Trying Times
by  Vicki N.
RATING: R (this rating may be a bit much. There's only a few bad words, and they're not real bad, but we do find out that Johnny is very good at making a lady feel special. Nothing too explicit, more suggestive in my opinion, but I'd rather be safe than offend anyone.)
FEEDBACK: Always. E-mail me at KIANA1@NETACS.NET
DISCLAIMERS: Standard disclaimer. Lancer and the characters are not mine, but the story is.
SUMMARY: A look into the trying first few weeks at Lancer. This also is one possible explanation for what happened to the $1,000 Johnny got when he first arrived at Lancer, but didn't seem to have anymore when he left with Wes in 'Chase a Wild Horse' just a couple months later.

He wasn't entirely certain what it was that was driving him, what was making him go, but go he must. His instincts had been his best friend through more battles than he cared to remember, and their sage advice had always been heeded without reservation. To do otherwise was to risk ending up in the dirt at the wrong end of a shovel.

Ignoring the shooting pains in his back from the still tender bullet wound, he efficiently prepared his horse and swung into the saddle. Through the darkness he rode, pushing his horse hard. Intense was the only way to describe his need to get away, but away from what he didn't know. Or, maybe it was a need to get to something he did know, something he knew he did not have to be told how to do.

As he drew closer to the small town, he could feel his nervousness slipping away. To his surprise, the calming sense of belonging he was seeking was not here; was not lying in wait for his arrival. At the edge of town he slowed Barranca to a walk, and a new feeling overtook him. It was both familiar, and at the same time, not-so familiar; dread as well as relief.

Coming to a halt in front of the cantina, he could hear the sounds of the late night revelry floating out from behind the swinging doors. This he understood. This wasn't a home, but it was as close as he had been for a very long time. Yet, even as he swung down from the saddle, his boots landing softly in the dusty street, his mind knew he would not find what he was searching for in this place, yet his instincts pushed him on. Flipping the reins around the hitching rail, he told himself that he just did not care, even though he knew he did.

A gentle, pleading voice in the back of his head became muted, but not entirely silenced as he pushed his way through the cantina doors. That voice that was telling him this place would only bring him more pain, more disappointment, more anger. But that voice couldn't overpower the more intense call stirring deep inside his heart for something familiar. Even a bad familiar would do for now.

He stood in the doorway, and around him the festivity lulled for a brief moment. He was used to getting such a reaction to his sudden appearances, but that was a familiarity that brought him no joy. However, even in this sadness he also found comfort.

It had been the same in every cantina from one end of the Mexican border to the other. When Johnny Madrid walked in, everyone took notice. His reputation was far reaching, and to his amusement, sometimes just as far fetching. The pure outlandishness of some of the tales he had heard about himself was oftentimes a means of defense in itself, which amused him even more.

The level of scrutiny from the men in this place was more than he was accustomed to receiving. Eyes looking at him from under hooded lids were asking more than the usual questions, and forming more than the usual speculations. What was he doing here? Was he here as gunfighter or rancher? What would Murdoch Lancer think?

With a snort he brushed that annoying voice aside. Tonight Johnny Madrid didn't give a damn what Murdoch Lancer thought about anything.

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

From the far end of the bar, Sally watched in fascination as an old scene with a new twist was played out before her eyes. Although she had arrived in Morro Coyo only the day before, she had been a saloon girl for a few years, and was well aware that nothing short of walking danger could quiet a room the way in the particular way it was had just gone silent.

Only this time there was something different. There was something strange, almost brazenly bold yet cautiously reserved, about the speculative glances being aimed at the dark-haired man who had quietly slipped through the doors. Despite his unassuming entrance, he couldn't have attracted more attention if he'd walked in buck naked, guns blaring, cursing at the top of his lungs.

The gun worn low on his hip told her where the caution came from, but she had never seen anyone, much less a whole room, so willing to look directly at one who was supposed to be so dangerous. These openly speculative glances in any other saloon, in any other rough town, would have already had several of those men lying dead in the floor. Then, as if to purposely contradict her thoughts, the newcomer settled himself at an unoccupied table in the far corner, without so much as a hint of aggression.

None of the other saloon girls seemed inclined to approach the handsome stranger, and never being one to pass up a challenge, especially one that looked so enticing, Sally went into action. A night that had started out promising to be a total disappointment had suddenly taking on a far more interesting flavor.

"Care to share a drink, mister?" Sally as she came to a stop, her hip brushing brazenly against his shoulder. To her surprise the newcomer looked up at her, his deep blue eyes reflecting so many things at once that she couldn't pin any one of them down. Instantly, the chaos faded, and what was left was all too familiar. "Or maybe something else?" she added with a seductive tilt of her head.

Even as she spoke the words she could see the man's arousal flaring. A barely discernable flush spread evenly over his tanned cheeks, his breathing became a little faster, and there couldn't have been more heat coming from those eyes if they contained an actual fire. He wasn't here for drink, of that she was now sure. Although this was her job, a part of her couldn't help being disappointed by the fact that, under the unusual flash, he wasn't any different than all the rest.

"Upstairs, third door on the right." Licking her lips seductively, she turned and sashayed towards the staircase, knowing full well the dark-haired man would follow closely on her heels.

And follow he did, even though for a moment after entering her room she wondered if she had been mistaken. It wasn't until she went to light the lamp that she was instantly reminded that she was not alone. A strong hand grasped her wrist and spun her around before she could react.

"I like it dark," the stranger said softly, more softly than she had been prepared for. Two firm hands grasped her arms and pulled her forward, forcibly, but not what she would consider rough by any means. Without warning, his lips lowered to meet hers, and she found herself drowning in a kiss like none other.

His lips were hard, intense, and demanding, but still she felt as if they were asking as much as they were insisting. It had been a long time since anyone had 'asked' her permission for anything, and she eagerly responded to her own flaming desire.

Her need was as great as his, and he seemed to sense it. He released his grip, and let his arms tighten around her waist, pulling her close against his taunt body. With a shiver that had nothing to do with the room's temperature, she eagerly submitted herself entirely to the handsome man and his gentle, yet dangerous blue eyes.

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

"Well?" the older woman lying casually across the foot of Sally's bed asked with a raised eyebrow.

The intensity of Benita's curiosity amused Sally. "Well, what?" she asked coyly.

With an exasperated sigh, Benita almost yelled. "Well, how was he?" The exasperated glare became a wicked gleam. "Any truth to the rumor he's as good with that *pistol* as he is with the one he wears on his hip?"

Sally nearly choked at the boldly irreverant dig for information. It had been a long time since anyone had shown the least bit of interest in the aptitude of her choice of 'customers', and that list included herself. It seemed Mr. Blue Eyes was going to make her day as interesting as he had already made her night.

Not that Sally had totally feign ignorance. She actually had no idea what Mr. Blue Eyes' real name was — pillow talk had not been on last night's agenda. "Who?" she with a coy undertone.

"Who?! Who do you think, girl?" Benita huffed. "You wrangle Johnny Madrid into your bed, and you have the nerve to ask me 'who'?"

This bit of information got Sally's attention, and in a very big way. A year spent in Tucson had more than adequately educated her as to who was who along the border, and Johnny Madrid was pretty high up in the pecking order. However, the stories she had heard of an ice-cold heart to match an even icier glare did not quite fit with the subtly tender intensity of the man who had shared her bed last night.

Sitting up, Benita's eyes suddenly narrowed. "You didn't know who he was, did you?" she asked incredulously. "The most talked about man in town for weeks, and you snag him without even knowing who he is? And your first night in town, too. Unbelievable!"

"That was really Johnny Madrid?" Sally asked, although she tried not to sound too suspicious. As Benita said, this was only her second day in town and it wouldn't do to accuse the town's number one whore of lying. Without too much difficulty, though, she managed to sound sincere when she added, "I mean, this is a little farther north than I would think his wanderings would take him."

Over the next half-hour, Benita told Sally the most incredible story she had ever heard; of how Johnny Madrid had been brought to the area by his estranged father, how he had turned on his gunfighter buddies, and then taken a place as a part owner in one of the most prestigious ranches in the San Joaquin Valley, if not all of California.

As grand as it all appeared to be on the surface, to Sally it just didn't make sense. Something was missing, but she couldn't for the life of herself put her finger on it. She would have sworn the man who shared her bed only hours before had literally been hungry in his desire to find something.

On a purely physical level, their nocturnal activities had left her more satisfied than she had been in too long a time, but even a whore like her could detect the almost tangible need in Johnny Madrid's body as he took her. This need was what was so confusing. What could she possibly have that someone as fortunate as Johnny Madrid Lancer would be looking for?

Even though Benita droned on with her gossip, Sally had long since quit listening. She couldn't get the image from her mind; the image of a pair of eyes pleading for what she was not certain, but whatever it was, it was surely something that she, of all people, had no way to give. Finally, Benita seemed to tire of her role as informant, and departed, leaving Sally alone with her thoughts.

A gentle breeze blew in through the open window, causing the draperies to brush slightly, and catching Sally's tormented attention. One of the cotton panels was caught by a strong draft, sending the corner whipping towards the dresser, which stood on the same wall as the window. From the flat wooden surface, a small glint flickered in the morning sun.

Tears filled Sally's eyes as she stared at it's source. She had been a working girl for several years and innocence was a thing that had been left behind in a very distant past. However, seeing the payment that had been left in return for her 'services' cut her more deeply than anything had in a long time. For the first time in what seemed like forever she wondered if there might be other options out there for her, too.

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

In the soft moonlight streaming through the open window, Sally watched Johnny Madrid as he slept next to her. For the last two nights, she had felt an acute sense of disappointment as both passed without so much as a glimpse of the handsome ex-gunfighter. Tonight, though, to her surprise and pleasure, Johnny had appeared through the swinging doors a little after midnight.

Although neither of her previous nights had been spent alone, she had very much missed the gentle-handed stranger who had managed to worm his way into her waking and sleeping thoughts. It was his hands she had wanted to feel against her skin, his lips she had longed to taste, and his body she desired to give herself to. Reality, however, dictated that she make a living, so she had settled for sharing her bed with someone less fulfilling, but equally as profitable. No one ever said whores had the right to be choosey.

Had it been only a few short hours ago the blond letch from that first hollow night appeared to be on the verge of taking her for a second go around? Her repulsion had evaporated instantly when her dark-haired knight had quietly entered the cantina. As before, the silence was deafening, but this time she understood the blatant stares that were so profoundly out of place. While no one was bold enough to say they did not fear Johnny Madrid, neither were they willing to give him the fearful respect he would have commanded if it weren't for the Lancer name he was now using.

From across the room he had looked at her, his blue eyes turning almost black as they became focused in on the pale arm firmly ensconced around her waist. She doubted anyone else had even noticed, but she had seen the scowl flash briefly over his tight lips. Although very few upstanding citizens would be able to understand the difference, that momentary glimpse of possessiveness left her feeling like she was no longer a working girl, but a treasured gift on the verge of being stolen away.

Without making a scene, Johnny had somehow managed to get her away from the lecherous blond, and then, as if to prevent her wishes from being a total waste, he had taken her with a tenderness that still had her close to tears. Not one move had been forced, not one touch had been demanding, it was just two bodies desperate to provide the other with a solace neither could gain for themselves alone. That night, he had awakened in her a sense of self that did not behoove her to feel in her line of work, but one that she was finding too strong to ignore.

What he was gaining from her she did not know for certain, but it was as if some need had brought him back to her bed. For two very long days she had tried to convince herself that she could continue on with him as she would any other man, but it was an argument she had no chance of winning. Johnny Madrid would have been an attainable goal; Johnny Lancer was not.

The man lying next to her stirred. In the blink of an eye he was wide awake and sitting up on the edge of the bed. Without so much as a word or a backwards glance he stood and walked over to the chair upon which she had draped his clothing too short a time ago. "Stay a little longer," she said suggestively.

"Can't," was the curt reply.

Filled with both fascination and regret, she watched as shirt and pants secreted away from sight the solid body that had given so much pleasure and taken her to before unknown heights of desire. Socks and boots were pulled on. A gunbelt was buckled around trim hips making the transition was complete. Johnny Madrid, her dream lover, had once again become Johnny Lancer, the one man she could never have.

As he had done before, Johnny laid his payment on the edge of her dresser, and left without another word. Even as his spurs jingled his departure down the hallway, Sally cried softly over the emptiness of her life.

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

A couple of nights later, Mr. Blue Eyes returned to her shabby world. In an effort to appease her own needs, as well as his, she reached for Johnny's gunbelt. Before she could even push the leather tongue through the buckle, two hands firmly grabbed her by both wrists. Gasping, she looked up into a pair of hardened blue eyes.

"Don't ever touch my rig," Johnny's voice ground out softly, but with a deadly timber.

As quickly has they had been grabbed, she was released. For a brief moment she saw the hardness in Johnny's eyes give way, but then he turned away from her. She watched as he quickly removed the gunbelt, wraping the leather straps into a neat circle before placing it on the table by the bed. His regular belt followed, and only then did he turn back to her.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I didn't know that wasn't allowed." Again something flashed in his eyes, but this time she swore it was something closer to pain. Then he reached out and pulled her to him, lowering his lips to hers and kissing her like he had that first night.

The familiar dance began and ended as it always did. Clothes were shed, pleasures were taken, and then clothes were replaced. Payment was made, then the dance was over. But for Sally, the tune had irrevocably changed.

Now, instead of feeling nothing, she felt everything. The pleasures were the finest she could ever remember, but the pains afterwards had begun to get too strong. All of a sudden everything was all wrong. Things she had learned to ignore were refusing to be ignored any longer. Feelings of indifference were becoming pangs of regret. At the center of the madness was a blue-eyed cowboy who made her feel like a woman again.

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

It was very late in the night when Sally woke to find the bed next to her cold and empty. Gone was the warm chest with the nest of hair she found so soft and inviting, the strong arms that made her feel like the rest of the world had gone someplace very far away, the soothing breaths that spoke of comfort and understanding. This cold had not been felt this early in the night in over a week. It was a cold she had know would be coming.

Raising up on her elbows, she looked around for her missing bedmate. The light from the moon shed an eerie glow through the small room, but it was bright enough to clearly reveal Johnny's dark siholette as he sat silently on the very edge of the bed.

The soft moonlight slipping through the room’s lone window shone on his back, making his copper skin almost pale. It was the droop of his shoulders, however, confirmed what she already knew. The decision had been made and the one thing she had come to dread in her dreams was about to become a reality.

For the past six nights she had laid in Johnny Madrid's arms, learning more about him as each precious hour ticked away. In the darkness he had talked to her. Hesitantly at first, then more willingly, he had talked of his fears, of his dreams, of his wants and of his desires. He had bared his body to her first, but in the end he had also bared his soul. She felt like he had been using her, not in a bad way, but like he was trying the revealing thing on for size, trying to understand how one actually went about letting anyone get so close.

His stays with her started out short; the same old wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am she had experienced countless times before, only with a tenderness she had never thought possible. He began staying longer, snuggling with her in the darkness - slowly opening himself up like a confused Morning glory opening up to the light of the moon.  Long before the rising of the morning sun, he would close himself up again, denying the rest of the world even a glimpse of his naked spirit.

Even though the frequency of his visits increased, he was always gone well before dawn. A couple of times it had been close, too close to the time the sun would peek out over the horizon. At those times he had become agitated at himself, but never at her. Still, her heart ached for the things she could not have; a shared morning sunrise, breakfast in bed, a day in the warm sunlight. What made her heart ache even more, were the hurts he had endured, and the pains he was still enduring.

In actuality, he had not told her all that much. A few hesitantly spoken words of growin' up dirt poor somewhere down near the border, bitterly wondering why his father had even bothered marrying his mother in the first place. It wasn't like she was the first Mexican girl to let some rich gringo talk his way under her skirts. For whatever reason, they had married and he had been born, then they had been sent away, unloved and unwanted by a father he had learned to despise.

Nothing more was said about his childhood days, but she didn’t have to be told all that had been left unspoken. She had seen first hand the way half-breeds were treated in border towns. Mexicans hated them because they were part gringo; gringos hated them because they viewed them as something less than human. It still amazed her how someone whose life had been so filled with hatred and bigotry, could become a man so loving and tolerant. If nothing else, he was tolerant, beyond all reason.

As Johnny became more comfortable with her, he spoke of the lies he found out he had been told, about a father who had never sent him away. At those times his voice sounded confused and childlike. His mother's lies were constantly tearing away at his heart, doing their best to destroy his love for her, but always falling just shy of the mark. He had loved her all his life, and he couldn't turn away that love like it had never existed, even if it had been a love based on untruths and deceptions. She would always be his mother, just like he would always be Murdoch Lancer's son.
He had said it was easier for him was to push aside the hatred for his father, but never explained why. Sally suspected this was because somewhere deep down inside, under the mound of manure his life had become, Johnny desperately needed to have his father in the center of his universe. He wanted nothing more than to have a father he could look up to and respect. But at what price?

The father Johnny spoke of was neither hateful nor loving. He had welcomed his son back into his home, only to deny him the comfort and nurturing that should have come with the package. Johnny's awe-struck musings of the Lancer mansion could have been the fodder for the most dreamy of fairy tales, only the happily-ever-after part never seemed to come. Instead of a home, Johnny had found a only a house. Stone walls around a stone heart.

His revelations ended there, or so Johnny thought. From his mumblings during his restless sleep, she had discovered just how much he really ached for the love he was not getting. The 'please want me' had become 'why don't you love me' and then digressed even further to the self-depreciating 'if only I was good enough'.

With each shattered word uttered from trembling lips, her anguish had increased, as did her anger. She said not a word when those blue eyes fluttered open, keeping his secrets for him, deep within her own wounded heart. To do otherwise would have put an immediate end to an already a doomed arrangement. Her opinions were not important, but that did not stop her mental speculations of who should be hated more - his mother, whose legacy to him had been a life of shame and heartbreak; or his father, who promised so much, but delivered so little.

Johnny Madrid was a man full of passion and strength, with a vulnerable side that made him much more than he could ever have been without it. He was always so tender and caring when he held her, forever gentle and passionate when he took her, yet brutally honest and forthcoming whenever he left her. Now he was going to be heartbreakingly honorable as he walked away from her forever. Knowing all this, she still had to hear him say it for it to be real.

Reaching out she placed her hand gently on his bare shoulder. "You won't ever be back, will you?" He didn't turn around but she could hear him exhale slowly.

"No," his voice was full of both relief and misery. "I can't, Sally. If I'm ever gonna leave—"

"Priscilla," Sally interrupted.

Twisting around, Johnny eyed her, a wary frown on his already pinched features.

"My real name is Priscilla Barnes," Sally stated with pride. For so long it had been too hard for her to even remember having that name, but now she wanted none other. "Sally was what I started calling myself when I became a working girl. It was easier for drunken cowboys to say without it sounding like they needed to take a trip to the outhouse." She didn't laugh and he didn't smile. There was no humor in her words, just regret.

Sitting up the rest of the way, she leaned closer, wanting to find a few final moments of closeness with this gallant man. Her heart almost burst with joy when he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her tightly against him. The teasing heat of his bare skin against hers felt like it never had before, and she wanted it all. Just this once, she wanted what had always been denied to her. She held no delusions that there would be anything left after he closed her door for what would be the last time, but for just one night Priscilla Barnes wanted to be with Johnny Lancer.

"Stay with me, Johnny," she whispered against his shoulder. "Not with Sally, but with Priscilla. Not as a business transaction for Johnny Madrid, but because you want me as much as I want Johnny Lancer."

At first there was no response. She held her breath, fearing that he would end up leaving without granting her this one repose. Then she felt those most gentle of hands moving across her back, his fingertips barely touching her skin as they skimmed upward, then downward again. Needing no more confirmation that this was what Johnny Lancer wanted too, she exhaled slowly, nuzzling his neck before gently nipping the tender flesh where neck met shoulder. A low, needful, moan full of need and desire was her reward.

His touches became more firm and bold. His lips kissed her temple, then trailed downward towards her ear, and beyond. The next sound she heard was her own aroused moan when Johnny Lancer found that tender part of her neck, where he began returning her nibbles with some of his own. Strong arms guided her back onto the bed, then the warmth of that most wanted body stretched out with her, becoming a living barrier between her and the rest of the world.

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

As he had done every morning for the past few weeks, Scott Lancer paused just inside the doorway to the kitchen, inhaling deeply the delicious scents of bacon and eggs and biscuits that were now a part of his everyday life. In Boston, dallying in the kitchen while the servants were preparing a meal had been an adventure, an excursion into the forbidden realm of his grandfather's stanch propriety. Here at Lancer, though, the kitchen was as much a part of breakfast as the great room was of dinner.


Turning towards the unusually timid voice of the woman he was quickly becoming to think of as a sister, Scott smiled softly. "Good morning, Teresa." Noticing the already dirty dishes she was clearing away from the table, he added, "Murdoch already head out for the day?"

"Yes, he had to go into town and wanted to get an early start. I'll get you a plate." Although the words were innocent enough, the voice was all wrong.

"Is something wrong?" he asked needlessly. He knew there was something bothering her as surely as he knew is own name.

"I'm...well...I'm not sure," she stammered before turning away with a flippant wave of her hand. "Oh, please, just forget I said anything," she begged unconvincingly.

Moving towards her, he placed his hands gently on her delicate, yet capable shoulders. "Teresa, if you need to talk, I'm here," he offered with as much reassurance as he could. They were all new to each other, strangers, in fact, these people he now called family. Talking and sharing was the only way to change that, but only if all parties were ready to participate in that endeavor.

Giving her room to make her own decision, Scott let go and headed for the stove to pour himself a cup of coffee. If Teresa decided she was ready to talk about whatever it was that was bothering her, he knew this cup of liquid alertness would be more than necessary. Back in Boston he would still be sound asleep in his warm bed at this early hour; sometimes his mind still protested the abrupt change in routine — usually every morning about this time.

"Scott, I don't want to sound like I'm spying on you and Johnny, or anything like that," Teresa said without warning. "I just can't help noticing things. I'm not looking for them, you understand, I just can't *not* see them." Frustrated, she heaved a heavy sigh. "Am I making any sense at all."

With his curiosity piqued by her apparent anxiety that normal observations would be misconstrued as spying, as well as his genuine desire to calm the nervous tension he could hear in her words, Scott nodded his understanding. "One's observations can't be controlled," he stated politely. "Can you tell me what is it that you've noticed? I'm not sure I'll be able to advise you, otherwise."

"Well, it's...well," Teresa again stuttered through her response before looking up at him with her soft brown eyes brimming with tears. "Is Johnny happy here, Scott? Has he said anything to you? I mean," the tears broke free as her voice cracked, "Is Johnny planning on leaving Lancer?"

Taken aback by the abruptness of her questions, and even more so by the subject matter, it took Scott a long moment to collect himself. He found it difficult to comprehend just how profoundly disturbing he found the mere suggestion that Johnny could be considering leaving Lancer. He barely knew the man that was his brother, so why should he care this much? Pushing that thought aside for later consideration, he refocused his attention back to Teresa.

Wrapping an arm around her shoulder, he stood next to her, hoping she would not mistake his stance as being dismissive. Too many times he had used, and witnessed other men use, a casual hug as a means of silencing a whiny woman's annoying complaints. He didn't want Teresa to think he was doing that now, although he really didn't know if such an action would get the same reaction here in California as it did in Boston. Things were just so different, but so far it had been mostly for the better.

"Tell me what has you so upset," he urged, just to certain his intent was clear.

"It's nothing, really," Teresa said almost apologetically. "Just little things that...that, well, make me wonder if Johnny is really happy here."

"Such as?" Scott probed.

"Well, ever since my father was killed, I sleep pretty lightly." Teresa sounded almost relieved to be telling her tale. "Even before Doc Jenkins gave Johnny the okay to start working again, I noticed that he was slipping out of the house late at night, after we'd all gone to bed. He'd always return before sunup..." she hesitated, but didn't look up. "But ever since he was given a clean bill of health, there have been times when his bed hasn't been slept in at all," she admitted with obvious reluctance.

"And how do you know this?" Scott asked curiously. She looked up and the condescending frown that appeared on her face almost made him laugh.

"Scott, I've spent my whole life in a house full of men. If there's one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that men are creatures of habit. They either do or they don't."

Scott couldn't help but be further amused by her steadfast determination about the male population. "Is that so?" he said with a grin.

Teresa smiled in kind, but not before her eyebrows raised high on her forehead. "Yes, that is so, Scott Lancer. For example, you always make sure you have plenty of shaving water in your room each night, unlike Murdoch, who is always complaining about having to go hiking through the house in the morning. And my father would always set out the clothes he was going to wear the next day before going to bed. He said it was easier to think when he wasn't half asleep, and if the house ever caught on fire, he wouldn't end up running out in the night in his unmentionables."

This time Scott couldn't help but laugh. "So tell me, Miss Teresa, just what is it that Johnny does on a regular basis that makes you so sure he's not been sleeping in his bed like a baby?"

"Doesn't do, you mean," Teresa corrected. "I know it's been only a short time since you both came here, but it's been long enough for me to notice certain things; especially when it comes to the housekeeping. I clean this house all day, so I notice who does what. I can't help it."

Again, the almost apologetic tone in Teresa's voice astonished Scott. Of course she would notice things in a household it was her responsibility to maintain. How could she possibly feel guilty for doing so? Instead of voicing his acceptance, though, he merely looked expectantly at her, letting her decide how or if she wanted to proceed.

"Johnny doesn't make his bed," she blurted out in an unexpected flurry of frustrated words. "In fact, I can honestly say I've never seen anyone totally destroy a bed on a nightly basis the way he does. Once he recovered enough to move around at all, his bed always looks like he'd been wrestling a bear all night. I swear, sometimes the way I find his sheets all tangled, I'm surprised he hasn't accidentally strangled himself long before now."

While amused by the mental image of his newly-discovered brother hopelessly entangled in a bed sheet, Scott couldn't help but wonder at the oddity. He distinctly remembered Johnny telling him 'I always sleep well.' At the time Scott had no reason to doubt his brother's word, but Teresa's revelation shed a interesting new light things. There was just so much about his brother that he simply did not know.

Once again he forced himself to put aside these stray thoughts for the more pressing matter at hand. "So what's changed?"

"I haven't had to make Johnny's bed once this entire week."

At any other time this would have gotten a chuckle from Scott. Teresa had a huge house to take care of, and for her to be complaining because Johnny wasn't making things even more difficult for her sounded almost ridiculous. In light of her previous question, however, there was nothing humorous about the potentially disturbing revelation. "Johnny hasn't slept in his bed at all this week?"

"Not all night, anyway," Teresa replied with a frown. "Sometimes it looks like he's only laid down for a while. The covers are rumpled, but not enough to indicate that he had even pulled them back, much less been under them, proper like."

Realizing that he hadn't seen or even heard Johnny yet, he asked cautiously. "And last night?"

"Not at all," Teresa said with a blush. Then she tilted her head back, her entire expression a mask of determination. "Scott, I know you think I'm young, but I'm not totally naive. I know that men...well...that men have...certain needs. Johnny's been on his own for a long time now, and I'm sure he's...I mean, I know that he..." Teresa lost the battle and looked away, her face flushed with embarrassment.

A second later her head swung back around, and there was no hint of her previous embarrassment could be seen. "I'm not saying that's what he's doing, and even if he is, I'm not judging him, Scott; really, I'm not. I'm just worried that he's not getting enough sleep. Everything about Lancer is so new to him. I'm just afraid that he's going to get hurt, or sick, or that..."

This time when she looked away, Scott could tell it was to hide her true fear. "You're afraid that Murdoch is going to explode and Johnny's going to leave."

Teresa sniffled as she nodded. "Murdoch just can't seem to understand how hard this all is for Johnny." In a tone just short of accusing, she looked directly at Scott. "He can't see that he's so much more tolerant of your mistakes than he is of Johnny's, even though you need it so much less."

Surprised, and even a little hurt, Scott stared at her. He had made plenty of mistakes during the past weeks, and not once had Murdoch overlooked any one of them. "How did you come to that conclusion?" he almost demanded.

"I'm sorry, Scott. I didn't mean to offend you," Teresa apologized. "I know ranching and cattle and all this is newer to you than it is to Johnny, but that's not what I'm talking about. You're so smart. You've picked up on things so quickly, but that's the easy part — learning the things that can be simply learned. It's the learning how to be something you've never been before that's so much harder."

Scott was still confused, and his expression must have easily betrayed his feelings, because Teresa reached over and took his hand in hers. When she looked up at him there was such compassion and fear in her eyes that any thoughts of anger quickly faded. And what her face didn't say, her words did.

"Scott, you're used to a scheduled existence. You've been in the army, where the regulations were no doubt much more rigid than they are here. And back in Boston, I'm sure your grandfather ran a pretty tight household; your polished manners say as much. But Johnny's never had any of that. He's never had to live his life by a clock; being up at a certain time, being somewhere to do a daily job, or answering to anyone but himself.

"Yes, he's picked up a few things about cattle along the way, things that you're still having to learn, but there's so much more to ranching than what Johnny knows. He's struggling to learn how to be a rancher, on top of having to learn to be...well, I guess the only word is responsible." Tears flooded Teresa's eyes. "I hate making it sound like I think he's irresponsible, but..."

"But Johnny was a gunfighter, and gunfighters don't exactly adhere to schedules or conventions," Scott finished for her.

He couldn't believe something so obvious had escaped his notice. A deep sense of shame swelled inside his chest, making it constrict so painfully that it actually became hard to breath. How many times had he resented Johnny for his seemingly superior knowledge about cattle and western living? If only he would have looked harder, he would have seen that those few insights were probably the only sense of security his brother had left in a situation that was so totally foreign from anything he had ever known. For Johnny Madrid Lancer, life was coming together and falling apart, all at the same time. It had to be completely unnerving at times.

"Scott, I know you gave up a lot in Boston to come out here, and even more to stay. Johnny didn't have nearly as much in the way of material possessions, but he had himself. Sometimes I can't help but feel like we're asking him to give that up, too. While the rest of us are simply adjusting to new people and new things, Johnny's having to flat out change almost everything about himself." Teary brown eyes full of fear looked up at him. "I'm afraid, Scott. Are we asking too much from him?"

"I certainly hope not, Teresa," he said when he had regained a modicum of composure. After another deep breath of air filled his lungs, he looked at her and smiled as reassuringly as he could. "I'll keep an eye out, and I'll try to talk to him if it looks like that's what's needed."

A relieved smile, was followed immediately by a grateful hug. "Thank you, Scott. I know Johnny doesn't open up too well to us, but he respects you very much. I can tell." With those parting words, she turned and slipped out the side door.

Sipping his coffee, Scott watched her through the kitchen window as she hung a load of laundry out to dry. While his eyes were occupied watching his new 'sister', his mind was busy analyzing the new knowledge acquired concerning his younger brother.

There had been a week of complete bed rest to recover from Pardee's gunshot wound. Another week of recuperating around the house, only it now appeared that Johnny had not been too inclined to obey those orders after the sun went down. Then a couple of weeks of learning the ways of a working ranch, while still keeping his nights firmly under his own control. Although it was now clearly evident that Johnny was desperately clinging to the last vestiges of all he had ever known, there were serious dangers in how he was going about it.

Teresa was absolutely correct to be worried. The nightly upheavals, no matter what the cause or the outlet, were eventually going to begin taking their toll. Unlike, Teresa, however, his main concern was Johnny's safety. His time in the army had taught him several lessons, the least of which was not that exhaustion was a breeding ground for mistakes. One of the first lessons he had learned in this new home was that out here mistakes could be very costly.

With this new outlook firmly embedded in his mind, his primary concern shifted to how he was supposed to talk to a man he barely knew, about things he knew even less about? His brother was a veritable hodgepodge of secrets, and one thing he did know was that Johnny tended to be very cloistered when it came to his feelings. On the few occasions Scott had tried to talk to him about his past, Johnny had quickly changed the subject, and rather expertly, too, now that he thought about it.

He would have to be more creative and cunning with his future inquiries if he ever hoped to breach such a formidable barrier. He had been able to successfully resolved some rather difficult situations before now, and saw no reason to believe that he would not find a way to succeed this time.

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

It was early when Murdoch rode into Morro Coyo and headed for the dry goods store. He had wanted to get the supplies ordered and get back to the ranch as soon as possible. Scott and Johnny were going to be working on clearing out the north gully, and he wanted to check on their progress. The snow in the mountains would be melting soon, and that gully needed to be cleared to allow the mountain runoff to water the herd on the west range. Just as he was about to enter the door, he overheard a conversation floating out from inside the store.

"...been hanging out at that saloon just about every night, carrying on with one of those shameless trollops? You can't tell me that Murdoch Lancer knows what's going on. He wouldn't stand for such behavior. Not in his household."

"Maybe," a second voice responded. "And maybe Murdoch doesn't have any say in the matter. That boy of his is a grown man now, and, well, with that kind of a past can you really expect anything more? I overheard my husband and a couple of the men saying that gunfighters are always that way. Getting into trouble and keeping company with licentious women."

The first voice picked up on that theme without hesitation. "More'n likely there's a line of bastard young'ns from here to the border. Might even have one here before too long, the way he's been shamelessly spending his nights with that new saloon trollop." The disgust practically dripped from every one of the woman's words. "God bless, but Murdoch Lancer would have been much better off if that boy had been killed by that land bandit."

Furious, Murdoch turned an exited the building. He had worked very hard to build a strong, upstanding reputation as both a businessman and as an individual. He was known for being fair and just, and as moral as he could be. It irritated him no end to find out that his younger son was undermining all his hard work.

The rumors and innuendos about Johnny's former occupation were a burden he was expecting to have to bear; this, however, was an entirely different matter. He was not about to stand by while Johnny degraded the Lancer name by keeping company with whores.

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

The firmness of the knock at her door told her that Benita was not her early morning visitor. With a frustrated sigh, Priscilla quit her packing and went to the door. She really didn't have time for this. When she opened the door, she found herself standing in the shadow of a mountain of a man.

"Ain't open for business no more," she stated with a frown.

"I'm not looking to do any business," the mountain rumbled ominously.

Something about the cold way he addressed her made Priscilla shiver. "Then you'll have to excuse me. I'm very busy at the moment." She went to close the door, but stopped when the mountain rumbled again.

"My name is Murdoch Lancer. I won't have you bringing any more shame to my family."

His identity made her want to slap him, but his words made her want to carve his heart out with a dull butter knife. In an act of self-preservation, she left him standing in the doorway, while she went back to her packing. Pride and loyalty prevented her from keeping her opinions to herself, though. "The only shame you'll find here, Mr. Lancer, is that Johnny had to pay me for the affection and understanding he wasn't getting at home."

"Now you listen here—"

Priscilla spun around to face off with the one person she knew could destroy Johnny's fragile dreams. "No, you listen for once in your high and mighty life! For the past two weeks, more nights than not Johnny's been here with me, and I am not the least bit ashamed of that, neither. I'm not about to deny anything that's happened in that bed, but there was a lot more happening there than what your simple mind seems able to comprehend."

Murdoch's eyes narrowed. "Such as?"

"Such as, he talked to me. He told me things he couldn't tell none of you, things he didn't believe you'd understand. I have to admit I couldn't understand why he felt that way, but now I know. You came here because you're worried about your precious reputation, without even daring to consider the reasons Johnny came to me. Part of you was probably even scared you'd end up with an ex-whore for a daughter-in-law if you didn't step in and keep me from digging my claws into your wayward son."

She turned back to her packing, partially because she was running late, and partially because she couldn't stomach the sight of her unwanted guest any longer. She couldn't keep her tongue in check, though, as she felt her loyalty to Johnny being put to the test. "For your information I'm leaving. I'm going back home, to Chicago. And I never would have had the courage to do it if it weren't for the fact that Johnny didn't want anything from me. He's the most decent man I've ever met, present company most definitely included."

"I don't understand."

"Now why don't I find that one hard to believe?" she snorted before making at least a token effort to explain things to him for Johnny's sake. Turning around, she faced him, his blue eyes narrowed in a grim expression of disgust. "Listen, me and Johnny have lived on the wrong side of the street for a long time. We're both whores, me selling my body, him selling his gun. We understand how you people from the right side of that same street look at us, seeing us as less than deserving of anything human."

"My son is not a whore!"

Murdoch's defiant snarl made her wish beyond everything that she could stay, that she could be here for Johnny when he was hurt by his own father, as she knew he would be. However, that just wasn't an option and she knew it. Any fighting she could do for him would have to be done now.

"Believe what you want, Mr. Lancer. If you had any sense, you'd see that Johnny is staying at Lancer because he knows all-to-well what he's been, and he don't want to be that no more. The one thing he wants most is to be able to change his life and become the man that can make you proud. Why he gives a damn about your opinion is beyond me, but he does."

"My relationship with my son is none of your business."

Priscilla laughed softly. "No, I guess it ain't. That's why I'm going home to Chicago."

"I suppose you figure you're going to change your life, too?"

"I aim to give it a try. Maybe I'll succeed, and maybe I won't. But if I do end up flat on my back again, I'll know that I at least had the courage to try, which is more than most whores can say. Something you might want to think long and hard on is this; while Johnny's been with me, he's been trying to decide if the fight would be worth it, if giving up everything that makes him who he is was worth the benefits, if having a family was worth the effort, if having a place to belong was worth the pain of losing all that was familiar. Last night he made his decision. I hope and pray he made the right choice, although right now I'd have to bet against it."

Without waiting for a response she didn't care to hear, she turned back to her packing. "Now, would you please leave. You ain't about to see things the way they are, so there ain't no point in continuing this discussion. You got what you came here for — Johnny won't be in my bed anymore — so can get out, before you sully that precious reputation of yours by bein' seen with the likes of me."

Priscilla held her breath, releasing it only when she heard the door close. Johnny had chosen a difficult path in more ways than one, and her heart ached over the turmoil she knew his delicate soul would have to endure. If leaving behind the only life he had ever known wasn't hard enough, trying to melt the icy disapproval of that old man was going to be an even greater battle. The man just wasn’t capable of understanding the conflict in Johnny’s life that was resulting from his desire to be a son to this cold hearted man.  The fact that the father didn’t seem to want to understand was more shameful than anything that had taken place between her tawdry sheets!

Almost involuntarily she fingered the wad of bills tucked inside the folded blanket as she placed it into the satchel. This money was a gift from Johnny Lancer, not payment for services rendered to Johnny Madrid. When Johnny had first offered it to her, she had felt hurt and betrayed beyond words. She had not wanted their last night together to be stained with the taint of her sordid past. She wanted it to be a beginning for her, and a place where he could take the first step in leaving behind his past behind him.

It had only been his sincere insistence that his only intention was to help her leave the life of a whore behind, the way he was being helped to leave the life of a being a gunhawk behind, that allowed her to keep his gift. With that teasing smile that seemed to light up his whole face, a smile she was going to miss more than anything, he had told her that no romp in bed with no woman was worth nine hundred and twenty-seven dollars.

She smiled at that memory. Another woman from another life would have found his comment insulting. She, however, saw only the genuine honesty in his words. No man would pay such an exorbitant price for a woman's body. That fact alone put more credence to his words than any other gesture of assurance could have ever done. She graciously accepted his generosity because she understood him, and he understood her.

What she had told his father was the truth — they had both been whores, each in their own way. Only another whore could truly understand the need to help another of their kind. It wasn't the most noble profession in the world by any means, but she had found some of the most noble individuals in its lowly ranks.

That's what allowed her to accept his money with the same spirit in which it was offered, and she would succeed for his sake as well as her own. Maybe, one day he would even get to see first hand how firmly his gesture of faith and goodwill had set a lonely pair of feet back on the road to respectability.

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

Scott had barely arrived at the north gully when he heard the approach of a galloping horse. Squinting in the easterly direction, he saw a lone rider heading his way. He could tell just by the sit of the man that it was his missing brother. Relief washed over him.

After his rather enlightening conversation with Teresa that morning, the last thing he had wanted to do was try to explain Johnny's absence to their father. Truth be told, he had worried all the way from the ranch house that Johnny might not show up. This thought disturbed him more than he was willing to admit at this point, so he kept his emotions carefully in check as the palomino came to a halt in front of him. Of course, that didn't mean he couldn't react like the big brother he was.

"Missed you at breakfast," he said casually, making a concerted effort to keep any inquiry or perceivable condemnation from his voice. Either would spook his flighty brother, and effectively end the conversation before it started.

After dismounting, Johnny eyed him with a speculative glance, one that Scott had become used to during the past few weeks. It seemed his brother was no more sure about him than he was of Johnny. There was a brief hesitation, then Johnny nodded. "Won't happen again," he said softly before turning to lead his horse over to where Scott's mount was already tethered.

Scott couldn't quite put his finger on it, but something had changed. The signs were both blatant and obtuse, yet he still couldn't seem to get a complete grasp the difference. Yesterday, Johnny would have responded to his statement with a cheeky grin, or maybe a smart-mouthed comment delivered in jest. His simply stated 'won't happen again' had an unusual tightness to it, as if during the night something had transpired. Something which had irrevocably changed the entire scheme of things.

"Ready?" Johnny had already donned a pair of work gloves and was in the process of rolling up his sleeves. Without waiting for an answer, he began surveying the brush that needed to be cleared.

As curious as Scott was, he was well aware that patience would be his best ally. Trying to get Johnny to talk now would only get those well-honed defenses on the alert. No, when they took a break for lunch would be soon enough. Johnny would have loosened up by then, becoming at ease enough with Scott's presence to maybe let something slip.

Giving an approving nod, Scott pulled on his gloves. "Let's get to it."

Several hours, and quite a few amusingly colorful Spanish curses later, Scott decided that it was time for lunch, and a much needed break. "Give that bush a rest, Johnny." Wiping the first layer of grim from his face with his kerchief, he watched Johnny continue battling with the ornery shrub. "Time for lunch, brother."

"You go ahead," came the curt reply. "I ain't all that hungry."

Scott thought on his brother's words as he headed for his horse to retrieve the food that was packed away in his saddle bags. Johnny was an enigmatic man in so many ways, but Scott had quickly discovered that by examining things Johnny said more closely than he normally would he could find the hidden meanings that were so often missed by others.

His smile reflected his confidence as he headed for a nearby tree for some shade from the midday son. He shook his head as he watched Johnny struggling fruitlessly with the stubborn shrub. "I figured you would show up eventually, so I had Teresa pack enough for two," Scott called out as he sat down. "Unless you want me to be so full I won't be able to move this afternoon, you better get over here and eat your share."

His smiled deepened when Johnny let go of the bush, standing upright to stare at him from across the gully. The lack of banter during the morning hours had been a clear indication that Johnny was thinking on something pretty hard. What was weighing so heavily on his mind was still anyone's guess, but Scott knew exactly what Johnny was thinking at this moment.

From the first day at Lancer, Scott had deduced that Johnny worked very hard at making it difficult for everyone to read him. Therefore, whenever Scott was able to see through his facades with such an apparent ease it tended to be very unnerving, throwing Johnny off balance and making him think even more, instead of just reacting.

In this instance, Scott would bet his share of Lancer that, despite the fact that Johnny had no doubt missed breakfast and had to be hungry, he had turned down sharing lunch simply because he found it inconceivable that Scott would care enough to take it upon himself to make sure there was enough food for the both of them. Inconceivable because Johnny had been taking care of himself for too long, depending on no one, and knowing there was no one he could depend on even if he wanted to do so. Well, he was just going to have to get used to the fact that things were different now.

"Coming?" Scott called out encouragingly. There were times when Johnny's loner-style idiosyncrasies were extremely annoying, but today was his game, so Scott found them to be mildly amusing. After that first, mostly tension-filled week, Scott had found that he really enjoyed challenging himself to predict Johnny's reactions before they happened. He was getting quite good at it, too.

Exactly as Scott knew he would, Johnny finally walked over and sat down. He didn't say a word, again as expected, and accepted the offered food with only a muttered, 'gracias'. Grinning, Scott took a huge bite of the slightly squashed sandwich. Oh, how he enjoyed being right.

Scott purposely waited until they were just about through with his lunch before continuing with his plan. In the first place, he was rather famished himself, and in the second place, he stood firm in his belief that Johnny had missed breakfast and had to be twice as hungry. With the back-breaking work that was still ahead of them, he did not want to risk Johnny ditching lunch without getting a good portion of it eaten first.

"I hope you're being careful, brother," he said with an almost casual indifference as he wiped his mouth after chewing the last bite of his sandwich.

"Careful about what?"

Although Johnny's response seemed to be delivered with a similar casualness, Scott could tell he was already tensing up for the fight he thought was coming; a fight that Scott wasn't about to provoke. Johnny was a very formidable opponent, even without a gun, and he had no desire to antagonize his brother. He was, however, seriously beginning to enjoy this game of 'guess Johnny's reaction'.

"You know, brother, not becoming a father in the too near future." The expected resentment flared in those deep blue eyes, but Scott was prepared with what he hoped would be a typical big brother comment. "I know you're a big boy, but I'm supposed to worry about you. It's in the big brother hand book. I get to dole out the fatherly advice, without the fatherly attitude to go along with it."

It took a while, but eventually Johnny's glare faded into an easy smile, which then settled into an understanding grin. Score another one for the home team, Scott thought triumphantly.

"I'm always careful," Johnny said softly.

Concession one was made, now it was time for the counter concession, which would both startle and appease. "That's nice to know. I was just thinking that it will probably be a while before I'm ready to be an uncle. I would kind of like to get this ranching thing down pat first. Letting you know there was no need to rush things along for my sake was the only truly considerate thing for me to do."

Holding his breath, Scott waited for the reaction. This one was a little iffy. Either Johnny would laugh and make some lame, maybe even off-color comment, effectively signaling the end of the conversation, or he would pursue the dialogue through an inquiry of his own. When Johnny looked away, seeming to study the same horizon that had been there all day, Scott knew exactly what direction his brother would take. Exhaling slowly, he waited for Johnny's question.

"How'd you know?"

"Your bed hasn't been slept in all week," Scott answered in the only way he knew how. Honestly. "It hasn't been on a consistent basis since the doctor said you could get out of it three weeks ago."

Johnny turned to face him, his expression a mixture of disbelief and anger, and even a little shock. "You been keeping tabs on my sleepin'?"

After waging a small internal struggle with himself, Scott realized that coming clean would be the only way to keep Johnny's trust. If he handled this just right, he might also succeed in endearing Teresa into Johnny's well-guarded heart, as well.

"I have to admit I've never given a second thought to your sleeping habits," Scott replied in all sincerity. "Not since you recovered from that bullet wound, that is."

Johnny didn't say a word but his dark expression told Scott he better get to the point and fast. Johnny wasn't known for his patience, and it was clear that what little he did have was being stretched to the limit.

"Look, Johnny, no one is spying on you. We all live in the same house, that's all. You can't expect us not to notice things. Teresa only mentioned it to me because she has come to care very deeply for you and because, quite frankly, you're scaring her."

"Scaring her? How?" Johnny sounded both defensive and shaken by this revelation.

"She thinks you're not happy here," Scott answered honestly. "She's scared that you're getting restless and that you're planning on leaving, and," he paused, not sure if he was willing to commit himself totally to this man just yet. However, one look at the smoldering anger building in Johnny's eyes made the decision for him. "I'm scared, too, Johnny. I promised Teresa I'd talk to you, but that was for her peace of mind. Even if I hadn't made that promise, we'd be having this discussion because I want to know if you're unhappy, if you're thinking about leaving."

Johnny turned away, but remained seated. This almost surprised Scott. He had been fairly certain that he had pushed too hard, and that Johnny would bolt from his ill-handling of the situation. Instead he found himself staring at the back of his brother's head, a head that was bowed in thought.

"I don't understand," Johnny said barely loud enough for Scott to hear.

"Don't understand what?" Scott ventured cautiously.

"Why it'd make any difference to her, or even to you for that matter. I ain't nothin' to neither one of you." In a flash, Johnny was on his feet and headed back towards the gully. "Ain't been that long ago that neither of you had even heard of me," he said over his shoulder.

Scott watched Johnny walk away, trying to decide what his next move should be. Johnny seemed more confused than angry, which made no sense at all. What was there to be confused about? Why had this seemingly small point become a major hurdle that Scott instinctively knew had to be cleared if he ever hoped to achieve a meaningful rapport with his brother?

Standing, he headed for where Johnny was trying hard not to show how much this was bothering him by reengaging that stubborn bush in a battle of wills. Although Scott felt like he was treading on totally unfamiliar territory, he wasn't about to give up. This was too important — for everyone. At some point the game had changed, and Scott had no more interest in second guessing Johnny's reactions anymore. For now he simply wanted to know what Johnny was thinking, and why. Nothing his brother had said was making any sense.

"It makes a difference because you are not nothing to us," he said as he came to a halt in front of his brother.

"Why?" Johnny demanded without letting up on his fight with the cantankerous shrub.

"Because you're my brother."

At that moment the bush's roots gave way, and Johnny had to fight to keep his balance, having to take a few steps backwards to keep from landing on his backside. In anger he threw the vanquished bush aside. Only it wasn't anger. Once free of the obstacle he seemed to be using as a buffer to avoid the issue, it was easy to see his overwhelming frustration.

"Why's that make any difference?" he demanded. "Just because we share Murdoch Lancer's blood? An' that don't even make no sense with Teresa. She ain't my kin. I'm still just someone you didn't even know existed 'till a few weeks ago. What makes...what makes me any different than Cipriano or Frank or Jose or anyone of the other hands?"

Although there was a familiar toughness in Johnny's voice, it was the pleading in his sky-blue eyes that kept Scott's attention. Never before had he witnessed such a conflicting array of expressions at one time, that is until Johnny turned and walked over to lean against a nearby tree. With arms wrapped protectively around his body, Johnny seemed to be fighting within himself over something that was so important Scott felt he should automatically know what it was; only, he didn't.

Taking his time, Scott concentrated on evaluating more than just Johnny's words; the expressions were so rapidly changing they had been hard to read, the body language that screamed of self-preservation, even the inflection in a voice laced with a never before heard hint of fear. They all had to mean something. Somewhere there had to be a clue to what he was missing.

Maybe it was in that slight pause. It had sounded like Johnny had caught himself, as if he was about to say something he didn't want to reveal, and managed to divert his words to cover that thought. But what was it? If only he could get Johnny to tell him.

"Because you're my brother, and they're not," Scott began, only to find himself on the receiving end of one of Johnny's infamous glares. "It's the only truthful answer I can give you, Johnny."

"It can't be that simple."

Breaking eye contact, Johnny turned away, but did not retreat any farther. Something in this obscure movement added a piece to the puzzle and Scott found himself finally beginning to understand. Not that his conclusion made things any easier, but at least was on the right track. At least he hoped so.

"That's the real problem, isn't it, Johnny? You're avoiding facing the real question, which is what makes us any different than Cipriano or Frank or Jose or any of the rest of the ranch hands," Scott said with a gentle certainty. "We're the ones you haven't known for any more time than the other hands, yet we are different, aren't we? You just can't understand why. Is that it, Johnny?"

"I guess," came the mumbled reply. "She tried to tell me it's 'cause I want to have a family again, but—"

"You could talk to her but you won't talk to me?" Although Scott tried, he knew he hadn't succeeded in keeping his sense of betrayal from coming through in his voice.

Johnny only nodded.

"Why? I'm your brother, Johnny. I care about you more than any whore ever will." Johnny's head shot up and one glimpse of his angry scowl had Scott quickly backing off. "I'm sorry, I had no right to say that. Still, I won't deny that it hurts to know you felt you could talk to her and not to me. I'm not some stranger you just met on the trail and decided to ride along with for a little company. I'm your fam—"

"She couldn't hurt me," Johnny interrupted. Surprisingly he didn't look away, either. Instead a pair of pleading blue eyes demanded answers to a question not spoken.

As if a bolt of lightning had struck him where he stood, Scott suddenly understood. Those four little words stated his sentiment, but it was his eyes that were addressing the real question; 'would you hurt me?' This one look explained more about his brother than weeks of talking and working together. "You won't talk to me because you're afraid I'll turn away from you. That I'll somehow use whatever you say to take away the one thing you've wanted more than anything - a family."

For a long moment Johnny didn't respond, although the emotions flitting across his face easily revealed the silent turmoil raging within. Only when pain began to take over, did Johnny turn away. "It''s been so long since I dared even think about such things," he said as he stared out across the valley. "Scott, it took me an awful long time to lose that need, after my mama died. Needin' family, needin' anyone ain't safe, not when you're a gunhawk."

"You're not a gunhawk anymore, brother."

"Then why don't I feel any different?" Johnny demanded desperately. "Why don't I feel like I ain't what I was, instead of feeling like I'm tryin' to be somethin' I ain't got no chance of ever bein'?"

Exhaling slowly, Scott pushed away the urge to wrap both arms protectively around his anguished brother. Maybe one day their relationship would be strong enough to support such a demonstrative display, but that time was not now. For now they were still trying to find their footing, forging a relationship out of things that should have been, but weren't, so in the mean time he would have to rely on words and less-grand gestures to convey his support.

"Johnny, you've got to give all this some time. The past few weeks have brought on some very dramatic changes to your life. Not only have you divested yourself of the only lifestyle you've ever known, but you've also been sorting through the total upheaval of your entire existence. The few certainties you had to hold onto in all your life have all been torn away. For instance, how many years did you hate Murdoch with all your heart?"

More pain and regret washed over Johnny's already defeated expression.

"It wasn't your fault, Johnny," Scott countered quickly. "You had no reason to doubt what you had been told, and no one in your shoes would have felt any different."

"You sayin' you hated him, too?" Johnny asked defiantly.

Although unprepared for this particular question, Scott smiled somewhat sadly. If only things could have been different for Johnny. "No, I didn't hate him, not really. I spent an awful lot of time being disappointed that he never came for me, but I can't honestly say I ever hated him. Then again, I didn't have someone constantly poisoning my perceptions of him, either. Murdoch may not have ever been one of my grandfather's favorite people, but he could never take away from me the one thing you never had."

Looking for the world like a lost puppy, Johnny asked softly, "And what's that?"

"The knowledge that my mother loved Murdoch enough to follow him to the other end of the continent. She died. He didn't leave her and she didn't leave him, not of her own choice, anyway. There was no reason for me to believe that he hadn't loved her as much as she loved him, which gave me the option of seeing other reasons for his absence in my life. Tell me that you haven't spent your whole life not only believing that Murdoch used your mother and then tossed her aside as an embarrassment, but that she hated him, too. Did she ever once tell you that she loved him?"

Johnny's head shook sadly. "No, I never remember her bein' anythin' but mad at him. All you had to do was mention his name an' she'd be off in a tizzy faster'n I can draw a gun. An' you ain't never seen a temper like she had."

Not believing that for a minute, Scott snorted softly.

"And what's that supposed to mean?" Although he sounded indignant, there was a teasing smile on Johnny's lips that took the edge off his tone.

"Oh, I think you've got a pretty good idea, brother," Scott laughed. "Seems like you inherited more than just an extreme dislike of Murdoch Lancer from her."

Instead of agreeing with him, Johnny's expression became tight again. "I can't help my temper, Scott, but I can handle it for the most part. What I ain't sure of is whether or not I can unlearn all the rest of it?"

In those words the ultimate question had finally surfaced. Scott had what he hoped was the ultimate answer to go along with it? "Do you still hate Murdoch?"

"No." Although Johnny seemed genuinely hurt by the question, he didn't shut down, and even seemed to open up a little more. "He ain't near as bad as I was led to believe. I just wish he'd accept me for who I am. I'm tryin' to change, but..."

"But it would be nice if you didn't feel it was a requirement." There was no question in Scott's words, any more than there was in his mind. "He loves you, Johnny. He just seems angry because he finds acceptance hard. It hurts him too much."

"Hurts him? How?" Any censure Johnny's inquiry might have contained was drowned out by an honest need for the truth.

"Everything you've gone through, all the hardships you've endured, all the reasons for why you became Johnny Madrid, all those things Murdoch sees as his own failures." Taking deep breath, Scott put his faith in his brother's ability to understand there was nothing critical in his observations. From the very beginning it had been painfully clear that the subject of Johnny's mother was very touchy for both men. "Johnny, I don't know why your mother left Lancer."

Johnny opened his mouth, but Scott quickly held up a hand in protest. "Please, just hear me out."

Closing his mouth without saying a word, Johnny nodded slightly.

"Maybe she left because she was simply that unhappy. Maybe that was Murdoch's fault, and maybe it wasn't." Although anger flared in Johnny's eyes, to his credit, he remained silent. "Johnny, Murdoch and your mother met and married in another world from Lancer. Maybe she had the best of intentions, but ranch life just turned out to be something to which she could not adapt. That doesn't make her wrong, or Murdoch either, it just made them incompatible here, whereas they weren't down in Matamoros."

"Why'd she have to take me with her?" Johnny's plea was filled with a desperate need.

"You were her baby, Johnny. You couldn't have been too much more than a year old at the time, so it's understandable that she wouldn't want to leave you behind." Pausing, he placed his hand on Johnny's shoulder, feeling the tight muscles and wishing with all his heart that he could do something to ease his brother's torment. "I can't believe for a minute that if she had any way of knowing how hard your life would turn out, that she would have either left you here, or maybe even stayed and endured what ever hardships were behind her decision to leave in the first place.

"I have to believe that your mother had some kind of plan, but when things fell short of that plan, she felt that returning here was not an option. Whether that's true or not, we'll never know. Even Murdoch couldn't possibly say with absolute certainty how he might have reacted if she had come back after such a cruel departure. He was hurting and angry, and he might not have been able to forgive her. However, that's not really my point."

"An' what exactly is your point?"

"My point is that, for Murdoch, your being here is a welcomed blessing, as well as a painful reminder of his shortcomings. He loves you, Johnny. I've seen it in his eyes. Yes, I've also seen the regret and anger in those same eyes, but I don't think for a minute that those feelings are directed towards you. I think they're more an indication of how deeply he regrets and feels responsible for the hardships you've had to endure."

Johnny sighed. "So when's he gonna stop looking at me like I'm not worth the trouble?"

Scott knew had scored well on several issues, but Johnny's comment implied that he wasn't quite ready to let go of his fear of being unloved and unwanted by his own father. That was a fear that had been nurtured for too many years to be destroyed so easily, however, Scott was confident that Johnny was at least now thinking about things a little differently. "He's never looked at you like that, Johnny."

"If you say so." In spite of his words, Johnny didn't sound the least bit convinced.

Not willing to risk undoing all the progress they had made, Scott attempted to turn the conversation towards a less trying subject. "So, tell me about this woman you found. Who is she?"

"Guess you'll hear from them town busybodies anyway, so there ain't no real point in not sayin'," Johnny replied with a shrug and a somewhat sad smile. "She's one of the gals from the cantina in Morro Coyo. Sally...I mean, Priscilla, well, she was new in town, too. At first she was just someone to hold on to, but it turned out she wasn't like all those other women."

Despite his earlier comment, Scott was somewhat surprised to learn that Johnny had been slipping off to be with an actual whore. Although Scott was no stranger to women and desire, he had never once stooped to utilizing the services of a prostitute. Between his own good looks and his grandfather's considerable reputation, back in Boston he had never had a problem finding a bed to share, free of charge. Since coming to Lancer, he hadn't had the time or energy for engaging in any such libidinous activities.

Johnny was different, though. While not lacking in the good looks department, Johnny definitely had not benefited from the same social advantages the Scott had enjoyed. Now that he really thought about it, it wasn't hard for him to imagine that seedy saloons and dancehall whores had played a major role in his brother's former life. "She felt familiar. Being with her let you be your old self, while keeping your gun and reputation from coming into play," he mused.

"Yeah, I guess that sounds like as good a reason as any." Johnny looked almost apologetically in Scott's direction. "I told her last night that I wouldn't be back no more, that bein' with professional women was part of a life I was tryin' to leave behind."

Startled, Scott hadn't realized he had spoken his thoughts aloud until Johnny began responding to them. In Johnny's words, another bolt of lightning hit, this time reminding him of a question that had been posed to him at the beginning of the day, and sending a pulse of fear through his entire being. "Are we asking too much, Johnny?" To his surprise Johnny actually looked shocked by this inquiry.

"You ain't asked nothin' of me," Johnny rebuked. "Not even the old man has, not really. I'm the one who decided I was gonna be Johnny Lancer again, instead of staying Johnny Madrid. I ain't got no right lettin' any of you take the blame for my decisions."

Taking a small leap of faith, Scott placed a comforting arm around Johnny's shoulders. "This isn't about blame, Johnny. It's about family, and trust, and letting us in. We're all having to feel our way through this situation, so don't think for a minute that you're the only one who is unsure of himself. You're not alone, brother. Not any more."

Scott watched intently as Johnny stared at some distant point that held no relevance other than it had been chosen to hold Johnny's gaze during this difficult time. Although somewhat hurt that Johnny still didn't feel comfortable enough to returned his gesture of affection, the very fact that the shoulders beneath his arm had not tensed up, and had actually seemed to relax a little under his touch, gave Scott hope. With all that Johnny was having to face, that he was willing to let anyone get this close was a victory in itself.

"I ain't too good at this family stuff no more." Johnny's admission came out as a harsh whisper.

"It's been a long time for all of us, Johnny, in one way or another." Johnny's head bowed, but not before Scott caught a glimpse of a grin tugging at the corner of Johnny's mouth. Bracing himself, he waited for what he was sure was coming.

"You know somethin', Boston?"

"What's that, Johnny?"

"You're so plumb full of good advice and all, it's a darn shame you ain't got no nieces and nephews 'round to benefit from all that wisdom an' such."

Tightening his hold, Scott easily pulled an unresisting Johnny into a playful headlock. "Like I said before, I can wait," he said with a laugh as Johnny twisted out of his grip. Pointing his finger at Johnny, he put on his best authoritative glare. "You just keep on being careful, you hear me, brother."

Johnny grinned at him with a relaxed ease that had been missing from his smiles until now. "Don't think that's gonna be a problem no more, but I hear you, Boston. Now let's get back to work before the old man throws both of us out for bein' deadbeats."

"He can't do that," Scott remarked as they headed back to the brush still waiting to be cleared. "We own part of this ranch. Remember?"

Amused, Scott watched as a mountain of realization came crashing down on Johnny. The look of shock at the reminder that he was, in fact, secure in his position at Lancer was almost comical. It was sad, too, but still amusing. One day Johnny would be able to accept that he was as important a part of Lancer as Murdoch or Scott or Teresa or any of the rest of the hands. One day Johnny would come to accept that he wasn't going to be alone ever again.

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

The mountain had long since stopped rumbling, and the peaceful stillness of night had settled in on the valley. With two glasses of brandy in hand, Scott slipped out onto the patio. For almost half an hour he had been waiting for Johnny to come back into the house, but had finally decided that wasn't going to happen. He found the dark-haired man was leaning casually against a stone pillar, gazing out over the surrounding landscape. It was almost as if he couldn't get enough of this land, which was a feeling Scott could relate to with ease.

Nudging Johnny's arm, Scott offered him one of the glasses, which Johnny accepted with a slight nod, before turning his focus back to the mountains in the distance. "I wish things hadn't gotten so..." Scott paused, uncertain of an adequate adjective to describe Murdoch's angry tirade that had so recently rattled the rafters of the lofty hacienda.

"Loud?" Johnny asked with a soft snort.

Despite the gravity of the situation, Scott couldn't quite hold in his responding chuckle. "I was thinking more along the lines of intense." All humor immediately disappeared, "Or, more appropriately, completely out of line."

"Ain't nothin' to be worrin' yourself about, big brother," Johnny teased, then he too became serious. "I heard what you was trying to say today. Only there's some of what you said that didn't need saying. I already knew the old man cared."

Shocked, Scott spoke before giving himself a chance to think. "You did?" Immediately aware of how bad his comment sounded, he hurried to make amends. "I'm sorry, Johnny. I didn't mean that the way it must have sounded."

"S'okay, Boston. After some of the things I said, I can't blame you for bein' surprised to hear me admittin' somethin' like that. I ain't too sure I'd go so far as to say he...well...what you said..." Johnny's voice lowered to an almost inaudible level, "...that he loves me." There was a slight pause, then Johnny continued at a more easily-heard volume. "I guess I figured it had to be somethin', and since it ain't none of the rest there wasn't nothin' left for it to be but caring."

Scott's curiosity was piqued. "The rest?"

"I know what it feels like to be hated and scared of, to be looked down on like I was nothin' but dirt, and even to be looked clean through, like I wasn't even there. Murdoch don't hate me. He ain't scared of me, neither." Johnny took a long drink of the brandy, then made a sour face. "An' it ain't gotta be said that he sure as heck notices I'm here, so there just ain't nothin' left 'cept some kind of caring." He looked at the glass in his hand, shook his head and frowned. "Guess I ain't sophisticated enough for this sippin' whiskey."

"Next time I'll remember to make yours a shot of tequila."

Johnny looked over at him and grinned. It was that mind-blowing grin he withheld for only certain occasions, but when they came along, it was like being on the receiving end of a ray of sunshine. "Now there's a man's drink, Boston."

A man's poison was more like it. "If you say so, little brother."

The intensity of the smile faded, but not the sincerity. "I'm gonna go check on Barranca. He seemed to be favoring that right foreleg when I was brushing him down earlier. I wanna check an make sure he didn't strain nothin'." Tipping his glass, Johnny took another sip, frowned again, then held out the half-full glass for Scott to take. "That's gonna take some gettin' used to," he grumbled, but his teasing tone belied his words.

Still a little stunned by his brother's remarkable gift of insight, Scott could only watch as Johnny sauntered off towards the barn. Behind him the veranda door opened, then closed. A moment later Murdoch came to a stop next to him.

"Your degenerate son is a very remarkable man," Scott stated rather coldly.

A long pause was followed by a curt response. "I'll take that to mean that you believe I came down on him too hard."

"Very astute." For some reason he offered Murdoch Johnny's unfinished drink. "Johnny prefers tequila. Guess that's another strike against him."

"Scott, I've worked very hard to make the Lancer name honorable and something to be proud of." Another long pause. "I suppose you think he just didn't mean any harm?"

"No, I think Johnny has spent too much of his life looking for love in all the wrong places. He's beginning to realize that, too. Old habits die hard, but they do die. There was even a funeral for one this morning, but I can only assume that you were too self-righteously indignant to notice the obituary."

"Are you saying the issue was dead before I said anything?"

"As a door nail, sir. Johnny's not stupid. He already knew that kind of behavior wasn't going to be acceptable here. He did not need you to point it out to him like he was some adolescent school boy."

"If that's the case, then why did he do it?"

"Maybe because he needed a little help letting go of the only life he's ever known. Help he didn't think he could get from us."

"Maybe things wouldn't be so hard if he would trust us a little."

"He does. More today than he did yesterday, and tomorrow he will more than he does today."

"Providing I can keep my mouth shut?"

Scott laughed at the hint of sarcasm in his father's assessment. How could one man be so totally blind? "He isn't angry with you. He has every right to be, but he isn't. That's what makes him such an amazing individual. He feels the pain, but he doesn't let it cloud his judgment. For someone who's supposed to be so hot-headed, he has a remarkable talent for self-control when it really counts. Very few of us can be so objective, myself included."

"Can I take that to mean that you are mad at me?"

"Yes." Scott took another sip of his drink, not necessarily seeking any courage from the fiery liquid, but maybe finding a little audacity. "You hurt my brother. Do not do it again."

"You just said he wasn't mad at me."

"He isn't. I didn't say anything about you making him mad. I said you hurt him. Whether he wants to admit it or not, you hurt him, and you did so without giving any regard to learning the truth, or making any allowances for the fact that Johnny has been struggling very hard to become someone he hasn't been since he was a baby. I've only just found my brother, and forgive me for being so blunt, but I'll be damned if I'll stand silently by and let you drive him away, and especially not over something as stupid as a bunch of loose-lipped, small-town gossips."

"Those loose-lipped, small-town gossips happen to be our neighbors."

"Too bad Lancer doesn't have a higher caliber of neighbors." Downing the rest of his drink in a single, thoat-burning swallow, he turned to look at his father for the first time since Murdoch had joined him on the veranda. "I meant what I said. Don't hurt my brother like that again."

Murdoch's left eyebrow arched high on his forehead, but surprisingly he did not respond to the obvious defiance of his authority. A light-hearted whistling drowned out the crickets' chirping as Johnny appeared from around the corner of the barn, something that inexplicably eased the tension between father and son. 

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

"Good night, sir." Scott's adieu held only touch more warmth than his earlier greeting.

With his attention divided between the son standing next to him and the son walking towards him, but a little more focused on the later, Murdoch could only offer an absentminded, "Yes, good night, son," to the former. He heard the veranda door open, then close, but his eyes were glued on his other son.

In the moonlight, he watched Johnny's approach, taking in every nuance of a routine activity with an aberrant eye. The fluidity of Johnny's current movements were a direct contrast to the stiffness of their earlier confrontation. Could it have been only an hour ago that this same man had looked more like a wooden cigar-store indian, and so full of...full of what?

Not once had Johnny tried to defend himself or his actions. It was only the mention of that saloon girl that elicited a vocal response, drawing Johnny out of his previously sullen state, hissing and spiting like a cornered mountain lion. Up until that point, however, Johnny had simply stood there, stiff and unresponsive, his head bowed, accepting the verbal beating without so much as a flinch. Suddenly he felt somewhat contrite for reprimanding Johnny for his uncouth behavior with that saloon girl. According to Scott, the issue had already been buried, and maybe he should have just let it be.

"You ain't finished your drink," Johnny said as he almost nervously pointed to the half-empty glass in Murdoch's hand. "Don't care for that brandy stuff. Guess my tastes just ain't that refined."

For reasons he couldn't explain, Murdoch found solace in Johnny's words. It was almost as if Johnny could see right through him, knew of the pangs of regret he was feeling, and was somehow trying to ease those pains by admitting that he, himself, wasn't the man he should be. "Your tastes are just fine, Johnny."

Although he had not intended to voice that particular thought, the sheer look of relief that washed over Johnny's face made him extremely glad they had. Something in that heart stopping gesture brought the dawning of a new concept to his awareness; through this rather absurd conversation on the virtues of brandy, Johnny was attempting to make amends for the angry words they exchanged earlier. With that in mind, he gladly made his own peace offering. "Refinement has nothing to do with being able to appreciate brandy. I've had my share of tequila over the years, but that is definitely a drink for the young."

"You sayin' you gotta be old to appreciate brandy?" Although Johnny sounded sincere, the slight twitch at the left corner of his mouth gave away his amusement. "Wonder if Scott knows about that havin' to be old thing?"

Murdoch cleared his throat, but wasn't half as annoyed as he tried to sound. "I'd prefer to think of it as a matured taste."

Johnny's bowed head bobbed a few times, before his grin broke out like a dazzling ray of starlight. "Matured, huh? Whatever you say." With another brief nod, Johnny moved towards the veranda door. "Well, I guess I'll be turnin' in now."


Johnny stopped just shy of the door. "Yeah, Murdoch?" he asked hesitantly.

Wishing with all his heart that he could find the words for the thoughts he couldn't quite get organized, Murdoch settled for the one thing he knew for sure. "Good night, son," he said with all the pride he could muster, and a smile he hoped would go along with it.

"Nite, Murdoch."

An answering smile accompanied Johnny's departing words, confirming that his message had, indeed, been loud and clear. Johnny's lithe form disappeared into the house, but not before Murdoch noticed that his son's step was a little lighter than it had been just moments before.

Glancing down at the glass in his hand, he swirled the amber liquid around for a few moments before draining it of its contents in one long swallow. As biting as the brandy was, it wasn't nearly as fiery as his son's idea of a good drink. "I may not be old, but I've definitely outgrown that stuff," he said to himself.

Taking one last look out into the darkness, he inhaled deeply, taking in the scents of all he loved and held dear. This was the way he always imagined things could be: his ranch was prosperous and self-sufficient, his son's were by his side, and he was now being given the chance to be the loving, nurturing father he always knew he could be. Feeling totally content, he headed off to bed, firmly believing that life could not get any better.



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