The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

The Hour Before Dawn

Thanks to Cat and Barbara for the Beta
A brief reference to The Road From Eagle Point at the end of this story

It’s happened again! How many more times will I sit here and watch one of my sons struggle to take his next breath? Murdoch agonized as he sat by Scott’s bedside. The slow rise and fall of Scott’s chest indicated the battle that waged in his body. The bullet that threatened his life had entered his upper left chest, causing significant blood loss and much tissue damage. But if he could hang on through the night, Doc Jenkins thought he stood a good chance to make it.

Murdoch sat with his elder son, keeping watch over him, willing him to live as the minutes slowly ticked by. But, he wondered at the fate of his younger son. Where was he now? Was he safe, or was he even still alive? Worry ate at his heart, thinking that these two boys were only recently returned to him, both having been taken away very young, as babies. Now they were home, but not really…

Was it only yesterday he asked them about their day?

<><><><> 

“Well, what do you two have on the agenda for the day?” Murdoch asked as Scott and Johnny hurried with their breakfast, both reaching for the last biscuit at the same time. Pulling it apart, Johnny claimed the larger half with a triumphant grin at his older brother. It was times such as this  Murdoch found it hard to realize they were in their twenties instead of the fourteen-year-olds they sometimes acted.

“I have the bookwork to finish today, and I thought I’d go into town and check to see if Danny has the new harness made. Other than that, I do believe that my day will be rather short,” Scott announced as if rubbing Johnny’s nose in the fact.

Johnny started to laugh, not bothering to hide his amusement in front of Murdoch.

Scott looked at his brother. “And what exactly do you find so funny about that, Brother?”

“Ya ain’t foolin’ me none, Scott. You’re gonna see if Cindy’s still mad at ya for messin’ around with Lilly last Saturday!” Johnny grinned from ear to ear, his eyes sparkling with humor, knowing that Cindy Middleton had been watching for Scott to show his face in Green River, and was ready to rip him to pieces for his betrayal.

Murdoch could only roll his eyes at the banter. “If you can tear yourself away from your errands, there are a few things that you can do for me while you’re there…” Murdoch directed the statement to Scott.

“Oowwwweeeee, Murdoch, don’t know if he’ll be able ta get anything more done than what he has planned once Cindy finds out he’s in town. She’ll just run ‘im out, an’ that’s if she don’t skin him alive first! She’s pretty mad last time she saw him!” The smile dissolved into more chuckling, and the sparkle in Johnny’s deep blue eyes turned devilish.

Murdoch turned to his younger son with a parental glare that hopefully would convey the nonsense was over. But apparently, the intended message had been lost. Johnny, seized in a fit of laughter, was not watching and the glare was wasted.

“Am I going to have to send you with him to make sure he gets home safely?” Meant as sarcasm, the remark made Johnny snap his head in Murdoch’s direction.

“Well, ya know how I hafta watch him so he don’t get in any trouble! That’s a good idea, Murdoch!” Then turning to Scott, Johnny threw him a look daring him to comment.

But comment Scott did, in much disbelief. “Yes, that’s what’s going to happen; Johnny is going to keep me out of trouble…” With that, Scott left the table. Unbelievable! Scott thought as he went to the desk to finish his books.

“Well, Murdoch, whatever ya got planned for us taday is fine, just so it doesn’t interfere with our chess game tanight…” Johnny laughed. “Scott really likes it when he hears me say that word… Checkmate!”

Johnny laughed all the way to the barn. This is gonna be good! Johnny knew Cindy’s temper; Scott did not, yet. He was looking forward to watching his diplomatic brother being taken apart by a tiny bundle of lit and volatile  dynamite. Well, hope she don’t hurt ‘im too bad, I don’t feel like doin’ his chores while he’s laid up!  

Johnny quickly worked at  his chores to be ready by the time Scott would leave for town. Reasonably sure that Murdoch had been sarcastic about Johnny going into town to ‘watch over’ his brother and to not let him get into trouble, Johnny decided he couldn’t miss out on the confrontation that would no doubt explode the second Cindy Middleton saw Scott. She had a foul temper and had been known to shred the confidence of the most courageous of men.

Johnny had avoided that fate, first, at being honest with her about ending their affair. He’d found someone else and not having made any attempt for an excuse, he laid everything out on the table. Secondly, by letting her know that any chance of reconciliation would be out of the question. No dilly-dallying, no maybes. It was done and over, and she saw the truth of his words in his eyes. Apparently, no one had ever been direct and honest with her before. Used to the typical lies and deceit that most men relied upon, Johnny’s straight-forward manner had stunned her into silence.

Johnny finished his labors in record time, not wanting Scott to leave without him. Having remained relatively clean, there wasn’t any need to wash up, just dust off a bit, and he was ready. Noting that Remmie was still in the barn, Johnny saddled him so no time would be wasted. As long as he had a few minutes, this was the least he could do before his brother took the beating waiting for him in town.

Johnny took a minute to look over the mares that were close to foaling. Kept in a pasture close to the barn for protection from the predators that had been known to take down foals and calves in the outer grasslands, the mares grew heavy with the next generation of Lancer horses. Both Johnny and Scott were proud of the hard work they’d invested as these animals were now in high demand and made Lancer a very tidy profit.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?” Scott said as he approached Johnny waiting at the fence watching the horses graze. Johnny heard the footsteps thinking that it was about time Scott got ready to leave. Not bothering to turn to his older brother, Johnny leaned folded arms on the top rail of the fence and  rested his chin on the back of his hands. He could watch these animals all day; their lines and grace were flawless, and the widespread intelligent eyes incredible and bright. A few of them ambled to the fence, knowing they were in for some ear scratching and possibly even a carrot.

Echo whinnied softly as she approached Johnny. She always announced her presence when he was there, and it never ceased to amaze Scott how his little brother was able to communicate with creatures of all types and sizes. Johnny would barely get seated on the patio and Maudie, the barn cat would be in his lap with a purr of greeting. Even Jelly’s goose, Dewdrop, showed Johnny affection, that is if geese could show affection. It sure looked like it to Scott the way he would settle at his brother’s feet to lean against his leg with eyes drowsy, then closing in complete contentment.

Johnny finished scratching Echo’s sleek neck, the gray ears perched forward when he stopped, and she whinnied again putting a voice to her displeasure. Johnny made a kiss gesture and Echo raised her muzzle and seemed to nibble his cheek.

Shaking his head, Scott watched in awe. “Well, are you ready to go, Brother, or are you not finished kissing that horse?”

“Hey, you’re just jealous that she likes me best!” Johnny said, happy at the second triumph over his brother for the day. Wait’ll that chess game tanight an’ it’ll make three wins on him!

“Yes, well, while I haven’t been kissed by a horse today, you, on the other hand, are covered in that mare’s saliva!” Scott, thinking the verbal sparring was won, stopped in his tracks at his brother’s reply.

“Good for your skin…” was all Johnny said.
The ride into town was spent in amicable conversation. The brothers never tired of the teasing, and the betting had been honed to an art form. ‘Bet I can hit that branch with a rock before you,’ or ‘Bet I know the first words outta Murdoch’s mouth when we get back, he’s gonna ask if you got inta any trouble,’ or ‘I bet you that Teresa is going to make my favorite tonight for dinner’. It was endless and amusing for both as they had grown up without it. Making up for lost time took considerable thought to outdo the other for the next comment or jibe that would send them both into fits of laughter. After all, they took their nonsense seriously.

“Scott, I been thinkin’ about getting’ more mares. Think we can talk Murdoch inta that?” Johnny asked at the lull in the conversation. Scott was thoughtful for a minute before he responded.

“The Army has already told us they’ll take all the horses we can get for them so I really don’t think Murdoch would object too much,” then added with a smile: “Besides I saw a herd of wild mustangs yesterday up by the north pasture. If we could catch some of them and select the best mares to be bred with the studs we have, those offspring should be good sound stock and once broken, they’ll bring top dollar.” The sparkle in Scott’s eyes told Johnny that he was all for the idea.

Smiling, Johnny thought that he was grateful for Scott’s backup. That support had been the reason for Murdoch’s change of heart. The patriarch had initially nixed the idea. With Scott to back him up, their father finally relented, agreeing that perhaps horses could benefit the ranch, especially after the Army had offered to pay their asking price after inspecting the stock that Lancer was capable of providing.

“If there ain’t anything goin’ on tamorrow why don’t we head up there an’ see if we can find ‘em. Not gonna have enough time after we get back taday,” Johnny said with a hopeful grin.

Scott could not help but return the smile. Watching his younger brother talk about the horses he so dearly loved never ceased to bring happiness to his heart. It was sheer joy on Johnny’s face. There was only one other subject that could bring out this much exhilaration in Johnny… Exhilaration? No, Scott thought, that was lust! As a certain raven-haired young beauty popped into Scott’s mind.

Raising horses had been hard work but satisfying for Johnny as it had been his idea, his dream, and that it was working out so well was the frosting on the cake. Cake? If Teresa’s making Scott’s favorite supper maybe she’ll have a chocolate cake for me?! Yup, life is good! Horses an’ chocolate cake! Johnny Lancer was a happy man.

As Johnny rode, his thoughts settled on the man riding beside him. All his life, Johnny had wondered what it would be like to have a brother, someone to share with, to get into trouble with and grow old with, together, going through whatever it was that brothers shared. And although he had to wait for over twenty-three years for it to happen, he now knew what brotherhood should be.

In the beginning, there had been major differences, points of view, and arguments. Scott had been raised in Boston with his grandfather, having every comfort that money could buy. Johnny had been raised in the border towns, often with nothing to eat and resorted to stealing food to survive. But it hadn’t taken long after they met for the bond between them to grow and flourish, and once things leveled out, they became inseparable.

Their relationship turned out to be a surprise for them both. Neither had expected the other to amount to much in the beginning. Scott thought Johnny much too unpolished, ignorant, and from the look of him, irresponsible, at the very best. Johnny gave Scott less than a week before he would board the stage to make the trip back east. He didn’t give the Easterner much thought at all. Why bother? But each had been surprised in a positive way and glad they’d given the other a chance. Yeah, Scott’s a hell of a brother!

Green River was quiet on this Wednesday afternoon, not much was happening in the hottest part of the day. Used to scorching temperatures, Johnny faired much better than Scott, however, the situations were reversed when winter blew in and froze Johnny to the core. But on this day, Scott bit the bullet and held back his complaints. From listening to Johnny talk, Scott thought he just may need all his energy for dealing with Cindy.
“Let’s get the bank errand taken care of first. That way if we need to leave in a hurry, Murdoch’s business will already be done,” Scott said as he pulled Remmie to the hitch rail. Johnny could do nothing but smile. He was looking forward to the confrontation that would turn the air blue from the rantings Cindy would be heaping on Scott.

Leaning against the wall beside the front door, Johnny relaxed, folding his arms across his chest. He stood on one leg with the other bent at the knee and his foot on the brick facade of the bank. Scott entered the building while Johnny waited outside. Val must be takin’ a siesta, if he’d a seen us he’d be out here, Johnny thought.

Baldomero's store looked empty, as did Mayor Higgs store, and there was no activity at the livery. Danny would be there, hopefully with the harness ready. Scott could pick up the leatherwork and hightail it out of town before Cindy would know he was there if Scott was lucky.

The horses tied in front indicated the bank had all the business in town. Johnny waited, wondering what was taking Scott so long, but since Scott was willing to take care of the ranch banking far be it from Johnny to interfere with the paper pushing.

Uh oh! Cindy’s seen the horses, Mierda, here she comes. Better warn him! With that, Johnny pushed off the wall and entered the bank. No sooner than his eyes adjusted to the interior than a pistol was shoved into his back.

“Not a sound, cowboy, back against the wall over there!”  

Johnny felt his pistol sliding out of the holster. The hand on his shoulder propelled him in the direction where Scott and the teller were standing, each with hands raised in the air. There were four men other than the bank president, Mr. Bailey, and the teller, Jonas Shale, and two of them were filling bags with the money from the safe, one was guarding the front door, the other guarding the rear. The men quickly filled the bags, then Mr. Bailey and Jonas were tied and gagged, and the four outlaws headed for the front door.

“Nice an’ easy, now! You two,” a gruff voice said, motioning at Scott and Johnny, “get on your horses, you’re comin’ with us!” Scott and Johnny were to be hostages.

Damn, that’s Steve Scanlon. Thought he took a bullet down in Socorro… Johnny thought, but all he could do for now was act as the hostage until an opportunity came to escape. Mierda! Cindy! And as the first outlaw opened the bank door intending to casually get to the horses, he was met by the wrath of Cindy Middleton.

“Get out of my way! Scott Lancer? I know you’re in here!” And suddenly Cindy was grabbed from behind and roughly pushed outside.

The low voice growled in her ear. “Shut up if ya wanna keep on livin’! Now get on that horse!” And Cindy was shoved over to a roan gelding. She struggled into the saddle with her high heeled shoes and frilly dress with sequins that made the horse shy nervously, then a man climbed up behind her. “Don’t you say a word!” he barked in her ear.

With guns held discreetly under jackets  draped over their hands, the outlaws hustled Scott and Johnny out of the bank and onto their horses. Nudging their mounts into a trot around the side of the building and down the alley, to a lesser traveled street, the six men and Cindy rode out of Green River. Unseen, except by one, old Hec Ramos, Green River’s town drunk.

He stood, swaying, desperately grabbing at the shreds of what he thought he’d seen. Uh uh. Ain’t no one in their right mind- hic- gonna take Cindy. Gotta stop this drinkin’! Awww, maybe one more… Hec plopped down in the alley and emptied his bottle.

 

<><><><> 

“I want to know right now when you are going to let me go!” Cindy railed.

Son-of-a-bitch, she’s gettin’ mad! She’s gonna get herself killed! Johnny thought as they rode. Trying to catch her eye and warn her to stop her incessant complaining, Johnny nudged Barranca forward.

“Hey, you in the red shirt! Back where ya were!” Scanlon ordered. Not having taken the time to check out the hostages, he didn’t realize just who it was he had. Cindy continued on with her rant until a gag was produced, preventing any further complaints and ravings. Scanlon was beginning to regret bringing her along, however, three hostages had always proved  advantageous in the past, but he’d never had one this noisy before!

She glared at Scott as if it was his fault that she was in this predicament.
 
<><><><> 

They traveled quickly. It wouldn’t be long before someone would discover the bank had been robbed and putting as much distance between themselves and Green River seemed their only option. They had, on one occasion, hidden in the same town as the bank they’d robbed. Hidden in plain sight, but that was not the best idea here, not with the woman along. Once they got into the mountains, they could let that raucous, chattering woman go and ‘good riddance’! Her shrieking had gotten on everyone’s nerves, including the Lancers and truth be told both Johnny and Scott were relieved when she was gagged.

With no sign of a posse, they stopped to let the horses rest. Cindy was dragged off the horse and told to stay put sitting on a rock and to shut up. Scanlon untied the gag and gave her a canteen, she looked to be pouting.

Johnny and Scott remained quiet, for now. Johnny kept out of Scanlon’s direct sight. He wanted to put off as long as he could any recognition, but Johnny knew it wouldn’t last for very long. He didn’t know the other three men riding with Scanlon, and he bet if they knew about their leader, about his past, they wouldn’t be riding with him now. Scanlon had deserted his former gang; let them hang while he saved his own skin. All he had to do was go back to where they’d been hiding out and warn them; he would have had the time, but he didn’t do it and let them all die securing his freedom instead. Who in their right mind would want this kind of man to lead them?
“Ten more minutes an’ then we ride!” Scanlon bellowed. Turning to Scott, eyeing him up and down, he raised a questioning brow.

“You! What were you doin’ in the bank?” 

Scott paused to drink from the canteen before he answered; he took his time and looked over the trail they had just traveled. “I was there to make a withdrawal, but you seemed to have done it for me,” he replied dryly.

“Anyone waitin’ for ya?”

Scott chuckled. “Only my brother.”

And now Scanlon laughed. “Yeah? Where is he?”

Oh, what the hell? He’s gonna find out sooner than I wanted ‘im to… “Right here.” Madrid had appeared out of nowhere.

Spoken softly, deadly cold, the words and that voice pierced through Steve Scanlon’s brain, and his blood went cold in his veins. Whirling around to face  the threat, Scanlon’s eyes went wide with shock.

“YOU?  Heard you were dead, Madrid! Where ya been hidin’?” Attempting to put him at a disadvantage and retain dominance, Scanlon gathered himself together. “Yeah, hidin’ is what ya been doin’, actin’ like you’re somebody! These people ‘round here know who you really are?”

Johnny laughed out loud, genuinely amused. “You always were a laugh, Scanlon! An’ yeah, these folks know who I used ta be. Everyone in Green River knows who I used ta be, but it seems like the real question is,” and Johnny’s smile disappeared with the last of his statement, “do they know who you are?” he asked, motioning to the other three men.

Scanlon’s face went red with rage, but Johnny stood relaxed, calm, and stared into Scanlon’s eyes.

“Hey, I‘m waitin’ for an answer. They know who ya are an’ what ya did ta your last gang? Boy, I bet they’d like ta hear…” Johnny looked to the three men and shook his head.

“Shut up, Madrid, before I put a bullet between your eyes!”

Johnny laughed again. “Yeah, I‘m unarmed, that’d be the only way you could take me. That or shoot me in the back, or… run out an’ leave me ta hang. You boys wanna hear about that?” Johnny turned to the three watching the exchange, more interested now than they had been earlier.

Scanlon was losing control. Madrid had just admitted the other hostage was his brother, so he would have to use Scott as a pawn. Too bad, he would lose a hostage, but as he had Madrid, that would have to do. He’d be glad to get rid of the girl; Scanlon knew she would just get in the way.

“Hey, Madrid? Just wanna tell ya that anything that happens now is gonna be on you! See, I got what I want an’ you are responsible for whatever else goes down here. So ya got a choice, just remember it’s your fault… This is because of you, Madrid, you brought this on!”

An evil grin spread across Scanlon’s mouth as he pulled the pistol out of his holster, and holding the revolver carelessly in his hand, Scanlon let a grin form into a leer on his suddenly composed face. He turned to Scott, raised the gun, and pulled the trigger.

Cindy screamed as Scott landed in a heap at her feet. Johnny rushed to Scott’s side, trying desperately to stop the blood that gushed from a hole in his upper chest, the bullet, buried deep, left him unconscious.

Johnny exploded up off the ground, rushing Scanlon, loaded gun in hand or not, wanting nothing more than to wrap his hands around the murderer’s throat and rip his head clear off his shoulders. But before he got the chance, a rifle stock slammed into his ribs, and another came down on the back of his head, then it went black.

“Shut up!” Scanlon roared at Cindy to stop her screams. She did what she could for Scott, which wasn’t much and she watched in horror as the men threw Johnny on Barranca’s back, mounted their own horses and rode away, leaving her to fend for herself and Scott as best she could.

<><><><> 

Her hands shook as she desperately tried to stem the flow of blood. Water, she needed water. She ran to Remmie as he shied away from her approach, frightened by the glitter and sparkle of her dress. But she managed to catch him and led him to where Scott lay pale and bleeding, blood soaking into the ground. There was no canteen… How was she going to get him on the horse and get help?

<><><><> 

They backtracked, changed directions many times, and kept going higher into the mountains leaving only a scant trail that would be difficult to follow. Instead of crossing the stream, they walked their horses in the water and kept going higher into the mountains. Soon the sun began to lose its light, dusk settled, and the outlaws stopped for the night knowing that going any farther only meant harm for the horses and a man on foot was as good as dead, he just might not know it.

“We keep going west, an’ then we cut south, over the mountains and right down through the San Benitos range. They’ll never find us!” Steve Scanlon outlined his plans to his men.

“What’re we gonna do ‘bout him?” Lane Whitney asked, motioning to where Johnny was tied. Even bound as he was, Madrid had an effect on the others. Madrid had shown no regard for the gun in Scanlon’s hand when he tried to jump him, not to mention the other three armed men. Was the man crazy? They all wondered about Madrid’s sanity, and they all feared it. If he was crazy, he could try anything… with any one of them.

“For now, we take him with us. We’re still not sure ‘bout a posse followin’, so we use ‘im till we don’t need ‘im anymore. Then I’ll kill ‘im.”

Johnny locked out everything. He kept seeing Scott falling in front of him. They left him there, with Cindy, he had been bleeding badly, and no doubt would die because of it. Johnny didn’t know if she would be able to help him or not, and it was his fault Scott had been shot. He needed for the other men to start questioning Scanlon and they didn’t. They stood and watched the show and now Scott would die if he wasn’t already dead. Johnny closed his eyes as if to block it all out. The brother he always wanted and had for only a short while was gone. And at that moment Johnny prayed to die.

<><><><> 
Hec roused from his stupor. Hafta stop this drinkin’. Coulda swore I saw Miss Cindy ridin’ outta here… Ha… What would Miss Cindy be doin’ ridin’ in a alley with a buncha…”  He stopped his wanderings as his eye was drawn to a shiny red sparkle in the dirt. A red sequin… Oh, Miss Cindy! Hec pulled himself together. He had to let Sheriff Crawford know what he saw.

It had taken over an hour before anyone knew that the bank had been robbed. Wednesdays were not busy days, and in the mid-afternoon, the hottest part of the day, most people were inside and kept out of the sun. By the time that it was discovered, Val had been summoned and quickly got a posse together. Both Mr. Bailey and Jonas Shale agreed that the horses ran along the south side of the bank heading west and as they came around the building, old Hec Ramos wandered out into the street almost getting himself trampled in the process. He pointed down the road.

Hec had just gotten his feet working under him, the posse came around the corner. “They got Miss Cindy with ‘em, too! Gotta bring ‘er back! She ain’t done nothin’ ta nobody!”

Can this get any worse? Val thought to himself. Takin’ Johnny and Scott was bad ‘enough but add Cindy ta the mix an’ that’s a downright disaster just waitin’ ta happen! This wasn’t going to be good, for any of them!

<><><><> 

Again, Johnny watched in his mind's eye, as Scott was hit by the bullet and fell to the ground, no sound, no movement, no anything except blood. This was the only time that Madrid could ever remember praying to die. He’d never feared death, but now he was waiting, impatiently for it. Why? he questioned himself. Scott was already dead or dying, and Johnny knew he wouldn’t be with his brother in the afterlife, not where he was bound to end up. If Johnny felt he deserved to be punished, here on Earth was the place, here where the suffering would be ten times worse with the knowledge that he should be dead, not Scott. Scott had been innocent. And Johnny would have to live with that for the rest of his life. His own personal Hell.

His belly felt like it would empty out, he turned cold inside, and his head began to pound, but most of all, his heart broke, then turned into a block of ice. He never meant for Scott to get hurt, that had been the furthest thing on his mind, but it happened anyway. The cruel twist of fate had walked right up to him and smacked him right between the eyes. And he hated himself for it, just as Murdoch would surely hate him, and Johnny couldn’t blame him. What had started out as a pleasant brotherly outing, indulged by them both, had ended in horrifying tragedy with Johnny living out the rest of his days in a self-made Hell.

<><><><> 

“Hey, Sheriff, look over there! Someone’s over by them rocks!” Joe Hendricks called out, pointing to the right. Val saw a flash of red too bright for Johnny’s shirt… Cindy! Val turned Milagro and raced to the movement in the rocks. The others in the posse close behind, raising a cloud of dust that quickly dispersed in the late afternoon breeze.

He threw himself out of the saddle and rushed to Cindy’s side, knowing that it was one of the Lancer boys that she huddled over. Her tear-streaked face was a testament of her obvious harrowing ordeal. Val quickly assessed the situation, gently peeking under the bandage that Cindy applied to Scott’s bloodied chest.

“I found a bottle of laudanum in his saddlebag, kept him quiet and did what I could for the bleeding…” she said in between sniffs.

“Ya done good, Cindy,” Val told her with a bit of a smile then turned to the others gathered around. “Jake, you an’ Charlie take these two back, start now an’ travel through the night. It ain’t that dangerous once ya get outta these rocks, so ya start now ya get back ta Lancer ’bout three or so in the mornin’, go there, it’s closer than town’. One of ya split off ta town for Doc an’ get ‘im out ta the ranch. Cindy, what happened?”

“I saw Scott and Johnny at the bank. When I got there, four men were inside robbin’ it. The boys walked right into it. They took all of us hostage, and when we stopped to rest here the leader, a man named Scanlon, recognized Johnny and when he found out Scott and Johnny were brothers, he… pulled his gun and… shot…” Val stopped her sobs pulling her close, an arm tight around her shoulders.

“Val, find them! Johnny blames himself for this; I saw it in his eyes! Find them before he does something stupid, he thinks Scott’s dead!”

Val nodded to the two men, and they carefully loaded Scott on Remmie, and with Cindy riding double with Jake, the four turned back toward Lancer.

Val and the rest of the posse took off following the westbound tracks. Damn Madrid! I knew he’d think this was his fault! Ya better wait an’ think b’fore ya do somethin’ that ya ain’t gonna get yourself out of…  

Val was thankful that he’d taken the time to enlist the aid of Russell Westin to help with the tracking. Westin was the best tracker in the territory and had been part of many posses resulting in the apprehension of most all the criminals they’d gone after. His presence now would surely increase, if not downright ensure, their success at capturing the gang. Val only hoped that Johnny had not pushed too far because Val also knew Scanlon, and knew the man was bordering on insanity. Val had always suspected it and had heard tales of the man’s deranged mind. His disturbing behavior was legendary. And if Johnny was in the state of mind that Val thought he would be, it wouldn’t be long before Johnny would promote his own death; knowing that he had caused that of his brother’s, Johnny Madrid Lancer would not want to be of this Earth any longer.

Westin’s talents were put to the test. The men they trailed knew every trick there was to evade the law. The backtracking and false trails they employed were effective and cost the posse precious time, but taking the patience needed to sort it all out, Russell Westin had them on the right trail despite the long delays.
<><><><> 

The rifle stock had slammed into his ribs and caused massive bruising, maybe a few cracks, but it had been the blow to his head that rendered him incapable of forming a complete thought. The ache grew to shooting pain, exploding agony with every step of Barranca’s hooves. Son-of-a-bitch! That hurts! What’d I do now? And then the harsh reality of the day’s events crashed through him with a force that made him gasp and with the gasp came a retch and white-hot pain sliced through his brain… and his heart. Scott! The thought of Scott bleeding out in the mountains with no help, not much help, anyway, shredded what had been left of his heart and filled him with consuming anguish, torture he never thought possible. Never before had Johnny so fervently wished for a bullet to his brain. Scott’s dead… because of me… He tried to will his heart to stop beating, his blood to stop flowing through his veins, and if he could do that, he would cease to breathe.

Johnny didn’t realize that they had stopped until they pulled him from Barranca’s back and shoved him to the ground. He made no sound as the pain erupted over his body, but in the back of his mind, he heard a voice. It was Madrid, and it was a warning. Lancer was being pushed aside, he had been stubborn and wasn’t leaving, but Madrid finally broke through the haze taking the reins and firmly guiding them both. He was one man against four and knew his odds were not good, but Madrid would not go down without a fight. Johnny Lancer had lost his brother, but Johnny Madrid would cause Scanlon much harm before he stopped breathing. Knowing that he would soon face his own mortality, Madrid began to pull together what was left of his able body and inflict as much harm as was humanly possible, and if lucky enough, maybe even end Scanlon’s life as Scanlon had ended Scott’s.

But the chance eluded him this night as they made a meager camp. They started out before first light the next morning as they turned south and headed toward San Lucas. With the horses rested, they made good time through the mountains. Madrid was in charge now but just barely. Lancer wanted to make his appearance but had to be kept at bay, Madrid knew, because revenge was needed now, revenge as only Madrid could take. Scanlon would pay.

With hands tied in front of him, Madrid sat in his saddle, still with the pounding inside his head but able to control his thoughts albeit with a much colder mental state than Lancer could have. Scott was dead but then so will Scanlon be, very soon, an’ I ain’t gonna be far b’hind… He felt guilty, bad for Murdoch, yes, even Johnny Madrid had come to like and respect Murdoch. He was a good and honorable man, and again would be without his sons. Life wasn’t fair, no one said it was, but it just seemed while some people were destined for absolute happiness, others were plagued with grief. Grief, how’s that sound ta you, Scanlon?

Johnny waited for the right time, it didn’t matter how long it took, but he had to wait. Madrid had decided he would go back to Lancer and face the Old Man, he owed Scott that much, but after it was over, he would ride away, and leave Murdoch with the whole ranch, just like he had in the beginning. The beginning before Scott and Johnny had come home. Home…  Madrid had served him well in the past and he would again, that is if he lived through these next few days; he had to wait for the right time. Home… Home was lost, forever. Son-of-a-bitch! SCOTT!!!

They stopped to rest the horses and Madrid slowly dismounted, the eyes of the others on him as they watched the struggle against the pain and the effort to get it under control again. Under guard, he went behind the rocks to ease his needs.

“Why don’t ya just get rid of him, Scanlon? We don’t need a hostage no more!” Turk Bennett complained.

Scanlon sighed. “I been thinkin’ the same thing,” he said with an evil grin as Hoby Briggs followed Madrid back from the privacy of the rocks. But the ropes were off Madrid’s wrists, and they were raw and bloody. Johnny held them out as Hoby began to wrap them with bandanas.

“Briggs! What the hell’re ya doin’? How come ya untied ‘im?” screamed Scanlon.

Hoby looked at the boss.

What the Hell, Scanlon thought, he ain’t got a gun, don’t matter he ain’t tied.
“Hey, Madrid, I think I need some target practice,” he said with an evil laugh, and he brought up his pistol, pulling the trigger he sent a bullet creasing deep across Johnny’s left shoulder, then rapidly another bullet creased his right thigh.

Johnny staggered but didn’t go down, and it gave him the opportunity that he needed. Scanlon stood laughing, warming to his fun and not paying much attention to his target.

Briggs, taking his eyes off Madrid to stare at Scanlon’s crazed behavior, gave Madrid just enough time to retrieve the knife in his boot and launch a vicious attack that slashed Briggs's throat, then he grabbed Briggs as he fell and turned, using the body for a shield, taking bullets meant for Johnny. They hit the dead man with a sickening thump giving Johnny the chance to throw the knife and bury it to the hilt in Scanlon’s chest. Scanlon stood and slowly looked down to the blood spreading over his chest. He dropped his gun and fell face first into the dirt.

Stunned, Lane Whitney and Turk Bennett stood facing down Johnny Madrid, armed with Brigg’s gun. Both drained of color with hearts hammering in their chests. There was no way they could win this, and they knew it.

“Throw your guns over here, NOW!” Taking all the pistols and loading them in his saddlebags, Johnny then found his Colt in Scanlon’s belongings and slowly mounted Barranca. Johnny gathered the reins of their horses and pulled his Palomino to a halt beside the two men. Staring down at them with a glare that froze them to the spot, he issued his threat.

“I should just fuckin’ kill the both of you right now, but ‘m gonna let the law do that.” A shiver crawled down each of their spines at the low toned, chilling declaration. With that, Johnny Madrid turned away, heading north-northeast.

After several miles, Johnny pulled up on the reins. He took the saddlebags containing the money from Scanlon’s horse and left all the horses loose. Then turned Barranca toward Lancer and the wrath of his father who would no doubt slam the door in his face and damn him to Hell. But Madrid had killed the man that murdered Scott and Johnny would have to be satisfied with that because that was the best that he could make of things now.

The images swirled in front of him as his head pounded, and his heart battered his ribs. Blood continued to drain from his body, leaving him weak. He had not taken the time to care for the injuries. What difference would it make now? With any luck, he would bleed out.

<><><><> 

Johnny came awake with a jerk as Murdoch’s face swirled before him, screaming, damning him for Scott’s death. You killed your brother! MY son! Get out! Get out NOW! Lancer is no longer your home, you are NOT a Lancer! GET OUT!

Johnny’s heart broke as Scott’s face floated above him. Scott’s smile, warm so full of love, quickly became a snarl, and a scream erupted from Scott’s throat as his eyes shot fire, accusing Johnny of his death.

“No, Scott! That wasn’t… that wasn’t supposed ta happen! Scott? Ya… gotta… listen… Hear me… out! Scott? Please…”  But Scott wasn’t listening. For the rest of the day and long into the night, Murdoch’s face swirled in front of him, and raged at Johnny, and blamed him, holding him responsible, and him alone. Scott’s image stared, condemning him to a life unforgiven. And then they were gone, dissipated into the air.

<><><><> 

“Well, well, well, if’n it ain’t some little lost young’ns. What’s a matter? You two piss off your boss?” Val chided as the posse circled Lane Whitney and Turk Bennett. “Where’s Johnny Lancer? An’ where’s Scanlon?”

Whitney and Bennett glanced at each other with Whitney canting his head back the way they’d come.

“Buried ‘im. Madrid knifed ‘im an’ slit Briggs throat. Then he took off with the money. We ain’t got it.”

“Which way did Johnny go?” Val asked as he tied the two men with rope and helped them on their horses that they’d picked up several miles back as they wandered, grazing on mountain grass.

“North an’ east,” Bennett replied. “Ain’tcha goin’ after ‘im?”

Val only smiled. “Nope.” Then they started back for Green River.

<><><><> 

Lemme just see the grave an’ I’ll be goin’. I gotta tell ‘im I’m sorry… Murdoch’s anger-filled face stared, finally putting into words what was in his mind. NO! Got off this ranch! There’s no room for you here! You don’t belong here anymore! You’re NOT a LANCER ANYMORE! You’re not MY SON! He had to tell Scott he was sorry… had to… Scott… need ta tell ya… s-sorry…

<><><><> 

Murdoch Lancer was a very distraught man. Scott was still unconscious. However, he made it through the night with no setback, he just wasn’t waking. And what of Johnny? After Jake Simpson brought Scott home with Charlie Wilson coming back with Sam, they told the story that Cindy relayed. Out of the blue, Steve Scanlon had shot Scott. It sounded like Johnny had been trying to get the three men that robbed the bank with Scanlon to turn against him. But Scanlon put a stop to that very quickly by shooting Scott. Murdoch knew that Johnny would blame himself, Johnny probably didn’t realize that Scott was still alive. Would Johnny even want to come home?

Murdoch sat with his head in his hands and grieved, first for Scott, lying here unresponsive, then for Johnny, thinking his brother dead, and it was his fault. It seemed as if most of his adult life, Murdoch had been grieving, for his wives then for his sons and it didn’t appear as if it would stop now. My sons do not deserve this!  When would it end? The day passed slowly, and as the sun went down, there was still no change.

<><><><> 

Madrid tried to keep things on track. Keep the horse moving at a decent pace and tried to keep Lancer subdued as much as possible.

If the Ol’ Man don’t want cha, ya still got me ta fall back on. Sure was nice havin’ Scott around. Boston had guts. Woulda made a pretty good name for himself out here, Madrid thought.

He already made a good name for himself out here, what’d ya talkin’ ‘bout? Lancer corrected with pride.

Madrid smiled, Yeah, he did, didn’t he?

Now Lancer smiled, Yeah, he did!

The sun was going down, it was getting cold, but Barranca kept going, the man in the saddle was not in control, but the horse knew. He sensed the man on his back was in trouble. He slowed his pace as the weight settled a bit and ceased its swaying.

He had no clue where he was, nor did he care. He was sick, and he hurt, and he was tired beyond belief. And more than anything he was lost. Not so much in direction but drifting without purpose or reason, no family where once there had been one, if only for a brief time. He had a brother who had come to mean more to him than anyone else ever had, a brother who was good and a brother that he loved… and he killed him. He was responsible for his death as if he had shot Scott with his own gun… Would the torture ever stop? Yes, when you die… And then it will probably follow you into Hell, Madrid. You deserve it.

Scott’s face again swirled in front of him, laughing at the fact Johnny would go to Hell blaming himself. You deserve it, Brother! Then the face distorted as if it was made of smoke, spiraling up to dissipate and vanish. One second he was there, the next, he was gone. Scott’s gone… And that’s the last thing Johnny remembered.

<><><><> 

Murdoch couldn’t sleep. He’d been at Scott’s side ever since they’d brought him home. A comfortable chair had been moved into Scott’s room so he could be near should his son wake in the night and need him. A brief visit to consciousness late this afternoon had made Murdoch’s day, well, part of it. It would have been complete if Johnny were home and the whole family was together, but Johnny had not come home yet, nor had he been found.

Am I destined to be without both sons? Johnny? Where are you?

Roused from his silent plea, Murdoch saw Scott’s fingers start to twitch. Sitting forward on the chair, he watched as his older son’s eyes moved side to side under heavy lids and his breathing became a bit faster. A sharp intake of breath as the pale lips parted, Scott’s eyes opened to tiny slits.
“… Johnny…,” he mumbled as Murdoch moved closer into Scott’s vision.

“Scott, can you hear me, son?” Murdoch asked softly as he took Scott's hand and held it as if willing life into his son. Slightly turning his head in his father’s direction, Scott searched for his brother.

“Murdoch? Where’s Johnny?” It was not a question but a plea, a desperate plea.

Murdoch’s belly flipped over. “He should be here soon, Scott. Here, take some water,” he coaxed and helping Scott to raise up, Murdoch put the glass to his son’s lips, and he drank, then closed his eyes and Murdoch could have sworn he heard Scott call out again for his brother. The plea was pitiful, bringing tears to Murdoch’s eyes. Will we ever get past this? Murdoch wondered.

<><><><> 

His horse had stopped, no longer the gentle swaying under him, rocking him in a steady rhythm with the clip-clop of hooves on the hard-packed earth. No movement, no noise, where am I? Johnny opened blurry eyes, suddenly recognizing the courtyard at Lancer. Lancer! Barranca brought me… not home anymore… And at that moment Johnny felt his heart squeezed as if held by a giant hand to rip it out of his chest. He gasped as physical pain tore through him, his breathing fast and labored.
Johnny tried to dismount, but as his right leg touched the ground, it buckled, propelling him backward into a patio chair, turning it over. He lay on the smooth stones gathering his breath, preparing his mind for the harsh words that would soon be launched with Murdoch’s attack when his father would tell him to get off of Lancer and not come back. Not till I get ta see Scott’s grave…

A noise from the patio disturbed Murdoch as he dozed having taken more comfort at Scott’s waking. Heaving himself from his place beside his son, Murdoch quickly went downstairs, lit a lantern, and went to the doors opening to the courtyard. Stepping through the portal and out into the chilly early morning air, Murdoch’s breath froze in his throat as he saw movement to the side. Johnny valiantly tried to stand but fell as his leg would not hold his weight.

“Johnny!” Murdoch bellowed as he raced to help his younger son, ecstatic and horrified at the same time at the sight of Johnny.

Johnny, hearing the bellow of his name, braced himself for the onslaught. “Jus’ lemme see… the grave an’ ‘m goin’…” Johnny panted out the words.

Murdoch didn’t think he heard right. Grave? “Johnny, just take it easy…” He reached Johnny’s side and took his son’s arm to aid in standing, but before he could help get his son on his feet, Johnny ripped his arm out of Murdoch’s grasp.

“I said… I’d be leavin’, but I got… a right ta see… Scott’s…” and he couldn’t finish. His words died in his throat, and he couldn’t say anymore. A harsh gasp escaped him as his world came crashing down upon him, pelting him with memories of their times together, happy times now ripped away like the burned ashes of paper blowing in the wind. He felt as if he was being buried alive, smothered, and no longer able to take in air. He felt as if his heart would stop beating, and he was suffocating.

“Johnny! Listen to me! Johnny!” Murdoch was frantic and once more took Johnny by both arms forcing him to look at his face.

“JOHNNY! Listen to me!” Again, Murdoch looked into the tortured eyes, eyes wild with… fear?

Madrid watched, listening to Murdoch but not wanting to hear the accusations and blame.

“Johnny, listen to me! Scott’s not dead! He’s upstairs in his…”

“No! I saw him… shot an’… fall…” Madrid saw an opening. Listen ta your ol’ man! Johnny, listen ta what he’s tellin’ you! And Madrid stepped aside allowing Johnny Lancer to take over.

“Johnny, Scott’s upstairs…”

Johnny froze, he stopped his fighting, his brain desperately grabbed for something, anything to hear again what he thought he heard.

“Scott… Murdoch, ‘m sorry…” Johnny’s voice cracked, his chin fell to his chest as the emotion drained him of what little strength he had left.

Murdoch shook Johnny slightly by his shoulders. “Johnny! Listen to me! Scott’s upstairs in bed, he’s alive! Johnny! Come with me,” standing, he managed to get Johnny on his feet, taking some of his weight. Why wasn’t the boy walking? And as Murdoch half dragged Johnny into the house, he saw the bloodstain on his thigh, then saw blood on his own hand where he’d grabbed Johnny’s shoulder. Stopping, he briefly took inventory, noticing the blood on his shirt. Wasting no more time, Murdoch hustled his son upstairs as fast as he could, taking most of Johnny’s weight, the whole time Johnny’s anguished voice pleaded he was sorry for getting his brother killed.

Stairs, they were climbing stairs. He knew he wasn’t at the Angels Nest and also knew he wasn’t at Holly’s, so the only other place he went that had stairs was… Lancer! Scott! Hafta go by Scott’s room!

Dragging Johnny down the hall, Murdoch stopped in front of Scott’s door. Quietly he opened it to let Johnny see the bed; Scott was lying with his head slightly turned toward them, a low fire burned in the hearth shedding enough light to see.
“Johnny, look at the bed… Scott is there… He’s been asking for you!” Murdoch whispered, putting his hand under Johnny’s chin to raise his head. Leaning close to Johnny’s ear, he repeated his words as Johnny lifted his eyes to see in the room. Murdoch could feel Johnny tense, and his eyes widened as if in disbelief, eyes that were riveted on the bed.

He started forward, pulling away from Murdoch. Not letting him go, Murdoch eased Johnny into the chair beside his brother. Reality began to filter into Johnny’s brain as he reached out slowly for Scott’s hand and felt it warm.

“…..S-Scott?” Johnny whispered, his voice low, but the velvet tones came through this time. This was no ghostly apparition, no phantom to vanish before his eyes and escape in the night. This was flesh and blood. This was his brother… alive!

Murdoch could see it coming as Johnny started to slump forward. He caught him as Johnny would have passed out, falling to the floor.

Murdoch carried his son to his room across the hall and carefully laid him on the bed, pulling the bed covers under his body and leaving them in a pile on the floor. He raced from the room, charged down the stairs and out the door. Rounding the corner he pounded on Jelly’s door, scaring the bewhiskered old man half to death. As Jelly threw the door open, Murdoch found himself looking down the barrels of a shotgun.

“Boss, what in tarnation…”

“No time to explain, get one of the hands to go to town for Sam! Johnny’s home!” Turning, Murdoch raced back into the house to be at his son’s side, to be there for them both.

Johnny had not moved. Murdoch packed towels under the grazes on the shoulder and thigh that had been bleeding, Murdoch then began removing the filthy clothing with gentle hands.

Jelly made it in record time as he entered the room still in the process of tucking his long nightshirt into his pants and pulling his suspenders into place over his shoulders. Not saying a word, he started a fire and went downstairs for hot water.

Lighting several more lamps to cast the room in as much light as possible, Murdoch could now see the deep pain lines etched on Johnny’s face. Was it physical or mental pain? And Murdoch’s heart broke thinking back to the fragmented sentences Johnny was so desperately trying to say on the patio. He wanted to see Scott’s grave, and then he would leave…

He thought I was going to blame him… and that notion burned in Murdoch’s brain. Johnny thought I wouldn’t want him here! He thought he’d gotten his brother killed! And Murdoch’s tough Scottish demeanor began to melt as he felt his eyes fill with tears.

The bullet creases, though deep and had bled heavily, were not life-threatening and Murdoch bandaged them as best he could in preparation of Sam’s arrival. Johnny still had not moved. Murdoch knew he was exhausted, it had been very apparent that Johnny had been through a lot in the last several days. Between the notion that he’d gotten his brother killed, the obvious beating, then the two bullet creases, not to mention riding without sleep and food, it was no wonder he was not thinking clearly and hadn’t  understood that Scott had survived.

Jelly checked on Scott, then continued to the kitchen and started the coffee, knowing that Sam would be here soon, and Maria would be a bit later and fix them breakfast. Murdoch kept vigil over his younger son.

He watched Johnny in unconsciousness. The look of defeat on the handsome face even in sleep was unnerving. Life has not been fair to this boy! Why did you take him away, Maria? Why did you take your unhappiness out on our innocent son? he thought as he studied Johnny, his heart aching in his chest.

Jelly stirred the fire to life in the stove, then pumped the water into the coffee pot, his mind not on his chore but with the young man upstairs. He had developed a special friendship with Johnny, Jelly’s paternal soft spot kicked in for the lost and orphaned boys he’d found and helped as he traveled before settling at Lancer. Sensing Johnny carried with him a need to belong, for family, Jelly naturally took him into his heart. Ain’t right the way Johnny takes all the blame on hisself… Jelly sniffed and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.

The thundering of hooves in the front alerted Murdoch that Sam had arrived. He waited beside Johnny, knowing Jelly would open the front door. Sam, Val, and Cipriano charged into the house with Sam not bothering to stop and ask how things were. They all stormed up the stairs and into Johnny’s room, quieting as they came down the hall. Taking over, Sam began his assessment as the others stood back patiently waiting, then turned to face them.

“Why don’t you all go get some coffee…” and taking the hint, they left the room.

“I found this on Barranca,” Val said as he held the saddlebags full of money. “The two that we arrested said Johnny took it when he lit out. I’ll make sure it gets back ta the bank. Cindy told me what happened, Mr. Lancer, an’ I know that Johnny blames himself. But I gotta tell ya that Scanlon was crazy. Wasn’t no way Johnny coulda known that he’d shoot Scott, no way a’tall. Ya can’t try an’ second guess someone that ain’t all there,” Val said as he tapped a finger to his head.

Murdoch shrugged and poured the coffee. Setting the cups around the table, they all sat talking in low tones as they waited for Sam’s report.

It was a somber mood in the kitchen as Maria, Lancer cook, came through the back door. Her eyes widened as she took in the scene of the four men staring into their cups.

Que?” she asked, sensing something was wrong. Murdoch looked into her worried eyes and spoke, knowing she would be up the stairs in a split second. Johnny was special to her. She was there helping Dr. Sam the night he was born.

“Sam’s upstairs with Johnny, Maria. He came home early this morning.” And Murdoch was right. Not bothering to remove her shawl, Maria turned and took the stairs with a speed that belied her age.

Thirty minutes later, they heard footsteps on the stairs, and Sam walked into the kitchen as he stifled a yawn. Sitting at the table, Jelly placed a cup of coffee in front of him.

“Thank you, Jelly.” He took a sip then looked to Murdoch and smiled.
“He’ll be fine, he just needs rest. Johnny is completely exhausted. The other injuries are relatively superficial, except for the concussion. That will have to be watched closely for a few days, but rest is critical right now.”

Murdoch frowned a bit, and Sam was puzzled. “What is it, Murdoch?”

“Johnny thinks that Scott is dead. He’s blaming himself, of course. He came here asking to see the grave… and then he would leave. He is certain that I don’t want him here anymore.” Murdoch stopped to compose himself. “I don’t know how much he will remember when he wakes, but Johnny was convinced he was responsible for Scott’s death. I’m just afraid when he regains consciousness that he’ll try and leave. He was not reasonable when he came in, barely coherent and I couldn’t convince him Scott was alive until I took him in to see Scott, then he passed out.”

Sam listened, silent for a minute before speaking. “Sounds to me that between the blow to the head and the shock of seeing Scott alive, not to mention the other issues, was too much to cope with. He saw Scott get shot and fall and from what I understand it was then he’d been knocked out, is that correct?” At a nod from Val verifying the statement, Sam continued.

“The last he saw was Scott fall. That memory is what he’s focusing on. But let’s not jump to any conclusions just yet. He’s been through a lot, mentally and physically. After he’s had sufficient rest, we’ll have a better grasp on how he’s doing. And if I know your boys, Johnny will be sleeping in Scott’s room for a while!” Sam said, trying his best to lighten the mood in the kitchen.

As Murdoch went back and forth from one son’s room to the other, he couldn’t help but wonder how things were going to pan out. Would he be able to talk Johnny out of leaving Lancer? He belongs here, he was born here! He has to stay… Murdoch opened the door into Scott’s room and took his place once again in the chair beside the bed. Taking a deep breath, Murdoch sighed, and when he turned his eyes to Scott’s face, the blue-gray irises made themselves visible. With lids only half-open Scott recognized his father and smiled.

“Johnny, is he home yet?” Scott asked with a raspy voice

Murdoch leaned forward with a glass of water ready and gently scooped up Scott in his strong arms. He tipped the glass to his mouth. Sated, Scott breathed easier after Murdoch got him settled back on the pillows.

“Yes, son, Johnny’s home, but he’s sleeping.” Murdoch didn’t want to tell Scott too much and didn’t volunteer any information but Scott, even as groggy as he was, felt something was wrong. Looking directly at Murdoch, he said: “He’s hurt, isn’t he?”

And Murdoch was ready for the attempt to leave the bed. “Scott, be still, you’re not going to be ready to be out of bed for a while. Just relax. As soon as Johnny’s awake, I am sure he’ll be in here to see you.”

Scott kept the stare fixed on his father. “You didn’t answer me, Murdoch. Is Johnny alright?”

“He’s more exhausted than anything, but he does have a concussion and a few minor injuries.”

“But…? I know there’s more, Murdoch.” Scott’s eyes were now open and clear, pained but open and clear. Not wanting to lie, Murdock told Scott that his brother came here thinking Scott was dead.

“And he’s blaming himself, isn’t he?”

Murdoch nodded. Both men sat in silence.

<><><><> 

Scott was falling… again. He hit the ground and did not get up. Johnny watched as a patch of red blossomed on the front of his shirt. He knew his brother was dead.

Johnny woke with a harsh gasp, panting for air, not able to take in enough to quench the need for the oxygen. Sweat ran into his eyes, burning and turning them red, blurring his sight. His head was pounding, threatening to crack wide open with blinding white pain. He reached as if to catch the runaway skull only to have more discomfort in his shoulder. His audible groan sounded more like a grizzly in the spring with laryngitis, strained and raspy. Where the Hell am I? Then it hit him. He was at Lancer… Home. But not for long. Murdoch would see to that, and Johnny really didn’t blame him. No one blamed Johnny more than Johnny blamed himself. Scott! Suck it up, Madrid! Scott’s gone an’ you did it… And at that moment Johnny thought about putting a bullet through his brain. Why wait?

The door opened quietly as Murdoch stepped through, shocked at seeing Johnny awake and distraught, his breathing hard and gravelly. Looking into his son’s eyes, he knew Johnny was disoriented and lost. Stepping quickly to the bed, Murdoch ached to calm him, and wrap him in a father’s protective embrace.

Johnny watched his father advance and tensed for the confrontation that was sure to erupt, pulling away before Murdoch made contact.

“’m sorry, I’ll be… outta here… soon as…”

Murdoch sat on the side of the bed and physically pulled Johnny into his arms as he wrapped them around the shaking body.

“Johnny, listen to me!” Murdoch whispered then pulled back to look into the tortured eyes of his son. “Johnny, Scott’s alive! He’s alive, Johnny, he’s in his room just across the hall.” He felt the muscles tense, and Johnny stopped his struggles, the glaze in the deep blue eyes cleared slightly as he stared at his father, digesting what had been said but not believing it.

“…A-Alive…?” Johnny whispered, and Murdoch was not prepared for the lunge to get out of bed that nearly launched him backward onto the floor. He held Johnny tightly as he tried to calm the anxiousness, the determination to get across the hall.

“Johnny! Wait! I’ll help you!” Going to the large wardrobe, Murdoch yanked open the door and retrieved a robe, obviously never been worn, and slipped it around Johnny’s body, tying it off at the waist. Not taking the time with the deer hide moccasins, Johnny got to his feet and started for the door with Murdoch’s supporting arm around his shoulders. Out into the hall, he then stopped at Scott’s door, and apprehension set in. Johnny’s hand reached for the knob, but he hesitated before entering, suddenly filled with misgivings.

Scott wasn’t dead? Then quickly he opened it to see his brother, alive and breathing under the blankets. With legs close to giving out, Johnny made it to the chair with a ragged exhale of breath, alive… Scott’s alive!  Could he ever forgive Johnny for what happened? What the Hell, I’ll be leavin’ anyway…

Murdoch stood away from Johnny to let the fact set in that his brother still breathed. The hard part would be to convince Johnny that it was not his fault it happened.

Johnny stared at the face turned toward him, yes, it was Scott, and he was alive. He blinked several times making sure this wasn’t an illusion, something in his imagination to dissolve into thin air, dissipate and fade away, leaving him alone again with the self-loathing of the one responsible for ending this life, the life that Johnny had craved as a young boy.

He reached out slowly, almost afraid Scott would pull away or worse, vanish at his intended touch, but, a moment later, Johnny felt the warm hand, and as if a shock traveled through his body at the contact, he flinched.

Murdoch said nothing but watched, fascinated at the scene before him.

Scott’s fingers closed around Johnny’s hand. Murdoch, unsure if it was knowing his brother was here or reflex but, regardless of the reason, his heart was touched with the tenderness of his sons.

“Scott? … ‘m sorry… never meant for this… ta happen. My fault…” Johnny’s ragged breath stopped him from saying any more. Waiting for several seconds before he could continue, he took some deep breaths to clear and steady himself. Not knowing quite what else to say, Johnny took one last look at Scott’s face, then tried to pull his hand out of Scott’s grasp. At the first faint attempt to disengage, Johnny felt the grip tighten, and he started, alarm beginning to course through him.

“Scott, I damn near got you killed! … Gotta leave…”

“…No… stay…” Scott whispered through the stillness of the dark room.

<><><><> 

The breeze swept away the heat of the day, and as the twilight blanketed the valley, the stars began to shine, winking their delight again as they flickered in the darkening sky. Usually a peaceful time for Johnny, but as of late, the trauma and near-tragedy of recent events had blocked out the joy that he once sought on this very patio.

Would he ever again feel the connection that filled him with the sense of belonging and family? Scott would tell Johnny over and over that what happened was not Johnny’s fault, but that couldn’t erase the feelings of guilt that still plagued every second of every day. His greatest fear almost came to pass, that someone he loved would suffer for who and what he used to be. Sinister, evil shadows from Madrid’s past had come very near to taking the life his brother, leaving Johnny feeling cold and empty inside, and he could not shake the thought that he really did not deserve to be a part of anything. He didn’t deserve to have a family and be happy because he’d almost killed it.

So lost in his melancholy brooding, Johnny felt he was not worth the company, so he’d spent the better part of the evening on the patio, after all, this was the place where he came so often in the past that had been a haven, a place of peace and comfort, but it wasn’t present tonight.

The door opened behind him, and he recognized his father’s footfalls across the stones. Coming to stand beside him, Murdoch leaned on the adobe wall to look out over the pasture filled with Lancer beef and horses. As the full moon rose in the sky spreading its stunning silver light over the grassland and silhouetting the mountains except for the glistening of the snow-capped peaks, it would have, in past nights, filled Johnny with a warmth knowing he was a part of it all. Now, all he felt was a void, a deep black hole.

“You’ve been out here all night Johnny, come in and best me in a game of chess,” Murdoch suggested, only to confirm the turmoil in his younger son’s mind, the fragile state of knowing that Johnny was on the verge of leaving Lancer, for good. Why does he think he could have prevented this from happening? Why does he take responsibility for everything?

“Gonna hafta wait for Scott ta play, … Murdoch, I…”

Murdoch put a steadying hand on Johnny’s shoulder and turned Johnny to face him. With measured words, Murdoch took a deep breath before he began.

“Johnny, nothing you could have done would have changed what happened. You couldn’t have known what Scanlon would do. I don’t blame you for what happened, and you know that Scott doesn’t blame you, as a matter of fact, your brother is very worried about you. Have you been up to see him today?”

Johnny shook his head no and looked away from his father, but Murdoch, with a soft touch, turned Johnny’s face back to his and could see his eyes bright and shiny as if welling with tears.

Johnny exhaled a ragged breath. “I see him fall over an’ over, thinkin’ he was dead… cuz of me…”

 Murdoch read the agony in desperate need of release in the pain-filled eyes. His hand tightened on Johnny’s shoulder, feeling the tremors that raced through him, and concern filled Murdoch’s heart.

“No, Johnny! Not because of you. It was because Scanlon was who he was. A violent man living a violent life and you took care of that! You got the bank’s money back. Scott just happened to get hurt; it wasn’t your fault, Johnny!”

Murdoch could see that Johnny wasn’t buying it as he closed his eyes, squeezing them together as if in horrible pain. It was horrible pain, of the heart. Murdoch pulled him into a bear hug, his great arms enveloping Johnny as if he were but a small boy. It felt like heaven, and Johnny suddenly wanted to pull away… Because he didn’t deserve it. But Murdoch wouldn’t let go, and it felt so … Good!

Taking Johnny upstairs to Scott’s room, Murdoch made sure that Johnny sat in the chair by the bed, knowing that Scott would be waking soon. Hoping to hurry it along a bit, Murdoch loudly cleared his throat then proceeded to throw a few logs on the fire.

Johnny turned in his father’s direction, a tiny smile tried to tug at the corners of his mouth. “Subtle, Murdoch…”

As the patriarch stood, he thought he saw the beginning of the sparkle in Johnny’s eyes, and he knew it was time to leave the boys alone. He exited the room not bothering to turn the door handle so as the door shut the latch popped loudly in the quiet, and Scott’s eyes fluttered open.

A broad smile split Scott’s face as he recognized his brother, the one person he wanted to be there, the one Scott wanted to be waiting for him when he opened his eyes. And tonight, he was there. Neither said anything for a moment as blue-gray met dark blue. Scott could see the trouble boiling just below the surface.

“Scott, I…”

“I’m glad to see you still know the way to my room, Brother! I was beginning to get lonely up here!” The smile turned into a chuckle, and Johnny returned a slight grin. “I’m glad to see you’re alright, Johnny…”

The grin suddenly left Johnny’s face, and he quickly looked down at the floor. Scott could see his brow wrinkling in a grimace, knowing what was going through his brother’s mind. He reached out, catching Johnny’s hand and tugged it, pulling Johnny onto the bed. Now Scott could see him, and he wanted Johnny to see his eyes, wanted the visual contact.

“Johnny, you can’t blame yourself for this! None of it! And it wasn’t about you or who you used to be.”

“Scott, I keep seein’ you fall, thought ya were dead…”

“But I’m not, and you did not cause any of it, Johnny, none of it. How could you take that on your shoulders? Could you have controlled what Scanlon did?”

Johnny sighed. “Murdoch just asked me the same thing,” he softly replied.

“And what did you tell him?” Scott asked, not willing to let this drop.

“Nothin’,”

“Alright, let me ask you something else. My grandfather conspired to have you killed. Do you blame me for that?”

Johnny sat in complete shock, staring into his brother’s eyes, his filled in disbelief. Stunned, he was almost afraid to answer. “No, I don’t blame you! Why would I blame you?”

“Then explain to me why you hold yourself responsible for this? You didn’t tell Scanlon to pull the trigger, you were there, yes, but you didn’t make him do it. I was there when Reginald Wallingford tried to have you killed, even after the failed first attempt and when he tried to have the horses trample you! But you don’t blame me! Why do you take the blame yet not hold me accountable for the identical thing? Answer that for me, brother…” Scott said with such incredible tenderness in his voice. And Johnny couldn’t answer. Scott took Johnny’s hand and held it tight.

“Johnny, it’s the same thing!”

Johnny dropped his head, again with the slight smile that threatened to turn into a full-blown grin.

Scott watched as the weight physically lifted from Johnny’s shoulders.

“Checkmate…” Johnny mumbled.

<><><><> 

Two months later, Johnny and Scott were riding into Green River, first with errands for Murdoch then for some brother time. Maybe they would stop and pick up the harness that Danny at the livery had finally finished.

“Seems ta me we done this once b’fore, didn’t we, Boston?” Johnny asked, looking sideways at his older brother.

“I believe we did, brother.”

Johnny thought a moment. “Ya know what I say?”

“No, Johnny, what do you say?”

“Ta hell with the errands; let’s go get us some wild horses!” And laughing as only brothers could do, they left the dusty road racing across Lancer in the direction of the north pasture.

 

 

~ end ~

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