The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

No Turning Back

Thanks to Cat, Sandy, and Barbara for the beta
Not necessary but should be read after  ‘Echoes in the Night

WARNING: Excessive violence and blood. This is a grisly story, some extremely nasty situations, and implied situations. If you are sensitive to these issues, do not read any further. Fair warning, you are now on your own…

Thomas Devon was an evil man. Born at the stroke of midnight during the darkest phase of a total lunar eclipse, his tiny malnourished and misshaped body was expelled from his mother’s womb. After a long, exhausting, excruciating labor, she wrapped him in a threadbare blanket. There was no doctor to attend the birth, and the new mother watched as her infant son fought for breath, and she wondered if he would live. He was not… normal. He did not look like a normal baby, so she kept him hidden, away from others to shield him from their ridicule. Folks could be cruel, and he would attract the worst from people for as long as he would live.

Sickly and ghostly white, the boy grew up alone— no friends, no siblings, even his own mother shunned him as she realized the extent of his precarious mental state. She ultimately abandoned him at the age of eleven after discovering his penchant for capturing small animals and dismembering them alive. His black eyes, dead and cold, could freeze a heart with one look from the hideous, empty pools. Yes, Thomas Devon was evil from a little boy on and after his mother abandoned him, he rapidly descended into a Hell of his own making.

At the age of seventeen, Thomas had been committed to a mental asylum for the remainder of his life. The authorities had been notified after the slaughter and dismemberment of a small herd of goats. The gruesome was scene discovered by hunters in the woods as they stumbled upon the teen covered in gore, chanting words unknown to them. His face and hands were smeared in animal blood, and bits of flesh hung, caught in his small pointed teeth, as he stood ankle-deep in a pile of the goat's entrails. The boy escaped into the woods, and the ugliness of the situation was only beginning.

<><><><> 

The night was dark, the full moon covered by clouds allowing only muted light to show the way. A cold piercing wind blew through the trees, bare branches rattled in the chill of the night, and dead leaves billowed across the hard-packed road around her. The young woman walked quickly, not wanting to be out at this time of night but had been detained in the kitchen of the wealthy family for whom she was employed.  In the brief time there, she was conscientious, and often stayed late, as she had this night, and now walked home alone in the dark.

A shiver crawled down her spine as the chilly wind blew at her cloak as if trying to rip it from her shoulders. The snap of a twig somewhere behind her drew a gasp from her lips, and she turned quickly, wondering if something or someone followed. Seeing nothing, she hurried her steps, and her heart started to thump, pushing the blood through her body until it pounded in her ears. She saw nothing, no one was there. Why was she so spooked? Thinking herself silly, she forced herself to slow down, and that one decision sealed her fate.

It was then she heard the growl. Her eyes opened wide as the tendrils of fear began prickling her senses as she peered into the dark. She quickened her pace and swiveled around to watch all sides. The girl started to run, feeling eyes upon her, and it was then she heard the evil laugh. She turned to watch behind, running faster and faster, heart thundering loud enough to block out every other sound, the beats exploding in her ears.

She turned now to watch in front of her and as she faced forward, a cold hand with long gnarled fingers wrapped around her throat from behind. She couldn’t draw a breath, and she couldn’t scream; she was paralyzed with fear. Then she was thrown into the dead leaves with enough force to knock the air out of her lungs when her body connected with the frozen ground. He straddled her thin waist, and with those hands still around her throat, he began to squeeze.

The moon broke through the clouds, and she looked into black, dead eyes that glared from a horribly misshapen head. The bulging left side forehead and cheekbone were accented with a nose that seemed to spread across the ugly face. A leering, gaping mouth salivated over small saw-like teeth, and she knew she would die this night.

The gleam of the knife he raised in his hand reflected the moonlight, blinding her and she was frozen with debilitating terror. It rendered her defenseless. Her head spun in cold fear, brain frozen and unable to function, she watched with horrified, glazed eyes as the knife descended upon her. Not able to scream or fight and already dead but still watched her attacker until her sight faded and her heart ceased to beat.     

The posse that had been following him arrived too late to save the girl. A net was thrown over him, tangling the boy, effectively trapping him. The scene so horrific that several in the stunned posse vomited at first sight of the young man sitting beside the body which had been gutted. Clutched in his hand was her heart, his teeth stained red with her blood. He growled and emitted animal screams that were ferocious, wild, and chilling.

He was immediately tried and convicted of the gruesome murder and sentenced to life with no parole, then taken directly from the courtroom to spend the rest of his days locked away, where he could cause no more harm to anyone or anything.

Until three years later, when a guard delivered his meal of thin gruel and a stale slice of bread. Thomas Devon waited as the door opened, and at the precise moment, he jumped on the guard’s back and delivered a fatal bite, locking his jaws as he latched onto the exposed neck, his teeth severing veins and tearing tissue. He shivered in ecstasy. Squeezing his eyes shut in the euphoria that was absent for so very long, his head spun, and satisfaction filled his brain as the shivers continued to run the length of his spine.

It was only minutes before all signs of life faded, and the body bled out on the floor, oh, too quickly he thought. He basked in delight as the body shuddered its last, and Thomas Devon slithered through the dark tunnels of his prison and escaped into the cold, damp New England night, once again, covered in the blood of another living being. Feeling the need to satisfy the grisly urges, his heart pounded in his chest as he began to crave more of what had been denied for, oh, so long, more prey to feed on and the feel of the last signs of life as it vacated the body. Death was a lovely pursuit, and he lusted for more.

<><><><> 

“Betcha can’t,” Johnny said with a smug grin. Older brother Scott laughed at the dare with confidence and tried to stare down Johnny.

“Alright, brother, put your money where your mouth is!” And with confidence that was bubbling over in Scott’s brain, he felt he would become the new champion. But the confidence in his eyes faded when Johnny plunked his ten-dollar gold piece on the polished surface of the worn bar top with a loud slap. Johnny never bet that much unless he was certain… Scott, now worried, gave the situation a second thought, albeit too late; the challenge had been issued and accepted. Alright, I’ve been practicing a bit lately. I can do this!

Clearing his throat, he reached for the shot glass filled with tequila. He’d come a long way since the days of the stuffy confines of a Boston drawing room and polite society. And the formal business meetings in his grandfather's company seemed a million miles away. What has happened to me? Scott thought as he downed the liquid fire, feeling the burn as it settled into his stomach.

Without breaking the eye contact, Johnny reached for his glass and in one gulp sent the drink into his belly with a smile on his handsome face. He sat the empty glass next to Scott’s as Val refilled them both, and Johnny began his taunt.

“Now, Scott, ya just take your time. Ain’t in a hurry ta prove ya wrong an’ I wanna give ya all the chances possible. Don’t want cha thinkin’ that I cheated ya…”

Val snickered knowing that Scott was bound to lose and in all fairness, Johnny did try to talk him out of it. It was a bad idea, to begin with, and Scott should have known better. He usually shows more brains than this… Val thought wondering at Scott’s momentary lapse in judgment, but what the hell, been pretty boring ‘round here taday…

Scott grabbed the second glass and tossed it back, smiling.

Johnny burst into laughter. His deep blue eyes, alive with humor, sparkled and danced as he watched his brother. “Ya might wanna slow down there, Boston, this shit’ll sneak up an’ bite your ass if ya keep that up, better slow down!”

Scott’s eyes twinkled back, confidence building on a shaky foundation, but building none-the-less.

Johnny quickly drank his second drink, and Val poured the third round. Scott reached for his, but Johnny stopped him. “Scott, c’mon, slow down cuz I ain’t gonna carry ya upstairs an’ throw your carcass in bed!”

Laughter rang around them as the onlookers in the Angels Nest warmed to the game between the Lancer brothers.

“That’s alright, Sugar, you can come upstairs, and I’ll put you to bed!” Cindy Middleton crooned as she stood by his side; again, loud guffaws bellowed out of drunken patrons.

Scott gulped the third drink, thinking it was going down much easier. Even the tickle of Cindy’s feather-trimmed dress could not distract him now. Hey, I can do this! I can handle tequila as good as my brother! I’ll show him… Scott set the glass on the scuffed bar top and watched Johnny effortlessly toss back his third drink. Boston looked for his fourth turn, but the glass remained empty, and he glared accusingly at Val, but Val watched Johnny shake his head.

“What’s going on between you two?” Scott demanded as his brother and the sheriff seemed to communicate without a word.

“Just think ya should take it easy, Scott, as fast as you’re goin’, you’ll be sittin’ on your ass waitin’ for me ta pick ya up off the floor.” Why did I let him start this? Johnny chided himself, knowing that it would be up to him to see that Scott made it home and haul his drunken brother upstairs and put him to bed. Tequila could be a wicked, unforgiving mistress and Scott would have to find out the hard way; he wasn’t listening to Johnny and Johnny knew… he’d found out the hard way, too.

“Val, fill them…” Scott demanded as he stared straight at his younger brother’s slightly amused face.

Val met Johnny’s eyes, but Johnny did not move away from the glare issued by Scott. Against his better judgment, Val picked up the bottle and filled the glasses. Scott took his turn, swallowed the fiery brew, and suddenly felt the room tilt.

Johnny smiled as he tossed back his shot then turned to the bartender. “Henry, bring us some food, por favor, I got a feelin’ that my brother here is gonna need some help pretty soon!” Johnny laughed with perfectly articulated words as if talking with Father Montero or the Widow Hargis.

“Scott, I think ya need ta siddown for a while. C’mon over here an’ eat somethin’,” Johnny coaxed as Scott started to sway on his feet. Johnny and Val flanked him on the chance his legs would give way. The indignant glower meant to shatter their courage and take them down a peg or two at the insinuation of his inability to stay upright only served to fuel their humor. Both Johnny and Val tried to stifle the threatening amusement but failed miserably. The laughter now flowed, making all three appear as if they had over-imbibed.

Scott reached for the bottle, and before either man could wrestle it from his grasp, he drank a swallow as his eyes welled up from the burn down his throat into his belly.

“I do not require assistan…” and Scott slumped bonelessly to the floor.

Johnny looked at the pile that was his brother, then at Val, who still struggled for control before he said: “Guess they do things different in Boston…” causing Val to convulse in great belly laughs.

<><><><> 

“I tried ta tell ya, Scott,” Johnny spoke softly knowing that his older and wiser brother suffered greatly. “Oh, yeah, ya owe me ten bucks.” With a hearty slap on Scott’s back, and all earlier consideration now gone, Johnny could no longer hold himself together. The laughter shook his body, and he had to sit before he found himself on the floor.

Scott issued another of his glares that did nothing other than to prod Johnny, once again, into fits of uncontrolled laughter.

“Ya better work on that look, Boston; ya ain’t gonna scare nobody with that one! One eye’s lookin’ this way an’ the other’s lookin’ that way…” Then Johnny softened again and handed Scott a cup that contained a steaming brew; Scott eyed it suspiciously.

“C’mon, Scott, remember what it did for ya last time? You were feelin’ better in a few minutes! Just drink up, Maria made it for ya so ya can be sober before Murdoch sees what a mess ya are…”

And although the snickering was a source of significant irritation, Scott knew that most of this had been his own fault. And he knew that Maria did, in fact, make up the concoction steaming in the cup to keep him out of trouble with Murdoch. He took the brew from his brother’s hand and gulped it down sincerely hoping that it would not reappear, and it didn’t. Why did I possibly think that I could out-drink my brother? What is wrong with me?

Johnny watched as the elixir seemed to transform Scott right before his eyes and grinned again.

As he turned to walk away, Scott heard him murmur: “Ain’t never gonna learn…”

<><><><> 

Johnny picked up the ranch mail noting the package addressed to his brother. It was from San Francisco, probably from his friend Cody Justice. Their bond developed during the war, they served together, and neither would have survived without the other. Cody, now a successful attorney, had moved west after he married his longtime sweetheart and had settled in Butte County. Since then, the couple had moved to the big city to further his expanding career. Scott had often gone to visit them, especially after hearing of the new addition about to grace to the small family and hoped for the privilege to be named godfather.

With all the errands completed, Johnny headed back to Lancer loaded down with Scott’s mail and Teresa’s order from Baldomero's store. As he passed the Angel’s Nest, Cindy Middleton gestured from the batwing doors. Johnny slowed Barranca and pulled him to a stop at the hitch rail.

Cindy smiled ear to ear. “How’s Scott today, Johnny?” She didn’t bother to hide her amusement as she giggled awaiting Johnny’s response.

“Maria’s got ‘im on his feet. Hangover’s almost gone!” And with a quick wave, he left town in the direction of the ranch.

<><><><> 

Scott Lancer settled in the comfortable chair after dinner and eagerly tore into the package from Cody Justice. There was a brief note written by Cody on top of the papers.

Scott-
As promised here are the latest papers out of San Francisco. I hope you enjoy them!
Marcie is fine. Getting bigger every day but still just as beautiful! Her condition is, indeed, making her glow!
Please let me know when you have time for a visit, and we’ll try a new French restaurant that has recently opened up here!

-C

Scott smiled as he read the note, picturing Marcie, late in her pregnancy, moving about without her usual grace. They would make excellent parents, and Scott was prepared to take on the role of uncle. Elected godfather or not, he would spoil the child rotten and then beat a hasty retreat for home.

Picking the papers out of the shipping container, he checked to see if they would be in order, and they were as Cody was meticulous about these types of things. Scott began to read the news out of San Francisco.

Murdoch indulged himself reading Homer, again, and Teresa sat sewing the new material that Johnny had picked up for her at Baldomero's. Johnny eyed the chessboard, knowing that he was on his own this evening. Scott couldn’t have been dragged away from those papers if he’d been harnessed to a team of wild horses. Johnny never could figure out why they were so interesting to him. Most of it was bad news, and if it wasn’t bad it was about some politician yammerin’ about what he was gonna do that would never get done- just liked ta hear himself talk an’ see his picture in the paper…

He contented himself with a large glass of tequila, taking his drink to his place on the couch but stopped as he passed Scott and quietly asked his brother if he would care to join him in a glass. Smiling broadly as Scott shot him a look that normally would cause a man to wither in his boots, Johnny laughed and held up the libation.

Salud, Boston!” Making his way to the comfort of the long, soft couch that was calling his name, Johnny kicked off his boots and stretched out, letting the relaxation soothe the tightness in his back. The tequila working its magic on the inside and the soft cushions easing on the outside, Johnny was ready to drop off within minutes of claiming his spot. The evening passed as those in the room took their solace, each in their own way, until it was time to call it a night.

Johnny decided to turn in, and he nudged Scott’s foot. “’Night, Scott,” he said softly and received no response. Taking more time to read his brother’s face, Johnny noticed it was a bit pale as Scott was intently absorbed, eyes growing wide as he read the newspaper.

“Hey, Boston, ya alright?” Johnny asked as he put a hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Ya look kinda peaked…”

Scott stopped reading and turned horrified eyes to Johnny’s face. Quickly replacing the shock registered there with something he hoped would not alarm his brother, he blinked to clear them of the trepidation and acknowledged Johnny, albeit a bit distractedly.

“Oh, goodnight, Johnny. Sorry, just reading something a bit upsetting. See you in the morning, brother.”

Not sure what had Scott so upset, Johnny hung back and did not withdraw the hand on Scott’s shoulder. “Ya alright, Scott?” Johnny asked again sensing all was not right.

Scott managed to compose himself and folded the paper, placing it on top of the pile. He heaved himself out of the chair and gave Johnny a smile. “Yes, Johnny, I’m alright, just have to wonder about some people these days and why they do the things they do… Let’s call it a day!”

Playfully Scott punched Johnny’s shoulder. The two ascended the stairs and continued their wrestling down the hall and, again, bidding the other a good night, they entered their rooms across the hall and closed their doors.

Johnny undressed, carefully folded his clothes away and fell into bed; he was sound asleep in minutes. Scott, however, lay awake for hours thinking about the hideous story in the San Francisco Times. He would certainly have to contact Cody to follow the event. The ugly tide raged out of the East and seemingly was headed their way. It had to be stopped… When Scott finally drifted to sleep, his dreams were filled with horrific and bloody scenes, and this time they weren’t of the hellish war he’d fought in, but of the possible battle that could be headed their way.

<><><><> 

Johnny woke before dawn. How this happened, he had no clue. In his life before Lancer, early morning meant that there were still many, many hours of sleep left before he would have to rise for the day. Now he was ready to start his day before  dawn broke. What the hell’s happenin’? Silently and quickly, Johnny dressed and entered the kitchen, Maria, Lancer cook, was not even there yet, so Johnny started the fire in the stove, then put on a large pot of coffee. Waiting for the craved brew that started his every morning, Johnny impatiently prowled the kitchen, most definitely the pantry, to check the status of the leftover chocolate cake from last evening’s dinner.

Successful in his hunt, Johnny carved a large piece to stockpile for later tonight, as it surely would not last through the day. He wrapped the treasure in a dinner napkin and took it to his room to squirrel away for a bedtime snack.

Taking the front stairs, Johnny stopped in the great room to light a fire in the large hearth to welcome the new day and all those who would soon be rising. As the flames crackled and danced over the logs casting a warm, cheery glow across the room, Johnny’s eyes caught the pile of papers left where Scott had been reading them. Remembering the night before and the look of… what was it that he saw in Scott’s face? Disgust? Horror? Had ta be somethin’ pretty bad ta make Boston look like that… What could have that kind of effect on Scott? Johnny took the top issue and headed into the kitchen to check the coffee. He started to chuckle at himself, drinkin’ coffee an’ readin’ the paper and up before dawn! What’s happenin’ ta me?

When he finally poured the coffee, Johnny sat at the table and began paging through the news. There was nothing on the front page that would provoke a reaction like he’d seen on his brother, so he kept turning through the pages but stopped at a picture of a young and stunning woman. Huh, won’t mind meetin’ her sometime! Sure is pretty! He was beginning to think that maybe Scott was pulling a trick on him, perhaps to get him to read the paper, but as he turned the page, he suddenly stopped as his eyes caught a brief but shocking article title, Man Found Slain in Pasture. The article went on to describe the events so bizarre, it made Johnny squirm.

‘A man chasing a mule out of his cornfield had been brutally slain along with the aged animal. Their throats were slit, and they had been disemboweled. The horrific attack resembles a case many years ago in the state of Maine.’ Maine, ain’t that one a them states that Scott talked about out East? This incident happened in Omaha, Nebraska, closer than Maine but still a long way from California. Yup, that story would make anyone have nightmares! Johnny thought to himself as he folded the
paper and put it back on the stack in the great room.

<><><><> 

Johnny and Scott worked well together, many times seeking out the other for the day’s chores, and today they were looking for strays in the north pasture. Scott had been unusually quietas he chased the cows. Johnny watched his brother; it was evident that something was on his mind, and it needed to be worked out.

Working cattle while distracted could prove fatal, for both of them. Vowing to find a solution to the solemn and dour demeanor, Johnny dug in his saddlebags coming out with a small package of the cookies that Scott liked so well. Riding over to where Scott stood to take a drink from his canteen, Johnny dismounted, handed his brother the bundle then satisfied his own thirst while Scott ate his fill.

“Thanks, brother,” Scott said softly as he chewed on the treat looking out over the majestic view of mountains, valleys, and lush, green pastureland.

Johnny watched his brother, concealing his glances behind long, thick lashes. Scott’s eyes were troubled, and his look was far away, not seeing the beauty around him, but lost in dread.

“Ya wanna talk about it?” Johnny asked softly, his smooth tones soothing and gentle.

Scott jerked around as if struck by a hot poker. He offered Johnny a bit of a smile.

“Oh, just thinking about something I read in one of the papers that Cody sent.” Scott’s voice grew quiet, almost fading away.

“Yeah, I saw it, too. Was enough ta give ya nightmares. Did ya get any sleep last night, Boston?”

Surprise showed in Scott’s eyes knowing Johnny’s aversion to newspapers, so Johnny explained.

“Last night when I said g’night the first time, I saw it on your face, Scott. This mornin’ while I was waitin’ on the coffee, I read it. Kinda makes ya wonder what the hell is wrong with some folks, don’t it?”
Scott shook his head and began to talk. “I remember when it happened, when the young man, no, he was still a kid really, was caught and sentenced. The story was so horrific that even down in Boston, hundreds of miles away, people were scared, scared to walk alone at night. The shock of something so… bloodthirsty, so completely gruesome and grisly ran wild in imaginations.” Scott stopped to sigh as if clearing his mind. “When I read that story last night, it brought back a lot of feelings from that time. Reading about it made the fear come alive again, just like when it happened before. Guess I was overtired, but the shock was just as chilling as when the story first broke.”

Johnny looked down at his boots; he toed a pebble from its home packed in the ground and bent to pick it up. He studied it for a minute before he tossed it away into the smooth surface of the lake, causing ripples in an ever-widening pattern. As Johnny watched the tiny wavelets in their expanding journey outward, he wondered if, like the ripples, the insane and repulsive madness would stretch this far west.

The exhausting work of the next several days served Scott well, and as Johnny watched his brother carry out his duties on the ranch, he knew the anxiety had run its course. It may still be there to some degree, but the shock was gone, leaving his brother in control once more. Relieved to see Scott back to his normal, although often irritating self, Johnny had been giving the situation some thought.

Reading about the events and the realization that it was heading westward, Johnny had been thinking about a plan. Not knowing any of the details, all he had were questions; was there a pattern to the madness? Were the circumstances the same? A dozen other issues and questions plagued Johnny’s mind. I could be makin’ somethin’ outta nuthin’ Johnny thought, but having a plan just in case couldn’t hurt. But how did one go about devising a plan not knowing all of the facts?

Johnny learned a long time ago that to combat an enemy successfully, you had to know that enemy. So, his decision made, Johnny began the letter and a list of questions for details and sincerely hoped that it would be all for naught. Having seen the look in Scott’s eyes and knowing his brother was not one prone to hysterics and imagination, this issue needed to be handled with a level and sensible approach. A reasonable approach in thoughts and actions. But would ‘reasonable’ and ‘sensible’ apply when there were no reason or sensibilities? Johnny knew that this needed to be addressed unless the response from his letter brought some good news.

<><><><> 

He watched as the old man entered the barn. From where he hid against the back wall, he could not be seen until it would be too late.

Devon watched as the old man peered into the dark. “Who’s there?” the man called out. Slinking deeper into the shadows as the lamp was held higher, Devon feared it would be over too soon. Wanting to prolong the anticipation, he watched the shock wash over the old man at the sight of the two cows lying in the straw. They kicked their last as muscle spasms ran their course and the animals lay still, eyes wide and beginning to fade, blood in massive pools drained out of the large slashes to their throats. Thomas’ dark eyes caught the struggle as the old one fought the urge to vomit. The farmer stared in disbelief, rooted to the spot with the horror of the sight.

Devon smiled to himself, knowing it would be the last thing the farmer ever saw before the ax nearly severed the head from the shoulders to flop backward as skin still held at the back of the neck. The body stood for a minute before falling into Thomas Devon’s arms, soaking him with a delightful warm flood. He closed his eyes in the pure thrill and elation, having been denied these pleasures for such a long time.

He lowered the body to the floor and pulled the knife out of his boot as the door opened again to admit another meal. She looks divine! And shivers of anticipation raced down his spine as he watched, knowing soon he would delight in observing the terror invade her body and feel the last beat of her heart in his hands.

<><><><> 

The last two weeks had passed quickly and had provided the ranch with much needed warm weather. The fall coolness was rapidly approaching and signaled that winter was not far behind. Johnny still experienced difficulties with the cold after his years growing up in the border towns of the southwest. He was beginning to think that he’d never get used to the freezing wind and rain, sometimes snow, too.

The layers of clothing required to keep the chill at bay posed its own threat. Johnny never knew who would want to issue a challenge and call him ‘to dance’. That thought was always there, lurking, waiting to take him by surprise. It could happen at any time or any place, and he would need to be ready for anything. But the sheepskin coat would prevent access to his Colt. Then he would be dead.

So, especially for that reason, he dreaded the long winter months. The incidences were not as frequent as they had been in the recent past, and that was a comfort, but the possibility was always there in his mind now that he had a family and people he loved. Family came with a price, and Johnny’s price was to keep them safe from everything, primarily from his past.

It was an honor really, Johnny thought, that his family had become the most important part of his life. Where he hadn’t mastered the ‘art’ of living with family, not having them for all his younger years, it had been a huge and sometimes challenging task conforming to the familial dynamics, but he was learning with perseverance and much patience. His biggest obstacle, if it could be called an obstacle, was to come to terms with the fact that there were people that genuinely cared about him.

In the days of roaming the border towns, no one cared if he lived or died. There had been no one to love him, to worry about or to depend on so he lived for himself and for the moment with no restraints, no responsibilities and no… family. Johnny had never considered himself worthy, why would anyone waste their time and effort to care about someone like him? But, they did care, and this startling fact was the most significant hurdle to overcome. What had he done to deserve their love, their devotion to him? His family did love him, he knew it, he just couldn’t figure out why.    

The inner battle would rage inside him. How could they possibly care? But yet, they did. He would lay awake at night, turning this over and over in his mind, why? How? His brain tried to absorb the facts, but his heart told him the truth. The two warring factions battled in his body, leaving him spent and exhausted come sunrise with no winner in the fray and often threatening to tear him apart. Family, to be part of a family was so… complicated, especially after growing up alone as Johnny had.

<><><><> 

Green River was quiet as Johnny rode into town. He dropped off the list at the general store then left to pick up the ranch mail. He would stop to see Val Crawford, sheriff and longtime friend, and maybe if there was enough time he’d stop for a drink. Maybe I’ll stop for a drink, then if I have time I’ll go see Val…  He rearranged his priorities.
Johnny retrieved the mail and settled at his table in the saloon on the back wall with his beer. He looked through the stack of envelopes, some for the ranch and some for the hands when an envelope addressed to him almost stopped his heart. It was from Cody Justice in San Francisco, in response to his letter he had written a few weeks prior regarding the gruesome murders. He looked at the writing for a moment as if contemplating to open it or not. Gotta find out! Johnny tore the missive open and read.

Dear Johnny,

It was good to hear from you, although I wish it was under different circumstances, so without further ado, here is the information you inquired about.

In 1867 one Thomas Devon was arrested, tried and convicted of this hideous crime, served three years in a mental institution before escaping, killing a guard with a lethal bite to the throat. I have kept in touch with colleagues in the East regarding the situation, and I presume that your inquiry has to do with Scott. It affected everyone incredibly hard. Scott, in particular, had a rough time dealing with the issue when it happened and now that the possibility of this heinous activity is moving this way, it is almost too much to comprehend.

I debated sending that paper to Scott, but in the end, I decided that hiding it from him would serve no purpose. Now, I hesitate to tell you that since that time, there have been two other incidents, one in Leadville, Colorado and one in Ely, Nevada. The fact that Devon has the ability to move about without detection could cause a panic, of unbelievable proportions that much of the details have been kept from the public especially as it is happening with more frequency. I have enclosed the articles that have appeared in the latest papers, and perhaps your local officials should be notified to handle accordingly.

If I can be of any service, please do not hesitate to ask and may our next correspondence be of a more pleasant nature!

I hope all is well as can be at the ranch and please give my sincerest greetings to the family.

As Ever,
Cody
Glancing at the articles with a turning stomach, Johnny gathered up the papers making sure to not leave any pieces behind, and then he casually walked over to the sheriff’s office. His pace easy and composed, but his blood was ready to boil over inside. Hopefully, Val would be there because this needed to be addressed and addressed now…

Johnny opened the door to Val’s office to find the sheriff up to his eyeballs in paperwork and knew that Val would be in a mood and not a good one. Val looked up with an ‘oh, it’s you’ attitude and went back to work.

Johnny sat in the chair opposite the desk and sighed. “We need ta talk, Val…” Johnny said, quietly rubbing his hand over his face.

Catching the gesture, Val knew it was important and watched his friend with undivided attention. “What’s wrong, amigo?” Concern started to build in his mind as he saw the look in Johnny’s eyes, and he waited for his friend to speak.

“Scott got some newspapers from Cody in San Francisco an’ there was a story about some trouble that might be headed this way. It’s a big country an’ it might not get here, but I think ya need ta know about it.”

What could be goin’ on? Hope that war business is b’hind us… Val thought, but as he took the papers that Johnny handed him, his insides turned cold, and his eyes went full and dark.

Johnny sat and waited as Val read the articles, noting the dates and the distances between crimes as if trying to determine when and if it could happen anywhere around Green River. He looked up to meet Johnny’s eyes and saw twin deep blue pools of… What the hell is that? Val thought. Johnny looked ready to burst open with rage, sadness, determination, and a dozen or so other emotions.

“Scott told me about when it happened out east, how it made him feel… The look in his eyes was… like he was haunted. I don’t want him ta feel like that again but don’t know how ta stop it, Val.” Johnny spoke quietly, obviously at a loss.

Val considered their options. Spreading this story would cause a panic of catastrophic proportions, yet did they have the right to withhold this information from the town? Well, what they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em, for a while anyway. We don’t even know if trouble’ll get this far an’ maybe someone’ll catch that sick bastard b’fore he gets any further.

“Johnny, I think maybe that we’ll keep this between us unless it seems ta get closer. We don’t need folks outside a town blowin’ each other’s heads off thinkin’ that they’re seein’ somethin’ that ain’t really there. But maybe Cody can keep us up ta date if somethin’ else happens.”

Johnny nodded in agreement and would send a vague telegram to the attorney and hope for news that would ease the worries and confirm that and threatening issues had appropriately been dealt with.

“Damn, now I won’t get any sleep tanight. Sure hope ol’ Mayor Higgs won’t get wind a this! He’ll be wantin’ ta sleep here in the jail with me!” Val spouted trying to lighten the dour gloom of the office.

Johnny slightly smiled at the remark. “I need ta get back ta Lancer, Val, just thought I’d let ya know,” Johnny said as he pushed out of the chair and headed to the door.

Val could see it weighed heavily on his amigo’s mind, but there was absolutely nothing to be done about it until something actually happened. And unfortunately, that meant they would have to wait until the deranged person killed again.

Johnny stopped to send the telegram to Cody, asking for any updates to be sent to Sheriff Crawford, then gave Barranca a nudge with his spurs and let the animal go at his own pace. Sensing freedom, the golden horse took off like lightning and was out of sight in seconds.
<><><><> 

It had been a month since the information from Cody Justice arrived, nothing had happened, and all seemed to settle back into a routine. The daily grind that had once been a source of frustration and mind-numbing irritation was now a warm blanket that Johnny welcomed. However, if the problem still existed, he wanted to know what was happening. Johnny found it a frustrating situation. Half of him glad there had been no new reports, but the other half wondered where the deranged man was and when would he strike next. He had fought against violent and ruthless people before, but never anything so demonic. This was something straight out of Hell, so utterly horrifying and shocking that, if known, would cause absolute panic.
There had been no new reports of attacks, but it was always tucked in the back of Johnny’s mind and would be until the maniac was caught. He remained vigilant, but Madrid was there lurking behind Lancer, ready and waiting should he be needed. Johnny kept a careful watch on Scott, witnessing firsthand the effect of the horrific story, but as time trickled by, his older brother was finally back to his usual self. But Madrid was still there, always alert, to protect all that was Lancer and connected to Lancer.
<><><><> 

The weather began to get colder, and the scent of fall was heavy in the air. The morning chill permeated the hacienda, causing one to not dally over much when getting dressed. Standing as close to the hearth in their rooms as possible while pulling on their clothes was necessary. Johnny became very adept at hopping on one foot while tugging on socks, long johns, pants and finally boots. He stood this particular morning and sniffed the air.

Chocolate cake! For breakfast? Died an’ gone ta Heaven after all!  he thought as he took the back stairs three at a time down into the kitchen. Mouth-watering and anticipating the tasty delicacy to start off the day, he was brought up short as he rounded the corner. He was greeted with a brief ‘good morning’ from Teresa and Maria as they labored at the stove and counter mixing batches of treats while on the table sat a platter of cold bacon, biscuits, and honey.

Johnny watched as the two women bustled around, hurrying to bake as much as they possibly could and with not a second thought about breakfast.

“What’cha makin’?” he asked, hoping against hope that there would be something more than cold bacon to satisfy his empty, growling belly.

“The Fall Bazaar is the day after tomorrow, and we need to get all of this done and over to the church to help set up on Saturday. So we’ll be pretty busy around here, Johnny, sorry…” Teresa explained as she saw the disappointment in his eyes. Her brother sure did enjoy his eating, especially if it involved chocolate cake, she thought but knew it stemmed from his childhood of not knowing if there he would have anything to eat much less chocolate cake.

Maybe it was the thought of doing for others and donating all of these treats to sell that settled around her. The season of giving was upon them with emotional sentiments tugging at heartstrings, but at that moment, she had the urge to hug her brother, to wrap her arms around his broad shoulders and tell him what he meant to her. Instead, covered in flour from head to toe, she offered him a sweet smile that was returned to her, and she promised to cook his favorite meal for dinner.

The look in his deep blue eyes was enough thanks for her; she knew that he appreciated her efforts and he thanked her for her thoughtfulness.

Knew it was too good ta be true….. Woulda been nice, though… Chocolate cake for breakfast!

<><><><> 

“Did you boys get everything done today that needed doing?” Murdoch asked that evening over dinner.

Teresa, good to her word, made Johnny’s favorite meal consisting of spicy beef stuffed chilies with Mexican cheese and tomato. He ate with gusto; savoring every mouthful and stuffing himself until he could eat no more, he glanced across the table and caught her attention.

Gracias, T’resa!” he said with his dazzling smile.

Her face lit up, and eyes sparkled. “You are welcome, Johnny!”

“Yes, sir, we will be able to move the cattle next week. All fences have been mended and streams cleared of debris. The only thing left to do is re-stock some of the line shacks. Johnny and I will start that tomorrow.” Scott gave his report and noted the pleased expression on their father’s face.

“Good! Good work, boys! We’re ahead of schedule then!” He looked from one son’s eyes to the other, feeling incredibly proud of them. They had worked so very hard on the ranch, amazing considering their backgrounds, Scott of pampered luxury and Johnny growing up destitute and undisciplined. But both had labored diligently, and their efforts were showing, paying off in big ways, most of all pleasing their father. Murdoch couldn’t be happier.

<><><><> 


The early morning was again crisp and chilly, making Johnny glad he’d brought along the sheepskin coat that Murdoch had bought for him last year. It served him well last winter, and he knew its warmth would do so again this year. With the wagon loaded full of supplies, the two Lancer brothers jumped aboard and headed to the north-northeast where a corner of the Lancer ranch met Aggie Conway’s Circle C.

By the time they reached their destination, it would be late. They would stock the shack, spend the night, and start back in the morning. Both Johnny and Scott were looking forward to the trip. As their friendship grew, the bonds of brotherhood strengthened, forming a relationship that neither of them ever thought possible in their lifetime. They’d both grown up alone, no siblings, not knowing of the other’s existence, but once united they would never be separated. Only death could come between them now.

The heavily laden wagon lumbered much too slowly for Johnny’s liking, and he became impatient with the dawdling pace. It was either pull his hat down over his eyes as Scott drove or… irritate his brother.Of the two choices, it would be, without a doubt, to irritate Scott. It had become a skill of which Johnny excelled, and it was easy to do. Looking to the side across the valleys and stands of dark green pines, Johnny began to speak.

“Ya know, Boston, I been thinkin’ about a few plans for your birthday this year. Ya wanna hear about ‘em?” Johnny’s tone was soft, and casual, with not a hint of humor.

Scott visibly paled and swallowed hard but stared straight ahead. “Not particularly, no. And I don’t want a repeat of last year’s ‘celebration’ either!” The adamant reply rang sharply through the early morning air.

Johnny feigned hurt feelings, placing an open palmed hand on his chest, turning to look into Scott’s colorless face. “Scott! Are you still blamin’ me for that? If ya remember, I didn’t make ya drink all them shots, and I saw to it that ya got home in one piece, didn’t I? Even stopped so ya could puke before we got home! I took care of ya, brother.” Having difficulties controlling his mirth, Johnny had to turn away. This was too easy! He had discovered the key to getting under Boston’s skin, and he used it every chance he got. “Well, that’s alright, Scott, I can cancel them reservations at that fancy place in San Francisco that ya like ta go to. I guess the girls’ll understand…” Johnny muttered under his breath but loud enough for Boston to hear.

Scott pulled up on the reins, stopping the wagon, shock written in his blue-gray eyes as his mouth fell open. That was Johnny’s undoing. He burst out laughing as the thunderbolt shot through Scott’s brain. His Boston college-educated brother did, after all, look pretty damn funny sitting with his mouth agape.

“You didn’t!” Scott wailed, as Johnny, once under a bit of control, just shrugged not confirming or denying. He simply smiled his dazzling smile as Scott thumped the reins to get the horses moving again. Two can play this game, thought Scott as they made their way further into the mountains.

It was late afternoon when the two men pulled into the clearing that surrounded the line shack. The structure had weathered the spring and summer quite well. After unloading the provisions, Johnny and Scott took inventory of the building itself, finding it to be sound for the upcoming winter.

They took turns between chopping a supply of wood and putting supplies away. Working efficiently and quickly, they were done before sundown. Finding no signs of leaks or water damage, they were reasonably assured that the roof would hold through the brutal winter months and keep the interior dry.

“Flip ya ta see who makes supper?” Johnny said as they began to settle in for the night.

“Huh? Oh, we don’t have to flip. It’s your job.” Scott stated flatly.

Johnny turned to face his brother. “My job? Who says it’s my job?” Johnny asked with a cold stare.

“The book says. Chapter one, page one. It will be the younger brother’s duty to fix dinner…”  Scott said with a chuckle.

Johnny’s cold stare turned frosty. “You an’ your damn book…” he muttered as he turned to the stove.

<><><><> 

The scream echoed from mountain to mountain, bringing both men to a sitting position in their bunks. Johnny instinctively reached for his Colt, then his rifle. He looked over at Scott, also armed, wide-eyed, and fully awake.

“What the hell was that?” Johnny said as he turned to Scot, who sat stunned and shaking his head. “Wasn’t nothin’ I ever heard before!” Johnny spoke quietly in the dark. “I'm gonna go out an’ check the horses…”

He jumped out of the bunk and yanked his calzoneras over his lean hips. He strapped on his pistol and pulled on his shirt, leaving it open. Then he slid his feet into cold boots. Lastly, he pulled on the heavy coat and grabbed his rifle, striding quickly to the door. Scott mirrored his brother’s movements, and together they left the cozy shack stepping onto the porch and out in the chill that gripped the night.

Dark clouds slid in front of the moon and dimmed the silvery sky that would have otherwise given some degree of light to their surroundings. They could hear the horses restless in their stalls, as they stomped and tugged at the ropes that secured them. The whinnies were strained and desperate. Johnny swiftly ran the rest of the way and, with pistol and rifle ready, swung the door open to the small building that served as a barn. He struck a match and illuminated the small enclosure.

“Easy, boys, it’s alright…” Johnny soothed them with his quiet tones and gentle touch, his efforts calming them after several minutes, but it was apparent that something had definitely spooked them, something eerie and wicked. Both Johnny and Scott looked around the barn and finding nothing to indicate a threat, made their way back to the warmth of the cabin.

“Maybe a cougar made its way down out of the higher elevations,” Scott said as they shut the door of the shack and threw more wood on the fire.

“That wasn’t a cougar, Boston,” Johnny stated with certainty, his voice too soft and Scott could hear the dread, the implication of foreboding in his brother’s words.
He stopped, meeting Johnny squarely. “You know what it is, then?” Scott asked, equally quiet.

Johnny met the look, the blue-gray stare and answered, not entirely honest. “No… but it wasn’t a cougar.” He sighed long and hard. “Let’s see if we can get a few more hours’ sleep. Nothin’ we can do in the dark anyway.” He dropped to his bunk, knowing that there would be no more sleep for him this night.

Dawn should be comin’ soon, Johnny thought as he lay in his bunk. Sleep had, indeed, been elusive for him but Scott managed to drop off again.

Johnny’s gut told him what had happened, and he learned long ago to trust those warnings, but until they could check things further and be sure, he would keep his suspicions to himself. Now he wished that they had brought their saddle horses along. Not much investigating could be done with a team pulling a wagon, but they would check out as much as they could before they left for home, and he wondered what they would find.

Johnny mulled over and over the information that he’d taken to Val about the gruesome murders. With no other communication from Cody, it was impossible to even guess with any degree of accuracy if what they heard earlier in the night had anything to do with a maniac that terrorized the country, but Johnny could not shake the feeling from his gut. So, he would have to wait…

<><><><> 

Devon was not satisfied. The slaughtered cows did not fulfill his need. Once their eyes glazed over, they were as good as dead. He craved the look of terror from human victims to produce the level of excitement that raced through him, the taste of the hot, thick human blood as he watched his victim’s eyes as they realized what was happening to them and to know that they were going to die, know that he would be the last person they would ever see.

He smelled wood smoke… He was not alone in these mountains, and a maniacal lopsided grin spread across thin, bloodstained lips.

<><><><> 

The brilliant, deep pink of the early day stained the sky as Johnny, mentally exhausted, hauled himself out of the bunk and started the coffee. The robust aroma roused Scott from a deep slumber as he cracked sleep-heavy eyes open and glanced around the cabin. Pulling on his clothes, he glanced at his brother, up, dressed, and ready… for anything.

“You get any more sleep, Johnny?” Scott asked quietly.

Snorting his negative reply, Johnny sat on the hearth as he coaxed the flames of the fire. “Coffee’s ready an’ breakfast will be… as soon as you make it!” Johnny laughed, hoping to lighten the atmosphere in the cabin.

Pulling the shirt around him, Scott picked up on the mood surrounding his brother. He’s still got something on his mind; it will come out… in due time. Scott had also learned to trust Johnny’s gut.

“I'm gonna go check the horses.” Johnny rose from his spot in front of the warm fire and pulled on his coat. Scott watched as his brother took his Colt and checked it over, making sure it was fully loaded, then did the same with the Winchester and went out the door.

Scott discreetly stepped out onto the porch to verify Johnny got to the barn, went inside and with no further noise or disturbance Johnny made his return to the cabin but not before he saw Scott duck back inside. A chuckle managed to escape him as, again, the idea that people cared about him continued to puzzle his mind.

“How about before we leave, we take a little look-see around here? Not gonna be able ta go very far with the wagon, though; I knew we shoulda brought our horses,” Johnny suggested as they were getting ready to head back home.

Scott looked up with a smile. “I think that’s a good idea. Whatever that was we heard last night was not normal and if you didn’t think it was a cat then, yes, I do think it bears some investigating.”

With one last look around the cabin making sure all was in order, they closed it up, hitched the team to the wagon and turned out onto the path that led deeper into the mountains. The further they went, the more restless the horses became. They pulled and pranced in the traces giving Johnny a rough time of it, and he knew something was very wrong.

“If I’m not mistaken, Aggie Conway’s Circle C borders Lancer right over this rise. It’s the northwest corner of her ranch,” Scott announced as the wagon was pulled to the top of the crest on the ridge that overlooked a small, lush green valley. Off in the distance on the very far side was a small herd of cattle.

Johnny stopped the wagon and hopped down. He walked to the edge of the drop off and looked below. Ice formed in his belly and bile rose in the back of his throat. The grisly scene, directly below, was like nothing he’d ever seen before. A dozen or more cattle lay in the grass butchered, torn apart and shredded, lying in pools of their own blood.

Scott turned to join his brother, but the look on Johnny’s face stopped him cold, then he hurried to his brother’s side and took in the horror below.

“He’s here…” whispered Scott. “We need to go down there and take a look around, Johnny,” Scott’s continued whisper was laced with dread.

Tying the team securely, Johnny and Scott made their way down the steep valley side, moving as quickly and quietly as possible. Both had pistols drawn to be ready for anything. They could smell the blood now, it was in the wind, and it had spooked the team on the way over here.

Johnny picked his way carefully, watching for any sign of trouble and tracks in the loose earth. Large boulders were strewn over the area making for slow going. Scott slipped going down on his backside and dropped his pistol as it skittered down and came to a stop just feet in front of his brother.

Johnny turned, startled but reassured Scott was not hurt. “You alright, Scott?” A bit of worry flashed through in Johnny’s eyes.

“Yes, I’m alright!”

Johnny turned, taking several steps, he bent to retrieve the gun, and in that split second, Scott looked up, and he locked eyes with the most hideous face he’d ever seen.

The eyes, black, cold and lifeless, narrow under bushy black brows that grew over a horribly misshapen face. A grossly bulging forehead and cheekbone, more extensive on one side and a wide, flat nose that looked to have been smashed in the middle of the shocking features squatted over pointed saw-edged teeth that trimmed out the mouth stretching from ear to ear. And was stained blood red. The head, large and out of proportion was attached to a wiry, but muscular body and a long gangly arm was drawn back in the process of throwing a spear-like weapon at Johnny’s back.

“NNNOOOOOOOO!” Scott screamed as he launched himself forward to block his brother from the strike. Johnny whirled around as Scott’s body crumpled at his feet, and pointed his Colt at… nothing; nothing was there. He turned in a circle; there was nothing in any direction.

Keeping an eye on the rocks surrounding them, Johnny knelt at Scott’s prone body.
“Easy, Scott, I’ll getcha home,” he murmured as much for himself as for Scott. Johnny’s heart hammered against his ribs as he desperately tried to assess the injury that bled profusely, quickly soaking Scott’s clothing.

Keeping vigilant for more threats, Johnny’s attention was momentarily drawn to a primitive lance protruding from Scott’s shoulder. Fear seized his brain, and he was going numb with shock, this was his brother! Scott took the blade that should be in my back! Johnny couldn’t process the thought. Why did Scott do that?!

Get movin’, Madrid! Johnny screamed at himself as he watched the blood pooling around his brother. Quickly, Johnny grabbed the shaft and pulled the stone blade from his brother’s shoulder despite the scream that rent the cold mountain air. Yanking his bandana from around his neck, he packed it inside Scott’s shirt adding pressure to stop the flood and then risked a glance upward looking for trouble to make another attack. Johnny’s first course of action was getting his brother to safety. All he could do was try and be as ready as he could. Scott was bleeding out, and they were a long way from home.

The struggle up the steep, rocky hillside with the dead weight of his brother over his shoulder took its toll and Johnny was gasping heavily for air by the time he reached the top. Going to the back of the wagon, he settled Scott as best he could knowing the long ride would not be an easy one. Johnny put the spear-like weapon in the boot box as he climbed in, turned the team back down out of the mountains, the mountains that hid a maniac.

The horses made much better time with an empty wagon. Stopping at the cabin for blankets and a few items to aid in his brother’s comfort, Johnny then drove as fast as he dared. The first seven miles were torture as the road was rough, but as they came out of the mountains, the path was much smoother, allowing a faster speed, and Johnny took every advantage he could. He knew that there was a good chance that Scott wouldn’t make it and he went cold inside. Scott had saved his life! Johnny could not grasp the idea that his brother jumped in front of him and saved him! I ain’t worth it, Scott!  Johnny’s mind went numb with wild thoughts that scrambled his brain into mush and filled his belly with ice.

Johnny looked behind him, he noted no change in Scott, but he pulled the team to a halt, and jumped over the seat, checked the makeshift bandage and attempted to get Scott to take some water. Then he climbed back onto the driver’s seat, and in seconds the horses were racing down the road again.

Time was a blur; Johnny saw nothing except the lathered team in front of him; he had no concept of time, and still, he drove as if the hounds of Hell were upon them. Turning frequently to check Scott, Johnny tried to piece together what happened. The demon had been waiting for them, had probably heard their approach, and waited, waited to slit their throats and gut them out.

I’m gonna fuckin’ kill that bastard! Johnny Madrid Lancer was scared. This was the first time in his life that he was scared clear through to his soul. His brother, Scott, had saved his life! Johnny couldn’t wrap his head around it. Scott saved my life… an’ I ain’t worth it! What'd ya do that for, Boston? Johnny agonized over the fact that his brother could very well die from his selfless act of trading his life for Johnny’s. He went back and forth between nothing mattering except getting Scott home and killing the sadistic madman that attacked them and seriously wounded his brother.

<><><><> 

Johnny couldn’t believe what he was seeing! Below were Lancer hands mending a fence and better yet they had a fresh team and a couple of saddle horses. They all stopped working as the wagon skidded recklessly to a stop, and Johnny jumped off the box, yelling orders.

“Change out the team! Someone get on that horse, ride ta town an’ get Doc and Val, NOW!”

Several minutes later the horses were swapped out while he again checked on his brother, then Johnny continued his race to Lancer without the usual concern for the horses.

Close! We’re close, brother! Hang on, Scott! With hands numb from clutching the reins and a brain boiling over with a full spectrum of emotions, Johnny drove under the Lancer arch and skidded, once again, to a dusty stop as Murdoch charged out of the hacienda ready to tear into whoever it was driving so recklessly. But one look at his younger son’s face was enough to tell a desperate story, one of life and death.

Johnny vaulted over the wagon seat and kicked the tailgate open, then proceeded to wrestle his brother out from the bed.

“My God, Johnny! What happened?” Murdoch bellowed as he helped Johnny and gently took Scott in his arms as Johnny ran ahead, calling loudly for Maria and Teresa. Charging up the stairs, he raced to Scott’s room and pulled the blankets and top sheet off the bed and poured water into the basin.

Murdoch hurried as fast as was possible with his burden. He came through the door and carefully laid Scott on the bed. He pulled off Scott’s boots and lifted the bloodied coat and shirt to examine the injury. Johnny started a fire as Maria and Teresa put water on to boil and collected herbs, medicines and bandages.

“Johnny, tell me what happened!” Murdoch demanded, his voice hard and anxious until he saw the look in Johnny’s eyes. And what he saw scared him. Startlingly raw nerves, shock, dread, sorrow, and… fear. Johnny Madrid Lancer was scared.

“Johnny, what happened?” he asked again, this time with gentle concern.

Johnny lifted dark blue eyes to his father, and the turmoil rolled in them, threatening to boil over.

Now Murdoch feared for both his sons. Something catastrophic and potentially fatal had happened up in the mountains, and Murdoch Lancer needed to know what they were dealing with.

After the women had gone down to the kitchen, Johnny went to Scott’s door, closed it quietly, then came to sit on the side of the bed next to his brother.

Murdoch saw the tremble in Johnny’s hands as he took the cloth, dipped it in the basin of cool water, and placed across his brother’s fevered head. His breath harsh, Johnny inhaled deeply before he spoke.

“Someone attacked us early this mornin’, in the rocks up by the borderline of the Circle C,” Johnny explained quietly, his eyes never leaving his brother’s face.

Murdoch listened, but confusion took root in his eyes. “We’ll get the men out to search, Johnny. Right now let’s do what we can for your brother.” And knowing there was much more to the story, Murdoch let it drop until he knew Johnny had more control over his emotions. It was quite clear to Murdoch that Johnny was close to his limit. What he didn’t know was that Madrid was about to make an appearance.

They kept pressure on the wound, and the bleeding slowed, but after most of the day in the wagon bouncing over roads, Scott had lost a life-threatening amount of blood. The fever had set in, and he lay deathly still in the bed. It seemed to take hours, but finally, they heard the footsteps they’d been waiting for coming down the hall and Doctor Sam Jenkins entered the room.

He took one look at Johnny, knowing that he would not be leaving his brother’s side, and Sam was right. There was a haunted look about the young man that was beginning to alarm Sam. The boys had always stayed with the other when they were hurt, but there was something else going on here, too. Well, he would get to the bottom of it sooner or later.

<><><><> 

Johnny stretched out his legs, lying next to Scott as he leaned against the headboard of the bed. He needed to be close; Sam wanted Scott to lay still; Johnny would be there to hold him and keep him quiet. He didn’t say a word but kept constant contact with his brother with a gentle hand on his arm to let him know he was there should Scott need him.

A knock on the door interrupted Murdoch’s focus on his sons, and he opened the portal to reveal Val Crawford. Looking past Murdoch’s shoulder, he found Johnny on the bed by his brother.

“Need ta talk ta Johnny, Mr. Lancer. I’ll make it quick.”

Murdoch stepped aside and allowed Val to enter.

He walked around the bed and stood next to Johnny, and before Johnny acknowledged him, he leaned over to whisper: “We need ta talk, amigo. I’ll be downstairs.”

Johnny nodded, and Val left the room. He lifted his eyes to Sam, the questioning stare saying what words could not.

“Johnny, I won’t know anything until he wakes. He’s holding his own for now. Why don’t you go get cleaned up and some hot food in you? You look like hell, son,” Sam said hoping to entice a smile but, of course, he got none. But Sam didn’t like what he saw in Johnny’s eyes; there was turmoil so great it threatened to tear the young man apart. Whatever it was that had Johnny this troubled, no, it was more than troubled, this was debilitating, and Sam was afraid it was about to send Johnny over the edge.

Johnny nodded and gently squeezed Scott’s arm. He rolled off the bed, taking care to not disturb his brother. landing gracefully on his feet in one fluid motion, he stopped to take a look at Scott, turned, and left the room.

Sam looked to Murdoch. “I’m worried about both of them.”

<><><><> 

He knew the hunt would be on. They would come looking for him, and he would wait for them, pick them off one by one, and he trembled with anticipation of what would follow. His heart began to race, pounding his ribs with the thought of fresh blood and the horror-filled eyes of his paralyzed prey. The final look of disbelief and shock so debilitating that they were rendered defenseless made him increasingly anxious.

Again, the shivers raced along his spine, shivers he could not control, and saliva filled his mouth, thinking about what was to come. He fantasized about his victims, lingering on the sheer terror as they died; suddenly knowing their chances of escape were gone and their panicked eyes widened with the realization that in seconds they would be dead. Total shock took them over, and his heart hammered with the thrill of expectation!
<><><><> 

Johnny entered the great room and went directly to the sideboard. Reaching for the tequila bottle, he poured himself a full glass.

“Better go easy there, Johnny. You ain’t had nuthin’ ta eat taday, have ya?” Val asked as he watched Johnny drain half the alcohol. “I heard from Cody yesterday, another incident, this time in western Nevada.”

Madrid turned to Val, eyes clear, mind clear, and voice steady. “Well, he ain’t in Nevada no more. He’s here. There’s about a dozen head of Circle C cattle up in the northern valley sliced ta pieces. Scott and I were goin’ ta check it out when he hit us. I didn’t see anything, but I think Scott got a look at him. We heard him durin’ the night, it was like nothin’ I ever heard before, Val, worse‘n a cougar scream, an’ it wasn’t any knife that he threw at Scott. Come an’ look at this.”

Johnny led Val out to the barn where the wagon had been stored and reached under the seat. The spear-like weapon in Johnny’s hand looked wicked in the lamplight, primitive and deadly. Val took the stone blade, he examined it then whistled softly, and at that moment, he knew for certain that this belonged to the deranged lunatic that had terrorized the country from the east coast all the way to California. Jus’ how the hell are we gonna stop ‘im? Val thought as a shiver crawled down his spine.

Shaking himself free of fearful thoughts, Val handed the wicked spear, still coated with Scott’s blood, back to Johnny. “C’mon, amigo, we need ta have us a talk with Mr. Lancer. An’ bring that blade, maybe Doc should see it an’ know better how ta treat Scott.”

Johnny mentally kicked himself for not thinking about that sooner. The weapon would more than likely cause more chance for infection, and Sam needed to know…

The two men left the barn and headed back toward the house. Johnny took the stairs and quickly and quietly entered Scott’s room. Doc had him settled in bed, reclining on a stack of pillows. He was breathing more comfortably, and Johnny silently gave his thanks.

“Sam?” Johnny asked, again his eyes pleading for the answer he wanted to hear.

Sam saw the desperate need still there and wished he had something to tell Johnny. “We have to wait, Johnny. It’s all we can do right now, wait and keep the fever under control. But he is breathing a little easier now if that’s any comfort to you.”

Nodding his head to the door, Johnny left the room with Sam following. He then showed the blade to the doctor, and Johnny saw the reaction he had hoped not to see. The doctor’s face fell in confirmation of a rough road ahead. Scott would be in trouble.

Sam hurried into the room to begin preparation to irrigate the wound and to stem the chance of infection.

There was no acknowledgment as Johnny’s eyes drifted back to his brother’s still face. He looked colorless against the white of the bedclothes. Johnny turned to Murdoch. “We need ta talk.”

The words were so soft, Murdoch had to strain to hear them, and he followed Johnny from the room as Maria was summoned to help el medico.

Despite the cold and unsettling atmosphere of the hacienda, the great room was warm and cozy with a fire burning brightly. The crackles, pops, and hisses would have added to the charm had the circumstances not been of such a dire nature. Murdoch entered the room and immediately felt the temperature drop several degrees, the aura surrounding Johnny and Val was tangible, and suddenly Murdoch was more afraid. The two men before him stood enveloped in a shroud trepidation, dark and foreboding.  

Johnny handed Murdoch a glass of Scotch as he began to talk. He told his father the story from the heinous beginning through the bloody events of the day. Val produced the letter he received from Cody yesterday, and Murdoch read the brief statement knowing that this was, in fact, real especially after what happened today with his sons. He was numb, his brain was spinning, and he wondered when he would wake from this horrid nightmare.

“We need ta keep this quiet, Mr. Lancer, we can’t let folks panic. I figure if I can get Russell Westin ta track for us an’ a few trusted men, me an’ Johnny can go up ta the mountains an’ track ‘im down cuz he ain’t gonna stop on his own, even if we say ‘pretty please’. It’s the only way ta put an end ta alla this. But it needs ta stay quiet. I’ll tell Miz Conway an’ ask for a coupla men from her outfit that can keep their mouths shut ta help, but it’s gotta be quick. Figure ta move out at dawn. Gonna go over there when I leave here so the faster I get goin’ the faster we can get this stopped for good an’ nobody else’ll get hurt.”

Murdoch sat in stunned shock at this… this unbelievable nightmare. He nodded in agreement with the sheriff. “I’ll have Cipriano, Walt, Isidro, and Joe go with you. They’re all good trackers and know those mountains well, and they’re men you can count on to do what needs to be done,” Murdoch said quietly.

“Thanks, Mr. Lancer. I best be on my way. See ya in the mornin’, amigo,” and Val gently laid a hand on Johnny’s shoulder as he passed.

The silence in the great room was palpable. Murdoch sat with disbelief in his eyes as Johnny paced, wrapping his arms around his chest, the familiar gesture he made when he was troubled.

Murdoch watched his younger son, knowing there was something more going on.
“Johnny, are you alright?” he asked.

Johnny stopped his pacing to finally turn and face his father, slowly bringing his eyes to meet the old man’s stare. “…No…”

<><><><> 

Johnny sat by the bed, watching the rise and fall of his brother’s chest. The breathing had, indeed, evened out but the pale white skin and rising temperature scared Johnny more than he wanted to admit. Scott looked dead. He felt like his guts had frozen in a block of ice, and he kept seeing Scott lying in a heap at his feet with that spear through his shoulder, and he kept feeling the warmth of Scott’s blood as it flowed over his hands as he tried to stop it before his brother bled out.

Scott had jumped in front of him, had saved his life… and this was something that Johnny could not comprehend. Why? One Scott’s worth a thousand of me… Boston, why did you do it? As he sat next to his brother, his thoughts volleyed between questions of why Scott did what he did, to the wonders of brotherhood and how lucky they were to finally be together.

And then rage started to filter through, and the urge to go now, by himself, and shoot that bastard, blow his fucking head clear off his shoulders. The fury boiled through his blood, searing his brain, and burned out of control. But he didn’t want to leave his brother, although Sam said it could be several days before Scott would wake. I can be back by then, he thought. Johnny reached over to take Scott’s hand in his. He held it, willing his life energies into his brother’s body then he silently stood and left the room, glad that Sam had stayed the night.

Murdoch saw a dim light under the door and gently knocked; he waited but got no answer, so he opened the door to see Johnny packing his saddlebags.

“Johnny? What are you doing, son?” But in his mind, he already knew what Johnny had planned.

“Gonna go after that son-of-a-bitch an’ kill him!” Johnny breathed out in a harsh whisper.

“No, son, not alone, please wait for the others! I don’t want you out there alone!”

Johnny stopped his packing and met Murdock’s terrified eyes. “Won’t be alone. Madrid’s here,” he said softly, calmly defending his decision to leave.

“Johnny, you do this, and there’s no turning back…” Murdoch was begging.

He searched his son’s eyes, noting the desperation he saw there, the confirmation Johnny knew full well and the consequences of what he was about to do.

“Murdoch, I don’t do this an’ there ain’t no movin’ forward.” And that was it, Johnny stopped talking.

But Murdoch had to try one last time. He leaned into his son, taking both arms in his hands, face to face.

“Johnny, please, please wait until morning! There are only a few hours before you all can move out together! You can wait that long, please!” Murdoch desperately whispered.

Johnny saw his father’s panic and anguish, his eyes were bright in the dim room, and Johnny knew he was right. He dropped his head, breaking the visual contact, and nodded.

They sat together next to Scott; Sam declared war on the fever that was building in the young man’s body and remained at his side. Just being by the bed, watching Scott as he desperately fought for life was agonizing but neither Murdoch nor Johnny could leave. There was no conversation, each numbed by the horrific event, each with pleas for the fever to break, and each wrapped in fear. Dr. Jenkins said it would take some time to regenerate the blood that Scott had lost and to fight off the fever. This would be a long recovery.

Johnny had immediately wondered if there was anything more that he could have done up there in the mountains, that maybe Scott wouldn’t be in this bad of shape. Could he have handled things differently to make it easier on Scott? His mind still damning himself that Scott was injured because of him! Why had Scott made that split-second decision to save him? The action stunned Johnny that his brother was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice and take the blow intended for him. That fact that Scott was ready to die for him made Johnny’s brain reel, careen out of control. It crashed around in his skull and slammed painfully in his head as if it were kicked around by a herd of stampeding cattle. 

He slowly rose from his chair and went to the door. “Need some coffee.” And he slipped out into the hall and down to the kitchen.

He stood in the middle of the room as if his boots were nailed to the floor. No, coffee wasn’t what he was after. C’mon, Lancer, you an’ me can do this! This needs ta be done an’ it was you that he was aimin’ ta kill. We need ta get rid of this diablo del infierno… And Johnny Lancer knew that Madrid was right. If he started out right now, he could get a significant jump on tracking this madman. Who knew, maybe he could get the deed done without anyone else getting hurt… if he left now.

Silently, Johnny retrieved his gear and left by the back door. He would take Barranca around behind the barn and over the rise to the road and have a sizeable head start before anyone knew he was gone. He had to make up for the guilt he felt.

<><><><> 

Barranca stretched out into a mile-eating run after his enforced confinement of the last few days, first when Johnny had taken the wagon and now another day waiting for Scott to improve. This was a horse that lived to run and run he did. Hooves beat the hard-packed road, tumbling tiny puffs of dust out from under each stride. He sensed they were on a mission, an important destination, and he would deliver his master there as fast as he could.

Johnny mentally ticked off the miles; they’d come a long way already, but once they left the road, the pace would have to slow. With dawn now breaking, climbing up and down steep mountainsides would limit any speed and there would be a time to go ahead on foot, to leave Barranca to start tracking a monster. Johnny’s guilt of his brother’s injury weighed heavy on his mind. It should never have happened, not to Scott, not to my brother, he’s a better man than I am…

The day started gloomy, and soon, dark clouds rolled in, covering the sky in a cloak of deep gray. The wind picked up blowing bits of dust, dirt, and debris in Johnny’s face. He pulled his hat lower over his eyes, and the collar of his coat stood up to cover the back of his neck, then he wondered how long before the rain would soak him. He regretted that he hadn’t taken the time to bring his slicker along.

The tops of the trees rocked back and forth as the weather deteriorated, and looking over the small valley they were about to cross, Johnny could see a wall of rain rapidly approaching, vivid even through the heavy mist. He would not be dry for long and as he sat looking out over the countryside, the chilling howl that he and Scott heard at the cabin the night before last, pierced the thin, icy air.

The shrieking wail was soon drowned out by the sound of the cold, fat drops that splattered on the ground. Was the maniac near? Johnny was sure he heard it just before the rain started pelting the earth. He urged Barranca farther down into the valley, listening again for the sound belonging to the creature from Hell. The chill he felt was not entirely due to the cold. He rechecked his Colt and Winchester; both were ready to send a slug into the brain of the demon.

About time ta get revenge for Scott, Lancer, better get ready. That thing ain’t far away, Madrid warned as Johnny dismounted deciding on letting Barranca loose. The horse would come when he whistled, and he didn’t want the palomino tied and trapped to end up with his throat shredded and bleed out should the demon find him.

The rain was washing away any tracks. This had the potential to not end well. If that ‘thing’ had already spotted Johnny, it would have the upper hand, and Scott would have sacrificed himself for nothing. That can’t happen… Johnny thought with his guilt boiling to the surface and searing his brain with self-incriminating accusations and full blame for what had happened.

<><><><> 
Murdoch Lancer was boiling mad. Johnny had left, alone, to go after a man, a very unbalanced man that had already savagely killed many victims. When he realized his son was not at the hacienda, Murdoch roused Cipriano and filled him in, and after telling him that Johnny had gone out alone, Cip wasted no time.

The trusted men were ready and about to leave when Val, Russell Westin and a few others from the Conway ranch rode into the Lancer yard. Murdoch, although livid with his younger son, was at the same time scared he would never see that maddening, beautiful smile again, and that thought he could not live with. His sons were taken from him once, never again could he survive that agony.

The Lancer patriarch watched as the rescue posse rode out of the yard and turned north as fast as their mounts would take them to finally fade from sight. Murdoch turned his eyes to the heavens and didn’t like what he saw. The darkness that formed in the sky and increased by the minute had the potential to turn this already volatile situation deadly, and Johnny was right in the middle of it. He needed to see Scott for it was at Scott’s bedside that Murdoch would feel the closest to both of his boys.
<><><><> 

“Murdoch, I need to drain this wound. Infection has set in again, and we have to keep it under control as much as we can. Johnny showed me the weapon; it was primitive and definitely was not anywhere near clean, so it probably was covered with contamination. I’ll stay the night again to watch Scott. Help me, hold him down…”

<><><><> 

Johnny leaned against the boulder; he was out of sight and out of the wind, hunkered down just below the ridgeline. From here, he could see the valley that stretched out below. The few tracks he had found were partially washed out, no telling how old they were but it was something. Had he to venture a guess this was where the howl had come from. He decided to wait and see what happened.

Johnny’s eyes touched everywhere, between the rocks and through the trees, but the rain hampered much of the view. Was this the right thing to be doing? Neither Madrid nor Lancer had a clue, but they would be damned before they would give up, no matter how bad the weather got, Johnny was not going home without destroying the menace that nearly killed his brother, the brother that risked his own life to save his. So he stayed put, and desperately tried to push aside the blame, the dreadful self-loathing and focus on the fight at hand.                       

It had been hours, and the rain continued to fall, sometimes slowing a bit only to regain strength and pound onto the mountains. Reasonably sheltered, Johnny was safe from the wet, but it was getting colder, and he wondered how the devil kept from freezing to death. Had he stolen clothing along the way or was he safely ensconced in a cave, sitting before a warm fire while Johnny was huddled out in the weather? Johnny couldn’t say, all he knew was this maniac was going to die for the attack on his brother. He had already slain God only knew how many others and Johnny was going to be the one to end his miserable existence. So he watched over the valley and waited, and he would put an end to that demon’s life, or die trying.

<><><><> 

“Son-of-a-bitch!” Val vented as they came to the rock slide that prevented them from catching up with Johnny. He shrugged but knew they had no other choice. “We gotta go around! Cip, do ya know any other way ta get across this ridgeline?” Val shouted above the wind that whipped the words away almost before they were spoken.

“No, Señor Crawford, we must go around…” he replied, knowing that Johnny may already be in trouble by now. Would they get to him in time? Still cursing the air blue, Val fell in line behind the Lancer Segundo, then offered up a prayer that everything would end up alright. Who knew where Johnny, Madrid, or Lancer was concerned.

<><><><> 

And Johnny was concerned. It would be dark very soon, and he thought about taking Barranca and heading to the line shack. It wasn’t far away, and he would be sheltered, warm, and have food. The more he thought, the better it sounded. He had spent a very long day watching and waiting, hunting a deranged maniac in the mountains with the cold and rain hampering his attempts to put an end to the bloody reign of terror.

Keeping to the shelter of the large boulders, Johnny edged his way up to the top of the ridge. He looked around, making sure it was safe then whistled for Barranca. It didn’t take long, and the huge golden stallion was galloping toward him and skidded to a stop with only a foot to spare before running into his master. Johnny mounted and turned the horse in the direction of the cabin. He wondered how Scott was…

<><><><> 

“Murdoch, wake up!” Sam nudged him awake and quickly returned to the bedside.

“What is it, Sam? Is he…”

“Murdoch, I need help. His fever is spiking, I think I’ll have to drain that shoulder again!” Sam lifted the bandage and closed his eyes. “It’s worse than I thought, Murdoch, I’ll have to cut the stitches to get in there and clean it out. I’ll need you to handle the ether.” Sam quickly left the room in search of more boiling water.

<><><><> 

The intensity of the wind was increasing, making it difficult to see. Johnny tilted his head against the onslaught as the rain ran into his eyes, and he tried to stay alert. Barranca’s ears perked forward, and he stopped as if checking the air but in the blowing and billowing wind, Johnny wasn’t sure exactly what Barranca smelled. Johnny had learned long ago to trust his mount, and this was the smartest horse he ever had, so he let the stallion go at his own pace.

The cabin was just ahead, but there was something between them and their destination. Barranca began to prance; stamping his hooves and stepping sideways, he made it clear to Johnny that he wasn’t in favor of moving forward. Pulling the reins to the right Johnny thought to go around and not approach the cabin straight on and the guidance seemed to suit the horse.

Taking the long way, Johnny tried to peer through the trees and brush. Could he see the light from the windows or catch a whiff of wood smoke?

The blow, when it came, was enough to knock the wind from his lungs in a ‘woof’ as he was slammed to the ground flat on his back. He rolled and came up with his Colt in hand, but no menace was there. What the hell was that? And where was it? Johnny stood alone in the shadows, pounding rain soaked him through, and with eyes that strained to pierce the dark, he could see no threat. Barranca’s eyes were wide with fear.
Turning to every angle, Johnny could see nothing through the wall of water, but it was there; he could feel it was still there. Laying a calming hand on the stallion’s quivering neck, Johnny spoke softly to him, whispering the words of comfort all the while he watched around them.

The trees darkened the space, making Johnny feel like he was already cornered, confined, and captured. The deep green and the near-black of the pines created an enclosed atmosphere, making it difficult to see anything and had no chance of spotting something that could very easily blend in with the surroundings. Johnny gathered the reins and swung into the saddle. Again, he watched every angle to prevent another attack. Next time he was sure he wouldn’t be so lucky.

The cabin came into view as if it materialized right before his eyes; the rain had not let up and still compromised his sight. As he neared the structure, even through the surrounding darkness, Johnny could see the damage to the shack in the flashes of lightning. Windows were broken, and the door was hanging on one hinge. Chairs, buckets, and kitchen supplies were strewn about the yard. Sacks of flour had been torn open and spilled on the porch. Firewood had been thrown into the yard, now soaked with rain and no good to use for warmth. ‘It’ had been there. C’mon out, ya bastard! Madrid thought as he surveyed the mess in the clearing.

And suddenly the chilling howl rent the air, loud enough to hear above the din of the rain. Lightning ripped through the sky with elaborate white-hot crooked fingers that looked like claws scratching at the heavens. The demented man was very near, and Barranca nervously pranced in circles, but Johnny held him under control, determined to find the madman in the darkness. He urged the horse to the barn, and nothing seemed out of place there; they had to take cover, but where they couldn’t be cornered, so they turned away from the structure.

The snap of the branch echoed, and Johnny spun in the saddle, Barranca spooked, and Johnny almost found himself unseated, but he could see nothing through the gloom. Lightning, again, lit up the trees and standing fifty feet away was a man, briefly lit in the flash of light. So stunningly grotesque and straight out of Hell, was he that Johnny could only stare in shock.

The white, deformed face was in sharp contrast to the wet and dripping black thatch covering the head, and the shaggy black beard hung in knotted snarls from his jaw and chin confirmed the wild, untamed demon. The eyes that squinted in the lightning flash were black smudges glaring with blood lust, and a wide mouth emitted a strangled howl.

Johnny gathered his wits and fired off several shots in the direction of the madman, then slowly advanced, but at the next bolt of lightning, nothing was there. It was then he heard cold, wicked laughter. Now it was playing with him, stalking him like it had everything else that he killed. Breathe, Madrid! Unaware that he hadn’t been, he drew in a deep lung full of cold air. Two can play this game, you hijo de puta!

A primeval growl echoed out of the trees, prompting Barranca to rear on back legs as Johnny again struggled for control. He stood likely to miss the shot if the opportunity presented itself, and he needed to restrain the animal, he would be too vulnerable if he dismounted. Johnny kicked Barranca into a gallop away from the cabin and rode in a full circle. He hadn’t seen where the man went, he didn’t know where to go but needed to get control of the stallion before he was thrown and left on foot.

He stopped the horse and automatically reached around him to reload his pistol. Damn coat! Johnny unfastened the toggles and allowed the sheepskin to hang open. It was the only way to access the bullets when it came time to reload the Colt. The coat that he’d been so grateful for had now become a liability, restricting movement that was so crucial to his survival.

He had to see this through, for his brother, for Scott. In his mind, he saw Scott crumple again in a pile at his feet, taking the blow that had been meant for him. Once more, the startling fact that someone had thought that much of him to risk it all, everything, the most precious gift that could be offered, shot through his head. The idea exploded in Johnny’s brain with no less intensity than the lightning that ripped through the sky above and seemed to set his thoughts in flames.

His mind ignited in fierce turmoil; rage coursed in his blood, searing him into action. But what action? What plan could he have? All he could think of was set himself up as bait, and if that’s what it would take, that was what he would do, for Scott. This maniac that had almost killed his brother had to be stopped! Scott’s sacrifice could not be wasted!

This would be a game of cat and mouse but the roles of who would be the cat and which one the mouse still undetermined, undetermined, that is, until Johnny, seeing again as his brother lay wounded and bleeding his life away. The guilt that filled Johnny at the moment cast the roles in stone, and it would be a fight to the bitter, ugly death. Johnny would not go down without that fight, and if providence declared him defeated, he would know that he had done all that he could possibly do to end this madman’s bloody and violent ways.

Madrid paused to think like the maniac; what would I do? The first thought was to stay out of sight for as long as possible but riding Barranca was like sitting on a beacon. Even in the dark of night, the golden coat almost glowed. Against his better judgment, Johnny dismounted and took his rifle and saddlebags. Grabbing the canteen, he then gave his beloved stallion a swat on the rump sending him galloping away into the night.

Johnny watched as the horse disappeared in the gloom, needing no further persuading to leave this evil place, and Johnny wondered if he’d just made the biggest mistake of his life. But it was done. Now he had to work on defeating this fiend and to stay alive. Johnny quickly ran for the cover of rocks. He wanted nothing more than to secure the sheepskin around him and keep in his body heat but knew he had to leave it unbuttoned and hanging open to access his gun belt should he need to reload again.

Quickly he reached the safety of the boulders and paused to wipe at the rain that ran down his face and into his eyes and in that brief second of time he was slammed against the rocks with another whoosh of air forced out of his lungs. His back crashed into the boulders with solid and stunning contact as his head snapped back and it, too, impacted into the unmoving rock. A blast of pain and a shocking flash of white shot through his eyes. Madrid lashed out with a fist and connected with flesh and bone, hearing a satisfying crack and subsequent grunt of pain. Regaining his balance, he readied himself for the fight of his life, again swinging out but found his arm blocked and sensed, rather than saw, a slash for his neck.

The wicked knife flashed just as lightning lit the heavens and Johnny ducked, the blade sliced through the air and missed its target. Johnny sidestepped as the maniac lunged, again missing his victim entirely.

Rage filled the demented mind, and it could already taste the blood of this man, demanding his blood; however, this opponent was not going to be an easy kill. Not like the others had been. Enraged, he attacked again. He anticipated the look of horror but did not find any in these eyes! How could that be? This opponent had to know he was going to die; all the others did!

The howl at this close range shattered through Johnny’s brain, near to disorienting him and a renewed attack launched as he again was slammed back into the rocks. Stars erupted in a bright cascade inside his head. Stay conscious! But this time he felt a white-hot, wait, or was it a cold slice up his left side, the blade cutting through his hide from the waist up across to the middle chest. He felt as the sharp edge cut through tissue then dragged across ribs, the blade bit deep as it scored into bone. His head ached, pain shot through his body, threatening to slow his reactions, and if that happened, he would soon be dead. Scott! Fight for Scott!

Johnny lashed out with his fist, his gun fallen out of his grasp from the last contact with the rocks to his back and the searing slice to his skin from the knife. He again connected with a jaw, the bone came close to shattering his fingers with the blow, but he knocked the demon back several feet, enough to renew his attack. Flashes of Scott erupted in his brain in tempo with the lightning, giving him strength. Use it wisely, Madrid! And with the thoughts of his brother, his assault renewed, it grew strong, but he could feel the blood as it ran down his body and knew he had to make this quick.

He was going to bleed out if he didn’t do something fast, and he knew that failure would not be an option. His rage ignited and fueled his determination to see this through. He would not let this maniac win! It would end here and now! The horrific plague that spread across the country would end tonight. Madrid would stop it, and with that thought, Johnny felt a surge of strength.

A small man could disarm the largest tormentor with one well-placed knee to the groin and where this man was not any larger than he, Johnny knew that would be his next move. He brought up his knee in a vicious blow to his attacker’s genitals, causing him to double over in agony, the panting and gurgling audible above the storm as he lay clutching at the excruciating pain.

There had never before been such a fight, and the madman felt his opportunity slipping away. How could this happen? No! It will not happen! There in the grass beside him lay the knife, and his adversary made a dive through the air, grabbing it as the fiend quickly got to his feet, smacking his mouth as if already tasting Johnny’s flesh. He would gain much strength from eating this heart! He ignored the pain in his lower body and again attacked.

As the maniac came close, Johnny could hear the noise emitted from the grisly mouth, like a tongue lapping craved liquid and knew the beast was anticipating his blood. It gave Johnny another surge of power, and he held tightly to the blade, the same blade that had just pierced through his hide. Holding onto the knife as if it was a lifeline, Johnny felt the steel point puncture into the belly cavity. He fought down the bile that rose in his throat at the putrid stench that filled the air of partially digested blood and meat.

A picture of Scott again filled his brain, and he launched his own renewed salvo on the demented being. He wasn’t giving up! Johnny savagely pulled the blade upward, the flesh give way and entrails fell in a heap on the ground. He nearly gagged as fetid breath blew into his face as the lungs ceased to draw air. The stench from the demon’s beard of dried blood and bits of flesh that had stuck in the tangles continued the offensive assault.

The body failed to stand, and Johnny watched as life vacated the empty black, cold eyes in the flash of the lightning and the heinous, wicked heart ceased to beat. The gaping mouth revealed broken, ragged teeth that were beginning to rot.

The evil was vanquished. Johnny’s harsh breathing echoed in his head as he stood with a weak attempt to gain control over himself and all he could think about was that Scott had been avenged and the terror had been stopped.

Johnny staggered backward as he stood in a shocked and trance-like state. It was dead. C’mon, Lancer, gotta get ya home, Madrid said as he looked around for the golden horse. A feeble attempt at a whistle was issued but brought no stallion to the rescue. Madrid huffed out a breath, helluva way for this ta end… Gonna bleed out an’ die next ta this… thing. He took several steps before he folded onto the grass, letting the rain wash some of the gore from his body as he grew very, very cold.

<><><><> 

“Did you see that, Cip?” Val yelled out in disbelief, eyes wide, not sure what he’d seen. Looked like the ghost of a horse! They were all jumpy from listening to the howls that had rent through the cold, wet air knowing that Johnny was out there, alone… except for the presence of a maniacal killer. A large light-colored flash had appeared in the distance and then vanished. Cip pulled to a stop then turned to Val.
“Barranca!” was all he said then kicked his mount into action in the direction where the unmanned horse came from.

Though the darkness prevented any speed, they moved quickly, and as fast as they dared. The rain was tapering off to a cold drizzle, and the lightning stopped. The clouds began to break apart, letting the full moon cast an eerie silver glow, creating shadows that danced and moved with the slight breeze. Soon, both rain and wind ceased, and in their place was a deafening silence.

Their breathing and that of their mounts were the only sounds. Val looked at Cip, both knew that finding Johnny was paramount. Was he alright? Or had he fallen as the next vict… NO! That can’t happen! Val chided himself, not letting his line of thought go down that road. They passed the line shack, taking in the damage and wondered what had taken place here. Was this the result of the thing they were after? It was then the howl rent through the night, and the men were frozen to the saddles. Would they find Johnny alive? It was the question on all of their minds.

They searched for the next hour, hearts sinking with each passing minute that no sign of Johnny surfaced, but no one wanted to think the worst had happened, something detrimental and potentially harmful to the young Lancer. But they’d seen Barranca, riderless… Did that mean he’d been attacked? Madrid was very cunning, at times downright cold and calculating and as all these thoughts raced through Val’s mind he knew that sooner or later Johnny would press his luck too far and…

“Sheriff Crawford! Over here!”

<><><><> 

He could feel the soft mist as it fell on his face, so he knew he wasn’t dead… yet. He rolled his head in the wet grass to see the lifeless pile of what had been a man lying a few feet away. The head was turned from him, and for that, Johnny was thankful. The ugliness of what he had seen would stay with him for the rest of his life. As they fought, he had seen enough of that hideous and bulging face, dead black eyes and vicious, gaping mouth with broken, saw-like teeth, but he could feel the rage leave his body now knowing the threat was over.

But panic set in as he thought about his brother. Was Scott still alive? Had he survived the injury sustained saving Johnny from certain death? Johnny knew he couldn’t stay here, he needed to move and get home, but as he willed his body to get off the wet ground, pain shrouded him, and dizziness muddled his brain. He could feel warm, sticky blood running from his body, leaving him cold, so cold, and knew he couldn’t lie there for long without help.

Again he thought of Scott, and his heart was lightened as he knew he’d avenged the brutal attack on his brother and if this is what it took, then he would be alright knowing that he’d given his life for Scott; after all, that’s what Scott had tried to do for him… And still, that thought sent shock waves through him wondering why anyone would do that for… him…

He tried to make sense of what had happened, but it was getting more difficult to keep thoughts from slipping out of his head. The hiss in his ears told him that he wouldn’t be conscious for long, and he wondered if this would be the place where he would draw his last breath as his body continued to grow cold.

Johnny looked up at the sky as the rain stopped and he watched as the stars began their nightly dance. He didn’t want to give in to the pain because if he closed his eyes now, he might not ever open them again to see this spectacular display in the heavens. He fought against the temptation, fought for as long as he could, and he wasn’t aware enough to know that help had arrived.

His vision grayed around the edges and started to fade altogether, his body shivered uncontrollably as the blackness consumed him and he slipped into oblivion.

<><><><> 

Madre de Dios!” muttered Cipriano as he made the sign of the cross on his chest and kissed his fingers as he knelt beside Johnny with Val on the other side. They could see Johnny was hurt and bleeding badly but couldn’t make an accurate assessment and decided to take him back to the line shack.

“Johnny? Amigo, can ya hear me?” Val tried to bring Johnny out of unconsciousness but failed with Johnny uttering not a sound. Val looked over to the mound several feet away.

He left Johnny briefly to check on the dead man. Lighting a match, he lowered it to peer into the grotesque, lifeless face, nearly gasping in shock at what he saw there. Shaking himself back into control and back to his amigo’s side, Val returned to Johnny, and they lifted him off the ground. Cipriano mounted his horse as Val and Isidro handed Johnny up to settle him in the safety of the Segundo’s arms, then they all turned around and left the way they’d come, leaving ‘it’ lying in the wet grass.

Once at the cabin, although in ruins, they knew they would have to get Johnny wrapped in bandages before the trip back to Lancer. Perhaps Cipriano would have to stitch Johnny together to prevent further blood loss. The cabin was cold; there was no dry firewood and not much food that the maniac had not ruined. However, tucked away and out of sight, they found a bottle of tequila, and were able to use the alcohol to treat his injuries.

Cip and Val cleaned away the gore. The Segundo threaded the needle he carried in his saddlebags, but he hesitated as he studied the wicked slash across Johnny’s body.

Val waited, knowing Cip wasn’t sure, wasn’t convinced this was the right move to make.

“What’s the matter, Cip?” he asked as worry for Johnny filled his heart.

“I think we have no choice. To get him home, we will have to use the needle, but el Médico will have to cut the stitches away. The ribs have been cut with the knife the evil one used… Señor Val, I will hold him, you use the tequila, por favor…”

The howl of pain shattered through the cold air as the tequila seeped into the wound, burning its way through the slash, and hopefully washing away contamination. Cip held Johnny still but struggled as his niño’s strength was present, and inwardly Cip could only admire the power that Johnny still possessed. Val finished quickly, then Cip began to sew the wound closed. They wrapped Johnny as tightly as they could with bandages, and blankets, then settled in to wait for dawn.

<><><><> 

The struggle left him breathless and gasping for air, he could tell he was weakening but as the thought of his brother lying at his feet flashed again before him, he renewed his fight, vowing to anyone that could hear that he would win; he would overcome and triumph, for Scott. He fought with everything he had driving the knife deep, and he felt the life ebbing from his enemy, its body falling against him then to the ground. He had won for his brother. But when would the guilt fade away?

He woke with a gasp and tried to sit up, fighting to accomplish that small task. He could hear voices, but they were far away as he was gently settled back to the soft warmth of the bed. He now felt a sharp poke and prod in his arm, and he groaned as the fire in his side started to spread wrapping around him in a blanket of flames. Then it hit him… Scott! Johnny fought the hands on him; he was again fighting that maniac… Fuck! I thought he was dead… Hafta save Scott from it…

“…S-Scott,” Johnny mumbled as he fought the hands that held him. Words were louder now as he heard his name, and he stopped his struggles recognizing his father’s voice.

“Shhh, Johnny, it’s alright! You’re home, now, son, and Scott’s here, too, he’s in the next room. Just relax…”

Johnny eased against the soft bed. “… Safe? Scott’s safe?” With the question answered, the tension rolled from his body, and he slipped into a deep and healing sleep.

Murdoch smiled a bit. Both his sons were home, and they would be moving forward, together.

 

 

The Move Forward
                      

It had been a very long night, and Murdoch Lancer was exhausted. He had sufficient help, but the mental anxiety drained away what respite he’d gotten while others were tending his sons. Every time he closed his eyes to rest, his mind conjured up demons and madmen trying to kill his boys, and he was cruelly jolted awake and sleep chased from his grasp. He resigned himself to the fact that he would not be sleeping any time soon, not until both Johnny and Scott were better and the threat to them was over.
Leaving his room, he went down the hall, first checking on Scott where Teresa sat, diligently watching over her brother. She raised her warm blue eyes to meet those of her guardian.

“Nothing yet,” she whispered, indicating Scott had not been conscious. “But the fever is finally down now that Sam cleaned the wound again.”

Scott had lost a dangerous amount of blood, the recovery would take a while, and there was nothing to do but wait. Shrugging, Murdoch turned to the room across the hall and quietly opened the door. Dr. Sam Jenkins was sitting with Johnny and acknowledged Murdoch when he entered the room and closed the door behind him.

“He’s resting much easier, Murdoch. He’s not as restless as he was earlier, but I suspect the fever will spike judging from what we went through with Scott. But he’s getting good sleep for now since the nightmares faded away.”

Murdoch watched the sleeping face; Johnny looked so young and innocent. Well, he is young… Innocent? No, I don’t think… causing himself to smile a bit. He sat on the edge of the bed and wondered at the events that led to this moment. What, exactly, had Johnny been through up there in the rain and darkness on that mountain? Murdoch would have to wait for the young man to wake before he could ask what happened.

Murdoch had talked with Val when they brought Johnny home. He would never forget the sight of his younger son, usually so wild and full of life, leaned back against Cip’s broad chest, unconscious and very pale. He felt that his heart would stop, it was as if a giant hand was squeezing until it would just quit beating. The air had left his lungs as he gasped in shock at the sight. Val had jumped from his mount to help get Johnny inside, and as they carried him past, Murdoch saw, as the coat around his boy fell open a bulky white bandage, and the inside of the heavy mantle stained red. First, Scott, now Johnny, the maniac had gotten to them both, and he felt his knees go weak.

The Lancer patriarch was thankful that Sam was here tending Scott, and would not have to endure the agonizing and torturous wait for Sam to arrive from town.

After depositing Johnny on his bed, Sam proceeded with his examination, cutting away the soiled wrapping, and cleaning the slash with carbolic. The neat row of stitches put in by Cipriano was enough to hold to wound together, but Sam suspected that he would have to remove them as infection would no doubt set in, and irrigation of the injury would be necessary.

The violent reaction as the disinfectant flowed over the raw slash and seeped internally had forced Sam to call for help to hold Johnny still. He was helplessly tossed about the bed, even in his senseless state, as the antiseptic flushed the angry, red laceration, the pain excruciating, even though he was sedated. Sam knew there would have to be extra precautions taken considering the weapon used on each of the boys, but the fact that Val and Cip had been able to clean the slash at the line shack was a considerable advantage.

The blade that made this cut had been sharp. The sweep of Devon’s arm struck Johnny’s left side waist and traveled up across to the middle of his chest. Sam applied more carbolic, and wrapped Johnny tightly in bandages knowing when he woke, he would be a very unhappy and depressed patient. But that was Johnny. When had he ever been happy as a patient? So, it was a waiting game for both the boys.

It had only been two hours that Johnny was home? The heat began to radiate from him, and even though it was normal, even expected for Johnny to run a fever, Sam knew he didn’t have a choice. Enlisting the aid of Murdoch and Jelly, he removed the stitches placed in Johnny’s side, stomach and chest. Murdoch administered the ether that put Johnny in a state of unconsciousness, while Sam cleaned the injury, and removed the tiny splinters of frayed bone from the ribs, then sewed him together again. When it was done, Murdoch’s hands shook so badly he didn’t trust himself to touch his son, and Jelly could not wipe away the water fast enough that seemed to leak from his eyes.

<><><><> 

Val had given him the news about the deranged man that was now dead, killed up in the mountains after a violent battle to the death with Johnny. In the haste to get Johnny home, Val had ordered that the body was to be wrapped and taken to the undertaker with explicit instructions that it was not to be viewed, by anyone including the undertaker himself. And being a man of honor, Mr. Jacob Parks, Green River’s mortician, had agreed. It would then be buried in an unmarked grave, the place to be determined as soon as Val returned to town.
<><><><> 
Why was it that the nighttime hours seemed longer than the day time hours? Murdoch felt as if he’d spent days and days waiting. Watching his sons as they slept recovering from serious injuries was incredibly difficult; probably more difficult, Murdoch surmised, because he lost them both as babies, then to finally have them home after over twenty-three long and lonely years and now come very close to losing them again. It was unnerving, to say the least. But they were home and given the time would probably be alright.

Still left shaken by the recent events so horrific in nature, Murdoch desperately wanted for them to open their eyes, get out of bed and back to normal. Well, maybe Johnny could spend a few extra days in bed; his ‘normal’ tends to sometimes provoke a headache for me! But he knew he was joking with himself.

One of the things he loved the best about having his boys home was the nonsense and shenanigans, the laughter and especially the brilliant dark blue of his younger son’s eyes. When Johnny smiled that smile, his eyes sparkled and danced, bringing much joy to the elder Lancer’s heart as things could have turned out drastically, more likely deadly for them both. But now, with his sons back home, where they should have been all along, Murdoch was learning to be content with things as they were. He only wished the nights were not so long when sitting, as he was now, by one of their bedsides. And now, he going between them, each injured, each needing him.

“I’m going to get some coffee, Murdoch, can I bring you a cup?” Sam asked as he straightened from giving Johnny one final check. Murdoch looked up at his old friend and his spirits lightened as he saw the definite glint in Sam’s eyes. The eyes told a lot if you took the time to see it. Murdoch learned that from Johnny, so he’d been gathering much information.

“Yes, thank you, Sam. That sounds good!” Sam quietly closed the door leaving Murdoch alone with Johnny. He studied the young features relaxed in a deep sleep. How is it that I never realized just how much Johnny looks like his mother? I knew he favored her, but seeing him at this moment is unbelievable!

Murdoch took a deep breath to calm himself and found he couldn’t take his eyes away from his son. The jawline, cheekbones, and nose were identical to her, but in masculine form, and the thick, long lashes that framed his eyes were definitely from his mother but the color of his eyes he’d gotten from his father’s side. Murdoch’s grandmother had the deep blue iris that apparently only made themselves known every third or fourth generation, and Johnny’s eyes were, indeed, breathtaking— just ask the girls at The Angels Nest! Again, Murdoch chuckled.

<><><><> 

“Murdoch, both Scott, and Johnny are holding their own. I’m going to check on a few patients and will be back later today. You know the routine; keep them quiet, with lots of rest and fluid.” Then Sam was gone, and the wait began again.

<><><><> 

Lost in his musings Murdoch almost missed the movement, and suddenly Johnny was awake, eyes wide, and he panted for breath. He tried sitting up but groaned as the stitches pulled, and he grabbed at his side as Murdoch did his best to hold him still.

“Johnny, take it easy, just breathe, son,” Murdoch murmured, and he watched Johnny’s eyes clear to take in his surroundings.

Realizing he was home, at Lancer, in his own bed, he let out a deep sigh and closed his eyes before he opened them again and focused on his father.

“Murdoch?” his voice hoarse from the earlier harsh panting when plagued by the nightmares. “Scott,” he whispered, “Scott’s alright?”

Murdoch saw the desperation in Johnny’s eyes, but there was something else there, too. What was it?

“Yes, Johnny, he’s here. He was hurt badly, but you brought him home, and he will be fine.” Murdoch wondered if Johnny heard him. His son was troubled, deeply troubled.

“What’s wrong, Johnny? Tell me what’s wrong,” Murdoch gently coaxed, the wildness in Johnny’s eyes was alarming.

“Need ta see ‘im, see Scott. He awake?”

Again restraining Johnny as he tried to get to his feet, Murdoch knew this would only stop if Johnny was allowed to see his brother.

“Alright, Johnny I’ll help you to get up, but you need to let me help you; just stay put for a minute.” Keeping one eye on his son struggling to get up, Murdoch quickly got a pair of long johns from the wardrobe and brought them to Johnny. He rolled his son onto his right side and helped him to sit with legs bent over the edge of the bed and slid the underwear up over the lean hips. He fetched a robe and draped it around him after putting the right arm into the sleeve, then over the left shoulder to keep the arm still and not pull on the threads holding him together. Murdoch then tied the robe at the waist. Bending down, he retrieved a pair of soft moccasins and tucked Johnny’s feet into them.

“Alright, Johnny, now take it easy, I’m going to help you stand.” And taking most of Johnny’s weight, Murdoch got him slowly across the hall and into the chair at Scott’s side.

Teresa was delighted to see Johnny up and discreetly left the room as she knew Johnny needed his privacy with his brother.

Johnny hissed as he sat, the threads pulling at his skin, and he could only stare at the pale face in the bed next to him. Why did you do it, brother? 

The guilt once again was running rampant in Johnny’s mind, spinning around and around, out of control, and he could feel his eyes welling with unshed tears.

Murdoch felt his alarm building; Johnny leaned forward as if to touch Scott’s hand, and he knew Johnny should not be bending and pulling at the slash that had so recently been sewn together. Gently, he touched Johnny’s shoulder and pushed him back into the chair. Johnny was clearly unsettled about something. He exhaled in a hard rush, took a deep breath, as deep as the threads allowed, and closed his eyes.

“Why did ya do it, Scott? Ya shouldn’t a got in front of me…” Johnny’s agonized whisper hung in the quiet room.

What had happened? Murdoch wondered. Would Johnny tell him?

“Johnny, what is it? What happened, son?” Murdoch asked, large hands still holding his son in the chair, and he could feel the beginnings of tremors ripple through Johnny’s body.

Johnny’s breath turned ragged as the words rushed from his lips in an anguished flood. “He shouldn’t be the one layin’ there. This shoulda never happened ta him. I was the target! Scott jumped in front of me,” Johnny gasped as Murdoch quickly wrapped Johnny in the comfort of his strong arms and held him tight.

“Murdoch, that was meant for me not him!” Not able to hold the wild raging emotions in check any longer, Johnny let the arms around him protect him with their strength as he allowed his forehead to lie against his father’s shoulder. His head ached, the pounding threatened to explode in a shower of white-hot shards of fire.

Murdoch gripped tighter, feeling the shaking that would not quit. Johnny was consumed with guilt. That was what was wrong. His guilt, but he had nothing to be guilty about. How can I make him understand?

“Johnny, listen to me!” Murdoch said as he put his hands on Johnny’s face, pulling him back to see those tortured eyes. “Johnny, wouldn’t you have done the same for Scott?” he asked directly.

“Wouldn’t even hafta think ‘bout it,” Johnny murmured.

“Then what makes this so different? You would do the same for him…”

Johnny’s eyes turned sad. “Cuz I ain’t worth it,” he said so quietly Murdoch wasn’t sure he heard correctly. He felt like he’d been kicked in the belly.

Murdoch was absolutely stunned by this revelation. He didn’t know what to say to make Johnny understand just how special and dear both of them were to him. And his heart broke for this boy, no, he was a man, but he will always be my younger son. Murdoch, again, wrapped him in a tight embrace, his lips close to Johnny’s ear as he softly spoke.

“Why do you say that, Johnny?” Murdoch asked as shock traveled inside his veins.

Johnny looked up as if not believing what had been asked. Murdoch knew … “The things I’ve done…” was all the explanation he gave before his father took over.

“The things you’ve done, you did to stay alive… and right now I’m damn glad you did them! Johnny, we’re family! And sometimes, that’s what families do. I would give everything I own to have you both safe and with me! You and Scott are worth everything to me, and I’m so very proud to have both of you as my sons! Both of you, do you hear me, Johnny?

“And I know that your brother would do all over what he did to save your life; do you know why Johnny? Because he wouldn’t want anyone else for his brother. He loves you for who and what you are. You are just as good and kind and noble as he is.”

Murdoch felt Johnny stiffen in his arms. He could feel the struggle in his young son’s body; the struggle to accept himself for the things he’d done as Madrid. Murdoch had come to terms with Johnny’s previous life, he just wished Johnny could. What Madrid had been forced to do, the way he had been forced to live would be Johnny’s cross to bear, and everyone Murdoch knew, had their cross, and just as surely, Murdoch had his own.

He felt the shudder race through the beaten shoulders, and he could feel Johnny’s hands shake.

“Come on, son, let’s get you back into your own bed.”

“No! I don’t want to leave him…” The desperate whisper pierced Murdoch’s heart.

“You should be lying down, Johnny. It wouldn’t surprise me if you pulled out some sti….”

“’M fine, just let me stay for a while.” The soft plea granted, Murdoch backed away and let his boys have this time together.

Johnny sat for a long while before he spoke. He knew from experience that Scott just might hear his words if he talked.

“Don’t know why ya did what’cha did up in those mountains, Scott. Ya shoulda let me get hit instead of you gettin’ in front of me. When ya get back on your feet you an’ me are gonna have some words about that.”

Johnny’s voice continued its velvet tones, and Murdoch found his own tattered heart soothed in the softness; Johnny talked for several minutes when suddenly he stopped.

Scott drifted toward the words. He grappled with consciousness and tried to open the heavy lids that seemed too difficult to control at the moment. But a slight smile turned up the corners of his mouth, and he slowly reached out a hand. Johnny took it in his and Scott squeezed tight, almost as if in a frantic gesture, a tether to this brother that he would never relinquish. He opened his mouth, and his whisper broke through the tensions.

“I’d do it… again… in a heart…beat, for you, Johnny…” Those few words shattered the pain, Johnny heard the truth they spoke, and his breath caught in his throat. The shudders began to fade with those few words, my brother accepts me for who I am… was, and with composure returning, he tightened his grip on the hand in his. Madrid smiled and stepped to the background letting Johnny Lancer have this time with his brother.

Murdoch stood by the door and out of the way, letting his sons work it out. His eyes welled with tears, but not moving to wipe them from his cheeks and break the magic of the incredible moment, he stood silent in the healing stillness of the room.

In his weakened state, Scott had breached the wall Johnny had erected around himself from years of struggle, building an impenetrable fortress, protection from any harm but that fortress was not needed, not any more. Now, they could move forward.
 

 

 

~ end ~

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