Thanks to Cat and Rob for the beta, and to Chris for the medical advice
Word count: 27,440
Dim light from the lamp spread a golden glow across the room and washed over the pale face of the man in the bed. His skin was cold to the touch, and he hadn’t roused from the deep sleep that took over his exhausted body.
Doctor Sam Jenkins sighed, then stepped away from the bed. Reaching for the arm of his old friend, Murdoch Lancer, he steered the worried father out into the hallway.
“Let them sleep, Murdoch. It’s what they need now, more than anything. We’ll keep an eye on them. But we’ll have to wait.”
Murdoch made no acknowledgment he heard the softly spoken words. He would continue the vigils by the bedsides of his sons and wait, all the while wondering what had happened in the last week that had reduced them to ghosts of their normal selves, battered and bruised with rope burns around their necks and wrists. Scott looked to have suffered a horrible beating and a stab wound. Dear God! What happened to my boys?
One week earlier
The mountain valley spread out before them. Lush grass grew tall and plentiful around a small lake fed by a stream that gurgled down the mountain, its beginnings born in the high peaks under the snow caps. It was a beautiful place, peaceful and serene yet wild enough to make one wary of the hidden dangers. And a perfect spot for summer grazing.
“Hey, Boston, how’d Murdoch manage to buy this out from under Homer Bradford? That ol’ goat’s had his eye on this property for years from what Murdoch said.” Johnny Lancer pulled his hat from his head to run a hand through his thick, collar-length hair. Reaching for the canteen, he took a drink before settling the hat once more.
“The owner offered it to Murdoch before Mr. Bradford found out about it. Those two men are a lot like Aggie Conway and Murdoch at those horse auctions. It’s the sport of the battle more than the want or need of the prize. It seems our father has honed it into an art! But, now that I see this property, I think it was a wise move to buy it. With the higher elevation, the grass isn’t as likely to burn out come summer.” Scott continued to evaluate the land that stretched out before them in stunning beauty.
“Yeah,” Johnny agreed, kind of. “Sure is a long way ta go, but then, maybe the next time me an’ Murdoch tangle, I’ll be voluneerin’ ta come check it out just ta get away!” Though said in jest, Johnny would keep the idea in the back of his mind. It sounded like a good idea, now that he’d seen the property.
And Scott knew there was truth in what his brother just put into words but ever the peacemaker, he tried to downplay the statement.
“Oh, come on, brother, you and Murdoch haven’t been at each other’s throats for a while now! But I have to agree, this would be a nice place to come for some rest and relaxation. Come on, let’s see if we can find that cabin and check it out. Murdoch said to make a list of supplies for repairs. Apparently, the previous owner hasn’t been here in a while, and who knows what’s happened. Maybe a storm ripped off shingles, and we’ll have to put on a new roof.” With a nudge to Remmington’s side, Scott led the way into the grassy valley that would soon hold Lancer cattle and horses.
The newly acquired two-thousand acres of mountain meadows bordered Lancer on the extreme northwest corner, extending into the higher elevations. And where not all the acreage was prime grazing, the benefits for purchasing the property far outweighed the prospects of having Homer Bradford’s name signed on the title instead of Lancer.
Traveling across the valley, Scott and Johnny took in all that was around them. The lake was clear, filled with fresh water fed by a continuous stream that cascaded down the mountainside, tumbling over rocks and boulders to settle into a mirror-like surface, reflecting the beauty all around. The outlet stream on the southern end meandered through the grass and drained away excess water.
The cabin stood in the northwest corner of the property. Huh, the land’s at the northwest corner of Lancer, an’ the cabin’s at the northwest corner of the new property… far away from the hacienda. Well, he couldn’t change what was, so Johnny Lancer nudged Barranca toward the structure in hopes the place didn’t need too much repair.
It was farther than it looked, and by the time they reached the building, they found it quite large, not a cabin at all but a comfortable house. The home was built of logs harvested from the timber growing around the valley with one massive stone chimney accompanied by several smaller ones.
Both Scott and Johnny looked around them, taking in the stunning view. Towering mountain peaks stood guard over the peaceful valley, and the tree-covered lower elevations surrounded them in soft, deep shades of green.
A token glance told them the barn was large enough to accommodate their needs, but they would reserve that judgment until they had the time to check things out thoroughly. Right now, they only wanted to get settled in for the night.
“Who did Murdoch buy this property from, Scott?” Johnny asked, beginning to change his mind, finding both land and comfortable house more and more to his liking.
“Daniel Hendricks. He had to sell. He fell ill and went back East to live with his daughter and her family. Mrs. Hendricks died about eight years ago. There are two sons, but neither was interested in running the place; selling was the only option. Mr. Hendricks knew Murdoch wanted it and offered it to him before Homer Bradford got wind of the sale. Sure is a nice place.”
“Sure is. Beats the hell outta me why the sons wouldn’t want it,” Johnny murmured. “Let’s go in an’ look around,” he suggested, curiosity now taking over. Johnny thought that had anyone offered him a place like this when he was younger, he’d have jumped at it and saved himself much trouble, heartache, and a lot of blood. Undoubtedly, the Hendricks boys didn’t have to fend for themselves as youngsters the way he did.
Scott took the key out of his pocket and unlocked the door. He and Johnny stood and watched as the interior of the home opened up before them. They took a deep breath, entered the house, then closed the portal.
It was chilly inside. Johnny lifted the lid of the wood box and found it empty. “Guess I’ll go chop some wood. Need ta get the horses bedded down an’ bring in the supplies we brought. C’mon, Boston, gimme a hand an’ we can make short work of it.”
Scott looked around the room, and then with a sigh, he pulled the collar of his jacket up around his neck. Turning, they left the house to tend to the chores. Together, they brought in the supplies, and while Scott put the horses in the barn and settled them for the night, Johnny chopped enough wood to last through tomorrow’s breakfast.
It was a long, tiring day, but finally, just as the sun bid farewell and took her leave behind the mountain peaks, Scott and Johnny Lancer relaxed in front of the blaze, savoring the warmth and the company. Maria sent enough food to last a few days, enabling them to assess the new property and not waste valuable time scrounging for their meals. And that was fine with them.
“Hey, Scott, didja get a chance ta go upstairs?” Johnny murmured as he fought to stay awake.
“Huh? What’d ya say? I was sleeping,” Scott grumbled.
“Forget it, Boston. Think I’ll just stay here tanight an’ worry about a bed tamorrow.”
“Mmm,” Scott responded.
Warm and dry, they both slept. The night was peaceful. A soft wind whistled through the pine branches singing a sweet tune in harmony with the owl that hooted from its perch in the hollow black oak on the side of the house. The music outside, combined with the fire’s snaps and pops, lured Scott and Johnny Lancer into a restful, deep sleep.
And neither one saw the man standing outside looking in the window.
The aroma of coffee filled the kitchen as Scott and Johnny discussed their day. After the second cup, they agreed on a plan. First, they would check the outside of the house, then the well, and move to the barn. Inspecting the corrals and fences was next on the list.
Johnny looked around the house, pleased with the amount of furnishings left behind. There wasn’t much they would need to bring from home. A chair or two, and maybe a table for the living room. He was glad Teresa was not along on this trip, or they would be bringing two wagons, piled to overflowing, with unnecessary frills, doodads, and lacy curtains. But there were enough dishes in the cupboard and a few kettles and pans in the kitchen to get them by. Almost as good as home…
“We got a lotta work ta do, Boston, so let’s not lollygag here. I plan on spendin’ some of this time doin’ nothin’!” Johnny said with a laugh.
“It seems as though you’ve given this a lot of thought, brother, and I have to say… I couldn’t agree more! Let’s get this done!” Scott agreed.
Grabbing their jackets and hats from the rack by the front door, they stepped out on the porch and into the sunlight taking in the scene around them. Ethereal mist rose off the lake’s surface in long dainty fingers that reached for the warm, yellow light streaming from the sky. Mountain peaks pierced the clouds in defiance, refusing to be covered as if declaring this place of rugged beauty would not be ignored but also issuing a raw and unforgiving warning. It was land one learned to live with, not to tame or conquer.
Taking a deep breath, filling his lungs with the pure, fresh air, Johnny turned to walk around the house, taking note of its condition.
“C’mon, Boston. We have work ta do.”
Their good fortune was holding. The house, roof, and chimney looked to be in excellent condition, with the only repair of a few shingles that had blown off in the last storm, and it was added to the list.
“Guess we should get inta the attic ta make sure about this roof, though,” Johnny sighed, hoping there would be no issue there to warrant many repairs.
“Yes, you’re right, brother,” Scott acquiesced, his thoughts mirroring Johnny’s.
“How about we check out the fence first so we can let the horses into the pasture. Wouldn’t be too good if they found a place ta get through an’ beat us home!” Johnny suggested as he took in the scenery around him.
“Yes, you have a point there, Johnny. I don’t think Murdoch would appreciate having to rescue us if the horses wandered, but you never know. He might like to spend some time with his sons up here. We could get in a hunting trip. I bet there’s quite a lot of game around, and we wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground, not with the house so close.”
The idea was appealing, and both would keep it in mind. But, for now, the fence came first. Johnny detoured into the house, then returned with a few apples and stuffed them into his saddlebags.
The barn appeared to be sound. There was a sizable hole in the roof, but the walls were intact and sturdy. In the backroom, Johnny found a hammer and nails then handed them off to Scott to load in his saddlebags should there be repairs needed on the fence.
An object caught his eye, and he smiled, bringing it with him for Scott to see.
“Hey, Boston, look what I found.” Johnny laughed as he held the fishing pole.
“What are you going to do with that, Johnny?” Scott asked with a smug expression.
“What’d ya mean, what’d am I gonna do with it?” he asked absentmindedly as he checked it over, testing the string and hook.
“Just what I said, brother. There’s not much left of a fish after you get done with it! I mean, face it, Johnny, you can’t shoot a fish and expect there to be anything left to eat! You’d better leave that pole for someone with the patience that it takes to finesse a fish to take the bait.”
“How about I just shoot ya, Scott?”
“Ah, ah, ah, Johnny! I don’t think that our father would appreciate that… unless you are fully prepared to handle my chores!”
“No way in hell, Scott! It’s your turn ta do them books!” Johnny leaned the pole against the wall and nearly knocked over the kerosene lamp that hung on the wall. He caught it before it shattered on the barn floor, then wiped his dusty fingers on the seat of his pants.
With the banter done and horses saddled, Scott and Johnny left the yard. Remmie and Barranca were ready to run but were held back by their owner’s experienced hands. The brisk morning air teased and tempted, but the firm hold on the reins dictated how things were going to be. The steeds snorted their displeasure but minded their manners.
Two hours later found Scott and Johnny on the far side of the lake. The fence faired well in the absence of caretakers, having only three minor breaks, but new fence posts were required for a proper fix. They added the repair to the list, then continued riding, noting everything around them.
Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt, dismounted, and let the reins trail. He retrieved the apples, tossed one to Scott, then settled at the base of an ancient oak to relax. Scott sat next to his brother and began to munch on the treat.
“You know, brother, if we play our cards right, we could spend a week or so just looking around. Do you think Murdoch would buy that?” Scott asked, finding himself in no hurry to complete this chore and get home.
“Nope, not for a second, but I got a better idea, Boston.” Johnny grinned as he reached into his boot for the knife he carried there.
And that statement got Scott’s attention. “And what’s your idea?” he asked, suddenly interested.
“You’re slippin’, Scott. All we gotta do is convince the ol’ man ta let us fix what needs fixin’. Maybe we can make that list of repairs sound a little… ya know, bigger.” He sliced the apple and began to chew as the grin crawled across his face.
“Johnny,” Scott drew out his brother’s name in mock indignation. “I’m surprised at you! You want to lie to our father?” His eyes went wide, and he desperately tried to control the threatening grin that would give him away.
“Well, no, not lie exactly… yeah, I guess lie about covers it. You in?”
“You bet I am! We need to give this more thought, brother, make it sound more convincing. What do you say we sit here and talk over the ‘repairs’ we need to make? Hey! I’ve got an idea! Why don’t we build a dock out into the water? We can stand out there and fish. Johnny, did you know that some of the best fish stay in deeper water? And I have to confess that it would make swimming fun, too!”
The smile didn’t stay a smile. Johnny was soon laughing at his brother’s enthusiasm. He had unleashed Scott’s inner child, and that child was running wild. He couldn’t help the laugh and sliced off another chunk of apple with the wicked blade.
“You know, I think we should consider Murdoch in all of this. I bet he would like a boat! It doesn’t have to be anything big, just a rowboat, but Johnny, can’t you just see him sitting out in that boat, fishing, and enjoying the day?” Scott pointed to the middle of the lake and stared as if watching their father relax, bobbing around in a rowboat and catching fish.
Johnny corralled his laughter. “Scott, can Murdoch swim?” thinking of their father sitting in the boat until a cramp in his bad back sent him into a spasm. He pictured Murdoch thrashing in the bobbing boat as the pain held him captive and not able to get onto dry land.
“I don’t know, Johnny, but if he can’t, he’d better stay in the boat…” Scott joked, then asked, “Tell me, brother, when was the last time you washed that knife?”
It took some conniving and stretching the truth, along with a touch of fabrication mixed in, but sitting under the live oak that afternoon, Scott and Johnny Lancer doubled the items on their list. A few shingles on the house turned into a few shingles, plus repairs to a hole that the missing shingles exposed. The break in the corral would now take a day or two to mend, and the elaborations went on… and on.
“Hey, Scott, ya think we’re goin’ too far with this thing? I mean, well, we got work that needs doin’ back at Lancer, an’….”
Scott turned to face his brother. “Johnny, this is Lancer, too, and it needs our attention. Plus the fact, little brother, we have the right to know what we purchased, and I think that tomorrow, we should take a ride and explore all this new property.”
The afternoon passed, and the list grew longer. Johnny found himself acting in ‘big brother’ capacity as Scott’s suggestions and ideas for the new property took off with abandon. He knew Murdoch would not appreciate some of the proposals on the list. Might be kinda fun ta watch Boston try an’ talk the ol’ man inta some a this stuff, though, an’ explain why it needed ta be done! He thought with a grin.
They rode around the property by the house and lake, making plans for the return trip for those repairs and improvements. By the time they got back to the house, the sun was settling behind the mountains, and the moon began to cast a silvery glow over the valley.
“Damn!” The word hissed through Johnny’s lips as he shook his hand, wondering what snagged his fingers. He had reached for the lamp but caught a splinter instead. Quickly, he scratched a match to life, and as the slow flame spread its light across the barn, Johnny could see there wasn’t a lamp hanging from the hook.
“Johnny! Are you alright?” Scott asked, suddenly concerned at his brother’s discomfort.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just got a splinter in my hand. There was a lamp hangin’ here when we left this mornin’, Boston. It ain’t there now.”
The hairs on the back of his neck began to stand on end, and he knew he didn’t imagine it. There was a lamp there when they left this morning. He almost knocked it over with the fishing pole. A rustle in the straw interrupted his thoughts, and in one blurred motion, he drew his Colt as he whirled to confront potential danger.
Disturbed from his nightly foraging, a raccoon scampered out from the cover of an empty stall and, with its awkward, hunch-backed run, hurried out the door into the dark, away from those who intruded on his nightly hunt for food.
Scott sighed. “Maybe the little guy didn’t want to be in the dark, Johnny! He probably dragged it someplace. We’ll find it in the morning. Come on, brother! You need to get that splinter out of your hand, and I’m hungry! Making all those plans today gave me an appetite!”
After finding another lamp, they bedded down their horses, then left the barn and headed to the house. Scott decided on what he would fix for supper, as Johnny pondered that he’d never heard of any critter messing with kerosene. But soon, his mind was occupied, pulling the splinter out of his hide and cleaning the wound.
Johnny had all he could do to hold back the chuckle as he listened to Scott’s plans. Was this the same reserved, Boston-bred, Harvard-educated brother that he met on the crowded stage two years ago?
“You know, Johnny, when we drive the cattle up here, there should be rotations with the men to stay here and keep watch. Maybe we could convince Murdoch to send two at a time… I think he wouldn’t mind too much if you and I took our turns together! I think…”
Now, Johnny did laugh. “You think the ol’ man’s gonna let the two of us outta his sight for that long? You’re crazy, Boston!”
“Maybe not. I’ll have to give it some thought, though. Maybe I can come up with a reasonable explanation to convince him.”
Johnny huffed. “Well, while you’re thinkin’, I’m gonna check out the bedrooms upstairs. You comin’? We can check out the attic while we’re up there, too.”
“I’m right behind you, brother,” Scott answered as he tossed around ideas in his head, then just as quickly discarded them.
As was the case on the first floor, most of the furniture was left in the rooms. The Hedricks’ sons were gone, and the daughter, Samantha Caulfield, did not need the old furnishings at her house in the east.
Every room contained curtains and bedclothes. Handmade quilts lay at the foot of every bed, and a pitcher and washbasin sat on the washstands. With their paintings of cattle drives and mountain views, the boys’ rooms held a position on the back of the house. The southern exposure at the front would be bright and cheery, the perfect place for the daughter’s room. All four rooms held a different, personal story. It was unsettling walking through the house and the lives of strangers.
Johnny opened the door to the last room at the end of the hall. It had belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Hendricks. As with the other rooms, it was comfortably furnished, and other than a layer of dust covering every surface, it looked ready to welcome weary occupants and wrap them in the comfort of the thick down quilts that dressed the bed.
“It seems odd they left the furnishings here. I would think the daughter would want her mother’s things,” Scott murmured as he looked around.
Pulling open the door of the double armoire, Johnny inspected the inside. Something on the top shelf caught his eye, and he picked it up. Through the dusty glass, five faces stared back at him. The Hendricks family sat for their portrait, patiently waiting for the flash to render them temporarily blind and record their faces, a familial remembrance marking an occasion that would remain a mystery to those that held the picture now. None of them smiled, and Johnny wondered at the significance of the photograph.
“Hey, Boston, look at this. Must be the whole family. Don’t think none of them was too happy about havin’ their picture taken.” Johnny handed the small portrait to Scott.
Scott studied the photograph. “That’s how family portraits are, Johnny. It’s customary, and it’s been suggested there were no smiles because people have bad teeth, or the process of taking a photograph is so long that the subject needs to be comfortable. And basically, photography is a form of art and followed pre-existing customs in painting.”
“Customs, huh? How come Murdoch yelled at me when we were havin’ our family picture taken, then?”
“Because, brother, it wasn’t that you were smiling or not; it was because you were acting like a petulant child, that’s why!”
Letting the criticism roll off his back, Johnny again took note of the Hendricks family. Mr. and Mrs. Hendricks sat side by side in chairs as their near-grown children stood behind them. The girl in the middle with long, dark hair cascading over her shoulders contrasted with her light-colored dress. The two boys, one with dark hair, stood tall behind Mr. Hendricks, a hand on his father’s shoulder, while the light-haired son, sullen with a near scowl on his face, slouched behind his mother’s chair.
Johnny thought they looked… strained. Something was wrong. Must be tired. Seein’ things that ain’t there, Johnny-Boy. Ya better turn in an’ get some sleep.
“Don’t know about you, Scott, but I’m gonna turn in early. We can check out the attic tomorrow. Listenin’ ta all your plans taday made me tired. Which room do ya want?”
“Why don’t we take the boys’ rooms?” Scott answered. It sounded reasonable.
Johnny looked around at the thick layer of dust that covered everything. “Gonna get my bedroll an’ sleep on top of the bed. Tamorrow, I’m gonna pull them blankets off an’ shake them out. Too tired ta get it done now.” Johnny put the picture back in the armoire and left the room.
It had been a long day, and sleep came quickly. The wind whispered through the treetops, accompanied by the owl hooting from the black oak. And, again, neither one saw the man looking in the window.
Dawn broke and brought the promise of another beautiful day. The coffee was hot and strong, and breakfast was cooking on the stove.
“Scott!” Johnny called up the back stairs. “C’mon down here an’ have some breakfast!”
Soon, Johnny heard the clomp of boots pounding down the risers that led into the kitchen accompanied by an unmistakable grumble.
“Why didn’t you wake me earlier, brother?” Scott asked, more than a little annoyed at the rude awakening.
Johnny laughed. “Because, believe me when I say, Boston, that you need all the beauty sleep you can get! Besides, what’d ya so ornery about? I made breakfast, didn’t I? Siddown an’ eat.”
Scott had to admit breakfast looked darn tasty. He spooned eggs onto his plate, along with a thick slice of ham and two biscuits. The coffee settled into his belly, rich and satisfying, followed by the meal, and he felt like a new man.
“Brother,” he began with his hands resting on his stomach, “you are an amazing man!”
Johnny smirked. “Yeah, I heard that before… except not from a man…” and he could not stop the lecherous grin that crawled across his handsome face.
Scott, surprised at first, suddenly burst into laughter. “Come on, brother; the day is wasting!” Scott said as he carried his dishes to the sink.
“Before we leave, let’s get them blankets off the beds an’ air them out while we’re gone. I wanna sleep on a nice soft mattress without an inch of dust covering it.”
With the blankets draped on the corral fence, Johnny and Scott left to scout the newly acquired land.
It was perfect. The ranch was not all that big, but from what Johnny and Scott could tell, Lancer would benefit from the summer grazing the Hendricks property provided. The grass wouldn’t burn in the higher elevation as it was likely to do closer to the estancia. However, there was a drawback. Predators were bound to come out of the mountains after the stock. Lancer would have no choice but to keep a hand or two to watch the cattle, but the advantages far outweighed the disadvantages.
Water would not be a problem. Snowmelt kept the streams full as it cascaded from the majestic peaks above, flowing crystal clear and sweet. The cattle would feed on lush green grass all spring and summer, growing fat and making Lancer a healthy profit.
“You know, Johnny, I have to agree with you. The more we see of this place, I can’t figure out why the two Hendricks boys didn’t want it. They could have had a lucrative ranch, a comfortable life here,” Scott remarked as he took in all around him.
“Guess they didn’t wanna be ranchers, Boston. It ain’t for everyone. Almost wasn’t for me,” Johnny sighed. “’Specially up here. It’s a long way from anywhere. Fellas as young as they are, well, let’s just say that sowin’ wild oats would be kinda hard ta do up here!”
“You’ve got a point, Johnny. From their expressions in that photograph you found in the armoire last night, the one son didn’t look very happy. I wonder what their story is?”
“You saw that, too, huh? Thought maybe I was imaginin’ that. Kinda tired last night.”
The morning passed in pleasant conversation and brotherly camaraderie. After a light repast on the bank of the stream, Scott and Johnny headed back to the house, taking a different trail, surveying what they could on this short ride. And it wasn’t long before they picked up a trail of footprints.
Johnny pulled Barranca to a halt. “Hey, Scott, look at this…” he said as he dismounted and hunkered down to get a closer look. Though faint, a man’s print was discernable in the dirt. And it was fresh. They were not alone, and the hair on the back of Johnny’s neck began to rise again.
“What is it, Johnny?” Scott asked quietly, joining his brother on the ground.
“We got company. Don’t know of anyone else livin’ up here; we should be the only ones. These tracks are fresh, made in the last day or so.”
“How can you be so sure? There’s barely enough there to see. He’s not wearing boots; what do you think he’s got on his feet?” Scott questioned, studying the marks in the dust.
“He’s wearin’ moccasins, like an Indian. Makes less of a track than a boot, harder ta follow. But I don’t think it’s an Indian, Scott. We need ta find out what’s goin’ on, cause I don’t wanna hafta deal with any surprises,” Johnny answered softly, never taking his eyes from the marks in the soil.
“You are awfully suspicious, brother,” Scott said with a chuckle. “Do you think that’s necessary?”
Johnny looked at his brother a few seconds without speaking, then, “Tell ya what, Boston, without them suspicions, I wouldn’t be alive.”
Scott conceded. Given the life Johnny lived before coming home to Lancer, he had to rely on those instincts. And if they kept his brother alive then, they could do so now, for both of them. “Point taken, brother. So, what do we do now?”
“For now, just keep your eyes open. Let’s follow this trail; see if we can turn up anything.” Johnny rose to his feet and mounted Barranca, reining him down the narrow path.
Above in the rocks, the man crouched out of sight. His eyes were hard as flint as hate flowed through his veins. “I knew you’d be back one day, you bastards! I knew you’d be back! You’re gonna pay fer whatcha did!”
The trail faded out, and Johnny wasn’t surprised. They rode toward the house, the light-hearted start to the day now trampled by the unknown.
“What do you think we should do, Johnny?” Scott asked as they started across the large grassy pasture by the lake.
“Dunno. Nothin’s happened yet. But that don’t mean it won’t. Got this… feelin’ is all. There’s fresh tracks, but haven’t seen anyone. Just seems a mite strange. How about it, Boston? Ya wanna wait around an’ see if anyone comes ta call?” Johnny asked with a grin. But inside, Johnny wasn’t smiling. He wondered if this phantom was responsible for taking the lantern from the barn. Thinking on it, it did seem as if he was jumping to conclusions, but that little niggle in his head wouldn’t settle down, so trusting it as he had many times before, he stayed alert.
The house stood before them, looking welcoming after a day in the saddle checking over the new land. There were no other signs of an intruder, but neither Lancer let his guard down. A hot meal and a good night’s sleep would benefit them both, then in the morning, they would decide if they should set out for home.
They rounded the side of the house and pulled the horses to a halt. Supplies littered the yard, the left-over firewood was thrown through the windows of the house, and the back door to the kitchen swung on one hinge, offering easy access inside. The blankets hung on the corral rails were shredded and flapping in the breeze, the batting puffed out of the covering like miniature clouds waiting to blow away.
Johnny wrapped the reins around the saddle horn and pulled his Colt; Scott did the same. They quickly retrieved their rifles and were ready, as ready as they could be. Tying their horses on the corral, they took up a position on either side of the barn door and charged through on a given signal, then, they circled, checking out the interior. There was nothing there.
They raced across the yard toward the house, taking cover behind anything large enough to provide it, then Johnny ran up the steps and threw himself into the kitchen. He hit the floor and rolled through broken glass, dishes, flour, and sugar, the ripped sacks strewn on the floor amidst the mess. He regained his feet in a fluid motion as Scott came in after, and together they searched the house. Again, no one was there.
But he had been there and had done his best to tear it apart. Furniture lay upsidedown and broken. Pictures were taken off the walls and tossed to the floor; the glass was shattered into tiny slivers that pierced the braided rug. The upholstered couch was slashed and ruined, gutted.
What the hell was going on?
The sun slipped behind the mountains. It was too late to start searching for tracks that would lead them to the man responsible for the destruction. They would have to wait for morning to launch a defense. Taking turns at watch, Scott and Johnny hunkered down in the dark and out of sight to spend a long, chilly night waiting. Crickets chirped in the quiet, and the owl in the black oak hooted in time, the chorus oddly soothing on this night and marked the passing minutes until dawn.
Nothing happened. Minutes ticked away into hours as the night dragged on, agonizingly slow. Then, the sky began to lighten as the birds sang and took to flight. The bright sunshine seemed to belie the fact something was drastically wrong.
Vengeful, dark eyes squinted out from under shaggy brows and watched the scene below as the two brothers scouted around for signs of the intruder, and in his deep gravelly voice, the man muttered the threat he’d waited for so long to say. “Go ahead, you bastards, look all ya want! You ain’t gonna find out nothin’; you’ll never see me comin’ till it’s too late!”
“Scott, I found some tracks over here,” Johnny called out as he stooped to the ground beneath the window. Scott bent and lowered himself beside his brother. He studied the faint prints, then looked up at the house.
“Yup, Boston, he was watchin’ us….”
A shiver crawled down Scott’s spine before he could suppress it. “What I want to know is, why? I don’t think it’s a matter of robbery; he could have taken anything he wanted from the house while we were gone. And we don’t have anything on us he could possibly want. I don’t get it…” Scott mused.
“He did this ta get our attention.”
“Why? What could he want?”
Scott stared at his brother in shocked silence. “But we’ve done nothing to warrant his wrath. What could he have against us?”
Johnny sighed. “Maybe he don’t need a reason, Boston. There’s some that are just plain mean and like ta hurt folks. You know that. You saw it in the war, I know ya did. An’ who knows,” Johnny added with a chuckle, “maybe he was fixin’ on movin’ in here when we showed up?”
Scott leveled an incredulous stare at his brother. “This is hardly a laughing matter, Johnny! There is something sinister going on here, and you’re making jokes about it!”
Looking hard into Scott’s eyes, Johnny knew he needed to go about this from a different angle. Where he and his brother agreed on most things, there were issues where they were miles apart. The approach to a problem was sometimes one of those issues.
“No, Boston, it ain’t, but neither am I gonna get all bent outta shape about it. That’s how ya get yourself killed. He wants somethin’ an’ I’m gonna find out what it is. If it’s us he wants, then I think we should accommodate him!”
Scott didn’t like this one little bit. No sir, not one bit. They did agree that drawing the intruder out into the open was the thing to do; however, each had his idea of how they should do it. They spent time exchanging views, opinions and inevitably argued how they should handle the situation. Getting nowhere, Johnny held up two pieces of straw and offered them to Scott. With a huff, Scott drew… the shorter of the pieces. They would do this Johnny’s way.
Bowing to his younger brother’s experience, he went along with the plan and could only hope they wouldn’t end up dead. “I sure hope you know what you’re doing, brother!” Scott shot Johnny a glare.
“Don’t worry, I know when ta back down. Besides, I’m pretty sure there’s only one man, an’ even if there was more, I think we can take ‘em. If we can’t, I should hang up this Colt, an’ you can start poundin’ nails in my coffin.”
“Don’t even joke about that, Johnny!”
“Look, Boston, it won’t do neither of us any good ta get riled about the situation. We take it as it comes or force it along. Me, I’m for forcing it along. Ain’t lettin’ whoever it is call the shots. This way, we can control things instead’a dancin’ ta his tune.
“Now, the way I see it, it’s gotta be on our terms, see if we can keep him off balance. There’s somethin’ ta be said about chasin’ after your enemy. Keep the pressure on an’ don’t let them have time ta think, or plan a strategy.”
The look on Scott’s face said it all. “And just how are you going to do that?”
“Dunno… yet. But I’ll come up with somethin’.”
“Wait a minute! We drew straws, and you don’t have a plan?!”
“Simmer down, Scott, an’ listen ta me. We’re gonna force his hand like I said. We keep the horses close an’ take all the precautions we can, but I ain’t lettin’ the bastard have things go his way. If we can get him between us, we stand a better chance of takin’ him out.”
Scott couldn’t help but huff. “I’d like to know why he’s doing this. There has to be a reason!”
“Well, maybe you can ask him real nice, if he’s of a mind ta talk.”
Convincing Scott had not been easy. It would not be a fight between gentlemen. There would be no rules of engagement, nor, Johnny suspected, would it be a fair fight. He’d seen enough situations like this and knew it would come down to ‘him or us’. Silently he vowed it would be his brother and him to walk away.
Scott wanted to ‘talk’ through the issue; he wanted to hear the why’s and reasons behind the ransacking of the house. Johnny tried to tell him, considering what had happened up to this point, the man wasn’t talking, that he was taking the matter into his own hands and wasn’t willing to sit down and have a heart-to-heart chat. “Can’t reason with a man like that, Boston,” Johnny told his brother.
The debate did not go in Scott’s favor, and he finally consented, agreeing to do things Johnny’s way. Could they lure the aggressor in and catch him in the act of another ‘attack’ destroying the homestead, or go after him and capture him, force him to account for the things he’s done? Scott didn’t know, but he hoped the situation wouldn’t come down to killing.
“Well, brother, what are you planning?” Scott wasn’t happy giving in to Johnny’s way of thinking, however, the more he mulled it over, Johnny was probably right; this was not a reasonable situation, and logic would not apply. He would go along with his brother, work together, and not make the issue any worse. They did not need to be at odds with each other. Not under these circumstances.
“I ain’t one for waitin’ around; I think we should go after him, force his hand.” Johnny waited for the objection he was sure would follow. But it didn’t come, and he was surprised when Scott finally voiced his thoughts.
“Alright, brother, let’s talk. We’ll go after him. How do you want to do this?”
“The tracks lead off ta the east, through the trees up the hill. I want him ta think we’re gonna follow them. He could be watchin’ us, an’ we need ta throw him off. Let’s go.”
But the choice was taken out of their hands when a roar blasted out of the barn and flames shot out the top of the roof.
Both Lancers raced to the barn. Barranca and Remmie were in there! They had to get the horses out to safety! The front door was shut… Johnny knew they hadn’t closed it when they fed the horses and was willing to bet whoever started the fire bolted it from the inside. The horses were stomping, screaming in panic. Johnny threw himself against the door but felt as if he’d hit a redwood. It didn’t budge.
“Johnny! The back door!” Scott yelled above the rumbling inferno.
Running behind the burning barn, they reached the back door and charged into the smoke. Flames licked up the walls and through the roof; greasy black smoke hung in thick clouds in the stifling air. Barranca and Remmie tossed their heads, eyes wild and rolling as they lunged at the stall doors. Grabbing their horses, saddles, and as much of their gear as possible, Johnny and Scott raced out the back door stepping on the broken glass from the lantern used to ignite the fire. With no means to fight the blaze, the barn would burn to the ground.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Johnny bellowed in the early evening air; his breath ghosted upward and disappeared. He fought to get his temper under control as Barranca pranced nervously, sensing Johnny’s mad. “Whoa, boy, easy fella, it’s alright, easy…” he soothed, running his hands over the sleek neck. “C’mon, Scott, we need ta get goin’! Gotta find any tracks an’ follow that bastard!”
They struggled with the horses but settled them and started out, keeping far from the flames. Footprints made in a hasty getaway marked the trail, and as they entered the treeline, the rear wall of the barn caved in, sending a shower of sparks skyward into the darkening night.
They moved out, up the mountain, looking for… who? What? No face came to mind, no known adversary, but the farther they went, the more Johnny felt eyes watching them. Well, he thought, it’s gonna be us watchin’ him pretty soon.
Cold eyes followed them into the trees. He would wait, wait for them to make a mistake, then, they would be his! It had been a long time coming, but Jedadiah Kellen would make good on his promise. He owed it to her, and he would not let her down, not this time.
“Scott, I need ta check out that trail,” Johnny motioned to the right, up the mountain. “Keep your eyes open for anything that doesn’t look right. Anything. We can’t let him slip through our fingers.”
“Johnny, it’s getting too dark. We won’t be able to see for long…” Scott reasoned.
“Yeah, I know. Only be gone a few minutes, be back before ya know it.”
“Be careful, Johnny!”
“You too,” and Johnny disappeared into the trees.
There was no noise other than a soft breeze that rustled through the tops of the trees as Scott waited, uncharacteristically impatient, for Johnny to return. How many minutes had passed? It seemed he’d been there an hour already, but he knew that wasn’t the case. Johnny should be coming soon, and all he could do was stay put. He knew his brother was right regarding this issue; their tormentor bent on some misguided ‘mission’, would not listen to reason, Scott now realized, and he regretted his opposition to Johnny’s insistence that they turn the aggressor.
His younger brother’s sixth sense was not often wrong, and it was the only thing they could rely on to keep them out of danger. After all, it had saved Johnny in the past, and Scott would not doubt it now.
Nudging Remmie forward, Scott felt the horse misstep. Dismounting, he checked the front hoof and found a stone wedged tight, then reached for his knife to pry it out before it could do any more damage. It hit the ground, thumping into the bed of pine needles seconds before Scott’s body followed. The blow to the back of the head knocked him senseless, then strong arms pulled him up and settled him across broad shoulders. A stinging slap to Remmie’s flank sent the horse charging down the trail, away from the scene, away from Scott.
The trail was clear. No one had passed this way since before the Hendricks sold out. Johnny pulled up on Barranca’s reins and carefully looked around. Nothing. He turned back down the trail, headed for Scott. They would call it a night and start out again in the morning. Who knew? Johnny thought with a smile. Maybe they would have company tonight… But the thought lost its humor when he recalled just how close they’d come to losing their horses.
Barranca’s ears swiveled forward, and his head came up with eyes wide.
“What is it, amigo? Someone out here with us?” Johnny murmured, looking around them. Scott should be close, but Barranca wouldn’t have acted up like he had if he caught Scott’s scent. Barranca tossed his head and sidestepped, clearly unsettled.
Johnny peered through the dense foliage ahead but couldn’t see anything except the trees and brush.
He patted the sleek neck, then nudged the horse forward. The sylvan silence held no clues but suggested there was trouble. And trouble it was as Johnny came to the spot where Scott should have been waiting… but wasn’t.
The chill raced down his spine as ice filled his belly. Scott! Where was Scott?
The weight slung across his shoulders did not slow him down as he hurried to the spot he prepared the night before. Tucked in an alcove of rocks and surrounded by trees was the perfect place to carry out this long-awaited sentence. In his mind, he was the judge, jury, and executioner for the crime committed, and that crime warranted the death penalty. Jedediah Kellen would offer no leniency, none at all. The murderer did not deserve anything but death. An eye for an eye, the Good Book said.
With heart hammering in his chest, Johnny fought the urge to charge headlong into the unknown to search for his brother. He carefully, silently scoured the area until he could no longer see, but he did not return to the house. Scott was out there, and he would keep looking until he found his brother. And if he found the man who had been watching them was to blame, there would be hell to pay.
The few tracks he found faded out in the deepening dusk. His eyes burned as he peered into the night, straining to see what was around him. He stood, not moving, listening desperately, trying to pick up anything out of the ordinary. But there was nothing. Scott couldn’t be far away; there had been no time to put any distance between them. Johnny didn’t think that Scott left this place of his own accord, and a shiver crawled across his body. So he would keep looking as the fire inside him smoldered, threatening to erupt, volatile and uncontrolled. He would be Hell unleashed on the soul that dared to harm his brother.
Pain lanced through the muddled brain, rousing him back to the surface. It was a mistake to open his eyes, and Scott slammed them shut, squeezing them together to block out the bright flicker that danced across the wood in the fire. With every spark that floated upward, a razor-sharp blade pierced his head and forced a groan between his lips.
What happened? Where… where was Johnny?
Then he felt a hand in his hair, rough fingers tangled in the golden strands, his head was slammed back into the tree behind him, and stars exploded with blinding flashes in his brain. Tightly bound with a rope around his chest and feet with hands secured behind, he could not move.
”Uuuhhh,” ground out between clenched teeth, and Scott had to control the roll in his belly.
“That ain’t nothin’, boy! I ain’t even begun ta start your punishment! When I’m done with you, you’re gonna beg fer me ta put a bullet between yer eyes!” Harsh laughter rang through the night as sour breath hung in a dense cloud around him, turning his stomach.
“What… what’ve I done? Who are you?” Scott mumbled, trying desperately to see through unfocused eyes as he struggled to make sense of the things the man said.
“Fergot that quick, didya? Well, meybe this’ll help ya r’member!” and with a rolled-up fist, the man drew back then plunged it into Scott’s unprotected belly, then hit him again… and again.
It was clear to him that Lancer needed help, and in seconds, Madrid was there, lending Lancer the strength he would need to draw out… who? The man that ransacked the house, destroying the inside, the one that set fire to the barn and came close to damning Barranca and Remmie to a fiery death— was he responsible for Scott’s disappearance? Madrid stood peering into the gloom, straining to hear something… anything that would lead him to the best man he’d ever known… and the worst. Johnny Madrid would find them. He would find them both, and the man would know the meaning of the word savage. Madrid would show him no mercy.
Shoving Lancer aside was one thing, keeping him there was something else altogether. But Madrid came to realize he, himself, was finding it difficult to focus on what he had to do. Had he spent so much time being Lancer that Madrid was losing his edge? And that thought terrified him. He could not let that happen; he wouldn’t let that happen. With an iron will, Madrid set his resolve firmly in place and let Lancer have what-for.
Stay outta the way an’ let me do what I hafta do! Don’t have time for ‘reasonable’ or ‘sensible’. I’ll do this the Madrid way!
Johnny once again confirmed that Madrid would be there as long as he lived and that no one would convince him otherwise. Not Murdoch, not Scott. No one.
But now, he shrugged. Johnny looked around him in the growing dark and knew there was no choice but to wait for daylight.
He couldn’t draw in a sufficient breath without setting his chest in a fiery blaze. There was moisture in his mouth, but it was blood, and he spat it onto the ground. He tried to swallow, and a cough sent his body into spasms. Scott blinked the tears out of his eyes as his foggy brain tried to put the pieces together, the pieces that would tell him just what the hell happened. Then he tried to move… and couldn’t finding himself secured to a tree.
Johnny! Where was his brother? Johnny was with him not too long ago… wasn’t he? How much time had elapsed since he’d seen him? And Scott didn’t know. He didn’t know where he was and didn’t know what happened to Johnny… What the hell was going on?
And it was then he heard someone laugh, soft at first, then louder. Scott raised his head to peer across the flames that danced in a circle of stones at a man that sat on the ground on the far side of the fire. He wasn’t much more than a shadow, a foreboding, evil shadow.
“Who… are you?” Scott’s voice sounded foreign to his ears as if speaking around gravel in his throat. But there was nothing but silence. The pain from the blows to his body sent his temper exploding, igniting the rage foremost on his mind. Where was Johnny, and was he alright?
“What do you want from me?” Scott tried again, to no avail. The man just stared at him across the fire. “What do you want?”
The man grunted, then rose to his feet. He was a huge man, taller than Murdoch. The hide vest, lined with sheepskin, hung around his shoulders, making his body appear larger, like that of a bear. Long, tangled whiskers covered his face and hung halfway down the barrel chest in an unruly mass. Standing in front of his prisoner, he growled, “You know who I am, boy!”
Scott squinted his eyes, doing his best to take a better look. “No, I’ve never seen you before.”
“Well, mabbe this’ll help ya r’member!” Drawing back his fist, Jedediah Kellen landed a bone-shattering blow to Scott’s jaw. His head slammed back into the tree, tearing a two-inch gash to his scalp. Blood poured down his neck, saturating his shirt, but he never knew it.
And the mountain man laughed. You’re gonna remember soon enough…
Sleep never came, not that he tried. There was no way in hell Johnny would have or could have slept. The mystery of Scott’s disappearance waited to be solved, and he was the only one to do it. Whoever burned the barn and ransacked the house was here, somewhere, and Johnny knew the bastard was responsible for Scott’s disappearance. So, he would find them. He would find them both.
Deciding not to wait for dawn, he started in ever-widening arcs. Johnny searched the area, but it was hard to see anything; the moon cast no light, not enough for tracking, but he couldn’t sit here and do nothing. The only hope tonight was that sound carried in the chilly, thin air, and a breeze could alert him of woodsmoke.
Johnny knew he had to stop, stop, and take stock of his situation. If he was close, he couldn’t afford to give away his position and ruin the chance to rescue his brother. There was only one thing he could do now: to rely on Madrid’s experiences, and with Madrid came the lessons and knowledge learned from the Apaches. Reining in his stampeding imaginings, Johnny settled in for what he knew was going to be a long and daunting remainder of the night. Scott was still alive; he had to be, and now Johnny would put his knowledge to the test.
In the cover of the rocks, Madrid hunkered down and pulled his bedroll around his shoulders. Ears alert for the slightest sound, Colt close at hand, he waited… and remembered. The time spent with his Apache father, Red Wolf, would serve him well. Red Wolf taught him many things about survival, how to hunt, and patience. And Johnny drew on that patience now. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake; Scott couldn’t afford for Johnny to make a mistake.
Red Wolf was a wise man. Johnny remembered the times the two of them hunted for meat. The deer that lived in the mountains were small; it took many to keep the hunger away from their people. The hunting trips could last for days, and they would wait hours for the deer to get close enough for a killing shot. He remembered Red Wolf bypassing one pile of rocks deciding on another to conceal their presence. Johnny asked him why he picked ‘that pile and not the other one.’
And Red Wolf smiled. “The deer know. They can see there is no one there; it is not big enough to shield us.” He then gestured to the other rocks, higher up. “They cannot see up there from the trail. They will not watch above. You are young, my son; you need to know the one you hunt.”
Know the one you hunt… And before he was through, Johnny Madrid would know the man at the heart of this unmitigated assault on the Lancer family and property. Out of respect for Scott and Murdoch, he would try to bring the man to justice lawfully, but if Scott were hurt or… worse, Johnny would have no second thoughts about taking justice into his own hands and would send the man to Hell.
Jedediah Kellen watched the young man as he fought for breath. The bastard hadn’t begun to know the extent of punishment coming his way. But after Kellen caught them both, they would witness each other’s pain, and he would find the revenge he so craved, demanded, and be satisfied. The brothers would watch each other die, and only then would Kellen have peace.
It was not right this selfish, cruel boy had taken the only precious thing in Jedediah’s life and carelessly thrown it away, like trash, worthless garbage to be discarded without any thought or consideration. And now, the bastard would pay for his crime… his sin! And would die for it, too. An eye for an eye…
Any suffering the boy was feeling now was nothing compared to what would follow. But Kellen knew he had to catch the other boy for his revenge to be complete. So he set about making a trap to lure the other one into his hands. The brothers would end up dead, but that would only begin to justify what had been taken. Only the beginning…
Jedediah crossed to the tree where his prisoner hung helplessly in the ropes. He studied the limp form, heard the ragged intake of breath in the fight to keep living. The suffering was commencing. This will be the way of things, boy, ‘till you cain’t fight it no more. Same with the other one… But he didn’t want it to end too soon, and he loosened the constricting ropes around the young man’s throat.
And with a sworn oath to see this deed through, he tore the bloodied shirt from Scott’s body and ripped it apart. Stuffing pieces into his waistband, Jedediah Kellen left his camp to set his trap. The trap that would snare the other brother. The other murderer.
He knew he needed to get higher up the mountain. Red Wolf was a successful hunter and an intelligent leader, and Johnny would heed those words now. …High enough to see around you. Look down on that which you hunt… With Red Wolf’s influence urging him on, Johnny went higher; perhaps he would spot smoke from a fire.
But it wasn’t a fire that caught his attention. There in the brush was a piece of bloodied cloth. Scott’s shirt. Madrid shoved Lancer away. Wrestling with his emotions, Madrid had all he could do to keep in control. He didn’t have the time for familial sentiment. Breathe. And he cleared his head.
Picking up the scrap, Johnny saw the blood was fresh. Tracks, plain as day, in the dirt, led off into scrub trees, across the face of the mountain. And Johnny followed.
Johnny knew he had to leave Barranca. Stealth was paramount, and where he hated to go on without him, Johnny knew the horse was a liability. The dense cover of rocks, brush, and trees offered a suitable place for the animal to wait until he returned. The horse would be out of sight and hopefully safe. Johnny didn’t tie him; he needed to know Barranca wouldn’t be trapped should a predator, two or four-legged kind, be of some threat.
He headed off into the trees, following the trail of footprints.
Returning to the camp, Jedediah walked to the prisoner tied to the tree. “You ‘wake, boy?” he growled, noting the jolt sent through the young man at the sound of his voice.
Out of focus eyes squinted as the head raised. Scott attempted to get his feet under him, to appear as if he could stand by himself without the ropes that were now keeping him upright, and he almost made it. But he didn’t say a word; he just stared at his captor.
Kellen grinned. “Glad ya ain’t the type ta whine. I’d hafta put a stop to it.”
Scott continued to stare.
“Don’t want cha ta die too soon. Want some water?” Kellen held a canteen to Scott’s mouth, and he drank.
He wanted nothing more than to spit the water in the man’s face but knew he desperately needed the water and would probably not get any more. “Why are you doing this?” the words mumbled over the swollen and bruised jaw.
Jedediah’s eyes went cold as he thought over that question. ‘Why’m I doin’ this?’ Like the bastard don’t know… “Don’t r’member nothin’, huh? Well, ya will. I’ll remind ya both!” And with a disgusted snort, Jedediah Kellen looked away, not bearing to cast his eyes on this piece of shit.
Satisfied the prisoner was not going to die too soon, Kellen spat at Scott’s feet, then left the camp again. He had to watch for the other one…
Johnny felt his fuse burning out of control and was certain he would explode any second. Scott was in trouble, and it would be up to Johnny to find him, but precious seconds were ticking by, wasted as he wandered in search of his brother. The tracks he followed weren’t making any sense, and the hair on the back of his neck began to stand on end. Something wasn’t right, but just as he stopped to give a second thought, he spotted another patch of cloth, and this time the itch on his neck turned into a lightning bolt that shot through his brain. He was being drawn in, just like a fish on a hook. He reached into his pocket and placed the blood-soaked scrap he found an hour ago on top of the second patch and melted into the surrounding cover.
Kellen watched the dark-haired boy back into the brush and out of sight. Damn, he caught on too quick. Musta learned a thing or two since he was up here last… Ain’t gonna matter. I’ll get ‘im. I’ll get ‘im an’ him an’ his brother’s gonna wind up dead…
Then, Jedediah circled around. He would bet his life the one with the dark hair would figure out what was going to happen. But all Kellen had to do was wait. Watch and wait. Soon he would have his revenge; both brothers would be under his control.
Scott was close. Johnny could feel it; he knew he had to stay out of sight and find Scott and whoever was responsible for his disappearance, and time was of the essence. Johnny would get to the bottom of it or die trying. Pushing the ‘why’s’ and ‘what ifs’ aside, he concentrated instead on a search and rescue frame of mind. The ‘why’s’ could wait, and ‘what ifs’ would waste his time. He might not ever know any ‘why’s’ and ‘what ifs’. Clearing his mind of things futile and distracting, he slipped into his Apache persona, now using every shred of knowledge Red Wolf taught him, Johnny Madrid was now the hunter.
Staying out of sight was his best, his only option if he wanted to find Scott alive. This was no joke, and Johnny had no intention of treating it as one. This was life and death, and Johnny swore it wouldn’t be his brother’s or his death at stake. He was fairly certain there was only one man responsible for the assault on Lancer, but what the man didn’t know was that Lancer took care of its own. And where Madrid fought to keep Johnny Lancer in the background, Johnny Madrid sure as Hell would fight to back him up. He would fight for all that was Lancer and be happy to die for it, too.
With his emotions locked safely away, Johnny spent the next precious hours stalking the one that took his brother. He would watch, move to another position, and scope out the surrounding area. Listen, watch, and move on again. As the night dragged on, frustration would flare, and Madrid was forced to tamp it down under control. He could not make a mistake now, not when Scott’s life hung in the balance. So, he stayed vigilant, listening to the night and watching for anything that would lead him to his brother.
The piercing eyes squinted, wrinkling the corners with the weathered skin, as he wondered where the dark-haired boy was. Jedediah Kellen was coming to realize he was up against a formidable adversary. But, then, so was he, and those two young’uns were about to find out just how formidable Kellen could be. All he had to do was stay out of sight and keep luring the other boy in, and he would have his justice.
It would be dawn soon, and he would be ready. He expected there to be an attempt to free the bastard tied to the tree. Kellen smiled, revealing yellowed and crooked teeth behind the drooping mustache. Yes, he would be ready.
As the light woke in the morning sky, Johnny was on the move. His forced inactivity ignited the need to get moving and find Scott. Was he hurt and in need of medical help? Were there broken bones or excessive blood loss?
Son-of-a-bitch! Get outta here! Madrid cursed and again shoved Lancer aside. Johnny shook his head, getting a solid grip on his emotions, then began the search that would, he hoped, find Scott.
Red Wolf’s words kept him company. Know your enemy. And Madrid sure wanted to find this enemy and… introduce himself. Patience. Johnny settled his thoughts and resumed his quest.
It was hours later that he found his first clue. A footprint, the indentation of the toes and heel deeper as if in a hurry, running and scouring the ground, and he found more prints. Quietly, Johnny slipped through the brush, hoping that Red Wolf was guiding him from the Spirit World, with bow and arrows ready to defend Johnny’s back and keep him safe should an unseen threat arise.
Madrid, again, forced the pounding in his heart to slow. Had he been Lancer so long that it required a concentrated effort to control these feelings? Madrid would have never let himself fall into distraction. He had to shove aside the familial sentiment and seize command of the situation, banish the limitations of love for another that could sabotage and prove fatal… He had to stay focused to bring Scott home alive, and to do that, Madrid needed to shut the Lancer part of him out and take over to see this through.
Keeping track of the dark-haired boy was more difficult than Kellen anticipated. The young man moved through the rocks and vegetation with the ease of one born to it, sure in his direction, sure of himself, and Kellen had to wonder where these two had been in the last seven years. Seven years ago, his life shattered into pieces, never whole again. Seven years ago, his heart turned to stone.
But today, today redemption was there to claim. All he had to do was let the boy find his no-good, murderin’ brother, and Jedediah Kellen would take his revenge and then be free. So, he would stay close to his camp and wait. It shouldn’t be too long now.
Madrid never had to struggle like this before, but then, Madrid never had a brother. Just don’t do nothin’ stupid… find Scott an’ get the hell outta here… He let the mantra run through his mind over and over.
The questions came in an endless stream. Was Scott alright? Was he injured? Where was he, and who had him? And why? The more he thought, the worse his mad became. His heart thundered like a drum in his chest, and, again, he pushed Lancer aside. Tracks, he had to focus on the tracks. For Scott.
Johnny felt torn in two. The worry was running away, wild, uncontrolled… until he heard the scream.
It was taking too long. Kellen wouldn’t waste any more time. He went back to his meager camp, to the murderer tied to the tree, and he set the trap. With Bowie knife in hand, he approached his prisoner; a wicked grin split his face as he spoke. “Call ta your brother.”
Scott’s eyes widened at the order. There was no way he was going to lure Johnny into this camp and probably to his death. His resolve firm that Johnny would not fall prey to this maniac’s demented mind. No, he wouldn’t call his brother.
Kellen gripped the knife. “Have it yer way.” Then, he pushed the death-dealing blade slowly into Scott’s shoulder.
And Scott couldn’t stop the howl of agony that shattered the cold mountain air.
Johnny stopped cold. SCOTT! Scott was in trouble, and now he had a direction to go, and his brother was close. But Johnny would not plunge blindly ahead. As if struck with a tangible blow, he pulled himself together and quickly charted his course. His brother was ahead and a little to the right.
Staying under cover, Johnny silently moved toward the agonized scream and, hopefully, would find his brother still alive.
Until the scream, precious time was wasted. Searching for any sign that would lead him to Scott took hours. And though it was clear Scott was in trouble, now he knew, without a doubt, where he had to go.
He also knew this was a trap, but he didn’t think there was any time to stop and weigh options. There was no choice. He would risk everything for his brother. Even his life. Johnny covered the ground quickly, would stop to listen, test the air for the scent of woodsmoke, then carefully set out again, and he knew he was getting closer. How long had it been that he heard the bloodcurdling, pain-filled bellow? And Johnny silently prayed he would be in time to save his brother.
Then he heard it. A groan, low, like an injured animal. And Johnny halted and slowly edged around the pile of boulders clustered around the trees. A campsite with a ring of stones containing a fire within, complete with a battered coffee pot with steam coming out of the spout, confirmed someone had recently been there. He’s close; the bastard’s close! Johnny’s suspicions spiked and alerted him to the danger. But as he rounded the cover, he wasn’t prepared for the vision that greeted him. Scott stood, sagging against the ropes that held him tied to the tree, his head dropped, resting on the bloodied chest. Rage flooded through him, and the Colt, already in his hand, was hungry to defend his brother.
With a quick look around and no time to waste, Johnny broke cover and made his way to his brother. “Scott! It’s me, brother. I’ll have ya loose in no time!”
“J-Johnny?” Scott groaned through swollen and cracked lips.
“Yeah, Boston, just hang on….”
“N-No, Johnn… he’s here, crazy, be careful… trap… go… leave me….”
To ease the desperate situation, Johnny offered a light response, “Ya know me, brother, I’m always caref…” and his words suddenly broke off when the rock, thrown from the other side of camp by a powerful arm, collided into his shoulderblade, and exploded in white-hot agony, leaving his left arm numb and useless. His body slammed into Scott with a duet of ‘ugghhh’ squeezed from both sets of lungs. Johnny fell to the ground as a harsh gasp of pain tore from his throat, and his sight began to dim. NO! Can’t pass… out! Fight it, Madrid! Johnny rolled to his right, pulled his legs under him to force himself up. With his right hand braced in the dirt and knees taking most of his weight, Johnny struggled to get to his feet but suddenly crashed to the ground when his right arm was kicked out from under him. The last thing he heard was mad, hysterical laughter that echoed in his skull before everything went black.
Scott watched, helpless and horrified, as Johnny fell to the ground when a rock, the size of a large man’s fist, slammed into his back with a stunning blow. The sickening thud pounded into his brother’s body, rendering him senseless as his eyes rolled back in his head, and consciousness faded to nothing. No! Johnny! You shouldn’t have come! You were supposed to get away!
Jedediah Kellen stopped beside the prone body and looked down, pleased his plans were working out. He raised his eyes and settled on Scott, gratified by the distress that contorted the pale features, then he huffed. “An eye for an eye, boy.”
“Let him… go! He’s done nothing to you! Please!”
Kellen grinned. Got the bastard beggin’! “Shuddup, boy! You can beg later when yer both chokin’ ta death!” Lashing out, Kellen landed a vicious blow to Scott’s swollen jaw, sending him into oblivion, then he tipped his head back and bellowed in maniacal laughter.
Damn! Lemme alone! He felt his arms pulled back as his wrists were securely tied; the movement detonated the fiery shards of pain racing through his body, sending a spectacular shower of blinding sparks through his brain. Johnny groaned, the sound foreign, the voice not his but coming from his throat. What the hell? He tried to move only to find himself restrained, immobile but struggled to gain control when a blow made contact with his ribs and left him gasping for air.
“I kin keep this up all day, boy, so ya better settle down an’ save some a that fight. Yer gonna need it!”
Johnny forced his eyes to open. His head pounded, and his back screamed along with the bruised ribs, his left arm numb and, for now, he was grateful, then he remembered. Scott! “Where’s… Scott?” He blocked out the torment that shrouded him to twist around as far as the tether allowed. “Scott! Where’s my brother, you son-of-a-bitch?”
A kick to his back sent Johnny rolling, coming to rest on his right side with an eruption of throbbing agony that shrouded his body in further misery, and his belly threatened to empty. When he opened his eyes, he was staring at his brother, unconscious and hanging boneless in the ropes that bound him to the tree.
“Scott! Let him go! Who are… you? What’d ya want… with us?” Johnny gasped, fighting the pain that scalded through his body and seared his brain.
“You know who I am! Like I told yer brother, yer gonna pay fer whatcha did!”
“Pay? Pay for what?” Johnny kept his sight on his brother, willing him to open his eyes, but they did not.
Kellen snorted in disgust. “Playin’ dumb like yer brother, huh? Ya wanna see what that’ll get ya?”
Johnny saw it coming, the man set his weight on one leg, and Johnny quickly pivoted his hips, spun, and blocked the kick with his feet.
Jedediah howled in rage; he bent and hauled Johnny to his feet to deliver a balled, meaty fist into the unprotected belly, then let gravity take his prisoner to the ground. Johnny lay unmoving, and that suited Kellen just fine. The boy would be awake soon enough.
The twelve-inch high, uneven rocks would suit his purpose just fine; Kellen brought them into camp one at a time. He placed them on the ground at a distance of six feet on either side of the low, overhanging branch; looking up, he judged it to be the right spot. Then he went about the rest of his plans, the carefully thought out revenge on the two responsible for the pain and despair he’d suffered. All these years and now, he had them, and they would pay with their lives. Jedediah waited seven long, lonely years for this day, it was finally here, and he was ready for vengeance.
Cold water splattered over his face; it ran into his hair and drained into his ears. He coughed and attempted to roll on his side; the pain that ignited quickly reminded him to reconsider the move. And he stopped before he shook his head, knowing that it would more than likely fall to the ground should he proceed. A half sneer, half rumbling laugh, like the braying of a mule, reached his ears, and Johnny focused on the mountain of a man he remembered from recent nightmares. Nightmares of Scott, bleeding and tied to a tree… And he now realized they weren’t bad dreams, but reality and Scott was still bound to that tree. But why?
“Welcome back, boy! ‘Bout time ya wake an’ face yer judgment day, both you an’ that brother a yers gonna face up ta whatcha did!” Jedediah Kellen raised his hand for Johnny to see the coiled rope clenched tight in his fingers.
And it wasn’t until he felt the rough, prickling burn did he realize it was tied around his neck. Madrid forced his way to the front. “Gonna hang us without a trial, ol’ man?”
“Ya don’t deserve no trial! Not fer whatcha did!” The glare was cold, feral, and filled with hate. Kellen jerked the rope, and it tightened, scraping across Johnny’s neck, and forced a gasp from the constricting throat.
“On yer feet, bastard!” Kellen roared and yanked the rope again, thoroughly enjoying the young man’s struggles as pride dictated he stand of his own free will. “Over here!” Kellen barked and shoved Johnny to a spot in front of the tree that held Scott secure.
Johnny stumbled to the indicated spot, fighting his way through the haze that threatened to pull him under, then watched as the old man tossed the rope over a branch and caught it in his hands, pulling it tight. Again, it scraped over the raw skin, hot and piercing, and Johnny forced himself not to show his agony. He quickly blinked away the pain that flashed in his eyes, and his face remained impassive.
Kellen tied the rope around the tree, pulling it taut, and forced Johnny’s head to tilt back as his neck extended to its limit, then walked toward him. Kellen took delight in the labored, harsh breath, but the look of defiance in those hate-filled blue eyes unnerved him. Jedediah shook it aside, after all, what could this one do now that he was strung up like a side of beef and helpless?
“This’s gonna take some a that fight outta ya!” And Kellen grabbed Johnny’s arm and shoved him onto a rock just high enough that if Johnny stepped off, the rope tightened, and he would choke to death, his toes not able to reach the ground. He, again, tightened the rope. “Let’s just see how long ya can stand there without fallin’ offa that rock, boy!”
The rock shifted under his weight, it tipped and rolled, and Johnny struggled for balance, all the while the rope scraped across the raw flesh in burning torture.
Kellen then turned to Scott. He grabbed the blond hair, tipping the head up, and slapped the face to rouse him to consciousness. When it didn’t work, Kellen, again, upended the canteen, letting the cold water sluice through the hair and down the slack features. The action brought a strangled cough and gasp of pain as the young man struggled up through the darkness that threatened to pull him back into oblivion.
“Ya awake, boy? Don’t matter none… yer gonna be! Both a ya is gonna be awake an’ beggin’ fer me ta kill ya! But, I ain’t gonna do that! Ya know why? Cuz yer gonna kill each other! An’ I’m gonna watch ya do it!”
Kellen untied the rope from the tree that held Johnny secure, and pulled tight, making Johnny gasp, then wrapped it around Scott’s neck and freed him from his bonds that, until now, held him upright. Supporting much of the blond’s weight, he steered Scott to a rock and, like Johnny, forced him to stand balanced as Kellen tightened the rope around his neck. Acting as counterweights, Johnny and Scott fought for each other’s lives. A fall off the rocks by either of them, they both would choke to death.
Weak from the beatings and blood loss, Scott swayed, tightening the rope on their necks as it scoured the skin raw and caused blood to flow. He fought to stay conscious, and the blue-gray eyes tried to focus; the dancing black spots moved in sickening jumps and circles, making his stomach want to empty. He knew he was in trouble but, where was Johnny?
“Don’t talk, B-Boston! ‘M here, don’t talk…,” the croak unrecognizable to his own ears. Madrid had to save his brother, and how he was going to manage it, he had no idea. Nothing was coming to mind, his brain growing muddy and muddled; his thoughts and ideas scattered in his head like minnows in a stream. No rhyme or reason, nothing would stay where it should, nothing made sense. Think! Just a matter of time before either him or me falls an’ strangles us both… THINK!
Scott’s heart fell to his feet. Johnny put himself in danger coming to his, Scott’s, rescue. He wouldn’t be able to cope if something happened to his brother because he’d thrown caution to the wind to come back and save him from this crazy man.
Jedediah Kellen stood back and watched their struggles to stay upright, and he laughed, louder and louder. The wicked echo bounced off the granite mountain peaks in wave after ugly wave.
Barely able to comprehend what was happening, Scott realized that should he fall, Johnny’s life would end with his.
The minutes ticked away as the delicate balance played out. It was lasting longer than Kellen thought possible. The blond bastard was hanging on by a thread, swaying like a drunk on Saturday night, and the dark-haired murderer, where not as badly injured, was doing his damnest to talk, to keep his brother from giving up, battling to keep him conscious. And it was taking its toll.
Kellen had never been so entertained… until the distressed neigh interrupted his amusement. Damn! The horses! He’d forgotten about their horses. He now regretted turning the blond’s mount loose. They could alert others; they would come, and his revenge would be lost forever. He would just have to make sure they would pay a little sooner than he planned.
Without a word, he left the camp. Ha, that yeller-haired one ain’t long fer this life! Kellen had to make this quick. He didn’t want to miss that boy gasp his last, but he had to get those horses!
Johnny saw the eyes widen; was that panic he saw as their captor hurried from camp? Think fast, Madrid! He won’t be gone for long… Mierda! It was a long shot if he could manage it! Johnny turned as much as the tightening rope would allow. It scraped over the raw skin producing small rivulets of blood to drip and irritate and burn. But seeing no sign of their tormentor, Johnny desperately tried for Scott’s attention.
“Scott! Scott, can ya hear me?”
“Uhh,” was the only response.
“Scott, gonna try… somethin’. Might hurt some… sorry, but hafta try while he’s gone.
Scott was failing, his consciousness was fading, and Johnny knew he had very little time. The man wouldn’t be gone for long, and if he was going to do something and get them away, it had to be now.
The pain in his back and ribs woke with a vengeance as Madrid forced his arms down along his body and ignored the flood of hot pain. Damn, were there bones broken in his back from the blow of the rock? He grit his teeth, refusing to give in to the searing torture, not only in his back. Ribs, muscles, and rope burns competed for his attention, and he wanted to lay down and close his eyes, and maybe the pain would go away. And then he thought of Scott, helpless and barely coherent.
He bent his knee, and raised his foot along the back of his thigh, heel first, then splayed his fingers, feeling behind him for his spur, and contact was made, but the rock teetered under his left foot, forcing his right back down to the unstable perch and recover his balance. The rope tightened on their necks, leaving Scott to gasp and choke. Johnny halted his movements but knew he had to keep going, keep pushing and escape.
His breath came in shallow gasps as the rope cut into the bloodied skin under his jaw. He couldn’t see anything ahead of him, only up into the branches of the tree. He couldn’t put his head down; the feat was carried out by touch alone. Willing his breathing to slow, Johnny tried again, regaining the balance on his left leg, then brought his right heel to his outstretched fingers.
He grabbed the spur in his hand and held it tight. Fingertips found the leg of his calzoneras, then worked his hand higher, inching up under the leather pant leg, and touched the top of his boot. Concentrating on the rock, steadying his balance, and slowing his breathing, he pushed himself against the boundaries of mind and body. Ignoring his brother’s strangled attempts to breathe, he commanded his arms and hands to move behind him, unnatural and strained. Johnny focused his eyes on the branch above and willed his fingers into the top of his boot, finally to touch the bone handle of his knife. Don’t drop it, Madrid, don’t drop it! The mantra ran through his brain.
The rock under his boot shifted, causing Johnny to lose his balance and the rope to tighten again, sliding across the raw, bleeding flesh, the burning sensation unbearable; both Johnny and Scott suffered under the choking pressure as they fought to remain upright. Scott’s gasp of pain tore through Johnny’s heart, but he hadn’t dropped the knife, he still held the blade in his fingers. Precious minutes ticked by, and the words screamed through Johnny’s brain— MOVE!
“S-Scott? Hang on, brother… hang on,” the plea was whispered, sounding gravelly and faint out of the dry throat. He listened to the painful wheeze and labored breathing from Scott and knew he needed to hurry.
“Go… John-ny! Get… away!”
The harsh whisper seared a hole through Johnny’s heart. “Not without… you, Boston!” The pledge was made and would be carried out, or he would die trying.
Renewed concentration spurred him on. The knife was steady in his hand as fingers maneuvered the blade upward, positioning it along his spine, and he began to cut but shifted the blade when it sliced across the top of his left hand.
The rope bit into his wrist with the sawing motion and left bloody wounds, but he didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. He had to get Scott out of there, away from the maniac claiming that they pay for something they didn’t do, and if Johnny didn’t free them soon, they would die here.
The blade bit, and the rope began to fray from the back and forth action, slowly at first, but once the cutting began, progress was swift. The stiff bristle-like barbs of the rope stabbed into the ragged flesh of his wrists, but he kept cutting. Time! They were running out of time! Keep cutting! The bend of his wrist, unnatural and awkward, made the process painstakingly slow, but there was nothing else he could do, just keep going.
And then the bonds loosened, and his hands were free, the scrap of binding fell to the earth looking as if dead. Johnny raised his right hand to cut the rope from around his neck, freeing himself and his brother simultaneously. He went to his knees as Scott crashed in a heap, gasping for the air that was so recently deprived.
Get Boston outta here before it’s too late! Johnny recovered his knife and scrambled to Scott’s side in a desperate three-legged crawl on two knees and one hand. He sliced the rope from around his neck, then freed the bound hands; the blue-gray eyes flickered as the wheezing breath forced itself in and out of the starved lungs.
With a quick survey around the camp, Johnny searched for his Colt, but it wasn’t there. With no more time to waste, he grabbed Kellen’s canteen, then looped Scott’s left arm over his shoulders and hauled him up onto shaking legs. Johnny reached his right arm around Scott’s waist, ignoring the shards of pain from his shoulderblade, and together they made their way out of the camp where they were bound to die.
The howl of the wolf sent shivers down his back as Jedediah Kellen frantically searched for the horse that dark-haired boy rode. Damn! Need ta find it! Although the two brothers were the only people he saw at the house, it didn’t mean there weren’t others on their way. If either horse went back there without a rider, others would come looking.
Well, don’t much care if I get caught now or not. I’m gettin’ my revenge… them two ain’t gonna live through this night an’ that’s all I care ‘bout now.
Kellen stopped the search and turned back to camp; he didn’t want to miss the show. He would watch both bastards draw their last breath and laugh at their struggle.
He came through the trees and stopped in stunned disbelief. The rope still hung over the branch, swaying in the night breeze; the frayed ends seemed to mock him, laugh as the line waved without holding the prey he so carefully secured there. They were gone, and he had to find them, now!
Johnny struggled under his brother’s weight. The damage to his left shoulder forced him to hold the arm close to his body, eliminate movement, and keep it still. The pain made him lightheaded, but he did his best to shove that aside and concentrate on getting both himself and Scott away from the danger.
Scott did what he could to help, but he knew he was on the verge of losing consciousness. Possibly broken ribs, concussion, and blood loss sapped his strength, dictating he rely on his brother to get them to safety. Vision faded to shadows of black and gray; sounds were far away and echoed in his head. And the pain was excruciating as it thundered through his body from the top of his head to his toes, unrelenting, agonizing. He could feel the blood ooze down his chest; his legs would not hold him up; he fell and could not get up again.
‘C’mon, Boston! Gotta… gotta get mov-in’! He’s gonna be after us! Help me, Scott!” Johnny urged, hoping he could get through to his brother but knew it was for naught when Scott collapsed to the ground with a painful groan. Damn!
Johnny’s ragged breaths puffed in and out of his lungs like a steam engine, blistering his insides in searing desperation. The fire in his back would not let up as he forced himself to keep going; he commanded his shoulder to move and ignored the blast of white-hot pain that threatened to send him to his knees. He had to get Scott on his feet and move!
How long had it been that they escaped the camp? Johnny didn’t know, but they had to keep going and figure out how to get out of these mountains and fast. But that was the problem. Scott couldn’t go anywhere, and Johnny was in no condition to carry him. Horses. They needed their horses.
Johnny studied the terrain around them; where had he left Barranca? He couldn’t whistle for the horse; Barranca would undoubtedly come, but it would also alert the mountain man of their position. They were running out of time; Scott couldn’t walk, and there was a madman in pursuit. They couldn’t leave, and they couldn’t stay.
Murdoch Lancer sat in the great room, staring into the fire. The late hour and the gentle tick of the clock lulled his mind and pulled him toward sleep. Leaning his head back against the cushion, he couldn’t help but think these last several days were too quiet. With both Scott and Johnny gone from the ranch, the stillness was deafening. Funny, he thought, he didn’t remember the quiet so overpowering before the boys came home. With a sigh, he pushed himself to his feet, picked up the lamp, and mounted to stairs on the way to his room— until the pounding on the front door shattered the stillness and broke the serenity of the moment.
His heart began to hammer in his chest, startled, then he shoved it aside, berating himself for acting foolish. It could be anything… the late hour doesn’t mean anything is wrong… or does it?
In the time it took him to walk to the door, another round of banging thundered in the front hall. He grabbed the handle and yanked the door wide to see Frank, a trusted Lancer hand, standing with worry in his eyes.
“Frank! What is it?” And Murdoch knew something was very wrong.
“Mr. Lancer, Scott’s horse just came in… without him. Looks like he’s come a long way. Jelly’s seeing to some cuts on him. Scott’s rifle’s still in the scabbard; don’t look like anything’s missing, except Scott.”
Murdoch raced out to the barn, hoping to discover something that would ease the thoughts that now stampeded through his mind. The boys took excellent care of their horses, and unless something happened… No! Murdoch closed those thoughts off and pushed them away. He could afford to think in those terms; he needed answers, and he would get them.
Jelly knelt in the straw; his gentle fingers applied salve to a cut on Remmie’s leg. The horse stood still, accepting the attention from the bewhiskered man, soothed by the soft murmurings and tender touch.
Murdoch watched as the horse responded and settled the panic that spurred him into a reckless run to return to Lancer, to safety. He unsaddled the horse and searched for blood that would indicate Scott was injured. Finding none, he turned to Jelly.
“What do you think, Jelly?” The cut was deep, and Murdoch could only hope the horse would not be crippled from the wound.
“Hafta watch him for a few days, keep him quiet. We’ll know more tamorrow. Poor critter run a long way, Boss.”
Murdoch could only shrug. Yes, the boys were a long way from home… Where are you, my sons?
They would leave at dawn; it was the only thing they could do. Murdoch, Cipriano, Walt, and Frank would leave with three other Lancer hands to search for Scott and Johnny. But they had to wait.
The once comforting fire burned into his brain and set it ablaze. The soft tick of the clock, now piercing, on a mission to keep him awake with a torturous tattoo as it ticked off the seconds, minutes, and hours. The chime on the hour and half hour seemed to fill his belly with ice, and there would be no sleep for him this night.
Damn, it’s cold! Johnny clamped his teeth together to keep them from chattering. With a groan, he pulled the bolero jacket from his shoulders and wrapped it around his brother. The only thing he could do for Scott was to keep him close and share body heat. But deep in his mind, Johnny knew he had to do something to end this nightmare.
Scott required medical attention; the shoulder wound had stopped bleeding, congealed blood glued the shreds of shirt to his chest, but Johnny was most concerned about the head injury. Here, too, blood clotted and mixed with hair creating a sticky mass. He suspected that broken ribs played a large part in the labored breathing. He had to do something; Scott wouldn’t last long the way he was now. What was it that he’d told Scott? Force the man to make a move and keep him off balance. And Johnny decided to do just that. Their next meeting would be under Johnny’s terms, and Johnny would call the shots… if he was lucky.
There wasn’t much he could do for Scott at the moment except to find a safe place for him to wait, out of the way and out of sight. He had to lure the mountain man away, and the surest way to do that was to use himself as bait; if he was successful, he could get a fire started, and Scott would be warm until Johnny could find Barranca. His only weapon was his knife, and where fighting hand to hand wasn’t the best option, especially in Johnny’s present condition, it might be his only choice.
His left shoulder throbbed mercilessly, but he could move it… not much but, it moved, and he wondered if it would be enough to defend himself should it come to that. If he could get close to the man to throw the knife, he and Scott stood a chance to get away. If, if, if…
Time was running out, and there weren’t many options available to him. He would have to depend on his gut— it saved him before and, hopefully, would again.
The shelter in the rocks would have to do. It was large enough to keep Scott tucked out of sight and accommodate a small fire. Heat would reflect off the boulders and hold for a while in the compact quarters. Lighting a fire was a huge risk, but Scott shivered uncontrollably, and Johnny had to do what he could for his brother; the bolero jacket wasn’t enough protection for an injured man in the mountain air.
Satisfied the fire wouldn’t produce much smoke, Johnny left his brother and began to hunt. With Red Wolf’s teachings in his mind, Johnny would see them out of these mountains and back to Lancer. Home.
He waited, patient and silent. Where was the man that wanted to kill them? Johnny forced the ‘why’ out of his brain. He might not ever know and wasn’t going to waste any energy thinking about it when the man was still out there wanting to kill them. He had to stay focused… and ready. That was one of Madrid’s many strong points; he would be ready… and adapt to whatever the situation demanded of him.
Johnny remained close to his brother, helpless in the rocks. Again, he chose to get up high to watch and draw the man away should he find Scott. The man would come, Johnny knew and would try to kill them outright. This time there would be no waiting, no watching. His madness would get in his way, and Johnny would be ready for him.
The night was still; no crickets chirped, no owls hooted, no other nocturnal sounds were heard, and a man accustomed to walking in moccasins would make no noise. Johnny knew he was in for the fight of his life. Luck would have nothing to do with the outcome; it was his guts and grit that would see him through, and it was for his brother’s safety that he had to beat their would-be murderer.
It was hours, now, since he’d seen the man, but he was still out there. Johnny could feel the ominous presence lurking in the dark. There was no sign of the man, but there was that feeling, and Johnny was well acquainted with knowing that an assault was about to happen. So why wait? Make something happen, Madrid!
In the dark, his fingers closed around a stone, and he lobbed into the brush away from Scott’s resting place; the flash from the fired shots of a rifle marked the spot where the mountain man hid. The echoes bounced from granite peak to granite peak, deafening in the night. Johnny took off running as fast as he dared through rocks and trees, then suddenly stopped, waiting for the sound of pounding feet over the ground, but they didn’t come. There was only silence.
Jedediah Kellen was startled at the thump of the rock behind him. About to run, he held back, thinking it was meant to draw him away. That blond bastard must be close… and he held his spot. Turning in a circle, he peered through the darkness and caught the flicker of firelight off the rocks. Ya best get ready ta die, boy, cuz I’m comin’ for ya!
Son-of-a-bitch! He’s gone after Scott! Johnny turned and made his way to where he’d seen the flash of gunfire. Softly whispered words pushed their way into his brain. Patience, wait. Be sure of your next move. Johnny forced his heart to slow, not wanting the thundering beats to give away his position. Patience. Wait. Next move.
Then he heard it; a branch brushed across something or someone on the move. He was close, and Johnny knew he needed to get away from where Scott was hidden below; he hoped his offensive move was enough. The aggressiveness would spell his victory or his defeat. But he’d been in this place before and came out victorious; he could only hope that victory was on his side again.
A knife against a rifle… not very good odds. But Johnny would do whatever it took to win this war. He planned the only strategy he could… attack. But could he get close enough to fight, armed with a knife, without getting himself blown to pieces? Well, there was nothing else for it; it was all he had.
Dawn was beginning to tease the light into day, making it easier for him to move. But if it was easier for Johnny to move, it was the same for the assailant. Still above Scott’s hideout, keeping the dropoff on his right, Johnny searched for movement. The man was here, close and armed with a rifle. Madrid couldn’t afford to make a mistake. Know the one you hunt… And at that moment, Johnny knew there was no way to draw the man away. Had he found where Scott lay hidden? How close was he? Knife against rifle. Down an’ dirty, Madrid… that’s the only way you’re getting’ outta this alive. And he watched as the man came into view. If Johnny could get him to drop the rifle, he might have a chance.
The man’s attention didn’t waver. Focused on the spot where the sound had alerted him a minute ago, he held the battered Henry rifle with his finger on the trigger and ready to fire. His wont for bloodthirsty games now turned toward outright murder. He would shoot to kill given the opportunity, and Johnny wasn’t about to give him that chance.
Using every lesson Red Wolf taught him, Johnny got within ten feet of the human mountain; the wide back made a huge target. With a few running steps, he launched himself off the ground, and with both legs bent at the knees, he kicked up and out at the expanse of rough tanned leather and rammed into the man across the broad shoulders. The man’s head snapped back, and his arms flailed out from his body, looking much like a stout tree, the Henry another branch. Then he went down and dropped the rifle as he slammed into the ground. Johnny felt jarred and shaken as though he’d hit granite, and rolled to his side, then grabbed for the Henry lying in the dirt. But he didn’t make it in time.
Large meaty hands grabbed his ankle, prohibiting further advancement as Johnny’s fingers gouged into the earth in his desperate attempt to reach the weapon. Hauled backward despite his clawing hands, he missed the gun and would now have to engage in hand-to-hand combat against a man that outweighed him by one hundred pounds or better.
If he were to survive, he had to move fast, but moving fast was nearly impossible as his body screamed out with fatigue and pain. Johnny knew he wouldn’t stand a chance if this man were to get him in the crushing grasp. Fighting one-handed, he wouldn’t be able to defend himself; the combat would be over in a heartbeat, and then the maniac would go after Scott. And Johnny couldn’t let that happen.
Kellen’s massive hands dragged the boy to his feet, and with a mighty blow, he let loose with a backhanded strike that nearly tore Johnny’s head from his shoulders.
His head snapped back as stars exploded in his skull, his lip caught between the assaulting hand and his teeth, split open, and pumped blood down his chin. Johnny spun around before crashing to the ground, dizzy, spitting blood, as shards of burning pain lanced through his body, his shoulder past rebelling. But this was it. This would be the end. Do it now! And Johnny grabbed for his knife, but too slowly.
Kellen knew what was coming; he lunged forward and kicked at the arm that held the exposed blade. The razor-edged knife flipped crazily in the air, flashing with the reflection of the morning sun, blinding, mesmerizing, then nothing. The flash ceased as in blade came to rest ten feet away and no good to Johnny now. It was over, or going to be in a few seconds.
Kellen’s eyes glazed; it was going to be now. His bellow echoed through the cold air and roared through Johnny’s head, sending physical tremors into his brain.
“I’m gonna kill you Hendricks bastards!”
There it was… but before Johnny could dispute the fact he and Scott weren’t the Hendricks sons, the mountain of human flesh was diving through the air and in a split second would be on top of Johnny to kill him with bare hands.
This was it, the last seconds of his life; Johnny Madrid was going to die, killed by a deranged man in a fight that wasn’t his. But if it were his time, he would do the best he could, injured or not, and wasn’t going to go without raising all the hell he could.
Johnny flipped on his back, left foot flat on the ground to piston upward, then raised his right leg to plant his foot against the broad chest, as the momentum of the body, working with the springboard motion of Johnny’s legs propelled the man over him, prolonging his life for… how many seconds? But there was nothing, only silence.
Johnny watched as the man sailed above him, contorted features wild, demonic and savage. And he was gone. It was then Johnny heard a sickening thud, then nothing. It took seconds to get to his feet; rolling over onto his knees and right hand, he forced his body upright, kneeling in the dirt; then, he realized what had happened. He’d flipped the man over the twenty-foot drop to land below. Scott! His brother was down there! He had to get to Scott!
As fast as he could move, Johnny scrambled down through boulders, careening his way through the cover of scrub trees and rocks to his brother’s side. Scott was alone, no mad man there to do him harm. But where was he, the man that wanted their blood? And as he came around the boulders that hid his brother, Johnny stopped in his tracks. The man nearly stood as death claimed him, his neck wedged in the ‘Y’ of a dead, broken tree, head hanging backward with no bones to hold it straight on the shoulders, and the body seemed to stand on the legs that had carried him in life and now, in death.
The long, tangled beard covered part of the weathered face, only one eye visible, wide, and stared at nothing. The skin sagged, and muscles slack and allowed the mouth to open in a silent scream. Johnny turned and vomited in the dirt.
His eyes slit open. How long had he lain on the ground? A glance at the sun, though shooting razor edges that pierced the back of his eyes, told Johnny it was mid-morning.
Scott! The name slammed into his head, and Johnny knew he had to get his brother to safety. That maniac was after them; he had to get to Scott! Get him to safety, don’t let him get hurt anymore! Fast! Get movin’!
He pushed himself to his feet and looked around; it was then he saw the man hanging on the tree like a harbinger of Hell, grotesque and evil and… very dead. He turned away from the ugly scene and hurried as much as he could to Scott’s side. He had to get to him, and hopefully, he was still safe.
The raw skin, burned by the constricting rope, began to crust over, and with every move of his head, Johnny could feel it crack and split. It burned as if on fire. Struggling to keep his feet under him, Johnny fought the urge to give up, just lie down right where he was and close his eyes. Not b’fore I get ta Scott… And, good to his word, Johnny stumbled into the small nook in the rocks that kept his brother concealed and out of the madman’s reach. The fire had long ago burned out, but there was Scott, breathing, although shallow, he was waking, drifting up toward consciousness.
“J-John-ny?” Scott fought to say the name, the name that was important to him, the name that meant everything to him. Are you alright, brother? But the words wouldn’t come, and Scott felt himself fade. “John…”
Johnny fell to his knees, desperate to hear Scott talk, and at the moment, he would give his third of Lancer to hear his brother throw around one of his ten-dollar words he liked so well. Say somethin’, Boston!
Johnny picked up the canteen and, ignoring his need for water, tipped the vessel to his brother’s mouth, slowly letting the life-giving liquid trickle down the parched throat. Scott swallowed, and his eyes fluttered open, fighting to focus. Soaking his bandana, Johnny fit it around Scott’s neck to, hopefully, alleviate the discomfort from the rope burns and ignored his own. Scott needs it more’n I do…
Scott took another drink, trying to force the heavy curtain aside and check out his brother. He had to make sure Johnny was alright! His errant sibling would never admit to weakness, but flickers of memory sparked in his mind like raindrops splattering in the dust, one right after another. Flashes of a huge man with a knife, a rope pulling tight around his neck, and large fists making contact with his body. Then, he saw Johnny coming into the camp, trying to help him, and Johnny fell, unconscious from a blow to his back… Have to help Johnny! Scott struggled to get to his feet.
“Easy… Boston. Jus’ drink, an’ then, we’re goin’… home.” Johnny didn’t know how just yet, but they would get back to Lancer. His brother was hurt and needed medical attention… and soon.
Johnny watched as Scott lapsed into unconsciousness once again. Move, Madrid! Johnny’s thought of Barranca was banished when he tried to whistle, but the deep breath needed to fill his lungs was constricted by the blow to his shoulder blade, and a pitiful hiss escaped his mouth. The raw skin stretched and pulled on his neck, and he couldn’t summon the faithful horse. C’mon, Madrid, ya been in tough spots b’fore! Think!
Rope. He needed a rope, and with this first nudge, his mind began to work.
“Scott? Hey, Boston… can ya hear me?” Johnny touched his brother’s face and watched as the blue-gray eyes forced themselves to open. Johnny coerced a smile. “I need ta get some rope, Boston. Be right back an’, don’t go nowhere, huh?”
Scott would have laughed if he could. “Funny, Johnny…” He reached out and touched Johnny’s lip where the split, now blackened as the blood dried in the open wound, told of a fight. Did he win?
“’M fine, Boston.”
Johnny pulled himself to his feet and leaned against the boulders until the dizziness subsided, and he could take the first few steps and get his momentum without falling to the ground. He had to get back to the camp where their lives nearly ended, hanging by a rope to strangle to death. And he had to get there as quickly as he could.
With his head pounding and his back screaming in protest, Johnny followed the tracks he could find, confused for a time as they overlapped during the cat and mouse game in the night. He’d gone in circles and wasted precious time, but eventually, Johnny located the meager site. The fire now cold in the ring of stones, the frayed rope still swaying in the cool breeze, and the madman’s paltry possessions were all that remained of the bloodthirsty story that played out in these mountains. Would Johnny ever know who this man was or what he wanted? Then he remembered the last thing the man said. I’m gonna kill you Hendricks bastards! And thought of the family picture they’d found in the house flashed through his brain. Two sons, one blond and one dark-haired. The man thought he and Scott were the Hendricks boys. What had they done to this man to warrant their deaths after all this time?
For the time being, he shoved that thought aside; Johnny gathered up what he could that might be of some use. The mountain man’s coat that would be too large, even for Murdoch, lay on the ground next to a bedroll. Johnny carefully bent to retrieve them from the ground and uncovered a worn leather pouch. Taking it, too, Johnny grabbed the rope, pulled it from the tree, and made his way back to Scott. But he stopped. He had to try one more time.
He slowly pulled air into his lungs, trying so desperately to issue the piercing whistle that would make Barranca respond and come to their rescue. But a blinding flash of white pain stopped the effort, and he nearly went to his knees. Somethin’s gotta be busted… Catching his breath, Johnny again pushed his discomfort aside to concentrate on Boston.
Damn, how long had he been gone? Too long! Hafta get back ta Scott… And Johnny kept walking.
What happened? Where was Johnny? Scott’s eyes did their best to open. Why did he feel as if he’d been trampled in a stampede? “Johnny?” the whispered plea sounded raspy and weak. Scott’s brain began to turn, remembering the events that brought him here to this place. Waiting for Johnny to return… Oh, let him be safe! Scott’s mind shifted through the circumstances of the last several days. Why was that man out to kill them? What had they done to provoke a man to commit two murders?
And Scott almost laughed when he remembered Johnny’s flippant remark that maybe the man wanted to move into the house, but they had beaten him to it… Oh, brother, are you safe? He opened the canteen and took a drink, then closed his eyes and focused on controlling the pain in his body. Johnny…
Breathing heavily through his nose, Johnny was able to stand straight, then kept going. His thoughts kept scattering, making him pull them back into attention. Concentrate! Just exactly what did he think he was going to do for Scott? He had a rope, a smelly bedroll, and a few supplies… How was that going to help?
And as if smacked between the eyes, an idea burst into his head. The rawhide coat, the rope… Would it work? Johnny didn’t know, but he sure as hell was going to give it his best shot. He picked up his pace, such as it was, and traced his footsteps toward his brother.
An hour later, Johnny stumbled to the hideout in the rocks that sheltered Scott. He crumpled to the ground and checked his brother, satisfied as much as he could be that Scott was no worse than when he left. Johnny grabbed the canteen and tipped it to his mouth. Immediately, the water eased the dry throat, the sweet water, though warm, sated his thirst as it trickled into his belly.
“Scott? Hey, Boston, ya with me?” Johnny gently whispered. A nod of the blond head reassured Johnny that his brother heard the words. “Ya ready ta get outta here?” Another nod told him Scott understood what he said. “’ Kay, gonna try somethin’, wait here for a minute. I’ll be right back.” This time, there was a grunt of acknowledgment. Johnny had to smile, smile as much as the split lip would allow.
He approached the body as it hung on the tree. With no other thought in mind than to get Scott out of here, Johnny pulled the hide vest off the man, sliding it down the slack arms between the tree trunk and the body. Then, without another glance, Johnny returned to Scott and prepared to leave.
Fitting the vest into the rawhide jacket was the only protection he could offer his brother; it was all he could do. Johnny threaded the rope through the sleeves and knotted the ends together in a loop. He picked up the bedroll and spread it on top of the opened coat, then struggled to settle Scott on the blanket. He pulled the jacket together, fastened it closed, and successfully had Scott in a safe cocoon. He placed the leather pouch under his brother’s head as a pillow hoping to give it a modicum of protection; another blow to the head would likely prove fatal. Johnny looped the rope around his body twice, trying to get the best fit he could. But it didn’t matter what he did or where the ropes tightened on him, his body exploded in pain as he pulled Scott out of the mountains and, hopefully, toward Lancer.
They traveled as far as the light allowed. Murdoch didn’t want to stop; he wanted to find his sons, but killing themselves in the dark wouldn’t do anyone any good. Giving in to the necessity, he acquiesced as his imagination ran wild. He was a man of facts and proof, not one to let imaginings take over and fill him with uncertainties. But, since becoming a father to two grown sons, he found that it happened more easily than he ever thought it could. What happened to the self-control? Does it vanish with fatherhood?
As he settled into his bedroll, Murdoch steeled himself for the long hours to come. He doubted if sleep would be his this night but knew that he had to wait it out. And this was the only option available to him. Waiting at the ranch was out of the question, and he would have to satisfy himself that the next twenty-four hours would give him some answers. He looked up at the midnight blue expanse filled with the shimmer and sparkle of stars. Where are you, my sons?
The way was daunting; hills, rocks, streams, and ravines blocked his way, forcing a longer walk avoiding the obstructions. Damn! Where’s B’rranca? But the horse wasn’t there, so he put one foot in front of the other and did his best to get Scott home. Home… sounds good. Sleep in my… own bed, some food in my belly. Maria, she’ll make somethin’ good… spicey. Scott ain’t gonna… like it much… Scott! Water, get ‘im some water…
Johnny stopped and dropped the double loop of rope he’d tied around his body. With a glance at the sun judging the time, his head filled with dizziness, and he fell with a groan. He sat unmoving for a minute, then reached for the canteen tucked beside Scott as he lay wrapped in the rawhide coat.
“C’mon, Boston… gotta… drink.” Johnny’s raspy voice broke into Scott’s subconscious as he held the water to his brother’s mouth and trickled it between the parted lips.
“J-Johnny, take… some water. Rest…” Scott whispered.
“Sure, Bost-ton. Drink… more.” And with another careful pour into his brother’s mouth, Johnny tucked the canteen away, picked up the rope, and began to pull his brother toward home.
Dusk was settling as Johnny stumbled for the hundredth time. His body was numb, his brains scrambled in his head, comprehending nothing and making no sense. He blinked his eyes to brush away the double vision that plagued him for the last several hours. But he didn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. Scott needed to get help, help that Johnny couldn’t give, but he did what he could. He kept going. ‘ll getcha home, Boston. ‘ll getcha home.
The stumble tossed him to the ground, and had it not been for the rope that tethered him to his brother, Johnny would have rolled down the hill. He lay for a moment as his breath dragged in and out in short and shallow gasps, his shoulder exploded in pain. He looked up at the midnight blue expanse filled with the shimmer and sparkle of stars. Murdoch, need some… help.
Murdoch Lancer could take no more. He kicked out of his bedroll and stirred the fire to life. Tossing a few pieces of wood on the blaze, he wandered into the bushes.
He would find his boys today. He would find them and bring them home. Home. It was an incredible word! Home with my sons and Teresa, home at Lancer!
Off to the east, the sky began to lighten. Ever so slowly, the colors of dawn overpowered the darkness, replaced by brilliant shades of bright yellows and oranges, as the daylight pushed aside the night.
Murdoch roused his men, anxious to be moving and find his sons. They broke camp in record time with the men reading the impatience of their Patrón.
They would start at the old Hendricks house, and in a few hours, Murdoch knew, they would be there and, hopefully, Scott and Johnny would be as well. He picked up their pace, covering the miles quickly. Three hours later, they crossed the picturesque grassy meadow, complete with the mirror-like lake and the spacious house beyond.
But the peacefulness of the scene vanished as they neared the structure. Household items littered the yard, and the charred remains of the barn told of trouble. Trouble that involved Scott and Johnny. The stench of burned wood hung in the air, cloying, sickening.
Murdoch’s belly flipped over as he threw himself from his horse and charged into the house. The others called him back, fearful the trouble was still there. Walt and Frank raced to his side to pull him back.
“Mr. Lancer! Careful! Take it slow!” Frank whispered, hoping the boss would heed his words.
As if already planned, the men spread out to cover the area. Both entrances of the house were guarded as Joe and Will entered to scout out a potential threat. After a quick look around, stepping over broken and scattered furniture, they called to Murdoch.
His heart sank to his feet upon entering the house. What happened here, and where were Scott and Johnny? Murdoch’s heart thundered in his chest. “Spread out, men! Look for tracks! Cipriano!”
The Segundo stepped forward. “Sí?”
“Search outside, around back, and into the woods! Find where they went!”
Seven men stormed out of the house to scour the area. Murdoch Lancer pushed aside the paralyzing images that flooded his head of Scott and Johnny fighting for their lives. Find them! Don’t waste any more time here!
Scouring the yard and the trails into the trees was agonizingly slow. More than an hour went by, and Murdoch felt the crushing tension begin to fall around him like a suffocating shroud. What if…
“Señor Lancer! Over here!”
The hoof prints led into the woods, and seven men followed in hopes of finding the missing sons of the Patrón.
The shiver woke him. Damn, he was cold! Where the hell was he? Don’t feel like workin’ taday… Murdoch ain’t gonna be happy with me. Mierda, don’t feel like I can ride…
Blue eyes slit open as reality punched him in the gut, and it all came crashing down around him. The man was after them trying to kill them, the rope around their necks… Scott! Where’s Scott? He moved as his body screamed out to be still, and Johnny gasped as he tried to push himself upright. His head spun in crazy circles and forced his eyes to slam shut. His right hand went to his hip to find nothing there. Where was his Colt? Besides not where it should be…
Boston, get ta Boston. Make sure he’s alright… Johnny struggled toward his brother, wrapped in the strange coat. Then he remembered. He put together a makeshift travois to drag Scott away and get help. Scott was hurt. No horse. Get help…
Holding his injured left arm against his aching body, Johnny fumbled with the canteen; it was nearly empty, and they desperately needed water. He would use what they had for Scott, then look for more as they went along.
“Hey… B-Boston? Wake up, got water for… ya.” The whispered words sounded like boots dragging over a gravel path. “Scott?”
“Uhh.” Sleep, I want to sleep, let me alone, Johnny. Sleep through the pain.
“Scott, water,” Johnny hunkered down close, trying to get his right arm around Scott to lift him to drink without choking. The cold rampage through his body set the shivers into a visible tremble, and with the strain on his left arm, much of the precious water spilled from Scott’s mouth.
“Dammit!” Johnny cursed but bit off any further self-incrimination. He had to move and get Scott to safety. He hauled himself to his feet, swaying dangerously, then gathered the rope over his functioning shoulder and continued the journey they started yesterday. He had to get help. For Scott. Putting one unsteady foot in front of the other, he began to drag the tattered travois that held the most important person in his life. Keep goin’, just keep goin’. Need more water… for S-Scott. Outta water… Get… more…
Trees thinned out as the meadow opened up, revealing soft, sweet grass. The sunlight was warm, pleasing, and comforting. Birds sang as they flew from branch to branch in their quest for insects as a gentle breeze whispered through the leaves. The only other sound was the harsh breath of Johnny Madrid Lancer as he labored with his burden, pulling the leather travois over the rough ground. And the burble of the stream as it washed along the stream bed.‘Nother step, take… ‘nother step. The branch hidden in the grass snagged the boot, sending him to his knees, the blue eyes rolled back, and he fell in a heap as the dragonfly landed on his outstretched hand.
“Mr. Lancer, there’s tracks leading off this way!” Frank shouted, then continued to follow the trail.
Murdoch spurred his horse through trees and brush, then dismounted as he caught up with the trusted hand.
“Cipriano’s gone ahead; he thinks these tracks are fresh, within the last day!”
Murdoch wasted no time with the prints left stamped in the dirt. Cipriano was an excellent tracker; Murdoch’s deep-seated faith in Cip’s abilities strong and sure, and he would follow his Segundo wherever he led.
The trails crossed in places, but Cip followed the familiar bootprints knowing they belonged to his Sobrino, and disheartened, there wasn’t a sign of Scott’s prints, but he kept that to himself. They would soon find out what happened and where the sons of Murdoch Lancer were.
The seven men skidded to a halt when, rounding the boulders, they stumbled upon what was a camp. The coffee pot stood on a rock in the circle of stones, cold but looking as if ready to be of service. A few other items littered the ground, including two large rocks.
Cipriano stood, studying the scene. The rest of the men quieted, giving the tracker time to decipher what he saw. The large tree offered clues, and Cip noted the blood that coated the rough bark. Scraps of cut rope claimed of trouble that proved true when dried blood flaked in his hand as he picked up the line. Someone had been tied to the tree, and… he wandered to the two rocks looking out of place in the middle of the camp. Shreds of bloodied rope lay there— another clue that prompted Cip to look up. A low branch bore scuff marks where something dragged a weight over the bark. He felt a chill run through him, and he hoped he was wrong as he read the signs.
Looking at the ground, he analyzed the marks in the dirt, and only then did he divulge the facts he gathered in his mind.
“Señor Lancer, there was trouble here, but the tracks of two men wearing boots go that way. I think one needs help to walk. This way— they go this way.” Cip again led them through the trees, all alert for danger and all watching for the two young men they held in the highest regard and loved.
Half an hour later, nestled in a nook in the rocks, they found where someone spent time near the fire. Cip couldn’t help the small smile, thinking they found a safe place for one of them to rest. Heat from the fire would reflect off the surrounding rocks and result in more heat without risking a large blaze. But that confirmed his suspicions that someone was in pursuit of Scott and Johnny.
“Señor Lancer, one of them spent time here. There was a fire, and the marks on the ground tell me…”
Walt stood as if stunned. “Mr. Lancer! You need to see this!” he called out as the scavenger birds took to the air in fright; then, he turned away from the horrific scene before him.
Murdoch, puzzled as he rounded the shelter of rocks to see Walt retch onto the ground, but understood when his eyes came to rest on the corpse held standing by the tree. The man was huge, larger than Murdoch himself, with long straggly hair and beard. The eyes, open at one time, were now empty sockets, picked clean by the scavengers, and lacerations bloodied the face, compliments of the raven’s claws. Murdoch fought back the bile that rose in his throat. This was not a man he knew, and although he might have caused his sons harm, he felt compelled to lift the body out of the tree and lay it on the ground. They would come back later to bury him, but the need to find his sons took precedence.
“Men, help me with him.” And together, they settled the corpse on the ground.
Then, immediately, the search resumed.
“Patrón, look…” Cipriano pointed to the ground where it looked as though the trail was brushed out, brushed out to an extreme.
Cip turned to Murdoch, his eyes wide. “One is dragging the other, Patrón!” And as one, all seven men hurried for their horses to follow the drag mark over the earth.
A blind man could have trailed it, and they could see it vividly up ahead. Cip studied the marks on the ground, then informed Murdoch this spot was where they stopped to rest.
Murdoch looked around, doubtful. It was unprotected and in the open; neither of his boys would have stayed here if they had a choice, and that left only one possibility— they both were injured, and his belly flipped over with the thought.
“They couldn’t have gone too much further; let’s go!” Murdoch nudged his horse ahead, and the men followed.
They were coming down out of the trees into a grassy meadow when they spotted the familiar faded red shirt and knew it to be Johnny, only to watch a second later as he fell and didn’t get up.
The men charged forward, making short work of the distance between them. Murdoch was off his horse with a speed he hadn’t known for a long time and was kneeling beside his sons, accessing their condition.
“Bring me water! Johnny! Scott!” he pleaded, but they gave no response. He bent over Scott and untied strips of rawhide that held the coat closed, and it hit him. The coat, it was huge… it belonged to the dead man they found hanging on the tree. What happened to my boys?
“Cipriano, see to Johnny! My God!” He murmured as he turned his attention to Scott, alarmed at the bloody shoulder and the raw neck. And it was then that Murdoch saw the blood smeared on the leather pouch under the blond head. He carefully examined the injury but had no success with the matted hair and congealed blood covering the wound. He carefully opened the lids of Scott’s eyes and found the pupils dilated, certain, now, of a concussion. A massive bruise blossomed on Scott’s jaw, and Murdoch wondered it was broken. Frank and Walt assisted Murdoch, bringing bandages, laudanum, and water to help get Scott ready to travel.
Cipriano looked over his nephew with gentle hands. The bruises on Johnny’s face indicated a fight, the bloody skin on both of their necks bore out his theory of what had happened at the camp, and he knew the man they had wrestled from the tree was responsible for these injuries. Cipriano was a God-fearing man, a good man, but right now, he hoped that beast was rotting in Hell for what he did.
Noting the left arm held close to the body, Cip probed the shoulder and found it grossly swollen. He slipped a hand under Johnny’s back and felt the knot, thinking that the shoulder blade was most likely broken. With help from Joe and Isidro, they pulled the shirt from Johnny’s body and exposed massive bruising.
“Help me raise him, amigos,” Cip whispered.
Joe and Isidro supported Johnny’s body as Cip assessed the damage. He shook his head, disgusted at the injury there; blood pooled in a hot mass under the skin. Patience, Sobrino! It will take time to heal.
“Cip, how is he?” Murdoch asked in low, quiet tones as he cared for Scott.
“Su omóplato, Patrón, (his shoulder blade), I think it is broken.”
“Will, ride back to the ranch, tell Maria and Teresa what happened so they can be ready when we get there, then get into Green River and get Sam out to the ranch. We’ll get them home as soon as we can. We’ll be traveling through the night,” and he nodded to his sons, “if they can tolerate it.”
“Yessir, Mr. Lancer!” Will Tracy vaulted on his horse and galloped away in a cloud of dust.
Murdoch contemplated going back to the old Hendricks place for his sons to rest but decided to try for Lancer instead. Where the new Lancer property was closer distance-wise, the way was mountainous, filled with rocky terrain. Pushing on toward Lancer avoided much of the obstacles and would be easier for his boys. With his mind settled, Murdoch and his men did their best to make Scott and Johnny as comfortable as they could.
The next hour proved to be a challenge getting both Scott and Johnny ready to move. All they could do for the moment was to stabilize their bodies the best they could. Murdoch was certain Scott sustained broken ribs and was therefore reluctant to hold the elder son in front of him in the saddle. He looked down at the makeshift travois Johnny used to drag his brother away from danger— a large leather coat with a rope threaded through the sleeves— and where it wasn’t long enough to keep Scott’s feet from dragging, he was able to prevent Scott’s head and torso, for the most part, from contact with the ground. Resourceful, that was Johnny!
“Frank, Walt, see if you two can find branches sturdy and long enough to make a travois for Scott.” The order was given and received without question. Frank and Walt left on their mission.
Murdoch regretted not telling Will to send Val Crawford when he got into Green River to summon Sam Jenkins. Well, that could wait. Getting his sons the medical attention they desperately needed was paramount.
“Cip, can Johnny ride?” The question seemed so… innocent. Could Johnny ride? Of course, Johnny could ride! It almost seemed silly to ask… until Murdoch saw the ugly bruising on Johnny’s back.
“I think, to get him home, he needs to ride with me, Patrón. To lie as Scott would not be good for his back.” Cip envisioned dragging a travois over an unseen rock and making contact with the damaged back, and he shivered.
“Alright, as soon as Walt and Frank get back and we construct a travois, we’ll get the boys home as soon as we can.”
Travel was slow, agonizingly so. Murdoch could do nothing but grit his teeth, knowing they were so far from crossing under the adobe arch. It was well past midnight as they pushed forward, stopping only to dose Scott or Johnny with a liberal amount of laudanum. He’d never been so relieved as he was in that minute that he ordered every Lancer hand to carry the basic medical supplies in their saddlebags because it surely paid off this time.
All the bandages from every saddlebag were used. Scott’s knife wound in his shoulder, and the gash on his head took most of the supply, leaving barely enough left to stabilize Johnny’s arm to his body. Fortunately, there would be sufficient pain killer to see them home.
No one spoke as the hours ticked by in a monotonous march. Murdoch constantly watched Scott, keeping a close eye out should he need water or more laudanum. Then he would peer through the darkness at Johnny, exhausted and sagging in Cipriano’s strong arms. The ghastly rope burns on their necks and wrists spoke of torture— torture, and beatings. What happened up in those mountains? Fighting down the rage that threatened to take over and send him into a place he couldn’t afford to go, Murdoch, instead, concentrated on getting home… and soon.
It was late afternoon when the Lancer arch came into view and a more welcome sight, Murdoch couldn’t name. Riders came to meet them, among them Jelly Hoskins, and he fretted and fussed over the boys, asking questions none of them could answer.
“Did ya clean them injuries good enough?” “How long they been sleepin’?” “What happened?” “Where’d find ‘em?” And it went on… and on.
They all pitched in to help get Scott and Johnny into the house and to their rooms. With a constant flurry of activity in and out of the two upstairs bedrooms as the women raced to help Sam in whatever he would need, the order was issued for Murdoch to rest. He vehemently disobeyed, telling everyone those were his sons, and he would rest when he knew they would be alright and that this was his right to worry and that he would rest when he was ready to rest!
Thankfully, Sheriff Val Crawford was there when they arrived at Lancer and now took the chair next to where Murdoch finally sat, waiting for Sam to make his report. It would be a while before the Doc would be down to talk from the looks of things. After getting to the ranch, Val went upstairs to see Scott and Johnny’s conditions. He would have to make a report as to what happened and, he would have to see the body of the man left in the mountains, what was left of it, anyway.
“I wanted ta be here after I saw Will tear inta town an’ go straight ta Doc’s. Knew there was trouble an’ after I talked with them, I figured ta get out here an’ find out what happened. What can ya tell me, Mr. Lancer?” Val urged.
“I don’t know if I can tell you anything, Val. The boys went up to check out the property we bought. They were gone a few days, then Scott’s horse came here looking as if there was trouble. We set out looking for them…” and Murdoch relayed the story as he knew it to be and described the body of the man with a broken neck.
“If ya don’t mind, Mr. Lancer, I’d like ta take Cipriano and have him show me where the body is. Maybe I can find somethin’ out about him.”
“Yes, of course, I’ll have him…” The knock on the door interrupted their conversation. “Excuse me, Val.” Murdoch went to the door and pulled it open to find Frank standing with the blood-smeared leather pouch that cushioned Scott’s head in the makeshift travois.
“Mr. Lancer, I think you should see this. Soon’s I realized what it was, I brought it right over.”
Murdoch held the pouch as if it were a dreaded thing. “What is it, Frank?” he asked quietly.
“Didn’t read too much, but I think it belonged to that man we left in the mountains. You’d better have a look. Any word on Scott and Johnny yet?”
“No, nothing yet. I’ll be sure to let you boys know after I talk with the doctor.”
“Thank you, Mr. Lancer.” With a nod to Val, Frank turned and left the hacienda.
Val sat, waiting for Murdoch to open the pouch. If there was anything in it to shed light on what happened, he needed to see it.
The dried blood on the front of the leather was unsettling, but Murdoch shoved that away and reached inside the bag. His fingers touched on several papers, and he drew them out. An envelope addressed to Jedediah Kellen was the first thing he saw. Taking out the fragile pages, he began to read the tragic letter that a daughter had written to her heart-sick father. The pages were worn and creased, a few nearly torn in half and covered in smudges from dirty fingers, but the delicate writing was fairly legible. Murdoch took a deep breath and read the words on the paper.
I know you don’t approve of Tom, but I love him and want to be his wife. He is a good man, and I wish you would give him a chance. Whatever the differences you had with Mr. Hendricks is with him. Not Tom. Please try and understand. I am not coming home. Tom and I are getting married, and I would like to have your blessing. But it’s your choice.
I love you, Papa, I always will.
Murdoch felt a shred of sympathy for the man he left in the mountains; then, the sympathy vanished as the sight of his sons flashed through his brain.
Together, he and Val went through the contents of the pouch, looking for further documentation, anything that could possibly offer information.
A crumpled newspaper page told Dessa Kellen’s story, killed when the wagon she was riding in overturned and crushed her to death. An accident that Jedediah blamed on the Hendricks boys. According to the date on the paper, it would have happened seven years ago. Seven years was a long time to let hate smolder and rot, to turn into something so ugly and toxic.
It was a matter of mistaken identity, and Scott and Johnny were caught, sentenced to death, and nearly died because of a grudge between two old men that could not come to terms with whatever it was that set them to feuding.
Finally, Val stood clutching the papers and returned them to the pouch. “Well, we got a name. I’ll send out some wires an’ see what I can turn up. I’ll be in touch soon’s I find out anything. Hell, I’ll pro’bly be out tomorrow ta see how them boys’re doin’.”
“Why don’t you come for supper tomorrow, Val. I hope they’ll be awake and able to talk to you.” Murdoch followed the sheriff to the door.
“Thanks, Mr. Lancer! Yeah, I’d like ta talk with ‘em and find out a few things. Well, see ya tomorrow.”
Murdoch shut the door and listened to the quiet. The tick of the clock was, again, irritating.
With Maria’s assistance, Sam began with Scott and the head injury. He cut the matted hair away from the laceration and cleaned the dried blood from the gash on Scott’s head enough to make an evaluation. Maria’s expertise in assisting Dr. Jenkins with issues at Lancer was always gratefully accepted. The knowledge and the ease that she used that knowledge saved much time and, undoubtedly, many lives. And Sam knew that once he left the ranch, she would be there to keep things under control.
He would wait a day or two for the swelling on the laceration to go down before setting the stitches. If there was no more bleeding, the stitches could wait.
Then he moved on to Scott’s shoulder. Fever burned through the lean body, and Sam knew he would find the reason for it here, under the bandages. A deep knife wound on the right side festered as the crusty scab split and oozed with an odious discharge.
Sam and Maria labored, soaking off the shreds of shirt that remained; they irrigated the wounds and applied the medicine that would combat the infection that already sunk its stubborn hooks into Scott’s body. Then the doctor stitched together what he could, closing the ugly gaping wound. Wrapping a tight bandage over the shoulder, he moved on to the cracked and broken ribs. Finally, he applied a salve to the rope burns and wrapped them in a soft cloth. Without having to be told, Maria was there with whatever Sam needed, when he needed it.
Scott, exhausted and drugged, thankfully did not regain consciousness during Sam’s ministrations.
Taking a deep breath, getting his thoughts under control, Sam scrubbed his hands while Maria took his ‘instruments of torture’ to the kitchen to be thoroughly cleaned. Satisfied Scott was as comfortable as he could be, he moved to his next patient.
Quietly, he opened the door to Johnny’s room. Murdoch sat next to the bed, intently watching as if waiting for something to happen. Semi-reclined and slightly to his right, Johnny slept, unaware. Sam watched the father as he tended his son.
Doctor Jenkins set the medical bag on the table then checked Johnny’s eyes and breathing, noting the shallow intake. To his relief, there was no sign of blood that would indicate damage to the lungs.
Murdoch looked at the doctor with hope shining in his eyes. “How’s Scott, Sam?” he whispered.
“He’s resting comfortably. Is Johnny waking up, Murdoch?”
“I think he’s close to it. He tried to move and mumbled something, and his eyelids flickered a few minutes ago.”
“How long has it been since the last dose of laudanum?”
“About three hours,” Murdoch said in low tones.
The doctor picked up the wrist and took the pulse, then laid the arm back on the bed. Lifting the blanket, Sam noted the vivid bruising; both the Lancer boys had received a vicious beating. The discoloration that appeared to spread down Johnny’s back on the left shoulder led Sam to slide his hand under him, but he stopped when he felt the knot. He began to form an idea as to why the breathing was shallow.
“Murdoch, get the laudanum ready in case he’ll need it.”
Murdoch readied a glass and poured a liberal amount of the pain killer into the water.
“Now, I need for you to help me lift him so I can check out the reason for the swelling in his back.”
“Cipriano thought it was the shoulder blade…,” Murdoch offered as he moved to sit on the bed beside his son.
“Yes, I’m thinking the same thing.”
Together they leaned Johnny against Murdoch’s broad chest while Sam assessed the injury. Though the probing fingers traveled gently over the hematoma, it was more than enough to send Johnny’s back into spasms of pain.
Murdoch quickly reached for the laudanum while keeping an arm around his son.
“Easy, son. I’ve got you, Johnny,” he murmured into the dark hair.
“Johnny?” Sam waited for the whisper to tickle a response in Johnny’s brain as he watched the young man struggled out of the darkness. A few seconds later, he tried again. “Johnny? Can you hear me?”
Johnny swallowed and gave Sam a hint that senses were connecting and beginning to work in tandem, rousing him from the dark, remote shelter, the place without pain, into the glaring, harsh light of agony. Johnny’s lips parted as the breath turned into a gasp.
“Johnny, it’s alright. You’re home, you’re safe, now.”
“S-Scott s-safe… need ta… get Scott…,” Visions of his brother swarmed through Johnny’s memory; the pain, the blood, his brother was suffering. Scott’s hurt, he needs help!
“Shhh, Johnny, Scott’s in the next room; he’s safe. You’re both safe. You need to be still, son. Sam’s going to fix you up.”
“Scott safe… too?”
“Yes, Scott’s safe, too. Johnny, you need to drink this.” Not giving his son any time to mount a defense, Murdoch had the vile tasting medicine into Johnny before he knew what happened.
Sam continued making a diagnosis and decided on a plan of action. He was relieved Johnny was not feeling any pain now that the medicine had taken effect.
“Well, Murdoch, I think I may have some good news. The shoulder blade might not be broken, but it might be cracked. Either way, it takes several weeks to heal, and we’ll have to wait for Johnny to wake and try to move it before I can be sure. There are a few cracked ribs, though. They both have swelling in their throats because of the ropes,” Sam continued cleaning the wounds and wrapped the injuries. It was imperative to keep both boys immobile for a while to let the healing begin.
Murdoch could only hope there wouldn’t be any lingering complications for them. It would be so easy for Scott’s past to haunt him; memories of his capture and the subsequent year spent in Libby during the war were a constant worry as even now, there were nightmares after these last six years. This episode could reignite that tumultuous time.
And Johnny, he knew, would blame himself for allowing this to happen. Why hadn’t he kept his brother safe? But only Johnny would think that. Murdoch reasoned because for so long, it was Johnny’s job, when he fought in those range wars, to keep his employers safe, it took root and still very much present in this new life at Lancer. He assumed the role of protector and probably always would.
Murdoch couldn’t help but shrug. His sons, both strong, self-reliant, and brave, were also vulnerable, at risk of putting themselves in situations out of their control and needlessly suffering outcomes that were no fault of theirs.
And now, here they were injured as a result of an old man’s vengeance.
Dim light from the lamp spread a golden glow across the room and washed over the pale face of the man in the bed. His skin was cold to the touch, and he hadn’t roused from the deep sleep that took over his exhausted body.
Doctor Sam Jenkins sighed, then stepped away from the bed. Reaching for the arm of his old friend, Murdoch Lancer, he steered the worried father out into the hallway.
“Let them sleep, Murdoch. It’s what they need now, more than anything. We’ll keep an eye on them. But we’ll have to wait.”
Murdoch made no acknowledgment he heard. He would continue the vigils by the bedsides of his sons and wait, all the time wondering what had happened in the last week that reduced them to ghosts of their normal selves, battered and bruised with rope burns around their necks and wrists. They had both suffered a horrible beating. Dear God! What happened to my boys?
Doctor Jenkins stayed, helping out when either Scott or Johnny would rouse and need assistance. They both spent a reasonably quiet night for which Sam was grateful. Murdoch Lancer refused to go to his bed, insisting instead on alternating the long hours sitting beside his sons as they slept. As dawn painted the sky in fresh, beautiful colors of the new day, Murdoch stretched his aching back, then checked Scott for fever.
Frowning at the warmth he found, Murdoch went in search of Sam. Just as he knocked on the guestroom door, it opened, and Dr. Sam Jenkins stepped into the hall.
“Which one?” Sam asked as he clutched the ever-present medical bag in his fist.
Together they made it to Scott’s room and quietly opened the door.
“Murdoch, why don’t you get some coffee brewing. I sure could use a cup,” the sage old doctor suggested.
“It’s alright. I was expecting this, would have been surprised if the fever wasn’t there.” Healing the entire family came with the territory, and Sam knew Murdoch was still coming to terms with the trials and tribulations that came with fatherhood.
Sam was right; the coffee helped calm his wandering, worrying thoughts. Scott’s fever was expected, even anticipated, as were the accompanying nightmares. Both Scott and Johnny spent hours locked in misery through horrifying dreams; Scott saw his brother returning to help him, risking his safety instead of saving himself.
Johnny fought against the debilitating horror of not keeping his brother safe. A few times, Murdoch caught what sounded like Johnny saying, “Wasn’t us, name’s Lancer.” Through scattered thoughts and murmurings, Murdoch and Sam were able to ascertain Jedediah Kellen, if that was the man found dead in the mountains, held a vendetta against Scott and Johnny and suspected it was over the death of his daughter.
“Welcome, Val, come on in!” Murdoch held the door for Sheriff Crawford and offered the usual libation.
Val accepted the drink, then took a seat on the couch.
“How’s them boys doin’, Mr. Lancer?” he asked, looking over the rim of the glass.
“They’re both sleeping. Scott is heavily sedated and probably won’t be ready to talk for a few days yet. Johnny was awake for brief moments today; hopefully, tomorrow, he will be lucid enough to hold a conversation. Sam is keeping a close eye on them so they won’t try and overdo it…” Murdoch smiled, shook his head, then asked, “Have you any news about Jedediah Kellen?”
Val nodded and reached into his shirt pocket. “A wire come in jus’ before I left town, from Sheriff Morgan in Manteca. He wasn’t the sheriff back when this happened, but he got a few details tagether an’ if he finds anything else pertinent, he’ll send it along.” Val handed the note into Murdoch’s hand.
Dessa Hendricks killed in accident March 21, 1867 STOP Tom Hendricks crippled STOP Hendricks and brother Steven moved to Oregon STOP Will send more details if found STOP
“During the night, Johnny murmured something that sounded like ‘Wasn’t us, the name is Lancer’. Kellen thought my sons were responsible for the death of his daughter….”
“It kinda looks that way. But till I can talk with Johnny, I won’t know any more’n what I know now.”
“I think we should have dinner now and then check on Johnny. He was sleeping right before you arrived.”
Val turned the wick up and watched the flame dance and flicker, then become stable. Johnny’s eyes focused then squinted against the brightness.
Val’s soft voice settled easily around him. It was a sound he knew well that offered comfort, support from an amigo.
“What the hell… happened?” Johnny mumbled, doing his best to corral the scattering thoughts in his foggy head.
“Well, I was hopin’ that you could tell me. What’d ya remember, Johnny?” Val asked, wondering how far the questioning would last, not willing to cause any more discomfort for his friend.
Johnny blinked, concentrating, trying to remember the events that landed him in this bed. Suddenly he tensed. “Scott! Val… Scott, he’s…”
“He’s in the room across the hall, amigo. He’s sleepin’, so quiet down an’ don’t be wakin’ him up. He’s fine. Jus’ tell me what ya remember.”
Johnny settled, knowing he could trust Val. Now wide awake, Johnny swallowed, and Val put a glass to his lips. The water, cool and welcomed, slid down his dry throat.
“Thanks, Val. Didn’t know who it was, but he burned the barn. Got inta the house, an’ tore it… apart. We followed his trail…,” Johnny’s eyes closed for a few seconds, making Val think Johnny lost consciousness, but they opened again. His words were quiet and strained. “Val, he thought… he thought we were the Hendricks boys…an’ was gonna kill us for somethin’ they did… never found out… what.” His eyes went to Val’s face and were clearer than before. “Scott’s here, Val?”
The desperation in the voice squeezed around Val’s heart. “Yeah, amigo, he’s here. Sleepin’ in his own bed across the hall.”
The words reassured Johnny his brother was home. “He okay?”
Wide eyes latched onto Val’s as if begging for the answer he needed to hear. “Sure is, Johnny, he’s sleepin’. Don’t be wakin’ him up, ya hear?”
Johnny closed his eyes, worn out and slipping into the warmth of the darkness. “Yeah… hear… ya.”
He pushed the door open to his brother’s room and watched the rise and fall of the bandaged chest. Slowly, he made his way to the chair beside the bed and sat, pulling the blanket around his shoulders to chase away the damp chill. It was late, but he couldn’t sleep. He needed to see to Scott with his own eyes. Murdoch and Sam insisted Scott was doing fine, but Johnny needed to see for himself.
Scott looked peaceful enough; no creases on his brow, no pain lines on his face. Just peace. Johnny leaned into the plush cushion in relief. A soft sigh escaped him, and he tipped his head back and relaxed. They were safe.
The soft question floated to his ears like a soothing rain. Johnny opened his eyes to see the sight he most wanted to see. Scott was awake, was looking to him, needing to talk. Johnny smiled his Johnny Madrid Lancer smile, and Scott smiled back as relief flooded through his body.
“Johnny, are you… alright?”
“’M fine, Boston. How about you? Ya have any pain?”
“Some, but I want to talk with you before you make me take anything for it.”
Johnny sat forward with a groan.
Scott grinned. “Tell you what, brother, how about we both take something for the pain?”
Johnny smirked but said nothing.
“What happened, Johnny? Tell me…” Scott asked. His eyes were clear, lucid.
“What’d ya remember?”
“The man, big and… he wanted to… kill us,” Scott peered into his brother’s face, asking for the truth.
“Scott, remember when we were at the house, upstairs in that far bedroom?”
“That picture, the one of the Hendricks family, well, he thought that you an’ me were those two boys. Val doesn’t have all the details straightened out yet but, his daughter ran off with one of them boys, an’ she died a short time later. He blamed the Hendricks boys for her death. He thought we were them, so he was gonna kill us cuz of what happened ta his daughter….”
Scott listened, sad for all that transpired. “Mistaken identity…,” and he closed his eyes. “Johnny, all I could think about was for you to get away….”
Johnny sighed. “An’ all I could think of was that he had you, an’ I wasn’t leaving without cha….”
The Lancer brothers stared into each other’s faces, then shared a nod of understanding.
“Where have you been, young man?” The stern words of his father hinted of a lecture that was sure to follow.
And he cringed. Uh oh, caught again! It was the same reprimand he’d heard for the last week. If he heard ‘young man’ one more time, he was going to shoot someone! Or, “Just where do you think you’re going?” Or “Don’t do that! You have to take of yourself!” Or the worst, “And just where is your sling?’’ And all accompanied with the glare. Pfft! I ain’t no little kid! I know what I can an’ can’t do! You’d think they’d get tired of yellin’ at me an’ leave me alone. Hell, if they’d stop an’ think for one minute, they’da known I was out checking Barranca! Just glad ta have him back. Luck was with them when Val and Cip found him in the mountains while checking the body of Jedidiah Kellen.
Johnny eased into the chair next to Scott. The afternoon sun eased the pain that plagued him. Not the pain of the cracked shoulder blade; hell, he felt like that wasn’t ever going to go away. No, it was the pain of confinement, the constant reminders of what he could and couldn’t do. The chastising made him feel like he was a little kid that needed to be watched every minute of every day. Well, he had just about had enough. He was Johnny Madrid, dammit! He’d taken care of himself for a long, long time… Huh? Scott’s talkin’….
“… and I would think you’d know better by now!”
What’s Boston sayin’? Hell, they got me so jumpy, I can’t even hear my brother talkin’ ta me!
“Johnny! Are you listening? Or are you deliberately ignoring me?”
Uh oh, Scott’s in a pucker. Even he’s yellin’ at me. “What’d ya say, Boston? I was busy gettin’ yelled at an’ wasn’t lis’nin’.”
Scott smirked, then shrugged. “I just can’t believe you let yourself in for that every time something happens to you.” Scott chuckled, then tried to suppress the sigh that gave away a sudden pain in his shoulder.
Johnny sat forward, ready to assist in any way he could. “Ya alright, Scott?” Worry filled the blue eyes as they searched his brother’s face.
“Yes, Johnny, I’m fine, just a little catch. I’m fine.” Scott picked up the pencil and began to write.
Huh, why the hell did the ol’ man see me just now an’ yell but not see Scott in pain? “What’cha doin’, Boston?” Johnny asked as he tried to see the paper filled with notations and lists of items.
“Oh, I’m making a list of supplies,” he responded, not taking his eyes away from the paper.
“Supplies? Supplies for what?” What’s Boston need a list of supplies for? He ain’t gonna be doin’ any work for a while.
“Repairs, but I have a problem, brother.”
“Problem, huh? What kind of problem?” Well, I can help him with whatever problem he’s got.
“A boat… we need to find a boat…, you remember, that boat for Murdoch. He can’t go fishing on that lake without a boat.” And Scott was as serious as the Widow Hargis, thinking someone stole something from her store.
Johnny turned to Scott, giving him the ‘are you out of your mind’ stare. Then, a smile crawled across his face and quickly turned into a laugh, then grew louder and harder. Soon it was more than he could bear as the pain from the cracked bone in his back exploded through his body in white-hot fire, but the laughter wouldn’t stop.
Johnny gasped, holding his arm confined in the sling closer to his chest. “Uugghhh, Boston! Don’t… don’t make me laugh! It hurts!”
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