Redemption by Winj

Word Count 16,320

Scott and Murdoch Lancer walked into the Green River sheriff’s office to find Val Crawford sipping a cup of coffee. Val glanced up then jerked his thumb toward the back room.

“Keys?” Murdoch grumbled.

“It ain’t locked.”

He stalked to the cell area without another word. Scott stopped at Val’s desk.

“Is he hurt?”

“Hard ta tell. Doc’s deliverin a baby. Left word for ‘im ta come take a look when he gets back,” Val said in clipped tones.

Scott nodded then followed his father to the back. Murdoch was standing in the open cell door, staring at his son.

Johnny was out cold, lying on his left side, still as death.

Murdoch walked over and shook his shoulder none too gently. “Johnny,” he growled.

It took several attempts before the young man began to stir and each effort caused Murdoch’s blood pressure to rise a little more.

Johnny moaned and moved slightly, then was still again.

“Get a cup of coffee, Scott,” the rancher ordered.

“Val’s not sure if he’s injured,” Scott started then turned and walked out with the icy glare he received.

“Johnny wake up!” Murdoch demanded.


“What happened?” Murdoch asked, lowering his voice only a decibel.

“Got in a fight,” Johnny mumbled.

“I know that. What I want to know is why? Val said you started it.”

“Reckon I did.”


“Well what, Murdoch? Leave me alone!”

“Are you hurt?”

“No, but my head don’t feel too good.”

“I shouldn’t wonder. Sit up and drink some coffee. Val has turned you over to me though for the life of me I can’t figure out why,” Murdoch said snidely.

“Cause he don’t want to have to deal with it, I guess,” Johnny mumbled as he struggled up on the side of the cot.

“Neither do I!”

“Then don’t!” Johnny shot back, then held his head in his right hand.

Murdoch shook his head and handed over the cup of coffee Scott proferred.

A minute went by as Johnny struggled with the hot liquid before Scott decided to give it a try.

“Would you like to tell us what happened now?”

“Not really.”

“Johnny, it’s not like you to just attack a man. Everyone in the saloon said the same thing. The man walked in and before he could make it to the bar, you were all over him,” Scott reported.

“I was there, I know what happened,” Johnny sneered.

“Why is what we want to know, son? What would possess you to attack a total stranger?” Murdoch asked.

“Who said he was a stranger?”

Murdoch and Scott exchanged a look.

“Alright, who is he?” Scott asked.

“It’s none of your business,” Johnny hissed. “Can I leave now?”

“Yes, but…”

Murdoch didn’t get to finish as Johnny sprang off the cot and skirted around them both. They followed quickly, unsure he was all that steady yet.

“Can I have my gun?” Johnny asked Val.

“Depends, you goin home?”


Val reached in his desk drawer and pulled out Johnny’s rig, handing it over. “He said he didn’t wanna press charges. Said he knew ya,” he fished.

“Really,” Johnny sneered.

Johnny buckled his belt, adjusting it once, then tightening the belt before heading for the door.

“Just a minute, young man,” Murdoch said.

Johnny turned, his face a mask of pure anger. “What?”

“You owe me for the fine.”

“Take it out of my wages,” he said and stormed out. He walked purposefully to the livery and retrieved Barranca, then mounted up and rode out of town without waiting for his family.

Scott pushed his hat back on his head and watched his brother tear out of town. “Well, do you want to follow him or try to find out what this is all about?”

“We’re going home. If Johnny wants to talk about it, he will.”

Scott stood on the boardwalk a second longer, knowing full well Johnny would not talk about this.

When they arrived home, Teresa informed them that Johnny had not arrived yet. Murdoch sighed and shook his head. “Riding off the mad, I guess.”

“I hope that’s all it is,” Scott said apprehensively.

“Do you want to go find him?”

“No, but I will,” Scott said and headed back out.

It didn’t take him long to find Johnny in a favorite meadow. He was sitting with his back against a tree and a blade of grass between his teeth, staring out over the crystal blue water of the brook.

Scott dismounted and walked over beside him. “We were worried.”

“No need.”

“I know you don’t want to talk about the fight but may I ask a question?”


“Is that all you’re mad about? The fight?”

Johnny didn’t answer for a moment. “Yeah.”

“But you don’t want to tell me who that man is,” Scott surmised aloud.


“Alright, Johnny, but I just hope you don’t let it eat at you. I’m going home.”

“I’ll be along.”

Johnny sat where he was as the night grew deeper. The full moon rose lazily out of the mist of the mountains. He watched, fascinated by it’s ascent. Soon, the stars began to twinkle softly and he sighed at the vastness of it all.

He thought he should go home, knowing Scott would worry and Murdoch was probably waiting to have it out with him, yet he sat there.

He went over the events of the day and his anger returned tenfold. Closing his eyes, he tried to will the images away but they were as fresh as if they had happened that day instead of all those years ago.

What did it matter now? It’s over, done with. But it did matter, at least to him but probably no one else. That wasn’t true, it would matter to at least one other person. He couldn’t imagine himself telling that person about this, though. He couldn’t justify causing that pain over something he had no control of then or now.

Johnny shook his head sadly and wondered if there would ever come a day when his past would leave him be. If it wasn’t Madrid, it was something else and this was definitely something else.

He stood up and brushed his pants off, then slowly walked to Barranca. Smiling fondly, he patted the palomino’s neck. “You get enough of that good grass, boy?” Barranca nickered and Johnny laughed softly. “Let’s go home.”

“I just don’t understand it, that’s all. It’s not like Johnny to lose control like that,” Murdoch frowned.

“I know, sir. I don’t understand either but he wasn’t about to tell me.”

“Maybe we should have stayed and talked with whoever that man is,” Murdoch ruminated.

“There’s always tomorrow,” Scott said conspiratorially.

“I hate going behind his back.”

“Murdoch, this is really bothering him. If he won’t, or maybe can’t, tell us, we have to take it upon ourselves to find out what the problem is. How else can we help Johnny?”

“Help Johnny what?” he asked softly from the doorway.

Scott whirled to find his brother watching them. “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” he said tersely.

“I walked in the door,” Johnny shrugged.

“Well, make some noise.”

“Answer my question. Help me with what?”

Scott and Murdoch exchanged guilty glances. “With whatever happened today,” Murdoch said firmly.

“I see. Did I ask for your help?”

“Would you, ever?” Scott asked sarcastically.

“Maybe, maybe not, but until I do why don’t you just drop it,” Johnny replied coldly.

“Certainly. We’ll just stand by and watch you suffer, brother.”

“Do I look like I’m suffering to you, Scott? Mind your own business!”

“That’s enough, both of you. There’s no sense in arguing about this,” Murdoch interrupted. He walked over to his youngest and laid a hand on his shoulder. “We just want to help, son.”

“I know that but there’s nothing you can do. Look, it’s over, let’s just drop it,” Johnny mumbled.

“Is it over?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny looked up and forced a smiled. “It is for me.”

“What about him? Whatever his name is,” Murdoch asked.

“I don’t care,” Johnny hissed. The anger was gone as quickly as it had come and he hung his head. “I’m goin to bed.”

“Not until you eat something. Teresa left you a plate in the oven,” Murdoch said paternally.

Johnny ate quickly, then went up the back stairs to his room. He walked in and straight to the window, sliding it open and letting the cool breeze hit his face.

“Feel better now?”

He didn’t turn around, the smile that lifted the corners of his mouth was brief. “Didn’t know I was feeling bad.”

“I thought you were hung over?”

“Nope, hadn’t had but one beer.”

“Hard man to wake up after only one beer. I have to surmise that you were hurt in that fight.”

“Got knocked on the head but I’m alright. I’ve had worse.”

“I’m sure you have. Just tell me if this has anything to do with Johnny Madrid.”

“No, Scott, it doesn’t.”

“Alright, I’m going to bed. Goodnight, brother.”

“Night, Scott.”

Johnny laid on top of the covers and stared at the ceiling for a while. He wasn’t really sleepy but he was bone tired. His mind went back in time of it’s own accord and he was startled when he realized what he was thinking about.

He got up and undressed, then slipped under the cool sheets. Hoping he would have no unpleasant dreams, he made himself go to sleep.

Johnny awoke the next morning with a headache the size of Montana. He groaned when he turned over and his hand went to the left side of his head. He felt the lump there and sighed. ‘Guess he got one good punch in,’ he thought ruefully.

He threw back the covers and sat up, grabbing his head between both hands as the room danced in front of him. He sat there until the dizziness passed, then stood slowly, measuring his condition. Not too bad, he thought, but when he took the few steps to his dresser, he had to grab hold of it as blackness edged his vision.

What the hell? He stood there for long moments before trying again, moving much slower as he lifted his head and looked in the mirror. Deciding whether to shave or not, he thought he’d better. One look at him unshaven and Teresa would know something was up.

It took him half an hour to get shaved and dressed then he faced the task of getting downstairs without suspicion. He didn’t want any reminders of yesterday that would have his family asking more questions.

He took the steps slowly to the kitchen and stopped at the bottom for a moment. Focusing his energy, he walked into the room with a slight smile on his face.

“Good morning,” Teresa smiled.

“Morning,” he mumbled. His head was pounding and her usually sweet voice felt like a sledgehammer on the back of his neck.

He took his seat without looking at his father or brother. Teresa sat a cup of hot coffee in front of him and he felt like kissing her. He sipped it slowly, inhaling the aroma.

“Are you feeling bad this morning, son?”

Johnny lifted his head slowly and looked at his father. Murdoch looked a little fuzzy and he almost laughed. “No, why?”

“You look a little out of sorts,” Murdoch explained.

“I’m fine,” he shrugged and immediately paid for it.

A small hand appeared in front of him and went to his forehead. “I hope your not coming down with something. No fever.”

“I’m not sick, Teresa, I’m fine,” he said, a bit exasperated.

She shrugged and sat a plate of food in front of him. He thought he might just lose it then.

“I’m not really hungry, I’m goin to work,” Johnny said and stood as quickly as he dared.

They watched him walk out the door, moving too slowly to be normal.

“Scott, keep an eye on him today,” Murdoch advised.

“And that would be different than any other day, how?” Scott shot sarcastically.

Johnny made it to the barn and slumped against Barranca’s stall. A cold sweat had broken out on his forehead and he knew he was in trouble. He was wondering how he would manage the saddle when a new hand walked in.

Johnny closed his eyes briefly, then smiled at the young man. “Mornin, Dave. Listen, I hurt my shoulder yesterday. Would you mind saddling my horse for me?”

“Sure, Johnny. You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m sure I’ll work it out just don’t want to push it so early in the day,” Johnny smiled brightly.

Dave nodded and saddled Barranca quickly, much to Johnny’s relief. He sure didn’t want anyone walking in to find he couldn’t saddle his own horse.

“Thanks a lot. Listen, I don’t want my old man worrying over this so it’s just between us, okay?”

Dave shrugged, not understanding what the big deal was. “Whatever you say.”

Johnny walked Barranca out of the barn just as Scott was approaching.

“I don’t suppose you saddled my horse,” Scott said.

“I don’t suppose I did, Boston. Somethin wrong with your arms?” Johnny teased.

Scott slapped him on the back as he walked by and Johnny grimaced a little. He sighed and pulled himself into the saddle. Grace was not the word he would have chosen for that feat but he made it without anyone seeing.

He was supposed to be checking for strays. He was supposed to be doing anything but what he was doing. Johnny felt guilty but he knew he wouldn’t last two minutes more in the saddle. He found a grove of trees and settled down, pulling his hat over his eyes.

The sun hurt them and he was hurting enough, thank you very much. What did that jerk hit him with anyway? he wondered. He knew it wasn’t the man’s fist, that couldn’t have caused all this annoyance. Maybe Val knows, but then I’m not about to ask him.

It wasn’t long before he drifted off into a fitful sleep. He jerked awake, his hat falling off his head and the sun glaring in his face. He put his hand over his eyes and groaned at the pain in his head.

He turned to his side quickly as his stomach revolted. Gagging with the dry heaves, as there was nothing else there, he felt the explosion in his head with each one.

He finally stopped and leaned back against the tree, sucking breath into his lungs. God, what’s wrong with me? He peeked up at the sky with one eye open and realized it was after noon. Dammit, Murdoch’s gonna kill me if I don’t get some work done today.

He leaned forward, rolled to his side, then onto his knees. It was a struggle, but he finally made it to his feet, falling back against the tree for support as he labored for breath. The cold sweat was back and he wiped at his brow with the back of his hand.

He called softly to Barranca and the horse walked up beside him. Smiling, Johnny patted his neck then grabbed his canteen. He took a small sip, then another and thought better of trying for three just now. His stomach wasn’t up to the task just yet and he didn’t want a repeat performance.

He wet his bandana and laid it across the back of his neck, relishing in the coolness. He then corked the canteen and hung it around the pommel. Staring at the stirrup, he sighed and put his foot in, then swung himself into the saddle.

He reined Barranca to stop his movements as he fought the darkness that threatened once more. “Easy boy, give me a minute,” he whispered.

This is the worst headache I’ve ever had, he thought. “Nice and slow now, Barranca. Don’t think I can handle more than a walk,” he said softly as he gently nudged the palomino. Reckon I’d better go home, something’s not right about this.

Barranca made it about five steps when he felt the weight come off his back. He sidestepped away from his master’s unmoving form. Slowly, he bent his head and nudged Johnny’s shoulder.

Scott was not having a good day. It seemed a fence had been downed and several head of cattle had strayed through. He had intended to check on his brother as promised but it was not to be. Around four o’clock, things seemed to be getting back in order.

He rode up beside Cipriano and told him he where he was going, then headed off to find his brother.

Scott came over the rise and reined in. Barranca was grazing in the meadow below but he couldn’t see Johnny. A knot formed in his stomach as he kneed his horse into a gallop.

As he grew closer to the palomino, he spied something blue in the tall grass. He sucked in a breath and headed for the spot. Jumping from his steed, Scott ran to his brother and turned him over gently. His shaky fingers felt for a pulse and he could breathe again.

He grabbed his canteen and wet his kerchief, patting at Johnny’s face with the cool cloth.

“Come on, Johnny, wake up.”

The pain was back and he groaned with it and the annoyance it brought. Johnny opened his eyes slowly to a figure hovering over him. His vision was blurred and he blinked several times to focus.


“Yes, it’s me. Johnny, what happened?”

It took a moment to be able to answer that question, then he remembered. “Passed out.”

“Passed out? You mean you weren’t ambushed or something?”

Johnny shook his head and hissed. “My head hurts, Scott.”

Scott frowned and began feeling his brother’s head. It didn’t take him long to get to the lump. “Johnny, there’s a knot on your head. I guess we should have made you see Sam yesterday,” he shook his head.

“Help me up,” Johnny grunted as he started to rise.

Scott grabbed hold and helped him to his feet, holding on as Johnny swayed to the side. “You can’t ride like this.”

“I can, just have to take it slow,” Johnny mumbled, his speech slurring.

Scott didn’t like this, Johnny was showing some very bad signs. “You’ll ride with me. That way, I won’t have to pick you up when you fall off your horse.”

Johnny snorted but he didn’t argue. He was pretty sure Scott was right. He wasn’t feeling so good and his stomach was churning again. Scott helped him into the saddle and Johnny had to hold on tight to stay there. Scott mounted behind him and wrapped one arm around his waist as he took the reins in the other.

He kneed his horse into a slow canter and called over his shoulder for Barranca. Scott pulled up and turned his horse. “You’ll have to tell him, Johnny, he won’t listen to me.”

Johnny lifted his head and smiled. “Come on, boy, let’s go home.”

Barranca nickered and started following them. Scott just shook his head.

Murdoch was headed into the house when he happened to glance toward the gate. He squinted against the late afternoon sun as he watched Scott ride in.

He realized Johnny was riding double and saw Barranca behind them but the horse looked fine. That could only mean it was Johnny who wasn’t fine.

Murdoch’s shoulders tensed as he waited impatiently for his sons to ride up to the house. “What happened?” he asked before Scott could come to a stop.

“I found him unconscious. He came to for a while and said his head hurt. He has a nice lump on the side. I think he must have been injured in that fight yesterday. Help me get him down,” Scott rattled off quickly.

“Jelly! Send for Sam!” Scott called across the yard.

Murdoch took hold of Johnny as he slipped from the saddle, ending up holding his dead weight. Scott dismounted quickly and helped his father as they half-carried Johnny inside.

He was coming to again and started pulling away in his disorientation.

“It’s alright, Johnny, we’ve got you, brother,” Scott said gently.

Hearing his brother’s voice, Johnny relaxed and tried to walk with them. They finally made it to his bedroom and laid him down.

Johnny sighed as he relaxed into the soft mattress. He opened his eyes timidly and quickly placed an arm across them. “Close the curtains, please.”

Murdoch walked over and shut the curtains, darkening the room. “Is that better?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“What happened, son?”

“Got sick, my head hurts,” Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch didn’t like the sound of this and Scott showed him where the lump was on Johnny’s head.

“Try to rest, son. Sam will be here as soon as he can,” Murdoch said softly. He motioned Scott to the corner of the room.

“This doesn’t sound good,” Murdoch whispered.

“I know. I’ve seen head injuries before. Sometimes the symptoms don’t manifest for a day or two,” Scott agreed.

“I guess there’s nothing we can do but watch him until Sam gets here.”

Sam Jenkins arrived at the ranch two hours later and headed for Johnny’s bedroom. Scott filled him in on what he knew but Val had already told the doctor about the fight the day before.

He examined his sleeping patient then gently shook Johnny’s shoulder. “Johnny, I need you to wake up.”

Johnny opened his eyes and looked up at the doctor. “Hey, Sam.”

“Hey yourself. Tell me exactly how you feel.”

“Head hurts real bad, sick to my stomach, eyes hurt.”

“Uh huh. Let me take a look at your eyes. Murdoch, I need some light.”

Murdoch turned up the lamp and handed it to Sam who brought it close to Johnny’s face.

Johnny turned his head. “Don’t, it hurts my eyes.”

“I know, Johnny, but I have to see. Now look at me,” Sam urged.

Johnny did as he was told but he couldn’t help but squint when the light got too close. Sam sighed and moved the lamp away.

“Well, young man, you have a serious concussion but so far I don’t see any signs of active bleeding or swelling of the brain. We’ll have to watch you closely for at least the next 24 hours. Hopefully, you’ll be feeling much better by then.”

“What do we need to do, Sam?” Murdoch asked.

“Let him sleep but wake him every two hours. Make sure he knows who he is, where he is and what day it is. I want his head elevated so he’ll need more pillows. I don’t like that he’s already been nauseated, dizzy and unconscious so I’m going to stay the night.”

Scott, Murdoch, Teresa and Jelly each took a shift through the night and woke Johnny as instructed. Other than complaining of a headache, he had no further symptoms. When Sam checked on him the next morning, he was a bit grumpy.

“Well, how would you be if you didn’t get any sleep?” Johnny asked when Sam chastised him for his mood.

“I suppose I would be grumpy, too. How’s your head?”

“It still hurts but nowhere near as bad as it did yesterday.”

“When did the headache start, Johnny?”

“I had it when I woke up.”

“And you just ignored it and the dizziness and the nausea,” Sam said.

“Yeah, for awhile. I was coming home when I passed out on Barranca,” Johnny said, hoping to mollify the doctor.

“Johnny, one of these days your luck is going to run out. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. You have to heed that message.”

“Didn’t think he hit me that hard,” Johnny mumbled.

“Sometimes, it doesn’t take much. Well, young man, I’m going to have some breakfast. Are you hungry?”

“Yeah, I am actually.”

“Good, I’ll let Teresa know.”

Sam reported his findings to the family and instructed that Johnny stay in bed the rest of the day and sleep. He warned that the man still needed watching but not as closely.

“I suppose we’ll have to tie him down,” Scott smiled.

“Maybe not, he’s pretty tired from being awakened all through the night. He’s also grumpy as a bear! Oh, and he’s hungry,” Sam replied with his own smile.

“I’ll take care of that right now,” Teresa said.

“What was that fracas about in town anyway? Val filled me in on some of it,” Sam asked.

“He won’t tell us, Sam. Said it was not our business,” Murdoch answered.

“Well, I hope it doesn’t have to do with his past.”

“It doesn’t, at least not Johnny Madrid. He did tell me that much,” Scott said.

“That’s more than he told me,” Murdoch grumbled.

“I asked him, otherwise, I’m sure he wouldn’t have said one way or the other,” Scott shrugged.

“Well, if it isn’t Madrid, what else could it be?” Sam asked.

Murdoch frowned at the question. He was right, what else could it be from Johnny’s past. His face dropped at the thought that occurred to him.

“Teresa, I’ll take Johnny’s breakfast to him,” he said.

Johnny was dozing when his father entered the room but his eyes flew open at the sound.

“Sam said you were hungry, that’s a good sign,” Murdoch smiled. He placed the tray on Johnny’s lap.

“Thanks, a little, my stomach ain’t up for much.”

Murdoch settled in a chair and watched Johnny.


“Nothing, son. Eat your breakfast.”

“You gonna stare at me the whole time?”

“Does that bother you?”


“I’ll come back in a little while then,” Murdoch said and left the room.

Johnny watched the door for a while after his father walked out. He’s up to something. Well, I’m sure I’ll hear about it soon enough. He sighed and started eating.

Murdoch returned in 30 minutes to find Johnny had eaten only half his food. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, just couldn’t eat much.”

Murdoch nodded and sat the tray on the dresser. “I was talking to Sam and Scott this morning. Scott said you told him that fight you had wasn’t about Madrid.”

“That’s right, Murdoch, it wasn’t.”

“Then what was it about, son? You said it was from the past, what other past would that be?”

Johnny eyed his father and knew he’d figured something out. He shrugged. “I wasn’t always Madrid.”

“Someone from your childhood?”

“I told you I didn’t want to talk about this.”

“It has to do with your mother, doesn’t it?” Murdoch pressed.

Johnny dropped his eyes and didn’t answer.

“What happened, Johnny?” This time it was less of a question and more a demand.

“It was a long time ago. I shouldn’t have let it bother me. I was just surprised when I saw him, that’s all.”

Murdoch pulled the chair closer to the bed and leaned forward. “I want you to tell me about it, Johnny. Right now!”


“Because I want to know what he did to make you hate him.”

“No, Murdoch, you don’t. You think you want to know but you don’t, trust me.”

“You certainly are hedging this. Why don’t you let me be the judge of whether I want to know or not.”

Johnny sighed loudly and looked at his father. “It’s in the past, buried. That’s what you said.”

“Yes, and I was wrong. We both know that now, don’t we? You could have died from that head injury, Johnny. Do you think Scott or I would have just let that go? Don’t you think we would have wanted answers then? Answers only one other person could provide?”

“Answers. Well, we don’t always get our answers, do we?” Johnny sniped.

“If you don’t tell me, he will.”

“Why can’t you leave it alone? It’s my business!”

“If it has to do with your mother, it’s my business, too!”

“This has nothing to do with her!”

“Then what does it have to do with?”

“Leave it!” Johnny growled.

“No, I won’t. Either you talk to me about this or I’ll speak to this man myself. Johnny, what happened?” Murdoch asked stubbornly.

“Why is it always okay to talk about my past but not yours?”

“You want to talk about my past? Fine. You tell me about this man and I’ll tell you something you want to know,” Murdoch compromised.

Johnny cocked a brow and looked suspiciously at his father. “Why do I think there’s a catch to this?”

Murdoch shook his head. “No catch. Now, spill it.”

Johnny chewed his lip and thought for a moment. “It’s that important for you to know?”

“When you attack a man without seeming provocation, it’s that important. When you behave so totally out of character, I have to worry what happened.”

“Why? What does it change? What possible difference could it make now?”

Murdoch pulled the chair close to the bed and sat in front of his son. “I don’t know how to explain it to you, Johnny. I’ve always felt a need to know about your life. I need to know ….. how you lived.”

Johnny shook his head and sighed. “The best I could, Murdoch. My mother did the best she could. We didn’t have much but she always made sure I ate something. She made sure I had clothes and she sent me to school when she could. She taught me herself, mostly. She loved me,” he said with conviction.

“I know she loved you, son. I also know it couldn’t have been easy for you. Especially …..”

Johnny looked up into his father’s eyes. “Especially what?”

Murdoch looked away from those eyes. He didn’t know how to say it without hurting Johnny. He chewed his lip and tried to find the words but Johnny realized what he meant.

“Especially since I’m a half-breed,” he said flatly.

“That’s not the way I would put it but, yes.”

“No, Murdoch, it wasn’t easy, life ain’t easy. You just do what you have to and hope the rest works itself out.”

“Tell me about this man.”

Johnny sighed loudly. “After my mother died, I wandered around a lot. He had a farm just across the border in Mexico,” he snorted. “I guess you’d have to call it a farm. Wasn’t much to it and he didn’t seem too eager to make a go of it. Anyway, I asked him if he needed any help. Cleaning stalls, takin care of the livestock, anything. He happened to be sober that day and hired me for room and board. I took it, didn’t have much choice.”

Johnny stopped, he had a distant look in his eyes as he remembered that time in his life.


His head snapped up at the sound of his name and he continued. “His wife was sickly. She said she had been for some time and she wasn’t able to do much. Anyway, I helped her out around the house, too. She taught me how to cook.” He smiled at the memory of the woman.

“She was a nice lady but she always looked so sad. About a week after I got there, he managed to get hold of some money and bought his booze. She tried to get me out of the house but I didn’t understand and I was afraid to leave her with him all liquored up. Well, pretty soon he started in on her, yellin at the top of his lungs. He called her some god-awful names. Then, he hit her and … I guess I went loco. I grabbed the first thing I could find, a broom, and laid into him.” Johnny laughed a little.

“Didn’t take him long to get it away from me. Then he ….. tore into me.”

“How bad?” Murdoch asked, gritting his teeth and trying to sound civil.

Johnny winced, this was the part he’d just as soon keep quiet.

“Johnny, tell me,” Murdoch insisted.

“Pretty bad. Broke a rib and I thought he’d broken my arm but he didn’t. I couldn’t move too good for a couple of weeks. She tried to take care of me in the barn but she wasn’t in such good shape herself. I told her we could run away but she just smiled that sad little smile and shook her head. She told me I had to leave, though. Said it wasn’t safe for me to be there. I didn’t want to leave her there with him. I knew what would happen. Just like ….”

Murdoch looked at him closely. “Just like what?”

“Just like with my mother,” he mumbled.

Murdoch inhaled deeply. “What happened to her, son?”

“Drunk beat her to death,” Johnny replied flatly.

Murdoch closed his eyes for a moment. “And you saw it?”

“Some of it, the end. She went down and didn’t get back up,” he whispered.

“Did you go for help?”

Johnny looked at him in surprise. “Help? There was no help, Murdoch. No one gave a damn about her! They all turned their noses up at her because of me!”

“You?” Murdoch frowned, then realized what Johnny meant.

“Yeah, me. I could see me runnin to any of them for help. They’d all just look down on me and say it’s what she deserved!” he spat.

Murdoch sighed, knowing Johnny was right. The prejudice in this world astounded him sometimes. Â “I take it that wasn’t the first time.”


“What about you? Did he hit you, too?”

“Sometimes,” he mumbled.

“And she didn’t try to stop him?”

“No, she didn’t try to stop him.”

Murdoch nodded his head angrily. “If that’s how she showed her love for you….”

“Shut up! You don’t know anything about it! You don’t know how it was, how hard she tried. You have no idea what she went through!”

“I know she had a choice. She didn’t have to live that way, to make you live that way!”

“Is this how you get him to open up?” Scott asked from the doorway. “I can hear you two all the way downstairs. I’m quite sure the hands are getting an earful as well,” he added, shooting a glance toward the open window.

They both looked at him, disgusted with each other at this point.

“This is between your brother and me, Scott.”

“No, it isn’t because I’m done talking to you,” Johnny clipped.

“I want to discuss this, Johnny.”

“Tough! The subject is closed. It’s not open for further discussion!” Johnny sneered.

The blood rushed into Murdoch’s cheeks as he glared at Johnny. Scott’s eyes were wide as he heard his brother lose his mind. He walked quickly up to them.

“I think that’s enough discussion for now. Johnny should be resting.”

Murdoch was speechless with anger and he simply stood up and stalked out of the room.

Johnny closed his eyes and breathed again.

“You must have hurt your head worse than we thought,” Scott commented.

“I thought he was gonna hit me.”

“So did I. Come on, you really should be lying down.”

“I don’t know how to talk to him, Scott,” Johnny said, ignoring his brother’s advice.

“That’s evident, but then, he doesn’t know how to talk to you either.”

Johnny climbed back in the bed and laid down, staring at the ceiling as he thought. “Why do we get so mad at each other?”

Scott sat on the side of the bed, pulling his knee up and resting his arm there. “I don’t know, Johnny. Maybe there’s just too many hurt feelings for both of you.”

The pain that crossed his face stunned Scott but he said nothing and waited.

“I didn’t do anything to him,” Johnny whispered.

Scott swallowed hard and nodded. “You think he’s taking his anger and hurt at your mother out on you.”

“Don’t you?”

“Yes, I do, but getting him to see that is another thing.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter, Johnny! You two couldn’t be more alike, both so stubborn and unwilling to even try!”

“What do you want me to do, Scott? Let him walk all over me? Tell me my mother didn’t love me? I won’t! God! This wasn’t even about her yet somehow he made it about her!”

“Then explain it to him. Make him understand. One of you has to give some, Johnny. If you don’t, you will both break.”

Johnny closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. Seeing this, Scott relaxed his tense shoulders and sighed.

“Get some rest, brother. Sam will take you to task if you don’t.”

“Yeah, just what I need. Somebody else yellin at me. Thanks, Scott.”

“Sleep well,” Scott smiled and left the room.

Johnny awoke as the sun began to make it’s appearance over the mountains. He stretched his lean body and sighed. Rubbing his face, he sat on the side of the bed for a moment before walking over to the wash basin. He couldn’t believe he had slept the entire previous day away.

He looked at his reflection and shook his head. ‘You look like hell, Lancer’. He splashed water on his face and hair and grabbed his shaving supplies. ‘Wish I could skip this once in a while’, he thought ruefully as he looked at the heavy growth adorning his face.

He tested his fortitude before beginning the task. Shaking his head like a dog, water spraying everywhere, he waited for the dizziness that didn’t come, the headache that wasn’t there. Smiling, he nodded in satisfaction.

He was donning his shirt when the knock came. Johnny tensed immediately then made himself relax. Figuring it was Scott because they were actually waiting for an answer, he called to come in. To his surprise, it was Murdoch.

“How are you feeling?”

“Much better, thanks. No headache or dizziness,” Johnny managed a small smile.

“That’s good news. Maybe you’d like to join us for breakfast.”

“Yeah, I’m starving. I can’t believe I slept so long.”

“You must have needed it,” Murdoch said in an even tone.

Johnny thought maybe he would drop it now and he smiled at his father as they walked downstairs together.

Murdoch began discussing the day’s chores with Scott and Johnny frowned. “What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing until Sam clears you to go back to work,” Murdoch replied.

“I’m fine, Murdoch. No headache, no dizziness, nothing,” he protested.

“That’s good, son, but until you see Sam, no work,” he replied sternly.

Johnny sighed disgustedly and glanced at his brother who was attempting to hide a grin. He shot Scott a scornful look and went back to his breakfast.

Clearing his throat, Scott stood up. “Well, I suppose I should get busy. Someone has to work around here,” he said with a laugh.

Johnny grinned wickedly at him. “Yeah, guess I’ll just hang around here and …. rest.”

“You can work on the books, Johnny,” Murdoch said.

“Are you trying to give me that headache?”

Murdoch only smiled at him and Johnny started worrying. The angry man from yesterday was gone and he didn’t trust that Murdoch had just forgotten the sarcastic and, truthfully, disrespectful way he’d talked to him.

“Sam should be along anytime. Until then, we’ll find something for you to do that won’t give you a headache,” Murdoch fairly chuckled.

That did it and Johnny was sure his father was losing his memory. ‘He’s joking with me’. He could only smile though, not wanting to question this change in attitude or push his luck.

Scott left for the day’s work and Johnny and Murdoch went to the living room. Still unsure, Johnny walked around the room, playing with knickknacks while his father went to his desk and pulled out a folder.

“I have to go to Green River today, son. When I get back, I’d like to talk.”

There it was, he knew it was too good to be true. “Sure,” was all he said.

“Meanwhile, maybe you could work on those books. But, by all means, stop if your head starts hurting,” Murdoch smiled.


Murdoch looked as if he wanted to say more then thought better of it. He put on his gunbelt and grabbed his hat, then headed to the door.


“Yes, son?”

“I’m sorry I was so ….. I’m sorry about yesterday,” Johnny fumbled.

“So am I, Johnny. I guess we both said some things we didn’t mean.”


“See you in a few hours,” Murdoch said and left the house.

Johnny sat in his father’s chair and pulled out the ledgers, staring at them with incredible disinterest. Taking a deep breath, he opened the first one and went to work.

Murdoch Lancer rode into Green River and straight to the Sheriff’s office. Entering, he found Val cleaning a rifle from the rack, his feet up on the desk.

“Mornin, Mr. Lancer,” he greeted.

“Val, I need some information,” Murdoch came right to the point.

“Sure, if I can.”

“I want to know the name of the man Johnny fought with the other day and if he’s still in town.”

Val took his feet down from the desk and sat up straight. He studied Murdoch’s face for a second before speaking. “Johnny know you’re doin this?”


Val sighed and rubbed his stubbled face. “I ain’t one to get in the middle of family problems, Mr. Lancer. It just seems to me if Johnny wanted you involved, he’d a said so.”

Murdoch nodded his head. “I appreciate your concern and I know Johnny is a good friend but I am involved. Johnny told me the reason he attacked that man and I need to speak with him. Are you going to tell me or do I have to find out for myself?”

“Reckon ya will at that. Dan Marshall and he’s stayin at the hotel.”

“Thanks,” Murdoch said and left immediately. He walked over to the hotel and asked for the room number. The clerk, unaware of any problems, gave it to him without another thought.

The man who answered the door was tall, though not as tall as Murdoch, with salt and pepper hair. He appeared well-groomed and dressed. He had a bruise under his left eye and a cut lip.

“May I help you?” he asked.

“Mr. Marshall, my name is Murdoch Lancer. I’d like a few minutes of your time.”

A frown covered his face as he stared at the rancher. “I doubt we have anything to say to each other, Mr. Lancer.”

“I have some things to say, Mr. Marshall, and I intend to say them,” Murdoch responded firmly.

“I see. Well, come in.”

Standing in the middle of the room, they faced off. He didn’t appear upset or frightened and Murdoch had to wonder how much this man knew about him and his son. The questions he had thought to ask were laid aside for the moment as he considered this new idea.

“Why don’t we sit?” Marshall offered.

Murdoch agreed and they sat in the two stuffed chairs near the window. “Could I offer you some coffee?”

“No, thank you. I’d like to ask you some questions.”

“I’ll try to answer what I can,” Marshall said.

“I suppose the first thing I want to ask is, how much do you know about Johnny?”

Marshall tensed at the name. “I know he packs a pretty good punch.”

“I understand you do as well. Especially against women and children,” Murdoch sneered.

Marshall’s back went up immediately at the accusation, then just as quickly a look of true remorse covered his face. “Yes, I suppose I did. I was in a pretty bad place in those days. A drunk with no prospects. Johnny was ….. he was independent and strong-willed and he had a mouth on him. He challenged me. That boy has guts.”

“Yes, he does.”

“Look, I didn’t even remember him at first. When the sheriff told me his name, it took a while.”

“But you do remember. You remember beating my son,” Murdoch ground out.

Marshall dropped his eyes and nodded slightly. “Yes, I remember. He stood up to me when I ….. I was hitting my wife.”

“And you beat him to a pulp!”

“I was drunk. I know that’s no excuse. What do you want from me, Mr. Lancer?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I don’t really know. I guess I just wanted to see your face. See if you’re still the same person.”

“I’m not. I’ve changed.”

Murdoch looked into the man’s eyes and saw the truth there. “What changed you?”

Marshall smiled. “Believe it or not, a woman. A good and strong woman who wouldn’t take my garbage. She got me dried out and my head on straight. Got me working and I’ve done pretty well for myself. We even got married,” he stopped as a look of pain came across his face.

“She died two years ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

Marshall looked surprised by the sympathy. “When did Johnny come home?”

“A year ago.”

“What did happen to him?”

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly, unable to blame his son. “He became Johnny Madrid.”

Marshall stared in unabashed surprise at the man before him. “I …. I had no idea.”

“Consider yourself lucky, Mr. Marshall. Johnny only hit you, it could have been much worse.”

Marshall swallowed hard and took a moment to collect his thoughts. “I had planned on trying to talk to him, trying to apologize. Do you think he would listen to me?”

Murdoch shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure. He’s angry, he’s always so angry,” he said mournfully.

“I want to try, though. If he kills me, well, I guess he’s got plenty of reason.”

“Johnny’s not a cold-blooded killer!” Murdoch hissed. Taking a breath, he added more calmly,” let me talk to him first. If he agrees to see you, I’ll send him here. Either way, you’ll have an answer in the next two days.”

“I didn’t mean …. alright. I’ll wait to hear from him.”

“Mr. Marshall, it’s going to take much more than an ‘I’m sorry’ to make amends. I don’t know if Johnny will ever forgive you and I’m not sure I can either.”

“I understand, Mr. Lancer.”

Murdoch rode home feeling a mixture of emotions. He knew how Johnny would react initially when he told him of the meeting. He knew it would take some talking before his son would begin to listen. What he didn’t know was whether Johnny would talk to this man. Murdoch got the distinct impression Marshall was telling the truth, that he was remorseful and had changed. Still, there was a knot in his stomach as he rode under the gate and toward the estancia.

He saw Doc walking out the door with Johnny and the tension built even more in his shoulders. Dismounting, he strode quickly to them and asked the question utmost on his mind.

“He seems to be just fine, Murdoch. No residual effects at all. I think it’s safe for him to go back to work tomorrow,” Sam reported.

“Thanks, Sam. Can you stay for supper?”

“Wish I could but I still have rounds to make. Johnny, I’d like to have at least a week without coming out here to tend to you,” Sam said with a cocked brow.

“I ain’t promisin nothing, Sam,” Johnny smiled brightly.

As they watched the doctor drive away, Murdoch took a sideways glance at his son. He seemed to be in good spirits. No time like the present, he thought with some trepidation.

“How are the books coming, son?”

“I’m done. Just in the nick of time, too. My head was startin to hurt,” Johnny teased.

Murdoch chuckled as well then his expression turned serious. “I need to talk to you, John. I did something today that I know you won’t be happy about. I want to say first that I felt it was something I needed to do and I’m glad I did. Let’s go inside.”

“What did you do?” Johnny asked, feeling a sense of dread wash over him as he walked into the living room.

“I went to see Dan Marshall.”

The dark shadow that fell over Johnny’s face caught Murdoch off guard. He had expected yelling and anger but this look and the silence that went with it unsettled him. Johnny looked ……. dangerous.

“Say something,” Murdoch fairly whispered.

But Johnny didn’t say anything, he just stood there with that same dark expression on his face. Murdoch was stunned by the feeling it evoked in him. He swallowed hard as he knew now what a man felt when he faced down Johnny Madrid in the street.

Johnny dropped his steely glare and turned his back on his father. Murdoch could see his shoulders tense so hard they fairly shook.

“I asked you to leave it alone,” Johnny said so softly Murdoch almost didn’t hear.

“I couldn’t, Johnny. I had to know what he did.”

Johnny turned and looked at him. “I told you what he did. What did he say?”

“The truth, I think. He admitted what he’d done.”

If it were physically possible, steam would have been coming out of Johnny’s ears. “So? What of it?”

“Just that he’s sorry and he wants to apologize to you. He said he’s changed and I believe he’s telling the truth,” Murdoch reported.

To his surprise, Johnny started laughing. “Did he tell you how he was a poor drunk and had no future? Did his eyes get all teary when he said it? Did he beg your forgiveness, Murdoch?”

“He was remorseful, Johnny. No, he didn’t beg me for anything. He said he met a woman who changed him.”

Johnny rolled his eyes at this information. “A woman, well that’s just great. He can go on back to her then.”

“She died.”

“I don’t care!”

“No reason you should. I know you’re angry, Johnny, and you have every right to be but, will you listen to what I have to say?”

“Not if you’re gonna defend him.”

“I’m not.”

Sighing heavily, he replied, “alright, I’ll listen.”

Johnny sat on the sofa and waited as Murdoch thought of how to say what was on his mind. Finally, he sat next to Johnny.

“I don’t expect you to forgive Marshall. I do expect you to forgive yourself. Johnny, you can’t keep all this anger locked up inside you forever. It will eat away at you until there’s nothing left but the bitterness.”

Johnny hung his head and said softly, “I’ve lived with this all my life, Murdoch. I know how to handle it. You don’t need to worry.”

“I do worry about you. What if you’d been less surprised at seeing Marshall in the saloon? What if you’d had time to think before you reacted? What would you have done differently?”

“I don’t know what you’re asking,” he frowned.

“Would you have killed him?” Murdoch asked point-blank.

Johnny stood up and walked to the fireplace, wrapping his arms around himself. “Is that what you think? That I would have shot that man down in cold blood? Is that what you think of me, Murdoch?”

“I don’t want to think that, Johnny, but ……”

“But after a year you still don’t know,” Johnny finished.

“I know you have the ability to think things through. I also know you don’t always do that. You act on instinct and, while that may have saved your life many times, it can also get you into a world of trouble.”

“Do I look like I’m in trouble to you? Have I ever been wanted for anything? No! I know how to control myself, Murdoch. You talk like I’m some blood-hungry lunatic!”

“Calm down!”

“You calm down! And while you’re at it, mind your own damned business!”

“I believe this is where I came in,” Scott said from the door.

“Stay out of this, Scott,” Johnny hissed.

“Gladly. Just do me a favor and leave the roof intact.”

“Johnny, we can’t talk about this if you don’t settle down,” Murdoch said gruffly.

“Then I won’t settle down. I told you to stay out of it. I told you it was over but you couldn’t leave it alone. You just had to know. What else do you want to know, Murdoch? Never mind, I can guess. Why don’t I just go upstairs and write the story of my life. You can compare it to that damned Pinkerton report you keep locked up!”

“Stop it! This is my business. You are my son and I will not allow anyone to hurt you and get away with it!”

“Then you’ve got a lot of work to do, old man,” Johnny said coldly.

Murdoch took a deep breath and held it for a moment. “Scott, would you leave us alone?”

“I ….. I don’t think I should,” Scott said, stunned at the pure hostility coming from his brother.

“I guess he thinks I can’t control myself either. Don’t worry, I ain’t gonna shoot him!” Johnny sneered.

“I didn’t think you would,” Scott said calmly. He looked at Murdoch once more and then left the room.

“I know you’ve been hurt more times than I can count, son. I know you’ve lived through hell and then some. This is what we’re dealing with right now, though. This man and this time in your life.” Murdoch’s voice was soft, gentle as he tried to tame his son’s wild spirit for a moment in time.

“What do you want from me?” Johnny implored.

“I want you to deal with this anger. I want you to be able to put it behind you. I want you to be happy.”

Murdoch’s heart dropped as Johnny suddenly took on the look of a cornered wild animal. He knew what was about to happen and he was determined to stop it.

“Don’t even think about walking away from me right now, John.”

Johnny bristled against his father being able to read him that well. “How do you deal with it, Murdoch? How do you deal with your wife runnin off with another man? How do you deal with not having your sons with you all their lives? Tell me, I really want to know because that’s obviously the only way to deal with anything. Your way.”

“I’m afraid I deal with it much the same way you do, son. By not dealing with it at all. I think it’s about time we both laid our demons to rest.”

Johnny smirked at this. “I don’t have that kind of time.”

Murdoch walked up to him then and put a hand on each shoulder. “Look at me, boy. The sarcasm isn’t going to work anymore. You can’t just shrug this off. You aren’t dealing with anything because if you were, you wouldn’t have attacked Marshall.”

“I told you I was just surprised to see him.”

“So, you were surprised. Johnny Madrid can handle surprises easily. Why is it Johnny Lancer can’t?”

“Guess I let my guard down since I’ve been here,” Johnny mumbled.

Murdoch smiled. “I’m glad you feel you’re able to do that, son. It doesn’t deal with the issue at hand, though. We all have a past and it’s hard when it comes back at you. Your past seems to do that quite a bit. I understand why but it’s all the more reason to deal with these things as they happen. If you can do that, I think you’ll find yourself better prepared for whatever comes along.”

Johnny felt very uncomfortable under this scrutiny. He didn’t want to do this now or ever. He especially didn’t want to do it with his father. He felt confined by the huge hands on his shoulders. They did nothing to comfort him even though he was sure that was the intent.

A sense of panic began to rise in him and he tried valiantly to fight it off. But it was no use, he couldn’t do it. He wrenched himself free from his father’s hold and stepped away.

A brief look of disappointment adorned Murdoch’s face when his son pulled away from him. Part of him said just drop it but part of him screamed to ask the question.

“Why did you do that?”

“Do what?” Johnny asked breathlessly.

“Pull away from me.”

Johnny turned his back and closed his eyes as he tried to calm the multitude of emotions warring inside him. He couldn’t answer the question and he had to wonder why Murdoch was pushing so hard this time.

“I asked you a question,” Murdoch pressed.

“I heard you.”

“I’d appreciate an answer, son.”

“I don’t have one,” Johnny whispered.

“You mean you don’t want to tell me.”

“Guess so.”

“Are you going to talk to Marshall?”

“Hell, no! And stop asking me about it! I have nothin to say to him and he’s got nothin I want to hear!”

“A man can change, Johnny. You taught me that.”

Johnny turned and looked at his father with a puzzled expression. “I haven’t changed, Murdoch. That’s what you don’t seem to understand. I’m the same person I’ve always been.”

“You’re more ….. settled than when you first came home.”

“Settled. Yeah, well …… look, it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”


“Listen to me. For once just listen. I hate that man with everything I am, Murdoch. I will not sit down with him. I will not listen to what he has to say. I don’t know how much plainer I can make it.”

“Then talk to me about your mother.”

Johnny was at the edge and he knew it. He knew if he stayed in this room any longer it was going to get very ugly. He could feel the rage from somewhere deep inside his very soul. He stared his father down.

He couldn’t say much, knew he’d better not. All he could say was, “No.” He walked out of the room without a backwards glance.

Murdoch sighed deeply and dropped his shoulders in defeat. This may have been the longest conversation he’d ever had with Johnny but it still ended the same. Johnny walked out.

“I take it things didn’t go well,” Scott said from the dining room.

“You take it right. He just walked out.”

“Well, he did stay longer than I expected. Murdoch, why are you pushing him so hard on this?”

“He hates that man, Scott. I mean truly hates him. He has so much anger inside him I’m afraid one of these days …..”

“He’ll explode? You don’t give him too much credit, do you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Murdoch, Johnny has been dealing with his own anger and pain for longer than … well, all his life. Now, all of the sudden, you think he needs help to deal with it.”

“Don’t you think what happened in town is proof?”

“No sir, I don’t. I think Johnny was caught off guard and he reacted. I’ve never seen him out of control like that. I know I was the one who said we should find out what was going on, but I’ve been thinking about this. I don’t think he needs our help. I think he’s dealing with it in his own way and you have to let him, Murdoch.”

“I just don’t know, Scott. Â I worry about his peace of mind.”

Scott had to smile at this. “I’m glad to hear that but you can’t push him. You should know that already.”

Johnny rode out into a meadow at a canter. He was angry but not foolish. He remembered the head injury he’d received and he wasn’t anxious to have a repeat performance. The breeze felt good on his face and the grass never smelled sweeter. He stopped by a stream and let Barranca roam free.

Sitting at the edge of the water, he skimmed stones over the lipid surface, counting how many times he could make the pebbles dance. He stopped and closed his eyes, tilting his face back to catch the sun.

His thoughts went back to that day so long ago. He remembered the look on her face as Marshall attacked her. He remembered the look when he’d gotten in the middle of it, too. She was stunned. He had to smile a little. She’d told him later that no one had ever tried to help her before. Let alone a twelve-year-old boy.

She had bound his ribs and washed the blood from his face. She’d made a pallet of hay in the barn and made him promise to stay quiet. If Marshall knew he was still around, she knew he would kill the boy.

Johnny had talked to her that night for hours. He’d told her about his mother and how she’d died. He told her he was afraid for her. That she might meet the same fate. He’d pleaded and cajoled to get her to leave. But, in the end, she had stayed behind. She’d gotten him out of there, found a place where he could heal and left him food, water and medicines.

He had thought of going back, trying again to talk her into leaving. But she was just like his mother. Too afraid of being on her own. Unable to find the courage to make a stand. He reckoned that’s why he hated Marshall so much. He reminded him of the man who’d killed his mother. The man he had killed.

In a flash he was on his feet, gun drawn and ready as he turned to face the sound of an approaching horse.

“You must have some kind of death wish,” he said icily.

“No, I don’t. But I figured if you’re determined to kill me, I can’t stop you,” Marshall said as he dismounted.

Johnny only glared at the man.

“I wanted to talk to you. Will you listen?”

“Why should I?”

“No reason in the world, boy. I just hoped I could make you understand some things about me,” Marshall said.

Johnny holstered his gun then turned away and sat back down.

Marshall took a chance and sat down next to him. “When I was a kid, my old man used to beat the tar outta me and my brother. Ma too, if she tried to stop him. She always told us it was just his way of showing he cared, because if he didn’t he wouldn’t have bothered.”

“That’s stupid,” Johnny snorted.

“Yep, it is. But she loved us and wanted us to love him. Thing is, I believed her. I mean, why wouldn’t I? She was my ma and I never thought she’d lie to me.”

“Well, mother’s lie all the time, Marshall. Found that out myself,” Johnny said coldly.

Marshall frowned, but decided to let the comment slide. “I met a woman few years back. For some reason she cared about me. Took me in and looked after me. First time I hit her she knocked me clean out with a skillet.”

Johnny almost laughed. He would have liked to have seen that. He sobered then. “What happened to Lilly?”

“She left me not long after you took off. Came home one night and she was gone. Left a note saying she couldn’t live with me anymore. Six months later, I got divorce papers.”

“Good, I’m glad she got away from you. So, what did this new woman do different?” Johnny asked, not sure why he was bothering.

“When I came to I was in jail. She was there, waiting for me to wake up. She started talking to me. Not yelling or mad or anything but just talking. She got me to talk about my pa and stuff. Woman should have been a nun or something. She had the patience of a saint. She showed me why I acted like I did. I never even put two and two together before that. I guess nobody ever questioned me about it before. She said if I promised never to hit her again, no matter how mad I got, she’d give me another chance. She said she could show me how a man was supposed to be with a woman and she did. Boy howdy, she surely did. Sweetest thing there ever was,” he stopped, looking off in the distance.

“What happened to her?” Johnny asked.

“She died. Got small pox. I took care of her until the end. Prayed I’d get it too, so I could be with her. But, it wasn’t to be, I reckon,” he sighed.

“So you’re saying that because your old man beat on you is why you thought it was okay to beat on your wife. Well, I got beat plenty as a kid and I have never hit a woman or a child and I never will,” Johnny said.

“You became a gunfighter. That’s how you dealt with the violence,” Marshall said flatly.

Johnny looked at him with surprise, then turned away. He had hit the nail on the head, he reckoned.

“Johnny, all I can say is how truly sorry I am. If I’d been a better man back then, well we might have been a family for each other. As it is, I only caused you a lot of pain and grief. I can’t ever make that up to you. I wish I could, wish I could make it all go away.”

“You can’t. What you did, it wasn’t the first time or the last. Whole lot of other things went along with it.”

“Can you forgive me, Johnny? If you can’t, I understand and I’ll leave. I just wanted to try and explain things to you is all. I don’t want you to hate me, though you have every right.”

“Why do you care what I think?” Johnny asked.

“After my wife died, I spent a lot of time talking to a priest. He’s the only reason I didn’t turn right back to the bottle. He told me, and it makes sense, that if I really want to be at peace, I have to apologize to the people I’ve hurt. I’ve already seen Lilly, talked to her. She’s remarried and got two kids. She’s happy and she forgave me.”

“Two kids, huh?” Johnny smiled. “Look, you don’t need my forgiveness, Marshall.”

“You’re wrong, Johnny. I do need it but I know it’s something you have to be willing to give. I’ll understand if you can’t. It’s just ……”


“Well, don’t get mad, but I think you need to forgive me. For your own sake, I mean. For your own peace of mind.”

They sat in silence for a while as the night fell upon them. Johnny watched as the stars made their grand entrance and the moon rose to greet them. It almost always calmed him, this time of day.

Marshall watched him, mesmerized by the look on the young man’s face. He didn’t want to speak, to break the spell, but he knew he had to ask. “Do you want me to leave?”

Johnny remained silent for a long time. He took a deep breath and looked at the man who had hurt him so much.

“I’ve done a lot of bad things, had a lot of bad things done to me. I always thought I’d be dead by now and I didn’t really care. Until I came here, I had no reason to think there was anything else for me in this world. Now, I have a family. A father who wants me and a brother I never knew I had. They gave me a chance to turn my life around, to be somebody. I reckon I can’t deny anybody else that right. I accept your apology.”

Marshall smiled and extended his hand which Johnny accepted. He laid his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and squeezed. “Murdoch Lancer is the luckiest man alive.”

“Yeah? Tell him that,” Johnny said softly.

“Why, doesn’t he know it?”

“I don’t know. We don’t always get along so good.”

“Why, Johnny?”

“He wants to know about my past, but I just can’t,” Johnny shrugged.

“Well, maybe someday you’ll be able to,” Marshall said.

“Maybe. I’d better head back. Boston might start a search party,” Johnny grinned.

“I remember that smile. It’s really nice to see it again,” Marshall said and Johnny thought he saw something else in the man’s eyes. Something akin to affection.

He looked curiously at Marshall. “You plannin on stayin in Green River?”

“No, I was just passing through. On my way to San Francisco and a new job.”

Johnny nodded. “Good luck.”

“Johnny, I …..”

“Enough’s been said. You got your redemption. Goodbye,” Johnny smiled slightly and rose to his feet. He walked to Barranca and mounted up. Turning the palomino toward Marshall, he allowed the smile to play on his lips. He turned and rode away.

Marshall watched him go, smiling back. “I hope you get yours, too, Johnny.”

Murdoch paced the great room waiting. He glanced at the grandfather clock every few seconds and shook his head.

Scott watched the vigil with some amusement. He was beginning to see a pattern with Murdoch. It had taken a year but he was finally coming to know the man’s moods. He only hoped the worry adorning his father’s face didn’t turn to anger when Johnny came home.

With this thought barely through his mind, he heard the front door open. He almost laughed out loud when Murdoch strode quickly to a chair and picked up the Sacramento newspaper.

Johnny peeked around the door before walking in. Shoulders down, he prepared himself for another bout with his father.

Murdoch glanced up then returned to ‘reading’ the paper. “You missed supper, John.”

“I’ll get something later.” Johnny walked slowly into the living room and made a wide circle around the opposite end of the sofa from his father.

Scott was reminded of a cat scoping out the territory and he couldn’t hide the smile on his lips.

Johnny sighed loudly and ended up by the fireplace, watching his father closely.

Murdoch felt his eyes on him put he forced himself not to look up. He was determined not to be the one to start this conversation. If there was even going to be a conversation.

“You want to talk?” Johnny finally asked.

Murdoch looked up at him and dropped the paper to his lap. He folded it and laid it on the table. “Yes.”

Scott sighed and stood up. “Well, I guess this is a good time to finish that book.”

Johnny gave him a small smile of gratitude as he walked past.

Once alone, the two men were silent. Neither was sure what to say.

“I saw him,” Johnny said flatly.


“Out on the range. Guess he came lookin for me.”

Murdoch bit his tongue before he asked Johnny if the man was still alive. Instead he remained quiet.

“We talked and, well, it’s okay now.”

“Is it?”

“Yeah, I forgave him.”

Murdoch nodded and stood up. “Just like that.”

“No, Murdoch, not just like that. He told me his story and we talked about things.”

“Would you tell me?”

“Yeah, but you won’t like it.”

“I didn’t think I would.”

Johnny glanced sideways at his father then walked over to the sideboard. He poured a glass of brandy and one of tequila and handed the brandy off to Murdoch.

He downed the tequila and set the glass down. “I’m not sure where to start. Lilly, that was his wife, was good to me. She was like a mother to me. When he started hitting her, it reminded me.”

“Reminded you?”

“Yeah,” Johnny sighed the word. He was finding it hard to get a good breath into his lungs at the moment. “Of my mother and…..”

“How she died,” Murdoch finished sadly.


“So, you got away but she didn’t.”

“Turns out she did. Marshall told me she left him not long after I took off. He said he’s seen her since and she’s remarried, got a family. She’s happy,” he smiled at the thought.

“I’m glad for that, son. You understand, don’t you? Why you had so much hate for Marshall?”

“Sure, I know. He reminded me of the bastard that killed my mother.” The corner of Johnny’s mouth lifted. “Is that enough for you? I mean, are you satisfied that you know enough now?” It was an honest question with no sarcasm or anger.

“Honestly, no. But it’s enough for tonight. I missed everything with you, Johnny. Your entire life. I guess I want to understand and try to recapture some of it.”

“You can’t, you know. I mean, I’m not a kid anymore. Don’t think I ever really was one. That time is gone and we can’t get it back.”

The pain in his eyes was almost too much for Murdoch. Smiling, he said, “I’m not so sure about that. I’ve seen you with the children around here. You are a kid with them.”

Johnny smiled and nodded a little. “Think I’ll head to bed now.”

“You should eat.”

Johnny grabbed the tequila bottle and shrugged. “This will do fine. The worm’s still there.” Grinning, he swirled the clear liquid around in the bottle.

“I’ll make sure Scott doesn’t wake you up too early,” Murdoch smiled.

“Thanks. And, thanks for …. putting up with me.”

Murdoch walked over and put a hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “Maybe some time you’ll tell me why you pulled away from me earlier today.”

Johnny dropped his head and shrugged. “Maybe.”

The next morning, Scott found a note tacked to Johnny’s door that simply said, ‘let your brother sleep’. He smiled a little and headed downstairs to the kitchen.

“Good morning. I got your note,” he greeted.

“Good, he drank his dinner.”

Scott couldn’t decipher his father’s tone, so he asked. “That bad?”

“No, he just has a lot on his mind, son. He spoke with Marshall yesterday.”

“How did that go?”

“He said he forgave the man. I guess he listened to him and realized he’d changed.”

Scott raised an eyebrow. “You mean he didn’t shoot him on sight?”

“Not funny,” Murdoch growled.

“Well, I think I will get some work done. Tell Johnny to take it easy today. I can pick up the slack.”

Murdoch smiled. “Thank you, son.”

Murdoch tapped lightly on Johnny’s door, not really expecting an answer. So he was a little surprised when he got one.

He opened the door and smiled at his son sitting up in the bed. Â “Good morning.”


“How’s your head?” Murdoch grinned.

Johnny smiled. “It’s fine.” He picked up the tequila bottle from the floor beside his bed. Holding it up for inspection so Murdoch could see it was almost full.

“I guess you weren’t that hungry.”

Johnny laughed softly. “Guess not. Just really tired.”

“Scott said he’ll do your chores today so you can rest,” Murdoch said and started to leave.

“Just a minute, Murdoch.”

He turned back with a questioning look.

“You made me a promise and I expect you to keep it. No catches, remember?” Johnny cocked a brow.

Murdoch looked a little nervous just then. “Yes, I remember. When you’ve rested more, though.”

“I’m rested enough, thank you.”

“You should eat, son. You missed a couple of meals already.”

“Nice stall tactic but it won’t work.”

Murdoch sighed and pulled a chair next to the bed. “Alright, go ahead.”

” Forget it. You don’t want to do this.”

“I said go ahead, Johnny.”

“Yeah, but you look like a deer caught in the crosshairs. Look, don’t trouble yourself, Murdoch.”

“Johnny, what do you want to know?” Murdoch asked grumpily.

“Nothing. I don’t want to know a thing. Just go run your ranch or something. I’m going to work,” Johnny replied harshly.

“Scott said he’d do your chores today.”

“No need. I can put in a day’s work just like all the other hands,” Johnny shot and jumped out of bed. He grabbed his pants and pulled them on, then headed to the dresser and jerked open a drawer.

“What are you so mad about now!?”

“Mad? I’m not mad, Murdoch. I don’t know what I was thinking? I mean, I actually thought you’d want to talk to me. Must be that concussion making me think crazy thoughts.”

“I do want to talk to you, son,” Murdoch said, lowering his voice.

“Right. After I’ve slept more, had a few meals. Hell, why don’t you just come back when you decide what you’re gonna tell me. I’m sure you wouldn’t actually answer a question!” With that, he grabbed his boots and stalked out of the room.

Johnny bounded down the steps, stopping at the landing to pull on his boots. He grabbed his gunbelt and was strapping it on when Murdoch caught up with him.

“I don’t understand what set you off, Johnny.”

“That’s pretty evident. Look, we made a deal the other day, didn’t we?”

“I remember.”

“Do you? Cause you sure were doing everything you could think of to hedge on it! Don’t matter. You don’t want to tell me anything and I won’t ever tell you anything else,” he announced and turned to leave.

“Wait,” Murdoch said, grabbing his arm.

Johnny pulled free and turned to face him. “Come see me when you decide you really want to be my father and not my boss!” he sneered and walked out.

Murdoch stood at the door, stunned at Johnny’s words. He watched the young man walk purposefully to the barn before he closed the door. He walked into the living room and shook his head.

‘Okay, so I wasn’t prepared. It’s not like I didn’t have to drag every word out of him. Was I really that bad?’ These thoughts ran through his mind as he tried to figure out what had just happened. ‘When I decide I want to be his father? I’ve always wanted to be his father!’

Murdoch’s anger rose and he walked outside, heading to the barn. He saw Johnny mount Barranca and knew he wouldn’t be able to catch him. Taking a deep breath, he resolved to settle this tonight.

Scott came upon his brother repairing the fence line he was about to start on at mid-morning. He was startled then concerned to see Johnny. He watched as the younger man worked like a demon. Scott sighed.

“What are you doing? I thought you were going to take it easy today,” he asked.

“Guess you thought wrong,” Johnny replied, not bothering to stop his work or face his brother.

“What happened,” he asked in a tired voice.

The tone of Scott’s voice caused Johnny to stop and face him. “Don’t worry about it,” he said flatly.


Johnny held up a hand to stop his brother. “Look, this doesn’t concern you so just forget about it.”

“You got in an argument with him, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I did, Scott. Why? You gonna make it all better? Don’t bother. In fact, don’t get involved at all.”

Scott’s jaw clinched tight for a second. “Alright, Johnny, I won’t. If you’re okay here, I have some steers to locate.”

“I’m fine,” Johnny said unconvincingly. He turned back to his work.

Scott shook his head ruefully. Maybe he should stop getting between the two of them. Maybe he should just let them kill each other. He mounted his horse and rode away without another word.

It was dark when Johnny got home. He took his time bedding Barranca down. When he finally went to the house, he walked around the back and entered through the kitchen. It was empty and dark so he lit a lamp and checked the oven. Sure enough, Maria had left him a plate. He smiled at her thoughtfulness. He sometimes wondered why the woman was so good to him.

He poured himself a glass of milk and sat down at the table. He was almost finished when he heard footfalls coming through from the dining room. Johnny sighed heavily as he recognized Murdoch’s stride.

“Oh, I didn’t know you were home,” Murdoch said, a bit startled.

“Haven’t been here long.”

Murdoch nodded and walked over to the stove. He grabbed a cup and poured some coffee. “Want some?”

“No, thanks.”

“Probably shouldn’t drink it so late, myself.”

“Probably not. Well, goodnight,” Johnny said and stood up.

“Johnny, I……”

He turned back and saw his father was faltering. Without another word, Johnny walked up the stairs.

Murdoch sighed and took a sip of lukewarm coffee. Frowning, he walked back to the living room and sat in front of the fire. ‘Why can’t I talk to him?’ he wondered.

Johnny walked into his bedroom and closed the door a bit loudly. He unbuttoned his shirt but left it on. He threw open the window and stuck his head out, breathing in the sweet night air.

“I don’t know why I’m bothering to ask but, are you alright?” Scott said from the door.

“Sorry if I woke you,” Johnny mumbled.

“That’s okay.”

“I’m alright, Scott. Go back to bed.”

“If you won’t talk to me at least be honest, Johnny. You are not alright.”

“Okay, I’m not but it’s nothing different than it ever is.”

“Which one of you wouldn’t talk this time?” Scott asked wryly.

Johnny turned on him. “I’m glad you’re so amused by this, brother. Next time, I’ll make sure you get a ring side seat!”

“I’m sorry, was I being sarcastic? I can’t imagine why,” Scott snorted.

“Look, just leave it alone.”

“Oh, I will. I have decided to let you two kill each other. That way, I’ll have some peace and quiet.” Scott turned and closed the door behind him as he left.

Johnny leaned against the window frame and stared at the closed door. ‘Even Scott’s getting fed up with this. I guess it’s time to have it out once and for all. Not just yet, though. Let him simmer for a day or two.’

Two days passed and father and son had barely spoken to each other. Good morning and good night were their longest conversations. Murdoch could feel the dam was about to burst. He felt Johnny was waiting for something. What, he didn’t know. But he thought he should wait. Let Johnny come to him when he was ready.

He hated second-guessing himself. He’d spent an enormous amount of time doing that these past few days. Sometimes he thought he should just sit on the boy and other times he resolved to stay with his first thoughts and wait it out.

He looked up from his desk at the sound of the front door opening. Johnny walked into the living room quietly.

“What’s wrong?” Murdoch asked.

“Why does something have to be wrong?”

“You aren’t usually home in the middle of the day,” Murdoch shrugged.

“I thought it was time for us to talk. Are you ready or do you want me to make an appointment?”

“Sarcasm is anger’s ugly cousin, Johnny.”

Johnny looked at him strangely and shrugged.

Murdoch sat still for a minute as he considered how to go about this. “Johnny, I’ve been thinking about what you said the other day. About me wanting to be a father and not a boss? What did you mean?”

“Nothing, Murdoch. It just popped in my head, is all.”

“It must have popped in there for a reason.”

“Look, I know why I’m here, okay? I know my purpose. Just drop it.”

“No, I don’t want to drop it. Why do you think you’re here?”

“Very high-priced gun,” Johnny shrugged.

“That’s not true and you know it! Are you trying to hurt me?”

“Hurt you? Is that possible?” Johnny shouted.

“Believe it or not, it is. I asked you here for your help, yes. But I also asked you to stay.”

“No, Murdoch. You paid me to stay. Scott, too.”

“Where is all this coming from all the sudden?” Murdoch asked.

Johnny shook his head. “It’s not all the sudden. Just because nothin’s been said doesn’t mean it hasn’t been thought.”

Johnny moved away, he needed to pace. “It’s in the past, gone. That’s what you said that first day. The first day either one of us can remember seeing your face. You should have made it a little clearer, Murdoch. Your past is gone, ours is open season.”

“I wasn’t expecting you to bring it up that morning. I was surprised,” Murdoch defended.

“Caught off guard?” Johnny’s eyebrow went up.

“Yes, I ….” Murdoch stopped. He’d fallen right into it. “Well done, John. You made your point. But I still want to talk. I will answer your questions. When I make a promise, I keep it.”

Johnny studied his face for a few seconds, contemplating his question. “I spent some time thinking about this, you know. I figure if I get one answer, I’ll be lucky.”

Murdoch said nothing.

Johnny walked over and sat across from his father’s desk. “A lot of times I feel like I’m just another hired hand. You and me, we butt heads a lot. Seems like we can’t talk to each other without one or both of us gettin mad. I don’t think you trust me. I understood that at first. I mean, you didn’t even know me. I didn’t know you either and I didn’t trust you. Now, well, I see you with other people. You’re always patient and understanding. I have to wonder why you aren’t that way with me. You told me once you wished you had time to break me in gently. I’ve always wondered about that. I mean, what was the big hurry? I think you just wanted me to decide my entire life in two seconds and I couldn’t.”

“I wanted you to feel like you belonged here. I didn’t give you much of chance to find that out. I thought if I pushed hard, you’d either settle in or break and run.”

“You think of me as a wild horse, Murdoch?”

“No, of course not!”

“Then why do you treat me that way?”

“I admit I was wrong. I should have given you more time, more space.”

“You talk like it’s the past. Like I’m all settled in here. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t stand another minute. I feel like I have to get away. Especially when we’re goin at each other. I’m not used to that. I’m not used to answering to anyone about anything. It takes more than a few months to make that go away.”

“What do you need, Johnny? What do you want me to do?”

Johnny looked up into his father’s eyes. “I want you to treat me the same way you treat Scott. With respect.”

Murdoch felt like someone knocked the air out of him. He stared at Johnny for an interminable moment. “I do respect you.”

“No, you don’t. You tolerate me sometimes, not always. You order me around, you yell, but you never ask me my opinion. You never ask me what I think about anything.”

“I …. you never seem interested in the business end.”

“Why do you think that is? Because I know you think I don’t know squat about it. That I’m stupid or at least not as smart as Scott. Well, maybe I’m not as smart as my brother but I’m not stupid either. I’ve been around ranches a long time. I know how things work. I’m not saying I know everything but I never will at this rate.”

“I guess I always thought you preferred the manual labor.”

“I do. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t know about the rest of it. Murdoch, you’ve spent hours at night showing Scott the books, teaching him about the business. Why haven’t you ever done that with me?”

Murdoch dropped his head and stared at his desk. “I guess I thought you wouldn’t listen to me. You never seem to.”

“Seem to,” Johnny sighed, discouraged. “You know nothing about me, do you? After all this time, you still know absolutely nothing. Maybe you don’t want to. Maybe all that stuff with Marshall was your guilty conscience. It happened because you failed to find me and bring me home.”

“No! I was worried about you!”

“Why this time? Why not any other time, Murdoch? You weren’t worried about me with Pardee. You gave up on me the minute I left this house. The minute I caught a bullet in the back for you! Yeah, I know what you said. It’s too late. Don’t bother.”

“Now wait just a minute! I never said don’t bother. I thought you were dead, Johnny. I didn’t see how anyone could have survived that fall. It nearly killed me to have to stand there and watch that!” Murdoch stood up quickly and began pacing the room.

“You have no idea what it’s like to watch your own son be shot down in front of you. No idea at all. Especially when that son has been away from you for so long. I had you back for a moment in time only to watch you taken away from me yet again! I suppose part of me expected it to happen. I didn’t deserve another chance with you. Part of me thought I’d lose you one way or the other. I still think that.”

“Is that why you do it? Why you fight with me? Why you never give me a break? You don’t want to get close because you’re afraid I’ll leave?” Johnny was astonished at this insight.

Murdoch stopped his pacing with his back to Johnny. He stood perfectly still, his shoulders drawn tight as a drum. “Yes.”

Johnny swallowed hard and dropped his head into his hand. “You’re pushing me away first. You think it’ll be easier that way.” They weren’t questions, they were observations. “Don’t you get it, Murdoch? The more you push, the more I think you don’t want me here.”

Murdoch turned quickly to face his son. Astonishment adorned his face. “Don’t want you here? I have always wanted you here, Johnny. Since the day you were born, no, before you were born. I’ve always wanted you back.”

“Why couldn’t you just tell me that? Why do you have to make it so damned hard?”

Murdoch closed his eyes and shook his head. “I was always taught anything worth having took a lot of work.”

“It does but you can’t fight yourself and get it.”

Murdoch smiled a little. “That makes sense.” He sat back down next to Johnny and laid his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Sometimes, when your pushin at me so hard, I feel like I can’t breathe. I can’t think straight. Nobody else has that kind of affect on me. But with you, it’s like … like I’m never gonna be good enough. No matter what I do, it’s never gonna measure up in your eyes. Even when you’re trying to do what you think is right for me, I can’t help thinking you’re judging me.”

“That’s why you pulled away from me the other night.”


“I’m sure I’ve given you plenty of reason to feel that way, son. Â Looking back, I can see the mistakes I’ve made. It seems I just keep making the same ones. No one has the affect on me that you do, either. I think it’s because I remember you as a baby. I want so much ….. well, you not a baby anymore.”

“I’m not blameless here, either. I know I can be a pain. I guess I just want you to …. accept me for who I am. Not who you remember and want me to be.”

“Do you think we could try again? Start over?”

“I’d like that. If we could get it right this time, that would be a nice change.”

Murdoch watched him from profile, unsure if Johnny believed they could get it right. “I’m not sure what it will take, son.”

Johnny turned to face him, his expression set and determined. “It’s going to take an exorcism.”

“A what?”

“You heard me. It’s time to face the ghost between us, Murdoch. She’s not going anywhere until we let her.”

Murdoch nodded his head. “What can I tell you?”

“I know you don’t know why she left. I think you want to know more than anything. If you think I have a clue, I don’t. The only time she ever spoke your name was to tell me you didn’t want me. I don’t have any answers for you.”

“I’ll admit, I always wondered what you knew. It’s a little disappointing that you don’t. I guess it will remain a mystery.”

“I also can’t help looking like her and I don’t appreciate being punished for it,” Johnny said flatly.

Murdoch looked at him with surprise. “What are you talking about?”

Johnny dropped his head and shook it sadly. “If you aren’t going to be honest with me, Murdoch, this won’t work.”

Murdoch grimaced. “Am I that obvious?”


“When I first saw you, I couldn’t believe how much you resembled her. It took my breath away.”

“And then it pissed you off.”

“Johnny, I did love your mother.”

“Yeah, but she left and took me along for the ride. ‘You’ve got your mother’s temper’. That’s what you said to me. You’re mad at her and I can’t blame you for that. But, I’m not her and it’s just not fair for you to take it out on me.”

“You’re right, son, it isn’t. Yes, I am still angry with her. I have a lot of regrets where Maria is concerned. I have a lot of regrets where you’re concerned, too.”

“I don’t want regrets, Murdoch.”

“What do you want?”

“A father! I don’t even know what that means except for what I’ve seen. I don’t know what it feels like to have someone ….. love me unconditionally.” Johnny’s voice faltered here, his treble unsteady.

“God, I ….. I didn’t know you felt that way. I have always loved you, son.”

“Why? Because you’re supposed to?”

“No! Because you’re a part of me. You’re the result of the love between a man and a woman. You should be cherished, nurtured, taught and loved….”

Johnny snorted at this. “Should be, could have been, what if’s. I’m sick of it. Sick inside from it. I don’t care anymore about the past. I don’t care what happened or why she left or even why she lied to me. All I care about is whether I can have a life here. All I want is to be a part of this family. God knows why, but I do.”

Murdoch couldn’t help but smile at the last sentence. He even began to chuckle. Johnny looked at him as if he’d lost his mind.

“I’m sorry, son. I have to wonder why you or your brother would even want to bother,” he laughed.

“Maybe we both see something worth the effort, old man,” Johnny said, a smile threatening his lips.

“I sure hope so, son. I want you both in my life. I always have and I’ll always regret many things. But, I’m grateful, too. Grateful that you both stayed. That you’ve both given me chance upon chance. I can’t promise you we’ll never argue again, but I can promise you I will never dismiss you out of hand again.”

Johnny nodded and gave him a small smile. “That’s all I can ask for. Besides, sometimes, I like fighting with you.”

Murdoch grabbed his shoulder and squeezed and shook it vigorously.

Johnny’s face took on a quizzical look. “Would you like to go for a ride with me?”

Murdoch’s eyebrows went up. “I’d love to, son.”

The two of them took off at a gallop across the wide open meadow. Johnny took the lead but Murdoch knew exactly where he was headed. South mesa. He smiled, knowing Johnny loved the land as much as he did. It filled his heart to know how much the ranch had come to mean to both his sons in a short amount of time.

Johnny pulled his hat off his head, letting it settle on his back. He lifted his face to the sun and let the breeze run wild through his hair. He looked over at his father as he caught up and gave him a big smile.

Whatever happened from here on out, Johnny knew some things for certain. Murdoch was willing to try and wanted to try. His father wanted him here but best of all, he was loved. His heart filled to bursting with the knowledge and he made a vow to himself right then. As soon as they reached south mesa, he was going to make sure Murdoch had no doubts as to his feelings either.

Then, tonight he would make up with his brother. Make sure Scott understood and make it plain that he wasn’t expected to be the peacemaker. It was time Scott was let off the hook. Time for his brother to relax and enjoy his life instead of always waiting for the next big row.

Johnny decided to talk to Murdoch about that, too. Make sure they were on the same page. He didn’t want Murdoch encouraging Scott to keep or make the peace between them. It was up to the two of them to make their own way together. And all three of them to make their way as a family.


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