Penance by Terri

Word Count 65,840

Chapter One

Johnny led the team up to the front walk and tied them to the hitching rail, then helped his sister into the buggy. A moment later, his father and brother came out of the house and climbed in. Murdoch picked up the reins, then looked at his younger son questioningly.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go with us?”

Johnny shook his head, keeping his eyes down. With a sigh, his father nodded. “All right. We should be home by late afternoon.”

Johnny nodded again. “Take your time, I’ll find somethin’ ta do.”

Teresa spoke up. “Johnny, please come with us.”

Murdoch watched him for another moment, hoping his son would change his mind, but when Johnny kept his eyes downcast, Murdoch finally slapped the reins down on the back of the horses and the buggy lurched forward and out of the yard.

Johnny watched as his family left, then walked slowly into the house. He knew his father was disappointed in him, in fact they were probably all disappointed in him, but he just could bring himself to go. His family might understand if he told them the reason, they always were tolerant of his failures, but he just couldn’t bring himself to tell them. He figured they probably had a good idea why he refused to go, but they didn’t know all of the details and he wasn’t going to enlighten then.

He had been at Lancer for almost a year, and his family had been unfailingly understanding and patient with him, but he still felt unworthy of them. He knew his father had read the Pinkerton report and was aware of at least some of his sins, but he didn’t know all of them, thank God. Johnny was afraid if Murdoch ever found out some of his gunfighter son’s secrets, he would kick Johnny out without hesitation, and Johnny wouldn’t blame him one little bit.

Johnny had read the report a month or so after arriving, and he couldn’t understand why Murdoch had even sent for him after reading it. It hadn’t listed everything, but there was enough in there to make it clear that he was a vicious killer. His failings had been listed in black and white, and Johnny had felt like throwing the accursed account into the fire, but he had finally reasoned that his father had already read it, and he waited resignedly for Murdoch to tell him to leave.

After reading that, he was convinced that his father had only brought him to Lancer for his gun. Johnny had fully expected his father to tell him to hit the road when the fight was over and he was fully recovered from his wounds. He had waited for the ax to fall, but it never had. Murdoch had seemed to accept him as much as he accepted Scott, and that thoroughly confused Johnny. His brother was smart, decent, and was a true gentleman; everything Johnny wasn’t.

Even now, after being at Lancer for so long, he was still expecting his father to wake up and realize just what his son was really like. Johnny certainly wasn’t proud of the man he had been, and since he had been here he had tried desperately not to do anything that would disappoint his father or brother, but he knew that he could never change the past.

He knew in his heart that he didn’t deserve the good fortune that had befallen him, but he would do his best to try to make up for his past and not do anything to give his family any more reasons to be ashamed of him. He just prayed they never knew some of his secrets. At night, sometimes he had nightmares, and in one of the worst ones his family found out about his sins. Their looks of disgust and their words of rejection tore into his very soul, and he would wake up, trembling and thankful he had been able to keep his secrets one more day.

Shortly after arriving at Lancer, he had visited the small local Catholic Church in Morro Coyo while the rest of his family was at the chapel they attended in Green River. He had walked cautiously into the church and had sunk down onto his knees in the back row. The familiar words from his childhood had calmed him down, and he had made up his mind to attend regularly.

The promise of forgiveness had reassured Johnny, and for the first time in a long time he had felt hope for his future. After attending regularly for a month, he had gotten up enough nerve to go to confession. He had never talked to the priest before; he was always the last one into church and the first one to leave, but he had been encouraged because at least the father hadn’t kicked him out.

He had walked around the church a dozen times before getting up enough courage to enter the small confessional. Finally he had entered the cubicle and knelt to recount his sins to the priest. The man had listened in silence as the gunfighter listed his transgressions, and had then told Johnny there was no penance for the things he had done, and that he would be condemned to eternal damnation. He then told Johnny he was not welcome at the church; the father was afraid he would scare off his other parishioners. Johnny had left; ashamed and resigned to his fate.

He hadn’t tried to go back since, and he had also avoided going with the rest of his family to their church. He didn’t want to embarrass them if their pastor kicked him out, so he had stayed home every Sunday, even though he longed to go with them.

With as sigh, he glanced up as the grandfather clock chimed the hour. The church service would last another hour, and then they would go to lunch before finally heading home. He walked into the kitchen and made a sandwich, then walked aimlessly around the house, his footsteps echoing in the silent house.

Chapter Two

When the buggy pulled into the yard, Johnny came out to greet his family. He smiled as he walked out; he had missed them. It was a relatively new feeling for him, and he still wasn’t used to it. It hadn’t been too long ago that he regularly left for a day or two at a time. He wasn’t used to being with someone all of the time. Most of his life he had been alone, and although he didn’t particularly like being alone, it was what he was used to.

When he had first come to Lancer, there had been times when the commotion had just been too much. He would take off for no other reason than he needed some space. The first several times, either Murdoch or Scott came after him, but they soon realized that he wasn’t angry or upset and he WAS planning on coming back. Finally they had come to an agreement. He had promised that he would never take off for good, at least without telling them, and they had accepted his occasional disappearances.

As time went by, the need to leave had almost disappeared. He had finally become used to the company of his family, and now he didn’t know how he had survived without it. He found himself missing them even when he had been separated for only a short time.

He walked up to the buggy and helped Teresa out, then walked with Scott to help him take care of the horses. They groomed and fed the two animals in companionable silence until his brother finally spoke.

“So what did you do while we were gone?”

Johnny shrugged. “Nothin’.”

Scott eyebrows quirked up. “Well, that sure makes me feel good.”

“What?”

“That you’d rather stay here and do nothing than be with us.”

Johnny took a deep breath and dropped his head. “It ain’t that I don’t want ta be with ya, Scott.”

Scott sighed. “I know.” He reached over and put his hand on Johnny’s arm. “You don’t want to go to church, do you?”

Johnny’s head remained down, and he shrugged once more.

“Johnny, you do know that EVERYONE’S welcome in church, don’t you?”

Johnny nodded slowly, unwilling to admit to his brother that he knew that he wasn’t. He felt his brother’s hand tighten for a moment, then Scott let go. “I hope you didn’t eat all the food while we were gone. I’m starving.”

Grateful for the change of subject, Johnny punched his brother on the arm. “Only the good stuff.”

Scott dropped an arm around his brother’s shoulders and the two men walked into the house. As soon as the door shut behind them, their father called them over to his desk.

“Boys, I need to discuss something with you.” Murdoch tossed a letter down on the desk.

“What’s this?” Scott asked as he picked up the paper.

“I received a letter from the owner of a ranch down in Los Angeles. Quite a few years ago I purchased some Palomino mares and stallions from them. They have good stock.” He looked at Johnny. “The stallion that sired Barranca came from that ranch.”

Johnny nodded and waited for his father to continue, while Scott perused the letter.

Murdoch continued. “This letter is actually from the widow of the man I purchased the horses from. Evidently he was killed about two years ago, and she and her daughter have been trying to run the ranch ever since. They’ve finally realized they can’t make it, and are selling off their stock in order to get some money to survive on. She wants to know if Lancer is interested in buying some more horses.”

Scott put the letter down and shrugged. He knew Johnny had been itching to expand the horse breeding business that Murdoch had started. “It’s all right by me; we can always use some more good stock. It says in the letter they have about a hundred head for sale.”

Johnny immediately nodded. “We can cull out and sell anything that isn’t good enough ta breed. We have that army contract comin’ up.”

Murdoch smiled; he had known what his sons would say. Johnny would jump at the chance of getting more palominos, and Scott would back him up. Murdoch knew Lancer didn’t need any more stock right now, but it wouldn’t hurt anything, and he wanted to help the two women. He nodded. “All right, which one of you wants to go?” he asked with a smile, knowing exactly who would jump at the chance.

“I’ll go,” Johnny said before his brother even had a chance to open his mouth.

Scott nodded. “I couldn’t go for a while, anyway. I need to finish that windmill project up in the upper pasture before summer.”

Murdoch nodded. “All right, Johnny. I’ll leave it up to you to make the deal. Just use your own judgment whether to buy them or not and how much to pay. When will you leave?”

Scott spoke up. “It says in the letter that she needs to sell them as soon as possible. I think we should wire her and let her know, or she might sell them to someone else.”

Murdoch nodded. “I’ll have Cipriano send the telegram tomorrow morning.”

Johnny shook his head. “I can leave tomorrow and stop in Green River and send the telegram then.”

“OK.” He picked up the letter and handed it to Johnny and the gunfighter placed it in his pocket without looking at it. Murdoch stood up and headed toward the dining room. “Let’s eat.”

Later that evening, Johnny climbed the stairs to his room and quietly closed the door. He took off his shirt and threw it over the chair, and the letter fell out of his pocket. He picked it up and glanced at it, then started to put it back in his shirt. Suddenly, he froze. He quickly pulled the letter back and looked at it again, the blood draining from his face as he studied it.

Johnny sat down hard on the bed, his eyes focused on the letter in disbelief, and the memories came flooding back. There was no way he could go to that ranch; not if he wanted to live.

Chapter Three

Johnny sat on his bed for over an hour, staring at the letter and reliving that horrible time. He knew he couldn’t show up at that ranch, but he didn’t know how he could get out of going without explaining to his father and brother as to why he couldn’t.

Apparently, his nightmare was going to come true. He knew his father would demand to know the details, and once he did, he figured Murdoch would finally realize just what kind of a man the gunfighter was. He thought briefly of pretending to be sick, but he figured they’d know he was lying, and if they didn’t, Sam sure as hell would.

Finally, he rose woodenly to his feet. He went over to the window and looked out at the peaceful scene for a long time, then turned toward his closet. He rummaged through it and dragged out his saddlebags. He placed them on the bed and packed them, then put them back into the closet. He didn’t think that Murdoch would kick him out without giving him time to pack, but he wasn’t going to take any chances. He’d be prepared, just in case.

When he was done, he left the room, stopping to look back inside, wondering if it would still be his room after tonight. With dragging feet, he forced himself to Murdoch’s room. Maybe he could get by with just telling his father. That would be bad enough; he didn’t think he could survive a confession to his brother, too. He stood by the door for several seconds, then knocked softly, halfway hoping his father was asleep and he could put this off until the morning.

“Come in.”

Johnny hesitated for a second, then pushed the door open and stepped inside. He bit his lip nervously, unsure of just how to proceed.

“Johnny, are you OK?” his father asked worriedly as he sat up in bed.

Johnny dropped his head and nodded. “I need ta talk to you,” he said softly.

Murdoch watched in concern as his son slowly approached, looking for all the world like an errant child who was approaching the woodshed. Murdoch smiled reassuringly and patted the bed next to him. Johnny walked a few steps closer, then turned and looked out the window.

“I can’t go to that ranch tomorrow.”

Murdoch’s brows knitted in confusion. “Why? Aren’t you feeling well?”

Johnny nodded. “I’m fine,” he said flatly.

“Johnny, what’s wrong, son?”

Johnny snorted softly. “You may not want ta call me that after I tell ya why.”

Murdoch stood up and walked over to him. “You’ll always be my son, no matter what. Now what’s bothering you?”

Johnny turned toward his father and took a deep breath, and Murdoch waited patiently for his son to start, but a shiver of fear went through him. His son was one of the bravest men he knew, and whatever was bothering him had to be serious.

Finally Johnny nodded, as if he had made up his mind, and he started talking quietly.

“About a year and a half before I came home, I had hired out to a guy named Alvarez. He told me that one of the local ranchers had been giving him a hard time over water rights and graze. He said this rancher…” He glanced up at his father. “Conners, wouldn’t listen to reason and was threatening all of the other ranchers. He said he had to be killed.”

“Conners? The owner of the Flying C?”

Johnny nodded. “I took the job and went up to Los Angeles to take care of it. I made sure Alvarez wasn’t lyin’, and he wasn’t. The problem was, Conners wouldn’t fight me. He was smart enough ta know he couldn’t win.”

Johnny started pacing, trying to get up enough nerve to tell his father what had happened next. He walked back over to the window and looked out, unable to look his father in the eyes while he told him the rest. “I had already taken some of Alvarez’ money, so I had ta figure out how to force the rancher to fight.”

Johnny dropped his head. “He had a daughter, maybe nineteen. I figured if I started hittin’ on her he’d get mad enough ta come after me. Her father told her ta stay away from me, but she was just rebellious enough ta ignore him. She’d sneak out and meet me. We went out a few times, and…and things went a little further than they should have. She thought…she thought she was in love with me. She was really a sweet kid…I didn’t mean ta hurt her.”

Johnny sighed but didn’t turn around. He didn’t want to see the disgust in his father’s eyes, and grimly continued. “I decided I wasn’t going to kill her father. I couldn’t. I really cared for her, in fact I…” He sighed once more. “I rode into town ta give the money back to Alvarez, but Conners was there and saw us talking. Conners called me out. Said I had raped his daughter. I tried ta talk him out of it, tried ta tell him it wasn’t like that, but he wouldn’t listen. He drew on me.”

Murdoch waited for his son to continue, not sure he wanted to hear the rest.

“I tried ta just wing him. I still didn’t want ta kill him, but he crouched just as he shot. I killed him anyway. His daughter came runnin’ out; she had seen the whole thing. She saw Alvarez walk over and give me the rest of the money. I took it ‘cause I thought I could give it to her. But then she started screaming at me and….and she accused me of doin’ what her father had accused me of. I tried ta talk to her, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could say. The townspeople were getting’ kinda worked up, so I left.” He shook his head. “I never went back.”

Johnny cautiously looked toward his father, who was studying Johnny intently. They locked eyes for a moment, then Murdoch slowly shook his head. Johnny dropped his head once more, knowing what his father was going to say, not that he blamed him. He had never been so ashamed of anything in his life. He was just glad he had already packed his bags.

Chapter Four

Johnny raised his eyes as his father spoke. “What you did wasn’t very honorable, but I don’t have to ask you if you forced that girl. I know you better than that, and I know you’d never do something like that.”

Johnny shook his head.

“And I also know you well enough to know you regret what you did, but you’re right, I don’t think you should go back there. Scott has to finish that windmill before summer so I’ll go.”

“I’m sorry, Murdoch.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “Everybody makes mistakes.”

Johnny looked at him cautiously. “That’s it?”

“What do you mean?”

“I thought you’d be angry and disappointed. I thought you’d tell me ta leave.”

Murdoch shut his eyes. “Johnny, you’re my son. I’ll never tell you to leave. I am a little disappointed, but I’m certainly not angry. We’ve all done things that we’re not very proud of. That’s how we learn. You make it sound like she was totally innocent in all of it, but she chose to defy her father.”

“She was just a kid, she didn’t know any better.”

“She was one year younger than you!”

Johnny shrugged. “I wasn’t no kid, and I sure as hell knew better.”

Murdoch smiled sadly. “No, you weren’t a kid, but for once you acted your age, and I’m sure not going to blame you for that.”

Johnny slowly nodded. “Thanks, Murdoch, for understanding.”

“Have you told your brother?”

Johnny shook his head and wouldn’t meet his father’s eyes. Murdoch watched his son for a moment and then nodded. “Well, we’d better come up with a reason that you can’t go.”

“I guess I could get sick,” Johnny said cautiously.

“I don’t think Scott would believe that.”

“Wanna shoot me?”

“That’s not funny!”

Johnny shrugged. “Ta tell ya the truth, I thought that’s just what ya might do after I told ya what I’d done.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Do you really have that little faith in us, in me?”

“It’s not that I don’t have faith in you, it’s just that I know what I deserve,” Johnny said slowly. “I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life. Things I’m ashamed of and that I wish I could change, but I can’t. I can’t expect you ta accept those things.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Johnny I may not approve of some of the things you have done, but I DO accept you, unconditionally. I know how hard you’ve tried, and to tell you the truth, I was pleasantly surprised to find out just what kind of man you had become.”

“How can you say that after what I just told you?” Johnny asked in confusion.

Murdoch walked over and put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Because I know you’ve always done the best you could, and I know how much you’ve tried to change. You can’t let a couple of mistakes ruin your whole life.”

“I’ve ruined a lot of other people’s lives,” he said honestly.

“And you’ve also saved a lot of people’s lives, haven’t you?”

Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know, maybe.”

“I know you have.”

“It don’t make up for what I’ve done. I can’t expect forgiveness just because I’ve done a few good things. They don’t make up for the bad.”

“The Bible says that anyone can be forgiven, as long as they’re truly repentant.”

Johnny snorted. “That ain’t the way I heard it.’

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

Johnny shook his head. “Nothin’.”

“Johnny, if you don’t believe me, then you need to talk to someone about that. If you’re not comfortable talking to the pastor of our church, then talk to the priest in Morro Coyo.”

Johnny snorted once more. “Yeah, well, I ain’t real welcome there.”

“What do you mean?” Murdoch repeated.

Johnny just shook his head and dropped his eyes. Murdoch took his hand and lifted his son’s face. “Johnny, did someone tell you that you weren’t welcome in church? Is that why you won’t go with us?”

Johnny sighed. “He’s right, I don’t belong there with decent folks.”

Murdoch felt his blood pressure start to rise. “Who told you that?”

Johnny shrugged. “The priest in Morro Coyo.”

“Don’t you EVER believe that! That man has no business being a priest! He should be horsewhipped for saying something like that! Johnny, you are a caring and decent young man. You can’t let what that idiot said bother you. Any priest or pastor worthy of their occupation will tell you that anyone is welcome in church and that forgiveness is possible for anyone.”

When Johnny didn’t reply, Murdoch shook his head. “When I get back, I think I’ll pay that so called priest a little visit.”

Johnny’s head shot up. “No, Murdoch, it don’t matter, just let it go. You can’t change somebody’s mind by threatenin’ them.”

“I have no intention of THREATENING anyone, but I plan on putting the fear of God into him!”

Johnny smiled slightly. “You gonna beat up a priest?”

“Maybe!” Murdoch fumed.

Johnny shook his head, perplexed. “Why are you lettin’ it bother you so much?”

“Because you’re MY SON!”

Johnny’s head remained bowed and his father sighed deeply. “Johnny, why can’t you see yourself as other people see you? You have to believe in yourself and stop thinking the worst of yourself. All you can do is your best. That’s all anyone can ever ask of you, including us. You need to stop punishing yourself and accept that you’re loved.”

Johnny spun around, not wanting his father to see the emotion in his eyes, overwhelmed at his father’s support.

Murdoch shook his head at his son’s reaction. “I’ll leave tomorrow. I’ll tell Scott that I decided I wanted to go. If you want him to believe it, you’d better act disappointed.”

Johnny turned around and smiled slowly at his father. “I will.” He hesitated. “Murdoch, make sure you give ‘em enough for those horses. You can take it outta my pay. It’s my fault they’re losin’ the ranch.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll be more than fair.”

Johnny nodded and walked toward the door. Before he left, he turned and looked at his father. “Thanks, Murdoch, for everything.”

Murdoch nodded. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Chapter Five

Murdoch left the next morning, and he was pleasantly surprised that his elder son accepted their explanation with no questions. It seemed that Scott was too preoccupied with getting the windmills fixed to worry about who was going to buy horses, and Murdoch was glad that Johnny wouldn’t have to try and explain things to his brother. He knew that Scott wouldn’t judge him, but he didn’t think Johnny wanted to tell him until he was ready. Murdoch was grateful and a little surprised that Johnny had explained the situation to him instead of his brother, and he hoped that he’d handled it correctly.

He certainly didn’t condone Johnny’s behavior in the matter, but he was also aware that such deceptions were part of being a gunfighter. The fact that his son regretted his actions and felt guilty about how he had treated the girl was enough to reassure Murdoch once again that his son wasn’t like some of the other hardened gunhawks that he had seen. Murdoch was sure that his son hadn’t forced the girl or done anything to harm her physically. He knew his son still had a soul, no matter what Johnny himself believed.

Murdoch was furious with the priest that had told Johnny he wasn’t welcome in church, and Murdoch fully intended to pay him a visit when he got back. The further he rode, the angrier he got, and after several miles he resolutely turned his horse in the direction of Morro Coyo. He would feel much better if he took care of it before he left. He could send the telegram from there just as easily.

An hour later, he left the telegraph officer and pulled his horse to a stop in front of the church. He dismounted and walked over to the small rectory and pounded on the door. Several moments later, a priest opened the door. “Mr. Lancer, welcome.”

Murdoch stepped through the door and studied the priest. He hadn’t had a lot of contact with this man, but he had made a point of giving generous donations each Easter and Christmas. When the church had needed a new roof two years ago, Murdoch had sent several of his men into town to fix the problem, and he had always supported the many fundraisers the church had sponsored.

Murdoch came right to the point. “I have done what I could over the years to support your church, even though I’m not Catholic. I did it because I personally believe that what religion a man follows isn’t important, but the belief in God is. I thought that all religions had the same goals; to encourage their parishioners to be better citizens and better people. Evidently I was wrong.”

The priest shook his head in confusion. “What do you mean?”

Murdoch made an effort to keep his voice soft. “My son came here and was told to leave. I don’t think that sets a very good example of forgiveness, do you?”

The priest turned away nervously. “I assume you’re talking about that gunfighter.”

“THAT GUNFIGHTER is MY SON!”

“He’s a vicious killer, and he has no place in a house of worship,” sniffed the priest.

Murdoch’s hand snaked out and grabbed the startled priest by the frock. “My son is a decent and caring young man, and he sure as HELL is a better man than you are!”

“How DARE you compare a man of God to that half breed killer!

Murdoch’s face turned white as he flung the priest away from him. “If I were you, I’d ask to be reassigned to a different parish, because you’ll be leaving shortly,” he growled.

The priest drew himself up. “And why should I leave? This is my home.”

Murdoch smiled coldly. “Actually, Padre, it isn’t. The land your rectory and church stand on belongs to Lancer. I agreed to build this church when Johnny’s mother lived here, and the deed was never changed.”

The priest’s eyes widened. “You wouldn’t kick a man of God out of his house!”

“No, but I would kick YOU out. I’m leaving for a week or two. I expect you to be gone when I return.”

Murdoch turned and walked out of the building and mounted his horse without looking back. He kicked his horse into a lope, his temper making him spur his mount harder than he normally would. There was no way he would allow such a mean spirited hypocrite to destroy what little self esteem his son had left, and if they had to do without a catholic church in town until a proper priest could be found, then so be it.

Murdoch’s temper gradually cooled as he rode. He was well aware of just how difficult it had been for Johnny to give up his past, and he knew how hard his younger son tried to fit in. When Murdoch had first read the Pinkerton reports about his young son, he had almost given up on the idea of bringing him home. He had been so afraid that Johnny would be too hardened and bitter.

Murdoch had finally decided to take a chance and bring the young man to Lancer. When Johnny Madrid had faced him that first day, Murdoch came close to telling him to leave. The anger emanating from the gunfighter was palpable. But Murdoch had also seen something else, a yearning look in the boy’s eyes; a silent plea for acceptance. Murdoch had taken a chance, as had Johnny, and in the next several months they had become a family.

Murdoch swore softly. No one or nothing was going to tear his family apart now, and he wasn’t going to allow ANYONE to tell Johnny he wasn’t worthy of being at Lancer. Johnny was more than worthy, and he’d proven it more than once. Murdoch smiled grimly. He hoped that priest was long gone by the time Murdoch returned, or Johnny Madrid would be the least of the man’s worries. He would have to deal with Johnny Madrid’s father.

Chapter Six

Murdoch looked down into the small valley that housed the Connor’s ranch and shook his head. He still didn’t know how the man had managed to raise quality horses on land as dry and poor as this ranch. There wasn’t a hint of green anywhere.

Murdoch had met the man twice, and both times Connors had complained about the lack of water. He had told Murdoch that he would be rich if the ranch just had a reliable water source, but the neighboring ranchers held most of the rights, and he didn’t have the money to buy them.

Murdoch believed what Johnny had told him; he thought that Connors was more than capable of trying to obtain the water illegally. Connors had a lot of ambition and a very high opinion of himself, and he had struck Murdoch as the type who would do anything to get ahead.

If Connors’ stock hadn’t been so superior, Murdoch never would have done business with him, at least after the first time. One of the head Murdoch had first purchased had been doctored up pretty good, a fact that Murdoch hadn’t discovered until he arrived home.

Connors had apologized and told him that he hadn’t meant to send that horse along, but Murdoch didn’t quite believe him, and he had gone over the second bunch thoroughly before taking possession. He had found several head in that herd that hadn’t been as represented, and Connors had just shrugged. That was the last time Murdoch had had any dealings with the man.

Murdoch sighed, remembering what his son had told him. He tried to remember the girl, but he had only seen her once, and then very briefly. Connors had seemed very protective of her, a fact that Johnny Madrid had obviously found out. Murdoch sighed again, not really able to envision his son in the kind of life he had been forced to lead, and he was eternally thankful Johnny had finally come home. No matter how dangerous Johnny Madrid was, Murdoch knew that his son hadn’t been cut out for that life. He was too decent and gentle. If Johnny hadn’t come home when he did, Murdoch knew that he would have lost his son for good, one way or another.

Murdoch took a deep breath and nudged his horse down off of the hill, wondering what he would find. He reined his horse toward the house, and was surprised to see that the corrals surrounding the barns were empty. He hoped they had received his telegram in time, but he supposed if they hadn’t there was no harm done, except for a disappointed son.

He stopped his horse in front of the house and stiffly dismounted. The ride had played havoc with his back, and he knew the ride home would be worse. He looked up as the door opened, and Mrs. Connors shaded her eyes for a moment, then smiled. “Mr. Lancer, we’ve been expecting you. Come in.”

Murdoch took off his hat and hit it against his pant leg to remove some of the trail dust, then followed the lady into the house. He looked around, and she motioned toward a chair next to a table.

“Please sit down. Lunch will be ready in a moment.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t want to put you out.”

“It’s no bother, really.”

Murdoch nodded and looked around. “I’m sorry to hear about your husband,” he said cautiously.

The woman hesitated a moment, then nodded her head. “Thank you.”

“It must be hard, trying to keep a ranch going without a man around.”

Mrs. Connors nodded. “Too hard. We’ve decided we can’t do it, so we’re going to sell off everything we can and move into the city.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “What do you plan on doing there?”

Murdoch saw a look of fear cross the lady’s face before she answered. “I’m sure we’ll find work somewhere.”

Murdoch nodded once again, but he was worried by her answer. Without some skill, jobs for women were very limited. “Did you already sell the horses? I didn’t see any when I rode up.”

Mrs. Connors shook her head nervously. “No, we haven’t.” Her eyes locked on the rancher. “I was hoping that whoever bought them could round them up.”

Murdoch’s eyes widened. “They’re running loose?”

The lady nodded slowly. “We don’t have any way to catch them ourselves, and we don’t have the money to hire anyone.”

Murdoch sighed. “Are they on your property?”

She bit her lip. “Usually.”

The rancher closed his eyes. “How many head?” When she didn’t answer, Murdoch looked at her, and saw tears in her eyes.

“I’m not sure,” she whispered. “We sold all of the others. All that’s left are the ones we couldn’t catch. Maybe…thirty.”

Murdoch shook his head in disbelief that he’d ridden this far for thirty head. “What ages?” he asked in disbelief, and got only a shake of the head in reply.

“Are they at least branded, so you have proof of ownership?”

“I think some of them are.” Mrs. Connors bolted to her feet. “I’m sorry! We needed some money to get started on, and no one around here would buy them. We were desperate. I’m sorry.”

Murdoch shook his head in disbelief. “How much money do you think you’ll get for unbroken stock that will take a good deal of effort to catch? There’s no way of even knowing what shape the horses are in or their ages until they’re caught.”

“I’m sorry….I was desperate.” She looked at Murdoch pleadingly. “If you’ll take them, you can give me anything you want for them.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Look, why don’t I just give you some money, and you can keep…”

“NO!” The lady dropped her head. “No, thank you. We don’t want charity. If you don’t want the horses, and for a fair amount, we’ll find another buyer.”

Murdoch stared at her, then slowly shook his head. “No, you have good stock. I’ll buy them.”

Mrs. Connors looked up in amazement. “You will?”

Murdoch nodded and the lady sighed in relief. “You can tell me how much they’re worth once they’re rounded up.”

“I’ll have to send a couple of my men down here to catch them and drive them back to the ranch.”

The lady nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Lancer.”

Murdoch nodded, knowing the money he gave her for the horses wouldn’t last long in the city.

He looked up as a door to a bedroom opened, and a young woman walked out. Murdoch looked up in surprise as Mrs. Connors introduced them. “Mr. Lancer, this is my daughter, Molly, and her son, Jimmy.”

Murdoch glanced at the pretty blond girl, but his eyes were drawn to the dark haired, blue eyed toddler in her arms.

Chapter Seven

Johnny looked up and saw his father coming down the road toward home. He hadn’t been gone quite as long as Johnny had expected him to be, but Johnny wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. He glanced around to see if anyone would notice if he left and decided he’d better finish the portion of fence he was repairing. He’d let his father reach the house and relax for a couple of minutes before bothering him.

Twenty minutes later, Johnny tied Barranca up in front of the house. He stood for several minutes, getting up enough courage to go in. He knew he was being silly, but he’d had a bad feeling about this from the start. He couldn’t believe how understanding his father had been when he had told him about what had happened with Connors and his daughter, but that didn’t mean Murdoch wouldn’t change his mind.

He pushed the door open and caught Murdoch just as he was pouring a large glass of whisky. Murdoch looked up and saw his son, and without a word he poured another glass. Johnny stepped forward and took the offered drink, studying his father’s face as he did.

“Bad news?” Johnny asked quietly.

Murdoch’s head dropped. “No, I don’t think so.”

Johnny waited for his father to continue, his heart clenching with fear.

Finally Murdoch looked up at his son and smiled slowly. “You were so active as a toddler, we couldn’t keep up with you. You were always getting into mischief, and Sam had to come out several times to stitch you up after you’d been hurt. You were always covered with bruises, and I was afraid he’d think we’d been beating you.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Once he came to supper and before the evening was over, you had tried to slide down the banister, you’d crawled up onto my desk, and you managed to sneak outside when no one was looking. We found you in a corral full of unbroken horses.”

Johnny looked at him quizzically, a slight smile on his face. “So then did he believe you?”

Murdoch laughed. “Yes, he did, and he apologized for all of the thoughts that had been going through his mind.”

“So why are you bringing this up now?”

Murdoch took a deep breath. “Because your son is just like you.”

Johnny froze and then his eyes locked on his father. “My son?”

Murdoch nodded.

“You’re sure?” Johnny asked hollowly.

Murdoch smiled. “Yes, I’m sure. The timing’s right, and he looks and acts just like you did at that age.”

Johnny sank onto the nearby sofa and drained his glass in one gulp. “Is he OK? I mean…she doesn’t hate him…does she?”

“No. She loves him.”

Johnny sighed in relief. “Are they all right? Do they need anything?”

Murdoch turned and refilled his glass. “They wouldn’t take charity, and I don’t think the horses are worth much. I’ll give them top dollar, but I’m afraid it won’t last long, at least in the city.”

“How are they plannin’ on makin’ a living?”

Murdoch swirled the whisky around in his glass. “They don’t know.”

Johnny thought about his own childhood for a moment, then nodded. “Bring them here.”

Murdoch’s head shot up, and he shook it. “Johnny, do you really think they’d come here after what you…after what happened?

“You go back and tell them that I’ll marry her…”

Murdoch started to interrupt and Johnny held up his hand. “Wait a minute. Let me finish. I’ll marry Molly. It can be in name only if that’s the way she wants it. She doesn’t have to get near me, but it will insure my son is my rightful heir. They can come here and live, and I’ll support them. And if she finds she can’t stand to be around me, I’ll leave.”

“NO! I WILL not lose you again.”

“And I WILL not have my son growin’ up like me.”

“He won’t.”

“Oh yeah? Just what kind of jobs do ya think they can get? How long before Molly starts workin’ in a saloon? Besides, even if they find decent jobs, who’s gonna watch the boy while they work? He’ll be growin’ up on the streets just like I did, and I won’t allow that.”

“And I’m not going to let you leave.”

“Then you better do some mighty fast talkin’.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Johnny, do you love Molly?”

“What difference does that make? I’m not marryin’ her for me. I’m marryin’ her ta give my son a chance in life.”

“You can’t marry someone you don’t love.”

“Why not? It’s done all the time.”

Murdoch shook his head. “And in the meantime, what if you meet someone else? Someone you DO love?”

Johnny shrugged and turned away. “Then I guess I shoulda been more careful.”

“I’m not going to let you ruin your life because of one mistake.”

Johnny whirled around and faced his father. “My SON is not a mistake, and don’t you ever say that again!”

Murdoch ran his hand through his hair. “Calm down! I didn’t mean it that way. I just meant that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your own life because of one lapse in judgment.”

“NO?” Johnny asked softly. “And what about my son? Do you think he should have to suffer his whole life because of my ‘lapse of judgment’?”

Murdoch sighed. “You don’t know that’s what will happen. Maybe we can help them financially. You don’t have to marry the girl.”

Johnny stared at his father. “Yes, Murdoch, I do. It’s the only way I can guarantee my son gets what is rightfully his.”

“And what if she refuses? You know she probably will.”

“Not if you present it right, not if she loves the boy. You just make sure you tell her what I told you.”

Murdoch shook his head in resignation. “I will, all except the part about you leaving. I will not agree to that.”

Johnny approached his father and looked into his eyes. “Answer one thing for me, Murdoch. And I want the truth. You told me you looked for me for years. If you could have made sure that I was safe and brought me home, would you have done it no matter what?”

Murdoch nodded silently.

“And if the only way you could have made sure I was safe was to leave Lancer, would you have done it?”

Murdoch stared at his son for a long moment, then sighed deeply. “All right, I’ll tell her, but not unless that’s the only way to get her here.”

Johnny nodded. “Thanks.” He dropped his head. “Will you do me one more favor?”

“What?”

Johnny hesitated but didn’t bring his eyes up. “Will you explain what’s goin’ on to Teresa? It’s gonna be hard enough ta tell Scott.”

Murdoch nodded. “I will, but Johnny, you don’t have to be afraid of their reaction. They both love you.”

Johnny shrugged. “Still don’t make it easy.”

Chapter Eight

Two weeks later, Murdoch was once more sitting on the knoll looking down at the Connor’s ranch. He knew he needed to do this, both for Johnny’s sake and for the boy’s, but he sure wasn’t looking forward to it. He didn’t exactly know what kind of a reaction he would get, but he could guarantee it wouldn’t be pleasant.

He had barely stepped off of his horse before the door opened. “Mr. Lancer!”

“Mrs. Connors, good to see you again.”

“It’s good to see you. I wasn’t expecting you again. I thought you were just going to send some hands to pick up the horses.”

Murdoch nodded. “I was, but I needed to talk to you.”

Mrs. Connors looked up in fear. “Did you change your mind?”

“No.” He motioned toward the house. “May I come in?”

Mrs. Connors nodded and headed into the house, where she started pacing nervously. Murdoch looked around as he entered, and immediately saw Molly, who was kneading some bread, the toddler hanging onto her skirts. Murdoch smiled at the girl, then motioned toward the table. “I need to talk to both of you. Would you please sit down for a moment?”

The two women looked at him quizzically, then did as they were asked. The boy immediately climbed up in his mother’s lap, and from there tried to climb onto the table. Murdoch watched him for several moments, his mind going back in time. After several minutes, Murdoch realized the two women were staring at him, and he smiled slightly. “Sorry, I was just…thinking.”

Mrs. Connors nodded. “Are you still going to buy the horses?”

Murdoch nodded. “Yes, I have some men on the way to round them up.”

The woman sighed in relief. “Thank you again. We really need that money.”

Murdoch shook his head. “I’m afraid the money I give you for the horses won’t last very long.”

Mrs. Connors’ chin came up. “It will last long enough.” She darted a look at her daughter. “Both of us plan on getting jobs.”

“Doing what?” Murdoch asked gently.

The woman’s eyes dropped. “We’re not sure. Maybe we can work in one of the stores.”

Murdoch sighed quietly. There were far more women looking for honest work than there were jobs; Johnny was right. When they couldn’t find work, they would be forced to do anything to survive. He glanced at the boy, and then at Molly. “What about your son? Who’s going to watch him while you work?”

Mrs. Connors interrupted impatiently. “I’m sure we’ll manage, Mr. Lancer. You said you had something to talk to us about?”

Murdoch nodded, unsure of how to start. Finally he looked at the older woman. “Why don’t you and your daughter and grandson come to Lancer?”

Mrs. Connor’s eyes narrowed and she shook her head slowly as she watched the man. “What are you suggesting?” she asked.

The tone of her voice made Murdoch blush slightly. “Nothing improper, I assure you. But you could stay there and not worry about finding jobs.”

“I told you, we don’t want charity!”

“Please, let me…”

“Mr. Lancer, I appreciate you buying those horses, but Molly and I will be fine, thank you.”

Murdoch knew without a doubt they wouldn’t be fine, and he dropped his head. “I would like to tell you about my son.”

The ladies glanced at each other. “Why?”

Murdoch shook his head. “Please, may I tell you?”

Mrs. Connors nodded, confused.

Murdoch shut his eyes briefly. “My first wife died in childbirth, and my elder son’s grandfather raised him, back in Boston. My second wife ran off with a gambler when my younger son was only two. I looked for him for years, but couldn’t find him. Finally, about a year ago, the Pinkertons finally tracked him down. They sent me a report of his life up to that point, because they weren’t sure if I still wanted them to contact him.”

“Why?”

“My son had been on his own since he was ten. His mother had been savagely murdered right in front of him, and he’d been forced to kill the man to save his own life. Up until then, his life had been brutal. He was half Mexican and half white, and he was hated on both sides. His mother’s….boyfriends… had beaten him regularly, and he seldom had even the most basic necessities of life. Food, a decent place to sleep, clothes; he had to fight for everything.”

“How terrible,” Mrs. Connors exclaimed.

Murdoch nodded, still not meeting the ladies eyes. “I have nightmares sometimes about how he was forced to live. Anyway, the report said that after his mother died he survived any way he could. Eventually, he picked up a gun. He became a gunfighter.”

Mrs. Connors eyes widened. “I’m sorry.”

“It didn’t matter,” Murdoch said quickly. “He was still my son. Even if he had become someone I didn’t like, even if he had become mean or cold, I couldn’t turn my back on him. I knew it wasn’t his fault. I told the Pinkertons to ask him to come home.”

He shook his head slowly. “I didn’t think he’d come. At the same time, I contacted his brother and asked him to come to Lancer.” Murdoch took a deep breath. “I was having trouble with a land pirate. I was afraid Lancer wouldn’t survive. I was afraid I wouldn’t survive, and I wanted to see my sons before I died.”

“Did they come home?” Molly asked softly.

Murdoch nodded. “Yes, they did. They came home and saved the ranch.” His eyes took on a far away look. “Johnny wasn’t anything like I’d imagined him. It took a while for him to trust us, and for him to get used to ranch work, but he wasn’t mean, and he certainly wasn’t cold. He was gentle and kind, and well liked by everyone. In the last year he’s made a huge effort to change, and he’s tried desperately to put his past behind him, although it hasn’t always been easy for him. People won’t let him forget his past.”

Mrs. Connors looked at him quizzically. “Why are you telling us that?”

Murdoch brought his eyes up and looked at the two women. “I want you to know my son isn’t a hardened killer. He’s made mistakes that he’s very ashamed of, but he’s a good man.”

Molly shook her head. “I’m sure he is, but why do you want us to know that? We don’t even know him.”

Murdoch’s eyes were drawn again to the rambunctious toddler. “Yes, you do.” He smiled softly. “Jimmy looks just like his father did at that age, before his mother left.”

Chapter Nine

Molly’s mouth dropped open and she turned white. Her mother shook her head in disbelief as she looked at the rancher. “Your son is Johnny Madrid?”

Murdoch brought his eyes up to meet hers. “My son is Johnny Lancer, but yes, he went by the name of Madrid at one time.”

Molly stared at him for a moment, shaking her head slightly, then scooped up her son and ran out of the house. Mrs. Connors watched her go, then turned back toward Murdoch, her eyes flashing. “Your SON killed my husband and raped my daughter!”

Murdoch’s head came up and he met her glare. “Yes, he killed your husband, but he tried not to. Your husband drew on him first.”

“Because of what he did to MOLLY!”

“NO! Johnny didn’t force your daughter. He wouldn’t do that!”

“What are you talking about? You admitted that Jimmy is your grandson!”

Murdoch nodded. “Yes, I did. But Johnny didn’t rape Molly.”

“Are you implying that my daughter…”

“I’m not implying anything. They were both young.”

Mrs. Connors stood up and paced the room. “You admitted that he had done things he was ashamed of. You didn’t know him then.”

“I know my son. He wouldn’t do that, and he wouldn’t lie about it to me if he had.”

The woman snorted. “You think he’d admit something like that to you?”

“Yes.”

“He came here to kill my husband! Molly saw Alvarez pay him after he shot my husband down in the street. He USED my daughter to get to him and force my husband to fight him!”

Murdoch’s head dropped. “Yes, he did and he’s ashamed of what he did. But Johnny DID NOT rape your daughter, and he’d changed his mind about killing your husband. He tried to talk Connors out of drawing on him, but it didn’t work!”

Mrs. Connors stared at him and shook her head slightly. “What do you want?”

“I told you. I want you and Molly to come to Lancer.”

“You’re out of your mind! What makes you think we’d go there, knowing he was there?”

“Because you’ll starve in the city.”

“Then we’ll starve.”

“What about Jimmy?”

“We will take care of him.”

“HOW? Who’s going to watch him while you work? If you can’t find work, how are you going to feed him?”

“We’ll figure something out.”

Murdoch sighed. “No matter what you may think of my son, he cares very much about what happens to you and Molly and Jimmy. It was his idea to have you come to Lancer.”

“He’s crazy.”

“No, he’s not. He doesn’t want his son to grow up the way he did, and that’s just what’s going to happen if you try to survive in the city.”

“How dare he think we wouldn’t take care of that child!”

Murdoch shook his head. “He didn’t mean it that way. He KNOWS how hard it is for a single woman to find decent work, and he knows what it’s like to have to do anything to survive. He wants to make sure all of you, and especially Jimmy, are taken care of.”

“It really isn’t his concern.”

Murdoch’s eyes locked on the woman’s. “Yes, it is. No matter how much you dislike that fact, he IS Jimmy’s father and I’m Jimmy’s grandfather. And neither one of us has any intention of letting him grow up in a heartless city.”

She shook her head in disbelief. “You don’t have any say in this at all!”

Murdoch realized he was going about this the wrong way, and he shook his head. “Mrs. Connors, please, let’s discuss this.”

“There’s nothing to discuss.”

Murdoch tried again. “I know you want what’s best for both your daughter and your grandson. Think about it. I think you know how difficult it will be to survive in the city, and how difficult it will be to raise Jimmy the way he should be raised.”

“We’ll do our best.”

“I know, but sometimes your best isn’t good enough. Johnny wants to make sure that his son is taken care of and is recognized as his rightful heir.”

Mrs. Connors shook her head. “Simply being at Lancer won’t guarantee that, in fact, it would probably make things worse. People would talk.”

“Not if Molly married Johnny.”

The woman’s mouth dropped open. “You can’t be serious!”

“It could be a marriage in name only. Molly wouldn’t have to be near Johnny, and it would insure Jimmy is legally a Lancer.”

“Don’t you mean Madrid?” Mrs. Connors spat.

“NO! I don’t. That was never my son’s real name. He is a LANCER, he always has been and he always will be.”

Mrs. Connors turned around and looked out the window. “That could be accomplished without us having to stay at Lancer.”

“Possibly, but Johnny plans on supporting Molly and his son.”

“He could still do that without us being there.”

Murdoch sighed. “Yes, he could, but don’t you think he at least has the right to help raise Jimmy?”

“NO! He has NO rights!”

“He’s Jimmy’s father!”

“I am not going to make Molly be around that man, even if he says he’ll take care of her and Jimmy.”

“Why don’t you ask her?”

“I don’t need to, I know how she feels. Didn’t you see how upset she was when she ran out of here?”

Murdoch knew he’d have to tell her all of it. “Mrs. Connors, I know you don’t trust my son, but let me tell you something. THAT MAN told me to tell you that if Molly married him and came to live at Lancer, and she realized she couldn’t stand to be around him, he’d leave.”

She spun toward him and her eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“I mean,” he ground out, “that Johnny cares more about Molly and his son than he does about himself. He’s offering to leave Lancer so his son is assured of a future.”

Mrs. Connors stared at him, then finally dropped her head. “I’ll talk to her, but I can’t promise anything, and if she agrees, I don’t want her to have to be near him.”

Murdoch nodded, but felt his heart drop. He had the feeling if the woman was successful in talking her daughter into it, he would be losing his son. “See if you can talk her into it, for her son’s sake.”

Chapter Ten

Scott hesitated just outside of Johnny’s door. He knew his brother wanted to be left alone, but he also knew something was wrong. From Teresa’s downcast eyes at the dinner table, she obviously knew it too. Murdoch had left two days ago to pick up the horses, and Scott couldn’t quite figure out why. The hands were more than capable of catching a few dozen horses and driving them back to Lancer, but Murdoch had insisted on going, and Johnny hadn’t even argued with him. No, something was going on, and it seemed as if he was the last to know.

He thought briefly of waiting for Johnny to come to him, but from experience he knew he just might be waiting for a good long while. He rapped on Johnny’s door, and when there was no answer, he pushed the door open. Johnny was standing at the window, looking out at the hills. Scott walked over to him and watched his melancholy expression for a few moments, then sat down on Johnny’s bed. “Want to tell me about it?”

Johnny remained still for several moments before his head dropped. “No, but I guess you’ll find out eventually, anyway.”

Scott scooted back against the headboard and watched as his brother’s eyes closed. A few moments later, Johnny started. Scott listened to the story, and when Johnny was finished, Scott stood up and approached his brother. Johnny’s arms immediately wrapped around himself in the protective gesture that Scott knew so well, and Scott knew his brother was expecting to be censured for his actions. Scott also knew his brother had a habit of seeing the worst in himself, and figured Johnny had painted his behavior in the worst possible light. His brother never made excuses for the things he had done.

Scott shook his head. “Do you think they’ll come?”

Johnny looked up in surprise when the expected lecture didn’t come. “I don’t know. I hope so.”

“Do you?”

“Of course I do.”

“Do you love her?”

Johnny turned toward his brother. “I love my son, and I have no intention of letting him grow up the way I did.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I DON’T KNOW! I don’t really know her! Besides, it doesn’t make any difference. She hates me, and with good reason.”

Scott shook his head. “Johnny, she’s just as much at fault in this as you are.”

Johnny shook his head. “No, Scott, she’s not. She thought she loved me, and she was too young and innocent ta know I was just using her.”

“Johnny, I know there was more to it than that.”

Johnny shrugged and Scott shook his head. “Johnny, no matter what you think, it isn’t all your fault. I understand you wanting to make sure the child is brought up right, but you can still take care of the two of them without having her come here or marrying her.”

Johnny’s head dropped. “Maybe I could, but I at least want to see my son, and I want to make sure he’s all right. The only way I can do that is to marry her and have them stay here. Then if somethin’ happens to me, I know they’ll be safe.”

“You know that if something happened to you, Murdoch and I would make sure your son was taken care of.”

Johnny nodded. “I know, and I appreciate it. But I want him to be legitimate. It’s hard enough for a kid to grow up without havin’ that thrown at him. I want to make sure he’s as safe as I can make him.”

Scott sighed. “And what about you?”

Johnny shrugged and Scott continued. “I’m not going to let you leave, little brother, and I know that’s just what you’re planning on doing.”

“Not unless I have to,” Johnny said softly.

“Well, Murdoch and I are going to make sure you don’t have to.”

Johnny brought his gaze up and fastened it on his brother. “And I am NOT going to let my son leave!”

“Then we’ll just have to figure something out.”

“I mean it, Scott. I’m the one that screwed up, not my son, and he’s not going to pay for my sins.”

Scott shut his eyes, wondering how to get through to his brother. “I don’t think you have as much to pay for as you think you do, Johnny.”

Johnny snorted. “You don’t know all the things I’ve done.”

Scott shook his head slowly. “No, I don’t. But I DO know all of the good things you’ve done since you came here, and I know what kind of a man you are. And I ALSO know how much you’ve already suffered for a lot of your so called sins.”

“You ain’t a priest.”

“I don’t have to be to know the truth.”

Johnny turned away and looked out the window. “It don’t matter. I’m gonna make sure my son doesn’t have ta worry about it.” He turned and looked at his brother. “I NEED ta do this, Scott, not just for my son but for me. I need ta try ta make up for some of the bad things I’ve done. Don’t try ta stop me.”

Scott looked into his brother’s eyes. “All right, but we’re going to figure something out so you don’t have to leave, because if you do leave, I’m going to have to go with you.”

Johnny looked at his brother in confusion. “Why would you go with me?”

“Because you’re my BROTHER!” Scott said in exasperation. He put his hand on his brother’s arm for a second. “Johnny, you know that Murdoch and I will stand behind you, no matter what.”

Johnny’s head dropped. “Why?” he whispered.

“Because you’re my brother and you’re Murdoch’s son, and you’re a good man.”

Johnny shook his head slowly. “I’m afraid a lot of people, including Molly and her mother, just might not agree with you.”

Scott smiled. “Then we’ll just have to change their minds, won’t we?”

Johnny snorted. “You make it sound easy.”

“All you have to do is be yourself.”

Johnny dropped his head. “If I remember right, that’s how I got in this predicament.”

Chapter Eleven

Mrs. Connors watched as the endless miles rolled by. She wasn’t sure she had done the right thing when she had talked Molly into going to Lancer, and she was worried about would happen if she’d been wrong. It had been a difficult decision, and she knew her daughter wasn’t very happy about it. The woman shook her head. The closer they got to Lancer, the more doubts she was having, and the more worried she became.

She glanced into the back and watched Molly as she tried to keep Jimmy occupied in the confined space of the buggy. The active toddler was thoroughly disgusted with his inability to run and play, and was getting crankier by the hour. Molly was doing her best to keep him happy, but Jimmy was having none of it. He wanted to get out of the buggy, and he was letting everyone know it.

Mrs. Connors turned back around and glanced at the man driving the buggy. For some reason, she trusted the rancher, but she couldn’t exactly say why. He had talked her into doing something against her better judgment, using Jimmy to make her go along with it. Once she and Molly had agreed to come to Lancer, he had helped them pack their few belongings and had paid to have the items shipped to the ranch, and he had even taken care of a few small debts she and Molly had run up in town. She had been ashamed for taking his charity, but she knew they couldn’t leave without his help. She assured him they would find a way to pay him back, but he had shrugged it off, saying his son would take care of it. For some reason, that thought worried her more. She didn’t want to be beholden to a man like Madrid.

Murdoch Lancer had done everything possible to make the long trip a pleasant one. Rather than take the stage, he had purchased a horse and buggy in town for the journey. They had stayed overnight in hotels, and he had paid not only for their rooms but their meals as well. She had always thought that he was at least comfortable financially, but she wasn’t sure, and she hated being a burden. She was also very uncomfortable with the thought that Madrid would be paying for it. She wondered if he would be paying with blood money.

She shook her head; Murdoch had told her his son was no longer fighting, and was trying his best to be a rancher, but she wasn’t convinced a man could really change that much. She knew Lancer thought so, and she felt that Mr. Lancer was an honorable man and genuinely wanted what was best for them, but she still wasn’t sure they should have come.

Molly had been totally against the idea; she was adamant that she didn’t want to go anywhere near Madrid, let alone live in the same house. Mrs. Connors had been torn; she knew how difficult it would be for both of them to have to be around the gunfighter, but she also realized that Murdoch Lancer was right to be concerned about their future.

She knew that it would be difficult for two women with virtually no skills to find decent jobs, and as Murdoch had pointed out, even if they did, there would be no one to watch Jimmy. The thought of him running the streets as he grew up made her almost physically sick. There was no way she would allow her grandson to grow up without love and guidance. There was no way she would let him turn into a killer like his father.

She thought once more about what Lancer had said about his son, and she wondered how much was true and how much was wishful thinking on Murdoch’s part. She did believe that the rancher would do his best to make sure Madrid didn’t hurt them any more than he already had, but even being around the gunfighter would be exceedingly difficult. She hoped she could manage to keep a civil tongue in her head, but she wouldn’t bet on it. She glanced back at her daughter and wondered how Molly would cope. She studied the lines on her daughter’s forehead and knew Molly was worried about more than a cranky toddler.

This would be hard on both of them, and they just might wind up leaving quickly anyway, but she and Molly had finally both agreed it would be the best thing for Jimmy. She had done her best to convince her daughter that life in the city would be much tougher than she thought it would be, and jobs would be scarce. After much discussion and some heated arguments, Molly had finally reluctantly agreed to put aside her doubts and fears and give it a try, for Jimmy’s sake.

The last several years had been very hard on both of them, and they had very little money for even the basic necessities. It wasn’t just Jimmy that Mrs. Connors was thinking about, it was Molly as well. Her daughter deserved better than what she had had so far, and maybe at Lancer Molly wouldn’t have to stay awake nights figuring out a way to pay for some milk for her son. Lancer had told them that his son would support them, and she had been somewhat surprised that Madrid would be honorable enough to even think of it. She just hoped he didn’t have an ulterior motive. A thought had come to her a few days ago, and it had been bothering her ever since, but they were already on their way to Lancer. She was afraid that the gunfighter would try and take Jimmy away from them and then kick them out.

She hadn’t brought up her concerns to Molly; she didn’t want to worry her any more than she already was. Her instincts told her that Murdoch Lancer wouldn’t be a part of anything underhanded, but she had been wrong about men before; Molly was proof of that. With a sigh, she sat back in the seat and prayed things would work out. It was all she could do at this point. Whatever happened was in God’s hands.

Chapter Twelve

Johnny paced nervously over to the window and looked out, then walked back to the desk and sifted through some papers. He stared at them with unseeing eyes and then put them neatly back on the desk, arranging the corners so they lined up perfectly. He took out his watch and stared at it, then glanced at the grandfather clock that was chiming the hour. He reset his watch to match the larger clock, then stuffed it back into his pocket. From there, he walked over to the bar and started to pour a glass of whisky, then with an oath, he set the bottle down. He glared at the bottle for a moment, knowing it sure wouldn’t help matters to get drunk, then he snatched the bottle up and poured a generous shot anyway. He whirled around, glass in hand, and resumed his ceaseless pacing.

“If you don’t calm down and stop it, I’m going to hog tie you,” Scott threatened.

Johnny glanced at him, then walked over to the window and looked out once more. He threw back the shot without even tasting it, his mind miles away. He didn’t remember ever being this nervous, and he realized he would rather be waiting to confront a dozen gunfighters than one girl and her mother. It would be a whole lot easier. Johnny snorted; probably safer, too. He hoped Murdoch had made sure neither of the women was armed, or this reunion just might be awfully short.

His head snapped up at the sound of hoof beats, and then he relaxed slightly when he realized it was just one of the hands. He watched as the man approached the house, and then went to the door to answer it.

Johnny jerked the door open and the man nodded.

“Mr. Lancer, your father wanted me to tell you that they are in Green River. He stopped to give the ladies a rest for a little while, and they should be here in a few hours.”

Johnny nodded in relief; his execution had been put off for a little while, anyway. He started to close the door, then changed his mind. There was no way he could wait around for a couple of hours. He’d go crazy, and his brother would probably make good on his threat. He reached over and grabbed his hat from the rack, then strode out of the door, knowing he’d have to hurry or Scott would try to stop him.

He made it to the front porch before he felt his brother’s hand on his arm. “Just where do you think you’re going, little brother?”

Johnny tore his arm away from Scott’s grasp. “For a ride.”

“Johnny,” Scott started.

“Look, I’ll be back. I just need ta get away for a while.”

“For how long?” Scott asked sternly.

Johnny smiled. “I’m not gonna take off, at least not yet.”

Scott nodded. “I think I’ll come with you.”

“Come on, Scott, I said I’ll be back.”

Scott nodded. “And I’m going to go along and make sure you mean today.”

Johnny glared at his brother, but Scott had stopped being intimidated by Madrid a long time ago. Johnny realized he just might have to shoot Scott one of these times so he would be taken seriously. He turned and stalked toward the barn, his brother trailing along behind him. Johnny hurriedly saddled Barranca and leaped on his back, hoping he had beat his brother. He knew Murdoch was gone, so he kicked his horse into a lope and headed for the arch.

As he went under the arch, he glanced back and frowned in disgust when he saw Scott following at a slightly more leisurely pace. Johnny spurred Barranca and tore toward the hills.

A half of an hour later, Johnny stood next to a small lake, tossing pebbles into the water. He wasn’t really thinking, he just needed to work off some of his nervousness. The wild run on Barranca had calmed him down quite a bit, but he still couldn’t sit still. To tell the truth, he was afraid. He knew Molly had every right to hate him, and despite what his brother had said, he didn’t think there was any way for him to change her mind. He knew if he couldn’t, one of them would have to leave, and he would lose his son.

He threw another rock and watched as the ripples spread across the surface and thought back to the question his brother had asked him. Did he love her? He shook his head; he had told his brother the truth, he didn’t know. It had started out as just a way to get to Connors, to make him mad enough to call out Johnny Madrid, but it hadn’t wound up that way. He had truly cared about her. She was fun and sweet, and Johnny had regretted the way he had deceived her into thinking he was serious. The problem was, before it was over, he HAD been serious. He snorted softly. He was the one who had laid the trap, but in the end, he had been the one who had been caught.

He shook his head; it didn’t matter. It had been doomed from the start. Even if he hadn’t killed her father right in front of her, there was no way Johnny Madrid could have settled down with a wife and family. Even if she hadn’t hated him, he had had no choice but to ride on. And now… now he’d have to pay for his actions. He knew that one way or the other, he’d pay. Either he would be forced to leave Lancer and go back to fighting, or he would have to live with Molly’s hate the rest of his life. He just hoped that whatever happened, he could at least win his son’s love, but he figured that might be impossible, too. He knew Molly and her mother would do everything in their power to prevent him from getting close to his son, and to tell the truth, he really couldn’t blame them. He shook his head. He was in for the most important fight of his life, and he was determined not to lose.

Chapter Thirteen

The buggy was slowly driven out of town. Mrs. Connors watched as they left the buildings behind and the landscape opened up into rolling hills. The land in this part of the country was greener than it had been around their ranch, and she was thankful for at least that. She had hated the never changing brown vegetation surrounding their ranch, and the ceaseless dust that infiltrated every part of their lives.

They rode along in silence, and she knew the closer they got to the ranch, the more nervous Molly was becoming.

“How long before we reach the ranch?” Mrs. Connors asked.

“We won’t reach the house for another couple of hours,” Murdoch answered.

She nodded quietly, and glanced back at her daughter, who was staring sightlessly out of the side of the buggy.

Mrs. Connors once more sent up a silent prayer that she had made the right decision.

Molly watched the miles roll by, her mind in turmoil. She didn’t know why she had allowed her mother to talk her into this, and she wasn’t sure if she could go through with it. She didn’t want to see him again. She looked over at the fretful toddler and sighed. She didn’t need to see him to be reminded of that time. All she had to do was to look at her son. He was the spitting image of the dark haired gunfighter.

Johnny was the first man she had fallen for, and she had fallen hard. She had loved him and had willingly given herself to him. At the time, it had seemed so right. But that was before she knew what kind of a man he really was. When Johnny had gunned down her father right in front of her and then taken the money from Alvarez, she had gone into shock. The realization that it had all been a lie, that she had just been used, had sickened her. The love she had felt for the gunfighter had transformed itself into hate in an instant, and she had wanted him to suffer. She wanted revenge. She had heard her father accuse Johnny of raping her, and even though it was far from the truth, after her father had been killed she had accused Johnny also.

She had seen the hurt and confusion in his eyes as she had made her accusation. She knew the townspeople would try to stop him; that they would see that he was punished, but somehow he had managed to escape. The thought that he had used her and then gotten away scot free had made her bitter. She wanted him to suffer for what he had done. She NEEDED to know he had been punished for breaking her heart.

Now she was on her way to his house, to live with him and his family. She wondered if they knew what kind of a man he was, or if they cared. His father had certainly defended him, and she figured they would take his side no matter what Madrid did, and the thought frightened her. She was afraid he would try to take Jimmy away from her, and with the support of his family, he just might succeed. She clutched the boy to her in fear; there was no way he would get her son, no way he would raise the boy to be like him; unfeeling and cold.

She regretted again that she hadn’t been strong enough to stand against her mother and insist they stick to their original plan. No matter how hard it would be in the city, she had the feeing it would be worse at Lancer.

Her mother had expressed the idea that the Lancers might have enough money to support her and Jimmy, but Molly knew that the money wouldn’t be free. Johnny was sure to ask for something in return, and she was positive that whatever he asked, his family would support him. She sighed. Whatever it was, she had no intention of giving in even an inch. She would fight him tooth and nail, and he would learn that she was no longer an innocent child to be taken advantage of. She leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes, listening to the whirring of the wheels as they took her closer to her nightmare.

The buggy finally passed under the great arch, and Mrs. Connors looked in awe as the main house came into view. She had never seen such a large home; more of a castle, really. Of course, even that didn’t mean that the Lancers were overly wealthy. She knew the vagaries of dealing with stock, and knew a man could be wealthy one day and dirt poor the next, depending on God and luck.

The buggy pulled up next to the house, and immediately a grizzled old man came up and reached in to grab the bags.

“Jelly, this is Mrs. Connors and her daughter, Molly, and her son, Jimmy.” Murdoch turned toward the women. “This is Jellifer Hoskins, a good friend.”

Jelly managed to reply politely, but his eyes were on the child. He looked at Murdoch, his eyes wide. “If that don’t beat all,” he muttered, then grabbed some of the bags and headed toward the house.

Murdoch guided the women into the house, and was met just inside the door by Teresa. Introductions were once again made, and he looked at her inquiringly. “Where are Scott and Johnny?”

She blushed slightly. “They left a couple of hours ago. They should be back shortly.” Her eyes caught Murdoch’s, and he knew without a doubt that Johnny had bolted, but since Scott was with him, Murdoch wasn’t too concerned. He figured his older son would be able to calm Johnny down and bring him back.

Teresa offered the women some lemonade and sandwiches, and then suggested they rest up before dinner, a suggestion they gratefully agreed to. The trip had been tiring, and once in their rooms, they fell asleep almost at once.

An hour later, Murdoch paced impatiently in front of the bay window, cursing softly. There was still no sign of his wayward sons, and he was afraid Johnny had taken off rather than face Molly.

.

Chapter Fourteen

“I’m sorry if we overslept,” Mrs. Connors apologized as she and Molly descended the stairs.

“You didn’t. Supper will be ready in a few moments.” Murdoch stood as the ladies entered the room, and their cautious glances around the room weren’t lost on him. “Johnny and Scott aren’t back yet,” he explained.

Both Molly and her mother visibly relaxed, and Murdoch was once again reminded of just how difficult this was going to be for all of them. He walked over to the bar and poured a drink, then looked at the women questioningly. “Would either of you like a glass of wine?’ When they both demurred, Murdoch took his drink and tossed it back, silently cursing his sons for putting him in this predicament. He sincerely hoped that Scott would be able to talk Johnny into coming back, and soon. He didn’t know how much of this he could take.

The two women perched nervously on the sofa as Jimmy ran around the room exploring. Murdoch was struck by how much the toddler reminded him of Johnny, and a small smile appeared on his face at the memories of his son at that age. His son had never been still and had led both he and Maria on many a merry chase. He had the feeling that this youngster was quite a handful, too.

Teresa entered the room and smiled at their guests. “I hope your rooms were comfortable. If you need anything, just let me know.”

Mrs. Connors nodded. “They are fine, thank you.” She had been a little overwhelmed at the luxurious furnishings of their rooms, and the size of each of them was larger than their cabin. She and Molly had stared in wonder at the indoor bathroom that connected their two bedrooms and the jars of crèmes and baskets of soap for their use. She knew she was going to try out the bathtub as soon as possible; she felt as if she had an inch of travel dust on her.

Jimmy ran up to Teresa and studied her solemnly, then a wide grin split his face and he held out his arms. She picked him up, and he sat on her lap for a minute before hopping down and resuming his explorations. When he came to the bookcase, he looked up at the towering stack with a frown on his face, and then determinedly started to climb. His mother jumped up and pulled him down and Jimmy protested mightily at being thwarted in his quest. Molly put the kicking toddler down, and he once more headed for the bookcase. Murdoch shook his head and chuckled at the boy’s antics; he certainly had inherited the Lancer’s streak of stubbornness.

He looked up hopefully when he heard the front door shut, and he closed his eyes in relief when he heard the familiar sound of Johnny’s spurs on the tile, along with Scott’s lighter step. The spurs hesitated just outside the room, and Murdoch could almost visualize his younger son striving to control his emotions before facing the women. Murdoch was certain that it would be Johnny Madrid that entered the room, rather than Johnny Lancer, but at least his son was home, and he said a silent prayer of thanks.

Scott entered the room first, closely followed by his brother. Johnny darted a quick glance at the two women, then headed for the bar as his father introduced Scott. Johnny poured a large glass of tequila, and after gulping down half of it, he turned around, avoiding the women’s eyes. His gaze was immediately drawn toward the rambunctious toddler, and his eyes softened and some of the tension left his body.

A smile played over Johnny’s lips as he watched the boy play, and then he looked cautiously at Molly. He wasn’t surprised to be met with a glare of pure hate from the girl, and his eyes darted toward her mother, where he saw a similar look. He dropped his eyes and sighed softly, knowing he should apologize, but also knowing it wouldn’t be accepted. “I’m sorry,” he finally said. When he received no response, he sighed once more, and looked at his father pleadingly.

Murdoch looked into his son’s eyes and was surprised to see that it was Johnny Lancer that stood in their midst, but he felt a moment’s concern; he had seen the look the two women had given his son and he was afraid that his son would need Madrid’s strength to get through this. He looked over and saw that Maria was setting dishes on the table, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

“Johnny, Scott, you’re just in time for supper,” Murdoch announced.

Johnny turned toward the table gratefully, and Jimmy ran up to him and grabbed him around the knee. Johnny smiled and started to reach down, but was stopped by Molly’s yell.

“NO!”

Johnny looked up, startled, as Molly ran over and grabbed Jimmy away and picked him up. “YOU stay away from MY son!” she snarled.

“I wouldn’t hurt him,” Johnny protested.

“I don’t want you near him,” Molly replied, as her mother came up and put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder and glared at the gunfighter.

“I don’t either,” her mother said, “and I want you to stay away from BOTH of them, understand?”

Johnny nodded, then dropped his eyes and made his way to the table, unable to meet anyone’s eyes. He watched as Scott held out the chairs for Molly and her mother, and he ducked his head once more, feeling like an oaf, but knowing they wouldn’t want him anywhere near them. He felt a hand on his, and smiled as Teresa squeezed his hand reassuringly. He smiled back and held her chair for her, then grinned as he sat down next to her. He looked over at his father and saw nothing but calm assurance in those eyes, and as Scott sat down, he shot Johnny a quick grin. Suddenly, Johnny’s heart felt lighter than it had in weeks. He knew that no matter what went on between he and Molly, he still had his family. Now if he could only figure out how to win over his son.

Chapter Fifteen

Supper was definitely strained, despite Teresa’s and Scott’s best efforts to keep the conversation light and moving. Murdoch also tried gamely, but the tension in the room was palpable. Johnny’s eyes remained downcast, and Molly studiously avoided even looking in his direction. All of them were exhausted by the time it was over, and Teresa willingly left the table to help Maria with the dishes. Molly stood up and started to follow her. “I’ll help,” she volunteered.

Teresa shook her head. “No, really, it isn’t necessary. You must be tired, why don’t you just relax for a while.”

Molly shot a quick glance into the Great Room, where the men had disappeared, and she bit her lip nervously. “Please, I’d rather help you.”

Teresa looked at the obviously distressed young woman for a moment, then nodded. “Of course, if you’d like.”

Molly turned toward her mother. “Would you keep an eye on Jimmy for a few minutes?”

When Mrs. Connors nodded, Teresa led Molly into the kitchen and Mrs. Connors took Jimmy and headed into the Great Room.

Maria ignored the young woman, and Teresa wasn’t quite sure what to say to her. Molly silently picked up a towel and started drying the dishes while Teresa washed, and Maria began preparing biscuits for the following morning. The three women worked in silence for a while, until Teresa finally spoke. “Jimmy sure is cute.”

“He looks like his father,” Molly said flatly.

Teresa glanced over at Maria, who slammed a skillet down on the stove, making the other two women jump.

Teresa turned back toward the young woman. “I hope you’ll be happy here,” she said hesitantly.

Molly turned toward her, her eyes wide. “Happy? Here? How do you expect me to be happy living here with that killer in the same house?”

Teresa’s eyes blazed. “Johnny is not a killer!”

“He killed my father!”

Teresa’s chin came up. “From what I hear, your father pushed the fight.”

“He didn’t have a choice!”

Teresa’s temper flared. “Why? Because you lied to him about what really happened between you and Johnny?”

Molly stared at Teresa. “I didn’t lie to him,” she protested.

Maria turned and started talking to the girl in Spanish, and Molly looked at her in confusion. She turned toward Teresa. “What is she saying?”

Teresa met her gaze. “She’s calling you a liar. She says that Johnny wouldn’t treat a woman badly.”

Molly’s head came up and she looked at both of the women. “To answer your question, no, I don’t think I’ll be happy here.” She threw the towel down and ran out of the kitchen with a sob.

Johnny saw Molly go running up the stairs and he automatically stood up. Mrs. Connors bolted to her feet and snatched Jimmy from his perch on Scott’s lap, then after glaring at Johnny she followed her daughter.

The gunfighter stood indecisively for a moment, then turned and walked into the kitchen.

“What happened?” he demanded of the two women who were quietly washing dishes.

Maria’s nose simply went higher into the air, but Teresa turned and faced her brother. “We just told her that you’re not anything like what she thinks.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed. “That wouldn’t make her upset. Not enough ta cry.”

“Liar,” Maria muttered.

Johnny walked over to the old lady and stood glaring at her. “What did you say?” he asked softly.

She met his gaze. “I called her a liar.”

“Why?”

“Because she is.” Maria continued to look at him, but her confidence started to slip as Johnny continued to stare.

“What did she say?”

Maria glanced at Teresa, who dropped her head.

“Well?”

“I have heard that she accused you of…not being a gentleman,” Maria said quietly.

“Then she wasn’t bein’ a liar, because I sure as…heck… wasn’t.” He looked at both women in turn. “That young lady is the mother of my son and hopefully will be my wife, and I want her treated with respect, understand?”

“We were just trying to….” Teresa started.

Johnny cut her off. “I know what you were tryin’ ta do, and I appreciate it. But I don’t need protectin’. She lost her father because of me, and then she lost her home. She’s havin’ a hard enough time just bein’ around me here and she don’t need anyone givin’ her a hard time about anything else. I want her ta feel safe here and I want the two of you to make her feel welcome.” He looked at the women with an expression that was half threat and half plea.

Teresa and Maria looked at each other and Teresa nodded hesitantly. “We didn’t mean anything. We weren’t trying to make her feel bad; we just wanted her to know how much we care about you.”

Johnny finally smiled. “Thanks, Teresa.” He turned his attention toward the older lady, but Maria crossed her arms and looked at him defiantly. “I will not let her talk bad about you.”

“Maria…” Johnny said threateningly.

“I will make up my own mind,” she said stubbornly.

Johnny nodded. “All right, but you give her a chance, hear me? Like I said, I want her treated with respect and I won’t tolerate anyone giving her a hard time, even you.” He reached over and kissed the old lady lightly on the cheek. “I’m gonna go check on Barranca.” He turned and walked out of the kitchen, heading toward the barn.

Mrs. Connors stood frozen just outside the doorway separating the kitchen from the dining room. She stood there for several seconds, until the door burst open and Teresa nearly ran into her.

“Mrs. Connors! I’m so sorry.”

Mrs. Connors quickly recovered. “That’s all right. I was just coming in to see if I could get some milk for Jimmy.”

“Certainly,” Teresa responded as she turned and went back into the kitchen. She looked at Mrs. Connors guiltily. “I hope you and Molly will be happy here.”

Mrs. Connors studied the young woman for a moment and then looked at Maria. “I hope so, too,” she said quietly.

Chapter Sixteen

As soon as Mrs. Connors disappeared up the stairs, Scott headed for the kitchen to find out what had happened. Several minutes later he reappeared and found Murdoch standing by the bar, another drink in his hand.

Murdoch took a large swallow and then turned toward his older son with a sigh. “That went well,” he said sarcastically.

Scott shrugged. “It’s going to take some time.”

Murdoch dropped his head, shaking it slowly. “I think it was a mistake to bring them here. They hate Johnny, and I will NOT have them treating him badly in his own home. Maybe I should take them to Green River and put them up in a hotel till we figure out what to do.”

“It’s Johnny’s decision to make, not ours.”

Murdoch turned and glared at Scott. “It’s our decision, too! I’m not going to let them rip this family apart.”

Scott smiled quietly. “I don’t think they will. Teresa and Maria seem bound and determined to stand up for Johnny, and I know we will. If the Connors continue to treat him badly, I’m afraid they’ll find themselves the odd men out around here.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “Is that what happened in the kitchen?”

“Yes, and Maria and Teresa are entirely capable of holding their own against those two women.”

Murdoch swirled his drink around in his glass and nodded slowly. “Maybe THEY are, but what about Johnny?”

“Like I said, it’s going to take some time.”

Murdoch nodded reluctantly. “In the meantime, the trick will be to keep Johnny from leaving.” He lifted his head and looked around. “By the way, where is he? Is he still in the kitchen?”

Scott stared at him for a minute, then shook his head. “No, he’s not.” He turned and walked over to the bar and poured two healthy drinks, then headed toward the door. “I HOPE he’s in the barn.”

Murdoch watched as his son disappeared outside, and then swallowed the rest of his drink. He hoped this worked out for all concerned, but he wasn’t sure it would. He liked the Connors, at least he had until they’d arrived here, but as he’d told Scott, he wasn’t going to let them run his son off. Johnny didn’t deserve that, no matter what his younger son thought. Johnny always judged himself too harshly, but unfortunately, a lot of other people did, too.

When Johnny had first come home, Murdoch had had a lot of trouble with his neighbors over the gunfighter’s presence. He didn’t think Johnny had been aware of most of it, at least he hoped not, but several times things had turned pretty ugly. Most weren’t willing to accept the gunfighter in their midst and it took a lot of talking on Murdoch’s part to keep them from trying to run him off. It was only the fear of Lancer retaliation that kept a civil tongue in most of their heads around the young man. Murdoch snorted; that, and them worrying they just might get themselves shot by a hot tempered gunfighter.

Gradually, however, that had changed. Johnny had won most of them over by his willingness to help people that needed it and by his friendliness. Even Murdoch had been pleasantly surprised at the young man’s giving nature, knowing Johnny’s background and reputation. It hadn’t been an act on his son’s part, either. He seemed to genuinely like most people, a fact that caused Murdoch to shake his head in wonder. He knew that Johnny had every reason not to trust people.

Since Johnny had come home, the neighbors had gradually stopped thinking of him as a killer and started treating him like a rancher. Murdoch’s face darkened. At least most of them had. There were still several of them that weren’t happy about having the infamous Johnny Madrid in their midst, but they had been too cowardly to do anything about it, at least so far. Murdoch thought about the priest’s reaction to Johnny, and his temper started to boil. He hoped the man was long gone. He didn’t think beating up a priest would do much for his own reputation.

Just when he thought the worst was over, they were going to have to cope with two people who thought the worst of his son. He was sure this was going to be hard on all of them, and not just Johnny. Murdoch sighed, then went over and poured another drink. He had the feeling they would all be drinking more than usual in the future.

Scott found his little brother where he expected he would; in Barranca’s stall. Without a word, he held out the glass and waited for Johnny to take it. Johnny looked at it for a second, and then said with a smirk, “Now what makes ya think I need that?”

Scott eyebrows quirked up. “Because if you brush that horse any more, he’s going to be bald.”

Johnny smiled ruefully and threw down the brush and gave Barranca a quick pat, then grabbed the drink out of his brother’s hand. He took a swallow and then shook his head. “Scott, I don’t think this is gonna work.”

“You mean getting drunk?” Scott asked teasingly, trying to lighten his brother’s mood.

“I mean havin them here,” Johnny replied seriously.

Scott shook his head. “Like I told Murdoch, it’s going to take some time.”

Johnny took another sip, then looked cautiously at his brother. “Is the Old Man mad?”

Scott smiled. “Not at you.”

Johnny sighed deeply. “Well, he don’t have no right ta be mad at them, either.”

“Maybe not, but he’s not going to tolerate them making your life miserable. None of us are.”

Johnny dropped his head and shrugged. “I deserve it.”

Scott slammed his fist against the stall, spilling half his drink in the process. “NO! YOU DON’T! And I’m tired of you thinking that.”

“Scott, it ain’t just what I did ta Molly.” He turned away from his brother and fiddled with Barranca’s mane. “It’s other things, too. You don’t know everything I’ve done. I figure I’ve got ta start payin’ sometime.”

“So, is that what this is all about? You figure you’ll just let Molly and her mother make your life miserable as part of some sort of penance?”

Johnny shrugged. “Like I said, they have a right ta be mad at me.”

Scott nodded slowly. “Maybe they do. But they DON’T have the right to be hateful toward you, and YOU don’t have the right to use them like that.”

“I ain’t usin’ them,” Johnny said crossly.

“Yes, little brother, I think you are.”

Chapter Seventeen

Teresa was surprised when Molly and her mother came down for breakfast before seven. She had expected them to sleep in, but she guessed that Jimmy might have had something to say about that. She had the feeling that he didn’t like to sleep very much and he sure seemed full of energy this morning. She got tired just watching the boy, and she realized that sometimes Johnny affected her the same way.

She smiled to herself as she realized just how much their lives were going to change if the Connors stayed, and she hoped they would stay. She felt badly for making Molly cry the night before, and vowed to try to get along with the other young woman and her mother. She had promised Johnny, but more than that, she hoped she and Molly could become friends. It would be nice to have another young woman to talk to, and she was already charmed by the young boy. He had Johnny’s bright smile, and he was impossible to resist. She had the feeling Jimmy would soon have the whole ranch wrapped around his little finger.

She smiled at the two women as they came into the kitchen and she set two coffee mugs on the table. “I wasn’t expecting you so early. It’ll be just a minute before the eggs are ready.”

“We can fix our own breakfast. You don’t have to wait on us,” Mrs. Connors protested.

“I always make breakfast for everyone. Please, sit down,” Teresa said as she set the plates down in front of the two women. She turned back toward the stove and quickly scrambled the eggs, then scooped them into a bowl and placed them on the table. She looked at the Connors quizzically as she realized they hadn’t touched their breakfast.

“Is there something wrong?” She asked worriedly.

Mrs. Connors shook her head. “No, we were just waiting for the rest of your family.”

Teresa looked at them in surprise. “They’ve already eaten.” She glanced at the clock. “Scott and Johnny left about two hours ago, and Murdoch should be back anytime from inspecting one of the bridges.”

“What about you?” Molly asked.

Teresa shrugged. “I ate with them. I’m sorry, I didn’t know when you’d be down.”

“Why didn’t someone wake us up?” Mrs. Connors asked in embarrassment.

“Johnny said to let you sleep. He said you were probably worn out from the trip.”

Mrs. Connors glanced at her daughter, who frowned and busily started to feed a starving Jimmy. The older woman turned back toward Teresa. “Can you make sure someone wakes us up by five tomorrow?”

Teresa shook her head. “There’s no need. Believe me, if I didn’t have to make breakfast, I wouldn’t be up that early. Sleep as long as you like.”

Molly smiled ruefully. “I’m afraid sleeping in very late is a little difficult with Jimmy around.”

Teresa smiled as she looked at the boy. “He sure is cute.”

“Not when I’m trying to sleep.”

Teresa bit her lip. “Maybe if you want to sleep in, I can watch him in the morning.”

Mrs. Connors shook her head. “You’re busy enough without chasing Jimmy around. He’s a handful.”

“That’s ok. I don’t mind.”

“Well, maybe sometime,” Molly said hesitantly.

“How about tomorrow?” Teresa suggested.

“I have a better idea,” Mrs. Connors said. “Maybe you can sleep in tomorrow and we’ll make breakfast.”

Teresa smiled and then shook her head. “No, I couldn’t.”

“Why not?”

She shrugged uncomfortably. “You’re guests, and besides, it’s my responsibility.”

“Mr. Lancer was kind enough to bring us here and give us a place to stay. We don’t want charity, and we plan on earning our keep. We can certainly make breakfast and give you a break,” Mrs. Connors insisted.

“I don’t think either Johnny or Murdoch would like it,” Teresa protested.

“Then don’t tell them,” Mrs. Connors suggested calmly. “We’ll surprise them with breakfast tomorrow morning.”

Teresa hesitated. She knew that Johnny would probably have a fit, but she hadn’t slept in for months and she couldn’t turn the opportunity down. “All right,” she said hesitantly. “If you’re sure.”

“Very,” Molly said. She smiled at Teresa. “Maybe in a day or two, you can watch Jimmy for us.”

Teresa smiled back. “I’d love to.”

After breakfast, the women washed the dishes and then walked into the great room. Teresa was unsure just how she was going to keep them entertained all day, especially when she had her own chores to do. She still wasn’t totally comfortable with them, simply because of their dislike of Johnny, and she wasn’t sure what to say to them. She had to admit, however, that their offer to make breakfast the next day had gone a long way toward bridging the gap between them.

Mrs. Connors walked around the room, looking at the pictures that graced the walls and tables. She picked up a photograph of Teresa with Scott and Johnny and studied it. She set it back down and looked at the young woman. “Mr. Lancer said you were his ward.”

Teresa leaped at the chance of a conversation. “Yes. My father was foreman here. He was killed a year ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Connors said.

“What happened?” Molly asked.

Teresa hesitated. “He was murdered.”

Molly stared at Teresa for a moment, before saying quietly. “I guess we have something in common, after all.”

It took Teresa a moment to understand what Molly was saying, and the two women stared at each other for a moment before Teresa stammered, “I’m sorry.”

Molly nodded. “So am I,” she said quietly.

Teresa had been taken by surprise, but she recovered quickly. “I’m sorry your father died, but he wasn’t murdered,” she protested.

“You weren’t there,” Molly said stubbornly.

Teresa’s head came up. “I didn’t have to be there to know. Johnny’s not a murderer.”

Molly met Teresa’s stare. “”I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken about him.” She dropped her head. “So was I.”

Chapter Eighteen

Mrs. Connors closed the door quietly behind her, then turned and looked at her daughter. “What you told Teresa downstairs earlier, what did you mean by that?”

Molly’s eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

“I MEAN, the comment that you’d been wrong about him.”

Molly turned nervously and walked over to the window. “I just meant…” her voice trailed off. “That I was mistaken about him, that’s all.”

Mrs. Connors walked over to her daughter and studied her. “You haven’t been telling me the truth, have you?”

Molly dropped her head and her mother reached out and lifted her daughter’s chin toward her. “Molly, I want to know.”

Molly pulled away from her mother and once more gazed out the window. “He lied to me,” she said softly.

Mrs. Connors took a deep breath. “But he didn’t…force himself on you, did he,” she stated.

Slowly, Molly shook her head. “No.” She brought her head up and stared at her mother. “But he LIED! He told me he loved me. I TRUSTED him and he betrayed me. He used me to kill Pa! He was USING me! All along he only cared about the money!” She broke down, crying.

Mrs. Connors came over and put her hand on Molly’s shoulder. “Molly, you shouldn’t have lied about what happened.”

The girl dropped her head. “I was afraid of what you’d say. I didn’t want you to be ashamed of me.”

Mrs. Connors drew her daughter close. “I’m not ashamed of you. I would have understood. But you shouldn’t have lied.”

Molly drew away once again. “I wanted him punished for what he did to me…to us. He betrayed me! He killed Pa! And he did it for MONEY! It doesn’t change anything! He’s still a cold blooded killer!”

The older woman nodded slowly. “You’re right. It doesn’t really change anything, but I feel a little better about staying here knowing he didn’t attack you.”

“I don’t. Every time I see him it reminds me of what he did. I hate him.”

Mrs. Connors studied her daughter. “Someone once told me that love and hate are just about a heartbeat’s difference.”

Molly looked at her mother in shock. “I DON’T love him!” She dropped her head. “I thought I did once, but I was wrong. I could never love someone that cold and unfeeling. I don’t love him anymore and I never will again. I hate him, and I want him to pay for what he did.”

Mrs. Connors stared at her daughter. She knew her daughter hated Madrid, at least Molly thought she did. But the older woman also knew that such blind hate would destroy her daughter as well. She still didn’t trust or like the gunfighter, but he was nothing like she had imagined. She had expected a monster, and instead she saw a young man trying to do the right thing. Maybe Murdoch Lancer was right, maybe the young man HAD changed. She hoped that was the case, but she still doubted that a man like Madrid could stop his evil ways just because he wanted to. No, Molly was probably right about him, but she hoped for all of their sakes a compromise could be worked out, or the one who would suffer was Jimmy.

The next morning, both Molly and her mother were up early fixing breakfast. By the time Scott and Johnny came downstairs, there was fresh squeezed juice and hot coffee on the table, along with biscuits, bacon and eggs.

“Where’s Teresa?” Johnny asked.

“She’s sleeping in today,” Mrs. Connors answered. “We thought we’d start earning our keep.”

Johnny shook his head. “There’s no need for you to do that. You were supposed to rest today. You’ve had a long trip.”

The older woman stopped and stared at him. “We want to help. We don’t want charity.”

Johnny opened his mouth to answer, but Scott sensed his brother was about to say something that would start an argument, so he jumped in. “We appreciate the breakfast. It makes the day go a lot easier. Doesn’t it, Johnny?”

Johnny stared at Mrs. Connors for several seconds before realizing he should keep his mouth shut and he finally nodded his head. “Yeah, it does. Thanks.” He darted a look at Molly, who hadn’t even glanced at him throughout the exchange. He shifted his gaze toward his son, who was busily playing with his food. With a sigh, Johnny dropped his head and concentrated on his own breakfast.

Molly kept her attention on Jimmy, who was trying to make a game of throwing his food as far as he could. Johnny watched for several minutes as the young mother made no move to correct him. He started to say something, then thought better of it and clamped his mouth shut. As Jimmy continued to misbehave, Johnny finally spoke up.

“Jimmy, stop that. Ya don’t play with your food. If ya don’t stop, I’m gonna take it away.’”

Jimmy’s eyes got wide as Molly turned toward the gunfighter furiously. “Don’t you EVER presume to discipline MY son!”

“He’s old enough ta not be throwin’ his food around.”

“So you think I don’t know how to raise my own son?” Molly said icily.

Johnny sighed. “I didn’t say that.”

“Good! Because YOU sure weren’t around to do anything!”

“I’m tryin’ ta fix that!”

“I think it’s a little late. Like I said, you stay away from him. He’s MY responsibility, and I’LL decide how to raise him! You have no right to interfere.”

Johnny dropped his head and finished wolfing down his food, then bolted for the door, with Scott following behind.

Several minutes later, Murdoch entered the kitchen and looked around in surprise. “Where’s Teresa?”

Mrs. Connors smiled. “She’s sleeping in. Molly and I offered to make breakfast.”

Murdoch’s eyebrows lifted and he walked over to the table and sat down. He took a sip of his coffee, wondering how to broach the subject that was on his mind.

“I was wondering if you would like to attend church with us tomorrow.”

Mrs. Connors looked up in surprise. “Possibly.”

“Is HE going?” Molly asked.

Murdoch shook his head regretfully. “No. Johnny attends the Catholic church.” He neglected to tell the women that his son hadn’t attended any church for quite a while.

Mrs. Connors looked surprised. “Actually, Molly and I are Catholic also.”

Murdoch hesitated. He wasn’t sure if the priest had left the town or not, but he certainly didn’t want the women talking to him if he was still around. “I’m afraid that the Catholic Church is between priests right now.”

Mrs. Connors nodded slowly. “Then I guess we could go with you. It’s been a while since we attended church, and I feel we should go.” She snuck a look at her daughter.

Murdoch nodded nervously. “Good. I thought that after the service maybe we could speak to the reverend about the …wedding.”

Chapter Nineteen

Mrs. Connors drew herself up. “We haven’t decided if there will BE a wedding, and if there is, it certainly won’t be performed by a man of the cloth. IF it takes place, a judge can do it. I have no intention of having a sham marriage sanctified by the church. Any church.”

Murdoch nodded, halfway hoping Molly wouldn’t go through with it. He wasn’t thrilled with the idea of his son locked into a loveless marriage, no matter WHO performed the ceremony. He hated to see Johnny throw his happiness away, even for Jimmy’s sake. Johnny deserved better. Murdoch had talked to his younger son until he was blue in the face, but Johnny hadn’t budged on his resolve to marry Molly and make Jimmy legitimate. Murdoch shook his head slightly. If only the Connors could realize just what kind of a man his son really was, he had the feeling that a lot of the problems would be solved for all of them.

He knew, though, that it would take an awful lot to change the two women’s minds about his son. They already had their minds firmly made up, and the problem was, he couldn’t really blame them for feeling the way they did. He tried to put himself in their place, and if he were Mrs. Connors, he would have probably come after Johnny with a shotgun.

Johnny had his work cut out for him if he hoped to erase the hate they felt for him. Murdoch knew that since he’d been at the ranch, his son had won a lot of people over who had initially feared and disliked him. Johnny was a natural charmer, and both men and women usually thawed after getting to know him. Murdoch figured that Johnny probably had more friends in the valley than either he or Scott, something he never would have believed when the gunfighter first arrived.

Maybe with time, Johnny could change the minds of the two women, but Murdoch knew it would be an uphill battle, and at this point Johnny didn’t even seem to be trying very hard to win it. He was calmly accepting their hate, and that bothered Murdoch. If his son didn’t fight to change their opinion of him, it would never happen.

Part of the problem was that Johnny really believed he deserved to be punished for his past deeds. Murdoch shook his head. He didn’t know all of the gruesome details of Johnny’s past, and he never would. But one thing he knew for certain, and that was his son was an honest and decent man. Whatever mistakes his son had made while finding his way in this world he had already more than paid for, in Murdoch’s estimation. The only thing he couldn’t figure out was just how Johnny had turned out so well with the abuse he had suffered as a boy and no one decent to guide him.

Murdoch once more cursed his own ability to keep his son safe and it was only that knowledge that allowed him to go along with his son’s plan. He would have gone to hell itself to ensure his son’s safety and well being, and while he had failed miserably, he wouldn’t prevent his son from succeeding. He knew firsthand the heartbreak and feeling of despair that would accompany that failure, and he didn’t want Johnny to be more haunted than he already was. No, he would support Johnny and do his best to help him through it, no matter what happened, and he knew Scott and Teresa would, too. He just hoped that somewhere in all of this, Johnny could find happiness.

With a sigh, Murdoch looked at Mrs. Connors. “Believe it or not, I’m not thrilled with this, either. My son deserves better than to be in a loveless marriage, but he’s doing this for his son’s sake, and I will support him. He turned his attention to Molly. “I know Johnny made a lot of mistakes in his life, but he’s a good man.” Molly dropped her head as Murdoch continued. “For both your sakes, why don’t you give him a chance?”

When Molly didn’t answer, Murdoch abruptly stood up. “I have work to do. I’ll be back this afternoon.” He grabbed his hat off the rack and walked out the door, slamming it a little harder than necessary.

Mrs. Connors watched her daughter closely. “Well, what are we going to do? Are you going to marry him?”

Molly shrugged miserably. “I don’t want to.”

“I know you don’t, but Mr. Lancer is right. It’s best for Jimmy. It will ensure he’s legitimate, and I know that no matter what Johnny does, the Lancers will make sure Jimmy is taken care of.”

Molly sighed deeply. “Then I guess I’ll go through with it.” She brought her eyes up and stared at her mother. “I’ll marry him, but I won’t be his wife. I still don’t want to have anything to do with him.”

Mrs. Connors nodded. “Mr. Lancer has assured me that you won’t have to.” She stood up and walked over to her daughter, putting her arms around her and giving her a hug. “You’re doing the right thing for Jimmy, and I’m proud of you. Besides, it might not be so bad.” She looked around and smiled. “Living here is a lot better than living in a hotel room.”

Molly nodded slowly. “I guess. But it’s not better than our own ranch, and if it hadn’t been for Johnny, that’s where we’d be.”

Mrs. Connors sighed. “I know, but maybe Murdoch’s right. Maybe you should try and give Johnny a chance. He doesn’t seem to be quite the monster I expected him to be.”

“How can you SAY that? He killed my father and your husband, and he used me to get to him! He did it for MONEY!”

Mrs. Connors stared at her daughter. “Yes, he did. But you seem to forget just how much you hated your father. How much we both did.”

Chapter Twenty

Molly dropped her eyes. “I didn’t hate my father.”

“You told me you did often enough. You told me I should leave him.”

Molly’s eyes remained glued to the floor.

Mrs. Connors sighed as she watched her daughter. She regretted now that she had stayed with her husband for as long as she had. She had fallen in love with him when he had ridden into their small town when she was only sixteen. He had seemed so different from the boys she knew, so mature, so…exciting. She realized now what she had felt wasn’t love at all, but infatuation. She had been so desperate to escape her parent’s strict rules and unreasonable expectations that she had jumped at the chance to escape.

Her parents had been from the old world, and fully intended to pick out the man she would marry. The only problem was, she had found the men they favored were boring and too old. She realized now that she would have probably been happier if she had been an obedient daughter and done as they wished. Instead, she had believed Connors’ smooth talk and run off with him.

It hadn’t taken her long to realize that she had made a mistake, but it also hadn’t taken her long to get pregnant. By the time she realized just what kind of a man she had married, she was already carrying Molly. She couldn’t bring herself to go crawling back to her parents, so she had endured the man’s increasing abuse.

Connors had refused to settle down and insisted on trying to make a living as a gambler and a con man. Unfortunately, he wasn’t good with cards and usually resorted to cheating. Also unfortunately, he wasn’t much good at that, either. She couldn’t even begin to count the nights they had snuck out of town in order to avoid a very ugly confrontation with one of the many people he had swindled or cheated. She hated life on the road, and longed for a real home, but Connors had refused.

Finally, when Molly had been three years old, Connors had hit the jackpot. He had sworn he had won the money honestly, but she wasn’t so sure, especially when the man he had won it from was found dead in an alley several nights later. Her husband had come home with bloody clothes and a frantic expression in his eyes. The sheriff had come to arrest him sometime later, but without any witnesses or proof, there could be no conviction. She had gone to visit her husband in the jail, and told her husband the sheriff had been asking her questions. She strongly suggested to Connors that they buy a home and some property with the money. He was no fool, and he had gone along with her suggestion without a whimper.

When he was released a few weeks later, they had bought the ranch and begun to raise horses. For a while everything had gone well and she had actually been happy. The ranch was making money and her husband was no longer abusive, but the respite didn’t last long. She felt guilty for helping him get away with murder, but by now it was too late to right the wrong. If she tried, she would go to jail as an accessory, and Molly would wind up in an orphanage. Connors finally realized that simple truth also, and was soon back to his old ways.

Petty quarrels with neighbors began to break out, and soon escalated into feuds. Even though they had some of the finest horseflesh in the state, he wasn’t content unless he was able to cheat on a deal. That ensured that they seldom received repeat business. She probably could have overlooked a lot of his faults, even his abuse of her, but she never should have let him take out his anger on Molly. He had been enraged when she had been born a girl, and from that time on he made Molly’s life difficult. Looking back, Mrs. Connors realized that she should have left him, but she had been too frightened. She had nowhere to go and no means to support her daughter, whom she loved dearly. Molly was the only good thing to come of that marriage, and she wasn’t going to lose her. Even though Connors was mean to Molly, at least she had a roof over her head and food to eat. At least she did most of the time. Toward the end, there wasn’t enough money and they had to resort to begging for food.

She had thought she was trapped, but now she realized that she should have taken the step anyway. Maybe then Molly wouldn’t have fallen for the first man that showed her some attention. She just hoped that she wasn’t making a mistake by encouraging Molly to marry Johnny. She didn’t want her daughter to end up in the same loveless marriage that she had. There was a difference, however. Molly had a mother to fall back on, and whenever Molly wanted to, they would leave.

“Molly, you were right. I should have left your father, and I’m sorry I didn’t. I was trying to protect you and instead I just caused you harm. I’m sorry, but I want you to know that even if you marry Johnny, we won’t have to stay here. We can go anytime you want to.”

Molly’s eyes came up and she looked at her mother hesitantly. “You promise?”

Mrs. Connors nodded her head. “I promise.”

Molly nodded her head. She would give it a try, for Jimmy’s sake, but she was relieved to know her mother wouldn’t be upset with her if it didn’t work out, and she had the feeling it wouldn’t. She couldn’t imagine ever being comfortable enough with Johnny to stay here. In fact, she had no intention of giving him the chance. She wasn’t going to let him near enough to her to try and sweet talk her again. He had taught her a hard lesson, and she wasn’t going to forget it anytime soon.

Chapter Twenty One

Murdoch strode out of the house and headed for the barn. Scott was inside, just finishing saddling Charlie. He looked up enquiringly as his father approached.

Murdoch sighed. “I was hoping to find your brother.”

Scott snorted. “He lit out of here like a scalded cat.”

Murdoch nodded his head in resignation. “What happened?”

“Jimmy was throwing his food around and Johnny told him to stop it. Molly didn’t appreciate it, to say the least.”

“He has every right to discipline his son.”

“Not according to Molly.”

Murdoch shook his head in frustration. “Scott, what should we do?”

Scott shrugged. “Johnny is bound and determined to see this through no matter what it costs him, and I don’t mean monetarily.”

“Well I’M not! I refuse to stand by and watch my son take any more abuse, especially in his own house!”

“Murdoch, we can’t ask them to leave, Johnny would never forgive us. It has to be his choice. All we can do is try to convince the Connors just what kind of a man Johnny really is. That and let Johnny know we’re on his side.”

“I’m not going to lose him, Scott. And I’m afraid that’s just what’s going to happen. Johnny feels guilty enough about his past without those two reminding him of it every day.”

“Murdoch, all we have to do is to wait. Sooner or later, they’ll figure out that they’ve been wrong about him.”

“And in the meantime, we just do nothing?”

Scott shrugged. “All we can do is let him know we’re behind him, and be here for him when he needs us.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “I also think we need to take a lesson from Teresa and Maria. We need to let the Connors know that their treatment of Johnny won’t be tolerated.”

Scott snorted. “He just told Maria and Teresa off. He just might SHOOT us if we try it.”

“Then he doesn’t have to know.”

Scott took a deep breath. “I think the Connors are already well aware of how we feel, and if we do much more, I’m afraid it might make it worse. They have to be allowed to make up their own minds.”

Murdoch nodded miserably. “I guess you’re right. I just feel like knocking their heads together. I hate to see Johnny hurt like this, especially when I know he’s not entirely to blame.”

“I think we all know that. Now we just have to make the Connors realize that, too.”

Murdoch nodded. “Well, if you figure out how, be sure and let me in on the plan.”

Scott smiled. “Don’t worry, you’ll be the first to know.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “Are you going after your brother?”

Scott shrugged. “One of us probably should.”

“I will.”

“All right,” Scott smiled. “Just watch out for flying objects.”

“Don’t worry, since Johnny’s been home, I’ve become very good at ducking,” Murdoch snorted.

Murdoch hurriedly saddled his horse and rode out. He wasn’t sure where to start looking, but he figured there was a good chance he would find his son ripping out shrubbery somewhere. He checked out the north pasture first. They had talked about the clogged streams there just a few days ago. An hour later, Murdoch saw the palomino grazing under a tree. He rode over, and as expected, he found his younger son busily clearing some brush out of as wash. The rancher knew that whenever Johnny was troubled, he would try to forget by doing hard work, and both Murdoch and Scott had finally learned to leave him alone until he sorted things out. Today, however, Murdoch was going to talk to Johnny, even though he knew it would be difficult at best. When his son was in this kind of mood, his willingness to talk went down in direct proportion to how short his temper was.

Murdoch watched a few moments as tree limbs and rocks flew, then with a sigh he dismounted and walked over. Johnny knew his father was there, but gave no sign until Murdoch spoke.

“Want some company?”

“Nope.”

“Then let’s talk.”

“Nothin’ ta talk about.” A sizable bush went flying out of the ravine.

“Johnny, stop for a minute. I want to talk to you.”

“Gotta get this cleared before it rains. Ya said so yourself.”

With a sigh, Murdoch walked over and made his way down to the bottom. He reached out and touched Johnny’s arm, but his son didn’t stop his work. Finally, Murdoch tightened his grasp and swung Johnny around. The pain in his son’s eyes was obvious.

Murdoch shook his head. “Johnny, it’s not too late. I’m going to tell the Peterson’s to leave. We can give them enough money to…”

“NO!”

“Johnny….”

“I mean it, Murdoch. I don’t want them leavin’.”

The rancher ran his hand through his hair. “And I am not going to sit idly by and watch them destroy you.”

“I’m fine,” Johnny snapped.

“Sure you are,” Murdoch snorted. “I can tell that just by watching you work.”

Johnny dropped his head. “Look, it’ll work out. It’ll just take some time, that’s all.”

Murdoch studied his son. “Are you sure?”

Johnny nodded. “I’m gonna make this work, no matter what. I ain’t gonna lose my son.”

“Neither am I.”

Johnny looked up at his father. “You ain’t,” he said softly.

Murdoch felt the relief almost overwhelm him. “Do you promise?”

Johnny smiled and dropped his head. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere, Old Man. Like I said, I’m gonna make this work. I ain’t runnin’ out on my son. He needs a father, whether Molly wants ta admit it or not.”

Murdoch smiled sadly. “I’m proud of you, Johnny.” When Johnny didn’t respond, Murdoch reached out and grabbed his shoulder. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for YOU.”

Johnny shrugged. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“We’ll help you through this, Johnny. ALL of us.”

Johnny smiled slowly. “I know. Thanks.”

Murdoch nodded. “Johnny, just remember, this is YOUR home and Jimmy is YOUR son. They have no right to try to deny you of either.”

Johnny dropped his head, then pulled away from his father and went back to work. Murdoch watched him sadly for a moment, then without a word he started working along side his son.

Chapter Twenty Two

Johnny did his best to ignore his father, but when he heard the older man’s breath becoming shorter, Johnny finally stopped. “Let’s take a break,” he suggested.

Murdoch glanced at the sun, then back at Johnny. “No wonder the ranch doesn’t make any money, the way you goof off.”

Johnny smiled. “Yeah, well, just don’t tell the boss and you and me will get along just fine.” Johnny climbed up out of the ravine, then reached back and offered his father his hand. Murdoch grabbed it and climbed out. Johnny walked over to the nearby tree and plopped down, and a moment later, his father followed suit.

Murdoch wiped his face with his arm. “It’s going to be hot today.”

Johnny nodded. “Yep.”

They sat quietly for several moments, then Murdoch spoke. “I asked the Connors to go to church with us tomorrow.”

Johnny nodded. “Did they accept?”

“Yes.”

Johnny nodded again and Murdoch slanted a look at him. “I think you should go, too.”

“No,” Johnny said flatly.

“Pastor Jacobs is a fine man.”

“I’m sure he is.”

“Johnny, you’ll be welcome there.”

Johnny took off his hat and twirled it in his hands. “I ain’t gonna take that chance.”

“He’s asked before why you weren’t along, and he told me to tell you that you were welcome.”

“Yeah,” Johnny snorted. “Probably wants ta make me the object of some sermon.”

“Johnny, do you really think I’d do that to you?”

“No. I know YOU wouldn’t, but you can’t control everybody.” He slanted a look at his father. “Even though I know ya try to.”

Murdoch looked at his son in surprise. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t play dumb with me, Old Man. I know how ya try ta protect me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t you? You threatened half the people in town when I first came here. Made it plain that Lancer would come down hard on anybody that gave me a bad time.”

Murdoch shook his head slowly. “It wasn’t like that.”

Johnny grinned at him sarcastically. “Oh? Then how was it?”

“I just wanted them to give you a chance, that’s all.”

“You didn’t give them much of a choice, did you?”

Murdoch smiled slowly. “No, I guess I didn’t. But it worked, didn’t it?”

“Yeah, for the most part, I guess it did.”

“I didn’t think you knew about that.”

Johnny shrugged. “Hard ta keep secrets in a small town.”

“Who told you?”

Johnny snorted. “Let’s see. Bill, George, Mr. Baker, the bartender in Green River, Jim the blacksmith, Mrs. Weber, June Raymond, Peter…”

“All right,” Murdoch growled. “I’m surprised you didn’t say something to me.” He glanced at his son. “Are you mad?”

Johnny grinned. “I was at first. The first time somebody said somethin’ I jumped on Barranca and headed back to the house. I was gonna really let you have it. In fact, I thought I just might leave. It’s a good thing Green River is a good hour’s ride away.”

“What changed your mind?” Murdoch asked curiously.

Johnny shrugged. “I started thinking, REALLY thinking, about why you did it.” Johnny’s voice got softer. “I never had anybody stand behind me like that before. I finally realized you did it to try and keep me from being hurt.” Johnny shook his head. “That’s when I finally made up my mind ta stay. You and I hadn’t been gettin’ along too good up till then. I guess most of that was my fault, but you and I had been buttin’ heads pretty regular. I was beginnin’ ta think it wouldn’t work, and I’d be better off if I just left. I even convinced myself that’s what you wanted me ta do.”

“Johnny, that’s not true! I NEVER wanted you to leave.”

Johnny nodded. “I know that now, and your threatenin’ everybody in town helped convince me.” He looked at his father. “Even though I don’t approve of what you did, thanks.”

Murdoch nodded. “You’re welcome. NOBODY’S going to mess with either of you boys if I can help it. I couldn’t protect you when you were small, but I sure as hell can now.”

Johnny smiled. “Same goes for us, Old Man.”

Murdoch smiled. “Looks like we’re stuck with each other.”

Johnny nodded. “Looks like.” He started to get up. “Well, I’d better get back ta work before I get fired.” Murdoch grabbed his arm before Johnny could stand. “Won’t you PLEASE go to church with us tomorrow?”

Johnny sighed and dropped his head. “I don’t think I should. No matter how much you threaten, you can’t change what people really think, and a lot of the good townspeople don’t think I belong in church with decent folks.”

Murdoch felt his blood starting to boil. “Anyone who thinks that has no business being in church! It’s a place for worship and forgiveness, not self righteous snobbism! They’d better read what the Bible says about throwing stones!”

“Yeah, well, most of ‘em don’t have a whole lot ta be worried about. My ‘stones’ are a hell of a lot bigger than most.”

“Johnny, don’t you understand, that’s what church is for. To rid you of your guilt along with your sins.”

Johnny kept his head down, and Murdoch continued. “That priest was out of line, and I told him so.”

Johnny looked at his father in surprise. “You really talked to him?”

Murdoch nodded. “He was by far the most stupid, stubborn, self righteous old windbag that I ever had the bad luck to meet.”

Johnny smiled sadly. “Maybe he was right.”

“NO! He wasn’t!”

Johnny shrugged noncommittally, and Murdoch once again lost his temper. “No, he wasn’t,” he repeated. “You’ve done your best to turn your life around, and if anyone should understand and accept that, it should be a man of the cloth. He didn’t deserve to be a priest. In fact, the more I think about it, he didn’t even deserve to be a person!”

Johnny shifted uncomfortably. “Why are you talkin’ about him in the past tense?”

Murdoch smiled ruefully. “Don’t worry. I didn’t shoot him, although it took every ounce of my self control. I simply told him to leave.”

Johnny’s head shot up. “You don’t have that right. That’s the church’s decision. And the town’s.”

Murdoch shook his head. “That church sits on Lancer land. I have every right to make him get off our land.”

“And leave the people without a priest?”

“Being without is better than having to listen to that blowhard! Besides, when the church sends a priest who’s reasonable, he’s are welcome to stay.”

Johnny shook his head. “Murdoch, ya can’t force your point of view on the church. Just ‘cause you think a certain way don’t make it right.”

“But he WASN’T right, Johnny.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I DO! And I won’t put up with a so called priest spouting off hateful things about my son, not when I know they’re not true.”

“So how are you gonna stop him?”

Murdoch shook his head in confusion. “I already told you. I told him to leave.”

Johnny stared at his father. “Well, ya might have told him, but he’s still here. He moved to Green River and is staying with your friend, Pastor Jacobs. They’re sharing the church.”

Chapter Twenty Three

Murdoch returned to the hacienda troubled by the revelation that the priest was still in town. He knew Johnny was right; he really didn’t have any authority to make the padre leave, no matter HOW much of an ass the man was. He just hoped the man’s self righteous hate didn’t affect the Reverend Jacobs. Johnny didn’t need any more problems. Murdoch had finally talked Johnny into agreeing to go into town with them the next morning, but his younger son was still hesitant about attending church, and Murdoch couldn’t blame him. To tell the truth, Murdoch was a little apprehensive, too. If anyone said anything derogatory about his son attending church, he thought once more that he just might resort to violence, and getting into a brawl in church would do nothing for Lancer’s reputation. Especially if the man he was brawling with happened to be a man of the cloth.

He walked into the house and tossed his hat on the table, then headed toward the kitchen to find lunch. He hadn’t done much physical work since the boys came home, and the little bit he had done this morning with Johnny had left him sore, tired, and starving. As he stepped into the kitchen, he looked up in surprise when he saw Mrs. Connors and Molly busily making a cake.

Mrs. Connors glanced up and saw the rancher. “Molly and I wanted to make something for dessert, and Maria suggested that we make a chocolate cake.”

Murdoch smiled, knowing full well why Maria had insisted on that type of desert. “I’m sure it will be appreciated.”

Mrs. Connors nodded. “I hope so.” She bit her lip, then looked around to make sure they were alone. “Molly and I discussed things, and she has decided to go ahead with the wedding.”

Murdoch nodded, not quite sure whether to be happy or sad. “We’ll take care of the arrangements in town tomorrow.” He looked at Molly questioningly. “I assume you want a private ceremony?”

Molly nodded her head quickly. “Yes. The smaller, the better.”

Murdoch drew in a deep breath, regretful that his son would be denied a large wedding, but he nodded. The bride’s antagonism would probably be obvious, and it would be worse to give the local gossips anything more to talk about. He was sure their tongues would be wagging fast enough as it was. “All right, but I’m asking you to keep the day pleasant, anyway. Johnny certainly isn’t being forced into this. He’s doing it for Jimmy, and I won’t tolerate you being hateful toward him, then, or at any other time. Do I make myself clear?”

Mrs. Connors looked at her daughter and after a moment, Molly nodded. “As long as I don’t have to be anywhere near him.”

“Well, you will for the ceremony, but I’m sure you’ll survive,” Murdoch said sarcastically. With great effort, he bit back another comment. It wouldn’t do any good to lower himself to insults, besides, Johnny certainly wouldn’t be happy about it. He took a last look at the two women, lunch forgotten for the moment. “We’ll plan on having it next Saturday. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some bookwork to do.”

Murdoch stalked out of the kitchen and sat down at his desk, but it was a long time before he could concentrate on the books.

Supper was once more strained, although Johnny never showed up. For some reason, none of them touched the cake. They all swore they were too full, but Mrs. Connors wasn’t fooled, and was obviously upset at the slight. .

After the meal, Scott pulled Murdoch aside and said Johnny was eating with Cipriano and his wife and would be in later. Murdoch wasn’t happy, but he was at least relieved that his son was still around. No matter how much Johnny reassured him that he wasn’t going to leave, he knew his son could only stand so much, and he was still worried about him.

Murdoch watched as Mrs. Connors and Molly excused themselves and went right upstairs after the meal. He supposed he should ask them to stay downstairs and say something to make them feel welcome, but he really wasn’t in the mood. He knew that not eating that cake was childish and petty, but at this point, he really didn’t care. If the Connors continued with their behavior, they just might find out just how much the Lancers could stick together.

It was late before Johnny finally walked in, and Murdoch knew that his son had waited until he was sure the Connors were in bed before coming home. Murdoch had stayed up, knowing he couldn’t sleep until he knew Johnny was safe in his own bed. When Johnny walked in, he smiled at his father, but didn’t seem surprised to see him. “Ya didn’t have ta wait up.”

“I wanted to.”

“I was only over at Cipriano’s. Not likely ta get into any trouble there.”

Murdoch smiled. “I know, but I still couldn’t sleep.”

“Good thing I wasn’t here when I was growin’ up. No tellin’ how much sleep ya woulda lost.”

Murdoch snorted. “I wouldn’t have lost more than one night. I would have turned you over my knee the first time it happened.” He glared fiercely at his son. “In fact, that still might be a good idea,” he growled.

Johnny grinned. “I guess I’d better get ta bed before I find out if you’re jokin’.” He ran toward the stairs before Murdoch could move, and Murdoch watched him go, realizing just how comfortable his son had become with their relationship and his place in the family. Murdoch just wished Johnny had never had to get used to it. He wished that his son had been home his whole life, even if he would have had to turn Johnny over his knee a few times. Or more than a few times. He was sure Johnny would have been a handful to raise, and he figured Jimmy would be just like his father. The boy would need guidance and some discipline from Johnny to make sure he didn’t get into trouble. He just hoped Johnny would get the chance to give his son a good start in life. Something Johnny had never had. With a sigh, Murdoch finally stood up. They had been wrong to play that petty game with the Connors. He realized they all needed to pull together to make this work, and not see who could score the most points. If that happened, the only ones who would be sure to lose no matter who won were Johnny and Jimmy.

Chapter Twenty Four

The next morning, Molly and her mother rose early and went downstairs to start breakfast. To their surprise, Maria was already up and about, and the meal was already started. Molly stood uncertainly for several seconds, then resolutely walked toward the housekeeper. “May I do anything to help?”

Maria unwillingly turned her gaze on the younger woman. If it were up to her, she would ignore these two newcomers who were hurting Senor Johnny, but for now, she would give them a chance, as he requested. If she heard more nonsense from either one of them, however, she would not keep quiet. With a curt nod, she pointed toward the table. “If you would, please put the dishes on the table. The family will be down soon.”

Molly sat Jimmy down in a chair and handed him a biscuit to keep him occupied, then went to the cupboard to get the dishes. The three women bustled about, and by the time Scott came downstairs, breakfast was ready. Teresa followed a few minutes later, then finally Murdoch and Johnny made an appearance.

As they ate, Murdoch looked up at Mrs. Connors. “I hope the two of you are still planning on going to church with us.”

The older woman nodded. “Yes, I believe we will, thank you.”

Murdoch nodded. “Church starts at ten, so we need to leave here in about a half of an hour. Can the two of you be ready?”

Mrs. Connors blushed slightly. “Actually, Mr. Lancer, we are ready. I’m afraid that Molly’s and my wardrobe is extremely limited. We haven’t been able to buy new clothes for quite a while.” She looked down at her plate in embarrassment. “Perhaps Molly and I should stay home.”

It was Murdoch’s turn to blush. “I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you weren’t dressed appropriately. Those clothes you have on are just fine.” He looked at Teresa, willing her to go along with what he was saying. “It’s just that most of the time I think Teresa is ready, and she insists she still has to do something before we leave, although I have no idea what.”

Teresa nodded her head. “And half the time when I really am ready, he thinks I’m not.” She looked at the Connors. “You both look fine, really.” She thought briefly about offering to let Molly borrow some of her clothes, but she wisely held her tongue. She knew it would just make things worse, and besides, she had nothing that would fit Mrs. Connors.

Even though their efforts were transparent, Mrs. Connors finally nodded. She really wanted to go to church, and she wanted her daughter to go, also. She wanted Molly to come to terms with their situation, and she thought going to church would help put her on the right track. She glanced down at her dress self consciously. She knew the dresses she and Molly were wearing were little more than rags, but they were the best they had. She supposed they would have to break down and buy some new clothes, but her funds were limited, and until she was sure of the future, she hated spending any of their meager supply of money. She intended to keep enough of the money that Lancer had given her in the event she and Molly decided to leave. She wanted to make sure they would have enough to survive on for at least a little while.

Mrs. Connors brought her head up and looked at Teresa. “Maybe we can purchase a dress or two while we’re in town.”

Teresa shook her head regretfully. “I’m afraid most of the stores are closed today. Maybe we can go into Green River tomorrow, but you might have to settle for material. The selection of ready made dresses is pretty limited.”

Mrs. Connors smiled. “That would be fine.”

Murdoch nodded. “I’ll make sure someone can drive you into town.” He looked at his sons. “Speaking of which, don’t you think you’d better get the surrey ready?”

Scott nodded and jumped up. “Come on, brother, let’s go.” Johnny gulped down the rest of his coffee and snatched another biscuit, then followed his brother.

By the time the rest of them walked outside, the surrey was parked in the courtyard. Scott was waiting next to it, and Johnny was sitting on Barranca. Murdoch had hoped that his younger son would choose to ride in the surrey, but he knew Johnny was more comfortable riding his horse. He also knew that Johnny wanted a way to escape if things became too uncomfortable. He managed to send a smile his son’s way, acknowledging that at least Johnny was going into town with them. Murdoch and Scott helped the ladies up into the surrey, and then with a flick of the wrist, Scott sent the well trained team down the road toward town.

It was a long and dusty ride, and by the time they reached Green River, they were all more than ready to get out of the surrey. Scott tied the horses to a big oak tree next to the church, and after a moment’s hesitation, Johnny tied Barranca next to the team. Murdoch was already helping the ladies down, so Scott walked up and offered Teresa his arm. Johnny stood back, undecided. He really wanted to attend church, and more importantly, he knew Murdoch wanted him to. As the others were heading toward the church, Murdoch stopped. “Are you coming, John?”

Johnny hesitated, and the stiffening of Molly’s jaw was not lost on the gunfighter. He bit his lip in indecision, then with a shrug, he smiled at his father and walked with him toward the church. Scott and the ladies had just reached the steps when Reverend Jacobs and Father Duncan stepped out of the church.

Murdoch purposely ignored the Catholic priest, and turned toward the reverend. “Good morning, Reverend Jacobs, I’d like you to meet some friends of ours.”

The pastor nodded, and then glanced at the priest. “Before you do, I want you to know that you’ll have to leave your guns outside.”

Murdoch’s eyes narrowed. “Since when?”

The priest spoke up, a look of triumph on his face. “Weapons have no place in the house of God, just as some people have no place there.” He turned his gaze on the gunfighter and smiled maliciously.

Chapter Twenty Five

As Johnny spun on his heel and stalked off, Murdoch turned his glare toward the Reverend. “Is that the way you feel, too?”

Pastor Jacobs shifted uncomfortably. “I believe all people are welcome in church,” he shot a glance at the retreating gunfighter. “No matter what their sins. However, I agree with Father Duncan that weapons should not be allowed. I believe banning guns will cut back on the chance of any…unpleasantries. Weapons have no place in a house of worship.”

Murdoch glared back for several seconds, then turned to Scott. “See the ladies inside. I’m going to get Johnny.”

Scott handed Murdoch his handgun. “Good luck,” he muttered, then ushered the ladies inside.

As expected, Murdoch found his son by the horses, rubbing Barranca’s nose and talking softly to the animal. Murdoch shook his head. Whenever Johnny was upset, he turned to his horse for solace. Once again, it hurt Murdoch to see that. The thought that his son hadn’t had a person to trust, but had been forced to turn to horses for comfort, angered and saddened him. It brought home just how badly he had failed his son, and he vowed once more he would never fail him again. He just hoped he could keep that promise.

Murdoch watched Johnny for several seconds, then slowly approached. Johnny glanced up, and Murdoch was rewarded with a wry smile. “So ya gonna beat him up?”

Murdoch’s eyebrows quirked up. “Do you want me to?”

Johnny studied his father for several seconds. “You’re serious, aren’t you? You’d really beat him up for me.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “If you think it would do any good.”

Johnny shook his head. “I can’t believe you would do that when you have to know it wouldn’t do anything but cause trouble.”

Murdoch smiled and shrugged. “If it were that important to you, it would be worth it.”

Johnny shook his head. “You’re crazy, Old Man.”

Murdoch nodded. “Probably.” He hesitated, then slanted a look at his son. “I won’t blame you if you don’t want to go to church today.”

Johnny smiled. “I think I’ll just stay right here till you’re ready to leave.”

Murdoch nodded, then looked across at the café. “Want to go across the street and get a cup of coffee?”

“Aren’t you going to church?” Johnny asked in surprise.

“I think the Lord will forgive me for choosing to spend time with my son instead of listening to that hypocritical old windbag.”

“I thought you liked Pastor Jacobs.”

Murdoch shrugged. “I did, but right now I’m going to reserve judgment. If he let that so called priest twist his thinking, then I guess we’re no longer friends.”

Johnny dropped his head and sighed. “Seems like you’ve lost a lot of friends because of me.”

Murdoch put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “I haven’t lost any.”

Johnny’s head jerked up. “Yes, you have.”

Murdoch shook his head. “No. Johnny, I haven’t lost any of my true friends. The only ones that I ‘lost’ were men that were never really my friends in the first place.”

“Just ‘cause they don’t approve of me don’t mean they weren’t your friends.”

“You’re wrong, son. Anyone who is truly my friend would know that doing anything to hurt you would hurt me.”

Johnny was silent for several seconds, then looked up at his father. “So you’re gonna leave poor Scott with all those women?”

Murdoch nodded seriously. “I think he’ll survive. Come on, let’s go across the street.”

The two men walked across to the café. Johnny went over to a corner table and sat with his back to the wall, facing the door. When Johnny had first arrived at Lancer, that was just one of the many things they had argued about, Murdoch mused. It had irritated him that his son had insisted on a certain seat whenever they were in public, and he had told Johnny so. It had taken Scott to guess the reason, but even then, Murdoch had blindly dismissed it as paranoia on Johnny’s part.

Murdoch sighed softly. He had made so many mistakes with Johnny. The two of them had fought almost continually at first, usually about stupid things. Looking back, he knew he had been wrong a lot of those times, and he didn’t even know why Johnny had stayed in those first turbulent months. He had wanted Johnny to conform to his own ideas of behavior, without even trying to learn anything about his son or why he did things a certain way.

Gradually, however, he came to realize that although his son might not always do things the way he was expected to, the result was usually the same or better than what Murdoch anticipated. As soon as Murdoch had lightened up and hadn’t tried to dictate every move his son made, their relationship had improved considerably. Murdoch had finally realized just what an honest and hard working man his son was, and he had come to deeply respect his son and trust his judgment.

The two men sat in the café and ordered some coffee and a couple of pieces of pie, and talked about absolutely nothing important. Murdoch only felt a small amount of guilt over this stolen time with his younger son, and vowed to try to find time to spend some similar time with Scott.

As soon as he thought it, he saw Scott step inside the building. The blond looked around for a second, then headed over to the table and sat down. He reached over and snagged the last bite of pie from his brother’s plate and put it in his mouth.

“Hey, that was mine!” Johnny protested.

“”Was’ is the operative word there, brother,” Scott smirked.

Murdoch chuckled and looked at his older son. “Where are the women?”

“Teresa saw Becky Peters and went over to stay hello, and the Connors said they wanted to talk to the priest about taking confession. I looked all over for you two before I thought to come in here.” He looked pointedly at Johnny’s plate. “I THOUGHT we’d already had breakfast.”

Murdoch froze as his son talked. “You mean the Connors went to talk to the priest?”

Scott looked from his father to his brother and asked cautiously, “Is that a problem?”

Murdoch shut his eyes, cursing the fact that he hadn’t told Scott about the things the priest had said. “I think problem doesn’t even begin to cover it,” Murdoch sighed.

Chapter Twenty Six

Johnny closed his eyes and let out a deep breath. Scott looked back and forth between his father and brother in confusion. “All right, what am I missing?”

Murdoch shrugged and glanced at Johnny, who abruptly stood up and stalked from the café. Murdoch watched him go, then slowly shook his head. “The priest told Johnny that he wasn’t welcome in church; he told him that he was condemned to eternal damnation.”

Scott looked at his father in disbelief. “He didn’t,” he protested.

Murdoch nodded. “I’m afraid he did.”

Scott snorted angrily. “No wonder Johnny doesn’t want to attend church.” He looked up at his father as another thought hit him. “Pastor Jacobs doesn’t think that, does he?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I have no idea. I know he didn’t before, because he asked us to bring Johnny to church with us several times. But since that priest has moved in with him, he may have changed his thinking.”

Scott looked at his father in surprise. “He moved in with him? Why? He has his own church and rectory.”

“He did,” Murdoch mumbled.

“I don’t understand. I didn’t hear anything about a fire.”

“There wasn’t one. The only catastrophe to hit those buildings was me. I was trying to do the right thing, and I’m afraid it didn’t quite work out the way I had planned.”

“What did you do?” Scott asked quietly.

“We own the church and the rectory. After I found out what he had said to Johnny, I was so mad that I rode over and told that so called priest to get off of Lancer land. I THOUGHT he’d pack up and leave town, and we could get a decent man to replace him. Now I find out he not only didn’t leave, but I’m afraid he’s corrupted Pastor Jacobs.”

“Well, if he has, we’ll be going to a different church,” Scott stated emphatically.

“I agree, but let’s hope that won’t be necessary. There aren’t many around here.”

Scott shook his head. “Even if that priest doesn’t want Johnny in his church, he wouldn’t say anything to the Connors, would he?”

Murdoch shrugged. “I hope not, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past him. In my opinion he’s not much of a priest.”

“I think I’ll take a walk back to the church and wait for them,” Scott said casually.

Murdoch studied his son, then stood up. “I think I’ll go with you.”

“Don’t you trust me?” Scott said kiddingly.

Murdoch shook his head seriously. “Not when it comes to someone hurting your brother.” He smiled at his son. “If that padre has said anything to the Connors, we just might have to restrain each other.”

The two men stepped out of the saloon, and both glanced over to where their horses were tied. Neither one was surprised to see that the palomino was no longer in sight. Murdoch sighed; when would this ever end? When could his son not have to worry about narrow minded idiots?

As the men walked across the street, the doors to the church opened, and the Connors stepped out. Next to them stood the priest, and when he saw Murdoch, he smiled triumphantly before quickly stepping back inside the building and shutting the door.

Murdoch looked at the two women, and one look at there faces verified that the padre had indeed spoken to them about more than their confession. Murdoch’s own face hardened and he walked toward the two women.

“What did he tell you?” he asked, as Scott banged him in the ribs with an elbow.

Mrs. Connors head came up, and she stared at the rancher in surprise. “The truth.”

“I doubt it,” Murdoch snapped.

“Are you calling a man of the cloth a liar?”

“Yes!” Murdoch growled.

“You don’t even know what he said to us,” Molly observed.

“I have a pretty damn good idea.”

Mr. Lancer! I will not have you using that language in front of my daughter!” Mrs. Connors protested.

Murdoch blushed slightly. “Sorry, ma’am,” he mumbled. He ran a hand through his hair. “It’s just that the padre has a vendetta against Johnny, and I don’t want you to believe his lies.”

“From what he says, YOU are the one who has been lying, about everything. According to him, you kicked him out of not only his church, but his home because you didn’t like him. Is that true?”

Murdoch clenched his teeth and looked at Scott for support. “More or less, but he was the one who was out of line, not me. He had no right to tell my son he wasn’t welcome in church. No man has that right, padre or not.”

“He said he was afraid of Johnny,” Mrs. Connors observed. “And from what I hear he has every right to be.”

“NO! HE DOESN’T!” Murdoch yelled.

Scott immediately took Murdoch’s arm. “Calm down, you’re making a scene, and you’re certainly not making this any better,” Scott whispered.

Murdoch shrugged out of his son’s grasp. “Johnny is an honest, caring person that has done everything possible to turn his life around. It’s people like that narrow minded priest who make it difficult.”

Mrs. Connors calmly looked at the rancher. “And you make sure everyone believes that, or else. He said that the only reason that most folks pretend to accept Johnny is because you threaten them. Is that true also?”

Murdoch shut his eyes and took a deep breath. “I didn’t want them to jump to conclusions,” Murdoch said quietly. “I wanted them to give him a chance.”

“So if anyone speaks out about your son, even though it’s the truth, you use your money and influence to stop them,” Mrs. Connors stated calmly.

“Mrs. Connors,” Scott intervened. “Lancer has never threatened anyone. My father was just trying to make sure people didn’t jump to the wrong conclusion about Johnny. He wanted them to give him a chance. That was quite some time ago, and now my brother is well liked and respected by just about everyone.”

“At least they pretend to like him. Your father did more than threaten. He kicked a man of the cloth out of his home and church. No wonder people are afraid to admit they are frightened of Madrid. They wouldn’t dare.” She shook her head and looked at Murdoch sadly. “I was wrong about you. I thought you were an honorable and trustworthy man, even if your son wasn’t. Today I found out that isn’t true.” She hesitated for a moment. “You disappointed me, Mr. Lancer. You almost had Molly and I convinced that your son wasn’t the monster we thought he was, but unfortunately I can’t believe anything you say. I realize that you are one of those closed minded parents who will protect their children no matter what they have done, and no matter what the cost. You think your money can fix everything. Well, Mr. Lancer, you are wrong.”

Chapter Twenty Seven

Mrs. Connors paced around her room, trying to decide what to do. She had really trusted Murdoch Lancer, and had even grudgingly begun to like Johnny. Now she found out that Murdoch wasn’t any more honorable than his son. Anyone who could kick a man of the cloth out of his home and church simply because the man was telling the truth wasn’t very trustworthy, in her opinion.

Now she had to figure out what she should do about it. She realized she and Molly would probably starve in the city and on their own, but staying here with these people just might destroy them in other ways. Before they had even come here, Molly had expressed concern that the Lancers had ulterior motives for asking them here. Her daughter was frightened that Johnny was planning on taking Jimmy away from them and then kicking the Connors out. Mrs. Connors had tried to calm her daughter’s fears and convince her that even if Johnny tried something, his father wouldn’t allow anything like that. Now she wasn’t so sure. Apparently the father was every bit as dishonest as the son.

She walked over to the window and looked out at the beautiful scenery. When she had first arrived, the beauty of the land and the ranch itself had taken her breath away. She had arrived with hopes of starting a new life here with her daughter and grandson, but now she realized those dreams were turning into a nightmare.

One thing she knew; no matter how rich and powerful Lancer was, she and Molly would fight to the death to keep Jimmy. They wouldn’t give him up just because Murdoch Lancer wanted them to. The Lancers just might find out how stubborn the Connors could be if they tried to take Jimmy away.

The trip home from church had been quiet, with no one saying more than a word or two. She knew from his tight lipped expression that Murdoch was angry, but she didn’t know if he was angry with the priest, with them, or simply because his deceptions had been caught. Teresa had stayed in town to visit with some of her friends, but Scott had accompanied them back to the ranch, and he was as quiet as his father.

Both she and Molly had retired to their rooms when they returned, and she could hear Jimmy’s protests at being cooped up. With a sigh, she walked over to the door. She and Molly certainly couldn’t hide up here indefinitely, and there was no reason they should hide. THEY had done nothing wrong. She would go talk to Molly and see what her daughter wanted to do, then they would decide together whether they should stay or go. She had to admit, right now, neither prospect was very appealing.

Scott watched as his father went over to the bar and poured a large drink and tossed it down.

“A little early, don’t you think?” Scott observed.

Murdoch turned on his son with a scowl. “I don’t think it’s early at all!”

“Murdoch, it isn’t your fault.”

“NO?” Murdoch shook his head. “No matter what I do, it turns out wrong. I was trying to protect Johnny; trying to make sure people gave him a chance.”

“And it did work. Almost everyone around here likes him now.”

“Not that…damn …priest. I think the Connors were beginning to soften towards Johnny. At least Mrs. Connors was. If I had kept my nose out of it and my mouth shut, Johnny would have been better off.”

“You don’t know that. If he was spreading rumors, the Connors and everyone else would have heard them. You know how some people are willing to believe anything a clergyman tells them. If you hadn’t done something to stop him, it might have been worse.”

“But I DIDN’T stop him! I just made him hate Johnny more. And now he has Pastor Jacobs believing him.” He tossed down his drink in one long gulp, then slammed his glass down on the desk. “All I want is for people to judge Johnny for himself, and not listen to lies or rumors.”

“Murdoch, you don’t know the Reverend believes anything that priest says. He’s right; guns don’t belong in church. He told you today that he believes everyone has the right to attend services.”

“Did you see who he was looking at when he made that comment and the one about no guns?”

Scott sighed. “He probably just knew that Johnny wouldn’t go along with it, and was waiting to see his reaction.”

Murdoch sighed. “I’m just tired of Johnny having to fight for every damn thing. I want things to be easy for him once in a while,” Murdoch mused.

“All of us do. But with Johnny, things are never easy,” Scott observed.

Murdoch didn’t say anything for a while, then looked out the window. “Where do you think he went?”

Scott smiled slightly. “Somewhere where there are horses is my guess.”

“Do you think he’ll come back?” Murdoch asked softly.

Scott looked at his father in surprise. “That’s what you’re really worried about, aren’t you? That he’ll just take off.”

Murdoch nodded without turning around.

“Johnny’s no quitter!” Scott said roughly. “He’s not going to run out on his son. He knows how badly a boy …” Scott’s voice trailed off.

“A boy needs a father,” Murdoch finished quietly.

Scott hesitated before replying. “Yes, he does.”

Murdoch nodded slightly. “He’s not going to let his son down the way I let him down, or the way I let you down.”

Scott took a step closer to his father. “He doesn’t blame you for that and neither do I. Not anymore.”

Murdoch spun around. “Well, you should! I wasn’t there for either one of you.” Murdoch’s head dropped. “But even though you needed a father, you were at least safe. Johnny didn’t have anyone. He needed me so badly, and I wasn’t there for him. He went through hell because I wasn’t there to protect him. He should hate me, and God only knows why he doesn’t! But I’ll tell you one thing, I have no intention of letting him down now. I don’t care what it takes, or what I have to do, I’m going to make this right for him.”

Chapter Twenty Eight

Johnny sat on the hill in back of the estancia, looking over the ranch. A rock was perched in just the perfect spot for a seat, and Johnny had spent a lot of time up here since he’d been home. It was secluded and the people down below couldn’t see him because of a thin grove of trees, but he could look between the wispy branches and see them. Just watching the ranch calmed him down and made him feel better. He knew it was his, and it made him feel secure.

When he’d first arrived at Lancer, he’d bolted from the house fairly regularly, but in spite of what his father had thought, he wasn’t running away. He was merely leaving so he could calm down before things could escalate out of hand between him and his father. Johnny had come close to saying things that he didn’t really mean, and he was sure his father had, too. Leaving for a while was Johnny’s way of ensuring that didn’t happen.

He had no intention of leaving paradise, and that is what Lancer was to him. There had been a few times, especially when he and the old man had bumped heads, that he had to remind himself of that, but he had never seriously thought of leaving. Well, except that one time. Johnny shook his head as he remembered how he had almost made the biggest mistake of his life.

An old friend had shown up one day, and signed on for a while. Wes had made Johnny’s life here sound awfully boring, and the gunfighter had foolishly listened to him, forgetting about all the times Wes had talked him into doing something stupid. The two had left after Johnny had butted heads with Murdoch about a wild horse herd that Johnny and Wes had caught, and the gunfighter had been forced to shoot one of the men that tried to steal them.

Johnny and Wes had ridden to a nearby town and spent a day there. Johnny had already been toying with the idea of coming home when Scott had barged into the saloon and made him feel like an idiot for leaving. It would have been easy to just agree with his brother and head home, but there was something he had to do first. He had almost asked his brother for a loan so he could get his father’s watch back, but then decided it was his problem and he’d have to figure out how to do it. Johnny shook his head sadly as he remembered how Wes had been killed. Even if he hadn’t been too smart, Wes had been a good friend. Later, Murdoch had apologized to Johnny and Johnny had admitted to his father that he had made a mistake. For some reason that was the turning point, and for the first time Johnny felt like he might have a place at Lancer.

Now he knew this was where he belonged, and he no longer doubted either his place here or his family’s love. He knew he’d never leave willingly, but he didn’t want his son to grow up bouncing from town to town, with no money for food or clothes.

Johnny looked down at the bustling ranch yard once more, and thought about Molly. He knew he had treated the girl badly, and she had every right to hate him, but he wanted to at least convince her he wasn’t a monster. He had to, if he was going to have any chance at all of being a father to his son, but he didn’t have a clue about how to go about it. He thought he might have been making a little progress. At least Mrs. Connors had no longer looked at him as if she wanted to shoot him, but he figured he’d lost all that ground and more this morning after their little talk with the priest.

His mind went back over the conversation that morning at breakfast, and an idea began to form. He didn’t know if it would work, but at least Molly and her Mother couldn’t be any madder at him then they already were, and maybe it just might make him some points. He wasn’t sure, though. The feminine mind was something he could never quite figure out. He waited a few minutes to see if he could come up with something better, but when nothing else came to mind, he figured he might as well give it a try. He figured he couldn’t be worse off than he was now.

Once decided on a course of action, he jumped back up on his palomino. Barranca skittered sideways for a second at the sudden movement, but soon settled down. He was used to his owner’s unexpected movements. A few seconds later, Johnny was headed toward town.

That evening, once again supper was strained. After a long talk the Connors had decided to stay at Lancer because of Jimmy, but neither woman was sure that was the right decision. Murdoch didn’t do much to reassure them, either. He was still in a foul mood, mostly because of the priest, but also because he was still angry with himself. The fact that Johnny didn’t show up for supper didn’t improve his mood any, either. The Connors excused themselves fairly early and headed for bed, and Teresa and Scott soon followed.

Johnny waited until all was quiet and the lights were off before sneaking back to the house. He stopped in the kitchen and ate the food Maria or Teresa had left for him on the stove, then polished off the last piece of a chocolate cake. He smiled as he walked through the great room and saw his father asleep on a couch, and he turned and went over to his father and gently shook him.

Murdoch startled awake, then smiled when he saw his son. “Johnny.”

“Ya shouldn’t be sleepin’ on the couch. You know what Sam said about that.”

Murdoch shrugged as he sat up. “I wanted to make sure you got home Ok.”

“I ain’t a kid, Murdoch.”

“Exactly. If you were a kid, I wouldn’t worry about you,” Murdoch grumbled.

“No, you’d just put me over your knee,” Johnny kidded.

Murdoch grimaced as he tried to stand up, and Johnny shook his head. “Come on, Old Man, let’s go upstairs. We could both use some sleep.”

Chapter Twenty Nine

Murdoch glanced up when he heard a knock on the door. He looked to see if anyone was going to answer it, but apparently Maria was busy in the kitchen. He knew Teresa and the Connors were upstairs, getting ready to go into town in an hour or so. They were planning on trying to find some material for new clothes, but he was afraid they wouldn’t find much in Green River.

He inhaled sharply as he stood up. Johnny was right; he shouldn’t have tried to sleep on the couch last night. He’d be paying for it for days, but it was worth it to know that his son was safely home. He smiled; he had worried about his sons the whole time they had been gone, and had prayed for them nightly, but now that they were finally home, he worried whenever they were away.

The only time he wasn’t too concerned was when they were together. He knew how protective they were of each other, and how they helped each other. Right now Johnny and Scott were out working, and he hoped Scott would be able to talk to his brother today and make him feel better. He was still thinking about his sons when he threw the door open. He was surprised to see an elderly Mexican couple standing there, several large suitcases on the porch between them.

“May I help you?” Murdoch asked.

The man nodded. “Senor Johnny asked us to come here today.”

“He did?” Murdoch frowned.

“Si, Senor. He came to see us yesterday and asked us to bring plenty for the Senorita to choose from.”

Murdoch looked at the two in surprise, wondering how Johnny even knew about them. He had thought about suggesting it himself, but knew the Connors didn’t have much money, and he knew these two were the best in the valley, and their work wasn’t cheap. He hesitated, wondering how the Connors would take it if he offered to pay, when the man spoke up again.

“Senor Johnny has already given us a large deposit and has told us to spare no expense.”

Murdoch hesitated once more, hoping the Connors would take this in the spirit it was meant, but somehow doubting it. He opened the door. “Please, come in.”

The couple came in and looked around. “You have a very nice home, Senor.”

“Thank you. Now if you’ll excuse me a moment, I’ll go get Senorita Connors.”

Murdoch climbed the stairs, wondering if Johnny had just wasted a good amount of money. He rapped quickly on Mrs. Connors door, and she answered it almost at once. She looked at him quizzically. “May I help you?”

Murdoch nodded, tempted to blurt out what was happening, but deciding there might be less yelling if he waited until they were downstairs. “Molly has some visitors,” he said, then turned and strode downstairs before she had time to respond.

Several minutes later, both Molly and Mrs. Connors came down the stairs and looked enquiringly at the two strangers.

Murdoch took a deep breath as he stepped forward. “This is Senor Mesa, and his wife, Anita. They are the best tailors in the valley.”

Mrs. Connors shook her head. “Why do they want to see Molly?”

Senor Mesa stepped forward. “Senor Johnny sent us here. He said we were to make some clothes for you and your mother.”

Molly’s face turned red. “I’m sorry, but he was mistaken.”

“No, Senorita,” he said emphatically. “No mistake.”

Mrs. Connors stepped forward. “I’m afraid my daughter’s right. We don’t have the money to pay you.”

“No, Senora,” Mesa hurriedly assured her. “Senor Johnny has already paid.

Molly froze. “Paid for what?”

Mesa shrugged. “For your clothing, Senorita.” He reached down and opened one of the cases. “I have many types of material for you to choose from.”

Mrs. Connors shook her head. “No.”

Murdoch sighed. “Mrs. Connors, please, if Johnny wants to do this, why don’t you let him?”

“Because we don’t want any more charity. We’ve imposed enough on you.”

“This ISN’T charity!” Murdoch bellowed. “My son is TRYING to do something nice for the mother of his child! Why can’t you just graciously accept it?”

“We refuse to be bought, by you or by your son!” Mrs. Connors raged.

“No one is trying to BUY you! Johnny is simply trying to make things easier for you here.” He stared at her, willing her to understand. “Please.”

Mrs. Connors stared at Murdoch for several seconds, then looked at her daughter. Molly locked eyes with her mother for several seconds, then nodded slowly and looked at Murdoch. “Thank you.”

Murdoch shook his head. “Don’t thank me, this was all Johnny’s idea.”

Mesa nodded vigorously. “Senor Johnny told me he wanted the best for you.” He drew out some cloth. “First we will pick out the dresses and the material you want, then you can go upstairs and my wife will take your measurements.” He motioned toward the couch. “Please, sit down.”

Molly and her mother sat nervously on the couch and the man drew out dozens of swatches of material and a sketch book filled with drawings of various dresses. He handed her the pad, and she eagerly looked at the dresses. She showed her mother one of the drawings, and her mother studied it for a second, and then nodded. Molly handed the book back to Mesa. “I like this one,” she said excitedly. “I’ve never seen a dress this beautiful.”

Mesa took the tablet and nodded. “You have good taste.” He thumbed through the swatches and came up with a piece of royal blue cloth. “How about this for the dress?”

Molly nodded. “It’s perfect.”

The tailor smiled, and handed her the sketch book once more. She looked at it in confusion. “I already picked the dress I want.”

Mesa shrugged. “Senor Johnny said for us to make many clothes.” He turned to Mrs. Connors. “For you, too, Senora. Please, pick out some more.”

Chapter Thirty

Molly sat in the chair and looked out the window at the peaceful scene below. She glanced once more at her empty closet, but for once the sight made her smile. Mesa had promised them that within two weeks the clothes would be ready. Molly had never had many dresses and certainly not any as fine as the ones that were being made. She couldn’t believe Johnny’s generosity. He had even ordered Mesa to make clothes for her mother. It had felt like Christmas, only Molly had never had such a fine gift, even at Christmas.

She shut her eyes in confusion. Her mind had been in chaos since she had first learned she would be coming here and would have to face him again. She had been so madly in love with him, and she had been naive enough to believe he loved her, too. When she had watched him gun down her father, then saw him take the payment from Alvarez, she had been devastated. Even so, she knew that if he had come to her, if he had told her he loved her, she would have forgiven him. She would have forgiven him anything. Instead, a few minutes later he had jumped on his horse and taken off without a backward glance.

In an instant, the love she felt had changed to hate. It was easier to hate than it was to hurt, and he had hurt her badly. But somewhere deep inside, she knew that her mother was right; she still had feelings for him, and those feelings certainly had nothing to do with hate.

She hadn’t wanted to come to Lancer for that reason. Over the years, she had managed to hide her feelings for him deep inside her, bury them where they could never hurt her again. The thought of coming here and dredging up those emotions all over again had nearly sent her into a panic. Her mother knew how she felt, or at least thought she did, and she had ultimately left the decision about whether to come to Lancer up to Molly.

Molly hadn’t wanted to come. She wanted to stay where she was safe and would never have to think of him again, but she had finally decided to come because of Jimmy. He needed a father, and more, he needed some security in his life. Moving from town to town and scrounging for food wasn’t the way she wanted to bring up her son. She didn’t care for herself, but she didn’t want Jimmy to have to live that way. She didn’t want to see Johnny again, she didn’t want to be around him, but not for the reason her mother thought. She knew the effect he had on her, and she didn’t want to open herself up to more hurt. She was frightened, not of him, but of his charm.

As soon as she had seen him, she knew that her feelings hadn’t died, and she had fought to keep them hidden. She had been absolutely hateful toward him, and yet he had been nothing but sweet, both to her and to her mother. She had found herself being drawn to him again, and she had just about resigned herself to that fact. A frown crossed her face. At least she had until the priest in town had told her a few things about the gunfighter.

Now she was more confused than ever. According to the priest, Johnny was a wanton killer; a man both feared and hated by his neighbors. She certainly didn’t want to expose Jimmy to a man like that. The priest had also told them that Johnny drank heavily and was always getting involved in fights in town because of his temper, and that he sinned in just about every way imaginable. She shook her head. She had never seen Johnny take more than a swallow or two of liquor, and she had never seen a sign of a temper. As for other sins…she knew that was true.

She wished she knew the whole truth. So far, Johnny hadn’t given her any reason to think he was as bad as the priest said he was, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t. Maybe he was just hiding it. After all, his father certainly admitted the priest wasn’t lying when it came to his own actions. Murdoch Lancer had admitted to threatening the locals and even turning the poor priest out of his house, and a man that could do that might be capable of anything.

No! Johnny wasn’t mean. No matter what the priest had said, she couldn’t believe he was a cold blooded murderer. Sure, she knew he was a gunfighter. Any doubts she had of that evaporated when she watched him kill her father, but her father had drawn first. And she had seen another side of Johnny, a softer side. One day when she had first known him, she and Johnny had taken a walk, and they had come across a wounded puppy. Johnny had scooped the pup up and taken the stray to the local doctor. The doctor had at first refused to help, but Johnny was very convincing, and the man was soon setting the young pup’s leg and discussing proper care with the worried young gunfighter.

Molly sighed. Maybe he had changed. Anything was possible, especially with a man as unethical as Murdoch as his father, and she knew that priests didn’t lie. The only thing she could do was to wait and see. If Johnny was putting on an act for her sake, he would eventually show his true colors. For both Jimmy’s sake and hers, she hoped fervently that the priest was mistaken.

In the meantime, she would give Johnny a much deserved apology and try to get along with him. If the priest was right, Johnny would give himself away, but in the meantime, she would give him the benefit of the doubt.

She leaned out the open window, and with a sigh crossed her arms and leaned her head on them. She gazed out at the night sky, letting the peaceful scene calm and soothe her troubled spirit. She watched as a single star sped across the night sky, and she smiled and made her wish.

Chapter Thirty One

Johnny sat in the saloon, moodily nursing his drink. He had the distinct feeling he had messed up. He had wanted to do something nice for Molly and her mother, and he knew their wardrobes were limited. At the time, he thought that it would be a thoughtful gesture, but the more he thought about it, the more it seemed as if he were trying to buy them. He swallowed the last of his drink, and in a fit of anger, he ordered another. He was sure Molly and her mother would take it wrong, too. After all, they had taken everything else wrong.

Mesa had told him that he would be at Lancer for several hours, taking measurements and going over the material that the women wanted, and Johnny had decided to wait in town until it was over. He had waited in the saloon, but had been careful not to drink too much. He didn’t need to give the Connors any more ammunition against him, and he was tired of being kept away from his son. However, the longer he sat there, the more he thought about what he had done, and the more convinced he became that he was in trouble. He had seen Mesa return to town over two hours ago, but he remained sitting in the bar. The later it got, the more convinced he was that he would be wise to wait a little longer to go home. Maybe a month or so, he thought ruefully. If he was going to get his head torn off, he preferred to put it off as long as possible.

He looked up as the door to the saloon swung open, and Val walked in. Johnny rolled his eyes. Just what he needed.

The sheriff walked over and plopped down at the table next to Johnny. “Hey buddy, how’re you doin’?”

Johnny nodded. “Ok.”

Val studied the gunfighter’s face and motioned for the bartender to bring a bottle. “What’s wrong, Johnny?”

“Nothin’.”

“Uh huh. You stickin’ to that story?”

The gunfighter gave him one of his best stares, but Val had stopped being intimidated by Madrid a long time ago, and calmly returned the look.

The bartender brought a fresh bottle of tequila and an extra glass, then scurried away. He had stayed away from the grumpy gunfighter all night; he had no intention of being the object of Johnny Madrid’s wrath. A few other patrons had come in, but they too had sensed the climate in the room, and soon departed. A disgruntled gunfighter was bad for business, at least the kind the barkeep wanted.

Val reached for the bottle and refilled Johnny’s glass, then waited patiently while Johnny contemplated the drink before finally grabbing it and tossing the liquor back. Then he gunfighter looked at the sheriff. “I sure as hell wish I could figure out how women think.”

Val laughed. “And here I thought it was somethin’ serious.”

“It is,” Johnny glowered.

Val shrugged. “Johnny, if you can figure out how females think, you’ll be the first man in history ta do it.”

“Thanks,” Johnny said glumly.

Val grinned. “Never thought Johnny Madrid would be sittin’ in a saloon worryin’ about how ta handle a woman.”

“Not just any woman, my wife.”

Val gaped at him. “Your what?”

Johnny shrugged. “Well, she ain’t yet, but she will be this weekend. Only problem is, she hates me.”

Val shook his head in confusion. “But she’s marryin’ you?” he asked doubtfully. “Who is she? I didn’t know you was goin’ with anyone special.”

With a sigh, Johnny filled him in on the details. Johnny had no intention of telling anyone else, but Val was a friend, and had proven his loyalty many times over. Johnny knew it would go no further. When he was finished, Johnny cautiously looked at his friend to see his reaction. He had studiously avoided looking at the sheriff while he was telling him the story, and he was afraid of what Val would say.

Val simply polished off his own drink. “I’d say, Johnny boy, that once again you have managed to get yourself into one hell of a situation. Only this one might be a lot more dangerous than most of ‘em.”

Johnny nodded glumly. “I know, and I think I just made it worse.”

“How could you possibly have made it worse?”

With a sigh, Johnny told him about sending Mesa out to the ranch. The gunfighter shook his head. “It was a dumb move, but I was just tryin’ ta help ‘em. But I have the feeling they won’t see it that way.”

Val nodded. “Probably not. Women have a way of takin’ things wrong, that’s for sure.” He reached over and filled Johnny’s glass once more. “What you need is ta forget about your troubles.”

“What I DON’T need is ta show up at Lancer drunk,” Johnny protested.

Val shrugged. “So don’t go home tonight. I have an extra bunk. Stay here and give the lady time to calm down.”

Johnny thought for a minute, and decided Val was right. He held out his glass.

The two men sat in the saloon for another couple of hours, trading stories and buying each other drinks. Finally, Val stood up shakily. “I guess I’d better do my rounds.”

Johnny smiled at his friend’s obviously inebriated state. “Need help?”

Val grabbed the back of the chair to steady himself. “No, I’ll be fine if I can just figure out how ta work my feet.”

Johnny chuckled as the sheriff lurched toward the door, then the gunfighter finished the last of the bottle. He managed to stand up, but for some reason, it was hard to keep his balance. He grabbed at the table, but it moved just as he was reaching for it, and he sat back down.

The door to the saloon slammed opened, and Johnny spun around, clawing for his gun. His eyes finally focused on the intruder, and Johnny managed a lopsided smile. “Hey, Mesa, how’s it going?”

The tailor hurried over. “Fine, Senor. The women were most appreciative.”

Johnny frowned. “They weren’t mad?” he slurred.

“No, Senor, they were very happy!”

Johnny tried to make his poor mind digest what the tailor had said, and finally realized he had been worried for nothing. His face brightened. “Guess I can go home, after all.”

The tailor looked at him doubtfully. “Maybe you should stay in town for the night.”

Johnny shook his head. “Nope, no reason to.” He squinted at his watch and was finally able to make out the numbers. “If I hurry, the Connors will still be up. I betcha for once I’ll get a warm welcome.”

Chapter Thirty Two

Johnny staggered out of the saloon and made his way out to where Barranca was patiently waiting. After several tries, Johnny managed to clamber aboard and then nudged his horse. When the palomino didn’t respond, he gave him a harder kick, then scolded the animal.

“Barranca, come on, it’s time ta go home,” he ordered. The horse turned and looked at him in exasperation as Johnny bellowed again.

“Come on, you mangy old mule, let’s GO!”

The bartender, drawn by the commotion, walked outside and untied the palomino from the hitching post, then handed Johnny the reins. The gunfighter nodded his thanks, then kicked his horse once more. The horse hesitated, expecting his owner’s usual guiding hand, but when it didn’t come, the disgruntled horse meandered out of town toward Lancer and his warm stall.

The horse ignored his master’s confusing signals and kept heading for home. Several times Johnny swayed alarmingly but each time he managed to grab the saddle horn in time to save himself from a nasty fall. By using his own common sense, the palomino finally jogged underneath the arch. Johnny had somehow been able to stay aboard, and was singing a bawdy ballad as he neared the house. Barranca headed straight toward the barn, but instead of stopping outside, he went inside and only stopped once he was in his stall.

Johnny blinked several times, trying to figure out just where he was, then slid off, still singing. He managed to pull off the saddle and bridle and throw them over the rail, and only fell twice. Staggering slightly, he left the stall and made it as far as a stack of nearby hay bales before collapsing. He lay there a few moments, figuring that was as good as any place to sleep, when suddenly his eyes popped open. There was some reason he had come home, but he couldn’t quite remember what that reason was. He scrunched his eyes shut, trying to remember, and finally it came to him. Mesa had told him that the Connors had been thrilled with the new clothes, and Johnny had decided to go home to see their reaction.

He stayed still for several moments, unwilling to leave his comfortable bed, but he finally decided that the only way to talk to Molly was to go into the house. He lurched to his feet, and gracefully placed his foot in a grain bucket. He shook his foot, trying to rid himself of the vicious beast, but only succeeded in falling heavily against the side of the stall, smashing his nose in the process.

He slid down to the floor and lay there panting for several seconds, then resumed his fight against the creature that held him captive. He finally freed himself and lurched once more to his feet. He pulled his gun and pointed it at the offending tub, but realized that a gunshot would wake the whole house. After several tries he was able to put his gun back in its holster, and then he looked around for a suitable weapon. After looking around he picked up a nearby sledgehammer and smashed his enemy. With a satisfied nod and a final backward glance at his opponent, he stumbled out of the barn toward the house.

He yanked the kitchen door open and stumbled inside, then stopped and rested for several minutes while he held on tightly to the stove to keep it from moving. After he regained some of his strength, he left the kitchen, aiming unerringly for the stairs. When he had reached the base, he looked up at the long span of stairs and then with a deep breath, he resolutely started his climb. Through sheer will power he made it almost to the top before he lost his balance and went spinning down to the bottom. He sat down heavily at the base of the steps, trying to figure out how to get upstairs without having to climb, then gave up and curled up where he was. He figured the stairs should stop moving by the following morning.

“Johnny.”

Johnny felt someone grab his arm, and he pulled away from them, determined to sleep.

“Come on, son. Let’s get you upstairs.” The voice was calm but insistent.

“Go away,” Johnny slurred. “I can sleep right here.”

“No, son, you can’t. Now come on.” The arms tightened around him, and with his father’s help, Johnny managed to gain his feet. He smiled at Murdoch. “Hey.”

Murdoch smiled back. “Hey. Looks like you had quite a time in town. Now let’s get you into your room before the Connors see you.”

Johnny’s smile grew wider as his gaze wavered past his father’s face and focused on something behind him.. “Too late.”

Murdoch spun around and was greeted by the sight of Molly and her mother standing at the top of the stairs. Molly looked at the battered cowboy. “Is he all right?”

Murdoch nodded and tightened his grip on his son, willing him to remain quiet, but Johnny beamed at the two women. “I’m just fine.”

“You’re bleeding,” Molly observed.

Johnny face scrunched up as he remembered his encounter with the bucket in the barn. “Oh, yeah, I got into a little bit of a fight.”

Molly’s eyes widened as Johnny continued. “It’s ok, though, I killed the son of a bitch!”

“Johnny! Watch your language!” Murdoch barked.

Johnny grinned lopsidedly. “I smashed that damn tub with a sledgehammer. Serves him right for tryin’ ta trip me.”

Molly’s eyes widened even more. “You KILLED this …Tubb… for tripping you?”

Johnny nodded his head . “Yep.”

“With a SLEDGEHAMMER?”

Johnny nodded, then observed brightly, “I though it would be quieter than usin’ my gun. Sure made a mess, though. Stuff went flyin’ everywhere.”

Molly stared at the gunfighter for several seconds, then put a hand over her mouth and turned and ran to her room. Mrs. Connors glared at the two men at the base of the stairs, then whirled around and followed her daughter. A moment later, the sound of a door slamming reverberated throughout the house, and the unmistakable click of a lock turning soon followed.

Chapter Thirty Three

Johnny woke up with the sun burning his eyeballs to a crisp. He moaned and turned away from the sunlight streaming in through his window, burying his head in the pillow. He waited for his head to stop pounding, then figured it probably wouldn’t for a while. Damn Val anyway. He never would have drunk so much by himself, but the sheriff had kept filling his glass. He hoped Val had a worse hangover than he did, but he doubted it. For some reason, the sheriff never seemed to suffer after a night’s drinking. Johnny smiled. Of course, Val made up for it by being a total idiot when he was drunk. He couldn’t hold his liquor like Johnny could.

Johnny lay there for several seconds, but a nagging sense of doom forced his eyes open once more. For some reason, some memory just out of reach was bothering him. He knew he was probably in deep trouble with his Old Man for sleeping in, but the fact that he thought something worse had happened was enough to send him into a panic. Finally he gave up trying to remember and sat up. He had the feeling he’d find out soon enough.

He looked around for his clothes and saw they had been neatly folded and placed on his dresser, and his feeling of unease intensified. Apparently, either Murdoch or Scott had helped him to bed last night, but he couldn’t remember a thing. He knew that if he had made it upstairs on his own, he either would still have his clothes on or they would be strewn all over his room.

With a sigh, he reached for his trousers and pulled them on. He stood up, then walked over to the dresser and cautiously looked into the mirror. He grimaced when he saw his face. He couldn’t remember getting into a fight last night, but apparently he had. He had a cut on the bridge of his nose and one of his eyes was blackened. He shut his eyes. Bits and pieces of memory flitted through his tired brain, but he decided to ignore them. He reached for the soap and started lathering up his face. Maybe with luck, he could look halfway presentable by the time Molly or her mother saw him. He shuddered. At least Molly hadn’t seen him last night. Or had she? With a sigh he finished shaving and pulled on his shirt. He figured he’d find out soon enough.

He made his way downstairs and glanced into the great room. As expected, Murdoch was sitting at his desk doing paperwork. Johnny smiled. It was one of the things he had been surprised to learn about ranching. When he had first arrived, he couldn’t believe all of the papers it took to keep the ranch running smoothly. According to his father, the paperwork was every bit as important as the physical work, and Scott agreed. Johnny was just thankful that his father and brother took care of that part of the business. He walked over to the desk, and his father looked up and appraised him seriously, sending Johnny’s nerves tingling.

“Feeling better?” Murdoch asked quietly.

His father’s tone made the gunfighter wince. His feeling that maybe he had done something wrong that he couldn’t quite remember intensified. Johnny shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”

Murdoch’s eyebrows went up and he looked pointedly at the clock, which was just striking ten, then he looked back down at his papers. Johnny watched him a few minutes, then shifted nervously. “Did I do something wrong last night?”

“Can’t you remember?” Murdoch asked innocently.

“No,” Johnny sighed. “But I have the feeling you can.”

Murdoch dropped his head to hide a smile. “Actually, after worrying all night, I found out this morning that you had murdered a perfectly good grain bucket.”

“Huh?”

“A grain tub was found bludgeoned to death in the barn, right next to Barranca’s stall.”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed as he tried desperately to recall the event. Finally he shook his head in defeat. “I don’t remember,” he mumbled.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Murdoch offered.

“Killing a grain bucket doesn’t sound too bad,” Johnny smiled hopefully.

“No, it doesn’t. The problem is you managed to make the Connors believe that you had cold bloodedly murdered a person, rather than a grain bucket.”

Johnny’s smile fled and his eyes narrowed. “Now how on earth did I do that?”

Murdoch sighed. “Believe me, it wasn’t easy, but in your inebriated and bloody state you did an admirable job.”

“But you set ‘em straight, didn’t you? I mean you didn’t let them keep believing that …did you?” Johnny asked in a panicked voice.

Murdoch shook his head. “I tried to explain to them this morning, but after your magnificent performance last night they weren’t inclined to believe me. They think I’m covering up for you.”

“You wouldn’t cover up a murder!” Johnny protested.

“Unfortunately, the priest has convinced them that’s just what I would do.”

“Damn it! Why can’t he just leave me alone?”

Murdoch dropped his head. “I think that’s my fault. I should never have threatened him.”

Johnny shook his head, his anger leaving. “It isn’t your fault, Murdoch. You were just tryin’ ta help.” His eyes closed. “I guess I screwed things up worse with Molly, didn’t I?’ he asked resignedly.

Murdoch shrugged. “They can’t keep believing you murdered someone; they’ll figure it out eventually.” He looked pointedly at his son. “But your getting drunk certainly didn’t help matters. It wasn’t the smartest thing you ever did.”

Johnny dropped his head. “I know it. I didn’t mean to get drunk, but then Val came in, and… hell, I knew I’d had too much and I was plannin’ on staying in town overnight.”

“Then why didn’t you?” Murdoch asked in exasperation.

Johnny shrugged. “Mesa came in and said Molly and her mom were really happy with the clothes.” He shot a look at his father. “I guess I wasn’t thinkin’ too good by then, and I decided ta come home.”

“They were very happy with the clothes, but I’m afraid you lost all the ground you might have gained with your performance.”

Johnny shook his head and sighed. “I never would have gotten drunk if I wasn’t so worried about what they thought. Ya know what? I’m gettin’ tired of tryin. It seems no matter what I do they either take it wrong or it comes back ta bite me in the butt. I think I’m gonna just stay away from them. Maybe then I can manage ta quit screwin’ up.”

Chapter Thirty Four

Johnny had managed to stay away from Molly and her mother since his disastrous trip into town. He had no idea if they still thought he was a cold blooded murderer, but he thought it prudent not to find out. Every day he rose before dawn and came back well after dark, snatching his meals on the run or eating with Cipriano and Maria. He had to admit, he was getting way ahead on his chores, but he knew he couldn’t keep it up forever. He was exhausted, and tired of staying away from his own home.

Keeping busy kept his mind off of the upcoming wedding however, and that was a good thing. The girl that he was to marry wasn’t the same as the girl he’d known years ago. Maybe if he could get close enough to talk to her, he might find that girl again, but he figured he’d never get that chance. Both Molly and her mother had made their opinion on that subject perfectly plain. Besides, he figured he’d destroyed any chance they had when he’d shot down her old man and then ridden out of town. He hadn’t done much to impress her since she’d been here, either, that was for sure. And that damn priest hadn’t helped. He couldn’t really blame her for hating him.

He supposed he could live with her hate, but he knew he couldn’t live with being kept away from his son. He knew that once they were married Molly would have no right to keep Jimmy away from him, but he didn’t want to turn it into a war with his son in the middle. He hoped that Molly would lighten up a little bit after they were married and let him get to know his son. He would give her a chance, but he knew that if it took a fight to gain his son, he wouldn’t back down. Jimmy was more important to him than either Molly’s or his happiness.

He looked down at the deceptively peaceful scene below him and he took a deep breath. The wedding was tomorrow, and he still didn’t know how he felt about it. At one time, he had thought he was in love with Molly, but that had been a long time ago, and the circumstances had forced him to forget about her. Now he was marrying her, for better or worse, and Johnny had the feeling there would be a whole lot more worse involved if Molly had anything to say about it. The girl still hated him, he knew, and he just didn’t know what to do about it. He was tired of trying and being shot down at every turn.

He knew that if it weren’t for Jimmy, he would turn Barranca around and hightail it as far away as he could get. He still wasn’t entirely sure that’s what he shouldn’t do, anyway. He knew that Murdoch and Scott would take care of his son whether he was there or not, and maybe things would be calmer around here without him. As much as he wanted to be here for Jimmy, he knew that having a mother and father who fought all the time wouldn’t be good for the boy, either. Finally, he decided that if he was going to leave he’d do it after the wedding. Then his son would be legitimate, and Molly could rightfully file for divorce on desertion charges if she wanted to. He’d make sure they would have plenty of money so they wouldn’t have to scramble to live. He didn’t let himself think of having to leave the rest of his family. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it.

That decided, he nudged the palomino down the hill toward the house, saying a prayer that it would all work out for his son, one way or the other.

Molly looked out the window and saw the palomino heading toward the house. No matter how she tried to stop it, her heart always fluttered a little when she saw him. She turned back toward her mother. “Do you think that dress is all right for tomorrow?”

Mrs. Connors nodded. “It’s beautiful.”

Molly nodded nervously. There was a time when she had prayed that Johnny would marry her, but that was in the distant past. Before he’d betrayed her. Before he had ridden off and abandoned her. Now she didn’t know how she felt. She still felt as if she didn’t really know the man. Every time she thought she’d figured him out, he’d do something that would prove her wrong.

She had just figured out he was no good, then he had made such a generous gesture and purchased those clothes for her and her mother. That evening she had almost convinced herself that she and the priest had been wrong about him, and then he had made his drunken entrance. Now she didn’t know what to think, and she hadn’t even talked to him since then. He was obviously avoiding her, and she didn’t know if it was because of his guilt or because of the way she had treated him.

She sighed softly, and her mother came over and put her arm around her. “You don’t have to go through with this if you don’t want to.”

Molly shook her head. That was the problem. She didn’t KNOW what she wanted. She didn’t know if she could ever be happy with Johnny, but she guessed that really wasn’t the point. She was doing this for Jimmy and his future. She knew that marrying Johnny Lancer was the best thing she could do for her son, and her happiness, and Johnny’s, didn’t really matter. If she found out she couldn’t stand to be around Johnny, she could always leave. Even if her husband filed for divorce for desertion, he would still legally have to support her son. She wasn’t worried about herself as long as Jimmy was safe.

She turned back toward the window and watched as Johnny led his horse into the barn. She said a quick prayer that somehow this would all work out, especially for her son.

Chapter Thirty Five

Murdoch woke up and immediately felt like closing his eyes again. He hadn’t slept much at all, and he was exhausted and worried. He hadn’t wanted this day to come, but he hadn’t been able to stop it. Johnny was bound and determined to go through with it, no matter what. His son was getting married today, and it should be one of the best and happiest days of Murdoch’s life, but instead, he felt only sadness. He couldn’t even imagine what Johnny was feeling.

He forced himself to sit up, and he reached slowly for his trousers. He felt like an old man, and he was afraid that he’d feel even worse before this day was over.

When he hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, he had wandered down the hall and cautiously opened Johnny’s door. As expected, his son was sitting by the window, gazing vacantly out the window at the night sky.

“You ok?” Murdoch asked softly.

Johnny nodded without looking around. “Scott just left.”

“We’re both worried about you.”

“Why? I’m ok.”

“Sure you are.” Murdoch shook his head and took a step closer. “Johnny, you don’t have to go through with this.”

“Yes, I do.”

Murdoch sighed and sat on his son’s bed. “No, you don’t…”

“We’ve already discussed this, remember? I DO have to go through with it.” He dropped his head. “Who knows? Maybe it’ll work out.”

Murdoch felt his heart break for his son. Johnny had so much love to give to the right woman. Seeing his son forced into a loveless marriage just about destroyed him. It wasn’t fair. Johnny deserved so much better.

“We can figure out something else.”

“Like what? How else can you guarantee that my son won’t suffer for my mistake?

“Johnny, you can’t guarantee your son won’t suffer in life, no matter what you do. Believe me, I know.”

Johnny smiled sadly at his father. “What happened to Scott and me wasn’t your fault.”

Murdoch shrugged. “Maybe, and maybe not. But either way, I couldn’t stop it.”

“I know.” He looked at his father. “But you did everything you could, right?”

Murdoch nodded. “Yes, I did. But it didn’t work out very well, did it?”

Johnny smiled. “It worked out, just a little late.” He hesitated. “Murdoch, I have to do this. I have to try, for Jimmy’s sake.”

Murdoch nodded. “All right. Just remember that Scott and Teresa and I are behind you. You’re not alone.”

Johnny nodded. “I know,” he whispered.

Murdoch studied his son. “Johnny, I want you to promise me that if things don’t work out the way you want them to, you won’t leave.”

“I can’t promise that.”

“Johnny, please.”

Johnny lifted his head and stared at his father. “I promise I won’t just disappear. If I decide to leave, I’ll let ya know.”

Murdoch had returned to his room, but he hadn’t been able to sleep. He was afraid he was going to lose his son, and he didn’t know what he could do to prevent it. As much as he wanted to make sure that Jimmy was taken care of, his first priority was his own son. Johnny had suffered enough in his short life, and he didn’t deserve to suffer any more. He didn’t care what it took; he had no intention of allowing Johnny to leave his own home. Somehow, some way, he would make sure that didn’t happen.

Molly stood in front of the mirror, studying her reflection. She bit her lip nervously. Did he still think she was pretty? Did it matter?” Did she really care what he thought? She smoothed down her dress and tucked a curl back into place. When she had first come here, she had every intention of dressing in her oldest clothes for this occasion, but in the end she just couldn’t. If there was any hope of this marriage someday working out, she didn’t want to remember it because of that.

She knew this marriage wasn’t a real marriage, but she was still nervous. Afterwards, she would still be legally married to the gunfighter, for better or worse, and she wondered which it would be. After they were married, she had no legal right to keep anything from him, no matter what he had told her, and that thought made her even more nervous. She still had her doubts about his intentions, but no matter what happened, the one thing he wouldn’t get was her son. No matter what it took, she wouldn’t let him steal Jimmy away from her.

She glanced at her mother, who gave her a nod and a small smile. “You look beautiful.”

Molly smiled and glanced in the mirror once again. She wished she had a glass of wine; she could use something to give her some courage right about now. After a final pat to her hair, she turned and resolutely walked out of the room before she lost her nerve. She moved down the steps and caught her first glimpse of Johnny standing in the great room, apparently waiting for her. Her first feeling of panic turned into another feeling entirely when she saw how handsome he looked in a suit and tie.

Johnny glanced up as Molly descended the stairs, and he felt his pulse quicken. She was still as amazingly beautiful as she had been when he had first met her, and he felt a moments regret that this marriage was in name only. He cursed himself for making that promise to her in a disgustingly sane moment. He watched as she approached him, then he stepped forward and held out his hand to her. She hesitated and looked into his eyes. After a moment, his hand dropped, convinced she wouldn’t touch him, and he looked away just as her hand came up. After a second, she dropped her own hand, and her lips trembled as she followed him into the great room. In a few minutes, it would all be over, for better or for worse.

Chapter Thirty Six

Johnny led his bride to be into the great room, which Teresa had lavishly decorated with flowers. Johnny hadn’t wanted her to go to the trouble; he was very much aware that this wasn’t a real marriage, but Teresa had insisted. He had thought that Molly might be angry about it. She had made her thoughts on the subject pretty clear, and he had even entertained the notion that she might do something to show him exactly how she felt toward him, but he had apparently been wrong. He had halfway expected her to look her worst for the ceremony, but instead she looked ravishing, and his heart sped up once more as he looked at her, but she refused to meet his gaze.

He led her over to where the judge was standing expectantly. Murdoch had asked an old friend of his to preside, and Judge Walker had agreed. The old man hadn’t been given all of the gory details, just that a church ceremony wasn’t wanted. Thankfully, he hadn’t asked any questions, at least yet, and Johnny had the feeling he wouldn’t. The man seemed nice enough, just a little senile.

Scott came up and stood next to Johnny, letting his shoulder brush his brother’s. Johnny looked over and smiled at Scott, thankful for his brother’s show of support. He knew that his whole family was firmly behind him, and that knowledge made him feel warm inside. For most of his life he had been on his own, with no to count on or trust, and now he had a whole family who he trusted, and he knew they trusted him. Some of his nervousness evaporated as he realized that he wouldn’t have to go through this alone. For the first time in his life, he had people who would help him work things out, and he knew he would do his best to stay here.

Teresa walked up and stood next to Molly, then looked over and smiled encouragingly at her brother. He smiled back, and then the judge began to speak.

The words the man intoned brought home to Johnny once more just how much of a sham this ceremony really was. All the talk about loving and sharing their lives seemed unlikely to happen. He let his mind wander and he looked down at his bride to be. He could tell her thoughts were a million miles away, and for some reason, that angered him. Her face was pale, and Johnny could see her trembling slightly. He frowned at the thought that he frightened her enough to cause that reaction, and it made him feel disgusted with himself. He swore once more that he would stay away from her. He had done enough to make her life miserable.

He glanced over to where Molly’s mother was sitting, and he saw his son sitting on Mrs. Connors’ lap. He smiled at Jimmy, and the boy shyly smiled back. Teresa had talked the Connors into letting her babysit several times when they had gone into town, and each time Johnny had been the one to watch Jimmy. He had felt slightly guilty at the deception, but not guilty enough to stop. He was determined to get to know his son any way he could, and if he had to tell a few lies to accomplish it, so be it.

The change in the cadence of the words once more jolted Johnny back to the present, and he saw the judge looking at him expectantly. The man stared another moment, and then repeated himself.

“Johnny, do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife? Do you promise to love, honor and protect her? To have and to hold from this day forth, for richer or poorer, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?

Johnny had a fleeting thought of simply running out of the room and taking off for parts unknown, but another quick glance at his son squelched that thought. Nervously, he licked his lip, then answered.

“I do.”

Johnny glanced over at his father, and saw the older man had closed his eyes. Johnny’s gaze went back to the judge.

“And you, Molly, do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband? Do you promise to love, honor, and obey him? To have and to hold from this day forth, for richer or for poorer, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?”

Molly hesitated for several seconds, long enough to let Johnny know she really didn’t want to do this, then she answered in a small voice, “I do.”

The judge smiled and turned toward Johnny. “The ring.”

Johnny felt his brother nudge him, and he felt Scott slip the ring into his hand. Johnny turned toward Molly, and reached for her hand. She resisted for a second, and then she lifted her trembling hand up towards him. He grasped it gently and slipped the ring onto her finger. He tried to look into her eyes, but they remained downcast.

The judge beamed. “I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride!”

Johnny thought briefly of grabbing her and kissing her, but figured he’d probably just get slapped for his efforts. Or shot, if her mother happened to be carrying a gun. He looked once more at the top of Molly’s head, and then reached down and took a hold of her arm. Molly didn’t resist as he turned and guided her toward her mother. Mrs. Connors reached for her daughter, and Johnny turned away, angry at the whole stupid sham.

He had only gone a few steps when he felt his brother’s restraining hand on his arm. “Where are you going, brother?” Scott asked quietly.

Johnny glanced over at the Connors. “Out,” he grumbled.

Scott nodded. “I’ll join you.”

Johnny shook his head. “I ain’t runnin’ away. I just have ta get away from her for a while.”

“Like I said, I’ll join you. I think if we try real hard, we can find a good poker game in town.”

Johnny glanced over to where his new bride stood next to her mother and grinned. “Scott, I think that’s the best idea you’ve had in a long time.”

Chapter Thirty Seven

Molly looked up in disbelief as her new husband left the house without a backward glance. She watched as Scott went over and said a few words to Murdoch, and then he turned and followed his brother. She noticed that Murdoch looked pretty disgruntled at being left to explain things to the bewildered judge, and she hoped Johnny got an earful when he got home. If he got home. For the first time she wondered if he’d even be back. She’d been pretty hateful toward him, and she’d made it clear she didn’t want anything to do with him. She looked over at Jimmy and was somewhat reassured. Johnny wouldn’t leave for good without saying something to Jimmy. She was sure of that.

She turned around, feeling lost, and the reality that this had all been an elaborate farce crashed down on her. She wasn’t married, not really. She didn’t have a husband to share her life with. She knew, now that it was too late, that it had been a mistake. She should never have come here, she should never have agreed to a sham marriage. They should have taken their chances and moved to town. They would have survived somehow. But somewhere in the back of her mind, she had kept thinking that the marriage had a chance. That she and Johnny could somehow rekindle the romance and feelings that she thought had died a long time ago, but now she knew she had been wrong. Any chance they had of making a life together had walked out that door with Johnny.

Now she was married to a man who despised her. She had at least some financial security, she and her son had a place to sleep and plenty of food, but that was all they had. Johnny had just made that abundantly clear. He had gotten what he wanted. Jimmy. And now she would pay the price.

She walked over and set her bouquet down on the table, then picked up Jimmy and headed for the stairs. She was too embarrassed at her husband’s obvious defection to stay down here and try to be polite. Although the tears were there, they didn’t fall until she was safely in her own room.

Sometime later, her mother opened the door and looked in her daughter’s room. Molly and Jimmy were both asleep, cuddled in each other’s arms. Her daughter hadn’t even taken off her beautiful dress, which was now crumpled and wrinkled. The dried tears on her daughter’s face were obvious, and Mrs. Connors walked over and stroked her daughter’s hair. She had been wrong to insist they come here. Johnny was obviously only after one thing. He was going to try to get Jimmy away from them. Mrs. Connors shook her head. It wasn’t going to happen. She was willing to fight the devil himself to keep her grandson, and that’s just what she would do.

Scott watched his brother as he tossed back another shot of tequila. Johnny had been drinking fairly heavily, but he didn’t seem to be the least bit drunk. Scott sighed heavily. “Ready to talk about it?”

“What’s to talk about?” Johnny snorted. “She hates me.”

“You don’t know that.”

Johnny looked at his brother in disbelief. “You saw her. She wouldn’t even look at me the whole time. I just about had ta lasso her hand ta get that ring on.”

“Maybe she was just nervous,” Scott suggested.

“About what?” Johnny snapped. “It ain’t like we’re gonna be havin’ a honeymoon or nothin’. Besides, she CAN’T be worried about that.”

Scott’s eyebrows raised, but he didn’t pursue it. He didn’t think his little brother was in any mood to be kidded.

“So what are you going to do?”

Johnny shrugged. “I’m gonna stay away from her. I’m gonna try ta get ta know my son, and I’m gonna keep my distance from Molly and her mother.”

“Molly hasn’t exactly been very willing to let you be around Jimmy,” Scott said cautiously.

“Well ya know what, Scott? It don’t matter no more. They don’t have a right anymore ta keep me away, and if they try, they just might find out I ain’t no pushover.”

Scott drained his own drink. He wished that there was some way to get Johnny and Molly together. No matter what his brother said, he didn’t think Molly really hated him. He had seen her look at Johnny when she didn’t think anyone saw her, and the look in her eyes was definitely not hate. He had the feeling if the two of them could just get together and talk by themselves, things might turn out all right.

“Maybe you SHOULD go on a honeymoon,” Scott ventured.

“With who?”

Scott just stared at his brother, and finally Johnny shook his head. “I don’t think so, Boston. I really don’t feel like getting’ shot by my own wife, or worse, my mother in law. Wouldn’t look good on my headstone.”

“We have to do something. You can’t avoid her forever.”

“Who says? Those line shacks are always needin’ work, and Barranca’s stall is pretty comfortable. Believe me, I know.”

“If you don’t come in the house, you won’t be able to see Jimmy.”

Johnny frowned. “Yeah, that’s the only part I haven’t figured out yet.”

Scott shook his head. “Lancer belongs to YOU. It’s YOUR house. If she’s that desperate to avoid you, let HER sleep in the barn. Her choice.”

“Maybe,” Johnny sighed. “It just gets me in a bad mood when she acts like I’m gonna hit her or somethin. I’ll wind up takin’ it out on you and Murdoch.”

“Then don’t.”

“That’s easier said than done.”

Scott shook his head. “I mean, don’t notice. Just ignore her. Act like she’s not even there. I KNOW you can do that,” he said meaningfully.

Johnny’s mouth twitched into a smile. “Aw, come on, Scott. I didn’t even know you then, and I was mad as hell at you.”

“I told you I was sorry.”

Johnny shrugged. “I was wrong.”

“Yes, you were, but so was I. All I know that is that for at least a month, I didn’t even exist in your eyes.” Scott smiled. “I thought Murdoch was going to put both of us over his knee. He wasn’t very happy.”

Johnny looked at his brother. “What make you think he’ll be happy if I try it on Molly?”

Scott shook his head. “Somehow, I don’t think he’ll care. In fact, he just might try it himself.”

Chapter Thirty Eight

Murdoch heard the front door open, and the unmistakable sounds of his two sons returning from a night on the town. The muffled laughter, accompanied by the sound of furniture skidding across the floor and the occasional curse and thump, told him that they had obviously enjoyed themselves immensely.

He had been pretty miffed at Johnny when he had left this afternoon, but he couldn’t really blame him. He hadn’t been blind. He had seen the way Molly had refused to meet his son’s eyes and had acted like she was going to her own lynching instead of getting married.

Murdoch had seen Molly’s tearful departure to her room after the wedding, but he left it to her mother to console her. He wasn’t in the mood. He was more worried about his son, and had been relieved when Scott had come and told him that the two of them were going into town. He knew that Scott would calm and reassure his volatile little brother as no one else could. As long as Scott was with him, he knew that Johnny would be coming home.

Even though he was relieved they were together, he was disgruntled that he was left trying to diplomatically explain the situation to the thoroughly confused judge. He wasn’t sure if his friend had bought his story, but at least he hadn’t made any comments. He seemed to be content to indulge in the massive feast that Teresa had prepared. Murdoch was glad that SOMEONE had enjoyed it; his young ward had gone to a lot of trouble, but after Johnny and Scott had left, no one else had felt much like eating.

The sounds from his inebriated sons came closer, and he held his breath as they made their precarious way upstairs. He always expected to hear a yell and the unmistakable sounds of a body rolling down the stairs, but so far, that hadn’t happened. He breathed out the breath he had been holding when he heard Johnny’s door close, and a few minutes later, Scott’s slammed shut.

Murdoch closed his eyes and gave a prayer of thanksgiving that his sons had once more made it safely home. He knew they were grown and more than capable of taking care of themselves, but he still worried, and he guessed he always would. It was a part of being a parent. He understood Johnny’s concern for Jimmy, and Murdoch prayed that somehow things would work out, but it was starting to be unlikely that it ever would. He had hoped his sons would be luckier in love than he had been, but it appeared that had been a hopeless dream.

Damn Molly! He had seen the hurt in his son’s eyes throughout the ceremony, and he had felt like walking over and shaking some sense into the young lady. Didn’t she know how much Johnny was sacrificing to make things right for her? Couldn’t she see what kind of a man he really was? Right now, he wasn’t even sure he could be civil towards her, but he also knew that Johnny would have a fit if he wasn’t. No matter how she treated him, Johnny had made it plain that he would tolerate no disrespect for his wife.

Murdoch knew that something would have to change, and soon. No matter what Johnny wanted, no one was going to treat Molly well unless she started treating Johnny well, and that was a fact. Just how well she was treated would all hinge on her behavior, and Murdoch couldn’t do anything to change that.

Molly sat and looked out of the window. She was still upset that Johnny had walked out on her, but she wasn’t completely surprised. He had done it before. Up until the wedding, she had been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but now she wasn’t so sure. Now she was more convinced than ever that he had married her simply to make sure he wouldn’t lose his son. She apparently meant nothing to him, and never had. She had thought briefly about leaving, and then her temper had taken over. She was HIS WIFE, and she had no intention of letting him off the hook that easily. She would show him that two could play that game as easily as one. She wasn’t going to be chased off by his rude behavior. He was stuck with her, and the sooner he came to that realization, the better.

The following morning, Murdoch arose early, hoping to catch Johnny before he left for work. He figured that as drunk as his sons had been, they wouldn’t be up at their usual time. After waiting around downstairs for a while after breakfast, he went upstairs and quietly opened Johnny’s door. With a grimace, he closed it again, not bothering to go to Scott’s. His boys obviously hadn’t been in as bad a shape as it had seemed, because they were both already up and gone.

The day dragged for Murdoch. He wanted to talk to Johnny and see how Johnny was handling the situation. He hoped the boys wouldn’t go into town again tonight, but he couldn’t blame them if they did. Teresa was just putting the dishes on the table when Johnny and Scott walked in. Murdoch sighed in relief before glancing over to where Molly was standing next to the table. To his surprise, Molly didn’t even look up when his son walked in.

Murdoch watched as Johnny walked over to Teresa and planted a kiss on her cheek, totally ignoring the two other women.

“Everything looks great, Teresa, thanks.” Johnny pulled out his sister’s chair, then slid into his own.

Scott sat down across from his brother, and Murdoch pulled out his own chair, cautiously watching both Molly and Johnny as he did. He figured either words or food would start flying any moment. Instead, both of them totally ignored the other one. Johnny kept up a running conversation with Scott and Teresa, occasionally including Murdoch, and Molly conversed quietly with her mother.

Murdoch watched them throughout the meal, and then his eyes caught Mrs. Connors’. Murdoch shook his head slowly, and the woman did the same. Their children were acting like children.

Chapter Thirty Nine

Early the next morning, Johnny walked into the kitchen where Teresa was fixing breakfast. He looked around and spotted Jimmy sitting in his chair, playing with his meal as usual. Johnny slid into the seat next to his son.

“Hey, Jimmy, whatcha doin’?”

The boy looked up and grinned at his father, then went back to stirring his food around.

Johnny gently took his son’s hand and looked him in the eyes. “You don’t play with your food. You eat it, or I’ll have ta take it away, understand?”

Jimmy gazed at his father for a moment, and then went back to stirring.

“Jimmy!” Johnny warned.

The boys laughed and tipped his plate, sending the eggs flying. Johnny grabbed the plate before it hit the ground, then put it down on the table before lifting Jimmy out of his seat and setting him on the floor.

Jimmy immediately lifted his arms up, begging to be put back on the chair next to his food, but Johnny ignored him.

“I’m hungry!” Jimmy pouted.

Teresa looked at Johnny questioningly, but the gunfighter shook his head. “Nope. Looks like he’ll have ta learn the hard way. I’m tired of watchin’ him waste good food.”

“He’s only a baby,” Teresa said uncertainly.

“If he’s old enough ta eat by himself, he’s old enough ta know not to throw his food.”

Teresa nodded uncertainly and handed her brother a plate with his breakfast on it.

Jimmy tried to pull himself up onto his father’s lap, but Johnny shook his head. “You’ll have ta wait ‘till I’m done eatin’. Then we can play.”

“I’m HUNGRY!” Jimmy howled.

Johnny put a forkful of food in his mouth and tried to ignore his son.

Scott walked in and took in the crying boy. “Problems?”

Johnny shook his head. “Nope. Just gettin’ the rules straight.”Scott’s eyebrows went up, and when Teresa handed him his own plate full of food, Jimmy immediately headed for his uncle and began to beg. Scott looked at his brother, who didn’t even look at the boy. “Forget it, Scott. He won’t starve.”

Scott smiled and looked at his sister, who shrugged. Jimmy became more desperate when his whining didn’t get the desired response, and his crying increased in volume.

Both Scott and Johnny hurriedly ate, trying desperately to tune out the commotion. Jimmy didn’t give up, and went back and forth between the two men, howling to be recognized.

Molly came running into the room and glared at Teresa. “I thought you were supposed to be watching him!” she accused angrily.

Johnny looked up. “I’m watchin’ him.”

Molly glared at him. “TERESA was supposed to be watching him, not you. Besides, can’t you see he’s hungry?” she asked as she scooped Jimmy up.

“Don’t give him anything to eat,” Johnny ordered.

“What?” Molly asked in confusion.

“I said don’t give him anything ta eat. He had his chance and he threw his food on the floor.”

Molly looked around in confusion. “Then I’ll get him some more.”

“Nope,” Johnny said quietly. “You won’t.”

“If you’re afraid of wasting food, I’ll give him mine!” Molly huffed.

Johnny looked up and stared at his wife. “I said, he had his chance ta eat, and he chose to throw his food instead. Now he’s gonna live with that decision.”

“He’s just a BABY!”

Johnny shook his head. “No, he’s not. He’s a spoiled little boy, and if he’s gonna survive out here, he’s gonna have ta learn some rules.”

“I’m capable of teaching my own son. I don’t need your help!”

Johnny shrugged. “Evidently you do. Ever since you’ve been here, Jimmy’s been getting’ away with murder, and I’m not going to put up with it any longer, especially from my own son.”

“So you’re going to starve him to teach him a lesson!” She hugged the whimpering boy closer to her.

“He ain’t gonna starve!” Johnny snapped. “He ate quite a bit before he decided ta start playin’. He might get hungry before the next meal time, but it won’t hurt him. Believe me, I know.”

“Is that how your mother taught you not to play with your food? By starving you?” Molly sniped angrily.

“No one had ta teach me that. WHEN we had food, playin’ with it was the last thing on my mind.”

Molly stared at him for several more seconds, and then dropped her head. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. Didn’t hurt me none.” He looked at his wife. “A ranch is a dangerous place, and he needs ta learn how ta mind.”

“He’s MY son!”

“What are ya gonna do when he decides ta go play with a rattlesnake after ya tell him not to?”

“He won’t! I’ll make sure he stays safe!”

“YOU might not always be there!”

Molly drew herself up and glared at Johnny. “Is that a threat?”

Johnny closed his eyes. “No, of course not. But ya can’t protect him forever. He needs ta learn.”

“Playing with his food is hardly life threatening!” Molly snapped as she set Jimmy down on a chair and placed some food in front of him. Jimmy chortled happily, and dug into the eggs with his hands.

Johnny’s jaw clenched, and he stood up abruptly and grabbed the food away from his son. “I’m not gonna give in on this.” He glared at Molly. “He’s gonna learn some manners.”

Molly glared at her husband. “He’s MY son!”

“And mine! And I’m tellin’ you he’s gonna start havin’ rules.”

Jimmy looked back and forth between his two parents, and began to cry. Molly reached over and picked him up as she glared at Johnny. “You’re upsetting him.”

“Put him down!” Johnny ordered coldly.

Molly stared back, then slowly lowered Jimmy to the floor. “That’s all you ever wanted, isn’t it? To get Jimmy away from me.”

“I’m not trying to get him away from you. I’m simply TRYIN’ ta be his father.”

“Well you aren’t doing a very good job! Being a father is more than meting out punishment!”

Johnny nodded slowly. “I know. That’s why I’m planning on having Jimmy spend the day with me tomorrow.”

Chapter Forty

“You WHAT?’ Molly asked in disbelief.

“I said, I’m gonna have Jimmy spend the day with me tomorrow.”

“Doing what?”

Johnny shrugged and smiled sarcastically. “I don’t know. Thought maybe he could help me bust those broncs.”

Molly smiled at him and answered in the same vein. “I’m sure he could do a better job than you.”

Johnny’s smile became genuine. “I want ta make sure of that. That’s why I thought I’d start him out early. I’m gonna take him ridin’.”

“Riding?” Molly squeaked.

Johnny nodded. “Yep. If he’s gonna be a cowboy, he’d better start learnin’ about horses.”

“He’s too young to ride!”

“No, he’s not. Not if he’s with me.”

“I won’t let you,” Molly said defiantly.

Johnny held her gaze. “I’m not askin,” he said softly. “Make sure he gets ta bed early tonight. We’re leavin’ first thing in the mornin.”

Molly’s chin came up. “Then I’m going with you.”

Johnny considered her for a moment, and then shook his head. “Nope. I want ta spend some time with my son.”

“There’s no reason I can’t go. I’m his mother and your wife!”

Johnny snorted. “Yeah, sure. You’re my wife when it’s convenient, otherwise…” His face darkened. “Just make sure Jimmy’s ready early tomorrow morning. He and I are goin’ ridin’.” Johnny stood up and stalked out of the house.

Molly watched him go, then darted a quick look at Scott and Teresa, who were both busily minding their own business. She reached down and picked up her son, then turned and walked out of the kitchen, her cheeks flaming.

Johnny walked downstairs, and hurried toward the kitchen. He had the whole day planned out, and he didn’t want to waste any time. After confronting Molly in the kitchen the day before, he and Scott had joined a friendly poker game in the bunkhouse, and eaten supper with the men. Murdoch had come out to make sure they were ok, and had even stayed and played a few hands. Johnny smiled. He was sure Teresa would have come out, too, if she were allowed in the bunkhouse. His family’s obvious support made the present situation almost bearable.

After Molly’s reaction to him at the wedding, he had sworn to himself that he’d simply ignore her and concentrate on getting to know his son. He had been willing to try to make their marriage work, but he realized at the wedding that had been a hopeless dream, and he wasn’t going to continue to butt his head against the wall. If Molly wanted their relationship to be different, she was the one who would have to change. He wasn’t going to try again.

He hadn’t spoken to Molly since the previous morning and wondered briefly if she was going to give him more trouble about this. It didn’t matter, though. He was going to get to know his son, and no one was going to stop him. He was also determined to teach his son about ranching early. He felt the earlier he learned, the less chance there was that Jimmy would get hurt. His son was also going to learn obedience, something Molly apparently didn’t agree with. He had no intention of disciplining his son the way he had been disciplined as a boy, but he was going to insist the boy learn some manners and be respectful. From what he had seen so far, he had to make up for the lost time. He was still a stranger to his son, but he would make sure that changed immediately.

He walked into the kitchen and slipped into a chair. Teresa placed a plate in front of him, and he dug in.

“Thanks, Teresa. Can you do me a favor and pack enough for both Jimmy and me for lunch?”

Molly walked in, with Jimmy in her arms. “It’s already packed.”

Johnny glanced up and noticed her attire. She was wearing a split riding skirt and boots. “Where are you goin’?” he asked suspiciously.

“With you.”

“I told ya…”

She brought her chin up and glared at him defiantly. “And I told you that I was going with you.”

Johnny stared at her for a moment, and then nodded curtly. “All right, but ya better be able ta keep up,” he threatened.

“Don’t worry about me,” she shot back. “I’ve ridden since before I could walk.”

He raised his eyebrows at the confession and grinned at her. “Really?”

Her cheeks reddened, and she went back to concentrating on her food. “I can keep up,” she said quietly.

He nodded once more and returned to concentrating on his breakfast. Molly placed Jimmy in his seat and Teresa placed a small plate of food in front of him. He immediately dug in and started shoveling the food into his mouth. Molly started eating her own breakfast, keeping one eye on her son as she ate. For once, Jimmy was hungry enough to eat, and Molly sighed in relief. She didn’t want to start a war this morning.

After the incident in the kitchen yesterday, she had taken Jimmy and stormed upstairs, angry with Johnny for interfering with her son. She had found her mother in her room, and she had immediately begun to complain to her mother about Johnny’s behavior.

“And THEN he said he was going to take Jimmy RIDING!” she stormed.

Her mother had remained calm throughout the tirade, and then shook her head. “You’re wrong.”

Molly stared at her. “What?”

“Molly, you married Johnny because you wanted him to be a father to Jimmy. You have to let him.”

“Even if I think Jimmy’s in danger?”

“Do you really think Johnny would do anything to endanger his own son?”

Molly stared back at her mother, and then dropped her eyes. “No,” she said softly.

“Then maybe he’s right on this. If Jimmy’s going to stay here, he has to learn how to survive here.”

“I guess,” Molly conceded. She looked at her mother impishly. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t go with them.”

Mrs. Peterson smiled. “No, it doesn’t.”

Chapter Forty One

Johnny picked his son up from the breakfast table and walked out to the barn. Sometime soon he would have to break or buy a suitable horse for his son, but for now, Jimmy would ride in front of him. He needed to make sure his son could handle a horse and could stay on safely before he’d take a chance on letting Jimmy ride alone. In spite of what Molly thought, he had no intention of letting his son get hurt.

He carried the boy into Barranca’s stall, and let Jimmy stroke the huge golden face and play with the horse’s forelock before setting him on the edge of the manger.

“You sit there and stay real quiet, ok?”

Jimmy nodded solemnly and watched as his father groomed the horse. A moment later Molly poked her head over the edge of the stall.

“Which horse am I allowed to use? Or do I have to walk?”

Johnny looked up and grinned at her. “I figured we could ride double.”

Molly’s eyes widened, and she stared at him. “What about Jimmy?”

Johnny shook his head. “Oh yeah, I forgot about him. I guess you’d better ride your own horse.” He jerked his head toward the right. There’s a palomino mare three stalls down. You can take her.”

Molly nodded and walked over to where Johnny had indicated. She looked into the stall at the golden mare and smiled. Molly had been raised around horses, and knew a good one when she saw it. The mare was breathtakingly beautiful. A medium gold color, with a creamy mane and tail, and finely built but still strong. She had always enjoyed riding, but her own small mare had been sold long ago to help pay bills, and since Jimmy’s birth she hadn’t had time. But as much as she had loved her little horse, she couldn’t compare to this beauty.

Molly opened the door and slipped into the box, talking quietly. She grasped the mare’s halter, and clipped the lead rope to it, then led her out to the rail in front of the stall to groom her. A moment later, Johnny led Barranca out, holding Jimmy in his other arm. He tied his horse next to the mare, and put Jimmy down, then handed him a brush. “Here. Think you can help me brush him?”

Jimmy nodded eagerly and immediately marched over to the horse. By holding his arms almost straight up, he was able to reach Barranca’s belly, and dutifully began to brush. Johnny watched him carefully, and when his son got a little too close to Barranca’s hooves, Johnny intervened and picked him up.

“You’ve got ta stay away from his feet, ok? And if he starts ta move, you get out of his way. He could hurt ya if he moved quick.” Jimmy nodded solemnly, and Johnny set him back on the ground. Johnny looked over at Molly, and realized she was too totally engrossed in grooming her mare to even pay attention to what Jimmy was doing. He smiled. Apparently, Molly liked horses as much as he did. Even though she’d been raised on a horse ranch, he hadn’t been sure if she could even ride. When he’d known her before, they had been a little too busy with other things for him to find out.

After letting Jimmy play with the brush for a while, Johnny ordered him away. Jimmy started to argue, and Johnny looked at him sternly. “Do you want ta go for a ride?”

Jimmy nodded.

“Then do as your told, or you’ll have ta stay home.”

Reluctantly, the young boy stepped back and watched the horse intently, his eyes shining.

“You stay right there, understand?” Johnny ordered

Jimmy nodded again, and Johnny walked over and grabbed a saddle and brought it back. He threw it on the back of Molly’s mare, and then turned to her.

“I assume you know how ta cinch it.”

“Of course.”

Johnny turned and fetched his own saddle and put it on Barranca’s broad back, then quickly cinched it. He glanced over and watched Molly for a second, making sure she really knew what she was doing. Satisfied, he picked up Jimmy and placed the boy on Barranca’s back.

“You hang on tight.”

“Ok.”

Johnny led the horse out of the barn, making sure he stayed next to his son, and Molly followed with the mare. He glanced up, making sure Jimmy was in no danger of falling and then turned and quickly helped Molly up. As she settled herself, he swung easily up behind Jimmy and wrapped an arm around the boy.

“You ok?” When Jimmy nodded, Johnny nudged his horse forward at a walk, then turned and looked at Molly critically. So far, she seemed competent enough, but he wasn’t going to take any chances with her, either. As they rode along together, he relaxed slightly. Molly sat the horse easily, without worrying the reins. He kept the pace slow until they had left the arch behind, and then tightened his grip on Jimmy.

“Want to go faster?” Even though he asked Jimmy, he glanced at Molly, who nodded as eagerly as his son. With a grin, Johnny loosened Barranca’s reins and let the horse ease into a lope. The mare matched the stallion’s pace, and another glance at Molly assured Johnny she was no novice. He began to enjoy the ride. He leaned over his son once more. “You ok?”

Johnny couldn’t hear his answer over the horse’s beating hooves, but the boy’s rapidly nodding head left no doubt as to the answer. After twenty minutes or so, he pulled Barranca to a walk, and immediately, Jimmy howled in protest.

“Wanna go fast!” he yelled.

Johnny smiled at his son’s obvious enjoyment of the ride. “Barranca’s tired. We have ta let him rest. We need ta take care of him.”

“WHY?”

“You don’t want him ta get sick, do ya? Then we couldn’t ride any more.”

Jimmy thought about it for a minute, and then nodded reluctantly. “Barranca can rest.”

“Good boy.” Johnny looked over at Molly, who smiled.

“I haven’t ridden for so long, I’d forgotten how much I enjoy it.” She looked at Johnny. “Thank you for letting me come along.”

He grinned back. “If I recall, I didn’t have a lot of choice.”

Molly shrugged. “No, I guess you didn’t.” She looked at him and smiled. “Are you sorry I came?”

Johnny met her gaze and shrugged solemnly. “I don’t know. The ride ain’t over yet.”

Chapter Forty Two

Val glared at the priest. “I’m tellin’ ya, I ain’t gonna arrest him without proof.”

“He stole money from the CHURCH! I insist you arrest him!”

“I’ve known Johnny Lancer for a long time, and there ain’t no way he’d steal ANYTHING, let alone from a church!”

“I see he has you fooled, too,” the priest sniffed. He tuned towards the reverend. “I’m afraid we’re not going to get justice in this town.”

The reverend shook his head slowly. “I don’t know that he did it.”

Val smiled. “See? Even the reverend here don’t think he did it.”

“That’s just because Murdoch Lancer’s his friend,” explained the priest haughtily. “You need to get that killer off the streets before someone gets hurt.”

“He ain’t a killer, and I’m tellin’ you, I ain’t arrestin’ ANYBODY without proof.”

“I saw him!”

The pastor whirled around and stared at the padre. “You saw him? You didn’t tell me that before.”

The priest nodded, hesitantly at first, and then more emphatically. “I saw him come in and stand next to the cash box for a long time. Then he left.”

“But ya didn’t see him take anything?’ the sheriff pressed.

The priest hesitated. “Actually, I DID see him doing something by the box, but I didn’t think about it at the time. It HAD to be him. No one else had been in here.”

Val looked at the pastor, who shook his head. “No one else was near it.”

Val shook his head resignedly. “How much is missin?”

“I’m not sure,” the reverend answered. “I don’t know how many donations were put in there since we emptied it last.”

“About?” the sheriff asked tiredly.

“There’s usually over five hundred dollars in there when we open it,” the priest declared.

Val looked at the pastor for conformation, and the man agreed. “That’s probably right.”

With a sigh, Val nodded. “I’ll look into it.”

“I expect you to do more than look into it. I expect you to arrest Johnny Madrid!” demanded the priest.

The sheriff whirled and grabbed the priest by the front of his frock. “It’s Lancer,” he snarled. “He hasn’t been Madrid for a long time, lucky for you.” He let go of the startled padre, then looked at his hands and wiped them on his pants before turning and stalking off.

A weary Val rode up to the hacienda and dismounted slowly. He knew his friend was innocent, but he also knew that the priest wasn’t likely to let this go, and Johnny would probably have a hard time proving his innocence. He tapped lightly on the door, and it was opened immediately.

“Val!” Murdoch said in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m afraid I’m here on business.” He looked around uncomfortably. “Can I come in?”

Murdoch opened the door wider and stood aside, his gut clenching in fear. They didn’t need any more problems right now, Johnny especially, and Murdoch had the sick feeling that his younger son was about to have more trouble dumped on his shoulders. After Val had walked in, Murdoch went over to the bar and poured two drinks. He handed one to the sheriff, and then took a healthy swig.

“What’s wrong?” Murdoch asked quietly.

Val took a large gulp of his own, then sighed. “That gol darned priest has really got it in for Johnny.”

Murdoch nodded slowly. “I know.”

The sheriff took a deep breath. “He’s accusin’ Johnny of stealin’ the money from the church’s poor box.” He couldn’t look Murdoch in the eyes as he said it, and he immediately drained what was left of his drink as he waited for explosion.

WHAT!” Murdoch roared. “Johnny would NEVER do that!”

“I know,” Val agreed, “but the padre was pretty insistent.”

“Why does he think it was Johnny?”

The sheriff shrugged. “He SAID he saw him by the box.”

“Did it EVER occur to that close minded bigot that MAYBE Johnny was putting money IN the box?” Murdoch fumed.

“I doubt if that occurred to him.”

“And I’m SURE no one else was around the box,” Murdoch said sarcastically.

Val shrugged. “No one that was seen.”

Murdoch slammed his fist down on the desk, then whirled and stared at the lawman suspiciously. “You’re not going to arrest him, are you?”

Val shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m afraid I’m gonna have to. At least until we can figure out who really did it.”

Murdoch ran his hand through his hair. “Something has to be done to stop that so called priest. He’s a menace.”

Val nodded. “He’s been bad talkin’ Johnny all over town. Doin’ his best ta get the town folk all riled up.”

Murdoch looked up worriedly. “Is he succeeding?”

The sheriff shrugged. “Most everybody knows Johnny better’n that, but some of ‘em are listenin’. Mostly the troublemakers.”

“Great,” Murdoch said gloomily. He went over and plopped down at his desk. “What are we going to do, Val? How are we going to stop him?”

“I’m not sure. First, we gotta figure out who really stole that money.”

Murdoch snorted. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the priest had stolen it.”

Val looked at him thoughtfully. “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.”

Murdoch looked startled. “I wasn’t serious.”

“I was.”

Murdoch stopped and looked at the lawman thoughtfully. “I don’t know.” Then he shook his head. “But he’s a PRIEST!”

“So? What does that have ta do with anything?”

Murdoch looked confused. “I’d have to think about it.”

“What’s ta think about? Who do you think it’s more likely to be? Johnny or the priest?”

“Johnny wouldn’t steal, and certainly not from the church. But it doesn’t have to be either one of them.”

“No, it doesn’t, but that’s where I’m startin’, cause they’re the only ones that I KNOW were around the box. And since I know it ain’t Johnny, that sorta narrows down the field.”

“So IF you’re right about the priest, what do we do to prove it?

“Do you think Pastor Jacobs would come out here and talk to you?”

Murdoch nodded. “If I asked him to.”

“Well, I’m gonna ride into town and tell him you want to talk to him, then maybe the three of us can come up with a plan.” He dropped his head. “But I’m still gonna have ta take Johnny in with me.”

Murdoch nodded resignedly. “I’ll send someone for him.”

Chapter Forty Three

Johnny led the way down a slope covered with trees. They had been climbing for almost thirty minutes, and then they had started down on the final leg of their ride. The vegetation was thick, and it was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of them. Johnny remained vigilant as they rode, prepared for any danger. He realized he was being much more cautious than he normally was, and he knew it was because his son and wife were with him. He wasn’t going to take any chances on either one getting hurt. The slope gradually steepened, and Johnny took a firmer hold on his wiggly son. He glanced back to make sure Molly was coping all right, then returned his attention to the trail.

The path suddenly opened up, and Johnny heard Molly catch her breath. He smiled as he looked at the scene below, knowing what it was like to see it for the first time. He and Scott had found it by accident while looking for wayward steers, and since then it had been a favorite spot to spend a stolen day. It was only about an hour’s ride from the ranch, but it was one of the prettiest spots either he or Scott had ever seen. A small lake was nestled into a low spot between the walls of a huge canyon. The colorful rock walls came right down to the water on three sides, and the lake was fed by a waterfall cascading down from a cliff above. The path the riders had been following had opened up to a large sandy beach dotted with a few shade trees.

Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt and swung down, then lowered Jimmy to the ground. His son immediately took off for the water, and Johnny studied the area, making sure there were no likely hiding places for snakes. Satisfied there was nothing around that could hurt his son, Johnny turned toward Molly and helped her down. She looked around in disbelief.

“It’s beautiful,” she whispered.

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, it is.” He grinned. “Has some pretty good size fish in it, too.”

Molly’s eyebrows went up. “I’m surprised you didn’t bring a fishing pole.”

Johnny grinned, then walked over to a large rock behind them and pulled out two fishing poles. “No need.”

“You must come here often,” she laughed.

“Not often enough, but Scott and I manage to escape once in a while. For some reason Murdoch always acts suspicious when we bring back a mess of trout when we were supposed ta be wrangling cattle,” he said wryly.

“I can’t imagine why anyone would think catching a fish was fun,” Molly observed.

Johnny looked at her quizzically. “Haven’t you ever caught a fish?”

“No,” she said cautiously.

“Well don’t you think it’s time you learned?”

“Women don’t fish!” she protested.

“Says who? Come on, I’ll show ya how.” He handed her the fishing pole and she took it gingerly.

“Now we need bait,” Johnny observed. “Where’s the lunch sack?”

“Johnny Lancer! You’re not going to use our lunch for bait!”

Johnny shrugged. “Come on, just a little bit,” he pleaded.

She continued to glare at him for a moment, then smiled. “All right, but if we catch any YOU’RE cleaning and cooking them!”

“Deal.” He rummaged through the sack and came out with a chunk of cheese. “This oughta work. He molded a piece of cheese around the hook, then handed the pole to Molly before baiting his own hook.

He started down toward the water, where Jimmy was happily splashing in the shallow water near shore. Johnny threw his line out as far as he could, and then turned around and looked at Molly, who was standing and staring at her pole like it might bite.

Johnny grinned. “Come on, I can guarantee you ain’t gonna catch anything unless ya put that bait in the water.”

Molly hesitantly approached the water, and Johnny took the pole from her hand and cast out the bait, then handed the rod back to her.

“Now what?” she asked.

“Now we wait,” Johnny explained. Jimmy came running up and showed his father some treasures he had found in the water. Johnny made a fuss over them, and then Jimmy ran off again.

“Well, I can certainly see how fun this is,” Molly said sarcastically.

“Give it some time,” Johnny scolded.

Molly sighed heavily and turned and watched her son play. At least he seemed to be having fun.

A second later, her line jerked, and she grabbed the pole with both hands. “Now what?” she asked in a panicked voice.

“Now ya bring it in, unless ya want to go out and get it!”

She nodded, and began working the fish toward shore. As the fish came closer, Johnny set his own rod down and waded out to grab Molly’s catch.

“Keep the line tight,” he ordered as he reached down and grabbed the slippery fish. He threw it onto the shore, and Molly cautiously approached it and watched as it flopped around on the sand.

Johnny walked up behind her, carrying his fishing pole. “Looks like I’ll be cookin’ lunch,” he grinned.

She smiled and grabbed the rod out of his hands. You go start the fire, and I’ll catch some more fish.”

He smiled as he watched her march down to the water and throw her line in. This was the girl he had fallen for a long time ago. He watched her another minute, and then with a sigh, he started collecting firewood.

An hour later, Johnny set his plate down and lay back on the blanket. Jimmy immediately crawled onto his stomach, and the gunfighter smiled and grabbed his son, making the boy laugh. Johnny glanced over at Molly, who was watching them and smiling quietly. He sat up and looked at her for a moment, then set Jimmy down. The boy took off back toward the water, and Johnny continued to stare at his wife. Molly blushed and looked down, but didn’t move away. Johnny reached over and took hold of her hand, and she looked into his eyes. He watched her carefully the whole time, and then Johnny smiled and pulled her close.

A second later, they bolted apart as they heard a rider noisily approaching.

Chapter Forty Four

Molly looked once more at Johnny’s tight lipped expression, and then glanced worriedly at Scott. She had asked them each a dozen times what was wrong, but they hadn’t told her anything. Scott had looked at Johnny, and then shrugged. He was leaving it up to his brother to tell her or not, and Johnny wasn’t talking. When Scott had appeared at the lake, he had drawn Johnny aside and the two had conversed at length, with Johnny’s expression turning darker and darker. Finally, Johnny had walked over to her and told her flatly to pack things up, that they were going home. She had asked him about it then, but he had just shaken his head and told her not to worry about it. She had felt a knot form in her stomach. She knew something was wrong. She only had to look at the two men to figure that out, and it angered her that they wouldn’t tell her what was bothering them.

She nudged her horse closer to Johnny. “Would you PLEASE tell me what’s wrong?” she pleaded.

“I told ya, nothin’.”

“Johnny! I’m your WIFE! I have a right to know!”

The gunfighter pulled his horse to a halt and stared at the girl before sighing. “The sheriff’s waiting for me back at the ranch. He’s gonna arrest me for stealing the church’s money.” He kicked his horse forward once more.

Molly froze for a moment as what Johnny had told her sank in, and then she spurred her horse forward and caught up with her husband.

“What do you mean; he’s going to arrest you? YOU wouldn’t steal money from a church.”

Johnny looked at her with a half grin on his face and then raised his eyebrows. “Are you sure about that?” he asked sarcastically.

She looked at him in shock. “Did you?” she asked quietly.

He snorted and kicked his horse into a faster pace, leaving her behind once more. She watched as he rode up next to his brother, and the two of them started talking quietly together. She looked at her son, who was riding with his Uncle Scott. Even Jimmy seemed to know something was wrong. He was quieter than Molly ever remembered seeing him, and looked back and forth between his father and his uncle.

Molly thought about what Johnny had said. She couldn’t really believe that Johnny would steal money from a church, but then she realized that he hadn’t denied it, either. If he hadn’t done it, wouldn’t he have protested his innocence? She shook her head. She just didn’t know any more. He had been keeping her off balance the whole time she had been at Lancer. Just when she thought she had him figured out, he’d do something to prove her wrong.

She had been so angry with him yesterday when he had told her that she couldn’t come, and she had come downstairs this morning prepared for a fight. Instead, he had been almost gracious, as if he had been expecting her to come along. The whole day had been delightful, and even Jimmy had been well behaved.

She smiled as she thought about the day. She had actually had fun catching the fish. It had been the first time she had ever done it, and she had to admit, she couldn’t wait to do it again. She reached down and patted her mare’s neck. That had been another pleasant surprise. She couldn’t believe it when Johnny had told her the mare was hers to keep. The horse was beautiful, and beautifully trained. She had no doubt that Johnny had done all of the training himself. She had been overwhelmed by the gift, and had thanked him profusely, but he had just shrugged and smiled that wonderful smile of his.

Later, Johnny had gathered firewood and cleaned the trout, while she spread out the rest of their lunch and watched Jimmy. And then… Molly sighed. She wondered what would have happened if Scott hadn’t appeared when he did. Today had been almost like it had been when she’d first known Johnny, and she had felt herself melting.

But now? Once more she just didn’t know. If Johnny had really stolen money, then she certainly wouldn’t want anything more to do with him. Damn him! Why couldn’t he just tell her the truth, one way or the other! Why did he always want to keep her off balance? In a fit of anger, she spurred her mare up until it was even with Barranca. She glared at the gunfighter accusingly.

“Are you going to tell me the truth or not?” she demanded.

Johnny turned to her and smirked. “Didn’t know that I’d lied.”

Molly’s glared intensified. “I WANT to know WHAT’S going ON!”

“I already told ya. The sheriff is gonna arrest me.”

“DID…YOU…DO…IT?” she asked, furiously.

Johnny met her gaze for several seconds, and then shrugged. “You figure it out.” He spurred Barranca away once more, leaving her glaring at his back. She turned her angry gaze on Scott, who dropped his head and joined his brother, leaving her feeling very confused and very angry.

Everything had been going so well, and now Johnny seemed to be going out of his way to alienate her. Well that was fine with her. She was tired of playing the game. Tired of wondering where she stood with the gunfighter, tired of trying to figure out if he was a good guy or a bad one. She would concentrate on raising Jimmy and try to ignore Johnny as much as possible. And she WOULD raise Jimmy the way she wanted. If Johnny didn’t want to be a husband to her, then she wouldn’t let him be a father to Jimmy, either.

She knew she couldn’t stop him from seeing or even playing with the boy, but she wouldn’t let him interfere with the way she was raising her son. She wouldn’t let Johnny be a part time father, and she wouldn’t allow him to punish Jimmy. She had been cruelly disciplined as a child by her own father, and she had no intention of letting Johnny terrorize her son. Jimmy was just a child, and there was no reason to make him blindly obey just because Johnny wanted him to. There was plenty of time to teach Jimmy manners when he was older and could understand the reason behind them. She would raise Jimmy the way SHE wanted to, and if Johnny didn’t like it, that was just too damn bad.

Chapter Forty Five

When they rode into the yard, Murdoch came out of the house, followed by Mrs. Connors. The lady immediately went over to her daughter.

“Are you all right?” she asked anxiously.

“I’m fine,” Molly answered angrily as she swung down.

“The sheriff is going to arrest Johnny,” the older woman whispered. “They said he stole money from the church.”

“I know!” Molly said crossly.

“Do you think he did it?” Mrs. Connors asked quietly.

“I don’t KNOW!” Molly snapped, drawing the looks of the men. She blushed and dropped her head. “I don’t know,” she repeated miserably. She looked over at Johnny and caught his eye. He smiled slowly, even as Val snapped the handcuffs on his wrists. She held his gaze until he turned and climbed up on Barranca, and she watched as he followed the sheriff out of the yard. She felt the tears start, and she turned and fled into the house, not sure if the tears were for herself or for Johnny.

Scott watched as the girl fled, and then looked at Murdoch. His father shook his head and then turned and walked into the house. Scott lifted Jimmy off of his horse and handed him to Mrs. Connors without meeting her eyes, and then followed his father inside.

Molly didn’t come down to supper, and neither Murdoch nor Scott did more than shove their food around. Maria alternately sniffed back her tears and glared at the two men. After having food slammed down in front of him several times, Murdoch finally had had enough.

“Maria!”

The lady looked at him defiantly. “How could you let that sheriff take Juanito into jail? You know he is innocent!”

“Of course we know that, Maria.” Murdoch assured her. “Don’t worry, everything will be all right.”

The lady stared at her boss for several seconds, and then slapped some mashed potatoes down on his plate before turning and stalking out of the room.

Murdoch gave up. He stood up and walked into the great room and poured two drinks. He handed one to Scott, who had followed him, and then plopped heavily down in his chair.

“Do you think we did the right thing?” Murdoch asked as he swirled the liquor around his glass.

Scott nodded slowly. “Yes, I do. Besides, we didn’t have much choice.”

Murdoch sighed heavily. “No, I guess we didn’t. I’m just glad Johnny went along with it and didn’t fight it.”

Scott shook his head. “He wouldn’t do that.”

“You know how much he hates to be locked up.”

“Yes, but he also trusts Val.”

“And us,” Murdoch added. “I just hope we don’t let him down.”

“We won’t,” Scott insisted fervently.

Murdoch drained his glass and slammed it down on the desk. “No, we won’t.”

Val unlocked the handcuffs and Johnny walked into the cell then turned around and grabbed the bars as the sheriff shut the door, locking his friend inside. He looked into Johnny’s eyes for a moment, and then he dropped his own. This was almost as hard on him as it was on the gunfighter. He knew how difficult this was on his friend, and he hated having to do it, but he had no choice. Val watched as Johnny turned and walked back to the cot and plopped down.

“You hungry?” Val asked.

Johnny shook his head. “Nope. Somethin’ about these bars just ruins my appetite.”

“Sorry,” the sheriff said sincerely.

Johnny shrugged. “Ain’t your fault.”

Murdoch’ll get you out on bail tomorrow.”

Johnny nodded. “I know.”

Val looked up as the door to the office slammed open, and the priest walked in. He saw the gunfighter behind the bars and a triumphant smile appeared on his face.

“I see you have that scum where he belongs.”

Val stood up and walked over to the priest. “Watch it, Padre. I ain’t a Catholic, and I’d have no problems at all with hittin’ a priest.”

Father Duncan took a step back. “Why are you angry with me? It should be that…that thief that you are angry with.”

Val glared at the priest and then shook his head. “What do you want?’

“I was just checking to make sure that justice was done.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure of that,” the sheriff promised.

“As long as he stays locked up like the animal he is.”

“Well, now that might be a problem,” the sheriff admitted.

“What do you mean?”

Val shrugged. “Well, without more proof, I’m gonna have ta let him out on bail.”

“So he can escape?” the priest argued.

Val snorted. “He ain’t goin’ anywhere. Besides, a theft charge just doesn’t justify keepin’ him locked up ‘till the judge gets here.”

Father Duncan’s face turned red. “I can’t believe you’re going to let that outlaw loose to terrorize the town.”

Val shrugged. “Don’t have much choice. Without more proof, he’s not likely ta get convicted anyway.”

“I SAW him!”

“You saw him in the church. Doesn’t prove that he stole anything.”

“Why else would a man like that be in a church?”

Val took a deep breath, desperately trying not to show the priest how angry he was. “I have no idea, but it still don’t prove he did it. You’ll need more proof if you’re gonna get a conviction.”

The priest’s eyes narrowed and he nodded slowly. “I guess you’re right.” He turned to go. “And when do you think he’ll be out on bail?”

Val’s eyes locked on the priest. “Tomorrow, probably. His old man ain’t gonna let him stay locked up for too long.”

The priest nodded. “I guess you have no choice,” he said resignedly. He nodded once more, and then walked out of the office, slamming the door behind him.

Val stared at the closed door for several seconds before he snorted. “That man gives me a headache.”

Johnny laughed. “You and me, both. But with any luck, we won’t have ta worry about him much longer.”

“I guess. I’m just sorry I couldn’t belt him one.”

“He don’t like me much, that’s for sure.”

“Can’t imagine why,” the sheriff said sarcastically. He looked thoughtful. “Reverend Jacobs sure surprised me, though.”

Johnny nodded. “Yeah, he did me, too. I can’t believe he was willing ta trust me enough ta go along with this plan.”

Val shook his head slowly. “Just about everybody trusts ya, Johnny. Don’t let one idiot make ya think any differently.”

Chapter Forty Six

Johnny paced back and forth across the cell. He knew he was driving Val crazy, but he couldn’t help it. Even though he knew it was all for show, being locked up made Johnny nervous. He knew it was a little too close to how things could have gone if he hadn’t come to Lancer when he did. He knew he had been coming closer and closer to crossing that invisible line with each passing day and each new job. Thankfully, Lancer had changed all that. Now he had a home and a family, and a reason to behave himself. He also had a son. A dark look crossed his face when he thought about Molly. He wasn’t sure if he really had a wife yet, though, but he still had hope that he might.

The day before at the lake it seemed as if it would work out. He and Molly had gotten along so well. In fact, if Scott hadn’t shown up when he did, Johnny thought with a grin, things might have gone even better. He shook his head. He’d have to get even with his big brother for that one. His face darkened again as he remembered the rest of the day. Things had sure gone downhill fast.

Scott had pulled him aside and told him that father Duncan was accusing him of stealing money from the poor box, and was insisting that Val lock him up. Johnny had been angry at first, thinking that the sheriff believed the priest, but Scott had hurriedly told him the rest. He had said that Murdoch and Val had talked things over with Reverend Jacobs, and the reverend didn’t think Johnny was guilty, either. That had surprised the gunfighter, but what had surprised him more was the plan that Val, his father, and the reverend had come up with. Val would arrest Johnny and make it known that Val was taking the charges seriously. Then, Murdoch would get Johnny released on ‘bail’, and they would make sure the priest knew he was out.

The part that surprised Johnny was Reverend Jacob’s role. Several hours after Johnny had left for Lancer, the reverend was going to tell the priest that he had seen Johnny in town, a bald faced lie. By then, Johnny would be safely back at Lancer in front of a score of witnesses. Murdoch and Val figured that the priest would make some sort of effort to take some more money and hang himself in the process. At least that was the plan. Johnny snorted. He knew that plans had an irritating way of not working. Besides, they weren’t completely sure that the priest would fall for the bait, or even if he was really the guilty party. That’s why Val had insisted that no one at Lancer besides Murdoch and Scott knew what was really going on.

Johnny sighed deeply. He should have at least reassured Molly, although a part of him rebelled at the thought that he had to. She should have KNOWN he wouldn’t do something like that. Of course, he hadn’t exactly shown her his best side so far. He shook his head in resignation. He figured he’d lost any ground he might have made with her yesterday. As soon as he got back to Lancer, he would try to make things right and make sure she KNEW he wasn’t involved. With another sigh, he plopped down on the cot, earning a grateful look from the sheriff.

A moment later, he jumped to his feet when the office door opened and Murdoch walked in.

“It’s about time you got here. You’d been any later, and I woulda shot him,” Val groused.

Murdoch smiled at the sheriff. “He been giving you trouble?”

Val snorted. “Yep. Didn’t sleep a wink all night, what with him pacin’ back and forth like a caged lion the whole time.”

Murdoch walked over to the cell, concern etched on his face. “Are you all right?” he asked his son.

“I will be as soon as ya get me outta here,” Johnny said fervently. “What took ya so long?”

“I had to make sure it was late enough that the priest would be sure to be up.”

“I woulda woke him up!” Johnny grumbled.

Murdoch smiled sadly, then turned to the sheriff. “All right, Val, let him out.”

Val stayed where he was. “Well, I don’t know. He gave me an awful hard time…”

“VAL!” Johnny shouted.

The sheriff decided to stop teasing his friend, or he wouldn’t be a friend for long. In fact, he had been surprised that Johnny had allowed himself to be locked up in the first place, plan or no plan. The sheriff walked over and slipped the key in the door, and Johnny almost ran over him in his haste to leave. Val and Murdoch locked eyes for a minute, and then the rancher shook his head.

“I sure hope this works,” he breathed.

“You and me both,” Val agreed.

The rancher turned and walked out of the office. Johnny was waiting for him by the horses, his head down.

Murdoch walked over and put his hand on his son’s arm. “Are you all right?’ he asked again.

Johnny nodded without looking up. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just don’t like bein’ locked up.”

Murdoch nodded. He knew that fact about his son, but he wasn’t sure why Johnny was so fearful about it. He knew there was a story there, but he was afraid to ask. The truth was, he didn’t want to know all of the things that had gone on in his son’s life before he came home. He knew he was being a coward, but some of the things that his son had told him were just too damn painful. If Johnny wanted to talk, he’d listen, but he wasn’t going to ask about them.

Murdoch nodded. “You wait here. I’m going over to the church.”

Johnny nodded, content just to feel the early morning sun on his face and forget about last night.

Chapter Forty Seven

Murdoch walked up to the church, and after a moment’s hesitation, he pounded on the door. Immediately, the door swung open, and Reverend Jacobs managed to look surprised. “Mr. Lancer, what can I do for you?”

Murdoch looked around and noticed Father Duncan skulking in the other room, trying his best to remain hidden. Murdoch plastered a smile on his face.

“I just want you to know that I put a significant donation in your poor box just now. Maybe it will make up for the money that was lost,” Murdoch said significantly.

The reverend nodded slowly. “Perhaps,” he agreed.

“Thank you, Reverend, for your understanding, and I promise it won’t happen again.” Murdoch held out his hand to the reverend, who shook it, and then the rancher turned and left.

As soon as the door had closed, Father Duncan came scurrying out from the other room.

“How dare he try to bribe us to look the other way!”

Reverend Jacobs shrugged. “I’m sure he put in a small fortune. That money will do a lot of good for the poor.”

The priest’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe it will. But I still intend to make sure that gunfighter is locked up where he belongs.”

The reverend looked at the priest curiously. “Why do you hate him so much?”

“I don’t hate anyone,” Father Duncan replied evasively. “I just don’t think someone like that, someone who has killed people for money, should be allowed to masquerade as a decent person. By allowing a man like that in your church, you are condoning his behavior.”

“I don’t think so,” the reverend replied calmly. “The church is for everyone, saints and sinners alike. Where else should they turn for help and support? If a person is truly repentant, I am certainly not going to deny him access to God’s house.”

“That’s just it, he’s not!” insisted the priest. “He stole money from the church!”

“Maybe,” the reverend agreed calmly.

“And then his father bribed you to look the other way. Murdoch Lancer thinks that money can buy anything, even respectability for his son, but he’s wrong. I’m going to make sure he realizes just what a mistake he made in bringing that killer here.”

The reverend shook his head. “Murdoch Lancer is a friend, and a God –fearing man.”

Father Duncan snorted. “He threw me out of my own home when I dared to speak the truth about that half breed killer of his, and then he bribed you to look the other way when his son stole from you. If he really feared God, he wouldn’t have done those things.”

Reverend Jacobs shook his head. “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see which one of us is right.”

The priest nodded. “We’ll see all right. The truth will come out, and then you’ll be eating your words.”

Johnny had never felt more relieved as when they rode under the arch. He visibly relaxed, and even shot his father a smile. Murdoch smiled back, thankful that Johnny’s mood seemed to have lightened. The gunfighter grinned wider, and then with an impish look at his father, he kicked Barranca into a gallop toward the house. He knew it was against the rules and Murdoch would probably have his head, but at this point he didn’t care. He just wanted to be home. He looked back at his father, expecting to see Murdoch glaring after him, but instead he was surprised to see the rancher right behind him, a smile of his own on his face.

Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt in the yard and jumped off, then headed for the kitchen. He was starving. He pulled open the door and then stopped in surprise. Molly was sitting there with Jimmy on her lap, eating a late breakfast. She looked up at him cautiously.

“I see your father managed to get you out,” she said calmly.

Johnny nodded. “He bailed me out this morning.” He looked over at his son. “Mornin’ Jimmy.”

“I want to go riding!” his son insisted.

Johnny shook his head. “Not today.”

“I guess money has its advantages,” Molly said quietly, and then stared at her husband. “It can fix just about anything.”

Johnny’s mouth set in a grim line. “He didn’t ‘fix’ anything. He just got me out on bail.”

“I want to see the horses!” Jimmy interrupted.

“I told ya, not today. I don’t have time ta watch you.” He looked at Molly. “You keep him inside today. I’m gonna be breakin’ some wild horses, and I don’t want him around the corrals.”

“He could at least watch you,” Molly insisted.

“NO!” Johnny said emphatically. He turned his attention toward Jimmy. “You can’t see the horses today, but I’ll take you riding tomorrow, ok?”

Jimmy’s mouth turned down in a pout at his father’s proclamation, and he threw a handful of eggs on the floor.

Johnny glanced at Molly, waiting for her to say something, but when she didn’t, he reluctantly spoke up.

“Don’t throw your food, or I’ll take it away again.”

Jimmy immediately looked up at his mother, who clutched him tighter and looked at Johnny defiantly. Jimmy happily picked up another handful of eggs and looked at his father.

Johnny glared at his son. “Don’t,” he warned.

The boy hesitated, and then launched the eggs. Johnny sprang to his feet, but before he could reach his son, Molly stood up.

“Don’t you DARE!”

“I THOUGHT we already discussed this,” Johnny growled. “It’s dangerous for him not ta listen around here.”

“And I told you that I would make sure he didn’t get into trouble!” she said angrily.

“I ain’t gonna let him get away with defying me!” Johnny growled.

“And I’m not going to let you be mean to him!”

“I have no intention of being ‘mean’ to him, but he IS gonna learn how ta listen!”

Molly shook her head, and Jimmy started crying.

Johnny glared at his wife, then took a step closer to her. She backed away, and the frightened look on her face made him stop. With an oath, he turned and left the house, his appetite gone once more.

Chapter Forty Eight

Molly watched as Johnny stalked out of the house, slamming the door behind him. She glared at the closed door, wondering why they had to keep fighting about the same things. She had made her feelings on Jimmy’s upbringing perfectly clear, and she had no intention of giving in on this. She knew what was best for her son, no matter what Johnny thought. As a child, she had been subjected to strict discipline by her father, and all she had felt for him was hate. She was not going to make the mistake of using the same method with her son. She didn’t want Jimmy growing up hating either of his parents.

She knew she shouldn’t have baited Johnny about getting out on bail. She really was happy that he had been released from jail, but she was also still very angry that he hadn’t talked to her the day before. She wasn’t even completely sure if he was guilty or not. Her instinct told her he wasn’t, but his reaction yesterday to her questions certainly hadn’t reassured her.

She set Jimmy down, and watched as he ran right to the door that Johnny had disappeared through.

“I wanna go see Papa!” he ordered.

Molly shook her head. “No, Papa said he was busy today,” she said absent mindedly.

She wished she could sort out her feelings about Johnny. It seemed that she always had mixed feelings about him, and that angered her. What angered her more was that Johnny didn’t make things any easier. He left it up to her what to think about him, and didn’t let it bother him, one way or the other.

“I wanna go outside!” Jimmy yelled.

“NO!” Molly replied. “We need to stay inside today.”

Jimmy sat down on the floor and began to cry, kicking his feet against the floor. With a sigh, she stood up and picked him up again.

“Do you want more to eat?”

“NO! I wanna go outside!”

Molly picked the boy up and carried him into the other room, then set him down in the middle of the great room. Johnny had brought in a box and had filled it with a few toys, and she went over and took out Jimmy’s favorite, a tin horse that had once belonged to Johnny. Murdoch had brought it down from the attic, and Jimmy usually would be content playing with it for hours. Today, however, Jimmy only threw it down on the floor after looking at it for a moment.

“I wanna go see PAPA and ride the horse!”

Molly shook her head in frustration. Since Johnny had taken the boy riding, that was all he wanted to do, and it had made it much harder to keep him occupied. She felt her anger start to erupt. It was easy for Johnny to tell her to keep the boy inside when he didn’t have to deal with the temper tantrums all day. He didn’t have to be stuck inside with a screaming child.

The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. There was no reason she couldn’t take Jimmy outside and let him watch, at least from a safe distance. As long as she held him and kept him away from the corrals, he would be in no danger. Another scream from Jimmy made up her mind, and she stood up resolutely and picked up the boy.

“Stop crying and I’ll take you outside, all right?”

Jimmy stopped yelling immediately, and she smiled at her son. “I’ll take you outside to see Papa and the horses, but you have to promise to be good!”

Jimmy nodded vehemently. “I’ll be good!”

“Ok,” Molly said, as she picked up her son and carried him to the door. She hesitated just a moment before opening the door, but finally she pulled it open and stepped outside.

She heard the commotion from the corrals immediately, and she headed cautiously in that direction. She really didn’t want Johnny to see her, and she figured if she stayed back a little ways she could make Jimmy happy and Johnny would never find out. She saw a small wagon a little ways away from the end of the corral, and she walked over to it and sat down. She really couldn’t see a whole lot, but she could hear the yells of the men and the screams of an angry horse.

She set Jimmy down in the back of the wagon, and he immediately started to climb down.

“No! You stay in the wagon, or I’ll take you back inside,” Molly told him.

Jimmy plopped down, pouting. “I can’t see the horses!” he complained.

“We’ll go see them later,” she promised.

Jimmy picked up some hay and started playing with it, and Molly looked back toward the corral. Suddenly, the noise from the men stilled, and she saw several of the men jump into the corral. She felt her heart leap into her throat, and she jumped down from the wagon and ran toward the far fence where the men were gathered. She pushed her way through the crowd, and saw Johnny leaning heavily against the rail supported by a couple of cowboys. He was bent over, and apparently was having trouble catching his breath. Frightened, she ran over to where he was.

“Are you all right?” she asked anxiously.

He nodded silently, but didn’t bring his head up.

“He’s all right,” Cipriano assured her. “He just got the wind knocked out of him.”

Molly relaxed slightly and looked over at the far end of the corral, where the horse was still bucking wildly against the saddle. She watched for a moment, and then turned back toward her husband, unsure of his reaction toward her. Finally, he brought his eyes up and smiled weakly at her. She smiled back, and then turned and walked around the corral back to the wagon. When she got there, she looked around, and felt her heart stop. Jimmy was nowhere in sight. She looked around frantically, and saw him approaching the fence, a brush in his hand.

“Jimmy, come back!” she ordered.

“I’m gonna brush the horse!” he said empathically.

She ran toward her son, knowing she was too far away.

“Jimmy STOP!”

The boy kept going, and ducked under the corral, just feet away from the still raging horse.

“JIMMY STOP!!” she screamed.

As she ran toward the corral, she saw as if in slow motion the horse veer toward her son, its ears pinned and its hooves lashing.

Chapter Forty Nine

Scott looked up when he heard Molly scream. It took him a second to figure out what was wrong, and then he felt his heart jump into his throat. He knew he was too far away to stop the catastrophe, but he still had to try. As he ran toward the pen, he saw that Johnny had seen what was happening, too. As the horse bucked viciously in the direction of the boy, Johnny ran toward his son. The horse jumped into the air, and Scott realized with horror that the animal was going to land squarely on Jimmy. The horse started its descent, but before it could land, Johnny launched himself at his son and sent him rolling.

Scott jumped to the top rail of the corral in one quick movement. He had his gun drawn and was firing at the rampaging horse before it could do any more damage. The horse staggered wildly for a few seconds before collapsing in the dirt and Scott ran to his fallen brother’s side.

Johnny lay face down in the corral, and Jimmy was lying nearby, screaming hysterically. Scott was frightened that his brother hadn’t moved, but first he had to get Jimmy to safety. He reached down and grabbed the boy, who had a mouthful of dirt but from the way he was moving and yelling seemed to be all right. Scott breathed a sigh of relief as he quickly handed him to one of the hands, who carried him across the corral to where his mother stood. She had tried to get into the corral, but had been held back by Jelly. The old man wasn’t sure what was going on, but he had no intention of letting her in without some sort of a sign from Scott that everything was ok.

The wrangler handed her a screaming Jimmy, and she gratefully clutched the crying boy to her chest, checking him quickly for damage. He was filthy and frightened, but didn’t seem to be badly injured. She looked worriedly into the corral.

“Is Johnny all right?” she asked as she felt the tears start to flow.

Jelly gently pushed her toward the house. “You go on and take care of the boy. We’ll take care of Johnny. Now go on.”

“But I have to know.”

Jelly glanced into the corral, and the fact that Johnny was still lying there without moving wasn’t good, but he tried to reassure the girl.

“He probably just got the wind knocked out of him again. Now go on,” he urged. “Get that boy cleaned up and calmed down.”

She bit her lip, torn. She wanted to make sure Johnny was all right, but Jimmy was screaming bloody murder, and she didn’t know if he had been hurt. Jelly gave her another shove, and she reluctantly turned and then ran into the house.

Scott carefully turned his brother over, relieved that he could see him breathing. The horse had landed on him with both front feet, and Scott had expected the worst. Just a few months earlier he had watched as one of their wranglers had been stomped to death by an irate bronc, and the vision of that accident had flashed through his mind unbidden when he saw his brother dive for Jimmy. The dull thud of the maddened horse’s hooves hitting his brother’s body was a sound he’d never forget.

Scott scanned his brother for injuries, and although none were obvious, the small trickle of blood from Johnny’s mouth and his labored breathing told Scott his brother was badly injured. Scott lifted Johnny’s head into his lap and gently wiped the blood and some of the dirt from his face with his sleeve. He had heard the frantic shouts of Cipriano, and knew that Sam had been sent for. He just hoped he’d arrive in time. Scott wanted to get his brother out of this filthy and hot corral, but he wasn’t sure if he should be moved. Scott clutched his brother closer, and he felt Johnny move. The injured man’s eyelids fluttered open, and confused blue eyes came into view.

“Be still, Johnny.”

Johnny’s breathing was rapid and obviously painful, and the eyes closed once more.

“Jimmy…” Johnny whispered weakly.

“He’s fine,” Scott assured him. “He was scared, but ok.”

A slight nod of the head indicated Johnny understood. A moment later, the eyes opened once more. “You take care of him, understand?’

Scott felt a bolt of fear run through him. “I’ll take care of him until you’re better,” Scott said in a panicked voice.

A slight smile formed on Johnny’s lips as the eyes closed once more and his body went limp.

Murdoch didn’t pay any intention to the shouts coming from the corral at first, but the cowboy riding hell bent for leather out of the yard and the sudden silence warned him that someone was badly injured. He shut his eyes and said a quick prayer that the tragedy of a few months ago wouldn’t be repeated, and then he stood up and headed for the door.

He yanked it open and was met by a distraught Molly carrying a filthy and screaming Jimmy.

Murdoch grabbed her by the arm. “What happened?’ he demanded, the beginnings of panic starting to surface.

Molly sniffed loudly, trying to talk through her tears. “He…he got into the corral…”

Murdoch’s eyes flew once more to the boy. “Is he ok?” he said worriedly.

“I think so. I’m not sure. I think he’s just scared.” She hesitated. “But Johnny…” she sobbed again. “The horse…”

Murdoch face paled, and then he brushed past her and ran toward the corral as fast as he could. Please Lord…

The silence that greeted him when he arrived shot another bolt of fear into his heart, and bad back forgotten, he jumped the fence in one graceful motion and fell to his knees next to his sons. Scott was as pale as a sheet, and Murdoch’s eyes flew to his younger son. What he saw didn’t reassure him. Johnny was even paler than Scott, and he wasn’t moving.

“Scott?” Murdoch asked in a trembling voice.

Scott looked at his father. “Murdoch…,” Scott whispered in anguish.

Chapter Fifty

Murdoch looked around for help that wasn’t there. The wranglers were standing around silently, their hats in their hands. He looked back down and felt the tears start to threaten. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair. He brushed a stray lock of hair from his younger son’s forehead in a helpless gesture.

“We need to get him into the house,” he said woodenly.

Scott hesitated. “Murdoch, I don’t know if we should move him. Sam said…”

“I don’t give a DAMN what Sam said,” Murdoch snarled as he scooped his younger son up and headed toward the house. He knew Sam might not want him to be moved, but if Johnny wasn’t going to make it, he wasn’t going to die in a filthy corral.

He prayed the whole way into the house, a disjointed, agonized plea that he not lose his son again. He prayed with all of his might, but he had the horrible feeling Johnny was going to die anyway, and he didn’t know if he could stand it if that happened.

He carried his son up the stairs and into his bedroom as easily as he had when Johnny had been a toddler, and laid him gently in his bed. Teresa had already brought plenty of water and cloths, and he and Scott began to gently wipe the dirt away from Johnny’s face. He listened to his son’s ragged breaths as he tried to get air into his lungs, and he wondered if Johnny would be able to hold on until Sam arrived. He said another prayer.

Scott looked toward the stairs for the hundredth time, then glanced at the clock. It hadn’t moved for the last two hours, ever since Sam had chased them out of Johnny’s room. He looked over at his father, who was sitting at his desk, looking mindlessly out at nothing. Murdoch hadn’t moved or said a word since coming downstairs. Of course, he hadn’t either.

Scott’s gaze went to Molly, who was sitting on the couch, looking pale and miserable. Her mother had taken an exhausted Jimmy upstairs to lie down with her after Sam had quickly examined him and found him bruised and sore, but basically healthy. Molly had been sitting quietly as long as they had. Her fear and her grief were obvious; she had been quietly crying the whole time, but Scott was still angry with her. He felt like going over and shaking her, making sure she understood this was all her fault, but the girl’s tear stained face and shaking hands stopped him. Besides, he knew that Johnny wouldn’t want her blamed, no matter what happened. Murdoch might have something to say about it, though.

With a sigh, Scott stood up and walked over to Molly, then sat down next to her.

“Don’t blame yourself. It was an accident.” The words were bitter in his mouth, but he knew it was what Johnny would want him to do.

She shook her head, but wouldn’t meet his eyes. “No, you’re wrong. Johnny told me not to bring Jimmy out there, and I did it anyway.”

Murdoch’s head shot up and his eyes narrowed at the girl’s words.

Molly continued. “Johnny warned me to make Jimmy mind; he said it was dangerous not to, but I didn’t listen to him. I thought I could keep him safe.” She shook her head in agony. “I didn’t think he would go into the corral. I only was away from him for a minute.” She looked pleadingly at Scott.

Murdoch’s fist slammed down on the desk and a muttered oath tore from his lips, making everyone jump, but when Scott looked over, his father was once more looking out the window.

Molly swallowed hard as she glanced at her father in law, and her gaze came quickly back to Scott. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

Scott just shook his head. As much as he wanted to reassure her, he couldn’t. Everything she said was true. If she’d listened to his brother, Johnny wouldn’t have been hurt. He looked up the stairs once more, and then buried his face in his hands.

“Sam?” Murdoch’s voice was both hopeful and frightened. Scott’s head shot up once more, and he stood without thinking. Murdoch was already on his feet, watching the doctor apprehensively.

With all eyes on him, the doctor shrugged. “He’s alive.”

There was an audible sigh from everyone in the room, and Scott took a step forward. “Will he be all right?” he asked hopefully.

Sam took a deep breath. “I don’t know. He’s badly hurt.” He walked tiredly over to the couch and sat down. He closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed them wearily with his fingers as he explained. “His chest took a severe blow. He has numerous broken ribs, and at least one of them went through a lung, which collapsed. He’s bleeding internally, but he’s too weak to operate on right now. All we can do is to wait and see if the bleeding will stop on its own and the lung will re-inflate.”

“And if it doesn’t?” Scott asked.

Sam shrugged. “Then I’ll have to take the chance and operate anyway.” He hesitated. “He was awake for a little while. He asked for a priest.”

Murdoch blanched. “He thinks he’s going to die.”

Scott swallowed hard and turned toward the doctor. “Sam?”

Sam met his gaze for several seconds and then nodded slowly. “Send for the priest.”

Murdoch sank back onto the desk, his head bowed in grief for a moment until a thought struck him. “WHAT priest?” he snapped. “The only priest around is that…that… BIGOTED JACKASS Father Duncan! And I’m NOT going to have him near my son, especially now!”

Sam shook his head. “It’s not your choice, Murdoch. Johnny asked.”

Murdoch slammed his hand down on the desk again before dropping his head and taking a deep breath. “I’ll send someone. But if he says ONE WORD against Johnny, I swear I’ll kill him myself!”

Chapter Fifty One

“I’ll tell Cip to send someone to get the priest,” Scott said.

Sam shook his head. “No need. I have to go back into town to check on Mrs. Baker. She’s overdue, and I’m afraid there are going to be problems with the delivery. She lost the last two, and we almost lost her. I promised her I’d check on her every day. I’ll swing by and tell the priest to come out before I go to her house.”

Murdoch nodded. “Thanks, Sam.”

“No problem. I’ll be back out as soon as I can.” The doctor looked sternly at the two men. “In the meantime, you take turns watching him. It’s going to be a long haul, and I don’t need the two of you as patients, too.”

Scott turned toward the stairs. “I’ll take first watch.”

Molly stood up. “I will.”

Scott turned toward her, his eyebrows raised. He was angry with her, and although he had tried his best to be civil, he had about reached the end of his rope. “No, you won’t. I’m going to go sit with my BROTHER.”

Molly’s head came up. “And I am going to sit with MY husband!”

“IS he your husband?” Scott snapped. “It seems he only is when it is convenient for you!”

“That’s not true!”

“Do you even care about him? Because it certainly doesn’t seem like it.”

“Does he care about ME? The two of you wouldn’t even tell me what was going on yesterday!

“Why should we? It had nothing to do with you!”

“My HUSBAND was arrested! You don’t think I have a right to know what was going on?”

Scott snorted. “You probably think he’s guilty!”

“I don’t KNOW! He wouldn’t tell me!”

“He shouldn’t HAVE to! If you knew him at all, if you cared about him at all, you would KNOW!”

“Scott stop!” Murdoch ordered. He turned toward Molly. “And you, too. No one is saying you can’t see him, but Scott and I have done this before, unfortunately.

“I can take care of him!” Molly insisted.

“Molly, let Murdoch and Scott handle this,” Sam cut in. “Murdoch’s right. They know what to do, and this is going to be difficult. You can help when he gets a little stronger, if he wants you to.”

“What do you mean, If he wants me to?” she asked shakily.

Sam just shot a look at Murdoch and then turned and walked out. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Scott headed for the stairs, leaving Murdoch to handle Molly. He just wasn’t in the mood. He pushed the door to Johnny’s room open and stepped inside. The rasping breaths coming from the bed made his heart sink. He tried to tell himself that at least his brother was breathing, no matter how bad it sounded, but it was small consolation. He pulled up a chair next to the bed and sank down, then he picked up his brother’s hand and prayed.

Val sat at his desk, cleaning his nails with the edge of a wanted poster and wondering if their plan would work. If they were right, the priest should come busting in here any second now with the news that he had seen Johnny taking the money. Of course, they could be wrong, but somehow he doubted it. He just didn’t like the man, and neither did Murdoch or Johnny. That all of them could be wrong was just about impossible. It HAD to be that priest. He glanced at the old clock and shook his head. Any minute now…

The door slammed open, and the priest burst in. Val had to smile, it was sure nice to be right.

“What can I do for you, padre?” Val asked calmly.

“I wish to report another robbery!”

Val glanced over at the door where the reverend had just appeared. “You missin’ some money?” he asked Reverend Jacobs.

The man nodded. “Yes, I believe I am.”

The priest nodded in agreement. “Yes, we are. It was taken just a few minutes ago from the poor box. All the money that Murdoch Lancer put in, and who knows how much more. We’ve lost a fortune!” He glared at the sheriff. “And if you had done something about it the first time, we wouldn’t be having a problem now!”

Val tipped back in his chair. “And just what did you want me to do about it?”

“Keep that half breed killer locked up where he belongs!”

Val shrugged. “Wasn’t enough evidence,” he said slowly. He stared at the priest. “Can’t keep a man locked up with no evidence.” He looked at the priest quizzically. “Unless you have some now?”

The priest smiled triumphantly, and Val smiled back, knowing the trap was about to close.

Just then the door swung open and Sam walked in. He looked at the priest in relief. “I had just about given up trying to find you. You’re needed out at Lancer.”

Val glared at the old doctor. Sam was just about to mess up their carefully laid plans. “I’m sure it can wait a few minutes,” he growled as he looked meaningfully at Sam. “The padre and I were just discussing something important.”

“I’m afraid it can’t wait. Johnny’s badly hurt, and he asked for a priest.”

Val bolted to his feet. “How did he get hurt?”

Sam sighed. “A bronc trampled him. Jimmy somehow got into the corral and Johnny saved him, but the horse got Johnny instead.”

Val swallowed hard. “How bad?”

Sam shook his head. “Bad.”

Val snatched his hat and turned and glared at the priest. “So what was that evidence you had against him?”

The priest looked around in confusion, then shook his head. “I guess I was mistaken,” he said quietly.

“Yeah, about a lot of things” he spat. “He sure sounds like a vicious killer, savin’ a kid’s life like that, doesn’t he?” He stopped at the door and looked back at the priest in disgust. “Are you comin?”

The priest looked around uncomfortably once more, and then Reverend Jacobs stepped up and grabbed his arm. “We’ll both go,” he said emphatically.

Chapter Fifty Two

Molly sat downstairs after both Murdoch and Scott disappeared into Johnny’s room. She needed to talk to someone, but she knew that she wasn’t very popular right now. She closed her eyes and prayed that Johnny would be all right. The stark realization that she might lose him forever had made her face the undeniable fact that she loved him.

Scott was right; she had been difficult. It was her stupid pride that had kept getting in the way, and now it might be too late. She had wanted Johnny to pursue her, she had wanted him to be the one to profess his love for her, but instead he had remained maddeningly aloof and left her to make up her own mind. He had refused to beg or to plead his case, but had been willing to accept whatever relationship she chose. Her pride wanted him to tell her he loved her before she told him, but now it looked like he wouldn’t get that chance.

She buried her head in her hands and sobbed quietly. She should have listened to him about Jimmy. She knew now he was right; a ranch was too dangerous a place for a child to run around without rules. She would try harder to discipline her son, although she knew it wouldn’t be easy. She had hated her father with a passion for his heavy handed ways, and she didn’t want Jimmy to hate either her or Johnny. She had to admit, though, that Johnny hadn’t attempted to physically punish Jimmy like her father had punished her. He had resorted to much more subtle and clever ways to get the boy to mind, and Molly had been astonished at how well Jimmy DID mind his father.

A light knock on the door interrupted her musings, and after looking around, she stood up and went to the door. When she pulled it open, she was surprised to see both Father Duncan and Reverend Jacobs standing there.

“May we come in?” the reverend asked quietly.

She stood aside and the two men walked into the room. “How is he?” Reverend Jacobs asked.

Molly shrugged and swallowed hard. “I’m not sure. His… family is upstairs with him.”

Reverend Jacobs turned toward the priest. “Why don’t we go upstairs and see?”

The priest frowned, but turned toward the stairs. As Reverend Jacobs took a step to follow him, Molly touched his arm.

“Please, Reverend, may I have a word with you?”

The pastor nodded, then looked at the priest. “I’ll be up shortly.”

As Father Duncan disappeared up the stairs, the reverend looked at the distraught girl and gently ushered her over to the couch.

“Why don’t you sit down?”

Molly sank down onto the sofa and looked at the reverend miserably. “It’s my fault,” she blurted.

The pastor’s eyebrows rose. “What is, my dear?”

“Everything. Johnny’s accident. He warned me not to let Jimmy outside by the corrals, but I did anyway.”

“I see.” He looked at her gently. “Did you mean for this to happen?”

She looked at him in shock. “Of course not!”

The reverend shook his head. “Then it was an accident.”

“NO, it WASN’T!” she sobbed. “If I had listened to Johnny and done as he asked, he wouldn’t have been hurt.”

“So why didn’t you listen to him?” he asked quizzically.

“I don’t know,” Molly said miserably.

“Johnny is your husband. A wife is supposed to obey their husband.”

“I know,” she said in a small voice.

“So why didn’t you?” he prodded.

“Because…” her voice trailed off.

“Because you don’t really consider him your husband, do you? You just married him because of Jimmy, but you didn’t really want Johnny to be a father to him either, did you?”

“No,” she said in a small voice.

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“You were angry with him and you wanted to punish him,” Reverend Jacobs guessed.

Molly nodded silently. “I’m so sorry,” she sobbed.

Reverend Jacobs sighed. “It’s not me that you have to apologize to.”

“I know.”

Her eyes came up. “But I was also afraid.”

“Of Johnny?” the reverend asked in surprise.

Molly shrugged. “I didn’t want Johnny to be mean to Jimmy.”

“Mean to him? Do you really believe that Johnny would hurt his own son?”

“I didn’t really think so, but…but…” she dropped her head. “Father Duncan told me that Johnny was a cold hearted killer. He said that the whole valley was afraid of him, and that he was a mean and abusive man.”

“Didn’t you know any differently?”

Molly shook her head. “I thought I did, but I hadn’t seen him for so long, and everything the father said made sense. I just wasn’t sure. I WANTED to believe in Johnny, but… I just wasn’t sure,” she finished in a whisper.

The reverend shook his head. “Johnny Lancer is a good man. I’ve observed him when he’s come into town, and I have no doubt of what I’m telling you.”

“I was just so confused. And I didn’t want Jimmy to hate him. I didn’t want Johnny to punish him.”

“I don’t understand.”

Molly dropped her head. “When I was young, my father…my father was mean to me. He said he was teaching me manners, he said he was just disciplining me, but he’d use any excuse to beat me. I hated him. I didn’t want Jimmy to have to go through the same thing. I vowed when he was born that I wouldn’t punish him, no matter what.”

The reverend shook his head. “Molly, children need discipline to grow up into God fearing adults. Discipline doesn’t mean abuse.”

Molly nodded. “I know that now. It was just so hard.”

“As hard as what you’re going through now?”

Molly shook her head.

“Do you love him?”

Molly nodded slowly. “Yes,” she whispered.

“Then tell him.”

“And what if I don’t get the chance?” she pleaded.

“You’d better start praying. We’d all better.”

Molly nodded and bit her lip. “I already have.”

Chapter Fifty Three

Molly and the Reverend looked up as they priest reappeared in the room.

“How is he?” Molly asked.

The priest snorted. “They brought me all of the way out here for nothng!” He turned toward Reverend Jacobs. “Let’s go.”

Molly felt her heart clench in fear. “What do you mean for nothing?”

Father Duncan shook his head. “He’s not even awake! How am I supposed to hear a confession if the man isn’t even conscious?”

Reverend Jacobs took a step forward. “I don’t believe that a confession is necessary to give a blessing.”

“It is for me!” The priest snapped. “Even with a confession, there’s no point for that ruffian. I know EXACTLY where he’s going, so why waste my time?”

Pastor Jacobs shook his head in disbelief. “It’s not for us to make that decision, and besides, Johnny Lancer is a good man.”

“How can you say that?” Duncan retorted. “He’s a hired killer and a thief!”

“He is a RANCHER! It doesn’t matter what he did before, he’s made a huge effort to change his ways, and his compassion and kind heartedness are evident in the way he helps his neighbors and friends.”

“His own wife hates him and is afraid of him!”

Molly jumped to her feet. “No! I don’t hate him!” She glared at the priest. “You could have helped me! You knew I was confused and frightened of the situation. I came to you with my doubts, hoping for guidance. You could have reassured me, but instead all you did was fill my head with more fears! I was stupid and should have listened to my own heart, but I couldn’t imagine a priest deliberately spreading lies about someone. YOU told me he was a cruel person, and that he would be abusive to both me and my son!” She dropped her head. “I believed you, and it nearly cost me my son, and it still might cost me my husband.” She looked up at the Father. “How COULD you?”

“Johnny Madrid is a vicious killer! He has killed dozens of men! He has no place in decent society. Just because his father is a wealthy rancher, the people have been forced to accept that half breed whelp, but I for one refuse to condone his behavior!”

The Reverend looked at the priest in amazement. “The way I hear it, that boy was forced to do things in order to survive. Yes, he made mistakes, just as all of us do. But when he had the chance to change his ways, he jumped at the opportunity. Since then, I have watched him as he has become more and more accepted in this town. Not because of anything his father has done, but because of Johnny’s own personality. He’s always polite, and always willing to lend a helping hand to those in need, just like his father and brother. Besides physically helping people, the Lancers are the church’s greatest contributor, responsible for a lot of the charity work the church is able to do”

The priest snorted. “Until one of them steals it back. Besides, how do you know how much they contribute? Do you take their word for it? Other people give, also. Before his son stole the money back, Lancer said he had given a substantial donation, but that wasn’t the case. In my opinion, the whole family has managed to fool some of the people in this town into thinking they’re better than they are, that they give more than they do, but I refuse to be misled. I don’t care how much money they have.”

“So if they HAVE money, why on earth would Johnny Lancer steal money from the church?”

“Who knows? For all I know, his father told him to steal it back.”

The reverend shook his head. “Why do you hate them so much, especially Johnny?”

“I don’t hate anyone!”

“Yes, you do. And it goes beyond the reasons you’ve given. I’ve seen you give absolution to men who had killed in cold blood, and I’ve seen you do the same for those of mixed parentage. It’s only Johnny Lancer that has earned your hatred. Why?”

“I told you the reason,” the priest said stubbornly.

“And as I said, I know it’s not the only reason.”

“He should never have been brought here!”

“WHY?”

“It’s his fault that more people don’t come to church!”

Reverend Jacobs looked at the priest in confusion. “What are you talking about?”

Father Duncan shook his head. “The Catholic church is small and old. The parishioners are forced to squeeze onto rough benches in a stifling room.” He looked at the reverend. “YOUR church, on the other hand, the one that the Lancers support, is large and airy. You have proper pews. The people flock to your services and donate to your causes.”

Pastor Jacobs’ mouth hung open. “You’re jealous!”

“I’m not jealous! My parishioners deserve better!”

“So what does that have to do with Johnny?”

Duncan’s moth set in a grim line. “Murdoch Lancer promised to rebuild my church. He said he would order new pews and a better altar. Then…” He shook his head angrily. “Then he went back on his word.”

“Why? He must have had some reason.”

“He did,” Duncan said angrily. “He decided to bring that killer home! He selfishly decided to put his own wants before those of the townspeople!”

“You think he should have rebuilt the church rather than bring his own son home? Besides, why would Johnny’s coming home have any bearing on rebuilding the church?”

“BECAUSE! The money that was earmarked for my church went to pay to bring that killer home! Murdoch Lancer came to me and told me that my church would have to wait, that he had found his son, and would need the money to bring him home instead! He chose that killer over helping the church. I hope they all rot in hell for that choice!”

The Reverend shook his head slowly. “Father Duncan, you are a sick man.”

Chapter Fifty Four

A door slamming shut interrupted the conversation. Everyone froze for several seconds, but Molly remained staring at the Father until she could take it no longer. She jumped up and headed out of the room. She could no longer stand to be that near that twisted and bitter man that called himself a priest. He was not a man of God; he was nothing but a bigoted idiot. She couldn’t believe that she had ever listened to him, and she was sure that her thoughts toward him right now were not gaining her points in heaven.

Molly hesitated when she reached the entry and she started to shake. Molly took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. She had been a confused child, letting other people make her choices for her and abiding by other people’s decisions. She had made a foolish mistake, but she wouldn’t make the same mistake again. She was a grown woman, and she was going to start acting like one.

Taking several deep breaths, she swept toward the staircase, determined to find out how her husband was doing, and heaven help anyone that tried to keep her out.

Molly reached the bottom of the stairs at the same time as the sheriff, who was standing staring uncertainly up toward the second floor.

“Sheriff,” she greeted him politely.

“Ma’am,” he replied. “How’s Johnny?”

“Why don’t you ask his family!”

He grabbed her arm. “I asked you! Now how’s Johnny?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t KNOW?” Val asked incredulously.

She pulled her arm away from the lawman. “No, his family hasn’t seen fit to keep me informed, but I intend to find out,” she said calmly. “Now if you’ll excuse me…” she started up the stairs, leaving Val still standing in the entry. A moment later, he headed into the great room to wait.

Molly hesitated outside the door, watching as Scott and Murdoch hovered next to Johnny’s bed. Even from the doorway, she could hear her husband’s labored breathing, and she dropped her head, tears running down her face. She stood there, trying to gain enough courage to enter.

Finally, she squared her shoulders and walked into the room. Murdoch glanced up, then immediately turned his attention back to his son. Scott never even bothered to look up.

“How is he?’ she asked cautiously.

“About the same,” Scott answered.

She approached the bed and looked down at the man lying in the bed. “Has he regained consciousness at all?”

“No,” Murdoch answered.

Molly picked up one of Johnny’s hands and held it for a moment, and then looked at the two men. “I would appreciate it if you’d leave us alone for a few minutes.”

Murdoch’s mouth dropped open, and then shut in a grim line. “No.”

Molly raised her head. “I know you don’t believe me, but I love him, and I want to tell him that. Please,” she added quietly.

Scott stared at her for several seconds before nodding. He stood up and grabbed his father’s arm. “Come on; let’s take a break for a few minutes.” Murdoch stood and looked at his daughter in law a moment, then let his gaze rest on his younger son before turning and reluctantly following his other son out of the room.

Molly stood and stared at the injured man for a long while, memorizing every feature. She looked out the window, remembering how they had first met. She had been in town, buying groceries. She had left the store and run right into him. She realized later that it hadn’t been an accident at all, but at the time she had thought it was. He had helped her pick up all of her packages that she had dropped in the collision, then offered to drive her home.

On the way home, she had at first been shy and withdrawn, wondering if she had made a mistake by letting him take her home, but he had soon reassured her with his soft voice and sense of humor. By the time they had pulled into the ranch yard, she had actually been laughing.

The climate had changed as soon as her father had stepped out of the house. She could almost feel the coldness radiating out from Johnny, and it was returned in kind by her stepfather. The two men had stared at each other, and then Johnny had been ordered off of the property. Johnny had smiled coldly, then turned his attention back to her and smiled.

That smile had just about melted her heart, and then he had asked her if he could see her again. Even if she hadn’t been attracted to him, the mere fact that her stepfather disliked him so much made her answer easy. She hadn’t known what Johnny was then, or what he had wanted, but at that point, she hadn’t cared. He was the most attractive man she had ever seen and she wanted to see him again. She had smiled at him, and agreed to meet him the next day.

The next several weeks had been wonderful. Johnny had shown her how a man should treat a woman, and she had fallen for him, and she had fallen hard. When she realized she had been betrayed, her pride and her heart had been badly injured, but now she wondered if some of it had been her fault. In her anger and hurt, she hadn’t given him the chance to explain. But even then she knew that the feelings hadn’t been all one sided. She had known that he had truly cared, no matter how much she denied it to herself later.

With a sigh, Molly drew up a chair and turned her attention back to Johnny. She gently touched his face, and then picked up his hand once more.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Please forgive me. I never should have listened to that priest. I should have listened to my heart. I know now that I love you. I always have, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you that sooner.”

She brushed a lock of his hair off of his forehead. “If you’ll give me another chance, I promise I’ll listen to you.” She reached down and kissed him softly on the forehead. “Please, Johnny. Please don’t die. I…I want to be your wife.”

Chapter Fifty Five

The door slowly swung open, and Molly raised her tear stained face to see Doctor Jenkins entering the room.

“How is he doing?” he asked quietly.

Molly shrugged miserably. “About the same. He’s still having trouble breathing.”

Sam nodded and approached the bed. “Why don’t you go lie down for a while. You look exhausted.”

“Will he be all right?” she pleaded.

Sam took her gently by the arm and helped her up. “God willing. Now go on and get some sleep, I have to examine him, and Scott and Murdoch are fighting over who is going to take the next watch. He’s in good hands.”

Molly leaned over and kissed Johnny, then walked toward the door. Before she left, she took a last look at the injured man and said a quick prayer. She couldn’t remember ever being this tired, but there was no way she could sleep. She hesitated, wondering if she should go downstairs, but she couldn’t face Johnny’s family again. Instead, she crossed the hall and entered her mother’s room.

Her mother was lying on the bed, with Jimmy asleep beside her. She watched her peacefully sleeping son for a moment, and then carefully lowered herself to the bed and put an arm around him, pulling him close.

“How is he?” her mother asked softly.

“I don’t know,” Molly whispered miserably. “About the same, I guess. I feel so guilty. It’s all my fault. I should have listened to him.”

“Yes, you should have, but it was an accident. You didn’t mean for him to get hurt.”

“His family hates me. He probably hates me. I don’t know what to do.”

“Molly, I’m sure he doesn’t hate you, and I’m sure his family doesn’t, either. They’re worried about him, that’s all. Right now, we just have to pray that Johnny recovers. After that, you can worry about the rest.”

“I guess. I just feel so…helpless. I wish there was something I could do. I wish…” she sighed.

“What?”

“I wish he knew I loved him. I never told him, and now it might be too late.”

Mrs. Connors reached over and squeezed her daughter’s hand. “You have to have faith.”

“It was my FAITH that caused most of the problems in the first place! If I hadn’t listened to that so called priest, I would have realized I loved Johnny a long time ago!”

“Molly, it wasn’t your faith that betrayed you, and it wasn’t God. It was a man who also happens to be a very poor priest. You can’t turn your back on your faith because of him.” She squeezed tighter. “And you can’t lay all of the blame on the priest, either. You didn’t trust Johnny. Neither of us did. You didn’t want to be hurt again, and I can’t blame you for that. I certainly didn’t want you to be hurt again, either. And somehow, I don’t think Johnny blames you for that. I think he understands. But now you have to forget what happened in the past and look to the future, and if you want that future to include Johnny, you’ll have to change your ways and convince him you love him.”

“I know, I just hope I get the chance.”

“You will. Johnny has a lot to live for.”

Molly sighed softly. “He’s still in trouble for stealing that money.”

Mrs. Connors rose up and stared at her daughter. “You think he’s guilty?”

Molly shook her head. “No. But apparently the sheriff does or he wouldn’t have arrested him.”

Mrs. Connors sighed. “Somehow, I wonder about that. The Lancers and Sheriff Crawford seem to be pretty good friends. It seems to me that even if the sheriff thought Johnny had done it, he wouldn’t have put handcuffs on him when he arrested him. And Murdoch and Scott were awfully calm about the whole thing. So was Johnny, for that matter.”

Molly looked at her quizzically. “Do you think they just wanted people to think he was guilty for some reason?”

“I don’t know. Whatever is happening, I’m sure it will get straightened out. I just can’t imagine Johnny stealing from a church. He has no reason to. And Johnny’s father and brother won’t let him go to jail for something he didn’t do.”

“They might not have a choice!” Molly snapped. “Personally, after what that so called priest told me earlier, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had done it.”

“You talked to him?”

“Yes.”

“What did he say?”

“A lot of things.” She shook her head slowly. “He admitted he hated Johnny. I think he hates all of the Lancers.” She looked at her mother in wonderment. “I think he’s jealous of them. He seemed to be obsessed with money. He was upset that Mr. Lancer used some money that had been promised to the church to bring Johnny home instead. And he said…” her voice trailed off and a puzzled expression formed on her face.

Mrs. Connors sighed. “He’s obviously a troubled man.” She studied her daughter. “Is something wrong?’

Molly nodded slowly. “I don’t know. Something he said bothers me.”

Her mother looked at her quizzically. “What was that?”

Molly bit her lip. “I’m not sure. Something bothered me when he was talking, but I wasn’t sure even then. It was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.”

“Something about Johnny?”

Molly shook her head. “I don’t know. Something flashed through my head while he was talking, and then something else was said and it was gone. I’ve been trying to remember, but I can’t. Just now I thought I had it, but…” she shook her head again. “It’s probably nothing.”

“Maybe you’ll remember what it was when you’ve had some rest. You must be exhausted. Lie down with Jimmy.”

“I can’t sleep,” Molly protested.

“Of course you can. I’ll come get you if I need to.”

“You promise?”

“Of course. Now go to sleep and try not to worry. I’m sure everything will be just fine.”

Molly nodded and lay back down. She closed her eyes, but sleep was a long time coming.

Chapter Fifty Six

Molly pushed open the door to Johnny’s room and cautiously approached the bed. Her husband’s labored breathing was evident, and she wasn’t sure whether to be worried that he hadn’t improved, or thankful that he was still breathing. She had expected a change by now, and even though she was relieved that he was still alive, she was concerned that he apparently wasn’t getting better. She stood and watched as he moved his head restlessly, apparently trying to find a position where it was easier to breathe. A fine mist of sweat was on his forehead, and his damp hair was plastered to his head. His eyes were closed, and she wasn’t sure if he was asleep or still unconscious.

“Johnny,” she called softly.

When she didn’t get a response, she perched lightly on the side of the bed and gently brushed his hair away from his face. She glanced at Scott, who was sitting slumped over in a chair next to Johnny’s bed, his soft snores competing with Johnny’s labored breaths. It hurt her to hear him fight so desperately for every lungful, and by his erratic movements Johnny was obviously in distress. Molly took hold of her husband’s hand and held it to her face, trying to calm him as much as possible.

“Johnny, wake up.”

Johnny whipped his head back and forth, gasping as he tried to draw a breath. She put her hand on his face.

“Johnny, please calm down.” She looked at Scott, wondering if she should wake him up, or perhaps go downstairs and get the doctor. She stood up, uncertain, and then Johnny gave a sigh and relaxed slightly.

She sat back down, fear making her legs weak. She watched until she saw another rise and fall of his chest, then let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.

“Thank you, Lord,” she whispered softly. She ran her fingers over his face once more. “Johnny, please don’t leave me.”

Scott stirred and then sat up quickly when he saw her. “He’s awake?”

Molly shook her head. “No.” She bit her lip. “Has he regained consciousness at all?”

Scott shook his head slowly. “No.”

Scott studied his brother for a moment, and then leaned back tiredly. “Sam said he should be breathing easier by now if his lung was going to re-inflate on its own.”

Molly looked at Scott worriedly. “What if it doesn’t?”

“Sam will have to operate,” Scott answered resignedly.

“But he’s too weak!”

“He won’t have a choice. Johnny can’t keep losing blood.”

“Isn’t there something else he can do?”

Scott shrugged. “He already drained the blood out of his chest once. He said he might have to do it again, but he was hoping that the bleeding would stop by now.”

Molly swallowed hard and squeezed Johnny’s hand harder. “It will stop. He just needs some more time. He was breathing harder before, right after I came in. He seems to be better now.”

Scott took a deep breath. “I hope so. But if it doesn’t stop, and Sam waits too long to do it, Johnny will be too weak. He’s going to have to make a decision soon.”

Molly bit her lip, and tears started to form in her eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she said miserably. I never meant for him to get hurt.”

“Then what DID you mean to have happen?” Scott snapped. “He’s been trying his darndest to be nice to you, and you’ve been doing nothing but make his life miserable since you got here. He TOLD you not to let Jimmy come out to the corral. Did you think he was just being mean? Was defying Johnny more important than keeping your son safe? If Johnny hadn’t intervened, Jimmy would be dead by now!”

“I know,” Molly cried. “You don’t have to remind me!”

“No,” Scott ground out. “All you have to do is to look at my brother.” Scott shook his head angrily. “What were you thinking?”

Molly dropped her head. “I don’t know. I was wrong.”

“You were a spoiled brat! If it had been me, I would have sent you packing a long time ago, but fortunately for you, Johnny is more accepting than either Murdoch or I.” He snorted. “Imagine that,” he said sarcastically. A gunfighter with a soft heart. Heaven Forbid! Could it be you were wrong about him?”

“I KNOW I was wrong! I admit it!”

Scott stared at her for a moment, and then shook his head. “Yes, you were wrong. You were wrong and you were stupid.” He sighed deeply. “Molly, this isn’t a game. My brother has been hurt enough in his life, and I’m not going to sit quietly by while he gets his heart ripped out again. He deserves better than having a spoiled, selfish child as a wife.”

“I’m not a child!”

“Then stop acting like one!”

“I’m TRYING! Scott, I know I was wrong, and I know I was being difficult.” She dropped her head. “I also know you don’t believe me, but I love him. I want to spend the rest of my life with him, if he’ll let me, and I want him to be a father to Jimmy.”

Scott dropped his head and looked away. “I guess that will be Johnny’s decision, IF he lives.”

“Scott, please. Give me another chance.”

Scott looked at her in surprise. “It’s Johnny you’ll have to convince, not me.”

Molly nodded. “I know. But I know I’ve behaved badly toward all of you and I owe all of you an apology. I’m sorry, and I promise I’ll do my best to be the wife Johnny deserves.”

Scott looked at the young woman in surprise and finally nodded. He was still angry with her, and not convinced she was the best wife for Johnny, but as he had said, it was Johnny’s decision. In the meantime, he would wait and see. But heaven help her if she did one more thing to hurt his brother in any way. If Johnny wouldn’t take care of himself, then his big brother would have to do it for him.

Chapter Fifty Seven

Molly sat and stared at the man lying in the bed. Sam had finally been forced to perform surgery on Johnny yesterday because the bleeding had refused to stop. Sam was reluctant to do the surgery because Johnny was so weak, but he really hadn’t had a choice. Without it his patient would surely die. Afterwards, Sam had been cautiously hopeful about Johnny’s chance of recovery, but as the hours passed some of his optimism had all but evaporated. The bleeding had been stopped and the lung had re-inflated, but Johnny was still deeply unconscious, and there had been no change. Murdoch and Scott had stayed by Johnny’s bed until a few hours ago, and then had reluctantly gone to get some rest. They had both been going on willpower alone, and looked as if they were ready to drop. Molly had finally convinced them to lie down for a few minutes, after she promised to get them if there was any change.

She glanced out the window and sighed. The sun was once more making an appearance, and Molly’s hopes of Johnny’s recovery were fading as quickly as the light was taking over the night. Sam had made it clear that the longer Johnny stayed unconscious, the less chance there was of him every waking up, and it didn’t look like Johnny was any closer to consciousness than he had been before. She picked up her husband’s limp hand and began to talk, hoping that somehow he could hear her.

Exhaustion began to take its toll, and after a while, still holding his hand, Molly leaned over and laid her head down on the bed next to Johnny. She closed her eyes, but she continued to talk, although the sentences came further and further apart as she struggled to stay awake.

She startled up and lifted her head, confused for a moment. As she blinked the sleep out of her eyes, she realized where she was and looked down at Johnny, wondering what had awakened her. His eyes were closed, but he seemed to be breathing easier and deeper than he had been before. A moment later, he moaned slightly, and she hurriedly put her hand on his arm to calm him. She murmured softly, as if she were talking to a child, and he quieted slightly before beginning to mumble incoherently. She swept his hair off of his forehead and was startled when his eyes came open.

Johnny stared at her for several seconds, then looked around the room in confusion before focusing on her once more.

“Is Jimmy ok?” he asked hoarsely.

Molly nodded. “He’s fine.” She hesitated. “I was worried about you.”

Johnny dropped his eyes and sighed softly, and Molly hurriedly pushed on. “Johnny, I’m so sorry, for everything.”

Johnny shook his head slightly without looking at her. “Where’s Scott?”

Molly swallowed hard. “He’s resting.”

Johnny nodded resignedly, then relaxed back and shut his eyes.

“Johnny, I’m sorry I brought Jimmy out to the corral. I should have listened to you. I know that now. Please believe me,” she pleaded.

He sighed again without opening his eyes. “I’m tired. Think I’ll rest for a while.”

She looked at him in misery. “Johnny, please forgive me,” she said once more. When she got no response she closed her eyes for a moment, then stood up and left the room.

Scott bolted out of bed and was half way to the door before he was even awake. He pulled the door open and looked at Molly apprehensively.

“He was awake,” Molly said softly. “He asked for you.”

Scott smiled and brushed past her. She watched him go, then turned and disappeared into her room.

Johnny opened his eyes to see his brother’s concerned ones above him.

“It’s about time, little brother,” Scott said with a grin. “I’m tired of doing all the chores around here.”

A ghost of a smile appeared on Johnny’s face. “I planned it that way,” he said softly.

“I figured that, but I haven’t told Murdoch. I figured I could blackmail you later.”

Johnny nodded slightly and a small grimace flashed across his features. Scott immediately reached for a glass next to the bed and put it to his brother lips. Johnny took a few sips, then lay back with a sigh.

“You had us worried,” Scott said quietly.

“Sorry.”

Scott reached out and put his hand on his brother’s arm. “That’s ok. Just don’t do it again.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“I’ve heard that before,” Scott snorted. “You’ll have to do better than that.”

Johnny stared at his brother. “Is Jimmy really all right?”

Scott nodded. “He was scared and dirty, but he’s fine.” He hesitated. “He gave his mother quite a scare.”

“Me too,” Johnny agreed. “I can’t believe she put him in danger like that.”

Scott sighed. “She didn’t do it on purpose. She never thought he’d be hurt.”

“No, but that’s just it. She was so eager to get back at me that she didn’t worry about the possibility of Jimmy gettin’ hurt,” he said flatly.

Scott dropped his head, knowing this was something that Johnny would have to work out when he was stronger. “Why don’t you get some rest? We can talk more about it later.”

Johnny nodded and closed his eyes and a few seconds later, he was sound asleep. Scott drew the blanket up around his brother’s shoulders and sat down in the chair next to the bed. The short nap he had managed to get had refreshed him a little, and he decided he wouldn’t leave Johnny’s side again. He wasn’t sure why Johnny had asked for him, or why Molly had come and fetched him, but it seemed to as if his brother didn’t want Molly around. Scott wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He still wasn’t sure if Molly was sincere about turning over a new leaf, but if she was, it would be sad if Johnny turned his back on her now. He sighed softly. He couldn’t really blame him, though. No matter what she thought now, she had still almost gotten both Johnny and his son killed. Scott just wasn’t sure if any of them could forgive her for that.

Chapter Fifty Eight

Molly stared at the ceiling, unable to sleep, even though she was exhausted. She was thankful that Johnny was recovering, but since he had awakened the day before, she hadn’t been able to talk to him except for the few words they had exchanged when he had first regained consciousness. The short conversation had done nothing to reassure her, and she had been worrying about it ever since. She knew Johnny was angry with her, and she knew he had every right to be, but she wanted him to know how sorry she was. She wanted him to know that she had realized just how wrong she had been.

She lay there for several more minutes before finally giving up her quest for sleep. She leaned over and gave her sleeping son a kiss on his forehead and brushed a stray lock of hair from his face. She shut her eyes momentarily as she realized once more just how close she had come to losing him. She didn’t think she’d ever forget that day, and the sight of that enraged horse bearing down on her son. She shivered as she recalled how Johnny had protected Jimmy, taking the blows from the lashing hooves with his own body.

She had been so wrong; she knew that now, without any doubt. What she was more uncertain of was whether it was too late. Would Johnny ever forgive her? She wasn’t sure he would. She wasn’t even sure she could forgive herself. She lay there a few more moments, and then she pushed the covers off of her and sat up. Looking out the window, she realized that it was probably very early in the morning. The sky had that purplish cast that signaled the approaching dawn. She hesitated, wondering whether she should wait until it was a little later, but she realized that if she waited, either Scott or Murdoch would probably be in with Johnny. This was going to be hard enough without having an audience. She stood up and pulled on a robe over her nightclothes, then silently left the room.

Johnny’s door was partially ajar, and she pushed it open wider, then stepped inside. Johnny was lying on his back, and his steady, even breathing reassured her that he really was on his way to recovery. She approached his bed, unwilling to disturb his slumber, and sat down quietly in the chair next to the bed. She watched him for several minutes, then a glance out the window reminded her it would be light soon, and her chance to talk to him privately would be gone.

She reached over and took hold of his hand. Immediately, his eyes came open and locked onto hers.

Molly swallowed hard and squeezed his hand tighter. “I’m sorry, Johnny.”

Johnny didn’t respond, but continued to study her, and she tried once more.

“I didn’t mean for you to get hurt, and I know how stupid I was. I should have listened to you.”

“Yeah, you should have,” Johnny said tiredly. He shook his head slowly. “Do you realize how close we came to losing Jimmy because of your stupidity?”

Molly nodded. “I know,” she whispered. “I’ve done nothing but think about it since it happened. That, and how close I came to losing you.”

Johnny snorted softly. “Guess I disappointed you, didn’t I?”

“NO!” She looked at him in shock. “How can you say such a thing?”

“Easy. From the time you arrived you’ve made it clear just how much you hated me. If I was gone, things would be a lot better for you. You could still live here, you could raise Jimmy any way you wanted to, you’d have my money, and you wouldn’t have to worry about bein’ civil to me.”

Molly looked at him incredulously. “You think I did it on purpose just to get you hurt?”

Johnny looked at her, then sighed. “No. You wouldn’t have taken the chance of hurtin’ Jimmy.”

Her voice rose. “But you think I could do it otherwise?” She stared at his silent form for a moment, then dropped her head. “That’s really what you think, isn’t it?”

Johnny nodded. “You haven’t exactly kept your feelings a secret.”

“And you think I’m capable of murder!”

Johnny remained silent for several moments, then shook his head. “No, but you haven’t exactly given me any reason to think you’d be upset if I was dead.’

“I know I haven’t, and I’m sorry.” She looked into his eyes once more. “Johnny, please give me another chance. I was wrong, and I know it.” She bit her bottom lip nervously. “When I thought I’d lost you, I realized just how stupid I had been.” Her voice softened and she looked out the window. “I realized that I…I loved you.” She tensed, waiting for his reply, but when it didn’t come, she cautiously looked at him.

Johnny’s eyes were closed and he was shaking his head. “You hated me so much you almost got Jimmy killed just to prove a point, and now you’re telling me you love me?” He looked at her incredulously. “I don’t think you know WHAT you want.”

“Yes, I do!” she said stubbornly. “I want to be your wife!’

“You already are,” he said flatly.

“No, I’m not. Not really.”

Johnny shrugged.

“Johnny, I made a mistake. A big one and I’m willing to admit it. Can’t you forgive me enough to give me another chance?”

“You think it’s that easy? Unlike you, I can’t just turn my feelings off and on, and I’m tired of bein’ used for target practice just because you’re upset. ”

“You hate me.”

Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know HOW I feel about you right now, and to tell you the truth, I’m too tired to try to figure it out.” He closed his eyes wearily. “Just leave me alone, ok?”

Tears welled up in Molly’s eyes and she quickly turned and left the room. She had the feeling that she would be paying for her stupidity for a long, long time.

Chapter Fifty Nine

Johnny stared out the window, trying not to think of anything. He was tired and confused, and he just wanted to forget about everything for a while. He could hear the lowing of the distant cattle and the occasional shouts of the men as they finished breaking the horses. Horses he should be breaking. He hated leaving the chore to the other men, but at least he had gentled the most promising ones already. The horses that were left would be sold at auction, but he still didn’t like having the Lancer name on anything he hadn’t checked out first. He was trying to build a reputation, and a few bad horses could quickly ruin it.

What he needed was someone to take his place when he could no longer do it. Jimmy. A small smile played over his lips as he realized the boy was as enamored of horses as he himself had been as child. Jimmy would be great, even if it would be a little while before he could do any breaking. The smile grew wider. Although if Jimmy really took after him, not that long.

Johnny sighed deeply as his thoughts turned toward Molly. He was more determined than ever to make sure he kept his son, although he wasn’t as sure about trying to convince Molly to stay here. Maybe Murdoch had been right after all. Maybe he shouldn’t have brought her here. He could have just tried to get custody of the boy through legal means, although he was sure that wouldn’t have worked. No judge would take a boy away from his mother, not unless she was totally unfit. And unfit or not, no judge in his right mind would award custody to Johnny Madrid, and he was sure that if it came to a fight, that small little fact about his past would be brought up.

He closed his eyes as his mind treacherously replayed the instant when he saw his son in the corral. He had never been so frightened in his life. It made the time he had been in front of a firing squad seem like a pleasant holiday, and for the first time he realized what Murdoch must have felt all those years ago, when he had lost both of his sons.

He shook his head slightly. Well, he wasn’t going to lose Jimmy. He didn’t care what he had to do, or what he had to put up with, Jimmy was going to stay at Lancer. As for Molly… he just wasn’t sure what to think about her any more. Like he had told her, he was tired of never knowing where he stood with her. He had done his best to win her over again, but for some reason, it seemed as if everything had conspired against them from the beginning. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. He felt a small pang when he admitted that to himself; there had been a time when he at least thought he had loved her, and he knew she had loved him. He wished he could get those feelings back, but so far at least, they had been elusive. He figured it would be much safer if he admitted that to himself and kept her at arm’s length. It would be a hell of a lot easier, too. He wouldn’t have to spend the rest of his life treading on eggshells, wondering just what would upset her next. If she didn’t like it, she could leave. Without Jimmy, of course. With that resolved, he opened his eyes once more. That’s what he should have done in the first place, but for some reason his decision didn’t make him feel any better. In fact, it made him feel sad, as if he had lost something he’d never really had.

“How are you feeling?” Scott stood in the open doorway, and Johnny turned and smiled at his brother.

“Ok.”

“You looked like you were worried about something.”

Johnny shrugged. “Just hoping the boys were doin’ a good job on those horses.”

Scott grinned. “I should have known. Don’t worry, they’re doing a good job, Jelly’s seeing to that. He’s been chewing their tails the whole time.”

Johnny grinned. “Then I know everything’s ok. No one in their right mind would want Jelly mad at them.” His smile faded and he looked out the window once more. “What about those theft charges? I don’t suppose you were able to clear me.”

The frustration in Scott’s voice was evident. “No, we haven’t. Val thought we’d almost tricked Father Duncan into saying that he he’d seen you steal it once more, but when the priest realized you couldn’t have been in town, he backed down and changed his story.”

Johnny nodded. “Smart man. But that tells me it’s almost certainly him.”

“I don’t think there’s any doubt. The problem is proving it.”

“And if we don’t, I’m gonna go to jail.”

Scott shook his head. “No. He has to prove you did it, and he can’t do that.”

Johnny snorted. “He said he SAW me take it. You don’t think a judge is going to believe a priest over a gunfighter?”

“He won’t believe a priest over a respectable RANCHER, which is what you are,” Scott insisted.

“I haven’t been for very long. Not long enough if it comes down to a trial. You know that.”

Scott ran his hand through his hair. “We’ll think of something. Murdoch and I have no intention of letting you go to prison.”

“Maybe we could sic Jelly on the judge,” Johnny smirked.

“Believe me, if I thought it would work, we would.”

“Well, if you come up with a better plan, let me know.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll be the first to know.” Scott stared at his brother. “Have you spoken to Molly yet?”

Johnny’s eyes closed. “Yeah.”

Scott hesitated. “Johnny, she really is sorry about what happened.”

“I know.”

“She says she loves you.”

“That’s what she says. At least for now.”

Scott sighed. “Are you going to give her another chance?”

“I don’t know, Scott. I just don’t know. I don’t know if it’s worth all the aggravation just to get shot down again.”

“Wouldn’t it be worth it to be married to a woman you love, and who loves you?”

Johnny remained quiet for some time, then finally answered. “There was a time I never thought I’d have anybody, and now I have a family. I have you and Murdoch and Teresa, and I have Jimmy. That’s more than I thought I’d ever have, and maybe I’d better not get greedy. Maybe I’d better just be thankful for what I have.”

Chapter Sixty

Johnny looked back down at the column of numbers and frowned. He hated bookwork, but everyone was conspiring to keep him indoors and this was about the only thing he could do to be useful. Of course, he could always go help Maria in the kitchen, but he didn’t want to wind up hurt all over again. Maria was a bear when it came to any of the men messing around in her kitchen, and Johnny learned a long time ago not to ever get on the wrong side of the cook.

With a sigh, he began adding the numbers once more, but before he had completed the column his mind began to wander. He still didn’t know what to do about Molly. She had made several attempts to talk to him, but he had brushed her off. He really wasn’t trying to be rude; he just didn’t know what to say, because he hadn’t figured out how he really felt about her. He had thought about it a lot while he had been bedridden, but he was no closer to an answer. He knew that she seemed sincere in wanting to start over, but for him it wasn’t that simple.

It was hard for him to trust, and even harder to let himself care about anyone. Since he had come to Lancer, he had learned to open up more, but it still wasn’t easy for him. He had given it his best shot with Molly, but things hadn’t worked out the way he had hoped. Now she wanted to try again, but Johnny just didn’t know if he wanted to try anymore.

While he had been stuck in bed, he had tried to sort out his feeling about her, but hadn’t been very successful. When he thought about the girl he had known so long ago, he still felt a pull at his heart, but Johnny wasn’t sure that girl even existed anymore. Except for a few brief glimpses, she had all but disappeared, leaving a cynical, confused woman in her place. A woman Johnny wasn’t sure he wanted to get close to. There had been times, though, when she had let that façade slip a little, and Johnny had once more glimpsed the girl he had fallen for so long ago. At those times, he had been hopeful that it really would work.

Unfortunately, those times had been few and far between, and if it wasn’t for Jimmy, he would have asked her to leave a long time ago. But that was the problem. Jimmy was his son, and he knew what it was like growing up with only one parent. No matter what, he wouldn’t let his son grow up without his mother, and he sure as hell wasn’t about to let him grow up without his father.

With a soft curse, he began adding the numbers once more, but had only gotten half way through when he saw a rider approaching. His eyes narrowed until he could make out the rider, and he felt his gut tighten. Val was a friend, and he normally would welcome a visit from him. He had the feeling that this time it wasn’t his friend that was calling, but the sheriff, and in his experience, a visit from the sheriff was never good. Johnny watched as Murdoch and Scott came out of the barn as Val dismounted, and he could tell from their faces that his instincts had been right. As the three men approached the house, Johnny quietly shut the book and walked over to the liquor cabinet. He figured he was going to need a drink.

The door slammed open, and Val walked in, followed by Murdoch and Scott. Johnny glanced at the three of them, then turned back to the bottle of whisky. After taking a closer look at them, he was sure he’d need that drink. He placed the bottle back down, but before he could lift his glass, Val stepped over and picked it up, draining it in one long swallow. Johnny’s eyebrows went up.

“That bad?” he asked flippantly.

Val carefully set the glass back down, studiously avoiding Johnny’s eyes. After wiping his mouth on his sleeve, Val shrugged.

“That damn Father Duncan has officially pressed charges against you. The circuit judge should be here in a few days.”

Johnny studied the glasses on the shelf, not wanting to look at his family right then.

“What do you think my chances are of getting off?” he asked quietly.

Val looked uncomfortably at Murdoch, who took a step forward. “I’ll send a wire to our lawyer immediately.”

Johnny nodded. “You still didn’t answer my question. What do you think my chances are?” When no one answered for a moment, Johnny dropped his head. “How long do you think I’ll get?”

“Johnny! Don’t talk like that. This isn’t over, not by a long shot!” Murdoch bellowed.

Johnny shrugged. “We have to face facts, and the fact is, a Catholic priest is gonna testify he saw me taking the money, and I don’t have an alibi. Hell, I’D believe him! The judge isn’t gonna have any trouble at all.” He looked at Val. “Are you gonna arrest me?”

The sheriff looked at him and shrugged. “I don’t know how I can arrest you when you’re not here.”

A small smile appeared on Johnny’s lips. “Thanks, Val.”

Val nodded uneasily. “I’m gonna have to come back in a few days, when the judge gets into town. Maybe you won’t be here then, either,” he said meaningfully.

Johnny’s head shot up and he stared at the sheriff for a long moment before letting his gaze slide toward Murdoch and then Scott, who were looking at him uncertainly.

“NO! I ain’t gonna run!”

“Johnny,” Murdoch said gently.

“NO!” Johnny shook his head emphatically. “If I run, I’ll never be able to come back here. I’ll lose everything!”

“And if you go to prison, there’s a good chance you’ll never get out,” Scott said quietly.

Johnny stared at his brother, knowing the fear that was making his family even suggest such a thing. “I’ll take that chance,’ he said softly. “If I run, I’ll be dead anyway. Besides, I ain’t gonna let Jimmy grow up with an outlaw for a father.”

Murdoch put a hand on Johnny’s arm. “We had to ask, you know that, don’t you, son?”

Johnny dropped his eyes and nodded. “Yeah, I know. But I ain’t gonna run because of somethin’ I didn’t do.”

Chapter Sixty One

Molly tossed and turned all night, then finally gave up and dressed before sitting on the chair and looking out at the peaceful scene below. The ranch was just starting to come alive as the sun peeked over the nearby hills. The cattle in the nearby pens started lowing, and the horses added their demands for food as the wranglers started their chores. The clanking of buckets and the muffled shouts of the men announced the start of a new day.

Molly watched as the men gathered around Cipriano to get their assignments, then left in small groups to their appointed chores. All was peaceful on the surface, but underlying it all was a current of unease. The sheriff’s last trip out to the ranch wasn’t exactly a secret, and the whole ranch seemed to be waiting for the ax to fall. Molly wasn’t sure if the men were worried about Johnny or just worried about the boss’ explosion if his son was sent to prison.

With a sigh, she stood up and headed for the door. She had hoped Johnny would talk to her by now, but he had studiously avoided her since he had been up and about. Sam still hadn’t cleared him for work yet, but Johnny spent most of the day outside, supervising the breaking of the horses. He’d come in just in time for supper, then head upstairs. If she didn’t hurry, another day would be over, and she still wouldn’t have talked to him.

Molly slipped out of her room and hurried to Johnny’s closed door. She knocked softly, then swung the door open.

Molly hesitated outside the church, a small seed of doubt reappearing in her mind before she was able to banish it. She wiped her sweaty palms on her skirt, then resolutely pushed the door open and entered the cool sanctuary. She gazed up at the crucifix above the alter and crossed herself before walking over to the opposite door, leading to the rectory. She hesitated once again, then took a deep breath and knocked.

Several moments later, Father Duncan swung the door open and gazed down at the girl.

“Yes?”

Molly licked her lips nervously. “I need to talk to you,” she said hesitantly.

The priest’s eyes narrowed. “About what?”

Molly swallowed hard. “You were right, and I wanted to apologize to you.”

“Apologize?”

Molly nodded. “Yes, for the things I said the other day at Lancer. I’m sorry for doubting you. I know it’s no excuse, but I was confused. I’m sorry. I know now that you were right about Johnny.”

The priest nodded slowly. “I’m gad you finally realized that.”

“I did. I just…I just didn’t want to believe the worst.” Tears started to form in her eyes. “He’s the father of my child. I didn’t want to admit what he really was, even to myself.”

“That’s understandable, my child. But you and your son will be much better off without him.”

Molly licked her lips again. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. If he’s convicted of stealing that money, he’ll be sent away for a long time, won’t he?”

The priest nodded. “Yes, he will.” His face darkened. “The problem is, that miserable father of his is bound and determined to get him off, and I’m afraid he just might succeed.”

Molly looked puzzled. “I thought you saw him take the money.”

Father Duncan shook his head in frustration. “It doesn’t matter. It was him all right, but I’m afraid it will still be his word against mine, and with his father’s influence, it might not be enough.”

“What if someone else testified,” Molly said hesitantly.

The priest stared at her uncertainly. “No one else was around when the money was taken.”

Molly shifted uncomfortably. “No, but I saw something.”

Father Duncan stared at her for several seconds before speaking. “What did you see?” he asked softly.

The priest watched her carefully as she looked around uncomfortably. “I saw…”

“Yes?”

“I saw Johnny counting some money,” she blurted.

The priest relaxed slightly. “My dear, I’m afraid that wouldn’t be very helpful. After all, Lancer isn’t exactly poor, and he could always say it was his.”

Molly bit her lip. “But it wasn’t. I could tell by the way he acted. He tried to hide it when I walked in, and he told me not to tell Murdoch or anyone else about it.”

The priest sighed heavily. “I’m afraid that still wouldn’t be proof. It looks like he’ll get away with it after all, unless of course, you could testify that he actually TOLD you it was the money from the church,” he said innocently.

Molly looked at him uncertainly. “No…no, he didn’t.”

“Are you sure?” he pressed. “It could mean the difference of him getting off or going to prison.” He shook his head. “Do you really want your son to grow up with that gunfighter’s influence? I’m sure that if Madrid went to prison where he belongs, the Lancers would still take care of you and your son. Wouldn’t it be better if he was gone?”

Molly whirled around and stared out the small window for a long while. “Maybe,” she admitted. “I guess he might have told me the money was from the church,” she said softly.

The priest smiled. “I had the feeling you’d remember.” He peered down at her as he rubbed his hands together. “Will you be willing to testify to that in court?”

Molly hesitated. “I want to be absolutely sure of his guilt before I make that decision,” she said cautiously.

The priest frowned. “I don’t know how that can be proven more than it has been. You certainly aren’t going to take his word over a priest’s, are you?”

“No,” she said quietly. “But there must be some way.” She shook her head and then her eyes opened. “I know! Just how much did he take? If the amount of money I saw him counting is the same, I’ll KNOW he’s guilty!”

The priest stared at her for several moments as he contemplated her words. “How much did you see him counting?” he asked cautiously.

Molly shrugged. “Fifty dollars.”

A wide smiled erupted on the priest’s face. “That’s EXACTLY how much Murdoch Lancer put in the poor box!” He snorted derisively. “And he told Reverend Jacobs he had given us a ‘substantial donation’. The man is a liar as well as a selfish boor.”

Molly stared at him for several seconds. “Are you SURE that’s how much Mr. Lancer put in the box?”

The priest nodded triumphantly. “Most definitely! I’m absolutely sure! Now we’ll make sure the guilty party will pay!”

Chapter Sixty Two

“Don’t worry Padre, the guilty man most definitely will pay!” Val drawled as he stepped out from a small room next to the alter.

Father Duncan looked at the sheriff indignantly. “What are you doing here, skulking around this church?”

Val shrugged. “Just makin’ sure justice is done.”

Father Duncan watched in confusion as Reverend Jacobs, Murdoch, and Johnny also stepped out from the small room. He stared at Johnny for several seconds, and then pointed at the gunfighter.

“Well, do your job, sheriff! Arrest him!”

“You just don’t get it, do you Padre?” Val smirked. “The only one I’m arrestin’ is you!”

Father Duncan looked at the sheriff in shock. “On what charges?”

“On the same charges you brought against Johnny!” Murdoch snarled.

The priest’s eyes widened. “How DARE YOU imply that I’m guilty! I’m a man of GOD!”

“Not even close, padre,” Val shot.

Reverend Jacobs stepped forward and he stared at the priest several seconds before slowly shaking his head. “How did you know how much Murdoch put in the poor box?” he asked quietly.

The priest looked at the Reverend in confusion. “What do you mean?”

Johnny smiled softly. “It MEANS Father, that the only way you coulda known how much money my father put in the donation box is if you had opened it. And since the only person that opened it was the person that stole it…”

The priest’s mouth dropped open and he whirled toward Molly. “SHE’S the one who knew how much was in the box! She told me! She said she saw Madrid counting it!”

Val shook his head. “The only reason she knew was because Murdoch told her, and you agreed that was how much was in there. You were REAL sure of the amount.” He smiled at the priest. “So how did you know if you didn’t take the money?”

The priest shook his head in confusion. “I…I opened the box and looked before it was stolen!” he said triumphantly. “I wanted to see how much MISTER Lancer had donated to the poor.” He looked at Murdoch and sniffed. “And it wasn’t much, I’ll tell you.”

“You counted it, then put it back?” Johnny asked skeptically.

“YES!”

“How did you open the box?” the Reverend asked quietly.

“What?” Father Duncan asked in confusion.

“How did you open the box?” the Reverend repeated. “I have the key, and I’m SURE you wouldn’t have broken the lock and left all of that money unprotected.”

The color drained from the priest’s face as he looked around at the accusing faces, and he finally focused on Molly. “You LIED to me! You set me up! You set me up for that…that…half breed gunfighter!”

Molly glared back as she stepped up next to Johnny. “My husband is a RANCHER, and unlike YOU, he’s NOT a THIEF but an honest, decent man!”

“You heard the lady,” Val smiled as he grabbed the priest by the arm. “Let’s go.”

The priest pulled away from the sheriff and took a step toward Reverend Jacobs. “You’re not going to let them lock me up, are you?” he asked in a panicked voice.

The Reverend stared at the man for a moment, and then shook his head. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re worse than a common criminal. People trusted you and expected you to be honest, and you’ve betrayed that trust in the worst possible way. You’ve betrayed them not only by your actions, but by your closed minded, self righteous, and bigoted views. You have no right to wear those robes or call yourself a man of God. I’m not only going to press charges, but I’m going to contact the chancellery office and do my best to make sure you are defrocked.”

Val escorted the protesting priest out of the church. “Come on, PADRE, you’re gonna be my guest ‘til the judge comes.”

“You let Madrid out on bail!” the priest protested.

Val shrugged. “Yeah, but I trust him.”

Johnny watched as the sheriff disappeared with the priest, then turned toward Molly and studied her quietly. “Thanks.”

She nodded. “I knew something was bothering me about what he had said. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it, until I saw you counting that money you’d received from the horses you’d broken,” Molly explained.

Johnny smiled. “I really thought you’d think I was guilty when you saw that money.”

Molly shook her head. “No, I was confused for a while, but deep down, I always knew you weren’t a thief. It just took a while for me to remember what the Priest said.”

“Well, I’m glad you finally figured it out,” Murdoch broke in. “And we’re grateful for the help. Without it, Johnny probably would have been sent to prison.”

Johnny looked at her curiously. “Why did you help me? The Father was right; Murdoch and Scott would have made sure you and Jimmy would have been just fine if I had been sent to prison.”

Molly dropped her head. “No, we wouldn’t have been fine,” she said softly. “You were right that day. I didn’t know what I wanted; at least until I almost lost it…until I almost lost you. Please, Johnny, give me another chance. I think I’ve finally grown up.” She brought her eyes up and stared at her husband.

Johnny stared back, then after several moments, he took a deep breath. “We’ll try, ok? That’s all we can do.” He shook his head slightly as he glanced quickly at his father, then back at Molly. “No marriage is ever easy, and I figure we’ve got more against us than most, but if you’re willing, we’ll give it another chance. I figure we owe Jimmy that much.” He dropped his head for a moment before bring back up and looking into her eyes. “And if it doesn’t work out between us, together we’ll figure out some way to keep both of us in Jimmy’s life, ok?”

Molly nodded and smiled tremulously. “Ok. He needs his mother AND his father. I know that now. But it WILL work, Johnny, I promise.”

Johnny smiled slowly, the reached over and kissed the top of her head. “Let’s go home.”

~ end ~

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