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          Murdoch Lancer sat, watching his ward as she stared out the window at the passing landscape.  Excitement and wonder took over her expression like a spring river.  The train rattled and shook, beginning a climb of another hill, leading them further into the Sierra Nevadas.  The land outside was as wild and untamed as it was beautiful and compelling and he couldn't help but smile as he continued to watch Teresa and her wide-eyed enthusiasm.

          Shifting his attention to Jelly, his smile widened as a snore escaped from the older man.  Scott and Johnny sat closest to the aisle, occupied in a silent, intense game of poker.

          Scott regularly glanced up and peered out the window, admiring the passing scenery, but Johnny remained withdrawn and remote, ignoring the scenery and their on-again and off-again attempts at conversation.  Scott had finally resorted to the cards as a way to give them something to do besides deal with Johnny's strained silence.

          Still, a warm feeling of contentment washed over Murdoch as he watched his family.  There had been a time, not so long ago, when he'd doubted he'd ever see his sons again.  Both had been taken from him when they were just babies, and both boys had grown up far away from the vast Lancer ranch in the central valley of California.  Scott, college-educated in Boston and comfortable with high society; Johnny, who learned to survive with his revolver in the seedy border towns along the United States and Mexico.  They couldn't be more different – Scott taller, thinner, blond and refined; Johnny shorter and stockier, with black hair and well-honed survival instincts.  The only thing they had in common were their light blue eyes.  Murdoch's eyes.  And his last name… Lancer.

And even the latter had been up in the air for a while when it came to Johnny. After he'd finally found the boys and brought them back to Lancer, Johnny spurned Murdoch's familial overtures, opting at first to keep his mother's maiden name, Madrid.  But eventually he'd given in and accepted not only the Lancer name, but Murdoch's love as well.

          Teresa finally broke the silence with a whispered, "It's so beautiful.  It's like something out of a storybook."

          Scott and Johnny both looked up from their game.  "Beautiful," Johnny said softly.  "But dangerous.  It's no bedtime story out there."

          "Maybe so," Teresa replied, "but it's still breathtaking."

          Scott laid his cards down and looked past Jelly, who slept on the far side of Murdoch, next to the window, and peered out for a better look.  He looked across at Teresa and grinned.  If his brother was going to talk, they might as well take advantage of it.

"You spend a lot of time up here?" he asked Johnny.

          "Some," was the taciturn reply as Johnny shuffled the deck.  "Maybe too much."

          Murdoch knew his youngest son was trying to tell them something, but he couldn't find the words.  He wished, not for the first time, that he could climb inside his youngest son's skin.  Every time he thought he understood what motivated the young man something new came up to show him he still really knew next to nothing about Johnny Madrid.

          Before Scott could question Johnny any further, Jelly spoke from his hunched position in the corner, his eyes still closed.  "These mountains can break a man, or make him.  Just depends."

          "I thought you were asleep, Jelly," Scott said with a light chuckle.

          "Depends on what?" Teresa asked.

          "The man, mostly," the old man replied as he scratched his gray chin whiskers, then he snuggled down further into his jacket.  He folded his arms across his chest, obviously finished with the conversation.

          Murdoch watched as Johnny finally glanced out the window, the young man's expression veiled by the memories from some hidden part of his past.  Concerned, he reached across the space and rested a concerned hand on his son's knee.  "Are you all right?"

          Johnny blinked rapidly and the veil lifted.  He met his father's gaze.  "Yeah, I'm fine."

          Murdoch leaned back, knowing touch made his son uncomfortable.

          "Johnny," Teresa said, reaching out to rest her hand lightly on the man's shoulder.  "You looked so far away.  What were you thinking about?"

          "Nothing important," he replied, dipping his head and dealing the cards.

          "Come on," Scott urged, picking up his hand.  "What's on your mind?"

          Johnny looked up and met Scott's teasing gaze.  "I said it's nothing," he replied, his voice turning hard.  He sighed and tossed his cards down, then pushed himself to his feet.  He walked away, exiting the train car at the far end.

          The four sat in a stunned silence until Murdoch stood and trailed after his son.

          "What's got into Johnny?" Teresa asked as she watched Murdoch step outside, then close the door behind him.

          "I don't know," Scott told her.  "Johnny wasn't particularly excited about this trip…"  He met her concerned gaze.  "There's so much about him we don't know.  Maybe part of his past is catching up with him."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Murdoch found Johnny standing just outside the door, leaning against the railing that enclosed the small landing between the two passenger cars.  Closing the door behind him, he leaned back against it and asked, "Would you like to talk about whatever's eating at you?"

          "No," Johnny replied, turning his back on his father.

"John," Murdoch said, using the name he employed when he wanted the young man to know he was meeting him on equal ground.  "You know we wouldn't hold any of your past against you, don't you?"

          "I know," Johnny replied, the passing wind nearly stealing the words away before his father heard them.

          Murdoch stepped closer.  "All right then.  I won't press you.  When you're ready, we'll listen."  With that he turned to go back to his seat, but stopped when Johnny reached out and grabbed his arm.

          "It's something that—"  He stopped, searching for the right words to describe the feelings that were churning inside his guts.  He sighed heavily and released his father's arm with a shrug.  "I can't," he said, shaking his head.  "I can't right now."

          "All right.  Just remember, we're here when you're ready."  Murdoch reached up and squeezed his son's shoulder.  "You're not alone anymore, Johnny."

          He nodded.

          Turning, Murdoch entered the car again and closed the door, leaving Johnny alone with his agitated thoughts, the chill mountain air, and the stark beauty they were passing through.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          As Murdoch slid into his seat he was met by a pair of questioning faces.  He waved Scott and Teresa silent as they started to question him, saying, "Look, whatever has him upset, he's not ready to talk about it.  When he is, he will.  Until then, don't press him."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Johnny remained outside, the cold air rushing by him as the train picked up speed on a downgrade.  Gripping the frigid metal railing, he watched his hands tremble, not with cold, but with fear.

Memories flooded his thoughts and he fought to keep them at least partially buried.  But the images crept in like the chill, the onslaught overwhelming his defenses and weakening his knees. 

          He closed his eyes and bowed his head.  The icy wind carried his words away in thin white wisps as they pushed past his clenched teeth.  "I'm not going to die.  I won't die."

          It had been a twelve-year-old Johnny Madrid who had killed his first man, but it was a fourteen-year-old who took his first bullet and nearly died.  Refusing to go along with a job that required killing three innocent people, he'd reined his horse away and tried to ride off, but the outlaw gang refused to let him go.

They exchanged fire and Johnny managed to escape, but it was with a bullet in his back.  He escaped into the mountains, growing sicker with each passing mile.

Cold, tired, and hurting, Johnny ended up wandering aimlessly for almost a day before he passed out and slipped off his horse.  When he woke, he wandered some more, his fever rising and his ability to help himself failing.  Finally, as a thick snow started to fall, he walked right into a smooth-rimmed trap.

          The resulting scream brought an old mountain man, who carried the injured boy back to his cabin where he removed the bullet and nursed Johnny back to health. They spent nearly a year together, the old man teaching the teen everything he could.  And the boy learned fast.

Johnny was more than ready to settle in and stay with the old man, but as winter approached ol' Dan had a dream.  The next day he told Johnny to pack up and get out.

          When Johnny pressed him on the reason why, Dan told him that he wasn't safe on the mountain anymore.  And, as long as Johnny wasn't safe there, neither was he.

"I don't understand," Johnny said, hurt and confused.

          "It's the mountain herself, boy.  She's alive.  They all are.  They come to me in my dreams, and they talk to me.  She told me.  She said she'll see you dead.  Not all of 'em, just her.  She wants to cradle your bones forever.  If you stay here, maybe she'll turn on me, too.  You gotta leave, boy.  You've gotta leave and don't ever come back, you hear?  You come back, she'll have your soul sure."

          And so Johnny left, returning south to the border towns where he'd grown up.  He never returned to the Sierra Nevadas, or to the mountain that wanted to kill him.

          That had been eight years ago, and he thought he'd forgotten all about the incident.  But now, as he traveled through the same mountains, the memories and the fears of a young boy, fears buried long ago, rose to choke in his throat.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          When Johnny finally returned to his seat, he was met by silence and three concerned stares.  He kept his emotions under a tight rein and silently prayed that they didn't see the fear he was hiding.

          Murdoch noted the paleness of his son's face and the tension stretched across his features.  But it was the air of doom that clung to Johnny's shoulders like a wet blanket that troubled him most.  He'd never seen his son afraid, and he didn't like it.

          Johnny was grateful for the continued silence, and forced himself to stare out the window, refusing to make eye contact with anyone.  He knew he'd have to tell them eventually, but he needed time to sort out the past and place it properly in the present.

          Still, in the clacking quiet he realized that their presence gave him a sense of strength and comfort, and he finally offered Teresa a half-hearted smile.  She responded, reaching over to briefly touch his hand in a wordless show of support.

          Scott started to say something, but the train began to brake.  Johnny caught Teresa as she was pitched forward from her seat.  Scott found his hands full with Murdoch.

          Jelly had a rude awakening as he bounced to the floor.  "What's goin' on?" the old man demanded as he scrambled back into his seat, watching half-amused as the others untangled themselves.

          There were only a few passengers on the train headed to the still wild and growing mining town of Clearview, but those there were moved about the car, looking out the windows, trying to see what the problem was.  The Lancers and Jelly joined them while Teresa gathered up their belongings.

          "There," Scott said, pointing to the tracks ahead.

          Johnny and Murdoch leaned over next to him to look.

          "Avalanche?" Murdoch asked.

          "Looks like it," Scott replied as he shook his head in disgust with the tangle of snow, rocks, and trees that apparently blocked the tracks.

          The door to the passenger car opened and the conductor entered.  "Sorry about that unexpected stop, folks," he said.  "As you can see, we're not goin' anywhere 'til we move the debris off the tracks.  I'd rightly appreciate it if you younger men could lend us a hand." He turned and exited the car, a handful of men filing out after him.

          Scott looked at his father.  "Uh, sir, don't you think you should stay here?"

          "I'm not so old I can't move a few rocks," Murdoch grumbled, slightly affronted.

          "But if you go out there, you'll look like a miner rather than a stockholder when we get to Clearview," Scott told him.  "First impressions being what they are…"

          "Besides," Johnny added.  "You can't leave Jelly alone in here with all these women."

          "Ahhh," the older man grouched.

          Murdoch grinned and nodded.  "All right, but if you need an extra pair of hands, you come get me."

          "Will do," Scott assured.

          The two left and Murdoch settled back in his seat with Teresa and Jelly to wait.

          Their watch was short-lived.  They heard the pound of boots moments before men boarded from the rear of the car.  Murdoch and Jelly swiveled in their seats only to find three men with handkerchiefs over their faces and their guns drawn.  Several of the women gasped, but no one screamed.

          "Howdy, folks," one of the men greeted.  "I want all of you good people to put your hands on your heads so no one gets hurt."

          The passengers complied, some of the women beginning to cry softly.  The men spread out down the length of the car so that everyone was covered by one of the armed men.

          "Now, if you'd be so kind as to remove all your jewelry, and take out all your money," said the same man.  "We'll be gone before you know it."

          Again the people complied.

          When the speaker held out a sack for Murdoch and the others to place their valuables in, Jelly mumbled, "Seems crazy, robbin' us like this with all those men out there."

          "Not so crazy, old man," the talker said as gun and rifle fire began outside.

          A few of the women screamed.  Murdoch moved to stand, but the leader shoved him roughly back into his seat and hooked the barrel of his revolver under Lancer's chin.  "Not so crazy with all them men out there dead."

          Another outlaw entered from the front of the car.  "Got the forward car.  Let's go."

          "Hurry up, ladies," the leader growled.  "Or we'll take one of you with us."  He leaned over Murdoch slightly, his eyes narrowing slightly as he stared at Teresa.  "Like this pretty little thing over here, maybe."

          The outlaws quickly finished collecting the valuables, everyone rushing to hand over their items.  Jelly wrapped a protective arm around Teresa's shoulders and glowered defiantly at the outlaw.

          The man chuckled at Jelly's bravado.  "I want to thank you all for your cooperation," he said laughingly, as he and the others left the car.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Scott and Johnny carried a small tree off the track as the gunfire opened up on them and the other men.  Johnny watched Scott go down, a bright red stain spreading down his face.  He dropped the trunk and swung around, drawing with the speed that had made Johnny Madrid both respected and feared.

          Killing the man who had fired on Scott, he dove for cover.  A bullet raked across his upper arm, making him hiss.  He turned and rose, ready to return fire, but one of the passengers charged in front of him, trying to escape the slaughter.  A shotgun blast roared, exploding the passenger's chest out his back and showering Johnny with blood and gore.

          The force of the blast hurled the dead man into Johnny, knocking him down.  He landed with the man across his mid-section and legs, and his head connected with a rock buried in the snow.

          Knocked unconscious, Johnny looked like he had been killed by the same blast that had murdered the other passenger.

          The firing continued until all the passengers were down, then the outlaws rummaged through the pockets of the dead men.  One of the shooters bent over Scott as the men emerged from the train and motioned for them to leave.

          The outlaw kicked Scott's leg, then turned and left.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Murdoch watched from a window until the riders disappeared into the trees, then lunged out of the car, running to the blockage.  He halted when he reached the scene of the carnage.  Twelve men lay scattered across the snow and debris.  Steam rose from some of the wounds and a fine red mist painted the snow in nightmarish patterns.

          He recognized Scott first and moved to kneel next to his oldest son as a few of the women ventured out.  At first Murdoch was as fooled as the bandits had been by Scott's head wound, then he saw the blond take a deep breath and his eyes moved but didn't open.

          "Scott?" Murdoch said, helping him to sit up.  "Scott, are you all right?"

          The younger man's blue eyes flew wide.  "Ambush!  Johnny!"

          "Easy, easy," Murdoch soothed.  "Let's get you back into the train."

          After helping Scott to his feet, Murdoch half-carried his son back to the train car, passing the women as they moved to find their husbands, fathers, and sons.

          "Scott!" Teresa cried as she stepped out.  Helping Murdoch, she guided the pair back inside and into the first empty seat.

          Murdoch met her horrified gaze.  "I have to go back—"

          Teresa nodded.  "I'll get this cleaned up."

          Leaving Teresa working on Scott, he turned to go back outside, but Jelly caught him before he could leave the car.  "Johnny?"

          "I don't know," Murdoch said.  "Keep the rest of these women in here.  It's ugly out there.  I'll check the bodies."

          Jelly nodded.

          Leaving the train, Murdoch walked back to the ambush site and proceeded with the gruesome job of digging through the bodies.  The conductor had been hit in the face, only his uniform revealing his identity, but he found two more survivors that he helped back to the train.  Leaving the second in the care of his wife he turned to leave, but hesitated at the landing, afraid of what he was going to find.

          Jelly came up to him, saying, "I'll go, Boss."

          "No, Jelly," Murdoch replied softly.  "I'll find him."  Taking a deep breath, he stepped back into the snow.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          When Murdoch finally found Johnny all his worst fears seemed to be confirmed. His youngest son lay, eyes closed, blood, bone, and bits of flesh covering his face and chest.  The body of another man lay across Johnny's mid-section and legs, making it impossible to see if he was still breathing.

          Kneeling down, Murdoch placed a trembling hand on his son's head, then pushed the black hair back, looking for a wound.  Despite his best efforts, tears filled his eyes but stubbornly refused to fall.

          Under the ministrations Johnny moaned quietly and his eyes fluttered opened.

          "John?" Murdoch asked as he pushed the body of the dead man off his son.  "Johnny, don't move."

          "Scott?" the younger man asked as he struggled to sit up, his gaze darting over the carnage in panicked concern.

          "Scott's alive," Murdoch said as he placed an arm behind his son's back to support him and continued to check him over.  "Looks like he took a nasty crease on his forehead.  Can you stand?"

          Johnny nodded.  "I'm all right."

          Not believing him, Murdoch helped his son to his feet.

          Johnny winced, and the rancher found the arm wound.  "Come on, let's get you inside."

          Johnny nodded and took a few independent steps back toward the train before he sank to his knees in the snow.  Taking a deep, shuddering breath his chin dropped down to touch his chest.

          Murdoch moved quickly to his son's side.  "You're sure you're not hurt someplace else?"

          He shook his head, but he didn't speak.

          "Johnny, what's wrong?"

          All the dark-haired man could do was shake his head again.  The mountain had struck out at him and all those men were dead.  Scott had almost died…

          "I never should've come back here," he whispered.

          "What did you say?" Murdoch asked, concerned.  He'd never seen Johnny react to anything like this.

          When Johnny didn't answer, Murdoch reached down and helped him to his feet.  "Come on, let's get inside."

          Johnny looked up at his father, his eyes bleak, then he slumped unconscious into the taller man's arms.  Murdoch lifted him and carried Johnny back into the car.

          Inside, the women sat in small groups, crying and comforting one another, or working over the injured men.  Teresa and Jelly dressed Scott's head wound.  When they saw Murdoch carrying the bloody, still form, both sat down.  Teresa gasped, tears immediately running over her cheeks.  Jelly took her hand to comfort her.

          Scott stood and walked over to meet Murdoch.  Touching Johnny's shoulder and then his face, he looked up at his father.  "He's dead?"

          "No," Murdoch whispered, touched by the depth of the feelings Scott had for his still unknown brother.  "He just passed out.  A man near him was hit by a shotgun blast.  It's his blood."

          "Thank God," Scott whispered.

          Murdoch carried Johnny over and laid him down on a seat.  "He's okay, I think," he assured the pair.

          Teresa took a handkerchief, poured some water on it and wiped the blood off Johnny's face.  That brought the young man around and he sat up, asking again about Scott.

          The blond responded, sitting down across from Johnny and saying, "Hey, little brother.  How're you doing?"

          "How're you?"

          "I'll be fine.  You know how hard-headed I can get."

          The comment brought a small smile to Johnny's face, but glancing around at the women in the car quickly took it away.

          Teresa finished cleaning Johnny's face, then helped him out of the bloody shirt and cleaned his arm.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "But, sir, don't you think that—" Scott tried to argue, but Murdoch cut him off.

          "I'm not so old or so slow that I can't keep up," he said.  "Besides, we need some of our strength here."

          "I should go alone," Johnny said for what felt like the tenth time.

          "We've already laid that issue to rest," Murdoch snapped, but instantly regretted it.  He looked at his sons and wanted to argue his point, but he knew they were right.  If he went along he'd just slow Johnny down.  "If I stay here, Scott's going with you."

          "Now you're talking," Scott chimed in.

          Johnny's jaw twitched, but he nodded.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Johnny, please be careful," Teresa said as she packed the last few items for him to take.  "You, too, Scott."

          "We will," Scott promised her, then kissed her forehead.

Johnny gave her a quick hug, then followed his brother out into the snow.  They stood together for a moment, looking at the death around them.  A light snowfall had covered the bodies in shrouds of white.  Both men shivered.

          "Which way?" Scott asked in a whisper.

          "This way," Johnny responded in the same quiet voice.  He started off, his gaze taking in the mountain.  "There's a pass up there that'll save us two days, if I can find it."

          "Think you can?"

          "I spent a year on this mountain.  It's there.  I can find it."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Murdoch, Teresa, and Jelly watched until the pair were obscured by the snow.  "Why are they going up the mountain?" she asked.  "Wouldn't it be easier if they just followed the tracks?"

          "Johnny must know a shorter route," Murdoch told her reassuringly, hiding the anxiety he felt.  "I've heard there's a pass over this mountain, must be that."

          "Don't you worry," Jelly told her, patting the back of her hand.  "They can take care of themselves.  Johnny knows what he's doing."

          "I'm not worried about Johnny," Teresa said.  "But Scott's never been out here before and with a head wound…"

          "They'll be fine," Murdoch said, sitting back down next to her wrapping an arm around her shoulder.  "I just wish I knew what was bothering John.  He's not himself."

          "How long will it take for help to get here?" a woman asked.

          "Anywhere from two to eight days," Murdoch told her truthfully.

          "So long?" another asked.

          "I'm afraid so," Murdoch said.  "But we have plenty of wood and water.  We have shelter, and if we share our food, it shouldn't be too uncomfortable."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          By late afternoon the heavy snowfall had left an additional half-foot of powder on the accumulated snowpack, and the weather was only getting worse.  Four hours of hiking through the mush had left the brothers tired and breathless.  Scott suffered with the head injury, but he kept his discomfort to himself as long as he could.  But, after stumbling three times in as many steps, he leaned heavily on a boulder and called after Johnny, who was walking a few yards ahead.

"Hold up a minute.  I need to rest a little while."

          Johnny looked back from where he stopped, then turned and retraced his steps to rejoin his brother.  "We can't stop out here," he said.  "We'll freeze to death.  We have to keep moving until we find shelter."

          "I can't keep up this pace," Scott admitted, a little ashamed.  "I can barely keep my eyes focused."  He met his brother's neutral expression.  "You were right.  I should've stayed behind.  I'm only slowing you down."

          "Come on," Johnny said kindly, taking Scott's arm and positioning it across his shoulders, helping him rise.

          They started off again and struggled along for another hour before Johnny found a spot that would afford them enough protection for the cold night ahead.  He knew he had to take the chance; Scott was too weak and tired to go on.  The blond head hung low from the pain and his steps were more and more uneven.

          Johnny gave silent thanks to God or whatever spirit had brought him to the huge fir tree that grew next to a rock overhang.  Still supporting Scott, he helped him into the snow-free space.  It was large enough for the pair to lie down and still leave room for a small fire at the opening.  The ground was covered with plenty of pine needles for tinder and bedding, even if it was a little damp.  Settling Scott against the rock wall in the back of the almost-cave, Johnny went to work to start a fire.

          Taking a handful of needles that had been blown into the back of the opening and were still dry, he started a small fire.  Then, leaving Scott for a moment, he collected what damp wood he could find nearby and added that piece by piece to the tiny needle fire.  After threatening to put the effort out, the damp wood finally caught and began to burn with loud pops and hisses.  At least the small fire gave off enough heat to take the biting chill out of the small space.

          Johnny frowned as he watched Scott shift and grimace in pain.  Stripping off the heavy jacket he wore, Johnny placed it over Scott's chest and felt the man's forehead.  A small fever had developed.

          Scott opened his eyes and Johnny quickly turned to the sack Teresa had packed before he said anything.  Reaching in, he removed two pieces of jerky and handed one to Scott.  He saw the protest over the jacket in his brother's eyes and said, "It's warm close to the fire.  You'll need that if you sleep back here."

          Scott nodded his thanks and began to work on the jerky.  Placing more wood on the fire, Johnny settled into a nest he shaped out of the dry needles, ate his meat, then tried to join Scott in sleep.

          "Johnny?"

          "Yeah?"

          "Thanks."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Scott seemed stronger after the night's rest and both men sat in the shelter, hesitant about leaving.  The chance of finding another as good as this was next to impossible.  During the night another six inches of fresh snow had fallen, the surface freezing in the chill night temperatures.  The brothers discovered that fact when they stepped out and the crust collapsed.  They sank into foot-deep powder.

          They pushed through the loose snow until mid-morning when Johnny finally stopped, annoyed with their lack of progress.

          Scott enjoyed the rest while he watched his brother fashion snowshoes out of pine boughs and strips of his shirt.  Johnny was still something of a mystery, so much of his past unspoken, and Scott hoped as he watched the man work that one day he'd know who Johnny Madrid and Johnny Lancer really were.

          As soon as Johnny finished they were off again.

          Scott followed in the path Johnny forged through the snow, the footwear making the going easier and faster.

          "Where'd you learn such a useful trick?" Scott asked, hoping to get his brother talking.

          "Like I told you, I spent a year up here," was all Johnny offered by way of an explanation.

          "Why?"

          "Just happened that way, that's all."

          Scott sighed and gave up.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          By noon the weather turned and a moderate snowfall slowed them down again. Johnny continued on, trying to find shelter while Scott followed the tracks that were rapidly filling.  A surge of panic overrode his good sense, and he called, "Johnny?"

          As soon as he heard Scott's call, Johnny stopped and headed back.  He knew if his brother kept yelling he could touch off a snow-slide.  He caught sight of the blond through the trees.

"Over here," he called back as quietly as he could.

          Scott saw Johnny and waved, then started over to join him, but after several steps he cried out in pain and fell.  Johnny halted for a moment, then began to slug through the snow toward him.  As he drew near Scott's prone body he froze, stopped by a low, menacing growl that reached him from a stand of short pines.

          Johnny waited, unmoving as he watched the pines and tried to reach the pistol under his jackets.

A large, deadly-thin mountain lion emerged.  It hissed, ears back and teeth bared as it moved deliberately between the two men.

          "Don't move," Johnny said quietly.

          "My leg," Scott replied.  "I stepped in a trap.  Probably meant for him."

          Johnny nodded once to let Scott know that he'd heard.  The memories of his own ordeal from eight years earlier flooded his thoughts.  The mountain was determined to kill him…

          The cougar's tail twitched nervously and its shoulders hunched.  The three waited, each taking account of the others.

Johnny saw Scott grimace and fight back the desire to grab his injured leg.  Knowing that he had to do something, he began to inch his hand closer to his gun.  The big cat responded with a wicked snarl.

          Risking the worst, Johnny grabbed the gun and drew on the animal.  The cougar, in a desperation born of starvation, responded equally quickly and pounced.  The cat's jaws closed on Johnny's gun arm, the power of the lunge carrying them back into the snow, the pistol flying from Johnny's hand.

          Scott lunged for the fallen weapon, but the trap held him fast a yard short.  Gasping in pain, he struggled to reach the weapon as Johnny and the cat wrestled in the snow.  The cougar used claws and teeth to its advantage, tearing cloth and flesh with equal ease.

          Johnny grabbed the big cat by the fur and loose skin along its neck, trying to keep the snapping teeth away from his face.  The cougar's claws tore through the heavy material of his jacket, opening furrows across his chest.  Johnny hissed in pain, and using all the strength he had, threw the snarling animal aside.

Scrambling on hands and knees, he reached the dropped gun, and grabbing the weapon, swung around and fired as the cat charged.  Despite the injury, the animal continued, plowing into Johnny and getting in a last swipe before going down.

          Roughly pushing the dead cougar away, Johnny tried to stand, but the pain and shock left his legs too weak to hold him.  He crawled over to Scott.

          "Are you all right?" Scott asked when he saw how pale his brother was.

          "I'll be fine," Johnny told him unconvincingly.

          He maneuvered to look at Scott's leg, finding a toothless trap that had been laid in the hopes of catching an animal without destroying the fur.  Scott's leg was not cut, but it was badly bruised.

          "Hold on, I'll open it," Johnny said, reaching for the sides of the trap.  He put all the strength he had left into pulling the jaws apart.

          "Are you sure you're all right?" Scott asked as he gingerly rubbed his leg.  He could see the blood on Johnny's chest, arm, and forehead and leaned forward.  "Let me take a look."

          "No.  We have to find shelter first.  I—"  Johnny broke off as he pitched into the snow, unconscious.

          "Johnny!" Scott said, fear coloring his voice.  Moving closer to his brother, he found that the man was clawed up more than he'd initially thought.

          Shaking Johnny's shoulders roughly brought him around, and leaning on each other, they climbed to their feet and headed toward the summit of the narrow pass.

          Just over the top Scott found a large flat slab of stone leaning against three large boulders that snow melt had uncovered.  It was enough for a night's shelter.

          Leaving his brother leaning against one of the stones, Scott built a small fire out of damp wood and the paper Teresa had wrapped their jerky in.  Then, placing snow in the canteen, he melted it over the weakly burning fire and poured it into a bandanna to clean Johnny's wounds.  The punctures on his forearm from the big cat's teeth were already red and puffy.

          His eyes still closed, Johnny fought to keep from pulling his arm away as Scott worked over it.  Worry ran rampant in the younger man's mind.  The cougar shouldn't have attacked a full-grown man.  Even in its emaciated condition, it shouldn't be so bold.  He remembered the animal's appearance.  There had been no froth, no glazed eyes, but it still could have been rabid.  And if it was…

          The mountain had finally won.

          Johnny forced his eyes opened and found Scott staring worriedly at him.  He tried to smile, but the effort failed.  "I'll be okay."

          "You look like hell," Scott replied, rinsing out the bandanna.  He was just about to suggest that the two of them head back for the train, but the sound of a horse nickering cut him off.

          The two brothers rose and moved out of the shelter toward the source of the sound.  Crouching in the short pines, they were well hidden as they watched nine riders cut their way through the snow.  The horses sank in the snow to their knees and puffed with the effort.  Most were lathered despite the cold.

          The body of the cougar that had attacked Johnny lay tied across the packs of a mule one of the men led.

          "Same ones who attacked the train?" Scott asked in a soft whisper.

          Johnny nodded a confirmation.  "They're lookin' for us.  Let's get back, get that fire out."

          The two moved and Scott extinguished the fire while Johnny erased as much evidence of their presence as he could.

          "We can't stay here," Scott said.  "They'll follow our tracks right to us."

          "We'll go slow, but we can't cover our tracks."

          "Won't the snow help?"

          "Some," Johnny told him, looking out at the heavy snowfall.

          Neither man relished the idea of trying to move through the night, but they had no choice.  The dark and the snow were their best chances for losing their pursuers.

          "Once we get a head-start I'll lead them off so you can get to Clearview."

          "Wait a minute.  Why you?" Scott argued.  "You know where you're going, remember?  Besides you're hurt and if—"

          "I'll make sure you know how to get there," Johnny interrupted.  "You don't know anything about surviving out here.  It'll be safer for both of us this way."

          "Johnny," Scott said, concern overriding his good judgment.  "If you build a fever, you'll have to stop.  They'll catch you."

          The younger man sighed and grabbed their gear.  "It's settled, Scott.  You're going to Clearview."

          "Oh no, it's not," Scott said following his brother out of the shelter.

          "Look, I'm gonna die anyway."

          "What?"

          "That cat," Johnny said matter-of-factly, "was rabid."  He wasn't sure it was the truth, but if it got Scott off the mountain it would do.

          Scott's face went pale as he whispered.  "You can't be sure."

          "As sure as I have to be.  You're going to Clearview," Johnny said, a note of finality ringing in his voice.  "There's no cure, and if I'm right, I don't want to put Murdoch, and Teresa, and Jelly through that."  He looked up at Scott and smiled ironically.  "If not, I'll see you back home."

          "All right.  I'll go," Scott said.  "But I'll have to tell them."

          Johnny gave him an appraising look.  "Just promise me you'll keep them from looking.  You won't find me."

          Scott nodded.  There was nothing more he could do.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          They walked for the better part of the night, only stopping to rest an hour before dawn.  Once the sun rose high enough to cast pale orange shadows across the mountain, Johnny gave Scott directions to the mining camp.

          "See that gap?"

          "Yes."

          "Once you're through, angle east until you find the river.  It's two, maybe three miles. The river'll probably be frozen.  Follow it east and it'll take you right to Clearview.  The snow won't be so bad on this side and there's more shelter.  I'll head west, for Packhorse Pass."

          Johnny waited, but Scott remained rooted where he was.

          "Go on," he urged.

          Scott took several steps, the turned and walked back to Johnny and gave him a swift hug.  "I'll see you back at Lancer," he said, then turned and started out at a brisk pace.

          "I hope so," was all Johnny said, unsure if Scott had heard.  He turned and headed into the snow, walking west.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Scott followed Johnny's directions, making much better time than he'd anticipated.  He reached the frozen folds of the Brace River in early afternoon and followed the unmoving bends east, his thoughts crowded with how to tell Murdoch about Johnny when he saw him.

          Late in the day Scott stumbled into Clearwater.  The miner who first found him helped Scott to the small tent that housed the company doctor.  The man treated Scott while the miner went for the sheriff.  When the grizzled older man arrived Scott told him what had happened.

          "Yup, I'm gettin' familiar with the tricks them train robbers use up here in the winter and spring," the sheriff said.  "When the train was eight hours late I sent out a posse.  They'll clear the tracks, gather the bodies and bring 'em back."

          "When?" Scott asked.

          "Should be in here t'marra."

          Scott lay on the cot, feeling like he wanted to cry, but the anger he also felt kept the tears away.  Johnny had sacrificed his life for nothing.  They could've waited with the train.

          After several hours of sleep, Scott made his way to the boarding house, took a hot bath, ate a hot meal, and went to bed.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Murdoch, Teresa, and Jelly stepped off the train cold, tired, and hungry, but none the worse for their ordeal.

          Scott had just finished his breakfast when the three burst into the boarding house kitchen.  The excitement in their eyes faded when they saw that Johnny wasn't with him.

          The older woman who ran the house stepped in, smiling.  "Well now, you look like you all could use a hot bath and a big plate of my flapjacks and bacon.  Come with me and I'll show you to your rooms."

          Jelly and Teresa left, leaving Murdoch alone with Scott.

          "Is he alive?" Murdoch asked quietly.

          "I don't know," Scott replied truthfully.  "The last time I saw him he was heading west, leading the men who attacked the train off my trail."

          "I don't understand," Murdoch said, walking over to stand next to the warm stove.  "Johnny knows his way around out there.  He should've been able to lead them off and get back here."  He turned, meeting Scott's gaze.  "What else is there?"

          "Let me tell you the whole story," Scott said.

          Murdoch poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table.

          Scott told him the entire tale, leaving nothing out.  When he finished, Murdoch poured himself a second cup, looking shaken.

          "Rabid?" he whispered.  "We've got to find him."

          "He doesn't want us to find him," Scott countered.  "He told me he'd make sure we couldn't."

          "He doesn't have the right to make that decision," Murdoch snapped in anger.

          "Doesn't he?" Scott asked.  "I would've done the same thing, and so would you."

          Murdoch stood, anger in his eyes, but the truth of Scott's words were clear, and the anger fled with his nod of agreement.  "But the infection from the attack…"

          "I know.  I cleaned the wounds the best I could, but if he doesn't find help…" he trailed off, glancing up at his father.

          "Johnny's strong.  He'll survive."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Johnny moved through the trees and snow.  He knew the outlaws were following him, but he also knew that when he reached Packhorse Pass they wouldn't be able to keep up on horseback.  As he forced himself on, he prayed under his breath that Scott had reached Clearview safely.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The next day found Johnny on the far side of the pass.  Fever made him sweat despite the cold and he staggered forward.  The outlaws had given up the day before, turning back when they reached Packhorse.  That threat was gone, but a more immediate one now dogged his every step.  He had to find shelter.  Instinct took over when reason failed, leading him to the same small cabin where Dan had nursed him back to health eight years earlier.

          Inside, Johnny fumbled with lighting a fire, but the old, dry tinder caught easily and he added several pieces of wood.  The flames quickly warmed the small space, and with shaking hands he positioned a pot of snow next to the fire to melt.

          Going to the old trunk that sat under Dan's cot, Johnny brushed off the dust and opened it.  A spare pair of pants and shirt sat on the top.  He undressed and used the warm water to wash his wounds, then dressed and searched for any food.  Finding none, he finished off the last of his jerky and lay down on the cot.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Johnny's eyes blinked open and he squinted into the silver-gray fog that had somehow found its way into the cabin.  He checked the fire, but it was still burning.  He wasn't cold, he realized, but the flames looked far away, half-hidden behinds the thin veils of twisting mist.

          He sat up, noticing for the first time that he was not alone.  Ol' Dan sat in his rocking chair, pushing with his toes to keep the hand-hewed seat rolling.

"It's 'bout time," he said, using the same words from eight years ago.  "I was startin' to think I was gonna have t' bury you."

          "Dan?"

          "I done tended to your wounds.  Used Indian med'sin.  Learned it back when I could still afford me a squaw-wife."

          Johnny glanced nervously around.  Something was wrong.  Very, very wrong, but he couldn't seem to figure out what.

          A howling wind thundered down the mountainside like a runaway train.  It hit the cabin, shaking the logs.

          "Get on outta here, woman!" Dan yelled.  "He's under my roof now, my protection."

          "Who are you talking to?" Johnny asked.

          "The mountain, boy.  Like I told you years ago, she wants to see you dead."

          "Why?" Johnny asked, moving off the cot and sitting on the floor in front of the fire.  Despite the closeness to the dancing flames he still shivered.  "Why does the mountain want to kill me?"

          "Because I love you."

          Johnny scampered around, coming up on his knees and reaching for his absent revolver.  He stared at the beautiful young women who stood not far away.  Dressed in pale-colored veils that reminded him of fall leaves, the mist swirled around her legs and she smiled at him.  Her lips were as red as a summer sunset.

          Dan stood.  "Damn you, woman, get outta my house.  You're not welcome here."

          She looked at Dan, her long black hair rippling like a river at night.  "He's come back to me.  He's mine."

          "He ain't come back t' you," Dan argued.

          She turned back to Johnny and he noticed her eyes, green as spring meadow grass.  He stayed where he was, inching back closer to the fire in an attempt to force the ice from his bones.

          She took a step closer, her snow-white skin making her almost invisible in the fog.  Dan stepped in front of her.  "You stay away from him, you hear me?  You can't have him."

          "I have loved him forever," she said.  "And now he's returned.  I will take him home."

          "He already has a home."

          Johnny looked up in surprise.  "Murdoch?"

          The elder Lancer glanced down at his son.  "Tell her, Johnny."

          "Tell her what?"

          "Tell her you have a home now, at Lancer."

          Johnny looked back to the woman.

          "No," she said.  "You are alone.  In your heart, you are alone.  I will love you."

          "He has a family who loves him," Murdoch said, his voice rising.

          Her eyes flashed like a summer thunderstorm.  "You cannot love him as I will.  He will live with me forever."

          "He's a man," Murdoch argued.  "He deserves a man's life.  He deserves to live and love and die like a man."

          "He is mine."

          Murdoch offered his son his hand and Johnny accepted it, allowing his father to help him to his feet.  "You have to choose, son."

          "Choose?"

          "Come with me, Johnny Madrid," the young women said.  "I will love you forever.  With me you will never be alone.  We will watch over the seasons, the land, the living things.  You belong with me."

          Johnny took a step toward the women, drawn by her beauty and her promises.

          "Johnny, wait," Murdoch called.  "If you go with her, you'll never really know what it's like to have a family.  Scott's your brother.  He loves you, and so do Teresa and Jelly.  So do I."

          The young man stopped.

          "When you first came here," she said.  "You were alone.  You were dying.  I led you to the trap, to Dan.  He kept you alive for me."

          "I never stopped loving you, Johnny, you or your mother.  If I could've found you sooner I would have done it.  You have to believe that."

          "There is an emptiness in your soul that only I can fill," she whispered.

          "Only love can heal your heart, son, and your soul," Murdoch countered.  "And you are loved, Johnny.  You have a family now, a place of your own – a home.  Please, John, come home."

          He looked from the woman to his father.

          "Johnny Madrid, you are mine."

          Johnny looked back to the woman.  "But I'm not Johnny Madrid any more," he said softly.

          She cocked her head slightly.  "Not?"

          "I'm Johnny Lancer now."

          She looked from Johnny to Murdoch, then dipped her head.  "He is your son."

          "Yes."

          "He is loved?"

          "Yes."

          "He has a home?"

          "Yes, at Lancer."

          She looked back to Johnny.  "I will love you always… Johnny Madrid."

          The mist swirled and faded away.  Johnny blinked and she was gone.  He turned to ask Murdoch what was going on, but he was gone as well.  His head swam and he staggered back to the cot and lay down.

Closing his eyes he heard his father's voice.  "Please, John, please come home."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          When he woke next Johnny sat up and looked around the dusty cabin.  No Dan, no Murdoch, and no beautiful woman.

He chuckled softly to himself.  It was all a dream, just a dream.

          I only wanted to love you, a soft female voice whispered through his thoughts. I didn't want you to be alone, but you're not alone anymore, Johnny.

          He stood and looked out the dust-clouded window.  The storm had passed, leaving a bright sun shining down on a winter wonderland.  He smiled.  She would help him reach Clearview.  Once there he could take the next train heading west.  Heading home…

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Murdoch sat behind his large oak desk.  A cup of coffee sat at his elbow, long cold.  A blaze burned in the fireplace, casting the only light into the shadowed room.  Beyond the large bay window night hid Lancer from his probing gaze.

          It was a familiar setting, one the elder Lancer had practiced to perfection over the last few weeks – waiting.  There was a certain untenable character to waiting, but Murdoch felt that he was getting closer to understanding its true nature.

          He sighed heavily.  His meeting at Clearview had been a complete success, the tragedy of the train robbery giving him a slight edge in his negotiations, one that he was not above capitalizing on.  But once they'd returned to Lancer the grief took over, leaving the house feeling heavy and thick with unfinished grief.

          There was nothing left to do but wait.  If Johnny didn't want to be found, they wouldn't find him.  If he was even alive to be found…

          Murdoch punched back the bleak thought like an aging boxer, only half-successfully.  He had faith in his youngest son, but faith had its limits.  He stared down at the cold coffee and frowned.  Getting another cup would spoil the rhythm of his vigil.  He moved the cup further away, setting it on the edge of his desk.

          With that done, he swiveled his chair around and stared out at the blackness.  The moon hung, a thin wink of light among the stars.  Without realizing it, Murdoch prayed, but the words seemed hollow and his thoughts quickly faltered into silence.

          "Murdoch?"

          The older man turned back around and stood, his breath catching in his throat. "Johnny?"

          "Sorry it took me so long… I had a little trouble… findin' my way home… but I got here… quick as I could… didn't want you t' worry…"

          Stepping around the edge of his desk, Murdoch crossed the space to his son in three long strides.  He took in the pale skin and dark circles in a single glance, noting the way Johnny hugged his arm to his side and the deep hollow in his cheeks.  As he reached him, the young man's eyes slid closed and he folded silently forward.

          Murdoch caught him easily, carried him to the long couch, and laid him down.  Covering him with the blanket that decorated the back of the couch he said, "All that's important is you found your way home."

          Johnny heard the words, but he was too tired to open his eyes.

          "You're not alone anymore, Johnny."

          And for the first time, Johnny believed him.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Johnny sat in the middle of his bed, trying to look annoyed as Teresa and Jelly fussed over him.  Across the room Scott stood, his arms folded across his arms.  "And just how long is this recovery going to take, little brother?"

          Johnny grinned at him.  "I'm not sure… a day or two… maybe three…  A week. I'm still pretty weak."

          "Weak in the head," Scott muttered, but his smile made it clear he wasn't really bothered.

          "How's the leg?"

          Scott shrugged.  "Still a little tender, but that's all."

          Johnny nodded, trying not to smile.  "Where's Murdoch?"

          "Talking to the doctor," Teresa told him.

          Johnny rolled his eyes.

          "Now don't you go gettin' no high-fallootin' ideas, Johnny Lancer," Jelly scolded.  "The doctor knows what's best, and you're gonna do whatever he says."

          Scott grinned.  "That's right."

          "Every single thing," Teresa added.

          Johnny sucked in a deep breath and flopped back against his pillows with a grin.  It felt good to be home, and even though he knew it would take some time before he was completely comfortable with his newfound family, at least he was on the right trail.

          The door opened and Murdoch stepped in and cleared his throat.  "The doctor said John needs his rest."

          Jelly scowled but headed for the door, saying, "We were just bringing him his breakfast.  Why, a body can't do anything right around here…"

          Teresa leaned over and kissed Johnny's cheek.  "I'll come back for the tray in a little while."

          "Thanks," he replied.

          She grabbed Scott's arm and dragged him out the door with her.

          "Take care, brother," he called back.

          Murdoch watched them go, smiling and shaking his head.  He turned back to Johnny. "I think I'll go eat my breakfast, too.  You have everything you need?"

          "And then some."

          Murdoch nodded.  "Good.  Eat, then get some rest."

          "I will."

          Murdoch walked to the door and paused there.  "Welcome home, son."

          Johnny nodded, not trusting his voice.  Murdoch left, closing the door behind him.  Sitting in his room alone, Johnny realized that he didn't feel alone, and with that he reached for his coffee, then attacked his breakfast, wondering when he dared venture further than his bed…

The End