Word Count 7,925
First in the Blame series. Followed by The Point of No Return
Murdoch Lancer rode through the gates of his home. He had never been so glad to see a building in his life. Three weeks away was more than enough and he looked forward to sleeping in his own bed. He was pleased to see the place was still standing. His sons had managed to not burn it to the ground. He chuckled at the thought. They had both done a lot of growing up in the past year and a half since they’d come home and he had done some growing himself, he supposed. He certainly was more relaxed around them.
Still, his youngest was always a handful and he wondered if that would ever change. Part of him hoped not. Johnny was a man of principle, even if their principles clashed at times. He was proud of his boys, they were strong, brave and solid and they both believed in fighting for what was theirs. He certainly didn’t know what to think of either of them when they walked in the living room that first day.
He had made mistakes then and many more since, but they stuck with him for some reason. Anyway, all was well at the moment and that was all he could hope for and he was grateful. Of course, he hadn’t gotten in the door yet. He chuckled to himself again. He walked in the front door and relaxed his shoulders and back for the first time in three weeks. He hated being away from home, even though it was a necessary part of being a business man.
“Hey, Murdoch! Welcome home,” Johnny called.
“Welcome home, Sir. I see you made it back in one piece,” Scott added.
“Of course I did. I’m not a greenhorn, Scott. I think I can manage to make it to Sacramento and back without finding trouble. That would the department of the two of you,” he said with a grin.
“The two of us? I think you are mistaken, Sir. I never get into trouble,” Scott grinned back.
“Oh, that’s nice. Would you like to just talk about all the trouble you haven’t gotten into, brother?” Johnny shot at him with a smile.
‘Oh it is so good to be home!’ Murdoch thought. “Alright, you two. I didn’t travel all this way to hear arguing. Where’s Teresa?”
“She’s spending a couple of days with Millicent Pierce. She had her baby and Teresa’s helping out,” Scott reported.
“Oh? How have you two managed?”
“Well, it’s been pretty rough, Murdoch. Scott tried cooking, but, whew…it took a while to get all that smoke out of the kitchen. Maria bout had a fit when she got back from her sister’s house.” Johnny tried a pout designed to bring sympathy for his plight.
“Uh huh, well I don’t see any skeletons running around here so I guess you managed to find something to eat,” Murdoch said, not buying any of it. “I don’t suppose there’s anything to eat now, is there? I was looking forward to a home cooked meal.”
“Sure, I’ll fix ya somethin ,” Johnny said and headed for the kitchen. He was gone before Murdoch could object.
“Well, I hope your stomach can take it. That’s all I have to say,” Scott said with a smirk.
“Why, what did he do?”
“Nothing, he just cooked.”
Murdoch groaned audibly and Scott about lost it as Johnny hurried out to the table with supper. “Here ya go. You won’t find anything this good on the trail,” he announced proudly.
‘I’m not so sure,’ Murdoch thought but he smiled and thanked his son instead. “Uh, I thought you said Maria was back.”
“She is but she was so tired from her trip I sent her to bed,” Johnny said with a smile.
Murdoch spent the rest of the night fighting his indigestion and promising himself he wouldn’t spare Johnny’s feelings next time. He didn’t get much sleep and he was pretty grumpy the next morning as he pulled himself out of bed and began the day. He went down to the kitchen and smiled with relief when he saw Maria busy at the stove. Johnny and Scott were already halfway through their breakfast.
“I thought you’d sleep in this morning,” Johnny said between flapjacks.
“I tried,” Murdoch grumbled.
The brothers exchanged woeful glances but Johnny was not put off.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Can we get you anything?” Scott asked, concerned now.
“I’ll be fine. Tell me what’s been happening while I was gone,” he grumped.
Scott filled him in on the ranch business and he was satisfied they hadn’t bankrupted him so he felt a little better anyway.
“Well, I’ll get to work on those receipts today,” he said.
” Mornin . Hey, welcome back, Boss!” Jelly exclaimed as he came into the kitchen.
“Jelly,” Murdoch acknowledged a bit curtly.
Jelly looked at Johnny who just shrugged then he looked at Scott who did the same. Jelly rolled his eyes at the both of them.
“How was yer trip?”
“Successful,” Murdoch clipped.
“Uh huh, well that’s good…ain’t it?” Jelly asked hesitantly.
“Murdoch’s not feeling too chipper this morning, Jelly,” Scott warned.
“No kiddin !”
“Johnny, did you get that stream cleared out?” Murdoch asked, changing the subject.
“What?” Murdoch eyed him not liking the quick answer.
” Nothin , it’s done,” Johnny said, shooting his brother a look that said â€˜keep quietâ€™.
It didn’t do him any good though. Scott grinned and turned his attention to his father and Johnny sat back in his chair and waited to kill his brother.
“There was just a minor problem. Johnny seemed to have forgotten a tiny little tree stump and, well it rained pretty hard and … it wasn’t bad, just a little flooding, it dried right up,” Scott snitched.
“Damage?” Murdoch clipped.
“No, not much,” Scott said.
“Like the rat said, it was nothin . I got it cleaned up. It didn’t take long.” Johnny mimicked his father’s grumpiness now.
“How could you forget a tree stump?”
Johnny sighed and looked down. “I got distracted,” he mumbled.
“There was this little stray dog and he was filthy and hungry. Well, I couldn’t just ignore him! I brought him home and took care of him. By that time it was dark and I thought I’d finish the next morning, but…”
“But it rained that night,” Murdoch finished. His voice was full of disbelief. “Why do you feel the need to take in every stray you find?”
“Somebody had to,” Johnny said softly.
“He would have died out there, Murdoch. He didn’t ask to be a stray. Somebody probably abandoned him. He couldn’t help it, he needed me,” Johnny defended himself. “Anyway, it turned out alright.”
“This time. Do me a favor, next time you find a stray, finish your work before you bring it home. At least that way you won’t have a mess to clean up,” Murdoch chastised.
“Ya know , there are more important things in life than work!” Johnny yelled and stormed outside.
Murdoch sighed and shook his head. Why did it always have to be a contest between them? He finished his coffee and begged off the offer for breakfast.
Scott decided he would steer clear of his brother for awhile and he followed Murdoch into the living room.
“I’ll never understand that boy,” Murdoch said, still grouchy.
“You know how he is about animals and underdogs.”
“I know, I just don’t know why,” Murdoch said abruptly.
“What do you mean?”
“Murdoch, he sees himself in them. He can’t stand to see anything hurt. You heard him talking about that dog. I wish I had kept my mouth shut,” Scott said regretfully.
“He’ll get over it.”
‘One of these days he won’t’, Scott thought but he let it lie and went to work. He walked out to the barn and found Johnny saddling Barranca.
“I’m sorry, Johnny. I didn’t think it would turn into an argument.”
” It’s okay, Boston . I shouldn’t have got so mad. I know he doesn’t feel good.”
“Why don’t you go talk to him?”
“Why? You like seeing us fight? Think I’ll just leave it be , brother,” Johnny said with a small smile.
Scott sighed and let it go again.
No more was said about the clash that morning, naturally. Murdoch’s stomach had settled and he was in a better frame of mind but he didn’t want to get another fight started so he said nothing.
Johnny came home later than usual and went to his room to clean up without saying a word. Scott watched this and sighed silently. Supper was a quiet affair as well until Murdoch couldn’t stand it any longer. They had come too far to let a stupid argument eat at the both of them.
“Johnny, I’m sorry I was so rough on you this morning. I didn’t feel well and I took it out on you,” he said out of the blue.
Johnny looked at his father with surprise written all over his face. “It’s okay,” was all he could think of to say.
“No, no, it isn’t okay. It wasn’t a big deal and I made it one.”
“You sure you feel alright, Murdoch? You got a fever or somethin ?” Johnny reached out to feel his father’s forehead.
Murdoch swatted his hand away. “I’m fine. Can’t I apologize?”
“I don’t know, I never heard ya do it before,” Johnny said and a smile spread across his face.
“Smart aleck,” Murdoch said and smiled back.
All was well again and they started having a civil conversation. Still, neither of the boys could ever remember their father actually apologize for anything and they were quite stunned.
The next morning, Johnny stood in the yard and watched the dark clouds that hung over the mountains in the distance. Murdoch walked out and followed his son’s eyes to the thunderhead.
“Looks like we might get a pretty bad storm before the day’s over.”
“Yeah, I was just thinkin that,” Johnny replied.
“Try not to find any more stray dogs today,” Murdoch said and grinned broadly.
“I’ll try, but I can’t promise ya nothin , ” Johnny said with a laugh.
Murdoch wrapped his arm around his son’s shoulders and Johnny reciprocated as they started toward the barn. Scott was leading his horse out and smiled at the scene.
Johnny suddenly felt his arm being pulled back violently and he lost his hold on his father. He heard the gunshot and drew his pistol, scanning the area. Scott reacted as well as he drew and turned to where the sound had come from. Johnny suddenly realized his father was no longer beside him and he looked to his side. Murdoch was on the ground, unconscious.
“Scott!” he shouted to alert his brother.
Scott came running as some of the hands reacted to the commotion. He knew they were being covered as Johnny did and they focused their attention on the man on the ground. Johnny was kneeling beside him as Scott arrived. He had his hand pressed against Murdoch’s chest and Scott saw the blood seeping through his fingers.
“Let’s get him inside,” Johnny said breathlessly.
With the help of three ranch hands they got the big man to his room and into bed. Jelly sent for the doctor and they undressed him. Johnny stared at the wound to his father’s chest and closed his eyes briefly, saying a silent prayer.
Scott didn’t see his reaction but his own was not much different. “Dear God.”
“I know,” Johnny said just as softly. “Come on, let’s get him taken care of.”
He had seen many gunshot wounds in his young life and there was only one worse than this. He couldn’t tell how deep the bullet went but Murdoch didn’t seem to be struggling for breath. He was relieved, at least maybe it hadn’t hit his lung, but it was close enough to his heart … he shuddered at the thought. Scott put a hand on his shoulder.
Together, they cleaned and bandaged the wound and made sure he at least looked comfortable as they waited for the doctor.
“Should I send for Teresa?” Jelly asked from the foot of the bed.
“No!” came the unified answer. The boys looked at each other and exchanged a small smile. Sitting on either side of their father, they watched him closely, waiting what seemed an eternity until Sam Jenkins arrived.
“Good Lord!” he exclaimed as he saw who his patient was. “They only said someone was shot,” he explained his outcry.
“Guess you expected to be seeing me, huh, Doc?” Johnny said, wishing it was him lying there.
“Alright, let me get a look. I need hot water and towels, bandages and more light.”
Jelly set off to retrieve the items and returned within minutes with the supplies.
“Jelly, I’ll need your help. I take it Teresa is still with Mrs. Pierce. You two, out,” he ordered.
“No way, Doc,” Johnny said.
“I need to take care of him, Johnny. You’re in my way,” Sam said firmly.
Scott took his brother by the arm and practically dragged him out of the room. “He’s right, Johnny. Don’t take time away from helping Murdoch by arguing the point.”
Johnny relented and went downstairs with his brother, feeling as useless as a one-legged dog.
“Did you see anybody?” Johnny asked after a period of silence.
“No. I didn’t see anything.”
“Had to be a rifle, too far away,” Johnny said absently.
“Did Murdoch say anything about someone gunning for him?”
“Scott, I would have told you if he had, besides … who said it was Murdoch they were aiming at?” Johnny voiced the concern his brother had felt almost from the moment it had happened.
Two hours passed and Sam still had not come out. Johnny paced the floor the entire time. Scott watched him, trying hard not to yell at him to stop.
“I can’t stand this. I’m goin to see if I can find anything outside,” Johnny finally said.
“No, Johnny. Wait for Sam.”
“I can’t just sit here and do nothin !”
“Johnny, please I … I need you to be here, in case …” Scott couldn’t finish the thought, didn’t even want to consider it.
Johnny looked at him, understanding dawning and sat next to his brother on the couch.
“He’s a tough old bird, Boston .”
He didn’t feel his own reassurance but he tried to make his brother feel better. What if Murdoch did die? What would he do? He couldn’t imagine Lancer without his father. He tried to push the thoughts away. Thoughts he knew his brother was thinking as well.
Sam finally came downstairs and they both jumped up, holding their breath.
“Well?” Scott asked.
“Well, I got the bullet out. There was a small tear in the wall of his heart and I repaired it. There was blood loss but not life threatening. He needs to stay very still and quiet. He shouldn’t be upset or worry about anything. It’s going to take some time for him to heal. If he moves around, the sutures I put inside could tear and that can’t happen.”
“How long?” Johnny asked.
“Two weeks at least.”
“You want Murdoch to stay in bed and quiet for two weeks? Murdoch Lancer?” Scott asked incredulously.
“Scott, it’s not a joke. I meant what I said. It is imperative he stay quiet and still,” Sam said a bit harshly.
“I wasn’t joking, Doc.”
They slipped in the room quietly as Jelly was finishing cleaning up the mess. They each took a side of the bed and pulled up chairs.
“Forgot to ask when he’d wake up,” Johnny said.
“Doc said he’d probably sleep through the night,” Jelly offered. “You sure ya don’t want me to send for Teresa. She’s gonna be mighty upset if ya don’t.”
“He’s right. She’ll kill us,” Scott said.
“Yeah. Okay, Jelly, send for her,” Johnny said. “She’s probably the only one that can keep him down anyway.”
Jelly left to carry out his mission deciding he’d go get her himself. He didn’t want her to hear it from one of the hands.
“I’ll be back, Scott. Stay with him.”
“Johnny, don’t. We sent for Val, let him take care of this.”
“I can’t, Scott. I have to know who did this and … who they were gunning for,” he said, hanging his head in shame.
Scott said no more, he wanted to know who did this as well.
Johnny rode out of Lancer heading in the direction he knew the shot came from. He felt like his heart had stopped beating and he was moving on instinct alone. He didn’t know what he hoped to find; someone gunning his father for some past problem or his own past. He couldn’t stand the thought of it being his fault; that he was the target and they had simply missed. That his father might die because of him. He pushed these thoughts away and concentrated on scouring the landscape.
The sun was high in the sky by now and the storm clouds they had been watching were still over the mountains. He rode out as far as he figured was in range of a rifle and dismounted. It didn’t take him long to find the spent shell and footprints. He found horse prints as well and one of the shoes was cracked, leaving a distinguishable mark. It was the right back hoof and he memorized the imprint. The shell was ordinary, from a Winchester which were a dime a dozen in the area. He heard a horse and stood up to see Val riding toward him.
“How is he?”
“He’s alive, Val. Doc said it was close. He’s gonna have to stay down for a couple of weeks.”
“I’m sorry, Johnny. Did you find anything?”
“Yeah, a shell. It’s a Winchester . But this is something. See this hoof print? The shoe’s cracked,” he said, pointing out his discovery to the sheriff.
“Well, that’s a good clue. I’ll ride back to town and check with the blacksmith.”
“I’ll ride to Spanish Wells and check. I’ll meet you back at your office.”
They parted ways and Johnny set off for Spanish Wells, thinking he’d stop in Morro Coyo as well. He checked both towns with no luck at the blacksmith or the saloons. No one had noticed any strangers in town lately either. He headed for Green River hoping Val had had better luck.
He dismounted in front of Val’s office and heard something whistle by his head as a bullet exploded into the wooden wall in front of him. Johnny hit the dirt and scrambled behind a water trough, but he saw no one. He was directly across from the general store, which was a two story building so he figured they must have been either on the second floor or the roof.
Val came out the door low and ran over next to him. “You alright?”
“Yeah, can’t see anybody. Had to come from over there though,” Johnny answered, pointing toward the store.
They set off at opposite angles to the store and made their way around the side and up the outside stairs. Johnny went to the roof, but it was empty. Val went inside which was empty as well. They went back to the sheriff’s office and Johnny threw his hat against the wall.
“Take it easy, Johnny.”
“You take it easy, Val! You didn’t almost get your father killed today!” Johnny shouted.
“You don’t know what was happening out there. For all you know it could be someone after the lot of ya. It don’t have to be about Johnny Madrid!” Val shouted back.
“Why not? It always has been! Dammit !”
“Poor baby,” Val sneered.
“Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talkin about!”
“Are you gonna stand there and feel sorry for yourself or are you gonna do something about it?!”
Johnny rode back to Lancer dreading having to face his brother with this news. He went straight to his father’s room to find Teresa and Scott sitting with him.
“How’s he doin ?” Johnny whispered.
“No change. Did you find out anything?” Scott asked.
Johnny looked away from him and he knew the answer. Scott felt raw anger fire up in him and he knew he needed to get out of there. He stood up and walked out of the room.
Johnny looked at Teresa who smiled lovingly at him and he thought his heart would break. He took a deep breath and went to face his brother.
Scott was pacing in front of the fireplace.
“It’s been a year and a half. When is it going to stop, Johnny? How long before it’s over? I mean what’s the time limit on living legends? Do you just have to survive for maybe five years, ten until they forget?”
Johnny stood still and said nothing, he knew Scott needed to yell at him and he was ready for it, or so he thought.
“Do you know the answer? Have you ever known a gunfighter who lived long enough to quit before? Maybe there is no precedent. Maybe youâ€™re the first. Well, just make sure it’s you they shoot the next time, okay?”
He wasn’t prepared for that and it hurt deep in his heart to hear his brother say such a thing. But apparently, Scott wasn’t finished.
“I have tried so hard to support you. I’ve fought with Murdoch for you. I’ve defended you time and time again. And for what? To watch my father being gunned down in your place? Who’s next, me, Teresa, Jelly? While you stand there unscathed, untouched! I don’t know what I was thinking! I just pretended it was a fairy tale, I guess. Like those dime novels about the heroic gunfighter, so misunderstood, so unfairly treated. What a crock! They deserve what they get. They made a choice and they should just stop whining and take what’s coming to them!”
“You finished?” Johnny asked softly.
“I think so,” Scott said sternly.
Johnny nodded his head but he couldn’t look in his brother’s eyes. He couldn’t face what he had done. He walked out of the house and rode away.
Scott didn’t care if he ever came back. He went back to sit with his father for the rest of the night.
The sun streamed through the window the next morning as the birds started their daily songs. Scott awoke and raised his head from the side of the bed where he’d laid it last night for just a minute. He quickly looked at his father who was still sleeping.
Teresa came in to check and bring him some coffee. She left to start breakfast and make some broth. Scott drank his coffee and watched his father. Murdoch stirred and opened his eyes slowly, letting out a weak moan.
“Easy, don’t try to move. Doc says you have to stay still,” Scott said softly.
“What happened?” Murdoch whispered.
“You were shot,” Scott said a bit harshly as he felt the anger again. He quickly fought it down.
“I … uh… I’m not sure at the moment.”
“What do you mean youâ€™re not sure, Scott? Where’s your brother?” Murdoch asked, becoming anxious.
“He’s alright, Murdoch. Listen to me, you have to lay still. Do I have to get Teresa?”
“No, just find your brother. Don’t let him go off looking for vengeance.” Murdoch sighed and closed his eyes.
Scott shook his head and kept his seat.
Johnny awoke in the jail cell that Val had offered when he returned the night before. All he would say was that Scott was mad at him. He smelled coffee and smiled gratefully. It was good to have a friend like Val. He felt bad about yelling at him, but he knew Val understood he wasn’t angry with him. He got up and walked out into the office.
” Mornin . Smells good,” Johnny smiled.
“And it’s ready. Here ya go. Ready to tell me now?”
“Tell you what?” Johnny asked as he sipped the hot, strong liquid. Val Crawford knew how to make coffee.
“What happened with Scott,” Val said, frustrated with having to pull everything out of this one. Â
Johnny turned and walked to the window, staring at the waking town. “He was mad about what happened. Wasn’t his fault.”
“Course not! It’s all your fault. Ain’t everything?” Val said sarcastically.
“Did you find out anything more about that horse shoe?” Johnny asked, changing the subject.
“Smithy’s spose to be here this mornin . He wasn’t there yesterday. Want to go get some breakfast?”
“I’m not hungry. You go ahead. I’ll wait here.”
The smithy walked in just then. “Hey, Johnny. I saw that pretty palomino of yours at the livery. Val, my boy said ya wanted to see me.”
“Yeah, Hank. Have you taken care of any horses with a cracked shoe? It’d be the right back hoof,” Val asked pointedly.
“Yeah, I did take care of one yesterday mornin before I left for Salinas . It was about ten o’clock .”
“Who did it belong to?” Val asked.
“Couldn’t say. Never seen the fella before.”
“Do you know where he went?” Johnny asked.
“Let me see. Wasn’t too talkative. Thought it was a strange though. He asked where a good place to camp was south of town. Reckon he spent all his money on that shoe.”
“Hank, where did you tell him to camp?” Val asked.
“Oh, told him about that nice spot by the stream. You know the one, Johnny. Less than a mile from your place.”
“Did he ask you about me or Lancer?” Johnny asked.
“Nope. Just where he could camp. That’s all he said except thankin me for the shoe.”
“What did he look like, Hank?” Johnny pressed.
“Well, he was about Val’s height. A little stocky but mostly muscle, ya know? Had a scar on his left cheek. Dark headed, but grayin , about fifty. Looked like he’d been on the trail a while. Horse was a chestnut, no special markins though. That’s about it.”
Val thanked him and sent him on his way. “Sound familiar, Johnny?”
“No, not at all. Doesn’t make any sense.”
“I’m startin to think this has nothin to do with Johnny Madrid. Let’s take a little ride,” Val said.
They rode out to the campsite. It was obvious someone had spent the night there. Johnny cursed their luck that Hank was gone yesterday, they could have gotten him. He followed the horse’s tracks out of camp. They were just as easy to follow with a brand new shoe as they had been with a cracked one. He stood up and tensed as he realized the tracks led toward Lancer.
“I see it, let’s go,” Val said as they mounted and headed for the ranch.
Murdoch awoke again a little later and found Scott still at his side.
“You must be tired, son.”
“I’m fine, youâ€™re the one I’m worried about,” Scott said with a smile.
“You didn’t do as I asked.”
Scott didn’t have to ask what he meant, he already knew. “Murdoch, Johnny will come back when he can. Stop worrying about everyone else and worry about yourself for a change.”
“Was it someone from his past?”
“Evidently. They took a shot at him in town. He’s alright. After all, they are a pretty bad shot,” Scott said snidely.
“You had words with him didn’t you?”
“Murdoch, stop worrying. Johnny’s a big boy, he can take care of himself.”
“I just hope you didn’t say anything you can’t take back,” Murdoch said, eyeing his son closely.
Johnny and Val rode up to the house and all seemed quiet. Teresa came out to greet them.
“Is everything alright, Teresa?” Johnny asked anxiously.
“Fine. Murdoch woke up earlier. He was asking for you. What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know. Go back in the house, honey. Don’t come outside.”
“I’ll take a look around out here. You better let Scott know what’s happening,” Val said.
‘I don’t know what’s happening,’ Johnny thought but he headed upstairs anyway. He slipped into the room. Murdoch’s eyes were closed and he motioned for Scott to step outside.
“What’s going on?” Murdoch asked.
“Nothing, Sir. I’ll be right back,” Scott answered.
“Is that Johnny?”
“Yeah, it’s me. How’re you feeling?”
“Come here, son.”
Johnny walked over and sat next to his father. Murdoch took hold of his arm.
“This is not your fault, Johnny. You don’t have to hide from me,” he said firmly.
“I’m not hiding from you, Murdoch. I’m trying to find out what’s going on. Look, just rest. Scott and I’ll take care of this.”
“If there’s anything to be taken care of, we’ll do it as a family. Now, tell me what you know,” Murdoch said and Johnny knew better than to argue.
He told him about the tracks and what Hank had said. He told him the description they had gotten and that Val was helping him. Murdoch’s grip increased on his arm when he described the man.
“Murdoch, what is it?” Johnny asked.
“It’s not you, son. It’s me. That sounds like Ian Halstrom . I knew him a long time ago. We came out here together. We had a falling out and he swore he’d get revenge. But that was twenty five years ago,” Murdoch explained, his voice a little distant as the memory returned.
“What happened? Why is he after you? And why did he take a shot at me in town?”
Murdoch closed his eyes as if remembering then he opened them again and looked at his boys.
“It was so long ago. He was married to a beautiful girl. Scott’s mother and I traveled out here with them. He bought some land next to mine and we were close friends. We helped each other build our homes. His wife was pregnant with their first child. Catherine went to help when it came her time, there was no doctor. She had a hard time, it was awful. She suffered terribly. Catherine tried but, she died. They had twin boys but they didn’t survive either.
â€œIan went crazy with grief. He started blaming Catherine. He tried to attack her and I stopped him. That’s how he got the scar. He had a knife and I cut him during the fight. He left then and I never heard from him again. The last thing he said to me was that he’d get even. That I would suffer like he had.”
Murdoch finished his story, his brows knitted together. Suddenly, his face lit with understanding.
“What? What is it?” Scott asked, at his father’s side now.
“It wasn’t me he was aiming for it was Johnny! He wants to kill my children like he thought Catherine had killed his!”
Scott and Johnny looked at each other in disbelief.
“Well, he’s crazy!” Johnny said.
“I’m afraid he is, son.”
“Okay, don’t worry. We know who we’re looking for now. We’ll stop him, Murdoch. It’s gonna be alright,” Johnny assured him. “I’m gonna go let Val know what’s happening. Get Teresa to stay with him, Scott, then meet us downstairs.”
“Johnnyâ€¦” Scott started.
Johnny held his hand up. “Later, brother.”
Johnny filled Val in on the story and he shook his head.
“Youâ€™re all just a bunch of magnets for crazy people ain’t ya?”
Johnny smiled at his friend. Scott joined them, still feeling awful for what he had said to his brother.
“I think he’s out there now, somewhere,” Johnny said.
“What do you want to do?” Scott asked.
“Well, let’s work around from the back of the house. We’ll make a circle and close in behind where he was last time. If he’s that crazy, he might just pick the same spot. Better let Jelly know and have him watch the house.”
Johnny finished laying out his plan and got the nod of approval from his team. Scott got Jelly, who set up watch with rifle in hand and they lit out. Johnny went toward the barn, moving stealthily. Scott watched until he disappeared behind the building, marveling at his brother’s agility and kicking himself for the harsh words he had used. He started out on his designated route.
Scott slipped to the back of the house and started making his way through the garden when he was stopped by the familiar sound of a rifle being cocked.
“Don’t move, boy.”
He raised his hands and cursed himself as the man took his gun from its holster.
“Now, turn around real slow.”
Scott turned to face Halstrom whose face turned white when he got a look at him.
“Youâ€™re HER son,” he spat.
“Mr. Halstrom , I presume.”
“Where’s your brother?”
“I don’t know.”
Halstrom raised the rifle and pointed it in Scott’s face. “I said call him,” he growled.
“No need,” came the soft voice behind him.
Halstrom didn’t turn but backed away from Scott so he could see the face that matched the voice. “Over here, and drop the iron,” he commanded.
Johnny obeyed the man and went to stand by his brother.
“That was dumb,” Scott murmured. Johnny just winked at him.
“What happened to your ma?” Halstrom asked Scott.
He didn’t reply until Halstrom pointed the rifle at Johnny’s heart.
“She died when I was born,” he said quietly.
” Hmmph , reckon there’s some justice in this world after all.”
It took everything Scott had and Johnny’s hand on his arm not to attack the man.
“What about yours?” he asked Johnny.
“Not anymore,” Johnny drawled with a grin playing on his lips.
Scott looked at him in amazement.
“Where’s your pa?” Halstrom continued the interrogation.
“Oh, he’s around here somewhere. Now, let’s see. Where did I put him?” Johnny said, looking as if he were thinking hard to remember.
“You got a smart mouth, boy. Don’t reckon it’ll take too much to shut it though,” Halstrom chided.
” Wanna bet?” Johnny deadpanned.
“In the house, both of ya.”
Scott and Johnny walked into the house through the kitchen door and into the living room where Jelly was standing guard. Unfortunately, he was looking out the French doors at the time.
“Drop it, mister,” Halstrom said.
Jelly turned to take in the situation and sighed. He dropped the rifle. “Well, that was some plan,” he said sarcastically.
“I like it so far,” Johnny said.
“Where’s Murdoch?” Halstrom asked again.
“I told ya, I can’t remember where I put him. Might have been in the barn,” Johnny said.
“Boy, you’re gonna die, up to you how soon,” Halstrom spat.
“Well that comes to us all, don’t it?” Johnny quipped.
“Will you shut up?” Scott said.
Halstrom looked closely at Johnny for a long time. “Do I know you?”
“I doubt it,” Johnny replied flatly.
“I seen ya somewhere,” Halstrom said, trying to remember.
Johnny’s eyes lit with a smile as he stared at the man, daring him to remember where he might have seen him before.
“Could it have been in town when you took that potshot at my head?”
Halstrom smiled back. “No, somewhere else. El Paso , maybe.”
“Give the man a cookie,” Johnny replied sarcastically.
Halstrom started laughing hard. They all looked at him a bit alarmed. He kept laughing for a few minutes until he got himself under control.
“This is rich! Murdoch got himself a gunfighter for a son. A killer for hire. I love it!”
Johnny kept smiling at him but Scott could find nothing humorous about the situation. Neither could Jelly for that matter.
“I’m sure he’ll be glad you approve,” Johnny said.
“Let’s find out. One more time, where is he?”
“Right here, Ian,” Murdoch answered from the stairs.
Scott and Johnny both bit their lip as they saw their father struggle down the stairs alone. Jelly automatically went to help him but Murdoch waved him off.
“What are you trying to do, Ian?”
“I’m not trying to do anything, I’m doing it. It’s time for payback, Lancer. Time for you to know what it’s like to lose your wife and children,” Halstrom spat.
“I already know what it’s like.”
“No, you got your boys here. Even if one of ‘ em is a halfbreed gunfighter.” Â
“Shut up! I won’t have that filth in my house!” Murdoch boomed.
The outburst startled all of them, Johnny most of all. He smiled appreciatively at his father.
“Now, let’s talk about this,” he continued, more calmly.
“Nothing to talk about, Murdoch. You know what she done.”
“Ian, you can’t possibly believe that after all this time. Catherine did everything she could to help Sarah. It wasn’t her fault,” Murdoch tried to reason.
Halstrom turned to Scott. “Did he tell ya? Did he tell ya what your mother did?”
“Yes, he told me she tried to help her friend through something horrible. If you want to lay blame, Mr. Halstrom , try laying it at your own feet,” Scott said calmly.
“You brought her out here where there was no doctor. You impregnated her. I mean if we’re going to blame people, let’s be clear about who is truly to blame,” Scott reasoned.
Johnny almost laughed out loud at this ridiculous scenario, he figured it was about as believable as Scott’s mother causing the woman’s death.
“She wanted to come here. She wanted to be with me. She wanted to have our children. She ….” he trailed off, understanding what Scott was saying to him. Then he shook himself. “No! She could have done something. She should have done something.”
“Like what? Pull off a miracle? What was she supposed to do? She wasn’t a doctor. She wasn’t God. Just exactly what did you want her to do?” Johnny asked.
“You’re not the first man to lose a wife or a child or both. You sure ain’t the last. Hell, man, we all have to put up with things that hurt. You either go on or crawl up somewhere and die. It’s up to you, but don’t go blaming someone who only wanted to help. Someone who was your friend.”
Scott smiled at his brother. ‘Smart’, he thought.
Halstrom stared at Johnny. “You don’t understand,” he whispered.
“The hell I don’t!” Johnny yelled. “Who do you think you are? You come here after all this time and shoot my father down in cold blood! You try to take my head off! Mister, you got no idea what real pain is,” he hissed coldly, his eyes like ice as he glared at the crazed man.
Halstrom’s eyes stormed at the outburst and he raised the rifle, pointing it once more at Johnny’s chest.
“No!” Murdoch shouted.
The rifle fired into the air as Val grabbed him from behind and pulled up on his arm.
“Took ya long enough,” Johnny said with a sigh.
“Sorry, I was gettin a bite to eat. I missed my breakfast,” Val snipped.
“Jelly, send for Doc,” Johnny said as he looked at the pallor on his father’s face. He and Scott were at Murdoch’s side instantly.
“Easy now. Let’s get you back to bed. What were you thinking, coming down here?” Scott admonished.
“Thought you could use some help,” Murdoch strained.
“Help? Shucks, I had it under control,” Johnny grinned.
“Yeah, right, little brother.” Scott rolled his eyes.
“I had my ace,” Johnny said in defense.
“Your ace was helping himself to Teresa’s biscuits while Halstrom nearly shot you!”
“Boys, please. I think I’d like to lie down now,” Murdoch said, reminding them he was still there.
They got him back to bed and Scott went to get some fresh water while Johnny settled him in.
“I guess I’m gonna have to sit on you for the next two weeks,” he teased.
“No, I think I’m done taking strolls for a while,” Murdoch smiled weakly.
“You know, for takin up for me back there.”
“Youâ€™re my son. Nobody talks to you like that. Not in my presence.”
“Just rest, okay. You nearly scared me to death when I saw you on the stairs.”
“Worried about me?” Murdoch asked, brow raised .
“Yeah, well. Who’s gonna yell at me if youâ€™re not around? I mean, I won’t know how to act.”
Murdoch smiled and closed his eyes. He felt a gentle touch stroke his forehead and he smiled bigger. He reached up and took hold of the hand, squeezing it tight to his chest.
Johnny smiled and considered giving the old man a peck on the cheek but he figured that might be too much to take. Â
“You sure are a tough old bird,” he whispered instead.
By the end of the first week of his forced bed rest, the four of them decided to make a schedule to stay with him. He was getting antsy and they knew they couldn’t take their eyes off him for a minute. Having planned their vigils, they set about trying to get life back to some normalcy. Scott had one thing to take care of first and he had no idea how to go about it. He finally caught Johnny in his bedroom one evening.
“Got a minute?” he asked as he opened the door.
“Sure, Boston ,” Johnny smiled.
“Johnny, I said some horrible things to you. I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry,” Scott said sheepishly.
“You hated me at that moment.”
“No, I didn’t. I was angry … scared for Murdoch.”
“Scott, you hated me. You didn’t care if I ever came back.”
“How could you know …” Scott stopped and bit his lip.
Johnny smiled understandingly at his brother. “I don’t blame you. I would have felt the same way. I did feel the same way. I hated myself. I couldn’t stand thinking I was the cause of all this. It’s given me a lot to think about.”
“No, Johnny. You’re not leaving!”
“Leaving? No, I’m not leaving. I don’t know what the answer is, Scott. I swear I don’t. All I wanted was a real life. I wish I could kill Johnny Madrid, but I can’t. All I can do is try not to let it touch any of you, but I haven’t been able to do that real well, either. I’m surprised it took you this long, though.”
“Took me this long? What do you mean?”
“To get mad at me for my past. I guess you did pretend it wasn’t real until it touched Murdoch. You have to understand, Scott. It’s very real and it won’t go away just because I want it to. Maybe I do deserve what I get, but you don’t.”
“But it didn’t touch Murdoch.”
“This time. Doesn’t mean it won’t,” Johnny said, hanging his head to hide the pain he caused them all.
“Johnny, I love you. I don’t want to lose you. But it does worry me. I can’t deny that,” Scott said, feeling ashamed of himself .
“I know. You told me once that you didn’t care about my past. That you’d stand by me no matter what. But that isn’t true and I can’t blame you. The family is what’s important. That’s what you need to stand up for and if I’m the cause of the problem, it makes it kinda hard to do both. Always stand up for the family, Scott.”
“You are my family. Still, I don’t think we’ve solved anything here. I don’t know what the answer is either.”
“Well, so much for that college education, Boston . Maybe you should ask for your money back,” Johnny grinned and slapped his brother on the back. “Come on, I’m hungry and it’s almost time for my shift with the grouch.”
Scott went with him, knowing he had hurt his brother and he couldn’t fix it this time. Johnny was letting it go for his sake, he knew that. He also knew things may never be the same between them again. He resolved to find the answer neither of them knew. Somehow, he would figure out how to help his brother rid himself of Johnny Madrid once and for all.
Johnny ate quickly so he could relieve Jelly on guard duty. He laughed softly to himself as he headed up the stairs. He was beginning to see the similarities between his father and himself. They both had stubbornness down pat. But it was more than that and he knew it. He wasn’t very good at putting a name to emotions, only good at feeling them. And although Murdoch wasn’t as easy to show them, Johnny knew his father felt things as deeply as he did.
Jelly sighed with relief when Johnny came in. He only shook his head and rolled his eyes toward the patient as he left quickly with the remains of Murdoch’s supper tray.
“How ya doin ?” Johnny asked pleasantly.
“How do you think I’m doing?” Murdoch groused.
“Ouch. Sorry I asked,” Johnny grinned. “Want to play chess?”
“No, I don’t want to play anything. I want to talk to you.”
“Uh oh, what did I do now?”
“Have you talked to your brother?”
“Sure, I talk to him every day,” Johnny shrugged.
“Son, I’m not in the mood to play games,” Murdoch sighed.
“I don’t know what youâ€™re talking about, Murdoch,” Johnny said, truly confused.
“I know the two of you had words after I was shot. Scott thought it had something to do with your past.”
“Oh. Did he tell you what was said?” Johnny asked, testing the waters.
“Well, it wasn’t anything. We talked it out, everything’s fine.”
“You’re sure,” Murdoch said, not fully believing his son.
“I’m sure. Now, ya wanna play cards or not?”
“No. Johnny, I’m sorry about all this. You almost got killed because of me.”
Johnny smiled at his father. “Wasn’t anything you did. The man was just plain loco. Couldn’t be helped.”
“I think I know a little better how you feel when your past comes back.”
Johnny dropped his eyes and said nothing for a while. “No, Murdoch, you don’t. What happened here wasn’t because of anything you had done. I can’t say the same.”
“Still, something that happened before you were even born almost cost you your life. I could never forgive myself if…”
Johnny reached out and put his hand on his father’s arm. “Don’t. Everything turned out all right.”
“Johnny, what did Scott say to you?”
Johnny puffed out his cheeks and blew out a breath. “Let it go. I have.”
“Have you? I’m not so sure.”
“Ya know, when I saw you laying on the ground, I thought my heart had stopped. I swear it threw me. It … scared me. I thought I might lose you. I know we fight, sometimes about the dumbest things, but I just want you to know … I never want to feel like that again.
â€œScott felt the exact same way. So if he yelled at me a little, it’s okay. He has the right, he was scared for you, too. Sometimes you say things when youâ€™re scared that you don’t really mean. That’s all it was. Murdoch, we … we love you, so don’t do that again, ok?” Johnnyâ€™s voice trembled a bit.
He had never felt so proud in his life. He knew what Scott had said to Johnny. Jelly had overheard the entire thing and told him about it. He reached out and pulled his son to him.
“I love you, son. Nothing will ever change that. Nothing.”
Comments: We don’t have this author’s current email address. If you leave a comment below, if she reconnects with the fandom, then she will see how much her work is appreciated.