hours for them to harden completely. Right now it's just the outer layer that's set up, not to mention trying to maneuver him around without causing further injury." That left only one alternative, and while it was not the most preferred, in this case Catherine knew it was the most practical.

Teresa, however, was still staring at the white monstrosities encasing Johnny's legs. The left one stopped just short of the knee, as the break was definitely closer to the ankle, but the break in the right leg was closer to the knee, and the cast extended a few inches above the kneecap, making it impossible to even bend his right leg more than the small degree in which it had been set in the plaster. A pillow was wedged under his knee for support.

"Scott, you'll have to hold him up while Teresa and I apply the poultice."

"We can't use enough with him lying on his back," Teresa objected. "The poultice will just ooze out."

"We'll simply have to use less, and reapply it more often," Catherine said with confidence. "Scott, help me sit him up." Each of them took an arm and gently raised Johnny's torso off the bed. "Now, sit down and let him lean against you while Teresa and I work."

Scott did as he was told, and sat down on the edge of the bed. With tender care, Catherine guided Johnny's head down on Scott's shoulder. Johnny's face had to be nestled into the crook of Scott's neck in order to keep his other cheek, badly bruised from his encounter with the collapsing barn, from bearing any unnecessary weight.

"We'll apply the comfrey poultice first. His shoulders need the treatment much more than his lower back."

Teresa nodded in agreement and turned to gather the mixture from the bedside table. While she was giving the poultice one finally stir, Catherine pulled the bed sheet tighter around Johnny's hips. His backside was still partially exposed but that couldn't be helped. Or could it?

Grabbing Johnny's pillow, she pushed it against his lower back, effectively covering his partially exposed posterior. To make her action less obvious, she slipped partway onto the bed, sitting slighting behind Johnny with her knee on the pillow, making it appear she had done it more for Johnny's comfort than his modesty.

In this position, she could more efficiently apply the parsley when they had finished with the comfrey poultice, too. One look at the sly grin on Scott's face, though, told her that he was well aware of her motives, and was just as grateful for her concern as he had been earlier.

Catherine's heart skipped a beat, when Teresa turned around and raised an eyebrow at the awkward position Catherine was in. Things were settling down between them, and Catherine didn't want to stir up any more hard feelings. She just couldn't ignore how she knew Johnny would feel about being naked in front of his sister.

If she had learned nothing else from Mateo and the orphans at the mission, it was that for most of them their dignity was all they felt was their own, and to compromise that was something she just couldn't do; not even to keep peace with Teresa. However, her fears faded when a knowing grin replaced the look of surprise on Teresa's face.

"Since you've got a better angle," Teresa said to Catherine, "I'll work on his shoulders and you can get the middle of his back."

They went about their task, smearing the thick paste over Johnny's skin. The paste, while not chilled, was colder than his body temperature, and Johnny began struggling in his unconscious state.

"Easy, brother," Scott cooed softly. With the poultice already partially covering Johnny's back and one shoulder, there wasn't much he could do to still Johnny's movements other than place a hand on Johnny's head. It worked though, and Johnny settled down as the shock of the sudden coldness against his skin wore off.

Beneath her hands, Catherine felt Johnny relax under his brother's comforts. It had taken nothing more than Johnny's mind realizing that his brother was near to ease his fears. This showed how much faith and trust Johnny had in Scott - more accurately than any spoken words could ever do. In her experience, the unconscious mind was so much more honest than the conscious mind ever could be.

As she continued to smear the comfrey paste on Johnny's back, she remembered one particularly hurt little boy that had spent some time at the mission. Abandoned by his parents at the gates, he had been hateful and uncooperative with even the most patient of the padres, yet, when he came down with a sudden fever, it had taken only a soft word from Padre Felix to settle the boy's delirious struggles. As soon as the fever broke, the hateful comments returned with a vengeance, but by then they knew he was just reacting to them in the only way he knew how.

It was hard to accept that in his mind he felt that if he was bad enough, he could blame being turned away on his behavior, and not have to face the horrible truth that his parents had left him because they no longer loved him. He had stayed at the mission for only a few months before running off in the middle of the night. Many years later, a visiting nun told them of the young man's demise - he had been killed attempting to steal a horse from one of the larger estancias that lay to the north of Lake Chapala. Catherine's heart had broke for the young man who had wanted nothing more than to be loved, but had not found the acceptance when that love had been offered from strangers.


Teresa's voice broke into her thoughts, and she looked up to see both Teresa and Scott looking at her with concerned expressions. "I'm sorry," she apologized. "I was just thinking of one of the orphans from the mission. He..." she couldn't bring herself to share such a disheartening story with Johnny's condition weighing so heavily on everyone's mind. "He left us after a short while."

"Did you ever see him again?"

"No, Teresa." Which was the truth.

Scott's hand found hers and gave it a reassuring squeeze, heedless of the messy ooze that seeped into his palm. "He meant a lot to you, didn't he?"

Tears stung her eyes. How many had there been? How many had found their way back onto the road of life, and how many had ended up like little Noe? "They all meant a lot to me," she admitted softly. "They were just little children who wanted nothing more than...all they ever wanted was to feel loved." 

Her tears spilled over, and she brusquely wiped them away. This was not the time for such sentiments. Johnny needs were more important than dwelling on her painful memories. "Here," she said as she handed Scott a towel to wipe the poultice from his hand. Composure did not return easily, and in silence she and Teresa finished applying the treatment to Johnny's discolored flesh. It wasn't until Johnny's upper back was covered in a light coating of the pasty mixture that anyone spoke again.

"How should we apply the parsley?" Teresa inquired. "It won't stick to his skin the way the poultice does."

Having regained most of her composure, Catherine answered with only a slight hitch in her voice. "We'll need a few towels. We can use one to hold the parsley in place until he can be laid down, and the rest will be laid out on the bed to keep the poultice from soiling the sheets."

"I'll get some." Teresa scurried from the room, leaving Scott alone with his mother.

As soon as she was gone, Catherine's tears began to flow again. With a shaking hand, she reached up and lightly brushed the hair back from Johnny's eyes.

"He won't appreciate your pity," Scott said in solemn honesty.

"It's not pity I feel for him. He survived his hell, and found a home where he is loved the way he always should have been. He's one of the lucky ones."

"He won't appreciate that, either," Scott warned.

"What?" She looked up, startled.

"Suggesting that he wasn't loved."

Before Catherine could respond, Teresa returned with a stack of towels in her arms. "I brought a few extra, just in case," she announced. "Now, how should we do this?"

Still a little stunned by Scott's last assertion, Catherine took a moment, then slid farther away from Johnny. "First, we'll wrap one flat against his back."

It took a little maneuvering, but in a few moments they had the towel spread flat over Johnny's lower back and wrapped around his waist with Teresa holding it closed from the front. The bed sheet was still pulled up over Johnny's chest, but Catherine assured them that this would not be a problem. With both Teresa and Scott's hands full, Catherine had to lean over the bed to reach the bowl of fresh parsley. Tossing the pillow aside that had been covering Johnny's partially exposed backside, she began her task.

Teresa kept the bottom of the towel pulled taunt but not tight, and allowed Catherine to pull the top part a little loose. With hands that had done this too many times, she took a large clump of parsley, crushing it lightly in her fist before stuffing it down inside the towel. She repeated this action until she was satisfied that the pillow of parsley created by the towel was sufficient to do its job.

Sliding off the bed, she placed the bowl on the floor and grabbed a couple of towels from the stack Teresa had deposited on the foot of the bed. She spread them out across the bed behind Johnny. "Now, let's lay him back down."

Between the three of them, they made an easy task of getting Johnny settled back onto the mattress. While Catherine washed her hands in the nearby basin, Teresa applied some of the poultice to Johnny's cheek, then laid a small piece of cloth over the mixture to keep it from drying out too quickly. "As long as he stays still, this should work."

"I don't think you have to worry about that," Scott lamented. "He hasn't moved at all since we found him, except once when Sam was here and just now when that cold poultice was applied."

"I wish he would wake up." Catherine's voice mirrored the worry in her expression as she looked down at Johnny while she dried her hands on a towel. "Neither your father nor Sam could find any evidence of a blow to the head."

"Maybe he just doesn't want to wake up." Teresa's words hung ominously in the air between them all.

Catherine had been thinking the very same thing, but was doing her best to push those damning thoughts aside. However, that wasn't possible anymore. Retrieving the empty bowl from the floor by her feet, she turned and headed for the door. "I'll take this back to the kitchen," was her lame excuse for fleeing from the room. 

*** *** *** ***

Up at the tattered remains of the line shack, the sun was beginning to arch downward towards western mountaintops by the time Jelly and Cipriano lifted the last piece of debris off Barranca. If they hurried, there would be just enough time to get their grisly job done before the sun finally set for the day.

On the ground between them lay the large burlap tarp upon which they planned to drag the lifeless body over the east end of the mesa and down to the trail below. There, a wagon would be waiting. This option had been completely out of the question for getting an unconscious Johnny off the weather beaten mesa, but Barranca was beyond worry of further injury. Their only objective was to get the horse off the mesa and into his finally resting place before the sun set. There would be lots of work to do tomorrow, and this might be their only chance.

With the wreckage cleared out of their way, the two men began the process of maneuvering Barranca onto the tarp. They could only do so much until more hands arrived, but for now they would do what they could. It was then that they rolled the animal over and made a heart-stopping discovery. Neither man had deluded himself into believing that they would find anything but a gut-wrenching tragedy buried beneath the rubble, however, the reality of a totally unexpected development sent ominous shudders through both men.

Cipriano looked mortified. "El dios tiene misericordia."

After what seemed an eternity, the air around them as heavy as any blanket ever woven, Jelly found his voice, and in it was a foreboding sense of despair. "Cip, ain't no way a man layin' over there woulda been able ta see that critter." Almost absentmindedly, Jelly pointed towards the spot where Johnny had been pinned under the barn rafters, but not once did his eyes stray from the tiny brown body at his feet.

Cipriano shook his head, his eyes too remaining fixed on the smaller carcass that now lay before them. "No sería posible."

"You reckon Johnny woulda figured all that blood was from..." Jelly couldn't even bring himself to put words to such a chilling, but undeniable, possibility.

"Sí. There would be nothing else for him to think."

"The rest a us sure 'nuf did. This mornin' I'd a swore on my dear ol' mamma's grave that that there horse had been..." Jelly stopped, his head shaking at the unfinished thought. When he spoke again, there was an edgy determination in his voice. "Cip, Johnny cain't never know 'bout this."

Even as Jelly made his pronouncement, he finally mustered enough will to turn away from the sight of the dead raccoon. His insides churned as his mind insisted on pointing out the obvious. The poor critter had been buried under the dead palomino's withers, all but invisible until the horse was rolled over. The worst part was that, other than a few scratches and the bloodstains on the golden coat, Barranca appeared to be completely uninjured. The only true evidence of his demise was the damning dark spot between his eyes where Johnny's bullet had hit the mark perfectly. "It'd kill 'im, Cip; sure as puttin' a bullet in his own head."

Cipriano nodded. "What with the weight of the debris and the length of one can know for sure that the need was not real."

"An' odds is real good it was, too," Jelly vigorously agreed with forced enthusiasm. "Jus cuz there ain't no signs outside, ain't no reason ta believe Johnny didn't know what he was doin'."

After sparing a quick glance towards the edge of the mesa, Jelly began scouring tangled mess for a suitable prop. "An' we ain't gonna have no one speculatin' no differnt, neither." He held his find up for Cipriano's inspection, and received a curt nod of approval from the grim-faced segundo.

Without a word, Cipriano kicked a few boards aside, finally bending down to retrieve a rock that would be suitable to use as a hammer. Jelly held the stake in place, but kept his eyes closed as Cipriano used the rock to pound it into the dead horse's side. He said a quick prayer of forgiveness for both of them for what they were about to do, but never once considered not doing it.

The sharp sound of the rock impacting against the wooden stake sent shivers up Jelly's spine. He had never done anything like this before, and hoped he never would have to again. Only for Johnny would be part of anything so grotesque and disrespectful. Well, Scott, too, if the need ever came to be.

Both boys meant the world to him, and there was no way he would ever allow Johnny to wonder if maybe he might have jumped the gun in putting his beloved Barranca out of his misery. When the other men arrived, they would see exactly what they needed to see - a tragedy that made Johnny's fateful decision the only one possible.

When the deed was completed, Jelly looked over at Cipriano, who had the same look of mortified relief on his face. "This stays jes 'tween us."

Cipriano nodded once. "Sí."

To Jelly's surprise, Cipriano bent over and grabbed a splintered piece of wood and speared it through the dead raccoon. After lifting the small brown carcass from the rubble, he carried it over to the far side of the ruins. There he wedged the dead raccoon into a small crevice between two of the barns fallen beams. The area was slightly exposed, and with the rain of the night before, there would be no reason to question the absence of any blood.

With the final piece of the deception in place, a resolute-faced Cipriano looked over at him. "El silencio, de este adelantar de día."

"From this day forward," Jelly repeated under his breath.

In the distance Lester, Diego and Frank appeared over the edge of the mesa, their horses straining from the hard climb up the hillside before moving at an easier gait towards the two men. On the trail below, Manuel would be waiting with the buckboard. Best as Jelly could figure, the other volunteers from the hasty bunkhouse meeting should be about halfway done with the grave digging.

The six of them would get the horse's body loaded into the wagon. Then they would take him to be buried under the big oak tree on the high bluff overlooking the hacienda. Johnny always joked that it was Barranca's favorite spot on the whole ranch, but Jelly had a better idea of exactly whose favorite spot it was.

Most folks would call each and every one of them sentimental fools, but those people could just call them what they liked. Barranca had not been Johnny's property; he had been Johnny's friend, his compadre. They felt it was their duty, as Johnny's remaining friends, to provide a decent burial for the one who had brought so much pleasure to Johnny's life. It just wouldn't be right not to. 

*** *** *** ***

As if in a daze, Johnny stumbled repeatedly as he made his way down an unfamiliar path. He just couldn't seem to keep his footing, but couldn't understand why. All around him distorted images taunted him as they came barely into focus, only to become blurred again. What little he could make out of them told him more than he wanted to know. They were all from a past, both bad and good, that no longer was.

His heart skipped a beat when, to his left, the image sharpened into a dark-haired woman he would never have any difficulty recognizing. He wanted to go to her, but each time he tried she just moved farther away. She still possessed the same radiant smile of his fondest memories; the smile that would greet his every day, as then send him off to dreamland each night. Her dancing brown eyes always sparkled with love and laughter and made him feel safe and secure.

With a heart aching with longing, he watched her dainty fingers caress the air as they had once played in his hair, sometimes to comfort, sometimes to tease, but always with love. In those days she had danced for him alone, sharing her joy and bringing a small amount of pleasure to their mostly meager lives.

Then *he* came into their lives. There he was, behind her, so tall, so caring, just as he had been when he took them both into his home and into his heart. When there was pain he was there to fix it, and when it couldn't be fixed, he was there to lend his support. Then they were gone.

Dark clouds rolled in from out of nowhere and a cold breeze chilled his bare skin. When did he lose his shirt? The trees along the pathway were naked of leaves, and their limbs were twisted and bent, contorted as if they were in pain. It was how he had felt inside when he first picked up a gun and strapped it to his hips. It had been so easy. What did it matter who he killed? They cared nothing for him. He cared nothing for them.

His eyes searched the hazy landscape, hoping to see her. She was another woman who had been a raven-haired beauty, but when he met her she had seen better days. Her hair had become streaked with gray and her skin wrinkled from sun and time. She had nothing to gain and barely enough to offer; yet she gave it anyway, for reasons he still did not fully understand.

Suddenly he saw her, only she looked as she should have, not how he remembered her. She was young and vibrant and full of life. She smiled like his mother, but she had been so much more, and so much less. Then she too was gone, fading away even as he desperately reached out to her.

A thick fog formed quickly, enveloping him in a blanket of darkness through which he could not see. The darkness deepened, then faded into a hazy gray. The wind blew strong, swirling all around him and making it hard to keep his footing on the rocky path. The storm raged on, driving him one way when he wanted to go another, then pushing him back towards the place from which he had just come. He fought to say on the path as best he could, but the wind was too strong and forced him off the path and into another nightmare.

Barely able to see, he stumbled again and again, then fell, landing face first beside a man from his past. A dead man, who was lying next to another dead man. Everywhere he looked he say the bodies littering the wayside. His stomach churned and he became ill as he tried to shut the images out of his mind.

Not matter how hard he tried, he couldn't block the out the grotesque faces. Men with dead eyes, staring at him with contempt, accusation, and some even in confused surprise. So many bodies, so many bullets, so many ghosts to forever haunt his dreams.

Far up the path in front of him a light appeared and in the light an image began to take form. It was nothing but a blob of gray, but slowly it began to take on a recognizable form. He blinked, and then he was looking up at the imposing figure of his father. Not nearly as bad as he had grown up believing, but not the man he had hoped to find in the miserable wake of his mother's heartbreaking deceit.

In the dirt between them his father had drawn a line, as if daring him to be good enough to cross it, but never saying it was so or issuing an invitation to join him on the other side. That's all he wanted, all he needed, just the slightest indication that he was wanted in his father's world; really wanted, not just needed for the gun he used so well. He needed this so much, but it never came.

To his side he felt a movement and turned to see Scott standing a few feet away. Between them was no line in the sand, no boundary to cross, no unknown test to pass or fail. He met Scott's gaze and for a brief instant he found a measure of peace from his tiresome journey. Reaching out, he tried to touch his brother's arm, but his fingers slipped through empty space and Scott disappeared from sight. An icy cold chill swept over him, and for the first time in a very long time he felt truly afraid.

The swirling winds returned suddenly, and without warning. The unexpected force of the gusts drove him to his knees, but before he could regain his footing, the sky opened up, relentlessly pelting him with rain and hail. Using his arms, he tried to protect his head from the falling ice as he crawled towards the lone tree remaining from the previous tranquility. The closer he got, though, the harder the wind blew.

The rain stung his face where his arms could not cover, and the hail beat him mercilessly about his head and shoulders. When he finally reached the tree, he slumped heavily against the rough trunk as he gasped for breath. His lungs burned as he fought for every bit of air he inhaled. As suddenly as it had begun, the storm ended. The sky turned clear and the birds began singing their whimsical songs.

Relief quickly replaced the anxiety of moments ago. All he wanted to do was sleep, but something deep inside would not let him. His instincts told him to move, to not give in to the deception, but even as he meticulously studied the landscape around him, he could see no signs of any danger. With a groan, he forced his legs to lift him from the ground. The fear within him churned, but he still could not see any reason for him to be afraid.

Leaving the security of the tree, he walked a few paces before a noise behind him had him spinning on his heel, crouching low even as his hand pulled his gun from his holster. A shot rang out, echoing all around as the bullet sped towards the dark shadow moving threateningly in his direction. The shadow jerked, and then fell to the ground, it's body becoming obscured by the gnarly surface roots at the base of the tree.

Cautiously, gun still ready to fire, Johnny made his way closer to the tree. With each step he took, his sense of dread increased. By the time he was close enough to see his attacker, his hand was shaking to the point he knew he would never hit the mark if the need arouse. The shadows that had been blocking his view suddenly melted away, leaving him a clear sight of his latest victim.

He went numb. His trusted gun fell to the ground where it landed with a sickening thud. Sinking to his knees, Johnny reached out, his hand trembling violently as his fingers made contact with the silky hairs of Barranca's forelock. His eyes tried to focus through his tears, but the only thing he could see was the dark circle in the middle of Barranca's forehead. As usual, his aim was perfect.

Johnny woke with a start, bolting upright as he fought to catch his breath. His whole body ached as it never had before. His legs felt stiff and heavy and he could barely move them. He looked down to see why, only to discover that he was covered by the quilt Teresa had given him for Christmas a few short months before; a quilt he remembered leaving behind when he moved out of his former home. Before he could gather his shaken thoughts, a hand touched his forehead and gentle fingers lightly brushed back his damp hair.

"Teresa?" The word had been spoken reflexively, but Johnny instantly knew it wasn't Teresa's hand touching him. Jerking away, he turned to confront the stranger, only to find himself face to face with a worse nightmare than the one from which he had just escaped - sitting in the chair next to his bed was the woman who had destroyed his entire world.

A surge of hatred sent a shudder through his body as he glared menacingly at the enemy. A flash of recognition swept over her suddenly pale face, and in its wake, a horrified look of realization. Both these expressions were easily identified; Johnny Madrid had seen that particular combination far too many times, though never before on a woman's face.

"Johnny, I'm not who you think I am."

The woman's coloring had returned to normal and a look of longing accompanied her decidedly gentle tone, but Johnny was not about to be taken in by a kind expression and a sweet voice. The most devilish people he had ever met were the ones who possessed the finest examples of these qualities; only they were always fake, nothing but illusions to cover the evil intent lurking within.

"Just what makes you such an expert on what I'm thinkin'?" he challenged coldly.

Instead of being insulted by his curt remark, the woman just smiled at him and dipped the cloth back into the basin of cool water. "You believe I've taken your father and brother away from you," she sighed heavily.

When she attempted to wipe his brow, Johnny batted her hand away. To his surprise she didn't push the point, and merely folded the cloth neatly before draping it over the edge of the basin. Only then did she continue speaking. "Johnny, you didn't see what you thought you saw in San Francisco. All I ask is for a chance to explain."

"Why should I listen to anything you've gotta say?"

"Because you love Scott."

Johnny tensed and his mind screamed in defiance. For weeks he had been living an emotional nightmare, and now, with his body aching and his nerves straining under a weight that was almost too much to bear, any ability be polite or respectful quickly deserted him. "I don't give a damn who you are, but you leave Scott outta this, you hear me! If you an' our old man wanna carry on like a pair of lovesick fools, I suppose that's your right, but you got no call dragging Scott into your tawdry doins'."

Again, the woman's response baffled him. She should have been indignant over his disrespectful assessment of her relationship with his father, but if she was, she was hiding it very well. In fact, if Johnny had to describe her expression, understanding would have been the first thing to come to mind.

"There is nothing tawdry going on between your father and myself."

"Says you!" Johnny snorted.

"Johnny, it's not like that." Scott's heartfelt protest came from the open doorway where he was just finishing cinching his robe closed. Moving into the room, he spared a momentary touch to the woman's hand, then sat down on the edge of the bed, his eyes glowing with anticipation. "Trust me on this, Brother."

Johnny's eyes were glowing, too, but there was nothing the least bit pleasant in his glare. "Trust you? You mean like you trusted me? Weren't you the one who skulked off like a no-account snake in the grass without sayin' a word? Not that I shoulda been surprised; you sure got the bloodlines for it."

"I had to go alone, Johnny. You'll understand that when you hear the happy news I want to share-"

With a snort, Johnny cut off his brother's attempt to explain what Johnny was certain he already knew. "I'll just bet you got happy news. Happy news for the only son good enough to meet Murdoch's new woman, maybe, but in case you ain't noticed, that ain't me. You looked like you was rather proud of it, too, from where I was standing. Guess it didn't take much convincing to get you to seeing things his way."

All joy drained from Scott's expression. "Johnny, you don't understand."

"The hell I don't!" Johnny sat up ramrod straight and responded to Scott's plea with pure vehemence. "I may not have me no high faluting education, but I understand plenty. You're no better than the old man. I ain't never been good enough for him, and now it ain't no different with you, neither."

Johnny's eyes narrowed even further as he was struck with a new thought that only reinforced his previous feelings of rejection. "Or has it always been nothing but a lie, Brother? Ain't you the one who's always dreading seeing who I really am? You keep Johnny Madrid all hidden away in the water closet of that mind of yours an' don't even acknowledge he exists until he can be of use. Then you let him out, hoping he can save your butt one more time. That's all he's good for though, ain't it?"

When his renewed efforts to move went unfulfilled, Johnny reached down and pulled away the comforter. He was shocked to see that his legs were encased in something white and hard. In that moment, any remaining vestiges of his self-control completely disappeared. "What the hell have you done? Get this damned stuff off me!"

"John Lancer, that's enough," Murdoch's firm voice resounded from the doorway. He too was dressed in his robe. Confusion and concern vied for dominance of his expression, but his voice became more soothing as he moved towards the bed. "Son, you've broken your legs. Sam put plaster casts on them to keep the bones set until they had a chance to heal properly."

On the other side of the bed, Catherine looked pale as she stood just behind Scott, who was still seated on the edge of the mattress, looking rather pale, too. "What's going on here?" Murdoch demanded.

"I was trying to introduce Johnny to my mother, but he-" Scott turned away, visibly shaken by Johnny's crass reactions to both him and his mother.

"Your mother?" Johnny narrowed his eyes as he reassessed the situation.

"Johnny, your brother is telling you the truth." Murdoch moved around the bed to stand at Catherine's side. "This is Catherine Lancer. It's a long story, but she's alive and that's the only reason I wanted Scott to come to San Francisco alone. I wanted the two of them to have some time together before meeting the rest of the family." Scott, who was still sitting on the edge of the bed, looked over at Johnny with a hurt, but hopeful expression on his face.

Catherine Lancer? Scott's mother? Johnny's already overloaded mind went into a tailspin. He could see the resemblance, but he couldn't accept it as true. He couldn't. A raging torrent of painful memories flooded his jumbled thoughts, bringing with them even more horrors from the past; the tears, the hurt, the betrayal his own mother had endured because of this woman. She couldn't be alive. She was dead. She had to be dead.

The tightness in Johnny's chest became painful and his breaths began coming in short gasps. He glowered at the woman who had been the destroyer of his mother's life, and in effect, his own, too. Twenty years ago she had taken everything from him, and now she had come back from the grave to do it all again. 'Not without a fight', Johnny vowed in silence to his dearly departed mother. Not this time.

Using all the strength he could muster, Johnny again attempted to move off the bed. "I'm getting outta here," he growled.

"No, Johnny. You have to lay still."

Although he heard his father's words and felt those massive hands grasping his shoulders in an effort to hold him in place, Johnny refused to yield to either. He had to get away. It was his only chance to fight for what was his. Here he was vulnerable and completely at her mercy. If he could just find a place to take a stand, on his own terms, he would make sure that she never took anything from him again. He struggled relentlessly against the hands of his father, refusing to cry out even when his injured legs sent jolts of pain coursing through his body and his bruised shoulders quivered under the agony of his father's tight grip.

"Johnny, be still!" Murdoch's loud voice finally penetrated the roaring in his ears. "Stop acting like-"

The accusation remained unfinished, but Johnny reacted instantly to the innuendo he heard in the silence that followed. "Acting like what, Old Man!" he yelled as his fight returned to the present. "Like my mother?! 'You got your mother's temper'," Johnny sarcastically mimicked the first words his dear father had ever spoken to him. "Good ol' Scott there got his perfect mamma's perfect eyes, but me, me I just got a mean temper from your second choice. Ain't that right, Old Man?"

Briefly Johnny's gaze flickered up to the two figures that were now standing just beyond his father. At some point Scott and Murdoch had switched places, with Scott hovering protectively near his mother, and Murdoch sitting on the bed. Johnny kept his eyes focused only on her, and that was more than enough to keep his anger flaring. There she was so pretty, so perfect, with Scott's arm wrapped protectively around her. She looked so innocent, but she wasn't. It was all because of her.

His eyes cold with the darkness of his feelings, he glared back up at Murdoch. "No one could ever measure up to your precious Catherine, could they? No one could be that perfect lily-white angel, but that didn't stop ya from finding someone else, did it? You couldn't have her no more, so you grabbed on to the first dark-skinned little girl willing to satisfy ya."

The sheer intensity of his stare could have chilled an iceberg. "Or maybe you'd care to admit in front of your precious Catherine that my mamma wasn't so willing at first? That you felt like taking what weren't yours, just because you could!"

If anything, the look of pure shock the overtook Murdoch's face enraged Johnny even further. "I know all about it, Old Man. How she only married you because she didn't have no choice, after you'd made her unfit for any decent man. That's why she left," Johnny hissed in contempt. "She was tired of being nothin' but a bitter old man's second-hand bed warmer!"

"That's enough you-" Murdoch's arm went back, but Scott grabbed it in a firm grip, preventing both the intended blow and the completion of his angry rebuttal.

"Murdoch, don't," Scott warned softly, but without conviction.

"Come on, Old Man. Don't go hiding behind your only real son. Go ahead, say it! You been wanting to for a long time now," Johnny challenged defiantly. "I was made a bastard, an I'll always be one, ain't that right?" Johnny snorted. "I'll bet you didn't have the cuates to force yourself on your precious Catherine, but then, she wasn't all alone with no one to defend her. Old man Garrett woulda had your carcass strung out from one end a Boston to the other."

Johnny's gaze shifted towards Catherine, and his sneer took on a lewd air. "Or maybe you didn't have ta force nothin'. Maybe she was more than willing ta spread them legs-"

This time there would be no stopping Murdoch's wrath. A forceful backhanded blow sent Johnny's head crashing against the headboard. With eyes blazing his fury and a voice bellowing thunder, Murdoch surged to his feet. "I want you out of my house! You're no-"

"Murdoch! No!" As if by magic, the woman he despised seemed to just instantly appear between them, pushing Murdoch away from the bed with a surprising display of strength. "Out! Now!" she screamed, never allowing Murdoch a chance to get a word in edgewise. With one hand on each arm, she physically forced Murdoch backwards and towards the door, yet another surprising feat from one so much smaller than the mountain of a man she was attempting to move. "Out, Murdoch! Get out, now!" she kept yelling as she shoved him out of the door and into the hallway.

Catherine's assertive litany faded in the distance as Scott stared at Johnny in disbelief. His eyes were cold and lifeless, and when he finally spoke, so was his voice. "I told them all you would be happy for me." Unable to stomach even looking at his brother anymore, Scott turned away. "I guess I was wrong," he stated bitterly slamming the door closed behind him when he left the room. Never had he felt more betrayed. 

*** *** *** *** 

The sound of raised voices told Scott he would find his mother downstairs, and he only hoped that he could somehow make amends for the cruel and heartless attack she had just endured at the hands of his half-brother. 'Half'? He had never once considered Johnny in that light, but now he could hardly bring himself to add the 'brother' part at the end. 

How totally stupid he had been. He had set his mother up with flowery words of happy acceptance, only to have her slapped down with accusations more vile than anything he could have imagined. He reached the entrance to the great room, but was shocked to hear that his mother's tone was more belligerent than anguished. 

"No, Murdoch, what I was not about to do was let your anger talk you into making the biggest mistake of your life," she addressed Murdoch with firm defiance. "Your son is hurting and you had just struck him-"

"And you blame me? After what he said, what he insinuated about you? My God, Catherine, he all but called you a whore."

"I've been called worse," she deadpanned. "Don't look so shocked, Murdoch. When the people in the village near the mission found out how I came to be there, that I had been there before any females were allowed, don't you think they had a few choice names for me? Oh, the padres tried to keep the details a secret, but that was a lost cause from the very start. It took a few months, but word got around. Some of the things said make Johnny's accusations seem rather tame in comparison."

"Those people were not my son!"

"Five minutes ago you were within a hair's breadth of disowning him as your son."

"You heard him, Catherine. He kept pushing. He wanted me to say it!" Murdoch challenged loudly.

"What it sounded like to me was that he wanted you to confirm or deny that I was more important to you than his mother."

"Then why didn't he just ask me instead of trying to provoke me?"

"Because he wasn't thinking rationally. Because, as you told me, you have never been willing to discuss his mother with him before." Slipping closer to Murdoch, she placed her hand flat against his chest. "Because angry men don't tell lies."

"They don't say what they really mean, either!" Murdoch turned away from her and stalked over to the liquor cabinet. With jerky movements, he retrieved the decanter of brandy, knocking over several other smaller bottles in the process. He slammed the cabinet door shut with a loud bang, and then poured himself a stiff drink. "I can't believe Maria told him that I..."

Downing the amber liquid in one gulp, Murdoch's hands visibly shook as he poured another. "I would never...never! Johnny knows she lied to him about me. He's known that for over a year, but he still believes I could..." His second glass was emptied as quickly as the first, and refilled again.

"Does he?"

Murdoch turned, his face flushed red with fury. "He said it, didn't he?!"

"And if I hadn't stepped in, you would have denounced him as your son. Would you have meant that, too?" The question was delivered bluntly, but not in anger.

"Yes!" Murdoch snapped. He raised the glass to his lips, but this time he did not even take a drink before slamming it down on the cabinet top, sending a splash of brandy splattering over the wooden surface, as well as the wall behind it. "No. He's my son, but he went too far this time."

"Murdoch, Johnny hurt you and you overreacted, just as I suspect Johnny is overreacting to his own pain. Give him a chance to calm down. If I'm right you'll still have your son."

"And if you're wrong?"

"Isn't your son worth the effort to find out for sure? Given a chance for a reasonable conversation, I'm sure Johnny will realize that he has made a terrible mistake, just as I hope you will realize that you made one, too."

Scott had heard more than enough, and stalked into the room. "Mother, how can you stand there and defend him? After the things he said to you...about you? Murdoch had every right to hit him, and if he hadn't, I would have."

Catherine looked from father to son, and sighed sadly. "I'm not defending him as much as I'm trying to keep the two of you from making a bad situation even worse. I think if both of you would look at this whole incident more objectively, you would realize that Johnny is more hurt than either of you understand. He had just awoken from a very bad dream. He was still a little disoriented and the first thing he saw was his enemy sitting-"

"You are not Johnny's enemy!" Scott hissed. "You've defended him to me, to even slapped your own father."

"And Johnny knows nothing of any of that. To him, I am the one who took his family away from him, and he woke up to find me sitting at his bedside. In the same situation, either of you would have-"

"I would have *listened*," Scott interrupted harshly. "I would have let Johnny explain the situation to me because I trust him. I would *not* have started hurling vicious lies and totally unfounded innuendo at anyone and everyone in sight."

"Maybe, maybe not. It's easy to second guess someone else's reactions, especially in a very upsetting situation."

"I know how I would react," Scott reiterated with total certainty.

"You have absolute faith in yourself over that, but not where it really counts? Listen to yourself, Scott, but more importantly, have faith in yourself."

Scott wasn't about to listen to any more. His anger was reaching the boiling point, and tactical retreat seemed the most prudent course of action. "Johnny was dead wrong, Mother, and there's nothing you can say to make me feel otherwise. If you'll excuse me, I'm going back to bed."

Although he did give his mother a quick kiss on her cheek, he purposely avoided the look of disapproval he knew he would find in her expression by turning away quickly and heading for the stairs. Making his way down the darkened hallway, he tried desperately to figure out how his mother could see some things so clearly, and yet be so totally blind to something that should be so obvious.

That's when it all became crystal clear; she saw Johnny as one of those abandoned orphans she had cared for in Mexico. She wanted to save him, just like she had tried to save them. Only Johnny wasn't a little boy and he had not been abandoned. He would be held accountable for his outbursts, one way or the other.

As Scott was about to close his bedroom door, he heard a loud thud from inside Johnny's room. He was halfway across the hall and reaching for the doorknob before his anger overrode his moment of concern. Instead of turning away immediately, he listened closely at the door and was just able to make out a few familiar Mexican curses, but none too boisterous. Confident that even if Johnny had been stupid enough to fall out of bed he hadn't been injured any further, Scott returned to his own room and closed the door. Facing Johnny right now would be a monumental mistake. 

*** *** *** *** 

"Murdoch, you've got to do something," Catherine breathed helplessly as she continued staring in the direction in which Scott had just departed.

"Do what, Catherine? I can't force Johnny to see the truth. I can't undo anything that he's done. I can't even understand why he's acting like such a child...which, by the way, is what I stopped myself from saying upstairs. I wasn't about to belittle him in front of you and Scott, but he just couldn't wait to jump to the absurd conclusion that I was comparing him to his mother. He's been like that since day one; always thinking the worst of everything I say."

Whirling around, Catherine stared at him in amazement. "And why shouldn't he?"

"Because it's not true!"

With a raised eyebrow, she met his challenge head on. "And how is he supposed to know that? Are you forgetting what you told me in Mexico? I believe you said you find it almost impossible to look at Johnny without seeing his mother, a woman you admit you hate. And didn't you also mention that, at times, you even feel repulsed by him because he reminds you so much of her."

"Which is turning out to be more true than I ever imagined. Maria could pass judgment at the drop of a hat, facts be damned. She taught her son well."

"Her son?" Catherine's heart ached. "He's your son, too, Murdoch. You can't just stand there and lose him again, let Scott lose his brother, all over a series of stupid misunderstandings. Remember what Scott told us in San Francisco? Johnny hasn't been sleeping well since you left for Mexico. That was well over a month ago."

"I remember, Catherine. What I don't see is what that has to do with him acting like a complete jackass tonight?"

"He's tired, Murdoch. He's hurting, physically and emotionally. In that condition, he is probably reacting on instincts; instincts that may not be the least bit indicative of his true feelings. I'm sure there have been times when you were tired that you snapped at someone for no good reason. Is this really any different, even if it is on a much deeper level? Besides, after what Teresa and Jelly told us last night, isn't it obvious that Johnny has been doing nothing but reacting ever since he saw us in San Francisco?"

"Catherine, we're not even sure Johnny was in San Francisco." Although his words were belligerent, his tone was less damning than it could have been.

"He was there," she asserted with absolute certainty. "I didn't recognize him until he woke up, but as soon as I saw his eyes, I knew it was him."

Murdoch frowned. "You saw Johnny? When?"

"In the restaurant. Remember? He was the man I saw looking at us." If only she had known who he was at the time, maybe they could have stopped him from leaving. "I saw it in his eyes then, and I saw it again, just now. It's the same look I've seen in the eyes of every child who was abandoned at the mission gates. The same sense of total loss, of not knowing where to go, where to turn, what to believe. Johnny is fighting his insecurities the only way he knows how - by denying that he cares for the very people it's killing him to lose."

"Catherine, Johnny made the choice to be alone. No one told him to leave."

"Not in words, but his own eyes told him that was the case. When he walked into that restaurant, all he saw was a happy family that didn't include him anymore."

"That's not true!" Raising his arm, he pointed in the general direction of Johnny's room. "You were standing right there. I told him why I wanted Scott to come alone. He wouldn't listen."

"Then tell him again, and if he won't listen, keep telling him until he does. Push him as hard as it takes to get through to him. If you are determined to prove me wrong, so be it, but make sure all the cards are on the table before you walk away from the game." Grasping Murdoch's arms, Catherine pleaded for all she was worth. "Don't lose your son over this, Murdoch. If you do, you'll regret it for the rest of your life."

"And you can forgive him for what he said to you? Just like that?"

How did she tell him that she had been on the receiving end of so many such attacks that she desperately wanted to believe - had to believe - that Johnny was different from the others who had been so cruel to her in the past. Surely, Murdoch's son and Scott's brother could not be someone who would intentionally want to inflict pain on someone else, just because he could.

No, she had to hang on to the hope that Johnny had some other motive; that perhaps he was striking out in an effort to protect his own bruised heart from further injuries. The other alternative - that Johnny's words had actually been the truth, that he believed such things of a father who wanted to love him, felt such animosity towards a brother who so clearly did love him, and refused to even give a chance to a stranger who could love him if he would only let her - was totally unacceptable. The very thought made her heart ache for Murdoch and for Scott.

"I can't forgive him or condemn him until I know the truth, Murdoch. Does he really hate me, or was he just trying to hurt me because he believes I've hurt him? Does he believe what he said about you, and if so, where did he get such knowledge since he was just a baby when he was taken from away from Lancer. Could he feel such animosity towards..." She stopped herself just in time. Murdoch didn't know what Johnny had said to Scott, and now was not the time to tell him. "Murdoch, isn't it worth it to find out the whole truth? If Johnny meant any or all of the things he said, it won't hurt anymore tomorrow than it does tonight, but if he didn't, is it worth losing him all over again over a misunderstanding?"

Murdoch's only response was to pull her close. Beneath her cheek, she could feel his chest rise and fall with each deep breath he took, while she was finding it difficult to breathe in the tight restraint of his embrace. She said nothing, though, merely enduring the discomfort until, finally, his hold on her began to lessen. She could only hope that his decision was the right one.

"I'm not sure I can forgive him for what he said to you."

Her heart sank. "Murdoch, tonight Johnny drew the proverbial line in the sand, but it was between you and him, no one else. Forget about me. Forget about Maria. Just love Johnny enough to cross that line for him. Reach out to him, Murdoch. It's the only way you're ever going to know for sure what he really feels."

For a long while there was only the sound of the crackling embers dying in the fireplace and the ticking of the grandfather clock to say that the world still went on around them. "Are you ready to turn in?" Murdoch finally asked softly.


After a brief pause, Murdoch's response came in a cracked voice. "I'm trying, Catherine."

"To remember your love for Johnny, or to forget your hatred for her?"

Murdoch's head bowed low. "Both?"

Tears pooled in Catherine's eyes. "Try harder, Murdoch. Please. I don't want to see you hurt anymore."

After dousing all the lights, Murdoch led the way as they made their way through the darkened house. Pausing at the bottom of the stairs, his gaze shifted up towards the second floor landing. "I'm not sure how Teresa managed to sleep through all this, but I'm glad she did."

"Earlier this evening she mentioned that she was too worried to sleep, so I offered her some of that special tea I brought from Mexico."

Murdoch looked down at her with a weary smile. "The same tea you gave me that first night at the mission?"


"No wonder she's still asleep. That's a very potent brew."

With a heavy heart, Catherine made a move towards her room, only to be stopped when Murdoch's arm slipped around her waist and held her in place. "Catherine," he pleaded softly.

In the very gentleness of his voice, she could feel his pain, sense the torment that was raging in his soul, and she knew she would never be able to refuse his unspoken request. She did not *want* to refuse. He needed her, and, if the truth be known, she needed him, too.

Johnny's brutal attack had left her heart feeling bruised and abused, but this was something she had dared not reveal to either Murdoch or Scott. In a fit of anger, Johnny had successfully pushed both men to the edge of their abilities to forgive, she would not let her own hurt feelings push them over the precipice. Although she did not fully understand the depth of Johnny's apparent hatred towards her, she had heard enough to know that the roots of his feelings were buried somewhere in the distant past; most likely with his mother and the lies she had told Johnny for reasons that might never be fully understood.

All she could do for now was pray that her assertions were correct; that time was all Johnny needed to reclaim the clarity of thought he seemed to have been lacking for the past few days. If not, more desperate measures would have to be taken. The morning would bring with it the answers she needed, but for tonight, she intended to see to her own wounds, and those of the man she loved.

Leaning into Murdoch's embrace, she willing allowed him to guide her down the hall to his bedroom. 

*** *** *** *** 

"Morning, Sam."

When Sam Jenkins entered the Lancer kitchen, Murdoch was sitting at the table, drinking a cup of what smelled like very strong coffee. A brief nod and a tilt of the coffee pot as another cup was poured was the only invitation that was needed between the old friends. To the casual observer, the scene would not seem the least bit out of the ordinary. However, insight gained during Sam's many years of friendship with this man told him that there was nothing ordinary about this morning.

"Got delayed over at the Fredrick's place and stayed the night in their guest room. The babies are fine, but the mother is going to make me a nervous wreck by the time they're ready to be born. First timers are always the worst, and with twins on the way..." He looked speculatively at Murdoch over the rim of the proffered cup of coffee. One sip told him that strong had been a less-than-accurate description for the overly stout brew. "Thought I'd stop in and check on Johnny's casts on my way back to town. You look like you didn't get much sleep last night. The boy didn't come down with a fever, did he?"

"No," Murdoch sighed into his coffee. After taking a large swallow, he sat the cup down and shook his head in dismay. "Johnny woke up around two this morning."

Although knowing that Johnny was no longer unconscious was welcome news, the frustrated timbre of Murdoch's voice gave Sam more information than his actual words. "Oh?"

"Suffice to say, it was not a pleasant experience." If anything, Murdoch's expression became even more strained. "I knew Johnny would be upset, but I never thought..." Instead of finishing his thought, Murdoch shook his head before downing the last bit of coffee from his cup.

Sam did not have the foggiest notion of what Murdoch was trying not to say, but the little voice of reason in the back of his mind raised the possibility that it might have something to do with sudden appearance of Scott's mother. While he couldn't recall noticing anything that would indicate there something other than a genuine concern behind Catherine Lancer's actions towards her stepson, that didn't mean that was the way things really were. Looks were often deceiving, especially in such a very strange situation.

The one thing he did know with absolute certainty was that his old friend would not be forthcoming with any information without a little prodding. "What happened, Murdoch?"

"Johnny accused me of wanting his mother to be just like Catherine, so much so, that I drove her away from Lancer."

Of all the things Sam could have imagined, this would never have crossed his mind. He knew for a fact that the subject of Murdoch's second wife was very rarely brought up, especially with Johnny. The two had butted heads on that topic a couple of times after the boys came home, but Murdoch hadn't mentioned the topic even coming up in quite a long while.

Given the sudden reappearance of his first wife, Sam couldn't imagine Murdoch choosing now to change that pattern, either. More disconcerting, though, was that this didn't sound like something Johnny Lancer would say to anyone, much less his own father. "Johnny actually said that, Murdoch?"

"Not as politely," Murdoch snorted, "but yes, he said that, and a lot more. Scott was so mad that he took off this morning without so much as checking in on Johnny. He's never done that before. You know how he is. Usually when Johnny is hurt, Scott has to be pried away from his brother's bedside. I'm not sure he's ever going to be able to forgive Johnny for the things he said."

Scott not forgive Johnny? This was getting worse by the minute. Over the past year, Sam had witnessed Murdoch's two sons forge a most remarkable friendship. They were as different as any two men ever born, but that they loved and respected each other was something that no one in the area doubted for a minute.

The two men didn't see eye to eye on everything, but even when they had their spats, they were never very serious. He took a deep swallow of the strong coffee, not even flinching at the bitter taste. "Does this have anything to do with Scott's mother being alive?" he ventured with caution.

Murdoch opened his mouth to speak and Sam braced himself for the angry bellow that the storm in those gray-blue eyes predicted would be coming. Only the onslaught never came forth, and Murdoch slumped forward in his chair. "To be honest, Sam, I'm not sure where any of this came from. It's like another man took my son's place, a very malevolent man."

Johnny? Malevolent? Despite his gunfighter past, Sam honestly believed such a thing simply was not in the boy's nature. "Murdoch, ordinarily I'd say whatever's happening here is a family matter and none of my business. However, with Johnny being injured, it might help me to know exactly what it is I'm facing. Johnny isn't the best of patients at the best of times, and from what you've said so far, these are definitely not the best of times."

"They could have been!" Murdoch's fist landed with a thud on the table. The spoon that was resting on the saucer under the sugar bowl flipped off the edge and fell with a clatter onto the table. The anger faded as quickly as if flared. "I'm sorry, Sam. I'm at my wits end. I've got the woman I love back in my life, my boys are home, the ranch is safe, and life should be so good."


"But it's not. Yes, I some mistakes, but Johnny..."

Sam waited patiently for Murdoch to gather his thoughts. When they came, though, they left Sam feeling lost for any kind of a response. Then Murdoch said something that he could actually understand.

"Sam, do you have any idea what it's like to be accused of raping someone, much less the woman you once loved, the woman you married, and by the very child of that marriage?"

Sam's jaw slacked open. Rape was a heinous crime, and one that Sam was extremely grateful that he had encountered only a few times in his career. Those few times always left him with a disjointed sense of outrage that another man could actually find it necessary to behave like such an animal.

It was no secret that some men viewed their wives as mere possessions, like their horse or their land, and felt free to do with them as they pleased, with or without their consent. Although he had never known Murdoch during either of his short marriages, Sam didn't believe for a minute that the man sitting so dejectedly across the table shared those atrocious views. For someone like Murdoch, who had never been anything but a gentleman towards any woman, even the insinuation of such monstrous wrongdoing would be devastating, as it clearly was to his old friend. This had to be some kind of terrible misunderstanding.

"That doesn't sound like Johnny, Murdoch. Doesn't sound like you, either." Finishing off the last bit of coffee, Sam stood and headed for the stairs. "I'll just go on up and check on those casts." 

*** *** *** ***

Sam entered Johnny's bedroom as he would under any circumstance, with a brief knock, but not much of a hesitation. He stopped short, though, when all he saw as an empty bed. "Johnny?"

"Over here, Sam."

Rushing around to the other side of the bed, he was startled to see Johnny sitting on the floor, propped up against the side of the bed. What startled him even more, though, were the hard lines on Johnny's face. There was no sign of his normal sheepishness at being caught going against doctor's orders. Instead, there was nothing but a cold emptiness in those usually warm blue eyes. "What the heck have you gone and done now, Boy?"

"Fell out of bed," Johnny stated matter-of-factly. "Now get this stuff off my legs so I can get outta here."

Johnny appeared to be unhurt, but Sam kneeled down and began checking the casts for any sign of cracking. "Johnny, you're not going anywhere for a while."

"Wrong." There was a hard edge to Johnny's tone. "I am leaving today, with or without your help."

Stunned by the forcefulness of Johnny's defiance, Sam shifted his attention from the jagged edge at the top of the cast on Johnny's leg to Johnny's face. There he saw nothing more than what he had seen before, and that was nothing. There was no teasing gleam in those deep blue eyes or the slightest trace of a twitch in his pursed lips. The bruised cheek looked even darker than it had the day before, which shouldn't be the case after the comfrey poultice.

Any inquiry into why that would be so could wait, though. Johnny had meant what he said about leaving; the only problem was that there was no way for him to carry out his stated intention. "And just how do you think you're going to do that, Johnny? You can't even get out of bed without falling flat on your face."

Sam made a slight gesture towards the quilt that was bunched around Johnny's midsection. "Not to mention the fact that you're not exactly dressed for wandering around outside."

"Ain't planning on wandering around anywhere, and especially not around here," Johnny snapped. The first bit of emotion crept in to his expression, and that emotion was anger. "An' once you get this damned stuff off my legs, I'll get myself dressed fast enough."

"In what?" Murdoch's flat voice drifted over from the open doorway. His face too held little emotion, but the worried lines around his eyes and mouth spoke of some very intense emotions that were lying just below the surface of his calm facade. "The clothes you were wearing when we pulled you out from under that barn are being washed, and you took everything else with you when you ran out."

"Ran out!" Johnny twisted around to glare at his father over the bed that lay between them. "I was kicked out and you damn well know it. And you're one to be talking about running off." Johnny's eyes narrowed and his next words were delivered with a deadly tone. "I guess I should be downright thankful that's the only bad habit I got from you."

The accusation hung in the air between them like the blade of a guillotine. Murdoch's face turned a deep shade of red, and his fists were balled at his sides. Then the blade fell. "Sam, do us all a favor and take him with you when you leave."

While Sam missed the hidden meaning in Johnny's words, Murdoch's reply sent shivers up his spine. His jaw was still hanging open when Murdoch turned and disappeared from the doorway. It was no secret that Murdoch and Johnny could get into some pretty heated rows, but this had to be more than that. There was nothing half-hearted in Murdoch's request. He meant it. Still dazed by the bizarre events that were playing out around him, he looked back at Johnny.

"Johnny! No!" Sam gasped loudly when he saw the gun in Johnny's raised hand. Sam grabbed for the gun, but Johnny held on tight, refusing to relinquish his tool; not until a loud retort instantly put an abrupt end to the struggle.

From the doorway, Teresa's shrill scream filled the air. 

*** *** *** ***

With a steady hand, Scott held Charlemagne to a very unhurried pace as he rode in the direction of the hacienda. When he had left early that morning, his intent was to be gone all day. He wanted time to step back, to regroup, to gather his frayed emotions before the negatives of the situation became all consuming. However, this plan had hit a small snag - in the process of working off his anger and frustration, he had finished the task of clearing the brush from around the south water hole much sooner than anticipated. Only mid afternoon, there was nothing to do now, but return to the house.

More out of habit than conscious effort, he found himself topping the familiar hill overlooking the hacienda. This little knoll was just a short distance from where Teresa had stopped the surrey over a year ago, allowing the recently arrived Lancer brothers their first look at the land they would come to mean as much to them as it did to their father. So many things had changed since that first day, but now he couldn't help but wonder how much of it was real?

As Charlemagne reached the crest, he immediately noticed a difference in the landscape. Bring his mount to a halt next to the large oak tree, he dismounted and cast a wary eye on the recently disturbed earth. Only when he got closer did he notice the odd stone that appeared to have been deliberately placed at one end of the mound. On its semi-flat surface was crudely scratched a single word - Compadre.

A lump formed in Scott's throat as his gaze traversed the entire surface of the large area of freshly turned earth. Without having to be told, he knew that this was Barranca's grave. Jelly's doing, no doubt, and maybe Cipriano's, too. Several of the other ranch hands would have had to have helped, not only to get the dead horse off the mesa, but also to dig the grave so quickly. This must have all been done yesterday, while the family was tending Johnny.

Looking over the top of the mound towards the hacienda in the distance, Scott took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. Despite his steadfast determination not to do so when he rode away from the house well before the sun began to rise, he had thought of nothing else but his brother all morning. His emotions had run the gauntlet from anger to disappointment to condemnation to confusion to irritation and back to anger. However, the hours of backbreaking toil had done their job. The anger was all but gone, for the most part, and all that was left was a hollow sense of emptiness.

The sheer brutality of Johnny's reactions had taken Scott totally by surprise. Never would he have believed Johnny capable of such cruelty. The words his brother had wielded were vicious, and had been meant to hurt. But why? Why was Johnny so bitter? Where had this sudden hatred come from? What had happened to the brotherly bond they had forged during the past year? Could what he had considered to be invincible really be broken so easily?

That first gun battle against Day Pardee had been the start. Since then, he and Johnny had defended each other in some pretty dire circumstances. They had become a source of strength for each when life had took a few rough shots in their direction. To now find out that it had all been a lie hurt Scott deeply, but it also made him furious with himself. How could he have been such a fool, and for so long?

'Have faith in yourself.' Startled, Scott spun around, certain that he had heard his mother's voice. There was no one there, though. Just Charlemagne, who snorted indignantly over the abrupt tug on his reins caused by Scott's sudden turn. After a few annoyed flicks of his ears, the chestnut settled down and returned to his grazing. With a shake of his head over his own flight of fancy, Scott turned back to face the grave.

"Have faith in myself," he said to himself aloud. His mother had told him that last night before he abruptly departed the great room. It hadn't made any sense to him at the time, but he was too busy trying to understand her stubborn and unreasonable defense of his brother to give it much thought. "Have faith in myself? Why? What is there to have faith in? I couldn't get any worse at judging people."

Squatting down beside the crude stone marker, his fingers lightly grazed over the scratched surface. Compadre. Wasn't that word supposed to apply to what he shared with his brother? Hermano. Another word he had learned during his first few days at Lancer, another word that had come to mean more to him than just the blood ties between him and his brother. Absentmindedly, Scott pulled a stray weed from the very edge of the freshly turned sod and tossed it aside with a heavy sigh.

Today was Wednesday. Five days ago he would have staked his very life on the fact that he and Johnny were both those things, and so much more. Five days ago they had shared a common pain and a common need to offer comfort in the face of events that had left them both feeling unsettled and annoyed. Five days was all it had taken to destroy what it took a year to build. It didn't seem right, it didn't seem possible, it didn't...The flash of clarity he had been seeking all morning hit him like a bolt of lightning.

It didn't seem possible because it *wasn't* possible. Yes, he could shamelessly admit to having been taken in by a few people since starting his new life out West - the McGloins, Moira most notably; Julie Barton, who had nearly gotten him killed in place of her outlaw brother; Glory, whom he had found both repulsive and irresistible - but what all of those deceptions had in common was they had been fast paced in both inception and resolution; what he and Johnny had achieved during the past year was totally different.

The connection that bound him to his brother had not been formed over night. Many a day had been spent moving warily around each other, carefully contemplating motives verses actions and actions verses reactions, giving the benefit of the doubt without dismissing the doubt entirely. Yet, that there had always been something there was undeniable. From that first moment in Morro Coyo when Teresa had revealed their brotherhood, he had felt it and so had Johnny.

It wasn't something they had ever discussed, not directly anyway. It just was, and they both had accepted its existence with caution, but never denial. Their early days at Lancer had not only been spent learning the ways of ranching, and cattle, and becoming accustomed to this new family in which they had found themselves a part, but also in the pursuit of testing the validity of this strange new connection that had suddenly taken root in their lives.

The road to the place they were had not always been smooth, but it had been definitive in its course. In the beginning disagreements had been frequent, but it was in the heat of their anger that the metal of their bond had been forged. Those flaring emotions had lighted the way, showing each brother how far the other could be pushed in any given direction, which issues were debatable and which were not, which hurts lay too close to the surface and which ones were buried much more deeply. The process had been long, and at times more than a little painful, but it had not been fleeting.

Five days? With a shake of his head, Scott rose to his feet. To accept that what he and Johnny had found could be destroyed in five short days was to accept that it had never been there to begin with, and to accept that would be to own up to the unconscionable - he had been a blind fool the entire time. A chill went up his spine. Could that have been what his mother was trying to tell him last night? Was that why her words kept ringing in his ears?

In the past both he and Johnny had said and done things in the heat of anger that had been regretted later, and no more so than when they were tired or hungry. Johnny had been both, to an extreme, so why shouldn't his reactions be just as extreme?

Feeling real hope for the first time all day, Scott quickly mounted Charlemagne. His previous dread at returning home was all but gone, and in its place was determination, and confidence in his newly-formulated supposition. If Johnny had not actually become a different person overnight, then there was only one rational explanation for his behavior - Johnny was hiding, running scared, of what Scott was not entirely clear, but that didn't matter. The only thing that mattered was forcing his brother to see what he was hellbent on not seeing. Johnny would still be held accountable for his reprehensible outburst, but now there could be forgiveness in the wake of that accountability, providing there was genuine remorse to be offered.

When he reached the bottom of the knoll, a surrey appeared on the road leading home. Recognizing the familiar gait of his father's favorite harness horse, Scott headed in that direction. He needed to find out if Murdoch would be a help or a hindrance in the impending dealings with Johnny. Reining Charlemagne to a stop, next to the surrey, Scott nodded at his father. "Been to town?"

There were dark circles under Murdoch's eyes, and if anything, he looked more haggard than he had the night before. "I took Teresa into Green River. Last week she made plans to spend a couple of days with Harriet Gladstone. The Simpson boy proposed and there are wedding plans to be made. After all that's happened, Teresa wasn't sure she wanted to go, but your mother convinced her she could use the break from all the tension."

Murdoch shifted in his seat and stretched his leg out as he did when his back was bothering him. "I know I definitely needed a few hours away from your brother."

His father's last two words told Scott that he would have to deal with Murdoch before taking on Johnny. Whenever Murdoch was in his worst of moods over something Johnny had done, Johnny became 'your brother' instead of 'my son' or 'Johnny'. This time, though, there was something different. Something a little off in Murdoch's tone said there was more to be said. "What happened?"

Murdoch didn't answer right away, but looked off into the distance, towards the house where they both knew there was a fight still to be waged. "Sam came by this morning at daybreak. He wanted to check Johnny's casts."

"And?" Scott prompted when Murdoch paused for too long.

"Sometime during the night, or maybe this morning, your brother fell out of bed, probably trying to get up. I should have...I just couldn't bring myself to check on him this morning. I didn't trust myself not to...well, Sam found Johnny lying on the floor."

"It was last night," Scott corrected with a hint of remorse.

Murdoch looked over in surprise. "Son?"

"I'm pretty sure Johnny fell out of bed last night. I heard the thud as I was going to bed." A little more guilt settled on his shoulders and he looked away from his father, his gaze stopping only when it found the solemn hillside he had recently departed. "At the time, I didn't care."

"Yes you did, Son," Murdoch objected gently. "We all did. We just didn't know how to handle him."

"Through the door it didn't sound like Johnny had hurt himself."

"And if you hadn't cared would you have even noticed?

Scott hated the mixed feelings of indifference and regret that were churning inside his chest. "Is Johnny all right?"

"He wasn't hurt, if that's what you mean. As for being all right, I just don't know. I guess I was hoping that your mother had been right, and that Johnny would be in a better frame of mind this morning."

"But he wasn't." A statement, holding no surprise.

"No. He was just as angry and spiteful as he was last night. In fact, he almost shot Sam trying to break open his casts with the butt of his gun. It practically scared Teresa to death, and I don't think Sam was in too good a state when he left, either." Murdoch heaved a heavy sigh, and his next words were even wearier than the rest. "I feel like I don't even know him anymore. That man can't be my son."

In stark contradiction to Murdoch's dejection, Scott suddenly felt so much less alone. Dismounting, he walked over to the surrey and tied Charlemagne's reins to the side rail. "Move over," he ordered, then climbed onto the seat next to his father. "I want to show you something." Exactly why he felt the need to show Murdoch Barranca's grave, he wasn't sure, he just knew it was something he had to do.

Neither man spoke as the made their way the short distance to the shady spot they both knew Johnny loved. Many an evening had been spent, father and son having a brandy on the veranda, waiting for Johnny to return from a late day on the range or a trip to town, neither fully relaxing until they spotted the familiar silhouette in the distance under that old oak tree.

Johnny *always* stopped there. No matter how late in the day, or how dirty and tired he was, he would dismount and spend a few minutes just looking across the countryside. Only then he would finish the journey home.

A memory from the past surged to the forefront of Scott's mind. It had been a few weeks after Johnny was allowed out of bed after being shot by Pardee. Scott was returning from a day of learning the ways of a cattle rancher, and had come across Johnny in this spot, leaning against the big oak tree, just staring off into the distance. At first Scott had been afraid that Johnny had overdone it, maybe even reopening the wound that had nearly cost him his life, but the easy smile that had met his concerned gaze put aside those fears almost instantly.

"I ain't never seen nothing so pretty." Johnny softly spoken words had barely been audible voice, but the depth of their reverence had come as a total shock to Scott. He and Johnny barely knew each other then - ex-gunfighter and presumed Boston dandy turned ranchers - but even at such an early stage in their relationship, Scott had known he was being allowed to see a part of Johnny that few people had ever seen.

What had left Scott in awe more than the view was that Johnny had allowed him this insight. It was a gift given, an olive branch extended, an offering of faith and tentative acceptance. Slowly but surely, layer by layer, Scott had been granted admittance into the most coveted places in his brother's heart, and not once had he taken the gesture lightly.

Along the way Scott had discovered that there were not many people Johnny had trusted in his life, and most of them had been from before he became Johnny Madrid; at a time when he was still a boy, before his innocence had been shattered. That Johnny Madrid would open himself up like that was as humbling as it was gratifying.

Scott had been there for it all, too. He had seen the transformation of gunfighter to rancher, and had been so proud of Johnny for his accomplishment. Murdoch was present, too, had witnessed the same transformation, but some unknown force had always prevented him from seeing what was going on right before his eyes.

It was during the recent return trip from San Francisco that Scott had discovered how that unidentified force had lost some of its hold on Murdoch's heart. Then, last night that force had regained a little of the lost ground, but today it would lose the war. It had to, or they would all lose Johnny. Murdoch had to be made to see.

Pulling the surrey to a stop next to Barranca's grave, Scott nodded his head in the direction of the stone marker when Murdoch looked at him in wary look of concern. After a slight hesitation, Murdoch climbed down from the seat and walked over to the rock. It was a long time before he turned back to face Scott, his expression saying that he, too, knew what lay beneath the mound.


"Probably. I'd say Cipriano, too. And about a dozen or so of the hands."

Murdoch looked at the grave for several more minutes before climbing back into the surrey. "They should have been working up at the north gully." Not surprisingly, there was no censure in the wearily spoken words. They were just words, spoken because of a need to say something.

"They're at the gully today. Yesterday they were being Johnny's friends. Something we weren't." A startled frown met Scott's steady gaze. "You said it yourself, Murdoch. 'That man can't be my son'," Scott repeated his father's words back to him. "That man couldn't possibly have been my brother, either, but we both stood there and let him get away with it."

"Let him get away with what?" Murdoch growled his frustration. "He turned on us for no reason."

Not for the first time that day, Scott was thankful for his time alone this morning. A few hours ago he would have been more inclined to agree with his father, and they both would have lost in the end, but now he was much more certain there had to be another cause for Johnny's highly uncharacteristic behavior.

Flicking the reins on Zanzibar's back, Scott almost smiled at the indignation he felt radiating off his father. "I've been thinking about that all morning. Johnny probably had this all planned from the very beginning. He only pretended to stay for more than just his share of Lancer. I figure that he planned to lull us into a false sense of security, then, when we had no reason not to trust him, he would kill us in our sleep and claim the whole ranch for his own. Maybe he even had plans to use it as a foothold for claiming the entire valley, like his old buddy, Day Pardee tried to do."

"Johnny would never-"

A triumphant smile tugged relentlessly at the left side of Scott's mouth as he sensed the realization hitting Murdoch in the gut. "No, *Johnny* would never," Scott agreed.

"Damn," Murdoch muttered.

They rode along in contemplative silence until they crossed under the Lancer arch. At that point Murdoch reach over and grasped the reins, pulling Zanzibar to a halt.

"Scott, motivations aside, do think that Johnny meant any of the things he said last night?"

Scott had also figured this would be weighing heavily on Murdoch's mind, but he also knew that he would have to wait for his father to decide to bring up the subject. Murdoch Lancer spoke up only when it was his idea to do so. "If you mean the actual words, then no, I don't believe he meant any of it. He was unarmed and incapacitated, so he took aim with the only weapon available, his mouth, and he used it with the same precision and accuracy that he used his gun to stay alive all those years."

A little bit more of the smile he had been fighting made it to his lips. "Kind of gives you a whole new appreciation for what it must have been like to go up against Johnny Madrid's gun, doesn't it?"

Murdoch snorted softly as he shook his head slowly. "It certainly does." The momentary sense of humor faded. "If what you're saying is true, then he really does believe me capable of..."

"No, Sir, he does not."

"How can you be so certain?"

This was an easy one for Scott to answer. "Sir, if Johnny totally believed that lie for one minute, he would have been gone a long time ago and you would have been dead a few seconds longer." Taking a deep breath, Scott waged a small war with his conscience, trying to decide how much he could tell Murdoch without betraying Johnny's trust.

There were things that needed to be said, but they needed to be said between Johnny and Murdoch. However, it wouldn't hurt to put a little grease on the wheel. "It really shook him up, Murdoch, finding out that his mother had lied to him about you."

"He didn't show it."

Scott couldn't quite fathom Murdoch's response until he realized that Murdoch was talking about that tense moment during the first meeting between father and sons, where Johnny had let the subject drop much easier than Scott believed possible. He had always assumed that Teresa had shared the news of the fight down by the lake, and of her defense of him to his son, but evidently she hadn't.

"I'm not sure if you know this, but Johnny and I had a fight the day after we arrived. Johnny got pretty upset and ended up telling Teresa and me that you had thrown him and his mother out the door. Teresa forced Johnny to listen to the truth - that it was his mother that ran off with another man."

Scott paused, his mind picturing the pain that had been in Johnny's face at that moment. "At the time Johnny denied it, but I could see that he wasn't so certain anymore. It was almost as if something that had never made much sense to him suddenly made more sense than he cared to admit."

Blue eyes full of pain looked over at Scott. "Then why did he say it, Scott? Why now? And why if he didn't believe it to be true?"

"Before you came in, Johnny said some pretty harsh things to me, too."

More pain flooded those blue eyes before they turned away. "I know. Your mother told me about it last night. I'm sorry, Son."

While Scott appreciated the acknowledgement, it was hardly necessary. "Don't be, Sir. That's something for Johnny to say. The only reason I mentioned it was to point out that most of what Johnny said was true, in a very basic way."

Scott had never revealed these particular feelings to anyone, and that Johnny had zeroed in on this one area of uncertainty had been very unnerving, and had accounted for most of his own irrational behavior. "It wasn't easy for me at first, having an infamous gunfighter for a brother. With that, added to the general expectation that because I was from Boston I wouldn't know which end of a horse to bridle, I had to repeatedly prove myself to a lot of people. It became very discouraging at times."

Murdoch winced, but kept his gaze fixed on the horizon. "I never realized, Son. You've always seemed so confident of your abilities."

"Looks can be deceiving, Murdoch." Hoping his gentle nudge in the direction of awareness had been enough for his sometimes-headstrong father, Scott let his own past troubles slip away and continued with his original thought. Giving the reins a snap, he urged Zanzibar forward at a brisk trot towards the house.

"While I can't say this with absolute certainty, I believe there is some basis for what Johnny said about his mother and mine. I doubt it was anything Maria told him outright, but there had to have been enough suggestions made for the possibility to stick in the back of his mind all these years."

"But why bring it up now?"

"To hurt you, Sir." For such an astute businessman, sometimes Murdoch could be downright dense. "Johnny was a hired gun, and a very good one. His survival depended not only on picking the right ammunition, but being able to identify the weaknesses of his opponents. He hit me in the place he knew I was most vulnerable, and he did the same to you. Between the accusation that you had forced yourself on his mother and...and what he said about my mother, can you honestly say there is anything he could have come up with that would have hurt you more?"

After a long pause, Murdoch slowly shook his head. "No." Pausing slightly, Murdoch continued with a different thought. "I can't help but wonder, though, if things would have been different if your mother hadn't been there when he first woke up. If there had been any indication that Johnny might know who she was I would never have allowed her to sit with him. It just seemed so sensible, at the time, for the rest of us to be well rested when Johnny woke up."

"That was my fault."

Murdoch looked over at him in surprise. "How so?"

"I broke the news to Johnny rather bluntly, Sir. If you remember?"

Confusion reigned on Murdoch's face, an instant before the dawning of awareness. "No, Scott, it wasn't your fault. Johnny already knew who your mother was before you told him. He had seen us together in San Francisco."

Scott was stunned. This put a whole new spin on his well-formulated hypothesis. Had he found the answer just to have it snatched away from him? Had Johnny really been playing him for a fool, after all? "But he seemed so surprised when I mentioned that she was my mother," Scott whispered through his dismay.

His father's large hand firmly grasped his forearm. "Johnny didn't know she was your mother, but he saw enough to decide that she was the new woman in my life. Scott, Johnny was the man your mother saw in restaurant that morning. He had to have seen what he thought was both of us wanting to include a new woman in our family, only he wasn't-"

"Only he wasn't included." Scott groaned in dismay, having become the latest victim of the runaway train of realization. How could so many things in one situation go so terribly wrong? "It all makes sense now. Why Johnny felt so threatened. Why he left the hacienda. How are we ever going to get him to listen to us now?"

"He'll listen, alright," Murdoch vowed. "If I have to hog tie him to that bed and stuff a gag in his mouth, your brother is going to listen."

The determined line of Murdoch's clenched jaw worried Scott more than it reassured him. "Murdoch, let me talk to Johnny first. You *will* lose your temper, and then Johnny will be in control again."

Murdoch expression took on an indignant air. "And you think you can control your temper any better?"

Guiding Zanzibar around the corner of the house, Scott answered the question with firm assurance. "Yes, Sir, I can. Now that I know what to expect, I won't allow Johnny to get to me."

"¡Señor Lancer! ¡Por favor prisa!"

Pulling Zanzibar up with a stiff jerk, Scott only barely managed to keep the horse from running over the harried housekeeper as she came scurrying around the buggy, moving faster than Scott would have ever thought possible.

"Maria, what's wrong?" Murdoch asked hastily of the highly distraught woman.

"¡Señora Catherine y Señor Juanito! ¡Han ido locos!"

"Maria, calm down, I can't understand a word you're saying. Who has gone crazy?"

"¡Señora Catherine y Señor Juanito! There is mucho yelling, mucho breaking, mucho more yelling!" Maria continued babbling hysterically. "I tried to get in, but the door, she would not budge. Hurry, por favor!" Grabbing Murdoch's arm, Maria practically dragged him from the surrey. "¡Prisa! ¡Prisa! Señora Catherine, she take cuerda and sopa de tallarines del pollo. Now is too quiet, muy silenciosamente. I think maybe they keeell each other!" 

*** *** *** *** 

Practiced precision had made Catherine's job easier, but still she kept a very cautious eye on Johnny's sleeping form as she prepared the battlefield for the war to come. After the unnerving early morning shooting fiasco, Sam and Murdoch had forced a large dose of laudanum on Johnny. The drugged patient was put back into bed, then both men had departed in different directions - Sam back to Morro Coyo, no doubt for a very stiff drink; and Murdoch, a little while later, headed for Green River. 

There was some ranch business to be seen to, and Teresa went along to spend a few days with her soon-to-be-married friend. Teresa had not been all that eager to leave, but Murdoch finally convinced her that Johnny would have plenty of care, and that she could use the time to recover from the upheavals of the day; not to mention the fact that her friend was counting on her. Although Teresa had not appeared to be all that convinced, she went anyway, probably because Murdoch had looked so haggard and she did not want to place any additional burdens on his already overloaded shoulders.

While Catherine worked, tying simple but effective knots in the rope that had been appropriated from the barn, she found herself having to fend off a nagging guilt over lying to Murdoch. Technically, though, it hadn't actually been a lie. She honestly did not have any desire to meet anyone else, and certainly not until things were settled with Johnny. There were going to be enough problems for them when the news of her return from the grave began circulating around the community, without having to deal with a division in their own household at the same time.

Last night Murdoch had gone to great lengths to assure her that this would not be the case, but Catherine was not that naive, and she couldn't believe Murdoch was, either. Whether he cared to admit it or not, when it came to light as to who she was there were going to be brutally invasive questions and whispered innuendo. Most were going to view her presence at Lancer as highly inappropriate, and some would even have the audacity to put a voice to their outrage. She knew all too well how hurtful gossips could be. None of that would be conducive to resolving the current situation.

She knew without a doubt that losing Johnny would hurt both her son and the man she loved. They were finally a family; a newly formed family that had already put aside a troubled past full of bitterness and resentments in order to remain together. From the way that Murdoch agonized over the fact that his relationship with Johnny wasn't exactly what he wanted it to be, to how Scott's eyes lit up whenever he talked about his brother, there were so many indications of the genuine love and affection they held for Johnny; she just could not comprehend that being the case if Johnny did not reciprocate those same feelings. The three of them had overcome so much.

Everything that had happened so far was stupid and senseless. Miscommunications had reopened still-healing wounds, and good intentions had gone awry; but that was no reason to let Johnny go without a fight. He was a victim as much as the rest of them, and as such, he deserved someone to fight for him - even if that fight would be against his own out of control anger. Scott was not going to needlessly lose the brother he loved because of her. Not if she could help it.

There was no one she would not go up against if they tried to hurt her son or the man she loved so dearly, so why should she hesitate to take on the one man who more capable of hurting them than anyone else? It wasn't that she held any ill feelings towards Johnny, in fact, the very opposite was closer to the truth.

She had to keep reminding herself that Johnny was *not* one of her little orphan boys. No matter how close the similarity might be, Johnny was a grown man. He was also a man who had been hurt, unintentionally, by the ones he loved most in the world. Until he proved otherwise, she had to hope that Johnny was someone worth fighting for; and for her that proof would have to come in a more substantial form than some spiteful words said in a fit of anger.

She had her work cut out for her, though. She had so hoped that Johnny would wake up in a more reasonable frame of mind, but the episode involving Sam had proven to her that this was not the case. Sam was not only the local doctor; he was a close family friend to them all, yet even he had been unsuccessful in getting through Johnny's defenses.

Drastic times called for drastic measures.

To simply give up was not in her nature. She had done that before, and it had cost her fifteen years with her son. She would not make that mistake again. If Johnny was going to leave, it was going to be because he genuinely wanted to, not because he arrived as some erroneous conclusions by being uninformed about most everything that had happened. If Johnny was not willing to be cooperative, then he would be made to cooperate. What she had in mind was risky, and if she did not handle it just right, the rage she hoped would burn away his anger would only make matters worse.

She snorted softly. Could things really get any worse? Yes, she supposed they could, but they could also be a whole lot better.

"What the hell do you want?" a cold voice growled ominously from the other end of the bed.

Johnny's unexpected inquiry startled Catherine back from her thoughts. She had anticipating having a little more time to prepare for the battle ahead, but that did not appear to be in the cards. From her kneeling position towards the foot of Johnny's bed, she looked over her shoulder and smiled at him without so much as acknowledging his hostile glare.

"I don't want that much, Johnny. Not really. First, I thought it would be nice for you to eat a nice bowl of the chicken noodle soup that Maria so graciously prepared. It has been quite a while since you've had anything to eat, and you must be getting hungry. Once you've had a good meal, we can have a little discussion that will hopefully clear up some very incorrect assumptions that have been made in recent days."

Without answering her, Johnny tried to roll away, only to find he could not. His head jerked back, quickly surveying the rope that held his right hand secured to the bedpost. A quick glance over his left shoulder let him see that his other hand was just as effectively immobilized. His gaze moved downward, settling on the rope that was wrapped around his waist, and then on the one further down at the ankles of his casts. When he looked back at her, there was a very ugly smile on his face.

"This supposed to make me do what you want?" he mocked as he settled back into the pillows that held his upper body slightly elevated.

Keeping her tone friendly and light, she answered his question in total honesty. "No, it's not, Johnny. I'm not nearly that stupid. The ropes are merely a precaution, a means to lessen the possibility of you injuring yourself while we have our discussion."

Rising from her knees, she gave her skirt a few brisk swipes to smooth away the wrinkles, then continued in a conversational tone. "Contrary to what you seem to believe, the last thing anyone wants to do is to hurt you." She gave the rope at his feet a slight tug, and nodded her approval. "Normally, I would have secured your feet directly to the bedpost, but your casts necessitated a more creative approach."

"Done this a lot, have you?" Johnny sneered suggestively.

The lewdness of Johnny's insinuation was perfectly clear, but Catherine refused to take the bait. Her biggest weapon would be her ability to remain calm. She knew it, and so did he. This would be a battle of wills, plain and simple, winner take all. It was a harsh way of doing things, but the end results were always worth the effort.

"Often enough." She kept her response pleasant, although, she had no doubt that Johnny had heard the challenge it contained, as was evident by his contemptuous snort.

"Bet the Old Man would keel over if he knew just how sullied his precious Catherine had gone an' gotten herself. Tying men to beds ain't none too ladylike." His eyes narrowed threateningly. "Ain't gonna get you what you want, neither."

Sitting down on the edge of the bed, she leaned over Johnny, settling her elbow in the middle of his chest and resting her chin in her hand. Her face was barely a foot from his, purposely invading his space to issue her next challenge. "Don't be so sure about that, Johnny. I'm in a betting mood, Murdoch isn't here to keel over, and quite frankly, I'm not feeling very ladylike at the moment."

Blue eyes flashed with danger, and his voice was low and edgy. "You're getting in way over your head, lady. This ain't no Boston social, and I ain't no dandy gentleman."

Ignoring Johnny's threat, Catherine sat up straight, still confident that she could get through to him in the end. She had to believe that Johnny was not an unreasonable man, simply a misinformed one. Too many people held him in too high a regard for him to really be as obnoxious as his recent behavior made him seem. Johnny was either an extremely gifted con man, or he was simply overwhelmed by all that had happened and was not acting like himself at all.

Either way, by the time this conversation was over, she was going to know the *real* Johnny Lancer. "If you had given Scott a chance to explain last night, you would know that I haven't been in Boston for a very long time. You might want to give listening a try, Johnny. It would save us both a lot of trouble."

Johnny glared up at her, but said nothing, so she continued on in her determined, but amicable, tone. "I will most likely fall very short of some of the more rigorous social amenities, but from all the wonderful things I've heard from Murdoch and Scott and Teresa, I'm sure you'll be most forgiving of my shortcomings."

"That'd be a losing bet."

A part of her preparations had included the placement of a small tray table towards the foot of the bed. On it was the large stockpot of soup, which she had appropriated from the kitchen, as well as a generous supply of bowls and spoons. After ladling a serving of soup into one of the bowls, she turned back to Johnny and gave him her most maternal look of askance. Holding out the spoon, she said sweetly, "Are you ready for the first part of today's agenda?"

As expected, Johnny's eyes narrowed and his jaw remained tightly closed. Briefly, he struggled against the ropes, twisting and turning on the bed. She noticed him wince a couple of times when his sore back was smacked against the mattress, but other than that, there was no outward sign that he was hurting. It did not take him very long to realize that he was not going to succeed in freeing himself, and he settled back down, turning a dangerous stare in her direction - one that could easily be interpreted as having a deadly intent.

Under the intensity of his smoldering glare, Catherine gave herself a mental shake, forcing herself to remember that Johnny was not one of the angry little orphan boys she had dealt with over the years. Too many times she had been forced into physically restraining angry children who, otherwise, would have refused to see reason. She had spent however long it took; telling them that they did matter, that they were loved, and of all the things that were still good in their lives until they could see it, too. This, however, was an entirely different situation.

Restraining Johnny had not been any more difficult than the children back at the mission, but convincing him to refocus his thoughts in a more congenial direction was not going to be nearly as easy. The last thing she wanted was for her attempts to reach him to cause him further physical injury, but his winces during his brief struggle told her that this was still a definite possibility. The problem was that she wasn't sure what more she could do to prevent it.

Losing this fight was not an option, though, so she would find a way. She had been adapting to her circumstances since the day that she and Murdoch had set sail from Boston in search of their new home. There had to be a way. With this thought in mind, she took a deep breath and threw all modesty to the wind.

Setting the bowl and spoon down on the table next to the stockpot, she hiked her skirt up with one hand, and rather clumsily climbed onto the bed. Losing was not an option, and her pride could withstand a few blows better than Johnny's badly battered back. If being unladylike would help mend the rift that was tearing her family apart, then she would gladly ride naked through the countryside, bareback, on a bone-skinny mule in the dead of winter.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Johnny demanded indignantly.

Settling down astride Johnny, she wondered for a moment if she was taking this fight a little too far. The look of pure shock on his face told her she hadn't, and almost made her laugh. She didn't dare do that, though; not only would it severely diminish her credibility, it would totally undermine the effectiveness of her assault.

If their first meeting had taught her nothing else, it was that Johnny was very good at taking control of a situation. He would learn today that he was not always going to succeed in achieving that goal. "While this would hardly be acceptable back in Boston and would no doubt raise more than a few eyebrows, as you so graciously pointed out, this isn't Boston. Now, are we ready to try again?" she asked as she retrieved the bowl and spoon.

"You're gonna regret not being dead, woman." Johnny's tone was as menacing as the wildest wolf's growl, and his eyes shot daggers in her direction, both of which she chose to ignore.

She moved the spoon towards Johnny's mouth, only to watch him clamp his jaw tightly. Setting the bowl down on his chest, she grasped the spoon in one hand and very casually pinched his nose closed with the other. Anger again turned to shock, but she very patiently waited for the inevitable outcome. Time was in her favor; eventually the need to breathe would necessitate Johnny opening his mouth.

Not being one to go down without a fight, Johnny began whipping his head around in an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge her grip on his nose. Between the ropes and her added weight, he could do very little moving around, and Catherine found it to be a slight challenge just to keep her balance.

The soup did not fair as well, and splashed over the rim and onto Johnny's chest. Seconds later the entire bowl slid off to his side, sending a trail of broth, chicken, and noodles over the edge of the bed to splatter onto the floor. A particularly severe twist of Johnny's shoulders sent the bowl crashing to the floor, too. Instinctively, Catherine pressed her knees tightly against Johnny's sides in order to keep from falling over. That's when it happened.

Johnny gasped for air, and she shoved the spoon between his lips. His struggles stopped, and Johnny clamped his mouth closed, trapping her chosen weapon in the vice-like grip of his jaws. Though unable to voice his triumph, his laughing expression more than adequately conveyed his perceived sense of victory. She could only sigh at Johnny's mistaken assumption of victory.

With a subtle laugh, she looked down at him in mock reproach. "Come now, Johnny. You can do better than that." A small flicker of uncertainly was her opening, and she charged into battle without hesitation. "You're not the first stubborn little boy I've had to take in hand. I've never failed to win one over, yet, and I know you wouldn't want to ruin my perfect record," she explained as calmly as if they were sitting on the veranda exchanging insights on the springtime weather. "Reputations are very important, as you well know."

Defiance swirled in his blue eyes, and this time she did allow herself to laugh. "You don't believe me, do you? Can you taste any soup?" She paused for a moment to let him realize the answer for himself. "No? Well, that's because there wasn't any in the spoon. I *chose* not to risk having you choke on it."

By stressing the word 'chose' she hoped to impress on Johnny just how much he was not in charge. "I already knew exactly how you would react, and planned accordingly. You can't win, Johnny, and if you would just start thinking things through, you would begin to understand that you don't want to win."

Flashing blue eyes glared up at her with an intensity that would have left most men quivering in fear, yet she did not even shudder. Not that she managed such a feat without a few mental struggles. The ropes made Johnny incapable of physically hurting her, and looks could not hurt her. She could not allow herself to be intimidated by a mere look.

"Would you like to try with some soup in the spoon this time?" she asked, her voice dripping with enough sweetness to attract a whole swarm of bees. Johnny's only response came in the form of a flexed jaw, as he clamped down even tighter on the spoon.

Maintaining her easy but firm grip on the spoon handle, Catherine forced herself to relax. She did not dare let him feel her tension, as she could feel his. If all he could sense from her was a relaxed ease, it would only further confuse him, which would hopefully give her more of an opportunity to talk some sense into his frazzled mind.

"You and Murdoch really are so much alike, you know. Stubborn, pig-headed, and downright broody. Oh, and let's not forget cowardly."

A flash of fury lit up his eyes. An unexpected whip of his head yanked the spoon handle from her grip. The same spoon clattered noisily on the floor after Johnny spit it across the room. "You better get the hell offa me, woman," Johnny snarled.

Paying no heed to his threatening tone, Catherine continued with her analysis. "Actually, from what I've seen, you are both cowards - blind, stupid, foolish, cowards. You refuse to talk to each other because you're both convinced it will drive the other away, so you just let your silence do the same thing so much more effectively." She heaved a genuinely frustrated sigh. "Oh, you can both yell, there's no denying that, but talking seems to be well beyond either of your abilities."

Quickly pushing aside her momentary lapse, she leaned down and looked Johnny directly in the eyes, her face only inches from his as she laid out her challenge. "What I want to know is do you have the guts to tell him the truth, Johnny? Do you have the courage to tell your father that you love him, and that you love your mother, too? Or is that more truth than you can handle?"

A rush of hot air pulsed against her cheek as Johnny's breathing became more intense, but still Johnny said nothing. "Here you lay, willing to lose everything because you're too much of a coward to speak up and take a stand for what you feel. Isn't that right, Johnny?" she pushed. Sitting back up, she shook her head in dismay. "Tsk, tsk, tsk, the great Johnny Madrid is afraid of an old man and a few little words."

"I ain't never been afraid of Murdoch Lancer, and I sure as hell ain't afraid of you." Johnny instantly switched gears. "You let me up now and I might be willing to forget this ever happened. Otherwise, it ain't gonna make no difference whose mamma you are, you'll be living to regret this folly."

Her response to his offer was to twist around and take hold of the handle on the serving table, which she carefully maneuvered closer to her. She had not planned on ending up on top of Johnny in the middle of his bed, and was thankful that the table was on wheels. Otherwise, dragging it into a more accessible position would have been a much more difficult endeavor. With her confidence high, she ladled out another serving into the second bowl. "But Johnny, you haven't eaten any of this nice soup."

As soon as she twisted back around, Johnny responded in the only way his encumbered state would allow - he head-butted the bottom of the bowl, sending soup, chicken and noodles flying, with most of it ending up on Catherine. The force of the impact dislodged the porcelain dish from her fingers, and it went sailing through the air to land on the floor by the washstand, where it shattered with a loud crash. "I told you you were gonna regret this," he ground out in defiance.

Catherine gave no notice to her new wardrobe accessories, or to the broken dish on the floor. She had purposely let the soup cool to lukewarm, so there was no pain in the thick mixture coating most of her face and neck. If by some chance Johnny had given in without a fight, she had not wanted the soup to be totally inedible, but, on the other hand, hot soup in the face was not a pleasant experience; this was a valuable lesson she had learned the hard way.

Without bothering to wipe away the liquid or the noodles slipping down her cheek, she leaned over and grabbed yet another of the spare dishes in her arsenal, and filled it with another generous helping of the lukewarm soup. Sitting up straight, she returned Johnny's cocky smirk with one of her own; then she very calmly dumped the entire bowl's contents in his face.

Johnny's startled sputters and struggles were ignored as she leaned over and filled the bowl again. Full bowl in hand, she filled the spoon and offered it to Johnny like nothing unusual had taken place. "Are you ready to eat, or would you prefer to wear a second helping. I can assure you there is plenty."

"I ain't eating nothin'!" Another head butt was delivered with precision accuracy, and Catherine was the one who ended up wearing her second helping. Fingers now slippery with soup were unable to keep a hold on the bowl, and fell from her grasp, hitting the mattress first, where it bounced off and fell to the floor with a crash. A split second later, the spoon clattered in the debris, accenting the sound of the breaking dish like a clashing cymbal in a brass band.

"You know something, Johnny. I'm beginning to get the distinct impression that you're not overly fond of the family china," Catherine noted with an appreciative nod. "I can't say I really blame you, either. It is rather ghastly. I can only assume that it has been around for a while; longer than would have made Teresa's input possible, anyway." Picking up another of the bowls, Catherine studied it for a brief moment, then tossed it casually over her shoulder, where it broke into pieces on the floor by the door. "No woman would ever have approved of such a choice."

"The bowls is just fine," Johnny growled.

"Well, it can't be the soup that's bothering you," she remarked innocently. "You haven't tasted any, yet." Another bowl was retrieved from the slowly dwindling stack. Beneath her she felt Johnny flinch ever so slightly, as if he were expecting her to do something else unexpected. She kept her triumph to herself as she ladled out another helping of soup.

The seemingly senseless destruction of that last bowl had been an ploy to get Johnny thinking about something other than his own anger - actually, just thinking would be a nice change. Back at the mission, invoking the contemplation that she might actually be insane had worked on a few occasions, especially with the older children. It appeared that this might be a good path to take with Johnny, as well.

Holding up the full bowl of soup she asked with a smile, "Wear, taste or toss? I believe this one is your call."

Wary eyes kept a close watch on the bowl in her hand. "You're plain loco."

"Maybe, maybe not."

Johnny's face twisted into an ugly smile. "Or maybe them bedgames you been playing with the Old Man have affected your thinking. That is, assuming the old stud is still capable of satisfying a woman."

Catherine had to take a deep breath, and then another. It took all she had left to maintain her control in the face of Johnny's impudence. "And maybe some lessons in manners would help your thinking." Johnny snorted loudly, but before he could actually say anything, Catherine's temper gained a slight advantage over her control. Johnny ended up with another helping of soup in the face.

"Or is it that you are incapable of thinking?" she asked sarcastically as she ignored his sputters. "So far I haven't seen anything that would indicate that thinking is even a remote possibility. Why Scott cares so much about you is beyond reason."

The soupy mess was instantly forgotten as blue eyes narrowed into dark slits. "I told you last night to leave Scott outta this!"

Catherine glared back at Johnny with just as much determination, and a rapidly growing sense of animosity. "I'm telling you today that I will do whatever I damned well please. Scott is *my* son, which is something you seem to have conveniently forgotten."

"And he's my brother, which is something you don't seem to wanna remember."

"Your brother?" Catherine huffed. "After the way you treated him last night, I'm surprised you have the cajones to still claim him as such? Or that you're even interested in doing so. He is such a coward, after all."

Johnny twisted and pulled at the ropes, but to no avail. "You don't know anything! Scott ain't no coward!"

"Isn't he?" Catherine snapped. "That's what you said last night, wasn't it? Something about Johnny Madrid always having to save him from his own ineptness. You know something, for the past five days I've listened to Scott sing your praises, listened to how you were going to be so overjoyed for his happiness...I'm beginning to think my son is not only a coward, but an extremely poor judge of character, as well."

In a fresh wave of defiance, Johnny twisted and turned beneath her, fighting his bindings with a ferocity born of anger, frustration, and hatred. The ropes held and Catherine laughed at his wasted effort.

"What's wrong, Johnny? Is insulting Scott something only you're allowed to do? Is that beyond my rights? Can I assume that I'm only allowed to say good things about Murdoch, too? Last night you left no doubts that you consider your father to be a lecherous bastard, but is it your preemptive right to disparage his character, along with Scott's."

Without warning, the rope that had been securing Johnny's left hand came loose, upping the ante as he slapped the bowl away with a forceful backhanded blow. The bowl practically disintegrating as it met the solid stone wall by the window.

Taken by surprise, Catherine fell sideways. In an effort to keep from falling to the floor herself, she ended up kicking the small serving table, toppling it over and sending everything on it crashing to the floor. Soup splashed everywhere. The remaining bowls shattered into a million pieces, while the spoons skidded across the soup-drenched floor.

The reality of her current position hit home. Too late, Catherine could see that she had made a serious mistake in letting her own anger get the better of her. Johnny had seized the opportunity like the expert he was, and was now in a position to steal control of the situation. With his right hand free of the restraints, she was in real danger of losing everything. If he were to hit her, which was highly likely in his agitated state, she was not certain Murdoch or Scott would ever be able to forgive him.

In a last ditched effort to salvage some measure of victory from her impending defeat, she fell forward, trapping Johnny's free arm between their two bodies. Her only hope was that the other rope held; if it didn't, she held no delusions of being able to physically restrain Johnny, even with his lower body practically useless.

"Get off of me!" Johnny growled as he struggled to free his other arm from the rope bindings.

"No!" Catherine heard the panic in her own voice and quickly began formulating another plan of attack. Finding herself with no other choice but to deal from the bottom of the deck, she prayed that her skills were up to the task. "Listen to me, Johnny. You've got everything all wrong. Your father doesn't want you to leave, he loves-"

"It's over, lady! Now get the hell off of me!"

"Not until you admit it, Johnny!" she screamed in his ear. "Say you love your father before it's too late. Please, Johnny." Resting her forehead on Johnny's shoulder, she whispered again. "Por favor, niño."

The word spoken out of habit served only to enrage Johnny further. "Don't you call me that! I ain't your kid, and you ain't my mamma. And you won't be taking nothing else that's mine. You got everything else, but you ain't getting my pride!"

Frustration fueled fury broke her control with a resounding snap. Rolling to the side, she slipped from the bed, but didn't get very far before Johnny's fingers snared her tightly by the wrist. It was a futile gesture on his part, though, because she had no intention of walking away from this insanity. Johnny Lancer was about to get a taste of Catherine Garrett's fury.

"Your pride!? ¡Maldiga su orgullo estúpido al infierno!" she cursed loudly through angry tears that refused to be held back. "Do you think I would risk losing my son and my husband all over again for something as insignificant as your stupid pride? ¡Mierda! ¡Obstinado! ¡Absurdo! ¡Obstinado, absurdo, hombre conchudo! Usted es justo como su padre. ¡Aférrese a ese orgullo damnable con ambas manos, usted tonto oculto arrogante! Usted es justo como su padre. ¡Aférrese a ese orgullo damnable con ambas manos, usted tonto oculto arrogante!"

"¡Cierre para arriba!" Johnny snarled back. With one yank, he pulled her back down onto the bed, her fall broken only by her elbows as they dug into the mattress next to Johnny's side. "You ain't lost nothin'. You're the one who done took it all."

"¡Maldígale! ¡Maldígale! ¡Maldígale!" With her free hand, she pounded her clenched fist on Johnny's chest until the binding on his right arm came loose. He quickly grabbed hold of that wrist, too, effectively immobilizing her even as he was immobilized, too.

With Johnny was completely free of his constraints, a heart-breaking sense of defeat crashed down on her weary shoulders. "If you only knew how terribly wrong you are, Johnny," she moaned. Falling the rest of the way forward, she broke down, not caring in the least that her face was buried against Johnny's shoulder as she cried for the happy ending that would not be.


¡Maldiga su orgullo estúpido al infierno! - Damn your stupid pride to hell!

¡Obstinado! ¡Absurdo! - Stubborn! Foolish!

¡Mierda! - Shit!

¡Obstinado, absurdo, hombre conchudo! Usted es justo como su padre.

¡Aférrese a ese orgullo damnable con ambas manos, usted tonto oculto arrogante! - Stubborn, foolish, hardheaded man! You are just like your father. Hold on to that damnable pride with both hands, you arrogant blind fool!

¡Cierre para arriba! - Shut up!

¡Maldígale! - Damn you!  

*** *** *** ***

Johnny hated this. Hated it more than anything. He would rather face down a half dozen gunslingers, a stampeding herd of cattle, and an angry grizzly bear than deal with one crying woman. And it was not because he was unable to resist them.

Over the years, there had been quite a few women who thought they could ply him with tears, manipulate him into doing something he had already decided he was not going to do. Every single one of them had received only a cold shoulder for their efforts. If he had any sense at all, he would shove this silly woman aside like he had all the others. He would push her away and take his chances that she would actually leave him alone. So why didn't he? Why couldn't he? Why was he holding on to her like he was afraid to let go?

'Your father doesn't want you to leave.'

It wasn't just her words that kept rattling around in his head. It was her tone. She had been begging him. Pleading with him do the impossible.

'Say you love your father.'

She did not understand. If he said those words it would destroy what little bit of hope he had managed to hang onto these past months. Those words would never be heard in return, and it would hurt too much to have to face that as a fact. Murdoch did not love him, could never love him. Murdoch wanted him gone, out of his life along with all the bitter memories that came along with just looking at his son. Johnny was no fool. He knew how his father felt, and now he had given Murdoch the perfect excuse...

Dios! Why had he said those things to Murdoch? To Scott? And to this woman who had never done him any harm? Why had he let those painful memories out of the dark corner in the back of his mind, where they had been banished since the day Teresa swore to him that Murdoch had loved his mother? Like a fool, he had listened to that voice from his past, instead of believing in the flesh and blood people who were his present. If only her voice had not been so strong.

It was all he could do not to scream out his frustration. It always came back to her. His mother was the tie that bound him and Murdoch together, yet it was her unyielding presence that kept them so far apart. With her between them, there was no chance for them to be anything more than wary adversaries. Why did it have to be this way?

His mother had loved him with such tenderness and devotion. She had taken care of his needs, providing him with a childhood he could look back on with warmth in his heart. Why had she also burdened him with a legacy of lies that made it impossible for his father to love him?

'Por favor, niño.'

A plea of desperation. But why did any of this matter to Scott's mother? Why was she begging him to make up with his father? Why did she care? And where did she learn to hurl Mexican curses with such ease?

Talk about getting someone's attention. Johnny would never have expected to hear anything like that from a lady from Boston. In fact, he was hard pressed to figure out how she would even know half of those words, much less have the audacity to say them aloud.

And climbing on top of him? In his bed? And him, with nothing on under that blanket? He had known saloon gals with more modesty. Scott was always so proper and dignified, no matter what the situation. This woman's behavior made Johnny wonder how they could possibly be related; made him wonder about a lot of things.

The uncertainties continued mounting and those, more than the teary breakdown still taking place on his shoulder, were enough to dampen the well-banked fires of his smoldering anger. Now he could think, and he began examining these new questions with a hunger for answers, not retribution. Still, he did not relinquish his tight hold on his nemesis' wrists.

He was extremely leery of her motives, and even less clear about what she had thought she would accomplish with this ludicrous course of action. About the only thing that he did know with absolute certainty was that, like his brother, there was more to Scott's mother than first met the eye. But how much more?

She obviously was not dead, and never had been. Johnny did not put much stock in religious experiences, even the ones that were not nearly as dramatic as being raised from the dead. There was also the fact that Scott and Murdoch had not seemed the least bit put out with her, so that meant there had to be some acceptable explanation for her sudden reappearance. None of that was his concern. She was Scott's mother, not his. If Scott was happy with her story, then there was nothing else to say. What was his concern, though, was why she was taking such an intense interest in his life. What did she really want from him?

Experience had taught him that no one ever got a straight answer from a manipulator, but he had found other ways of ferreting out the truth when the direct approach did not hold much promise. "Where'd you learn ta talk like that?" he demanded harshly.

"At all those Boston socials." Catherine's bitter response came as she lifted her head off his shoulder. When she met his gaze, her cheeks were still wet but the tears were no longer falling. Her expression was as blank as any Johnny had ever seen, but her tone was pure sarcasm. "In between lessons in the fine art of tying men to beds, there were instructions on cursing in various languages. Would you like to hear my French?"

In spite of himself, her spirited reply made it even harder for him to maintain the anger that slowly losing its fire. He was even tempted to take her up on her offer, but he resisted the urge. Even though it might be interesting to hear what a good tongue lashing in French might sound like, he was more curious about her suddenly regained control.

Not many women could get their senses back once they had succumbed to tears, and none he had ever met could do it this easily. However, just because she had grit, did not mean she wouldn't turn on him. He had not survived all those years on the border taking anyone at face value, and there was too much that he did not know about her to let his guard down so easily. With a cocky smirk, he responded to her sarcasm with some of his own. "Seems to me you shoulda paid a bit more attention to the knot-tying part of them lessons."

Tilting her head slightly, Catherine's expression changed; still revealing neither fear nor anger, but what exactly it was supposed to mean Johnny could not quite figure out. He also could not help but notice that her tear-stained cheeks were splattered with soup, and that the bun binding her hair had all but fallen out. She looked nothing like the lady Johnny remembered from last night. 'Perfect' and 'pure' no longer went with her disheveled appearance.

While still defiant, her tone no longer dripped with sarcasm. "I guess I found the cursing lessons more interesting."

"I'll just bet you did. From the sounds of it, you been staying in practice, too."

"I have had a few opportunities over the years."

A glob of thickened soup came loose from Johnny's hair and slid halfway down his cheek. Forgetting his concerns over what she might try to do if she were free, he released her left wrist and swiped the offensive matter from his cheek. An annoying frown pursed his lips. "Them Boston society folks teach you about getting' so uppity with soup, too?"

To this she snorted in disbelief. "Obviously, you've never been to Boston. Those society snobs would be too afraid they would actually have to clean up something for themselves." A very weak smile tugged at her lips, and a brief flicker of hope sparkled in her eyes. "That is my own secret weapon. While it does tend to get somewhat messy, it is quite effective for ridding one's cupboard of ugly dishes."

Johnny shook his head and barely contained a chuckle. He couldn't help it. Catherine Garrett possessed a uniquely calming sense of humor - just like Scott's. No one had ever been able to defuse his temper as quickly and easily as Scott could, but it appeared this was an inherited skill. One that did not make any sense, either.

Her earlier sarcasm, spoken by anyone else, would have had him fighting mad all over again, but for some reason it had not triggered his anger. Maybe it was because she reminded him so much of Scott. Maybe he had become so accustomed to having Scott in the role of trusted friend, that he could not help but want Scott's mother to be someone he could rely on, too. Whatever the reason, it left him feeling unsettled with himself.

He did not know this woman. No matter how much she reminded him of Scott, having blind faith in anyone went against everything he knew. Scott had come close, but even that acceptance had been born in the heat of battle. Trust had been given and received, and both brothers walked away from the fight with a foundation of faith upon which they had built a steadfast relationship. Well, Scott had walked away; Johnny had been otherwise occupied lying over Scott's shoulder.

Even rationalizing things from this different perspective was not enough to allow Johnny to shake off the annoying need to believe in her. He did not understand why he would even consider feeling this way, and that scared him. The only thing that scared him more was the thought of going against his instincts. They were his life; the few times he had been foolish enough to ignore their warnings, he had barely lived to regret his folly.

Instincts or not, she was going to have to earn his trust. For her to do that, though, he was going to have to give her a chance to explain herself. "You didn't really expect sittin' on me and throwing soup all over the place to accomplish anything, did you?" Instantly, he was unsure sure about what disturbed him more; that she had actually done those absurd things, or that he had managed to ask that question with a straight face.

Catherine was still looking him directly in the eye, but there was hesitancy in her stare that had not been there before. "No, and yes. In the past, the anger always burned out before the ropes came undone. Without all that hostility fueling senseless thoughts, you'd be surprised at how quickly rational thinking returns."

Her cheeks turned pink and she looked away, flustered. "This time things...well, they got a little out of hand. I've never actually...I mean, I couldn't let you hurt yourself...but," at this point she heaved a heavy sigh and let her head fall forward until her forehead came to rest on his chest. "Maldiga, you are..."

Despite the slight curse, Johnny was amused by her sudden onslaught of modesty. After all she had just done and said, he would not have figured that anything could embarrass her. He was not even sure he wanted to know, but he asked anyway. "I'm what?"

When she looked back at him, her previously pink cheeks had darkened to a bright shade of red. The color faded, though, when she sat up, straight and proud. Barely above a whisper, she stated, "Mr. Lancer, you are the most infuriating man I've ever made the mistake of tying up and dousing with soup."

In her softly spoken reply, Johnny found yet another unexpected surprise. He had broken her control and then made her see that her entire plan of action had been an error in judgment; accomplishments she willingly acknowledged with a simple statement of respect. Seldom had he heard this kind of esteem expressed outside his former line of work, and even then, it had never come from a woman. Still, no matter how much he wanted to like her, Catherine Garret needed to be put in her place about a few things.



Johnny gave a curt nod in agreement, but could not bring himself to address her by her given name. Besides feeling a little uneasy about being so familiar with Scott's mother, what he had to say was not going to be very pleasant. It was, in fact, an ugly truth more accurate than he wanted to admit, even to himself. With a steadfast glare, he stated with deadly force, "Don't ever make the mistake of trying to force me to do anything again. I could hurt you. Real easy, too."

A fleeting shadow of uncertainty passed over her face, but it was quickly replaced by a look Johnny instantly recognized. It was the same look Scott always got when he was dead set on being right about something. Johnny had learned very quickly to respect that 'I'm right' look from his brother because Scott usually was, but Johnny was not willing to extend to her the same privilege just because Scott had inherited some of her mannerisms. That was something else she would have to earn.

"Could you, Johnny?" she asked in the familiar tone that always accompanied the 'I'm right' look. "I didn't think so before, and I don't think so, now."

In the face of her misguided certainty, all Johnny could was shake his head in dismay. "Them's pretty words, but what you done was downright foolish, even dangerous. You don't know near enough about me to be making claims like that, and..." A near panicked fear seized Johnny's heart, as horrifying thoughts of things he could never share instantly rekindled the fire of his anger.

Ignoring his protesting muscles, Johnny shot upright. He grabbed her roughly by the shoulders, and this time it was his face that was poised only inches away from hers. "And what if you had been wrong? Do you have any idea of what would've happened if I had hit you? Do you have any idea of how bad it would've made things? Murdoch's already beyond forgiving me, but any chance I mighta had with Scott..."

Johnny's grip tightened, and he shook her, hard. "If them ropes had come loose any earlier, I would have hit you. I could've ain't got no clue how close you came to being dead for real this time." When Catherine winced as his fingers dug into her flesh, Johnny released his grip and shoved her away. Still shaken by the knowledge of just how deadly he could be when pushed the way she had pushed him, he fell back against his pillows and closed his eyes.

Damn his instincts! Damn her for reminding him so much of Scott. He could not think straight with her looking and sounding so much like the brother he trusted and respected so much. He should have kicked her out when she was still crying, and taken his chances with Scott and the Old Man. There was no way she could understand; no way she could comprehend the darkness that was so far beyond her cushy Boston upbringing.

That had become painfully clear the second he had all but ordered Sam to take Johnny away. If not for those stupid casts on his legs, Johnny would have already been gone, and he knew it. If he were completely honest with himself, he still wondered why he hadn't been tossed into the back of a wagon, anyway. He had lost his father for good, and she was too stubborn or too ignorant to know it. Murdoch's disdain he could live with, had been living with, but not Scott's.

Despite the hateful things he had said about his brother, Johnny still held some hope that Scott's forgiving nature would be enough for them to get past all this. That hope would disappear in a heartbeat if Scott found out half the things that had taken place in this room, or half the things Johnny had considered doing at the height of his anger. Without lifting his head or even opening his eyes to look at her, Johnny ordered through unsteady breaths, "Get the rest of them ropes offa me and get out."

Johnny half expected her to balk at his order, and was somewhat surprised when she did as she was told without so much as a hint of protest. The ropes were unwound from around his casts and removed from the bed frame, before being wrapped into a neat coil. However, instead of leaving the room, she deposited the rope on the floor by Johnny's dresser, and walked over to the washstand.

After pouring some water from the pitcher into the basin, she pulled the towel from the hook and draped it over her arm. Picking up the basin, she carried it over to Johnny's bed, where she sat down on the edge of the mattress and placed the basin on the bed at his side.

"Damn it, Woman, ain't you heard nothin' I said?!" Johnny yelled in exasperation.

To add to his annoyance, her response was as calm as if she had just arrived for an afternoon tea party. "It's 'Catherine', not 'woman', and of course I heard you. I'm not deaf." Dunking the towel in the water, she wrung out the excess and pushed it into Johnny's hands. "Wipe your face."

Before he realized what he was doing, the wet towel was at his face. The coolness of the soft material sent a wave of relief rushing over him. As he wiped away the soupy residue, he told himself it was only because the feeling of the drying soup was becoming irritating, not because he had been told to do so. "You don't never learn, do you?" he snapped when he had finished.

"Yes, I do, Johnny. In fact, I've learned quite a bit this afternoon." Taking the towel out of his hands, she rinsed it in the clean water, before returning it to him. "Maybe I did handle this situation poorly-"

Johnny snorted loudly while wiping the soup off his left arm. "Maybe?"

Her eyes narrowed. "I managed to get your attention, didn't I?"

"You almost got a whole lot more than that. If you'd been listenin' and learnin' like you say you been, you'd know it, too."

Snatching the towel away again, she gave him a cold stare that would have impressed any gunfighter. "Are you going to be quiet and listen to me, or do I have to use this to gag you?"

Damn, her impudence! After all the things he had just told her, she was still trying to push him around. The urge to teach her a real lesson was almost too much, but an insistent voice of reason refused to be ignored, and was telling him to hold back. Frustrated to no end, he reached out and jerked the towel from her hands. The force of his dunk sent water splashing onto the bed. Savagely he wrung out the excess water, and then began wiping the soupy mess from his other arm. "Say what you gotta say, then get out."

"First off, I want to tell you that you were right."

"About what?"

"It is your pride I want; but I want Murdoch's, too. I want to yank all that stupid male foolishness away from both of you so you can talk to each other without feeling like everything said is a threat that needs to be reciprocated. Contrary to what you seem determined to believe, you have not lost your father. He loves you, Johnny."

"What's between me and the Old Man ain't no concern of yours."

"No, it isn't. And yes, it is. I love Murdoch, and we intend to spend the rest our lives making up for all the opportunities we were previously denied. You are a part of his life, which means you are going to be a part of my life. However, what really makes your relationship with your father my concern is that none of this would be happening if wasn't for me."

Johnny shook his head. "This ain't your fault," he corrected her with a sigh of resignation. "Me and Murdoch, we been heading in this direction since the day we met. Maybe your being here hurried things along, but I'm the one that-"

A firm hand grasped his forearm. "Stop it, Johnny. This is not your fault, either."

With a roll of his eyes, Johnny and took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly as he tried to find a way to deal with this no win situation. Scott's mother was one very stubborn woman, but she was very wrong about this. Johnny had never dodged his responsibilities before, and he was not about to start now. "Nobody held a gun to my head. Nobody forced me to act like a fool-headed jackass."

"Forced you? No, but you were given plenty of reasons to believe the worst."

Stubborn wasn't nearly accurate enough for her. "You don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes, I do," Catherine countered vehemently. "I know about the note Murdoch wrote when he left - the one that gave both you and Scott the impression that his sudden departure had something to do with your past. I know about the telegram requesting the location of your mother's grave. I also know about the telegram asking Scott to come to San Francisco without you. I know that Scott was very upset with Murdoch when he first arrived in San Francisco, and I know why. It was only after Scott was told the truth that he stopped being angry with your father. You were never given that opportunity, not until it was already too late."

Throughout her speech, Johnny had to fight to control his growing outrage. The only way she could know those things was if Murdoch had told her. Murdoch - who never talked, never explained, just demanded and issued orders. It hurt more than he expected to find out that his father found it so easy to tell her anything, but would not even consider sharing anything with him. Murdoch's actions were not her fault, though, nor were they her problem. "Still don't make none of what I done right."

"No, it doesn't. However, what it does do is grant you some allowances. You did not ask to be kept in the dark, Johnny. You cannot be blamed for things that were beyond your control. By the time explanations were being offered, you had already been pushed beyond anyone's reasonable limit."

She no doubt believed those words, but Johnny knew that none of what she had said would hold any water - not with Murdoch. He could hope that Scott would still be willing to see it that way, especially with his mother arguing the point, but his father never would; that meant it was time for him to find another place to call home. An intense bitterness swept over him in the wake of that realization. "You can hang on to that sugar-coated dream if it makes you feel better, but I like living in the real world."

"It's no dream, Johnny, it's the plain truth. The main problem with your version of the 'real world' is that, for some unknown reason, you and your father are too proud to talk to each other. Why is that, Johnny? Why has admitting you care become some sort of taboo? You say I don't understand, so explain it to me."

He wanted to be angry, to tell her to get out and stop meddling in his life, but it would do no good. She was too danged stubborn. He had already told her to get out, twice, and there she sat, looking at him with...with Scott's eyes. Even purposely not looking at her did not help. He never actually had to see Scott to know when he was getting that disappointed look, either. "It ain't that easy."

"Nothing worth fighting for ever is."

"Fighting for? Why should-" Johnny stopped abruptly. How could he ever explain to her the one thing that made it impossible for him to do what she wanted? When he could stand the feel of her stare no longer, he looked up, expecting to see confusion, but only a sad understanding was waiting for his stare.

"Johnny, no child should ever have to win their parents' love, but that is *not* what you have to do. Your father's love for you is real, just as yours is for him. All you need to do is meet him half way. If you can do that, you'll find out for yourself how much he loves you, and how much he needs to know that you love him in return. You can ask him about your mother, but you've got to be willing to be just as open about her with him, because he needs to know the truth, too."

Johnny's heart skipped a beat. How could this woman know anything about those things? How could she know that his mother was the one issue that had been looming between him and Murdoch since day one? His bitterness increased tenfold. It seemed Murdoch was willing to do a lot of talking - just not to the right person. "I already know how he feels about my mother. He hates her. I ain't sure I wanna know that he always did."

"Is that really so important, Johnny? Whatever feelings were or were not between them has nothing to do with you. Your father is only beginning to realize that, and you've got to accept it, too."

Startled, Johnny snapped defensively, "Nothing to do with me? How can you say that? They're my parents."

"Yes, they are your parents, no one is saying anything different. However, any problems between them were part of *their* marriage. The intimate and personal relationship that went along with that marriage was theirs, and theirs alone. Two people made those wedding vows, and only those two people can share them. There is a fine line between marriage and family, but there is a line."

He stared at her for a moment, and only when he found what he was looking for, something he hated knowing was there, did he state harshly, "You don't think she loved me, either."  

*** *** *** ***

The accusation in Johnny's tone had Catherine considering her words very carefully, as did the echo of Scott's warning from the previous afternoon. No, Johnny would not appreciate her sympathy, or her opinions that he had been unloved by his mother. Still, she could not lie to him. He would appreciate that even less.

"I do wonder, Johnny," she said with discreet honesty. "She had to have known what kind of life would be waiting for you in the world that she chose over Lancer. Whatever reason made her leave was hers, but she could have left you here. Maybe she loved you too much to see what she was doing, but..."

Tears stung her eyes. She could not deny that she hated Maria for being a heartless woman who could force such a hard life on her own child, but it was not her place to voice that sentiment. Johnny obviously loved his mother very much, and that was more important than anything she might feel. That would not be a problem, though, because she could easily keep her feelings about Maria separated from her feelings for Johnny. That was where Murdoch had gone so wrong.

A warm finger touched her cheek, wiping away the tears she had not realized were falling. When she looked up, she saw the pain-filled gratitude in those blue eyes that spoke of a respect for her honesty. There was something else, too; an unforeseen benefit of her truthfulness. Johnny believed her.

The foundation for a mutual trust had been laid. If Johnny could trust her to be honest with him about things that held such potential for disaster, then he could trust her about other things, too. The glimmer of desperate hope in those sparkling eyes told her that Johnny wanted so much for her previous assertions to be just as true. "Your father does love you, Johnny. He just...there is so much about her he simply doesn't understand. So much he can't seem to get past because he doesn't understand."

"She hurt him real bad." A statement of regret, not a question.

"Yes, she did."

"And you hate her for that?" Surprisingly, there was genuine uncertainty in Johnny's voice.

"No, Johnny, I don't hate her for that. I don't have very many good thoughts about her over that, but I don't hate her because she was unable to love Murdoch like I do." Another honest answer; one that could be elaborated on later, should it ever become necessary, but for now it was still the truth.


The warmth in that one word made her heart soar with pride. "Yes, Johnny."

"Thank you. I ain't never gonna understand why you was willing...why you'd even cared after..." His dark head bowed in shame. "...after them things I said. Lo siento."

Taking his hand, Catherine held it tight. "I'm sorry, too, Johnny. I'm sorry things had to get so far out of hand, but it will be better from now on, you'll see. Have a little faith in yourself, and in the family that loves you."

The silence of their mutual contemplation ended when the sounds of loud voices floated in through the nearby window. The source of the voices was too far away for them to make out any of the words, but the stressed tones were easy to comprehend.

"Sounds like Murdoch's back." Trepidation weighed heavily in Johnny's wearily spoken words.

"It would seem so," Catherine sighed softly. She had done all she could; the rest would be up to Murdoch and Johnny. 

*** *** *** ***  

Outside by the surrey, Murdoch and Scott were busy trying to placate the hysterical housekeeper.

"Maria, nobody has killed anybody." However, the adamant denial was issued in direct contradiction to the concerned frown creasing Murdoch's brow. "Go back into the kitchen and have a nice hot cup of tea. Scott and I will find out what this is all about."

Confusion and concern had Scott following closely on Murdoch's heels. Once they were inside the house and headed up the stairs, Scott found a voice for the worst part of his confusion. "I was beginning to believe I had a pretty good grasp of the Spanish language, but now I'm not so sure. I could have sworn Maria said something about my mother going after Johnny with some rope and chicken noodle soup."

"She did," Murdoch confirmed brusquely as he lead the charge up the stairs.

"I can't believe my mother would risk going into Johnny's room again, much less by herself. What was she thinking?" 

*** *** *** *** 

"What are we gonna do?" 

Moving to Johnny's side, Catherine slipped her arm under his shoulders. "First, we're going to get you sitting up." With a little maneuvering, she was able to slide Johnny backwards in bed, until he was sitting close enough to the headboard that a few added pillows from the chest in the corner had him propped up quite nicely. 

"There, that's much better." Catherine automatically went to smooth the bed sheet, only to pull her hand away when it encountered in a spot wet with soup. With a lopsided frown, she added, "Well, maybe it's not *that* much better, but at least you'll be able to greet you father on more level ground."

"Gracias," Johnny choked emotionally. "Only I ain't sure what to say to him, or even if he'll listen to me."

She smiled softly and brushed the hair, still damp with soup and water, off his forehead. "He'll listen to you, Johnny, and you do know what you need to tell him." She placed her hand on his chest. "Listen to your heart, Johnny. It won't lie to you."

Their eyes locked, and she could see as well as feel his struggle. This was not going to be easy for either man, but it was something that had to be done. Silence was slowly but surely choking the life out of their shaky relationship. It was entirely up to them to decide if saving the relationship they both wanted so badly was worth sacrificing a little of that stupid pride.

"Guess not," Johnny mumbled. "It's just that I..."

That almost admission was enough to send her heart soaring with pride in Johnny's undeniable spirit. No man liked to admit they were afraid, and Murdoch would fair no better in that respect. All she could do was try to clear the way past this obstacle. "Try to remember that your father is just *uncertain* as you are, and just as stubborn about admitting it."

A loud bang at the door made her jump.

"Catherine! Johnny! Catherine, open this door!"

With a heavy sigh, Catherine attempted to turn away, but she was stopped short when Johnny grabbed her wrist and pulled her closer. Reaching up with his free hand, he pulled something from her hair. Holding up the stray noodle, he gave her a smile full of nothing but respect. "That's better. Can't have you greeting Murdoch and Scott with noodles in your hair. It wouldn't be dignified enough for a real lady."

The soft timbre of his gentle drawl spoke more loudly than any words of apology ever could. Now able to express himself more honestly and without feeling the need to protect his heart, Johnny saw her as a lady and a friend, which helped take most of the sting out of last night's uncontrolled tirade.

"Catherine!" Murdoch bellowed again.

"Mother!" Scott's urgent voice echoed the sentiment.

Despite the hesitancy in his eyes, Johnny's lips mouth twitched just a little as a smile tried to make it past his fear. "Guess you better let 'em in before they hurt themselves."

Johnny's dry humor brought a smile to her face. Leaning forward, she kissed him on his forehead. "It's going to work out, Johnny. Trust me. You both want it too much for it not to."  

*** *** *** ***

The door latch rattled slightly, and Scott breathed a sigh of relief. It was a premature reaction, though, as he discovered when Murdoch pushed the door partway open and took a step forward, only to stop short at an ominous crunching sound as something was crushed under his heavy-soled boots.

"Catherine?" Murdoch asked hesitantly as he pushed the door the rest of the way open.

Scott could not for the life of himself say what he expected to find in his brother's room, but the scene laid out before him definitely was not it. Johnny was sitting up in bed, and his mother was at his side. They both looked like they had been wrestling something. They were disheveled and...wet...and so was the bed, the floor and the walls.

Murdoch's gruff demand shattered the stunned silence. "Would someone mind telling what's going on in here?"

With a slight tilt of her head, Catherine looked at them with what was admittedly the most innocent expression Scott had ever seen. "Going on?" she repeated, then looked at Johnny. "Do you know of anything going on in here, Johnny?"

Johnny, too, was the picture of slovenly innocence, and his words were just as deceivingly innocuous. "No, ma'am. Least ways, nothing to be getting all excited about."

At that moment, a small bit of chicken fell from the ceiling. It landed at the base of Murdoch's hairline, slid down his forehead and off his nose, where it landed on the floor with a splat.

"Catherine, I would like a word with you," Murdoch growled dangerously.

"Can it wait, Murdoch? Johnny needs-"

"Scott can take care of anything Johnny needs. I want to talk to you, downstairs, now!" Without waiting for a reply, Murdoch turned and stalked out the door.

For Scott, it seemed as if last night had been nothing but a bad dream. There was no fiery anger blazing in Johnny's eyes, and...and he had actually spoken politely, and with respect, to the person he had verbally decimated only hours ago; the same woman who had smiled affectionately at Johnny, and was still sitting by his side.

"Mother?" Concern practically dripped off Scott's softly spoken word.  

After patting Johnny's arm lightly, Catherine stood up a moved over to where Scott was still feeling a bit shell-shocked. She slipped her arm around his waist, and he returned the embrace by draping his arm across her shoulders. "While I'm dealing with your father, could you find another place for Johnny to rest. I don't think we'll be able to clean up this mess with him in here." 

In light of the disorder all around him, the sheer absurdity of her simple request left Scott speechless. He nodded at first, but just as he opened his mouth to speak, Murdoch's loud voice bellowed in from down the hall.


"Coming, Dear," she called out before looking back at Scott. "I'll be right back, Son." She kissed his cheek and scurried out the door.

For a brief moment, Scott honestly had no idea what he should do. Should he comply with his mother's request, or should he follow her downstairs, just to make sure that Murdoch did not do or say anything out of line? His father's abilities as a family diplomat were dubious, at best.

"Don't worry none, Boston. Your mamma don't need no help manhandlin' a man."

Johnny's casually spoken words instantly brought all Scott's faculties back into play. Accompanying their return was an almost overwhelming frustration that left him wanting to choke the living daylights out of his younger brother. Arms crossed and jaw clenched tightly, Scott glared at Johnny. "Would you like to explain to me what happened here?"


"Well, do it anyway!" Scott roared in an uncharacteristic display of unbridled frustration. His eyes were wide and flashing, and his demand had been just that, a demand.


"Don't you 'Boston' me, Johnny. I have not forgotten anything that happened last night, and we *will* be discussing that later. However, for right now, I want to know what just took place between you and my mother."

Johnny shrugged. "Nothin' much. We just did some talking."

"Nothing much?!" Scott questioned incredulously. "For your information, Brother, 'nothing much' does *not* adequately explain something that had Maria hysterically declaring that you two had killed each other." Scott took a step, only to stop when that crunching sound emanated from under his boot. A perturbed look of annoyance preceded and three brisk strides that placed him directly beside Johnny's bed.

"Not only that, but 'we just did some talking' does not come anywhere close to explaining your miraculous transformation from the obnoxious ogre you were last night back into a normal, sane and rational individual, or..." Scott gestured around the room with a wave of his arms, while the volume and tension in his voice continued to rise, "...or why there are broken dishes all over the floor, pieces of chicken falling from the ceiling, and noodles dangling in my mother's hair!"

"I got that noodle out of her hair," Johnny objected.

"You missed one," Scott deadpanned. "Now start talking, Brother. And do not make the mistake of thinking I will tolerate a repeat performance of last night's rude behavior. I want some answers and I want them now."

Johnny began hesitantly. "Scott, about last night-"

"Not last night, Johnny," Scott interrupted. "I said we would discuss that later and I meant later. For now, I want to know what happened in here, today, between you and my mother."

Johnny fidgeted with the hem of the bed sheet and shrugged. "Your mamma and me, well, we discussed a few things, and, well, we got a few misunderstandings figured out. That's all."

"That's all?" Scott bend down and picked up a spoon and one of the few larger pieced of the smashed bowls. "Since when does having a simple discussion involve breaking everything in sight. Is that some absurd Mexican custom that I'm unaware of?"

"No, it ain't," Johnny snapped defensively. "Like your mamma'd be all that familiar with Mexican customs, anyway."

"Considering she spent the last twenty years living in Mexico, I consider that a very likely possibility." The shock on Johnny's face defused Scott's agitation. "You didn't know that, did you?" he asked a little more calmly. "That's why Murdoch went to Mexico. He went down there to bring her home."

"I didn't even think of that, but it would explain a few things."

The amount relief that flooded Johnny's face concerned Scott just a little. "Such as?"

Johnny fidgeted even more with the hem of the sheet. "Well, like how she learned to speak such good Spanish." His reply was barely audible.

In a whoosh, the wind was instantly sucked out of Scott's sails. Suddenly feeling very lost and alone, Scott sank down onto the bed. He had not even considered the possibility, even though it now seemed so obvious it was ridiculous that he should feel so surprised. "My mother speaks fluent Spanish," he said aloud for his own benefit.

"Real good." Johnny looked at him curiously. "You didn't know?"

"No, I...I guess I should have." Even with as much as he had learned about his mother, Scott hated admitting there was so much more that he did not know. It was like meeting Murdoch all over again - that gut-wrenching sense of loss from not knowing things that every child should know about his parents. "I can't recall ever hearing her say anything in Spanish, but..."

"Scott, what happened to her?"

Looking at his brother, Scott found himself staring into the comfortably familiar eyes that had been so sorely missed last night. In that moment, he realized that he had become so afraid that this might not ever happen that now that it had he needed a few moments to compose himself.

To cover for his lapse, he reached out and plucked away a noodle that he noticed hanging on Johnny's ear. "I'm really beginning to think I don't want to know too much about this 'discussion'," he said with a weary smile that contradicted the pain in his eyes.

Johnny snorted and gave him a half-grin. "Probably find it to be a real disappointing story, anyway. Scott, about last night-"

"Not now, Johnny." This time Scott's interruption came out as less of a demand and more of a request. Respecting that request, the apology in Johnny's eyes faded into something else - curiosity.

"Scott, how is it that your mamma's alive? I thought your grandfather was...well, that he was there when she died."

"He was." Staring down at the noodle he still held lightly between his fingers, Scott couldn't help but wonder if they would ever know what really happened in Carterville. He honestly believed that his grandfather did not know anything unusual had taken place, and that he had left Carterville fully believing that his daughter was dead.

Why his grandfather had fled so quickly after his beloved daughter's death was not a subject Scott was ready to discuss with anyone, except his grandfather. There were still so many unanswered questions. A pang of guilt stabbed at his heart when he realized that he had not once thought about his grandfather since leaving San Francisco.


Snapping out of his revere, Scott looked back up at his brother. "My grandfather swore that she died in his arms, but he...he admitted that he took me away before she was buried." Scott saw the question in Johnny's eyes, and was grateful when Johnny had the decency to leave it unvoiced.

It felt good to have his real brother back again. With Johnny he always felt free to push aside unpleasant thoughts for another day, confident in the knowledge that when that day came, Johnny would be there for him. Eyeing his brother curiously, Scott frowned and fingered a wet spot on the bedside table.

"Chicken noodle soup," Scott mused aloud. He experience only a small twinge of guilty when he wiped his hand clean on the bed sheet, and consoled himself in the fact that there was no way he could possibly soil them any more than they already were. That was when he noticed something else out of place - something that was far more disconcerting than some spilled soup and broke dishes.

Lifting the end of a piece of rope that was secured to Johnny's bedpost, Scott eyed it warily for a moment. After letting it fall away, he grabbed Johnny's arm and inspected his wrist closely. The burns were not at all severe, but there was no doubt that Johnny had been tied up very recently. "Do I dare ask?"

"Depends on how upset you wanna get before dinner," Johnny answered with a grim meekness.

Willing to heed Johnny's subtle warning for the time being, Scott's eyes narrowed in reproach. "Dinner? I believe 'dinner' has already been served, only the rest of the family seem to have been slighted an invitation."

Johnny looked away, his head bowed low, and that was the end of that. No matter how angry Scott got, he could never hold on to his anger when Johnny took this stance. Too many times it had left Scott wondering about the circumstances of Johnny's childhood, and whether or not this was a learned reaction; the expectation of physical blow, something that would never be forthcoming from Scott's hand. There were times when Johnny could be the most infuriating man alive, but he was still his brother, and Scott could not help loving him.

From outside the room, voices were heard coming from the hallway. Johnny's head snapped up, and two pairs of blue eyes were staring expectantly at the door when Catherine and Murdoch stepped back inside. More of the broken china crunched under Murdoch's boots, and for a moment it looked as if he would go off on the tirade his sons were tensely expecting. Instead, he looked around the room, rolled his eyes, and sighed heavily.

"It might be easier to get Johnny out of here until we can get this mess cleaned up." Another roll of his eyes was accompanied by a shake of his head.

Scott noted that Murdoch had yet to look at Johnny; in fact, Murdoch had looked just about everywhere else in the room except at his younger son, and this worried Scott. "He can use my room, Sir. With it being just across the hall, we can avoid having to maneuver those casts around any corners," Scott suggested cautiously.

Murdoch nodded, but that was all. He and Scott began making the necessary preparations for moving Johnny into Scott's room, while Catherine slipped off to get herself cleaned up. After Scott's bed was made ready by adding some extra pillows and pulling the bed linens down in preparation for a leg that would not bend, father and son returned to Johnny's room.

Water pitcher in hand, Murdoch stood solemnly next to Johnny. "Lean forward, Son." With Scott holding a basin under his head, Murdoch poured water from a pitcher over Johnny's hair. It took a couple of rinses, but finally Murdoch seemed satisfied that his younger son's hair was free of all remnants of the soup. Throughout the entire procedure, Scott noticed how their father remained disturbingly detached, while Johnny became increasingly tense.

When Catherine reappeared in the doorway, Johnny was toweling his hair dry. Her hair was still damp, but had been pulled back and combed, and she looked much better than she had a few minutes before. "All clean?" she asked, breaking the tension with her cheerful tone and brilliant smile.

"Almost," Johnny grumbled from under the towel.

Whatever reserve of cooperation upon which Johnny had been drawing quickly dried up when he removed the towel just as Murdoch pulled a very seldom-used nightshirt from the bottom dresser drawer. "No," Johnny stated succinctly.


"No!" Johnny interrupted Murdoch with a forceful growl.

Scott cringed, holding his breath as he waited for Murdoch's inevitably harsh response to Johnny's blatantly belligerent refusal. However, hell must have frozen over at some point that afternoon, because instead of going off on Johnny as normal, Murdoch looked down at the nightshirt he still held in his hands, and took a deep breath. When he looked back up again, he spoke with what could only be someone else's patience and understanding.

"Would you at least try wearing this? Those casts are going to prevent you from tossing and turning in your sleep like you normally do, which is probably what makes a nightshirt so uncomfortable in the first place. If you still find it intolerable, then we'll think of something else. I just can't imagine that you're going to want to spend the next several weeks lying around totally naked."

Still stunned by Murdoch's abnormally calm response, Scott turned to Johnny, who was lying there *not* saying anything back. The whole scene was so surreal that Scott was beginning to wonder if he might have taken a blow to the head that he couldn't even recall receiving.

"I hate this," Johnny muttered under his breath, but due to the total silence in the room, they were all able to hear his bitter words.

The spell was broken, and life seemed to start up again. Murdoch moved over to the bed and almost sat down, before realizing there were still some soupy spots on that side of the mattress. He shot a perturbed frown in Catherine's direction, before making his way to the other side of the bed. With Scott's help, it took only a little bit of maneuvering to get Johnny dressed in the nightshirt and sitting up on the towel draped edge of the mattress.

The tension between the two men was palpable, and Scott was stunned by how well Murdoch and Johnny were both holding their tempers, making him wonder why today was so different from any other day. Granted, this was the first time he could remember Murdoch being so subdued when he was obviously so very tense...could that be it? Were most of Johnny's temperamental reactions been just that - reactions. Could it be that Murdoch, himself, had unwittingly set the tone for their tumultuous relationship?

As they carefully carried Johnny across the hall, Scott went over the past disputes that had erupted between the two men. As well as he could recall, nearly every time Johnny had lost his temper, it was after Murdoch had either lost his, or had taken on an extremely arrogant tone with Johnny. While Johnny's temper regularly flared over various issues, Scott honestly could not recall an instance when Johnny had become belligerent with Murdoch without some kind of provocation.

With Johnny settled in Scott's bed, Scott was about to suggest that they let Johnny rest, when his mother took his hand and nodded her head towards the door. At his questioning look, she smiled and softly explained, "They need to talk."

Scott looked at Johnny first. He saw the trepidation in his brother's eyes, but he saw something else, too. He wasn't sure what it was, but a slight nod from Johnny told him that his brother was well aware of what was about to happen and was not going to fight it.

Murdoch's hand came to rest on Scott's shoulder, and gave a gentle squeeze. There was a calmness in his father's expression that should have been more comforting than it was. Something told Scott that he should not feel as if his guts were being yanked from his body, but that was exactly how it felt.

This was it - Murdoch and Johnny were finally going to meet each other head on, and Scott could only hope that he would still have a family when it was over. 

*** *** *** *** 

Catherine urged a hesitant Scott out of the room, and Murdoch closed the door behind them. The tension level rose as quickly as Johnny's head bowed. For a moment, Murdoch just stood there, looking at his son, the sullen figure propped up against the feather pillows, legs encased in heavy plaster, unable to run away this time. As he studied the subdued form, he finally saw what he had been missing for so long.

His son - the infamous gunfighter who instilled fear all along the border, a man who had stared death in the face more times than any father would want to consider, a man who had chilled even the coldest of killers' hearts - was almost always the first to submit to his father's will. Seldom did Johnny stay submissive, especially when pushed, but that he did so in the first place was rather amazing to an old man who was only now able to accept the significance of this gesture of respect.

"Johnny, I think it's time for us to talk," he began, only to stop short, frustrated by his own inept attempt to reach out to his son. Pulling Scott's reading chair over next to the bed, Murdoch sat down and tried again. "Son, I *want* to talk to you."

"About what?" Johnny asked without lifting his head.

Although his son's question seemed clear enough, Murdoch had no doubt that Johnny already knew the answer. "Tell me about her, John. Please."

"You won't like it. I..." Very slowly Johnny's head rose until anguished blue eyes met Murdoch's. Johnny swallowed hard and then said barely above a whisper, "I don't want to hurt you, Murdoch."

Murdoch had no idea what Johnny would say, but his son clearly expected it to be very painful. It might be, too, but this was something they both had to do, something that had been put off for way too long. "You won't hurt me, Son. I may not like hearing what you've got to say, but your saying it won't be what causes me any pain."

Looking anything but convinced, Johnny inhaled deeply then let his breath out very slowly. Murdoch waited for Johnny to begin talking, but that did not happen, at least not right away. The room remained shrouded in an eerie silence, during which time Murdoch briefly pondered the various possibilities; had Maria been neglectful, abusive, or maybe allowed others to abuse their son in her stead?

When Johnny's voice finally broke the oppressive silence, his tone was low and, for the first time on this particular topic, totally devoid of all anger. "I know you don't believe it, and I quit trying to figure out why a long time ago, but my mother did love me."

Johnny paused, eyes down, as if waiting for some kind of rebuke. When none was forthcoming, he continued, his voice becoming a little stronger and his words a little less hesitant. "No matter how busy she was, she always had time for me. She was always after me to do my chores, and she never failed to have something to say about how I did them. It wasn't always good, but at them times she would show me what I done wrong, and we'd fix it together." Johnny shifted nervously, as much as his legs would allow, but would not look up at Murdoch.

"She helped me with my schoolwork when we was in a place that would let me in school, and when we wasn't she'd teach me herself. She was real strict, too, making sure I got my spelling and numbers right, and she took extra effort to make sure I knew how to speak English. I didn't want to and gave her plenty of grief, but she kept telling me that a man who could make his way on both sides of the border was going to do a lot better for himself than one who couldn't."

There were few things other than Johnny himself for which Murdoch could even consider being grateful to Maria, but at least she had put John's best interest as the priority in this one instance, anyway. A small bit of his hatred slipped away.

"We never had much, but we had each other and that was always enough. Maybe we could have done better if we didn't have to move around so much, but there wasn't much choice. Weren't many folks who took too kindly to a half-breed kid hanging around. I...I hated causing her problems, but she never got mad at me when we'd have to leave a place. She'd just laugh, and then she'd hug me and say that they weren't my problems, they were everyone else's. Then one day, just before I turned seven, she met...she met...someone."

The smile that had formed on Johnny's face as he talked about his mother's love faded away into an uncertain frown. Johnny's hesitancy to provide this information made Murdoch suspect that his son anticipated some form of admonishment or an angry outburst in response. Then again, perhaps Johnny was just trying to spare Murdoch's feelings.

It was sometimes very difficult to figure out what Johnny was thinking, and his past efforts to talk to his younger son had usually proven more disastrous than successful. Worry that even an encouraging word would be misconstrued kept Murdoch silent, while his stomach twisted into knots as he waited for Johnny to continue at his own pace.

"Carlos...he was a good man. They fell in love. They got...they got married...and...she had never been so happy." Johnny turned away and looked out the window. "He took real good care of her an' me. He'd tan my hide when it needed tannin', but he'd be there to pat my back when he thought I did good. He tried his best to teach me how to be a good man, and..." Johnny swallowed hard and closed his eyes. "I...I loved him, too. Most of the time when I regret becoming Johnny Madrid, it's because I know how disappointed Carlos would be that I turned out so bad."

Despite Murdoch's earlier denial, Johnny's words were like a dull knife carving his heart out of his chest. Not only was Johnny painting an entirely different picture of the woman Murdoch remembered as caring next to nothing about her child, he was also speaking of a childhood that had been happiest when another man took on the role of his father. While it was no secret that Johnny had once had a stepfather - though the legalities of that particular marriage were highly questionable - it hurt more than anything to know that Johnny had loved and respected this man, while at the same time feeling none of those things for his true father.

Murdoch felt a wrenching spasm of momentary hatred for Carlos - this unknown man who had done nothing more than show kindness to his son. Then it was gone, as quickly as it had appeared, and in its wake came a rush of shame. He should feel nothing but gratitude towards this man who had treated Johnny as a son, not as an unwanted reminder of the other man in Maria's life.

Johnny had been right about this being painful, but no matter how deeply it hurt he had to know the rest. "The Pinkerton detectives were never able to find out much about your mother. Maybe that was because she changed her name when she...when she remarried. All I really know is that she wasn't around when you started making a name for yourself as Johnny Madrid."

"She was dead long before then," Johnny answered sadly.

"What happened to her, them?"

"They caught the fever and died."

A simple answer to a simple question. Perhaps too simple. How could something so seemingly innocent have sent Johnny down the road to becoming a gun for hire? In his mind, Murdoch had always assumed it was Maria's contempt and mistreatment that had driven Johnny to seek out such a life. If not that, then what? "How old were you?"


Murdoch winced. Nine? For eleven years he could have been there for his son, could have prevented so much pain and anguish, if only the mother Johnny believed loved him so much had actually loved him enough to tell him the truth. Being careful to veil his mounting anger and frustration at the cruel hand life had dealt his little boy, Murdoch pressed on. "Where did you go after they died?"

"I ran off when I heard the padre talking about putting me in an orphanage. I wasn't about to be stuck in one a them places, but...but things were really hard." With a soft sigh, he put a voice to Murdoch's worst fears. "I didn't have nothing - no money, no food, just the clothes on my back. I got run out of the first town I wandered into because they was afraid I was carrying the fever. After that, well, no one wanted a dirty half-breed kid hanging around. I had me some pretty good instincts, and well, I made do, until I..."

Until you picked up a gun, Murdoch couldn't help thinking. Had such a harsh life, fraught with danger and death, really been so much better than letting the church take care of him? "Why didn't you want to go to the orphanage, John?"

Outside, a gentle breeze was blowing, and the faint rustle of the leaves from the tree in the courtyard was all that could be heard. There was no strength left in his words when Johnny's quivering voice finally whispered barely loud enough to be heard, "Please, Murdoch. Please don't ask me that."

The sheer agony in his son's softly spoken plea left Murdoch unable to formulate a response. After being told how much Johnny loved the man that Maria had found more acceptable than her own husband, what could his son possibly have to say that could hurt any worse?

What had Catherine said last night? '...Johnny drew the proverbial line in the Johnny enough to cross that line for him. Reach out to him.' Some level of instinct, some little voice of reason, told him that this was it - this was the line that had to be crossed if they were ever to get beyond the past.

With a steadfast resolve born of the love only a parent could have their child, Murdoch stepped over to the other side. Reaching out, he placed his hand on Johnny's arm. "You can tell me why, John," his words coming out a little more forceful than he intended.

Johnny jerked his arm away and his head snapped up. His eyes were flashing with defiant anger at being pushed. "Because everyone knew I wasn't Carlos' kid!" Their eyes met and Johnny's anger gave way to the anguish of a bitter truth. "Because I hated you. I hated you like I ain't never hated no one else. I'd of rather died than risk being turned over to you by them do gooders."

Murdoch was stunned by Johnny's vehement declaration of hatred for him. Even though Murdoch remembered the deep resentment Johnny felt for him when his son had first returned home, it was excruciatingly painful for him to hear the revelation that there were even stronger sentiments against him lurking in Johnny's heart.

" really hated me that much?" Murdoch's voice was harsh and raspy.

A snort, or maybe it was a choke, emanated from Johnny's bowed head. "More. I...I used to dream of meeting up with you one day. Of getting revenge for everything you done to my mamma. I..." Johnny's breathing had become labored and his breaths were now coming in short gasps. It made the words difficult to understand, but the torment behind his emotions came through loud and clear. " hurt her...I wanted...damn you...damn her...why'd she have to lie to me!" White knuckled fists clenched at the blanket that covered his quaking body.

Murdoch reached out to touch Johnny's hand, only to have his heart crushed when Johnny again jerked away from his attempt to offer comfort. His fingertips had barely brushed over the back of Johnny's hand, but even in that brief contact he had felt the tremors that were coursing through Johnny's body. He would do anything to take away his son's agony, if only Johnny would let him.

Without warning, Scott's words of earlier that day came back to him. 'It really shook him up, Murdoch, finding out that his mother had lied to him.' Murdoch was ashamed that it had never occurred to him how difficult it was for Johnny to be confronted with his mother's lies - how losing faith in the one person he had always believed in had been slowly tearing his son apart.

As nearly impossible as it was for Murdoch to comprehend, he could now clearly see that Johnny truly loved his mother, and honestly believed that she loved him just as much. His son was struggling to find a way to believe her lies in order to hang on to that faith, and at the same time, make a life for himself in a completely contradictory reality.

Not for the first time in the last twenty years, Murdoch cursed his second wife to hell, only this time it was solely on his son's behalf. Why couldn't Maria have told Johnny his father was dead? Any lie but the one she had chosen, would have been so much better, so much easier on their son. His contemplation ended when Johnny started speaking again, his voice sounding drained and without hope, and putting into words the other reality that had been taunting Murdoch's mind.

"Everything could have all been so different. I could've grown up here, I could've known Scott so much sooner, had a father and a family and...there would have been no Johnny Madrid and you wouldn't have to hate me."

Ignoring the shooting pain that surged up his leg and back, Murdoch sprang from the chair onto the bed next to Johnny. Strong hands took Johnny's face firmly in their grasp, forcing him to look up at his father. "Johnny, if you never listen to another word I say, you listen to me now. I do not hate you. I love you. God knows I've done a piss-poor job of showing it, but you are my son and I will always love you, no matter what."

Murdoch paused, letting his hands fall to Johnny's shoulders while giving his son a chance to let the reality of his words sink in. The shock in Johnny's expression told him just how much his son really believed that his own father had hated him, which was a misconception that Murdoch intended to shatter once and for all. "John, the ugly truth is that I do hate your mother, with a depth I am ashamed to admit that I'm capable of feeling. I foolishly allowed that hatred to bleed over onto you, but no more. You are not your mother. I hate her, not you. It has never been you, John. Never."

Blue eyes filled with relief and sorrow stared back at him. "Why, Murdoch? I know she hurt you real bad, by why do you hate her *that* much?" 

*** *** *** *** 

With that simple question, Johnny had turned the tables. Now it was Murdoch's turn to bare his soul. But would he? Despite Catherine's heart-felt assurances and Murdoch's own forceful declaration of love - something that still had Johnny reeling - the young man still plenty of doubts.

Watching his father with expectant eyes, Johnny saw Murdoch's expression slowly change. The determination eased. Then his hands finally released their hold on Johnny's shoulders and fell away. "What I have to say isn't going to be very pleasant, Son."

Johnny released the breath he suddenly realized he had been holding. "Don't expect it will be, but I guess I'm needing to hear it, too."

Murdoch returned to the chair and took a moment to settle himself. His eyes focused on something outside the window. Johnny continued watching, taking in all the subtle nuances with the heightened sense of awareness that had kept him alive for so long. Murdoch's breathing began to slow, and he was no longer shaking with emotion. A deep breath was taken every so often, and Johnny knew from his own experience that this would be calming for both the body and the nerves.

"I was working in Texas in the spring of '49," Murdoch began in a neutral voice. "The winter had been exceptionally hard here in the valley. A drought the previous summer had left little feed for the cattle and most did not survive the harsh winter. I had been hoping to make enough profit from that herd to go to Boston and retrieve Scott, but as it turned out there was barely enough to pay off the debts of winter."

A deep breath, and a long pause, left Johnny wondering what Murdoch was thinking. To Johnny's surprise, Murdoch had kept pretty quiet during his turn at talking, so Johnny figured he owed Murdoch the same courtesy. He would wait and let Murdoch have his say, then decide if there was anything more that still needed saying.

Murdoch cleared his throat and continued, but his gaze remained focused on something just outside the window. "I had to seek work elsewhere just to keep the taxes paid and prevent the ranch from falling into foreclosure. There were many others in the same boat and work was scare; that's how I ended up in Abilene working for Joe Barker. I'd only been a deputy for a few weeks, when Joe and I tracked a couple of cattle rustlers across the border. The Mexican rurales were not being too cooperative about handing them over, so while Joe was negotiating the extradition, I spent a few days exploring Matamoros."

"It was the evening of the third day. I had dinner alone at a small cantina on the outskirts of town, and afterwards, I made my way over to the bar. I had taken my first sip of beer when I sensed I was being watched. I turned around, and there she was. She had the most tantalizing brown eyes, a lithe frame and..."

Murdoch paused and a faint smile formed on his lips. A faraway look came to his eyes, and he seemed to retreat into his memories. His tone softened, but still carried a hint of the anger that it always did whenever he spoke of Johnny's mother. "Maria was...she was more than just beautiful. There was a fire in her presence that sparked to life something in me that had been dead for so long."

Johnny watched Murdoch very closely. More than anything, he needed to know that his father had actually loved his mother at some point, that they had not gotten married simply because she was pregnant with him. He didn't know exactly why this was so important to him, but it was. He did know that it would make it a whole lot easier to believe Murdoch loved him if he could be certain that his conception had been more than just the accident that had led to an even bigger disaster.

"Maria looked at me with eyes that were as hungry with desire as my own. I didn't have to-" Murdoch stopped abruptly, anger etched in every line of his face. "I may have fallen for her, but she was the one who took my hand and led me out the door. How dare she accuse me of...if anyone..."

Murdoch turned away and Johnny's heart fell. His father's clenched jaw and rapid breathing were clear indicators of his struggle to maintain his composure. Johnny did not like what Murdoch was insinuating about his mother, but he remained silent. He supposed the man had a right to defend himself.

After clearing his throat, Murdoch looked back in Johnny's direction, but would not meet his son's gaze. "It took another three days before Joe was able to arrange the extradition of the rustlers. When we returned to Abilene, Maria was at my side. I wanted us to be married here, at Lancer, but...a few weeks later we found out she was with child. We got married in a little church in Abilene. I worked out the remainder of my promised service to Joe, received my pay, and brought my beautiful wife home with me."

Most of the anger was gone, but there was little affection, if any, in his tone. "By then your mother was already showing, and all I could think of was having a new child, a son or a daughter, a little brother or sister for Scott. We'd spend the evenings sitting in front of the fire, just the two of us, thinking up names and making plans for when you arrived." Murdoch said nothing else. He just sat there, staring out the window with a sour expression on his weary face.

After what seemed an eternity of silence, Johnny could stand it no more. "What happened, Murdoch?"

"You were born."

The pure anguish in Murdoch's voice was second only to the pain that wrapped itself around Johnny's chest and began squeezing hard, making his heart ache and his lungs scream for air. As difficult as these three words were to believe, as much as he knew he could not believe them, Johnny also knew there would be no denying them, either. One look at Murdoch's tortured expression did away with any thought that he might be lying, or even stretching the truth.

"Your mother...she was convinced you would be a girl. She told me that the same curandera who told her she was pregnant had also told her that the signs said she was carrying a girl. She settled firmly on the name 'Juanita', embroidering it on blankets and pillows and...she seemed so certain...I didn't see the harm in letting her do as she pleased. I only cared that you were healthy."

The pain in Johnny's chest grew worse and the lump in his throat refused to go away no matter how hard he swallowed. "But it was different for her, wasn't it? She didn't want no boy," he choked as his heart was crushed under the weight of an awful revelation. How could his mother not have wanted him?

"She didn't..." Murdoch began gruffly, only to pause. When he continued it was in a more subdued voice. "I can't say for certain what your mother did or did not want, John."

"But that's what you think," Johnny argued against the clear attempt to soften an already devastating blow. A small thought fluttered through his mind that this was not the Murdoch he knew; the Murdoch he had been butting heads with for the past year would not have even attempted to cushion Johnny's feelings at the expense of his own. Then it was gone. There was still too much he needed to know to go getting all soft now. "Just tell me like it was, Murdoch. The time for lies is over." 

Murdoch nodded. "After you were born, your mother changed. At first you cried all the time, and eventually we had to hire a wet nurse because it turned out she wasn't producing enough milk to feed you on her own. She was...she always seemed so unhappy and angry. She hardly spent any time with you." A slowly released breath of resignation punctuated the desperation in Murdoch's voice. "The only time she showed any sign of being happy was when we went to town. Then she would..."

Johnny could tell something was different. The deep sense of bitterness emanating from his father's stiff form no longer felt like there something he was trying not to tell his son; this was something Murdoch did not want to admit to himself. "She would what?" Johnny urged gently.

"She would disappear for hours." Murdoch's eyes opened and he looked down at his clasped hands. "I guess I was too caught up in being a proud father to notice that I was always the one taking care of you, or that she was never around. I think I believed that she was out shopping or talking to the other women. It never occurred to me that she never asked me for money, or that I saw most of the ladies in town when I was showing you off. I should have known she couldn't possibly have spent that much time..."

Johnny bit his tongue as the bile rose in his throat. He knew where Murdoch was going, but he did not want to believe it. He had long since accepted that his mother had run off with the gambler that Teresa mentioned way back on his second day at Lancer, but until this moment he had not realized how much he had convinced himself that the man had merely been doing the gallant thing by helping a woman in distress. This time he was the one to close his eyes, refusing to witness the contempt that he knew would be on his father's face when Murdoch finished his thought. The silence was deafening, but only for a short moment.

"After you and your mother had been gone for several months...I heard that she had been seen sneaking in the back door of the saloon, where she was noticed on several occasions spending time with a gambler. She was my wife. I trusted her," he snapped bitterly. "The first Pinkerton report I received confirmed that she had run off with that man."

When Johnny opened his eyes and looked at his father, he saw a man who was old and worn down, but mostly he saw a man who looked just plain miserable. Even though he had been hoping to hear his father put into words the love he had felt for his second wife, what Johnny was seeing now spoke more loudly than any words ever could. The abject sorrow on Murdoch's face said all that, and so much more. Johnny was now certain that his mother's leaving had been the last thing Murdoch Lancer had wanted.

"It was Easter Sunday. I woke up alone." Murdoch's voice was surprisingly flat, as if he wasn't even aware he was speaking aloud. "We had been arguing for most of the previous day. We went to bed, both of us stubbornly refusing to even say good night. When I saw she was gone, you along with her, I just assumed she had left early for Easter services." Some of the bitterness slowly crept back into his voice. "I remember feeling very contented that she had included you in her outing." Murdoch finished his thought with a disgusted snort.

From his place on the bed, Johnny braced himself for the angry wrath he was used to facing. He could almost feel the fury radiating off his father's shaking body. It was like holding a stick of dynamite in your fist, watching the fuse burn slowly to the cap and knowing what was going to happen, but being too fascinated to let go. To Johnny's total bewilderment, Murdoch resumed speaking in the same monotone voice as before.

"Afternoon came and she still hadn't returned. I was so worried I rode into town. The padre told me that Maria had not been at Sunday mass. I knew that something must have happened to her, to you. I gathered some of the men and we began searching, but we never found any sign of her, or of you. It wasn't until I came home the next morning, exhausted and frantic, that I found out the real truth."

Johnny flinched. What truth could his father have found in an empty house that the empty trail had not already given him? Without a word of explanation, Murdoch got up and left the room. Johnny's heart sank, part of him wondering if this was it, if there would never be a way for he and his father to get beyond the past. The rest of his weary mind tried was trying to find acceptance for his father's version of his first year of life with his mother; a year that, in no way resembled how his life had been when he could remember it for himself.

A few moments later, Murdoch returned, but came to a stop just inside the door, as if he were afraid to get too close to his son. In Murdoch's hand was a folded piece of paper. Even though he unfolded it gingerly, the paper still crackled in his shaky grasp. After a moment, he walked over to the bed and handed Johnny the yellowed piece of paper. With a heavy sigh, he sank back down into the chair, looking totally dejected.

Although Johnny accepted the proffered piece of paper, he could not bring himself to look at the words, not right away. He took a deep breath, and then another, before he could muster enough courage to look down at the paper. The faded words were less than he expected. 'I've changed my mind. You don't get to raise him.'

"I don't understand," Johnny whispered through his confusion.

Murdoch sighed, and although his voice was weary, he no longer sounded like a dead man telling the tragic tale of a wasted life. "On the night you were born, your mother told me something that I had forgotten all about...until I read that note. You were a long time coming; nearly three days of hard labor, and afterwards your mother was completely exhausted. I was sitting beside her, holding you in my arms, and just as she drifted off to sleep, she muttered something that I simply dismissed as the ravings of woman who had just been through the most demanding task any woman would ever endure."

The way his father was hedging, Johnny knew that this was not only something that Murdoch did not want to say, it was something that he did not even want to remember. Still, it had to be said. "What did she say?"

"She told me, 'You have your son, Murdoch. You raise him.'"

A heavy silence filled the air. Johnny could feel his father's pain and regret as if it were his own, and then it was his own. If all that his father had told him was true, then his mother had taken him with her when she left just to spite Murdoch; only that did not make any sense. Johnny knew his mother loved him. She had never shown him anything but the gentlest of love, even when he was causing her so much suffering. The truth hit Johnny with the force of a shotgun blast, point-blank in the chest, and hurting a whole lot more.

His mother had hated Murdoch first. Maybe even more than Murdoch now hated her. She had wanted Murdoch to believe that she took his child just for spite, that his son would live a life of indifference and rejection, instead of being loved and nurtured; and that was exactly what his father had been thinking for the past twenty years.

Finally, Johnny could understand why his father hated his mother so much, why he even found it so hard to look at Johnny without seeing her betrayal. He had been an unwitting part of that betrayal. Murdoch had to have figured this out a long time ago, so why hadn't he said anything? Was he afraid that he would not be believed, or was it that he could not bring himself to destroy his son's belief in his mother? Or was it something else that Johnny couldn't even begin to fathom?

Everything added up, but at the same time, nothing added up. The mother Johnny knew was not evil or mean or spiteful enough to think of anything like that, much less go through with something so cruel. It was like they were talking about two entirely different people, but then again, this was an almost constant feeling for Johnny when it came to dealing with his father. At the times he wasn't being made to feel like a snot-nosed little boy, he could feel like the grown man that he was.

Maybe it had been that way for his mother, too. Maybe Murdoch had a way of making her feel like two different people, and one of them was capable of lashing out at him for it. Maybe that was why she could not be good mother to him at Lancer, why she could be so mean to Murdoch, but could also be best mother ever and a loving wife to Carlos, once she was away from here. Only Scott had an idea how many times Murdoch had pushed Johnny to the point of having to walk away in order to avoid doing his father bodily harm. Maybe the same thing had happened one too many times to his mother, only she chose to walk away and still hurt him at the same time.

"I guess you got enough right to hate her," Johnny reluctantly admitted in a hoarse whisper. "I just don't remember her being anything but good to me." It shocked Johnny when the bitter, hurt old man suddenly disappeared, and the father who had so adamantly declared his love responded to his son's uncertainties.

"Johnny, I can't tell you what happened. I don't know why she acted the way she did when she was here, or why being away from here, away from me, made so much difference. I can say that I'm glad it did. It helps..." he paused for just a moment, then nodded his head firmly. "It helps me, knowing that she regained the love she had for you before you were born."

Then Murdoch took a deep breath and looked Johnny directly in the eye. "Son, I have to know. Did she really say that I forced myself on her?"

Johnny could only nod his affirmation. He had almost forgotten about saying that, having let that painful memory slither back into the cubbyhole in his mind where it had been stashed for the past year. No matter how much it hurt, though, he owed Murdoch the truth, even if it would sound pathetic. "Not in so many words, but the meaning was clear, even to a scared seven year old., once I found out that she'd lied about you not wanting us...and, well, it was just too hard to see you doing something like that. You're always so kind and gentle with Teresa, even Maria, and the other women here and in town. I...I tried..."

"You tried to ignore those memories because you didn't want to believe them?" Murdoch patiently finished for him.

Again, Johnny nodded. "It just didn't seem to fit with what you was now. I even thought that maybe it could have been true, back then, but that you..."

"John, I promise you that I never..." Murdoch did not finish his denial, but there was no doubting that he felt both hurt and angered by the insinuation.

With his heart and soul battered to a pulp, Johnny could hardly think of what to say. He believed Murdoch; no one could hurt as badly as his father was hurting over something that was made up. No one could fake the anguish he had felt and seen in his father that afternoon.

Johnny could not forget the way his mother had been when he knew her, either. No mother's touch could have been filled with more tenderness and love. He remembered vividly how she would hold him through the night when his nightmares got bad, and how she had been the voice of support and reason that had kept him going when it seemed that no one else in the world cared if he lived or died. No one could fake that kind of love.

"Murdoch, I believe you, but I believe her, too. I...I'm sorry. I just can't hate her." Johnny raised his hand just a little, but could not bring himself to look at the damning piece of paper. "Even after reading this, knowing what she put you through, I just can't. I'm sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry about, John. I don't expect you to hate her. I'm..." Murdoch stood, wincing a little before he walked stiffly over to the window. Leaning against the wall, he stared out the window and shook his head ever so slightly. "It was my fault. It was me she couldn't stand to be around, not you."

"Murdoch," Johnny's voice cracked.

"No, Son. I've spent too many years refusing to see the truth. At times, I've even stooped to the level of blaming you for my failed marriage, but you were too young, too innocent to be guilty of anything. If she was so different away from here, could be so happy with...with Carlos, then it had to because of me."

Johnny sighed heavily in the face of his father's self-defeat. He was not used to seeing Murdoch as anything but confident and assertive. He had not realized how much he had come to depend on his father's strength as a constant in his life, and how much not having it there left him feeling unsteady and uncertain. "Maybe...maybe she deserved both, love and hate. I just know I can't be the one to hate her. It helps, Murdoch, knowing for sure that you did love her at one time and that you've got some real good reasons for why you can't love her no more."

Murdoch turned to face him, and Johnny noticed that his father's expression was not nearly as bleak as it had been only moments before. Maybe knowing why Johnny could not hate her helped Murdoch feel better, too.

"John, you love her enough for me, and I'll hate her enough for you. That's all I know to do."

A deep sense of remorse settled on Johnny's shoulders. "Guess that'd be one way to handle it," he said in defeat. Although a few things had been settled, he was still going to have to figure out some way of dealing with his mother and father coming at him from different sides of his heart. At least he now had hope that Murdoch would be able to see him as he was, not as the shadow of the woman who had hurt him so deeply. 

*** *** *** *** 

After a short silence, Johnny's head bowed low. "Murdoch, about them things I said...I'm...well, I'm really sorry. I know that don't come close to making up for me being so mean,'s all I got. I don't deserve your forgiveness, but I'm asking for it, anyway."

Having been expecting this subject to surface eventually, Murdoch was not the least bit surprised by the intense distress in his son's voice. Johnny was too much of a...damn it, why couldn't he have seen his son for the responsible young man that he was before things had gotten so out of hand? He knew Johnny well enough by now to know that he would do the responsible thing when he thought that he had messed up.

Like a bitter old fool, Murdoch had refused to give his son the credit he deserved. "You were trying to hurt us because you though we had intentionally hurt you. Circumstances made it impossible for you to get away, so you turned on us."

"I guess so. I couldn't think. I went to San Francisco intending to have it out with you, but when I saw..." Johnny stopped, his head shaking in dismay.

"When you saw us together you thought you were seeing a happy family that didn't include you, and that hurt you very deeply. That was entirely my fault."

"No, Murdoch, I-"

"No, John," Murdoch objected with determination. Moving back over to the bed, he sat down on the edge of the mattress. He had no intention of forcing Johnny to look at him, and was thrilled beyond words when the dark head tilted upward. However, the grief-stricken frown on Johnny's face put an instant end to his joy, and spurred him to his son's defense. "I will not let you take the blame for this, for any of this. I'm the one who should be begging for your forgiveness, and for Scott's, and for Catherine's. I made a mess of what could have been a very joyful homecoming for all of us."


It took only a stern look of reproach to silence Johnny's protest. "I mean it, Son. I'm the one who did not stop to think. I was too caught up in the possibility of Catherine being alive to even consider how you and your brother would view my mysterious departure. I should have realized that when I said I had gone to Mexico, you would assume my reason would have had something to do with your past. I am truly sorry, Son. Yes, you were out of control last night, and yes you hurt all three of us very deeply, but you did not get to that point without extreme provocation. And," Murdoch bowed his head in shame, "I should never have hit you, Son. That was totally uncalled for."

"Uncalled for?" Johnny hissed, causing Murdoch to look up. "If anyone else had said that about Scott's mamma, you darn well better have belted 'em. Just because it was me, don't mean I deserved it any less. I had no call saying any of those things; not to you, not to Scott, and especially not to a woman who had nothing to do with the way my mamma felt about her. And not when..."

Johnny's fingers dug into the hem of the blanket, but his gaze remained locked with Murdoch's. He swallowed hard, twice, but still did not look away. "I guess you'd find it pretty hard to believe that...that I love you, too."

Murdoch honestly did not know whether to laugh or cry. He had all but lost hope of ever hearing those words, only at that moment, he could not for the life of himself figure out why. So many things Johnny did virtually screamed of that love, the most telling of which was that Johnny was still there. Through all the fights, all the bad feelings, all the times he had been treated as nothing but a bitter reminder of his mother's hurtful deeds; Johnny had stayed. "I believe you, John. I have no trouble at all believing you."

Now, Johnny did look away. "I'm sorry for more than just what I said last night, Murdoch. If I hadn't been such a damned stubborn fool kid, I could have been back here a long time ago. You could've brought Scott home, and we could have been a family like we should have been."

Murdoch's heart clenched. Did he dare say this? Was there a point of being too honest, or a point of expecting Johnny to accept too much? Maybe, but so far the lies had been what had kept them apart, not the truth. Not to mention the fact that Johnny had no business taking onto himself the guilt for something that was beyond his control. "John, I would have loved to have you here, growing up safe and sound where you belonged, never having to pick up a gun to earn a living; but you need to understand that your being here would not have made it possible to bring Scott back from Boston. Your mother killed that dream when she left me."

"How?" Johnny looked up in surprise.

Thankfully, Johnny had been caught too off guard to respond with anger to Murdoch's placing the blame where it rightly belonged. "Think about it, Son. Do you honestly believe any judge in Boston could have been persuaded to rule against a man of Harlan Garrett's standing and integrity in favor of one whose wife had run off in the middle of the night with another man? For all they knew I had abused her, or you, and that she had fled for safety's sake. You can bet your last dollar that Harlan's attorney would have brought up all those possibilities; and probably a whole lot more."

"But, if I was here," Johnny protested adamantly.

"It would have made no difference, Son. It would have been almost ten years later, and you would not have been here because you wanted to be, either. You hated me, remember?"

Johnny opened his mouth, but a raised hand put an end to the understandable protest. "I know you hated me because of the lies you had been told, but you still would not have wanted to be here and that would have been another strike against me. Every bit of information Harlan's attorney could gather would have become ammunition to be used against me in a custody hearing, and most of that would be because of things your mother did when you were too young to be responsible for anything. You are not to blame, Johnny. Not any at all."

A sad dawning swept across Johnny's sullen features. "Things would have been really rough on Scott."

"They might have been. All I know is that is what Harlan promised me would happen. I had to weight all the options, decide if the risks to Scott's well-being were worth taking the chances of fighting. Not only did I feel that I had very little legal ground on which to stand, I also had some serious doubts over my own abilities to be a good father. Scott was healthy and happy and as much as I despise the old man, I had no doubt that Harlan would take the very best care of Scott. I've spent twenty years wondering if I made the right choice, but..."

"Murdoch, you can't change the choices you made back then, but you can ask Scott how he feels. He'll tell you, even if it's just to say that he don't know. I ain't saying he'll agree with 'em, either, but at least he'll know for sure that it wasn't because you didn't want him or couldn't be bothered." Johnny hesitated, chewing on his lower lip as if he were debating something very intensely. When a decision was reached, he added somewhat softly. "Scott's pretty much figured it out for himself, especially after his grandfather's visit, but I'd be willing to bet it'd be something that he'd appreciate hearing from you."

Murdoch smiled and placed his hand over Johnny's. His sons cared for each other very much, and for that he would always be thankful. "I'll do that, Son. I promise."

As if it were the signal to end what had been a very nerve wracking and intense encounter, a teasing gleam appeared in Johnny's eyes. Murdoch almost dreaded finding out what his son could possibly be thinking, and before he could ask, Johnny answered the unasked question.

"She's real good for you, Murdoch; Catherine, I mean. Even when that Mrs. Dane was here, you never looked so, I don't know the word...contented, maybe?"

A warm feeling settled in around Murdoch. A feeling he that had only recently returned after a very long absence from his life. He sighed softly, and agreed with Johnny's assessment. "Catherine is very special. I knew that from the moment I first laid eyes on her. She had a smile that could light up-"

"Murdoch, don't." Johnny's voice was suddenly low and ominous.

Shaking himself out of his revere, Murdoch wondered if he was forever cursed to say the wrong thing to his younger son. "I'm sorry, Johnny. I know the last thing you want to hear is how much I love Catherine."

With a shake of his head, Johnny snorted very softly. "No, Murdoch. It ain't that I don't want to hear about her. She's here and she's alive and it appears that she's going to be here for a long time, which don't bother me in the least. The thing is...have you told Scott any of this?"

"Not specifically."

"Then he should be the one you're telling it to first, not me." Johnny's whole demeanor changed in an instant, and the coldness was back. "I know how I'd feel if I were to find you that you had been talking about my mamma with some else, instead of me."

Murdoch shuddered at the sudden chill in Johnny's tone and expression. "John?"

"All this time I been here, and you just now decided you could be honest with me about *my* mother, yet *she's* back in your life for only a few weeks and you're telling her everything you should have been telling me."

"Catherine is...I..." Murdoch stuttered in the face of the unexpected attack. While he felt no guilt over discussing Maria with Catherine, there was a huge measure of regret that had not had this talk with Johnny a long time ago. "John, I'm not sure if you can understand this, but I never once discussed your mother with Catherine. We talked about my wife, and my feelings about my wife, and my reasons for feeling the way I do. I know that sounds like I'm splitting hairs, but it's the only way I know to explain it." To his surprise, Johnny nodded, and the anger disappeared from his expression before the poorly-worded explanation could be finished.

"I think I understand, Murdoch. I probably wouldn't have before me and Catherine had our little talk, but she's got a way of explaining things that make them real clear." A shadow of doubt flickered across Johnny's face. "It still hurts, though, knowing that you couldn't talk to me first."

"I am sorry, Son. I know I should have, but, to be honest with you if it wasn't for Catherine we probably still wouldn't have had this talk." Trying to head off the anger already flaring in Johnny's eyes, Murdoch hastened to explain, and prayed that he could find the right words.

"Johnny, when your mother left she took more away from me than just you. She stole my hopes, my dreams, my pride, my self-worth, but mostly she stole my ability to trust anyone with my heart ever again." Steeling himself, he stated the words that had haunted his dreams for too many years. "My *wife* left me for another man. I know that you've suffered a lot of hard knocks in your life, but I hope you never, ever have to endure the kind of degradation."

Like it was happening all over again, the intensity of those damning feelings came crashing down on him. "It makes you feel like you've been gutted and left to bleed out, only you never do. You just keep on living and hurting and wishing it would all go away. Eventually, I just blocked off that part of me. It was the only way I could get away from the hurt, away from the humiliation."

Visions of the woman he had waiting for him downstairs appeared in his mind, driving away the oppression of the past, and replacing them with all the joy and promise of the future. As the pain faded away, Murdoch couldn't help but laugh. "Catherine was quite unimpressed when I first arrived at the mission, and made no bones about telling me exactly how much she did *not* want to be around the man I had become. Thankfully, she managed to help me realize that I was not protecting myself from being hurt as much as I was denying myself a lot of other things, including the relationship with my sons that I wanted more than anything."

*** *** *** ***

After considering his father's words very carefully, Johnny was finally able to understand things from Murdoch's perspective. It was no longer his mother that had left, but Murdoch's wife. Even more prominently than they had a few moments ago, Catherine's words came back to him. '...any problems between them were part of *their* marriage. The intimate and personal relationship that went along with that marriage was theirs, and theirs alone.'

As a man he could understand Murdoch's pain; well, as much as any man could who had never lived through such an experience. Sometimes a man had nothing but his pride, and to have that stripped away was to take away his very soul. Murdoch was a proud man, and there had been no place for him to hide his shame.

Everyone for miles around would have heard about his wife running out on him, a second child being stolen away. These were his friends and neighbors, people he respected and who respected him. Johnny could see how it would have been devastating to have to face them - already feeling rejected and unworthy; how else was he supposed to see himself in their eyes?

No wonder Murdoch had shut himself off so completely. While that still did not justify him taking his bitterness over his wife's betrayal out on Johnny, it did help make it forgivable, providing he kept his word and started seeing Johnny for his real self. Nothing in this realization made the past transgressions hurt any less, but seeing that there was another side to that hurt made Johnny feel so much less alone.


When Johnny focused back on his father, none of the bitter hatred of a few moments ago remained. Now Murdoch's expression reflected on a deep concern. "Son, what actually went on between you and Catherine?"

This was a question Johnny had known would be coming, but he dreaded hearing it, just the same. He had never lied to his father and was not about to start doing so now, but hell would freeze over before a detailed explanation would be forthcoming from him. Whatever details Murdoch would find out would have to be from Catherine; it was her story to tell.

Hoping his father would recognize his tone and respect the meaning that the subject was not open for debate, Johnny imparted what few details he deemed were within his right to reveal. "We talked. It took some doing, but she finally convinced me that everything would be all right if I'd just stop and listen for a change. I did, everything is okay, and there's nothing more to say."

"Some doing?" Murdoch asked with a raised eyebrow and a frown.

"Let it be, Murdoch," Johnny warned a little more forcefully. "What's done is done. Things have turned out pretty good. Your knowing any more of the details ain't going change nothing for the better."

Murdoch nodded his consent, but Johnny was not convinced that his father would just be willing to let it go. "And don't you go grilling her for information, either. Just drop it, Old Man. If she wants to tell you, she will, if she don't, she won't."

With a snort and a knowing grin, Murdoch offered his consent verbally, surprisingly letting the 'Old Man' comment go unchallenged. "Johnny, I am glad you and Catherine reached a truce."

"It ain't a truce. She's," Johnny hesitated for a moment, unsure of how much he could claim without stepping on his father's toes. "I respect her. She put herself on the line for the people she cares about and for what she believed was right. Ain't may men willing to do that, and even fewer women." Refraining from stating that he would have preferred that she had chosen a safer method, his remembered fears of that encounter gave him the courage to add in a very low voice, "If you ever hurt her, Murdoch, I swear you'll be answering to me." 

*** *** *** ***

At any other time, Johnny's threatening tone would not have set too well, but for now all Murdoch could feel was an overwhelming sense of relief and joy. Johnny truly did respect Catherine, or else he would not be taking such a protective stance, especially against him. Whatever Catherine had done, whatever she had said, it had earned her something that only her son had gained in so short a time; Johnny did not give his respect or his trust to just anyone. Another thing Johnny's threatening response did was remind Murdoch of another young man's promise to hunt him down like a dog for the very same offense.

"Oh, I trust you, Son," he said with a satisfied smile. "However, you may have to stand in line for that honor. Scott will no doubt want top honors, and then there is Mateo, who has also laid claim to that privilege. I can assure you, though, that I have no intentions of ever hurting her. That being said," Murdoch's voice now took on a threatening tone of its own, "I want to make it perfectly clear that I never want *anything* like whatever it was that happened this afternoon to ever happen again."

"Yes, sir," Johnny mumbled through a huge yawn. "Who's Mateo?"

A young man who reminds me very much of you; a thought Murdoch kept to himself. Instead, he brushed the hair back from Johnny's forehead with loving care, fighting off the guilt as his fingers then brushed over the bruised cheek his own hand had hit less than twenty-four hours before. All during their talk, he had tried his best to ignore the dark patch on Johnny's face. Very few things were more unconscionable than a parent striking their own child in a fit of anger. No matter how much Johnny protested, it was uncalled for and would be a moment to haunt his memories for a very long time to come.

For now, though, Murdoch just felt tired and worn out. So much had happened, in so short a time. Had it really only been four days since Scott had arrived in San Francisco and met his mother for the first time? Four days since the nasty scene with Harlan, the return home that found Johnny gone, the nightmare of digging his younger son from beneath the fallen barn, and that hellish moment when his son's bitter pain had become too much for him to contain. It seemed like weeks, but it was only four very long days.


Ignoring the question in Johnny's weary eyes, Murdoch shook his head. "Later, Son. You need to get some sleep."

Johnny glanced over at the window, and shook his head as he almost successfully stifled another yawn. "It's too early for sleeping. Besides, Scott'll be wanting his bed back. And you didn't answer my question. Who's Mateo?"

In spite of Johnny's objections, Murdoch knew his son was on the losing end of what promised to be an extremely short battle with his own fatigue. The emotional stress of dealing with the conflicting memories of his mother had to have taken a huge toll on his already beleaguered mind. If Murdoch were to be perfectly honest, he would have to admit that he felt like he had been beaten, so Johnny had to be feeling even worse, what with the additional burden of the physical injuries he had received during in the storm. Now, with the emotions settling down, Johnny would have a hard time fending off his exhaustion.

Since Johnny was notoriously stubborn about such things, Murdoch had to be more tactful than usual. He had forced medication down the throat of an irrationally irate son once today, and he never wanted to have to do that again. Now, time was on his side. "Johnny, your room was in quite a state after your 'talk' with Catherine. I'm sure it's not fully clean, yet, so there's no reason you can't take a nap in here while you're waiting. As for Mateo, I said we'd discuss him later. I'm sure Scott will be interested in hearing more about his mother's time in Mexico, too."

"You and Scott are sure gettin' a might uppity in your old age," Johnny mumbled sleepily. "One a these days 'later' just ain't gonna be a good enough answer."

Murdoch had no clue what Johnny was talking about, but that didn't matter. What Johnny needed now was rest, and apparently some part of Johnny's weary mind could accept that, too. Despite the previous back talk, Johnny actually cooperated as best he could when the blankets were pulled back and Murdoch attempted to shift him downward on the bed so he could lie down flat.

A few back pains, courtesy of those heavy plaster casts, and a few adjustments to the despised nightshirt to ensure that it did not become an annoyance while Johnny slept, brought on no further resistance, either. Satisfied that Johnny would be comfortable, Murdoch pulled the blanket back into place, only to discover Johnny was beyond objecting to anything; he was already sound asleep.

After carefully tucking the blanket in around Johnny's shoulders, Murdoch drew the draperies over the window to block out the evening sun. Later, when the sun had fully set, he would return and pull the draperies aside to allow for the airflow that he had learned early on Johnny preferred. Only when he was satisfied that his son would not awaken any time soon did he finally leave the room. 

*** *** *** ***

It had taken considerable effort and quite probably every cleaning rag on the entire ranch, but Johnny's room was finally back to its former state of Teresa-approved cleanliness. Hopefully, Teresa would never find out what had happened during her absence, or she might resolve to never brave leaving the family alone again. With that daunting chore now complete, Scott found himself alone in the great room, sitting on the edge of the sofa staring into the fire. His mind was busy reviewing the events of the last few hours, hoping to find some sense, or at least some order, to it all.

He still found it hard to believe that his mother had acted so incredibly foolishly. Up to this point she had seemed so sensible, and, other than the incident with his grandfather, more able to control herself than the mess in Johnny room indicated. While he had seen evidence of her passionate nature and was proud of her for it, he was not sure how to deal with the fact that the intensity of her emotions could take her so far. The reckless abandon of what had transpired in his brother's room was beyond his comprehension. What his mind refused to let go of was the question, 'Why?'.

Unfortunately, Johnny's room had been in such a state that the required trips back and forth from the kitchen to obtain fresh water and to empty pails of broken dishes had kept their conversation to a minimum. Although this time could have been spent getting to know each other better, it was not a total waste. When they were actually in the same room at the same time, she had shared a few short stories of her time at the mission in Mexico, and he had told her a little bit about the changes in Boston since she had last been there. The small talk helped ease some of his anxieties, but there was still a tangible tension between them as they worked.

Several times during the clean up process, he had been sorely tempted to pressure her for more detailed information on her 'discussion' with Johnny, but he had held back. The moment had never felt quite right; mainly because he was not sure he was ready to accept whatever explanation she might offer. The few bits of information that he did possess were more than just disconcerting, they were downright disturbing.

There was something else preying on his mind, too. His concerns over what was taking place across the hall had contributed in keeping his thoughts in a constant state of disarray, which made him uneasy about bringing up a topic that he felt would require more concentration than he could muster. However, with the upstairs 'meeting of the minds' no longer directly under his nose, his thoughts were returning to a more cohesive state. Now, if he could just convince himself that he really did want to discuss any of it.


Raising his head, Scott saw his mother holding up a plate of food in his direction. With a weary nod he stood, stretching out the aching muscles in his back, before heading in the direction of the dining area. Both breakfast and lunch had been missed, and his stomach was already growling in anticipation of a much-needed meal.

Taking his usual seat at the table, Scott unfolded his napkin and placed it in his lap as his mother set the plate of roast beef, potatoes and green beans down in front of him. She sat down in Murdoch's chair, a similar plate in front of her. For a few minutes they ate in a strained silence while he gathered his thoughts. When he could stand it no longer, he finally asked the question without looking up from his food, "Mother, do have any idea how badly out of hand things could have gotten up there?"

"Yes, I do," came the extremely subdued reply.

At least she sounded as if she understood the gravity of the situation, which was a little more than Scott had dared hope. "Why did you tie him up?"

She hesitated before answering, and Scott looked up to see if she was thinking about her answer, or just ignoring him. Only then did she respond, and her voice was steady and clear.

"Johnny wasn't listening. Not to anyone. When he nearly shot poor Dr. Jenkins, I knew that would not be changing any time soon. It seemed to be the best way to ensure that he would listen to me, and also make sure that he didn't hurt himself any further."

If her words were meant to justify her actions, then they fell very short of the mark, and only made Scott wonder even more about her logic. At the very least, being tied up in bed would have been extremely humiliating for Johnny, and not something that would successfully encourage his cooperation. At the very worst Johnny could have become so enraged that if he had managed to get free of the bindings...Scott did not even want to consider those macabre possibilities. After toying in his potatoes with his fork for a few moments, his anger finally got the best of him.

Setting his fork down beside his plate, he glared over at his mother. "You had no business trying to tell Johnny anything. You should have waited for me. Johnny would have listened to me, and without setting the stage for an even bigger disaster." An involuntary shudder surged through him over possibilities that were too devastating too contemplate. "You could have been hurt, Mother. Seriously hurt, and if Johnny had done so, Murdoch would never have forgiven him. Never."

"I realize that, now. Johnny already gave me this lecture. I admit my methods may have been a bit extreme-"

"'Extreme' is an understatement, but what I really want to know is why did you do it?" Scott interrupted her with a clipped reply. He was not interested in getting into a debate over the bizarre nature of her intervention; he just wanted to know why she had done it. As he stared at her, he noted a flicker of stubborn defiance flashing in her eyes, only to disappear behind a mask of composed dignity. This image reminded Scott so much of his grandfather that it was almost scary.

"I was the cause all of this. I had to fix it before it was too late," she stated evenly.

"No, Mother, none of this was your fault." Scott's voice was far more relaxed and soothing than the emotions raging inside him. "You did not cause anything to happen, and it was not up to you to fix it. I had already figured out why Johnny said the things he did last night. And while I admit to being caught off guard then, this afternoon I would have able to get him to listen to me. We could have gotten this whole mess straightened out without risking everything."

With a sad sigh, Scott leaned on his elbows and rested his forehead on his clenched hands. "I already have a brother who refuses to accept that he no longer has to take on the whole world all by himself; I'm not sure I can deal with a mother who feels the same way."

"Is that what you think I was doing?"

She sounded so genuinely surprised that Scott could not help but look up at her. "Weren't you?" he queried.


Her answer was short and concise, but it was her expression that captured his attention. It reminded him of Johnny whenever Scott confronted him on the same issue; bewildered innocence, only the hint of regret that was usually in Johnny's face was not in hers. She actually seemed to be totally sincere in her denial. "Then what were you doing, Mother? Explain it to me. Why did you feel *you* had to be the one to get through to *my* brother, to *Murdoch's* son? You don't even know Johnny."

She did not look away, and her expression remained confident. "It was my position as a stranger that gave me the advantage. Johnny couldn't hurt me like he could you or you father."

Her ignorance stunned Scott and he demanded incredulously, "Are you insane? If those ropes had come untied-"

Despite his rising emotions, she appeared completely calm. "I was referring more to him hurting me with his words, but since you brought it up, they did."


"The ropes. They did come untied." She looked at him earnestly, but whatever she was trying to convey was lost behind a reality she did not seem to grasp. "Scott, when those ropes came undone, Johnny could have hit me, he could have hurt me, could have done just about anything to me before I would have been able to get out of his reach, but he didn't. He didn't because it was never me that he wanted to hurt."

The blood drained from Scott's face and it felt like he had been kicked in the stomach by a mule. Running his hand through his hair, he fought to pull his thoughts together. His mother had deliberately put herself in a position where Johnny could hurt her, yet she honestly did not believe she had been in any danger. "I can't believe this is happening," he groaned in disbelief.

"Scott, listen to me. I know what I did was foolish; maybe it was even a little insane. I'm not denying that, but I did it because I was worried that my being here was going to cost you your brother, cost Murdoch his son. I felt I had to do something. Johnny hadn't tried to hurt me-"

"He called you a..." Scott could not bring himself to say the word.

"Yes, he did, but he would have said the same things if I hadn't even been in the room. Nothing he said was aimed specifically at me. He was throwing out things that he knew would hurt your father, because your father had managed to hurt him more than he wanted to admit. It was his way of hiding his pain." She reached across the table and took a firm hold of Scott's forearm. "I know he said things that hurt you as well, but you were the one who warned us that he was very upset and that something like this could happen."

"What happened last night was nothing like what I had in mind," Scott objected.

"What did you think would happen, Scott?" she asked in all sincerity.

Scott snorted softly and shook his head; it was an all too familiar scenario. "Murdoch would lose his temper and pass judgment without giving Johnny a chance to explain himself. Johnny would feel threatened and become defensive. There would be a lot of yelling from both of them, then Johnny would storm out the door before he could lose control and actually came to blows with Murdoch." His mother's hand slipped up Scott's arm and into his hand. He returned her reassuring squeeze and a little of his anxiety faded away. A little, but not much.

"Johnny could never physically hurt his own father."

In her denial, Scott finally found the ammunition he needed. "Yes, he could, Mother. I know that, and so does Johnny. That is why he always walks away when Murdoch comes down on him so hard. Would he feel badly about it afterwards? Of course, he would. It would tear him apart like nothing else, but yes, he *could* physically hurt Murdoch if he was pushed hard enough and had no way to get away."

Shifting in his chair, Scott faced his mother and took her hand in both of his. "Johnny is not one of your little mission orphans, Mother. He is a grown man with a very dark side. He has done things that he is not very proud of; his constant burden is that he *is* capable of doing these things."

Stopping to take a breath, Scott debated for only a split second whether to finish his thought, but he had to. His mother had to know just how much worse she could have made things for all of them, not just Johnny. "I know you didn't mean to, but what you did to Johnny was nothing short of cruel. If he had lost control for just an instant, it could have cost him everything you were trying to save. Johnny has enough demons in his closet without having to deal with something like that."

"I never..." Catherine began, only to stop short and look down. "I'm so sorry. I guess I just wanted to help him, help you all, and I lost sight of where I was and who I was dealing with."

When she looked up at him with tears in her eyes, his heart clenched for her pain, but his mind could only rejoice over her insight. Choking back the wave of emotions that threatened to overtake him, Scott let his heart do his talking. "Thank you, Mother. Thank you for caring enough to want to help my brother. You don't know how much that means. Please, for me, from now on remember that you don't *have* to help any of us. I love you for wanting to make everything all right, but you can't."

His mother nodded her bowed head. After a few moments she looked up at him. "At least they are talking. Maybe I managed to get one thing right today," she said softly.

Scott smiled as he felt her hand tremble. The lack of any sounds of anger or yelling coming from his room both comforted and scared him. The possibilities were unfathomable, given that there was only one subject to be resolved before any kind of permanent resolution to ever be found. Unless they cleared the air about Maria, this would be only a short-term fix. That Johnny could deal with Murdoch's hatred of his second wife was pretty much a given - Johnny had all but admitted as much a few weeks ago - however, Scott had serious doubts as to whether Murdoch could be as accepting of Johnny's love for his mother.

Nothing, however, gave him more hope than the fact that he and Johnny were having a civil discussion at all. "Mother, exactly what did you say to Murdoch? I've been trying for a long time to get those two talking, really talking and really listening to each other, but I've never gotten anywhere with either one of them."

"I told your father the truth; it was his pride or his son. The time for excuses was over. How he decided to handle this situation would prove once and for all what was really important to him." A faint smile tugged at her lips. "He made the right decision, as I knew he would."

Scott considered her words, but could not shake the feeling that there had to be more to it. His mother might not want to admit it, or maybe she just did not realize it. No one else had been so successful in getting through to Murdoch Lancer; for that he would always be grateful to her. No matter what the outcome of their conversation, the family's sense of limbo would finally be gone. Yes, his mother had gotten that part very right.

"Scott, your father loves you both very much. Somewhere along the way, after all the hurts he has endured, he just forgot how to show it."

Before he could respond, a movement caught Scott's eye. He looked up to see Murdoch standing in the archway behind his mother. His father looked worn down, haggard, like he had just been to hell and back. And back? Scott could only hope they were both back. Rising to his feet, his concern echoed in his voice. "Murdoch?"

His father looked at him, and for a second Scott saw a pain he had never seen in Murdoch's eyes before. His mother sprang from her chair and was immediately at Murdoch's side. Scott's heart warmed when she hugged Murdoch tightly, and warmed even more when, to Scott's wonder, Murdoch actually hugged her back. His father's eyes closed and he seemed to draw strength from her embrace. For a long moment they stood there, giving and accepting the support that was offered, as a husband and wife always should in a time of crisis.

Murdoch finally opened his eyes, but before releasing Catherine from his embrace, he placed a kiss on her forehead. Their smiles, so full of love and warmth, were a sight that nearly brought tears to Scott's eyes. He had missed so much in his life.

Looking up, Murdoch nodded towards Scott. "Johnny's asleep. We...I think we're going to be just fine."

Relief flooded Scott's mind. "That's good to hear, Sir."

Slipping out of Murdoch's arms, Catherine led him over to the table and urged him to sit down in the chair that she had just vacated. "I'll get you something to eat while you and Scott talk." Another loving smile was exchanged then she headed for the kitchen.

Some of the weariness returned to Murdoch's eyes, and Scott asked, "Are you all right, Sir?"

"I'm...I...I found out things that I never wanted to know," Murdoch said hoarsely.

Scott could feel his father's pain, and his heart ached for the man. Although Johnny had told him very few specifics of his mother and stepfather, Scott knew enough to know that Murdoch would not like hearing most of what Johnny had to say. "And Johnny?"  

A disgruntled snort came from the wearily bowed head. "Johnny heard things he should never have had to hear."

"Things he needed to hear, Sir."

Murdoch's head snapped up, and there was anger in his eyes. "He wouldn't have *needed* to hear anything if his mother hadn't..." Pure frustration raged across Murdoch's features, and he yelled across the table, "No son should have to hear that his own mother didn't want him!"

Although startled by the revealing words, Scott was prepared for his father's flaring anger. A year of living at Lancer, of witnessing and mediating many an argument between father and brother, had provided Scott with the ability to read Murdoch's moods very well. Like Johnny, Murdoch would just as quickly regret the angry outburst.

"I'm sorry, Son. I shouldn't have yelled at you. None of this is your doing," Murdoch apologized.

Usually it was just Murdoch's expression that told of his regret. That he would actually put a voice to those feelings was something new, and gave Scott even more hope that there could be peace at Lancer. However, unless they addressed the real underlying issue, that peace would be very short lived. Taking a leap of faith that the ghost of Johnny's mother had finally been laid to rest, he added softly, "No father should have to hear that his son hated him and loved another man in his place."

Deep blue eyes stared at him, but not in anger. It was more pain than anything else. "Johnny told you about Carlos?"

Relieved that he had been right about the nature of their conversation, Scott felt better in sharing what little Johnny had already shared with him. "A little, Sir. I never knew his name; just that he treated Johnny and his mother very well. That's all I needed to know."

"I'm glad that's enough for someone," Murdoch snapped.

Despite the words, Murdoch's tone was not nearly as bitter sounding as it could have been, as it would have been only a few hours ago. Still there was enough resentment to make Scott decide to push the point. Slipping back into old habits would be too easy if they all were not careful. "When it comes to Johnny, that has got to be enough for you, too. Johnny is not his mother. He did not tell her who to love or who not to love. He was just a little boy when all this happened. Johnny did not betray you, Sir."

"Sometimes it's not that easy, Son, separating hatred from love."

"Is it that way with me?" Scott asked. "Every time you look at me do you feel hatred because of what my grandfather did to you? Because I can still love him, despite everything?"

Murdoch's eyes snapped wide open with shock. "No!"

Although relieved, Scott was also very curious to know what made his situation different. "Why not?"

A heavy thud was immediately followed by the clatter of silverware and dishes when Murdoch's fist hit the table. "Because I never loved your grandfather! He betrayed me, but only when it came to you. I loved Maria! She was my wife and she-" Murdoch abruptly stopped speaking.

Scott waited for more anger, and was totally unprepared for the smug smile that flittered across Murdoch's face. "Sir?"

"I loved Maria. I actually loved her," Murdoch repeated in such a pleased tone that it sounded to Scott like he was just now realizing this fact.

Unsure of what to say, or even think, Scott could only stare at his father. Concern and curiosity vied for supremacy, along with a nagging feeling that Murdoch might be on the verge of totally losing his mind. He had married Maria; he had to have loved her at that time, didn't he? With a raised eyebrow, Scott ventured cautiously, "You had doubts?"

The disconcerting pleasure on Murdoch's face faded away. "I had more than doubts, Son. On the way back from Mexico, your mother and I discussed Maria and my intense feelings of hatred for her. She mentioned that I had to have loved her when I married her, which only forced me to admit that after hating her for so long I honestly couldn't remember for sure."

Murdoch shifted in his chair, before looking across the room at something outside the French doors. "I've been such a fool. I let that doubt, that uncertainty, cloud my judgment when it came to dealing with our son. She wasn't here, so I...I let Johnny shoulder the burden of her sins."

Scott struggled to find the words that would offer comfort, without undermining the significance of his father's admission. Fortunately, he was saved from what seemed an impossible task when his mother suddenly reappeared with another plate of hot food. She removed her own partially eaten meal from in front of Murdoch and replaced it with the fresh plate. She sat down across from Scott and looked lovingly at Murdoch.

"Eat, Dear, before it gets cold."

Murdoch returned her affectionate gaze and then did as he was told. With his own appetite returning, Scott decided that when it came to dealing with Murdoch his mother definitely had the rest of them beat, hands down. Even Teresa did not have that kind of influence over the often obstinate old man.

A sharp knock was heard from the front door. "I'll get it." Placing his napkin on the table beside his plate, Scott pushed himself away from the table and headed for the door. When he opened it, he was greeted by Frank's smiling face. The ranch hand was obviously very pleased about something. "Good evening, Frank," Scott said politely.

"Evenin', Scott. Thought you'd wanna know that Freya just broke. Most likely it'll be a few more hours, this bein' her first an' all, but I figured you'd wanna be there."

"Thank you, Frank. I'll be right out."

With his spirits soaring, Scott returned to the table, but did not retake his seat. Instead, he stopped beside his mother and leaned over and kissed her on the temple. "Would you please put my plate in the oven. I'll finish eating later."

"Good luck, Son," Murdoch called out to him as he headed for the door. 

*** *** *** ***

"Freya?" Catherine asked with a frown. "Who is she, and do I dare ask what she broke?"

With a chuckle, Murdoch set down his fork. He was amused by the onset of motherly possessiveness in Catherine's expression, especially in light of the true nature of Scott's relationship to this particular female. "Freya is Scott's mare. She was his first investment, outside the partnership, after coming to Lancer. He bought her specifically to breed with Charlemagne, and she's due to foal at anytime."

Catherine visibly relaxed at this news. "That's a very unusual name for a horse."

"Actually, Scott named her Hildegarde. Not any less unusual, but I believe he said that was the name of one of Emperor Charlemagne's wives. Johnny is the one who nicknamed her Freya, and once he'd told the other men why, the name kind of stuck. Scott still isn't very happy over the unexpected development, but he's learned to accept it." Murdoch coughed through his sudden embarrassment as he recalled the reason for Johnny's nickname for the mare.

"Why did Johnny decide Freya would be a more appropriate name?"

Her amused expression only made Murdoch more uncomfortable. Still, this was a working ranch and breeding stock was part of their business. Discussions of this sort were nothing new, so why was he feeling so...squeamish? Taking a sip of his coffee, Murdoch cleared his throat and began his explanation. "When it comes to breeding stallions, most mares won't have anything to do with them until they are ready to conceive. Before and after they can be quite ruthless in warding off unwanted advances, sometimes causing serious injury to a valuable stud if both animals are not handled properly."

"I didn't notice any battle scars on Charlemagne the other day, so can I assume Freya was not all that adverse to his advances?"

The gleam in Catherine's eyes made Murdoch's unease fade away. "You could say that. Even before that mare showed the first signs of coming into season, she acted very *interested* in getting in with Charlemagne; maybe even more interested than he was in her, which is highly unusual. Evidently, Scott had been telling Johnny about Norse mythology and had mentioned how the goddess Freya was a rather promiscuous, as well as very determined in certain areas."

"And Johnny saw the similarity and dubbed her Freya?"

"Yes." Murdoch smiled at that memory of that day. "Of course, as Johnny was explaining it to the other men, he felt the need to go into great detail as to why it was a more appropriate name for the mare. Scott was fuming, but most of the hands were in stitches by the time Johnny was finished." Murdoch's good humor faded as memories of his son's recent hurt and anger flooded his mind, emotions so directly contradictory to merriment and mirth of that day almost a year ago.


In her loving gaze he found another key to his soul. He had so missed this intimacy, this ability for two people to see each other so clearly, to talk without fear of rejection or judgment, to share anything and everything. Nothing was more fulfilling than the loyalty of a spouse. This contentment gave him the ability to face his deepest pain. "Catherine, you know I...I had to say things that were extremely painful for Johnny. I...I never wanted to hurt him like that. Never. I feel like such a failure."

Her warm hands encased his much larger one. "You are not a failure. The pain will ease; for both of you. The difference is that now the wounds can begin to heal; that wasn't possible before the truth was told."

"There are more truths that I need to tell," Murdoch pledged more to himself than to her.

Catherine spoke not a word, but the pure pride in her smile meant more to him than any words ever could. As soon as things were finally settled with Johnny, he would, he would *make* the time to talk to Scott. While he was sure to make other mistakes along the way, he would never repeat the same mistakes he had already made with his younger son. 

*** *** *** ***

The following morning, Scott entered the kitchen through the outside door and found his father already seated at the table, nursing a steaming cup of coffee. There was a huge plate of eggs, bacon, sausage and biscuits in front of him. His mother was helping Maria at the stove, and he was happy to see the two women working together to prepare the family breakfast. Once Teresa was back, he had little doubt that there would be enough room for both women in the Lancer household. "Good morning," he greeted them all cheerfully.

"Good morning, Scott." Murdoch set down his coffee and eyed Scott speculatively. "You have good news, I hope."

Scott practically bounced with pride as he stepped over to the table and sat down. "Very good news, Sir. We have *two* new colts in the Lancer stable."

"Twins?" Murdoch's initial shock almost instantly turned to concern. "Is the mare all right? And what about the foals?"

"All three are doing just fine, Sir."

Catherine handed Scott a cup of coffee and placed a hand on his shoulder. "You must be so proud, Son. I can't wait to see them."

"Thank you, Mother." Scott took a sip of coffee, savoring the robust flavor that only Maria seemed able to brew from the beans. Even the most refined chefs back in Boston had never been able to achieve this level of excellence. "They are fine looking colts, too; long sturdy legs, wide chests, and very well formed heads. The first one may turn out a little more stocky than Charlemagne, but not overly so, and if they turn out as well as they look now, they will be two very fine mounts one day."

Maria suddenly cried out a Spanish expletive as the grease on the stove flamed. Catherine hurried over to help her, but the fire was out before she even got there. Scott listened in wonder at the ease with which Boston-bred mother was carrying on the conversation of flurried Spanish about why bacon grease had to be so flammable. As comfortable as he had become with the bilingual way of life that was Lancer, he did not think he would ever get to the point of it not being a surprise when it was his mother doing the speaking.  

With the cooking threat over, Murdoch frowned and stared at Scott over the rim of his cup. "You'll need to watch that mare, Son. Some don't take too well to twins, favoring one foal over the other, even to the point of doing the less-favored one physical harm."

Scott nodded his agreement. "I saw that happen once and it wasn't a pleasant sight. So far Freya seems to be handling them both pretty well. There was a minor skirmish when they tried to nurse at the same time, but it was just between the foals. Freya hardly seemed to notice. So far, she hasn't shown any signs of favoritism."

Nodding, Murdoch set his coffee down and started in on his breakfast. "That's good, Scott. Most of the mares I've seen ended up indifferent or aggressive became very soon after foaling. Shouldn't take more than a couple of days to know for sure if there is going to be a problem."

This statement agreed with what Scott had heard before. "I'm hoping things continue as they have so far. I'm sure we could handle an orphan foal, but it will make things so much easier if Freya will be a proper broodmare to both of them." After taking another sip of coffee, Scott continued. "It was only an hour or so after the second foal was born and they were both on their feet stumbling around. Neither one fell more than once, but they're still a little wobbly. When I left them, they were sleeping off their first morning's activities."

Scott chuckled as he set his coffee down in anticipation of the breakfast Maria was carrying his way, while his mother was busy preparing yet another plate. "Cipriano said he can't recall seeing two colts who were so rambunctious so soon after being foaled."

Murdoch smiled, but his left eyebrow was raised high on his forehead. "How about you? Did you get any rest last night?"

Scott took another drink of coffee and nodded. Maria set the overloaded plate down in front of him. His stomach growled loudly, and Maria scolded him affectionately in Spanish; something about withering away to nothingness, which was far from the truth, but Scott felt hard pressed to argue with her this morning. Not only had he not returned to the house to sleep, he had not returned to finish his dinner, either.

"I managed to catch a little sleep out in the barn," he admitted as sliced open a hot biscuit and loaded it with a thick coating of butter. "Both foals were here a little after midnight, but I wanted to keep an eye out for any trouble. I fell asleep for a little while." He looked up as his mother set a tray on the end of the counter, on which she then deposited another plate of hot food and cup of coffee. "Is that for Johnny?"

"Yes. Your father woke him just before you came in. Johnny swore he was famished, so I thought I'd take this up to him while you two ate." With the coffee pot in hand, she moved over next to Murdoch and refilled his cup. Afterwards, she gave Scott a motherly look of concern. "You must be feeling that way yourself, considering that you never finished your dinner from last night. I found it untouched in the oven this morning."

Scott blushed in response to the mothering tone that he was not used to hearing, but he was already on his feet, his own breakfast and coffee in hand. He slipped around the end of the table and over to the counter, where he carefully nudged Johnny's coffee cup to the side so he could stow his own breakfast on the tray for the trip upstairs. "You two enjoy yourselves. I'll take this up to Johnny. He'll want to know about the colts, and there are a few things we need to discuss."

Although he did not think his tone had been either angry or confrontational, Murdoch must have taken it as one or the other because he surged to his feet. "Scott-" He stopped when Catherine grabbed him by the arm.

Slightly annoyed by both his parents' reactions, Scott scolded his mother first. "Mother, I am quite capable of dealing with Murdoch's concerns myself." He gazed pointedly at her hand, which slowly slipped from Murdoch's arm.

His point made, he turned to his father. "Johnny and I need to talk, Sir." He allowed a small smile to curl the side of his mouth. "Don't worry, I'm pretty sure we can manage to get things worked out without any bloodshed." With tray in hand he headed for the archway. Just as he exited the kitchen, he added over his shoulder, "Or soup spillage." 

*** *** *** ***

Balancing the tray on his left arm, Scott lifted the door handle with his right hand and entered his bedroom, grimacing at the twinge of pain. His neck was still stiff from those few hours of sleep in the barn, but he had no one to blame but himself. Johnny's bed had been available, and he would have used it if he had not been so concerned about how Freya would react to the colts. Truth was, he would have spent most of the night in the barn, even if his own bed had been unoccupied.

As he entered his room, he noticed that Johnny was already propped up against the headboard by an assortment of pillows; Murdoch's doing, no doubt. Johnny's welcoming smile was genuine enough, but could not fully mask the hurt that flashed briefly in those deep blue eyes. They both had things to say to each other, but Scott held no real fear that he and Johnny would be unable to get things squared.

This would not be the first time they had ended up on different sides of an issue, and it would not be the last. Still, they both worked diligently to make things right whenever something went wrong because their relationship was an important part of both of them.

Unwilling to let the imminent discussion get him down just yet, Scott approached the bed with a lighthearted greeting. "Rumor has it that you might be a little hungry."

"Not hungry, starved." Johnny's response was delivered just as cheerfully, but as soon as Scott placed the tray on his lap, he added a little hesitantly, "Don't know that I'm up for two full helpings, though."

"That's good, because I would hate to disappoint you. One of those is mine." Scott pulled his reading chair closer to the washstand. He could hold his plate without a table, but would need someplace to set his coffee while he ate. By the time he had retrieved his breakfast and settled himself in the chair, Johnny was in the process of making a good-sized dent in his eggs.

Scott bit into the biscuit he had buttered down at the table, sending a drizzle of butter oozing down his chin. A quick swipe of his napkin took care of that minor problem. As he was about to take a bite of his eggs, he stated with teasing nonchalance, "Freya foaled last night."

"That's great!" Johnny exuberantly exclaimed, nearly choking on his eggs in the process. After taking a drink of his coffee to wash his eggs down, he asked, "What was it; colt or filly?"

"Colts." Scott feigned indifference, even though he knew his eyes would give away his excitement. "Both of them."

Across the bed, Johnny's face lit up even more, and he let out a soft whistle. "Two of 'em? Shouldn't be so surprised, though. That mare was big enough to be having a whole herd all by herself." With his concern mirroring that of Murdoch's from a few minutes ago, he added, "They're all doing okay, ain't they?"

Appreciating Johnny's mindfulness of the potential hazards, Scott nodded. "All three of them are doing just fine. Freya has shown no signs of rejecting either one of the colts. So far she's being the perfect broodmare."

"That's great, Boston." The smile on Johnny's smile faded, and he looked down at his plate, fiddling in his eggs with his fork before heaving a deep sigh.


"I was just thinking that I sure wish I had listened to you back when you tried to get me to find a nice mare for Barranca."

Scott's joy over his new colts instantly faded as the reality of his brother's losses during the recent storm returned with a vengeance. Not only the recollection of what Johnny had lost, but how he had lost it. Scott shuddered slightly at the memory of the once feisty palomino, lying still in death, the ominous dark stain in the middle of his forehead telling of something even more heartbreaking. "Johnny, I'm really sorry about Barranca. He was a very fine animal."

Johnny gave a jerky nod, but his head remained bowed, his fork still stirring at his breakfast, but not for any real reason. "It's not just that he was such a good horse, Scott. He could have been the oldest, most swaybacked nag to ever live and I'd'a felt like he was the most..."

The thought was left unfinished and Scott wondered what Johnny was trying to say. He had always assumed that most of Johnny's affections for the animal were because of the rather impressive nature of the horse himself. If that wasn't it, then what? He waited patiently while Johnny played in his food. As Scott knew he would, Johnny eventually continued his thought.

"Barranca was the first thing Murdoch ever gave me." Johnny's voice was barely audible, but the deep sense of loss over something that could never be replaced rang loudly in the trembling tones.

At that moment Scott would have done anything to ease his brother's pain, but there were no words to say that could come close to making that hurt go away. To most people the palomino stallion would have been considered a practical necessity for a horseless ranch hand, but Johnny had seen Barranca as so much more. Having to put Barranca down by his own hand only added to the unfairness of the whole situation.

The sound of heavy footfalls on the stairs distracted Scott for a brief moment, and he found himself hoping that Murdoch would stay away just a little while longer. He knew their father was worried about everything that had happened recently would remain an issue between his two sons, but this was something that he and Johnny were going to have to work out on their own. To his relief, the footfalls faded and Murdoch's form never appeared in the doorway. All thoughts of their father disappeared when Johnny resumed speaking.

"Scott, I know I ain't got no right asking anything of you, especially not now, but..."

Without hesitating, Scott interjected firmly, "Johnny, you're my brother. What ever it is, if it can be done I will do it."

The sorrow in Johnny's voice turned to frustration. "I need to finish the job myself," he slapped at his blanket-covered left leg and heaved a frustrated sigh, "but it don't look like I'm going anywhere any time soon. By then it'll be too late. Might even be by now," he added with a sad shake of his head.

Something about the word 'job' sounded so fatally familiar that Scott instantly gained awareness of exactly what it was that Johnny was trying to ask. And he would do it, too, if some very good and caring people had not already handled the matter. "It's already been taken care of, Brother."

Johnny's head came up slowly, eyes filled with questions and remorse searched Scott's for answers. Scott wasn't about to make Johnny ask those questions, nor was he going to take credit where credit wasn't due. "Jelly, Cipriano, and a few of the hands buried him yesterday. He's up on the hill overlooking the hacienda, under the big oak tree." Scott's smile broadened as Johnny's expression reflected his understanding. "It was his favorite spot, after all."

Again, Johnny looked away. He swallowed hard several times, and Scott waited patiently for him to regain his composure. Instead, Johnny's attention returned to the remainder of his breakfast, which was as much a relief as anything for Scott. It had been at least two days that they knew of since Johnny had eaten anything, and he had serious doubts as to how well or often Johnny had eaten after Scott's sudden departure on Saturday morning. Using this time wisely, Scott satisfied his own gnawing hunger. He wanted to be as fresh and alert as possible for the talk that was to come.

After a few minutes of clinking metal against china, Johnny set his fork down on his plate. When he spoke, his voice was filled with more frustration and pain than sadness or anger. "Why'd you take off without saying anything at all?"

Setting his nearly empty plate aside, Scott leaned forward in his chair. His elbows were resting on his knees as he looked down at his hands. This was the question he had known would be coming from the moment he made the decision to leave for San Francisco without even talking to Johnny first, yet he still found it difficult to find the right words to explain his actions. "I wanted to spare your feelings," he started, only to stop short and shake his head at the lameness of that excuse.

Chancing a look up at Johnny, Scott found a pair of sky blue eyes demanding a more reasonable explanation. "Johnny, I did what I thought was best," Scott admitted. "I had no idea why Murdoch would send for only me, not when everything pointed to something from your past as being at issue. To be honest, it just didn't sit too well with me."

Looking down at his hands, Scott nervously picked loose a small piece of dirt from under his left thumbnail. "Johnny, I went to San Francisco to confront Murdoch, to tell him that we were not going to put up with this kind of behavior from him ever again. We are his family and we have the right to be more informed about things he knew would make us worry."

"You couldn't've done that with me along?"

The betrayal in Johnny's words hurt Scott more than any physical blow could. Still, he felt that he owed Johnny the whole truth, even if it was not going to be what Johnny wanted to hear. "No, I couldn't. I never would have gotten the chance. You would have torn into Murdoch without giving me an opportunity to present a rational case upon which to argue against his actions."

"That's because it wasn't your place to be confronting Murdoch," Johnny snapped. "Yeah, I know this whole thing turned out to be about your mamma being alive, but Murdoch asking about my mamma's grave was my problem to deal with, just like it was about him making it seem like it was my past that was the problem."

On this, Scott most certainly did not agree. "No, Johnny, it *was* and *is* a family problem."

"So you're saying I ain't family?" Johnny's voice quivered. The resentment was gone, and in its place was only hurt.

"Johnny, that's not what I meant, and you know it." Scott ran his hand through his hair and signed heavily. This was not going the way he had hoped. "We were all being affected, Johnny. What concerned me most, though, was that when you and Murdoch start butting heads over your past or your mother, both of you get too caught up in those bygone hurts to see how much you're continuing to hurt each other in the present. Here at the ranch, you can storm out and cool off, but I wasn't sure how you'd react in San Francisco. I'm sorry if that sounds like I didn't trust you-"

"Gracias," Johnny interrupted with acceptance and gratitude. "Trust ain't never been an issue, and you know it."

Scott smiled softly. Yes, he did know it, but it felt very good to hear Johnny affirm those beliefs. The real issue was acceptance, and they both knew that, too. "Johnny, one day you're going to accept that you don't have to handle everything by yourself anymore."

With his head bowed and nervous fingers picking at the hem of the blanket, Johnny mumbled softly, "Neither do you."

A good point that Scott could not deny, even if his heart did not want to hear it. "Johnny, I'll always feel the need to protect you. I know that sounds rather stupid, given the life you've lived, but maybe that's part of why I feel so strongly about it. You've never had anyone to stick up for you before, and now that I'm here, I want to be that someone."

"Scott, I'm sorry. I don't know why I acted the way I did, taking off and then getting so darn mean."

"Yes, you do, Brother," Scott countered firmly. Johnny looked up at him in shock, but Scott's gaze was steady and full of conviction. So much so that Johnny looked away again. "You wanted to hurt us, plain and simple."


"I'm not finished yet, Johnny," Scott interrupted. "I realize that circumstances got away from all of us, and I understand your need to protect yourself. Knowing that you didn't have all the facts does not make what you said any less painful, it does, however, make this something we can work through."

"I reckon that's more than I deserve," Johnny mumbled.

Over the past year Scott had learned a lot about this man he called brother. If Johnny had actually meant any of the hurtful things he would not hesitate to own up to it. He would be looking Scott dead in the eye and have no problem repeating them all, word for word. Everything about Johnny's current posture - the bowed head, the occasional hard swallow, the near cringing slope of his shoulders - said that he did know he was wrong, that he did regret it, and that he was full expecting to feel the wrath of someone he had insulted and hurt for what turned out to no good reason.

That is what Johnny would think he deserved, but there was a huge flaw in his line of thinking - at the time Johnny actually did all that, when he spoke those heated words, he honestly believed that he had some very good reasons for lashing out at all of them. That was what made all the difference. That was what made it all something that they could get beyond, their bond intact, and maybe even stronger than before.

There was only one issue that Scott felt he had to address, specifically. This particularly disturbing thought that had been wallowing in the back of his mind since the moment Johnny had made it an insulting issue, and if they did not get it settled, then it could become something that stayed between them. "Tell me something, Johnny."

"What's that?" Johnny's voice was wary as he looked over at Scott, his eyes focusing intently on his brother's face.

"Tell me why you chose to make an issue out of my feelings about being in Johnny Madrid's shadow."

Johnny's expression shifted, the wariness became a wavering uncertainty, almost as if he thought that should be a given and did not quite know how to respond. "I did what I know best, Scott; I made the most of the advantage where there was one. You gotta know that I'll never stop regretting saying any of them things, but it ain't like I had a whole lot of choices of where to take aim."

Resentment deluged every fiber of Scott's being. "What do you mean you didn't have a whole lot of choices?"

Johnny's eyes narrowed and he studied Scott carefully. His explanation came hesitantly, but with conviction. "I mean that there just ain't too many ways to get to you. It may have taken you a little while to get used to the way things is done out here, but you stood your ground and made yourself into a damn good rancher. Ain't never known you to lie without good reason, and you've stayed loyal to a few that never deserved trusting in the first place." Straight faced as ever, Johnny added, "The ladies is right fond of you, too."

"You make it sound like I'm perfect," Scott lamented unhappily.

Johnny looked away, but the slight twitch at the edge of his mouth gave him away. "Nah, you ain't perfect, but you'll do."

Not yet ready to accept Johnny's subtle attempt at humor, Scott pressed his brother for an answer. "Seriously, Johnny. Do you really see me that way?"

Johnny re-initiated his intense stare, but said nothing. This lasted long enough to make Scott shift nervously in his seat. "Well?"

The stare was broken and a brief nod preceded Johnny's explanation. "Most of the time, but I get the feeling you think I mean that in a bad way, and that just ain't so. You make your share of mistakes, same as anyone else. It just seems to me that most of the time when you do something wrong, it's for some right reason. That don't make you perfect, but it does make you someone I respect."

Scott stared down at his hands, studying the calloused palms that were the badges of his hard working lifestyle. He had earned his place at Lancer, and he was proud of his abilities. Still, something about what Johnny was saying made him feel very uncomfortable. "Johnny, I don't always make the *right* mistakes."

"Never said you did, just that it seemed that way most of the time." Johnny's voice actually softened a little. "One of the biggest of them *wrong* mistakes was when you was feeling like you was in my shadow. That was just plain stupid, Scott. Any man who'd doubt that you was capable of taking care of your own self is a damn fool."

Johnny snorted and gave a short laugh. "Heck, I had that one figured that first day; you took on Coley and two of Pardee's men and were still walking when it was over. I tell you, if I hadn't been pretty darn sure you could handle yourself, I'd'a never led Pardee into that ambush. If you hadn't a been there, that would have been a very fatal move for me and a lot of other people, including Teresa and Murdoch."

Although Scott could follow Johnny's logic, he still wasn't overly fond of what he considered his nearly perfect status from his brother's perspective. That was something that would have to be dealt with over time, though. Before he could come up with anything to say, Johnny began speaking again, and the hard edge was back in his tone.

"Another of them *wrong* mistakes was not telling me about that last telegram from Murdoch. When I found out that you'd left me behind, without even saying a word, I was..." Johnny stopped, a deep frown on his face as he clearly struggled with himself about something.

"You were what, Johnny?" Scott pressed.

The frown instantly turned to an angry glare. "I was mad as hell, Scott! Madder than I ever been at you. I think maybe part of me knew you wouldn't have done it for no bad reason, but it still hurt. It hurt worse than anything Murdoch ever done."

It was the hurt more than the anger in Johnny's words that left Scott shocked. "Why, Johnny? Why was what I did so much worse?"

"Because I don't expect things like that from you!" Johnny's eyes flashed with pain. "You're my brother, my compadre. I trust you. I don't expect *you* to be the one stabbing me in the back."

"I did not betray you, Johnny," Scott countered forcefully, but calmly. "If you really trust me, then you would have more faith in me than that."

"You mean like all that faith you had in me?" Johnny countered right back.

That truth hurt. As much as Scott hated to admit it, Johnny had another very valid point. "Listen, Johnny, maybe I should have told you what was going on, but based on what I knew at the time I made the decision not to. I wanted to spare you from being hurt any more than you already had been, but instead I succeeded in doing exactly the opposite." Some of the previous resentment emerged and he added sarcastically, "I guess I'm not so perfect after all."

"You're really bothered by that, ain't you?" Johnny asked softly, all traces of anger gone from both his voice and his expression.

"Yes, I am. I should not be held to a higher standard just because I do tend to think before I act." Two pairs of blue eyes met and locked, neither giving in, but both hanging on to what was most important. "I would do it again, Johnny. I'm sorry if that isn't what you want to hear, but given the same circumstances I would make the same decision. I would hope that things would turn out better than they have this time, but my intent was to right a wrong without causing you any more pain, and for that I will not apologize."

Johnny was silent for a long moment, then nodded in agreement. "You ever gonna forgive me for calling you almost perfect?"

The peace offering in Johnny's soft drawl was a soothing balm to Scott's nerves. "Only if you forgive me for being less than perfect."

For a moment the twinkle in Johnny's eyes brightened, but it quickly died out, leaving behind only a nervous fear. This time, however, Johnny did not look away. "How about for them other things I said?"

Scott returned his brother's stare with a steadfast one of his own. This was the brother he both respected and loved. They had both made mistakes - some were made in the name of ignorance, some out of a desire to spare the other pain. Decisions made under less-than-ideal circumstances could not be judged too harshly after the fact. That was not to say that there was no limit to what Scott would take from his brother, but this incident had not even come close to reaching that point. They both had regrets, they both had the need to forgive and be forgiven.

"Johnny, if you ever say anything like that about my mother again, you will live to regret it," Scott stated bluntly and in total honesty. "However, looking beyond everything that happened to consider the circumstances that lead up to it all, as far as I'm concerned, things are okay between us."

Johnny's eyes gleamed with relief, and his shoulders no longer sagged as if they were holding up an unbearable burden. "Thanks, Brother. I hate it when we're at odds." The pain faded and an almost shy smile formed on his lips. "I didn't get a chance to say it before, but I'm really happy for you, Scott, having your mamma back, and all. You don't show it much, but I could tell that never knowing her was pretty hard for you."

The genuine sincerity in Johnny's voice said more than any words ever could. "I know you'll probably side with Murdoch on this one, but I understand how you feel. I ain't never gonna regret knowing mine, even if she did lie to me about us being kicked out of here. Mamma's ain't always perfect, but they're something very special."

Johnny's mention that their father might still be incapable of accepting of Johnny's right to love his mother made Scott's feelings of good cheer falter. "I thought you two talked. Got things squared."

"We talked. We even came to an understanding of sorts about my mamma. As for the other, we'll see," Johnny sounded dejected, but not totally defeated. "I ain't gonna set myself up for a big let down, Scott. I listened and I'll give the Old Man a chance, but he's gonna have to prove he meant them words. If he don't give me a good reason not to, my decision to find someplace else to live will still stand."

Johnny turned away to stare out the window. "He cost me too much this time. I ain't gonna lose no more." 

*** *** *** *** 

Armed with a definitive goal, Murdoch descended the stairs as swiftly as his back and leg would allow, slowing his pace only long enough to open and close the front door. His eyes took in every detail of his surroundings as he left the house behind. Just as he rounded the side of the barn, he spied his objectives on the near side of the corral. 

"Ain't he a beaut, boss? A real nice looking colt, if'n I ever seen one," Jelly practically crowed over one of Scott's new colts. "The only one nicer'd have ta be that one ov'r there," he nodded towards where Cipriano was watching the second newborn foal nursing.

"Yes, they are both handsome animals." Murdoch motioned for Cipriano to join them.

Jelly continued petting the colt's nose while he and Cipriano listened intently to what Murdoch had to say. Only when Murdoch finished did either man respond, and then it was to exchange dumbfounded looks between themselves. As if he were afraid Murdoch's determination would waver, Jelly winced even as he asked, "Yer sure about that, boss?"

"I'm sure, Jelly." Letting his steadfast gaze shift between the two me, Murdoch gave a firm nod. "Whatever it takes. Use your best judgment."

"Yes, sir," Jelly and Cipriano nodded in unison. 

*** *** *** ***

Scott removed his hat and gave the late afternoon sun an annoying glare. It was too hot for April, and he was already dreading the heat of the coming summer. He remembered how, last summer, he had longed for the coolness of Boston, where a crisp breeze blowing in off the Atlantic Ocean could almost always to be found. Here in the California sun, however, there was no ocean nearby and no relief from the already sweltering heat. Wiping the sweat from his brow with his sleeve, he mounted Charlemagne and headed back for the house.

While he had not exactly accomplished what he set out to do, he had refined the search area and eliminated the paths that would not lead to his goal. It had taken him from late morning until now, but he had looked at every piece of horseflesh Lancer owned, and was now very sure that he would have to look elsewhere to find his objective.

No horse would ever be able to replace Barranca in Johnny's heart, but the reality was that his brother would be needing a good mount for working and just getting around. By the time Johnny was up and around, Scott fully intended to have at least a couple horses from which his brother could chose. While he did feel a slight twinge of disappointment at not finding at least one suitable animal, he also realized that it would have been sheer luck if he had.

Sam had said Johnny would be in the casts for six weeks, so he had time. It might even be for the best that he had not found one so soon. Despite the plaster casts weighing his legs down, Scott had his doubts that they would be completely successful at keeping Johnny off his feet. Having a new horse waiting for him might prove to be too much of a temptation, and if there was any way possible to get up and around, Johnny would be resourceful enough to find it.

For the rest of the ride back to the hacienda, Scott mapped out a plan in his mind of where to search and when. There was a big horse sale up in Stockton in a few weeks, but with Johnny out of commission, Murdoch might balk at letting him take a few days off. However, Murdoch would just have to balk. Scott was not going to let anyone or anything derail his plans. Until then, there was a lot of unexpected work that would demand that he put forth an extra effort.

Not only had the storms of a few nights ago left the line shack destroyed and the north gully full of debris, a flash flood in one of the nearby creeks had taken out a bridge that they would need in a few weeks when it came time to move the herd for summer grazing. Just about every hand on Lancer was cleaning the gully or rebuilding that bridge.

As the bridge was the immediate priority, he planned to head out with that work crew in the morning. The job should not take more than a week to complete, then he would turn his attention to the north gully. Once it was cleared, it would be time to start the spring roundup and begin moving the herd from the winter range. He had been through the roundup last spring, but this time he would have a year's worth of experience under his belt.

A hint of a smile tugged at Scott lips as he dismounted in front of the barn. Last year Johnny had been laid up recovering from Pardee's bullet and had missed out on participating in what should have been their first roundup together. Granted, Johnny had been part of the fall roundup to move the herd to the winter grazing, but Scott felt it was his duty to give his little brother a few teasing remarks about how he had once again managed to find a way out of the springtime ordeal.

After tending to Charlemagne and spending a few minutes with Freya and the colts, Scott headed for the house, choosing to enter through the kitchen door so he could check on the possibility of a bath before dinner. All thoughts of a bath were pushed aside, though, when he entered the kitchen to find Murdoch and his mother standing next to the kitchen table. Something about Murdoch's frown told him this might not be too good.

"Do I dare ask?" he said as he eyed the odd assortment of items spread out on the table.

"Your mother spent the day in the woodshed." The flatness of Murdoch's tone only served to confirm the lack of enthusiasm in his frown.

Taking off his hat, Scott set it down in the seat of the nearest chair and picked up one of the strange items. It appeared to be nothing but a wooden box, open on one end, and with a wheel castor attached to the bottom. For no really good reason, Scott flicked his forefinger over the wheel and sent it spinning on its axle. Murdoch's words finally sunk in and he looked up at his mother. "You made these?"

"Yes, I did," she sounded just a bit indignant, but her smile glowed with anticipation. "I'm not helpless, you know. I do know what part of a saw to hold and how to hammer a nail or two."

For some reason this did not surprise Scott at all, although it probably should. Flashing his mother a reassuring smile, he asked what he figured was the real question. "They are very nice, but what are they for?"

"Your father told me that this time of year is very busy and that it could be just Johnny and us women in the house during most of the day. I got to thinking that, if Johnny is going to be stuck in bed for as long as Dr. Jenkins indicated, then he is going to get very tired of looking at those four walls." Catherine took the item from Scott and held it up, open side to the top and the wheel-side down. "With one of these on each of the bedposts, Teresa and I will be able to move Johnny's bed over by the window without having to bother you men."

Scott thought about this for a second, then hesitantly voiced his first thought. "If we moved his bed over by the window before we put him back into it, then you and Teresa wouldn't have to worry about moving it."

"That was my thought," Murdoch interjected curtly.

Catherine sighed, but patiently explained what the men were missing. "That would be fine, too, until Johnny is trying to sleep and the sun is glaring down on him. Or if the wind gets too cold, and he needs to be moved further away. Or if he decides the walls would look better from a different perspective. You do want Johnny to be happy, don't you, Murdoch?"

Murdoch's frown deepened, but he said nothing. Scott did his best to stifle the grin wanting to break out on his face. His mother was about to get away with telling Murdoch how things should be in his own house, and she was doing a better job of it than Teresa, which was saying something. Although he would never admit it to anyone, Scott was enjoying watching his father caving, even it if was a reluctant concession. And Murdoch would cave, that was clear just by the way he was not voicing his objections. Being reserved was not something Murdoch Lancer did well.

His mother must have sensed Murdoch's impending defeat, too, because she proceeded to argue her case. "Johnny is going to be bedridden for several weeks. While these little things might not seem too important to either of you, they might just make Johnny's recovery a little more bearable for him, which in turn, could keep him from being so determined to get back on his feet. Won't that make your life more bearable, Dear?"

Although she was working the situation very admirably, Scott could not quite shake the feeling that there might be an easier way. "We could put the wheels directly on the bed posts," he suggested.

His mother tilted her head and looked thoughtfully in his direction. "I did considered that option, but when I was looking a the bedposts earlier this morning, it seemed like such a shame to mar them up with nail holes. They might even split, which would make the wheels useless and ruin a very nice piece of furniture. This seemed to be the most practical solution for a temporary measure."

Another series of good points that left Scott with only one conclusion. "Then, I suggest we try them out."

The vibrant smile that appeared on his mother's face made him appreciate her even more. "Thank you, Scott. And when you decide my carpentry skills pass the test, you and your father can move Johnny back to his own room." Handing her handiwork back to Scott, she headed for the door. "Maria and I will be preparing dinner. I'll be in the garden if you need me."

After she left, Murdoch picked up one of her creations, his brow still creased with uncertainty. "Well, what do you think, Son?"

With a slight chuckle, Scott shook his head in wonder. "I think she is a very remarkable woman."

The frown on Murdoch's face disappeared. There was nothing but genuine love in the smile that took its place. "She always was, Son. I never dreamed she would ever agree to marry me, much less have any interest in my dreams of California."

Given his own feelings on the subject, Scott was not the least bit surprised. "But she did."

Murdoch looked at Scott, his face a canvas of emotions, all of them full of hope and happiness. "Yes, she did. She left everything she had ever known for a life that..." Murdoch suddenly turned away, clearly shaken by the onslaught of some disturbing thought. His voice turned brittle and cold. "I should have listened to your grandfather. I should have walked away and left her in Boston where she belonged, where she wouldn't have lived a life in hell."

Moving to his father's side, Scott placed a comforting hand on Murdoch's shoulder. "Where she wouldn't have lived at all. Not the way she wanted to," he said softly.

Ignoring Murdoch's startled stare, Scott gathered the two remaining castors from the table and headed for the stairs. "I'll be in Johnny's room. I believe we're expected to have Johnny back in his own bed before dinner."

Scott left the kitchen, confident that Murdoch would follow as soon as he had regained his composure. He had not intended to broach that sensitive subject with Murdoch just yet; not until after he had a chance to make another attempt at bridging the gap between himself and his grandfather. However, Murdoch was here and his grandfather was not, and Murdoch was the one who seemed in need of some support.

Entering Johnny's room, Scott crouched down and deposited his mother's work on the rug beside Johnny's bed. He was extremely appreciative that she would be so concerned about Johnny's comfort, but he sincerely hoped that she would be just as vigilant when it came time to mend the fences with her own father.

Actually, Scott really wished he knew where his grandfather had gone. The claim of unexpected business in San Francisco had not rung true at the time and still did not, but Scott felt that he had no real choice but to wait for his grandfather to show up.

The sound of approaching footsteps caused Scott to glance over his shoulder, just in time to see Murdoch appear in the doorway. There was a concerned expression on his face that intensified as he looked down at Scott. Evidently his worries were showing more than he thought. With a soft snort, he shook his head at his own increasing inability to mask his emotions, and then stood to face his father.

He had never lied to Murdoch without good cause, and saw no reason to start now. "I was wondering about my grandfather, Sir."

The expected anger never materialized. Instead, Murdoch nodded and entered the room, coming to a stop when he reached the foot of Johnny's bed. "I have to admit that I've been wondering about him, myself."

This admission, sans the usual fury, puzzled Scott, yet he still felt the need to explain. "He only wants me to be happy, Murdoch. He just can't see that being here is what makes me happy." After a slight pause, Scott forged ahead. "You have to admit that his wanting his daughter near him after all these years of thinking she was dead is very understandable."

"Yes, but not when she wants to be here. With me, with you."

There was more than just a hint of a question in Murdoch's voice, and a flash of fear in his eyes, much like the fear Scott had seen yesterday, when he left Murdoch in Johnny's room to have their talk. His father's emotions were never this readable, yet there was no denying what he was seeing with his own eyes. Nor could he deny his need to ease those fears. "I'm not going anywhere, Murdoch. At least not for anything more than a visit."

Murdoch looked down at the floor, but the rise in his shoulders as he inhaled deeply revealed just how much he must have been worried about just that possibility. "I'm glad to hear you say that, Scott. I never want to lose you again." Raising his head, Murdoch looked him dead in the eye. "I love you, Son. I always have. I...there are some things I would like for us to discuss, but I would rather wait until we get through the rest of this first. I hope you understand."

Taken completely by surprise, Scott was unsure of how to react. This was a different side to his father, one that he had hoped was there, but which he had never actually seen. Still, he wasn't prepared to have this talk and was grateful for the time to gather his thoughts before it took place. "I'd like that very much, Sir. As for waiting, I agree. It would be for the best."

None of this was easy for Scott, but Murdoch was reaching out to him, and Scott felt an overwhelming need to reach back. "I love you, too, Murdoch. You and Johnny are my family, and Lancer is my home. I hope my grandfather will come to accept that fact, and accept that I cannot be happy in Boston anymore." Scott sighed heavily and unburdened himself to his father. "He seemed to be genuinely trying to understand when I talked to him in San Francisco, but I've been worried ever since we left. We should have heard something by now."

"I didn't realize you and Harlan got a chance to talk. When you weren't upset with him, anyway." Surprisingly, Murdoch seemed relieved that some dialogue had taken place.

"We talked that last night," Scott admitted, then added before he realized how it would sound, "I believe you and my mother were also doing the same thing in your room."

Murdoch actually turned red, clearing his throat as he moved to the far side of Johnny's bed. "We only talked, Scott," he muttered while making out like he was inspecting the headboard bedpost.

"Of course you did, Sir," Scott agreed quickly as his own feelings of unease made him want to change the subject, too. No child liked to consider their parents as sexual beings, and especially not when Scott could so vividly recall some of the things he had done between the sheets with a few of the more adventurous ladies back in Boston. "If we're going to get Johnny moved before dinner, we better get started. I'll lift the corner, and you slip that under the leg."

"Let's get it done."

Murdoch shifted backwards enough to allow Scott to get between him and the wall. With a little effort, and one slightly dented finger when Murdoch's hand slipped just as Scott took a step backwards, they managed to get all four wheeled boxes in place. While they made bed almost a foot higher, that would actually make it easier to maneuver Johnny around during his weeks of incapacity.

"Now, let's see how it moves," Scott said. After removing the small rugs from each side of the bed, he and Murdoch pushed the bed across the floor and then back into place with very little effort.

"Of course, it will be heavier with Johnny in it, but even so, I think Catherine and Teresa will be able to push it fairly easily." Murdoch seemed almost surprised, then shook his head and frowned.

"What?" Scott inquired.

"I was wondering why we didn't think of this ourselves," Murdoch stopped long enough to let out an amused chuckle. "Then I wondered if these contraptions would spend more time on Johnny's bed than off."

"Definitely off, Sir," Scott stated with a grin. "Even if Johnny does tend to get into more trouble than anyone else on the ranch, he is also the least likely to remain in bed to recuperate."

This remark caused Murdoch's brow to furrow. "You don't suppose that being able to see what's going on outside will make Johnny even more anxious to get back on his feet? Good intentions aside, they might prove to be more counterproductive than helpful."

Although Scott shared his father's concern about Johnny's ability to resist temptation, he also knew that a little taste was often enough to mollify a persistent craving. "Maybe, but it might also give him just enough of a feeling that he's not totally isolated to help him stay put for a few more days."

After chewing his lip for a few seconds, Murdoch smiled and nodded. "I guess we'll just have to wait and see." Throwing an arm around Scott's shoulders, he asked, "Are you ready to reclaim your room?"

"If my brother is ready to give it up," Scott laughed.  

*** *** *** ***

"Whoa! Watch out for that door!"

"Settle down, Johnny. We're not going to run you into the door."

Murdoch winced, more from the strain on his back than from any annoyance over what had to be Johnny's tenth warning since they lifted him from Scott's bed. Moving him into Scott's room had been much less of an ordeal, but at that time Johnny had been too upset to worry about little things like doors and walls and windows and bedposts and perceived pockets of unusually thick air.

Despite the shooting pains in his back, Murdoch's hold remained steady. They finally managed to get Johnny into his own bed, and without hitting anything in between. One glimpse of the sly grin on Scott's face told him that his elder son was finding the whole thing amusing, which surprisingly did not annoy him as it might have not too long ago. Even he had to admit that many of his feelings had changed since he found himself in love once again.

"Wait a minute. Somethin' ain't right here." Johnny's brow was creased and he was surveying the area around his bed with a wary eye.

Scott sat down beside Johnny, barely, as there wasn't much room for the downward part of the effort with the bed being so much higher than normal. This fact did not go unnoticed and Johnny was immediately leaning for all he was worth to peer over the edge of the mattress. "What are them things?" he demanded.

"Wheels," Scott stated matter-of-factly.

"Why do I need wheels on my bed?" Johnny's eyes narrowed. "You gonna bring a team of harness horses up here next?"

Murdoch tried to stifle his laugh, but Scott did not even make that much of an effort, laughing openly at Johnny's absurd commentary. "No, Johnny. Horses are not allowed upstairs. That's a house rule, I believe."

"Horses are not allowed in the house, period," Murdoch added quickly, before either of his sons could come up with a not-so-bright idea.

With his arms crossed belligerently across his chest, Johnny reiterated his original question. "Fine, then why'd you put wheels on my bed?"

Murdoch easily recognized the telltale signs of his younger son's patience wearing thin. Johnny did not like surprises when it came to his private domain, and his room was just that. "Johnny, there is no reason to get upset."

Taking a seat on the edge of the mattress, across from where Scott was still perched, Murdoch started out by reminding Johnny this was not a short-term condition that he could simply ignore. "Son, your legs are broken. It's going to be weeks before you can get up and about, no matter how good you feel otherwise. There is just no getting around it."

The frown on Johnny's face deepened and became increasingly defiant with each word Murdoch spoke. "Johnny, I mean it. I'm sorry, but that's the way it has to be. If you don't behave now, you could end up crippled when those bones don't heal correctly."

"Johnny, Murdoch's right and you know it," Scott added his voice to the argument.

"Yeah, I know," Johnny mumbled reluctantly.

As usual, it was Scott who got through to his brother. With that task accomplished, a hint of teasing made it's way into Scott's voice. "I must admit that getting flattened by a tornado is a rather unique way of avoiding spring roundup, Little Brother. I do hope you put a stop to this nonsense before there's nothing left to try except hanging yourself."

Murdoch's amusement instantly faded and he looked up, startled by Scott's seemingly insensitive words. However, the ghost of a smile on Scott's face was mirrored in the slight twitch at the corner of Johnny's lips, both serving as blatant reminders to Murdoch of just how well his sons knew each other. Murdoch could help the pang of jealously he felt over what they shared without him, but he quickly pushed that useless notion aside. He had no one to blame but himself.

"I think I got a couple more years before I have to resort to that," Johnny teased back. "Besides, hangin's too much effort. Got me a gun if I ever have them thoughts."

Murdoch was looking at Johnny and saw the briefest fluctuation in the teasing gleam in Johnny's eyes. For just that instant, he thought he saw hurt, pain, maybe even a hint of guilt, and his heart skipped a beat. Was it possible that Johnny had, at some time, seriously contemplated such a dire act?

Before Murdoch realized what was happening, he heard his thoughts being spoken aloud, and in an extremely angry tone. "I'll give you a lifetime reprieve from roundups of any kind before I'll stand by and let that happen." Caught off guard by his own lapse, Murdoch looked from one pair of startled blue eyes to another, even darker blue pair. 

"We was just joshin', Murdoch," Johnny's soft voice broke the uncomfortable silence.

Their eyes locked and Murdoch knew that he had, indeed, struck a nerve with his younger son. The very thought of either of his sons doing harm to themselves terrified him, but he shoved his pain back behind the wall of self-control. "I'm sorry for snapping, Boys. I just don't like to consider losing either one of you, and definitely not like that."

"That ain't about to happen, Murdoch," Johnny assured his father with a cheeky grin. "Now, what about them wheels?"

Murdoch cleared his throat, forever thankful that Johnny had redirected the conversation away from that painful subject. "Yes, well, as I was saying, you're going to be off your feet for a few weeks. Between the roundup and the extra work caused by the storm the other night, your brother and I aren't going to be around the house that much, either. You're pretty much going to have to depend on Teresa and Catherine during the day."

The unpleasant scowl forming on Johnny's face was enough to hurry Murdoch along. "The wheels will make it possible for the women to push your bed over by the window when the weather is nice and move it back over here if you need to rest out of the sun or if the weather should turn bad. Catherine thought it would make you less restless if you could at least see what was going on outside."

To Murdoch's surprise and pleasure, Johnny's expression immediately softened at the mention of it being Catherine's idea. He seized the unusual opening without hesitation. "Catherine worked very hard on this, Son. It would mean a lot to her if you would make an attempt to cooperate, at least for a little while."

Johnny looked shocked. "You let her loose in the work shed?"

"She's not helpless, Johnny. She knows what part of a saw to hold and how to hammer a nail or two," Scott repeated his mother's own protests, but his exaggerated impersonation of her reproach was met with nothing more than a dubious stare. "Her words, not mine," Scott admitted with slight grin. 

"Oh, I ain't doubting her abilities none, Boston," Johnny said in total sincerity. "I'm just surprised the Old Man let her do it."

If he hadn't caught the teasing twitch at the corner of Johnny's mouth, Murdoch might have been offended by that remark. Instead, his son's attempt at humor only heightened his pride in his former wife. "Catherine always did have a mind of her own. That was one of the things I found most refreshing about her. She was never clingy or demure, and if she had something to say, she said it. And it wasn't just frivolous female inconsequentialities, either. She could hold her own in just about any conversation."

While not exactly sure why, Murdoch looked up to see two pairs of blue eyes staring intently in his direction. He locked eyes with his older son, with their son, and the sense of pure joy in Scott's expression nearly brought tears to his eyes. Scott had missed so much in the years he had been denied his mother, years that were forever lost to them. It was a miracle that they were together now, and he would do his best to make sure that nothing ever came between them again.

"Did the wheels work?" Catherine asked from the doorway.

"Don't know yet," Johnny answered first. "I can't get these two lunkheads to quit jawin' and get to pushin'. I ain't got no doubts, mind you, but the way they been tryin' to put this off, I'm just not too sure they have too much faith in your abilities, ma'am."

"Pay him no mind, Mother," Scott lamented. "You'll find that Johnny gets very delusional whenever he's laid up for too long."

"Says who?!" Johnny leaned forward and smacked Scott playfully in the stomach.

"Says me, Little Brother." Scott's reply was accompanied by a swift lurch forward, and in a matter of seconds, he had Johnny subdued with a playful headlock. However, despite his severely restricted position, Johnny was not about to concede defeat, and the struggle was on.

Murdoch wisely stood and moved out of the way. Joining Catherine by the door, he said with a slight shake of his head, "Sometimes they actually act their age, though to see them now one would have serious doubts."

Catherine laughed. "I think they're rather adorable."

"Adorable?" Murdoch frowned. "I can think of a few more accurate words to describe them at this moment."

With a raised eyebrow, Catherine leaned into his embrace and gave him a sly grin. "I recall the mention of a few brouhahas between you and a few of those rowdy men you worked with down at the docks back in Boston."

"I never engaged in brouhahas," Murdoch denied with an indignant snort.

"Murdoch Aonghus Lancer! It seems I'm not the only one around here with a memory problem." 

*** *** *** *** 

Over on the bed, Scott and Johnny were comically frozen, mid-wrestle. Scott's arm was still wrapped loosely around Johnny's neck, while his body practically lay on top of his brother's shoulders, nearly bending Johnny in half at the waist. Johnny's head was tilted at an odd angle, and the shocked look on his face mirrored that of Scott's as they both gazed quizzically at Murdoch. 

"Aonghus?" the two young men asked in unison, two voices echoing their disbelief.

"Thank you, Catherine," Murdoch groaned.

Murdoch tensed, and Catherine braved a quick peek up at him. His sour expression left her wondering if the humor of the situation would be enough to outweigh his obvious ill ease.   

In the meantime, Scott and Johnny had regained the use of their bodies and quickly righted themselves, the reason for their horseplay all but forgotten. Scott smoothed the blanket back over Johnny's legs and lap before plopping down beside his brother. Both men sat with their backs propped up against the headboard, shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed over their chests.

The expectant look on their faces only added to Catherine's temptation to burst out laughing, but she somehow managed to maintain her composure, though she was not entirely sure how long it would last. It seemed that Murdoch had not lied when he said he had difficulty discussing personal issues with his sons, though she had not even considered he would have difficulty over something so superficial. "They do know you're from Scotland, don't they?"

Her hushed tone turned out to be for nothing, because Murdoch responded with an irritated growl. "Of course they know I'm from Scotland!"

"Scotland?!" Johnny yelped as if this was the most absurd statement he had ever heard. In mock indignation, he turned to Scott. "I thought you said he was from Massachusetts."

Scott shrugged and returned Johnny's mock accusation with a lopsided frown. "He met my mother in Boston. It sounded like a fair assumption to me. Besides, I thought 'From Inverness' was the name of a boat." Looking up at Murdoch, Scott's expression was so serious it was almost believable. "Is there something you would like to tell us, *Father*?" he asked sternly.

The tightness in Scott's twitching jaw was the only visible indication of his own struggle to retain control, while Johnny's sudden fit of coughing did very little to mask the loss of his. For Catherine, the way Scott had stressed the word 'father', making it sound as if he were reprimanding an errant child, was the last straw and she gave up all effort to contain her amusement.

"I'm glad you find all of this so amusing, Catherine," Murdoch complained even as she leaned against him, shaking both of them as his grumbling made her laugh even harder.

"I'm sorry, Dear," she choked out, struggling to stifle the giggles that would not go away. "I had no idea that the boys did not know your full name."

"Aonghus," Scott repeated the name with a thoughtful tone. "You know, once you get beyond the shock of hearing it for the first time, it really doesn't sound all that bad. Rather dignified, even. I take it that it is an old Scottish name?"

Recognizing her son's attempt to relieve his father's awkwardness, Catherine wiped the tears from her eyes and moved over to stand next to the bed, beside where Scott was sitting. His arm immediately slipped around her shoulder, and a true sense of belonging settled in around her. "There is a rather interesting story behind that name."


"Murdoch, please don't be like that," Catherine scolded gently. "This is your heritage. You should be proud to carry on the name of your forefathers, and your heritage is Scott and Johnny's, too. If they don't know anything, they can't pass it on to future generations."

"Yeah," Johnny chimed in, but fell silent when Scott swatted him on the arm.

Frowning unhappily, Murdoch conceded defeat by taking a seat at the foot of the bed. It took him a moment to get settled, as Johnny's feet were not easily moved the few inches that would give Murdoch the room to be comfortable for the history lesson to come.

"Mother, there's room for you to sit, too," Scott offered as he moved his legs off the bed.

With the height of the bed being above the norm, Scott had to get up and help her. She had not considered that her efforts to render Johnny's bed more mobile would also make it so much higher. "You never said if they worked," she said nervously.

"They worked just fine before we moved Johnny back in here. I'm sure they'll work now," he assured her as she got settled. "If they don't we can take them off." Scott glanced teasingly over at Murdoch as he retook his place next to Johnny. "At this particular moment, we've got more important things to discover, like a little more about our heritage, right, Brother Johnny?"

Two pair of sparkling blue eyes looked on intently, while another pair was more lackluster in their stare. Catherine sincerely hoped that she was helping them get beyond the walls of their maleness. "I won't say it was easy to find the information, but I finally located a book in this old bookstore down by the docks. It was full of legends and myths from the Old Countries - England, Scotland, Ireland, and France - and I found some interesting information about your father's name in it," she began as the younger men looked on with interest.

"I was completely captivated by his thick brogue, although your father swore that he had lost most of it in the few months he was in Boston before we met. Anyway, what I discovered was that, although frequently considered a Scottish name, Aonghus is actually derived from the Irish words, óen, which means 'one', and gus, which means 'force' or 'strength'."

She paused long enough to glance over at Murdoch, trying gauge his reaction to her words thus far. Her eyes were asking his permission, which she got in the form of a reluctant smile and a curt nod. She smiled back, thanking him with her a smile of her own. She really did want his sons to be proud of who their father was.

Despite all she had seen, it was still hard for her to comprehend that Murdoch had become so totally closed off that he had not even shared these incidental parts of the past with his boys. She was also extremely grateful that he seemed to honestly want to change that. He was just uncertain as to how to go about it after all these years. It would take some time, and some stumbles along the way, but eventually he would be able reveal himself on his own, one on one, instead of through her.

Until then, she would champion his cause with a love that was only growing stronger as he slowly regained the loving ways that had once been so openly shared with her. Without breaking eye contact with Murdoch, she spoke as if speaking only to Murdoch, "My research also revealed that Aonghus is the name of the Irish god of love and youth."

From across the bed, Johnny snickered loudly. "The god of love?"

Catherine turned affectionate, but scolding, eyes in his direction. "Don't you dare scoff, Johnny Lancer. Your father can be quite a romantic when he chooses to be."

"Evidently," Johnny grinned and elbowed Scott, who was watching his parents with a somewhat goofy grin on his handsome features. Between her gentle reprimand and Scott's lack of response, Johnny settled back down, and even looked a little contrite over his teasing.

With her point having been made, she saw no reason to push the issue any farther. "The Irish legend goes something like this. One night Aonghus was visited in a dream by a beautiful maiden, who vanished when he put out his arms to embrace her. He was so enchanted by the dream that he could not eat all the next day. The following night, the fair apparition came again, and played and sang to him. The next day he also had no appetite for food. Things went on like that for a year, while Aonghus pined and wasted for love."

Johnny frowned. "A year without food?"

"Sshhh," Scott shushed, but Johnny wasn't about to be dissuaded so easily.

"But a whole year without eatin'? That just ain't possible."

Scott rolled his eyes in dismay. "Johnny, these are just legends, folklore, stories to explain the unexplainable when man was still rather primitive. It isn't supposed to be taken seriously, not by today's enlightened society, anyway," he explained patiently.

"You sayin' I ain't enlightened?"

"No, I'm saying be quiet. I want to hear the rest of the story." After giving Johnny a warning glare that said keep quiet or else, Scott smiled at her and nodded. "Please continue, Mother."

Although amused by the brothers' antics, Catherine did as she was requested. "Eventually the physicians of the Tuatha prevailed upon Aonghus to act, and his mother, the goddess Bóinn, was sent for. She persuaded the Dagdha, his father, to send to all the lesser deities of Ireland, charging them to search for the maiden that was breaking his son's heart. After a year, the maiden was found by Aonghus's brother, Bodbh the Red, who brought Aonghus to see her."

Catherine watched Scott and Johnny, sitting there listening intently to the tale of their forefathers, and she could not help but consider the resemblance between the real brothers and the mythical ones. Bodbh, Aonghus' brother, had searched relentlessly on his brother's behalf. Despite her short time knowing the two young men, she knew that both of Murdoch's sons would do the same for each other, too.

She planned to share this observation with Murdoch, later, when they were alone, but a quick glance in his direction told her that this would not be necessary. The pride on his face as he looked over at his sons told her that he was thinking this very thought, too. What had begun as a story to help reveal a father to his sons, was turning out to be enlightening to the father, as well.

"What happened then, Mother?"

Scott's voice brought her back to the present, and she smiled at him. "I'm sorry. I guess I let my mind wander. The maiden's name was Caer Ibormeith. When Aonghus saw her, she was standing by a lake surrounded by one hundred and fifty maidens, all linked together by a silver chain. Aonghus knew then that he wanted her to be his wife, however, when he asked her Father for her hand in marriage, Aonghus was told it would not be possible."

"Why not?" Scott asked.

"It turned out that Caer was a swan-maiden. Every year as soon as summer was over, she went with her companions to a lake called Lough Dragan, and all of the maidens, including Caer, were magically transformed into swans."

"Why'd they get turned into big white birds?" This time it was Johnny asking the question.

Taken by surprise, Catherine could only respond with an honest admission. "I have no idea, Johnny. I never thought to find out if there was a specific reason behind that part of the story. I guess I got too caught up in the tragedy of two young lovers being kept apart by circumstances beyond their control to question that particular part of the story."

Murdoch reached over and took her hand. In his touch she received comfort and strength, as well as a shared understanding. Once again, the story was transgressing the original intent by giving a new meaning to the storyteller. Like Aonghus and Caer, she and Murdoch had faced what seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle - in their case, her father - only to have their love persevere through it all. Lost in this thought, she continued her story, no longer certain of who it was that the old legend was meant to reassure.

"On the advice of his father, the Dagdha, Aonghus went to the shore of the lake and waited in patience until Samhain. That was what they called the day of the magical change. Caer appeared along with one hundred and fifty swans, herself a swan surpassing all the rest in beauty and whiteness, and he called to her. She promised to be his bride, but he would have to agree to become a swan, too. He agreed, and with a magic word she changed him into a swan. Together they flew three times around the lake, and took off side by side for Brugh na Bóinne, where they put the dwellers of that place to sleep for three days and three nights with the magic of their singing."

"Singing swans?" Johnny snorted, then added a little too loudly. "I'll just bet they was doing some mighty fine *singin'*, too."

"Johnny!" Murdoch and Scott scolded in unison, making Johnny blush furiously at his own ill-conceived comment.

"Sorry, ma'am."

Catherine was more amused than offended by Johnny's insinuating remark. That had been one of her first thoughts, too, and she gave him a knowing wink that she hoped would let him know that he was not that far off the mark. "After they finished 'singing'," she emphasized the disputed word in a way that only accentuated its inadequacy, while adding new life to the fading red of Johnny's cheeks, "Aonghus and Caer returned to Aonghus's palace, where they retook the human form and lived happily ever after."

Silence filled he room when Catherine finished her story.

"I guess the old ones were trying to tell us that true love can conquer all things, if we have enough faith." To everyone's surprise, this comment came from Murdoch Lancer.

"And so they were right," Catherine agreed. "Now, I believe it is time for dinner." 

*** *** *** ***

Dinner was eaten in Johnny's room, and other than a few comments about swan soup, which had both Catherine and Johnny looking embarrassed, the rest of the evening passed uneventfully. The dinner conversation centered around the ranch, detailing the plans for the coming days. After dinner, Murdoch and Scott went out to the corral to check on Freya and the colts, but did not return to the house until well past dark. One of the hands backed the buckboard into a support beam in the barn, and the repairs took some time, but were necessary to ensure the integrity of the structure.

Johnny was left with a book to read, and Catherine busied herself in the kitchen, but made a point to check on him a few times. With Scott and Murdoch out of the way, she got the chance to test out the wheels she had made for Johnny's bed. While it would prove difficult for her to manage alone, both she and Johnny agreed that with Teresa's help, Johnny would be as mobile as possible under the circumstances.  

*** *** *** *** 

Later that night, Murdoch came in to check on Johnny and get him settled for the night. 


"Yes, Johnny?"

"You're plannin' on remarrying Catherine pretty soon, ain't you?" Johnny asked while Murdoch finished fussing over him. Johnny let his eyes slip closed, enjoying the feel of his own bed and even the concern of his father's fussing.

Although, Johnny heard the sharp sound of Murdoch blowing out the light, he did not even notice as the room was plunged into darkness. In fact, he was almost asleep when he finally realized that Murdoch had not answered his question. "Murdoch?"

A large hand patted his arm through the blanket. "Not until you're back on your feet, Son," Murdoch's soft voice broke through the darkness. After a short pause, he added, "We wouldn't dream of doing anything until you can be there, too. Now get some sleep. You've had a long day."

Nestling his head further down into the pillow, Johnny sighed. "Don't worry, Murdoch. I'll be up and around before you know it."

Another brief pause, then the hand on his arm gave a gentle squeeze. "I know you will, Son." 

*** *** *** *** 

After leaving Johnny's room, Murdoch descended the stairs with a ache in his heart that refused to be ignored. His recently uttered a lie that could come back to haunt him tomorrow, but for tonight, his son would have peace. So why did he feel like he had just betrayed Johnny? Again.

Entering the great room, he headed straight for the liquor cabinet. So intent on his task, he did not notice Catherine's entrance until her hand appeared on his forearm. Looking up from the glass of liquid comfort he knew would be anything but, he did not even try to mask his heartache. She would see right through him, anyway, so what was the point.


"Is Johnny all right?" Scott's concerned voice sounded from behind them.

Turning to face his elder son, Murdoch forgot all about the glass of brandy he had wanted so desperately only a moment ago. He pulled Catherine close, suddenly needing to know that she was still there, still beside him, and hoping that she could forgive him his foolishness. "He's sleeping."

"But?" Scott pressed.

"Just as Johnny was drifting off to sleep, he asked when your mother and I would be getting remarried."

"Oh, Murdoch," Catherine whispered softly, and with compassion.

Scott's voice, however, was tight and brittle. "What did you tell him?"

Ashamed, Murdoch looked away, over his desk and out into the darkness. The night was pitch dark, and it looked as cold as he felt inside. "I lied, Scott. I told Johnny it would be soon, but not until he was back on his feet. Of all the stupid things to say!" he berated himself for what he perceived to be an act of cruelty. They were supposed to be trying to find ways to keep Johnny in bed, not give him even more reasons to put his recovery at risk.

"Sir, Johnny will find out the truth long before he can make an issue of getting up and about before he should."

Scott's reassuring voice was totally lacking in the censure Murdoch had been expecting. Still, it did little to assuage his guilt. "I just couldn't bring myself to tell him about tomorrow."

Catherine's hand pressed against his chest and he grabbed hold of it. In her love he was finding the strength he needed to be the man he had once been; a strength he hoped would help him become the father he always should have been. "I couldn't deny him one good night's sleep before..."

"Murdoch, the truth is that we don't know what the truth is," Scott consoled as he approached them. "I don't like lying to him, either, but in this case, I believe you did the right thing. Johnny will, too, once he understands why you did it. I'm hoping that by this time tomorrow we are all laughing at ourselves for being such pessimistic worrywarts."

Moving a little to the side, Scott reached behind Murdoch and retrieved the discarded glass of brandy. Drink in hand, Scott moved passed them, stopping only long enough to exchange a good night kiss with Catherine. "I'll see you in the morning. Try to get some sleep, both of you."

Scott's retreating footsteps were the only sound Murdoch heard as he clung tightly to the woman in his arms. They were so close, so close to becoming a whole family, but that could all come to an end tomorrow. Upstairs Johnny was sleeping in blissful ignorance, completely unaware of the impending heartache that was hanging ominously just overhead.

Catherine snuggled closer to him, silently offering her strength through her physical presence, something that no words could ever provide. A crinkling noise reached his ears as she moved, sounding more like the loud crackle of an ominous lightning strike, instead of the disturbance of an innocuous piece of paper that he had tucked into his shirt pocket earlier that morning.

It was the telegram from Jarrod, stating only that the attorney would be arriving sometime Friday afternoon. Jarrod had indicated that he had some minor business in Cross Creek for another client, and would rent a buggy when he was finished, so there was no need to send anyone to meet him.

The intensely personal nature of Jarrod's business at Lancer, left Murdoch wondering if Jarrod truly had 'other business' in Cross Creek, or if he was simply trying to make his visit seem as inconsequential as possible for the uninformed eyes of anyone who might notice his arrival. Especially the telegraph operator who could not help but know the contents of the message his own hand would write. If that was the case then Murdoch could appreciate the discretionary tactic, but it did not make the not knowing any easier to bear.  

*** *** *** ***

After spending most of the night pacing restlessly around his bedroom, dread and fears growing stronger with each tick of the clock, it was well before sunrise when Murdoch quietly slipped into Johnny's bedroom. On his feet he wore only his thick wool socks, purposely leaving his boots behind so as not to disturb his son's sleep. He just needed to see Johnny, see his son contented for what might be that last time in a very long time.

"That you, Murdoch?"

So much for his ability to come and go, unnoticed. "Yes, Johnny. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you." In the darkness, Murdoch heard Johnny snort softly.

"Don't worry none, Murdoch. You didn't wake me. That varmint with the fluffy tail feathers already had them honors."


"That danged rooster," Johnny huffed. "He hates me."

After lighting the lamp, Murdoch helped Johnny sit up, using the stack of pillows left by the bed to form a fluffy cushion against which he could recline. Sitting down on the edge of the mattress, Murdoch eyed his younger son speculatively. The silence of the moment was shattered when the object of their discussion let loose with a loud crow from what had to be a close proximity to Johnny's window - a very close proximity.

Concerned, Murdoch stood and moved over to the window. "It's a little early for that rooster to be going at it. Something must have gotten him riled up."

"Nah, he's out there 'bout this time every morning," Johnny grumbled while he readjusted the blanket more to his liking. "Always figured you loved that old cock for that very reason; seein' how he's so danged anxious to get everyone up and out of bed so early."

Murdoch was about to comment, but Johnny continued, his tone even more sour. "Course, that was before I spent the night in Scott's room. Now I find out that things are a little different on the other side of the house."

Having seen nothing out in the dusky light that aroused his suspicions, Murdoch returned to Johnny's bed, and retook his seat on the edge of the mattress. He almost laughed at the incensed frown firmly set on Johnny's face. "You know, Son, I gave you your choice of rooms. Just like Scott."

"I know. Only for the past year I figured that bird was annoying all of us the same."

Murdoch tried to remain serious, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep up the facade in the face of Johnny's annoyance at the barnyard fowl. "And you figure things differently now?"

This time Johnny's frown turned to a downright scowl. "Darn straight! Come to find out that that stupid bird sits out there on that blasted wall under my window, crowin' himself hoarse for hours before he takes a mind to mosey on over to the other side of the house. Heck, he's just about all crowed out by then."

"Hours?" Murdoch grinned. Another loud cock-a-doodle-doo practically echoed through the room.

Murdoch barely dodged Johnny's arm as it waved through the air in the direction of the window. "Hear that? Now tell me that bird ain't louder over here than he is by the time he drags his sorry tail over to your window. And, yeah, it seems like hours."

Ducking his head, Murdoch rubbed his nose and cleared his throat before looking back up at Johnny. "Yes, John, I guess he does sound a bit louder, but you know you were quite adamant about wanting this room."

"Sure I was. Wasn't used to being all cooped up with a bunch a people. I liked being over here by myself. Only have to deal with guests, and that's only if there's more'n one. Otherwise, they always get put in the room downstairs. I'll bet that's where you stuck Catherine, right?"

A broad grin spread over Murdoch's face. "Yes, Johnny, Catherine is using the downstairs guest room. You know, the reason most of us are on the other side of the house is because the sun rises over here. I suspect that is what gets the rooster crowing over here first, not some form of demented poultry hatred directed personally at you."

The rooster crowed again, and Johnny shot a murderous glare in the direction of the window. "I can deal with the sun, Murdoch. Ain't nothing a person can do about that, but that bird is a whole nuther matter."

As fast as he could draw his gun, Johnny changed the subject. "So what are you doing up so early? Cain't be because of that bird, since you didn't even know he was crowin'."

The dagger of fear pieced Murdoch's heart. As much as he hated to lay such potentially devastating news at Johnny's feet, he had put it off as long as he could. He might have even put it off too long.

"Murdoch? What's wrong?"

Unable to meet the trusting gaze he knew would greet him should he look up, Murdoch instead focused on his clasped hands as he tried to find a way to lessen the blow. "John, I...I did something last night that I'm not proud of, something that I hope you'll be able to forgive me for, someday."

Johnny said nothing. Murdoch knew his son would wait, would accept his explanation without interruption, and then, more than likely, order him to get out, unwilling to share this burden with a father he could not trust. If only he had waited until later, when Scott was awake and could lend his brother the support that would be needed in the difficult hours to come. Mostly, though, Murdoch prayed, as he had all night, that Jarrod would come bearing news that would put an end to Johnny's suffering. "John, I lied to you last night."

"About what?"

There was a stiffness in Johnny's tone, but nothing more. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Murdoch took a deep breath and prepared to confess his sin. "You asked me when Catherine and I were going to get remarried."

"So what part was the lie?" Johnny snapped and jerked his hand away. "That you'd wait until I was on my feet, or that you even want me there at all?"

Murdoch's head shot up. Of all the things for Johnny to think...what else was Johnny supposed to think? The dagger twisted just a little, a painful reminder that he always seemed to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. "You couldn't be more wrong, Johnny. Catherine and I wouldn't dream of ever taking such a step without both you and Scott there. It's just that..."

"It's just what?"

To his relief, Johnny's tone was a little softer. The defensive coldness had been replaced by a wary curiosity. Not the best he could hope for, but certainly better than things were looking only moments ago. He was overwhelmed by a need for some kind of contact with his son, but he knew he would never be able to say what had to be said if he were to look up into Johnny's unsuspecting eyes. With head bowed, he opened his heart and broke his son's.

"Johnny, I love Catherine very much. I don't think I ever stopped loving her, but when I thought she had died, I...I was alone. I met your mother and I fell in love with her. I married your mother because I loved her, not because we got ahead of ourselves and you were conceived a little too soon."

So strong was his need to make Johnny understand, Murdoch suddenly found himself staring into a pair of guarded blue eyes before he even realized he had raised his head. "You have to believe that, John. You have to believe that you were wanted. I always wanted you, Son."

"I believe you, Murdoch. I told you that already." Johnny's voice was soft, but his confusion rang loud and clear. "Whatever's bothering you, just say it. This dancing around ain't gonna make it no easier to say, or to hear."

Johnny was right. Get to the point, get it said, and then face the music. "John, last night you asked when Catherine and I would be getting married. The truth is that we may not have to get remarried; in the eyes of the law, we may still be married, might always have been married since we took our vows in Boston."

Uncomprehending eyes reflected only bewilderment as they stared up at him. This lasted for only an instant, then the magnitude of the reality brought a grief-stricken expression to Johnny's suddenly pale face.

"John, we don't know anything for certain. I hired an attorney before we left San Francisco. Jarrod Barkley is the son of a very good friend, and he is an extremely competent professional. If there is any way to keep my marriage to your mother legally binding, he promised he would find a way."

"Is that what you really want, Murdoch?" Johnny snapped harshly.

"Yes, Son. That is what I want; more than anything," Murdoch declared adamantly. "I made that very clear to Jarrod when I hired him. I want my marriage to your mother to remain legally recognized by the laws of California."

"Why? Why would you even care now that you got her back?"

Although Johnny's voice had gotten a little louder, it was the slight tremor in his tone that told Murdoch all he needed to know. Johnny was hurting, and trying to protect himself by hiding his pain behind a wall of anger. "I want that because I can very easily remarry Catherine, however, I could never make up to you what you would lose if my marriage to your mother were to be declared invalid. I don't want you to ever have to face that, and neither does Catherine."

Johnny's head bowed low, and his shoulders sank in defeat. "Why didn't you tell me before now?"

"John, if there was anything you could have done to change the outcome, I promise I would never have denied you the opportunity to try. Unfortunately, there isn't anything any of us can do. We can only wait for Jarrod to tell us the way it is."

After pausing to rein in his own faltering emotions, Murdoch finished with a plea for understanding. "You were so happy yesterday, Johnny. I couldn't bring myself take that away from you on a possibility. I wanted to know the facts, first. I...I was hoping to find out that my fears were totally unfounded and that there was nothing for you to worry about."

Having said all he could, Murdoch waited. A shrill crow once again shattered the tense silence, only this time the sound from the bothersome rooster was not nearly as loud. It seemed as if the rooster had finally decided to head for the other side of the house. The sound was just dying out when Johnny said the words Murdoch had been dreading.

"I'd like to be alone." Johnny turned away, laying his head against the edge of the pillows against which he was resting. This was as far as he could go with the limited movement of his weighted down legs. Otherwise, Murdoch had no doubt he would staring at his son's back.


"Please, Murdoch, just leave me alone."

Although his request had been phrased politely, the tone was cold and demanding. Johnny meant business and the only thing Murdoch could do was to comply. To do otherwise would only upset Johnny even more. Making a concerted effort to keep his voice free of any hurt or disappointment, Murdoch patted Johnny's arm before standing. "I'll check on you when breakfast is ready."

Johnny made no effort to respond, not that Murdoch expected him to. During their recent intense conversation, Johnny had made it clear that he did not appreciate being kept in the dark. This had not been news to Murdoch, but that he had been so guilty of it had. This time, however, he could not be sorry for refusing to let his son suffer through the uncertainty that had nearly overwhelmed his own mind during the past week.

Heading for the door, he wished with all his heart that Johnny would find a way to understand. Until that time came, though, there was only one person who would stand any chance of reaching Johnny now. Instead of heading for the stairs when he left Johnny's room, Murdoch took a few steps across the hall and lightly tapped on Scott's door. Without waiting for an answer, Murdoch opened the door and slipped into Scott's room, closing the door behind him. 

*** *** *** *** 

Startled by the abrupt intrusion, Scott hurriedly grabbed for the blanket on the bed. A few moments later and his hands would have been full of razor and shaving brush and he really would have been peeved. Covering himself, he turned around to face the unwelcome intruder.

"Teresa!" he began, only to stop short when he saw Murdoch instead of the young woman who usually barged in without knocking. "Something I can do for you, Sir?" he asked without making the slightest attempt to conceal his annoyance.

"Scott, Johnny needs you."

The utter dejection in his father's voice drove away any aggravation over the uninvited intrusion. Tossing the blanket back onto the bed, he reached for his and quickly slipped them on. "What happened?"

"I told him the truth."

Scott paused in the process of buttoning the flap of his trousers. He watched with concern as Murdoch walked slowly over to the chair by the window, lowering himself into it stiffly, as if his entire body ached. Realizing that things must be even worse than the nightmares that had plagued his sleep for most of the night, Scott finished securing his pants and hastily reached for his shirt.

Slipping his arms into the sleeves as he walked, he reached his father's side just as both hands became free. Shirt hanging open, he placed a comforting hand on his Murdoch's shoulder. Beneath his fingers he could feel the extreme tension in his father's body. Clearly, the stresses of the past week were beginning to take their toll on the older man. Still, Scott knew from experience that his best chance to defuse the situation was to have any many facts as possible before talking to Johnny.

"What exactly did you tell him, Murdoch?" Scott inquired gently.


Resisting his first impulse to shake his father, Scott removed his hand. As he began buttoning his shirt, he repeated more firmly. "Sir, it would really help if I knew what I was about to walk into, and for that I need to know a little more than 'everything'."

Murdoch shook his head, as if coming out of a daze. He looked up at Scott and nodded. "I'm sorry, Son. I told your brother that I lied to him last night, and why. He knows about Jarrod Barkley, and what we are hoping the legal conclusions will be."

Having just finished buttoning his shirt, Scott hastily tucked the tail into his pants. "Johnny knows Mr. Barkley will be here sometime this afternoon?" His question had been voiced more from a need to speak than from any legitimate thought that Murdoch had not revealed this information. To Scott's surprise, Murdoch's brow furrowed and he shook slowly his head.

"I don't, I honestly don't think I had time to mention that before Johnny asked me to leave."

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Scott pulled on his socks and asked the final question on his mind. "I take it that Johnny was rather upset that you lied to him?" Again, Murdoch's reaction, this time an amused snort, surprised Scott.

"No. I was expecting that reaction, but he really seemed more upset from thinking, first, that Catherine and I wouldn't want him at our wedding, and then, over how much I really wanted Jarrod to find out that my marriage to his mother was legitimate. It was only then that..." Murdoch's voice faded away and he turned slightly pale.

Now Scott was worried. "Then what?"

"Johnny asked me why I didn't tell him all this sooner." Pinching the bridge of his nose, Murdoch sighed heavily. "I guess he's more upset about the lie than I first thought. It was right after that when he said he wanted to be alone and asked me to leave."

Scott was relatively certain that this was not the case. As he had told his father last night, Johnny would understand the reason for the deception, even if he did not particularly care for the actual action. However, Scott still felt justified in keeping this information to himself.

If Murdoch continued to believe he had made a grievous mistake, maybe that belief would be a deterrent against making that same mistake again. Lying had a tendency of becoming habit forming when one got away with it too often, and being lied to on a regular basis was not something Johnny would accept, or tolerate.

Noticing that Murdoch was not wearing his boots, Scott decided to follow suit for a reason he could not explain. After quickly slipping on his socks - the bare floors were still too cold to be walking around on without some kind of protection - he headed for his brother's room, leaving Murdoch where he sat. 

*** *** *** *** 

Murdoch sat there for a few minutes after Scott's departure, staring out the window, but not really seeing anything. He could not find any peace, not even in the sanctuary of his older son's room. Standing, he made his way to the door. His only real refuge was waiting for him downstairs. Only in the arms of the woman he loved so much would he find any form of comfort.

Pausing just outside Scott's door, he glanced across the hall towards Johnny's room. He should be the one offering support to his younger son, but the mess he had made with his lie the previous night made that impossible. As he stood in the hallway, Murdoch caught a glimpse of movement and turned to see Catherine walking towards him.

"Is everything all right, Murdoch?" she asked softly.

Murdoch wrapped his arms around Catherine and pulled her close. He had lived without her for over two decades, but now he found she was the only source of strength when his heart was feeling this raw. "Johnny knows the truth," he admitted just as softly. As they stood there, through the partially closed door to Johnny's room across the hall, Scott's voice could clearly be heard as he tried to reassure his brother.

"Johnny, it might not turn out that way. Mr. Barkley could very well tell us that Murdoch's marriage to your mother was legal, and that he and my mother will have to get remarried, if they wish to be husband and wife again."

"Sure." Johnny's voice was flat and held no hope or belief in his brother's words.

"Johnny, we can get through this no matter what the truth turns out to be. We can get through anything, as long as you don't shut us out."

A long silence gripped the entire house. It was as if even the furniture and the walls had acquired a deep sense of remorse over the pain in every beating heart within the hacienda.

"Once, when I was little, my mamma and me was living in this scrubby little town just south of Nogales. This pack of bullies cornered me in an alley. They beat me up pretty good, too. That night, while she was doctorin' me, my mamma told me that sometimes God has to let these things happen so we can get stronger, but that He don't never allow things to be more than we can handle."

Although he had never been a devout churchgoer, Scott nodded slightly. "I think I remember hearing something like that. I believe it's in the Bible, but I'm not sure where."

"My mamma liked to read the Bible. She..." Johnny's voice cracked. "Scott, I ain't never had much faith in Him, so why's He gotta have so much faith in me. Why cain't He just leave me be?"

The desperate agony in Johnny's barely audible voice had Murdoch moving towards his son's door, but he was stopped short when Catherine's firm hands took him by the arm. When he looked back at her, there was a disapproving frown on her face. After holding a finger against her lips to indicate that he should be quiet, she took him by the hand and led the way down the hall towards the stairs.

As soon as they reached the bottom of the stairs, she turned to him. "That wasn't meant for us to hear, Murdoch."

"I should-" This time her finger was pressed against his lips.

"No, Murdoch. Scott will call you if you're needed. You've done all you can, now you have to step back and let Johnny work this out in a way that makes him feel comfortable. Just be ready to be there when he needs you."

Murdoch's heart clenched with the fear that this would never happen; that he had hurt his son too many times for Johnny to ever want or need his father's comfort.

As if sensing his doubt, Catherine reassured him with tender words. "He will need you, Murdoch. No one can say when or how much. What comes to pass this afternoon might play a very important part in determining when that time is, or the source could be something that you can't even imagine at this point. But there will come a time when Johnny needs you, and only you. That's when you have to be ready."

If only it was that simple. "How will I know when that time comes if Johnny won't even talk to me?"

With a soft voice, full of understanding, Catherine answered his desperate question. "He's your son, Murdoch. Open your heart to him, and you will know when he needs you."  

*** *** *** ***

Scott watched as Johnny stared down at his hands. All the joy and lightheartedness of the prior day was gone, and Scott's heart ached at the loss. "This is why Murdoch couldn't say anything to you last night."

Johnny looked up, his expression both sharp and full of pain. "I know."

"It doesn't make the hurt any less, but," Scott paused, unsure of whether or not to champion their father's crusade at the moment. His opinion that Murdoch was the one who Johnny would need most had not changed, should the legal news turn out to be less than favorable, but Scott also knew that pushing Johnny too hard right now could make it impossible for him to accept that support later.

"I understand why he did it, why you did it," Johnny said softly, pushing home the point that Scott too had been guilty of lying, even if it was a lie of omission. "You knew the truth would hurt."

"A suspicion," Scott corrected. "If you had thought of it on your own..." Scott paused when Johnny looked over at him and sighed heavily.

"I don't want to argue with you no more." Johnny's tone was as weary as his expression. Their eyes locked for a moment, neither saying anything, but reaching out to each other at the same time. "It felt really good, you know," Johnny finally said very softly.

Scott wasn't sure what Johnny was talking about. Nothing in his gut was giving him the feeling that he should be worried over this final deception, so he went with his instincts and let Johnny have his time to finish his thought. His patience was rewarded when Johnny looked up at him, those deep blue eyes revealing only a deep sense of weariness.

"What felt good?" Scott ventured carefully, and was relieved even further when Johnny's expression softened.

"Yesterday. Being part of a real family, you know, complete like. Anyone can see how much Murdoch and your momma love each other. They could hardly keep their eyes off each other." Although not as intense as it otherwise might have been, Johnny's grin was still full of mischief. "Could be interesting, too, having someone around who can tell us all them things the Old Man ain't been willing to say."

A little more of the pressure lifted, and Scott smiled back. "Yes, it could prove to be very interesting."

As quickly as they came, the good feelings left both men. The smile faded from Johnny's face, and he laid his head back, looking up at the ceiling with eyes haunted by the unknown.

"It won't be much longer, Johnny." Scott laid a comforting hand on Johnny's arm. "Mr. Barkley will be here sometime this afternoon."

Johnny sighed, but his gaze remained fixed on the ceiling. "Murdoch said he was coming. Didn't say when, though. Guess I didn't give him much chance to, neither."

This time the pain in Johnny's voice was from a different source. His own potential fate was no longer the primary issue; that he might have hurt their father had become the more encompassing issue, something Scott knew without a doubt. That same haunting sound of regret and pain in Johnny's words had been heard too many times, after too many of the verbal battles between father and son. Johnny never liked to hurt anyone, and especially not their father.

With nothing left to say, Scott tried to lightened the mood by reaching out and playfully tapped Johnny's cheek. When Johnny looked over at him, Scott gave his brother a mock look of reproach as he made a point of roughing his fingers over the stubbly growth on Johnny's face. "You could use a shave, Brother. You're getting a bit scruffy looking."

"Don't matter how I look. Ain't like I'm gonna be needing to impress anyone for a while," Johnny argued halfheartedly. He rubbed his hand over his cheek and grimaced, "It is getting a bit scratchy, though. Never could keep a beard for more'n a few days without wanting to scrape it off with a dull knife, if that's all that was handy."

Glad his diversion was a success, Scott laughed. "I think we can figure out something a little more civilized, Brother. I'll have you fixed right up in no time."

Johnny eyed him suspiciously. "It ain't my arm that's broke. I can still handle a razor just fine."

Feeling further heartened by Johnny's demand that he could take care of himself, Scott nodded as he formulated a plan in his mind. "A couple of books should do the trick," he mused.


"Books, Brother." Standing, Scott positioned himself beside the bed and held his arm out across Johnny's chest. "Grab hold and we'll get you sitting up properly."

Johnny complied, and after a small struggle and a few strategically placed pillows, Johnny was sitting up straight. "Don't go anywhere," Scott teased as he headed for the door. "I'll be right back."

"Don't take too long or I just might decided to go for a walk," Johnny called out from behind.

Scott smiled at Johnny's ludicrous claim. Johnny had to be feeling a little less nervous if he was teasing so readily, and that was all Scott could hope for. Mr. Barkley would be there when he got there, and the news would be the same no matter how much time was spent worrying. Nothing would make any of their fears totally disappear, but having something else to think about would make the time pass much more quickly.

With that idea in mind, he retrieved four of the thickest books from the small bookcase in his room, and then grabbed two more, just in case. A shave would be first, then he was certain another couple of hours could be used up over the issue of a bath. As it would have to be a bed bath, he was sure Johnny would put up quite a fuss; however, that battle would take both their minds off the more intense issues, maybe even until Mr. Barkley's arrival. Hopefully the attorney's findings would put an end to their concerns, once and for all.  

*** *** *** ***

"Murdoch, please sit down. All that pacing is not going to get Mr. Barkley here any sooner."

From his position in front of the window behind his desk, Murdoch looked over his shoulder towards the sofa, where Catherine had been sitting patiently for most of the morning. Scott had not come downstairs at all, and Murdoch could only conclude that he was still sequestered up in Johnny's room. While that fact that Johnny was not alone was comforting in some respects, in others it discouraged him to think that his son evidently did not want to see him.

"I can't sit down, Catherine. What if..." The image of a buggy approaching made his heart skip a beat. He was about to announce Jarrod's arrival, when he noticed that there were two occupants in the surrey. The vehicle turned the corner of the road leading towards the front entrance and Murdoch's heart sank as he recognized the second man.

"What is it, Dear?" Catherine appeared at his side too late to see the surrey before it disappeared from view. The dust trail and the faint sound of hoof beats told of a new arrival, though, and she asked hopefully, "Is it Mr. Barkley?"

"Yes," Murdoch groaned. "But he's not alone."

Catherine's voice was heavy with concern. "Oh?"

With a great deal of effort, Murdoch kept his voice flat, and neutral, belying none of the anxiety that was twisting his own gut into a tight knot. "Your father is with him." 

*** *** *** ***

Having just entered the great room, Murdoch's pronouncement took Scott completely by surprise. "Grandfather is here?"

Murdoch looked up at him, and nodded. "Mr. Barkley just drove up. Your grandfather is with him."

Scott's brow furrowed. This was an unexpected development that had his already knotted gut tightening even more. "They know each other?"

"Not that I knew of," Murdoch groused as he headed for the front door. "I don't recall even mentioning Harlan's name during my meeting with Jarrod. Still, I would have thought that if Jarrod knew your grandfather that he would have at least mentioned it to me."

His mother appeared at Scott's side, and slipped her arm through his. "I know you've been worried about your grandfather, Scott. He disappointed me terribly in San Francisco, but he is still my father and I want more than anything to understand." She sighed as Murdoch disappeared out the door. "I just can't help but wish that..."

His mother's anxious expression easily reflected Scott's own growing anxieties. "I know, Mother. I would have rather dealt with one issue at a time, too." Slipping his arm free of her hold, he wrapped it around her shoulder and they both headed for what neither of them felt was going to be anything less than another emotional showdown.

As mother and son stepped out onto the porch, a distinguished dark-haired man was climbing down from the surrey. Scott tensed slightly, as did his mother beside him, when he saw his grandfather looking on with interest as Murdoch shook hands with the other man.

"Jarrod," Murdoch greeted the attorney.

"Murdoch." Jarrod accepted his hand and after a brief shake, released it before turning towards Harlan, who had also stepped down from the surrey's seat. "I ran into Mr. Garrett in Cross Creek. It seems we were on the same train from San Francisco, but we did not meet until after we disembarked. Mr. Garrett was trying to rent a buggy for the trip to Lancer, but there were none available. As I had procured the last one, I offered to give him a ride."

"Thank you, Jarrod." Murdoch's reply sounded somewhat relieved. Nodding towards the gray-haired man, Murdoch added with a surprising amount of cordiality. "Harlan, we've been expecting your arrival."

"Murdoch," Harlan nodded, he too sounding nowhere near as antagonistic as the last time the two men had met. "I realize you need to see to your guest. Afterwards, however, I do need to speak to you and Catherine and Scotty, privately. I have some information," Harlan glanced at briefly at Jarrod, "about Carterville."

An awkward silence enveloped the small crowd as Harlan's declaration sank in to already overburdened hearts. "Grandfather," Scott stepped forward. "We were worried about you. Why didn't you tell us where you were going? We could have helped."

"I am sorry that I caused you any distress, Scotty. I felt this was something that I had to do alone." Harlan looked beyond Scott to where Catherine was waiting with an anxious expression on her pinched features. "I had to find out if I was really to blame for all that happened to you, Catherine."

Scott turned and saw the tears in his mother's eyes. Without a word, she forward moved into her father's arms. "No one ever blamed you, Father."

"I'll have one of the hands take your bags to the guest room," Murdoch declared firmly. "Catherine is using the room you were in last summer, but we have others upstairs."

"Anywhere will be fine, Murdoch," Harlan acknowledged with a nod over Catherine's shoulder, but did not relinquish his hold as he continued to hold her tightly against his chest.

"Jarrod, as you've already met Harlan, I'd like to introduce you to Catherine," Murdoch paused, allowing Catherine a moment to compose herself as she turned away from her father.

After swiping the tears from her cheek with the back of her hand, she smiled pleasantly at Jarrod. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Barkley."

Jarrod nodded and returned her smile with one of his own. "I'm very pleased to meet you, Ma'am."

"And this is our son, Scott Lancer."

At his father's introduction, Scott stepped forward and extended his hand to the man who could make or break their family with the news he had brought to them. "Mr. Barkley." Scott could hear the tension in his own voice, and from the sympathetic glimmer he noticed in the attorney's dark eyes, he was certain that the other man had noticed it, too.

"Please come in and have a seat, Jarrod. We are all anxious to hear what you found out." Murdoch guided the attorney through the French doors and towards the chairs by his desk.

"We won't be conducting the meeting in here, Sir. Johnny is waiting for us upstairs. I took the liberty of placing a couple of extra chairs in his room for this meeting." Ignoring Murdoch's shocked expression, Scott addressed Jarrod directly. "Mr. Barkley, I hope you don't mind if we discuss this matter in my brother's bedroom. His legs were recently broken and he is unable to get around. This matter concerns him as much, if not more, than anyone else, so it would be best if he were included. He could have questions that the rest of us might not think to ask."

Jarrod responded with a knowing nod. "Don't worry, Scott. I've met many a client in less than formal settings. It comes with the job, I'm afraid."

Turned towards his grandfather, Scott dreaded what he was about to say. "Grandfather, I know you've only just arrived, but would you mind excusing us for a short time?" he asked politely. "Mr. Barkley is here to discuss a very important family matter."

Instead of the anticipated protests, Harlan stared at Scott, his expression reflecting a confused concern before taking on an air of total shock. The older man glanced over at Murdoch, their eyes locking for just a moment before both looked away, but not before Scott had seen something he had net expected from his grandfather - a look of sympathy for Murdoch Lancer.

"Of course, Scotty. I will wait here while you have your meeting."

Despite everything, Scott couldn't bring himself to just abandon his grandfather without some offer of comfort. "I could show you to your room, Sir."

"No, Scotty. I will be fine right here. I've spent too much time in confined places over the past week." Harlan shook his head and gave the room an appreciative once over. "Being able to move about is just what I need."

"Then, please, make yourself at home, Sir," Scott said with a weary smile before following the others who were already moving towards the stairs.

*** *** *** ***

It was a solemn group that entered Johnny's room. Jarrod had been involved in many delicate legal matters, but never had one seemed to reach down inside him and pull at his heart strings the way this one had. The empathy he felt for these people was too strong, too close to home, for him not to feel that he was personally involved. If his findings had been any less than they were, he was not sure he would have been able to face them.

Once they were all inside the room, Murdoch quickly made the final introduction. "Johnny, I'd like you to meet Jarrod Barkley." To Jarrod, he completed the process, "Jarrod, this is my son, Johnny."

"Johnny," Jarrod stepped near the bed and grasped the hand Johnny offered. Giving it a shake, he returned the younger man's wary smile with one he hoped was seen as being reassuring. Johnny's grip was firm, but what Jarrod noticed more than anything was the total lack of expression in Johnny's eyes.

He could not read anything. There was nothing to indicate what the young man might be thinking or feeling, not even a hint of apprehension or anger. This effectively informed Jarrod that Johnny Lancer was extremely good at hiding his emotions. Under the circumstances, the boy had to be nervous as hell, but it sure did not show.

Jarrod had just noticed the large mound under the blanket where Johnny's legs should be, when Scott offered him a seat at the table in front of the window. "Here you are, Mr. Barkley. I thought you might need to use the table for your paperwork."

"Thank you, Scott." As he set his briefcase down on the table, he knew he would not need it. The information on the papers in question had been all but memorized over the past few days. As he settled himself, he watched with interest as Scott offered his mother a chair on the other side of the bed. She nearly sat down, but then shook her head and gave her son a loving smile.

To Jarrod's surprise, Scott's mother moved gracefully over to the bed and sat down on the mattress next to Johnny, slipping her arm through his and offering him a brilliant smile. Given the family's circumstances, Jarrod could not help but feel warmed by the blatant display of support.

After only a brief hesitation, Scott forsook a chair, too. Striding purposefully to the other side of the bed, where he took up an equally supportive, defiantly protective, position on the other side of his brother. Between the two of them, Johnny looked both unnerved and comforted by their actions. Jarrod's first thought was of how much like his own brother, Heath, this young son of Murdoch's seemed to be.

In the beginning, Heath had been very uncomfortable by the acceptance into Tom Barkley's legitimate family, but now Heath was as much a part of the Barkley household as any of them who had lived there all their lives. From what he was witnessing now, Johnny had no more reason to fear being rejected than Heath had all those months ago. Although the news to be told was extremely good, it did make Jarrod feel better to know that, if things had turned out for the worst, Johnny's family would be right there beside him.

"First off, let me set your minds at ease. I have very good news that I'm sure will make each one of you extremely happy." Everyone in the room visibly relaxed; everyone except the man lying in the bed.

"My marriage to Maria is considered legal?" Murdoch asked from where he stood by the bureau on the other side of the table.

Jarrod experienced a rare surge of pride in his profession. "In short, yes. The law cannot challenge the legitimacy of your marriage to your second wife."

"Why not?" Even before the words were completely out of his mouth, Scott grimaced, his eyes closed and his head bowed, looking for all the world like he wanted to fade away into the woodwork.

Johnny quickly came to his brother's rescue, reiterating the damning truth that seemed unavoidable. "That don't seem possible, Mr. Barkley, not with Catherine being alive and all."

A small amount of fear had made its way into Johnny's wary voice. Jarrod also noticed that Johnny seemed to shrink away from Catherine, as if he were afraid of hurting her in some way. This made little sense, but then again, being part of a discussion whose primary subject was your own death could, in fact, be a rather distressing issue for Murdoch's first wife. Still, she did not seem upset, and had countered Johnny's slight movement away from her by shifting closer to him.

Returning his thoughts to the primary issue at hand, Jarrod addressed the doubt that was present not only in Johnny's voice, but in every eye staring desperately in his direction. "That is a very understandable assumption, Johnny, but not an entirely accurate one. First, let me explain a few legal concepts to all of you. It may seem somewhat tedious, which is why I wanted to assure you that the news was good, but without some of this background it will not be possible to adequately explain why Catherine's presence is not going to affect the legality of your father's marriage to your mother."

"I'm listening," Johnny stated tensely.

Jarrod nodded reassuringly at Johnny, but his words were meant for all of the Lancer family. "First off, there is a difference between a marriage being automatically void, as opposed to one that is considered voidable. In this case, Murdoch's marriage to his second wife, Maria, is not automatically void just because his first wife, Catherine, has turned out not to be deceased. That second marriage is voidable, however, but for the law to do so there would have to be a specific action taken."

Murdoch frowned. "What kind of action?"

"It would take a petition to the court, Murdoch." Jarrod had thought long and hard on how to explain this rather intricate legal issue in what he considered regular language. "In the absence of a divorce or other legal dissolution of a previous marriage, California law states that any subsequent marriage contracted by a person during the life of a former spouse of that person is illegal and void from the beginning, but only if the former spouse is not known to be living for the period of five successive years immediately preceding the subsequent marriage, or if it the former spouse is generally reputed or believed to be dead at the time the subsequent marriage was contracted."

Jarrod took a deep breath. Sometimes the law could get very cumbersome. "Clearly the first condition is irrelevant, since there is no question that Murdoch married Maria less than five years after Catherine's apparent death. However, it is the second condition that is the determining factor. Because Murdoch had every reason to believe that Catherine was dead at the time he remarried, his second marriage is not automatically void. It can only be voided if the court is petitioned to grant a judgment of nullity."

"So you're saying anyone can just ask the law to make me a bastard," Johnny snapped.

The bitterness in Johnny's remark did not faze Jarrod. He had been expecting something like this from the beginning, and the only real surprise was that it had taken this long to manifest itself. "No, Johnny. The law is quite specific on this, too. The only people who could request the judgment would be Murdoch and Catherine."

"There isn't anyone else the law would allow to request this 'judgment'?"

Understanding Murdoch's suspicions, Jarrod nodded slightly. "Yes, Murdoch, but I don't see that as a problem. Your second wife would be the only other person who could make such a petition. I merely omitted naming her because she is dead." A sudden fear that a complicated situation could become even more complicated prompted Jarrod to verify this point. Looking directly at Johnny, he asked, "Your mother is dead, isn't she?"

"I watched 'em bury her. She..." Johnny's gaze shifted briefly to his father and he never finished his thought. "Yeah, she's dead," he stated with a ring of finality in his voice.

"Then that leaves only Murdoch and Catherine with the legal right to contest the validity of Murdoch's second marriage," Jarrod stated with an equal amount of finality. "Upon your mother's death, Murdoch became widower. As such, he is now legally free to marry anyone he chooses."

The look of satisfaction on Catherine's face, as well as the shared glance of relief between her and Murdoch, told Jarrod what he had suspected all along; there would be a wedding at Lancer very soon. However, there was no joy in Johnny's expression, which prompted Jarrod to investigate. "Johnny, you do understand that this means that your father and mother were legally married?"

"Yeah," Johnny nodded.

"Johnny?" Scott also appeared to have picked up on Johnny's less than enthusiastic demeanor, as was evident by the concern in both his voice and his expression.

Whatever answer Johnny might have had to offer, if any, was cut off when Harlan's indignant voice resounded from outside in the hallway. "Madam, you cannot simply barge into a person's home, unannounced. It is not proper!"

"Out of my way, Old Man," a woman's voice followed.

"Madam, I must insist that you return downstairs, immediately!"

Before anyone in Johnny's room could respond to the ruckus going on in the hallway, two people appeared in the doorway. Red-faced and wide-eyed, Harlan addressed Murdoch in a huff. "Murdoch, I informed this *woman*," Harlan glared in disgust at the newcomer, "that you were not available to receive visitors, however, she forced her way passed me."

The stranger returned Harlan's glare with a sneer, and then entered the room with a indisputable air of insolence. She casually peeled off her traveling gloves before turning and cold smile towards Murdoch. "Hola, Murdoch. I see I have arrived just in time to save your sorry hide from your own ineptitude, though why I should do so is beyond reason."

Around him, the very air seemed to disappear, leaving him feeling numb as he stared at the newcomer in disbelief. "I don't believe it," he gasped. Turning towards Johnny, Murdoch's shock was quickly replaced by hurt and betrayal. "You told us she was dead."

Johnny responded with genuine confusion to his father's accusing tone. "Told you who was dead?"

Pointing a shaking finger at the intruder, Murdoch growled, "Your mother! Who else would we be discussing with her standing right in front of us...very much alive, I might add."

Blue eyes filled with confusion gave the woman a quick but intense stare, before returning their gaze to Murdoch, in a guarded glance that was both questioning and indignant. "I don't know who that woman is, but she ain't my mother."

Murdoch's rebuttal came in a resounding roar of indignation. "You may not remember her after all these years, but that is my wife, *and* your mother."

"And I'm telling you that I remember my own mother just fine, and that ain't her!"

As Johnny's voice died out, an eerie silence engulfed the entire room. The intensity of the churning emotions made it seem as if they had come alive - a herd of predatory beasts, sizing up each one of the room's occupants to determine who would become its first prey. In contrast, every human eye was on Johnny, who was, in turn, staring at the dark-haired woman, his eyes glazed over in fear.

A light but sadistic-sounding laughter shattered the silence of their shock. "So, it is true. The ever-perceptible Murdoch Lancer was taken in by a mestizo embustero. You always were rather pathetic, but to accept the first stray bastardo who wandered in claiming to be your long lost son?" The dark-haired woman cackled again, a demeaning laugh full of insult. "The truth is that our son died twenty years ago."




TBC in FROM MOM, WITH LOVE, the final story in the 'Mommy Dearest' trilogy.


embustero - liar, cheat

mestizo - half-breed

bastardo - bastard


For those of you interested in reading the actual code section of the California law I used for Jarrod's 'case', I have included it below. This may or may not have been in effect back in 1870, but it's all I could find, and since it fit perfectly with what I had in mind, I used it.

2201. (a) A subsequent marriage contracted by a person during the life of a former husband or wife of the person, with a person other than the former husband or wife, is illegal and void from the beginning, unless:

(1) The former marriage has been dissolved or adjudged a nullity before the date of the subsequent marriage.

(2) The former husband or wife (i) is absent, and not known to the person to be living for the period of five successive years immediately preceding the subsequent marriage, or (ii) is generally reputed or believed by the person to be dead at the time the subsequent marriage was contracted.

(b) In either of the cases described in paragraph (2) of subdivision (a), the subsequent marriage is valid until its nullity is adjudged pursuant to subdivision (b) of Section 2210.

2210. A marriage is voidable and may be adjudged a nullity if any of the following conditions existed at the time of the marriage:

(a) The party who commences the proceeding or on whose behalf the proceeding is commenced was without the capability of consenting to the marriage as provided in Section 301 or 302, unless, after attaining the age of consent, the party for any time freely cohabited with the other as husband and wife.

(b) The husband or wife of either party was living and the marriage with that husband or wife was then in force and that husband or wife (1) was absent and not known to the party commencing the proceeding to be living for a period of five successive years immediately preceding the subsequent marriage for which the judgment of nullity is sought or (2) was generally reputed or believed by the party commencing the proceeding to be dead at the time the subsequent marriage was contracted.

(c) Either party was of unsound mind, unless the party of unsound mind, after coming to reason, freely cohabited with the other as husband and wife.

(d) The consent of either party was obtained by fraud, unless the party whose consent was obtained by fraud afterwards, with full knowledge of the facts constituting the fraud, freely cohabited with the other as husband or wife.

(e) The consent of either party was obtained by force, unless the party whose consent was obtained by force afterwards freely cohabited with the other as husband or wife.

(f) Either party was, at the time of marriage, physically incapable of entering into the marriage state, and that incapacity continues, and appears to be incurable.


2211. A proceeding to obtain a judgment of nullity of marriage, for causes set forth in Section 2210, must be commenced within the periods and by the parties, as follows:

(a) For causes mentioned in subdivision (a) of Section 2210, by any of the following: (1) The party to the marriage who was married under the age of legal consent, within four years after arriving at the age of consent. (2) A parent, guardian, conservator, or other person having charge of the underaged male or female, at any time before the married minor has arrived at the age of legal consent.

(b) For causes mentioned in subdivision (b) of Section 2210, by either of the following: (1) Either party during the life of the other. (2) The former husband or wife.

(c) For causes mentioned in subdivision (c) of Section 2210, by the party injured, or by a relative or conservator of the party of unsound mind, at any time before the death of either party.

(d) For causes mentioned in subdivision (d) of Section 2210, by the party whose consent was obtained by fraud, within four years after the discovery of the facts constituting the fraud.

(e) For causes mentioned in subdivision (e) of Section 2210, by the party whose consent was obtained by force, within four years after the marriage.

(f) For causes mentioned in subdivision (f) of Section 2210, by the injured party, within four years after the marriage.


2212. (a) The effect of a judgment of nullity of marriage is to restore the parties to the status of unmarried persons.  (b) A judgment of nullity of marriage is conclusive only as to the parties to the proceeding and those claiming under them.



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