Where's The Dress
by  VNapier


RATING: PG13 (some smut, strong language, I think this is an appropriate rating - if not I'm sure someone will let me know.)
FEEDBACK: Always. E-mail me at KIANA1@NETACS.NET
DISCLAIMERS: Standard disclaimer. Lancer and the characters are not mine, but the story is.
SUMMARY: Just when it seems Johnny's past is about to get the Lancer brothers into another mess of trouble, Scott's quick wit and psychological insights come to the rescue. Or do they?

"Why, Johnny?" Scott shot a skeptical glance towards the man riding next to him.

"Why not?" Johnny responded with a hearty smile. "We can spend the night in Caja del Pan, and get a fresh start in the morning. We're already gonna' be back a whole day before they're expectin' us. I don't see no reason for bein' in such an all-fired hurry."

Scott's frown deepened. "Isn't Caja del Pan several hours out of our way?"

Johnny shook his head to the contrary. "Nope. It's only about an hour or so east of here. I figure it'll take us at least six more hours to get back to the ranch, and that's if we were to ride straight through. Why not take an small detour, and get to spend the night in a nice warm bed?"

Confused by Johnny's logic, or lack there of, Scott eyed him curiously. However, before he could voice his confusion, Johnny continued his with his explaination.

"Just think of it, Scott. There won't be no one to haul us up at first light after only a few hours of sleep. And besides that, we can take a swing through those southern sections of the ranch Murdoch's been so worried about. You and him have been talking about doin' that for weeks, but just haven't had the time. This way no one has to go out of their way. And it'll save the old man a lot of saddle time, too."

It was Johnny's final remark that was the icing on the cake. His already overly solicitous and well-thought-out response had easily shifted Scott's confusion into curiosity, but now his suspicions were aroused as well. "Is it bigger than a bread box, brother?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.
 "Is what bigger'n a bread box?"
 "Whatever it is that has you suddenly so fascinated with Caja del Pan," Scott explained. Although he was amused by Johnny's genuine confusion over his question, he quickly realized that Johnny wouldn't be familiar with the more subtle innuendoes that would be easily understood back in Boston. "I'm just trying to decide whether it's a girl or a bottle of tequila that's captured your interest."

"Ain't neither one." Johnny's denial came a tad bit too quickly, and from the sheepish look on his face, he knew he had made a major mistake.

Although he was positive that Johnny had something definite planned, Scott wasn't about to give in too easily. "Brother, for a week now I've listened to you moan and groan about everything from the cooking to the sleeping arrangements, yet, now that we're within a few hours of home, you're chomping at the bit to stay away for another night. Add to that your overly zealous willingness to spend the better part of a day trudging through the most rugged sections of the ranch, and I find myself wondering if you might have, shall we say, ulterior motives for wanting to pay a visit to Caja del Pan."

"I ain't got no ulterior motives," Johnny denied again, this time even more unconvincingly than the last. However, he didn't appear willing to admit defeat anymore than Scott. "I'm just not all that keen on spending half the night in the saddle, just so's I can get drug out of bed no sooner than I get to sleep."

"You keep harping on that sleeping issue. Are you afraid of missing out on your beauty rest?" Scott teased.

Taking the bait with his usual flair, Johnny responded with an absolutely brilliant grin. "You're darn straight I am, brother. I gotta be thinkin' of Murdoch and Teresa, you know. They'd be worrin' themselves somethin' awful if I was to suddenly lose my naturally radiant glow."

After listening to claims that were too absurd not to laugh at, Scott quickly found himself nodding his agreement. While not totally convinced that Johnny wasn't up to something that was sure to rouse Murdoch's displeasure, he figured going along for the ride would be the best course of action. Hopefully, whatever trouble his younger brother was hell bent on getting himself into wouldn't be too much for them to handle together.

"Okay, brother, for the sake of the family we'll take your little detour." With a shake of his head and a wary sigh, Scott followed indulgently as Johnny reined Barranca towards Caja del Pan. The things one endured for the sake of family.
 *** *** *** *** 
Having lost the coin toss to determine who would bed down the horses, Scott found himself in the only livery stable in Caja del Pan, while Johnny was no doubt in the hotel getting ready for whatever secret plans he had for them. It was from this discreet vantage point in the shadows of Charlemagne's assigned stall that Scott was able to overhear the whispered voices of two townsfolk, deep in conspiratorial deliberation.

"I'm tellin' ya what I saw, Joe. Madrid's here. He checked into my hotel not an hour ago. Said he needed a room for him and his brother."

"Come on, Hank. You tryin' to tell us that Johnny Madrid just waltzed up to the desk and signed his name in the register, like he was some kinda regular law-abidin' citizen or somethin'?"

"No, ya danged fool, I ain't sayin' no such thing. You think gunslingers are stupid or something? And it don't make no matter what name he signed in the book, I knows he was Madrid. I seen him up close once, down Sonora way, not moren' a year or so ago. He weren't no farther away from me than you are right now. Had just out drawed some young fool who called him out. Stupid kid didn't stand a chance. That Madrid is one fast draw."

"He's fast, huh? An' you want us to go against him? Hank, I think you been nipping at the bottle again."

"Tain't neither. Sure, Madrid could handle any of us one-on-one without a lick a trouble, but if'n we stick together, ain't no way he can take on the whole town."

"An' what about that brother of his?"

"What about him? You ain't never heard tell of no other fast Madrid, has you? An' even if he does try somethin', it's still just two men against all of us. Besides, he should be easy enough to spot and keep an eye on. How many Mexican-looking strangers you think we got in this town?"

"Not sure, but I'll bet I can find me a loco innkeeper."
 "Oh, jus' hush up and listen. Right now Madrid is sacked out in room 207. All we gotta do is get a group a men together, bust in on him, unsuspecting like, and that fifteen thousand dollar bounty will be all ours, just for the takin'."
 "I don't know, Hank. Sounds a might too easy to me, if'n ya know what I mean."

"Don't go bein' such a sour Gus. You know what that kinda money could mean for this town. We'd be able to hire out one of those fancy dandy eastern firms to drill us a real deep well, an' still have enough left over for a new stage depot and jail. Once the stage company sees how serious we are, they won't even think about pullin' Caja del Pan off the regular route. That ways none of us will have to sell out an' leave our homes."

"I still say it sounds too easy. Madrid can't be no slouch. If'n he was he'd a been dead a long time ago."

"Yeah, but this time the deck's stacked in our favor, not his. We ain't got a call him out or nuthin'. His fast draw ain't gonna do him a lick a good, an' with the whole town after him, he ain't gonna have no place to hide, neither. That bounty's as good as ours."

"And supposin' he don't wanna come peaceable like?"

"This poster says we can turn him in dead or alive. You know I ain't usually one for senseless violence or nothin' like that, but the way I figger' it, if'n he forces our hand, it'll just save someone else the trouble of stringin' him up. Now, hurry up so's we can gather up a few more men."

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

It hadn't taken Scott long to ascertain that he and Johnny had wandered right into a viper's nest of trouble. As soon as he was sure the two men had left the barn and were safely out of earshot, he made quick work of resaddling both horses. Although he hated keeping the two loyal animals from their feed, there wasn't anything he could do about it at this point. They would both be needed for a quick getaway in the not-too-distant future.

"Easy, boy," Scott soothed Barranca when the palomino objected to being pulled out of the stall and away from the feed bin. Gathering Charlemagne's reins, he led both horses out of the barn and around to the back of the stables. There was a small coral there, badly in need of repair, but it would do for the short time it would take for him to get back with Johnny.

Strategically speaking, it was also the best location to leave the horses. They would be readily available for the impending escape, but would be hidden from view at the same time. Caja del Pan was a small town, and two strange horses might stick out enough to arouse suspicion if he left them hitched in front of the hotel. With the whole town on the look out for them, his only chance of getting Johnny out alive would be to do so without attracting any attention.

Once the horses were secured, Scott walked purposefully towards the hotel. A rather audacious plan had been formulating in his mind, but he wasn't sure he could get Johnny to go along with it. Hell, he wasn't even sure he would agree to it if he were the one in mortal danger. The only certainty to the situation was that remaining inconspicuous was their best hope of escape. Now, if he could just convince Johnny of that fact.

As he stepped up onto the sidewalk in front of the hotel, Scott gave a silent thanks that the hotel owner had been so informative. Without his mentioning the right room number, Scott would have had to risk stopping at the front desk to check the register book. Such an act could quite possibly have drawn the very unwanted attention he needed to avoid. To his relief, however, when he entered the hotel lobby, he found it to be empty, leaving him a clear path to the upstairs rooms.

"Hank and Joe are probably out rounding up the lynch mob," Scott muttered to himself as he took the stairs two at a time. It took him only a few moments to locate room 207. Without even knocking, Scott barged through the door. "Johnny, we've got to get out of here," he stated harshly.

"Hey, brother, what took you so long?" Johnny appeared at the washroom door. His shirt was off, and he had a towel draped over his bare shoulder. His face was dotted with the last remnants of his shaving foam. No doubt he was getting prepared for a night out on the town. "And whatta you mean, we've gotta go? We just got here. I can still hear that bottle of tequila callin' to me from the direction of the saloon. An' I'll bet there's a couple pretty girls over there, too, just rarin' to keep a couple of lonely cowboys company."

Ignoring Johnny's flippancy, Scott headed straight for the window. Peaking out from behind the edge of the unusually thick drapery, he studied the street below for any signs of a mob.

"What's up, Scott?" Johnny asked. All humor was gone and his voice now resonated with cautious concern.

"I overheard a couple of men talking down at the stable." Satisfied that things were quiet enough for the moment, Scott turned away from the window to face his brother. "It seems the hotel manager recognized you as Johnny Madrid."

"So." Although Johnny's voice remained noncommittal, the rest of his demeanor noticeably hardened. Shoulders stiffened, and fingers involuntarily flexed, as if limbering up for an inevitable action.

Scott's chest tightened, but as much as he hated having to tell Johnny the truth, there wasn't really any way around it. His brother had tried so very hard to leave his former life behind him, but every so often the specter of Johnny Madrid would resurface just long enough to knock him off balance again. It hurt Scott sometimes — most of the time — to witness his brother's sometimes futile struggles to abandon a life that should never have been his in the first place.

"It seems they've got a reward poster on you, brother." Scott explained with deep reluctance. "They're planning to collecting on it to save this town."

Surprisingly, this news made Johnny laugh; only the sound was more harsh than amused. "It'd take more than any bounty ever put on my head to save this place. A couple weeks back I heard Murdoch and that banker friend of his from Morro Coyo talking. The both agreed that ever since that earthquake up north caused the river to change course, this town didn't have a chance. They'd even heard rumors that the stage line was gonna be pullin' out real soon."

Unfortunately, everything Johnny had said only confirmed what Scott had overheard at the livery stable. Inhaling sharply, Scott braced himself for the blowup that almost always accompanied any discussion that dared delve into Johnny's past. But apparently, Johnny had no clue how much he was worth nowadays. "I wouldn't be so sure about that, brother. Fifteen thousand dollars is quite a chunk of change."
 "Fifteen thousand dollars!?!" Johnny's mouth gaped wide open. His eyes were just a big, and after several unsuccessful attempts to speak, his voice finally returned. "Ain't no way, Scott." 
Johnny's denial continued after a confused shake of his head. "Nobody hates me that much. And even if most respectable folks don't cotton too much to gunslingers, 'less of course they need one, that don't make nothin' I ever done that illegal. The most I ever heard of being put out on me was two thousand dollars, and that was a personal bounty made by a rancher over Texas way who thought I'd dishonored his daughter. And that one ain't even no good no more."

Although Scott raised an inquisitive eyebrow, that was as far as he would allow his curiosity to take him at the moment. He quickly made a mental note to press Johnny for the sordid details later, once they were safely out of harm's way. For right now, however, there were more important matters at hand.

"We don't have time to debate this, Johnny. Whether that bounty is for real or not, those men believe it's real, and that's all that matters. We've got to get you out of here, now."

Instead of gathering his things, Johnny stood his ground. Pulling the towel off his shoulder he tossed it casually onto the bed. Then, with his arms crossed over his chest, he stared pointedly at Scott. "What ain't you sayin', Boston?" His voice was cold enough to chill hot beer on a humid day.

Scott wasn't sure exactly what it was that Johnny had picked up on, but that something in his behavior had alerted his brother to the fact that there was more to tell was not in doubt. There would be no dodging Johnny's questions now, so he might as well get it over with. "That bounty said they could bring you in dead or alive."

Outwardly Johnny didn't so much as flinch, but Scott could tell some where inside those words had hit him with the force of a cannonball. It was only the slightest of reactions, maybe even just a flash of something in Johnny's eyes, but Scott instinctively knew his brother was more upset than his outer appearance would ever betray.

"Let's get out of here," Johnny stated with a matter-of-fact ease. Grabbing his shirt from the bedpost, he slipped it on and began methodically doing up the buttons.

Watching, Scott sighed. If only it was that easy. Getting out of Caja del Pan was not going to be such a straightforward operation, no matter what Johnny thought. Placing his hand on Johnny's shoulder, he tried to soften the blow as much as possible. "It's not that simple, Johnny. The whole town is on the lookout for us, or will be in a few minutes."

After a brief pause, the futility of putting off the inevitable became overwhelming. He just hoped his brother would see the wisdom of his plan, while ignoring its audacity. "I have a plan I believe is relatively foolproof, only I don't think you're going to like it."

With his head tilted down and a button half done, Johnny's steely blue eyes peered up at Scott. "Try me, brother."
 *** *** *** *** 

"Look, Johnny-"

"No!" A very disgruntled looking Johnny tossed a large wad of fabric onto the nearby bed as if to punctuate his refusal.

With an exasperated sigh, Scott tried to decide how to proceed next. Getting Johnny to back him up in breaking into the hotel room next to theirs had been easy; getting him to see past the disconcerting nature of his plan was another thing entirely, and he wasn't having too much luck. Having decided on a course of action, Scott stared Johnny squarely in the eye.

Doing his best to ignore the anger and confusion he saw brewing in their blue depths, he began laying out the rational for the plan that had just been so adamantly vetoed. They didn't have time for this argument and hopefully some straightforward logic would sway his brother's negative attitude, and in a hurry, too.

"Johnny, you've got to listen to me. It's not going to take forever for those men to get organized. They're desperate to save this town, and right now that means capturing Johnny Madrid and his brother; his Mexican brother. Since they obviously don't know who I am, I'm in the clear. You, on the other hand, are the one needing a disguise."

Ignoring Johnny's disgusted scowl, Scott concluded his plea with a dash of desperate humor. "Face it, brother, this is a perfect plan. No one is going to look twice at a handsome blond gent escorting his gal out for dinner."

"I ain't no gal!" Johnny yelped in response. "And I ain't wearin' no dress!"

"Sshhh," Scott shushed harshly. Pausing, he listened at the door for any indication that someone might have overheard Johnny's outcry. Satisfied that no unwanted attention had been aroused, he turned back to Johnny. "You don't have to get so excited."

"Don't tell me not to be gettin' excited." Johnny's whisper was laden with heavy agitation, but thankfully the volume was low enough so that it could not be heard by anyone outside the room. "I'm the one who's gonna have to wear this get up, not you."

Blue eyes sparkling with agitation narrowed into an accusing glare. "And just what makes you so darned sure anyone's gonna mistake you for a 'handsome blond gent'? You ain't all that pretty, you know." Johnny's gaze shifted towards the discarded dress lying at the foot of the bed. "Boston, you can't really expect me to wear that," he added in a more subdued tone.

Scott grinned as Johnny continued eyeing the dress a wary reserve one would expect more for a coiled snake than a piece of fabric. Maybe humor would work were logic had failed. "Look on the bright side, Johnny. At least I picked a room belonging to a more sophisticated lady than the ones you're used to hanging around. Otherwise you would be spending valuable time shaving your legs and wiggling into a pair of those fishnet stockings. Not to mention that chest hair, which would simply have to go, too."

"Scott," Johnny's growled dangerously low, "don't you push me no more. I still ain't convinced this wouldn't be worse than gettin' shot."

Many a man would have cringed at the threatening sound of Johnny's voice, but Scott feared little when it came to his brother. He wasn't the least bit intimidated by Johnny's posturing. "Now, Johnny, don't be like that. It's just a little piece of material; nothing at all to be afraid of."

Johnny's head shot up, his eyes narrowing down to ill-boding slits of controlled anger. "I ain't afraid of it," he hissed. "It'd just be down right embarrasin'. I mean, heck, what if someone recognizes me? I'll never be able to show my face in public again."

At last, Scott thought, a small dent in the armor of Johnny's refusal. Granted, it wasn't much, but at least he was talking about what could happen if he were to go through with the plan, which was a definite improvement over a flat out refusal of only moments ago. A few more jabs of logic and another healthy dose of wit should do the trick.

"Come on, Johnny. How many people do you know around here? Until today you had never even set foot in Caja del Pan." With another idea in mind, Scott returned to the wardrobe and began digging around inside for something to top off Johnny's ensemble. Pulling out an extremely large bonnet, he held it up for Johnny's inspection with a triumphant, "Ta da. With this on no one will be able to tell it's you."

The very site of the bonnet sent Johnny's eyes bugging, and his complexion quickly digressed into a ghastly shade of pale green. "Ain't no way, Boston!" he roared.

Before Johnny could say any more, Scott was beside him, with his hand clamped tightly over Johnny's mouth. "Sshhh," he hissed fiercely. "Would you please keep your voice down. You're going to get us caught, yet." Only when it he was relatively sure that Johnny wasn't going to yell anymore, did Scott remove his hand.

Inhaling sharply, Scott braced himself for the final round. Playtime was over. This was a deadly serious situation and it was time to start treating it as such. "Now, listen, Johnny. Believe it or not, just because I came up with this plan doesn't mean I'm any fonder of it than you are. However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and unless you can come up with a better idea, and I mean fast, I don't see any other choice."

Blue-gray eyes filled with concern and laced with a little fear, added their own silent plea to his words. "No matter what you think, spending a little time in a dress is a whole lot better than being turned in for that bounty, or worse yet, being killed. Especially when you consider the fact that, in all likelihood, it isn't even a legitimate reward."

Johnny squirmed a little, but offered no verbal objections, which was very effective in spurring on Scott's verbal barrage. "These people are desperate, Johnny, and that makes them unpredictable and dangerous. You should know that better than anyone. After we get back to Lancer, we can get this whole mess straightened out, but right now our first, our *only* priority, is to get you out of town; alive would be preferable to dignified."

"Maybe to you," Johnny mumbled, then began nibbling on his lower lip. After a few excruciating moments, he looked up. "Scott..."

The pleading in Johnny's voice said it all. He had at least accepted the logic in Scott's arguments, though he still didn't appear ready for a full capitulation. There was nothing else Scott could do but wait patiently for Johnny to make a decision. He had pushed as far as he dared; now it was up to Johnny.

The awkward silence seemed to stretch on forever. Then, without a word, Johnny heaved a heavy sigh and walked over to the bed. Usually steady fingers trembled as he began unbuttoning his shirt.
 *** *** *** ***
 "Hurry up, Johnny."

"Shut up, Boston. I'm doing this as fast as I can." Unable to fathom exactly how he had managed to get himself talked into this, Johnny cursed under his breath while trying to adjust the layers of petticoats beneath the black skirt. He would have preferred something more simple - he would have preferred not to have had to have a preference at all - but this was the only outfit they had found that would fit over his masculine frame without being too obvious. "Danged, how does Teresa manage all this stuff?"

"Maybe now you know why she wears jeans so often." Scott checked the window again, before pacing nervously across the floor. "Come on, Johnny. This whole thing is going to blow up in our faces if the occupants of this room come back and catch us."

"I told you I'm hurrin'," Johnny grumbled. After several unsuccessful attempts, he tossed the 'borrowed' shoe aside and heaved and exasperated sigh. "I'm gonna have to wear my own boots. Ain't no way I'm ever gonna get my feet in those danged things." Determination vied with relief as Johnny tried to convince himself that this was one particular battle worth losing.

Scott opened his mouth to object, but wisely chose to say nothing to the contrary. "The dress is long enough to cover your feet, so it shouldn't matter. Just be sure and take those spurs off, though. And you'll have to be careful not to clomp your heels when you walk, either."

"Anythin' else? Maybe you'd like me to giggle some, or bat my eyes while I'm swoonin' at your side," Johnny snapped as he pulled his own boots back on his feet. Standing, he glared at Scott with a look of utter contempt on his face. "Well, what do you think?"

As if he were inspecting a wayward daughter who could not be trusted to present herself properly in public, Scott walked very deliberately around Johnny, his eyes taking in every inch of his brother's new appearance. The layers of petticoats under the long, flowing black skirt easily disguised Johnny's masculine lower half, while the high-necked, long-sleeved blouse took care of the rest of his brother's physique. Except... By the time he had returned to his starting position, discerning eyes that had evaluated many a lady in Boston's most elite circles zeroed in on the one flaw in Johnny's disguise.

Johnny had already felt totally unnerved by the situation, even before Scott started giving him the once over, but now he could barely stand still as his nerves frayed even more. "Well?" he demanded in an unsteady voice.

Without answering, Scott turned and rummaged around in the bureau one more time. Finding what he was looking for in the second drawer, he turned back towards Johnny, with several pairs of socks belonging to the gentleman occupant of the room.

"What do I need those for?" Johnny asked very suspiciously.

*** *** *** *** 
All of a sudden Scott felt very awkward. "Well, you see...you're a little..." he stammered incoherently for just the right words.

"I'm a little what!" Johnny demanded.

With his hands planted firmly on his hips and that defiant look on his face, Johnny looked a lot like Teresa when she got riled up about something. Of course, Scott wasn't about to reveal that particular tidbit of information; he was treading on thin ice as it was, and intentionally provoking Johnny wouldn't be a good idea. Of course, once they were safely out of town it would be a different story.

After dropping his bundle of socks on the bed, Scott tried again to explain the one - well, actually two - deficiencies in Johnny's outfit. "You're, that is...it's sagging...I mean, you're too flat, brother."

Johnny looked down at himself. "Where?" he demanded, sounding even more like Teresa, when the two brothers were teasing her about a new outfit not having all the proper adornments. With a few ungentlemanly hand gestures, Johnny finally got the message. "You mean?" he squeaked.

Scott winced, then nodded. "Yes, brother, it looks like we're going to have to do some artificial enhancements to your decidedly lacking feminine chest area."

"We?" Johnny squeaked again.

Reaching for the socks, Scott grinned wickedly in the face of Johnny's horror. "Well, you're just going to stand there while I make a nice pair of bosoms for you."

"Make...bosoms...for me?"

The squeaking was getting amusing, and Scott couldn't hold in the laugh as he unbuttoned Johnny's shirt. "Swallow a mouse, Johnny?" he teased. Thankfully, Johnny was either too stunned or was simply pushed beyond the point of being able to give an overtly angry response. Either way he uttered not a word in response.

Relieved that Johnny seemed to be taking the news with less excitement than he had the idea as a whole, Scott quickly gathered the socks and began arranging them under Johnny's blouse. No sense in giving his brother any unnecessary time to change his mind, not to mention the fact that they needed to be getting out of town.

After a few minutes, Johnny's shock faded, only to be replaced with touchy sarcasm. "You're enjoyin' this, ain't you, Boston?" he accused, although he didn't offer any resistance as Scott continued stuffing his shirt with socks.

"Why, brother, what would ever give you that idea?" It wasn't exactly a lie, Scott told himself. It was just a question that could be interpreted several different ways.

Much to his chagrin, it took all ten pairs of socks to fill the decidedly buxom dress. Using the handkerchiefs, Scott was able to form a pair of make shift pouches, thereby creating an alluringly streamlined effect to his brother's fake bosoms. Standing back, he studied his handiwork and found himself rather proud of the results.

"I guess it'd'a been way too much to expect you to have chose a less..." Johnny fumbled for a moment as he looked down at his now voluptuous chest, "...a less womanly woman's room?"

The biting sarcasm in Johnny's voice elicited a sly grin from Scott. "Well, brother, back in Boston I was mighty gifted at finding myself in the company of the finest 'womanly' women around. I guess even the uncivilized west can't dampen such an inherent talent."

Snorting, Johnny started to walk over to the window, but tripped on his skirt and would have landed on the floor if it weren't for Scott's quick response. "Careful, Johnny," Scott warned as they got Johnny steadied on his feet. For the first time he began to have serious doubts over the feasibility of his plan. Getting Johnny to look the part was only half the battle, having him act the part was an entirely different dilemma. "Look on the bright side. Now you have built in padding if you do fall head first into something."

"Any worrin' about me fallin'll be done by me. You just watch your hands," Johnny quipped. With exaggerated movements, Johnny straightened his attire, and then looked up with a decidedly mock look of disdain written all over his face. "If I was any kind of respectable lady, you'd be flat on your backside about now."

"Respectable ladies don't go around decking lecherous gentlemen," Scott corrected with a straighter face than even he would have thought possible.

"Then it's a good think I ain't no respectable lady."

Totally remiss to the fact that Scott's comparison of himself to lecherous gentleman was even more contradictory than his inference that his brother could be a respectable lady, Johnny made another attempt to walk across the room, this time with much more success. While he wasn't moving with anything near the grace of a true aristocrat, he didn't fall flat on his face, either. After observing several successful trips across the room, Scott relaxed just a little. Maybe this would work after all.

Picking up the bonnet from the bed, he placed it on Johnny's head. It took a several intensely frustrating minutes to get it securely in place, efforts that were hampered greatly because Johnny didn't seem inclined to stand still. Finally, with a sigh of relief, Scott backed away.

"Is it gonna work?" Johnny asked. There was no mirror in the room, so Scott's reactions were his only way of knowing.

Nodding, Scott smiled appreciatively. "You know something, brother, I think it just might." Taking out his wallet, Scott placed several bills on the bureau. "That should cover the costs of the items we've borrowed."

"What about my stuff?" Johnny asked.

It had taken some fancy talking to get Johnny out of his pants so the dress would fit properly around the waist, but that seemed like an easy operation compared to what Scott was facing now. For some reason, his brother loved those stupid pants. "You'll have to leave them," Scott said as firmly as he dared.

The indignant expression that instantly appeared on Johnny's face foretold of another impending explosion, and Scott hurried to smooth Johnny's feathers before they got too ruffled. "If it makes you feel any better, my favorite shirt is back in our room. We have to look like we're just going out for the evening, so that means we leave behind everything except what we've got on our backs."

"I ain't leavin' my gun." A stubborn glare made his point clear.


"I ain't leavin' my gun, Boston," Johnny reiterated much louder as he picked up the gun he had laid on the bed back when he had first agreed to this plan. "Now get over here and help me," he ordered as he began fumbling with his dress.

Unsure of what Johnny was thinking, but unwilling to put his brother's usually formidable determination to the test, Scott did what he was told. If the facts be known, he was simply too relieved that Johnny wasn't putting up the anticipated resistance to leaving his beloved pants behind. Of course, it was all he could do not to laugh when Johnny reached for his gun belt, only to have his movements hampered by the new mounds on his chest.

"Damn, how do women deal with these things. Talk about somethin' always bein' in the way," Johnny mumbled under his breath.

Scott resisted laughing again, but only barely, however, within mere seconds the mirth was long forgotten. Now Scott was wondering if the ease of the capitulation wasn't really a set up in its own right. Feeling rather ridiculous, and even slightly embarrassed, he held up both skirt and petticoats while Johnny strapped the gun belt around his long john clad hips.

Throughout his considerably discomforting ordeal, Scott figured that at least Johnny's gun wouldn't be easily accessible, should Johnny decide it was time to shoot him. His luck could only hold out so long, and he figured he had pushed it to the limit in this particular situation.

After what seemed like an excruciating long time, Johnny pushed his hands away and pulled down the dress, smoothing it back into place with a practiced ease that had Scott's curiosity piqued more than his cautiousness. "Had lots of experience smoothing down dresses, have you, brother?"

Scott's comment left Johnny noticeably flustered, but instead of answering the tease, Johnny headed for the door. "Come on, Boston. If we're gonna do this, let's do it." However, when Johnny reached for the doorknob, Scott's hand pulled it away. Looking up in surprised, Johnny turned red when he noticed Scott's offered arm.
 "Allow me, ma'am," Scott said with a wink and a grin. 
In a surprise move, Johnny allowed Scott to open the door and accepted the offered arm, only to begin dragging his brother down the hall. The effect was completely lost when Johnny again tripped over the billowy skirt.

Deftly keeping Johnny from falling, Scott gave his brother's hand a light pat; the same hand which now had an ironclad grip on Scott's wrist. "Give it up, Johnny," he whispered softly since they were now out in the hallway and had to be much more careful of being overheard. "You can punch me later, but right now all you need to do is act like a lady and let me do all the work. Do us both a favor and just concentrate on not falling flat on your face."

Grumbling under his breath, Johnny gave in, taking Scott's arm with one hand, while using the other to lift his skirt just enough so as not to trip over the draping garment, but not enough to reveal his boots.

As they neared the top of the stairs, Scott became nervous. Unlike his first trip through the hotel lobby, now he could see that there were several people milling about in the room below. "Hold on tight," he whispered under his breath. Next to him, Johnny stiffened, apparently having also realized that the staircase was going to be the make or break obstacle of their getaway.

"You can do this, Johnny," Scott whispered his support. "Just take it one step at a time, and don't be in a hurry. We've both escorted enough women down stairs to know that they always take twice as long as men." From his side, he heard Johnny inhale deeply.

"Ready?" Scott whispered.

"Let's do it," came the whispered reply.

Taking a deep breath, Scott put his hand over his brother's, which was already grasping his other arm in a virtual death grip. With as tight a hold as he could manage without attracting too much attention, Scott stepped down the first step, releasing his breath only when Johnny's foot landed securely next to his. The next step went the same as the first, and with his confidence raised, Scott continued guiding Johnny down the stairs.

They were about halfway down when Johnny took his next misstep. Although he stumbled, the tight hold he had on Scott's arm prevented him from rolling head first to the landing below. "Steady, Johnny," Scott muttered as he gave a silent prayer of thanks that Johnny hadn't reacted with an outcry of Spanish curses. Although Scott still didn't know what Johnny was saying half the time when he went off on one of his angry tirades, it was an easy assumption that it would not be something even the most brash of ladies would utter, especially in public.

Johnny's only response to the trip, and Scott's reassurance, was to tighten his grip on Scott's arm, which was now tingling as the circulation became more impaired. But Scott didn't complain. It was a small sacrifice compared to what Johnny was going through.

A few steps from the floor, Scott dared a look around. To his horror, he realized that his and Johnny's descent had become the center of attention. The clerk behind the desk, a couple sitting on the lobby sofa, and a pair of cowboys leaning against the wall in the corner all were staring in their direction.

With a quick glance at his brother, Scott saw that Johnny was too busy concentrating on keeping his footing to notice the attention. Another small blessing, as this not only kept Johnny's head tilted downward, which kept the onlookers from getting to good a look at his face, it also kept Johnny from realizing he was being watched so closely. Such unwanted scrutiny would no doubt cause Johnny to get nervous, which could lead to a disastrous tumble.

Another slight misstep as they reached the floor was the extent of their adventure. However, now with his feet planted firmly on flat ground, Johnny was sure to notice the onlookers' attention. While Johnny was steadying himself, Scott quickly put on his most deviant face and looked directly at the cowboys, who were at the far side of the room. This would make his actions noticeable by all.

Grinning condescendingly, he rolled his eyes as if in disgust. In a movement he hoped Johnny would mistake for brushing the hair from his eyes, Scott tilted his hand by his mouth, as if drinking from an imaginary bottle, giving everyone the impression that his lady friend had been drinking. His effort seemed to work as the cowboys began chuckling, the couple on the sofa blushed and turned away, while the clerk at the desk began flicking the feather duster around with such speed it was a wonder he didn't fly away.

"What?" Johnny asked softly. The cowboys' laughter had attracted his attention, and he was now glancing around the room in confusion.

"Come, sister, dear," Scott said loud enough for everyone to hear even as he was guiding Johnny towards the door. "It's way past time for dinner, and you know how you get when you eat too late at night."

A dark look passed over Johnny's features, but before he could respond, they almost bumped into three men coming through the front door.

"Excuse us, ma'am," the man wearing the sheriff's badge said with a tip of his hat. "Didn't mean to almost run down you and the lady, sir."

"No harm done," Scott said with a smile that totally belied the butterflies in his stomach. The sheriff and the two other men stepped aside, and Scott hurried Johnny out the door. Even as they were making their exit, the could hear the cowboys talking to the sheriff, explaining that no one had come down stairs, so Madrid and his brother had to still be in their room.

"Damn, that was close," Scott complained as soon as they were safely outside. One look at Johnny told him the close call had not derailed his brother's question over the reactions of the people inside the hotel, but Scott skirted the issue. "Come on. The horses are in a small coral behind the livery stable. We've got to get moving before they figure out what happened."

"What was them people laughing at in there?" Johnny asked as he was drug down the boardwalk. "An' slow down before you make me fall."

"We don't have time," Scott argued without slowing their pace. Scott turned them into an alley that would take them around back of the dry goods store. From there they would be able to reach the horses without being seen. "We're out of sight now, so hike that dress up and come on."

A few muttered grumblings could be heard, but Johnny did as he was told and in less than a minute they were standing beside the coral. "I guess this means I ain't gonna get dinner out of this? Remind me never to go out with you again," Johnny remarked as Scott opened the gate and led the horses out of the coral.

With his heart still pounding over the close call, Scott's humor wasn't anywhere to be found. "Shut up and get mounted," he snapped, throwing Barranca's reins in Johnny's direction. "My, but ain't we gettin' a bit testy," Johnny replied with a snippy snarl. "And you ain't even had to ditch your pants, neither." Gathering the reins around Barranca's neck, Johnny attempted to mount, only Barranca was having none of it. Every time Johnny moved to the side so he could put his foot in the saddle, the palomino skittishly danced away.

"Johnny, quit fooling around!" Scott barked from his position on Charlemagne's back.

The last straw finally landed on the camel's back. "Now listen here, Boston, I've just about had it! I've done more for you tonight than I'd'a ever agreed to with anyone else. I'm doing the danged best I can, but Barranca just ain't used to having skirts rustlin' around his feet. An' I ain't neither. Now you get your sorry backside over here and give me a hand!"

Feeling like he had been slapped, Scott stared at Johnny, blinking owl-like through his overwhelming shock.

"I said get down here and help me," Johnny growled.

Dismounting, Scott hurried to Johnny's side. "I'm sorry, Johnny," he mumbled quietly as he held Barranca still while Johnny made a less than eloquent mounting.

As soon as Johnny settled in the saddle, the skirt and petticoats bunched up in front of him, making a mound of material that pretty near blocked his view. It took several nerve-wracking minutes for him to get the unruly dress under control, an effort made more difficult by the sock bosoms, which continued to hamper his movements with their overwhelming presence.

The whole time Scott stood at Barranca's head, not daring to say a word. Johnny's harsh words had hit him pretty hard, and made him realize just how much of a sacrifice Johnny was making on his behalf. If it weren't for his presence, Scott had no doubts that Johnny would have been more than willing to take his chances evading the townsfolk with less deviant, if not more hazardous, means.

"Well, you gonna stand there all night, Boston? Ain't you the one who's supposed to be in such an all-fired hurry?"

Sarcasm practically dripped from Johnny's words, but Scott could hardly blame him. "Let's go." Turning, he remounted Charlemagne and both horses were spurred into action - one literally, one only figuratively. Spurs simply were not conducive for wearing under petticoats.

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

Almost an hour went by after escaping Caja del Pan without so much as a word from Johnny. Not only that, but Scott would have bet his last dollar that Johnny would have ditched the socks from under his shirt the minute they slowed their breakneck, get away, pace. Instead, Johnny hadn't done anything, said anything, given any indication that he was even feeling anything. That, more than anything else, had Scott's anxieties on the rise.

The only time Johnny was this quiet was when he was doing some serious thinking. This was not Johnny's usual way of expressing his anger. Scott wasn't sure if Johnny was still angry with him, or, for that matter, if he ever really had been. Maybe it was just the tension of the situation as a whole that had finally gotten to his brother.

It was a gamble, but there was always the chance that he might hit just the right cord to lighten Johnny's downhearted mood with a small bit of humor. "Sure you don't want to stop for the night, Johnny. We could still check out those wildlands in the morning? I don't think the bears and mountain lions will care what you're wearing."

Although Johnny didn't vocalize his response, the death glare he shot Scott's way made his answer quite evident. Scott found the look more amusing than intimidating, but wisely refrained from pushing the point any further. He really couldn't blame Johnny for being upset, even if, logically speaking, wearing a dress for a few hours did beat the heck out of getting shot. He just wished he could shake the feeling that something else was going on.

"So, tell me about that rancher's daughter, brother," Scott ventured with cautious optimism. If he could manage to get Johnny talking, maybe his younger brother wouldn't have so much time to sulk over his current situation, and might even give him some idea of what was behind Johnny's strange behavior. "The one back in Texas."

"Ain't much to tell," Johnny replied with a shrug. "Her name was Carrie Anne." His frown eased into a warm smile, and his sullen tone became one of total wonder. "She was the prettiest thing I had ever seen - long brown hair, the softest brown eyes you ever saw...reminded me of a newborn fawn, even though she was a few years older'n me."

Scott gave himself a mental pat on the back for choosing such a good topic of conversation. Johnny's mood was better, and he might even be able to learn a little more about Johnny's well-guarded past. "How did you two meet?"

"She was out riding, and her horse threw a shoe." Barranca took a slight misstep as a rock came loose under his right front hoof, shifting Johnny's attention away from their conversation for a split second. After the palomino managed a few sound steps, Johnny continued his story. "I guess what impressed me right off was that she was walking him home - not many city gals would have that much sense. They'd just rode the poor animal until it got too lame to walk."

Something about that didn't sound right to Scott. Furrowing his brow, he asked, "I thought you said her father was a rancher?"

"He was. But the old man sheltered her somethin' awful. Nothin' like Murdoch does Teresa, mind you - a thousand times worse." Johnny snorted in contempt, as if he couldn't believe what he was about to say. "Carrie Anne actually had to sneak away just to go for a ride by herself. She learned about horses and such by paying attention when her father didn't know she was hangin' around. He always told her that there wasn't nothin' in a barn that 'proper ladies' had any reason to know."

Scott couldn't miss Johnny's sneer when he said 'proper ladies'. "It doesn't sound like you were overly fond of her father."

"I wasn't," Johnny agreed with another snort. "I'd already heard about him, even before I met Carrie Anne. Everyone thought he was the most arrogant pendejo around. And the way he treated Carrie Anne, more like a possession than a daughter, 'twernt no wonder she rebelled whenever she got the chance."

A small light appeared in the darkness of Johnny's past, causing a slight smile to tug at the corner of Scott's mouth. "A rebel, huh? Why do I get the feeling that's what attracted you to her more than her horse sense?"

"Can't says I know what you're inferrin', brother," Johnny retorted with a sheepish grin. "Anyways, while we was walkin' she told me about all them fancy things she had learned in that school for young ladies her father'd sent her off to, and of living in New York City for two years with her mother's family. But what I remember most was, the whole time we was talkin', no matter how many questions I asked, I never once felt like she was speakin' down to me. It was kinda like the way things are between me and you, Boston."

The fact that Johnny called him 'Boston' led Scott to believe that there were a few insecurities over their distinctly different backgrounds that were still worrying his younger brother. With love and total sincerity, Scott declared that which he had thought to be obvious, "I have nothing but the utmost respect for you, Johnny, and I hope you know that by now."

"Yeah, well, are you gonna keep interruptin', or are you gonna be quiet an' let me finish my story?" Johnny huffed.

Whenever he got embarrassed, Johnny almost always tried to cover it up with curt responses that never came across quite as abrupt as he probably intended. This time was no exception, but Scott's curiosity was piqued, so he overlooked the opportunity to tease Johnny any further. "Go ahead, brother. I believe you were escorting the lady home," he said with a wicked smile.

"I was. Anyway, on the way back to her daddy's ranch house, it started rainin' real hard. We both got soaked to the skin before we runned across an old miner's shack where we could wait out the storm. I got a fire lit in the stove while she..." In an uncharacteristic display of modesty, Johnny hesitated, and looked away. "I took care of gettin' the fire goin' while she got out of her wet...things. I kept my back turned and tried to give her some privacy until she could get herself wrapped up in a blanket I found stuffed in the corner."

"Always the gentleman, isn't that right, brother?" Unfortunately, Scott's teasing had the exact opposite effect of what he intended.

"You're danged straight I was!" Johnny yelled defensively. But even before the words were finished being uttered, Johnny looked down and began fiddling with the reins in his hands. His closed stance was more telling of his regret than any apology could ever convey.

Confused, Scott couldn't quite figure out exactly why Johnny had reacted so badly to what was nothing more than their usual bantering. "Johnny?"

Johnny didn't answer right away, and for several minutes they rode along in strained silence. Finally Johnny began speaking, but his voice was so low Scott could barely make out the words.

"She...she...offered herself to me, Scott." There was a total sense of awe in Johnny's soft-spoken words, as if he was still totally overwhelmed by the event. "She let that blanket fall to the floor, and stood right there in front of me, bare as the day she was born. She was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. All pretty an' white an'...an' she looked so...so soft..." The sense of awe quickly faded, leaving in its wake something Scott judged to be a mixture of anguish and frustration. More confused than ever, he watched his brother struggle to find the words he wanted to say.

"I couldn't do it, Scott. As much as I wanted to, I just couldn't."

Taking a deep breath, Scott exhaled very slowly, his mind trying to digest the full implication of Johnny's words. Of all the scenarios that had played out in his mind, none of them even came close to what actually transpired.

Neither brother had ever shared the details of their intimacies prior to coming to Lancer with the other, leaving Scott uncertain as to how he should respond to Johnny's rather startling admission. Did he ask Johnny why, or just assume Johnny would tell him if he wanted to? Did Scott even want to know any more?

As it turned out, Johnny made that decision for him. "You see, I'd never..."

Scott groaned, and wiped his hand over his face in an act of pure anxiety. This definitely was not what he ever expected to hear. Somehow he found it extremely difficult to imagine that Johnny Madrid had ever been...innocent. Unfortunately, neither of his disbelieving gestures had gone unnoticed.

"I don't mean it that way, Boston," Johnny snapped in typical male, pride-defending, style. "It wasn't like I'd never seen a female naked, or nothin' like that. I'd been with plenty of women before." Johnny's defensive tirade ended as abruptly as it had begun.

When he continued his steadfast voice had been replaced with a shaky stammer. "Only none of them was anything like Carrie Anne. She...she was...she was a real lady. One of them...you know, respectable women...the ones who was always whispering when I walked by...lookin' down on me like I was nothin' but trash. But not Carrie Anne."

"Johnny, you don't-" Scott began, only to have Johnny interrupt so quickly that Scott wasn't sure his brother even comprehended his attempt to end the subject.

"I'd seen her before, a few times in town. She even smiled at me a time or two. She wasn't like any of the women I'd...I mean...with her it would've...well, she'd have wanted me to...to know how to...to be...it'd never been that way for me...an'..." Pure exasperation virtually radiated from Johnny as he ran a shaky hand through his hair.

"She would have expected you to make love to her," Scott interceded, hoping that he wasn't misreading his brother's flustered sense of frustration. "She would have expected more than just...just the satisfying of primal urges, and you weren't ready to share that level of intimacy with her."

"Yeah...yeah, somethin' like that." Although Johnny voice sounded relieved, he still looked incredibly tense.

Given that Johnny was already way beyond being a little uptight, Scott didn't see the need to point out the inconsistency of Carrie Anne's actions; real ladies did not go around offering themselves to anyone, much less total strangers, no matter how kind they had been.

However, this fantasy obviously meant an awful lot to Johnny, and there was no way Scott was going to be the one to take that away from him. There just wasn't that much in Johnny's past that didn't cause his brother pain, so even an unrealistic pleasure could be overlooked as reasonable.

"So what did you do?" he asked hesitantly.

"I picked up the blanket and wrapped it back around her. As soon as her clothes were decently dry, she got dressed and I sent her off on my horse. I told her she could have one of her daddy's hands bring it back to me in town. That was the last time I ever saw her. As soon as they brought my horse back the next day, I hightailed it out of there."

Feeling somewhat ashamed, Scott couldn't bring himself to look at Johnny. He hated to admit that he had been taken so totally by surprise by Johnny's gentlemanly behavior. It was just that, given what little he had managed to glean about his brother's life before coming to Lancer, Scott found it to be a difficult concept to grasp that Johnny had actually turned down Carrie Anne.

Well, to be honest, he found it somewhat difficult to comprehend that *any* man would have been able to turn down such a blatant offering of sex, but especially not a notorious gunfighter. Fast guns and fast women went hand in hand, or so he had been led to believe.

He had just naturally assumed that Johnny was rather extensively experienced when it came to women, only he had never stopped to consider exactly what kind of women Johnny would have had the opportunity to be with. While most of the ladies Scott had been 'friendly' with back in Boston had expected him to put up a merry, but respectable, chase before they would allow themselves to be caught, even if they were anything but lady-like between the sheets. He now wondered just how vastly different they must have been from the women of Johnny's old world.

While that was an interesting enough subject in itself, it was not nearly as intriguing as Johnny's current reactions as he recounted that event. When the subject had been centered on merely physical relationships, there didn't seem to be a problem. Johnny hadn't hesitated a bit in admitting to having shared a bed with a number of women. However, to be privy to Johnny Madrid, famed gunfighter and experienced lover, sputtering around the topic of making love as if he were a virgin schoolboy, was too surreal.

With each passing day they shared together, Scott became more and more aware that Johnny Madrid had quite probably never been anything more than a mask used to camouflage Johnny Lancer's heartaches. And the more Scott thought about it, the more convinced he became that, deep down inside, his brother had always been Johnny Lancer, a gentleman with a gentle spirit, only no one had seemed to notice, especially not Johnny.

There was still one thing that puzzled him, though. Despite the fact that Johnny had been uncharacteristically open about his past, nothing he said had actually answered the real question. "So why did her father put a bounty on you?"

Again Johnny sighed, but the sag in his shoulders lifted a little, a good sign that this was at a much more comfortable topic than the previous one had been. "Seems like someone had seen her leavin' the shack that day, and then me headin' out a little while later leadin' her horse. Then there was the fact that she'd told one of the ranch hands were to bring my horse...so when Carrie Anne turned up in the family way, her father naturally decided it was my doin'."

Plausible, Scott thought, but there had to be more. "You've already indicated that the bounty is no longer in effect, so what happened? I mean, you say that you and Carrie Anne were never intimate, but her father must have been pretty well convinced otherwise to have put a bounty out on you in the first place."

To his surprise, when Johnny looked over there was a huge grin plastered across his face. "I heard tell the guilty party turned out to be one of her daddy's own ranch hands. Carrie Anne finally admitted it after the kid was born. I guess even her old man couldn't argue the fact that it'd be might near impossible for me to father any kid with flamin' red hair, lilly-white skin, and pretty green eyes."

Scott nodded, and then shook his head in amused relief. "I guess you really lucked out that time, brother. There just aren't too many ways to dispute a lady's claim of paternity, but that has got to be one of the better ones."

"You ain't jokin'. I tell you, Boston, I ain't never been so glad to be part Mexican in my whole life."

Right about then a stiff breeze blew up around them. Scott barely caught his hat as it flew from his head, but Johnny had a much more difficult time dealing with the dress billowing up around his waist.

"I'm gonna kill you for this, Boston," he growled, even as he struggled to keep the wildly flying material out of his face.

"So much for being a lady," Scott grinned through a stifled laugh. It felt good to have Johnny acting normal again.

With mock reproach in his voice, he scolded Johnny for the inappropriate display. "Now you keep your dress down, boy. We don't need you dishonoring the family name with such displays of shameless behavior. You know, it's probably a good thing Carrie Anne's father can't see you now."

"Keep it up, Boston, an' I'm really gonna have to hurt you." With an evil glint in his eyes, Johnny stared deliberately at Scott. "Bein's there's no one behind us, you care to tell me what them cowboys back in the hotel found so amusing?"

Scott swallowed nervously. He had really hoped Johnny had forgotten about that. "Would it matter if I did mind?" he inquired pointlessly.


Grimacing, Scott nodded. "I didn't think so."
 "Are you sure you want to hear this, Johnny?" Scott made one last-ditched effort to spare Johnny's feelings, and his own demise. The only good thing about the situation Scott could think of was that Johnny's gun wasn't within easy reach.

"Spill it, Boston," Johnny growled.

"Well, Johnny...brother...it goes this way," Scott stammered. "I sort of...well, they might have got the impression...that is, I might have indicated that you were..." Scott let his voice trail off, hoping that maybe Johnny would take pity on him and not push the point.

"You mighta indicated I was what?" Johnny growled.

"Johnny, I just don't want to embarrass you," Scott pleaded.

"Scott, I ain't never known you to be so dense. In case you forgot, I'M WEARING A DANGED DRESS!" Johnny snapped incredulously. "I don't think anything could get more embarrassin'..." then Johnny's voice deepened to an all-time low, one that would have had any man except his brother quaking in their boots. "...unless I was to get caught killin' my sneaky, no-account brother whilst I was wearin' that dress."

Taking the hint, Scott relented. "Since you were stumbling down the stairs and keeping your head down, I led them to believe you were drunk."

"You what!" Johnny screeched, causing both Barranca and Charlemagne to momentarily startle, diverting both of their attention for a brief moment. Once the horses were settled, Johnny continued his tirade. "I wasn't stumblin', I was trippin'. And...and...and it was all for...oh, hell, you just leave me alone." Giving Barranca a swift kick, Johnny moved further ahead, leaving in his wake a man equally as miserable, if not more so, than himself.

Johnny's icy demeanor kept Scott several horse lengths behind. Cursing himself for pushing things too far, Scott hated that they seemed to be right back where they started; Johnny's mood had shifted back to the stony silence of contemplation, and total obliviousness to his surroundings.

Briefly, Scott considered suggesting that Johnny ditch the socks to make himself more comfortable, but he was too uncertain of his brother's quick-shifting mood. Something odd was going on, but Scott couldn't for the life of him figure out what it was.

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

It was still quite early when the two men rode through the gate at Lancer. Sunrise was at least an hour away, but finding the Lancer household up and about at this hour as they prepared for a busy day of ranching would be the norm, not the exception.

As they approached the house, Scott stole a quick glance over his shoulder as Johnny peeled off to the left, heading directly into the courtyard, while Scott continued on to the front of the house. The only words Johnny had spoken to him since that last blow up were to inform Scott of his intention to sneak into the house through the side door.

None of the hands would be out and about yet, and even if they were, they wouldn't be close enough to the house to see anything suspicious. Johnny planned to head straight into the courtyard, and sneak in the side door. Scott would ride up to the front door as a diversion, on the off chance that Murdoch or Teresa noticed their approach.

On the surface the plan was simple and workable, but something deep down inside Scott's gut spoke of an unknown variable that Johnny had failed to take into consideration. However, being that he couldn't put a name to that variable, Scott kept his mouth shut. That last thing he wanted to do was upset Johnny anymore than he already had. Something about the stony silence of the past few hours had him feeling very uneasy.

His unease only increased when, before he could even rein Charlemagne to a halt, the veranda was suddenly illuminated with the light from the hand-held lamps of the ranch's earliest risers. "Boys, what are you doing riding home in the dark? We didn't expect you back for another couple of days."

Murdoch's greeting was pleasant enough, although his delight was recognizably tempered with concerned confusion as he looked around for his second son. "Scott, where's Johnny?"

"Well, sir," Scott stuttered. "He was really tired so he...that is to say-" Scott's lame explanation was mercifully put out of its misery by an excited yell coming from the direction of the courtyard.

"Johnny Madrid Lancer! What in tarnation are you doin' in that getup? Have you gone plumb loco, boy?"

In unison, Murdoch and Teresa rushed off to see what had Jelly in such an uproar, leaving Scott to dismount in his own misery and the knowledge that his feared variable had found a name.


Johnny hadn't taken into account the fact that he would have to pass right by Jelly's room. Or maybe he just figured Jelly wouldn't notice him sneaking around the courtyard. Either way, Johnny had been wrong, and now there would be no getting out of being discovered. Scott groaned loudly, then dismounted and followed the others.

When he arrived, Murdoch was staring dumbfoundedly at the woman still seated on Barranca. Scott watched as his father's face paled. "Johnny?" Murdoch hoarsely whispered, probably more out of reflex than because he actually doubted what his eyes were telling him. Behind him Teresa let out a small gasp.

"It's him all right, boss," Jelly piped up. He still had his scattergun in hand, but at least he wasn't aiming it in Johnny's direction as he stood next to Murdoch. "I think the boy's done gone plumb crazy. Cain't be no other 'xcuse."

"You got that right, Jelly," Johnny snorted in disgust. "Course I had a little help gettin' there. Ain't that right, Boston?"

"Scott?" Murdoch twisted to address his oldest son, but Scott ducked his head and would not meet his father's gaze. How could so much have possibly gone wrong in such a short period of time?

"Go ahead, brother," Johnny growled. "Tell him all about your brilliant plan."

"We ran into a little trouble." Scott fidgeted with his collar. "Johnny needed a disguise..."

"A disguise! That ain't no disguise, that's...well, that's..." Jelly stuttered for a moment, then let out with a loud cackling roar. "Johnny, d'you leave your gun behind ta keep your pants from gettin' lonely?"

A deep flush, noticeable even with Johnny's darker complexion and in the dim lighting, washed over the young man's cheeks. Whether or not it was brought on by anger or embarrassment, however, was up for debate. "I didn't leave my gun no where."

"Oh," Jelly tried to act surprised. "So where's you got it hid, boy? Some where real near and dear to your heart, maybe?" Another round of snorting laughter echoed off the pristine stone walls of the Lancer hacienda as Jelly doubled over in amusement.

"Jelly," Murdoch warned firmly. Giving Johnny a cautious, yet inquiring look, he reiterated Jelly's question, only with a little more subtly. "Johnny's probably got it tucked away in his saddle bag. Isn't that right, son?"

This time the flush on Johnny's face was definitely cause by embarrassment. "Well, Murdoch, that ain't exactly right, neither. It's under all...all this...this stuff," Johnny grumbled. "I couldn't get to it if my life depended on it. Since we had to leave all our stuff behind, there just weren't no place else to stash it that'd meet with General Lancer's approval," he snapped as his temper began to flare again.

For the next few moments, they all watched in mesmerized fascination at Johnny's fruitlessly endeavors to squash down the dress and undergarments that had bunched themselves into a puffy mound at his waist. However, whenever he pushed down in one place, it would pop up in another. He'd push down that puff, only to have the previous one flare back out.

"Johnny, why didn't you just wear your own clothes under the dress along with your gun?" Teresa asked through what sounded suspiciously like a stifled giggle. "That way, once you were out of trouble, or whatever it is you two managed to get yourselves into, you could have rode home in...well...somewhat less interesting attire."

"You do have your drawers on under there, don't you son?" Murdoch seemed indifferent to Johnny's sarcastic reference to his brother, but his expression gave away the fact that he was torn between being seriously concerned for Johnny's welfare, and busting a gut wide open laughing. Fortunately for Murdoch, Johnny seemed more focused on Teresa's comment than his father's nearly unsuccessful attempt not to laugh.

"I'm gonna kill you for this, Boston. 'Leave 'em'," Johnny growled under his breath as he mimicked Scott's instructions to leave his clothes behind. "You just wait. You're gonna pay for this one."

"Now hold on just a minute, brother. I told you it made the dress look all wrong. We might not have made it out of town if you had worn your own clothes, too," Scott defended himself with simple logic.

Unfortunately for Scott, Johnny was well beyond the point of being the least bit interested in logic. "Look all wrong! How about you explainin' how anything could look all wrong considerin' I was in a drunken stupor!" he yelled. "If'n this is all that fancy-dandy learnin' of yours is good for, then you done wasted a whole lot a time an' effort for nothin'! Jelly, get over here and help me off this danged horse."

"Yes, ma'am, Miss Madrid. Anything you need ma'am, all youse gotta do is ask," Jelly replied through another snicker, only to get his hand slapped away when he reached up towards Johnny. "Ouch!"

"Stay away from me!" Johnny yelped. "I ain't no 'Miss Madrid', and don't you never forget it."

"No?" Jelly inquired indignantly, as he rubbed his sore hand. "That mean ya up an' got married on us, too? I'll says you had yourself a right eventful trip, didn't ya?"

Murdoch's authoritative voice intervened just in time to stave off another angry outburst. "What's all this about a drunken stupor? Is that what this is about? I would appreciate an explanation, boys, and I'd appreciate it now." His demanded was made in that parental tone that every child, no matter how old, always recognizes as meaning business, and never challenges.

"Ask him." Johnny jerked his thumb towards Scott. "He's the brains 'round here."

Another round of howling scawfs filled the air when Johnny rather unsuccessfully attempted to fold his arms across his chest - a chest that was presently way too prominent to accommodate this usual gesture of stubborn defiance.

Murdoch silenced Jelly with an icy stare before turning his attention back to his oldest son. "Scott?" His demand was clear.

Although he stepped forward, Scott conspicuously kept Murdoch's massive frame between himself and Johnny. "Well, sir, to make a long story short, Johnny and I stopped for the night in Caja del Pan. While I was bedding down the horses, I overheard a couple townspeople talking about having a wanted poster on Johnny. They were making plans to turn him in as a group effort, and the only way to get Johnny out of town was to smuggle him out."

Almost sheepishly, Scott admitted, "Johnny hasn't been drinking. I'm the one who came up with the idea of disguising him as a woman."

"Caja del Pan? That was a little out of your way boys-" Before Murdoch could go any further, Johnny's temper erupted.

"Oh, that's right, twist this all around an' make it out to be all my fault. Oh, what the hell, it probably was. Gettin' in trouble is what I do best. Ain't that right!" Johnny struggled to dismount, but his petticoats quickly became entangled over the saddle horn, as well as around the leg he was attempting to swing over Barranca's hindquarters, leaving him clinging to the saddle in a precarious half-on, half-off position, and too stubborn to ask for help.
 "Here, son, let me help you." Murdoch rushed to Johnny's aide without an invitation. 
Jelly was at Barranca's head trying to steady the flighty mount. The palomino was understandably confused by the commotion taking place on his back, especially from a rider who was usually so much more coordinated and considerate. Upset as he was, Barranca responded to Jelly's gentle hands, but not without a few displeased snorts and hoof stomps to the ground.

While all this was going on, Scott remained at a safe distance from the fracas. Teresa moved over and joined him, placing a comforting hand on his forearm as they watched Murdoch try to dislodge a very cranky Johnny from his haphazard perch. Fortunately, after a few futile attempts, they succeeded in disentangling the layers of material from around the saddle and Johnny slipped safely to the ground. Unfortunately, his ill-temper came with him and as soon as his feet hit the dirt he went into action.

Gathering the skirt in his arms, Johnny pushed his way passed Murdoch and Jelly. "I'm goin' to bed. And if any of you has any sense, you'd better not even think about wakin' me. I'll be gettin' up when I darn well feel like it!"

In what quickly turned into an outrageously animated duel of man verses dress, Johnny attempted to walk defiantly into the house. However, the billowy skirt snaked its way hopelessly around his ankles, appeared equally as intent on withholding any dignity from his retreat. By the time Johnny actually reached the side door, both arms were grappling doggedly with two rebellious pillows of dress and petticoats.

"You know somethin', Madam Madrid, it ain't none too ladylike for youse to be exposin' your legs in front of us men folk," Jelly called out after him. "If'n you keep that up, youse gonna find yourself with a right tawdry reputation."

Whirling around in what had to be the most graceful movement he had managed since his feet hit the ground, Johnny ignored Jelly and glared ominously towards Scott, fire flashing dangerously in his dark blue eyes. "Right now I really hate you, brother."

"No you don't," Scott countered rationally, while secretly hoping he was right.

"Yes, I do!"

"No you don't."

Scott's calmness, along with the situation as a whole, was too much for Johnny. "Do to! And quit tellin' me how I feel!"

"Then quit being wrong, brother, and I won't have to."

"Boys," Murdoch's gruff voice interrupted as Johnny's stance stiffened into a totally aggressive posture. "Let's not get carried away. Johnny, from what I can gather, it sounds like Scott did the best he could under the circumstances. It seems to me like you should at least be a little grateful for his quick thinking and resourcefulness."

The dress was released with an angry huff. Johnny stared at them in wide-eyed disbelief. "Quick thinkin'! Resor...resour...res...quick thinkin'!" he stuttered. His hands were perched firmly on his hips, presenting an image that would have had them all rolling on the ground laughing if they weren't truly afraid doing so might actually cost them their lives. "I can't believe I ever let him talk me into this foolishness. Bein' shot would've been less aggervatin' than this! Heck, even bein' killed couldn't've been any worse."

With a look of renewed determination, Johnny whirled back around, hiked his skirt back up. He stomped off into the house, this time revealing more than just his boots and calves. What his second attempt made up for in success, it severely lacked in modesty.

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

Even after Johnny had disappeared into the house, the unmistakable echoes of spouted Spanish obscenities floated through the crisp morning air, eliciting a raised eyebrow of rebuke from Murdoch, a wide-eyed look of shock from Jelly, and a deep blush from Teresa. The subject of his tirade, however, merely looked on with a perplexed expression on his face.

"One of these days I'm going to have to make it a point to learn the less savory side of the Spanish language," Scott lamented. His gaze was fixed on the door through which his brother had just disappeared. He looked like had just lost his best friend.

Clearing his throat, Murdoch gently voiced his opposition to the idea. "It might be best if you didn't, son." With a heavy sigh, he looked thoughtfully at his oldest son. "Scott, are you sure there wasn't any other way to handle the situation?"

Scott grimaced, but stood his ground. "None that I could think of, sir. It wasn't like we had a whole lot of time at our disposal, and this was the quickest way to get Johnny out of Caja del Pan without attracting any attention. With the whole town on the lookout for two Mexican brothers, posing as a blond gentleman and his sister seemed to be a convenient way of avoiding any unwanted scrutiny until we could get away."

"Uh...ya did say 'sister', didn't you, Scott?" Jelly chimed interjected with a raised eyebrow. "I mean, we ain't gonna have ta be frettin' over that dainty little filly's virtue, is we?" Even Murdoch couldn't resist chuckling at that one.

"Jelly! Murdoch!" Teresa admonished in an abrupt turn of seriousness that quickly squelched the two men's laughter. "What Johnny did took real courage and you should be ashamed of yourselves for making fun of him." Her stance took on a sudden air of familiarity, as her hands landed firmly on her hips, but as before, fear of bodily harm prevented any of them from mentioning the similarity.

"I don't believe for a minute that any of the rest of you men would've had the nerve to put on that dress," pausing, she looked pointedly at Scott, "even if it meant keeping your only brother out of the middle of another mess stirred up by a past that just won't stay left behind. You should all be ashamed of yourselves. Johnny never would have agreed to do any of this if he didn't care so much for all of us. You know how badly it makes him feel when his past causes problems."

With an indignant jerk of her head, Teresa headed for the door. However, before disappearing into the house, she turned and stared down the three men. "And I just better not hear any of you giving Johnny a hard time if he decides to come down for breakfast, or tonight at dinner, or any other time, either. Just remember who does the cooking around here. A kitchen can provide a multitude of opportunities for managing immaturity."

After Teresa disappeared into the house, Scott looked hesitantly at his father, his expression a unique mixture of skepticism and concern. "Did she just threaten to poison us?"
 "I'm not sure I want to find out, son." 
"Well, I knows I don't," Jelly stated rather bluntly. "So's if you two have any ideas about givin' Johnny any ribbin', you can just count me out. My delicate constitution ain't in no hurry to offend that little gal. Now, if'n you don't need me for nothin' else, I gots some real work to do in the barn 'till Teresa gets breakfast on the table." Relieving Scott of Charlemagne's reins, Jelly led both horses towards the barn for a well-deserved rub down and proper feeding.

"See you in a few minutes, Jelly." Murdoch chuckled and then placed his arm around Scott's sagging shoulders. "You look like you could use some sleep, son. I take it you and Johnny rode all night?"

"Pretty much," Scott admitted through a stifled yawn as his father ushered him towards the house. "However, no matter how tired I am, we've got to address the problem of that bounty. While Johnny's probably more than ready to forget this whole nightmare, I don't see how we can. That fifteen thousand dollar reward is going to have every gunslinger and bounty hunter around gunning for Johnny."

"Fifteen thousand dollars!" Murdoch stopped dead in his tracks. "Damn, this is serious."

"Yes, sir, it is." Again, Scott yawned loudly. "And what's even worse is that it's a dead or alive reward."

The frown on Murdoch's face deepened. "Son, you need to get some sleep." Scott started to protest, but Murdoch cut him off with a push into to house. "Scott, nothing's going to happen in the next few hours. I'll post a few guards around the house and have the rest of the men warned to keep an eye out for anyone suspicious. Now get upstairs and into bed."

He only made it up the first step before he turned around. "Do you think we should check on Johnny?"

Murdoch shook his head. "I'm willing to bet he's even more tired than you are, especially if he's been that wound up all night. He's got to be running on pure nerves by now." A rueful smile reflective of years too long gone faintly danced over Murdoch's features. "If he's anything like he was as a child, once he calms down it'll all catch up with him in a hurry. He'll be asleep before he knows what hit him."

Though he was dead tired, a wistful grin tugged at Scott's lips. "I wish I had been able to know Johnny when he was younger. I can only imagine what a little tart he must have been."

"A tart hardly begins to cover it. Even as a baby he was more than a handful," Murdoch laughed, then became rather somber. "Scott, I wish you two boys could have grown up together, too. Maybe if Maria hadn't taken Johnny away with her...maybe then I would have had the courage to challenge Harlan."

Now it was Scott's turn to frown, although his expression held more sympathy than reproach. "Don't, Murdoch," he said gently, but with resolution. "We've been all through this, and there's no changing the past. Good or bad, right or wrong, it's past and gone."

Usually Murdoch didn't take too well to having his own words thrown up in his face, but this time Scott was right. It was over, gone, unchangeable, so there was no point dwelling on what could have been. "Go to bed, son. We'll discuss this further after you and Johnny have had a chance to rest."

Even in his weary state, Scott managed to look doubtful over that particular prospect.

"Providing your brother is in a better mood," Murdoch added with a slight grin.

"I'm not counting on it." Turning, Scott ascended the stairs with an air of defeat following in his wake.

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

A short time later, Murdoch and Teresa were seated at the kitchen table eating breakfast. Murdoch was just passing the gravy to her after having doused his biscuits with a liberal helping, when Jelly came through the door. He was laden down with an armload of clothing. The dress on top was familiar enough, even though Murdoch still shuddered at the thought of his youngest son being dressed so inappropriately.

"Come across these layin' in the courtyard on my way back from the barn," Jelly volunteered before anyone could ask. "Johnny musta tossed 'em out his winder just as quick as he got 'em off." He dumped his load on the floor in the corner and then took his seat at the table. He shook his head as he glanced over at the discarded garments. "I swear, I ain't never seen so many pairs a socks in one pile before. Not even on laundry day."

Murdoch couldn't quite keep the chuckle in his chest. Sheepishly he looked up to find Teresa staring curiously at the pile of clothes. "Stuffing, Teresa," he said with a slightly embarrassed cough before taking a long drink of coffee.

The young woman's furrowed brow smoothed as her confusion disappeared in the midst of a faint flush. But even the tinge of embarrassment couldn't hide her concern. Turning sad eyes towards Murdoch, she looked like she was about to cry. "I feel so sorry for Johnny," she said in a small voice. "I don't think I've ever seen him look so...I don't think I've ever seen him look so lost."

"Lost?" Jelly snorted. "I'd say peeved'd be a might more fittin' description. I'm sure hopein' Scott has the sense to stay clear of him for a while. I ain't never heard Johnny talk so harsh towards his brother."

Although Murdoch had to agree with Jelly's sentiments, something in Teresa's expression held his attention. "Teresa, why do you say Johnny looked lost?"

"I don't know how to explain it." She stared intently at her plate of food, toying at the eggs with her fork, but not eating anything. "I guess I first noticed it when Scott was explaining what happened. When you mentioned Caja del Pan being out of their way...well, I was looking directly at Johnny, that's why I saw it so clearly."

Sensing something he couldn't quite put his finger on, Murdoch stopped eating to give Teresa his full attention. "Saw what, honey?"

"I'm not really sure," setting her fork down, she picked up her coffee. "It didn't last long, but I know I saw it. Right before he lost his temper, it was like he'd lost something else, too."

"His dignity, maybe?" Despite his early jests, this time Jelly's words sounded quite sincere, and maybe even a little compassionate.

After a sip of coffee, Teresa shook her head slowly. "No, Jelly, I don't think that's it. His pride may have been hurt, but there's more to it than that. I can't for the life of me tell you what I do think it was, but I know it's not something that simple."

She turned back towards Murdoch, and the tears were once again glistening in her eyes. "I'm afraid, Murdoch," she said softly. "I'm really afraid there's something so wrong that we're not going to be able to fix it."

Smiling, Murdoch reached over and gave Teresa a reassuring pat on the arm. "Don't worry yourself, Teresa. Johnny may be a little hot-headed at times, but once he cools off he'll probably be laughing right along with the rest of us."

Although Teresa nodded, her expression remained skeptical.

"So, what was Scott sayin' about a bounty?" Jelly asked. "How much'r we talkin' about, boss?"

Murdoch sighed. He'd hoped to have more answers before having to address that particular issue, but that didn't appear to be the way things were going to happen. The last thing Johnny needed as any wild speculations over this mysterious bounty.

Giving a pointed look to both Jelly and Teresa, he continued. "This isn't to leave this room. Johnny's life could be in real danger if this information, no matter how incorrect it may be, got out."
 Jelly winced. "That don't sound too good." 
"It isn't, Jelly. According to what Scott overheard, there's a bounty on Johnny's head in the amount of fifteen thousand dollars."

"Fifteen thousand dollars!" Jelly and Teresa gasped in unison. Jelly alone added somberly, "For that kinda money it's got to be..." he stopped short, looking questioningly at Scott, as if hoping the younger man would deny the horrid thought.

"Yes, Jelly, it's a dead or alive reward," Murdoch confirmed.

"No!" Teresa gasped, while Jelly just groaned and shook his head.

"Now listen to me, both of you," Murdoch said sternly. "I don't want word of this to get out. I'm still hoping it's all a big mistake, but that doesn't mean everyone will be as benevolent. We don't want to go inviting trouble when we don't have to."

"So it might not be true?" Teresa's voice was full of hope.

"That's what I'm praying. Jelly, after breakfast I'll be heading for town," Murdoch said in between bites of eggs and bacon. "I'll take care of that supply business, and while I'm there I'll wire the US Marshal up in Merced and ask if he'll ride down to Caja del Pan with me to check out this bounty business. If the whole town is involved, like Scott says, it might be better to have some official clout on our side."

"Good thinkin', boss," Jelly agreed. "Me an' the men'll be out in the west range. If'n things goes right, we'll be finished with that brandin' today.

"That'll be a relief, Jelly," Murdoch said with a nod, then returned to the business of finishing his breakfast.

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

That night found the family sitting down for dinner. Teresa dished out a large helping of mashed potatoes onto Murdoch's plate. Her curious gaze followed her guardian as he took his seat at the table. "So, Murdoch, did you get an answer from the marshal in Merced?"

"As a matter-of-fact, I did, Teresa. He had some business in Merced to attend to today, but said he would be more than happy to ride down to Caja del Pan with me in the morning." After topping off the mashed potatoes with gravy, Murdoch began cutting up his steak. "Since Lancer is on the way, he's going to come here to meet me. Should be rather early, I would expect."

"Maybe I should go along, too," Scott suggested.

"I don't think that would be a good idea, son."

Scott's lips drew into a tight line of displeasure. "Why not? I'm the only one that knows who and what went on."

"True, but I don't think the townsfolk in Caja del Pan are going to be too pleased about being snookered out of that bounty. If they haven't figured out exactly how you two got away by now, I'm sure they have deduced that Johnny's brother was the blond man who disappeared at the same time Johnny did. I doubt they'll be too cooperative if you were recognized as one of the men who hoodwinked the whole town."

"Maybe." Scott didn't want to admit it, but Murdoch did have a point. His presence would probably turn out to be more of a hindrance than a help. "But I'm still not sure that wanted poster was on the up and up. According to what Johnny said, there's never been a price that big on his head."

"That may be true, Scott, which is why I want the marshal along. I'll need some official verification if I'm ever to convince them that the poster is a fake."

"And if he can't provide that confirmation?" Scott asked softly.

Murdoch thought for a moment before answering. When he did he was very subdued. "Then we need to know that, too. As you pointed out last night, this is too big to ignore. We've got to get this matter cleared up or Johnny will never have a moment of peace."

With a sigh and a thoughtful glance towards the door, Scott said softly. "Has Johnny been down yet?"

"I haven't seen him all day," Teresa said softly. "I knocked on both of your doors earlier this afternoon to see if either of you wanted some lunch, but I didn't get any answers. He must still be sleeping."

Feigning shock with a gasp and a hand to his heart, Scott looked at her, eyes wide with amazement. "You knocked?! On a door? A bedroom door? Send for the doctor, Murdoch, she must be ill."

Scowling, Teresa snapped at him with her napkin. "Oh, you! I knock all the time."

"Sure you do - two whole seconds before you barge in like a cat with its tail on fire," Scott conceded. "A knock is supposed to be a request for permission to enter, not a split second warning for 'I hope you're decent because my hand has already turned the knob'."

"I've never seen anything the least bit indecent," Teresa huffed.

Scott snickered, partially because of Teresa's indignation, and partially because she was standing there with her hands on her hips, a blatant reminder of how Johnny looked during the previous night's fiasco. "Not for lack of trying."

"Scott Lancer! I never!" Teresa tried to look shocked, but the teasing grin she couldn't control ruined the effect.

Murdoch opened his mouth to intervene in the conversation that was bordering on indiscreet and was already highly inappropriate, but before any words could form, the door swung open. To everyone's amazement a very dusty, sweaty, Johnny walked into the kitchen.

"Johnny, we thought you were still asleep, son," Murdoch said. Although he couldn't hide his surprise, the concern rang clearly in the deep timbre of his voice.

"Well, I guess you thought wrong," was all Johnny said, and even those few words carried an icy air. Grabbing a roll from the breadbasket on the counter, Johnny continued on his way through the kitchen without any further acknowledgement to its occupants.

"Johnny, don't you want some supper?" Teresa piped up.

"If I wanted somethin' to eat, I'd'a sat down." Johnny didn't even break stride as he headed for the archway leading into the living area of the hacienda.

"Where have you been, brother?" Scott called out to him. He and Murdoch exchanged worried looks, but Murdoch said nothing further. Although Scott's inquiry at least got Johnny to stop, the younger man did not turn around. "I been workin'. Last time I heard this was a workin ' cattle ranch. Everyone can't be layin' around in bed all day." The bite in Johnny's words couldn't have been more nasty if he'd actually let out a vicious snarl to accompany them.

Before anyone could think of something to say, he disappeared through the doorway without another word, leaving Scott feeling the brunt of his wrath. About that time the door swung open again, only this time it was Jelly who came stompin' in. From the way he jerked off his hat and gun belt, practically smashing the former as he hung it on the wall peg, it was evident that he too was rather agitated.

"Something wrong, Jelly?" Murdoch asked.

"You're darn tootin'-" Jelly started to say, but when he caught sight of Scott sitting next to Teresa, he stopped short. "Nothin', boss," he grumbled under his breath. "'Taint nothin'."

"Jelly?" Murdoch pushed.

After an almost imperceptible glance in Scott's direction, Jelly stuck by his story. "Said it 'twernt nothing'."

But the old man's sideways glance had been just long enough to catch Scott's attention. Straightening in his chair, Scott looked pointedly at the crusty old man. "Doesn't sound like it's nothing to me," he pressed. "Now what have you got to say that you don't want me to hear?"

Some of Jelly's anger disappeared only to be replaced by a very guilty look of impending dread. "Like I done told Murdoch, 'taint nothin'," he hedged again as he took a seat at the table as far away from Scott as he could get.

Scott was anything but convinced. "Spill it, Jelly. What have you got to say about Johnny that you would rather not say in front of me?" His stab in the dark paid off; Jelly ducked his head, and shifted nervously in his seat.

"Jelly?" Murdoch interjected this time.

"Well, boss, ya see, we was out in the west section, finishin' up that brandin' like I said we was gonna be, an'..." Jelly stuttered for a moment.

"And what?" Murdoch's prompt was anything but a simple inquiry, and his tone left no doubt that he expected an answer to be forthcoming, and in it's entirety, without anymore delay.

"An'...well..." the chair creaked ominously as Jelly sifted to the side. "An'...well...you sees, Johnny shows up about an' hour after we got started."

~~~Earlier that day -

"What you doin' out here, boy?" Jelly inquired as the palomino ridden by the youngest Lancer son came to a sliding halt next to the branding fire.

"Unless I missed somethin', there's brandin' to be done," Johnny retorted.

"Murdoch said youse supposed to be restin'," Jelly pushed. "After last night-"

"Shut up, Jelly!" The look Johnny gave the old wrangler was enough to let Jelly, and everyone else who caught a glimpse, know that Johnny Lancer was irate and wasn't going to tolerate being messed with that day. "I don't wanna hear one word about last night, or about anythin' else for that matter. Talkin' ain't gonna get these cows branded."

Easily recognizing that Johnny was working with a very short fuse, Jelly thought it might be best if he intervened on Scott's behalf. Kinda like one of those mediator type people he'd heard tell about. "Johnny, you knows Scott was just tryin'-"

"I know exactly what he was tryin' to do!" Johnny's eyes were blazing.

Jelly's chest puffed out indignantly. "Ain't no need to be gettin' all cranky with me, boy. We's all jus' tryin' to help. Scott's your brother, Johnny. You know he wouldn't-"

"Yeah, well I been thinkin' about that, and you know what? I'm not sure I want a brother no more. But I am danged sure these cows ain't gonna brand themselves, so if'n you're through pokin' your nose in where it don't belong, let's get back to work."

Jelly didn't even have a chance to pick his jaw up off the ground, much less formulate an answer, before Johnny was mounted and spurring Barranca off towards the herd; lasso in hand to capture another pathetic animal to be branded with the Lancer 'L'.

~~~Back to the present in the Lancer kitchen -

Even after Jelly's words died out, the chill in the air was more than a match for any north wind ever felt. All eyes became focused on the blond man sitting in miserable silence.

"Don't go gettin' too upset, Scott," Jelly tried to smooth things over. "It ain't just you. Johnny was just downright ornery all day. Heck, by noon half the men wanted to toss him in the brandin' fire. That'n he had the whole herd as antsy as a Christmas goose in December, what with his barrelin' around like gettin' their hides branded was second only to makin' it through the pearly gates."

Ignoring Jelly's words, Scott looked intently at his plate, moving the potatoes around with his fork, until he couldn't stand it anymore. His fork clattered noisily when he practically dropped it on the table. "If you'll excuse me," he said quietly and stood to go.

"Scott?" Murdoch said softly.

"I'm going to talk to Johnny." Tossing his napkin on the table, Scott exited a very silent kitchen.

As he walked through the house, Scott's stomach turned itself in knots. He knew Johnny had been upset about the dress issue, but he had no idea it was this bad. For Johnny to say that he didn't want Scott for a brother anymore hurt worse than anything Scott could ever imagine.

Since finding each other, the two of them had experienced their fair share of disagreements, a couple of which had even become physical. Blow for blow, the two men were just about even, but this last assault made all the others pale in comparison. Those nine little words repeated by Jelly had been more painful to Scott than any punch his brother would ever be able to throw.

"Johnny?" Scott called out as his knuckles rapped lightly on the heavy wooden door. He waited a moment. Hearing no response, he knocked a little louder. "Johnny, it's Scott. I think we need to talk about this."

Still there was no response. Frustration and anger were beginning to wear away Scott's concern. Johnny had every right to be upset about last night, but he had no right to shun him this way. Deciding it was time to pull a Teresa, Scott murmured a silent apology to his grandfather for the impending violation against his staunch upbringing. Grasping the knob, he turned it and abruptly pushed open the door.

"Havin' problems takin' a hint?" Johnny said sarcastically as soon as Scott entered the room.

In the dusky shadows, Scott saw that Johnny was lying on the bed, fully clothed, staring up at the ceiling. "I guess I am, brother," he replied cautiously. "How about you explain it to me?"

A loud snort came from the man on the bed. "I ain't got no fancy education. Don't figure the likes of me could explain nothin' to you."

That hurt. Not as much as the comment about not wanting a brother anymore, but it still caused a stab of pain in Scott's chest. "Johnny, I've never looked down on you for any reason, and especially not over you lack of formal education. You may not have had too much schooling, but life has taught you well."

There was a flash of something on Johnny's face, but Scott couldn't identify it before it was gone. In its place was the stoic expression of the hardened gunfighter that Scott hadn't seen in a long while, a look that shot through Scott's already frazzled nerves like a hot poker. "Damn it, Johnny, don't go turning all Johnny Madrid on me."

The next look to appear on Johnny's face was easily readable, and if it wasn't, the words accompanying it were. "Get out," Johnny demanded.


Sitting upright on the bed, Johnny glared at Scott. "What word was too big, Boston? Now get the hell out before I throw you out!"

Stung by the harsh vehemence in Johnny's voice, Scott backed out the door, closing it behind him. Confused and dejected, he stood outside his brother's door. Inside the room, he heard Johnny moving around, but the sounds of drawers being slammed and unknown items being tossed aside only added to his concerns.

Unable to think of anything else to do, Scott retreated to his own bedroom. He briefly considered returning to Johnny's room to force a confrontation, but his better sense prevailed. There were too many conflicting emotions raging inside him to confront Johnny just yet. He had to get his own feelings figured out first; otherwise he would only succeed in making matters worse.

Johnny wasn't stupid, or ignorant, or anything else along those lines, but he was definitely hot-tempered. When threatened, Johnny reacted aggressively; his instincts finely honed by the hard life forced on him by events beyond his control. That was part of who Johnny was; something Scott had long since accepted without reservation.

What Scott couldn't accept, or at least couldn't figure out, was the cold look that had appeared on Johnny's face in response to the accusation that he was acting like Johnny Madrid again. Scott couldn't get that image out of his mind. There was something significant there, he just couldn't quite put his finger on what it was.

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

The next morning Scott barely managed to drag himself out of bed and downstairs for breakfast. He hadn't slept well at all, and his back and neck muscles were still tightly knotted from his unsettling encounter with Johnny. His plans were to spend the day helping Johnny clear out the south gully, and maybe find out what was really bothering the younger man, however, those hopes were dashed when he entered the kitchen and saw Teresa clearing away the breakfast dishes.

"I didn't sleep that late, did I?" he asked through a yawn. Scratching his recently shaved face, he surveyed the room and couldn't help wondering why everything seemed so out of kilter. It wasn't that late.

Teresa shook her head and turned away, but not before Scott caught a glance of her forlorn expression. Stopping only when he was standing next to her, Scott asked softly. "What's the matter, Teresa?"

"Nothing," she denied unconvincingly. A delicate hand wiped away a stray tear, and she smiled up at him, but the forced expression did nothing to hide the hurt in her eyes. "Sit down. You're not late for breakfast, everyone else was just early."

Still concerned about what had his normally bright and bubbly sister upset, Scott didn't move. Instead he waited patiently for the explanation that past experience told him would soon be forthcoming. When Teresa was truly upset, as she appeared to be now, she was about as closed mouthed as Jelly. Usually it took only a little patience to find out what she knew.

"The marshal from Merced arrived early...well before sun up," she said as she scurried around the kitchen, just as Scott knew she would. "He and Murdoch had breakfast before they headed out. That couldn't have been more than a half hour ago."

Having poured himself a cup of coffee, Scott took his usual seat at the table. A plate piled full of eggs, bacon, and fried potatoes almost instantly appeared in front of him. "What, no biscuits this morning?" Scott teased. "Maria must not have-" He stopped short when Teresa cried out a huge sob.

Surging to his feet, Scott pulled her into his arms. "Honey, what's wrong? You know I was just teasing. Your biscuits aren't that bad. Honest." Despite his comforting assurances, Teresa kept her face pressed firmly against his shoulder. Soon his shirt was damp from her tears.

"Teresa, what's wrong?" Scott gently implored.

Pulling away, she sniffled and wiped away her tears. "I'm sorry, Scott. I'm behaving like a spoiled child."

First Johnny, and now Teresa. For a brief moment Scott wondered if he was the only one on Lancer who hadn't been turned into an emotional battleground. "No, you're not," Scott challenged gently. "Something has obviously upset you. Now, will you tell me what it is?"

Nodding, Teresa pulled out a chair and sat down. Scott reclaimed his own seat and took Teresa's hand in a gesture of comfort.

"Not long after Murdoch and the marshal left," Teresa sniffled, "Johnny came downstairs."

This statement piqued Scott's interest immediately, causing him to momentarily forget the original focus of this conversation. "Was he in a better mood than last night?"
 Tears pooled in Teresa's eyes. "No," she sniffled again, but this time when she looked over there was a measure of anger in her eyes, but the hurt was still there, too. "No he wasn't," she snapped. 
Shaking his head, Scott reached over and pulled Teresa back into his arms. He had already spotted the plate of biscuits on the far end of the counter, a location usually reserved for scraps for the goats, and had a pretty good idea what had transpired before his arrival. That was something else for which Johnny would be answering to him. Johnny's ribbing over Teresa's sometimes disastrous attempts to make biscuits as good as Maria's had never been mean-spirited...well, not before Johnny had found this extremely foul mood, anyway.

"He didn't mean it, Scott," Teresa suddenly defended Johnny. "He's still so upset about..."

Tightening his hold around Teresa's shoulders, Scott fought to control his own growing irritation. "Upset about what, exactly?" Scott muttered more to himself than to the distraught young woman in his arms. "I know he's embarrassed by what happened-"

Teresa immediately jerked away. "It's not that, Scott," she stated defiantly. "I already told Murdoch and Jelly as much. It's something else, only I don't know what." In a rush of words, she explained the look she had seen, and the impressions it had given her.

When she was finished, Scott frowned, and stared down into the darkness of his coffee. "I got the same feeling last night. Only instead of being lost, I got the impression Johnny was searching for something, and not being able to find it is driving him crazy."

"Scott, if Johnny doesn't find whatever it is, will he leave us?" Teresa whispered fearfully.

"I just don't know, Teresa." Placing a brotherly kiss on the top of her head, he released his hold on her, allowing her sit back into her own chair. The brown eyes turned to him in pleading desperation almost ripped his heart out.

"Don't let him go, Scott," she said softly. "You're the only one Johnny will listen to. We both know Johnny and Murdoch care for each other very deeply, but they're both too stubborn to admit it. Neither one of them ever take me seriously when it gets beyond baking and house cleaning, so that leaves only you."

Scott sighed heavily. She had a point, but it wasn't a point he liked. "I'll try, Teresa. You know I will. Just don't get your hopes up. At this point Johnny isn't listening to anyone, and especially not me."

"He'll listen if you just keep talking," Teresa insisted as she pushed the plate of food back in front of Scott. "Now eat your breakfast before it gets cold."

"Yes, ma'am." As he ate, Scott wondered if Teresa could be right about Johnny. And if she was, would he have any kind of a voice left by the time his hardheaded brother was ready to listen.

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

Murdoch stared in disbelief at the piece of paper recently handed to him by Marshal Benson. While there was no picture, the big bold lettering proclaimed the object of desire to be 'JOHNNY MADRID'. For what seemed like an eternity, he stared at the even larger writing below - $15,000. He had so hoped this was all a misunderstanding, but holding the tangible evidence in his hand put an end to those dreams.

"Mr. Lancer, may I see that again?" Marshal Benson held out his hand expectantly.

Grateful, Murdoch returned the document to the lawman. His stomach was tied in knots and the lump in his throat made words impossible. All he could think about was the impossible task that lay ahead — saving Johnny from a death greed was certain to send his son's way. So deep was his depression, he barely heard the marshal address Caja del Pan's sheriff.

"Sheriff, assuming you had managed to capture this Johnny Madrid," the marshal said as he studied the poster very carefully, "who exactly did you plan on turning him in to?"

"What do you mean?" the sheriff asked indignantly.

Murdoch looked up. He was just as surprised as the sheriff was by the marshal's words.

Handing the paper back to the sheriff, Marshal Benson finished his thought. "I mean there's no issuing party listed. An official poster would have the jurisdiction listed here," the marshal pointed to the lower right hand corner.

Even though he had been shocked by the apparent reality of the bounty on his son's head, he should have noticed that detail himself. After all, he had been a lawman way back when. "There is something there, but it's too small to make out," Murdoch said as he took the paper from the sheriff.

"Do you have a magnifying glass around here?" the marshal inquired.

"Not in the jail, but I'm sure there's one over at the land office. They're always having to look real close at things." Turning towards his deputy, the sheriff nodded his head. "Run over and fetch one, Sam."

Studying the tiny writing with his naked eye, Murdoch felt a little hope begin to return. This sure didn't look like any official stamp he had ever seen on a law poster. Of course, that didn't mean it wasn't a personal bounty, which, while less threatening than an official offering, still did not bode well for Johnny's future. Anyone who hated Johnny enough to put such a high price on his head would not be deterred by anything as technical as the law.

A few minutes later, Sam hurried in, magnifying glass in hand. He held it out for the sheriff, but Murdoch snatched it away first. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the marshal signal for the sheriff to stand down, for which he was grateful. He didn't care anything about protocol at the moment. Johnny was his son and that gave him all the rights he needed.

He spent several painstaking minutes trying to decipher the smudged writing, and when he did, he looked up in confusion. There had to be some mistake.

"Marshal, take a look and see if you read this the same way I do." Murdoch handed both paper and glass to the marshal, ignoring the angry stare he was getting from the sheriff and his deputy. Things were getting stranger by the minute, and Murdoch didn't know if he should be relieved or worried.

"This sure don't make no sense," the marshal muttered. He looked at trough the magnifying glass again, but his confused expression only deepened.

"Well, what does it say?" the sheriff demanded.

Looking up, the marshal gave Murdoch a curious glance and then addressed the sheriff. "As far as I can tell it says 'all sales final - no exceptions'. There's a small emblem next to it, but I don't recognize it." He turned towards Murdoch. "Is that what you saw too, Mr. Lancer?"

Murdoch nodded. "Yes, marshal."

"Give me that!" Snatching the items away from the marshal, the sheriff began his own scrutiny. After a few moments, he too looked up; his expression was sheepish enough to confirm that he had read the same thing. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I'm not sure, but without an issuing jurisdiction, I don't see how this bounty could be considered valid. That poster gives no indication who offered the reward, so it's a good bet it's a forgery of some kind," the marshal explained.

"Sheriff?" Sam interrupted. He had taken his turn at examining the document after the sheriff got huffy. "I think I remember seeing that mark before."

"Where?!" Understandably perturbed by the latest turn of events, the sheriff's gruff manner easily reflected that anger.

Sam looked thoughtful for a moment. "You remember about a year or so ago, when that broker man from Texas came through on the stage? Said he worked for some kind of auction house back around San Antonio?"

"Yeah, I remember him," the sheriff snarled. "He's the one who got himself killed when he tried to cheat at cards with a couple of gun hawks." Glancing over at the marshal, the sheriff nodded slightly. "It was a fair fight, marshal. Had plenty of witnesses that swore that broker man drew first."

Nodding, the marshal urged Sam to continue. "And what makes you think this poster has anything to do with that broker?"

"Well, he had lots of these posters," Sam held up the reward poster. "Only they was announcing auctions and such, not bounties. I remember seeing this design on a few of 'em, only it was larger and in the middle, up here." Sam pointed to the top of the reward poster, his finger landing right at the top of the 'h' in Johnny's name.

"Are you sure it was the same design?" Murdoch interjected.

"Yes, sir, Mr. Lancer." The deputy scratched his head as though he were deep in thought. "And you know something else? I think this poster showed up right about that time, too. Remember, sheriff? We was all wondering what this Madrid fella coulda done that was worth so much, and making jokes 'bout what we could do with that kind of money."

A deep frown settled on Sam's features, and all of a sudden the younger man looked much older than he had only moments before. "Of course, that was before that quake went and changed the course of the river."

Silence filled the small jail. Although Murdoch's heart ached for the hopelessness he heard in the deputy's voice, he couldn't hold back the sense of elation he felt in the knowledge that Johnny was no longer in danger. Well, at least not as much as he had been in only yesterday. It was a given that someone in Caja del Pan would eventually have found out that not only was Johnny Madrid now Johnny Lancer, but that he was only a few hours ride away. Thankfully, there would be no reason for them to make that ride now.

"Sheriff, the only thing I can figure is that poster is some kind of printing error. Maybe an old wanted poster on this Madrid fellow got mixed up with the printing stock for an auction that broker was handling. I seen the backs of old papers used for auction notices, and such. Anything that isn't going to be needed for more than a short time."

"What you're sayin', marshal, is that we been puttin' our hopes on a worthless piece of paper," the sheriff said sullenly.

"I'm afraid so, sheriff. With no issuing authority, I'm advising that you forget all about this reward." The marshal picked up his hat. "And you might just want to consider yourselves lucky that Mr. Madrid managed to evade your attempt to apprehend him. If he had been killed, it would have been murder."

Before the sheriff could respond, the door opened, and a very formally dressed couple entered. "Pardon me, sheriff," the gentleman said after he removed his hat. "My sister insisted that we inquire as to the status of your investigation into the unlawful entry into our hotel room, and the theft of her garments."

"Ma, robe j'aimerais savoir qui a pris ma belle robe," the woman babbled in a string of fluent French that was well beyond Murdoch's limited comprehension of the language. "Quel genre de pays anarchique est ceci, quand l'habillement d'une dame n'est pas en sécurité dans sa propre chambre d'hôtel? Jean Luc, s'il-te-plait, dit leur de retourner ma robe cet instant!" Clearly upset, the young woman immediately burst into a fit of hysterical sobbing. (1)

"Sshhh, petite soeur (2)," the man soothed the distraught woman. "She is most concerned about the return of her dress," he explained once her crying had subsided to a tolerable level. "She, as am I, is also worried about the absence of law in this area. Is it normal for a person's rooms to be violated in such a vile manner?"

"Marshal Benson, Mr. Lancer, this is Mr. Fleury and his sister, Miss Cecilia Fleury," the sheriff introduced the young couple to the newcomers. Both Murdoch and Marshal Benson nodded to Miss Fleury and then shook her brother's hand. 
The sheriff's expression turned rather indignant as his gaze landed on Murdoch. "It seems it was Miss Fleury's wardrobe your sons raided to make their escape. She's been very distraught over the whole incident, and is convinced that all us westerners ain't nothin' but a bunch of thievin' scum," he added in a damning tone.

Clearing his throat, Murdoch quickly considered what he was going to say to the young woman. When it came down to it, what could he say? Scott and Johnny had committed a robbery, no matter how good their intentions might have been, and the young foreigners deserved an explanation.

"Mr. Fleury, may I have a word with you?" Eyeing the sheriff with a wary reserve, he quickly added. "In private?"

"Oui, Monsieur Lancer."

Moving to the only private section of the jail, an empty jail cell, Murdoch carefully explained what had happened, and why. The whole time he was speaking, the Frenchman said nothing, and gave no indication as to what he might or might not be thinking. When he finished, Murdoch waited with anticipation for an angry eruption. To his surprise, however, the man merely nodded and then returned where his sister was sniffling quietly.

Murdoch followed, and for the next several minutes, he and the others listened to and watched the sometimes animated conversation taking place between brother and sister. Only able to catch an occasional word he understood, Murdoch had no clear idea of what the man was saying, or of what the woman's reaction was going to be. Just as he become convinced that the young woman was about to break out in tears again, the jail was filled with another hysterical sound, only this time it was her laughter.

After achieving some level of composure, Miss Fleury daintily wiped the tears from her eyes as she approached Murdoch. Taking his hand gently in her own, in the most beautiful sounding voice he could remember hearing, she proceeded to explain something, only the barrage of French again left him feeling confused and awkward. When she finished, however, Murdoch smiled graciously, hoping he had not misread the sincerity in her expression.

"My sister knows little English, Monsieur Lancer," her brother said as he stepped forward. "She wants you to know that she is grateful that her wardrobe could be used in such a cleaver ruse to escape the misguided souls of this quaint little community. She is honored to have been of service to your sons, and wishes to compliment them on their ingenuity and resourcefulness, not to mention their taste in women's clothing. That particular garment was a designer original."

Mr. Fleury paused, and he looked sheepishly towards the ground. "My sister does not believe that many men would have had the courage to prevent bloodshed in such a selfless manner, and she wishes for you to inform your son that he will always be considered a man among men in her eyes."

The woman spoke again, and Mr. Fleury's complexion became even more flushed. After a moment he translated again. "She also said to tell you that her only regret is that she did not get to see the results of your sons' efforts. However, she is certain that her mind will always paint such a vivid picture that she will no doubt make a spectacle of herself every time she remembers that particular garment's demise."

Clearing his throat, Murdoch looked awkwardly towards Mr. Fleury. "Yes, well I'm sure there are a lot of people who are going to be suffering from that particular affliction for some time to come."

The Frenchman smiled. "Oui. Now, if you will pardon us, my sister and I must hurry if we are to board the stage before it departs. As this matter is now settled, there is no reason to delay our trip any longer. Please give our regards to you sons, Mr. Lancer, and assure them that they made our visit to your country into an adventure we will never forget."

"I'll do that, Mr. Fleury," Murdoch said with a smiled.

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

After claiming the personal belongs Johnny and Scott had been forced to discard during their escape, items which the Fleury's and the hotel had turned over to the sheriff, Murdoch and the marshal departed, leaving the sheriff and deputy the grim task of spreading the unhappy news that they would not be turning Johnny Madrid in for any bounty. Gathering their horses at the stable, the two men headed back towards Lancer.

For a long while Murdoch pondered the good and bad news of the day. Having the marshal along had definitely been a plus, and so had discovering that the wanted poster was almost positively a forgery. The only down side to the whole thing was that the poster still managed to make its way to Caja del Pan in the first place. Who knew how many other 'printing errors' could be floating around.

It worried Murdoch that there could be other attempts to apprehend Johnny, especially given the grievously high value of the alleged bounty. For what had to be the millionth time since learning of his son's previous occupation, Murdoch wondered if Maria had been able to seen what would happen to their son's life, would she have taken him with her when she left?

"Mr. Lancer?" Marshal Benson interrupted Murdoch's thoughts.

"Yes, marshal?"

The marshal reined his horse around a small bush growing up in the trail, and then turned a questioning gaze in Murdoch's direction. "Would you mind telling me exactly how your boys managed to get out of that town?"

A wry grin formed on Murdoch's lips. "You mean you haven't figured it out by now?" he asked sagely.

"I've got a pretty good idea," the marshal admitted with a slight chuckle, "but I'm not sure I'll believe it without actually hearing it for myself."

"Well, Marshal Benson, it goes this way..."

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

Several hours and many laughs later the two men approached the fork in the road that would return them to Lancer. "Would you care to stop and rest for a spell, marshal? And you're more than welcome to stay the night."

The marshal shook his head. "I appreciate the hospitality, Mr. Lancer, but I have to be back in Merced first thing in the morning, so I'd better keep on moving in that direction."

Stopping at the turn off, Murdoch reached over and offered his hand to the lawman. "Thank you so much for your assistance. I can't tell you what a relief it is to know that reward poster was a forgery."

Marshal Benson accepted Murdoch's hand and gave it a firm shake. "Glad to be of service, Mr. Lancer. But there is one thing I'd really like to know."

"What's that, marshal?"

"Is your son really Johnny Madrid?"

The question took Murdoch off guard. He had just assumed that the marshal had just taken that fact for granted. Taking a deep breath, Murdoch nodded. "Yes, marshal. My son grew up away from this ranch and away from me. In a harsh land governed by even harsher rules, he survived as best he could. But now he's back home. Now he's just plain Johnny Lancer."

Understanding flooded the lawman's face. "As soon as I get back to Merced, I'll be sending out a telegram to all sheriffs in the state to be on the look out for any more of those forged posters. Hopefully that will keep the vultures at bay, over this matter, anyway. I wish your son the best of luck, Mr. Lancer. I'd hate to see his life destroyed. He sounds like quite a remarkable young man."

A huge smile spread over Murdoch's face. "He is that, marshal," he agreed with pride.

"If you're ever in Merced, be sure and look me up." Tipping his hat the marshal headed in the opposite direction.

With the heavy burden he had carried when he left his home that morning now gone, Murdoch kicked his horse into a gallop. He felt twenty years younger all of a sudden, and wanted to share his good news with the rest of the family. Especially Johnny.
 *** *** *** ***
 Murdoch barely made it through the kitchen door, having figured that was the mostly likely place to find his family at this late evening hour, when he found himself faced with a very hopeful pair of brown eyes. "Did you find out anything? Was the bounty for real? Is Johnny safe now?" came the barrage of questions.

"Settle down, honey," he said with a laugh. "I've got some very good news." Looking around he asked, "Where are the boys?"

Right on cue, the door opened and Scott entered. He had his hat halfway off before realizing that Murdoch was home. "Murdoch, you're back! Were you and the marshal able to find out anything? Was that bounty genuine?" he asked as he took his turn surveying the room. "Isn't Johnny here?"

Sighing at the repeat performance, Murdoch grinned at his oldest son. "As I told Teresa, I have good news. But I would have thought Johnny would be with you?"

Scott frowned. "Not hardly. He's been running from me all day. I finally gave up about an hour ago, after finishing several jobs Johnny abandoned in order to avoid me."

Murdoch's smile shifted into an uneasy frown. "Johnny's been avoiding you?"

"Yes, sir." Tossing his hat on the counter, Scott sank down in a chair he pulled away from the table. "Let's see. First, I almost caught up with him at the south mesa where he was clearing that undergrowth out of the stream. He must have seen me coming because by the time I got there he was gone. Since he had the backup almost cleared away, I finished up the job. Next I came across a section of half-finished fencing at the north end of the mesa. This time he must have seen me before I saw him. Anyway, I completed that section before tracking him to—"

Murdoch held up a hand. "I think I've got the picture, Scott. I suppose asking if Johnny's mood had gotten any better would be pointless?"

"Completely," Scott agreed all too willingly. "To make a long story short, the last time I saw him he was riding away from me headed in this direction. I figured he would have beat me home." Scott shot an expectant in Teresa's direction.

"No, I haven't seen him since—" Teresa stopped abruptly, and turned away. Although Teresa tried to act like she was doing some last minute preparations for dinner, it was easy to see that she was trying to avoid saying something. Given the subject matter of the conversation and the pained, yet agitated, frown on Scott's face, Murdoch quickly determined that Johnny's temper had flared again, only this time it had been Teresa who had born the brunt of his fury.

"What did Johnny do, Teresa?" Murdoch asked in a tone he knew she would not dare ignore. He might not be her biological father, but there was still a strong paternal bond between them that let him make demands no one else would be allowed to do.

"It's nothing, Murdoch, really," she said with a casual turn of her head. "I haven't even seen him since this morning. Darn, I knew I forgot something. I'll be right back." Without explaining what the missing item was, she scurried out the side door without so much as a backwards glance.

"Scott?" Murdoch challenged his eldest son to tell him the truth.

"Well, sir, I'm not entirely sure, myself." Scott's response was hesitant, and gave off a definite air of subterfuge.

"But you have a pretty good idea, don't you?" Murdoch pressed, reasserting his parental authority, this time towards the son with whom he normally did not have to resort to such tactics.

"I'm pretty sure Johnny's normal teasing in regards to Teresa's biscuits got a little out of hand this morning. I didn't get anything more specific out of her." Scott stopped and took a deep breath, as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

"What you mean to say is that he was downright cruel to her!" Murdoch snapped. His anger was raging and threatened to flare out of control. How dare Johnny take his frustrations out on Teresa. The hurtful things that had been said to and about his brother were bad enough, but Teresa, of all people, did not deserve to be verbally abused for any reason.

"I don't know that for a fact," Scott protested weakly. "I just know that, whatever Johnny said, it upset her."

"Well, I think it's about time I had a long talk with your brother. He's not two years old anymore, and these kind of thoughtless tantrums will not be tolerated. Especially when they're directed towards someone who hasn't done anything to hurt him."

With his previous good mood all but destroyed, Murdoch stalked over to the range and poured himself a cup of coffee. He wished he didn't feel so much anger towards his youngest son, but when it came to unwarranted attacks against Teresa, he would not stand by and do nothing. Johnny had to learn that just because he was upset didn't mean he could take it out on the rest of the family.

"Murdoch, I think there's more going on here than we realize."

Looking up from his coffee, Murdoch found Scott staring at him with a determined gaze. Something in Scott's eyes made him look away, and at the same time, doused some of the anger he had been fighting to get under control.

"I'm not blind, son," he acknowledged as much to himself as to Scott. "Johnny's behavior ever since you two got back has been entirely out of character. Yes, he can be hotheaded and impulsive enough for ten men, but not even back when he first got here did he act this indifferent and callous towards anyone else's feelings."

"I just wish he'd talk to me," Scott groaned. "Before, when there was a sore subject between us, he'd still talk to me about other things. Now he acts like he's mad at me even before I have a chance to say anything. It beginning to feel like I've become his worst enemy."

The dejection in Scott's voice pained Murdoch's soul. He hated to see either one of his boys in pain, but he had no clue what to do when one was the cause of the other's hurt. The bond between the two brothers had developed rapidly, and had seemed to be unbreakable. The whole situation was becoming very surreal. "Maybe you have," Murdoch mused a little too loudly.


The shrill yelp from his oldest son brought Murdoch back from his thoughts with a jolt. "Think about it, Scott," he hastened to explain. "If whatever is bothering Johnny is so dire that he doesn't want to discuss it with anyone, he'd have to keep you at arms length. He knows that you're the one person who can get him to let down his guard. To keep that from happening, he's got to make you stay away."

A silent moment of contemplation was followed by a brief nod. "Yes, that would make sense," Scott replied with renewed sense of hope in his voice. "And it's a definite improvement over any of the alternatives I've been able to come up with."

Before Murdoch could respond, the door opened and the very object of their discussion trudged into the kitchen. At first Johnny looked at the two men with a suspicious glare, but then turned away and headed for the door leading to the great room.

"Johnny, Teresa has dinner about ready," Murdoch said as easily as his tense nerves would allow. From the moment Johnny had breached the doorway, the entire room seemed to become filled with an oppressive tension.

"Not hungry," Johnny muttered as he continued walking away. Unfortunately, before he entered the foyer, Teresa came bounding into the kitchen, and almost ran right into Johnny.

"Johnny, you're home!" she exclaimed exuberantly. "I made your favorite, tamales and beans, and we have fresh tortillas and salsa and that peppered corn you like so well. I even baked a chocolate cake for desert."

For a moment Johnny said nothing, his face a blank canvas void of all expression. Then his frown returned. "I said I ain't hungry." Pushing his way past Teresa, he continued on his way. However, just as he reached the dining table in the great room, a large hand landed firmly on his shoulder.

Spinning Johnny around, Murdoch glared down at his youngest son. "That's enough, Johnny! For the past two days you've been short-tempered with everyone, not to mention being just downright hateful towards your brother. This is going to end right here and right now, beginning with your telling me what's wrong with you!"

As always, when the dam finally breaks there is no way to stop the raging torrent. Long days of frustration, hurt, anger and grief poured out in the form of a glass retrieved from the nearby table, which was sent flying across the room. With a loud crash it shattered against the wall next to the fireplace, and then Johnny shattered, too.

With his face red from more than just anger, Johnny turned on Murdoch. "You wanna know what's wrong, old man! What's wrong is that I'm tired of what I done in the past 'cause I didn't have no choice comin' up and bitin' me in the backside, or worse, causin' trouble for my family! I'm tired of not knowin' which way to turn, or how to act, or even what I'm supposed to be thinkin' no more!"

"Sometimes I just wanna wish it all away, but you know what? I can't! I can't even enjoy dreamin' about what things woulda been like if Johnny Madrid ain't never been. I can't 'cause if I do then I have to admit that he's one of the only reasons this here ranch is still yours, and that without him we'd all more'n likely be dead."

"That's right, old man, Johnny Madrid - gunhawk, trouble maker, killer, second-rate son - tilted the odds in your favor. Yeah, you and Boston woulda put up a hell of a fight, I don't doubt that, but in the end you'd'a lost, an' you darn well know it. Pardee had you out manned and out gunned. There ain't no denying if he'd'a had the chance to do things his way, things woulda played out a lot different. Johnny Lancer wouldn't have been able to do a danged thing to stop it, neither. Only Johnny Madrid coulda made a difference, and he did."

There was a momentary lapse in Johnny's tirade, but only long enough for him to turn, as if he meant to leave, but instead he turned back around to face Murdoch again. "Since you're the tune caller 'round here, why don't you tell me what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to be beholdin' because Johnny Madrid was able to help save this ranch, an' just ignore the fact that my bein' him is makin' me a threat to everyone I care about? Or do I just wish he'd never existed, that he wasn't around to stop you and Boston and Teresa and Cipriano and all the other hands that stood by you from gettin' yourselves killed? Tell me, old man! Tell me what I'm supposed to do!"

The desperate pleading that reached out to him from the depths of Johnny's eyes ripped at Murdoch's heart, as did the ragged breathing he could barely hear above the roar from the pounding of his own heart. "Johnny-"

"Go ahead! Say it, old man! Say it. We both know I don't belong here no more! Gunhawks ain't nothin' but trouble once the fightin's done." Without waiting for the requested response, Johnny turned and this time did storm out the front door, slamming it behind him with a deafening echo.

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

Even before the sound of the door's slam had completely faded, Scott's beeline in that direction was halted by Murdoch's firm hand on his arm. Without giving his father a chance to explain, Scott jerked away. "Don't you dare tell me to leave him be!" he challenged.

"No, Scott, I wasn't going to say that." Murdoch's softly spoken words were full of pain, not anger, and spoke volumes of how shaken up the older man was by his son's outburst. "Just give him a minute to gather himself. That hurt has been festering for a long time now. It needs to drain just a bit before we start doctoring on it."

Still stunned by the vehemence in Johnny's words, Scott relented. Sinking down onto the arm of the sofa, he nodded mutely, feeling inexplicably drained by the emotional battle that had not even been his own. "I never knew Johnny felt that way," Scott admitted with painful reluctance.

"He never wanted you to know, son. He never wanted any of us to know he was hurting so badly. If he hadn't lost control, maybe we never would have known. Not before it was too late, anyway."

"So what do we do now?" Teresa's question alerted both men to the fact that the young woman, both daughter and sister, had also been witness to Johnny's bitter tirade. "How do we help him?"

Tears were streaming down her face as she sought answers that just weren't so readily available. "How do we make Johnny see that he's wanted here, needed here for more than just his gun? How do we tell him that we love him, no matter what name he calls himself?"

Opening his arms, Murdoch welcomed her into a comforting embrace. "Everything's going to be okay, honey." Gently brushing her hair with his hand, Murdoch looked over her head towards Scott. "Son?" he said softly.

His father's unspoken question had not gone unheard. Standing, Scott looked at the door as if it were the last thing in the world he wanted to go near. "I'll try to talk to him alone, first. He usually opens up to me...eventually."

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

Even as he entered the barn, Scott could feel the oppressive silence of Johnny's misery smothering him as if it were a slimy ooze. He paused just inside the door to let his eyes adjust to the darkened interior, but it didn't take long before he caught sight of movement from within Barranca's stall.

Inside Johnny was needlessly grooming the palomino; something he had no doubt already done more than adequately before he had entered the house. But this was Johnny's way. He sought comfort from the presence of the beloved animal, and the offering in return was an equal dose of adoration and affection.

"Scott, leave me be. Please," Johnny's tight voice broke the stillness.

Moving towards the stall, Scott leaned casually against the rail post, watching the long sweeping swipes of the brush over Barranca's golden coat. "You don't really want that, Johnny. If you did, you wouldn't be here. Knowing this would be the first place I would look for you, it only stands to reason that some part of you wanted to be found."

"Part of me?" Johnny snorted softly. His hand quit moving the brush, but he did not look up. "Would that be the Madrid part, or the Lancer part?"

A wave of profound sadness threatened to drown Scott in its intensity. Moving into the stall, he stood almost directly behind his brother and placed a comforting hand on Johnny's shoulder. His next words came directly from his heart. "I'd like to think it's the Johnny part, brother."

The tension-filled shoulder beneath his hand sagged in defeat. In that instant Scott knew things were far worse than he had ever imagined. Johnny never gave up. He fought every fight with a determined spirit Scott had found to be both unfathomable and enviable. It had to be more than just his past that had his brother this torn up.

"Talk to me, Johnny."

"An' say what?"

Scott thought for a moment, trying to decide the best way to broach what was turning out to be a highly ambiguous subject. He needed more information about what Johnny was feeling before he could even hope to offer a solution. The hard part was going to be getting Johnny to open up enough to gain the needed information. Taking a shot in the dark, he asked, "Do you remember what Murdoch told us that first day?"

Johnny's head rose and he looked over at Scott with an exasperated expression on his weary face. "Scott, it ain't that easy. Just sayin' the past is over an' gone don't make it so.""No, Johnny, I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about when Murdoch denied he owed either of us any apologies. Well, the same goes for you."

Exasperation instantly turned into helpless despair. "Scott, if apologizin' would put an end to this, I'd do it. I'd get down on my hands and knees and beg anyone or anything that'd be able to keep me from bringin' harm to any of you. But it won't do no good. As long as I'm here, trouble's gonna keep knocking at the door."

Okay, at least Johnny was talking, now if he could just zero in on the root of the problem. "In the first place, I don't recall trouble ever knocking at the door. It usually just barges right on in, unannounced, kind of like Teresa," Scott said with a hopeful grin. When Johnny failed to respond to his attempted humor, Scott added, "In the second place, if you think you're going to make us not care about you by acting like a-"

"You know somethin', Boston?" Johnny interrupted with a heavy sigh. "For someone who's supposed to be so darned educated, you can be real dense sometimes. You can't really think I'd be stupid enough to try somethin' as lame as that." As if that said it all, Johnny returned to grooming Barranca.

Not the reaction Scott had been expecting, not at all. Tilting his head slightly, he studied Johnny very closely. His heart began pounding mercilessly inside his chest as a picture began to become all too clear. A very ugly picture.

"You can't possibly be saying you actually meant all those things you've said?" Scott paused, swallowing hard before putting words to his worst fear. "About not wanting a brother any more?"

"I meant it," Johnny said in a voice soft with regret. "Jus' not the way you're thinking."

Fighting off both shock and hurt, Scott tried to understand what Johnny was saying. "There's another way?" he asked softly.

"Yeah, there is." Looking up, Johnny stared directly at Scott, and as always his eyes gave away his anguish. "You see, me havin' you for a brother means that you got me for a brother."

"Yes, that's the way it usually works," Scott replied dryly.

"Don't you see, that's the problem!" Johnny practically cried.

Scott tried his best to keep his bitterness at bay. He had accepted Johnny from day one, never once holding Johnny's past against him. Now something from that past was tearing his brother apart and he didn't have a clue what it could be. And Johnny wasn't helping make things any clearer. "No, Johnny, I don't see. Why don't you explain it to me."

"Scott, can't you see that you're the one gettin' the raw end of the deal? You came out here from Boston with your honor and your integrity and your fancy heritage; all them things that make you a good son and a great business partner. But me..." Leaning forward, Johnny rested his forehead against Barranca's glistening neck. "Me, I ain't got none of that."

"You can't be serious!" Scott didn't know whether to be angry or hurt or just downright insulted. That Johnny could even be having those thoughts was a slap in the face to him, and to Murdoch and Teresa, too. Johnny's ideas of family were...and the light finally dawned, putting an immediate rest to Scott's anger and hurt, leaving only compassion in their place. "Johnny, you're family. That means we stick together, no matter what."

With now seeing eyes, Scott watched as long, brown fingers curled themselves tightly around the golden strands of Barranca's mane. Johnny loved them all so much, but he didn't have the foggiest idea of how to be part of a family. Sure he knew how to give of himself, he'd proved that many times, but he had no idea how to accept what they had to offer. Giving of himself was an inherent part of Johnny's nature, but never letting himself become dependant on others had become a learned instinct, something made necessary for his very survival.

Unbidden, Johnny's soft words pleaded from beneath his bowed head. "Scott, I just don't know if I can survive bein' here any longer. It's tearin' me up inside. Leavin' me so confused I don't know what to do."

"What is, Johnny? What is there about being here that's making you so upset?"

Johnny's fingers clenched tighter around the silky strands of mane, until Scott worried the circulation would be cut off permanently. Despite his desperate stance, there was nothing but pure happiness in Johnny's voice when he finally spoke.

"Comin' here was like...like wakin' up from the worst nightmare ever. Only I'd never known it was a nightmare I was livin'. Everything was so gray and dead, but that's just the way it had always been. I didn't know it could be like...here...here, where everything's full of color and life. It was so bright, and warm, and...I never felt so free." Johnny stopped, but only for a moment, and when he continued all the previous joy was gone.

"Or so trapped. Things from the gray keep comin' out to haunt me." A face etched with untold hurts turned towards Scott. "Have you ever been scared, Scott? I mean really scared, to the point that your insides felt like they was tryin' to hide behind each other?"

Too stunned to speak, Scott merely shook his head. Even the horrors of Libby prison didn't compare to the fear he was now seeing in his brother's eyes. This fear felt alone, hopelessly alone, which was the worst kind of fear.

"I'm scared like I ain't never been before. It's like I'm fallin' off a cliff, only I never seem to hit bottom, an' for the first time in my life I'm really scared of dyin'. I'm scared of losin' what I found here, but every time I catch sight of somethin' I might be able to grab onto, I look up and it's you, or Murdoch, or...I can't do it. Knowin' I'll be draggin' you down with me...I just can't do it."

The despondency in Johnny's tight voice had Scott's stomach instantly tightened into a painful knot. How could they all have been so blind? How could they claim to love Johnny so much, and miss something so real, so obvious? "Well, brother, then I guess it's time for us to reach out and grab hold of you."

True to his word, Scott wrapped his arms around Johnny's shoulders. Even though he had heard the anguish in Johnny's voice, sensed the pain his bother had been feeling, it still surprised him the feel the taunt body trembling against his chest.

Johnny really was scared. He desperately needed his family's love and support, but the independent nature that ran so deep in his soul left him incapable of accepting their help. The internal struggle had to be unbearable. As if in answer to his unspoken realization, Johnny's head eased down onto his shoulder, adding even more credence to Scott's thoughts.

"You're always here when we need you, Johnny. You've never once let, us or Lancer, down."

"You're wrong, Scott," Johnny mumbled. His voice was muffled by the fabric of Scott's shirt, making him sound even more desperate. "Everything about me lets you down. And it ain't just Johnny Madrid that's casting a shadow over me. It's Johnny Lancer, too."

Scott couldn't begin to grasp what Johnny meant by that comment. He had only been going by the name Lancer for a short while, and nothing Scott could think of had happened during that could be considered detrimental to him, Murdoch, or Lancer. "What do you mean, Johnny?"

"I found out some things when we was in Sacramento. Things that ain't got nothin' to do with cattle." Johnny drew a ragged breath and very slowly began telling his painful story.
 ~~~ Approximately a week earlier, in Sacramento - 
Johnny sat in the comfortable chair by the fireplace in the lounge of the Sacramento Cattlemen's Association Club. He was waiting for Scott, who was picking up Miss Tammy Parnell, to join him for lunch. He had asked Lucy Demsdale, a beautiful and extremely sweet young woman he had met the day before to join the three of them, too, but she had already been committed to a prior engagement that she felt hesitant to break. Johnny wasn't too disappointed, though, as she had agreed to have dinner with them that evening.

Sipping his brandy, Johnny examined his surroundings with an uncomfortable eye. The club was the most fancy place he'd ever seen. Thick carpeting padded the floor from one wall to the other, luxurious draperies canvassed the ceiling-to-floor windows, fabric wall coverings encased each room in a artistic blanket, ornate chandeliers sparkled from the ceiling in every room; the list went on and on. For the life of him, Johnny couldn't figure out how any of this finery was necessary for discussing cattle.

"Over my dead body!" A loud booming voice resounded from somewhere behind Johnny's chair. "I don't care whose son he is, he's still nothing but a no- account half-breed. No daughter of mine is going to be escorted anywhere by his kind."

"Now just calm down, Chester," another voiced entered the fray. "It's only a dinner. I mean it's not like she's planning to marry him or anything."

"Morton Anderson, I ought to shoot you for even suggesting such a thing! I'd have that boy hanged if he even looked like he wanted to touch my Lucy. I can't for the life of me understand how Murdoch Lancer allowed himself be taken in by some Mexican whore in the first place. From what I understand, she went and got herself pregnant on purpose, just so Murdoch would feel obligated to marry her. I tell you, he would have been a lot better off just ignoring the stupid whore's claims. Heck, I'll bet that boy isn't even his. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me."

"Where are you going, Chester?" the voice previously identified as Mr. Anderson inquired.

"I'm going to inform my daughter that she will not be escorted anywhere by that heathen. She can stay home if she likes, but I will not have her degrade herself and her family by being seen in public with a Mexican half-breed. And I'll be reconsidering any future dealings I have with Lancer. Any man that would bring that kind of riffraff into our midst isn't someone with whom I want to do business!" As if to punctuate his words, a loud bang from the slamming door rattled the windows, as well as the pictures on the walls.

"I can't say that I blame, Chester, not really," a third voice spoke up. "Lucy is his only child. I'm just glad I've got four boys. I don't think I could handle the stress of having to protect a daughter from the nefarious elements that have managed to find their way into our society. It not like it was back when those people knew their place."

"Yeah, it is kind of hard to figure how Murdoch got himself hooked up with a Mexican woman. I hear his first wife was a real Boston blue blood," Mr. Anderson remarked casually. "I met his eldest son this morning. Scott, I believe. Now there's a young man any father would be proud to have for a son-in-law. Refined, well-mannered, educated, I even hear tell he was an officer in the war. Yes, he'd be a mighty fine catch for any respectable young lady. It's too bad Murdoch has that other one as an albatross around his neck."

"I heard that other one used to be a gunfighter down around the border," yet another voice entered the conversation. "Can you imagine, having a killer on the loose in your own house? I'll bet they all sleep with their bedroom doors barred and a gun handy."

"Oh, come on, Daniel. You make it sound like the boy's a cold-blooded killer," a third, less condemning, voice admonished.

"And just what do you think being a gunfighter means, Bart?" Daniel snapped defensively. "Mark my words, that boy will bring nothing but trouble to Lancer. Even if he somehow manages to stay clear of it himself, there are plenty of vultures out there who are looking to make themselves a name. If that boy cared anything at all about Murdoch and his brother, he would leave them as fast as he could, and go back to his own kind."

"That's pretty cold hearted, don't you think?" Bart defended. "Maybe the boy just needs a chance. After all, it wasn't his fault that his mother up and stole him away from Lancer when he was just a baby. Those border towns are really rough places to grow up. Murdoch was lucky to find the boy alive."

"Lucky? I'd say Murdoch would have been more lucky if he had never found this so-called son. Like Chester said, it's more than likely the boy isn't even his. You know how those Mexican woman are - loose and easy with anything. She was probably sleeping with half the town when she conveniently got herself pregnant just so she could rope Murdoch into marrying her. If he'd any sense he would have tossed her back into the gutter where she belonged."

So totally out of his element, at first Johnny didn't know how to respond. While the attacks on his person hurt, the comments in reference to his mother cut him deeply, not to mention the stigma his name was having on Lancer business. However, just as he stood up to give the cattlemen a piece of his mind and maybe even a piece of something else, the club's host entered and announced that luncheon was being served, effectively taking them out of his reach as they, along with the other occupants of the room, headed for the door.
 ~~~ Back to the present in the barn at Lancer - 
Scott held onto Johnny in a dazed silence, digesting the words his brother had spoken, some of which had been voiced so softly they were barely audible. Events of the trip to Sacramento that he had previously dismissed suddenly made terrible sense: the sudden waning of Johnny's exuberance, Lucy Demsdale's abrupt headache only hours before the cattlemen's dinner, all the conversations that had turned into hushed whispers whenever he and Johnny entered a room. How could he have been so blind?

Very slowly Johnny raised his head from Scott's shoulder and then sank down in the hay. He leaned back against Barranca's feed trough, and the palomino immediately stuck his head down and pushed his nose against Johnny's cheek. Slipping a carrot stick from his pocket, Johnny held it out to the beloved animal. A velvety nose sniffed it for barely a second before nimble lips eagerly snagged the tasty prize.

"That's why I wanted to stop in Caja del Pan for the night?" Johnny said without taking his eyes off Barranca as the horse chewed contentedly on the carrot stick.

Sinking down into the straw in front of Johnny, Scott looked over at his younger brother, his own self-admonition momentarily pushed aside by the intense curiosity of what was yet to be revealed. "I don't understand, Johnny. What was in Caja del Pan that could possibly make up for what happened in Sacramento?"

The faintest wisp of a smile graced Johnny's lips. "You," he said softly. Barranca snorted and Johnny patted the soft nose. "I just...I just wanted to spend some more time with you, before going back to the ranch, that's all."

Barranca nudged at Johnny again. Sensing no more treats were there to be had, the horse returned his attention back to the hay bin. Johnny smiled as he plucked a stray piece of hay from his sleeve, but his smile faded into a frown as he began twisting it between his fingers. "I figured we could spend some time, you know, just bein' brothers. I guess I was kinda hopin' maybe it'd work like that frozen fruit stuff they kept givin' us in those fancy restaurants."

It took Scott a moment to comprehend what Johnny was saying. "Sorbet?"

"Yeah," Johnny nodded, but his attention remained focused on the piece of hay that was now tied into several knots. "I was hopin' to get that bad taste outta my mouth before it could get me in trouble with the old man. Sure as shootin', Murdoch'd be on my case for bein' snippy or keepin' to myself. You know how he gets."

Yes, Scott knew all too well how Murdoch got when it came to Johnny's often ambiguous moods. If there was one thing Murdoch hated, it was feeling like he didn't know what was going on with his ranch or his family. Well, that and anything having to do with Johnny's gunfighter past...Scott groaned loudly. "Instead of unwinding and getting things sorted out in your mind, we end up getting involved in that bounty mess, and things went from bad to worse in a hurry."

"Guess if it ain't one past, it's the other," Johnny agreed sadly. His voice was shallow and spoke of total defeat. "I feel like I ain't got no place to turn no more, Scott. Heck, I wasn't even two years old when I lost the Lancer name, but I already had me a reputation. An' it seems that one ain't no good neither."

Scott's mind was reeling. They had all been so wrong about everything, and so right at the same time. Who would have ever thought that Johnny Lancer's past would turn out to be just as painful as Johnny Madrid's. Maybe even more so, given the personal nature of the attacks against Johnny and his mother.

"After the life I've lived you'd think the way some people sees things wouldn't surprise me none, but it does." Johnny's head bowed low as it always did whenever he felt like he had let his family down. "Maybe that's why I hold on to that lie I told you about Carrie Anne."

Although Scott wasn't quite sure if he could handle any more startling revelations, he was unwilling to put a halt to the flow of information coming from his usually tight-lipped brother. Both curiosity and determination fueled Scott to urge Johnny on. "You knew all along what she really was, didn't you?" Even though Johnny's head remained partially bowed, Scott could see the slight nod in affirmation of his conclusion. "So what was the real reason you didn't take her up on her offer?"

"Well, she was sure pretty enough, but I guess I didn't feel like bein' just another notch on her bedpost," Johnny laughed, but it was anything but a happy sound. "Maybe I just needed to believe that she was what everyone thought she was, and that she could still want a man like me to be with her. If I'd bedded her like she wanted, she'd a been just like every other whore in any two-bit town I'd been in."

Johnny paused and took a deep breath. "I'm sorry I lied to you, Scott," he said in the quietest of voices.

"You didn't really lie, Johnny," Scott was quick to point out. "I'm the one who jumped to an incorrect assumption. You just didn't argue against what appeared to be a perfectly valid point."

"Which makes it lyin'," Johnny protested. "I ain't never lied to you before. It ain't somethin' that makes me feel too good, neither."

Scott didn't think he could take anymore. Between the ominous stirrings from both of Johnny's pasts, and the guilt being felt over a transgression that wasn't worth discussing, Scott wasn't sure he was going to emerge from this conversation in any better emotional shape than Johnny. Usually certain of his footing when it came to his brother, right now Scott wasn't sure what would bring comfort, or what would bring on another avalanche of unwarranted remorse.

Unless...Did he dare?

They had never directly talked about it before. It wasn't something he had ever expected to experience to find when he first discovered Johnny Madrid was his brother. It just seemed to appear between them, emerging with a tangible intensity that was as intimidating and it was inspiring. It just was, and neither of them had ever felt the need to voice it to the other. Then again, the need had never been as great as it was now.

Scott nervously licked his lips and then placed his hand on Johnny's knee. "I love you, Johnny. Nothing will ever change that. Ever. Don't let anyone or anything make you doubt it. There is nothing about your previous life, and especially nothing about your heritage, that could ever make me turn away from you. I love you."

When Johnny looked up his eyes glistened with unshed tears. "I know, Scott." His Adam's apple bobbed several times as he attempted to swallow his nerves.

For many long, heartwrenching moments, both brothers stared at each other. One offering strength, the other seeking some means of accepting that which was still too foreign to fully comprehend. In the end it was that pair of eyes that looked away in defeat. "I just don't know why."

In a reaction of pure desperation, Scott laughed. He couldn't help it; there just didn't seem to be any other response he could have for such an absurd statement. It was either laugh or cry, and right now Johnny was upset enough without being led to believe he had reduced his brother to tears. "I'll tell you what, brother, you give me until tomorrow evening and I'll tell you exactly why I love you so much."

"Tomorrow evenin'?" Johnny ventured with a skeptical look. "Is it gonna take that long to think of somethin'?" Although the sense of their familiar teasing was present, Johnny's eyes conveyed the uncertainty his words tried so desperately to disguise.

"No, Johnny, it won't take me that long to think of something," Scott responded with a warm smile he only wished could convey the amount love he felt in his heart for this man he called brother. "It is, however, going to take me that long to list the multitude of reasons why I could never ask for a better brother. I want to make certain that I don't leave anything out. You're too precious to me to risk forgetting something in haste."

This time when Johnny's head fell forward, Scott knew it was caused by embarrassment, not dejection. It had been a gamble to put voice to these deepest of feelings. Sometimes Johnny could rabbit over the most unlikely of things. He just hadn't been able to think of any other way to make Johnny realize just how special he was without coming right out and saying it, point blank, and now he was glad he had.

Johnny had a lifetime of insecurities under his belt, and those insecurities had been augmented ten-fold by the harsh, and totally unfounded, words that had been overheard in Sacramento. Maybe actually hearing the sentiments he had to already know to be true would help speed the healing of those horrid wounds.

Although still upset by Johnny's treatment by supposedly civilized men, Scott was also extremely thankful that he hadn't realized what was going on while they were still in Sacramento. Some how he didn't think his going to jail for murder would do Johnny's battered spirits any good at all.

"You know something, Boston?" Johnny mumbled as he toyed with the buttons on the side of his pants.

Scott knew what was coming, and couldn't hold back his giddy grin. However, he played along for Johnny's sake. "What's that, brother?" he asked the question expected from him.

"Me, too."

Squeezing Johnny's knee, Scott accepted Johnny's round about way of returning his declaration of love. Johnny was so emotionally torn up at the moment, that he had been able to say that much left Scott with a sense of relief. One day, when he least expected it, he knew Johnny would say the words. Until then, it was enough just knowing they were in Johnny's heart.

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

For several minutes only the sound of hay crunching as Barranca chewed steadily, and an occasional snort from one of the other horses broke the silence of the night. Finally, Johnny sighed wearily and looked up at Scott. "Guess I pretty much cooked my goose with the old man?" Although he had tried to keep his comment lighthearted, he could tell by Scott's concerned expression that he had not been too successful in keeping the pain from his eyes.

"You haven't done any such thing. Murdoch loves you, Johnny."

Was Scott crazy? Johnny stared at Scott in a dumbfounded amazement. Scott could always find the good in any situation, but Johnny knew better. "After the things I said? The things I done? He's probably done got my bags packed and settin' out by the fence."

Scott's head shook. "No, Johnny, you couldn't be more wrong. Murdoch isn't angry with you. He's concerned. He's just as scared of losing you as you are of losing him."

This thought made Johnny snort in disbelief. "Murdoch? Afraid? That ain't too likely."

"There are just as many people who hold the same opinion of Johnny Madrid," Scott pointed out. "And you know what?"


"They're just as wrong as you are."

"Yes, they are," a deeply saddened voice agreed from above.

Startled, both men looked up to see Murdoch standing just outside the stall. He was leaning against the support beam, looking down at them. In his eyes was an expression Johnny had never seen before - fear.

"Yes, I am afraid, Johnny," Murdoch continued. "I'm afraid that no matter what I do, I'm going to lose you all over again. I'm afraid that one day I'm going to wake up and find you gone, just like I did all those years ago. But the one thing I can assure you I'm most definitely not afraid of is whatever demons might decide to chase down Johnny Madrid. I know that together - as the family we are - we can handle those demons."

The helpless sense of desperation he'd managed to shake off with Scott's help returned with a vengeance. "What about if there's more demons? Ones that ain't got nothing to do with Johnny Madrid?" Johnny asked in spite of the fact that he was terrified to hear the answer he knew would be forthcoming.

To his surprise, Scott slid farther to the side and Murdoch kneeled down in front him. Indecision briefly flitted across his father's concerned features, only to be chased away by a look of steadfast determination. "We'll take them all on, Johnny. That's what families do. Maybe I've let my annoyances with your past make it seem like my anger was directed towards you, but nothing could be further from the truth, son."

Pausing, Murdoch looked over at Scott, who only nodded slightly. Murdoch turned back towards Johnny and looked him directly in the eye. "I hate what you've been through, Johnny, what you've had to endure in the past just to survive. I hate whatever fates made your mother feel she was unable to stay here, and the reasons why she felt to lie to you about me. However, I do not hate you. I love you, son. With all my heart and soul, I love you. You and Scott have never been out of my heart or my mind, and having both of you back in my life is the greatest blessing I've ever received."

Johnny closed his eyes in an effort to hold back the swiftly forming tears. He hoped with all his heart that Murdoch would feel that way when he heard what new form the demons of the past had taken this time. This time they were shared by both of them, coming back from a past Johnny could not remember, but one that his father could. Would the memories be too much? Would he lose it everything all over again?

Out of the darkness a warm hand grasped his shoulder. It was the same hand that had painfully jerked him around not so long ago, only now it was offering nothing but support and comfort. Maybe Murdoch would. Maybe Murdoch could still love him after all.

The feeling of a never-before-known sense of relief washed over his tortured soul. It felt so good, so welcomed, so soothing. For the first time in days, Johnny allowed himself to relax, allowed himself to drift off into the blessed peace only the security of his family had ever provided.

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

Johnny's head eased slowly to the side, halted only by Murdoch's hand against his cheek. "I think he's asleep," Murdoch whispered over his shoulder to Scott. "I'll bet he hasn't slept more than an hour total since you two got home. I know for a fact he's hardly eaten anything, and yet he's still put in two full days of strenuous work. Add that on top of the emotional distress he's been fighting, and it's a wonder he hasn't passed out long before now."

Next to them, Barranca stomped restlessly at the ground, reminding him that three men and a horse didn't work too well in such an enclosed space. "Scott, why don't you move Barranca out of the way to make some room? I'll get your brother."

Having just climbed to his feet, Scott paused as he began dusting the hay off his clothes. "Are you sure? Maybe I should get Johnny."

Although Scott's concern was clearly issued in earnest, Murdoch still didn't appreciate being called old. Not even if it was done politely. "I'm perfectly capable of carrying my own son to bed," he said more forcefully than he intended.

A blond eyebrow rose in rebuke, but thankfully Scott said nothing more. Murdoch watched him carefully back Barranca out of the stall, all the while talking quietly to the horse, needlessly explaining what was happening to an animal incapable of understanding his words. This was something he had no doubt picked up from his brother, who had a way with horses that had not only astounded Murdoch, but most of the ranch hands, as well.

"He's heavier than he looks," Scott warned from outside the stall.

"Scott," Murdoch gave his oldest son a stern glare. With Barranca out of the way, he was free to move closer to Johnny. Slipping one arm under his son's legs, and the other around his shoulders, Murdoch pulled his son close and rose to his feet. Well, almost.

Grunting under the strain, Murdoch ended up on one knee, seconds before Scott's hand appeared on his shoulder. "I can get him," he declared stubbornly. Tightening his grip around Johnny, Murdoch tried again, this time succeeding, but not without a little unsolicited assistance from Scott.

"I've got him," Murdoch grunted. He couldn't believe how much his youngest son's compact body weighed. Although smaller in stature than either himself or Scott, Johnny was all muscle, which made carrying him anything but easy.

On straining legs, Murdoch made his way towards the house, while Scott busily bedded Barranca down for the night. He had managed to make it only half the distance to the front door, when Scott reappeared at his side. As much as he hated to admit it, though, Murdoch knew he wasn't going to make it.

"Scott," he wheezed between huffs, "I think you're going to have to take him the rest of the way." Although Scott didn't voice to the 'I told you so' that was no doubt perched just at the end of his tongue, his light chuckle more than adequately conveyed the message.

Although he was more than a little agitated by what he viewed as his physical inadequacies, Murdoch stopped and waited for Scott to get into position to relieve him of his precious cargo. He didn't want to let go, to relinquish that which he had lived without for so long, but Johnny's needs had to come before his own pride. Maybe if he had figured that out back when Johnny had first arrived at Lancer, their relationship would have progressed with far less turbulence that it had otherwise endured. Well, things were going to be different from now on.

With a little maneuvering, the weight disappeared from his arms, and Scott uttered a strangled, "I've got him." Murdoch kept his hand close, using it to lay Johnny's head gently on Scott's shoulder as an excuse to be ready in case Scott couldn't handle the load.

"We're going to have to tell Teresa to lay off baking chocolate cakes for a while," Scott grumbled good-naturedly. "I swear he's heavier than he was after the Pardee battle."

"Well, if you're plannin' on droppin' me, how about settin' me down now." To both of their surprise, Johnny was awake, and appeared to be enjoying their struggle.

"I ought to drop you anyway," Scott threatened. Instead, he lowered Johnny's feet to the ground, keeping a steadying hand close around Johnny's shoulders until he was standing firmly on his own.

"And if you say one word to Teresa about cuttin' back on her bakin', I might just havta take back all them nice things I been thinkin' about you," Johnny teased.

Murdoch couldn't miss the closeted looks of love and respect exchanged between his sons, and he felt his heart swell with pride. Having Johnny and Scott back in his life made him feel ten years younger. At least it did as long as he didn't have to carry either one of them. He had yet to be placed in a position where handling Scott was necessary, but he didn't have to be to know that such an attempt wouldn't be any easier than it had been with Johnny.

"Son, you can complain to your brother later," Murdoch said as he wrapped his arm around Johnny's shoulder and began steering him towards the house. "Right now, however, you have a date with a nice warm bed. I believe you've got about two day's worth of sleep coming to you."

Yawning, Johnny offered no resistance as he was hustled up to his bedroom and then fussed over by two mother hens. Only when he was tucked away in bed and had been asleep long enough for Murdoch to be satisfied that he wouldn't be waking up soon, did he and Scott slip quietly from the room.

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

As they entered the great room, Scott watched in hesitant silence as Murdoch headed straight for the cupboard and began pouring two glasses of brandy. It was late and he was tired, but bed would have to wait. With the whirlwind of thoughts flowing through his mind he doubted he would be able to sleep, anyway. That and the fact that there were a few issues that needed to be addressed; things that needed to be settled between him and his father, while Johnny was out of earshot.

Gratefully accepting the glass of brandy from his father, Scott settled himself on the sofa. He knew Murdoch wanted some answers, but he was also positive that his father wasn't going to readily accept the stipulations he would impose before those answers would be forthcoming. Taking a huge gulp of the fiery liquid for courage, Scott returned Murdoch's intense stare.

"I know you have questions, and you deserve answers to most of them, but the only way you're going to get them is on my terms. I'm the only one who knows the whole truth, besides Johnny, and you know Johnny isn't going to breathe a word on his own. Furthermore, anyone you might attempt to question in Sacramento isn't going to tell you anything you don't already know," Scott stated bluntly, but with respect, and even a small measure of regret.

In plain terms, there was sense tap dancing around the inevitable when it came to dealing with Murdoch. That was a lesson he had learned within minutes of his arrival at Lancer, and it was a lesson he hadn't forgotten in the months that had followed that tension-filled first meeting between father and sons.

"What terms?" Murdoch asked in a simple, business-like tone.

"First off, I want to know what you and the marshal found out in Caja del Pan." To Scott's surprise, Murdoch actually smiled at that demand.

"That, at least, is good news," Murdoch replied. "The marshal and I discovered that the poster was nothing but a printing error. It seems the lower half, including the fifteen thousand dollar amount, was part of an auction house billing from somewhere around San Antonio." Murdoch's smile faded into a deep frown. "I guess at one time or another there was, or maybe even still is, a bounty on your brother's head in that area. That was the source of the other half of the poster."

"Past tense," Scott corrected with a sigh of relief. "Coincidentally, Johnny told me all about that bounty in San Antonio on the ride back from Caja del Pan." In response to Murdoch's questioning look, Scott shrugged, "The kid had red hair, so the bounty was rescinded."

Murdoch opened his mouth as if to ask the obvious question, but then closed it again. After a moment of contemplation, he began speaking, but there was no hint of a question over that ambiguous statement to be found. "That's very good to hear, Scott. Anyway, from what we could piece together from the oddities of the printing and some other extraneous details, we reached the conclusion that the printer must have used some older paper stock for those auction house notices. Something must have happened and one of the pages from the printing of your brother's bounty only got half printed, and was stuck back in the pile. Recycling that way isn't an uncommon practice. The action notice was no doubt supposed to have been printed on the backside, but-"

"But when the flyers were printed, that particular page ended up face up, and just happened to get sent out with half information on Johnny, and half a notice of public auction," Scott finished for him.

"That's the way the marshal figured it happened," Murdoch acknowledged. "Although the sheriff in Caja del Pan was disappointed, he seemed to be accepting of the situation, and the matter is closed as far as he is concerned."

Scott's relief quickly turned into bitter concern. "Could there be any more of those posters floating around out there?"

Murdoch's frown deepened, but only briefly, before becoming more relaxed by acceptance. "I hope not, son. But just in case, the marshal was going to wire all the sheriffs in the state to be on the look out for any fraudulent wanted posters. He said he'd let me know if any were found and reported to him."

Letting that comforting thought sink in, Scott missed Murdoch's impatient stare.

"And your next term?" he asked rather tersely. Murdoch Lancer was not a man who liked being dictated to, not even from his own sons.

"Secondly, you're going to answer a few question for me. You're not going to give me any flack because you don't understand why I want to know these things. I'll explain it all in good time, but I need to get a few facts straight first."

In a very unexpected, and unprecedented, move Murdoch nodded his acceptance and offered up none of the anticipated objections. "What do you want to know?"

Still shaking off the unfathomable relief that Johnny wasn't a wanted man, it took a moment to overcome his initial astonishment over his notoriously stubborn father's much too easy acquiescence. Gathering his thoughts, Scott began his fact-finding mission. "Is it financially imperative for Lancer to sell those head of cattle to the Sacramento Cattlemen's Association?"

"No," Murdoch replied. "In fact, there was a buyer in Salinas that would have actually made for a more profitable sale. The offering price was lower, but our responsibility would have ended after a two-day drive to the railhead. As it stands now, we're responsible for delivering the herd all the way to Bakersfield, which is a five-day drive at best."

Scott thought this over and came to the logical conclusion. With a five-days on the trail as opposed to two, the costs they would incur were going to more than outweigh the difference in sales price. For Murdoch to agree to a lesser profit there must have been another motive involved. "Why Bakersfield? And why is the Sacramento Association buying beef to be sent to Bakersfield?"

"The choice of buyers is based on honor, I suppose," came the hesitant reply. "Cal Peterson is the president of the association, and a good friend. Last fall, not long before the trouble with Pardee got out of hand, he asked me if I would guarantee a herd for delivery to the army post in Bakersfield. Lancer is one of the most southerly members with enough cattle to fill that order, making it less costly for us than any of the other members."

"And the association is committed to this delivery?" Scott could only hope.

"Yes." Murdoch eyed him speculatively over the rim of his glass, but volunteered no more.

"Good. Contact the buyer in Salinas. Tell him he can have the herd after all." Scott braced himself for a fiery rebuke that never came.

After a few moments of tense silence, Murdoch said calmly. "I gave Cal my word."

"Lancer doesn't owe that organization anything!" Scott spat in anger. Quickly reigning in his blossoming temper, he again mentally prepared himself for another fight.

"May I at least know why I'm supposed to break my word to a very old friend?" Murdoch asked in an uncharacteristically civil tone.

Scott thought about this, but quickly decided against divulging any more information. He did feel obligated to provide Murdoch with some kind of explanation, however, even if it would be noticeably lacking in details. "No. If I tell you what happened, you'll just fly off the handle and head up to Sacramento in an angry huff. Making a fuss over what happened will only do more damage than has already been done." Murdoch raised his voice for the first time that evening. "Scott, it's obvious that something traumatic happened to Johnny, and that it involved the association. And you want me to just ignore it?"

"Yes. You'll just have to accept that there are elements afoot in that organization that are both offensive and uncivilized. However, no amount of anger or threats will effectively put an end to them. The only way to exact true revenge for what Johnny endured is to hit them where it hurts, in their bank accounts. One day society as a whole will find a way to deal with those kind of prejudices, but for now there is nothing we can do on our own that won't make things worse for Johnny."

Hardly believing he had just made such formidable demands of his father, not to mention that those demands had somehow not run headlong into the brick wall of Murdoch's temper and ego, Scott drained his glass in both relief and trepidation. Was the storm just on the verge of erupting around him? Had he pushed Murdoch too far, and would Johnny be the one to suffer the consequences?

After finishing his own glass of brandy, Murdoch casually placed the empty vessel down on the side table. "And I suppose you've already come up with a message for me to send Cal?"

A victorious smile blazed across Scott's face. "Of course. Just tell Mr. Peterson that 'Lancer takes care of it's own, and is proud to do so'."

Several minutes later, Murdoch asked softly. "Scott, is Johnny really all right? I've never seen him so upset at...at, well, everyone and everything."

Standing, Scott walked over stand next to his father's chair. Placing a gentle hand on the broad shoulders it was sometimes all too easy to forget could not carry the burden of the entire world, Scott responded just as softly. "He's hurting, but he'll be fine. What he needs most is our patience and understanding until he gets this worked out for himself."

"I don't like that he always feels he has to deal with things on his own," Murdoch complained sadly. "Why is it so hard for him to trust us?"

Scott sighed. How could he explain that which he didn't truly understand himself? "I don't think it's us he doesn't trust. I'm not even sure he is capable of the kind of trust you're wanting from him. Maybe he never will be, I don't know. I just know that what Johnny needs most from us is unconditional acceptance of the past. While his prior life wasn't what you wanted for him, it is part of who Johnny is, and denying it is like denying him."

"Acceptance has never been my strong suit," Murdoch pointed out with a heavy sigh of regret.

"Then maybe it's time you changed suits, sir," Scott said in all sincerity. With nothing else that could be said, Scott patted his father's shoulder and headed for bed. "Good night, Murdoch."

"Good night, son."

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

The first thing Scott noticed when he rode up to the house the next evening was that the draperies were drawn over Johnny's bedroom window. Johnny had slept through the night, and now it seemed that he hadn't woken during the day, either. One of the first things Scott had discovered about his brother was that once Johnny awoke, he never went back to sleep. It was a good sign that he was still sleeping, as he needed this uninterrupted rest to recover from the last week of turmoil.

After tending to Charlemagne, Scott headed for the house. He was stiff and sore and felt like he was wearing half the dirt from the south range, and more of it from the road in between the ranch house and there. A nice long bath was foremost on his mind, a quick check on Johnny, and then it would be time for dinner.

When he came out of the barn, Murdoch rode up, having just arrived back from town. "Did you get the herd moved?" he asked as he dismounted.

"Yes, sir," Scott replied with a sense of wary hesitation. "As soon as we get the go ahead, we'll be ready to begin the drive south." The only question was how far south would they be going? Just to the railhead, or all the way to Bakersfield?

Murdoch handed off the reins to one of the hands before joining Scott for the short walk to the house. "Good. I wired Lou Daves. He was thrilled to find out we could supply the cattle he needed after all."

"And the other wire?" Scott pressed with a wary dread.

"Yes, son, I sent one to Cal Peterson, too. I only wish you felt more comfortable telling me what really happened in Sacramento, but I do trust your judgment." Murdoch seemed genuinely hurt by the lack of information, but the only indication of this was in the slight hitch in his voice.

Scott really didn't like keeping his father in the dark like this, but he felt had no choice. To do otherwise would be a betrayal of Johnny's trust, and that was something he would never do. Murdoch could never understand that, even though Johnny hadn't requested Scott to keep this to himself, Scott knew the implied promise had been made and accepted. It was just the way things were between him and Johnny.

"I'm sorry, sir, but it's not my place to say anything more. When Johnny is ready to tell you, he will."

Murdoch snorted, but the wisp of a regretful smile conveyed his reluctant amusement. "Then I guess I'll just never know."

Smiling, Scott placed his hand on Murdoch's shoulder. "Don't be so sure, Murdoch. Just don't push him. Let him come to you."

Taking into consideration that Johnny's frame of mind was probably going to be pretty bad for a while, he quickly added. "And don't be too quick to criticize anything he says or does. It's imperative that Johnny feels like his place in this family is totally secure. We've got to make sure he knows that he really is accepted here, unconditionally."

Murdoch stopped short, his hand already firmly griping the door handle. The smile was gone, and it was a determined glare that was aimed in Scott's direction. "That's never been in question, Scott. Never," Murdoch stated forcefully. Opening the door, he preceded Scott into the foyer and began removing his gun belt. "Johnny's place here has never been an issue," he paused and sighed, "even though I know there have been numerous situations I could have handled better."

Hanging his own gun belt on the rack, Scott gladly offered his father some reassurance. "And Johnny knows that, sir. Just try to keep a tight rein on your temper for a while."

"I'll try my best." Although the words themselves were dry, the gleam in Murdoch's eyes left no doubt that he would do just that. "Besides, it just might give the boy something to think about, too."

With a chuckle Scott shook his head. "It just might, at that." Murdoch turning all mellow on him all of a sudden was going to have Johnny thrown for a loop for some time to come. However, it wouldn't do any harm to have Johnny doing some thinking about his relationship with his father. Every issue had two sides, and while Scott saw Murdoch as being in the wrong more times than Johnny, that didn't mean Johnny didn't have his moments, too.

Even though he started out heading for his own room, a last second change of plans had him peering intently into Johnny's darkened bedroom. He couldn't help himself. He needed to be sure Johnny was alright before he would be able to enjoy the leisurely bath he so needed. To his surprise, he found not only the bed empty, but the room was, too. It wasn't until he turned to go that he noticed a piece of paper tacked to the wall just inside the door.

~~Water'll be hot by the time you get here, Johnny~~

Scott smiled at his brother's intuitiveness, and headed for the bathhouse with a renewed vigor in his stride. That was one more thing he was going to have to add the list he had been working on through the day. He briefly considered making a stop by his own room for a clean change of clothes, but quickly decided such an action wouldn't be necessary. Johnny had no doubt taken care of that detail, too.

Entering the bathhouse, Scott spied Johnny sitting on the table next to the stove, waiting for a kettle of water to heat. "You should be resting," Scott gently admonished.

Johnny looked up at him and shrugged. "I woke up, an'...well, that was all there was to it. Figured you'd be feeling like a nice warm soak when you made it back in."

As he stripped out of his dirt and sweat-covered clothes, Scott couldn't agree more. His whole body ached. "You couldn't be more right, brother." Testing the water temperature with his toe, Scott found it to be to his liking. Another kettle of hot water and it would be perfect. With an appreciative sigh, he eased down into the mostly full tub.

"This one'll be ready in a few minutes," Johnny replied with a chuckle. "Then you can just lay back and soak your aches away 'til dinner."

Scott moaned softly as the water already began to do just that. He let his head roll back against the towel Johnny had thoughtfully placed over the edge, and closed his eyes. "We got the herd moved to the south pasture," he said lazily. "You be sure and get yourself all rested up. We'll start the drive by the end of the week."

"Why so soon? I thought they weren't do in Bakersfield until the end of the month," Johnny remarked in surprise.

"They aren't going to Bakersfield anymore. Murdoch decided to sell them to a buyer in Salinas, instead."

"Oh?" The defensive tone of Johnny's inquiry wasn't to be missed.

"I didn't tell him anything," Scott reassured his brother.

"What, he just up and changed his mind on his own?" Johnny snapped.

Opening his eyes, Scott looked over to find Johnny was staring at him, his expression full of both anger and hurt. "Johnny, Murdoch knows something happened and that whatever it was it upset you enough to cause some pretty erratic behavior. Besides that, selling the herd in Salinas just makes better business sense."

Johnny's scowl deepened and Scott had to fight the urge to take offense. Johnny wasn't thinking straight when it came to this subject, and he probably wouldn't be able to for a long time, so getting upset wasn't going to do either one of them any good. It seemed he needed to heed his own advice, too.

"Johnny, I had to tell him something. After the way you've been acting, he deserved some measure of explanation," Scott explained patiently. "I also told him that it was up to you to provide the details." At Johnny's horrified stare, Scott quickly added, "He's not going to press you for answers, Johnny, but it would be a good idea if you told him on your own, when you're able."

The horror turned to fear and Johnny bowed his head. "I...how...I can't."

"When you're ready, Johnny," Scott gently reassured Johnny that it was all right.

Looking up, Johnny nodded, but didn't meet Scott's eyes. Scott watched as Johnny stuck his finger in the kettle of water, immediately snatching it back from the scalding temperature. Carefully wrapping a towel around the handle, Johnny lifted the kettle from the rack over the fire and headed his way.

"Be careful with that," Scott only half-teased.

A mischievous grin met his wary stare. "Don't worry, brother. I wouldn't think of endangerin' anythin' important," Johnny assured him. "Murdoch'll no doubt be gettin' that hankerin' for grandkids any time now, an' we sure don't want him to be disappointed, now do we."

In a subdued silence, Scott watched guardedly as Johnny poured the hot water into the tub. It wasn't that he didn't trust his brother; he just didn't like taking unnecessary chances when it came to his most valuable personal commodities.

Once the kettle was empty, however, he shot Johnny a speculative glare. "And what's wrong with you, brother? Unless there's something else you need to share with me, you're just as capable of satisfying Murdoch's inevitable grandfatherly hankerings as I am."

Johnny chuckled and even blushed a little before turning away. "No," he said over his shoulder while he returned the kettle the rack. "There ain't nothin' that needs sayin'. It's just that you're older an' all, an' more-" Suddenly Johnny stopped.

Realization hit Scott instantly. It took less only a few seconds for him to climb out of the tub, wrap himself in a towel, and be at his brother's side. "Johnny, don't," he said softly.

Wrapping his arms protectively around Johnny's shoulders, Scott held him close, knowing full well the thoughts that were going through his brother's self-doubting mind. "There is nothing wrong with you, Johnny. Nothing at all. You're going to have lots of kids, and a wife who's going to love you for the kind, gentle, loving man you are."

Johnny nodded, but made no effort to pull out of Scott's embrace. After a few minutes he grinned suspiciously. "You know, Boston, you could probably head off Murdoch's hankerin's at the pass if you'd just get your tail end in gear and talk to that Miss Melody."

Accepting the hint that Johnny's mood had changed and he was no longer in need of comfort, at least not so overtly, Scott playfully pushed him away. "And just what do you know about Miss Melody Harper?" he demanded as he returned to the tub and slipped back into the soothing warmth.

"I know you been makin' goo-goo eyes at her since the day she got off the stage," Johnny shot back. "An' ya know what else I know?"

He had thought he had kept his attraction for Morro Coyo's newest citizen tightly under his hat, but evidently he had not done too good a job. "What?" Scott tried to sound nonchalant, even though he was actually dreading his brother's response.

The devious grin staring at him from across the room deepened. "I noticed she was eyein' you, too, brother. The two of you are gonna make some right pretty babies."

"Don't you think I should have an opportunity to at least talk to her before you have us married off and having children?" Scott protested even as Johnny headed for the door. "Who said anythin' about married?" Johnny ducked out the doorway just as the wet towel thrown his way impacted the wall with a soggy slap.

"Brat," Scott snorted, then settled back to enjoy the warmth of his well-deserved bath.

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

Having returned to his bedroom after a very relaxing soak, Scott was just finishing cleaning up for dinner when he heard the unmistakable sounds of Johnny's footsteps approaching in the hallway. Everyone in the household had a unique sound to their movements, all of which he knew very well by now -- Murdoch, loud and authoritative; Teresa, light and airy; Jelly, louder but more relaxed than Murdoch; and Johnny, not nearly as light as Teresa, but still springier and more energetic than anyone else.

As expected, the last footfall hadn't even died out when the door burst open and Johnny sauntered inside. "You ready for dinner yet, Boston?"

"Not yet, and neither are you. We've got something to discuss first." Wiping the remnants of the shaving foam from his face, he turned to find Johnny staring at him with a perplexed expression. "I promised to tell you all the reasons I love you," Scott said softly. "Remember?"

Removing several pieces of folded paper from the top of his dresser, Scott took an extraordinary amount of time to get them unfolded. Then he painstakingly began smoothing out each piece across the edge of the table, knowing full well that Johnny would find the delay unbearable. Patience was not on his list.

"You gonna take all night, Boston? And what's all them papers for?" Johnny asked with nervous impatience.

"I already told you. These pages contain a listing of all your lovable attributes. And what's your big hurry, brother? Worried the food will be gone by the time we get there?" Scott asked without stopping his work.

He was amazed when Johnny actually looked like he was pouting. "Teresa said she might be makin' a chocolate cake tomorrow, and I sure don't wanna go and insult her tonight by being late for dinner. She might change her mind. You know how touchy women get when they feel insulted."

Scott eyed his brother over the edge of the paper he held in his hand. "Don't you think you've had enough cake lately?" he asked with a wry grin.

"There ain't no such thing as havin' enough chocolate cake." Johnny's response came with a matter-of-fact certainty that was almost laughable, considering the subject matter.

"Johnny, I can assure you the only reason you feel that way is because you haven't tried to carry yourself anywhere lately. You keep eating all those sweets and Barranca's not going to be able to haul you past the front gate."

"Are you sayin' I'm gettin' fat?" Johnny huffed indignantly. "I'll have you know this body is nothing but lean, mean, fightin' muscle." To accentuate his point, Johnny posed, his arms flexed in the air and his chest poked out. "There ain't an ounce of fat on this body."

"Excuse me, but I don't believe I ever said you were getting fat," Scott protested, refusing to be baited by Johnny's absurd posturing. "I'm just saying that there is definitely more to love about the brother I hauled in from the barn last night, than there was the one I lugged in after Pardee got off that lucky shot."

"Lugged!" Johnny looked perfectly indignant.

"Yes, lugged, as in 'I can make it' didn't happen and would have turned into 'why is my face pressed into the grass' had it not been for my sturdy and steadfast shoulder, which was so gallantly offered with absolutely no regard for my back's best interest." Unfortunately, he was not totally immune to Johnny's taunting ways. However, he had also learned the virtues of making a quick recovery via an even quicker change in subject.

"That being said, I would do it all again because I love you, brother." As expected, the sincerity in his tenderly spoken words had the desired effect. Johnny's bowed head confirmed that he was now sufficiently contrite and would willingly abandon this ludicrous line of discussion.

"Geez, Boston, I sure hope you don't intend to start yellin' that across the ranch or nothin' like that." Although Johnny was trying to sound mortified by the thought, the true nature of his feelings was easily detected in the affectionate glance sent Scott's way.

Clearing his throat Scott, took the opportunity to finalize his day's work. "The words herein," Scott began reading, "are issued in declaration of what I, Scott Garrett Lancer, consider to be a valid and accurate explanation for why I love Johnny Madrid Lancer, the best brother a man could ever hope to have."

Johnny eyes rolled. "Boston."

"Yes, brother dear?"

"Am I gonna havta hurt you for this?" Johnny whined.

Scanning down the first page, then flipping to the second, scanning it before flipping to the third, Scott finally looked up with a triumphant grin on his face. "Nope, it says right here - 'would never consider doing bodily harm to his dashingly handsome and generously considerate older brother'."

Johnny groaned loudly. "Boston, I am gonna havta hurt you, ain't I?"

"Are you going to keep interrupting, or are you going to let me fulfill my promised duty?" Scott put just enough dejection in his voice to give Johnny's conscience a small tweak, which worked as planned.

Johnny sighed, as expected. "Oh all right, go ahead."

"Thank you. Now where was I?" Grinning over his victory, Scott turned his attention back to the papers in his hand. "Oh, yes, Johnny Lancer is a completely loveable brother because he is honorable, selfless, noble, personable, brave-hearted, determined, melancholy - but only sometimes, a good-"

"What's melancholy?" Johnny eyed him suspiciously.

"It means sometimes you get sad."

"Don't everybody?"

"Yes, but it looks better on you than most," Scott explained. "It makes you seem more approachable and...well, in need of an older brother's wisdom and comfort."

Johnny grinned and shook his head. "I thought that there list was supposed to be about me."

"It is," Scott agreed. "And how you are a very lovable brother. Key word being 'brother'. Without me, you wouldn't be a brother, loveable or otherwise. Now, would you please be quiet while I finish. I'll have you know I put quite a bit of effort into this, so the least you can do is let me read it to you without interruptions."

Plopping down on Scott's bed, Johnny laid back, feet crossed, hands behind his head, and made himself comfortable. "Read on, Mr. Lancer," he said with a sigh. "Wouldn't want to do nothin' to squash your gesture of loving fondness."

Scott grinned and nodded. "A good man to have on your side in a fight - truth is, there isn't anyone better; understanding - most of the time, anyway; empathetic to a fault-"

"Empawhatic to a fault? That don't sound like somethin' I'd wanna be," Johnny protested.

"Empathetic just means that you are very good at seeing things from other all points of view. Unfortunately, sometimes that makes you do things you shouldn't, simply because you allow yourself to get too involved in other people's fights." Scott couldn't help smiling affectionately at his brother. "It's what makes you the best-hearted, ex-gunfighter, to ever live. It would have been so much easier for you to use your gun in far less honorable pursuits, but when given a choice, you chose to use it to help those with lesser abilities than yourself."

Johnny turned away, his cheeks flushed a bold shade of red. "Scott, I ain't that."

"Yes you are." Knowing it would be counterproductive to allow himself to become embroiled in an argument over a subject Johnny would need to think over for a while, Scott turned his attention back to his list.

"Now that we've got that cleared up...stalwart, stubborn - sometimes even in a good way; obstinate - just enough of the time to make the rest of us more appreciative of the times you're not; has a unique sense of humor - can laugh at himself as well as with others...

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

While Scott's voice droned on in the background, Johnny's mind was twisting itself around the empathetic theory Scott had tossed out to him. Part of Johnny wanted to believe it, but part of him wouldn't let that happen. He had been a gunhawk, and that meant his priorities had always been centered on himself. Didn't it?

'I met some really nice people.' He recalled the words he had told Day Pardee those months ago in Morro Coyo's cantina. 'No. Turned out they didn't have any money. That's why the revolution.' Those choices made far away from Lancer had come very close to costing him his life, and got him no money for his troubles.

Scott's voice filtered into his thoughts. "...kind hearted towards both man and animal; refuses to stand by and do nothing when there is a need of any kind; possesses the bluest eyes that can melt your heart with one look - or so I gather from the way Teresa always gives in to his sweet tooth; handsome in his own right - which is understandable, given the debonair nature of his older, more dashingly handsome brother..."

With a sigh at Scott's overly embellished accolades, Johnny's thoughts again returned to his supposed empathetic behavior. Wasn't he doing the same thing now? Letting Scott go on and on just because he knew it would make Scott feel better, not because he was actually buying into any of this drivel...well, not most of it, anyway.

He knew Scott was feeling very protective over what had happened in Sacramento. He was almost wishing he hadn't told Scott what he'd overheard - almost. If he hadn't, Scott would have never understood the hateful way he had acted once they got back. It had nothing to do with that danged dress, but Johnny had known last night in the barn that nothing short of the whole miserable, rotten, truth would be enough to convince Scott otherwise.

"...winning smile, great with kids - which means," Scott flashed him a mischievous grin, " you can hereby consider it your sibling duty to help satisfy any desires Murdoch might have for grandchildren; is loved by all horses - and who wants to argue with a 1,000 lb animal; a teasing flirt - which is a good thing only when used on women too young for me to date, just the right height to make a dashingly handsome older brother feel adequately superior-"

"You keep usin' them words, Boston. You tryin' to convince me or yourself?" Johnny interrupted.

"What words?"

"'Dashingly handsome'," Johnny snorted. "At least you also manage to use that other one that really fits you."

Scott raised an eyebrow. "And which word would that be, brother."

The intensity of Johnny's smile almost set the room on fire. "Older."

A wicked thought entered Scott's mind. "Just for that, I should tell you what one of the ladies in Morro Coyo personally informed me was one of your most endearing qualities."

Johnny bolted upright in bed. "Ladies! Morro Coyo!" he yelped in panic.

"Yes, at least I think it was Morro Coyo. It might have been Spanish Wells, though, now that I think about it. You know it's hard for us older folks to remember the little details," Scott teased.

"Who?! What'd they say?!" Springing alive with indignation, Johnny bounced off the bed. With his hands on his hips, he glared at Scott. "I can't believe you'd be talkin' to anyone else about somethin' like this!"

Chuckling, Scott leaned casually against his bureau, despite his brother's threatening eruption. He would smooth things over long before they got that out of hand, but while he had Johnny by the chain, he intended on giving it a few brotherly jerks. Just because he loved Johnny didn't mean he couldn't provide him with a few moments of good-spirited torment. After all, wasn't that one of the perks of being an older brother?

"Well!" Johnny demanded.

"Well, what?" Scott asked in mock innocence. "You've made two inquiries. How am I supposed to know which question you want answered most? And for the record, I didn't initiate the discussion with these particular individuals. They volunteered the information."

"They who!" Johnny screeched.

"Don't be so hasty, brother dear," Scott cautioned with a raised eyebrow. "I mean, what was said is much more...oh, how shall we say...interesting.

"Boston!" Johnny growled.

Ignoring Johnny's threatening tone, Scott continued with a nonchalant indifference. "Take your pick, brother. I think I should only answer one question - who or what, not both. Even that is stretching propriety, but for you I'll make the sacrifice."

Totally unimpressed by Scott's alleged chivalry, Johnny continued his tirade. "An just what good's it gonna do me to know who said somethin' without knowing what was said? Heck, everyone in Morro Coyo's said somethin' or another about me since I got here."

"True," Scott agreed. "But I doubt many have been as," Scott paused for both effect, and to let a devious grin overtake his features, "as horizontally descriptive." Scott almost laughed when Johnny actually managed to blush and go pale all at the same time.


Unwilling to risk being overheard, Scott leaned closer to Johnny. Toying with him when it was just the two of them was one thing, but airing this particular tidbit of information in a manner that could possibly be overheard was something else. This was to stay just between them.

Scott was just thankful that the spectacularly inebriated pair of saloon girls, who had provided him with an uninvited but interesting revelation of his brother's amorous activities, had since moved on to greener pastures. He would hate to have to face either one of them anytime soon. Whispering in Johnny's ear, Scott revealed what he been told in town not a month after first meeting his notorious brother.

"I'm what on legs!!!" Johnny screeched.

This time Johnny amazed him with his ability to jump out of his skin and nearly pass out at the same time. "Are you okay, brother?" Scott chuckled as Johnny sank down onto the bed in a state of shock.

"Who? Who said that?" Johnny practically croaked.

"Now, brother, that wouldn't be very discreet of me, would it?" Scott grinned.

Johnny glared up at Scott. "You're makin' it up, ain't you?" he accused.

Raising both hands, Scott shook his head in honest denial. "No, I'm not. I heard those exact words, and while I was pretty skeptical myself-"
 "Skeptical! I'll have you know, older brother, I ain't never left a lady wantin' for more," Johnny boasted. "They mighta wanted more, but that's only because they hadn't never had anythin' so good."

Resisting the temptation to further the debate, Scott silently congratulated his resourcefulness and creative thinking. In a span of less than five minutes he had managed to amuse, annoy, shock, and stoke Johnny's battered ego. However, all fun aside, it was now time to continue with his original objective - letting Johnny know why he was deserving of being loved. In order to shift the conversation back to the original topic, Scott grabbed a pencil from the dresser and began writing.

"Now what are you doing?" Johnny asked suspiciously.

"Adding to my list," Scott replied. "'Never leaves anyone unsatisfied'," Scott said aloud as he wrote. "We'll leave out the more intimate details, if you don't mind. Teresa might find this one day and we wouldn't want to shock her sensibilities," he added with a slight chuckle. With list still in hand, Scott headed for the door. "I believe if we leave now we'll arrive at the table just in time for you to stay on Teresa's goody side."

Keeping his stride deliberate, Scott began reading as he walked, knowing full well Johnny would be following hot on his heals in a matter of moments. "Let's see, oh yes here we are, mischievous; fun loving - in a mischievous sort of way; free spirited - again with mischief as his key motivator."

"Scott!" Johnny's voice cried out from behind him.

"Better hurry, brother," Scott yelled over his shoulder. "I can hear that chocolate cake not being baked as we speak. Insatiable sweet tooth - adores anything made of chocolate, however cake seems to be a preferential favorite." At this point Scott purposely raised his voice as he heard Johnny charging up behind him. "Always willing to share large helpings of aforementioned chocolate cake with dashingly handsome brother-" Scott was stopped just short of the archway into the great room when a hand landed firmly on his shoulder.

"You ain't gonna keep readin' that," Johnny challenged, his thought coming across more as a demand than a question.

Slipping away from Johnny's grasp, Scott articulated rather loudly as he entered the great room, "And last but not least, perfect." Taking his seat at the table, Scott casually folded the pages and stuffed them into his shirt pocket, and then placed his napkin in his lap.

"What's perfect?" Teresa asked as she took her seat next to the very man in question.

"Not what, Teresa, whom," Scott corrected as he began cutting his steak into bite-size pieces.

"Who's perfect?" Murdoch looked up from his position at the head of the table. Curiosity practically oozed from him as he looked expectantly at Scott.

Using his fork as a pointer, Scott responded matter-of-factly. "Johnny."

Murdoch and Teresa exchanged a puzzled glance, while Johnny squirmed self-consciously in his seat and glared annoyingly in Scott's direction. Mentally, Scott commended his father and Teresa for refraining from any further remarks on a subject that was obviously off limits, as well as Johnny for not bolting away from the table.

"Well, he is perfectly capable of all but inhaling an entire chocolate cake all by himself." Teresa smiled at Johnny, who blushed and looked away.

Testing the water, so to speak, Scott slowly reached for the papers in his pocket. He had no intention of pulling them out, he just wanted to see if Johnny would notice. And he did.

"Don't you dare!" Johnny hissed under his breath.

Completing his Machiavellian slight of hand, Scott bypassed his pocket and ended up scratching his ear. "But it itched," he whispered innocently. Scott noticed that Murdoch was eyeing both of them with a steady glare. "I guess Johnny's developed a sudden aversion to ear scratching," he explained with a shrug. Johnny didn't say a word, but Scott knew if looks could kill he would, at the very least, be experiencing extreme levels of distressing pain.

Thankfully for all, the rest of the meal passed without further incident. The upcoming cattle drive was discussed in generalities, whereas the exact details would be ironed out in the days to come. Murdoch made no mention of the change in buyers, and Johnny's tension slowly faded after the first few comments. All talk of cattle was soon pushed aside, though, as Teresa babbled on about the news of an upcoming party at the Cooper ranch.

It was to be a birthday celebration for the Cooper's youngest daughter. The celebration was already rumored to be everything from a barn dance to a formal ball. Whatever it actually turned out to be, it was destined to be one of the most talked about events in the area for quite a while.

With his meal completed, Murdoch pushed his plate aside and excused himself from the table, immediately heading for his desk of unfinished paperwork. Taking this as his cue, Scott picked up a couple of plates to carry into the kitchen, however, before he moved away from the table, he felt Johnny's eyes on him. Glancing over, he barely caught sight of the most amazed look of loving understanding before Johnny turned away.

Setting his load back down, Scott walked around the table to stand next to Johnny's chair. Retrieving the coveted list from his pocket, Scott took Johnny's hand and pressed the papers firmly into his palm. "I mean it all," he said with the softest inflections.

At that moment, Teresa returned for another load, providing him with the perfect opportunity for a discreet departure. "Let me get that," Scott insisted, leaving Johnny with a slight pat on the shoulder to relieve Teresa of the large platter on which the roast beef had been served.

Johnny remained in his seat while Scott helped Teresa clear away the dishes. It was easy to see that Johnny had slipped into a very pensive mood, and even Teresa remarked on it during one of their absences in the kitchen. Scott assured her that Johnny was doing fine, and explained what little he could without getting too in depth into the situation. He was extremely grateful that Teresa was such an astute young woman, and he had no worries about her pressing Johnny for answers. It seemed Murdoch was the only one who needed to be kept on a tight rein in that area.

When Scott finally returned to the great room, he wasn't surprised to see Johnny's chair vacant. Smiling, he headed for the other side of the room where Murdoch was leaning over his desk working on the books. It would take some time and patience, but Johnny would be okay.

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

It was a little after midnight when Johnny, unable to sleep, slipped on his pants and ventured down the darkened hallway. The bare flooring felt cold against his naked feet, but the sensation was more of a relief than an annoyance. It was too hot in his room to sleep, at least that's what he kept telling himself.

If he were being totally honest with himself, he would have to admit that a lot of his restlessness was due to the papers he still held tightly in his fist. He hadn't even been able to put them down when he had undressed for bed, nor when he had half-dressed moments ago.

All he would have to do would be to uncurl his fingers and they would fall away, but he couldn't. Not yet. His heart ached at even the briefest hint from reality that at some point in time he would be forced to relinquish this most precious gift. Reality would have to wait until morning, though. Then his heart could take as firm a grasp on the intangible, but for now, it was the physical manifestations of his brother's love and support that his body would cling to with all it's might.

Looking up from his wanderings, Johnny found himself standing in front of Scott's bedroom door. Not entirely surprised, he carefully turned the knob and quietly slipped into his brother's room. Once inside, he listening closely for any signs that he had disturbed the room's occupant, but was relieved to hear only the light, rhythmic sounds of Scott's steady breathing. Standing there, alone in the darkness, emotions that were too strong to be named with mere words sent tears streaming freely down his cheeks.

He was in total awe as he looked down at his brother's sleeping form. Of all the different people he had known in his life, no one had ever touched him so deeply, so intensely, so undeniably, as this man who was his brother. It still scared him when he recalled how easily he had turned himself over to Scott, how easily he had let down the barriers he had spend so much time and effort building in an effort to protect himself from the outside world.

Scott had been a total stranger. Someone who, up until a few months ago, would never have been part of his cold world. Now his world wasn't so cold, and Scott was the major source of his newfound warmth. There were times when Scott was his only reason for living, his only reason for continuing the persistent struggle to change those things about himself that he would never have considered changing before this blond stranger came into his life. Mostly, Scott was his source of strength when he could find none within himself.

"Mi hermano, mi amigo, mi vida (3)," Johnny whispered softly, his entire heart and soul being poured into those few inadequately words of self-exposure. No words could ever convey the true depth of his feelings for Scott. "Te amo, también (4)."

Turning, Johnny departed as quietly as he had entered. Upon returning to his own room, he undressed and crawled back into bed. This time, however, despite the stillness of the muggy night air, he slipped easily into a contented sleep. He never realized that his late-night visit had been observed, that his words had been mostly understood, and that his unpretentious declarations were now tucked safely away in the most precious part of his brother's heart.

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

Epilogue -

~~~ Four months later:

"Scott, if you're absolutely sure this is what you want to do, I have just the thing you're looking for. It shouldn't be too difficult to alter them for us."

"Us?" Scott asked in surprise.

"Yes, us ," Melody Harper responded with determination and pride. "I happen to love you, Scott Lancer. And you love your brother, which makes him very important to me, too. I wouldn't dream of letting you do this alone."

Wrapping his arms around her tiny waist, Scott pulled her close to him. He smiled down at the woman who had so quickly come to mean more to him than any woman before her ever could, including Julie. There was a time not too long ago when he honestly believed he loved Julie, but now he couldn't be more thankful that she had broken off their engagement. There was no doubt in his mind that it would have lead to a disastrous marriage. These last few months with Melody had made that crystal clear.

A few months before, Melody Harper had come to Morro Coyo to live with her father, a kind of Renaissance man who had decided to 'expand his horizons' by becoming the latest proprietor of the local dry goods store. Upon her arrival, Scott had taken immediate notice. After a short hesitation, and some not-so-subtle prodding from Johnny, he had finally called on Melody. It had come as a huge relief to discover that she, too, had felt the instant attraction that had kept his own heart palpitating wildly whenever a trip to town was in order.

Of course, Johnny was very quick with the 'I told you so'. Johnny had noticed Melody's returned attraction right off, but Scott had been more inclined to believe Johnny's insistencies were just more of his little brotherly taunts. Never in his life had Scott been more pleased to admit to being wrong.

Scott and Melody's relationship had developed slowly, partly because Lancer made such huge demands on his life and time, and partly because he was still somewhat reluctant to leave Johnny alone for too long. Johnny had never asked him to stay close, but Scott had done so anyway. The hurts his brother had been struggling to overcome ran deep, and the healing process had not been easy for any of them. Explosive tempers and sullen moods had been the norm at Lancer for a while, but things had been getting a little better in recent days.

To Scott's utter amazement, throughout all the turmoil, not once had Melody complained or criticized him for putting Johnny's needs above his own. In fact, she had been totally supportive in every way, sometimes even insisting that they merely spend what little time they were allowed together at Lancer. Scott took this acknowledgment of the fact that his family was the most important thing in his life as proof positive of the sincerity of her love for him.

His heart had fairly burst inside his chest when Melody responded to Johnny with the same affection and caring she extended to Teresa and Murdoch. There was no animosity directed towards the brother who stole so much of his time away from her, which only further endeared her with Scott's already smitten heart.What she was offering now was yet another example of how absolute her devotion was to both he and his family. One day soon Scott vowed he would return her loving gestures with one of his own. As soon as the package he had sent to Boston for arrived, he would be ready. His grandfather hadn't been overjoyed by his request, but had relented with a modicum amount of grumbling. Scott only hoped Murdoch would be more pleased by his decision.

But that was a subject for another day. Today was about Johnny, and healing, and...and well, making a complete fool out of himself in the name of that healing. However, with Melody standing devotedly at his side, the burden had just gotten lighter. In fact, he was almost looking forward to tonight's event. Well, almost.

"I love you, Melody Harper," he whispered breathlessly against her hair.

"You better, Scott Lancer," came the teasing reply. "I'd hate to think I was about to bestow my great aunt's most prized possession on someone who wasn't smart enough to know when he's been snared."

Scott laughed as Melody pulled out of his arms. She looked up at him, her soft amber eyes sparkling with loving adoration, but also with a hesitant expectation swirling in their depths. "Soon," he whispered his promise.

Her eyes brightened, and the smile on her face could have lit up the range for miles on the darkest of nights. However, when she opened her mouth to speak, Scott pressed a finger firmly against her lips. "Sshhh, not until it can be done properly. It won't be long, I promise."

"I'll hold you to that," Melody whispered softly.

Leaning down, Scott's lips captured hers in a tender kiss. The stirrings in both his heart and his body had his mind hoping for a quick delivery of his Boston surprise. The sooner he made his claim formal, the sooner he would be to filling the second to last void in his life. The last would become at least partially filled on the day their first child was born.

To his dismay, two delicate yet strong hands gently pushed him away. "Now, Scott. If we're going to be ready for the party tonight, we've got to get busy."

"Yes, dear," Scott said with a smirk that earned him a playful smack on the arm.

"You just keep practicing. That didn't sound nearly as domesticated as it should," Melody smirked back. "I'll be the toast of the town when I get you tamed proper like."

The absurdity of this statement made Scott laugh. "Don't get your hopes up, Melody. Even if you do manage to attain that dubious distinction, it will only be temporary. You are destined to lose that title as soon as someone manages to snare that brother of mine. Johnny is much more of a 'domestication' challenge than I'll ever be."

Melody looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. "True," she agreed with a laugh. "You know how much I adore Johnny, but he's too skittish for his own good. It's going to take a very special kind of lady to gentle that one."

With that, Scott couldn't agree more. "It's going to take a very special lady to deserve Johnny. He might be a lot of work, but the rewards far outweigh the hardships."

"Oh, dear," Melody sighed dramatically. "Poor Johnny is never going to find anyone if she has to pass the Scott Lancer Approval Test. No woman will ever be good enough for your little brother, will she?"

Blushing, Scott shook his head in denial. "That's not true. Johnny's his own man and-"

"And if she dares hurt him, she's going to be answering to you."

"You're darn right she is!" Laughing, Scott reached out and gently pulled Melody back into his embrace. The frivolity of the moment faded, and in its place emerged a deep sense of belonging. "Thank you for being so understanding about Johnny. I know I haven't been nearly as attentive to you as you deserve, but..." Scott had to stop as he struggled to keep his emotions at bay. "Johnny needed me more, honey."

Melody wasn't nearly as successful with her emotions, and soon the front of Scott's shirt was damp with her tears. "Scott, don't you understand? That's why I love you so much. Most people would look at you and jump to the conclusion that you've been sacrificing your own happiness for Johnny's, but I know better. I know Johnny's happiness is your happiness. I respect you so much for standing by him the way you have. And I know..." Melody hesitated.

"And you know what?" Scott urged tenderly.

"I can't. It will sound presumptuous." Shaking her head, Melody tried to pull away, but Scott tightened his hold of her.

"It would not be presumptuous in any way," he assured her, then went on to explain that he already knew what she wanted to say. "I'm glad you believe I'll be here for you just as steadfastly, because I intend to do just that. When we're both old and gray and our twelve children all have children of their own, I'll still be right by your side."

"Our twelve children?" Melody giggled against his shoulder.

"Well, Johnny has decided that our children are going to be 'breathtakingly gorgeous', and therefore we should go all out in the name of keeping Lancer beautiful." Scott snorted softly. "I personally think he just wants a bunch of nieces and nephews to play with."

"Twelve?" Melody repeated, this time in disbelief. "Well, you can just go back to Lancer and inform that brother of yours to find his own broodmare if he wants twelve playmates."

"And if I want twelve?" Scott teased.

Standing up straight, Melody looked him directly in the eye. "Then I'll make you a deal, Mr. Lancer. You agree to do all the diaper changing and the burping and the cleaning up after them and your brother, and I'll agree to carry them."

"All the diaper changing?" Scott asked thoughtfully.

"Every last one," Melody reiterated. "A hundred years from now, anyone visiting the family cemetery will read my headstone and be in total awe." Melody extended her arm outwards, as if indicating something was there to be read. "'Here lies a woman of distinction. The mother of twelve, who never changed a single diaper'."

"Oh, and what's mine going to say?" Scott asked with wry humorous. "'Here lies her husband, the biggest sap ever born'."

"If the headstone fits," Melody replied with an evil grin. Taking Scott's hand, she began leading him down the hallway. "Now that we've got that settled, there's work to be done, Mr. Lancer. The Cooper's party is in less that four hours and we still have to get your costume fitted."

+++ +++ +++ +++

The evening of the Cooper party had finally arrived. After much speculation around the community, the Cooper's had announced that their daughter's twenty-third birthday would be ushered in with a costume ball to be held at the Cooper ranch. The party would start on the eve of her actually birthday, and the celebration would climax at exactly twelve o'seven the next morning, the exact time Penelope Cooper had been born. At that time they would make the announcement of the winner of the most popular costume. The partygoers would cast their votes by writing their choice on their invitation, and placing it in a collection box by the buffet table.

With Melody at his side, Scott drove the Harper's surrey towards the awaiting festivities. The knot in his stomach was getting tighter with each step the horses took, and it didn't help any when Mr. Harper, who was seated behind him, dressed as a medieval knight, chuckled yet again.

"Father!" Melody scolded.

"I'm sorry, honey," the older man apologized, however the effect was totally lost as another jaunty snort echoed around them. "Scott, I have to say that you are a far braver man than I. It must be love, because nothing else would explain Melody's ability to talk you into this insanity."

"Actually, Mr. Harper, it was sort of my idea. A special gift for Johnny," Scott admitted with only a little reluctance. During he and Melody's courtship, Scott had formed a very special bond with her father, as well. He both liked and respected the man immensely, and from what he could tell, the feeling was mutual.

There had even been an occasion or two when he found Mr. Harper to be very good counsel, at those times when Murdoch and Johnny had butted heads and things seemed destined to fall apart around him. While he had not disclosed anything too personal, Melody's father had been just as supportive of his time with Johnny as Melody herself. He couldn't help but think that his future father-in-law was going to become one of his most trusted friends and confidants, which was a very good feeling.

"Johnny's a very lucky man to have you for a brother," Mr. Harper stated in all honestly. "I can't for the life of me imagine what the significance of this gift could possibly be, but I'm sure he'll appreciate it."

"He better!" Scott huffed. "And as far as brothers go, I think I'm the one who came up with the better end of the deal."

"I'm just amazed that he's even coming," Melody chimed in. "From what I hear, Johnny hasn't exactly been the social butterfly since you two came to Lancer. I believe the phrases 'has to be hogtied' and 'dragged in kicking and screaming' have been used by several different ladies in town."

Scott sighed deeply. Melody was right on that account. Johnny wasn't all that fond of parties, of any kind, and very rarely attended those that were not held on the grounds at Lancer. Even then, after making just enough of an appearance to keep Murdoch off his back, Johnny tended to make himself quite scarce. The thought of attending a costume ball had all but had Johnny running for the hills, but not quite fast enough.

"I have Teresa to thank for his attendance tonight," Scott admitted.

"What did she do; bribe him with a chocolate cake?" Melody's inquiry was delivered in all seriousness, but evoked only a chuckle from her father.

"My dear, you should know that men don't bribe that easily," Mr. Harper chastised from behind. A bump in the road caused the faceplate of his helmet to slide down, and he had to push it back up before continuing. "We're not talking about a child, after all."

"Don't be so sure, sir," Scott chuckled. "Melody isn't too far off the mark. I believe it was the promise of two chocolate cakes and a batch of snickerdoodles that guaranteed my brother's attendance."

"Scott, you really do need to have a word with that brother of yours," Mr. Harper remarked sullenly. "His behavior is going to get all of us menfolk in trouble for sure. Before you know it the womenfolk around here will think they can bribe us into anything with nothing more than a tasty treat or two."

"Oh?" Melody remarked with a raised eyebrow. "I recall mother telling me a time or two that for a pot of her chicken and dumplings you would do just about anything."

"Melody, your dear mother, God rest her soul, could have gotten me to do anything with just a look. Those beautiful doe-eyes were not to be denied. I firmly believe she just threw in the dumplings simply for my ego's sake."

Scott smiled at the banter between his fiancé-to-be and her father. He almost felt guilty taking such pleasure form the knowledge the he would soon be part of a family that did not need to be refereed at every turn. While he loved Murdoch and Johnny with all his heart, he did wish they weren't so much alike. It made for a very interesting home life, but sometimes he just wished things could be a little less interesting.


Melody's soft voice interrupted his thoughts. Slipping both reins into his left hand, he reached over and took Melody's hand with his right. "Just thinking," he sighed softly.

"They do love each other, you know?" she replied with a knowing smile.

"I know."

Releasing Melody's hand, Scott took up the reins as he guided the surrey through the Cooper's gate. Due to the last minute costume change, they were probably the last to arrive, and the only spot Scott could find to hitch the horse was on the far side of the other guests' carriages. He chuckled as he slipped into the space next to the familiar surrey belonging to Lancer.

"What?" Melody asked with an inquisitive glance.

Nodding toward the surrey next to them, Scott laughed. "Teresa must have gone all out with this one. For my family to have arrived late enough to have to hitch this far away from the house, Johnny must have rode with them, instead of coming by himself on Barranca."

"Ah, a female with a plan is a dangerous thing," Mr. Harper sighed as he clamored noisily out of the cramped surrey. His metal armored suit was obviously going to provide some technical challenges to his evening. "Now your young brother will have no way to slip off when no one is looking."

"Remind me to congratulate Teresa on her ingenuity," Melody remarked as Scott helped her to the ground. "Now, father, would you kindly hand us our hats."

Mr. Harper promptly retrieved the two items. He looked first at one, and then the other, before shaking his head. "I think you both should be commended for your courage. I still find it hard to believe that any sane, rationale individual would even consider wearing these hideous things on a regular basis."

Melody retrieved her hat and flipped it up on her head with the ease of a practiced lady. "Father, this was the height of fashion in 1812. Great Aunt Thelma treasured these dresses, and that should be enough for you."

"Humph," Mr. Harper snorted. "Here, I believe Scott is going to need some assistance with this."

It took several painstaking minutes to get the gaudy item firmly planted on Scott's head. Even with the chin tie, Scott's short hair made the rather tall piece of head wear want to slide back and hang from his neck, much like Johnny's hat, but not nearly as normal looking.

"Heads up, Scott," Mr. Harper interrupted. "Your father is headed this way. I see that at least one Lancer remained true to his original costume choice. And a right wicked pirate Murdoch would have been on the high seas."

Scott groaned in anticipation of his father's reaction. "Well, he might as well get the first look." As his view was still blocked he added, "Please tell me Johnny isn't with him."

Mr. Harper snickered. "Getting cold feet, Scott?"

Any reply Scott might have made was cut off when Murdoch appeared. "Harold Harper, good to see you finally made it," Murdoch greeted Melody's father with an outstretched hand. "I was hoping Scott would-" At that moment Murdoch's eye caught sight of his eldest son and he stopped mid sentence. Shock was clearly written on his face as he looked Scott up and down more than once.

"Good evening, Sir," Scott said nervously. With a deep breath, he took a step forward. "Well, what do you think?"

Murdoch looked like he was about to pass out. He actually lifted the eye patch covering his left eye, as if he thought maybe that would change his perception of the sight before him. "It's...well...I...it's very...green, son." After stumbling over his words, Murdoch seemed to regain most of his shattered composure. "I take it this is the reason you went to such extreme measures to ensure your brother's attendance tonight?"

"Yes, sir," Scott answered. Nodding his head towards the Lancer surrey, which caused his hat to bobble precariously. This elicited a giggle from Melody. Scott ignored his date's antics, and added almost warily. "Do you have any idea what Johnny's arrival with the family going to cost me?"

Caught still trying to comprehend his youngest son's absurd costume, Murdoch replied rather absentmindedly. "I believe Teresa said something about washing windows."

"Is that all?" Scott sighed in relief.
 "Yes," Murdoch continued in the same detached tone, still unable to look away from Scott's outrageous outfit. "There was mention of something about for the next one hundred years."
 Both Melody and her father burst out in laughter. "Scott, my dear boy, I do hope your brother appreciates this heroic sacrifice made on his behalf," Mr. Harper choked out between snorts. He said something else too, but the words were muffled out when his faceplate again slipped down over his mouth.

"What heroic sacrifice?" Johnny inquired when he appeared out of nowhere to stand next to Murdoch.

Part of the problem with getting Johnny to attend had been the costume theme. Teresa had come through again, and with Maria's help, had managed to transform Johnny Lancer into a rather elegant Spanish matador. Scott had to admit both ladies had done a tremendous job. Johnny had never looked quite so dashingly handsome.

"Oh, Johnny, you look wonderful," Melody said a little too earnestly for Scott's liking. However, when he whipped around to face her, his hat again bobbled wildly on his head.

A howling round of laughter rang out as Johnny caught sight of his brother and lost all composure. "Boston, I ain't never seen nothin' so-" Johnny's thought was choked out by another round of snorting laughs. "You look like one a them big ol' cucumbers from Teresa's garden. Better stay outta Maria's way in that get up," he warned between hoots. "She just might try an' pickle you by mistake."

Although Murdoch and Mr. Harper tried to contain their laughter for proprieties sake, Johnny seemed to have no such compunctions. "And Miss Melody, you better be careful, too. Maria likes to pickle them squashes sometimes, too."

"Very funny, little brother," Scott said with only a modicum of genuine reproach. Mostly he was just thrilled to hear Johnny laughing so openly. It had been a long time coming. "Melody," he said as he held out his arm. "I believe the ball awaits." With as much dignity as he could muster, Scott led Melody past their fathers and Johnny.

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

The arrival of Scott and the Harpers turned out to be a party stopping event. All eyes had turned in their direction and the laughter soon ensued. The 'Debutantes of 1812' where an immediate hit.

Scott's outfit was, as Murdoch had so aptly put it, very green. A long, high-bodice gown, with sleeves and a neckline more than frilly enough to make up for the plain, straight length of the rest of the dress. As for his hat, well, that looked more like a corset had been strapped to his head instead of something any normal, sane, rational person would dub fit to put on their head.

Melody's attire fared only slightly better. While the style was basically the same, her sleeves and neckline were not nearly as frilly, but there were ruffles around the hemline, and at calf-height on her ankle-length skirt. Her gown was a bright yellow, and with the poufy hat sitting on her head like a stem, she really did resemble a walking squash. Good natured as ever, Scott led Melody over to the Cooper's table, where they made their formal greetings to the birthday girl with an air of refinement that only Scott Lancer could have ever pulled off under the circumstances.

Once the initial shock had dissipated, Scott and Melody were treated no differently than any of the other costumed party goers, although Scott received more than one supportive slap on the back from the men who obviously believed Melody had put him up to this. Graciously, Melody almost seemed to be enjoying the erroneous conclusions. In fact, the ladies fussing over her in total awe were sending enough darting glances in Scott's direction to assure him that, fully domesticated or not, he had already been labeled as 'tamed'.

+++ +++ +++ +++

Several hours later Scott was leaning casually against a tree at the edge of the dance pavilion, watching Melody as she danced with her father. The suit of armor Mr. Harper was wearing made the task difficult, at best, but he was a trooper, and Scott knew first hand how impossible it was to deny Melody anything. Whether they realized it or not, the other ladies were correct; he had been tamed, which suited him just fine.

"She sure is pretty," Johnny said softly as he slipped into the spot next to Scott.

"Yes, she is," Scott agreed. Next to him the grass rustled softly as Johnny shifted nervously on his feet.

"You know, you didn't have to do this, brother."

With his gaze still focused on his future wife, Scott smiled softly at Johnny's indirect show of appreciation. "I know. But I wanted to."

An understanding silence enveloped them, both knowing that simply because Scott's choice of costume wasn't necessary is what made it such a special gift. "Well, at least Melody's Aunt Thelma wasn't nearly as womanly a woman as Miss Fleury," Scott chuckled, glancing down at a chest that was stuffed to only a fraction of the size Johnny's had been during their flight from Caja del Pan.

"No, but that there hat sure makes up for it," Johnny agreed with a snort. "I swear I can't image any woman wantin' to be paradin' around in something like that, or any man being willin' to be seen in public with her on his arm."

Straightening into a snooty pose, Scott stated as condescendingly as he could, "Brother, I'll have you know that in 1812 this was the height of fashion sense."

"They sure must not've had too much sense back then," Johnny replied with a cheeky grin. Bowing his head, Johnny's mood swiftly shifted to something more pensive. "That package you been waitin' for came today," Johnny said softly.

Startled, Scott looked over at his brother. "It did?"

"Yeah. Mrs. Tacket at the stage depot had Tommy bring it out to the ranch, knowing how you been so anxious for it to get here, an all."

"I wish I'd known. I could have picked it up myself while I was in town today." Although not truly upset, Scott did wish he had been able to retrieve the special package earlier. If he had, Melody would already be wearing part of its contents.

"Is it...is it what I'm thinkin' it is?" Johnny asked rather hesitantly.

The timid tone in Johnny's voice told him that Johnny's guess was in all likelihood right on the money, but that didn't mean he wasn't above making his little brother squirm just a little. "Depends on what you're thinking, brother," Scott replied with a grin.

"Well," Johnny began. "The way you been frettin' over it, I'm guessin' it's somethin' for Melody. Somethin' real special, like maybe, a ring?"

Unable to keep up the farce any longer, Scott took pity on his brother. "Yes, Johnny, it is a ring. It's my mother's wedding ring, to be exact. I'm going to give it to Melody, if she'll agree to marry me."

Johnny looked up, a cloud of indecision fluttering his features, which quickly formed into a disapproving frown. "You don't think that's gonna upset Murdoch? You know, findin' out that Harlan kept that from him all these years, too?"

Knowing that Johnny couldn't possibly know the truth, Scott slipped a comforting arm around Johnny's tense shoulders. Despite the way Johnny and Murdoch butted heads, they were both very quick to defend the other. "It was my grandmother's ring, Johnny. My mother asked Murdoch to let it be theirs because her mother had left it to her. I can't see Murdoch having hard feelings over my grandfather keeping the ring he had once given to his own wife."

Johnny's brow creased. "Ain't that unusual? I mean, ain't it the man's duty to be providing the wedding rings."

"Usually," Scott conceded. "But my mother was an only child, and it was what my grandmother had wanted. You see, there is a history with that ring. It was in my mother's family for several generations, from back when they were still living in Russia."


"Yes, my mother's great-great-grandfather was from St. Petersburg. It was his oldest daughter that married an English merchant. She returned to England with him, but they were married in Russia first. That's how the ring came to be in my family. It's been handed down to the eldest son ever since. My grandmother didn't have any brothers, so grandfather agreed to keep the tradition alive. As you already know, my mother was an only child, so she asked Murdoch if he would allow them to use it, too, and he agreed." With the history lesson over, Scott finally let his nerves show through. "Do you think Melody approve?"

Johnny slipped his arm over Scott's shoulder, and returned the affectionate embrace with a glowing smile. "Brother, Melody would love one a Murdoch's cigar bands, if that's what you decided to give her."

"If'n youse two start dancin' together, I'm gonna douse ya with a bucket a cold water," Jelly's haughty voice bellowed from behind them.

Snorting, Johnny released Scott and turned to face the older man, who was dressed as a telegraph operator, complete with sleeve protectors and visor. "Ain't no way, Jelly. I don't like my dance partners taller'n me."

"And why's that, brother?" Scott asked with a raised eyebrow.

"I already gotta deal with always havin' to look up to you and Murdoch," Johnny snipped good-naturedly. "I ain't about to fall second fiddle to no woman, too. A man's gotta have some pride." Winking at Jelly, he added. "'sides, Boston'd wanna lead."

"You got that right, brother." Behind them the music faded away as the dance came to an end. Scott straightened to his full height, made a grand gesture of smoothing his dress, and then walked away to claim his woman from her father. "Men," he huffed under his breath just before he got out of earshot.

Behind him, Jelly and Johnny were hanging on to each other to keep from falling down. As planned, Scott's uppity actions had both men clutching their sides with hysterical laughter.
 +++ +++ +++ ++++
 Having won the costume competition by a landslide, Scott and Melody were on the dance floor sharing the last dance of the evening. As he watched his son, dressed in a green gown, in which most of the women at the party agreed they would not be caught dead, Murdoch still couldn't get over the lengths to which Scott would go for his brother, especially now that Johnny seemed to be doing so well. He had to admit that the last few months had been difficult at best, but he also was grateful to admit that his relationship with his youngest son was much more stable than it had ever been before.

Still, it had taken all his fortitude not to do exactly as Scott had predicted, which was to go charging up to Sacramento and start bashing heads, when Johnny had finally told him the truth about that life-changing trip. That conversation with Johnny had lasted through the night, and well into the next day. It wasn't until nearly noon that either of them realized that they had been left conspicuously undisturbed by the rest of the family.

The atmosphere around Lancer had become almost peaceful since that day. While he and Johnny still had their disagreements, now those disagreements weren't nearly as heated, and almost never developed into full-scale verbal warfare anymore. Not once had any of them ended with a stern command from Murdoch that the dissussion was over followed by Johnny's irate stomping out the door in defiance. It seemed both of them had grown up just a little.

Spotting Johnny standing off a ways, Murdoch frowned as he realized his son didn't look all that happy. He immediately, but casually, headed in that direction. There wasn't anything too overt in Johnny's stance to tell him that something was wrong. It was just something he had learned to see, now that he really new how to look. Following Johnny's gaze, which was fixed on his brother and the woman Murdoch had no doubt would be joining their family in the very near future, he instantly realized the source of his son's silent pain.

"He'll always be your brother, son," Murdoch said after coming to a stop next to Johnny.

Startled, Johnny looked up. His features blinked for a moment, losing the somber look of loss, only to have it return again. It was almost an open acknowledgement that he no longer felt he had to hide his feelings from his father. "I know. She makes him happy. That's what's important."

For a long moment Murdoch remained silent, not sure of exactly how to respond. He would never think of downplaying Scott's happiness with the woman he loved, but he wished he knew how to reassure Johnny that Scott's new life would include him, as well.

"Do you think they'll stay on at Lancer?" Johnny asked quietly.

"I'll make sure they both know they're more than welcome," Murdoch assured his son. The fact was he had no idea how Scott and Melody felt on that subject. Needing to deflect the subject to something he was more sure of, Murdoch asked, "I take it that package Tommy Tacket brought out to the ranch has Scott's mother's wedding ring in it?"

Johnny looked questioningly at his father. "You knew that's what Scott was waitin' for?"

"No, but I had an idea," Murdoch admitted. "If just any ring would have done, there are lots of jewelry stores in San Francisco."

"An' you're...you're okay with it?" Johnny stammered.

Wrapping an arm around Johnny's shoulder, Murdoch smiled in satisfaction. He had to admit it felt good to know Johnny worried about him and his feelings. In this case, however, his son's concerns were totally unnecessary. "I couldn't be more pleased, Johnny. Melody is a very beautiful young woman, and she seems to love your brother very much. I can't help but think that Catherine would be very happy that Scott has found someone like that to share his life."

What Murdoch couldn't reveal was how much Melody had supported Scott when Johnny's needs kept him close to home. Murdoch had been somewhat taken aback when Scott had first confided in him about how much had been shared with her, but as time passed, he lost his reservations in the wake of the joy she brought to Scott, and the unwavering support she gave him instead of the demands and accusations Murdoch had been expecting.

"I love him, ya know," Johnny whispered so softly his words were almost inaudible. "I don't think I'd still be alive if it wasn't for Scott. I'd a done myself in long before now."

Only a few short months ago Johnny's admission would have wounded Murdoch very deeply. It would have pained him not only because his son had lived a life that would have made such self-destruction all too possible, but also because Johnny couldn't feel the same way about him. However, that was then, and now Murdoch could see so many thing he had been blind to back then.

He knew that his youngest son was as vulnerable as he was strong, that he was as loyal as he was stubborn, and that when he loved he did so without condition or reason. For too long Murdoch had been foolishly trying to attain what he already had - Johnny's love - when what he should have been trying to do was earn Johnny's friendship and respect by offering up those same things in return. That was where Scott had gone so right, and where he had gone so wrong.

Scott had never treated Johnny as a little boy to be guided into adulthood. Maybe that was because he never knew Johnny as a baby, or maybe it was just because that's just the way Scott was. As a father who clearly recalled the little boy he had lost so long ago, Murdoch had tried to pick up where he'd left off, only that little boy did not exist anymore.

Instead of trying to find common ground with the man his son had become, he had tried to 'raise' a son that was no longer a child, and had run headlong into the brick wall of Johnny's manhood for his effort. His recent acceptance that Johnny no longer needed a guiding hand had led to the developing friendship and peaceful coexistence they now shared.

Standing next to his son, watching Johnny's struggle between being happy for his brother's well-deserved joy and the dreaded fear that he was losing his best friend, nearly brought tears to Murdoch's eyes. Johnny's life had been nothing but one upheaval after another ever since the day the Pinkerton detective saved him from a death that had already been accepted as his fate; a long series of changes that had left Johnny constantly scrambling for solid footing on ground he did not fully trust.

First there was the brother he never knew he had. Then the practically sister he had never expected to find. A father he couldn't understand, offering him a life he only partially understood. The loss of his faith in a mother no longer a saint, the loss of his hatred for a father no longer guilty, the loss of a lifestyle he neither wanted nor believed he could leave behind. The responsibilities, the deadlines, the living his life with more than just a passing thought for the future. They had all thrust themselves onto his young shoulders without regard for the burden they were placing on his tattered soul. Could he take any more?


Shaken from his revere, Murdoch realized the music had stopped and Scott was now standing before him, with Melody at his side. Glancing over at Johnny, he saw the amused look on his youngest son's face and immediately relaxed. "I'm sorry, son, I was just daydreaming, I guess. What did you say?"

"I invited Melody and her father to stay the night at Lancer," Scott repeated. "It looks like rain, and it's over two hours back to town, but only an hour to the ranch."

"Of course," Murdoch smiled at Melody. "You and your father are more than welcome." His grin turned teasing as he added. "I'm sure Teresa can find something more 'comfortable' for you to wear."

"Thank you, Mr. Lancer." Although her smile was bright, her voice sounded noticeably tired.

"We'll gather up Mr. Harper and Teresa and meet you both at the surreys," Scott said politely.

As the two walked away, Murdoch glanced over at Johnny, expecting to find him once again wrestling with conflicting feelings. Instead his gaze was met with a warm smile. "Feeling better, son?" he asked.

Johnny nodded and looked away, but the flush on his cheeks was noticeable in the bright moonlight. "Yeah, I reckon so. You ready to go, old man?" he asked in a teasingly affectionate tone. After saying their goodbyes to the host and the remaining guests, they made the short trek out to where Scott and the others were already waiting.

+++ +++ +++ +++

Later that night, Scott fingered the delicate metal bands reverently between his fingers. Over twenty-five years ago, Murdoch had placed these three rings, joined as one, on his mother's finger. In a short time, he would repeat the action, only it would be Melody's finger onto which the bands would be slipped. But first he had something he needed to do. Returning the ring to its box, Scott took a deep breath in preparation for the next step.

Slipping quietly from his bedroom, he paused before heading down the hallway to his father's room. He cast a furtive glance towards the door at the opposite end of the hall. The door behind which his future wife now lay sleeping. He would give anything to be able to join her. To take her into his arms, to make love to her, to worship every part of her, to hopefully make her feel as special as she made him feel with just one look. Sighing, Scott turned away. Such fantasies were out of the question, and would only frustrate him further.

Coming to a halt outside his father's bedroom, Scott tapped lightly on the heavy wooden surface. It took a moment, but the door opened, and Murdoch blinked almost sheepishly at him. Dressed in a nightshirt, he had obviously already retired for the night.


"Sorry to bother you so late, sir," Scott apologized. "I...it's...well...sir, I have something I need to discuss with you."

And enlightened look brightened Murdoch's features, and all weariness seemed to disappear. "Ah, yes, come in." Standing aside, Murdoch ushered Scott into the room, then indicated for Scott to take a seat in the chair on the other side of his bed. "I take it this has something to do with your mother's rings?"

Startled at first, Scott then sighed deeply. "Is there anyone here who doesn't know what was in that package?" At Murdoch's questioning look, he expounded on that basis for his question. "Johnny already figured it out. Not that it was my mother's, but that it was a ring for Melody."

Murdoch chuckled. "I've discovered that there really isn't that much that escapes your brother's attention, even though he tries to let on that he doesn't notice too much of anything. So, son, what is it you wanted to talk to me about?"

"Well, sir," Scott started, suddenly feeling somewhat hesitant about his request, even though it was a foregone conclusion that Murdoch already knew what he had in mind. "I guess I just wanted to make sure that you didn't have any objections to me giving mother's ring to Melody."

"I can't think of a one, son," Murdoch said with an almost sad smile. "And I'm sure your mother would be honored to have her ring grace the finger of the woman you love."

"You honestly think my mother would approve?" Scott asked almost fearfully.

"Scott, I know she would approve with all her heart and soul. Anyone can see how much Melody adores you. Your courtship hasn't been the easiest, yet she's stood by you and supported you every step of the way. I, personally, can't think of any quality Melody lacks that I would wish for you to have in a wife."

Blushing slightly, Scott nodded. "Thank you, father. Your approval means a lot to me." Before he lost the struggle to keep his emotions in check, Scott stood to leave. "I guess I'll let you get back to sleep," he said sheepishly as he headed for the door.

"Scott," Murdoch's voice stopped him just as he reached for the handle.

Turning around, Scott saw his father was smiling at him. "Melody is a very lucky woman, too. Your mother would be so proud of you, son. I wish..." Murdoch looked away, but not before Scott saw the pain in his expression.

"I know, father, I do, too." With that, Scott hurriedly made his exit. On his way back to his own room, he pondered the impossibility of that wish for the thousandth time. He wished he had known his mother, he wished with all his heart that she hadn't died, however, with that wish came an almost overbearing sorrow.

If she had lived, Johnny would not be. Scott always avoided thinking too much on this subject for that reason. He wanted his mother *and* he wanted his brother, but there was no way for him to have both.

Returning to his room in an uplifted, yet somber mood, Scott couldn't banish those haunting thoughts as easily as usual. Tonight the feeling of despair over a choice that couldn't be made, and one that he wouldn't know how to make if it were possible, nagged at his soul.

If his mother had lived, Johnny would be her son, but he wouldn't be Johnny. Not the brother he had come to love; the one who had almost instantly become such an integral part of his very being. He would have been a brother, but not the brother he wanted. After undressing, Scott climbed into bed, one burden having been removed from his heart, while another remained steadfastly in place.

+++ +++ +++ +++

The small clock on the night table showed it was as only a little after three in the morning, but Melody couldn't sleep. The trip to Lancer had been rather interesting, what with two surreys and a lot of boisterous bantering going on between them, but as tired as she felt, her mind just wouldn't settle down.

Part of her restlessness she knew was due Scott's behavior on the drive from the Cooper party. He had tried to be mysterious with his casually dropped comments of a package arriving from Boston, but she could read him like a book. Even if Marilee Swenson had not felt the need to tell her about the conversation she had overheard between Johnny and Scott, Melody would have known what Scott had in mind just by his actions. In a few hours she knew she would officially become the future Mrs. Scott Lancer, and nothing could make her happier, or more nervous.

Slipping from the bed, she donned the robe and slippers Teresa had eagerly provided upon their arrival at Lancer. Walking over to the window, she stared out into the bright moonlight. The hills looked silver in the distance, while the foreground was blanketed in comforting shadows. Lancer, she thought with a smile.

It was the one of the first words she had heard upon her arrival in Morro Coyo. Blushing, she had to admit to herself that was partly because one of her first inquiries had been as to the identity of the dashingly handsome blond man staring at her from across the street. 'Scott Lancer' had been her father's response, and Scott Lancer had been her only thought during the twelve days, two hours and seventeen minutes it had taken him to come calling at her door. Not the fastest pursuer she had ever encountered, but he had been well worth the wait.

She vividly remembered how just a few weeks into their courtship, she had revealed to him the question she had presented to her father, thinking he would find her first impression of him somewhat flattering. To her surprise, he had actually laughed so hard he ended up with a stitch in his side. It was only after he had managed to regain his composure that he had shared with her the reason for his amusement.

A few days later she first met Johnny, who had accompanied Scott into town to get supplies. She couldn't resist greeting Scott as the 'most dashingly handsome blonde gentleman in town', and they had both thought Johnny would hurt himself before he quit laughing. They had only talked for a moment, but she hadn't seen anything to make her feel nervous or anxious about Scott's brother.

Johnny Lancer. Johnny Madrid. During those seemingly endless twelve days it had taken Scott to come calling, she had heard all sorts of stories as soon as her interest in Scott had become known to a few of the ladies. Scott and Johnny, Johnny and Scott; everyone warned her that to be courted by Scott Lancer would be to accept his killer brother into her midst.

Horror stories abounded about how Scott, a gentleman of refinement raised in Boston, had found himself kin to a murderous outlaw from the Mexican border. In the end, worry had overrode her manners, and she asked her father for his thoughts on the subject. He had promptly set her straight.

Johnny Lancer was one of the most forthright men he had ever had the pleasure to meet. Her father had an uncanny ability for assessing people, seeing through their illusions, no matter what they might be. And, if her own father's good judgment wasn't enough, her first visit to Lancer had been more than enough to convince her.

It had been a few weeks after Scott first came to call. He had arrived early that morning and they were going riding around the area, with a stop off at the Lancer ranch for lunch. As soon as they rode up to the barn, it was obvious even to her that something was wrong. She didn't even remember how she came to be standing inside next to Scott as the terrible event unfolded before her eyes.

A mare was foaling and something was wrong. She had watched as Johnny tried everything he could to save the young horse, but his efforts had all been in vain, and the colt had died within minutes of its birth. What happened next was something she would never forget as long as she lived, and had cemented her belief in her father's instance that Johnny Lancer was anything but a cold-hearted killer.

So intent in his efforts to save the foal, Johnny hadn't even realized they were there. When he did look up at them, the dead colt's wet and bloody body cradled in his arms without a thought for the mess it was making of his clothes, she saw unshed tears in his anguished blue eyes. As soon as Johnny noticed her presence, he had looked away, but not quickly enough to keep her from seeing the vulnerable gentleness that was his real nature.

When Scott had entered the stall to offer his support, Melody realized that there was a small morsel of truth in Morro Coyo's ladies gossip. Scott and Johnny shared a closeness that most brothers who had spent their whole lives together could never hope to achieve. Taking the situation into hand, she bid Scott a soft goodbye with a subtle assurance that she understood. Gently commandeering the older man who had joined them at some time during the turmoil to escort her home, she left Scott to tend to his brother.

It was two days before Scott was able to get away from Lancer again. Upon his arrival at her house, he expressed both his gratitude and appreciation for her actions. At that time Scott had not revealed much about Johnny's pain, but in the weeks to follow, she had not only become painfully aware of just how harsh the younger man's life had been prior to coming home, but had gained a seldom-shared insight into just how strong the bond was between the two brothers.

As she stared out into the darkness, a movement below caught her eye, and she strained to see who or what was moving around in the courtyard. It looked like Scott's impending proposal wasn't just keeping just her awake. The silvery moonlight cast a faint glow over Johnny's lean form as he rested casually against the stonewall. Melody soon found herself memorized by sight.

Johnny hadn't bothered to put on a shirt, probably believing he was the only one up and about at this early hour. The moonlight glistened off his bare skin, and she felt her heart skip a beat. Johnny Lancer was every bit as handsome as the ladies had told her, but it was his skittish nature that made him fodder for playful fun, not serious thoughts of commitment.

If only the ladies in town could see him through her eyes, they would be falling all over themselves to snare him. Johnny Lancer was anything but carefree and reckless, as he had been so dubbed by those blind idiots. Admittedly, it had taken her a while to see the genuine sincerity and tender gentleness in the feisty man, but she had, despite having been around him even less than any of those other women. The fact that they couldn't see what was right in front of their eyes only confirmed her belief that none of them were good enough for Johnny.

She watched as Johnny moved out of the courtyard, only to return in a few short paces. Even with the distance between them, she could feel his pain. Back at the Cooper's party, the forlorn way he had watched as she and Scott danced the final dance together had not escaped her notice, and it had hurt her deeply. She hated to know that her relationship with Scott was causing him this much distress. She loved Scott with all her heart, and she both understood and welcomed the reality that Johnny would always be in their lives. She couldn't help but feel that Johnny had no such convictions.

Filled with an almost overwhelming sense of frustration, Melody moved away from the window. The last thing she wanted was for Johnny to look up and see her. If the poor man was spooked now, being spied on by the 'enemy' surely wouldn't do him any good. If only there was something she could do, something she could say, to convince Johnny that she had no more desire to come between him and his brother than she had to become Governor of California.

+++ +++ +++ +++

The next morning found breakfast at Lancer being served in the great room. Usually breakfast was informal at best, and held in the kitchen for simplicities sake. Today, however, it was Sunday, not to mention the fact that the kitchen table would have been too cramped and highly inappropriate. After all, the Harpers were guests.

Johnny sat quietly in his seat, enjoying the lively conversation that was centered mainly on the prior evenings festivities and the different costumes that had been worn by those in attendance. At one point Teresa shot him a teasing grin, and Johnny had to look away, hoping his blush didn't register with anyone besides her.

He had no idea why he hadn't thought to question where the infamous Caja del Pan dress had disappeared to, and had almost choked himself blue when Teresa appeared in it as her costume. A few minor alterations and added accessories, not to mention quite a few pairs of socks, had made her into the perfect French actress. Even though no one but the immediate family knew the garment's rather auspicious previous purpose in life, it still had taken a few shots of tequila before they departed, and a glass of wine after their arrival before Johnny had loosened up enough to even remotely enjoy the party.

Turning his attention back to the others, Johnny listened as Jelly asked Mr. Harper about his armor costume. He was the first to see Scott and Melody appear in the entranceway, but soon all eyes turned towards the couple. A few covertly exchanged glances earlier on had told Johnny that their absence had been noted, but no one had ventured any open remarks on the subject.

"Everyone," Scott said very solemnly, "Melody and I have something we need to tell you. I'm sure this will not come as too much of a surprise, but we've decided that we really can't stand each other and think it would be best if she and her father left immediately."

Utter silence filled the room. Five pairs of wide eyes and slacked jaws were pointed towards the couple in total shock. At first Johnny couldn't believe he was actually feeling a little relived by the startling announcement, but after only a moment, he realized just how much it would hurt him not to see Scott so happy anymore.

Suddenly Scott's face lit up with a stunning grin. "Now that I have your undivided attention, I would like to inform you all that, as of a few minutes ago, Melody Harper and I officially became engaged."

"Scott Lancer, I would expect such a stunt from your brother," Murdoch growled, even though relief was written all over his face.

"Hey!" Johnny snapped in a huff that brought on a round of laughter from everyone else.

"Now, don't let it get to you, Johnny," Mr. Harper said as he placed a comforting hand on Johnny's arm. "They're in love. They can't be held accountable for their actions. It's a sickness, it is."

"He ain't in love," Johnny eyed Murdoch accusingly.

"True, but your father has the excuse of his impending grandfatherhood to cloud his better judgment. When a man finds out that his legacy is about to expand to another whole generation, well, that, my dear boy, is just cause for all sorts of odd behavior," Mr. Harper explained to the amusement of everyone but Johnny.

When Mr. Harper motioned for Johnny to lean down, he did, and received some very practical advice from his future in-law. "Chin up, lad, this takes the pressure off you. While Scott will be saddled with the responsibility of producing an heir, you will be free to roam the fields, unhindered by such an auspicious obligation, as it were."

This made sense to Johnny. Sitting back down, he looked calmly over at his father and brother. "Congratulations, brother," he said with just enough smugness to garner him a wary glance or two. "And you too, Miss Melody."

"In the future I think we had better keep those two apart," Melody warned Scott in an only half-teasing tone. "My father and your brother could make a very formidable combination. I'm not sure this valley is ready for anything of that magnitude."

"You gonna let her talk about us that way?" Johnny asked Mr. Harper in his best 'serious' voice.
 Following Johnny's lead, Mr. Harper sighed dramatically. "Ah, my dear boy, I fear that somehow you have managed to remain blessedly unaware of the truest lesson a man can ever learn."Now Johnny was intrigued, to say the least. "An' what's that lesson, Mr. Harper?"

"Women are always right," came the resigned reply. "Even when they are wrong, nature has somehow managed to endow them with the ability to be right. It is a terrible hand that life has dealt us truly ill-fated menfolk, but it is our hand, nonetheless."

"Father!" Melody chided. "You keep talking like that and you'll have Johnny swearing off women in no time."

Beside her, Scott snorted and shook his head. "That, Melody, will never happen. My brother would give up tequila first, and I can assure you that's not about to happen, either."

"Darn straight it ain't," Johnny retorted. Then he turned his most charming smile towards his future sister-in-law. "No offense, Miss Melody, but them's two things that every young man just has to have. If'n we don't get 'em, we just shrivel up and blow away in the wind."

While the other men choked back their replies, Melody cast a speculative glare in Scott's direction. "Is that so?"

"Don't listen to a word he says. I had never even tasted tequila before he forced it on me, and I've hardly shriveled or blown anywhere."

"Johnny forced you to drink tequila?" Melody asked, her left eyebrow hiked high on her forehead.

"At gunpoint," Scott almost pouted.

"I didn't neither!" Johnny protested loudly, even as everyone else broke out in another round of uproarious laugher.

"Okay, so maybe it wasn't exactly at gunpoint," Scott conceded. Offering Melody his arm, he asked in his most polished mannerism, "May I escort you to your seat?"

"Why, thank you kind sir," Melody responded with a small curtsey, then took Scott's arm and was lead to the two vacant chairs on the opposite side of the table.

"Now that you clowns have had your fun," Teresa interjected for the first time since squealing over the news of the impending nuptials, "Melody and I can get down to some serious wedding talk."

Johnny glanced over at Scott and gave him a cursory nod. He knew Scott had deliberately seated Melody next to Teresa so their conversation could be kept as isolated as possible. Breakfast continued as the women discussed wedding plans, and the men discussed anything but wedding plans.

+++ +++ +++ +++

After the breakfast dishes were cleared away, Scott wiped his mouth and asked for everyone's attention. "While everyone is here, I'd like to share something else."

Johnny quickly looked under the table, then behind Scott's chair. "You ain't got another fiancé hidden around here, do ya?"

"Johnny," Scott groaned. "I'm trying to be serious." Reaching into his pocket Scott pulled out the rings he had been waiting for with eager anticipation. Turning towards Melody, he took her hand and smiled. "I sent all the way to Boston for this," he explained with pride. "If you agree, I would like to give you my mother's wedding set. It isn't anything too fancy, but it is very special to me and I want you to have it."

Tears filled Melody's eyes. "Oh, Scott, that's the most romantic thing I've ever heard. I would be honored."

Choking back his own emotions, Scott couldn't help but feeling relieved. He really hadn't known what to expect, or what he would do if Melody had preferred something new. "These rings have been in my mother's family for generations. There's a history that goes along with them, that I would like to share with all of you." He looked apprehensively towards his father.

"Go ahead, son," Murdoch nodded reassuringly.

"My mother's family came from Russia many generations ago, and these rings are part of that heritage. There are three rings to the set," Scott explained. "Tradition says that during the engagement period, the bride wears one, the groom wears one, and the other is worn by someone who is to be a witness at the wedding." Lifting Melody's hand up, Scott slipped the yellow-gold band onto her finger. "On our wedding day, the three bands will be reunited into one ring for you to wear always."

"What a wonderful tradition," Teresa said breathlessly.

"Depending on the nature of the groom's occupation, sometimes the second band wasn't actually worn, but was stored in a personal place for safekeeping," Scott added. He didn't want Melody to think something was wrong when he wasn't wearing his band, but it would never survive ranch work.

"Do you have someone in mind for the witness ring?" Murdoch asked.

"I'll leave that one up to Melody." Scott didn't care, not really, as long as he was the one privileged enough to get her hand in marriage.

He was almost surprised when Melody immediately asked, "Is there any tradition or requirement for the honor?" Scott didn't know, and looked to Murdoch for help.

"Well, Scott's mother chose her maid of honor," Murdoch said thoughtfully. "And, if I remember correctly, Catherine said her mother's maid of honor, who happened to be her younger sister, did the honors."

Melody looked slightly disappointed. "So it's always the bride's maid of honor?"

"Not always," Murdoch continued. "In fact, I believe Catherine and her mother were the first to chose that individual. As well as I can recall, I think the honor was usually bestowed on the groom's brother or father before then. Or maybe the best man," Murdoch's brow creased as he tried to think of things from so long ago. "I don't think there's any one particular person. I think it's supposed to be someone the bride and groom trust implicitly."

Murdoch seemed to have said just the right thing, because Melody's face lit up with a brilliant smile. "In that case, there can be only one choice."

Scott was a little surprised when she took the rose-gold band from him, which left the white-gold one for him as the groom. She then slipped from her seat and moved to the end of the long table, where she kneeled down next to Johnny's chair. Taking his hand, she pressed the ring into his palm. "Johnny, there's no one Scott trusts more than you, and I feel the same way."

Johnny paled so suddenly, he looked like he was about to pass out. "I...I...I can't," he stuttered. "I might...I mean...I would never be able to forgive myself if somethin' happened to it."

"Please, Johnny," Melody said in a soft pleading voice. "For me."

For many minutes the room was silent. Scott watched as the woman he loved totally, and the brother he loved just as deeply, but in a different way, found a common ground on which their mutual affection for him could be shared. It was both flattering and humbling to realize that he was so consequential to the two most important people in his life.

"If you're sure?" Johnny finally replied with much trepidation.

Melody smiled. "Oh, I'm very sure, Johnny. There's no one in the world I'd want to have such an important role in our lives." Leaning forward, Melody wrapped her arms around Johnny and he returned the hug in kind.

As his fiancé and his brother share a loving embrace, Scott found it very hard to keep his emotions at bay. Even though he had never voiced his concerns to Melody, she had obviously seen how fearful Johnny was of their relationship. Like the generous and caring individual that she was, she hadn't felt threatened or insulted by Johnny's fears. Instead, she had taken it upon herself to soothe away those fears. Whether she knew it or not, this was something that only she could do. Only she was capable of convincing Johnny that she was not a threat to him, and she had chosen to take on that battle of her own free will. This was just one more reason he had to love her.

+++ +++ +++ +++

Johnny entered the great room, feeling better than he had in months. He had carefully tucked away the rose-gold band in the tiny box he kept in the bottom drawer of his chest. In it were the few important things he had to his name — his mother's wedding ring, not the one from Murdoch; the dried remains of a flower given to him in gratitude by a little Mexican girl whose life he had saved at the expense of a bullet to his own shoulder; a small medallion, like the one he still wore around his neck, only this one was dented by the bullet it had prevented from entering his chest; and now, a part of his brother's wedding ring to his future wife, something he would cherish until the day he could return it to where it belonged.

"Where'd everybody go?" he asked as he looked around the empty room.

Murdoch looked up from behind his desk. "Jelly took Mr. Harper out to the barn to talk 'goose breeding'. Seems Jelly has a hankering to have a whole gaggle of Dewdrops running around here."

"Ain't one enough?" Johnny grinned.

"More than enough, but what can we do?" Murdoch sighed heavily. "Teresa is up in her room planning a dress for the wedding, and Scott and Melody went for a walk."

Johnny nodded, and then strolled over to the desk. Perching himself on the corner, he picked up a pencil and began twirling in the air. "You know, Murdoch, I been doin' some thinking. Havin' Melody ridin' herd on Scott might not be so bad, after all."

"Oh?" Although this was what Murdoch had been hoping for his son to reach this conclusion, he didn't quite care for the mischievous tone in which it had been said.

"Sure, with Scott tied down to one woman, that leaves more females for me."

Now he was sure he didn't like this, but now wasn't the time to get all fatherly with his grown son. Trying to sound unconcerned, he asked stiffly, "Anyone in particular you have in mind, John?"

"Well, there's Abigail Swenson, for one."

Murdoch almost fell out of his chair.

+++ +++ +++ +++

"Abigail Swenson!" Melody yelped from the veranda, where she and Scott had arrived just in time to unavoidably overhear the last part of Johnny and Murdoch's conversation.

"Sshhh," Scott warned. "I don't want Johnny to think we were eavesdropping." Figuring he was in hot water for sure, Scott tried to cover for his previous dalliances. "Abigail meant nothing to me, Melody. She was nice to be with, that's all. It was never anything serious. We were really nothing more than friends."

The confusion on Melody's face suddenly transformed into enlightened reproach. "Scott, I couldn't care less about what you did or did not see in Abigail Swenson. I'm not a fool. I know you courted other women before I came to town, and I'm willing to bet you were no saint back in Boston, either. I'm not about get jealous over things that happened before you even met me."

"Then why such a harsh reaction?" Scott asked dubiously.

"Because Abigail Swenson is entirely too old for Johnny!" she snapped. "And if that's not reason enough to be concerned, I can tell you that she values her own opinion way too much, she can't keep her big mouth shut about anything, and if she knew half as much about everything as she thinks she does, she might actually be capable of carrying on a halfway-intelligent conversation. Johnny can do much better than her."

Unable to help himself, Scott began laughing. Although this garnered him a rather indignant look from Melody, he couldn't help himself.

"And just what's so funny?" Melody demanded.

"You," Scott replied with a smile. The look he got made him stifle another his humor and explain before they had their first fight. "I believe just yesterday you were the one accusing me of being protective of Johnny to the point that no woman would ever be good enough for him, yet here you are verbally tearing poor Abigail to shreds just because Johnny mentioned he might consider calling on her."

For a brief moment Melody fought to retain her stern composure, but in the end it was a battle that she couldn't win. Giggling, she leaned towards Scott, snuggling close as his arms wrapped around her. "But, Scott, Abigail really isn't good enough for Johnny."

From inside the house, they heard Murdoch's raised voice. "Mary Jane Tacket! I don't think so, John Lancer!"

"An' just why can't I call on her?" Johnny's voice replied just as loudly, and with equal amounts of belligerence.

"She is entirely too old for you, that's why!" came the stern response. "She was virtually too old for Scott, and thankfully nothing ever became too serious between them. However, I will not have any son of mine chasing around after a woman old enough to be his mother!"

"Mother?" Scott repeated with open-mouthed disbelief. "Mary Jane is only a year older than I am. Murdoch's lost his mind." To his surprise, Scott felt Melody begin shaking in his arms. His concern faded, though, when he realized she was laughing. "What?"

"You know what this means, don't you?"


"Between you, me and your father, there isn't a woman alive who stands a chance of passing all those approval tests. Johnny will never find anyone to please all of us."

Realizing just how bad they all had sounded, Scott asked mischievously. "So, have you got any ideas for the rest of the family headstones?"

"Well, let's see," Melody said with a thoughtful sigh. "For Johnny, how about 'dashingly handsome, even for a brunette — but for some reason just could not manage to find the right woman'."

Scott laughed. "And Murdoch?"

Melody's eyes sparkled in a manner reminiscent of Johnny's when he was up to something. "Oh, that's easy," she said with a grin. "One man, two wives, two sons, one daughter-in-law, twelve grandchildren, a ward, a Jelly, and a goose named Dewdrop'. That ought to have the future Lancers scratching their heads in wonder for decades to come."

Pulling her close again, Scott counted his many blessings. He couldn't have been happier if he tried. Coming to Lancer had been the most important decision of his life, and he knew now that at Lancer he would stay for the rest of his life.

"I love you, Melody Harper," he whispered with the utmost contentment.

"I love you, too, Scott Lancer," came an equally as contented reply. "I want to spend the rest of my life here at Lancer, with you and your family. I have only one request, though."

"What's that?" Scott's softly spoken question was met with a teasing laugh.

"Promise me you'll leave the dress wearing to me from now on."

Laughing, Scott tightened his arms around her. "I promise. No more dresses for me. Once was more than enough."

"And no more talking Johnny into it either. I don't want our kids to be corrupted by such juvenile behavior."

"Isn't that two requests, my dear Miss Harper?"

"Yes, but get used to it, Mr. Lancer. Remember, women are always right."

"Yes, ma'am," Scott grinned. In his heart he had never felt happier. Life was as good as it could get, and if that meant letting his future wife think she was right, then so be it.


(1) "My dress! I wish to know who took my beautiful dress," the woman babbled in a string of fluent French that was well beyond Murdoch's limited comprehension. "What kind of lawless country is this, where a lady's clothing is not safe in her own hotel room? Jean Luc, please tell them to return my dress this instant!"

(2) "Sshhh, little sister,"

(3) "My brother, my friend, my life."

(4) "I love you, too."



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