A Question of Ownership by Desert Sun

Word count 16,847

(Note:  This story takes place a few days before the partnership agreement between the Lancers was signed in the opening episode and precedes the Catch a Wild Horse episode by 5-6 weeks.  In the timeline of my stories, it comes shortly after the ending of First Cattle Drive.)

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Chapter 1 – Conflicting Views

From high overhead, the sun brightened all in the path of its rays.  Johnny Madrid rested his elbows on the top rail of the corral fence surrounding the barnyard of the Lancer hacienda and looked out over the rolling hillside dotted with oak trees.  Scattered here and there in the shade beneath their sprawling branches, he could see pairs of horses standing head-to-tail.  None of them looked like Barranca.

Johnny let out a shrill whistle.

A few heads raised and looked his way, but that was all.  There was no sound of pounding hooves or the flash of gold racing toward him like there had been for the past four weeks since he had recovered enough from the bullet wound in his back to be able to walk to the barn.

He tried again.

Still nothing.  Where was Barranca?

Footsteps scuffed the dirt behind him.  “Señor.  You call el caballo palido, no?”

Johnny turned to face the husky, middle-aged vaquero, whose name was Cipriano, and nodded.   “You seen him?”

“Sì.  Señor Scott, he rides him.”

Johnny’s brow puckered.   “Where’d he go?”

“He goes to the north pasture to look for the cattle.”

Johnny pushed past Cipriano and strode to the house—spurs jangling and boot heels clomping all the way.  He had picked out Barranca that first morning at the ranch.  Scott knew that so why had he taken that horse?  Didn’t he know better than to take another man’s horse without asking; that it was the same as stealing?  Or did he think being part owner of the ranch gave him the right to ride any horse he wanted?  Well, there was one way to set him straight: get a bill of sale.

The anger inside of Johnny grew with each step.  Hadn’t he looked forward to this day for weeks—waiting for the day he was set free?  Free to go where he wanted on his choice of the horses instead of riding some broken-down nag and going no farther than the edge of the fields near the house.  Hadn’t he done what his old man wanted and let the doctor call the tune— waiting until the wound in his back had healed to where he was out of danger of tearing something up and staying off of Barranca because the horse was barely broken to saddle?   Hadn’t he promised Barranca last night that they could go for a good run this afternoon once Doc Jenkins gave the okay?  So why had Scott taken the horse today?  Was it out of spite?  The only time he had ridden Barranca was on that first day so he could prove how good he could ride.

Once inside the broad entry hall, Johnny flung the heavy door shut with a slam that rattled the pictures on the wall. Breathing hard, he marched through the doorway into the living and headed toward the large, oak desk in front of the tall, round-topped window on the far side of the room.

The gray-haired man at the desk peered over top of the paper in his left hand.  A frown furrowed his brow as Johnny approached, and his deep voice filled the room.  “I thought you were going to ride out to Calf Gulch and check on the water.”

“I was, but it seems my horse was stolen.”  Johnny spoke as he covered the remaining distance in two long strides and stopped in front of the desk.        

The paper slipped from Murdoch’s fingers and fluttered to the desk.  “Stolen!  How?  When?”

Heat rose in Johnny’s cheeks and his thumbs rubbed against the tips of his fingers while his arms dangled at his sides. “By that Boston son of yours, that’s how.”

Murdoch scowled.  “What do you mean?  How could Scott steal something that belongs to the ranch?”

Johnny’s fingers continued their dance while he put on his gunfighter face and spoke in a soft voice that still carried an edge.  “Barranca’s mine.  I broke him.  Scott took him without askin’ and that’s stealin’.”

With a sigh, Murdoch propped his elbows on the desk and leaned forward.  “The horses are all part of the ranch stock,” he said in a mollifying tone.  “Scott can ride any one he chooses, just as you can.”

Johnny didn’t alter his expression or stance. 

Murdoch twisted and waved a hand toward the window.  “Johnny, there’s a pasture full of horses out there.  Surely you can find one that will take you as far as the waterhole and back.”

“I don’t want just any horse.  I want Barranca.  I broke him and I’m the one who’s been working with him.  That makes him mine.”  Johnny’s hands clenched and unclenched as he spoke.

Anger glinted in Murdoch’s eyes and crept into his voice.  “He belongs to the ranch and that’s that.  You have a job to do; do it!”  He ended with a dismissive flip of his right hand.

The heat in Johnny’s face blazed hotter.  “Name a price and I’ll buy him, then.”

With fingers spread and thumbs out of sight, Murdoch wrapped his hands over the edge of his desk and leaned back in his chair.  “I told you, he belongs to the ranch.”

Johnny raised a fist and used it to punctuate his words, his voice pitching upward.  “Barranca’s mine!  I ain’t sharing him with Scott . . . or anybody else.  You got that, Old Man?  So you just name the price.”

Murdoch lunged to his feet, his chair skidding backward.  One of his massive fists slammed onto the desk.  “I said he’s not for sale!  I call the tune here and the subject is not up for further discussion.  Now get out there and check the waterhole like you said you were going to do.  And don’t ever call me ‘Old Man’ again!”  As his words became louder, he grabbed the cane that was leaning against the wall to his right, raised the tip waist high, and ended his tirade with it pointed at his son.

Johnny drew back a step.  His right hand dropped to the butt of the revolver hanging against his thigh while the fingers of his other hand flexed.

The end of the cane wobbled slightly and Murdoch froze in place alongside the edge of the desk.

Johnny’s heart pounded.  His throat tightened and his mind went back to another place and time.  Another man stood in front of him–a giant of a man with raised whip ready to lash out again and again.

Silence filled the room except for the ticking of a clock.   Neither man moved.  Neither shifted his eyes.  It was a game Johnny had played before.  He had no intention of losing.

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Chapter 2 – Searching for Answers

The corner of the big oak desk and a span of two arm lengths was all that separated Murdoch Lancer from his younger son.  A mix of anger, fear, and confusion waged war in Murdoch’s head at the sight of Johnny standing before him like a gunfighter ready to draw.

Murdoch started to speak and saw the gun in his son’s grip slide upward.   “Johnny,” he hoarsely whispered.

Johnny’s eyelids fluttered, his chest heaved, and his head tipped forward.  The gun slipped back into place and his hand fell to his side.  Without a word, he spun on his heels and strode out of the room.

Pent up air burst from Murdoch’s lungs and his legs trembled as he watched his son leave.  What was the boy thinking?  Why had he gone for his gun?  Was he thinking of shooting his own father?

Gradually Murdoch’s shoulders slumped and his breathing slowed.  He set the cane against the wall and slumped into his chair behind the desk.

A new emotion stirred in the depths of Murdoch’s being and pushed out the numbness that had taken over his mind.  He smacked the top of the desk with the flat of his hand.  Johnny’s behavior was unwarranted.  If he’d been a hired hand, he would have been paid off and sent down the road.

Only Johnny wasn’t a hired hand.  He was a partner.  Or was he?  The papers hadn’t been signed, yet.

Murdoch rested his elbows on the edge of the desk, propped his chin on his thumbs—fists together—and pondered a new option.  What if he refused to sign over a portion of his ranch to Johnny?  After all, the decision to offer his sons an equal partnership had been made in a moment of desperation.  Pardee was dead.  The surviving land pirates had fled so there was no longer any danger of losing the ranch.

He dropped one hand to the desk and ran the thumb of the other hand along the side of his nose.  Perhaps he had acted rashly by not requiring some sort of breaking in period before finalizing the deal with his sons.  After all, he had known nothing about either of them?

Murdoch gazed at the stack of mail that one of the hands had brought from town shortly before noon.  He had just started to sort through it when he had been interrupted by Johnny.

To the left of the pile lay the thick journal that had been put there for reading later.  Murdoch picked it up, turned it over, and stared at the words on the cover.

PINKERTON DETECTIVE AGENCY
Western Branch – Main Office
San Francisco, California

Search for Maria and Johnny Lancer

Final Report

Murdoch’s hand trembled at the flood of memories the words invoked.  Nearly twenty years of looking.  Nearly twenty years of hoping.  How many times had his hopes of finding his missing wife and son risen only to be dashed into pieces again?   He almost hadn’t called on the Pinkerton Agency when he had first heard of them two years earlier.  It had seemed a hopeless endeavor.

The report begged to be opened.  Murdoch pushed his clamoring thoughts aside and hesitantly thumbed back the cover—the bound pages dancing on his trembling fingers.  Should he continue?  Did he really want to know what was contained within those pages?

Murdoch closed his eyes for several strokes of the grandfather clock that was near the French doors farther down the wall on his left. Undoubtedly, he would read of one lost lead after the other.  That was to be expected, but what else would he find there?  What did the Pinkerton Agency have to say about Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter?

Desire to understand his son’s behavior outweighed Murdoch’s sense of dread.  He turned the page and began to read.

Indeed, the first few pages told of various trails that had led nowhere.  Murdoch skimmed ahead.  Those details could always be read more thoroughly at another time, if he felt the need to do so.  Right now he wanted to find out about Johnny.

The name Madrid caught Murdoch’s attention at the same time that he heard footsteps in the entry hall.  He shoved the report underneath the other papers on the desk and looked up as Johnny strode through the doorway to the left of the row of tall bookcases that were behind the long dining table.

Johnny stopped in front of Murdoch.  With head down, he tossed an envelope onto the desk and softly said, “I want Barranca.  Take what he’s worth.  I’ll get the rest when I get back.”  Then without waiting for a reply, he turned and walked away.

Murdoch stared at his son’s back until it disappeared from sight in the entry hall.  A door clicked shut and silence once more engulfed the room.

After a few minutes, Murdoch pulled out the Pinkerton report, found his place, and carefully read all the way to the end.  The clock chimed the passage of a full hour before he closed the book, stuffed it back into its envelope, and laid it on the desk in front of him.

Murdoch slumped, shoulders rounded and head down.  He rested his mouth against the edge of his cupped hand, for moment, and then twisted around in his chair to look out the window.  A shudder ran up his spine, and he squeezed his eyes shut to block out the images formed during the course of his reading.  The effort was futile.  They refused to be banished.

He blew out his breath and opened his eyes.  What he needed was a drink.

A partially full brandy decanter sat on the side table behind the sofa in the fireplace alcove.  Murdoch limped over, filled one of the small glasses that were kept up-side-down beside the bottle of brandy, and swallowed the contents in two gulps.

The fire that raced down his throat took his breath away, but the troubled thoughts refused to budge.  Instead they brought with them images of his son facing death on more than one occasion as the boy engaged in various battles.

One picture in particular sent shivers up Murdoch’s spine.  His son stood before four Mexican Rurales, their guns raised, ready to snuff out his life.  If the Pinkerton agent had arrived a minute later, or perhaps even seconds, Johnny would have been lost forever.

Another image crowded out the last–this one more recent than those written in the report, but equally as dark.  He massaged the bony area above his right eye.  What had possessed Johnny to react in such a threatening manner over something as insignificant as a horse?  It didn’t make sense.  There were hundreds of good horses on the ranch.  Why should it matter if Scott had ridden that particular one?  It wasn’t as though the horse would be ruined.  Scott was an excellent rider.  Hadn’t Johnny seen evidence of that fact their first morning at the ranch?

Murdoch refilled his glass.  While he drank, he recalled the uncertainties that had assaulted him when his sons had first arrived home nearly two months ago.  He had expected anger and even hatred from the elder of the two.  Scott’s grandfather would have seen to that.  Yet, surprisingly, Scott hadn’t hesitated to accept the offered partnership in exchange for fighting Pardee’s gang.  It had been Johnny, the son with the least reason to blame his father for the long years of separation, who had seemed to be filled with the most bitterness.  Still, despite actions that had cast doubt on his loyalties, Johnny had joined in the battle and had even helped to lead the land grabbers into a trap—risking his life and taking a bullet in the back for his efforts.

With a scowl, Murdoch downed the last of his drink and shook his head.  Johnny had seemed to be settling in, and there hadn’t been any trouble between him and his brother since those first couple of days.  So, why his sudden fury over Scott riding a certain horse?  And why had he started to draw his gun a while ago?  Had he felt threatened in some way, or was it a ploy to get his way?

Drawing in a deep breath, Murdoch set the empty glass on the table.  He returned to his desk and stood staring out the window for a while.  Johnny was like a hard-to-solve riddle with too many of the pieces missing.  One minute he could be smiling and the next his eyes would be flashing fire.  He was far too hot-tempered, just like his mother.

“And what about his father’s temper,” mocked a voice inside of Murdoch’s head.  That question went unanswered.  Where Johnny had gotten his temper was not the issue.

Murdoch settled into the chair behind the desk.  Puzzling over his son’s behavior was getting him nowhere.  He might as well work on the books instead.

He opened the ranch ledger and tried to concentrate on the numbers.  This proved impossible.  The problem with Johnny refused to be ignored.

Murdoch frowned.  He couldn’t give in to Johnny.  The boy had to learn that only one person was going to run the Lancer ranch.  Johnny had agreed to those terms, and the sooner he accepted that fact, the better.

After wrestling with his thoughts a few minutes longer, Murdoch reached a decision.  He would not be intimidated by his own son.  Nor would he allow Johnny to have his own way or give him special privileges because of his reputation as Johnny Madrid.  The boy would have to pull his own weight like everybody else on the ranch.

Murdoch set the ledger book to one side and spotted the envelope his son had left.  Without looking inside, he picked it up along with the Pinkerton report and locked them both in the bottom drawer of the desk.  Johnny’s money, all of it, would be returned, and the horse would remain the property of the ranch.  The partnership papers called for joint possession of the ranch assets.   Johnny would just have to accept that the horses were included in that agreement.

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Chapter 3 – Unexpected Confrontation

Scott Lancer reined his mount around a clump of brush, leaned forward, and patted the palomino’s sleek neck.  “You’re a fine animal.  I can certainly see why Johnny likes you.  Too bad he doesn’t have as good of judgment when it comes to people.  I am not, in the least, impressed by his choice of friends.”

The horse nodded, tugging at the reins with each downward dip of his head.

Scott straightened and chuckled.  “I take it that means we’re in agreement?”

Barranca bobbed his head again.

A rabbit darted out from behind a rock and sped across the path ahead.  With a snort, Barranca dodged away, tipping his rider sideways.

Scott instantly stretched his legs–heels sinking below the level of the stirrups–and let his hips roll so that his seat stayed firmly planted in the saddle until his upper body caught up with the horse’s movement.  Then with firm, confident hands on the reins and a gentle press of his heels, he settled Barranca back into a ground-covering walk.

As he rode, Scott’s thoughts continued to wander.  How well had his brother known Day Pardee?  According to what some of the hands had heard, Johnny’s meeting with Pardee suggested they knew each other well and could have ridden together at one time.  Yet, they couldn’t have been very close friends.  Johnny hadn’t appeared upset over the man’s death.

Sweat slid from beneath Scott’s hat and into his eye.  He pulled a white handkerchief from his shirt pocket and dabbed at his brow.  Satisfied with the results, he folded the damp cloth and tucked it back into his pocket.

Once again, Scott leaned forward and absent-mindedly scratched Barranca’s neck.  He hated the thought of his brother hiring out as a gunfighter.  From what he had heard, Johnny Madrid had quite a reputation along the Mexican border.  Of course, with the tendency people had to exaggerate, there was no way of knowing how truthful those stories were.

Barranca arched his neck and shook his head, his cream-colored mane flapping side to side.  Feeling the tension in the muscles beneath his fingers, Scott braced himself while shortening the reins.  What was spooking the horse, now?

With a rattling breath, Barranca arched his body to one side.

“Easy, boy,” Scott said in a soothing tone while his hands straightened the horse and his heels gently nudged him forward. 

Barranca relaxed into a steady gait again.

Scott softened his contact on the bit but kept his legs firmly against the horse’s sides while continuing to voice his thoughts.  “Grandfather would think I had taken leave of my senses if he heard me carrying on a conversation with a horse, but you don’t mind, do you, Boy?”  He smiled and gave the horse another pat on the neck.  “It’s a habit I picked up while riding night herd when I was on the cattle drive with Murdoch.  I found it helps to pass the time.”

Barranca’s ears moved forward and back in rhythm with the steady beat of his hooves.

Scott relaxed, too.  For a while he rode in silence, his eyes drinking in the beauty of the land.  In a few days, the partnership agreement would be signed and one third of all he could see, and more, would be his.  It hardly seemed possible.  The thought of being part-owner of his father’s ranch would never have crossed his mind three months ago, even if he had known of its size.  At that time, he had had no desire to ever see the man who had abandoned him as an infant.

The gentle curves of the landscape gave way to deeper swales and higher hills covered with bunch grass.  Scott skirted the lower edges of some of the hills.  If a cow were lying down next to a tree near the bottom, she might not be visible from higher ground.

More trees dotted the land.  Scott forgot about his mount and focused more closely on watching for the stray cattle that Wes was supposed to have gone after.

Barranca’s head jerked upward.  His ears pricked forward, and his pace quickened.

Scott placed a comforting hand on the arched neck and scanned the hillside ahead.  “What is it, Boy?  What do you see up there?”

Long before he saw any movement, the wind carried the off-key hit and miss words of a song to his ears.  Scott relaxed.  “No cause for alarm, Barranca.  It’s only Wes.”

A frown tugged at Scott’s lips.  What had taken Wes so long to check out his section?  They should have met up an hour ago.  Not that he was surprised that they hadn’t.  Johnny’s friend had already proven he had a lazy streak.  In the week, he’d been at the Lancer ranch, he hadn’t done any more work than absolutely necessary.

Wes rode into view at the top of the next hill and stopped.

With a light tug on the reins, Scott angled Barranca to the right in hopes of intersecting the hired man.  “Now there is what I mean about my brother’s friends,” he said.  “I wish that man had never shown up here.  I have a feeling that sooner or later, he’s going to get Johnny into trouble.”

Wes was in the same spot when Scott approached him a few minutes later.  He grinned broadly and waved.  “Howdy, Scott.  Nice day for a ride.”

Scott reined Barranca to a stop in front of Wes and scowled.  Despite the effort to hide his irritation at the familiar manner in which he had been addressed by the hired man, he couldn’t keep from sounding curt.  “I expected to meet up with you an hour ago.  Haven’t you found those strays, yet?”

Wes took his time in replying.  “Nope.  Ain’t seen hide ner hair of ‘em.”

“Is there any place you haven’t looked?”

“Just that draw over there’s all.”  Wes jabbed a thumb toward a gap between two hills across the way from them.

Barranca fidgeted.

With a flex of his fingers on the reins and a little leg pressure where needed, Scott kept the horse facing Wes and spoke in the commanding tone he had acquired while a lieutenant in the cavalry.  “I’ll check it out.  Pete and Jose are expecting you to help them cut and load fence posts.  If you don’t get over there, soon, half the afternoon will be gone.  Murdoch wants those posts ready to move first thing in the morning.”

Wes smiled and saluted with the touch of one finger to the brim of his hat.  “On my way.”

As the other man’s horse ambled past, Scott let out a heavy sigh and urged his own mount into a walk.  “I don’t know what Johnny sees in that man.  He’s absolutely irresponsible,” he said as Barranca pranced out of Wes’s range of hearing.

A voice in Scott’s head questioned what he actually did know about his brother.  Perhaps, Johnny was no different than the company he kept.

Scott shook his head at this thought and allowed Barranca to stretch out into a trot.  He didn’t like the direction his mind was taking him.  It was too disturbing to think that Johnny might be like Wes or, worse yet, like Day Pardee.

It didn’t take long for Scott to ride the full length of the draw and find no sign of the missing cattle.  He changed directions and headed west.  That morning his father had mentioned that the water in Calf Gully needed to be checked.  Unsure of whether the job had been assigned to anyone, he decided to go himself.  The gully wasn’t more than a couple of miles from where he was.  He could check it and still be back to the house in plenty of time to freshen up before the evening meal.

The ride through open country was pleasant.  Peace, like he had never encountered anywhere else, settled over Scott.  It was no wonder that his father loved this wild land.

About a mile from his destination, Scott stopped at a small stream.  He let Barranca have a few swallows of water before crossing and then urged the palomino into a fast walk again.  When they were barely halfway to the other side of the large meadow that bordered the creek, a sharp whistle pierced the stillness.

Barranca’s head jerked upward.  He skidded to a halt, spun a quarter of the way around to the right, and started to jig.

Scott grabbed the saddle horn to stay aboard.  He quickly regained his balance and shortened his hold on the reins in order to control the dancing horse as a lone horseman broke through a line of trees to his left and approached at a fast gallop.

“Johnny.  What are you doing out here?” Scott asked as his brother’s mount slid to a stop.

“Checking water an’ looking for my horse,” Johnny replied with a glare.

Scott’s brows knitted together.  “What horse?”

“The one you stole this morning.”

Scott bristled.  “Now, wait a minute.  I didn’t steal anything.  Barranca looked like he needed the exercise, so I decided to accommodate him.”

The dark look remained on Johnny’s face.  “If he needs ridden, I’ll do it.”

“You didn’t say you were planning to ride him today.” Scott kept his voice calm, choosing to ignore his brother’s prickly attitude.

Johnny leaned forward and glowered with narrowed eyes.  “He’s my horse and you know it.  I picked him out the first day.  I broke him, and I’m the one that’s been working with him ever since.”  The flex of his jaw muscles and the coldness in his voice clearly indicated that he wasn’t about to be placated.

Still maintaining eye contact with his brother, Scott stiffened.  The muscles of his own face twitched, and he could feel his cheeks burning from more than the heat of the sun.  “What do you mean, working with him?  You haven’t been on him for weeks, and it wouldn’t make him yours even if you had.  The ranch horses belong to me as much as they do to you.”

Johnny swung his right leg back over the cantle of his saddle and stepped down.   “Barranca don’t belong to the ranch no more; I bought him.”  His reins slipped through his fingers, and he left the ends drooping on the ground while he loosened his cinch.  In a soft tone and pausing between each phrase, he slowly drawled, “So, if you don’t mind, I’ll switch saddles, and you can ride this nag.”

Anger boiled up inside of Scott and he made no move to comply.  He had no intention of humoring what he considered to be a childish demand.  Instead, he stretched taller in the saddle.  “May I see a bill of sale?  Surely you have one to back up your claim.”

Johnny grasped the horn of his saddle and gave it a tug before releasing his grip.  The heavy saddle slid down the horse’s side and thumped the ground–metal ringing against metal as the cinch rings hit against each other.  Johnny then turned blazing eyes on his brother.  “You callin’ me a liar, Boston?”

Scott drew a deep breath to steady his nerves.  He had no desire to get into a fight with Johnny, but he wasn’t about to give in, either.  “No,” he said, struggling to keep his voice steady.  “I’m saying that I have no intention of exchanging mounts until I see a piece of paper with Murdoch’s signature on it to support your claim.”  Reining Barranca to one side, he urged him forward.

“Whoa!” Johnny said, grabbing the cheek piece of Barranca’s headstall.  A storm brewed in his eyes as he looked up at Scott.  “I don’t need no paper.  I said he was mine.  Now get off before I drag you off!”

“Let go,” Scott commanded and dug his heels into Barranca’s ribs.

Johnny held tight.  “Give me my horse!”

Barranca lunged, breaking away from Johnny.

Johnny leaped at his brother.  As his hand closed on Scott’s wrist, the horse skittered sideways.

Thrown off balance, Scott felt himself being dragged from the saddle.  The toes of his boots slipped from the stirrups, and Johnny’s fingers lost their hold.

Scott’s shoulder hit the ground first.  He somersaulted and landed face down in a patch of dirt where he lay flat on his belly for a moment.  Slowly his senses cleared.  He struggled to his knees, swiped one arm across his face to remove the grit stinging his eyes, and blinked several times.  When he could see again, Johnny was walking toward Barranca.

Blood pounded in Scott’s temples as he staggered to his feet.  “Oh, no you don’t!”  His voice sliced through the quiet and spooked the bay horse his brother had been riding.

Scott closed the distance between him and his brother in two long strides and tackled him as Johnny reached for Barranca’s trailing rein.

Johnny hit the dirt, face down, with a thud and a grunt as Barranca whirled away.

Scott rolled over the top of his brother and rose to sit on folded legs.  He watched while Johnny got his knees under him and spit the grit from his mouth.

Johnny started to rise, and Scott clipped him above the left ear with a clenched fist and sent him sprawling again.

Quickly recovering from the last punch he had thrown, Scott stood and looked on as Johnny pressed his elbows into the dirt, arched his back until his chest was off the ground, and shook his head.

Without warning, Johnny rolled, wrapped an arm around Scott’s ankles, and jerked his feet from under him.

Scott toppled backwards, one gloved hand flung high, and landed on his tailbone with a jolt that rattled his teeth and shot pain through his hip.  He gritted his teeth, rolled onto his knees, and brought his left leg up and around.  Just as he started to put his weight on his foot, Johnny’s fist slammed into his cheek.

Blinding agony erupted in Scott’s face and a groan escaped his lips as his left elbow ground into the hard dirt and kept him from going all the way down.  He blinked back the tears pooling in his eyes, threw his upper body forward, and drove his knuckles into his brother’s nose.

Soft cartilage gave beneath the blow.  Scott pulled away, staggered to his feet, and took a shaky step backward at the sight of his brother’s blood splattered face.  “Come on, Johnny, this is asinine.  Give it up before one of us gets hurt,” he said between gasps for air while reaching out a hand.

Johnny slapped the offered hand away. “Don’t do me no favors.”  He struggled upward, stood straddle-legged, and swayed as he pressed his left hand against his nose, a red stream seeping between his fingers to dribble over his lip and down his chin.

Without a word, Johnny snatched up his hat and pistol from off the ground where they had fallen.  He shoved the revolver into his holster, slipped the hat string over his head, and shoved the hat around to hang against his back.  His eyes fixed on something beyond Scott and he whistled.

Scott twisted his torso and saw Barranca trot toward them.  He set his jaw in grim determination and waited for the palomino to come within reach.  Then he grabbed the end of one rein and pulled the animal to a halt.

“Let loose of him,” Johnny said.  His quiet tone was as deadly as the look in his eyes.

“As I told you before, I rode this horse out here, and I will ride him home,” Scott replied without so much as a flicker of his eyes,

Johnny’s hand flashed downward and came up with a revolver aimed at his brother’s chest.

Scott drew in a sharp breath.  His mouth went dry and his heart lurched as he waited for the blast that was sure to come immediately after he felt the bullet ripping through his flesh.

Labored breathing was the only sound that met Scott’s ears and all he felt was the burning need of his lungs for air.  He took in a couple of long, slow breaths while his mind insisted that his brother could never shoot him, especially over something as trivial as a horse.

Scott took a step back and raised both hands to chest level, his right palm facing outward while his other hand remained wrapped around Barranca’s rein.  His voice wavered as he spoke.  “Please, Johnny.  I don’t want to fight with you.  We’re brothers.  We ought to be able to get along.”

The words were no sooner spoken than Scott remembered another incident, which had happened the day after his brother and he had first arrived at their father’s ranch.  He wondered if the only thing that had prevented that confrontation from ending in bloodshed had been Teresa’s intervention; and, if so, what would stop such a tragedy from occurring this time.

Again, Johnny ordered Scott to let go of Barranca.

The deadly tone in the soft voice sent a chill up Scott’s spine, yet he held his ground.  He feared that if he let his brother win this battle, Johnny would make life miserable for him.

Scott’s thoughts roared in his head.  He couldn’t be the one to back down.  Otherwise, every time they disagreed, his brother would think he could use threats to get his own way.  No, Johnny had to decide, here and now, what was more important: a horse or his family.

In the stillness, broken only by his uneven breathing, time seemed to stop for Scott.  His racing heart throbbed in his throat and held him speechless while his mind cried out, ‘Don’t do it, Brother!  Please!  You’ll never forgive yourself.’  Then standing tall with eyes unwavering, he stared back at Johnny and waited for him to choose their destiny.

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Chapter 4 – Regrets

Time seemed to stop.  The sound of twittering birds in a nearby tree faded, and the beauty of the surrounding hills was forgotten.  Everything within sight blurred except for a pair of motionless steel-blue eyes as Johnny Madrid waited, intently watching for the slightest flicker that would precede the downward thrust of the other man’s hand.

“Ashamed.  Brother’s fighting.”  The words came from nowhere, breaking into Johnny’s mind and bringing Scott’s face into focus.

The horror of what he was doing slammed Johnny in the chest.  He broke away from his brother’s gaze and stared at the ground between them while his gun hand wavered and dropped to hang at his side.

Johnny drew in a ragged breath and holstered his gun.  Without a word, he spun on one heel and strode over to the bay horse he had been riding, gathered the reins in one hand, and led the animal to where his saddle lay resting on its horn.

After slapping the blanket onto the bay’s back, Johnny hefted the heavy saddle into place.  A twinge of pain, bringing a grunt, shot through the newly healed wound in his back, but he refused to pay it any mind as he hooked one stirrup up out of his way and fumbled with threading the latigo through the cinch ring.  Somehow, despite fingers that refused to work properly, he pulled the strap tight and tied it off.

“Johnny?”  Scott spoke in little more than a whisper from directly behind his brother.

“Just leave me be,” Johnny replied, suddenly aware of the weakness in his knees.  He flopped the stirrup down against the bay’s side and climbed into the saddle.  For the second time that day, he felt the urgency to get away before he did something he wouldn’t be able to live with.

As Johnny squeezed his mount into a walk, his brother stepped in front of the horse.  “Where are you going?” Scott asked.

The worried eyes that searched his face ate at Johnny’s insides.  He looked away.  “Check on the water in Calf Gulch.  Now will ya just get out of my way,” he replied.  As he silently begged for a chance to leave, he felt like he was standing under a gallows with a noose around his neck.

Scott held his gaze a moment longer and then moved aside.

The air in Johnny’s lungs escaped and his shoulders slumped.  With trembling hands and shaking legs, he urged the bay into a lope.  Why did Scott have to show up this close to Calf Gulch?  Why here?  Why now?

Guilt rapidly crowded out the rage Johnny had felt.  By the time he crossed the meadow and rode to the top of the next rise, he was also questioning why he had let his temper get out of hand in the first place.

Johnny paused to glance back and noticed that his brother was trailing him at a slow trot.  His gut clinched and his brows drew together.  What was Scott up to, now?  Couldn’t he leave well enough alone?

Uneasiness clung to Johnny.  It rode with him down the other side of the knoll, through a clump of trees in the bottom of the draw, and part way to the top of the next ridge.  There Johnny looked behind him.

Scott had stopped Barranca at the crown of the previous hill and apparently had no intention of following any farther.

Johnny let out a long sigh and rode on up the slope and down the other side of the ridge.  He turned to the right when he reached the bottom of the willow-lined gully and headed up the ravine in search of the spring that he knew couldn’t be far away.  Earlier that day, Murdoch had pointed it out on the large map on the wall behind his desk, shown him the best way to get to there, and described the area.

.

Leaving Scott behind failed to keep troubling thoughts from nagging Johnny or rid him of the unfamiliar emotions clamoring to be heard.  How had he come that close to gunning down his brother over a horse?  This question left him feeling he was no better than Cain of the Bible.

Up ahead, a spot of light glistened in the middle of a circle of green grass bounded by willow trees along one side.  Johnny rode up to the edge of the pool and slid out of his saddle.  He grunted when his feet hit the ground, wiped the sweat from his chin with the base of his thumb, and felt another stab of guilt.  Why had he almost done in his old man, too, and for what?  It wouldn’t be the first time he’d been whomped.  Besides, he could have easily gotten out of the cane’s reach.

While his horse drank, Johnny squatted beside the shadowy pool, formed by the spring spilling out from under a short rock ledge, dipped his hands into the cool water, and splashed his face and neck—wincing at the sting on his chin and above one eye.  He looked down at his blood-streaked hands.  Scott sure did pack a wallop for a city dude, but hadn’t he proven that before?

A grin tugged at the corners of Johnny’s lips.  He drew in a deep breath and cautiously finished washing his face.  When his hands came away clean, he peered into the pool in hopes of seeing how bad his cuts and bruises were.  His reflection wasn’t clear enough to tell much. 

Johnny shifted into the shade at one end of the clump of willows and watched his horse as it finished drinking and went to nibbling on the grass beside the pool.  As he sat there, he pondered his actions of earlier.  Did Murdoch know how close he had come to dying?  Why had he brought back memories of that man in Laredo who had always taken pleasure in skinning the hide off the boys in his care?

He let out a deep sigh, his shoulders sagging.  Why had his mind played a trick like that on him?  Was it because he was mad?

Johnny shook his head.  After all the times his temper had gotten him into trouble, it seemed he would have learned to keep a tighter rein on it by now.

Rocks skittered somewhere on the hillside behind Johnny.  He dropped his rein, grabbed for his gun without thinking, and scooted farther back into the patch of willows so he could see out the back side.  None of the ranch hands were supposed to be up this way.  Most of them were cutting posts for the new fence Murdoch wanted built.

Nothing moved that Johnny could see but his ears told him a different story.  Stones rustled and rattled against stones with the occasional ring of a horseshoe against a rock joining in.  Someone had to be crossing the stretch of shale that was higher up the hillside and now hidden from his sight by several large boulders.

Johnny waited, his breath whispering in and out and his heart beating faster.  A rider came into view less than twenty feet away, and he tightened his grip on his gun and eased the hammer back with his thumb.

The horse stopped with pricked ears in the direction of the soft click and received a sound slap of leather against its rump.  “Get up,” groused the lean, young rider, applying the end of the reins more firmly when the animal refused to move.

Johnny pushed himself off the ground and slowly stood.  “Wes . . . you’re gunna wind up dead someday if ya don’t learn to listen to your horse.”

The horse shied and the rider jerked the reins.  “Whoa thar,” Wes said, his horse’s head swinging around and upward in one direction while its tail end went another.

After a few more harsh yanks on the reins, Wes brought his horse to a standstill.   “I swear, Johnny, you’re enough to give a man heart failure.  What’s the idea sneaking up on me that a way,” he grumbled as he scowled down into Johnny’s grinning face.

Johnny laughed while carefully un-cocking his gun.  “Sneaking up on ya?” he said, still partially hidden amongst the willows.  “Wes, I wasn’t even moving.  I’ve been laying here listening to you coming off that hill ever since ya started down.”

“Then why were ya hiding so I couldn’t see ya.”

“Just playing it safe is all.  Those boulders were in the way ‘til ya was almost on me.”  Johnny stepped out into the open.  “What’re ya doing here anyway?”

Wes swung his right leg over the horn of his saddle horn and dropped to the ground.  A hint of a smirk played at the corners of his mouth as he swaggered toward Johnny.  “Thought I’d get me a drink before heading over to help load them posts.”

Johnny eyed his friend.  “I thought Murdoch said the crew was cutting posts two or three miles north of here.  Won’t it be kind of late by time you get there?  Whatcha been doing all this time?”

“Had to look fer them strays first.”

“It’s takin’ most of the day to do that?” Johnny asked, sounding more surprised than he felt.  “Way I heard it, there were only a few head up that one draw just before dark last night.  They couldn’t have been that hard to find.”

Wes hunched his shoulders.  “Well they was gone this morning.”  He led his horse to the edge of the pool and looked back at Johnny while the animal drank.   “Had to go looking fer ‘em, didn’t I?”

Johnny eased toward his own horse that had moved away during the commotion of Wes’s arrival.  “You find ‘em?”

“Nope.  Didn’t see nary a one.  Probably went looking fer the rest of the herd during the night.”

“Possible,” Johnny said as he picked up the bay’s trailing reins.  He turned and led the horse closer to Wes.

“Say, Johnny.  How ‘bout we go to town tonight.  Have us some fun like ol’ times?”  Wes stepped to Johnny’s side and slapped him on the shoulder.  “Whatcha say?”

Johnny kept his face turned away to hide his face.  “Not tonight, Wes.  Maybe some other time, okay?”

Wes let out a snort.  “Don’t tell me ya gotta square it with your ol’ man first.”

Johnny tensed and wished that Wes would get on with what he was supposed to be doing.  “It ain’t that,” he softly replied. 

“Then what’s to keep ya?”

Noticing that Wes’s horse had finished drinking, Johnny shrugged and changed the subject.  “Hadn’t you better be going?”

“Just giving my horse a breather, is all.”

Johnny clamped his lower lip between his teeth to keep from telling Wes that Murdoch would give him a permanent breather if he didn’t pull his weight.  It wouldn’t do any good, though.  He knew the warning would go on deaf ears.

As much as Johnny liked Wes, he was well aware of his friend’s short-comings.  They’d had a lot of good times together a few years back when their heads were bent on trouble and they both had fuzz instead of whiskers on their faces.  During that time, Wes had proven he had a lazy streak a mile wide.  He never had done any more than he had to.

Johnny couldn’t begin to count the times he’d done his share of the work and half of his friends, too, to keep him from getting fired.  Still, it wouldn’t make up for the bullet Wes had taken in Waco.  If it hadn’t been for good ol’ Wes, he would have been dead long before the Pinkerton agent had a chance to find him.  That was one debt Johnny doubted he could ever repay.  Wes had come close to dying that day.  Too close.

Wes dawdled a while longer.  Johnny considered hurrying him along but decided to let it slide.  It wasn’t worth the effort.  Wes would get going when Wes was ready, and not before.

After Johnny finally gave in and promised to think about going to town later, Wes straddled his horse and rode on.  The shadows had grown considerably by then, which meant he would barely catch up with the fencepost crew before it was time to quit for the day.

Johnny climbed astride his own horse.  He waved to Wes and started back toward the ranch house at a slow jog.

The disturbing thoughts of earlier returned.  The farther Johnny rode, the more appealing Wes’s proposed night on the town became.  Anything would be better than facing his father and brother.  They had every reason to be angry.  Maybe things would blow over by morning if he wasn’t there to remind them of what had happened.

This line of reasoning provided little assurance.  Johnny knew that sooner or later, he would have to pay the price for the mistakes he’d made that day. 

  .

Chapter 5 – Tough Decisions

As the afternoon wore on, Murdoch felt uneasy about leaving the Pinkerton Report locked in his desk.  What if he needed something out of the drawer when someone else was nearby?  It might not be a good idea for Johnny to learn of the report’s existence.

Murdoch moved the thick envelope to what he felt was a more secure place in the darkest corner of the cellar.  Upon returning to his desk, he slumped into the chair and massaged the back of his neck in hopes of relieving the pressure building in his head.  Why did Johnny have to explode over nothing?  The boy was too much like Maria.  She too had had a habit of flying into a rage at the slightest provocation, or at none at all.

Slowly he shook his head.  He didn’t understand that boy of his.  There were dozens of fine horses on the ranch.  Why couldn’t he be satisfied with riding one of them?  What was so special about that particular one, and why did it matter so much that Scott rode it?   Scott was an excellent horseman, so it wasn’t as if the horse would be ruined.  Just who and what was Johnny?

Murdoch picked up the ranch ledger, let out a sigh of disgust, and opened to the latest entry.  He stared unseeingly at the page as his mind persisted on dwelling on his younger son.  A year ago, rumors had reached Morro Coyo about a gunfighter named Johnny Madrid, who was gaining a reputation along the Mexican border.  According to those tales, Madrid was a quick-tempered kid, fast as lightning with a pistol, and twice as deadly.

At the time, the stories had just been stories, and Murdoch recalled having paid little attention to what he had heard.  Truth had a way of getting stretched into fiction of the wildest proportions.  There hadn’t been any reason to suspect that his son and Johnny Madrid were one and the same, until the wire had come two months ago telling him of the connection.   Even then he had told himself that Johnny couldn’t be what his reputation claimed him to be.  Now, after having read the report from the Pinkerton Agency, he couldn’t help wondering how much truth had been in those stories.

Murdoch replayed the encounter with his son over and over in his mind.  As far as he could see, the circumstances fully justified his refusing to sell Barranca to Johnny.  The boy’s behavior had been childish, to say the least.

A sigh escaped Murdoch’s lips.  Why had picking up his cane caused Johnny to react that way?  It was as though the boy expected a thrashing.  Was that why he had dropped his hand to his gun? Would he have used it?

Words from the pages of the Pinkerton Report leapt into Murdoch’s thoughts, reminding him once again of the disturbing details that he had read about his younger son’s life.  The documents certainly had not been favorable.  Johnny had barely reached his teens when he had killed his first man in a gunfight.  Since then, the boy had been in several gun battles of one kind or another.  He had ridden with Day Pardee and other men like him.  It was even reported that, on several occasions, Johnny had been seen in the company of known thieves and killers.  Worst of all, he had been minutes, or even seconds, away from being shot down by a squad of Mexican Rurales at the time the Pinkerton agent had found him.  Why had Johnny gotten involved in the uprising of a small group of peasants?  Was it for money?  And where would they have gotten enough money to hire a gunman?

Murdoch shuddered as he pictured Johnny grabbing the agent’s gun and taking on four armed men single handedly.  If he hadn’t witnessed his son’s proficiency with a pistol during the fight with Day Pardee’s gang of land pirates, he would have found it hard to believe that portion of the report.  One thing was certain; Johnny didn’t lack nerve.

The remark he had made to his sons about wanting their guts if they had any popped into Murdoch’s mind.  Knowing what he knew now, he found it surprising that Johnny hadn’t acted insulted and immediately set him straight?  But then the boy hadn’t said anything about the past.  Why?  Because of guilt?  Or was it fear of rejection because of what he was or what he’d been?

With a slightly trembling hand, Murdoch picked up his pipe and lit it.  He wondered what else Johnny might have done besides what was written in the report?

Murdoch shifted his chair to face the window and leaned back.  How was he to trust his younger son?  What was keeping Johnny at Lancer?  He doubted he was the reason.  According to some things his ward, Teresa, had said, Maria had filled Johnny’s head full of too many lies for that.

The questions persisted.  Why had Johnny agreed to stay?  Was it because of Scott?  This seemed doubtful.  If that were true, then why had Johnny made such a fuss over what horse Scott chose to ride?  Of course, there was the partnership agreement to consider.  The boy might expect to have all the money he wanted once the papers were signed.  That could even account for his hurried departure after what had happened earlier in the day.  He could have gotten scared he’d lose out.

Murdoch’s head throbbed, and the aching increased in magnitude the longer he wrestled with his thoughts.  There seemed to be no answer to the riddle of who was Johnny Madrid?  Was he just another hired gun out for all he could get; someone who was capable of killing with little or no provocation?  Where was Johnny Lancer?  Where was the tender-hearted, mischievous, sometimes short-tempered, and often smiling little boy who had run to welcome his father home from a three-month cattle buying trip to Sonora just two weeks before being taken away by his mother?  Could that child still be there lurking inside the brash young gunfighter, or was he gone forever?

Facing the desk again, Murdoch took a long puff on his pipe.  Where did Johnny’s loyalties lie?  That was the question that needed an answer the most.If the boy was only staying for the money and nothing at Lancer mattered to him, eventually he would leave; or worse yet, he’d kill someone in a fit of anger.  If he was Johnny Madrid and nothing more, ranch life would never hold him.  He would never be happy with the hard work or the responsibilities that came with being a rancher.  Sooner or later, he would up and ride out without a word.

The thought of his son leaving dredged up the pain of the past.  Murdoch set his pipe down and closed his eyes.  His heart cried out.  If Johnny was going to leave, let him do it soon, not a year or two, or even six months from now when his going would hurt that much more.

An idea began to form in Murdoch’s mind.  Now that Johnny’s wound had healed over, there was no longer a need to go easy on him.  It was time he started carrying his own weight and put in a full day’s work like everyone else.  There were plenty of chores for him to do that wouldn’t be too strenuous for him while he was regaining his strength.  Within a month, if he stayed that long, he would be able to handle anything that needed to be done.

Footsteps in the foyer caught Murdoch’s attention.  Further thoughts of Johnny were replaced by a sense of uneasiness as he watched his elder son come through the arched doorway on the far side of the room and walk toward him.

Scott removed his hat and held it in his hand as he dropped heavily into the blue cushioned chair nearest Murdoch.  He glanced distractedly around the room.  “Did you sell Barranca to Johnny?” he quietly asked.

Murdoch looked at his son and noticed the patches of dirt and splatters of blood on his shirt and the dark spot below his left eye.  He scowled.  “What happened to you?”

Scott avoided his father’s eyes.  “It was nothing, Sir.”

Suspicions flooded Murdoch’s mind.  “Did Johnny do that to you?” he demanded.

“It was my fault.”  Scott paused and took in a long breath.  “That’s not what’s important.  About Barranca . . .”

The mention of the palomino confirmed Murdoch’s suspicion that his sons had been in a fracas of some sort, and anger welled up inside of him.  “No! I did not sell him the horse!” he said, barely controlling the urge to pound the desk with his fist.

Scott let out a soft sigh.  “He told me that you did.”

Murdoch clinched his fist.  “He offered to buy the horse.  I refused to sell.  The horse belongs to the ranch, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.”  He ended harshly despite efforts to contain his emotions.

Scott looked squarely at his father.  “Why not let him have Barranca?  Would that really be so bad?”

Murdoch shook his head and exhaled loudly.  He didn’t understand why, in light of the circumstances, Scott would side with Johnny.  “After what he did to you, you’re asking me to give him one of my best palominos?”  He punctuated the question by rising to his feet.

“Our palominos, Sir.”  Scott eyes held a challenge that matched the sharpness of each word.  His voice then softened.  “Besides . . . I told you I brought this on myself.  I could have let Johnny have his horse when I saw how much it meant to him.”

“The ranch’s horse, Scott. . . not Johnny’s.  You have as much right to ride that horse as he does.”  Murdoch walked around to the front of the desk and rested his hip pockets against the edge.  He found that his son’s eyes were still pleading.  “Scott, your brother’s behavior is inexcusable.  I’m not about to reward it by giving him the horse.”

“I’m not advocating that you give it to him.  I doubt he’d accept it under those terms, anyway.”  After a pause in which he appeared to collect his thoughts, Scott proposed that Murdoch sell Barranca to Johnny at a fair price.

“No.”  Murdoch wagged his head. “That would still be condoning his actions.  Johnny doesn’t deserve the horse, and he’s not getting him at any price.”

Scott leaned forward and spoke with greater intensity. “Sir, can’t you see?  Johnny needs that horse.  If he didn’t, he wouldn’t make such an issue out of it.”  He took a deep breath and continued more quietly.  “Surely you’ve noticed that he has very little to call his own. He came here with nothing more than a saddle, his gun, and what he was wearing at the time.  He didn’t even have a change of clothes.  That white shirt he wears is one I bought in Sacramento on my trip out here.  I gave it to him that first night because he didn’t have a clean one to change into after we finished fighting the fire.  As far as we know, he hasn’t even been back to town to spend any of the money you gave him.  Any other clothes he’s been wearing were loaned to him.”

Murdoch’s voice increased in volume as he walked back and forth in front of his son.  “What do you mean, he has nothing to his name?  He has a third of this ranch and everything that goes with it.  How much more can he want . . . or even need?”

Scott’s voice also grew louder.  “I know that, Sir, but I doubt it’s the same to him. He doesn’t have control over it; you do.”

Continuing to pace, Murdoch took a moment to contemplate his son’s words.  Scott was right; Johnny hadn’t had much when he’d arrived.  “Still, that doesn’t justify his actions,” he said, stating his concerns aloud in a calmer tone.  “Johnny has to learn to control his temper.  If he doesn’t, it could get him into big trouble.  Selling him the horse is not going to teach him anything.”  

Scott lowered his eyes and rolled his hat around in his hands by the brim.  Slowly he looked up at Murdoch.  “It might show him that he means something to you.  Right now . . . he does have his doubts.  At least if he decided to leave here, he would have something to remind him of what he left behind.  The way it is, he has nothing . . . other than the money you gave him.  How long do you suppose that will last?  Even if he didn’t lose it in a poker game, or have it stolen, what would he spend it on that would have any connection to this ranch . . . or us?  The way I see it, selling Barranca to Johnny could be the best thing you’ll ever do for him”

Murdoch looked away.  His older son’s words cut deep and brought to mind the contents of the Pinkerton report.  If those accounts were true, then Johnny’s life had been one hardship after another.  Maybe Scott was right.

With a sigh, Murdoch turned and walked to the backside of the desk.  He took a moment to gaze out the window, but his mind was too full to see anything.  Quietly, he said, “I’ll think about it.”

“You haven’t much time.  I think I saw Johnny riding this way just before I came into the house.”

Murdoch heard the shuffle of boots and turned in time to see Scott rise.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Scott said, “I’m going to go clean up before dinner.”  He started to leave and then hesitated.  “Murdoch, don’t be too hard on him.  Even if it doesn’t appear that way, Johnny is trying to fit in here.  Maybe all he needs is to be met halfway.”

A sense of pride welled up inside of Murdoch as he turned to watch his older son leave the room.  Scott was so much like Catherine.  He had her same gentle ways and polite manners—always thinking of someone else’s welfare over her own.  If only Johnny could be more like that.

The shifting of his thoughts back to his younger son brought a frown to Murdoch’s face.  What would Johnny think if he knew Scott had come to his defense?  Would it change his outlook toward his brother?  Or would he even care?

Murdoch wished he could be sure that owning Barranca would make a difference with Johnny.  He didn’t understand the boy and wondered if he ever would.  What if Johnny Lancer, at least the child he remembered, no longer existed?  Maybe Johnny would always be Madrid, a hot-tempered pistolero who was ready to fight at the drop of a hat and only interested in himself.

Smoke curled upward from his pipe.  Murdoch took another puff and gazed out at the fields beyond the hacienda.  As he stood there, he continued to struggle with the decision he needed to make.

.

Chapter 6 – Fear of Reprisal

The sun had gone down and darkness was settling in by the time Johnny made a final swipe of the brush over the bay’s rump, led the horse into the pasture, and slipped the bridle off over its ears.  “Go on,” he said with a parting pat on the animal’s neck.

Johnny started toward the gate.  A familiar nicker called to him, and he turned and smiled at the sight of Barranca trotting toward him.

The palomino halted beside Johnny and nuzzled his elbow.

“How are ya?  Looks like Scott put in some extra time with the brush,” Johnny said as he rubbed the horse’s neck and scratched his withers.

Barranca stretched his neck and wiggled his lower lip.

Johnny kept scratching until his back began to ache.  When his fingers stopped moving, the horse reached around and nibbled at his sleeve again.

“Stop that.  I don’t have any treats with me,” Johnny said, giving Barranca’s nose a gentle shove.

Barranca stamped the ground–raising the dust–and swung his head up and down.

Johnny chuckled.  “Looks like you don’t like to be told no anymore than I do.” He let out a sigh and went back to caressing the horse’s neck.  “Don’t guess you’ll ever be mine after what I did today.  Be lucky my old man don’t boot me out on my ear.  Scott ain’t likely to want anything to do with me, either.”

Sadness lodged in Johnny’s throat.  He leaned against Barranca’s shoulder, lightly grasped the horse’s ears one at a time, and ran his hand from the base to the tip.  “Won’t be the first time I’ve been on my own,” he said.  “But I’ll get by.  Always have.  Always will.  Be better if you was going with me, though.  Ain’t no better compadre than a good horse.  You remind me of a pinto I had a few years back–loyal as the day is long and never talked back.”  Johnny grinned and his shoulders shook.  “You know, I nearly talked his ears off.”

The shadows deepened.  Johnny raked his fingers through the horse’s pale mane and groaned.  He might as well go face the music.  There wasn’t any point in putting it off.  “Why’d I call Murdoch an old man to his face?” he muttered.   “I know he don’t like it.  No wonder he acted like he was gonna club me with that cane.”

He let out another sigh.  Why had the cane been leaning against the wall by the desk?  If Murdoch’s leg was troubling him again, why hadn’t he used the cane earlier in the day?”

Johnny rubbed his thumb against the crest of the palomino’s neck and frowned.  Had Murdoch seen him go for his gun?  Was that why he’d stood there staring at him without moving?

“Hope I get supper before he sends me packing.  I’m starved.”  Johnny gave Barranca one final pat and headed to the house.   He was going to miss the food here.  Maria and Juanita sure knew how to put on a good spread.  And then there was Teresa.  She already had him thinking of her as a sister.  Not that she was his blood, but she sure treated him like he was.

Johnny hung his head as he pushed the corral gate open.  He had been getting used to the idea of having a brother, too.  Boy, had he blown that.  And he’d been hoping Teresa was right about Murdoch being glad he was there.  Well today, he sure hadn’t given his old man any reason to want him around.

Wes rode up just as Johnny was leaving the barnyard.  “Ready for town?” he asked, looking down from the back of his horse.

“You go on,” Johnny replied with a shake of his head.  “I’m pretty tired.  Guess I’m not as strong as I thought I was.”

“Suit yerself, but you don’t know what yer missing.  They got some right friendly gals, if ya know what I mean.  They sure can make a fella forget how tired he is, in a hurry . . . so think about it.  There’s time to change yer mind.   I gotta get cleaned up some ‘fore I go.”

Johnny insisted he wasn’t up to going.

Wes cocked his head to one side and scowled.  “You get dumped, or something?  Never noticed that blood on yer shirt when I saw ya earlier.”

“Yeah.  Horse spooked on me,” Johnny said.

“Too sore, then.  That it?”

Johnny nodded.  One more lie wouldn’t hurt if it would hurry his friend along.

After Wes had gone into the corral, Johnny slowly continued on to the house.  He entered his room and trailed his fingers over the colorful quilt on the bed as he walked past it.  When he reached the window, he turned and let his eyes drift from one piece of furniture to another.  Most places he had lived, the entire house, if it could call that, would have fit inside the four walls of this one room.

Why couldn’t he be satisfied with being part owner of one of the biggest ranches in California?  He had a room with a comfortable bed, a dresser that would hold more clothes than he’d ever owned in his life, a nightstand, and a soft chair.  The food was better than most places, and he could have all he wanted.  He even had a brother, or did have.  What more did he need?

Johnny looked down at his hand.  A lump formed in his throat, and he found it difficult to swallow.  Why had he pulled his gun on Scott?  Wasn’t it enough that he’d hit him?  What was he trying to prove? Who was toughest?

He turned back to the window, opened the heavy drapes, and ran his fingers through his hair.  Well, he sure had showed Scott, hadn’t he?  Johnny Madrid backed down by a city boy.  What would some of his old friends say to that?  And why had Scott faced up to him.  Couldn’t he see how close he’d come to–?

The picture the last question brought to mind made Johnny cringe, and he looked out at the outbuildings and corrals that made up the ranch headquarters.  The sight of the horses grazing in the pasture beyond the barn reminded him of what had started the trouble he was in.  Why did he have to have one with his name on it when he was about to be part owner of more horses than he could ride in a month?

“Johnny Madrid, you’re a fool.  Your old man–”  He bit his lip and moved away from the window.  He had to stop thinking of Murdoch as his old man.  Maybe then he wouldn’t call him that to his face.

Johnny slumped into the chair, rested his forehead against his hand, and rubbed his brow with his thumb.  The trouble was he’d always thought of his father that way, when or if he had thought of him.  Murdoch Lancer had never been his pa.  Only one man had ever been that to him.

The face of his step-father crowded into Johnny’s thoughts, and he closed his eyes.   Even if he was wrong about Murdoch, he wasn’t sure he could ever call him “Pa” without thinking of the man who had earned that title of his respect.  Somehow it didn’t seem fair to either one.  Nope.  If he wasn’t sent down the road, he had to stick with calling his father “Murdoch.”

Johnny swallowed.  Hadn’t he been told, often enough, that he was nothing but trouble?  What did Murdoch need Johnny Madrid for?  He had another son to carry on his name.  Scott would do the Lancer name proud.  There was no doubt about that.

Guilt ate at Johnny.  With the tip of a fingernail, he flicked at one of the silver concho-buttons on the outside seam of his pants while remembering how he had fallen into his brother’s lap on the stage to Morro Coyo.  Funny how his outlook had changed since then.

He smiled.  Scott sure had been something, sitting there all spiffed up in those fancy duds and looking down his nose.  What had he been thinking?  It was probably best not to know any more than he’d want Scott to know what he’d been thinking.  One thing was sure; he hadn’t expected to find out they were brothers.  A feather would have knocked him over.  His mother never told him his old . . . Murdoch had another wife or kid.  Didn’t she know, or had that bit of news been kept from her?

A familiar hollowness settled in Johnny’s gut, like something that he desperately needed was missing, and he realized he had been free of that feeling the last few weeks.

Johnny wrapped his arms across his chest and rocked back and forth.  What an idiot he’d been.  Here he had a chance to have a family again.  A brother.  Even a sister.  And in time, Murdoch might have wanted him as a son.  Now he’d be lucky to have a roof over his head.

Feeling like a heavy weight lay across his shoulders, Johnny got to his feet.  He removed his gun belt and laid it on the bed.  It might be best to leave it there.

He splashed some water onto his face and hands from the wash basin that was on the bedside table and dried on a small towel that was nearby.  The hint of blood he saw on the piece of cloth made his stomach churn, and he stuffed the towel under the bed.  Teresa didn’t need to see it even if she did want to be treated like a sister.

Johnny opened the door to the cabinet in the corner opposite his dresser.  The rod inside was empty except for his bolero jacket and one other item.

Another stab of guilt shot through Johnny as he ran his finger over the embroidery along the edge of the double row of buttons that were on the upper half of the front of the shirt.  Why had Scott given it to him?  Out of pity because he had a trunk full of clothes and his poor little brother hadn’t even had one clean shirt to wear to supper that first night?

As he started to shut the door on those memories, he glanced down at the streaks of dirt and blood on the front and sleeves of the shirt he had on.  Teresa had given the borrowed shirts to Maria that morning, so they could be washed.  That didn’t leave him much of a choice in what to wear.

For a moment, Johnny closed his eyes and tipped his head back.  He let out a long breath, opened his eyes, and did what he had to do.  A short while later, he brushed as much dust as he could from his pants and tucked in the white tails of the clean shirt.  With dragging steps, he made his way out the door and into the hallway.  It was time for Johnny Madrid to face his future.

 .

Chapter 7 – The Unexpected

At the doorway into the large room off of the entry hall, Johnny stopped and ran trembling fingers through his hair.  His heart raced as fast as it had a couple of months ago when he had faced death at the hands of the firing squad in Mexico.  The urge to turn around slowed his steps to a halt, and he silently scolded himself for being a coward.  He needed to buck up.  What was the worst that could happen: get sent down the road without his supper?  Was that anything for Johnny Madrid to fall to pieces over?  It wouldn’t be the first time it had happened.  It probably wouldn’t be the last.

Johnny forced himself to breathe deeply and swaggered through the arched doorway.  At the end of the long dining table, he hesitated, took another long breath, and sidestepped between the table and the bookcase.  When he reached the chair that he had become accustomed to sitting in, he gripped the back of the chair with his left hand while his right arm hung at his side–thumb tracing the edge of one finger.

He looked down at the floor and then shifted his gaze upward to quickly take in the others seated around the table.  Seeing the empty chair that separated him from Murdoch, he felt a rush of panic.  “Where’s Teresa?” he blurted out to no one in particular.

“She’s helping feed Jose’s children.  His wife isn’t feeling well.”  Murdoch spoke matter-of-factly with a slight pause before adding, “Are you going to stand there all evening?  Supper’s getting cold.  Let’s eat.”

Johnny settled into his chair, leaving the one between him and his father empty.  At least he got a last meal.

Scott sat in his usual spot across from Teresa’s chair.  He picked up the platter of meat and held it out to Johnny.           

“Thanks,” Johnny choked out as he took hold of the plate.  The dark, swollen bruise on Scott’s face glared back at him.

Johnny looked down while stabbing a piece of steak with his fork.  Why was Scott being so nice?

The more he tried to act like nothing was wrong, the more Johnny’s hand wanted to shake.  Somehow, he managed to finish filling his plate without spilling anything on the table.  He picked up his knife, cut off a bite of steak, and stuffed it into his mouth.  After chewing for a while, he tried to swallow, but the meat seemed to stick in his throat.  He took a gulp of lemonade to help it down.

For the next few minutes, the only sounds were the ticking of the clock and the clinking of silverware against the fine china dishes.  Johnny glanced up once and met the eyes of his brother.  He quickly looked away toward the left and caught a glimpse of his father watching him.

Johnny tipped his head and focused on his plate.  He chased a few peas around with his fork.  Why were they staring at him?  Couldn’t he even enjoy his last meal?  It was already too late for that, though.  His appetite was no longer spurred by the smells that had tickled his nose when he had first sat down.

He picked up the neatly folded napkin beside his plate, gave it a shake alongside of his chair, and spread it across his lap.  As he reached for his fork again, he saw an envelope lying where the napkin had been.   His stomach knotted and his lower jaw sagged.  His money?  Why hadn’t he noticed it before?

Taking in a ragged breath, Johnny rested his hand on the edge of the table.  His fingers itched to pick up the packet and look inside.  Was it all there?  Of course, it was.  Why wouldn’t it be?  After what had happened, his old man was never going to let him have Barranca.

A clearing of a throat came from the head of the table, and a deep voice interrupted the quietness as well as Johnny’s thoughts.  “You’d better count that.”

Johnny flinched—his pulse throbbing in his throat.  He swallowed.  “Ain’t no need to,” he said, barely managing to speak loud enough to be heard.

Murdoch’s voice rumbled again.  “Aren’t you the least bit curious to find out how much you paid for that horse?”

Johnny turned his head and gazed at his father.  Had he heard right?  He couldn’t have.  This had to be a dream.  There was no way Murdoch would have changed his mind, was there?

Murdoch motioned toward Johnny’s plate.  “There’s a bill of sale under the envelope.  A list of the horse’s ancestors is there, too.”

With trembling fingers, Johnny slid the documents out from under the envelope and unfolded them.  He tried to read the words, but they blurred on the jiggling papers.  Was this really happening, or was he going to wake up and find none of this was true?

Murdoch cleared his throat.  “I took a hundred and fifty dollars.  That may seem like a high price to you, but that horse has the best palomino blood in the country.  His lines can be traced back for several generations.  Ask around.  You’ll find he’s worth every penny of it.”

Johnny kept his head bowed and toyed with the papers in his hand.  He tried to swallow the lump in his throat and to blink away the stinging at the corners of his eyes.  “I don’t care about the money.  You could’ve taken twice that.”  The last couple of words came out in a whisper.  He sucked in a deep breath, licked his lips, and tried again.  “But why?  I don’t . . . aren’t you?”

The right words refused to come.  Johnny glanced at his brother, who sat smiling back at him, and remorse set in.  Why wasn’t Scott still mad?

Johnny shifted his gaze to the items he was holding.  He chewed at his upper lip, drew up his shoulders, and then let them drop into place.  “I . . . I don’t know what to say,” he murmured.

“I’m sure a simple ‘thank you’ would suffice,” Scott said.

Johnny glanced up and saw his father flash Scott a look of gratitude.  That brought more questions.  Why should Murdoch be at a loss for words?  He sure hadn’t had any trouble speaking his mind any other time.  What was different now?

A flood of emotions waged war within Johnny as he tried to puzzle out what was happening.  The whole thing didn’t make a lick of sense to him.  It was almost as though he was being rewarded for his behavior when punishment was what he deserved.  Had he misjudged his old man?

Johnny pursed his lips as though to keep those last two words from slipping out of his mouth again.  He snuffed air in through his nose and tried to breathe more quietly.  “Thanks Murdoch.  I . . . I don’t deserve this.”  He lifted the envelope and wobbled it while running the tip of his tongue along the edge of his upper lip.  Like a blind man feeling his way through the darkness, he searched his mind for the right words to say.  “I don’t . . . know why you . . . changed your mind, but . . . I am grateful,” he finally managed to say.

He drew in another long breath.  “I’m sorry about this morning.  I had no call to act that way.  I . . . I wouldn’t have blamed ya if you’d asked me to leave,” he softly said.

Johnny looked over at his father.  Their eyes met and Murdoch quickly looked down.

For the next several minutes, no one spoke as Johnny shoved the food around on his plate with his fork.  He glanced once at the other two men and found that they seemed to be doing the same.

Finally, Murdoch cleared his throat and drew in a noisy breath. “It’s past, Johnny.  Let’s leave it there.”

“Thanks,” Johnny whispered and his shoulders slowly relaxed.

Once again, the men sat in silence.  Murdoch took a few more bites of his supper, pushed himself away from the table, and rose to his feet.  “If you’ll excuse me, I have some things I need to discuss with Cipriano.  Then I think I’ll turn in.  I’m a bit tired tonight.”

“Oh . . . uh . . . Murdoch.  I almost forgot.  I checked that water hole.”  Johnny hesitantly looked his father in the eye.  “It should be fine for another couple of weeks.”

Murdoch nodded.  “Good. It’ll give the fence crew time to get the rest of the posts cut and hauled before we have to move the cattle out of there.”  He took a step away from the table and stopped.  “Johnny, in the morning, I want you to go out with the men and see how they are coming on that job.  Help with whatever you feel up to doing.”

“Sure.”  The corners of Johnny’s mouth inched upward.  “I am kind o’ tired of sitting around doing nothing.”

Murdoch’s mouth twitched.  He looked down, walked behind Scott, and headed for the closest French door.

Once Murdoch was gone, Johnny suddenly felt hungry again.  As he ate, he avoided looking at his brother.  He knew he owed Scott an apology, but he wasn’t sure how to go about it or how well it would be received.  It might be best if he enjoyed his meal before facing that task.  Expecting fate to smile on him twice in one day could be asking too much.

 .

Chapter 8 – Renewed Hope

Now that the question of Barranca’s ownership had been settled and Murdoch’s chair at the head of the table sat empty, Scott Lancer noticed a marked change in his brother.  All signs of apprehension had left his face and his appetite had returned.  It appeared their father had made a wise choice in relenting and selling Johnny the horse.

A slight frown tugged at the corners of Scott’s mouth.   In the short time of their acquaintance, Johnny had never shown any signs of being easily intimidated.  Why tonight?  Was it because of the horse or because of what had happened between the two of them that afternoon?  If the latter, then why should Johnny seem more relaxed now?

Scott’s thoughts took an abrupt turn.  What was the reason his brother had apologized to Murdoch?         Had something else happened besides the disagreement over Barranca’s ownership?  Murdoch’s attitude earlier had certainly hinted of it.

Johnny snatched a biscuit from the plate in the middle of the table.  He spread it with butter and bit a big chunk out of one side.

Scott clinched his lips, but a soft chuckle managed to escape.

“What’s so funny?” Johnny mumbled, looking at Scott.

“Nothing.”  Scott lifted his glass to hide his mouth.  “I just noticed your appetite had suddenly returned.  It wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain horse, would it?”

Johnny’s shoulders drooped and his head tipped downward.

Regret tugged at Scott’s heart.   His words must have hit a sore spot.

After taking a couple of swallows of his wine to bolster his courage, Scott took a stab at addressing what he suspected would prove to be a touchy subject.           “Johnny, did I say something wrong?”

Johnny shook his head.  After he had swallowed the bite of biscuit, he looked up.  A frown pinched his brows.   “Wonder why he did it.”

“Who did what?” Scott asked, meeting his brother’s gaze.

Johnny licked his lips.  “Our ol’, um . . . Murdoch.”

Something told Scott that his brother was puzzling over more than a horse.  “I take it the two of you had some sort of trouble today,” he said, his eyes searching Johnny’s.

Johnny’s shoulders heaved, but his gaze remained steady.  “He didn’t tell you?”

“No.”  Scott looked at his plate.  How much should he tell his brother about his conversation with their father?

“But you did talk.”

Scott drew in a long breath and looked up again.  “Yes.  We talked, but . . .”

Johnny shifted his gaze and appeared to study something in the direction of the fireplace.  “I guess you asked him if he sold Barranca to me.”

“The subject did come up.”

“He tell you he had refused to sell him?”  Sadness filled Johnny’s voice.

Scott was tempted to lie, but he feared his brother would see through it.

“Well, did he?”  Johnny prodded.

“He told me,” Scott quietly replied.

Johnny tapped the edge of his fork against his plate.  “So, you know why he changed his mind?”

Scott studied his brother.  “Don’t you know?”

Johnny looked down at his plate and shook his head.

After a moment of silence, Scott spoke slowly and deliberately.  “It could be that he wants you to know that you mean something to him.”

“After what I done?”   The words practically exploded from Johnny’s mouth.

Scott leaned back in his chair.  “Just what did happen between the two of you?”

Johnny toyed with the fork in his hand.  “We argued about you riding Barranca.”

“That’s all?”  Scott was sure there was more to the story.  A discussion of who was allowed to ride what horse hardly seemed reason enough for Murdoch to refuse to sell one or to want Johnny to leave.

Johnny remained quiet a moment before answering.  “I accused you of stealing my horse.”  He rattled his fork against the plate again.  “And . . . then I told him . . . I didn’t want him or anybody else riding Barranca.  That I was buying him.”

Scott’s brows lifted.  “And?”

Johnny glanced up sheepishly at his brother and shrugged.  “I called him an old man.”

Scott slowly shook his head and chuckled under his breath.  “Little Brother, you do believe in living dangerously.  I can’t see that setting well with Murdoch, at all.”

“It didn’t.”  A hint of a smile touched Johnny’s lips and quickly disappeared.

Scott sensed there was still more to the story.  Could Johnny have threatened their father in some way?  “So . . . what did he do?” he gently prodded.

“Nothing . . . much.”  Johnny rolled his eyes upward and halfway grinned.  “The corner of the desk was in the way.”

Scott smiled back.  “Lucky you.  Murdoch’s a lot tougher than he looks . . . and, I’m presuming, not nearly as old.  I wouldn’t want to try him in hand-to-hand combat.  I have a feeling he could whip the both of us if he set his mind to it.”

“Yeah.”  Another smile came and went.  “I still can’t figure out why he changed his mind . . . unless.”   Johnny’s mouth puckered and his eyes narrowed.   “You talked him into it, didn’t you?”

“I talked to him, but the decision was entirely his,” Scott said hoping to convince his brother that Murdoch had acted on his own volition.

“But you took my side, ain’t that right?”

Scott nodded and Johnny glanced away.  When he spoke again, there was a tremor in to his voice.  “Why?  After what I did, why would you stick up for me?”

“Because you’re my brother,” Scott replied.  He didn’t need time to think.  For him, there was no other answer.  That realization had hit him with full force when he saw Johnny shot off his horse during the fight with Pardee and his men.

“Yeah, some brother I turned out to be.”   Disgust filled Johnny’s voice.  “Just look what I done to your face.  Did Murdoch ask you who plowed it?”

“That was my own fault, and I told him so.  I knew Barranca was special to you. I shouldn’t have taken him without your knowledge.  Besides, I did hit you first.”  Scott paused and ran his hand along the edge of the table.  “I’m sorry, Johnny.  I hope you can forgive me.”

“It’s me that should be apologizing.  I started it dragging ya off Barranca.  I’d o’ thrown the first punch if ya hadn’t beat me to it.”

“All brothers fight some time or another,” Scott replied.

“I know, but I pulled a gun on ya, Scott?  How can you even think of forgiving me for that?  You don’t know how . . ..”

The agony in Johnny’s voice cut through Scott like a knife. “You didn’t know what you were doing,” he said in an attempt to soothe his brother.

Johnny shook his head.  “I knew.”

“No, you didn’t, not at first.  It just happened. It was . . . it was like you didn’t even see me.”

“I could’ve killed you, Scott.  Don’t you know that?”

The desperation that he heard in his brother’s tone brought another stab of pain in Scott’s chest.  Apparently, he meant more to Johnny than Johnny let on.

Scott’s mind flashed back to the incident of earlier in the day.  When he spoke, his voice was steady and full of conviction. “No, you couldn’t have.”

Johnny turned his head and looked sadly into his brother’s eyes.  “Yes, I could.”

“No, you couldn’t,” Scott said with more determination.

“Scott, you don’t know me.  What I’ve done.  What I’m capable of.”

“Then why didn’t you,” Scott demanded.  “Tell me, Johnny, what kept you from pulling the trigger?”

Johnny’s eyes wavered.  “I . . . I don’t know.”

“Of course, you do.”  Scott continued to gaze at his brother.  He wasn’t about to give up until he got the answer he was after.

Johnny slowly exhaled.  He slowly lifted his eyes to meet Scott’s penetrating gaze.  “I guess . . . I guess because . . . we’re brothers.”

Scott smiled.  “Exactly as I thought.”

“But—.”

“It’s over, Johnny,” Scott interrupted.  “There’s nothing we can do about it now.  It’s in the past.  We need to let it go and forget about it.”

Johnny’s shoulders sagged.  “I can’t,” he whispered and went back to eating more slowly than before.

While they finished their meal in silence, Scott tried to think of a way to put the troubles of the day behind them.  Slowly a plan took shape.  When he finished his last bite, he got up from the table and gathered up all of the carrot sticks that were in the dish to the right of his plate.  “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to check on the horses,” he said, waving the carrots.  Then he turned and walked toward the same French door their father had gone out of earlier.

“Hey!” Johnny called.  “What’re ya gunna do with those?”

The scrape of a chair and footsteps behind him told Scott that his plan might be working.  “I thought the horses might like them,” he said, opening the door without looking back.  He left the door open behind him and strode toward the barn.

A rattle announced the closing of the French door and then hurried steps drew closer.

“Which horses?” Johnny demanded upon coming along side of Scott.

Scott lengthened his stride.  “I’m sure Buck and Jigs would like one.  And then there are Socks, and Blaze, and Star, and Blacky.  They—.”

“What about Barranca?” Johnny cut in.

Scott’s cheek muscles flexed as he held back a smile.  He lifted his empty hand and motioned with it while he spoke.  “Don’t worry, Brother.  I have no intention of feeding Barranca.  He’s your horse.”

Johnny kept stride with Scott.  “You don’t need all of those, do ya?”

Scott fought the urge to smile.  He was enjoying teasing his brother and planned to take full advantage of the opportunity.  “I don’t know.  There are quite a few horses in the pasture,” he said attempting to keep his tone serious.  “I wouldn’t want any of them to feel slighted.  If you think Barranca would like a carrot, I’m sure there are more in the pantry.”

“You’d think ya could spare one,” Johnny muttered.

Scott chuckled.  He slowed his pace, took hold of Johnny’s arm, and pulled him to a standstill.  “You know, Little Brother, you take life much too seriously.  If you don’t learn to lighten up, you’ll be an old man before you’re thirty.”  He held out his other hand.  “Here, have a carrot . . . and take one for Barranca, too, if you think he’d like one.”

“Thanks.  I will.”  Johnny snatched two of the carrots from Scott’s open palm.  “Just so happens, Barranca likes company when he’s eating,” he said with a smirk.

Scott laughed and rested a hand on his brother’s shoulder.  A sense of peace welled up inside of him as Johnny responded in kind and they continued on toward the corral.  Becoming a family certainly had its challenges, but it looked like they just might make it after all.         

***

Murdoch Lancer finished his talk with Cipriano.  As he started back to the house, he saw Johnny and Scott approaching the barnyard corral.  The sight of his sons walking close together brought a smile to his face and he stopped to watch them.  For a moment, in his mind, he saw a five-year old boy with golden hair and a dark-headed toddler of two.

He stood still and watched until his sons entered the corral and were out of sight.  On the outside, he was smiling, but inside he was filled with a dull ache for what should have been.  They had all missed so much during the long years of separation.  Life had not been fair to any of them.  But then no one had ever promised it would be.

A verse from the Bible came into Murdoch’s mind.  “In this life, there shall be trials and tribulations.”  How many times had he heard his mother say those very words?  Well, he had had more than his share of both.  It was time they left him and his family alone. 

Murdoch heard his sons calling to the horses.  He drew in a deep breath, slowly let out, and continued on toward the house.  It looked like the child he once had known was still there inside of his son, waiting to find his way out.  Perhaps Johnny just needed some time to let go of the past and learn that he no longer had to rely on his wits and a gun in order to survive.  Maybe what they all needed was a little time.

The prospect of better days to come eased away the upsets of the day.  Murdoch smiled.  In a few days, his lawyer would be back from the unexpected business that had delayed him in Sacramento.  Then he and his sons could sign the partnership agreement.  They were bound to face new troubles and new challenges as they came to know each other better.  Was it foolish to hope that, come what may, they would weather the storms somehow?  That in time, they would become a family?  He hoped it wasn’t.

Murdoch looked upward and said a silent prayer.  His heart swelled with anticipation.  His boys were home.  They had a chance for a future, together.  Someday, they might even realize how much he loved them and would come to love him in return.  Wasn’t that what he had always hoped for?  Wasn’t that the real reason he had sent for them?

***

A half-moon shined overhead as Johnny sat alone on the top rail of the corral.  Scott had returned to the house and all of the horses, except for Barranca, had gone back to grazing once the carrots were gone.

Barranca stood facing his new owner–his head against Johnny’s shoulder.

“You’re mine,” Johnny said, stroking Barranca’s neck.  His heart swelled with pride.  For as long as he could remember, this was the kind of horse he had always dreamed of owning but had never hoped to have.

Johnny’s eyes shifted to take in the shadowy valley and dim skyline.  Next week, he would become part owner of all he could see: one hundred thousand acres of good grass.  He’d never held title to one acre or even dreamed of living in a place like this, much less thought of owning it.  Once he’d picked up a gun, his only desire had been to be Johnny Madrid, good at his trade.  How would that fit into his future?

Barranca nudged Johnny’s shoulder.

“I almost lost it all because of that gun,” Johnny said.  He scratched behind the horse’s ears, gazed up at the big dipper, and drew in a deep breath of the sweet night air.  Would his reputation let him leave that life behind him?  Could he ever be Johnny Lancer, cattle rancher?

A new thought struck Johnny.  He hadn’t read the partnership agreement all that closely.  What name had Murdoch put on it?  What if it was Johnny Madrid?  Should he ask him to change it?

Johnny let out a soft sigh and laid his hand against the base of Barranca’s ears.  Before coming here, he hadn’t questioned who he was or what he wanted to be.  He was Johnny Madrid–gunfighter.  Johnny Lancer didn’t exist.  He had hated anything to do with his father, including the man’s name.  Now that he’d met Murdoch, had a chance to get to know him a little, and after all that had just happened, he wasn’t sure how he felt about the Lancer name.  He did have a right to it, and he knew he could be called something a lot worse.

Barranca nickered and gave Johnny another nudge.

“Guess I’d best be headed to bed,” Johnny said.  He gave the horse a final pat on the neck and climbed down from his perch.  He had time to decide which name he wanted to use.  Tonight, he would be content with the hope of a future that he had never dreamed would be his–a hope he had thought he had thrown away.

Johnny slowly walked toward the house.  What was the real reason Murdoch had sent for him?   Could Teresa be right?  Had his mother lied to him about his father not wanting them?  Was there a chance that he and his Boston raised brother and that gruff old man, who insisted on calling the tune, could be a real family someday?

Day Pardee’s parting words mocked him. “You’re not a Lancer.”

“But I could prove him wrong, couldn’t I?” Johnny said aloud.  That wasn’t too much to hope for, was it?

~The End~

August 2013
Originally posted to Lancer Writers on Yahoo

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Thank you for reading! The authors listed on this site spend many hours writing stories for your enjoyment, and their only reward is the feedback you leave. So please take a moment to leave a comment.  Even the simplest ‘I liked this!” can make all the difference to an author and encourage them to keep writing and posting their stories here.  You can comment in the ‘reply’ box below or email Desert Sun directly.

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4 thoughts on “A Question of Ownership by Desert Sun

  1. It is certainly hard for Johnny to feel part of a family. Glad Murdoch gave in and finally sold him Barranca. Nicely done.

    Like

  2. I really enjoyed this story. It does unravel a little bit of Johnny’s need for something of his own that was more than land and a room. Thank you.

    Like

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