The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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BarbA

 

 

Hyde N'Shriek
Based very loosely on the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon called Hyde and Hare.
Disclaimer: A bit darker than what ol' Bugs did for Warner Brothers.  

 

“We should have gone around the river,” Johnny said. Probably said. Scott was guessing. It was difficult to understand the words slurred around the caramel stuffed into Johnny's mouth. To Scott, it sounded more like “shoot the gun down the drivel” which he was fairly certain Johnny would never say. It didn't help his brother was looking around the store like a bedraggled, wet retriever in search of a lost duck. A grin spiked, despite the pain that flared up his arm.

Johnny angled his weight to one leg, leaving the other one free to tap out a rhythm between spur and floorboards. “Sheepshank.” He strung the ee's with a deceptive old boy twang. The second syllable hurried out in a rush, as if it couldn't wait to join its companion hanging in the air.

Well. That was clear enough. As clear as the other ten times it was said. Johnny wasn't even looking at him, just moving the wad of caramel around his molars like Hump with a mound of green alfalfa. He threw another piece of candy at him from the jar.

Johnny caught it mid-flight, plucked the chew out of its wrapper, and crammed it into his mouth, choking out a meaty laugh.  

He braced his hands on his hips, ignored the cold-warm slippery feel of his wet holster. “You were the one giving directions.”

“Not for the supplies,” Johnny returned, “all going into the river, because someone didn't tie a…” His eyes flicked from bolts of fabric to the barrel of crackers back to Scott. Didn't say anything further. His lips though, pursed. Started to form the “sh” sound.

It was going to be his last. With the litany of  sheepshanksheepshank  bouncing through his mind like an errant metronome, he thought to abandon Johnny to the store and face plant into the nearest, cleanest bed available. Being near eclipsed clean as far as he was concerned at this point.

Scott sighed, looked down to his shredded lower sleeve. Couldn't stop the smile when he saw Johnny's bandana—a new favorite—wrapped around his forearm. A fancy blue and white number, it had shown up encircled around Johnny's neck after a date in Green River with an old friend. Funny how the old friend smelled like lemon verbena. But now it was a mess, stained with blood, mud and something black that Scott couldn't identify. Not like he wanted to know anyway.

Still, they weren't but four hours from home, how could everything turn to…

“Maybe it's the rain,” Johnny suggested, as if Scott had spoken aloud. “Came outta nowhere.”

He swept clinging bangs away from his forehead. “Maybe.” At least they had found the town of New London, despite the turning weather and gathering night. Now if they could only find the clerk. The small handmade sign beside the straw brooms declared the proprietor was Hazel Witczak.  

A thready voice, humming in an off-key melody, floated out to them from a curtained off back room. “A cup of nettle, a pinch of bee pollen, some garlic for you.”

Scott wandered down the counter, filled his nostrils with the scent of green things and coffee beans. Both made his mouth water. “Madam?”

An elderly woman popped out between the two curtains like a jack-in-the box, one pink claw of a hand clutching the pearl brooch at the center of her collar. “My, I didn't realize I had guests.” She swept out in a flutter of muslin skirt and two dropped hair pins, pulled to a stop and stared.

“Ooh, an accident. How in-teresting.” She cocked her head like a pigeon sighting a June bug and reached for Scott's bloodied arm.

He backed into a shelf of oil lanterns, then smiled, not with his teeth, and slid to the right.

“You poor thing.” Both hands went to the frayed edges of her sweater, fiddled with the twin buttons there. “Does it hurt…overly much?”    

A bad feeling shivered up his spine, lodged itself in the pricked hairs of his neck. “Miss Witczak?”

She blinked twice, dragged her eyes away from his ripped sleeve. “Yessss?”

“Is there a doctor in town?”

Grey eyebrows arched. “A doctor?”

Johnny came up beside him with a halfway grin, but only flashed on one side, where he probably thought Scott couldn't see it. “Yeah.” He did a little head tilt. “For my brother, he cut arm.”

“Ooh, is that how it happened?” Bright eyes turned and she muttered a few unsettled cooing noises that made Scott want take another step sideways.

Recognition of something odd dawned and Johnny cricked his neck in a way that drove Scott crazy.. “Um, yeah. Where is he?”

“I could take a look at it for you,” she burbled, claws twisted the opal buttons spasmodically.

Scott drew his arm in close. “No.”

Miss Witczak's brow crumpled. “No?” She stretched the last vowel out, and it hit two or three tones. “Are you sure?”

“Quite.” Maybe they didn't want the doctor, either. He gestured to the door. “Come on, Johnny. We need to go.”

“If you're positive I can't help, go see Henry. His office isn't more than four doors down on the left. But you need to hurry; he likes to be home by this time.”

“Is Henry a  people  doctor?” Trust his brother to check for any loopholes.

“Why yes, Dr. Jecklin sees only people.”  

Johnny shifted his weight, studied the situation from all four sides. “How bad do you want to see this guy?” Came up empty, apparently.

Scott shrugged. “Let me put it this way: are you expecting to ever get this bandana back? I need stitches.” He waved away Johnny's look. “And no, you're not doing them, either.”

“He's a lovely young man. A very proper doctor, Henry even went to school,” she prompted.

A step up from Green River, then. Miss Witczak's sterling recommendation aside, his arm was burning in an unhealthy way. He cleared his throat. “Thank you, madam. You've been most…helpful.” He could feel Johnny's eyes cut to him, incredulous.

She beamed. “Have I?”

Scott did a curt nod and turned to leave.

“Oh boys!” She was chipper as a snake-oil salesman in a crowd of believers. “Tell Henry I have almost all his ingredients ready for the next batch.”

Scott didn't feel it was necessary to clarify the whats and the whys, just tapped Johnny's shoulder before  he  could ask, and edged towards the door. He shivered again, and didn't think it was from the cut on his arm.

The doctor's office was indeed four doors down the boardwalk, his name cheerily written in cursive across the frosted glass pane.

Dr. Jecklin was the sort of non-descript man who begged the question: don't I know you? From somewhere? It started with his not quite blond, but not brown, hair. Ended with his sturdy, worn at the heels, functional boots. And in between his sea glass green eyes, trapped behind a pair of thick spectacles. They held intelligence, and a bit of consternation, at finding two men on his doorstep.

Jecklin ushered them in, asked their names, about the wound, what happened, where, how long ago. Miss Witczak was right after all, he seemed competent enough.

The doctor's eyebrow pinged upwards when Johnny casually mentioned they were brothers. The look of disbelief. Every single time. No we don't look anything alike, don't even think alike, but we're still brothers, thank you very much.

Jecklin had a gentle, feather-light touch as he fingered the gaping wound. “Oh dear, this looks like an ever so bad wound. It will need stitches.”  

Scott looked at Johnny and smirked. A silent told you so.

The doctor opened a cabinet and rustled through boxes and bottles. He tcched and shook his head. “This will never do.”

His smile fled. “What's wrong?”

“My supplies are all used up. I'll need to get more from my surgery. And you'll need some ointment, to ward off infection. Mr. Lancer, it looks like you have to come home with me.”

Blue stare from the table, a grin pulling at his lips, smooth and easy. His brother hadn't said sheepshank once since they'd been in the doctor's office, but Scott had thought it a hundred times. Damn Johnny.  

-----

Johnny had been around. Seen what there was to see. One time in Rosarito an old man invited him into a brown-grey adobe hut made of straw and mud. Best fatback and pintos he'd ever eaten. Was in a frame house in Amarillo when the roof snapped off with the stiff panhandle wind. Sat in the parlor of Miss Louise and her girls in Modesto. The kiln-fired red brick house was etched with mortar, and as sturdy as the rest of the furniture in the house he'd had occasion to use. Then Murdoch's—and his and Scott's—hacienda. No trifle there.    

So he figured the doc's house had to be somewhere in the middle.

They eased their horses to a walk up the short hill. Almost twilight now, there'd be a moon if the clouds would scatter. His belly rumbled, empty. Mercantile candy didn't quite do the trick as dinner was jack, with a side of sludge. Mm-mm. Tasty. Too bad Scott didn't tie off the supplies with…. He clamped his lips together to stop the word from coming out. Didn't want to whip up his brother any more than what he was.

Scott already had that twitchy look about him—a line around his mouth that made his face go hard, real  intent . Sometimes, he felt obliged to work up a frenzy or two, just to prove that Scott wasn't so smart all the time. He bit down on the side of his mouth, couldn't stop the smile. Grew it until his cheeks hurt and he knew his brother was looking at him.

The doc's carriage rounded a corner. As he and Scott did the same, a sprawling house came into view. Fine tongue and groove maple shingles. Four tiled dormers poked out of the roof, each with crisscrossed glass windows filled in with curtains. A wrap-around porch with a few rockers. Even had two pots of red geraniums sitting out, soaked and drooping with the recent rain.   

There was something about the place. Swanky, but not showy. Quality. The wooden Doctor sign hung at a right angle to the house on a brace of metal, jiggling a little with the breeze. He expected a squeak, but there wasn't one, just the gentle roll of white letters with each bounce. Whatever he figured the doc's house to be, he was wrong. And didn't that beat all.

The inside was as tidy as the doc in his brown coat and tie. Jecklin looked like one of those men from the Sunday-go-to- church crowd. Not a hair out of place, steady. No wife, money all shoved into the house with taste left over for some Indian rugs and a big piano. But plain as water, which was what he offered. Water. Yeah. Like they needed more of that. Scott almost coughed, but held it back and managed a polite ‘no thanks'.

A plaster bust of a man's head sat on a pedestal. Drew him in like a fly to honey. All shiny and white. It had writing on it and numbers.

“It's Greek, you know. For my study on the psyche.” The doc sidled up, his voice taking on a quaver that could charge right into excitement. “My specialty.”

“You dealing in skulls? Not much money in it, is there?”

“No, Mr. Lancer, the brain. The beautiful mind that holds so many secrets to man's deepest, darkest desires.” Johnny wasn't sure of the etiquette, but braced himself, because it wasn't making sense, and there wasn't any way to make it sense.

Scott's eyebrows shot up in puzzlement, caution.   

Jecklin clasped his hands together. “Well, I must gather my equipment. I'll be just a moment. Make yourselves at home.” He nodded and disappeared through a doorway. Shut the door for good measure. Which made Johnny want to open it to see what was going on in there. Instead, he ran his hand around the skull, outlined the odd etchings with two fingers. It was cold and smooth under his calluses.

Scott sat down on the piano bench. Silent. He didn't like it when Scott was quiet, preferred the talk, even if some of it was stupid and went way over his head.

“What do you think?” he whispered loudly, made it go across the room. The place just seemed to call for it.

“I think he has excellent taste in music.” Scott pointed to music sheet on the piano with big black lettering—Chopin's Waltz—splashed across it.

“Come on.”

Scott didn't look at him, ran his fingers along the white keys, not really pressing down. Figuring out the notes. “I say we get this done and depart New London as soon as it's over.”

“I guess we agree on that.” He turned to look out the window, flicked open the panel of curtain as the song got louder, surer. Spots of rain flew against the pane, while the wind kicked the doc's sign into a seesaw. It was gonna be a long ride.

Scott missed a note, but it was a shift in the air that had him turning around.  

He had big muscles popping out from the rolled sleeves of his white shirt. Ropey sinew. Dark blond hair was mussed, spangled with something wet. His face pulled in anger, mouth crooked to one side. Looked like a wild man, walked liked an animal. No hesitation. All pad, pad, pad. Right towards Scott. A tendril of fear crept up Johnny's spine, gave him a little shake.  

“Hey,” he started, as the big man took another step. Got Scott's attention at least and he swung around and off the piano bench to stare.  

Neck as thick as Johnny's thigh, the man cocked his head, studied him, then smiled. A curve of pale lip, just a hint of white incisor and Johnny shuddered. It was something out of his childhood.  The man's green eyes were shadowed…hungry. A pause and he drew his tongue across his lips, took a step back when Johnny's hand hovered over his gun. The man straightened and stepped quickly to the door of the surgery, slipped inside and closed it with a snick.

“Ah…,” Scott said, standing still and alert at Johnny's elbow. “I don't think that was a wise thing to do.”

“Which thing?” Quiet tension wound round, like a coiled greased lariat primed for throwing. “Not letting him kill you or letting him go?”

“We'd bett…”

Scott's words were cut off as sounds came from behind the door. A splintering yowl. A shatter of glass.

Jecklin was behind a desk, sprawled and panting. Johnny reached his hand out to him. “Doc, you okay?”

“Yes, I must have tripped over something.”

He found the doctor's glasses and handed them over. “Where'd he go?”

“He? A man was here?” A sheen of panic and Jecklin shook his head like a rabid dog trying to get rid of foam. “Oh dear, oh dear. He's of no consequence. An…associate. He helps with my experiments from time to time. I'm sorry if he scared you.”

Scott had gone out the back door of the office when they found Jecklin and now was back, empty handed. His arm though, wore a fresh coat of red.

“Hey doc,” he made a gesture towards Scott, “do you think…?”

“By all means. Please sit down, Mr. Lancer.”

Scott slumped into a chair, looked grateful to be off his feet.

Jecklin took off the bandana and tsk'ed. “How did this happen again?”

“There was a question of how to tie supplies on a horse, and I managed to get the answer wrong.”

Johnny watched Scott's sliver grin. The doc mixed the contents of an envelope into a bottle of water. As the deep slash was irrigated, the grin faded and Johnny felt a twinge of guilt. A needle and thread was brought out from the drawer and Scott swallowed loud enough to be heard.

“Doctor, will you be tying a sheepshank or some other kind of knot? I have it on good authority that a sheepshank is the most reliable method of keeping one's things…together.”

Johnny shook his head, didn't know if he was mad or amazed. He touched the bandana. “Well, this'll never come clean. You had to go and bleed on it?” And that made Scott laugh, as intended.

“Johnny, will your old friend be terribly angry?”

“She's sort of a new old friend. Her name is…” Beatrice, he thought, as Scott grimaced in pain when the doc's needle punctured skin. 

It took a half an hour of prodding, inspecting, some smelly ointment and finally wrapping before Scott was good to leave. Only the doc didn't seem to want to be alone. He puttered, cleaning each instrument and easing them back into the cabinet, taking his sweet time.

It was time—past time—to be leaving. Johnny stood up from his stool. “How much do we owe? We needed to get Scott's arm taken care of, but we should be going now.”

“The weather is dreadful outside,” Jecklin suggested and Johnny knew where that was going.

“Don't worry about us, we'll find shelter for the worst of the rain. It's almost over anyhow.” He hoped. “Besides, we're close to home as it is.” He looked to Scott for agreement. A nod. Or anything.  

“You have a lot of different books here,” and Scott raised an eyebrow.

Shit. He knew that eyebrow, the look that went with it. Scott was thinking things out. Wasn't leaving until he had cleared up the mystery. Aw, c'mon.      

The doctor turned to look at the wall to ceiling bookcase, waved a hand. “My interests are varied, Mr. Lancer.” Thunder cracked so loud the glass in the windows vibrated. “Stay the night. I've plenty of rooms and it's been so long since I've had company.”

Scott nodded and Johnny saw the gleam in his brother's eyes as he followed Jecklin into the hallway and to the stairs. Happy enough at finding all those books. Cozying up to the doc to see what was what, his arm forgotten.  

On their way, they stopped by the library. More books. It was a wonder the doc had any time for doctoring. And a closed off area, with a big mahogany door. Laboratory, he mentioned. Throwing it out as if everyone had one. They passed by without opening it and Johnny could see Scott's shoulders deflate.

“Did you have this house built?” Scott asked into the gloom of the hallway, and the doctor's head bobbed as he fumbled for a toggle switch above the stair banister. Sconces flared all the way up the stairs and onto the second floor.

Jecklin turned. “The lights are gas. A fit of vanity.” He smiled. “They're the first in the town. And, yes, I did have this house built to my very own specifications.”

That explained…not one thing. Maybe he inherited the money, came from rich folk. Kept the big man on for protection. Small man like the doc could maybe use a little help now and then. Too nice, probably got rode like an old mule most of the time. But big and ugly was runnin' around the house somewhere.

He latched onto Scott's shirt sleeve, pulled hard and Scott sent his elbow back into Johnny's ribs. I'm trying to understand all this, Johnny, give me room is what it meant. Funny, a year ago he wouldn't have given a tinker's damn for the man with the bowler hat stepping off the Morro Coyo stagecoach, and now they could talk without saying a word.  

“Must have taken quite a bit of time,” Scott started the conversation again, face relaxed into bland interest. His poker face. Meant he was two cards ahead of everyone else.

Maybe the doc was used to getting grilled by people he didn't know. Or maybe the doc didn't care his brother was asking questions that at any other time would have got him yelled at, run off or shot. Uh-oh.

Jecklin opened a door. “Time is what I have very little of, Mr. Lancer.” He held a key in his hand, dangled it from his fingertips. “Fleeting ever more each day, I'm afraid. I'll have your horses brought into the barn.”

“We like to take care of our own horses,” Johnny interrupted. No one except a Lancer was going to touch Barranca. 

The doctor nodded. “The barn is around back. Have a good rest.” Jecklin stopped and stared. “Rest is good for the soul.”

The door closed and Johnny raised his eyebrows. “You done?”

Scott shook his head. “Something's not right here; you know it as well as I do.”

“Shouldn't we be heading for home? Murdoch'll be looking for us.”

“He won't be expecting us until tomorrow at the earliest. Don't tell me you're not curious about that man in the parlor.”

The man who walked like an alley cat, everything loose and tight at the same time. “El cucuy.”

“El…what?”

“El cucuy. My mama used to tell me stories about him.” Threatened. She had told him that if he was ever bad, a monster would come and take him away. To eat him.

“A child's story?”

He shook the memories away. “Yeah. Never mind.”

Scott shrugged, touched a hanging crystal from the lamp beside the bed, sent it swinging. “Let's take a look around.” He turned to look at Johnny pointedly. “And we still have the horses to put away for the night.”

Johnny leaned back until his shoulders and head were against the wood of the door, and wished that they'd never stumbled upon New London or Dr. Jecklin. A howl came from outside and rattled against the windowpane. Cold and needful.

-----

“Johnny,” Scott called out and watched as his brother pulled up, a shadow against the firelight, thumbs hooked into his holster belt, the picture of long-suffering patience. “Look at these books.” He couldn't see Johnny's expression in the half-light, and that was probably a good thing.

“What else is there to do in a library?” Johnny sounded prickly, had that tone.

“But these aren't ordinary.” He wanted to add that they were as far from Beadle and Adam's dime novel  Maleaska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter,  as a book could get, but refrained.    

Most of the volumes were old with weathered spines and yellowed pages. Some in French, others in Greek. Scientific journals mixed with philosophers and mystics. He passed over a Primer on Magick, a treatise by Nietzche and gravitated towards a play by Johan Strindberg then decided on a particularly well-worn, moth-eaten book and pulled it from the shelves. “The Alchemist's Desire”. The rather lurid title grabbed his attention and he took it to the light pouring out from the fireplace.

Peered at the strange cursive that promised rejuvenation and when he turned the page to see more, the corner shredded off in his hands. The book was damaged. Hm. He'd seen the look Jecklin gave to Johnny after his soul comment, and didn't care for it. Even though Johnny sometimes—often—courted the look, Scott never liked it when other men insinuated Johnny was something less than he was. He pressed closer to the flames to see the rest of the passage and briefly thought about what the good doctor would do if he set the tome on fire.  

“Come here.” Scott called out again, his voice rising above the rain beating against the windows. This time Johnny turned. He was thinking so hard Scott could almost hear the words. 

“And see what? Another book?” Like Scott was suggesting they turn Lancer into a sheep farm.

“Do you know what alchemy is?”

“What Sam does in his office? Mixing up pills and powders?”

“Something of the sort. But this goes even further. There are recipes in here for transformation. To change a person.”

A snort of amusement. “Change him into a what? A dog?”

“No, transform him into something he wants to be.”

“Why would a man have to go through all that? If he wants to be somethin' else, why not just do it?”

Scott ignored the questions because—really—he didn't have an answer for them. He read the rest of the section. “It says the elixir can help mend the inferno crisis. Meld good and evil intentions into one when the psyche has split them into two.”

Johnny cut the air with his hand. “Are you sayin' that man we saw has a problem with his head?”

“Quite possibly.”

“So the doc is helping him with…”  Johnny made a circle motion beside his ear.

“But this one needs human blood to seal the connection between the two parts.”  To compleat the soul , as it was written in the book. He didn't think his brother needed to hear that.

“Huh.” Johnny looked thoughtful and shifted from foot to foot, his spurs making a muted jingle in the carpeted library. “We need to get out of here.”

He snapped the book closed and threw it to the ottoman beside the hearth. “The sooner the better.”

Scott took a candle from the mantel and lit it from the fire. The house was closed up and dark, they couldn't risk the gas lights. He held the candle at waist length, momentarily afraid he'd misstep in the gloom. He and Johnny weren't going up the stairs again, but the front door posed a problem—was it to the right or left at the end of the long hallway?

“Wait a minute. Why didn't the doc take your blood? There was enough of it on the table when he was patching you up.” Johnny's words came from behind him, whispery thin in the quiet.

“I don't think it's my blood he's after.” Scott sighed, knowing Johnny had come to the same conclusion. “I'm sorry for having us stay here,” he began softly. When there was no answer, Scott was sure he'd hit the crux of Johnny's agitation. Wonderful. He forged ahead, tiptoeing down the hall. Mentally he calculated how much fence line and other chores he'd have to put in for it all to be forgiven and forgotten. When it got to be over a month, he quit. “Look, we'll get back home and…” He chanced a glance back into the dark, half afraid he'd find his brother's angry face, but couldn't see it. Johnny was no longer behind him.

-----

Johnny watched Scott's light bob down the hallway, heard him mutter something about the house and stitches. He was through listening. Bad enough they had to sneak out to leave. If they left like he wanted to do an hour ago, they could have walked out the door easy. Besides, the doc's laboratory was open. He saw the sliver of opening when the candle light threw a shadow against the wall.

Couldn't resist. He had two fingers on the knob, ready to turn. Behind him came soft crumplings from leather and cloth, a footfall. A meat hook of a hand snaked over his shoulder like a rat.

“You came.” The voice was a soft caress against his ear.

Johnny made a grab for his gun, knocking the picture on the wall beside the door with his elbow. The whole panel lurched and turned, pivoted into a sharp circle. It all happened so fast he didn't have time to open his mouth, could only hang on.

Then his world exploded into a flash of white-hot light. 

Johnny blinked his eyes and the room spun. It was all blurry at first, couldn't focus on anything except the flare of a match coming from the table. He listened to his own breathing for a while, staring at the bit of brightness. Felt down his hip and found his holster. The gun was gone, of course. 

“There you are.” The voice slid around. It was different than before—Doctor Jecklin. A stone floor, he thought, as the doc's boots made a thumping sound when he came beside the cot. The smell of wet peat made him think of an underground cellar. Were they in the laboratory…or someplace else? 

Blood, Johnny remembered.  Blood . He sat up slowly and could hear rushing in his ears, like he'd been running a ways. 

Jecklin scrubbed his hand against his cheek. “How do you do it, Mr. Lancer?”

“Do what?”

The doc looked tired and frazzled, his hair set at all angles. “I've treated men like you before. The gun belt, the way you carry yourself. You're a pistolero—isn't that the word?”

Johnny couldn't take his eyes off him, didn't know what might happen, what might come loose. “Yeah, I've shot some. What's this all about?”

The doctor leaned in, pushed his glasses higher up on his nose. “How do you control both halves?”

He felt the side of his head and found a sore spot, already warm and rising. He was getting mad now. “There's no two halves. Just me.”

He wanted to let Scott know what was going on, because his brother would think it was funny. Or maybe Scott'd think the doc was loony, like that drummer who thought he could hypnotize cattle. Yeah, loony was a good word for it.

“I can't stop him anymore.” And right there, the doctor looked lost, moving in circles when he should have marched straight ahead.

Outside the wind picked up, beat at the windows like it wanted to get inside.

“Your boy could use a little work, doc. He's the one who needs patched together, before someone gets hurt. Really hurt.”  

Jecklin was getting riled up, bouncing on his toes, eyes roved to the table and back again, repeated. Johnny looked and there was his gun, sitting as pretty as you please on top of an open book.   

Something shifted in the man, like two windows sliding against each other. Colored patterns of yellow and shadow flashed across his face. He stumbled back towards the table, behind the chair. Johnny blinked, felt light headed for a second. The doc looked different somehow, but maybe it was just a trick of the dim light.

There was a noise, a terrible gargling like someone was drowning. No, something was fighting to get out.

Johnny jumped to his feet, made a play for his gun, but there was a wild rush of air and he was knocked away. A strong arm clamped round his neck, yanked him upwards.  

The door flew open and there stood Scott, all General Grant, with his legs braced wide in the doorway. No poker face now, the narrowed eyes and heavy frown spoke loud and clear. All he needed was a flag and a damn horse. He was breathing hard, the candle still clutched in one hand, his thirty-five in the other.

Johnny pivoted on the balls of his feet, sagged in the closing grip, and heard the crack of Scott's pistol. The man vibrated for a second, like thunder against a window pane, then dropped. Johnny didn't want to turn. Dios, he didn't want to turn, but he had to.

And the doc was on the ground, shoulder creased and bloodied. Johnny just stared, and Scott came up behind him, the smell of gunpowder so strong he couldn't think of anything else.

“Pulled my shot high,” Scott said, breathless. “As soon as you moved. It—he changed.”

Jecklin raised his head then lowered it back down to the hard floor. His left hand drifted up to his chest and lay there. “Did I hurt you?” he whispered. 

“Doc?”

“Did I hurt you?” His voice was louder, demanding.

Johnny knelt down beside him. “No, I'm fine.”

The doctor closed his eyes for a moment then opened them. “I never meant for this to happen. My experiments...” Softly, no heat there, just remorse.

They moved him to a sitting position, poured out water from a jug on the table and pressed a wet cloth to his wound.

He pushed their hands away. “You saved me, when I wanted…”

Johnny shook his head. “We didn't save you, doc. You did it yourself.”

There was a silence and they stared at each other. An expression on his face that Johnny couldn't quite make out, because it held so much: anger, sorrow, fear, guilt. Jecklin looked away, too full for anything else.

“So,” Scott began.

“Yeah.”

“We should…”

“Let's go,” Johnny agreed.  

-----

Scott considered the trail, because it was easier than what he had witnessed in the doctor's cellar. A straightforward line to follow, no questions, no thinking involved. But the books, the potions, the experiments…the creature. He didn't see it coming. Because if he had, they'd have galloped off in the opposite direction, bleeding arm or no.

“I hate rain,” Johnny said loudly, above the tap-tap-tap of drops on the brim of his hat and shoulders.

“You could go back to Jecklin's house, ask for our old room back.” Scott didn't look over, smothered his smile. “I'm sure he'd be more than happy to oblige.”

Johnny squinted at him. “What?”

Scott kept his face solemn. “Maybe the two—make that three—of you could have a few drinks, play a round of cards. It would be interesting.” Scott could feel the simmer coming from Barranca.  Got him.  

“Not sure I heard you right. The rain's pretty loud. You wanna repeat what you just said?”

“You're not a monster.” He said it seriously, meant for it to be taken serious. He saw Johnny's hands had stilled over his saddle horn.

“You think I don't know that? I'm not the one runnin' around trying to get people's blood. ”

And that was as close as Johnny was going to get to the subject.

“That's not what I meant,” he tried again after a few minutes. 

“Sure it's what you meant,” Johnny said. Because if that's what it was, he could manage it. But if they were going to bring up anything about his gun fighting past and all that went on—the good and the evil, and there was plenty of both from what Scott could tell—well, that wasn't going to happen. They'd been down this road before.

Scott shook the rain from his coat. “I'm pretty hungry.”

Johnny played the reins between his fingers, in and out and around, like a coin trick. “I'll second that. What about town?”

“And take the chance of meeting Hazel again? No, thanks. I'd rather go without food. But that means we won't be able to replace our supplies.” Scott glanced at Johnny, but Johnny didn't say a thing. Just grinned.

 

~ end ~

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