The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Buckskin

 

 

Staying Alive
Thanks to Cat for the beta

The rage was coursing through his body like lightning, scorching hot and molten. When he caught up to the bastards, he wanted nothing more than to shoot them! Son-of-a-bitch!! All eight of the new mares from Eagle Point were gone, and all eight were pregnant. The promising beginning for the horse raising business just went out the window, unless Johnny could get them back.

He was going to have to give this more thought. He hadn’t waited for Scott to join him; he didn’t have the time. Scott was in San Francisco on ranch business, and Johnny didn’t know when he would return. Anxious to get the stock back, he left by himself.

If those assholes knew what was good for them, they’d return the horses, now! Because now it wasn’t just Johnny Lancer on their trail, they would have to deal with Madrid, and that was a huge mistake on their part, especially when Madrid was mad. And Madrid was livid. The thieves didn’t know it yet.

Every time Johnny thought about those beautiful mares stolen off Lancer land, his stomach flipped, and his blood boiled, but he knew he couldn’t lose his wits and had to focus. He was alone; he’d have to be smart about how he decided to handle the situation. As mad as he was, he felt like he could tangle with twelve of them and whoop them all.

Murdoch had begged Johnny to wait, at least take some of Lancer's hands, but Johnny wouldn’t wait for them to come in off the range. Harsh words were exchanged, and no agreement met, he’d taken a few provisions and streaked out under the Lancer arch at full gallop, hoping to pick up their trail before dark. If the hands could catch up to him, fine, but he wasn’t going to wait any longer.

Murdoch fumed at his son but had no other choice. He would have some of the men trail Johnny in the morning. There would still be time for them to catch up with his errant son before he caught up with the horse thieves. Thank God! Murdoch fretted over his younger son. He appeared so reckless, but Murdoch also knew that Johnny didn’t live as long as he did by taking stupid chances. He just wished Johnny would have waited for Scott or the ranch hands. Every time Johnny took off on a mission such as this, Murdoch couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever see his wild, impetuous son return under the Lancer arch. How many times had he waited… And waited?

<><><><> 

Johnny figured he had another hour before the sun went down. He wasn’t at the south pasture yet but should have time to scout around before dark. It was a small secluded valley with sweet grass and crystal clear, fresh water; it was the best grazing on Lancer and a perfect spot for the mares. Apparently, it was a perfect spot for the thieves, too, as they’d had no trouble stealing the beautiful horses and whisking them away before anyone was the wiser.

As Johnny approached the valley, he knew he would have to break off the search and hold himself back for the night. He wanted to push on and recover the mares; they weren’t that far ahead, he could feel it! Thankfully Barranca was rested after Johnny’s recent confinement.

He had been under the weather and abided by the strict orders from Sam, recuperating from something the doctor called the next thing to pneumonia, but he was feeling much better having been confined to bed for the last week and a half. But Barranca was ready and made up for the days he’d spent inactive, as well. He seemed to know that ‘his’ mares were the object of the search, and he was ready to do his part. He wanted them back, too. Johnny pushed any thoughts of lingering illness out of his mind, his determination fueled by the white-hot searing rage that flooded his body.

The valley was only a mile away, and Johnny knew that was as far as they would get tonight, but he would have a chance to look around, gather whatever facts he could find, and start fresh tomorrow. Barranca covered the distance quickly, and soon they were in the peaceful, green valley.

Johnny stripped the saddle from the stallion. He looked at Johnny as if to say, “Are you crazy? We can’t stop yet!” Johnny watched the look in his amigo’s eyes and smiled in understanding. Yeah, I know, he thought and went about setting up camp.
The fire was warm and comforting, and before the light faded out and gave way to night, Johnny took a look around. Within minutes he’d picked up several clues. A cigar butt lay discarded in the dirt. It looked like nothing Johnny had ever seen before, it smelled different, too. The tobacco was sweet, and the wrap was more textured than any cigar he’d ever seen. Where the hell did these assholes come from an’ why did they single out our horses? He wondered as he continued looking around the area where the fence had been cut.

An empty whiskey bottle had been tossed carelessly aside, still bearing a swallow of the rotgut. As all of the mares had been shod, he didn’t have a clear notion as to how many bastards were involved, but he did pick up one interesting fact. One of the rustler’s horses had a distinguishing mark on a shoe as if a file had rasped a groove in the outer edge. You had to look carefully, but it was there. Thinking again about someone stealing their mares re-newed the boiling in Johnny’s blood, and he knew if confronted by them, he could single-handedly tear them limb from limb, and have a good time while doing it.

Lying in his bedroll with a cup of hot coffee in hand, Johnny began thinking over the time leading up to this discovery. There was nothing notable; there had been no arguments or altercations with anyone. He hadn’t pissed off anyone that he knew about, and both Murdoch and Scott, being rational and with no tendencies for trouble or confrontations, had no issues. This happened out of the blue. So maybe this was a simple case of an opportunity presenting itself which the horse thieves used to their advantage.

There had been no attempt to cover the tracks, and unless they went over solid rock or went miles up or downstream, Johnny would find them… And make them pay. But something was nagging at the back of his brain. Nothing he could put a finger on, but something was trying to come into the light. The more he thought, the harder he fought to force it forward, the more elusive it became. It was just beyond his ability to put into words, a teasing wisp of thought, and then, as if blown away by the wind, it was gone. Setting the cup down, Johnny pulled the blanket around his shoulders, tipped his hat low over his eyes, and settled in for a long, cold night.

 Habits learned the hard way do not die easily. Johnny lay awake for several minutes before he opened his eyes, making sure he was alone and that he wouldn’t need a plan to be able to live long enough to have breakfast. Hearing Barranca munching on grass was a good indication there was nothing amiss, no reason for Johnny to be wary. Peering through thick, long lashes before opening his eyes any more than necessary, confirmed the camp was safe.

He threw the blanket aside, tossed a few pieces of wood on the red embers, and had flames licking the coffee pot before he saw to his needs. The sky had not even begun to lighten yet, but Johnny was ready to get on the trail. The faster he brought his horses home, the better he was going to feel. He was saddled and on the trail before the sun rose above the mountains and he was making good time.

<><><><> 

“So, where’s the other one, Major Harrison? I don’t think this guy is the one you want.” Steve Pierce held the spyglass to his eye and watched the lone man on the palomino cross the river, making a beeline for them. “An’ why only one man? This doesn’t make any sense, Major Harrison.”

“If this is bothering you, you can leave, Pierce,” Harrison stated quietly as he puffed on his European cigar, watching from a distance as Johnny Lancer came closer.

“No, sir, that ain’t what’s bothering me, Major Harrison, it’s just that it’s not the right Lancer boy,” Pierce countered.

“Well, if you were half as efficient with your brain as you are with your mouth, you would know that we’ll catch the other one with bait. And you are looking at the bait. So shut up and let me do the thinking from now on.”

“What’s so important about Scott Lancer that you need to bait him with his brother? It seems to me this is like lightin’ a match to dynamite with Johnny. I hear he can be one tough son-of-a-bitch!”

Pierce, again, voiced an unwanted opinion, and Harrison was getting tired of it. “Once more, Pierce, you may leave. Without pay, of course.” Harrison spoke evenly, staring Pierce down, and the man ceased the questioning. He had no desire to be the object of the Major’s ire.

<><><><> 

The tracks were only several hours old, and Johnny knew he’d have to be on his toes from here on out. The old instincts began to kick in, instincts he had relied on for many years to keep him alive. He could watch the ridges and scan tree lines without appearing to do so, and all the while, he kept his right hand close to the Colt on his hip.

The hair on the back of his neck was beginning to stand on end, and he knew he was watched, under surveillance by an unseen eye. He couldn’t see anyone yet, no sun reflecting off the lens of a spyglass or a rifle barrel, but they were there, he felt them. Johnny made a decision; he left the trail and made a sharp turn down a gully. If his gut was right, he was now out of sight; chances were whoever was watching was in the rocks higher up on the hillside, and just maybe he could turn the tables. If they couldn’t see him, he could find and watch them.

<><><><> 

“Pierce! Go down and find him! Now!” Harrison whispered urgently. “We can’t lose him! Get going!”

Pierce suddenly had second thoughts about this whole thing. He’d heard about Johnny Lancer, and if only half the things that were said about him were true, Pierce knew he was well out of his league. Well, all I have to do is watch him… Guess I can do that. The others can back me up. Pierce went down through crags in the rock, stepping carefully to not dislodge any loose stones and give away his location. He still had no idea where Lancer had gone.

“You two, go around the other side. With any luck, Lancer will catch Pierce, and while he’s occupied with him, you two can take Lancer and bring him here.” And without one word of question, Harrison’s other two men did as he ordered.

They circled around from the opposite side, hoping the three of them could overpower Lancer. Stan Mitchell and Max Reeves were doing their best; they traveled quickly and quietly, doing their boss’s bidding. But even they had second thoughts.

Pierce thought he’d done alright. He’d made it down without giving away his location; now he would wait; Lancer should be coming into view right about… The cold muzzle of the revolver was shoved into the base of his neck, and Pierce jumped, startled as he hadn’t heard a sound. It was just suddenly there, grinding into his spine. His heart skipped a beat; in truth, it skipped about three beats, but who was counting? And he knew he could be killed any second. Harrison surely wasn’t paying him enough money for this, not to be at the mercy of this Lancer.

“Don’t move, don’t make a sound, or you’ll be watchin’ your brains splatter all over these rocks before ya know you’re dead.”

Pierce began to make his peace with his god. He closed his eyes as he felt his pistol lifted out of the holster and tossed aside.

“Put your hands behind your back, easy like.” The soft words spelled out a lethal warning that would have caressed his ears had they not carried such an unhealthy threat.  

Pierce was not going to test them. He put his hands behind him and was quickly tied; the rope pulled tight, then he was gagged.

Johnny shoved him to the ground and tied his feet. With one last cold look from frozen blue eyes, Johnny left Pierce lying in the dirt.

Having no idea where Pierce had ended up, Stan and Max continued their way around to come up behind their quarry, to catch him off guard and bring him securely tied to the Boss. If Pierce couldn’t do his job, Stan and Max both felt they could complete theirs without Pierce’s help. So they took up a spot that would be behind Lancer should Pierce fail in his attempt.

But Lancer didn’t come through as he should have. He should have been here by now. Damn! What’re we gonna tell Harrison? And turning to retreat the way they came, they walked directly into Johnny’s Colt pointed at their heads. So startled, they ducked out of reflex.

Lancer stood, relaxed, and seemed to smile, but was it not a friendly gesture. It was wont to suck the life right out of their bodies, leaving them chilled and empty. Looking into the cyclop’s eye of hungry blue barrel of the Colt tended to have that effect on a man. Then he spoke, and if the two men in his sights weren’t afraid before this moment, they were now.

“How many of you are there?” The question was asked calmly and quietly, but the voice belied the look of rage in the cold eyes, eyes that looked like ice.

“Only us! I swear!” Stan panted out.

Too quick, Johnny thought. Then he smiled and shrugged. He even smirked as his stare continued to assault them.

“Now you two might wanna rethink that answer. I know ya just lied ta me. I got one a your boys tied up already. Now, ya wanna try that again?” and the smile was gone, replaced by more ice.

“There’s only us three. Where’s Pierce?”

Ignoring the question, Johnny threw a length of rope at Max. “Tie ‘im up, tight, an’ don’t make me hafta check them ropes. Try anything stupid an’ you’re gonna be dead.” Johnny commanded as Max looked at the rope in his hands and motioned for Stan to turn around. With Stan secured, Johnny tied Max, and they circled around to pick up Pierce.

“Where’s your camp?” Johnny asked them. They looked at one another; none of them wanted to speak; all three of them looked at the ground.

Johnny sighed loudly. “I ain’t gonna ask ya again. I wanna know where your camp is, and I wanna know where my horses are that ya stole. And I wanna know NOW!” He jammed his pistol into Pierce's side. The horse thief grunted with the discomfort, and his eyes watered with the pain.

Max started walking. He thought if they led Lancer into the camp opposite the side where their saddle horses were tethered, Lancer might not know there were four of them until it was too late. And it worked.

Johnny, with his revolver still trained on the three pendejos in front of him, didn’t see the fourth cup of coffee sitting in the camp where it had been abandoned until immediately before the gun barrel crashed onto his head and he fell bonelessly to the ground.

Harrison stepped out from behind the cover of rocks and quickly dispatched Johnny. He stood over Lt. Lancer’s brother, looking down at the now disabled man sprawled helplessly, out cold and bleeding from a wicked gash above the left temple.

“Get his gun and tie him up,” Harrison mumbled disgustedly after cutting Max free of his rope.

The Major watched Johnny closely, expecting him to regain consciousness any minute. He was excellent at reading people, knowing what they thought, what they were going to do, and taking perverse pleasure in foiling their attempts at whatever it was they planned.

He’d had extensive practice, especially the years he was the commandant at the prisoner of war camp where Lt. Scott Lancer tried to lead the escape, the only escape ever attempted while Harrison been in charge of Libby. That was the only blemish on his record… And now he was going to seek his revenge. Scott Lancer would pay, and it didn’t matter that the Lieutentant’s brother would end up making the sacrifice along with him. Torturing Johnny would substantially increase the unpleasantness for Lt. Lancer. Scott would, indeed, suffer infinitely more with his younger brother here.

Johnny Lancer would be another of Harrison’s rewards. He excelled in the brutality he thought it took to run the prison camp. Starvation, pain, isolation, beatings, mental ‘games’, sleep deprivation, and denial, he knew them all and played them well, and as he’d had to wait so long for his vengeance, he had the time to plan. Yes, Scott Lancer would pay dearly for what it had cost Major Kenneth Harrison.

Accustomed to speaking with authority, Harrison issued his commands and Mitchell, and Reeves jumped to do his bidding. “Go down and turn those horses loose. We do not need them now. We have more convincing bait,” he reasoned, looking at Johnny’s crumpled form tied and dismissed as he lay in the dirt against the boulder.

Pierce frowned. “Hey, those horses can bring a good dollar! We can’t just let ‘em run wild!”

Harrison threw Pierce a withering glare. “We’re not here to steal horses! We are here to capture a man! Let those horses loose! NOW!  And don’t leave any tracks that can be traced back to camp!  Harrison dismissed Pierce as if he were a pesky fly, then continued his observation of Johnny. Peculiar, they look nothing alike…

The men left the camp, leaving Harrison alone with the prisoner. But little did Harrison know that he would be dealing with Madrid and not just Scott Lancer’s brother.
<><><><> 

Scott stepped off the train onto the platform, searching for Murdoch when his father walked out through the station doors. He was a tall and imposing man, especially wearing a look of concern on his weathered features. Scott immediately knew something was wrong.

“Over here, Scott, Val’s waiting,” and he steered Scott around the side of the building.

Val was leaning up against the station wall, looking as if he hadn’t a care in the world. But looks were deceiving.

“What’s happening? Where’s Johnny?” A dozen more questions crashed through Scott’s brain, but he couldn’t get them out fast enough. Worry was etched in his face, and he knew that all was not right regarding his brother. Concerned and stressed, Scott needed some answers. His brother should have been here, and Scott wanted to know why he wasn’t. The ride home to Lancer was long and filled with questions that didn’t have the answers he needed.
The adobe Lancer arch was welcoming or would have been if Scott knew Johnny would be there to see him home, but that was not the case. Once again, his younger brother had taken off, alone, and charged full steam into God knew what kind of trouble.

“All we know is that the mares you and Johnny had in the south pasture were taken and he went to find them. That was three days ago. Late yesterday, Walt and Isidro found them about twenty miles south of there. All eight were found, but Johnny wasn’t. No tracks to indicate anything happened. He’s just… gone.”

“And he left by himself, didn’t he?” Not waiting to hear an answer, Scott continued with his mounting temper. “When we find him, I’m going to throttle the tar out of him! He knows better than to go off on his own!” Scott went to the window, looking out over the vast Lancer range. Where are you, little brother?

Murdoch set the pile of mail he picked up in town on his desk. He started going through it but couldn’t keep his mind on the task. Leaving the pile stacked on the ranch ledgers, he went to the sideboard and poured a drink for himself, Scott and Val.

“Val, stay for dinner. It should be ready soon.”

<><><><> 

He wasn’t sure, but he felt like his skull was split in two with one half hanging around his shoulders, and the other half was completely missing, lying around on the ground somewhere. He felt the blood running down his face and jaw drip onto his shirt. But he stayed motionless, sensing he wasn’t alone. If he moved, not only would he give himself away, but he knew that the explosions in his head would ignite with a vengeance, and his belly would want to join the party and turn itself inside out. Nope, the best thing to do would be to stay still. So he listened.

Johnny heard a coffee pot touch a metal cup, the coffee poured, and he could almost taste it. A cup of the hot, strong brew would suit him just fine right about now. Hell, if you’re gonna wish about something ta drink, it would be tequila…

The footsteps came toward him, and Johnny knew someone was watching him. Suddenly a large hand was in his hair, grabbing a fist full and roughly pulled, stretching his head and neck backward. With every shred of strength Johnny had, he forced his belly to be still. A groan slipped out through slack lips, but he did not open his eyes.

The hand withdrew, leaving him to slump against the boulder, and the footsteps marched away. It was all Johnny could do to not move. He was sure now that what had been the remaining half of his head was gone as the intense pain slammed through his body. He risked peering through slitted eyes, trying to pinpoint his tormentor.

The man was tall and thin, large through the chest, not quite Murdoch’s size but large none the less. He was over by the fire with his back turned to Johnny, smoking a cigar. Johnny took deep, quiet breaths, trying to still the discomfort in his belly, and he wondered if he could quiet the rolling before it gave him away.

The three men entered the camp and bedded down their horses. Sitting around the fire, each with coffee, they began to talk, putting together a plan of how they would use this young Lancer they’d caught. The three kept glancing in Johnny’s direction; he should start to wake soon.

“If everything I heard is true, Lt. Lancer will come if he knows his brother is in trouble. The two are near inseparable. He will come and attempt a rescue, and I shall have my revenge. It is quite simple. Fundamental strategy and Lt. Lancer will fall for it. And all you three have to do is what you’re told. Whoever has first watch, get to it. I am retiring for the night.” And Major Kenneth Harrison walked rigid and tall to his separate corner of the camp and went to sleep.

Johnny had no choice. He’d have to let them know he was awake; nature was calling, desperately. A groan escaped his lips, and he rolled his head to the right setting off a spectacular display of exploding stars in his head and, again, the rolling belly continued, threatening violently. He opened his eyes to meet those of Max Reeves, who was taking his turn on guard duty.

Reeves watched as the prisoner tried to get his bearings.

“I need ta get up,” was all Johnny said. Slipping behind him, Reeves untied the knots, then helped Johnny get to his feet, and stayed close. Johnny swayed as dizziness overtook him, his belly wild and uncontrollable. He barely made it into the bushes before his body rebelled, and his insides heaved savagely, fiercely rejecting whatever contents had been in it. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead and ran into his eyes as he steadied himself, then he finished his personal business.

With his head pounding, boulders slamming around inside his skull, he caught himself just before he shook his head to loosen the cobwebs. He grabbed the surrounding rocks for support, knowing he would not remain on his feet for very much longer. Stumbling into camp, he made it to the fire and stopped, looking at the coffee pot.

The unmistakable sounds from a belly turning itself inside out jarred him awake. Harrison shot to his feet. He kicked the blanket aside and stalked into the camp, knowing the prisoner would ask for something to drink.

Turning to look at Reeves, Johnny asked softly, “Any coffee left?”

“NO! Nothing for the prisoner! No food, no water, nothing!” Major Harrison commanded as he appeared on the other side of the camp.

The prisoner looked straight into Harrison’s eyes and held the stare. He didn’t back down, and Harrison saw no fear in the captive before him. The eyes lost the glazed, vacant appearance and were now were cold and penetrating, hard but with a confident ice-like certainty in them. And for the first time in his long and violent career, Harrison felt a shiver crawl down his spine from the brazen audacity openly leveled at him. And it made him angry.

Reeves nudged Johnny to move. With head throbbing, feeling like his brain was pulverized to mush, Johnny settled on the ground, and again his hands were tied behind his back. Refusing to show Harrison his discomfort, Johnny stubbornly threw the man a dazzling smile and added an insolent “’Night.”

Harrison stalked off to his corner of the camp.

For Johnny, the night dragged slowly on, but despite his aches, he knew he’d gotten under his captor's skin and also knew he’d probably pay for it, too.

<><><><> 

Dawn broke over the mountains flooding the beautiful Lancer land in the sun and warmth. The brilliant blue sky promised a fine day. However, it missed cleansing the gloom from the Lancer kitchen. Scott sat, cold coffee in front of him, seeming to contemplate the wood planks of the table. Where was Johnny? Did he leave Lancer? Scott wished he’d been at home, not miles away in San Francisco, then maybe he would have picked up on something that Murdoch hadn’t thought of. A noise on the back stairs told Scott he wouldn’t be alone, and soon Murdoch, shoulders slumped, indicating he hadn’t slept much, shuffled into view.

Murdoch looked at Scott sitting at the table and recognized the signs. Turning his back to retrieve a cup, Murdoch sighed heavily. “Have you been to bed, son?” And pouring his coffee, he joined Scott at the table.

“Technically, yes. I didn’t sleep, though. I can’t help but think that there is something we’re missing, some… clue.” Scott huffed an exasperated sigh, then slammed his hand down on the table. “Why does he do that? Why does he take off without anyone with him? Does he think he is invincible? And that nothing will ever happen to him?” With his anger vented for the time, Scott sighed again and held his head in his hands, trying to think.

“Well, Scott, I’m taking my coffee into the great room. I find the chairs are more comfortable there. Why don’t you come with me and maybe we can think of a plan of action.”

His leather desk chair was not only more comfortable to sit in but offered more support. Murdoch eased his large frame into it and stared out the window, watching the day come alive. Scott looked miserable as he slumped in the chair opposite Murdoch’s desk. The stack of mail, still where it sat from yesterday, occupied Murdoch as he absently began to go through it.

A letter for Scott was tossed to the edge of the desk in front of him. He picked it up and held it in his hands, not bothering to look the envelope, his thoughts lingering on his missing brother.

“You don’t suppose this was a ploy to get him back into Mexico? As far as I know, there hasn’t been any word of reprisals from the locals or the renegade Rurales…”  Scott glanced at Murdoch, hoping to get some response, some… something…

“No, Scott, I don’t think that had anything to do with Johnny’s disappearance at all.”

“It just doesn’t make sense! Why would someone steal those mares only to let them loose again?” Frustration made Scott stand and pace around the room. Not having come to a conclusion, he ended his wandering behind Murdoch, to watch out the large window.

“It makes sense to whoever did it. They wanted Johnny, and it looks like they’ve got him,” Murdoch said softly.

Scott absently ripped open the letter and read the brief message.

Lt. Lancer, wait for further instructions.

Scott’s vision started to blur, and he grabbed the window frame for support. Fear flooded through his body, and he had to force himself to stay on his feet as an imagined burst of cannon fire sounded in his brain, and the scent of burning and decaying flesh filled his nostrils.

<><><><> 

The smell of the coffee was playing havoc on his senses. Second to his taste for tequila was his desire for coffee, especially in the morning. But he wasn’t going to let them know that. Johnny sat on the ground, looking to all the world like he was relaxing in the shade. In truth, he watched every move they made. Harrison, the tall, lean man, supposedly the one in charge, carried himself like a man with a strict military background, and judging by the way he ordered the others around, he’d been at it for a long time. He was used to having people to do his bidding and dirty work.

Johnny was familiar with the type. The secret was not to let them know what you’re thinking. Keep the man guessing, and Johnny was a master with the deception. He’d been schooled by the best. He wondered why they didn’t gag him, and that left only one thing to do, say as little as possible. They hadn’t fed him or given him any water for the last day and a half. Well, he’d been hungry and thirsty before, he could handle it. What he wanted to know was why. Guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Harrison finished his breakfast. He rose to his full height, held a match to the sweet-smelling cigar and puffed it to life. Intending on intimidating his prisoner, he stalked to where Johnny semi-reclined against a rock. His captive refused to open his eyes and acknowledge him. Harrison kicked at Johnny’s feet to ‘wake’ him.

Casually cracking one eye open, Johnny stared into Harrison’s face. “What?” he eventually asked.

Harrison’s brows arched over colorless eyes in undisguised shock at the contempt displayed by this Mexican half-breed. Could this indeed be Lt. Lancer’s brother? Harrison wondered.

Johnny caught the flare in Harrison’s eyes at his refusal to recognize any authority and knew it was a weak spot, one to keep chipping away at. But Johnny also realized there was a sadistic streak in this man, and chances were that Johnny would find out all too quickly what the man was capable of, and no doubt experience his methods.

“You will address me as Major Harrison,” the man stated firmly, expecting immediate compliance. “You will do as you are told, and you will only speak when spoken to. Is that understood?”

Johnny smirked before he responded. “Well, ya sound just like my stepfather. He couldn’t make me do what he wanted. But then neither could the Mexican Rurales, so what makes you think you can make me do what ya want?” Johnny then added a pleasant smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
Harrison bristled at the implication. It was the same audacity used with him last night, but this time Harrison was ready for it. Quickly reaching down, the Major hauled Johnny to his feet and backhanded him across the mouth, splitting open his lip.

The pounding in his head that had begun to subside was back with a vengeance. Spitting blood on Harrison’s boots sent the man into a rage. His fists rained down on Johnny’s unprotected body, and as soon as he would fall to the ground, Harrison dragged him to his feet again, time after time until Max had seen enough. He knew Harrison was bloodthirsty, but this was going too far. Max had no desire to have anything to do with murder, and if this wasn’t stopped soon, that was precisely what it would be. Max took the chance.

“Major!” The sharp word shattered the morning air.

The word filtered into Harrison’s brain, and he stopped the beating.

Johnny fell to his knees, bent at the waist, arms still securely tied behind him, and panted heavily. I am gonna kill this bastard before this is over… Spitting blood, not wanting it running into his empty belly, Johnny struggled to control his breathing.

“We’d best start workin’ on a plan to lure Lt. Lancer out here. If this one’s hurt too bad, we won’t be able to use him at all.” Reeves’ words seemed to penetrate Harrison’s brain. 

Johnny watched as the madness faded from the man's face.

Harrison stared down at Johnny and pushed him over to lie on the ground. Reaching down, Harrison grabbed the gold medallion from around Johnny’s neck and pulled it off, breaking the chain. “This will do nicely,” Harrison said with an evil smile.

Not giving in, Johnny met Harrison’s eyes; again, he didn’t back down, and Harrison saw the undisguised threat in the deep blue irises.
This prisoner has a lot to learn! He thought as he turned his back and strode away.

Johnny rolled onto his side, letting the blood drain out of his mouth from a cut on the inside of his cheek. Bruising started to blossom in bright colors, and he began to consider what limited options he had. He only hoped Scott wouldn’t take the bait because he knew Harrison would kill him in cold blood, and Johnny wouldn’t let that happen. So he began to make his plans.

Stan Mitchell left the camp after breakfast. Johnny watched as he stood off to the side and out of earshot, conversing with Harrison, casting furtive glances his way. Harrison handed Mitchell an envelope, and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. Mitchell left, and setting his spurs to his horse’s sides, he thundered away.

Harrison, with a smile fixed on his smug face, glanced at Johnny again, staring long enough, he thought, to make the prisoner nervous, then went over to his corner of the camp to wait. It was going on two days that Johnny hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink, but he’d gone for more extended periods with nothing, much longer; however, the need for water was becoming critical. But Harrison was in for a surprise and not one he was going to like.

They let him walk for a few minutes before securing him again with the ropes. Every time he needed to relieve himself, he was allowed to walk the perimeter of the camp, under guard, of course. This was to show the prisoner how close he was to freedom but also to let him know he couldn’t access that freedom without facing a bullet. Most captives realized the futility of trying to escape, and to most, it was torture.

Johnny, however, was memorizing every detail about his surroundings and deciding which options would be the best for these specific circumstances. And he got a feel for his guards. He implemented his insolent walk, sauntered as if out for an afternoon stroll, under escort, of course, walking as casually as if he hadn’t a care in the world. This, too, Johnny knew irritated Harrison.

The blood was circulating again, and Johnny was led back to his spot, the space that was his ‘cell’. Pushed to the ground, he sat and waited for the next time they allowed him to walk the perimeter of the camp. He’d found a slight ridge on the boulder he was leaning against, and with any luck, he could fray the ropes that bound his hands without causing any unwanted attention.
Johnny kept a surreptitious watch, knowing that it would be his vigilance and patience that would see him through this. From the bits of conversations Johnny caught, it was plain this had something to do with Scott. Judging by the beating he received this morning at the hands of the ‘Major’, Johnny knew the man to be unbalanced; and he would be damned before he’d let Scott face this pendejo alone.

<><><><> 

Scott was about to go out of his mind. Murdoch had made him promise to not do anything in haste. He’d promised to wait for Val, and they would all go together. Now Scott found himself waiting, not so patiently, for Val to get to Lancer. He paced, sat on the couch, and was up again pacing. He would stop to look out the window behind Murdoch’s desk, then would continue to walk the length of the great room. The waiting was shredding his patience.

With the experienced trackers they had working for them at the ranch, surely they would find Johnny. But now, there was an added element of worry. With the note Scott had received yesterday, he knew that this had the potential to get ugly. He’d thought about it all night, and if it was the person Scott suspected behind this, Lancer would be in for a fight. Major Kenneth Harrison had been in command of Libby Prison for the year Scott was interned; a more brutal commandant Scott had never known, and if that’s who had taken Johnny, Scott knew that Johnny might already be dead. It was only that he had given his word to Murdoch that Scott was waiting for Val to arrive.

Thundering hooves interrupted his reverie and racing to the front door he threw it open as Val walked quickly into the foyer with another envelope for Scott. Grabbing the message, without a thank you, Scott ripped it open taking the brief note and read:

Lt. Lancer, 4 o’clock this afternoon   Crossroad outside of Spanish Wells.   Come alone. Should you chose to disobey, someone will die.

Scott’s breath hitched in his throat, and looking into the envelope, he emptied the contents into his hand. There lay Johnny’s gold medallion, the broken chain swinging off his palm. Another cannonball volley flashed in his brain, the acrid smoke burned his eyes, and he could hear the tortured screams of his men; he could almost see the limbs of the dead and wounded littering the great room floor of the hacienda.

“You’re not going alone, Scott!”  roared Murdoch, panic setting in and knowing full well Scott would go after his brother. Scott turned, leveling anguish-filled eyes at his father. Holding his voice even, but firm, he responded the only way he knew how.

“This has nothing to do with Johnny, Murdoch. If it’s who I think it is, the man will not think twice about sacrificing him. And that’s not going to happen! I am going. And I ask you to stay out of this. Johnny will end up dead if this is not followed to the letter. I am begging you, Murdoch, let me do this my way!  I know first hand what this man is capable of!” Scott stared into his father’s eyes, seeing the uncertainty and heartache so visible and raw.

Murdoch turned to Val with pleading eyes.

“What can ya tell us ‘bout this Harrison, Scott?” Val asked, trying a different tactic.

“He’s a sick, sadistic person with absolutely no conscience, and if I am not there, he will kill Johnny.” With that, Scott took the stairs three at a time and shut himself in his room.

“Val, do you have any ideas?” Murdoch desperately asked.

Val shrugged. Not knowing your enemy was incredibly risky. If they went about this wrong, they could get both Scott and Johnny killed. “Alright, Mr. Lancer, here’s what I think…”

Scott had spent less than five minutes in his room. He gathered a few things together and packed his saddlebags. Exiting the hacienda by way of the back stairs, he cat-walked through the kitchen as Maria went into the pantry. Scott made it to the barn undetected. He saddled Remmie, then took the road behind the house and was on the way to Spanish Wells before Val had explained his plan to Murdoch. Scott reached up to feel Johnny’s gold medallion in his shirt pocket, and his fingers burned.

<><><><> 

The first punch to his belly only knocked the wind out of him, but the second punch really pissed him off. He held his temper and bided his time.

Harrison was puzzled by this blue-eyed half-breed. What manner of man was he? He wasn’t showing the proper fear that he should, and he still wore that arrogant smile, even through battered, swollen lips he was smirking. His left eye was closed, the bruising on his face a myriad of bright colors as it now spread down his chest and torso. Harrison didn’t think there were any broken bones yet, that would come later. For now, the repeated beatings would continue, and he would save the best for last — the best for Lt. Lancer to witness. Lt. Lancer needed to watch his brother beaten to death as part of his punishment, and then his turn would come, and finally, it would all be over.

Major Harrison would then be able to get past this horrible injustice inflicted on him; the crime that ruined his promising career, the attempted prison break at Libby, and his subsequent court-martial. As the memories flooded through his brain, he became enraged at the series of events that followed all because of Lt. Lancer and his temper blazed. He drew back a fist and again landed it in the belly of the man held before him, tied and defenseless. Defenseless except for the grin, that crazy grin that provoked uncontrollable wrath, seething ferociously, blood boiling, foaming at the mouth, sheer hate. Sweat trickled down his face, but he quickly brushed it aside and glared with red rage-filled eyes at his prisoner.

Johnny again laughed, incredibly, at his tormentor. “That the best ya got, ya bitch…?” He laughed out loud this time, and it earned him a hard, powerful kick to the ribcage, then the lights went out.
Johnny didn’t know how long he’d been out, but when he opened his eye, the only person he saw was Harrison, and he inwardly groaned. He needed to get these ropes off, and if the others were gone, he might stand half a chance at escape. It was late in the afternoon, he knew, the sun was far into the western sky.

There was no getting comfortable, he ached everywhere, and a muscle spasm forced a groan, alerting Harrison that the prisoner was coming around. He slowly walked to where Johnny lay, slapping his gloves on his hand. It was an intimidation tactic he learned at Libby that reduced his former captives to quivering, twitching masses of flesh. But this prisoner didn’t appear nervous. He didn’t avoid eye contact. He didn’t show any fear. And that made Harrison angry. The prisoner should be shaking by now, but he met the Major’s dark, beady gaze without blinking.

“You haven’t asked why you’re here,” Harrison stated.

Johnny stared back, his cold blue glare telling nothing about the thoughts in his head. Now, his silence was working on Harrison’s brain, the irritation building to dangerous heights, and Johnny continued to stare into the colorless glare. These were eyes that Johnny wouldn’t forget for a long, long time.

Harrison couldn’t read what was going on in the head of this man, he should be groveling for his life by now, and it wasn’t happening. He would hold off on more beatings until Lt. Lancer was here to witness them… and begin his sentence, his long-awaited punishment. But in the meantime, Harrison had to get control of the younger Lancer. He thought some antagonizing was in order.

“I said you haven’t asked why you are here…” Harrison let the statement hanging.

Johnny refused to take the bait.

Turning cold eyes on the prisoner, Harrison whispered: “I am going to kill him…” A smug grin flitted across the evil features. Again, the prisoner said nothing. Harrison could feel all control leeching out of him.
Johnny saw the turmoil Harrison was feeling, and he smiled.

“Did you hear me? I am going to kill him!” Harrison grabbed the front of Johnny’s shirt and shook him, his face close enough that Johnny could see specs of silver in the wild irises.

Johnny saw the eyes glazing over with insanity. “No, ya ain’t,” Johnny whispered.

Harrison’s eyes widened for an instant. “You will speak only when I ask you to speak! And you address me as Major!” Harrison railed, letting go of Johnny’s shirt.

“Over my dead body…” Johnny smirked again, infuriating Harrison.

“That can be arranged!”

“So can yours.” Johnny remained calm, not letting the rage that begged to be released overtake him now.

Harrison quickly glanced into Johnny’s face, suddenly taken aback. “My what…?” Harrison was puzzled.

Johnny grinned. “Dead body.” He answered, seemingly relaxed. Pissin’ this bastard off is too easy; just wish I could defend myself…

<><><><> 

Scott was nearing the crossroads, and every nerve in his body was on edge. He again touched the gold medallion in his pocket as if it would relieve the anxiety in his heart. Johnny, who had absolutely nothing to do with any of this, would likely die if he wasn’t already dead, and he was completely innocent in all of this. In Scott’s mind, he remembered the repeated whippings, only a day or two apart, and having tended others who had suffered the lash, the cruelty of it never left him.

The savage cuts overlaid the previous whippings. The wounds reopening on swollen raw flesh were ugly with infection, the stench unbearable, and often resulting in life-ending illness. The pitiful groans and cries of pain filled his head as if he’d heard it just yesterday.

Suddenly, Scott had to pull his thoughts together, sending the memories of horrendous times, hopefully to the very deep and dark recesses in his brain. And wanted to banish them forever. He needed to concentrate on what was to happen now.

The rocks here were ideal for an ambush, and there was absolutely no doubt he would soon be targeted. And he was right. The crossroads were straight ahead, and he knew this was it, the moment when he would be taken and returned into the past five long years ago…

They had hidden very well, there was no way that Scott would have detected their presence, but they stepped out from behind their cover, each with a rifle aimed directly at his heart. Startled, Remmie tossed his head and danced before Scott got him settled down. Mitchell and Reeves came at Scott from either side of the road, closing the distance.

“Throw down your guns, slow…” ordered Mitchell. Scott did as he was told. “Now, get off your horse.”

Again, doing what was instructed and without response, Scott dismounted. Reeves collected the guns and covered Mitchell as he searched Scott making sure there was nothing more he carried that could be used as a weapon. Satisfied Scott was clean, they motioned him to mount up and headed up into the mountains. As they went, Scott made a note of everything he could think of regarding the men escorting him, where they rode, and surrounding area for a possible hiding place. He didn’t know in what condition he would find Johnny. Would Johnny even be able to ride? He wondered. He would know soon enough.

Pierce set himself high in the rocks. His orders were to watch for anything resembling a posse, in case Scott was followed. Lt. Lancer had a family now, he was a respected rancher with a rich father. And if there was to be a rescue attempt, it was Pierce's job to alert the Major.

The Major harrumphed Pierce. The Major was one scary son-of-a-bitch! The man was crazy! If Pierce didn’t need the money so badly, he would cut out right now. He honestly didn’t want anything to do with murder and two men up in those mountains were about to die because of that lunatic bastard. A rope necktie was sounding worse all the time, was it worth the five hundred dollars that he was to be paid taking this chance? He was definitely giving it more thought.

<><><><> 

Dusk was settling in, and three tired men on exhausted mounts rode into the small camp. Mitchell and Reeves ordered Scott off his horse. Two rifle muzzles followed his every move. Scott looked around frantically searching for his brother, and his gaze came to rest on a site that would haunt him forever. Johnny, obviously tied, sitting on the ground and unconscious leaning against a boulder. Scott started forward, heading toward his brother, but was halted when a tall figure stepped out of the shadows bellowing that he stop.

The sound of the voice crashed into Scott’s memory like an avalanche. The tone slammed into his brain with an explosion of memories he’d fought so desperately to forget! Now by the hundreds, they detonated in his head with ferocity, causing physical pain and threatening to burst his skull wide open. Harrison! Scott stopped, and looking through the dim light, he saw the person he least wanted to see… Ever!

The tall Harrison strolled dramatically into the light of the fire and took great delight in watching the look in Lt. Lancer’s eyes as they registered the demon from his past alive and well.

Scott gathered himself together doing everything he could to push aside the haunting memories of Libby, the haunting memories caused by this demented man standing in front of him, still smoking the awful smelling cigars. The demonic man that now had Johnny and himself at his mercy.

“Let my brother go! He had nothing to do with what happened!” Scott said, short of begging.

“You will address me as Major, Lt. Lancer!”

“The war’s over, Harrison and neither one of us is in the Army any more,” Scott spoke evenly, advancing to where Johnny was tied.

“Stay where you are! You do not have permission to see the prisoner, Lt. Lancer!”

But Scott didn’t stop. “John…”

The blast of the pistol sounded like a cannon in the early evening, and Scott was propelled backward, crashing onto the ground and lay stunned.

Johnny flinched. The blast from the pistol penetrated his brain and snapped him into consciousness. He looked up at Harrison, then saw his brother lying in the dirt. “Scott! Scott!” He turned again to Harrison. “You bastard! I’ll fuckin’ kill you!” Johnny struggled weakly against his restraints.

Scott rolled over, pulling his legs under him and slowly, unsteadily got to his knees. Putting his hand up to his shoulder, he felt the blood oozing down inside his shirt. His back felt hot and sticky where the bullet had passed through, leaving twin holes. His vision swam as he tried to make out his brother.

Johnny had lunged forward at Harrison, earning him a blow to the jaw and another bludgeoning kick to the ribcage, rendering him senseless. Harrison motioned to Mitchell and Reeves to get the two men, one conscious and one barely, secured, and then the proceedings would begin.

That’s what it was! The cigars! Scott told me about them damn things. I shoulda known it was him… That was the last coherent thought in Johnny’s head.

Harrison strode about the camp dressed in his major’s uniform, complete with his brightly polished saber as if he were still in command of his troops, issuing orders and expecting them to be obeyed without question. Scott was tied, his shoulder wrapped somewhat, only to not bleed out, then Harrison would not have his revenge. Johnny was left to lie where he’d fallen as he was in plain view so Scott could watch as his brother was subsequently punched or kicked as Harrison walked by.

Reeves was backing away, again thinking this whole thing had been a mistake, and he wondered how far he would make it before Harrison realized he was gone and would try to shoot him down. Mitchell, on the other hand, looked to be enjoying the horrific scene playing out in the small camp. He, too, wore a maniacal grin, looking fiendishly devilish in the flickering firelight.

Scott watched Johnny as a sheen of sweat covered his face and neck, and again, Scott was transported back in time to Libby Prison. He could smell the rot of mangled and burned flesh; he could hear the cries of dying soldiers as they lay in their own filth having been denied medical treatment. The horrific memories of Libby had not faded away as Scott thought they had because… he was there again. And Johnny would pay the price because of something Scott did. The weight was suffocating, and he fought to breathe.
“Lt. Lancer, you have been summoned here to face the punishment for your crimes,” Harrison stated as if conducting a hearing.

Scott was desperately trying to follow along, though significant blood loss made the words hazy, and he seemed to fade in and out. He was not grasping what he was hearing until his brother moved on the ground, and Harrison, again, lashed out with a savage kick to the head, reopening the gash where Harrison’s gun had connected two days ago. Johnny lapsed into silence, but Scott snapped into a completely coherent state.

“There’s no need for that, Harrison! The war is over, and so are you! You…”

“Silence! You will talk only when you are permitted! Prisoners have NO rights, Lt., you should remember that…” Harrison stopped in mid-sentence and hoped that the Lieutenant remembered what happened to rebellious and uncooperative prisoners.

“Lt. Lancer, you seem to have trouble remembering what will happen when a prisoner speaks out of turn. Have you forgotten the feel of the lash? Would it refresh your memory if we had a little demonstration… on your brother, perhaps?” Harrison tapped his fingers on the hilt of the saber and motioned for Mitchell to tie Johnny’s hands in front of him and rip the shirt from collar to tail, exposing the bruised and beaten flesh on his back, bruises in the shape of boot prints.

Dragging Johnny to a tree, Mitchell hoisted him to his feet when Scott acknowledged his ‘mistake’, admitting that Harrison had authority here, and Scott would comply. With Harrison’s nod, Mitchell let Johnny crumple to the ground. Stan looked longingly at the still form at his feet, and Scott could not disguise the contempt at the blood lust in Mitchell’s eyes.

Stepping over Johnny’s prone body, Mitchell let his heel and rowel rake across the flesh, leaving a bloody gash on his ribcage, causing a groan and an involuntary jerk of his otherwise motionless form. Scott’s belly began to roll, and he now wished he would have come to some kind of agreement with Val and Murdoch. Scott and Johnny were on their own, and it didn’t look good. Johnny, I’m so sorry…

<><><><> 

As Murdoch, Val, Cipriano, and three Lancer hands, all excellent trackers and fighters, narrowed the distance to the crossroads, they began to finalize strategies. Not knowing what they would find, they had to be able to cover all contingencies, which would be the rules of this life and death game.

Ahead were the rocks. Out of sight, they would separate, and should there be a lookout stationed there, they would be able to take him out and hopefully make him talk.

After discovering that Scott had left the ranch, Murdoch and Val knew time was of the essence. They’d quickly gathered the other four men and, following Scott’s trail, hoped they wouldn’t be too late.

The sun was going down. Murdoch felt that he had to make the right decision, he’d failed the boys before when they were taken away, Scott in infancy and Johnny as a toddler. He couldn’t let them be taken again. His mind was tortured as he thought about a life without his sons. He’d just gotten to know them, the fine men they’d grown to be, and his heart began to break apart. He struggled to hold back his tears.

The horses were slowing, and Murdoch saw Val issuing orders. He snapped out of his reverie and watched as Cipriano and Walt went to the north, while Isidro and Jake went to the south. Val and Murdoch went straight ahead.

Walt and Cipriano saw him first. The man was hunkered down between rocks trying to stay out of sight. It also looked as if he’d fallen asleep, head on his arms leaning across his knees. Certainly not on guard duty by the looks of him; they waited for Isidro and Jake to come at him from the opposite side and had him surrounded before he knew what had happened. Murdoch, relieved to have one of them in custody, couldn’t help but fear for the lives of his sons, especially after Pierce began to talk.

<><><><> 

“So, you see, Lt. Lancer, you have no choice. You will pay for your crime, and as punishment, so will your brother. You will watch him die, and then you will die…”

“I told you, Johnny had nothing to do with any of this! He wasn’t even there!” Scott began to panic; they had no right to take this out on Johnny!

“Enough! Lt. Lancer, you will be silent! And now, because of your indiscretion, punishment must be meted out! Mitchell, get on with it.” Harrison came behind Scott, pistol drawn to cover his prisoner and called out his dog. Stan Mitchell was all too willing to do his job.

Mitchell leaned down to pull a wicked knife from his boot and approached Johnny. Scott’s eyes, wide with horror, knowing to say anything would make it worse, and struggled to keep silent. He sat in shock and terror, paralyzed with fear as Mitchell pulled Johnny to his feet. He stood finally, on his own while Mitchell, with a sardonic leer, twisted his mouth, swung the blade, and left a deep, searing slash down Johnny’s left forearm that bled freely in a warm rush. And that was a mistake.

Johnny exploded in a wild tangle of swinging arms, white-hot pain ignited and burned out of control. Hands still tied together, he caught Mitchell unprepared with a doubled fisted blow to the face that knocked him backward to the ground.
The man, dazed by the hit, scrambled to his knees but not quite fast enough. Johnny kicked with all his strength, the toe his boot connected with Mitchell’s body, testicles flattened against hip bones, and Mitchell went down, curled into a tight ball and useless. Johnny whirled around, filled with rage, out of control fury burning inside him and exploded. He focused on the features, white with shock and terror.

Harrison now knew fear. He leveled his pistol on Johnny, but before he could pull the trigger, Scott threw his body into Harrison’s, and the gun fell from his grasp. The man before him looked insane. The sudden eruption of molten power from the prisoner he’d beaten senseless, left Harrison stunned and horrified.

Harrison grabbed Scott’s injured shoulder, squeezing until he thought Scott had passed out and screamed for Reeves to help subdue the prisoners, but Reeves was not there, and now Harrison was alone with a madman of his own making.

Johnny staggered toward him, eyes glazed, and murder in his brain. He’d kill this son-of-a-bitch with his bare hands. Harrison had tried to kill him and now Scott, and it was going to stop now, tonight, and Johnny was going to be the one to stop it.

Advancing slowly, blood dripping off his fingertips from the wicked gash on his arm, and running on raw nerves, Johnny, with an unsteady gait, came to face Harrison. Again with his crazy smile focused on the ‘Major’, the smile that threw Harrison into a seething rage.

Harrison was incensed by the fearless and insane boldness, the tidal wave of destruction he could not stop, and he began to retreat. He could not tear his eyes from the advancing menace.

He grabbed for the saber at his hip. But Johnny kept coming, still grinning, and Harrison felt the pile of rocks behind him. He could go no further. He would have to stand his ground against Johnny, alone. And he was afraid. He pulled the saber from the scabbard, but it was knocked out of his hand as Johnny lunged, savagely swinging the twin-fisted vicious punches, landing most of them, and splattering Harrison with his blood.
Harrison got in one good swing, and Johnny went down, but with the white-hot power surging, even beaten as Johnny had been, Harrison withered under the attack. Johnny threw a punch and connected with Harrison’s jaw sending him to the ground. This would be it, the final chapter for Harrison and Johnny coveted, desperately yearned for this moment, to deliver the fatal blow.

“Johnny! Johnny, stop!”

Where? Was that… Murdoch? Fragments swirled in his mind, what the hell? He felt hands on his shoulders, pulling him away from Harrison’s prone body, and then there was darkness.

<><><><> 

Necessity born out of desperation creates incredible circumstances. Had all the angels in Heaven looking down that night worked together, they could not have pulled off the timing and feats of sheer strength, will, and just plain guts that it took for everything to come together and result in the defeat and rescue. Val and Murdoch, with Pierce confessing and leading them to the mountain camp, broke into the fray in time to pull Johnny from Harrison’s inert body before he killed the man with his bare, tied hands.

Val secured Harrison and Mitchell, while Murdoch and Cipriano attended to the boys. Murdoch’s heart was in his throat when he saw both of his sons. They calmed Johnny and settled him next to Scott. It would be a long night ahead of them, but it was decidedly better after gagging Harrison and threatening him with bodily harm should he utter one more word.

They dressed the wounds of Scott and Johnny and settled them as best they could, considering the lack of medical supplies and decent beds. Tomorrow they would be home, with Sam and Maria to tend them. Murdoch desperately hoped everything would be alright and back to normal soon. Mentally and physically. This would take time.

Scott had suffered traumatic mental harm as he was forced to remember the atrocities committed at Libby Prison at Harrison’s hand. His efforts to secrete them away were now all for nothing. The reenacting of them played out here in this mountain camp brought them glaringly to the forefront once again, prompting Scott to relive the nightmare. They had been laid bare, ripped open to expose the ugly, raw wounds that one could only hope would fade away in time. And to make matters worse, Harrison had used Johnny to do it.

The wound in Scott’s shoulder would heal, leaving no complications. Johnny’s injuries were enough to keep him confined to bed until Sam said otherwise. The beatings produced deep bruising that would literally take weeks to go away. There were three broken ribs and the knife wound in the lower arm, a concussion and fractured cheekbone. The lack of food and water had been significant but had caused no permanent damage.

<><><><> 

Sam was exhausted. One injured Lancer was bad enough to care for, but two at one time was near to impossible. Thankfully, with the aid of Maria and Jelly, the three of them were able to manage with a slight degree of success. After several days of laudanum and liberal use of sleeping powders, Scott and Johnny began to regain extended periods of consciousness; unfortunately, it resulted in restlessness.

Scott was even complaining about the forced confinement, and Johnny was impossible to deal with. On several occasions, they found Johnny out of bed, either in Scott's room, trying to draw him into conversation or downstairs. No one quite figured how he’d gotten downstairs much less dressed by himself, and Murdoch had even caught him out in the barn with Barranca. I am going to have to hogtie that boy! Murdoch thought.

<><><><> 

Johnny woke to what he thought was shouting. He listened for a minute then realized the commotion came from Scott’s room. Throwing back his blankets, Johnny slowly sat up and pulled on his pants. He padded barefoot across the hall and quietly pushed the door open. The lamp on the dresser was left burning, the flame dancing on a wick so low it barely stayed lit. Turning the flame, a bit higher, Johnny watched as Scott lay frozen in a nightmare. Johnny eased himself on the bed beside his brother, careful not to startle him awake.

“Scott?” Johnny called softly. “Scott, it’s only a dream, Boston, ya can wake up now,” Johnny’s low smooth tones worked on more than horses. He had a way of calming agitation, easing the wildness and excitement. Scott was  responding, and his eyes snapped open in confusion and fear.

“Hey, Scott, ya alright? Thought maybe you’d wanna talk some.” Johnny continued with his low and soft timbre, soothing away the fear, and he watched it leave Scott’s eyes.

“Sorry… I… I didn’t mean to wake you…” Scott mumbled as he recognized his brother. The brother that he was sure had to hate him, would blame him for what had happened. Scott felt again like he did after he’d returned to Boston after the war. He felt… unbalanced and unsure; he felt lost. What was wrong with him! He couldn’t bring himself to look into Johnny’s eyes. He couldn’t bear to see the resentment, the blame that he knew he would find. Scott raised himself to a sitting position, still not meeting his brother’s gaze, focusing, instead, on his hands toying with the hem of the blanket.

Johnny waited, but Scott stayed silent. “Ya know, when I was in that Mexican prison, there were nights I’d lay there an’ all I could hear were grown men cryin’. We were all wonderin’ what was gonna happen that next day after dawn broke. We’d be thinkin’ ‘was this the day?’ and then it would all be over. An’ after months of it, either ya learned ta deal with it, or it would eat ya alive. An’ that happened ta some.

“But, the fact is that it happened, ain’t nothin’ ya can do ta change any of it. Ya can’t change other people, ‘specially someone as sick an’ crazy like Harrison. Some men are just born ta be that way. Ya can let ‘em ruin your life, or ya can get over it and get on with livin’. An’ I can tell ya that getting on with life is the better way ta go, Boston.”

What is he telling me? How can he not blame me for what they did to him?

“Scott? Do ya understand what I’m tellin’ ya?” The soft voice continued to melt through the icy barrier, and the dam cracked.
“Johnny, I… I’m so sorry!” Scott breathed out in a rush, finally coming to meet Johnny’s blue gaze. The smile that met him was more than he ever hoped to see from his brother. Johnny’s face said more to Scott than any words ever had. Scott exhaled heavily. “Johnny, I…”

Johnny leaned forward before a catch in his ribs stopped the movement. ”Hey, Scott, I know none of what happened was your fault. None of it, so stop blamin’ yourself for it. Ain’t that what you’re always tellin’ me?” Johnny gently patted the blanket over Scott’s knee, and the dam broke.

A weight was lifted from Scott’s shoulders, and his eyes welled of their own accord. Leaning forward, Scott rested his head on Johnny’s shoulder and wept. “It’s alright, Scott, let it go,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around his brother.
<><><><> 

“Maria? Have you seen the boys?” Murdoch charged through the house, angrily searching for the missing sons. “They know they’re not to be up and around yet! What are they trying to do? Make themselves worse?”

Maria shook her head and wondered when would the Patron get used to this?

<><><><> 

Lying in the sun on the grassy bank, Scott and Johnny soaked up the warm afternoon rays. It felt wonderful to get out after being confined to the house for… how long? Almost two weeks… It felt like a lifetime! They knew they would be in trouble when they got home, though. Murdoch had been like a bear, and Sam no better, crabby and short-tempered and, well, it was just good to get away from all of it.

Scott sneaked a glance at his brother’s face. The deep bruising had started to fade, and he knew Johnny’s chest and back still resembled the patterns of the kaleidoscope he had as a child. Again a tinge of guilt began to sprout, but he and Johnny had talked at length, and Scott was finally coming to terms with the fact that talking about it, instead of stuffing it into a corner and trying to ignore it, was the better way to go.

“Johnny?” Scott began.

“Huh?” Johnny responded without opening his eyes or any other movement.

“How did you get through it?” Scott asked softly, now rolling his head to face his brother.

“Through what?”

“The beatings. I know there were more than what I saw, and I saw plenty.”

Johnny smirked. “It’s a gift…,” he answered with a chuckle.

“… A gift…?” Scott asked incredulously. “A gift?” he asked again.

“Yup. Learned ta ‘roll with the punches’. Ya still get the shit stomped outta ya, but it ain’t as bad. Had lots of practice at it over the years. Pretty good at it, too!” Johnny quipped with a grin.

Scott shrugged. “Well, I still can’t get to the point that I’ll laugh about it…”

“Look at it this way, Scott, it really pays ta have your enemy underestimate you. It gets under their skin an’ starts ta eat at ‘em from inside when they find out their mistake. I think of ol’ Harrison and the way he’d walk around that camp like he was still in charge of a bunch a soldiers an’ then the way he looked when he knew he made a mistake, it was almost funny ta see it in his eyes.”

Johnny was silent for a while, then something occurred to him. “Wonder how much time he’ll get?”

Scott had wondered the same thing, and he also had no doubt that whatever prison he’d be sentenced to would be nowhere near the horrendous conditions that had been at Libby.

<><><><> 

They watched the mares in the lush green meadow. Soon the births would begin, and the pasture would be full of romping and playing foals. They were just starting to move the horses closer to the barn, the grass not quite as sweet, but it would be easier to keep an eye on the progress as their time drew near. Each mare was a thing of beauty, each intelligent; the wide-eyed faces told of excellent heritage and a line to be proud of. Scott and Johnny had done very well.
<><><><> 

The trial had started in Merced and not Green River. Harrison insisted that he be tried at the county seat instead of the town where Lt. Lancer may have some hold on the locals who would serve on the jury. And to make matters more interesting, he had elected to represent himself. This only confirmed the man was not in a sane frame of mind, as Sam could attest, but having not been declared insane, he had been allowed to act as his own counsel.

It was a pitifully short trial, especially after the testimony of Scott, Johnny and Sam. Harrison, acting in his defense, had rambled on about the injustice of the criminal acts during the war and how his suffering demanded retribution. But it became painfully evident to everyone in the courtroom just how mentally unbalanced Harrison was.

The judge demanded that he was seated, with the aid of the marshal. The jury deliberated only two hours, finding Harrison guilty of the attempted murder of Scott and Johnny Lancer. Steve Pierce was sentenced as an accomplice but was commuted for cooperating with the law. Stan Mitchell was sentenced to the same prison for his role in the torture of Johnny Lancer. Max Reeves hadn’t been arrested as of yet, but the law was closing in.

Johnny was concerned when Scott had been called to the stand to testify. He watched his brother carefully, and Scott appeared to falter as he described the treatment he witnessed of Johnny in the hands of Harrison and Mitchell. Johnny knew that not only was Scott having issues describing what had happened to him, Johnny, but also reliving the hell from Libby.

But Scott seemed to pull himself together, after a slight pause and a look into the deep blue of Johnny’s eyes. He straightened in his chair, and at a smile from Johnny, he seemed to gather strength. Scott proceeded with his testimony and stepped down. Johnny’s statement went flawlessly. He answered the questions succinctly, with no hesitation, and was allowed to step down.

The defining factor was the testimony from Sam, describing the wounds and injuries sustained by the Lancers at the hands of Harrison and notably Mitchell. With attention to detail, Sam gave an accurate and detailed account of the conditions of Scott and Johnny when they were found.

Everyone in the courtroom had been affected by Murdoch’s demeanor. He remained in control, but everyone could feel the tension he emitted, especially on hearing the account given by Sam. He relived every second of the rescue and convalescence of his sons. The prosecution presented its closing statement against Harrison, and the jury was excused to deliberate. Harrison and Mitchell were rushed back to jail, and the court was adjourned until the jury had decided the fate of the prisoners.

Murdoch, Sam, Scott, and Johnny sat around the table after having ordered a meal. The food had been delicious, that is, if any of them had tried it. Court was disturbing in every sense, and it had been a very long and emotional day. The small talk was strained, and most of the time, they sat in silence until the Marshal notified them that the verdict was in.

Once seated in the courthouse, the judge read the note from the jury.
“Before I read the verdict, I would like to make a statement to every man here, and if I could get it said to every man in this wonderful and free country of ours, I would. We have been through incredible times, for both North and South. But it is over now! Regardless of which side you served, it is done. Let us move on and heal the wounds of this great country. Now, I will read the verdict.”

As the judge read the word guilty on all counts, there was a collective sigh in the courtroom, and Scott felt that, if he’d been standing, his legs would have given out.

“As for the degree of violent and sadistic nature of the crime, I feel it my duty to pass the maximum sentence. Kenneth Harrison, please rise.”

Harrison stood erect and stared ahead.

”You have already been court marshaled for war crimes. As that sentence was not adequate to convince you of the wrongs you committed, I feel it my duty to sentence you to the maximum of twenty years hard labor at Mariposa Prison to start immediately. Stan Mitchell, please rise. As you were a more than willing participant in this despicable crime, you, too, will serve twenty years. Remove the prisoners!” And with a loud bang of the gavel, the court was adjourned.

<><><><> 

They left Merced, anxious to be home and have the whole ugly mess done and behind them. Both Scott and Johnny were exhausted but wanted to start back to Lancer the minute they left the courthouse. Murdoch tied Toby behind Sam’s buggy and rode with him while Scott and Johnny had already vanished from sight.

“Those boys of yours are something to be proud of, Murdoch. I couldn’t be more serious if I were talking about my own sons.” Sam had always liked the boys, and the more he knew them, the more he thought of them. They were outstanding young men.

“Thank you, Sam. It’s good of you to say.” Murdoch said quietly, still emotional over the trial.

”Well, you know me well enough by now to know that I wouldn’t have said it if it weren’t true.” Sam slapped the reins on old Skipper’s back, and they picked up a bit of speed.

Johnny and Scott raced on the way home. Letting their horses run at full speed was stress relieving, both were as winded as their mounts, and by the end of the day, when the Lancer arch came into view, they reined the horses to stand on the hill looking down at the hacienda. Home had never looked so good and inviting before. They exchanged smiles and trotted down the hill leaving behind a chapter in their life stories that neither one would want to revisit. Ever.

<><><><> 

Entering the yard, they took in every little detail, everything they’d taken for granted, and with the smiles still in place, they dismounted as Jelly came running from the barn.

“Well, it’s about time you two hooligans got home! Your first foal’s about ta be born!” and returning to the barn, Jelly left Scott and Johnny standing to look at each other in shock.

Johnny took off first with Scott right behind him. Skidding to a halt before entering the barn, they witnessed the final contraction as the foal burst forth into the straw, and a second later, the mare was on her feet nuzzling and licking the foal dry. This was the hopeful beginning of a promising partnership.

The foal was three days old and full of the devil. Scott wanted to name it Johnny. But Johnny had other ideas, so as they watched it frolic in the pasture, they tossed names back and forth. Johnny discarded the names Scott threw out, and Scott rejected those Johnny suggested. They were waiting for Walt to come home from Green River with word of more mares to buy.

The telegraph message should have come in earlier in the day, and as they watched Walt ride into the yard their anticipation grew. Walt handed them the missive and took the rest of the mail into the house. Scott grabbed the envelope and ripped it open, then turned white as he read the contents. Johnny became alarmed, searching Scott's eyes. Scott lowered his gaze and read:

Harrison and Mitchell escaped. Headed your way.

 

 

~ tbc ~

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