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FShoot

Contains profanity, sex, and violence. Not that much, but I’m working on it.

 

Chapter 1

He’d never been on a ship, but he’d heard stories about the swaying and pitching that would cause the strongest man’s stomach to buck. He swallowed again, hard. At least if he were on a ship now he could jump overboard. Jumping off a stagecoach would just make him look like an idiot.

He closed his eyes, trying to curtain the lurching view of the passing countryside. It didn’t help; his gut was starting to twist, slowly squeezing its contents higher and higher in his throat. A burst of spit shot into his mouth. He thought of spitting out the window, but when he cracked open his eyes he could see the woman across the coach staring into him. He swallowed.

He pulled his jacket more firmly around his shoulders, shivering slightly. He swallowed again. He tried to push his head into the slight draft that came through the open window, but the air seemed thick, the dust sticking like paste to his sweaty face. He pulled off his jacket, took a deep breath and let it out slowly.

A newspaper lay abandoned in his father’s lap beside him, its pages rustling slightly in the small breeze, the smell of its print permeating the coach, adding to his nausea. Murdoch’s regular breathing, punctuated by occasional snores, somehow irritated him immensely, but he supposed it was better than having him awake and watching him.

The woman was still staring in his direction, her hands folded in her lap. Beside her a young boy hummed, bouncing himself up and down in the seat to exaggerate the coach’s bumps. Johnny thought he might have to kill him.

He took another deep breath, and another, then leaned his head back for a moment and tried closing his eyes again. He wondered if he could clench his teeth tightly enough to avoid throwing up all over the coach. He hoped he could at least get his head out the window fast enough. He shifted his weight again, then shivered and reached for his jacket. This whole idea was a bad mistake, he knew that now.

Scott looked up from his book, wordlessly studying him from across the coach. Johnny met his gaze, and said what he had sworn he wouldn’t. “Scott, please…”

Scott didn’t wait to hear more. He stuck his head out the coach, squinting his eyes against the dust thrown up from the horses. “Driver! Can we take a break for a couple of minutes?”

“Can’t! Got a schedule to keep!”

“Believe me, it’s in your best interest to stop. Now!”

Murdoch was rousing, folding his paper and glancing quickly toward Johnny, who was once again rearranging his jacket. He looked questioningly at Scott as the team slowed.

“Taking a break,” explained Scott, watching Johnny inhale deeply and then exhale in controlled bursts.

The coach was still rocking to and fro as Johnny grabbed the door handle and pushed it open, scrambling to the ground. Scott was on his heels, leaping down nimbly, quickly catching up as Johnny walked unsteadily toward some bushes. Johnny finished the last few steps doubled over at a run, sinking to his knees as his stomach hurled its contents on the glistening sand.

Scott waited for the sounds of heaving to stop before he walked toward Johnny, placing a hand on his back. “You OK there, brother?”

Johnny had leaned forward so his weight was on his hands and knees. “Does it look like I’m fucking OK?” He rolled his weight to one side so he could sit upright, resting against the bush at a haphazard angle, his head at a loose tilt. “Did you bring it?”

Scott stood silently, taking in his brother’s pale complexion and hollowed eyes. “No,” he said, preparing himself for a tirade of curses.

Instead, Johnny’s voice was barely audible above the rustling of the leaves dancing in the gentle breeze. “Scott, you gotta. You don’t, I’m gonna just start walkin’. I ain’t gettin’ back on like this.” Johnny brought a hand to rest over his eyes, its slight tremors mirroring the jigging of the leaves behind him.

Scott stood there, contemplating the surrounding countryside. The only sign of life besides their little party was a hawk lazily circling above the hills that undulated toward the horizon in every direction. He knew Johnny was bluffing; he couldn’t walk anywhere, certainly not from here. “Here,” said Scott, handing his canteen to Johnny, “drink some water and you’ll feel better.”

Johnny slapped the canteen away. “I don’t want your fucking water!” He glared at Scott. “I changed my mind. This whole thing is a big fucking mistake.”

“Fine. You want to stay out here by yourself, maybe you should. I tell you what, Murdoch hears you talking this way, he’ll be the one to kick you off the stage personally.”

“Goddammit, Scott! I just can’t do this now. Not like this. I promise, once we get there. I just…this just isn’t working.”

The driver’s voice reached them, calling everybody back to the stage. Johnny was drawing his knees up to his body, rolling over toward his side. Scott sighed. “Just don’t let Murdoch know.”

 

Chapter 2

The clopping of hooves counted the passing minutes as surely as the grandfather clock back at Lancer. Johnny had wanted to walk from the train depot, but Scott and Murdoch had patiently explained that San Francisco was on a different scale than the towns Johnny was used to. Now Johnny sat sandwiched between them in the hired carriage, feeling out of his element at the sight of buildings the size and number of which he’d never imagined. He tried to look unimpressed, squirming uncomfortably in his suit, sticking his fingers between the collar and his neck. He still didn’t see why he had to wear a suit, or why he couldn’t wear his gun.

Neither brother had visited San Francisco before, so Murdoch was eagerly pointing out some of the city’s sights, gesturing toward the new California Theater where he said Scott and he would be attending a performance that night. Johnny looked numbly at the imposing building, his fingers still stuck in his collar, noticing Murdoch did at least have the grace to look sheepish after he spoke about that night’s plans.

Scott reached over and clapped Johnny on the knee. “You doing alright there, brother?”

Johnny tried to grin, but it came off kind of crooked. “Yeah, fine.”  That was a lie. He didn’t want to be here. He wanted to be riding Barranca, bedding a saloon girl, facing off in a gunfight, anything but being drawn closer to their destination. The carriage continued threading its way through the building rimmed streets, until the crowds and the businesses gradually thinned, allowing a vista of rolling hills to open before them. Murdoch fell silent, no longer benefiting from the diversion of playing tour guide. The driver aimed the horses toward a massive structure standing in forlorn majesty atop a rise. They continued through a gate and across an expansive lawn, the building gradually looming above them as the carriage pulled to a halt.   

Johnny looked upward, his gaze freezing on the barred windows. He had made a very big mistake agreeing to this, he knew it now. “Uh, Murdoch, we need to talk.” Scott had already climbed half out of the carriage but stopped to listen. Johnny thought he might have a better chance working on them one at a time. He stalled, hoping Murdoch would get the hint and send Scott away.

He did. “Scott, why don’t you go on inside and tell them we’re here?”

That wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, but it would do. He waited for Scott to get out of hearing range, then casually stretched and leaned back in his seat.  “I tell ya, Murdoch, I feel great. Funny thing, looks like that long trip did the trick.” He chanced a look at his father before continuing. “Yeah, I admit, it was kind of rough there for while, but now I’m fine. Just be a waste of money going through with this.” He shrugged and assumed his cockiest expression. “Besides, you need me at the ranch.”

Murdoch studied him. “Well, I do have to admit you look better,” he said, pulling his hat off and drawing his hand through his gray hair, “but we’ve come all this way, and they’re expecting you. I think you should go, at least talk to them and see what they say.”

“Oh come on, Murdoch, this is stupid! I’m all fixed! You want me to dance a jig, prove how good I feel? Come on, I want to go to that theater with you and Scott. Go shoppin’ in them fancy stores and buy somethin’ pretty for Teresa.” He turned his best puppy dog expression on Murdoch, the one he had perfected as a street urchin begging.

Scott emerged from the door, a couple of burly men flanking him. Damn. “Come on, Murdoch, what do ya say? You know me better than them strangers. And there ain’t nothin’ they can do for me you and Scott and Teresa can’t do better, you know that. Like I said, just gettin’ away and bein’ with you and Scott, that’s all I really needed.”

“Well, John, I have to say I am proud of how you’ve handled this.” Murdoch studied him until Johnny felt himself beginning to squirm. “You know, I think maybe this trip really was the answer. That, and some self control.” Murdoch laid both hands on Johnny’s shoulders, squeezing them affectionately and smiling. “OK, let’s tell Scott.”

Shit. The battle wasn’t won yet. Still, Scott was probably having second thoughts, too.

“Son, there’s been a change of plans. It looks like this trip was all Johnny needed. We’ve talked it over, and he assures me he’s over his problem. And look, he seems to be fine now.” He clapped Johnny on the back. “We’re going home together.”

Scott walked over to the carriage, placing his hands on its side. Johnny was drumming his fingers on the seat while examining the upholstery. “Is that so, Johnny?”

Johnny didn’t answer at first, the silence broken only by the tunes of a piano filtering out of the building. Then he met Scott’s eyes, answering, “Yeah, Scott. I’m ready to go home.”

Scott felt his face burning. He gripped the sides of the carriage until his knuckles turned white. “You forget the promise you made me?”

Johnny shuffled his feet, then Murdoch stepped in. “Scott, he’s says he’s cured, and I have to believe him. Look at him! I think all it took was some self control and maybe a long trip to get it out of his system.”

Scott snatched his satchel off the carriage floor and ripped it open, flinging a worn leather kit on the seat. “There’s his self control. There’s his cure. With all due respect, sir, he doesn’t have shit out of his system.”

Johnny could feel his father’s eyes boring into him, knowing without looking the disappointment in them. He briefly considered running, may have, in fact, were it not for the two men who suddenly looked ready to bolt after him. He mustered his best attempt at nonchalance and climbed out of the carriage. “This mean I ain’t going to the theater?”

Johnny was acutely aware of the gravel crunching under his feet, the piano music tinkling in the chilled air, and his father’s hand on his shoulder as he walked toward the building. His dread climbed as he mounted each step leading to the massive front doors. Just as he reached the top, the doors swung open, and a short, balding man greeted him with an outstretched hand. “Mr. Lancer! We’ve been expecting you. I’m Dr. Turner, and on behalf of the staff of the California State Inebriate Asylum, I pledge to do everything in our power to deliver you from the clutches of the demon drugs.”

 

Chapter 3

Dr. Turner ushered the three men into his office, dismissing the two attendants. The room was paneled in mahogany and smelled of pipe tobacco. The doctor gestured to green leather chairs facing his orderly desk. Scott and Murdoch sat while Johnny wandered around and pretended to look at pictures on the wall.

Johnny saw Murdoch count out some money and sign some papers. What a waste. Murdoch had insisted that Johnny pay his own way, using his listening money. He’d said it would make Johnny feel more responsible for his treatment. Johnny sighed inwardly. He supposed it was better than expecting the old man to dig into his funds. This way he really didn’t owe him. Still, part of him wondered if he would still be here if Murdoch had to foot the bill.

“Mr. Lancer? You need to come over here while we go over some rules. It’s important we all understand each other.” Dr. Turner handed a paper to Murdoch and Scott, and was holding one toward Johnny.

“As you know, in addition to your $1,000 treatment fee, your father has put up a $1,000 deposit in the event you cause damages or that we have to hire people to return you should you attempt to leave. I’m sure you don’t wish to cause him to lose that sum, so this is fair warning.”

Johnny looked at Murdoch in surprise. His father had put up money, even if was only a deposit. He wondered how he would feel if he lost it.

“I’ll go over these briefly and send a copy with you. You will be with us for a minimum of six months. You---”

“What? No, no way! Nobody said nuthin’ bout no six months!”

“Johnny, just listen to the doctor,” said Murdoch. “He---”

Johnny whirled to face Scott. “Did you know about this, Scott?”

Scott looked down for a second before looking him squarely in the eye. “Johnny, you can’t do this halfway. They have a lot of experience here, and I’m sure if they feel you’re well enough to come home early they’ll do what’s best.”

Johnny glared at Scott. He knew a bullshit answer when he heard one. He started pacing, his boots alternately clomping on the marble floor and padding on the oriental carpet as he roamed the room.

Dr. Turner continued, “You cannot have money or postage stamps, and anything you mail or receive must pass through our offices to be read and examined. You cannot have liquors, tobacco, narcotics, or weapons. Your room will be inspected daily. You cannot speak to any employees of the asylum unless first spoken to. You cannot leave the building or grounds without permission. You must attend divine service on the Sabbath, and morning and evening prayers every day. No amusement on the Sabbath, and no profanity at anytime. No fornication, no masturbation, and no visiting in other patients’ rooms. No fighting. A bell will tell you when to rise in the morning and when to extinguish your light in the evening. You will be expected to bathe, exercise, and work during scheduled periods. You will cooperate with our doctors and staff at all times. Visiting day is on Thursdays, and will be supervised. You must have written permission from your family to receive anybody in addition to them. Any questions?”

“I gotta get permission to wipe my ass?”

“Johnny!” Murdoch was glaring at him. “Apologize for that.”

“No, no, that’s quite alright,” said Dr. Turner. “I know it does seem like a lot of rules, particularly daunting for a young man. But I assure you, learning to live by rules is an important part of the treatment.”

“This ain’t gonna work, Murdoch. I been in jails had more freedom than this.”

Murdoch sighed. “Maybe that’s the problem, John. I know it’s not your fault, but you’ve just never learned to live by rules. This may be what you’ve always needed.”

“Why the hell don’t you just throw me in prison, then? Be a lot cheaper!”

“Johnny, you know it’s not the same thing,” Scott had risen and walked over to Johnny, laying his hand on his shoulder only to have Johnny shrug away. “Dr. Turner, these do seem like awfully stringent rules. Is there any way you can make exceptions for some of them?”

“I’m sorry, but no. No exceptions.”

“Then I ain’t stayin’. I don’t need this shit.”

“You ARE staying, and you do need this,” said Murdoch, his voice rising. “You agreed to this in order to keep your part of Lancer. I said you’d get your third when you proved you were man enough to keep it, and as long as you’re depending on drugs you’re not man enough to do anything! Now it’s stay here and get clean, or give up your share and leave!”

“Fine, I’ll leave. Keep your ranch. I got news for you, old man, I been man enough for a long time, drugs or not. Adios.” Johnny strode angrily to the door, grabbing the knob and pulling. He spun back to the doctor when it didn’t budge. “Open the damn door!”

“I’m sorry, John,” said Murdoch. “I signed the papers. You no longer have a choice.” A rear door opened and the two attendants entered.

 

Chapter 4

“Mr. Lancer?”

Johnny jumped slightly. He had been looking out the window. From here he could see some of the buildings of San Francisco, and beyond them, a glimpse of the bay. He wished he were by the bay, anywhere, in fact, but here in this room with Dr. Turner, Scott, Murdoch, and the ever-present attendants. He got some satisfaction from the black eye one of the attendants sported.

“Mr. Lancer, letting your mind wander is just another way of escaping from reality. We don’t encourage it.”

Johnny turned back to face the others, uncomfortably aware of being the center of attention. It was his second day here. He had been relieved that they had not yet withdrawn his drugs, although they’d reduced them enough to make him generally feel like shit. They had explained he was given this grace period so he could acclimate himself, and to complete certain preliminary steps. This was one of those steps: facing his family.

“Seems to me you don’t encourage much of nuthin’ here.”

“We encourage you to get well. I know it’s not easy at first. Now, as I was saying, can you tell us why you started taking these drugs?”

“Why the fuck do you think? To make me feel better. That’s what they’re for, isn’t it?”

“Mr. Lancer, I’m going to warn you about your profanity one time, but after this you will begin to lose privileges.”

“Oh yeah? Exactly what fucking privileges would those be?”

Dr. Turner started writing in his notebook. “Was there a specific reason you took these drugs? Were you injured or sick?”

Johnny snorted. “Only if you consider a few bullet holes an injury.”

“I see. A doctor administered them to you, then.”

“No.”

The doctor’s eyebrows raised as he looked at Johnny. “No? But you say you had bullet wounds?”

“Yeah, that’s right. A friend took care of me.”

“Doctor, if I may interrupt,” said Murdoch. “It was a friend, but also a doctor. Doctor Samuel Jenkins, the doctor who first contacted you about Johnny. And it was just one bullet wound, but a bad one.”

“I see. Well then, John, for my records, when exactly was this?”

Johnny looked out the window again. He knew Scott and Murdoch thought this was the first time. He watched a couple of people galloping horses along the road, thought of how he could be riding Barranca if his family had just minded their own business and left him alone. Instead he was in this prison. He didn’t care how they dressed it up, that’s all it was, a fancy prison. Screw ’em, let ’em be shocked. He turned back and looked squarely at Murdoch, who looked as though he was on the brink of answering for him. “I was thirteen.”

It worked. Murdoch’s mouth hung open, stalled before he could supply the date he had on his tongue. Scott stared at him as if he were trying to figure out if this was another of Johnny’s jokes.

“Mr. Lancer, if you can’t answer seriously we can end the session right now. I’m a busy man, and I’m sure your father and brother are, too.”

“I was thirteen,” Johnny repeated, returning his attention to the horses. “And I didn’t need no fancy doctor to quit then, and I sure don’t need one now.”

Murdoch shifted his weight uncomfortably before speaking. “Dr. Turner, I suppose it’s possible John is telling the truth. He didn’t grow up with me, and I know he had a somewhat wild youth. It’s not something we’ve talked about, although I wish we could.”

 

“I see,” the doctor said, tapping his pencil. “Would you like to talk about your childhood, then, John?”

“Hell no.”

The doctor scribbled some more. “I take it that at that time you didn’t take—what was it, paregoric, I’m guessing?—that often, or for all that long, am I correct?

“Laudanum, morphine, few times a day, every day, about eight months,” Johnny said, shrugging his shoulders. “Longer than now. So I don’t need to be here.”

Scott broke in, practically sputtering. “You had a friend who gave you morphine when you were thirteen? For eight months? What kind of friend is that?

Johnny didn’t answer.

“Can you tell us about this friend, John?” prodded the doctor.

Johnny let his gaze linger on Scott. This was almost fun. “Sure. He was sort of like a big brother to me. Took me in, fixed me up, gave me morphine, taught me a profession. Guess I rode with him ‘bout eight months or so fore I got thrown in jail for a couple months. When I got out he was gone.” He looked back at Murdoch. “You remember him, Murdoch. Name was Pardee. Day Pardee.”

Johnny grinned. The looks on their faces were definitely worth it.

 

Chapter 5

It was the sounds that got to him most. The place was never quiet, and it wasn’t from the piano he’d heard playing in the entrance hall that first day. Back here somebody was always moaning, screaming, or crying. Right now it was the moaning, a quiet moan, but enough to make him crazy.

He was pretty sure it was Thursday. Visiting day. Not that he was expecting, or even wanting, visitors. The doctor had advised his family that it was best for them not to visit at first. He figured they were glad to hear that. He couldn’t imagine Murdoch taking that sort of time off even once a month. Besides, after the way Johnny had spoken to them before the doctor called that family meeting to a close, he’d be surprised if they ever showed up.

He had just felt so damn furious at the both of them, sitting there pretending to understand, all the while feeling all good, not sweating, not shaking, not cramping. Tricking him into coming to this place. They were liars, the both of them, and he hadn’t hesitated calling them that, along with a few—well, maybe not so few—more expressive words. He guessed he wasn’t getting any of those so-called privileges any time in the next decade the way the doctor had been scribbling in his little book. It probably hadn’t helped that he’d finally grabbed his pencil and told him he was going to shove it up his dick if he didn’t quit with the writing. That was pretty much the end of the meeting.

No, he wasn’t expecting Scott or Murdoch to be visiting any time soon.

The goddamned moaning was getting on his nerves. “Shut the fuck up!” It stopped as soon as he yelled; that’s when he realized the moaning was coming from him.

They’d finally cut him off. They’d locked him in this barren room and, except for looking through a slot in the door every hour, had left him alone. It wasn’t all that different from the time before when he’d gone to jail. He tried to let his mind drift to that time, to concentrate on anything but the pain in his gut. He’d been riding with Pardee about eight months then, since Pardee’s men had shot him up after Johnny tried to rob their camp. Instead of finishing him off, Pardee had seemed amused, maybe even impressed, by the kid’s brashness and had ordered his men to dig the bullets out. They’d fixed him up, and had been more than liberal with the laudanum and morphine. Pardee had taken a special interest in him, helped him hone his draw, taught him about hiring out, and kept him supplied with the drugs Johnny soon grew dependent on. Johnny had finally found a place he felt he belonged, and had been thrilled to undertake some of Pardee’s more dangerous missions. It was on one of those missions that he’d had the bad luck to ride into a trap the sheriff had set up. He’d been offered a deal in exchange for turning in Pardee, but Johnny had kept quiet---not that he wouldn’t have told them almost anything else once the withdrawal started. He’d tried to feign illness, hoping the town doctor would give him some laudanum, but the doctor had simply conferred with the sheriff and then they had left him alone in his cell with a bucket and his misery.

He didn’t see how this fancy thousand dollar place was much different, locked in a cell with a bucket like he was. Worse, maybe. The damn white paint on everything hurt his eyes. Not to mention all those fucking rules. If he felt better he would jack off just for the pleasure of breaking another one, make sure he was doing it when they came to check on him. If he felt better.

Problem was, he was feeling shittier by the hour. He’d been pacing at first, unable to keep still, but now he hurt too much to do much more than sit hunched over clutching himself and rocking. He’d heaved everything up from his stomach long ago, but that didn’t keep it from trying some more.

A thousand fucking dollars. His whole reason, just about, for coming to Lancer in the first place. Now he had lost that in some attempt to get the third of the ranch he’d been promised. If he’d been smart he would have taken that listening money and ridden away at the end of the hour.

Of course, it had been more than just the promise of the ranch, although the idea of owning something beyond what he could carry on horseback was as intoxicating as any drug. It had also been curiosity about the father he had hated for so many years, the almost instant bond with a brother he’d never known about, and the hope of belonging to a family he’d never dreamed of.

A cramp doubled him over. Fuck family. A thousand dollars and a needle full of morphine was all it would take to make him happy now. And the thousand dollars was negotiable.

 

Chapter 6

Footsteps echoed down the hallway toward his room. It sounded like more than the usual single set, but at this point maybe he couldn’t be sure. Regardless, he damn well wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of seeing how sick he was. He pulled himself up and leaned back nonchalantly against the wall, plastering a bored smirk on his face.

The viewing slot opened and a pair of eyes peered in. The lock made some clattering sounds and the heavy door swung open, the doorway immediately filled by the two attendants Johnny had come to know as Fritz and Martin. Fritz was the blond one, built like a bull. Martin was the dark one, built like a bear. They quickly flanked Johnny as he struggled to heft himself to his feet.

“No, no, Mr. Lancer, no need to get up.” It was Dr. Turner, walking in and closing the door behind him. “I understand we’re feeling a little under the weather today.”

Johnny glared at him. “Can’t speak for the rest of you, but I feel just fine.” He muffled a groan just in time.

“Oh? Well, in that case, I suppose you wouldn’t be interested in this.”  The doctor reached into his coat and pulled out a slender syringe filled with Johnny’s friend.

Johnny was interested, alright. Very interested. But he wasn’t about to say so. It was probably some sort of test.

“I see. I’ll come back tomorrow, then,” Dr. Turner said, slipping the syringe back in his pocket and turning to leave.

“Wait. What’s this about? What do you want?” It couldn’t hurt to find out more.

“It’s not about anything, Mr. Lancer. The truth is that there is more than one idea about the best way to treat your problem. One school of thought advocates doing it all at once, like you’re doing now. Another advocates doing it a little at a time. Now that you’ve had a taste, I’m simply offering you a choice. You say all at once, and I’ll walk out and not tempt you again. You say a little at a time, we’ll do it that way. Your choice, Mr. Lancer. That’s what life’s about.”

“Little at a time,” blurted Johnny before he even realized he’d said it.

“Fine, then this is yours.” The doctor pulled out the syringe and started toward Johnny, then paused as though he had just remembered something. He reached into his coat and pulled out his notebook, his brow furrowing as he studied the pages. “There is one complication, though. It’s that matter of privileges. It’s a privilege to receive your medicine. I’m afraid your demerits add up to six hours of lost privileges.” He shook his head slowly, then bent and set the syringe on the floor, just as Fritz grabbed Johnny while Martin deftly handcuffed his right wrist to one of the rings on the wall.

“Somebody will be back in six hours to give this to you. Meanwhile, you can look at it and ask yourself if breaking those rules was really worth it.” The doctor spun and walked briskly from the room, followed by the two attendants, the door thudding shut behind them.

Johnny jerked on the cuff but knew he could never reach the syringe. He pulled up his knees as another wave of nausea racked him. Fuck, he thought. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. At least he could think it. But he might have to learn to hold his tongue in this place.

 

Chapter 7

There it was again. Every morning just as the sky was graying, a wagon arrived at the back entrance. If he stood to the side he could just make out the women that stepped out of it into the heavy mist. Sometimes he could hear the low murmur of voices, and even the occasional scuff of shoes on the stone walkway leading into the building. Last evening he had finally seen the wagon as it left, and had gotten a better look at the women getting into it. He recognized some of them as fellow patients. He might have thought they were going on one of the field trips to town he had heard trusted patients sometimes went on. He might have thought it except for the looks on their faces.

The last woman left the wagon well behind the others, followed by Fritz, who put his arm around her waist and pulled her toward him. Johnny saw her try to lean away, but she didn’t stop him. She seemed to watch the ground as she walked, until something caused her to look up, right at Johnny’s window. He knew she couldn’t see him in the darkened room, but he wished she could. He wished he could reach out and hold her, do something to erase the resigned look from her eyes. He stood staring out the window long after she had entered the building, feeling a tingle of enthrallment as he replayed the image of her face, surrounded by a cascade of auburn hair, over and over in his mind. She was perfect, almost. Perfect except for that look in her eyes.

The clanging of the wake-up bell jerked him from his daze. He hated the damn thing, and thought of going back to bed just to prove the point. The truth was, though, he’d been awake for some time in anticipation of his morning medication. He wasn’t going to piss it away on a whim. He even had his bed made.

Johnny shook his head at how that day in the withdrawal room had changed him. He’d hardly earned any more demerits, and as for that one big one, who’d have ever thought they’d just come barging into his room at all hours without any warning. He wondered what Murdoch would think of his newfound discipline. Probably say something about how it proved rules were just what he needed. Yeah, rules, and the threat of missing his medicine.

Room inspection would be soon, then medication followed by the morning divine service, then breakfast. After that he was supposed to start working outdoors today. It’d been almost two weeks since he’d drawn a single breath of fresh air, and he was looking forward to sweating from exertion instead of nausea for a change.

He started to pace back and forth. The room was stiflingly small. From the window to the bed was two steps, from the bed to the door was two steps. Clomp, clomp, clomp, clomp, turn. Do it again. Repeat. He figured he’d be halfway back to Lancer if only he’d been walking in a straight line. If only they’d let him come back.

Johnny still wasn’t sure how this treatment was supposed to work. So far they didn’t seem to be tapering him down much. If anything, he was on a more regular schedule than he’d ever managed to keep to on his own. He’d often questioned his impulsive choice of the gradual withdrawal over doing it all at once. If he hadn’t been so weak that day he would be almost over it by now. It had taken him about a week, maybe a little more, to get better that time he’d been jailed. It was the sickest week of his life. Still, he’d lived, and two months later he’d walked out of there cured, he thought, for life. He’d probably been fourteen by then, and Johnny felt a surge of shame that he didn’t have the guts to do now what he’d managed to do as a kid. Maybe he would tell Dr. Turner he had changed his mind and wanted to get it over with. Yes, that’s what he should do.

He heard footsteps approaching. Good, it was almost time for his medicine.

 

Chapter 8

Johnny leaned against his shovel and raised his face toward the sun. This was the coldest damn place he’d ever seen. Here it was, practically summer, and the air still had a bite to it. Still, it made working outdoors pleasant, and made the sun’s warm rays on his face that much more gratifying. He wiped the sweat from his forehead. It was the kind of sweat that felt good.

He had drawn garden duty, a privilege, he’d been told, and he was slowly loosening the hard earth along one of the vine-clad garden fence lines. It wasn’t so easy with the flimsy baby shovel they’d given him, guaranteed to fall to pieces were he to turn it against anyone. He’d been at it for several hours. The garden area stretched the length of the building, and was at least as wide. It was supposed to supply fresh vegetables and flowers for the entire institution. Several other men were scattered about, digging, weeding, and planting. Johnny had tried to talk to one when they’d met at the water barrel, but the man had dropped the ladle and scurried away.

He stretched, uttering a small gasp as the injury from Pardee’s bullet protested. It had been a good three months, but it still persisted in screaming out a reminder to Johnny whenever it had an opening, chastising him for turning against the man he once thought of as his big brother.

Johnny rubbed his back near his wound, twisting one way and then another in an attempt to loosen the tight muscles. One of the attendants stood up, watching him closely. Johnny hadn’t seen any guns on them, but they all carried clubs they seemed to enjoy slapping on their other hand whenever a patient was looking. The grounds were encircled by a high fence topped with several strands of tangled barbed wire, except in the front, where the ornate iron fence topped with pretty spears made a better impression on visitors. Some men on horseback rode back and forth around the perimeter. The California State Inebriate Asylum struck him as a place that couldn’t decide whether it was a prison or a hospital.

Johnny didn’t have any trouble deciding. He wouldn’t be here much longer, and as for that $1,000 deposit, that was Murdoch’s own fault for sticking him here. Of course, escaping meant giving up his share of Lancer, not to mention any future with his family. Johnny sighed. As angry as he was at them, he still hated going back to his former life. Maybe he should give this place a little more time.

He twisted the shovel in the dirt, trying to finesse it so it wouldn’t break in the process, when he caught a glimpse of her behind a rosebush. She was wearing the same green dress from that morning, only now he could see just how well it set off the auburn hair she’d piled neatly on her head. She would kneel in front of a rosebush, do something to it, Johnny couldn’t tell what, get up and move to the next one. Johnny kept on digging and twisting, inching his way down the fence line, his attention fixed on the girl. He didn’t quite know why he found her so fascinating. Maybe it was that sad look he’d seen on her face, or the way Fritz seemed to claim ownership of her. More likely it was simply because it had been a long time since he’d been with a woman, and most of the other women he’d seen here would scare any sober man into a dead run. In fact, most everybody here looked like they’d been ridden pretty hard. He drew his fingers through his hair, trying to tame its independent nature. He figured he probably didn’t look all that great himself.

It was about twenty minutes before he saw her straighten up, smooth her dress, and walk toward the water barrel. Johnny was suddenly thirsty.

He thrust his shovel so it stood in the dirt and tried to amble as casually as he could toward the barrel. He donned his best face as she looked up. “Howdy, ma’am.”

She nodded, replaced the ladle and turned to leave.

“Name’s Johnny, ma’am.”  When she hesitated but said nothing, he figured he’d go for her soft side. “I’m kinda new here,” he said, trying to look vulnerable.

It must have worked, because she finally answered. “In that case you’ll find it’s not a good idea to make friends here.”

What did that mean? “I’m safe,” Johnny lied. “And you don’t look all that dangerous,” he added, smiling broadly.

To his relief, she smiled faintly back. “My name’s Laura, Laura Besser. But it’s best we not be friends.” She turned and walked away, leaving Johnny to fumble for the water ladle.

Johnny figured either his looks had really gone downhill since getting shot or he was out of practice with his facial expressions. He was going to have to work on both, now that he had a reason.

By the end of the week either his work had paid off or her reserves had weakened. Johnny had taken to sitting next to Laura at the devotionals and meeting her by the water barrel, stretching their conversations a little longer with each encounter. He’d found out her family was from Boston, but they had moved to San Francisco several years ago. She had the most delicate fingers that could reach between roses and pluck a shriveled leaf without disturbing anything else. She had this one wisp of hair that was always fighting its way loose. He hadn’t found out why or how long she’d been there, where she went in that wagon, and if she was starting to feel about him as he was about her.

He did know his own feelings were sure to lead to demerits, one way or another. If he were lucky, she’d earn them right along with him.

 

Chapter 9

Johnny stared at the blank piece of paper, the faint light creeping through the window barely illuminating it.  What was he supposed to write? That he was thankful they had put him here? He wasn’t. That he was no longer dependent on drugs? He was. He couldn’t write about Laura. Whoever read his mail would see it, and somehow he suspected that wouldn’t be good. Although they had tried to be discreet, he knew one of the attendants had seen them talking several times in the garden, and last night another attendant had spotted Laura sneaking her hand into his during the service. As far as he knew there weren’t any rules about that, but something told him to be careful.

Laura had never followed up on her comment about it not being good to have friends in here, so Johnny figured she probably just meant it was a bad idea to get attached to another addict. Then again, who else would have them?

He sighed as his eyes fell on the stack of letters from Scott, all opened and read before being delivered to him. Scott was apparently determined to send him a journal of Lancer life, but Johnny suspected it was a Murdoch-approved version. It seemed to focus around horses and cows, fences and brush, Jelly and Teresa. Significantly missing were stories of drinking and bedding, gambling and fighting, and pretty much anything that made life worth living. Things he was sure Scott hadn’t given up just because Johnny had been forced to.

He heard the clatter of hooves on the drive and looked out to see the wagon in the morning light. Laura wasn’t with them every time, he’d discovered. When she was, she was always absent from that morning’s divine service. He watched to see if she would emerge from the wagon this morning, relieved when she did not. She would be at the service. Today he would ask her what the deal was.

He jumped as the morning bell’s clanging echoed through the building. Johnny quickly looked around his room, shaking his head at how tidy it was. If he didn’t know better he’d think it was Scott’s room. It was a habit he had no intention of keeping once he got out. He heard footsteps clunking down the hallway. It was a little earlier than usual for morning inspection, but maybe that meant the day would get an early start. The door opened and Fritz and Martin came in. Martin held up Johnny’s syringe. Fritz closed the door behind them. This was definitely not the usual way things were done.

Martin stood by the door as Fritz started stripping the sheets from Johnny’s bed, then emptied the meager contents of his trunk onto the floor. He held up some postage stamps triumphantly. “What have we here?”

“Them ain’t mine, and you know it.” Johnny’s voice was suddenly frosted. He hadn’t missed Fritz tossing the stamps into his belongings.

“Keep it up, asshole, and we can add to it,” said Fritz, pulling an assortment of contraband from his pocket, sorting through the items and adding one to the pile. “My, my, now how did this tobaccy get in here? You’re lookin’ at a shitload of demerits there, boy.”

Johnny glared from Fritz to Martin, clenching and unclenching his fists.  Either one easily outweighed him, and the weight appeared to be all muscle.

“Here’s the deal, breed,” said Fritz, stepping toward him. “You stay away from Laura and we just might see our way fit to overlookin’ these things. You don’t, you’re gonna find life ain’t so sweet here anymore.”

“Fuck you,” said Johnny. “How’s that for a fuckin’ demerit, cocksucker?”  Too late, Johnny realized that might not have been his best choice of words.

Fritz didn’t respond to Johnny, but nodded at Martin. Martin held out the syringe and dropped it to the floor, slowly lifting one foot and setting it down on the syringe, the glass popping and the liquid comfort puddling around it. He ground his foot into it, then looked at Johnny and said, “Oops.”

“That sure was clumsy of you, Martin,” said Fritz, shaking his head. “I tell you what, boy, how ‘bout we help you out? If you hurry I bet you can still lap it up. Get on the floor.”

Johnny had been in enough jails to know a shit-kicking when he saw one coming. He backed toward the window just as both men jumped at him. Martin grabbed his left arm as Johnny hurled his other fist into his jowl. Fritz leaped for Johnny’s hitting hand before Johnny could get another blow in, grabbing it as Martin started to twist his left arm behind him. Johnny kicked out, smashing his boot toe into Fritz’s shin, Fritz letting loose of Johnny’s arm as he cursed. Johnny turned to hit Martin again, but Fritz slammed his fist into Johnny’s stomach, doubling him over long enough for Martin to grab both arms and pin them behind him. Johnny struggled, kicking behind himself at the man’s shins, but Martin scissored one leg in front of his and squeezed, trapping Johnny in his bear grasp.

Fritz rubbed his shin and frowned at Johnny. He pulled a rag from his pocket, pried Johnny’s mouth open, and stuffed it in. He rolled his shoulders, then stretched his arms, cracked his knuckles, and grinned. He strolled over to Johnny and slammed his fist into Johnny’s gut, over and over, the thud of each blow initially followed by a muffled groan until the groans faded and all that could be heard were the repeated thuds, Johnny slumping in Martin’s hold until he was hanging like a discarded marionette.

Martin let him flop to the floor, then pulled the rag from his mouth and used it to clean up the broken syringe and its contents. He rubbed his jaw where Johnny had hit it. Looked like Mr. Lancer was going to be getting some demerits.

 

Chapter 10

“Mr. Lancer? Are you awake?”

Johnny gradually pulled his mind toward the voice, emitting a low moan as his eyes fluttered open.

“There we are,” the voice crooned soothingly.

Johnny could see legs and feet standing around him. He was lying on something hard, the floor, he assumed. He tried to push himself up but his arms didn’t seem to be responding. He rolled over, groaning as the pain shot up from his abdomen. His alarm mounted as he still couldn’t move his arms, and he began to struggle.

“No, no, calm down, Mr. Lancer. It’s nothing to be upset about. I understand we had a loss of self control, now, didn’t we?”

Johnny recognized Dr. Turner’s patronizing tone, and looked up to see the doctor standing over him, with Fritz and Martin by the door. He was in the room he’d been in before when they had taken his medicine away. He tried to move his arms again, but realized they were bound to his body by some sort of wrapping. “What the fuck is this?”

“Mr. Lancer, remember your language,” said the doctor, reaching for his notebook. “To answer your question, we’ve had to place you in a straitjacket for your own protection.”

“How the hell is this protectin’ me?” spat Johnny, jerking his arms as best he could, finally scooting backward to lean against the wall.

Dr. Turner made another mark in the book. “Do you remember what happened this morning?”

“Hell, yeah, I remember. Them two assholes came in my room and beat the shit out of me!”

The doctor made some notes. “Oh? For no reason, they just attacked you.”

“Oh, I reckon they had their reasons. Didn’t seem to want me talkin’ to one of the ladies.”

“I see. And yet, Martin here has a rather large bruise on his face, and Fritz has shown me an even larger one on his leg, still you appear to be unscathed.”

Johnny glared at the doctor a moment. “I don’t know nuthin’ bout bein’ scathed or not, but you wanna see some bruises, I bet you take a look at my stomach you’ll see plenty!”

“Mmmm. And to do that we’d have to remove the straitjacket, of course.” He sighed. “Mr. Lancer…John, if I may, I feel we’ve let you down. I’ve looked over your record and it appears we’ve probably tried to move too fast in tapering your medication.”

“Too fast? You ain’t cut it down at all!”

“Yes, I’m sure it must seem that way. But I think we’ve created some aggressive tendencies by moving so fast.”

“They attacked me.”

The doctor wrote some more. “And it also looks like perhaps some feelings of persecution.”  Fritz and Martin were smiling where they stood behind the doctor.

Johnny had no idea what that meant, but he had the feeling everything he was saying was just getting him in deeper. He stared ahead sullenly.

“You’ve accumulated quite a list of demerits, John. Fighting, profanity, contraband. You’re going to lose considerable privileges, too many to just take it out on your medication schedule. We do have to consider your health, you know. You have visiting day next Thursday. I’ve already sent a telegram to your family canceling it and explaining why. They’ll get a full accounting of your behavior in the monthly report we send out. I’m sure they’ll be disappointed.”

“Yeah, I bet,” said Johnny sarcastically.

The doctor tapped his pencil on his notebook. “I understand you’ve become friends with one of our other patients, Miss Besser, isn’t it?”

Johnny didn’t answer.

“What you must realize is that your actions don’t only hurt you, but those around you. Your drug addiction has hurt your family by depriving them of your ability to work, and now your inability to follow rules has deprived them of the chance to visit you. Unfortunately, they’re not here so you can’t fully appreciate how your actions affect them. What we have found often makes an impression in cases like yours is to work out a way in which you can see how your behavior really does affect somebody other than yourself.” The doctor paused, the sound of the tapping pencil ticking off seconds. “From now on, any demerit you earn will also be applied to Miss Besser. You’ll be skipping your medication today; so will she. You will have visiting day cancelled; so will she. No man is an island, Mr. Lancer.”

“That ain’t fair! You can’t…”

“Why? All you have to do is stay out of trouble and she’ll be fine after this.” He walked to the door, then turned and added, “You’ll get your next treatment late tomorrow, and we’ll be upping your level of medication.”

“I don’t want any. All at once, I want to quit all at once!”

 

Chapter 11

Johnny tried to wipe his face on his knee, banging his cheek on it with his tremors. His hair was slicked with sweat, and his nose was running so that a stream arced around his lip and dribbled from his chin. He’d discovered it took a certain talent to throw up while wearing a straitjacket, a talent he appeared to lack. It wasn’t all that easy to balance on just your knees when your legs were cramping and jerking of their own accord, and it hadn’t helped that each heave left his injured abdomen feeling like ice picks were pushing hot coals into him. They’d removed his pants, a further assault to his dignity but a necessity with his hands tied as they were. That whole exercise wasn’t so easy either.

He gritted his teeth as another cramp grabbed at his gut, finally rolling over on his side into a ball and trying to rock away the pain. His jaw ached from so much clenching, and every muscle was spent from all the cramping and shivering. It seemed like he’d been doing this for days, but he knew the worst was yet to come. Still, he had to get it over with. The other way sure wasn’t working, and now that he had Martin and Fritz after him he needed to be as clear headed as possible. Not to mention this shared demerit thing with Laura. Dios, he wondered if they had really cut her off, if she was in a room like his feeling like he did, cursing his name. His thoughts were cut short as he retched without warning, dry heaves racking his body.

His shoulders screamed and his elbows throbbed from his arms being crossed tightly in front of him. If there was a bright side, at least his hands were numb. Although he knew it was no use, he thrashed around again trying to loosen the jacket. He gave up and rolled back in a ball, this time balancing on his knees and head, feeling twice as sick each second as he did the last. The door opened.

“Rise and shine, Mr. Lancer!”

If only he had his gun.

“Your time’s up, and I have your medicine.” It was Miss Brewer, the nurse who usually administered his injections. Martin stood behind her.

“N-n-no,” Johnny stammered, trying to form the words through his chattering teeth, “all at once…”

“That’s right, I’ll give it all at once, don’t worry. Martin, let’s just use a leg. Help me hold him steady.”

“N-no! No medicine. I told D-doc Turn…”

She consulted her notebook. “No, you’re mistaken. It says right here you even get an extra big dose. That should make you feel better.”

“No! Stop!” But Martin was already straddling his leg, and Johnny’s protests quieted as he felt the warm glow spread through his veins, soothing every part of his body like a mother consoling her hurt child. God, but it felt good. He was a dandelion in the breeze, his mind drifting in every direction, going wherever the shifting wind blew him. What had he been thinking, telling them to stop?

He knew he’d been put in a wheelchair and rolled back to his room. He remembered being in his bed, sometimes when it was dark out and sometimes when it was light. He remembered somebody helping him drink, remembered being offered food, remembered getting more injections. Lots more injections.

He remembered the morning his medicine didn’t arrive. He was roused from his bed and told to get dressed, steadied as he walked down the back stairs to a dark corridor on the bottom floor, out into the still dark morning to an enclosed wagon. He looked up and saw Martin smiling.

“Get in, breed!” he commanded, shoving Johnny toward the wagon door, adding emphasis with his club. “Time for you to earn your keep.”

 

Chapter 12

Scott wondered if he should wait for Murdoch before opening the letter from the inebriate asylum. He’d had second thoughts about leaving Johnny there ever since that disastrous family meeting. Actually, ever since hearing that list of rules. Even given the short time he’d known him, he couldn’t imagine his wild little brother, with his impetuous nature and free spirit, existing under such a rigid regime.

Scott had brought up his concerns that first evening after the theater. Murdoch had countered them, pointing out that Scott had flourished under the discipline of the military, and that Johnny would benefit from similar structure in his life. After all, it wasn’t as if Johnny had much to show for his life so far. Scott had disagreed with that last statement, insisting that Johnny’s profession, as unsavory as it might have been, still involved a sort of discipline in its own way. That argument had ended in a stalemate, but Murdoch called the tune. Johnny would stay. Johnny's lies to Murdoch, when they first arrived at the asylum, hadn't helped his case.

Then came the telegram informing them that Johnny’s discipline problems had led to cancellation of his first visiting day. Murdoch had taken the news without comment, but Scott noticed how his jaw clenched and his throat tightened before he walked outside to the barn. This report no doubt contained the details. He tapped it on the desk, looked at the clock, tapped it some more. Murdoch should be back soon.

He could have lied for Johnny that day outside the asylum. Sometimes now he wondered if he should have. But Sam had said Johnny needed help they couldn’t give him at home. Scott had seen the evidence of that with his own eyes. Sam had, too, and Sam had wrestled with the guilt of feeling he had caused the whole mess. Scott shook his head. There was no way any of them could have known of Johnny’s previous addiction, not when Johnny never mentioned it until that family meeting. Especially not when Johnny was lying there unconscious, moaning from the fever caused by the bullet wound in his back.

Pardee’s bullet. Scott knew Johnny had been lashing out when he’d said Pardee had been like a big brother to him. It still hurt. Partly because he was jealous Johnny had someone in his life who he considered a big brother before Scott. Partly because that big brother had taught a child to be a gunfighter and supplied him with drugs. Could Johnny really think that was what a big brother did?

Anyway, Sam had given Johnny morphine pretty freely, even when Johnny started to regain consciousness and struggled vehemently against every injection, until finally he started to accept them, ask for them, complaining of pain far longer than Sam saw a reason for. Then came a series of accidents and setbacks, in retrospect almost as if Johnny had wanted to be hurt, was doing it on purpose so he’d have an excuse for more medicine.

But then he had seemed to recover, had started to do light chores, had started riding his horse. Scott now knew he had found the emergency cache of laudanum in the pantry, and had ridden to Pardee’s abandoned camp and gathered syringes and drugs they’d had to leave behind. Nobody had a clue anything was amiss until that morning Scott breezed into Johnny’s bedroom before breakfast and found him sprawled on the floor, staring at the ceiling, an empty syringe in his hand and a vial at his side.

He’d said it was a one-time thing, just that one time for a flare-up from his injury, that he could handle it, but then Scott came upon him injecting himself out by the pond one afternoon, and Murdoch caught him coming out of the outhouse with an empty syringe after dinner. That had been an ugly scene. Murdoch had suspected what he was doing in there, and had confronted him as soon as he came out. Johnny had irately denied it, tried to walk away, but Murdoch had spun him around and pried open his hand, finding the syringe, but not before Johnny had punched him. Murdoch’s black eye was a constant reminder over the next few days of how Johnny’s problem was destroying their new family. That was when Sam suggested the inebriate asylum.

 

Chapter 13

At first Murdoch had objected to the idea of sending Johnny to an institution. He thought Johnny should be able to shake the problem on his own, and he was astounded at the price tag attached to the treatment. Scott suspected there was one more reason: Murdoch didn’t like the idea of a Lancer in an asylum. Scott was familiar with similar hospitals back east, and objectively he knew it was the right choice. Still, it just didn’t seem right for Johnny. Or maybe it was just that he didn’t want to give up his brother so soon after discovering him.

Johnny had suggested they could tie him up somewhere and leave him a few days, but that idea was not well received by anyone. He refused to have any of his family around while he was trying to quit, apparently too ashamed of how weak he would appear to them. Sam refused to take on the job, saying he couldn’t do what needed to be done. Murdoch had reluctantly given Johnny an ultimatum: he either entered the inebriate asylum or he gave up his share of Lancer.

Sam made the arrangements. Murdoch had insisted Johnny travel to San Francisco free of drugs. Scott knew Murdoch was still disappointed in him for bringing along Johnny’s morphine kit and secretly doling out drugs to him on the trip. Scott felt a little guilty about it still, but there was no way he could have watched his brother suffer on the stage and rail car. He wanted Johnny’s lasting memories of his family to be pleasant ones. Not that they ended up that way. Johnny clearly felt betrayed that nobody had explained the nature of the place, or that it would be at least a six month stay. Scott had been looking forward to his first visiting day in hopes that things would go better.

That brought him back to the report he still held in his hand. Maybe it was better he open it without Murdoch, anyway. That way he could prepare a defense for Johnny if it was too bad. He picked up the letter opener and sliced the envelope along its crease, quickly scanning the single enclosed sheet on the asylum’s letterhead and signed by Dr. Turner.

PATIENT: JOHN LANCER

MR. LANCER HAS HAD CONTINUING PROBLEMS FOLLOWING RULES. HE APPEARS TO HAVE EXTREME DIFFICULTY CONTROLLING IMPULSIVE BEHAVIOR. THIS IS NOT UNCOMMONLY SEEN IN THE UNFORTUNATE WHO SURRENDER TO THE LURE OF VICES AND SIN. HOWEVER, MR. LANCER SEEMS TO BE ESPECIALLY CHALLENGED IN THIS REGARD.

MR. LANCER HAS RECEIVED DEMERITS FOR THE FOLLOWING OFFENCES: PROFANITY (122 INSTANCES), INSOLENT BEHAVIOR (61 INSTANCES), TARDINESS (19 INSTANCES), CONTRABAND (2 INSTANCES), MASTURBATION (1 INSTANCE), FIGHTING WITH STAFF (1 INSTANCE).

MR. LANCER HAS MADE PROGRESS IN HIS WITHDRAWAL PROGRAM. HE HAS PERFORMED WELL IN HIS ASSIGNED WORK DUTY.  WE BELIEVE THAT IF HIS SELF CONTROL AND DISCIPLINE ISSUES CAN BE OVERCOME HE HAS AN OPTIMISTIC OUTLOOK. HOWEVER, AT THIS TIME IT SEEMS UNLIKELY IT CAN BE ACHIEVED IN SIX MONTHS.

BECAUSE OF REPEATED RULE INFRACTIONS, AND AFTER DUE CONSIDERATION, IT IS OUR OPINION THAT MR. LANCER’S PROGRESS WOULD BE IMPEDED BY FAMILY VISITATION AT THIS TIME. ACCORDINGLY, HIS VISITATION PRIVILEGES HAVE BEEN CANCELLED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

 

Chapter 14

Johnny wrestled with the rock, finally getting his weight under it and hefting it into the wheelbarrow. One more rock and he would risk the whole thing breaking open, so he began pushing it down the wooden planks that led over the rough ground toward the big wagon, shuffling so his leg chains didn’t trip him. He backed it up the ramp leading to the wagon’s bed, and then flung its contents over the side to add to the growing mound of rubble. He started back for another load, briefly sidestepping to pat one of the draft horses harnessed to the wagon. Its neck quivered as he touched it, Johnny marveling at its massive head as it turned toward him. Johnny missed being around horses. He only wished he had a treat to share with them.

“Hey! Breed! I told you to stay away from them horses! Get back to work!”

Johnny gave a last rub and then shuffled back to his wheelbarrow. He knew the man who gave the orders only as Driscoll. Driscoll apparently knew Johnny only as “Breed.”

This was Johnny’s fourth week on the job. They loaded him and several disturbingly tranquil men into the wagon every morning as the sky began to gray. The ride there and back was always in complete silence. Driscoll and his helper passed out demerits or clubbings for talking, depending on how energetic they were. Most of the men hardly seemed capable of talking anyway, too sucked up in an opium daze on the trip there and too anxious and exhausted on the trip back. Johnny had to admit he spent most trips like that himself.

Johnny hefted another rock, once again weighing his odds of bashing in Driscoll’s brains. He knew it was an empty fantasy. Driscoll always stood watch from the wagon seat with a shotgun on his lap, never allowing any workers close to him. Tempting as it was to give it a try, Johnny knew it would be a suicide mission. Not that the thought didn’t have its appeal, as long as he could take Driscoll with him.

He could see a buggy pass by in the street below. He’d given up on any coming near enough to him to call for help. They were at the top of a hill of rubble, and nobody ever passed close enough to pay any attention to them. He pushed the rock in the wheelbarrow, wondering again at the point of this project. Half the time they spent loading the wagons, and the other half they spent unloading them a mile away, in the marsh right off the coast. Near as he could tell, these blame fool idiots were trying to fill in the bay. He wondered what kind of drugs they were on.

He was starting to feel beyond jumpy, which told him better than the sun’s position it was nearly time to start back. By the time he got there he would be toe-tappin’ eye-twitchin’ jerky to get his medicine. He knew now he was being held hostage by the damn stuff. That was why they’d increased his dosage. Just to make sure he couldn’t do without it for a whole workday, make sure he couldn’t wait to get back, make sure he didn’t even consider running away and leaving his lifeline behind.

Of course that shotgun Driscoll wielded also had a say in that. Then there was the matter of Laura. He had a vague memory of them hauling her into his room when he was hovering near reality that first day they’d hopped him up. Her condition left no doubt they were serious when they said she would share every demerit he earned. He wanted desperately to talk to her, to apologize and promise he’d toe the line and keep her safe, but he hadn’t seen her since.

He wasn’t sure how he ever would see her at this point. They’d moved his room to a cell in the basement, and he almost never left it except to load up into the wagon. He no longer attended the divine services---at least he could be thankful for that---and it didn’t look like he’d be doing garden duty any time soon. He got Thursdays off, but he spent them alone.

Johnny hated Thursdays. Every Thursday morning they made him clean up and dress in his suit, then marched him up to the reception area to wait for his family to visit. The attendants always assured him they would be coming that day, and Johnny believed them at first. He would spend the day at the window watching the hubbub of buggies arriving and departing, eagerly scanning each new arrival for the sight of Murdoch and Scott. They never showed. He listened to laughter rise over the tinkling of the piano as other families chatted with their loved ones throughout the day. Johnny sat alone. He’d been told just what would happen to him, and worse, to Laura, if he tried to move from his place or talk to anybody. At the end of the day he would be returned to his basement cell and stripped of his suit. The attendants would shake their heads in mock disbelief and comment on how his family must not give a damn.

The worst part was that they were right.  His so-called family wasn’t coming. They’d probably never intended to. Maybe they were so ashamed of him they had meant to desert him here all along. Or maybe when they got the first month’s report they had decided to give up on him. Even Scott’s letters had stopped.

He lugged another rock, its weight feeling more like a boulder in his aching arms. He shoved it in the wheelbarrow and leaned forward with his hands on the growing pile within. He wasn’t sure if his arms were shaking from exhaustion or withdrawal; either way, they weren’t going to lift much more.

The more he thought about it, the more sense it made. They’d get their ranch back and wouldn’t have to put up with their black sheep relation, the drug-addicted, half-breed gunfighter. He must have been blinded to think they’d want him there. No wonder they had conveniently neglected to mention it was a six month sentence until he was already trapped. He wondered if they would keep on paying a thousand dollars every six months to keep him here.

That’s when the truth slapped him. They’d gotten out of paying by having him work it off. What had Martin said? “Time to earn your keep.” Scott and Murdoch knew exactly what was going on.

Fuck. Now he not only didn’t have his share of the ranch, didn’t have his thousand dollars, didn’t have his stupid family, but he didn’t have his freedom. And he was still addicted. A slave any way you looked at it. Thanks to those two lying bastards.

He’d done their dirty work and now they were done with him. His gut tightened when he thought of Pardee. He really had been a better big brother than Scott. He’d never betrayed him like Scott had, although it was true Johnny had been devastated when he’d gotten out of jail and found Pardee had left without him. In the end, Johnny was the one who had betrayed Pardee. Johnny cursed himself again. He’d been so enthralled at the idea of owning a part of Lancer that he’d caused Day’s death, despite going out of his way to avoid killing him. He just hadn’t counted on that damn Scott being such a good shot.

He sighed. Tomorrow was Thursday.

 

Chapter 15

Johnny sat staring out the window, making a mental list of who he would shoot first if he had his gun. Fritz, Martin, and Driscoll were pretty much in a dead heat. He figured maybe Fritz would hedge them out. Dr. Turner, too, would be right up there. He couldn’t forget Murdoch and Scott, either. The more he thought about it, the higher they moved on the list. He also had to save a shot for that goddamn piano. That made seven. He’d have to reload.

He shifted his weight again, the piano starting up another mind numbing melody. He looked at the grandfather clock, noticing the music seemed to keep time with its slow ticks, wondering as he did every Thursday if the clock needed to be wound. Surely it was slow. The door opened and another family bustled in, throwing open their arms and smiling broadly as they greeted a patient.

Johnny could overhear bits of their conversation as they settled on a sofa near him. “Can’t wait to have you back, son…” “We miss you so much…” He noticed the father rested his hand on the young man’s knee, as though it belonged there. Johnny despised all three of them. He might have to add them to his shooting list.

The woman absently placed her handbag on the table between them and Johnny as she leaned forward to hug her son, not noticing that she set it on the table’s edge so it toppled to the floor.  Johnny instinctively stooped to retrieve it, his fluid motion stuttering only momentarily when he saw the derringer half out of it. He replaced the bag, sneaking a glance to ensure nobody had seen him palm the gun. Martin started toward him, but stopped, glowering, when he saw Johnny set the handbag back.

It was an over-under type. Two shots. He sure hoped she had loaded it.

Dr. Turner was making another round of the room, moving from family to family, giving the male patients' shoulders a fatherly squeeze, patting the female patients' hands protectively, reassuring families that their loved ones were the focus of his life.

Martin was still watching Johnny. Johnny turned to look out the window. He could hear footsteps approaching, but he kept his attention on the scene outside, studying the wide assortment of buggies parked there. The footsteps stopped behind him. Johnny tensed.

“Ah, Mr. and Mrs. Townsend, how good of you to come visit Theodore! He’s making great progress, you know.”

Johnny whirled. Mrs. Townsend gasped. Dr. Turner sputtered. The derringer Johnny held to Turner’s head spoke for itself.

“Try anything and Turner here is gonna to have what you might call disorganized thoughts.”

Martin started, stopped, started again towards Johnny.

“For you, dumbfuck, that means he’s gonna have his brains splattered all over the fucking place if you take one more step.”

Mrs. Townsend put her hand to her mouth, her husband helping her to the sofa. The rest of the room was quiet. Even the piano, fearing for its life, was finally mute.

Johnny caressed the side of Turner’s head with the gun barrel. God, it felt good to have a gun in his hand—every bit as good as any drug. It felt even better to have that gun aimed at Turner’s brain. He let himself luxuriate in the heady feeling before prodding himself into action.

“Everybody! Get over there, back against that wall!” He pulled Turner backwards toward the door. “This door better fucking well open or I’ll throw you through the goddamn window,” he hissed, reaching behind him for the knob.

It didn’t open.

 

Chapter 16

Johnny slammed the doctor against the wall. “Where are the keys?” He started going through his pockets when the doctor only made gurgling sounds. Johnny found some cash and pocketed it, then continued his search, keeping the derringer aimed at Turner’s head. No keys. He pushed him roughly toward the window. “After you,” he said with mock politeness.

The doctor jerked a trembling hand up, stammering out, “Vest.”

Johnny ripped open the vest pocket and grabbed a single key, turning it in the lock. “Now, where’s Miss Besser?”

“She’s, she’s up in her room today. Under the weather.”

Johnny considered his options. There were probably about thirty people in the room, mostly patients and visitors, plus Martin and another attendant. That meant Fritz was somewhere else, presumably in the building. There were other attendants, as well. He could hold Turner hostage and send somebody for Laura, but whoever he sent could sound the alarm. Or he could go after her himself, still holding Turner hostage, but what if Turner sent him down a blind passage or they were surprised by Fritz? Johnny knew a bad plan when he heard one, and both of these qualified.

“Need some help?”

Johnny whirled Turner, gun barrel still attached to his temple, to face the voice from the side of the room. He had to stare for a minute to realize where he knew the husky man from. He was used to seeing him covered with mud and sweat, hauling rocks to a wagon. Or lying in a morphine daze.

“I want to go with you,” the man said.

Johnny couldn’t rescue Laura alone. But he could escape on his own without her, without risking total failure by trusting a stranger. A stranger who could tell others what was going on if he sent him to get Laura, or who could let Turner go if he left him to guard him. In either case, Johnny would be here forever.

He could come back for Laura later. If she was still alive.

“You ever kill a man?” Johnny asked.

“No, but I’m more than willin’ to practice on Turner.”

Johnny thought he looked a little too willing. Turner wasn’t worth anything dead.

“Get Martin and that other asshole together, tie ‘em up, go through their pockets.” Johnny turned to the rest of the group, most still frozen in place. “The rest of you, sit down. You men keep your hands up. Ladies, throw your handbags on the floor. My friend here is gonna be lookin’ for another little gun, so you let him know if you got one hidden away.”

Johnny’s new friend returned with the attendants’ two clubs but no more weapons. Johnny shook his head in disgust at these visitors who seemed to take the NO WEAPONS sign seriously. He made a decision.

“You hold the gun on him,” he said, shoving the derringer’s barrel into Turner’s crotch. “Aim the first bullet at his balls. If anything goes wrong, or if I’m not back in ten minutes, blow ‘em off. If things are still going wrong after that, you gotta choice of puttin’ the second bullet in his brain or yours.”

Johnny tried to look nonchalant as he strolled from the room and started to follow the directions Turner had choked out. He poked his head back through the door, addressing the ashen-faced piano player. “Play one of them goddamned tunes, and make it sound normal.”

Dr. Turner must have valued his manhood. His directions led Johnny straight to Laura’s room. He knocked on the door.

“Go away!” replied Fritz.

 

Chapter 17

Johnny had never been good at following orders. He shoved open the door, sending the trunk that had been pushed against it skittering across the floor, almost to where Fritz stood with his pants hanging loose around his ankles and his hands cradling Laura’s head as he smashed her face against his crotch.

Johnny lunged, wrestling Fritz’s arms off her, slamming him backward, punching him in the jaw, the gut, the jaw again, his fury driving him to do anything to hurt, maim, kill, the man. Fritz finally staggering, tripping over the pants around his ankles, Johnny going in for the kill.

A blow from behind sent him to his knees. He wrenched around in time to block a second one, the club crashing down on his forearm. He had only an instant to be thankful Laura couldn't hit any harder, to wonder why she was hitting him at all, only an instant before Fritz was on him, his hands around his neck, crushing his throat. Johnny reached blindly, wrested the club from her, crashed it against Fritz's skull. The grip loosened and Fritz fell. Johnny rolled to his knees and brought the club down on Fritz’s face.

Fritz’s eyes showed no fear. They showed nothing but the blankness of death. Johnny slumped back to the floor, gasping for breath, eyeing Laura who stared blankly back at him. He pushed himself to his feet and held out his hand. “Come on, I have a way out. We have to go now.”

She sat on the bed like a china doll, a broken, dirtied china doll, pale and still.

“Here,” said Johnny as tenderly as his impatience would allow, “wipe your face and fix your hair so we can go.” He handed her a towel he’d moistened from the water pitcher, then knelt to go through Fritz’s pockets.

Still she sat, unmoving, finally speaking. “No.”

“What?” He stopped his search to try to make contact with her eyes. “No, you see, I have a way out. But we have to go now. You can’t stay. Fritz is dead. They’ll punish you for what I’ve done.”

“Get out. Get out of my life. I wish I’d never met you.”

“Listen, Laura, I’m sorry I’ve made things tough for you. I can’t fix that. You have to trust me, you have to come with me now.  We don’t have much time.”  Johnny hoped that grandfather clock really was slow. He suspected it wasn’t. He made a decision. He crammed his loot from Fritz into his pockets, grabbed Laura by the arm, and dragged her to the door. “Act natural.”

Closing her door behind them, he was relieved to see an empty corridor. He looked at Laura, briefly wondering how she would look had he told her to act like she’d just witnessed a killing and was being kidnapped. Probably pretty much like she did now.

He wondered, too, about that club she had wielded on him. Maybe she had bad aim. Maybe she’d been confused. Maybe she really did hate him.

Voices, laughter, approached from around a corner. Johnny had only a second to hurl himself and Laura through the nearest door, slamming it as quietly as possible behind them, twirling to see who was within. He rushed to clamp his hand over the woman’s mouth, but stopped when he heard her snores and smelled the alcohol rising from her breath. She wasn’t going to be sounding any alarms.

The same didn’t appear to be true of Laura. She had her hand on the doorknob.

 

Chapter 18

He hurled himself at her, knocking her hand from the knob and plastering one hand over her mouth. They stood in silence as the voices retreated down the corridor.

“What the hell is your problem?” Johnny hissed, easing his grip around her mouth.

“I can’t leave!” she blurted, suddenly looking down. “I, I can’t do without my medicine.”

Johnny reached his hand into the pocket he’d crammed Fritz’s belongings into, pulling out a vial and syringe. “Me neither,” he said with a wry grin.

She mustered a slight smile, and he gave her a peck on the forehead. “Let’s go.”

He still had to drag her, but she didn’t seem quite so heavy as they finally approached the room with the piano music tinkling from within.

The scene inside could have been a painting of how it was when Johnny had left. The ladies still sat, the men still held up their hands, and Johnny’s new friend still held his gun aimed at Turner’s crotch. And over it all, the piano still played.

Johnny grabbed Laura tightly, making sure anyone who was watching would think she was being taken against her will. Which she was, really. Just in case they got caught, he wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be punished. He spoke to the crowd. “If you got any sense you’ll take whoever you’re visiting here home with you. This place keeps people addicted so they can use them as slaves. You don’t believe me, check out the basement.” He gestured to his friend to start toward the door. “Meanwhile, don’t follow us. If you do, the good doctor is gonna be beyond medical help.”

They fled down the walkway and into the drive, pushing Turner and dragging Laura. Johnny threw Laura toward the buggy he’d selected when he’d been studying the horses from the window. He clambered in after her, pulling the doctor up behind him. Johnny urged the horses into a canter, trying to look casual as they approached the gatehouse. “Tell ‘em to open the gate unless you want your dick in the road,” he called back to Turner. He’d noticed with satisfaction that Moses—that’s how his new friend had introduced himself as they were running to the buggies—had placed a blanket over the doctor’s lap, and had his own hand hidden beneath it. Johnny was liking Moses more and more every minute.

“Good afternoon, Doctor,” the guard said as Johnny reluctantly brought the horses to a stop. The guard was armed, and Johnny was ready to tackle him until a second guard emerged from the gate house. At least neither appeared to have horses here.

“Yes, uh, good afternoon,” answered Turner, lacking his usual confidence. “We’re just going for a ride.”

The guard’s gaze followed Moses’ arm under the blanket to the bulge by Dr. Turner’s crotch. He opened the gate as he caught the other guard’s eye and raised an eyebrow. Johnny let out his breath just as bells began clanging at the hospital. He looked back to see people running from it like ants from a disturbed mound. He whipped the horses into a gallop, their hooves throwing dirt in the guards’ faces as they shouted for them to stop.

He kept the horses at a flat out gallop that had the buggy pitching into the air and lurching on two wheels, Laura and Turner screeching for him to stop. Moses was calling out the progress of their pursuers, who were still all in buggies. Once they had horses saddled Johnny knew they’d never outrun them. He aimed the horses toward the city.

They galloped around other buggies in the road, the drivers yelling out threats, until he realized he was going to have to slow down or risk a collision. Even so, pedestrians were scrambling to get out of their way as they cantered down the crowded streets, careening around every turn, hoping to lose their pursuers in the maze. The horses were blowing, their sides flecked with lather. Johnny realized their condition was making them conspicuous. He slowed the horses, turned them down an alley, and stopped.

"We’re asking too much of these horses, pullin’ all of us like this.” He turned to Dr. Turner. “Get out.”

Dr. Turner looked up and down the gloomy alley, his gaze fixating on an approaching man who clearly qualified as one of his patients. “Here?”

“Looks like some bad sorts around here, huh?” Johnny commented almost idly. He reached behind him and flung the doctor from the buggy, prying the man’s fingers from the buggy’s sides. “Then I’m sure you’ll make new friends.” He clucked the horses into a trot, leaving the doctor running behind.

“OK, Moses, where to?” Johnny was finally grinning as he turned the horses down another street.

“Turn left,” said Laura. “My parents’ house is that way.”

 

Chapter 19

When Johnny had been lying in bed with his bullet wound, Scott had regaled him with tales of a fantastic city where buildings were as large as mountains and houses were as splendid as castles. He called it Boston, but as they drove toward Laura’s house, Johnny was sure he must have meant San Francisco.

True, the area they’d left Turner in was more like what Johnny was used to, filled with squalor and rubble, one drunken structure leaning against another for support. But as they meandered slowly up and down the hills, turning right and left at Laura’s instructions, the homes and buildings began to look more sober, standing upright and independent. The commanding house they finally stopped in front of seemed particularly self-reliant. For the first time in his life Johnny was glad he was wearing a suit.  He tried to fix his tie, but after Fritz’s attempt to choke him, he figured it was beyond redemption, at least by anyone other than Scott. He pulled it off.

He and Moses tried to look gentlemanly as they stood behind Laura at the top of the stairs. At her knock, the massive door was opened almost immediately by a tall man.  Johnny was surprised Laura’s father was so old, and a negro, too, but he was too overwhelmed by the opulent foyer to dwell on it.

“Tomas, please tell Mummy and Daddy we’re here,” Laura was saying. That made more sense to Johnny. At least, sort of. Scott had told him of the servants he’d had growing up, but Johnny had never quite believed somebody would have one just to open the door.

Their shoes echoed on the marble floor as they were ushered into a waiting room. Johnny stood, feeling increasingly uncomfortable as he studied the room adorned with fancy jugs and pictures, increasingly worried as he wondered why her parents were home on a Thursday instead of visiting the asylum. Before he could ask Laura, the door was flung open and a gray-haired man strode into the room.

“Laura! This is a surprise! I trust nothing’s wrong.”

“No, Daddy, and I’d like you to meet some friends of mine, Johnny Lancer and Moses…” she hesitated, looking relieved as Moses stepped forward and supplied his last name as he was shaking Mr. Besser’s hand.

Mr. Besser addressed Johnny. “Lancer, eh? A former business associate of mine back in Boston had a grandson named Lancer. Nice young lad. Of course, obviously no relation.”

Mrs. Besser rustled into the room before Johnny could respond. Not that he knew what he would have answered. Neither ‘No, I’m obviously too screwed up to be his relation’ nor ‘No, that double-crossing bastard is no relation of mine’ seemed like the thing to say. So he just smiled.

“Laura, what are you doing here?”

“Mummy, I’ve come home. These are my friends.”

“They’re not from that place, are they?”

“Well, yes, they were. We’ve all been released, though. I thought maybe they could stay with us for tonight.”

“I wish you had told me earlier, dear. But the guest rooms are full.”

“Nonsense! We have plenty of room. How about a drink, Johnny, Moses?” Mr. Besser was already pouring some brandy into three glasses. He stopped, looking at the glasses sheepishly.  “I’m sorry. Maybe that’s not a good idea?”

Johnny and Moses both thought it was an excellent idea, and said so. Johnny could feel himself getting twitchy, and his head was starting to throb. Maybe the alcohol would cover it until he could do something about it.

“Daddy, I’m sure they’d like to clean up first. Let me show them to their rooms, and then you can have them back.”

Johnny and Moses followed Laura up a sweeping stairway and down a wide hall to two adjoining rooms. She indicated a small room between them with a basin, then turned to Johnny. “You two can wash up here. Daddy will expect you back downstairs in half an hour.” She lowered her voice. “Meanwhile, I need that medicine now.”

Johnny saw her hand shaking as she held it out, and knew she was telling the truth. He handed her the vial and syringe. “You want to just do it here?”

“No, I prefer to do it in my room. I’ll get it back to you before you go downstairs.” She turned and left, leaving Moses and Johnny to pace the room.

Johnny washed his face and ran his fingers through his hair. He looked in the mirror and noticed his eyes were starting to twitch. He watched the clock, anxiously awaiting Laura’s return, meanwhile finding out a little more about Moses. Moses said he had become addicted to morphine after a buggy accident that had also killed his wife, back when he’d been living in Stockton. His wife’s parents had taken him to the asylum, but quit visiting immediately. As far as he knew, they never paid after the first six months, and Moses had been in the basement for almost a year now. He had a sister back home in Kansas he was sure would take him in if he could contact her. When Moses asked Johnny about his family, Johnny simply said he had none.

Johnny could hear horses on the street below. It bothered him that the room faced away from the street, enough to make him jittery. Or maybe that was the lack of medicine in his veins. At any rate, when a knock came to the door he jumped. “Mr. Besser will see you in the library now,” a voice announced. Damn. Where was Laura with that medicine?

The two men tried not to look out of place as they opened the door to the library. They would have succeeded, too, were it not for the fact that the library was mostly filled with men dressed in police uniforms.

 

Chapter 20

The sight and sound of ten or so guns aimed at your head, all being cocked at once, is particularly disquieting, especially the first time it ever happens. At least that’s what Johnny thought, and he could attest it didn’t get a whole lot better with practice. Moses looked like he was going to throw up; Johnny figured he didn’t have any practice at all.

“Get your hands up! You’re under arrest for murder and kidnapping.”

“We didn’t kill anybody!” protested Moses. Suddenly Johnny remembered what it was he had meant to tell Moses.

“He needed killin’. He was forcing a lady patient to do certain things.” Johnny didn’t want Laura’s parents to know what she’d been made to do, so he left her out of it. “That whole place uses patients as slaves.”

“Sure it does. Save it for the judge.”

“Officer, if you don’t mind, I’d like to hear him out. My daughter, uh, well...” Mr. Besser stopped as Mrs. Besser frowned at him.

Moses finally quit staring at Johnny and spoke up. “They keep people addicted to drugs, make ‘em work like slaves. And the ladies, well, they make them work, too, only like ladies of the evening.”

“How dare you! Officer, get them out of my house!” Mrs. Besser spun to leave the room, but collided with Laura in the doorway.

Mr. Besser waved her in, practically sputtering. “Laura, these men are alleging that the hospital was engaging in certain improprieties, forcing patients to work at unsavory jobs, rather than working to cure them. Do you have any knowledge of this?”

Laura looked at Johnny and Moses as she spoke. “No, the hospital takes the utmost care of its patients. I’m afraid these gentlemen are confused.”

Johnny watched Laura leave the room, his thoughts garbled as an officer pulled his arms behind him to cuff his wrists. He felt a tremor starting in his legs and taking over his whole body, a sudden shaking that had him losing his balance, lurching against the policeman, a bizarrely violent attack that had the whole world suddenly pitching.  He tried to regain his balance, hoping nobody would notice, but they seemed to be fumbling around, falling to their knees, grabbing at walls, running for the door. For a crazed moment Johnny thought his problem might be catching, but he felt hands pulling him up and shoving him toward the door, felt falling plaster smack him in the head, heard a voice shouting “Earthquake!”

Moses was still pushing him when they burst through the front doors and stumbled in the twilight toward the street and the horses hitched at its edge. The horses were frantically rearing, their combined terror ripping the posts asunder, until they fled, the posts’ remnants bouncing along underfoot to goad them faster. Johnny and Moses chased behind them. A gunshot, and another, reminded them they, too, had pursuers. Johnny pushed Moses to the side just as another shot rang out and a bullet dug into the dirt ahead of them.  They ran for the cover of a neighboring house, shots pelting into the ground all around them, Johnny pitching forward at one point but recovering, running, dodging, keeping the houses and gardens between them and the officers. A dog ran from one house, a dog that Johnny at first thought was a tiny sheep, until it started to bark and nip at their heels, but they hopped a garden wall and left it behind. They could hear barking again from behind, then cursing, yipping.

Johnny stumbled, his legs going noodly. Moses hoisted him up and urged him on. They ducked into a carriage house, flopping onto the straw, sides heaving. They could hear people still talking excitedly on the now dark streets, whether about the quake or the escaped prisoners, they couldn’t tell. Dogs barked, but from far away.

“Johnny,” Moses whispered after their own breathing as well as the voices outside had quieted. “You got any more of that medicine?”

“No.”

“Damn.” He paused for a long time before continuing. “I think I know where we can get something. They got opium dens in Chinatown. We need to get going.”

“We gotta quit the damn stuff,” Johnny said, a tremor in his voice.

“Johnny, you already don’t look so good. Now’s not the time. Come on.” Moses reached under Johnny’s arms and pushed him to his feet. He pulled his hand away, trying to stare through the darkness at the warm, sticky substance on it from Johnny’s side.

 

Chapter 21

Johnny had crossed deserts that seemed a shorter distance than hiking across San Francisco. No wonder Murdoch and Scott had seemed so amused at his suggestion to walk that day they’d arrived. He thought again of that day as he had so many times before. He’d be better off if they’d just thrown him out of the train and kept on going. Guess they couldn’t take the chance of him finding his way back to Lancer. He wondered how pissed off Murdoch was going to be when he found out he’d lost his $1,000 deposit. A lot, he hoped. At least now they were even, money-wise.

His mind wandered to Laura, and why she turned on him that way. He guessed he really had forced her to run with him. It had never occurred to him she might want to stay. He had to admit he was probably the worst thing that had happened to her in there. Maybe with him gone she didn’t much mind her life, maybe she wouldn’t be paying for his sins anymore. Or maybe she hadn’t minded doing what she was doing with Fritz. Maybe she hated him because of Fritz. He wondered if it was Laura who had sent for the police. She could have at least brought the medicine back.

He realized he’d been leaning heavily on Moses, he didn’t know for how long, but he knew he had to try not to. He stood up straighter, took a step, and another, started to wobble. Moses grabbed him, told him to lean. Damn hills. What kind of city had hills all over the place? Cold as hell, too. Johnny was shaking, tremors messing up his steps. He could at least pretend it was from the cold, and maybe the goose bumps and runny nose were, too. But he knew better. Moses was also sweating, shaking, sniffing. Johnny tried again to stop leaning on him. Moses held onto him.

“Johnny, quit fighting me. You need to save your strength for when we get to where the people are, then you gotta stand on your own. We’re getting there. Just a little more.” So far they’d been able to take back alleys, free from the glow of the gaslights and the scrutiny of passersby.

They would occasionally pass another dark shape or two, both parties keeping to their edge of the alley, equally eager to pass unnoticed.  Their numbers seemed to be increasing, just like the rats that scurried away in every direction, and like the rats, they also seemed to be getting bolder, scurrying a shorter distance, almost daring the men not to step around.

Which is what they started doing. Stepping around a man sprawled out against some old crates. Stepping around the rat that nibbled at the frayed leather of his boot. Stepping around the man and woman moaning in the shadows. Stepping around the two surly men who seemed to block the entire alley. At least, trying to step around them.

The flash of a blade in the moonlight caught Johnny’s eye just before the stranger rushed up and stuck it to Moses’ throat. The other man rushed toward Johnny, blade also flashing. Two pops reverberated down the alley, and the two men fell, one face first into Moses, the other pitching into Johnny. Moses stared at the dead men, his face expressionless, then looked somewhat uncomprehendingly at Johnny’s hand, the one that held the derringer with the tendril of smoke rising from it.

“Damn glad that lady had it loaded,” commented Johnny.

“Yeah,” replied Moses numbly, letting go of the dead man so he slid to the ground. “Glad I gave it back to you. Glad the police didn’t get it. I guess.” He watched Johnny tuck the gun nonchalantly back into his pants. “So that’s what, just three dead guys today, right, Johnny? Nobody else I don’t know about?”

Johnny smiled crookedly. “Not that I can recall. Course, my memory ain’t what it used to be.” He was going through one man’s pockets with shaky hands. He nodded toward the other.  “Hurry, see what they got before somebody comes to see what them shots was about. Grab that knife.”

“Hey, you two! Hold it right there!” A mounted figure appeared at the far end of the alley.

 

Chapter 22

Johnny and Moses bolted toward the street, stumbling around the corner and into a mass of what some would call the dregs of humanity, what Johnny considered his kind of folk. They twisted their way down the crowded streets, pushing through the tide of bodies, conscious of the mounted policeman behind them yelling at the people to part, of his shouts growing fainter and angrier as the mass simply undulated in front of his protesting horse.

They were both slowing, their steps faltering, Johnny leaning heavily on Moses. It didn’t matter, they fit right in, or would have, were it not for the suits they still wore. That, and the blood stains down Johnny’s side. They stopped and leaned against a building, tried to look normal.

“We there yet?” asked Johnny, wiping his nose his nose with one hand, clasping his side with the other.

“No, but this may be just as good. Barbary Coast. They got dens here, too, and more of them speak English. Just be careful.”

“I’m always careful.” Johnny wondered why Moses looked at him funny when he said that.

They pushed their way back into the throng, Moses leading the way, Johnny barely managing to walk on his own. Johnny sure hoped Moses knew where he was going. He was past twitchy and on to full-fledged jiggy now. His side hurt like hell. He knew it was probably just a graze, that he’d had worse, much worse, but it was burning and aching. Maybe he could use it to get medicine from a doctor. If he knew where one was. Maybe tomorrow.

Moses had stopped to talk to a Chinaman, but Johnny didn’t notice, so Moses reached out and grabbed his arm. Johnny spun in alarm, pulling out his new knife. He stood frozen, poised to bury the knife in his attacker, feeling foolish as he realized what he’d done. The Chinaman’s eyes opened wide and he started to scurry off, but Moses waved more money at him and he calmed down, still eyeing Johnny cautiously. Finally Moses was motioning for Johnny to follow, pulling him by the arm. Johnny was getting tired of being pushed and pulled like a puppet. But right now he just wanted to find that opium den Moses had promised.

The Chinaman ducked down another alleyway, so quickly and smoothly that a casual observer would have missed that he was there one second, gone the next. Moses had been watching, and he led Johnny after him. Johnny was mostly watching his own feet at this point, making sure they pointed basically forward, and that the bottom parts hit the ground. If Laura were here he would gladly hold her down and take that medicine back, throttle her if need be. And to think, he’d thought he loved the bitch.

He knew Moses was in a bad way, too, but somehow he seemed to be holding it together better than Johnny. Maybe it was the wound that was making Johnny react even worse than usual. It was still bleeding, throbbing in time to his headache, and he was both lightheaded and nauseous. This alley was even grimier than the others they had stumbled down that evening, the stew of stenches clawing at Johnny’s stomach.

The Chinaman was talking to another Chinaman, talking in peculiar language, pointing at Johnny and Moses, pointing mostly at the money in Moses’ hand. The door opened and Johnny inhaled the delicious fumes that wafted out. He’d smoked opium a couple of times with Pardee’s men, and its smell, like a mixture of chocolate caramel and roasting nuts, tickled deliciously at his memory. Moses paid the Chinaman and they entered the small room, where the other Chinaman nodded to the bunk-like shelves lining the walls. The place was in disarray, but Johnny had a feeling it wasn’t just because of the earthquake. Most of the shelves were already filled with men lying on them, some laughing and talking, others staring at the ceiling. Johnny and Moses found a space, settled uncomfortably and immediately turned to the small pot of opium paste and accessories the Chinaman had brought.

Johnny showed Moses how to form some of the waxy paste onto the end of a wire, hold it over a flaming candle, and work it into the tiny pipe bowl once it started to harden and burn. He inhaled deeply, held it, let it out slowly, and along with it, a little of the burning from his side and worry from the day. It took about eight bowls before he began to feel the familiar soothing caress, maybe another eight before he could have stopped, maybe six more before he actually did stop, finally letting the loving embrace of the drug envelope him, lulling his pains to sleep, purging his mind of betrayals and threats. Filling it instead with visions of Laura. Laura smiling at him, holding his hand, beckoning to him, smiling again as she slipped off her dress, beckoning again for him to join her. He spent the night with her, embracing her, exploring her, forgiving her. Laura, his love.

 

Chapter 23

“Johnny, wake up.”  Laura was calling him. Johnny opened his eyes to gaze into hers, wondering for a moment why her chin was covered with dark stubble. He tried to clench his lids back together when he realized it was Moses’ chin, but Moses shook him by the shoulders. Damn.

He forced his lids back open and started to roll out of the shelf, gasping at the unexpected stab in his side. Damn again. He’d forgotten about the wound.

“Dang, we should have taken care of that last night. Get your shirt off.” Moses was tugging at Johnny’s shirt, the dried blood plastering it to the wound. It hurt like hell. He clamped his arm to his side as Moses continued pulling at it, finally grabbing Moses’ wrist to make him stop. Moses sat back, tapping the shelf with his fingers. He walked over to the Chinaman in the center of the room, handed him some coins and returned with a small pot of opium.

“No,” said Johnny when he saw Moses preparing some. “I’m quittin’. That was the whole point of gettin’ out.”

“I know, I know, me too,” Moses said, his attention on heating the pipe. “Not until you’re well, though. Now take this so I can clean you up without you punching me.”

After a couple of bowls Johnny was vaguely aware of Moses working on him, after a few more he drifted away with Laura gently removing his shirt, washing his side, tending to him with her delicate hands.

When he awoke again the room had only a smattering of people left, some sprawling half on and half off their shelves, some starting to stir and stretch, a few ambling out the door to take care of their morning needs. Johnny idly looked around for Moses, sitting up anxiously when he realized he wasn’t there. He patted his pockets. The money from Turner and Fritz was gone. So were his shirt and coat. He quickly reached in his boot, feeling a rush of relief when his fingers met the knife handle. He didn’t know what sort of money he might owe this place, but if need be he could probably fight his way out.

He was pissed. It wasn’t just the money and clothes. He thought Moses was his friend. He knew better than to trust his friends, though. The big question was what took Moses so long? Why hadn’t he simply robbed him last night? He rubbed his face in his hands. It was just too hard to figure out right now. Besides, he needed to find an outhouse or an alley.

He looked around to see if he could take somebody else’s shirt. Everybody seemed to be wearing theirs. Maybe nobody on the street would notice him half naked, given the sort of crowd he’d seen there last night. He started to walk quietly, casually, toward the door, ready to grab the knife from his boot. The Chinaman appeared to be snoozing, his chin resting on his chest. Johnny crept past, opening the door as gently as he could, stepping into the alley and walking quickly away. He broke into a trot as he neared the street. Rounding the corner, he was disappointed to see last night’s horde had shrunken to those still too drunk or too broke to go elsewhere. Nobody even glanced at Johnny.

He turned down the next alley, leaning against a wall with one hand while he added to the alley’s acrid stench. Buttoning his pants, he spotted a familiar shape walking down the street. He slipped out his knife.

It took only a couple of seconds to sneak up behind him. He grabbed him by his hair, pulled his head back, and held the blade to his throat. “Gimme my fuckin’ stuff back.” His voice was icy and quiet.

“Jesus, Johnny, what the hell are you doing?” Moses held up Johnny’s shirt. “I got your clothes washed so you could wear them without looking like a stuck pig. Here!”

Johnny reached out and fingered the damp material, then lowered his knife part way. “Where’s the money?”

“I spent some on your clothes.” Moses slowly turned toward Johnny, reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a small bottle. “And some on this,” he added, smiling. His smile was short-lived as he looked past Johnny. “Put your shirt on and come on. There’s a policeman coming.”

They walked rapidly away, Johnny trying to get his shirt on. Moses kept glancing over at him. “What?” Johnny finally asked.

“What’d you say your last name was, Johnny?”

“Lancer, why?”

Moses furrowed his brow. “Apparently this other guy escaped from the hospital yesterday. Killed Fritz and kidnapped the director and a lady patient. Only that guy happens to be some gunfighter named Johnny Madrid. It’s on the front page of the paper. They’re looking for him everywhere. Big reward. Guess we’re lucky that’s not you. Right, Johnny?”

 

Chapter 24

“You got any plans after this? Some place you call home?” Moses lifted the crate and hefted it onto the platform with a grunt.

“No, not really.” Johnny was struggling to place a crate alongside Moses’. He’d buttoned his suit coat against the wind whipping in from the bay, but he couldn’t help shivering still.

“I been thinking. Why don’t you come to Kansas with me? My sister would put both of us up. She’s not married, either,” he added, lifting an eyebrow and grinning.

Johnny rested against the platform while he contemplated the big man. “Your sister, huh? She don’t look anything like you, does she?”

Moses was straining under the weight of a crate, and just grunted. Johnny wasn’t sure what that meant, but he suspected it wasn’t good. Still, it wasn’t like he had a lot of choices.

He shrugged. “Sure.” He heaved another crate, faltering under its weight. Moses grabbed the crate before it fell, shoving it to the platform. “Sorry,” said Johnny, wiping his face on his sleeve.

“You need a swig?” asked Moses, studying Johnny. He slapped his hand on Johnny’s forehead, muttering, “Shit.”

Johnny had been thinking just that for a couple of hours. He pulled away from Moses and lifted another crate, determined not to let the fever win. Moses had gotten them these jobs, even if they were piss-poor ones, and he wasn’t going to lose it for them. The boss had eyed his bedraggled suit and face suspiciously enough when Johnny had shown up. They had enough laudanum to last them another day, but not at the rate Moses was pushing it at him.  And they hardly had enough money left to eat today, much less find a room. Moses was a nice guy, but he had a funny set of priorities, paying to have the blood taken out of Johnny’s shirt before buying some bullets for the derringer.

“Whoa, Johnny-boy, take it easy. Drink this.” Moses handed the bottle to him, but Johnny shook his head.

“I don’t need it. Besides, we gotta make it last.”

“Looks to me like you need it. Last thing I need is for you getting all sick on me.” He continued holding the bottle toward Johnny, his hand shaking slightly. “I’ve been cutting back, so I won’t be using much. I’m not the one with the bullet hole.”

Johnny noticed the bottle did contain more than he would have thought it would. Moses must have really been holding back. Now that he thought about it, Moses didn’t look all that good himself. He stared at the bottle a while longer before giving in, snatching it and taking a gulp.

By the time the foreman came around to check on their work and pay them for the day, Johnny was feeling much better. At least his side wasn’t throbbing. He was still shaking and sweating, so he knew he had a fever, but he wasn’t too worried about it.

One of the guys on the dock told Moses about a cheap flophouse where they could bunk with a bunch of other guys. Once there, Johnny dropped into his bunk, barely aware of Moses tugging off his boots and sticking them between his arms for safekeeping. He drifted off to sleep as Moses was saying something about coming back with some food. Once in a while he’d hear the stumbling of drunken men as they staggered into the other bunks. He heard their snores and curses throughout the night, heard them stumble around again as the room lightened and they left. Moses was right, he was sick. He’d sweated and shivered all night. He was thirsty, but too tired to find the water. His side ached, but he didn’t feel like searching for the laudanum. He knew he needed to get up and go to his job, but he couldn’t find the energy. Moses would get him water, get him laudanum, get him up. Or if he were lucky, he’d just let him sleep. He was lucky.

The shadows were on the other side of the room when he next awakened. He managed to find the bottle Moses had left in his suit pocket, taking a couple of swigs from it, quenching his thirst and quelling his pain. Moses must have gone to work without him.

That evening he didn’t even hear the other men come in, didn’t hear their snores or curses, didn’t notice anything except the occasional need to sip more from the bottle, not until somebody was shaking him roughly. He opened his eyes to sunlight streaming in the room and a glaring manager standing over him.

“You plan on dying here, I’m gonna need rent in advance, buddy.”

“My friend has it,” Johnny mumbled, throwing his arm over his eyes, wondering how it could be morning again.

“What friend? That bum that brought you in? He ain’t been back since he dropped you off night before last.”

 

Chapter 25

Johnny tried to balance as he put on his boot, leaning against the wall outside the flophouse with his suit coat and the other boot tucked under his arm. The boardwalk clunked as two policemen walked slowly along it, prodding a drunk until he got up and tilted away. They tipped their hats at a woman in red ruffles. Johnny hustled and finally got the boot on, changing feet and concentrating on the other as they approached. The footsteps stopped in front of him.

Johnny kept his attention seemingly focused on his boot. “Some reason you’re getting dressed in the street, boy?”

“No, uh, I just kind of ran out of money.” Johnny replied, still looking down and pulling on the boot. He always found it troubling when the best reply to a lawman happened to be the truth.

The policemen laughed. “This ain’t no place for amateurs, sonny. You best take your fancy suit and hightail it back uptown before you lose that, too. Already looks pretty worse for wear.”

“Uh, yes, yes sir, that’s what I’m planning.”

The policemen walked away, still chuckling. Johnny put on his coat, which he admitted was starting to look like it had been on the losing side of a brawl. At least the bullet rip was almost hidden under his arm. He looked up and down the trash-strewn street, at a loss as to where to start hunting for Moses. He needed to visit the alley, so figured he could start the search there. He took a swallow from his bottle first, noting with worry its dwindling liquid.

The manager had been no help in saying where Moses had gone. Neither had the drunken coot sprawled half out of one of the other bunks. All Johnny knew was that Moses had said he was going to bring back something to eat. Johnny sure could use something to eat now. His head wasn’t hungry, but his stomach felt like a raisin.

He decided to walk down the street and check out all the alleys close by. No Moses. He came back and walked the other direction. No Moses. He reminded himself that was good, actually. He walked back to the flophouse. The saloon across the street claimed to have good food, cheap. Looked like the sort of place Moses might have gone. He headed over.

The place stunk like dead beer and drunken apologies. The only customer appeared to be passed out face down, drool slathered on the table top. Johnny sauntered in, his boots crunching on broken glass and peanut hulls, trying to look like he could afford breakfast. An older woman was behind the bar, her blonde hair bunched on top of her head. He decided to change his tactics, put on his best lost boy smile. She didn’t smile back.

“Looks like you could use somebody to clean this mess up for you, ma’am,” said Johnny, sidestepping a broken chair. “I’d be glad to help, you gotta broom.”

“I gotta broom you’ll be feeling on your backside you try to come in here and sweet talk me, sonny.”

Johnny drummed his fingers on his leg, finally deciding the truth, or at least part truth, might just once again be the best ploy. “Truth is, ma’am, I’d be glad to do some odd jobs in exchange for a meal.”

She looked him up and down critically. “How odd? You don’t look like you can hardly stand up, much less do any work worth a damn.” She abruptly turned and slapped a plate on the bar, tossing a biscuit on it before the plate stopped wobbling. “Here, eat this, then sweep the floor.”

He was halfway through his sweeping when it seemed like a good time to ask. “I’m looking for a fellow. Big guy, dark hair, got a beard startin’, name Moses. Came in here night before last for some food. You ’member him?”

“That’s about the likes of half the men come in here, boy. Sorry, can’t help you.”

“Any place else he mighta got food around here?”

“Sure, the deadfall next door serves some stuff not fit for rats. If he ate there he probably died of poisoning before he got out the door.”  The woman was inspecting the floor, peering under the tables. “What’s your name, boy?”

Johnny introduced himself. He found out her name was Lottie, short for Carlotta, the name of the saloon. Johnny thanked her for breakfast and headed to the door. Lottie stopped him, stuffed another biscuit in his hand, and told him to come back later for more work, adding, “Don’t go next door. It’s not for city boys.”

He went next door. Carlotta’s was a palace in comparison. Busier, too. This place was just as unrewarding, though. The bartender had not seen Moses, wouldn’t know him if he had, wasn’t interested in talking as long as Johnny wasn’t spending. “Come back late tonight,” the barman called out as Johnny opened the door to leave. “Maybe somebody will remember him then. Give you a beer on the house.”

Johnny agreed, turned to leave, and stumbled over a drunk on the boardwalk. “Well, well, if it ain’t the risen dead,” the scraggly man slurred. “I thought maybe they’d slipped an honest to god dead man in the bed next to me. I tell you what,” he added, leaning in toward Johnny until Johnny’s eyes practically watered from the alcohol on his breath, “you go back there tonight for yer free beer, you gonna find yerself dead, or least missin’ jus like that friend of yours be missin’. Shanghaied. Yep, that place, men go in, they never come out. Your friend most likely on his way to China by now.”

 

Chapter 26

It took Johnny a while to interrogate the drunk, who said his name was Jack, or Jake, or Bartholomew. It seemed to change as often as his story about Moses. He had seen Moses go into the deadfall, which turned out to be called The Royal Flush. Or maybe it was Carlotta’s he saw him go into. Or maybe it was that Moses had just said he was going there. Whatever the current version, Jack or Jake was adamant about it. The one part of his story that never wavered was that shanghaiing, not beer selling, was the major business of most of the saloons on that street.

Johnny’s first impulse was to charge back in that dump and beat the crap out of the bartender until he told him where Moses was. It was still his number one plan, but based on what Jack had told him, he thought he might be better off thinking things through first. Or at least scouting the building. He walked down the nearest alley until he found an intersecting one and followed it to the back of the saloons. The Royal Flush and Carlotta’s shared a loading dock, and each had steps leading down to a basement entrance. Each also had a window and a door to the dock. Johnny tried the Royal Flush’s basement door, but it was locked. He hauled an empty barrel through the trash until it was below the Royal Flush’s window, climbing up on it and trying to see through the grime-covered glass, but it was too dark inside. He listened, but didn’t hear anything except his own breathing. He tried the upper door, but it was locked, too.

He walked over to Carlotta’s and listened at that basement door. Again, nothing. Nor would it open. He walked below the window, looking for something to stand on. He found a slop pail full of plate scrapings and other refuse next to the loading dock door, so he grabbed it to balance on.

“Hey! What are you doing there?” Johnny jumped, twirling to see the two policemen from that morning starting down the alleyway. He thought of running. Then a novel thought occurred to him. He’d always heard of people going to the law for help. Besides, if he followed his first impulse and ran, he’d never be able to come back and search for Moses.

As he stood there, the door to the loading dock opened and Lottie appeared, looking at him curiously as he stood with the slop pail still in hand. “You still hungry, boy?”

“Lottie, you know this guy?” asked one of the policemen, huffing from trotting there.

“Yeah, Red, he’s OK. Been helping me out while he’s waiting on his friend to show.”

The other policeman was studying Johnny. “I thought I told you to get back uptown, boy, before you got hurt. You don’t listen?”

Red came over and looked at Johnny as though trying to remember something. “What’s your name, boy, and tell me about this friend.”

Johnny knew the look. It was the same look men had just after they’d made the mistake of calling him out and just before they realized he was Johnny Madrid. “My name’s Scott Garrett. I been waiting for my friend, skinny blond guy. I reckon he probably just found a pretty girl.” He wasn’t exactly sure what was in that newspaper article Moses had mentioned, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

Lottie spoke up. “I asked him to help me with some repairs.”

Apparently satisfied, at least enough not to go through any trouble, the men started to leave, Red still looking at Johnny with a peculiar expression. When they were gone, Lottie said, “So, you’re in trouble with the law, huh, Scott?” She emphasized the word “Scott.”

Johnny grinned and shrugged, answering, “Guess I just forgot myself for a second.”

“And forgot how your friend looked, too.” She scrutinized him, her gaze fixing on the slop pail. “Why didn’t you say you were that hungry, Johnny-Scott? Come on inside, I think I can fix you a better meal than that. But you’re working it off!”

Johnny had eaten out of plenty of slop pails growing up, had even fought rats for the coveted prize at times. He’d always been horrified that someone would find out, but this was one time he decided it was best to play along. He smiled and put the pail down, following her inside.

It was the best food Johnny had eaten since leaving—no, being kicked off—Lancer. In exchange he mopped the floors, nailed some loose boards, carried a bunch of kegs, and even got up on the roof and made repairs. All the while he looked for ways to get next door. There was no doorway between the two saloons, no holes in the walls separating them, no soft spot in the roof. He tried the Royal Flush’s back doors whenever he had an excuse to be in the alley, also taking the opportunity to sip on the vanishing laudanum. He finally held the bottle upside down to his lips, giving every drop a last chance to trickle down, running his tongue as far inside as he could, reaching in with his fingers to swipe up anything remaining. He stared at the empty bottle, suddenly hurling it in disgust to shatter against the wall across the alley.  He was going to be in trouble very soon, and he was still no closer to finding Moses.

As the gaslights turned on the streets gradually began to fill with people, only a few of which trickled into Carlotta’s. Johnny actually recognized a couple of them as flophouse residents. Nobody had seen Moses, though. The strange thing was, it seemed like Lottie kept serving free drinks. Even Jack wandered in for a while and was given free beer. Johnny shook his head. He knew Lottie was generous, but at this rate she was going to go broke. He was no business man, and he knew he had little room to talk, but he was going to have to speak to her about it. First, he figured he’d head next door and take the bartender up on his offer of a free beer.

 

Chapter 27

Just as at Carlotta’s, nobody had seen Moses. And just as at Carlotta’s, it seemed the Royal Flush gave away more drinks than they sold. True to his word, the bartender waved Johnny to an empty place at the bar. By the time Johnny made it over there, dodging between tables, there was already a beer waiting for him.

Johnny wasn’t sure how much good a beer was going to do him. None, probably. He was well overdue for some medicine, and every inch of him was trying to get his attention, clawing and screaming at him to go get some laudanum, opium, morphine, something to ease the unrest. His wound, which had been relatively quiet all day, was leading the chorus now. If he didn’t have to find Moses he would have focused his search on finding something to make his body shut up. Either that, or found a corner to curl up and die in. Maybe getting drunk enough to pass out was the next best thing. The bartender was extolling the sophisticated taste of the imported beer he was serving Johnny, and while Johnny admitted it was different, he couldn’t much say he thought it tasted better. But it was free.

Actually, the taste kind of grew on him. The beer definitely made him feel better than most beers he’d ever had. He took another gulp and could practically feel his screaming body quieting down. Johnny was definitely going to look into this imported beer stuff after all this was through. Maybe bring some back to Lancer with him. He caught himself. Not Lancer. And if he couldn’t find Moses, not even Kansas.

Johnny gulped down the rest of the beer, ready to continue his search. He thunked the mug down on the bar, wondering briefly why the bartender was looking at him curiously. He thanked him for the beer and started away, but the bartender called him back and sloshed another mug full of beer onto the bar for him. How these places ever stayed in business, Johnny couldn’t imagine. One thing about it, this was great beer. He felt much better.

Or did, until somebody whacked him on the back of the head.

Then he felt like he was falling, to the floor, beyond the floor, his world spinning and graying even after he thudded onto something soft. He dimly saw a couple of shadows mosey over to him, nonchalantly dragging him by his arms off a pile of rags. He fought his instinct to struggle, escape, fight like hell. They seemed like they didn’t expect him to put up a fight, were more concerned with continuing some conversation about what a girl named Suzy would do for a price, and Johnny had to admit it did sound extraordinary, but Jack’s words kept fluttering in and out of his head, and something told him that if he had any hope of finding Moses he needed to play possum.

A voice called down from above, way above, it seemed. “Got him? Sucker took two beers and some help to go out! Musta just eaten a bunch of food or something.”

And a voice beside him answering. “Um, Bill, ain’t this Lottie’s new pet? She ain’t gonna like this.”

“She don’t gotta know about it. Besides, she was probably through with him, least ways with everything but the bedroom. Help me close this door now.” Johnny risked cracking open one lid to watch the two men push a trap door back up into the ceiling. He guessed he was in the basement of the Royal Flush. He couldn’t understand what they were saying, not exactly. Especially not what they were saying about Lottie.

He felt them go through his pockets, heard them curse at their emptiness, laugh at the bulletless derringer. They never checked his boots. He knew his suit labeled him as a naïve city boy, out of his element, not used to dealing with dangerous lowlife. Little did they know he was the most dangerous lowlife in the room. He figured they thought he was drugged senseless from something in those two beers. He wondered if this was what happened to Moses, wondered if Moses put up a fight. They dragged him over and flopped him down next to two other men, both passed out.

His captors continued comparing what all the local girls had to offer. About an hour later Johnny heard the trapdoor spring open, and another body thudded onto the rags. The door closed and soon afterward he was joined by a new sleeping partner. By the time he heard a wagon pull up to the back he had two more limp bodies next to him.

Johnny gritted his teeth as they dragged him up the stairs, allowing his head to thump on every one. He wondered where the police were now, when he needed them, as he was thrown into the wagon face down. He found out when he recognized Red’s voice. “Lottie, hurry up and open the door. We got Bill’s take loaded. How many you got? We gotta get going.”

 

Chapter 28

Even at this hour Johnny could hear men shouting over the creaking of ships and the slapping of waves. As the horses clopped on, he recognized the briny taste of the cold mist. The two men who drove hadn’t bothered to tie any of their unconscious cargo. They made their way past the newer warehouses to the rundown section of the wharves, stopping in front of a dilapidated structure.

“Cooper, you see Toby?”

“Course not. Asshole’s always late. Just so we have to haul ‘em all inside first, make two trips.” Johnny recognized the first voice as Red’s, and the second, Cooper’s, as Red’s police partner. That meant both of them were armed.

“Yeah, well, remember we got that leftover sick guy still in there,” Red was saying. “Toby was supposed to check on him, see if he quit puking and shitting and all. Me, I think we shoulda just throwed him overboard. Guy probably got typhoid or something, kill us all.”

“You got that right. When Cap’n McCarthy turns one down you know he’s in a bad way. Shit, you see the way he was all shaking and sweating? I say if we don’t find a taker for him tonight, we get rid of him.”

“Sounds good to me. Only you can be the one to tell Lottie. Big as that guy is, she’s banking on him fetching a good bonus. Damn, just go in there and see if he’s died yet. Or if we can pawn him off tonight.”

Johnny heard Cooper curse softly and jump down from the wagon. A few seconds later he heard the warehouse door creak open. Johnny’s heart was racing with the mention of the big sick man. If it was Moses, now was the time to make a move, when Red and Cooper were separated. Problem was, if it wasn’t Moses, he’d give himself away too early.

Red made up his mind for him when he jumped down and trotted to the warehouse behind Cooper, leaving Johnny alone in the wagon. So much for surprising one when they were separated. Johnny waited for the door to close behind him, climbed out of the wagon and ran to the door. He pulled his knife from his boot.

He opened the door slowly, trying to prevent it from creaking. A lantern had been lit on the far side of the warehouse, and he could see a couple of forms silhouetted in its light. He squeezed through the gap in the door and crept along the wall, hoping he wouldn’t trip on anything in the dark. He caught his breath at a sudden movement underfoot before he realized it was just a rat scurrying away.

Red and Cooper were leaning over a still body. Johnny suddenly felt a clammy feeling starting in his stomach and working its way all over. Moses just couldn’t be dead. Johnny’s grip tightened around the knife hilt. He would kill the bastards, make sure it was slow, too.

He started to rush out, but caught himself. Had the body moved, or had Red just kicked it? There, a moan, and the body really moved on its own.

“Fucker’s still sick!” Red’s voice complained.

Moses rolled over, his eyes directed toward Johnny in the shadows. Johnny could have sworn he saw a glint of recognition. Moses suddenly started to moan and writhe, his leg whipping out to trip Red so he fell into Cooper. Johnny dashed out from cover, grabbing Cooper and holding the blade to his throat as Red regained his balance. Moses staggered to his feet and threw himself on Red, knocking him down again.

“Stay down or your buddy’s gonna be spurtin’ blood!” Johnny pushed the blade into Cooper’s neck until Cooper whined. “Get their guns, Moses.”

“I wouldn’t do that, Moses,” came a voice from behind Johnny. “Not if you want Johnny-Scott ― or should I say Johnny Madrid ― still breathing.”

 

Chapter 29

“I read an interesting article in the paper tonight,” Lottie was saying. “Actually, it was last Friday’s paper. About how somebody fitting the description of my Johnny-Scott was in trouble with the law. You see, I was just kind of wondering what kind of trouble a city boy like you could be in, thought I’d see if it was the kind of trouble that made the papers.”

“So what are you, some upstanding citizen all of a sudden? I know what kind of business you’re running.” Johnny gave a fruitless jerk to his cuffed hands as he and Moses were prodded toward the wagon. Toby had shown up and was holding a gun on them.

Lottie laughed. “Hardly. But I know the value of a thousand dollars. And that’s the reward they’re offering for you. And five hundred for your friend here.  That’s a helluva lot more than any captain will pay.”

“You forget the part where I report what you’re doing?”

She laughed again. “Sure, Johnny-Scott. Go ahead and tell the police. Why don’t you start by telling these two fine officers of the law?” Red and Cooper smiled broadly at that. Red even tipped his hat.

They waited while the men transferred their slumbering payload to Toby’s boat. Once Johnny and Moses were pushed in the wagon, their ankles were bound. Moses had lost a lot of weight since Johnny had last seen him, and he was pale, weak, and still very sick. Still, he was a welcome sight. Johnny was just sorry he’d gotten him into this fix.

They were thrown in separate cells at the police house. Red and Cooper detailed the dramatic arrest, which they based on the tip given by the brave citizen. The police captain thanked Lottie, explaining she would be getting her reward from the hospital once Dr. Turner positively identified the men. Johnny’s attempts to report the shanghai operation had fallen on deaf ears.

It was another couple of hours before Johnny heard Dr. Turner’s voice in the outer office. A few minutes later the door to the cell room opened and Dr. Turner followed the police chief to stand in front of Johnny’s cell.

“Yes, that’s Mr. Lancer. Or as we all have so unfortunately discovered, Mr. Madrid. I assure you his family made no mention of his illicit past when they checked him in.” He walked down to Moses’ cell and also confirmed his identity.

“Sheriff!” Johnny stood and grabbed the bars.

“It’s Captain,” the police captain answered.

“OK, sure. Dr. Turner’s got a crooked operation going on out there at the hospital. He uses patients as slaves, keeps ’em addicted so he can control ’em.”

“Uh huh. Just like that fine lady was really in the shanghaiing business, and my two respected officers were her accomplices?”

“Oh dear,” broke in Turner. “I was afraid of this. He was showing signs of paranoia and delusions when he escaped. He accused me of being Satan at one point, and thought he was Jesus. And that Moses was, well, Moses.”

“That’s bullshit! He’s making that up!”

“Now calm down, Mr. Lancer.”

“The Bessers did report that he made some pretty outlandish allegations, ones that their daughter denied,” confirmed the captain.

“She lied!”

“Surely not everybody but you is lying, Mr. Lancer,” the doctor replied in his patronizing tone.

“Ask Moses, go on, ask him. He can tell you.”

The doctor and captain moved to Moses’ cell, where Moses lay rocking on the cot. “Mr. Waltman? Moses? Can you speak to us?”

Moses just groaned.

“Mr. Lancer has leveled some serious allegations against the hospital? Are they true?”

Moses groaned again, then nodded. The captain looked suddenly interested. Dr. Turner held up his hand for the captain to wait.

“And, Mr. Waltman, is Mr. Lancer Jesus?”

Moses nodded again, holding out his hand to the doctor and saying, “Please.”

“I think you can see, Captain, that Mr. Waltman is in a highly influential state. I’m afraid he just went along with whatever Mr. Lancer told him.”

“Well, it ought to be an interesting trial.” The captain was shaking his head as they walked back toward the door.

“Oh no, these men can’t stand trial! They’re not mentally fit. We need to sign commitment papers to have them returned to the hospital, where they can receive the treatment they need in our maximum security section. I’ll sign the necessary paperwork attesting to their moral insanity, and we’ll send a wagon for them.

The door slammed shut before Johnny could scream.

 

Chapter 30

Murdoch looked through the mail Jelly brought back from town, pleased to see last week’s San Francisco paper among it. He could look forward to a long evening spent relaxing with it and his pipe. He glanced up as Scott entered the room, then went back to sorting through the heap of letters and bundles. His good mood was broken by the envelope bearing the address of the California State Inebriate Asylum. He opened it first.

Murdoch read the report, then flung it to his desk. “Damn that boy! Why can’t he just follow the rules like everyone else? This report’s no better than the first! Swearing, fighting, disobeying—he can’t even keep his hands off himself.” He gestured at the report and shook his head.

Scott scanned the report quickly. Just as in the first month’s report, the second month's report showed Johnny had received a hefty share of demerits for profanity, insolence, tardiness, fighting, and masturbation. “Sir, I don’t think we can draw too many conclusions based on this report,” said Scott, trying to think of some way to defend Johnny.

“I think we can conclude they’re right. Johnny needs discipline. He’s out of control. I have to wonder if he even wants to get well.” He picked the report up, flung it down again. “And now they say another six months for sure? That’s another thousand dollars. A thousand dollars Lancer can’t afford to part with right now. It’d be one thing if he was trying. He doesn’t even give a damn.”

Scott got up and poured two drinks, handing one to his father. He sat back on the sofa, contemplating the contents of his glass. “I just don’t know. It doesn’t sound like he’s fitting in too well there.”

“Of course he’s not fitting in! He has to actually follow rules like other people. Look at those infractions! How many do you think you would have gotten if you were there?”

Scott could think of only one, and that one repeatedly, but he thought it best not to bring it up. “I don’t know, sir, but I just don’t think we can assume he’s not trying. Frankly, I’m surprised he hasn’t been in more trouble,” he added with a slight smile.

Murdoch glared at him. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?” He swallowed his drink, and Scott rose to refill both their glasses.

He spoke as he poured, the decanter chinking on the glass. “I wish we could just visit him. I keep writing him, but so far, no answer. I just don’t think he’s the letter writing type.”

Murdoch studied the amber liquid in the glass Scott handed him. “I’m starting to wonder, Scott, if maybe he’s just not the Lancer type.” He quickly lifted the glass and bolted its contents, as though doing so disguised what he had just said.

Scott stopped in mid-sip. “What are you trying to say, sir?”

“I’m just saying that maybe at the end of this six months we should let him make up his own mind. Let him go, if that’s what he wants so much.”

“But he said he’d give up the ranch rather than stay there! I don’t know if he’s capable of making the right choice now.”

“Just when do you think he will be capable, Scott? He has to make up his mind which is more important to him, and from these reports, it’s not Lancer. It’s not even us. It’s what he can put in that damn needle!”

Scott leaned forward, rubbing his face in his hands. “If it’s the money, sir, I’ll gladly pay it. If we decide that’s the best thing for him. But if he leaves, I want him back here at Lancer, where he belongs.”

Murdoch walked over and poured another drink. “It’s not the money, son. You know we can’t have somebody with a drug addiction here at Lancer. It’s just too dangerous.”

“So what, we send him on his way? Back to being a gunfighter? You think that’s not dangerous?”

“I know it’s dangerous! It’s just---I have to think of everybody. You, Teresa, everybody here. I can’t sacrifice your safety for his, not when he’s the one causing the problem.”

Scott banged his glass down on the table. “What about the fact that he got that problem saving your ranch?”

“Our ranch, Scott, our ranch! Johnny’s too, if he wouldn’t piss it away.” Murdoch grabbed the San Francisco paper off the pile of mail, distractedly scanning the headlines. His expression froze.

“Sir?” Scott walked over to read over Murdoch’s shoulder, his eyes drawn to the headline: Drug-Crazed Killer at Large. The article detailed how a man identified by two witnesses as the gunfighter Johnny Madrid escaped from the California State Inebriate Asylum Thursday, killing one employee, kidnapping a female patient and the asylum director, and stealing drugs and money. Another patient was believed to be acting as an accomplice. Both kidnapped victims were rescued, but two additional murders in the city were thought to be connected to the fugitives. So far they had eluded police, but a city-wide manhunt was on. The asylum was offering a $1,000 reward.

Murdoch put his head in his hands, speaking through them. “This is what I was talking about, Scott.”

Scott didn’t hear him. He was too busy feeling sick. That, plus his eyes were riveted on the name of one of the kidnap victims: Laura Besser. His Laura?

 

Chapter 31

“I insist upon seeing my brother, I don’t care if his visitation is cancelled or not!” Scott was leaning over Dr. Turner’s desk, gripping the sides of it. “If you don’t let me see him, then I’m going to take him out of here!”

“Mr. Lancer, I understand your frustration. And we will arrange for you to see your brother. But there’s one thing you have to understand: It’s no longer within your power to remove him from here. This hospital is the only thing standing between your brother and the hangman’s noose. If we release him from here, he’ll be tried for murder, and the sad fact is, he’s guilty of killing poor Fritz. Perhaps if you had been more upfront about his past we would have been forewarned about his dangerous proclivities.”

“Murder? I thought you said he wouldn’t be tried on the grounds that he was morally insane.”

“Yes, as long as he’s in here. And I do believe with all my heart this is where he belongs.” The doctor hesitated, stood and looked out the window before turning back to Scott. “Mr. Lancer, I have to warn you about your brother before you see him. I’m afraid his condition has deteriorated since his escape. Before that, he was showing occasional evidence of paranoia and delusions. When he escaped he seemed to be severely agitated. He killed Fritz in order to steal drugs and money. He used that money to go on an opium binge. From what we can piece together, he spent the next five nights in an opium den or doped up in a flophouse. He was only apprehended when he ran out of drugs and money and tried to rob a saloon. I’m afraid he’s negated all the progress we’d made with him. Before he left he had been free of drugs for some time.”

“I see.” Scott didn’t see. He couldn’t imagine how Johnny could have done these things. But he’d seen the lengths addicted soldiers would go to get drugs after the war. He reluctantly admitted that Murdoch may have been right about Johnny posing a danger to the ranch. “Is there anything else I need to know?”

“Just to humor him. Try not to upset him. But don’t encourage him, either, when he comes up with his fanciful stories. I’m afraid your brother’s mind is in a fragile state right now, and if you don’t follow these rules you could cause irrevocable damage. Rest assured we have the finest doctors working to make him well.”

“When he’s well, then what? Can he come home?”

“Let’s take it one day at a time for now, Mr. Lancer. I’m afraid that day is a long time in the future.”

Scott nervously followed the doctor and an assistant down a long white corridor and through a series of locked doors. The sound of the piano faded as each door closed behind them, increasingly replaced by sobs and screams. The doctor apologized, explaining that this ward was reserved for their most disturbed patients.

He wished that Murdoch had come. When Scott had left they had no idea Johnny had been captured. He would wire Murdoch as soon as he got back in the city.  Not that Scott had any idea how Murdoch could help the situation.

The doctor paused outside a room, his key in the lock. “We’ve had to place him in a straitjacket for his own safety, as well as our staff’s. It may look disturbing, but I assure you, it actually provides a sense of security to most patients in his state of agitation. We’ll be removing it as soon as he’s ready.” He opened the door. “Mr. Lancer? You have a visitor.”

Scott wasn’t prepared for the sight of the hollow-eyed shadow of the man he’d left there two months ago. Johnny was leaning against a corner, shaking and sweating, bound in a straitjacket just as the doctor had warned. Scott also wasn’t prepared for Johnny’s greeting.

“You cocksucking son of a bitch, what are you here for, see if you can get your deposit out of me?”

“Johnny, it’s me, Scott.”

“Yeah, I know, the lying bastard who sold me into slavery.”

Scott looked at Dr. Turner, who shook his head sadly.

“No, Johnny, I’m Scott, your brother. Remember?”

“Oh, I fucking well remember everything. I remember how you made sure I wouldn’t horn in on your share of the ranch, how you wouldn’t even spend a thousand fucking dollars to get me well, how you got me sold into slavery, shanghaied, shot up, beat up and fucked up!”

“Johnny, stop.” Scott reached his hand out to calm his brother. He felt ill. The doctor hadn’t been exaggerating.

 

Chapter 32

Scott rapped the elaborate door knocker, hoping the florist had found the right address. He’d discreetly followed the delivery boy to one of the swankier parts of town, which fit. The flowers had been accepted by an older negro, which didn’t help one way or the other.  He’d find out soon.

He’d returned to his hotel room after the unsettling meeting with Johnny. Johnny had calmed down somewhat after his initial tirade, but he was clearly agitated and suffering from some sort of delusions. He seemed obsessed with the idea that he’d been sold into slavery, that it was Scott and Murdoch’s plan all along, even accusing them of intentionally getting him addicted when he was unconscious back at Lancer. Johnny ranted about secret cells in the basement where patients were made to take drugs, women forced into prostitution, men into hard labor. Scott had gone along with him, asked him what sort of thing they were forcing him to do, even feigned belief when Johnny had replied he was filling in the bay. Johnny had once again exploded at that, accusing Scott of humoring him, which of course, he was. The doctor had stopped the visit, saying Johnny was becoming too upset. Scott had to admit he was pretty upset, himself. He just didn’t understand how his brother had gotten to this state. He felt like he wasn’t getting the entire story from the doctor, and Johnny certainly wasn’t helping explain things. His best hope was that name in the paper.

The door opened. It was answered, not by the negro, but by Laura Besser herself. Scott stammered, but recovered. “Laura, I…”

Before he could finish she threw her arms around him in a brief embrace. Stepping back, she said, “The flowers are lovely, Scott. And what a wonderful surprise to see you here in San Francisco!”

Laura was thinner than when Scott last saw her, but still just as pretty. Before he could answer her, Mrs. Besser appeared behind her. “Scott Lancer? What on earth brings you so far from Boston? Laura, where are your manners? Come right in, young man. You will be staying for dinner, of course.” She turned and called, “Tomas! Please bring some refreshments to the parlor for our guest. And have Mr. Besser join us.”

“Scott Lancer? This is indeed a nice surprise,” said Mr. Besser, striding into the parlor and pumping Scott’s hand. “How’s your grandfather?”

“Fine, sir, although I haven’t seen him in several months. I’m living in California now, on a ranch south of here, with my father. And brother.”

The three Bessers looked surprised. Mrs. Besser quickly asked, “Brother? I had no idea you had a brother.”

“Funny thing, Scott, a man was just here who claimed his last name was Lancer. Turned out to be a lie, though. He was actually a gunfighter, if you can imagine, here of all places! Still, I thought it was peculiar he picked that name. Maybe it’s a California name. Seems I do remember you were born out here.”

Mrs. Besser looked at Mr. Besser sternly. “Let’s not bring up that horrid man. Scott, do tell us about your brother.”

“Well, actually, this isn’t strictly a social call. Truth is, from what I understand, that man was my brother. I’d like to find out more about what happened, if I may.”

Mrs. Besser stood. “There’s nothing more to know. If that was your brother, I’m truly sorry for your misfortune.”

“Your brother, the gunfighter?” Mr. Besser chuckled. “You always could come up with the jokes, son. But I’m not sure the ladies are in the mood for this one. Besides, won’t work. This fellow didn’t exactly favor you.”

“It’s no joke, sir. Same, father, different mothers. Johnny’s my younger brother, we grew up not knowing about each other. And yes, he’s also Johnny Madrid, the gunfighter. And he’s a patient at the Inebriate Asylum.”

“I see. So he’s not related to Mr. Garrett.” Mrs. Besser looked like she smelled something bad. “Scott, you can’t be held responsible for the actions of this so-called relation. Have you even seen him? I tell you the truth, he looked part Mexican. That’s hardly your fault. Your best bet is to walk away and not let it sully your day.”

“Mrs. Besser, I may not share the same mother or childhood with Johnny, but he’s every bit my brother, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get him better.”

“Oh Mummy, Daddy, let’s not talk about that. I want to hear all about this ranch Scott’s living on.”

Scott tried to hide his irritation as he briefly described Lancer to the Bessers. He thought his best bet to learn anything would be to get Laura alone, so he bided his time. Under different circumstances, he would have considered the evening quite pleasant. He’d always liked Mr. Besser, and although Mrs. Besser could be tedious, he was used to dealing with Boston society hopefuls like her. Laura sat across the table from him during dinner, occasionally smiling shyly at him. She was always nice to be around. Or at least, a lot of fun.

Ironically, it was Mrs. Besser who gave Scott the opportunity he was looking for. She suggested he and Laura go on a picnic the next day. Scott readily agreed, and Laura, too, seemed pleased.

Scott hoped he’d be able to get something out of Laura once they were alone. Actually, in the brief moment they were alone in the foyer as he said goodnight, the way she rubbed up against him assured him he would indeed be getting something. Just like old times.

 

Chapter 33

“That wasn’t very fruitful, now was it, Mr. Lancer? Or very wise, either.”

Johnny glared up at Dr. Turner. He was still upset and confused by Scott’s visit. Not that he was in the proper state to do any straight thinking. He hadn’t had any medicine since arriving back at the hospital early that morning. He didn’t really understand why Scott had come. At times Scott seemed genuinely confused about what Johnny was saying. At other times Johnny wasn’t sure whether he was being condescending or just mocking.  There were even moments when Johnny had almost believed Scott was sincere. Regardless, he wasn’t here to help.

“Your brother says he intends to stay around to visit with you some more. I trust you’ll convince him that’s not a good idea. I don’t like aggravation.”

Johnny’s mind took a moment to grasp what the doctor was saying. Why would Scott stay to visit him? Maybe he was trying to get him out of the hospital and into the prison so he could face trial, and the gallows. That would solve his problem. Johnny sure couldn’t lay claim to Lancer from the grave. Maybe Scott was afraid Johnny would escape again if he stayed at the hospital. Show up at Lancer. Blast the two of them into bloody bits.

Well, the joke would be on Scott. He’d rather get a hug from the hangman’s noose than stay in this place. All he could look forward to now were the times he could spend cuddled up with his best friend, the friend that came out of a needle. The friend that was at once so loving, so demanding, and so vindictive.

Johnny’s mind jumped back to Scott’s behavior. Something gnawed at him about the way Scott acted. Almost as though he were telling the truth.

“Get him on his feet.” Dr. Turner gestured to Martin and the new attendant they called Zeke. They pushed him to his feet so he leaned against the wall. “Let’s go.”

Johnny stumbled down the corridor, pushed along on either side by Martin and Zeke, Dr. Turner taking up the rear. They descended the stairs and Johnny realized they were headed back to the basement.

He wondered where Moses and Laura were. Back here, too, he presumed. He missed both of them. Right now they were his only two friends in the world that didn’t come from a needle. Or at least, Moses was. He could only dream that Laura might still hold fond thoughts of him, might dream of being in his arms just as he dreamed of it every night.

They pulled Johnny to a halt outside a cell door. Martin removed the straitjacket while Zeke stood with his club held ready. He didn’t have to. Johnny’s arms were numb, frozen in place, and every attempt to straighten them made him stifle a scream. Martin shoved him hard into the cell, so he fell onto the cot face first, unable to get his hands out to break his fall.

“Mr. Lancer, I thought you might like to visit your friend, Mr. Waltman.”  Dr. Turner opened the door to the adjoining cell, which was normally empty. Johnny noticed for the first time that Moses was on the cot in it. Zeke pushed him into a sitting position. Moses smiled feebly at Johnny. Johnny’s grin back probably wasn’t much better.

“Mr. Waltman doesn’t have any family to visit him. Quite sad, really. Nobody to miss him. Nobody to notice that he’s not there come visiting day. Not like you, Mr. Lancer, with your dear brother.”

Johnny wondered what he was getting at. “Moses, you alright?” Moses looked like he was past the worst of his withdrawal, just left weak.

“He’s fine, Mr. Lancer. Just needs some medicine. Could you please see to that, Martin?”

“No! I don’t need anything!”  Moses tried to push Zeke away, but he wasn’t strong enough.

“That’s why you’re not the doctor, now isn’t it? Martin, please administer Mr. Waltman’s medicine.”

“Goddammit, no! Leave him alone!” Johnny was reaching through the bars, but his arms weren’t long enough.

Zeke held Moses down while Martin gave the injection. “Mr. Lancer, we’ll leave you two alone now to catch up on old times. Oh, and one more thing. While you’re catching up, you remember what I said about how your actions affect those around you. I’d be a lot more careful about what stories I told my visitors if I were you.” He took a couple of steps away, then turned and added, “By the way, perhaps you’d like to visit Miss Besser in the future?”

They walked away, their footfalls fading down the dark corridor. Johnny was alone in the gloom with Moses, unable to reach him. He called to him but got no response. Called again, more urgently. He watched as Moses’ breathing slowed. It was nothing dramatic. Just one time after he let his breath out, he never took another.

 

Chapter 34

Scott leaned back on the blanket, watching the clouds race by in the blue sky, absently stroking Laura’s hair. She nuzzled in the crook of his arm, turning and sliding her hand under his shirt.  He could grow used to spending his days like this. They’d spent the last three days picnicking in a new place every day. Laura had shown him around town, they’d dined in San Francisco’s finest restaurants, and one evening they’d gone to the theater with her parents.

He felt guilty for enjoying himself while his brother was locked up, out of his mind, but he’d tried to visit him every day and had been turned away.  He’d also tried to visit the patient they called Johnny’s accomplice, but was told he couldn’t visit without permission from the man’s family. And they hadn’t been heard from in some time. He’d read the report at the police station, and talked to the two policeman who had brought Johnny in. He’d even visited the saloon where Johnny had been apprehended. Everything meshed. Johnny had accused everyone associated with turning him in of shanghaiing. Scott just hoped the doctors could help him.

Laura’s hand felt good caressing his chest. He kissed her on the top of the head.  He had hoped he could get more information from her, but she had been reluctant to speak of her time at the asylum. Every time Scott tried to force the issue she had teared up and assured him there was nothing more she could say that would be of interest to him or help his brother. She’d confirmed that Johnny was back where he could best get help. After all, she’d pointed out, they had cured her of her addiction.

“Penny for your thoughts, sweetheart?”

Scott smiled down at her, realizing he’d drifted way again.  “Just thinking how amazingly beautiful you are,” he replied softly. And he had to admit, she was pretty. Beautiful, no, but pretty. Just not really his type.

“Scott Lancer, you’re incorrigible,” she murmured, suddenly tickling him.

He squirmed away, getting to his feet laughing, helping her up. “I guess we need to be getting back.”

She put an exaggerated pout on her face. “Do we have to? It’s still early. You know, we could eat dinner at that restaurant in your hotel. Or maybe even order room service?”

“Oh yeah? Won’t your parents expect you home?” Scott couldn’t keep the smile off his face.

“We could have a messenger tell them I stayed over for dinner. They’ll understand.”

Scott had the blanket and basket up and the buggy moving as fast as he could without tripping over his own feet or looking overanxious. As they approached town he had to push her hands away and button up his shirt. To calm himself he went over tomorrow’s schedule, over and over.

Visiting day for the maximum security patients was on Saturday, so Scott could see Johnny again tomorrow. He’d need to go early since Murdoch was due in on the evening train, unfortunately after visiting hours were over. He’d get him settled at the hotel, then they’d both been invited to dinner at the Bessers. All the Bessers were very interested in meeting Scott’s father. Scott figured it was because Mrs. Besser, at least, was sizing him up as a father-in-law for Laura.

Right now he didn’t care what Mr. and Mrs. Besser’s plan was, as long as Laura’s plan was what he hoped. They took the back entrance up to his room, and Laura’s plan was exactly what he had hoped, and more.

She hadn’t lost her talents. Maybe gained a few since Boston. It was Scott who finally begged for mercy, lying back and giving her body an appraising look. Wondering why she had all those fresh bruises along her arms.

 

Chapter 35

Johnny had spent the rest of that night sitting up, his private wake for Moses. Were it not for him, his friend would still be alive. Yet as much as his guilt stabbed at him, he also felt a twinge of jealousy. Moses had found a way out.

It didn’t look like there was any other way out of this hell on earth. It could be done, too. A pant leg, knotted around a neck. The other end over a high cross bar. Johnny had seen a man do just that when he was in a jail cell back when he was twelve or so. Maybe not instant, but effective. Free of the spectacle of a public hanging. Free of this place. A sin, yes, but what was one more sin, one more death, to Johnny Madrid?

Moses. Day. The doctor was right. His actions did affect others. His actions killed those he was most indebted to. Laura.

Sweet, innocent, Laura. The one person who could make his days and nights worthwhile. Yet another life he had managed to ruin. Dr. Turner’s threat was clear. The only way Johnny could help her now was by toeing the line, something he had never been good at, or by making sure he wasn’t around to do any more damage.

Moses. Day. Madrid. Death would finally release him. They’d given him just enough medicine over the past few days to make sure he didn’t get over his addiction, yet not enough to make him stop hurting. And he was just so damn tired of hurting.

Zeke and Martin had finally come and dragged Moses’ body away, griping about how heavy he was, laughing at some joke. They needed to die. Maybe he did have a reason to live, after all. A final mission. Johnny lay there until well after the sound of Moses’ body sliding along the stone floor faded. Eventually they would make a mistake.

But they didn’t. They left his meals outside the bars so he had to reach through to get them. They had him back up to the bars and put his arm through for his injections. They kept their clubs always ready. 

He spent his days awaiting their footsteps in the dark corridor, listening for their incessant banter. “This ought to be good today. You shoulda been there the last time, when that fancified so-called brother of his was lookin at that breed like he was plumb loco, and then the breed goes and gets all pissed off and the brother really thinks he’s crazy then. You gotta come watch this time! I swear you’ll piss your balls!”

Johnny had thrown himself to the cot when he heard their voices. He’d been in enough jails to know that when in doubt, playing possum was always a plan.

“I still don’t understand why Turner just don’t off the guy. We really gotta haul his ass upstairs for the day?”

“Long as he got visitors, we gotta keep him breathing and upstairs, least at visiting time. Turner figures this one’s family is good for another six month’s payment, he plays it right. Probably quit visiting soon. Then he says he got big plans for him.” The footfalls approached Johnny’s cell. “Hey breed, wake up!”

Johnny was shocked enough to comply. If what Martin said were true, Scott and Murdoch were still paying for his treatment. That meant they couldn’t have traded his slave labor in exchange for keeping him prisoner. That maybe Scott really didn’t know what was going on. It also sounded like he might be getting another visit from Scott.

Martin had him back up to the bars and put his hands through them so he could cuff them. Zeke stood ready with his club. They marched him upstairs to his old room, uncuffed him at the door, and shoved him inside, locking the door behind him.

Johnny never thought he’d miss this room, but now he realized how much he did, with its real bed, its chair, even its little desk with the dreaded writing materials. He looked out the barred window, drinking in the view of the sun’s rays falling upon the golden hills, illuminating a single rider approaching the building. Johnny froze as he recognized the rider’s erect posture.

He paced the room, trying to come up with a way to tell Scott what was going on without also convincing him he was insane, and more importantly, without doing anything to jeopardize Laura. No, whatever his fate, Laura’s well-being came first. He just had to play along. He sat at the desk and put his head in his hands, staring at the pencil and paper before him, cursing himself for never writing when he should have. If he had kept in touch with Scott, he probably wouldn’t be in this predicament now.

It was only another few minutes before he heard steps approaching and the door swung open. Zeke and Martin stepped in first, both giving him threatening looks, followed by Scott, then Dr. Turner, who wore a smirk. Johnny started to stand, but sat again when Martin reached for his club.

“Johnny, how do you feel?” Scott walked cautiously forward and stood before him, both hands on Johnny’s shoulders, looking him in the eye. Johnny wondered how he could have missed the look of sincere concern on Scott’s face before.

“I’m fine, Scott, just fine.”

“Are you Johnny-fine, or normal-folk-fine?” Scott looked suddenly sheepish, then added, “I mean, uh…”

“Both,” Johnny interrupted to spare him. Although he had to admit most other times he would have relished watching his I-went-to-Harvard brother struggling to find the right words.

“We feel your brother has made significant progress over the past few days, Mr. Lancer,” said Turner. “His periods of agitation are occurring less frequently, and although he still has delusional outbursts, he also appears rational more often.”

“Yeah, that’s me, calm and rational,” said Johnny, smiling, wondering why Scott looked at him like he really was crazy when he said that. “How’s Murdoch?”

“He’s fine, Johnny. He’s on his way up to come see you. His train gets in this evening.”

“Oh yeah? You gonna go to another one of them fancy plays?”

“Well, truth is it’s going to be another week before we can visit, so we’ll probably take in a play or find something interesting. The Bessers have invited us for dinner tonight.”

“Bessers? How you know them?” Johnny felt sick. If Scott was spending time with the Bessers he might be endangering Laura. He looked over at Dr. Turner, who looked too interested in what Scott was saying. What did Scott think he was doing?

“Oh, we go way back, back in Boston,” said Scott, smiling, leaning in toward Johnny, whispering so only he could hear.  “Remember I told you about that girl back there, what we did on that horse? Well, brother, she’s still bucking!”

Johnny hurled himself on Scott, throwing him to the floor, pounding his head to the floor, seizing him by the shirt and lifting him to do it again. Zeke grabbed him, but he clawed at Scott’s clothes, clinging to a pocket, refusing to surrender his grip until Martin clubbed him into senselessness.

Martin grinned at Zeke just as Zeke went for his own club. “Told you it was gonna be good!”

 

Chapter 36

Scott threw himself on top of Johnny, determined to defend his disturbed brother from the blows of the attendants. “Stop! Don’t hurt him!”

“That’s enough!” commanded Turner, adding to Scott, “Mr. Lancer, are you alright? I’m so terribly sorry. I thought he was better.”

“Yes, yes, I’m fine. It’s my brother I’m worried about,” said Scott, kneeling beside Johnny. “Come on, Johnny, wake up!”

Johnny started to moan and move. “Mr. Lancer, it appears he’s coming to. I don’t think you should be here when he does. I assure you he’ll receive any medical attention he requires. Meanwhile, it’s best we calm him, and that means no more visitation today.” He guided Scott to the door.

“Doctor, I really think it’s best Johnny and I work out whatever’s bothering him.”

“Mr. Lancer, I understand your feelings, but there is no working things out when a patient is in this agitated state. It’s not safe for you, and it’s not healthy for him. Zeke, please show Mr. Lancer out.”

Scott shrugged away from Zeke and stomped out the door. He barely remembered walking out of the building and riding back to town. He couldn’t shake the vision of Johnny’s enraged attack. One moment Johnny had been sitting there, if anything, too calm, and the next he was on Scott, a look of murder on his face.

It had happened when he was talking of Laura. He knew it couldn’t be because of Laura; she had told him that until the day she was kidnapped, she never knew Johnny. Of course, the doctor had said Johnny was delusional, and it was possible he had conjured up some fixation on her. Maybe that was why he kidnapped her in the first place. Scott cursed himself for bringing up the horse story; he had simply thought it would be something Johnny might find amusing, just as he had the first time Scott had related it back when Johnny had been laid up in bed recovering from Pardee’s bullet. Johnny had told him then that as long as he couldn’t get any himself he could at least enjoy Scott’s stories of conquest. Scott had always made sure to embellish them liberally, which seemed only to add to Johnny’s entertainment.

He arranged at the hotel desk to have his rented horse exchanged for a buggy so he could go pick up Murdoch, and headed for his room. He needed to change shirts after Johnny managed to rip his present one. He didn’t want Murdoch to even suspect what had happened. In fact, the more he thought about it the more he wished he hadn’t telegrammed Murdoch to come. He’d rather Murdoch not see Johnny if Johnny was going to be prone to unpredictable bursts of violence. Murdoch would never trust him back at Lancer then. He pulled his room key from his pocket, stopping as he spotted a tightly crumpled wad of paper fall to the floor. Scott was a folder, not a crumpler.

He went inside and carefully unwadded the paper, smoothing it as best he could, instantly recognizing Johnny’s distinctive handwriting and spelling. “I’m prizner---not crazy. Turner just wonts yor munny. Laura Besser is prizner too. Help her. Waggen leves frum basment dore in bak arond 9. Sum nites she is on it. Pleez”

Johnny must have slipped it in there. Now that he recalled, Johnny had seemed fixated on grabbing at Scott’s pockets during the attack. Scott sighed. It was further evidence of Johnny’s delusions. He still thought he was being held prisoner, which Scott admitted, in a way, he was. But now he was claiming Laura was also a prisoner there, when of course, Scott had been spending every day with her. Obviously Laura hadn’t been on any wagon and wasn’t going to be. The last few nights she’d either been dining or seeing a play with Scott. The fact that Johnny had gone through the effort to write out this note and cram it in Scott’s pocket only served to prove how deep seated his delusions were. It did explain some things, though. Apparently Johnny really did have some sort of fixation on Laura.

Still, he felt guilty that Johnny was turning to him for help, when Scott couldn’t help him the way Johnny was hoping. The best way Scott could help him was to make sure Johnny stayed just where he was, make sure he got the best medical attention possible.

And get rid of that note so Murdoch wouldn’t know about it.

 

Chapter 37

Johnny awoke looking up at bars and hurting like hell—a situation he’d found himself in many times in the past. It took him a while to figure out he was back in his basement cell. He remembered coming to upstairs just as Scott was leaving. Turner had waited until he was fully awake, then leaned down and whispered that his actions also had consequences for himself. Martin and Zeke took turns beating the shit out of him, apparently making sure not to touch his face or any place that would show. That was the last thing he remembered.

He turned over, or started to, stopping and gasping as his ribs felt like they were piercing his side. He felt around gingerly, pretty sure some were at least cracked. He tried not to move, not to breathe, not to think about the pain. Not to think about what Scott said. None of it worked. He moved, he breathed, he thought about how much it hurt, and he thought about what Scott said. Thought about it a lot.

Laura. What the hell did Scott mean? Was it possible she wasn’t back in the hospital? Was it possible Scott was really bedding her? Johnny’s Laura? No, it wasn’t possible. Not Scott. Fuck! Maybe it was possible. Maybe Scott had just waltzed in, with his fancy manners and Boston ways, and taken his Laura while Johnny was being held prisoner. Maybe that’s why Scott wouldn’t help him get out. Just so he could move in on Johnny’s girl. Take advantage of her while she was still in a vulnerable condition, with Johnny not there to protect her. Johnny wished he’d tried harder to kill him.

Truth was, he’d had to try hard not to kill him. He’d been waiting for an opportunity to do something to get his hands on Scott, some way to get that note to him, but when it happened, it wasn’t part of any plan. It had taken every bit of self control to get back on track and focus on getting his hand in his pocket instead of around his throat.

The note! Damn! It had stuff in it about Laura being in the hospital. If Scott really wasn’t holding Johnny there on purpose, if he really wasn’t making up the story about being with Laura, that note ought to convince him once and for all that Johnny was crazy. Good plan, Johnny-boy.

He gritted his teeth and pulled himself over to the water bucket, sloshing his face into it and drinking with his face half underwater. He needed to clear his head. He wanted to believe Laura was free of this place. But that also meant Scott was with her, taking advantage of her. He couldn’t stand the thought of that. Why would Scott lie about it? Johnny dunked his head again. No matter how he looked at it, he couldn’t think of a reason for Scott to lie. Laura was free. And she was with Scott. And as much as that hurt, it was better than her still being a prisoner. It also meant Johnny was free to act without the threat of her being punished. Even free to get himself killed.

Right now, though, he felt too shitty to go through the effort. His ribs were screaming so loud his head was splitting. He couldn’t tell what time of day it was down in the dark basement, but his body said it was way past medication time, and judging from how he was shaking, it was going on night. He supposed they’d be withholding again just to make a point, have their little game with him. Wouldn’t they be surprised when they found out he had a little game of his own planned.

 

Chapter 38

The train was late. The air turned damp and cool as twilight threatened, and Scott buttoned his jacket against the chill. He’d been pacing the platform for almost two hours, lost in thought about what to tell Murdoch about Johnny. He stopped to check the time again, wondering if he should send a messenger to the Bessers to tell them they might be late for dinner, when he heard the train coming.

Murdoch was traveling light, and Scott gave him the option of stopping by the hotel to drop off his bags or continuing to the Besser house. Murdoch wasn’t thrilled about having a dinner date, but once Scott filled him in who they were he was more amenable and suggested heading straight there. He wasted no time asking about Johnny once Scott got the buggy on its way.

Scott’s telegram had been purposefully cryptic: “J BACK AT IA. COME NOW.”  He didn’t want the entire community around Lancer finding out Johnny was insane or addicted. As far as he knew, nobody but Murdoch got the San Francisco paper, and with luck, nobody would ever find out Johnny was in the inebriate asylum. Besides, the paper had referred to him as Madrid, not Lancer, and at least so far, few people around Lancer had made the connection between the two.

“Well, sir, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, he was captured. It was last Tuesday.” He hated to tell him the rest, but there was no way around it. “Sir, he’s been charged with murder, kidnapping, and robbery. Thankfully, before I arrived Dr. Turner intervened and had him recommitted to the hospital on the grounds of moral insanity.”

“Moral insanity?” Murdoch was gripping the edges of the seat, his knuckles white.

“Yes, sir, based on his drug intoxication.” Once again he had to tell Murdoch details he’d rather have left out. “It appears he spent the entire time he was loose, uh, in a drugged state.”

“I see,” said Murdoch, shaking his head slowly and sighing. “So what’s his current state? Have you seen him?”

“Uh, yes, sir. I’ve visited him twice.” Scott fell silent.

“Well?”

Scott could say he was fine, that the doctors were mistaken. But Murdoch would be talking to Turner soon, and would see Johnny himself. He turned the horse uphill toward Laura’s and cleared his throat. “The first time he was, um, confused. He seemed to think, well, he accused us of selling him into slavery, and the people who finally turned him in—even the policemen—of shanghaiing him. The second time he seemed to be over that, though. Unfortunately, I guess I said something that sort of set him off. Anyway, that was my fault. I really think he’s getting better, and it’s just a matter of time. This whole episode was just an unfortunate setback.”

“You call murder and kidnapping an unfortunate setback?”

“No, of course not. It’s terrible. It’s just that Johnny can still get well. I know he can if he just stays and gets more treatment.”

Murdoch was silent, the clop clop of the horse’s hooves becoming almost mesmerizing by the time he spoke again. “Scott, just exactly how has this treatment helped him so far? Sounds like he’s still addicted as much as ever. Son, I know you don’t want to face the truth, but it just may be that your brother is too far gone. If it were you or me, we could kick this. But Johnny’s already admitted to being addicted once before. Who knows if there were other times he hasn’t gotten around to telling us about? What was he doing with Pardee in Morro Coyo? As far as we know, he was doped when he came riding in like a crazy person and got himself shot.”

“You mean riding in and saving the ranch from Pardee.”

“That was the end result, but we don’t really know why Pardee’s men were chasing him. Maybe he tried to steal some drugs. We just don’t know.”

“So what are you saying? We give up on him? Just walk away?”

“No! I looked for that boy for twenty years. I’m not about to just walk away now that I’ve found him. But I also have to face facts. And I don’t want you being hurt, Scott, because you expect things of your brother he can’t give.”

“Sir, I can’t imagine hurting any more than I would if I didn’t try everything in my power to bring Johnny home.”

“I know, son. But Scott, what happens to the charges if he does get well?”

“Nobody’s been very clear about that.” It was Scott’s turn to shake his head despondently. “I guess nobody really expects him to get well.”

The rest of the ride to the Bessers was spent in silence. Both men put on the their best social graces as Scott introduced his father to the Bessers, and as the night progressed it was clear both Bessers seemed suitably impressed with Murdoch as a potential in-law. They were eager to hear all about Lancer, and since it was Murdoch’s favorite subject to talk about, time passed quickly.

Midway through the meal the conversation turned to Mr. Besser’s work. Scott already knew he was some sort of engineer. Back in Boston he had supervised various land reclamation projects, and he’d been offered a position to oversee the same sort of projects around San Francisco. Mr. Besser explained the heavy demand for harbor space on navigable bayfront, which they were now creating by shaving hilltops and using the rocks and dirt to fill in the inlets and marshes.

“Filling in the bay, huh,” said Murdoch, nodding. “I’ve read about that. Must take a lot of manpower.”

Scott stopped in mid chew, almost choking as he tried to swallow what was in his mouth. “Did you say filling in the bay?”

 

Chapter 39

He was shaking so much and breathing so heavily that he almost missed hearing the clunk of their footsteps in the corridor as they approached. Johnny lay his head down on the cool stone floor and tried his best to stop shaking, control his breathing, to look passed out, not stressed out, by the time the steps stopped outside his cell.

“Hey, breed, got something for you! Get up.”

“Looks like he’s still passed out. Want me kick him, see if he’s dead?”

“Dead people don’t sweat. Fucker’s playing possum, you ask me. Hoping to get out of another shitkicking.”

“Let’s both go kick him. See if he’s playin’ possum.”

“Nah, we’re runnin’ way late. We gotta go eat before they throw it away. Your lucky day, breed. Or maybe not. We had your medicine. Looks like you’re gonna be going without, bein’ that you’re already passed out and all.”

They had medicine for him? God, he needed it, needed it in a bad way. Every part of him needed it, every part of him hurt. He didn’t know if it was from his injuries or his lack of drugs. Both, probably. He tweaked open an eye, saw the syringe in Zeke’s hand, saw Zeke and Martin walking away. His voice cracked, but he got it out. “Wait.”

They turned, Martin with a gloating look on his face. “What’d I tell ya? OK, breed, get up, gimme your fucking arm, we got places to go. You’re lucky Turner wants you lookin’ pretty in case you get visitors. Me, I’d soon watch you puke your guts out again.”

Johnny thought of balking, forcing them to open the cell, but he couldn’t take the chance. He pulled himself to his feet and staggered over to the bars, pulling up one sleeve and thrusting that arm through while hanging on with the other.

He glared at the two men. Martin was doing the honors, and as usual he took joy in giving the injection as roughly as possible. Too late, Johnny looked down at the syringe and noticed it seemed much fuller than normal.

He tried to jerk his arm away, but Martin was gripping it, plunging more drug in. Johnny reached through with his other hand and grabbed Martin’s hand away, pulling his other arm back, taking the syringe part way with it. Johnny clutched at it while backing up, but instead he melted to the floor, hitting it with a thud, the syringe rolling away. 

“Goddammit!” exclaimed Martin.

Zeke was busy looking at Johnny’s prone form. “Want me to kick him, see if he’s dead?”

“Jesus, you wanta kick him so bad, go kick him! But he ain’t dead. Passed out is all. Just bring that needle back with you.”

Zeke opened the cell door and sauntered in, aiming a good kick at Johnny’s gut. Johnny saw it coming, tried to reach out, but his reactions were sluggish, and the kick connected before he could avoid it. He still managed to grab Zeke’s foot, mustering all his strength to yank it so Zeke teetered, then thudded onto on his back. Johnny pushed himself to him, rearing up and jabbing the pencil he’d taken from upstairs into Zeke’s eye just as Martin came rushing in. Martin’s club came crashing down, but Johnny rolled and got only a glancing blow, the club continuing on down to bash Zeke in the face, driving the pencil into his brain. Johnny still rolled, the drugs clouding his pain, rolled until his hand found the syringe. He pivoted forward, dizzy, trying to focus, seeing his target and lunging, driving the syringe into Martin’s leg and pushing the plunger.

There wasn’t as much drug left in the syringe as Johnny had hoped. If anything, Martin continued his attack more energized, more enraged. He clubbed Johnny, pounding his damaged ribs, the pain enough for Johnny to feel through the medicine. He gasped and fell, started to curl, but grabbed Martin’s legs, pulling him part way down with him. Martin fell on top of Johnny, pinning him, making Johnny cry out. Martin drew back his club, ready to splatter Johnny’s brain, as Johnny struggled to free himself. Johnny tried to push him off, but Martin got a funny look on his face. His grip loosened. His club fell backwards. Johnny rolled him off, still Martin grabbed at him. Johnny pulled himself away, snatched the club, bashed it down on Martin’s head. “For Moses, you fucker.”

He fished through Martin’s pockets, grabbing a ring of keys, also slipping the few coins he found into his own pocket. Contraband, he couldn’t help thinking. He could be in trouble now.

He started back out, had to stop and lean against the wall as the drug took full effect, the corridor spinning before him. He kept one hand on the wall as he staggered toward the doorway that seemed to recede from him with every step. He knew he had received far more drug from the syringe than he had hoped.

He could barely feel his feet on the ground, felt like he was floating at times. He heard the echo of footsteps and twirled to see his pursuer, almost falling in the process. They stopped. He peered down the hallway, trying to make out a form, but saw nobody so he turned and starting walking again. When the footsteps started again he realized they were his own. He squeezed his brain in an effort to concentrate, but the fresh drug coursing through his veins fought him for control, told him to just go back to his cell and relax. Maybe just stop for a second, slide down the wall, take it easy. There was really no hurry. This place wasn’t so bad. Why did he always feel he had to be fighting, running? They gave him food, medicine, a place to sleep. Where else did he have to go?

No. He’d rehearsed this. Ever since he’d hidden the pencil on himself while waiting for Scott, the entire time he had laid on that stone floor honing its point, he’d rehearsed, over and over, ‘Whatever you’re thinking, don’t do it. Just get out. Don’t stop. Get out. Get to Laura.’ Laura. He knew Scott was lying about her. She’d never give herself to anyone but Johnny. She was his, his very own private angel. Maybe she was still upstairs. Maybe he should turn around, go look for her. Jesus, he couldn’t just leave her here!

No, get out. Laura was out. The door was finally before him. He started fumbling to put keys in the lock, furtively glancing behind him in case he had been discovered. The sound of his own heavy breathing was deafening, and he imagined it could be heard throughout the basement.

The keys weren’t working. He tried another one. Had he tried this key already? How long had he been doing this? Maybe hours. Maybe the right key wasn’t even on this ring. Maybe he should go back to his cell, put the keys back in Martin’s pocket, get back in his cot, nobody would know. Wait, there was some reason he couldn’t do that. At least he thought there was. Shit, it was hard to think. The blood spattered on him had something to do with it, though, of that he was pretty sure. Had he gone through all the keys yet? It seemed like he must have, many times over, stuck in a never-ending process of putting a key in, taking it out. Maybe he was just trying the same key over and over. Come on, Johnny-boy, concentrate. Next key. Footsteps behind him again, but he’d already fallen for that once. Wait. He wasn’t moving this time. And there were lots of them. And voices, excited voices. Another key. Shit. Wait. This one was different. The lock clunked. He pushed the door open and stumbled into the night.

 

Chapter 40

Scott urged the horses to go faster despite the dark road. It was well past 9 o’clock, the time Johnny’s note had mentioned. He had wasted time back at the Besser house, practically hauling Laura into the other room so her parents wouldn’t hear him confront her about her bruises. For all the good it had done. Not that he really needed her to confirm what they were from. He’d seen bruises like that on Johnny back at Lancer. He wished now he’d thought to look at Johnny’s arms when he’d visited. Wished even more he’d had enough faith in his brother to look into his story about filling in the bay.

The buggy hit a bump and jolted into the air. “Slow down, Scott! We’re not going to be much help if we crash before we even get there! If there’s even anything to this. I still think you’re overreacting.”

Scott reluctantly pulled up on the horses, just as bells started to clang from the direction of the hospital. He and Murdoch exchanged glances. “Go faster,” said Murdoch, his lips drawn tight.

As they rounded a bend the dark shadow of the hospital came into view up on the hill, lights spilling out of the building, flittering to and fro on the grounds like angry fireflies.

They galloped the buggy up to the guard house, the horses rearing as Scott pulled them up abruptly. Both guards had their rifles aimed at them. “You need to turn around and leave the area,” commanded one of them.

“What’s going on?” demanded Murdoch.

“You don’t need to know. Leave the area now, or things could get dangerous.” The man waved his rifle at them dismissively.

Scott glared at them, then turned the horses and galloped back down the road, veering off on a smaller road he’d noticed during an earlier visit. The road ran along the side fence line. The first thing Scott noticed was that the fence was no longer the stately iron fence that lined the front road, but a mass of tangled barbed wire. The second thing he noticed was that somebody was hanging in it.

Suddenly the entire fence line was illuminated as gas lights turned on up and down it. Scott could see clearly what he already knew, that the hanging man was Johnny. Only now, everybody else could see it, too. 

The torches and lanterns were bobbing toward them. Scott leaped from the buggy and ran to where Johnny was entangled in the wire, struggling weakly to extricate himself, blood drizzling from gashes from the barbs.

“Johnny! Hold still!” But he didn’t.  He lashed out at Scott with a club and pulled against the wire more, the barbs biting into his flesh. “Johnny, it’s me, Scott! You have to hold still.”

He could hear shouting now, and a shot rang out, and another. “Stop shooting!” yelled Scott. “He can’t move!” A barrage of shots answered him.

Murdoch was at Scott’s side, ignoring Johnny’s feeble attempts to club him, working with Scott to lift him, releasing him from the worst of the wire until Johnny and Murdoch both tumbled into the roadway. Scott ran to Johnny as he stumbled to his feet, again swinging the club. Scott jumped out of the way, reached in and grabbed the club, breaking it from Johnny’s grasp. Johnny punched him in the jaw. Murdoch grabbed Johnny from behind. Johnny kicked out backward, catching Murdoch in the leg, but Murdoch held on while Johnny lurched to and fro.

“Johnny, calm down, it’s Murdoch. We’re here to help you, son.” Murdoch kept on talking while Johnny struggled with all the futility of a pinned butterfly. Scott regained his balance and went to steady Johnny’s head, trying to get his attention, look him in the eye. Something was very wrong with him. He pulled up one of Johnny’ shredded sleeves, inhaling sharply as he saw the scabs and bruises up and down his arm.

Johnny was suddenly still, staring at his own arm, at Murdoch’s hands still gripping him. Scott tugged his other sleeve up. Both arms matched. Johnny never looked up, just whispered, “I’m sorry,” and tried to pull his arms back, tried to pull his sleeves down and fold his arms, practically hugging himself to hide them.

Scott went to steady him, tell him it was he who was sorry, but he never got a chance. “Hold it right there.” The voice came from behind one of the lanterns that had reached the fence. It was hard to see who was talking, but the click of a gun, of several guns, being cocked made it immaterial.

 

Chapter 41

Scott watched helplessly as Johnny was half pushed, half dragged, stumbling, into the cell and cuffed to a bar next to the cot. Johnny turned to Scott, a bewildered but hopeful grin on his face. “Scott,” he whispered so loudly everyone could hear. “You gotta gun I can use? I really need it now.”

“No, Johnny, just lie down. Murdoch and I will take care of things.”

“I gotta get Laura.” Johnny tugged at his cuffed hand, studying it as if wondering how it got that way.

“Johnny, I told you, she’s fine. You just rest.”

The policemen and Murdoch stepped back into the outer room. Scott stayed outside Johnny’s cell until he settled on the cot, then told him he was leaving but would be back.

“You gonna go rescue Laura? You’re gonna need my help,” he said, rolling off the cot, twisting his cuffed arm in the process.

“No, Johnny, rest. Laura’s fine.” Which was more than he could say for Johnny. He looked like he’d been in a fight with a mountain lion. He’d need those deep gashes from the barbed wire tended to.

“Scott?” Johnny was pushing himself to his feet, or trying to. “What you said about Laura, you made that up, right?”

Scott wasn’t quite sure how to answer, except he knew the truth was a bad idea. “Laura’s fine, Johnny. She’s home now.”

“Lemme borrow your comb. She’s likely be here to see me any time now.” He ran his fingers through his tousled hair and smiled broadly. “I think she just might be the one, Scott.”

Scott looked at Johnny and figured his hair was the least of his worries as far as appearance went. Pretty much the least of his worries as far as anything went. “You look fine. Besides, it’s the middle of the night. I’m sure Laura’s home sleeping.” He heard voices raised in the outer office. “Rest, Johnny,” he said, leaving.

They looked at him as he entered the room. “He needs stitches. He has a lot of deep cuts from the barbed wire.”

“He’ll get taken care of at the hospital,” answered Dr. Turner.

“He’s not going anywhere,” said the police captain, signing some papers as he spoke. He looked directly at the doctor. “You’ve had your chance and he’s escaped twice. He’s too dangerous to be anywhere but in my jail.”

Dr. Turner’s jaw worked up and down. “Fine.” He turned to Murdoch. “I blame you for this. For the death of my men. You never said a word about him being a killer when you dumped him on us.”

Murdoch spoke slowly, as if trying to hold his temper. “I did not dump him on you. You assured me you could help him. I’m still waiting for an answer as to why he’s still obviously drugged. He’s worse now than he ever was!”

“I told you. Your son has to be kept on moderate levels of medication to keep his psychosis under control, Mr. Lancer. On top of this he attacked and killed my attendants in order to procure drugs from them, drugs meant for other patients, so yes, he is overmedicated at this time. Unfortunately, as I have previously reported to you, your son does not appear to have the self control necessary to effect progress in our program.” He turned back to the captain.  “Captain Doyle, I strongly suggest that you keep Mr. Lancer shackled at all times if you insist upon keeping him.”

The captain placed his papers in a drawer and slammed it closed. “Doctor, I think we know how to handle prisoners. Certainly better than you do.”

“Then I’ll tend to the boy’s injuries. I am a medical doctor.” Turner held up his black bag, as though that proved it.

“Fine. My deputies will be there with you, make sure he doesn’t try anything.”

Scott and Murdoch started to followed Turner and two deputies, but were stopped by Turner. “I’ll have to ask you two to wait outside. We’ve found Mr. Lancer gets over stimulated in crowded rooms. That could be a bit dangerous under the circumstances.”

“Now wait just one second,” said Scott, drawing himself up.

“No, you wait,” the captain broke in. “If you want to visit the prisoner at all you do it on my terms. And right now that means letting the doctor have his time with him on his terms. That means out, both of you.”

Scott was about to protest, but Murdoch squeezed his shoulder and guided him to a chair. “We need to talk, Scott. Dr. Turner filled me in on what’s been going on with Johnny, and I’m afraid you’re not seeing the real picture.”

“With all due respect, sir, I believe Johnny. Just because we didn’t see any wagons doesn’t prove anything.”

“Wagons filled with slaves, Scott? Shanghaiing? By policemen? Just because one thing he said happened to mesh with something we said at dinner doesn’t make him sane, as much as you may wish it to be. He could have picked that up anywhere.”

“What about his arms?”

“You heard the doctor. They’ve had to medicate him. And you know he stole drugs once before when he escaped. He even stole them back at Lancer. It’s the nature of the addiction, Scott. He’s lied to us and manipulated us before just to get what he wants. The doctor says he hasn’t changed. I’m sorry, son.”

“Johnny’s not crazy. He…” Scott never finished, not what with Johnny’s screams drowning everything out.

 

Chapter 42

Scott guided the horse up the incline toward Laura’s house. Every part of him screamed to turn back, stay with Johnny, or even just go to bed. But he couldn’t sit with Johnny because the attorney Murdoch hired was meeting with him, and he wanted to interview him alone. And he couldn’t go to bed, even though he’d been up the whole night, because there was no way he could sleep when he had the feeling Laura held the key to Johnny’s situation. So instead, he was headed to Laura’s with a bouquet of roses, a picnic basket full of delicacies, and several practiced lines begging her forgiveness for his abrupt behavior the night before.

He and Murdoch had already butted heads about how to best defend Johnny. Scott wanted him cleared, period. If Johnny was telling the truth, how could he be held responsible when he was merely trying to escape from his captors? Murdoch wanted him declared morally insane, put back in the hospital. He thought it was the only way to save Johnny from the gallows. Had Murdoch had any doubts about Johnny’s condition before, Johnny pretty much erased them when he had yelled for help and accused Turner of trying to kill him, when all Turner was trying to do was give him an injection for the pain. Murdoch had tried to calm Johnny, but the guards finally had to hold him down and cuff all four limbs so Turner could inject and stitch him, Johnny still frantic, raging, accusing Turner of murder, quieting only when the drug took effect. Murdoch had left the cell shaken, giving Scott a look that practically said “I told you so.”

Tomas answered the door and had Scott wait while he announced him. Scott thrust the bouquet in front of him like a shield, steeling himself for an unpleasant scene. He had practically dragged Laura from the table last night, confronted her about her bruised and scabbed arms, and pretty much accused her of lying when she’d said she’d gotten them pruning the roses, that she knew nothing of any slave labor or late-night wagons at the hospital. Hauling Murdoch out to the buggy before dessert was served couldn’t have endeared him to Mr. and Mrs. Besser, either.

They all acted like nothing had happened. Mr. Besser shook his hand enthusiastically, Mrs. Besser enquired as to when he and Murdoch could come to dinner again, and Laura batted her eyes and ran to dress for the picnic. Nobody mentioned Johnny or the hospital. Scott didn’t even get to use his lines.

They drove to a secluded area overlooking the bay and set out the blanket. They made small talk. Laura still acted as though nothing had happened.

They watched the gulls riding on currents of wind. They laid out a king’s feast. They ate leisurely, sampling and commenting upon the culinary delights. They laughed, fed each other chocolate-covered strawberries, ended up throwing a few, laughed some more.

It finally seemed like a good time to bring up the night before. It was, in that Laura didn’t explode, didn’t turn sullen, didn’t tell him what she really thought of him. It wasn’t, in that she didn’t tell him much of anything.

Scott tried a different angle. “Laura, Johnny has feelings for you, you know. Strong feelings. When he thought you were still in there he was willing to risk his life to go back and rescue you. He needs your help now. You just need to tell the police captain what really goes on at the hospital. They won’t even check unless they have somebody’s word other than Johnny’s. They think he’s crazy.”

Laura stiffened, put her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry. I had no idea he felt that way.” She placed a hand in Scott’s. “So what would happen if he went free?”

“What would happen?” Scott thought it was a peculiar question.  “He’d come back to Lancer. We’d still have to deal with his addiction, but somehow we’d get him back and get on with our lives.”

“And if he didn’t go free? What would you do?”

Scott hadn’t allowed himself to think of that possibility, at least not to put it into words. “I don’t know if I could stay at Lancer. I love it there, but Johnny was a huge reason why. I almost think it would hurt too much to stay. I’d probably go back to Boston.”

“I miss Boston.”

Scott got ready to ask her why she left, but didn’t want to get off the subject. “Laura, what about Johnny? What about the hospital?”

“I’m sorry, but the truth is, I didn’t know your brother, except to see him staring at me sometimes, before the day he kidnapped me. I was never so afraid, Scott. He killed Fritz, right in front of me, while Fritz begged for mercy. I thought I was next. Now you tell me it was all because he had some sort of fantasy about me. Scott, I’m afraid.” She started to sob quietly, and Scott held her tight.

“What about what he said about the hospital keeping patients as slaves? He said you went off on a wagon some nights.”

“And just what did he say I was doing on this wagon?” Laura pulled away from Scott, suddenly indignant.

“Nothing, uh, he just said you were on it some nights. I just want to know whatever you can tell me. Believe me, Laura, nothing you can say would change my opinion of you. You’re an extraordinary woman.”

“You mean ‘lady,’ now don’t you, Scott Lancer?”

“Yes, an extraordinary lady. Now tell me.”

“There’s nothing to tell. Wagons come and go. They deliver supplies. They take away trash. It’s a big place. Something’s always happening. But it’s not what your brother seems to think. I’m sorry, Scott.”

Scott was even sorrier. Everything Laura said made perfect sense.

Then why didn’t he believe her?

She was nuzzling his neck, kissing his lips, stroking his ego and his crotch. Scott couldn’t do what she wanted, not knowing how Johnny felt about her.

Then again, he couldn’t exactly push her away. He couldn’t chance making her angry.

 

Chapter 43

The sky was graying into twilight by the time Scott got back to the city. He hadn’t meant to spend that much time with Laura, but one thing led to another, and yet another even more irresistible, and now he was definitely, guiltily, no excuses late. He rushed to get to the jail before visiting hours were over. As soon as he walked in the building he realized Murdoch was still there. He could hear him and Johnny yelling at one another. Just like old times.

“Listen to me, son. I want what’s best for you, and that means you do what your lawyer advises. It also happens to be what Dr. Turner and two other doctors from the hospital say.”

“Yeah, it’s all real convenient for you, isn’t it? Get your black sheep son locked away for good where nobody can see him, where you ain’t embarrassed by having a half-breed call you papa. Only you didn’t want to pay, so you just sold me into slavery! How much you have to pay to get ‘em to say I’m crazy? Or do I gotta work that off, too?”

“Whoa, what’s this all about?” Scott strode in, trying to look pleasant.

“Oh, yeah, act all innocent.” Johnny turned on him. “You’re his fair haired boy, the son he don’t mind having around. Now you got half the ranch, but that ain’t enough for you. You gotta get me locked up permanent so you can move in on my girl!”

“Johnny, stop. None of what you’re saying is true.” Scott noticed Johnny’s hands were shaking, and he had rivulets of sweat running down his face. He guessed it had started. Johnny could be difficult to reason with in the best of times. This would the worst of times.

“Scott, I’ve told him that already. All he’s doing is proving my point.” Murdoch looked exhausted. He’d been up all night, probably had yet to get any sleep.

“Just stop. What happened today? What did the lawyer say?”

“Lawyer? You mean that puppet Murdoch bought and paid for? Just so he can come in here and convince me to tell them I’m crazy?” Johnny tried to pace as best he could with one hand cuffed to the bars. He stopped to sniff and wipe his free arm across his nose. “Yeah, you’d both like that, but I ain’t doing it.”

“Johnny, did the lawyer tell you what you’re charged with, and do you understand the options?”

“Yeah, I understand ‘em. I ain’t stupid, Scott. I ain’t crazy, either.” Johnny looked at Scott, hard. “Where you been, Scott?”

Scott swallowed. Um, on top of your make-believe girlfriend, Johnny. No, that wouldn’t do. Neither would any of the other positions he’d been in with her. Even if he had made the sacrifice for Johnny’s sake. “I had some matters to attend to.”

“The kind where you get grass stuck in your hair?” He yanked on his hand that was still cuffed to the bar. Scott noticed his wrist was now swollen and bleeding. “You better stay away from Laura, Scott, you hear?”

“Johnny, Scott has known Laura Besser since they both lived in Boston. If they want to share each other’s company that’s their affair.”

Johnny glared at both of them. “Get the fuck out of here. Keep your fucking lawyer out of here too. Go on, get out! Guard, get them out!”

“Johnny, it’s the withdrawal making you like this. Calm down. You need somebody with you.” Scott tried reach through the bars and place his hand on Johnny’s shoulder, but Johnny squirmed away.

“What, making me crazy? Fuck you, Scott. You’re the only one making me crazy. Guard!”

“Fine. Come on Scott. Johnny, we’ll be back.”

Neither man spoke until they were seated in Scott’s buggy. “Murdoch, what did the lawyer really say?”

“He said he spoke at length with Johnny. That Johnny confessed to killing the attendants. That he killed one because he thought he was acting improperly toward Miss Besser. That he took her and Dr. Turner. Then it’s the same old story. He says the hospital kept him addicted, used him as slave labor—oh, and as you heard, he thinks we put him there to get rid of him. Anyway, Jack—that’s Jack Dexter, the attorney---he says there’s no choice. Unless he can be declared morally insane, he’ll be hung.”

“But what if he’s telling the truth? You heard him. Johnny says he not crazy.”

“Of course he says that. What do you think he’s going to say? Scott, I know this is hard, but your brother’s life depends on our making the right decision. If he’s declared insane, he lives. If he goes to trial, there’s a good chance he’ll hang. Are you willing to take that kind of a chance with his life?”

“But to send him back to the same hospital that he thinks is doing all this stuff to him, he really will think we’re trying to get rid of him. Isn’t there any other choice?”

Murdoch looked down, cleared his throat. “Well, that’s the thing, Scott. He wouldn’t go back there. The Inebriate Asylum isn’t set up for the dangerously insane. He’d have to go to an asylum set up for people like him.”

Scott stared at the road ahead, a numb feeling overtaking him. He knew the sort of place Murdoch was talking about. The sort of place where patients were treated worse than animals, worse than prisoners. The sort of place that would kill Johnny’s soul as surely as any gallows.

Scott got ready to explain it to Murdoch, but as he looked over at him he saw him hastily wipe his eyes. Murdoch had already wrestled with the same visions. The one of Johnny twitching at the end of a rope against the one of Johnny struggling in a straitjacket. “When do we have to decide?”

“Now. Jack wants the judge to see him while he’s in withdrawal. He thinks it will make it easier to declare him insane.”

Scott clinched his eyes tight as he made his decision.

 

Chapter 44

When Scott and Murdoch entered the police station the next morning the sergeant was eager to usher them back to Johnny’s cell. The reason was quickly apparent. How Johnny had managed to trash an entire cell while being cuffed to one corner was mystifying.

Visiting Johnny apparently carried a price tag. The sergeant handed Scott a mop and a bucket. Not that there wasn’t already a bucket next to Johnny. It’s just that he seemed to have missed it as often as not.

Johnny looked like he needed tending before the floor did. He was obviously no longer up to making a mess anywhere but in his immediate vicinity. He was huddled in a ball on the floor, partly on his knees, rocking with his head down, panting rapidly and shaking. His shirt, badly ripped the night before, was now torn off and thrown across the cell. His hair was plastered to his head, at least the part that didn’t look like it had been in a tornado, and his entire body was covered with a sheen of sweat. His cuffed wrist was bruised and swollen so that the cuff bit into it. He didn’t seem to notice Scott and Murdoch when the sergeant let them into his cell.

Murdoch tried to squeeze Johnny’s shoulder, but Johnny winced and pulled away, slapping blindly at the offending hand. “Johnny, it’s us. We’re here to help you, son.”

Johnny continued to rock, but managed a barely audible “Go away.”

“Come on, Johnny, drink this.” Scott knelt beside him, holding a cup of coffee to Johnny’s lips. Johnny grabbed the cup, spilling half of it in his shaking hands, gulping the rest far too fast even as Scott tried to pull it away. It didn’t matter. Johnny retched almost before it could have reached his stomach, adding to the mess on the floor. He rolled over on his side, still balled up except for his cuffed hand above his head. Scott looked at the slight bit of coffee in the bottom of the cup and urged him to try again, slower.

Johnny refused to try it at all this time. “It hurts too much. Go away.”

Murdoch was kneeling beside him as well. “No, we’re not going anywhere.” He took the cup from Scott and pushed it against Johnny’s clamped lips. Scott started to cover the bare cot with its missing blanket, which he found twisted, bunched, and thrown on the floor. He and Murdoch pulled Johnny to his knees, maneuvering him half on the bed as Johnny stifled a moan.

“Dios, leave me alone.” Johnny tried to roll over on the bed, gasped as the attempt caused the cuff to bite into his wrist.

Murdoch examined the cuff and walked to the cell door, calling for the sergeant. Johnny was panting rapidly now, but managed to whisper hoarsely for Scott to come closer. “Scott, you bring any medicine?”

“No, of course not.” Scott wondered if Johnny remembered what he had come to San Francisco for. This may not be the way they had planned it, but at least it looked like it was finally going to happen.

“I hurt, Scott, I ain’t never hurt this bad. Please, you gotta help me. Get me something. Just a little, make me feel right.”

Scott put his hand as gently as he could on Johnny’s arm, but Johnny still flinched and pulled away. “Johnny, I’ll help you any way I can, but I can’t do that.”

“Come on, brother.” Johnny stopped, doubled up as if he had a full body cramp. It was several seconds before he continued, his voice shaky. “Dios, it hurts so bad. I think I might die, Scott, really. Come on, I thought big brothers were supposed to help little brothers. Scott, please.”

Damn. As usual, Johnny’s aim was right on target. This time he’d hit Scott’s soft spot.  The big brother spot that had been empty until Johnny came into his life, the spot Johnny had always balked at filling. Now Johnny was waving the little brother carrot. But the price was too high. Scott slowly shook his head no. “Sorry, little brother, I am helping you.”

Johnny steadied his gaze on him, or at least, did as best he could while his eyeballs shook along with the rest of him. “Where’s Dr. Turner? I need him.”

“The other night you said he was trying to kill you.”

“I was wrong. Come on, he’s my doctor, where is he? I want to go back.” He rolled over as though trying to get up, but Scott held him down with one hand.

“The sergeant’s going to see what he can do about that hand cuff. What’s he asking for?” Murdoch had returned from talking to the sergeant, carrying another blanket he’d gotten from him.

“Dr. Turner. He’s not here, Johnny.” Scott didn’t want Murdoch to find out what Johnny really wanted.

“Dr. Turner? I thought he didn’t want him anywhere close.” He draped the blanket around Johnny’s bare shoulders, Johnny clutching it and pulling it tight.

“I guess he changed his mind.”

Johnny glared at Scott, turned to Murdoch. He looked like he was trying to make himself stop shaking, trying to look well. He couldn’t and he didn’t. “Murdoch, bring Laura here. She’ll help.”

Scott answered before Murdoch could ask why. “Johnny, I don’t think you’re at your best right now. Maybe better wait on Laura coming.”

“You don’t give a shit about nobody but you, do you Scott? Some fucking good brother you are, you’ll do anything to keep my girl away from me!” He had abandoned his effort to look well, and was clutching his stomach, grimacing and squeezing his eyes shut.

“John, calm down. Scott’s just trying to help.”

“No he’s not! Goddammit, gimme my medicine! What the fuck’s the difference? They’re gonna hang me! What, you just want to have a little fun torturing me first? Dios, I wish they would just hang me now.”

“They’re not going to hang you, John. We’ve seen to that.”

Scott got up to examine Johnny’s wrist, anything to avoid Johnny’s sudden look of comprehension.

 

Chapter 45

Johnny swore, begged, fought, argued. For all the good it did. His most persuasive argument was simply the sight of him suffering silently. Still, as painful as it was to watch him, to hear his pleas, there was no question of giving in to his wishes. Scott and Murdoch took turns trying to soothe him, but once Johnny realized they weren’t going to help him the way he wanted, he’d push them away. After awhile he’d try again, usually with a new tack, as though things would somehow be different. And push them away once again when he found out they weren’t.

Finally he’d fallen into fitful bouts of sleep, though they were nearly as restless as his waking moments, filled with activity, often calling out for help. Calling to Laura, to Moses. Mostly calling to Day. He apparently had not been making up the story of Day Pardee taking him in. It made Scott sick, made him wish he could kill Pardee again. This whole thing was Pardee’s fault, the way Scott saw it, and how Johnny could be calling out to him, instead of to Scott, stuck in his craw.

As bad as Scott felt, Murdoch looked worse. Every time Johnny fell asleep Murdoch took the chance to sit beside him, hold a damp cloth to his head, do the things Johnny wouldn’t tolerate awake, the things Murdoch would never have another chance to do.

Johnny understood what they had decided about his future. He’d let them know he’d do everything in his power to fight them, to prove his sanity. Even if it meant going to the gallows. Scott wondered if that was proof in itself of his insanity. At least in the asylum there was hope, no matter how small. It was the certainty of the gallows versus that slight chance that had finally swayed Scott’s decision. That, and the knowledge that watching Johnny swing would kill his father as surely as it would Johnny. The problem was, Johnny made it clear he would never forgive them for what he considered their betrayal.

The police captain had changed the cuff to Johnny’s other hand when he’d arrived that morning. They hadn’t been able to convince him to leave it off altogether, despite the fact that Johnny couldn’t overpower a kitten in his current state.

They’d also pleaded with the captain to let them stay overnight with him, but he’d been adamant that there would be no visitation after hours. They’d said their goodbyes, promising to be back in the morning, but if Johnny had noticed through his suffering, he hadn’t let on. He was still no better off than when they had arrived that morning.

Murdoch went back to his room after arranging to have his meal sent up. Scott had a feeling he wouldn’t be eating it. As for himself, he couldn’t sit inside another second. He rented a horse and went for a ride, no destination in mind.

He thought he had just given the horse its head, let it choose its own path, but he must have been guiding it subconsciously. That’s the only way he could explain coming to his senses on the unused road that ran beside the inebriate asylum, the road they’d found Johnny hanging alongside.

It was about the same time of day they’d found him, actually a little earlier. The time Johnny had said to look for a wagon. Scott rode slowly around the perimeter, peering at the hospital in the distance. No wagon that he could see.  He sighed, sat and looked at the night sky for a while, wondering if he’d made the right decision about Johnny’s future. Did he have that right when Johnny was so adamantly against it? Then again, did he have the right to place a life and death decision in the hands of someone who was incapacitated by drug addiction?

His horse suddenly raised its head and snorted, alerting to something behind the building. Scott quieted the animal, listening intently. There it was. Voices, and the faint sound of horses in harness. He walked his horse around toward the back to get a closer look. He saw a shadow leaving by a back gate. A shadow of a wagon.

He spurred his horse down the road, damning himself for not considering the possibility of a back gate. The wagon was already on the road and heading away from him at a good clip. If it got to town before he caught up he’d lose it in the maze of streets.

He rounded a bend and there it was in front of him, the horses slowed to a trot. Scott considered his options. He needed the police, preferably the captain, to be here as a witness. Second best was to follow the wagon, find out where it was taking the patients. Then what? Either way carried the possibility of losing it.

“Who goes there?” The driver made up his mind for him, turning on his seat and challenging Scott, holding up a lantern and squinting into the darkness.

Scott eased his gun into his hand. The lantern was doing a better job of blinding the driver than illuminating Scott. “Put your hands up and climb down.” He made sure the driver could hear the sound of his gun being cocked.

“OK, whatever you say, bub.”

Scott waited for the man to walk away from the wagon, then rode alongside it and flung open the back flap, revealing its clandestine cargo. He held his breath. He had to, what with the stench from the garbage that totally filled the wagon.

 

Chapter 46

Once, when he’d been laid up recovering from Pardee’s bullet, Scott had tried to bore him to death by reading from a biology book. It had almost worked, but Johnny had reluctantly learned that everybody was made up of some ridiculous number of tiny little living things called cells. Right now Johnny figured every single one of his was in dire agony, throwing up all over the place inside him, kicking and screaming that they wanted out, wanted to go find a friendlier body to live in. Johnny wished they would just shut up and leave. Or die and get it over with.

He’d tried to ignore their screaming by centering all his pain in one place, his wrist. They’d uncuffed the one wrist he’d been working on and placed the cuff on the other, so he’d spent the night pulling against it, feeling his attention shift from his gut to his wrist each time the cuff bit into it, doing it again, harder, hoping it would grab his attention more, until his wrist was bloody and raw, a fresh twin to the other.

Johnny had been tortured before. Whipped, beaten, burned, starved, forced to listen to Scott read. Every time there had been a menacing face he could see when he opened his eyes, a cruelly smiling face to hold onto in his thoughts as he swore and plotted his silent vengeance. This time he saw Scott and Murdoch whenever he opened his eyes. He knew it wasn’t their fault, but he found himself blaming them, fighting to push the thoughts of revenge from his mind.

The thing was, it was their fault. They’d gotten him addicted, tricked him into that hospital, deserted him there. And now they were making sure he was declared insane so he’d spend the rest of his life in an asylum. Sure, they claimed he might get out. Johnny knew that was only going to happen if he escaped, and from what he’d heard, that was nearly impossible. The only other escape was true insanity. Or death.

Meanwhile they were having their fun watching him suffer. They’d arrived first thing in the morning once again, as though they didn’t want to miss a moment of entertainment. Sick bastards.

He’d given up trying to reason with them. And he sure wasn’t going to beg them anymore. He wasn’t going to do anything that might give them a laugh. Not that he could. He wasn’t up to much more than lying on the bed in a ball, too exhausted to even rock, all his energy focused on torturing his wrist.

The bastards even put a stop to that. They got the police captain once again, gestured and argued, and finally got the cuff removed. They didn’t put it back on him anywhere. He thought of banging his head, but that would play right into their plan to have him declared crazy.  So he tried to just lie there, squeeze his eyes shut, and wait them out.

They did give him tiny sips of water and tea, and he did try to drink it. As often as not it came back up, but it soothed his throat some. They’d spooned a bit of soup in him, but he just couldn’t manage it.

At some point the lawyer came. Johnny ignored him when he spoke to him, so he finally quit trying. He spoke in hushed tones to Murdoch and Scott, but Johnny still made out that the hearing was to be tomorrow. Scott left with the man, and returned later with fresh clothes which he hung outside the cell. Scott-type clothes, the type that would make anyone go insane if they had to wear them for long. Maybe that was the plan.

He breathed a sigh of relief when the police captain once again told them they had to leave for the night. Although this time when Scott pressed the cup of tea to his lips, he was able to keep it down, and he couldn’t stop himself from asking for more. Scott had even smiled at him, patted him gently, and for once it hadn’t hurt all that bad. He’d left the pot and the cup, filled, next to the cot. And left.

He seemed to have drifted off to sleep. When he awoke he was so thirsty it hurt. He strained, reached for the cup, hit the pot instead and sent it clanging to the floor, emptying its contents. Shit. He tried again for the cup, managed to snag it in his trembling hands, bring it part way to his lips while its contents sloshed out. The door to the outer office banged open, the sergeant coming to investigate the noise.

“Please, water,” Johnny croaked, slumping back on the cot. The sergeant looked at him, at the pot, then opened the cell, walked over and bent to pick up the fallen pot.

Some things in life are irresistible. A needle full of pleasure. A half naked woman.  A holstered gun a mere foot from your face when you’re lying in a jail cell with no hope of a future. He didn’t even think about resisting. His hand shot up as though all those tiny little cells had banded together and pooled their strength into that single action. He had the sergeant’s gun pointing at him before the sergeant had even reached the pot.

Those little cells didn’t stop there. They were on a rampage, drawing strength from the Colt. Johnny could feel the gun’s energy traveling through his hand, up his arm, reviving every cell better than any drug. He cocked the gun, pushed himself up, and motioned to the bloodied cuff still hanging from one of the bars. The sergeant had that wild eyed look Johnny supposed was reserved for those times you have a certified crazed killer pointing a gun at you. The sergeant locked the cuff around his own wrist.

Johnny pushed his boots on and staggered to the cell door, falling against the clothes Scott had hung outside. He was shirtless, so he struggled to put the new shirt on. At least it wouldn’t make him stand out. The pants were too difficult to manage. His would do. He crept to the outer door, relieved to see the office was empty. He spotted the sergeant’s cup, made his way to his desk and drank the rest of his coffee, managing to keep it all down. He hung on the front door for a second, gathering his strength, listening for passersby, finally doing his best to stroll casually out, or at least what would be considered casual for a drunken feverish lunatic, and clung to the horse tethered to the rail. Nobody was looking. He untied the horse, begged all those little cells to give it one heave-ho, and managed to drag himself up onto the saddle. He rode slowly down the street, trying to look like he wasn’t going to fall off.

He tried to get his thoughts to run in the same direction, but they all kept colliding with one another. He had to get away, had to get medicine, he had to find Laura. He had to get away. That was first. Or maybe the medicine. Shit. He had no money. He looked behind him and saw somebody enter the police station. He had to get away.

 

Chapter 47

Get away. He stuck to the shadows, the alleys, and sometimes the most crowded streets, easing his way through town and away from the jail. The sergeant had surely been discovered by now, but for once, Johnny was glad to be in a big city.

Get medicine. That was going to be tough. He figured the opium dens would be the first place they’d look for him. That, or the doctors’ offices. He had no money, so he’d no doubt end up making a scene no matter where he went.

Get Laura. Scott said she was back at home. He knew where that was. There was a chance she might even have some medicine. She’d surely have money. Even if she didn’t, she was all the medicine he needed. If he could convince her to come with him, they could hole up while she nursed him, and then they could make a new life for themselves back in Mexico.

Her street was quiet except for an occasional buggy. Several lamps were lit at her house, including some in the garden out back. He rode around to the street behind her house, tried to dismount and ended up having to catch himself by a stirrup as he crumpled to the ground. He tied the horse and crept to the tall hedge that surrounded the garden. His heart leapt as he heard Laura’s voice. He felt better already. She would be in his arms in no time, their lips finally touching. He tried to smooth his hair down, make himself presentable. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop. But he couldn’t help it, once he heard Scott.

He couldn’t quite make out the words. He heard “when we’re in Boston” a few times, in Laura’s voice. He heard “Johnny in the asylum” a couple of times in Scott’s. After that they didn’t really say much. It would have been hard, what with their lips locked together.

Johnny stumbled blindly back to his horse, blinking to clear his eyes. He felt like retching, and this time it wasn’t just because of the withdrawal. He didn’t really remember hauling himself up and galloping out of town, barely hanging on, not until he was well away. What a fool he’d been. To ever think a real lady like Laura would fall for a half breed gunslinger. He’d let himself believe that just because he had a fancy gringo name like Lancer he’d moved up in the world, could even court ladies. How stupid could he have been? A lady like Laura would see right through him, see him for what he really was. And when Scott showed up, with his Boston manners, she would see him for what he was, too. He’d never felt jealous of Scott before. But now he did, Scott had everything, and he was using it to get the one thing Johnny wanted. He sighed, admonishing himself for his thoughts. He could hardly blame Scott for falling for her. It wasn’t every day you found a girl as classy as Laura.

So much for depending on either of them.

Get away. He was on his own now. He followed a vaguely familiar road up into the hills, ready to duck off at the slightest sign of pursuers. He had to stop himself from letting go, sinking to the ground beside a rock, and just curling up. He couldn’t ride far or fast in his condition. Unless he could find a good place to hole up, they’d catch him.

He topped a rise, pulling his horse up as he saw lights in the distance. They weren’t moving, though, and after a few seconds he realized where he was. On the road approaching the hospital. The hospital where they kept medicine.

He turned the horse down the deserted path that led to the back fence. Once out of view, he stopped to check his gun. The sergeant had it loaded with six bullets. Johnny cursed himself for not taking the gun belt, but he just hadn’t been thinking clearly. He stuffed the gun back in his pants and slumped forward, trying to build up his strength, to think past his pain, come up with a plan.

There were probably two guards at the front gate, one at the rear gate. If any of them put up a fight, Johnny was a goner unless he planned to shoot them. Once inside, he wasn’t sure how he’d sneak into the hospital or find where they kept the drugs. If they caught him, he wondered if they’d tell anybody, or just put him back in his basement cell, give him some drugs, and send him back out to work. Maybe that wouldn’t really be so bad. Not compared to what he was facing now. It wasn’t like Laura was waiting for him. Just the asylum or the gallows.

As he watched, a lone buggy made its way down the drive toward the front gate. Although faint, the guards’ voices carried clearly in the night air. “Goodnight, Doctor Turner.”

Johnny was instantly attentive, waiting for the buggy to get down the road before starting out after it. He didn’t have a plan, only the vague notion that somehow this was a good idea. The buggy disappeared behind a hill. Johnny pushed his mount to a gallop, clutching at the horse’s mane and praying he wouldn’t fall off, gasping with pain at every jarring stride. In less than a minute he’d overtaken the buggy.

If the sergeant had looked terrified at the sight of Johnny holding a gun on him, the doctor looked shit-in-his-pants panicked. He slapped the reins and whipped the buggy horse, but Johnny had grabbed the animal’s head first thing. He kept his gun on Turner, told him to stop, put his hands up, get down.

“Mr. Lancer, you should know that I am expected for dinner at precisely eight o’clock, and that should I be late, the police will be scouring the city for me. I take every precaution against patients such as yourself.”

“You see, that’s the problem, doctor.” He managed to say doctor as though it were the vilest curse word. “You ain’t never had a patient such as myself, doctor. Oh yeah, sure, I had you once before, did something stupid, let you go. That was when I was feeling nice. Problem is, I ain’t feeling all that nice tonight, doctor.”

The doctor looked at him critically. “I can see that, Mr. Lancer. Don’t you worry, son. We can go back to the hospital and get you just what you need.”

 

Chapter 48

Johnny tried to keep his gun from shaking, but it was getting heavy, harder and harder for him to keep pointing at Turner. He stared at Turner, contemplating his offer. His freedom for his friend. Only the goddammed medicine wasn’t his friend, not a real one. It was the sort of friend who made you feel good then sucked you dry and took you for everything you had. And had you coming back begging for more. Like the best of whores.

He rode over to the buggy and picked up a thin blanket, tossing it to Turner. “Rip this into long pieces, use one to tie your wrists. You try anything stupid, doctor, I really will shoot your dick off. I can hit tiny targets.”

He still didn’t have a plan. Just knew that somehow, having the doctor hostage was good. If nothing else, he could beat the crap out of him right before he got caught. First he’d need to get strong enough. That led him back to the question of finding a place to hole up. If he lived around here, no doubt he’d know of places out in the hills. But he’d seen little of the countryside since he’d been in San Francisco. He knew of only one place where a person could be hidden away.

The buggy seemed to make way too much noise as it clattered down the planks alongside the wharf. Johnny held his gun to Turner’s side, having threatened him dickless if he said a word or even looked like something was up. The man had wisely stayed quiet. Nobody else appeared to be around. “Get out.”

Turner looked stricken, but followed orders. Johnny climbed out after him, focusing all his attention on trying to look well. If Turner realized how weak he was, he could easily overpower him. He motioned for Turner to light the lantern in the buggy and carry it inside the warehouse. They headed for the farthest corner, past where Moses had been held.  He found a support pole, threw some more blanket strips at Turner, and had him tie his feet together. Then he backed him up to the pole and tied his hands behind him, around it.

That was it. He fell to his knees, overcome with exhaustion. If Turner could get his hands untied, there was nothing Johnny could do. The light from the lantern seemed to fade and disappear entirely.

Johnny had no idea how long he’d been out, or even whether he’d been asleep or unconscious. Turner was still there. Johnny studied him. He was staring back. Something was wrong. Johnny pulled himself over to him and checked his ties. They were fine. Turner was sniffling, shivering with the cold.

“Lancer, we can make a deal,” he said, shifting his weight, drawing his knees up, putting them back down, shifting his weight again. His voice had taken on an urgent tone.

Johnny smiled broadly. “Oh yeah, doctor? Don’t look to me like you got much to deal with.”

“You let me go, and I’ll get you your medicine and see that you get out of town.”

“Why you want to go so bad, doctor? You ain’t enjoying my company?”

Turner glared sullenly at him. “Fuck you, you know why.”

“I’m afraid that sort of language is going to earn you a demerit, doctor. That means puttin’ off when you get your medicine, ain’t that so? Only we ain’t got any medicine, so I guess it don’t really matter.”

“I know where we can get some.”

“I don’t know, doctor. I got a reputation. Don’t want to be seen with no drug addict.” He suddenly stopped smiling. “You must think I’m stupid. You’d turn me in as soon as we got there.”

Turner shifted his weight some more, tried to wipe his nose with his shoulder. “No, nobody can know about me. You can go alone. I’ll tell you where. Just get it.”

“You wouldn’t be sending me into a trap, would you? Cuz you know, I’d hate to think of you here, all alone, no medicine, no nuthin’, with nobody knowing where you was, ‘til you stunk up the place.”

“No trap, Lancer. You can take your share, ride out of town.”

“With a posse on my tail. You think I’m stupid? Oh no, that’s right, just crazy.”

“I’ll sign papers, say you’re not crazy.”

“Yeah, that’ll help. Then they’ll just hang me.”

Turner glared at Johnny, then sat back and closed his eyes, clenching his jaws. Johnny leaned against the wall, exhausted, his entire body still screaming at him. It was like those little cells were still yelling, but getting hoarse, so he couldn’t hear them quite as well. He drifted off.

“OK, I’ll make a deal.” Turner’s voice awakened Johnny. From the looks of Turner, now glistening with sweat, Johnny had been sleeping for a while. “I’ll tell them Fritz and Martin had some scheme going. I believe you about that, Johnny. I’ll testify, they’ll let you go.”

“Blame it all on two dead guys, huh? You didn’t know nuthin’ bout it?”

“No, I swear, not until you told me. I’ve been looking into it, and it appears you were right. Lancer, I can get medicine. Look at you, you know you need it. You can feel good again.”

Feeling good seemed like too much to ask at this point. Just feeling better than shitty was his goal now. Actually feeling good was a total fantasy. Turner could make it happen. “I can’t go back to the hospital. They’ll stop me, get me arrested again.”

“No, not there. The person you need to see is Miss Besser. I’ll write you a note.”

 

Chapter 49

Scott was relieved when he heard footsteps on the garden path and he was able to push Laura off him legitimately. She’d been throwing herself at him, as usual, only with a twist tonight. She kept talking of the future as though they would be sharing it, as though they would be part of Boston society. Together. That was definitely not in Scott’s plans. He could just see the look on his grandfather’s face as he introduced her. Scott was no snob, but it didn’t take much to see Laura was a social climber not too far off the bottom rung. He silently chuckled; actually, the vision of his grandfather’s stricken face would almost be worth escorting the little slut to some upper echelon affair.

Still, he had to be nice to her. He’d sort of gone along with what she was saying, playing along with the Boston fantasy. After all, he couldn’t deny that she had been very nice to him. Mostly, though, she was still his only lead to what Johnny had sworn was going on. Even though it appeared Johnny was wrong about the wagons, Scott couldn’t bring himself to totally give up. After the hearing tomorrow it would be too late.

He bolted to his feet when Murdoch appeared, grim-faced, shown into the garden by Tomas. “Murdoch?”

“It’s Johnny. He’s escaped.”

“What? He couldn’t even sit up. How could he escape?”

“I don’t know. Somehow he got the sergeant’s gun, cuffed him to the cell, took his horse.” Murdoch pressed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. His voice cracked when he continued. “Scott, they’ve put out an order to shoot him on sight.”

“No! Damn, we’ve got to find him first. He couldn’t have gone far, not like he was.” He turned to Laura. “Do you have any idea where he might have headed?”

“Scott, what if he comes here? I’m frightened.”

“Johnny’s not dangerous!” Scott knew that was a lie, a huge one, but he also knew Johnny would never harm Laura. “Where would he go to get drugs?”

“How would I know?”

Scott grabbed her arm roughly and pushed up her sleeve. “Quit playing games. Where? Where do you get yours?”

Laura pulled her arm back and began to sob. “I can’t believe you’d say that. I told you what happened. We’re supposed to be married, and this is how you treat me?”

“What?”

“What’s this? You two are getting married?”

“Yes, Mr. Lancer. Scott and I will be moving to Boston as husband and wife. That’s what he said.”

“Now wait a second here. I did no such thing.” Scott drew himself up, indignant and horrified at the same time. He was always very careful not to utter the M word no matter what. He knew he hadn’t slipped, certainly not with Laura.

Laura stared at Scott as in disbelief, then began to truly wail. “But, but you promised. That’s the only reason I let you,” she stopped suddenly and looked at Murdoch before she hung her head, covered her eyes, and began sobbing even more energetically. When she spoke again, it was barely above a whisper. “Scott, I was afraid to tell you. We have to get married. Please, I don’t want to have to tell Daddy.”

Scott felt numb. This couldn’t be happening. Murdoch was looking from Laura to him, clearly expecting him to say something.  Scott was too busy doing the math in his head. The result he came up with made him feel nauseous. It was possible. Not probable, but possible. “I didn’t promise anything,” he mumbled, knowing his words now made him sound like a cad.

Murdoch glared at him. Laura sobbed.

Scott squirmed uneasily. “What about Johnny?”

 

Chapter 50

Johnny decided to take Turner’s buggy and leave his stolen horse hidden behind the warehouse. He didn’t trust himself not to fall off the horse’s back if he tried to ride all the way back to Laura’s. Besides, Turner had said Laura might need to go with him. He sure hoped that note would convince her.

He stayed to the darker streets. When nobody was around, he allowed himself to slump on the seat, bending over double as he was hit with renewed cramps and nausea. His head throbbed, and it felt just too damn heavy to manage. It could all be over soon.

He left the buggy as close as he dared to the garden at Laura’s house, sitting for a moment while he took several deep breaths, trying to quell his nausea, clear his head, gather his strength. He wondered if Scott was still there, slopping on his girlfriend. He tried to make his heart stop bleeding. Laura had made her choice, and as much as it hurt to admit, he knew she’d made the better one. Now he was just there on business.

He looked at the upstairs windows, trying to remember which one was Laura’s bedroom. He thought it was the one overlooking the garden, the one with the trellis below it. He flopped out of the buggy, clinging to its side to remain standing. There was just no way he could climb up there if she was already in her room.  Although he would gladly have broken his neck to join her there had he not overheard her and Scott earlier. Come to think of it, he didn’t really much give a damn now whether he broke his neck or not. Or even got caught. Maybe he’d try it. He approached the garden hedge. And heard sobbing.

He heard more, Laura’s voice, hushed, saying Scott had made promises to her, promises that had apparently convinced her to give herself to him, promises that had gotten her into trouble. And Scott’s voice denying it all, trying to change the subject, squirming out of his duty after taking advantage of an innocent girl. His Laura sobbing more.

There was no careful plan, no thought at all except to kill the bastard that did this to his sweet Laura. He plowed through the hedge, falling to the ground as he burst into the garden, stumbling halfway to his feet under the astonished looks of Scott, Murdoch, and Laura. He threw himself toward Scott, half falling on him, catching him by surprise with a blow to the jaw before they both tumbled to the ground.

He struck at him again, but Scott fended him off, grabbing his wrist and holding it with one hand. Johnny used his other hand to punch at his gut, but the blows were barely noticeable, and Scott grabbed that arm, too.

“Damn you, let me go, you bastard!” Johnny was still struggling. Scott was already standing, and Murdoch hurried to hold Johnny from behind. Once Scott let go, Johnny went to his hands and knees while Murdoch stood over him, ready to stop him should he try anything else, telling him to calm down, stay down. Laura, who had screamed throughout, was finally silent.

Tomas and the Bessers had raced into the garden. Mr. Besser was leveling a derringer at Johnny. Mrs. Besser was scurrying to Laura’s side.

Johnny was heaving, shaking from the exertion. He rallied to push himself to his knees, facing Laura. Licking his lips, trying to get the words out, faltering through a couple of false starts, finally succeeding. “Laura, will you marry me?”

 

Chapter 51

“Tomas, send Andrew for the police! Tell them he’s back. Hurry!” Mr. Besser kept the derringer trained on Johnny.

Johnny hadn’t moved. His eyes were riveted to Laura, awaiting the decision that could change his life. Laura, in turn, was simply staring at him, her expression impossible to translate.

It was Mrs. Besser who broke the silence. “Laura, come on, dear, let’s go in the parlor.” She began steering Laura away.

“Laura!”  Johnny struggled to rise, and Murdoch helped him up, but when he tried to follow he held him tight. “Laura?”

Laura didn’t answer him, but looked at Scott. “Scott? Are we getting married?” Mrs. Besser stopped pushing Laura and smiled at Scott when she heard her daughter’s question.

Scott looked straight back at Laura. “No, Laura, we’re not. I’m sorry.”

Laura suddenly looked like a younger version of her mother, both of their faces suddenly cold and furious.

“Laura, please. I’ll take care of you, of everything.” Johnny shrugged away from Murdoch and stepped toward Laura, only too late seeing the look on Mr. Besser’s face. He threw himself forward to push Laura away as a shot rang out, at the same time pulling the Colt from his pants and aiming it at Mr. Besser. There was no need. Scott had launched himself at the man and knocked the derringer from his hand as soon as the shot was fired.

Johnny leaned against the bench, trying to breathe normally, pushing himself upright, the gun still aimed in Mr. Besser and Scott’s direction. His other hand pressed against his shoulder where blood was seeping through his fingers. Laura scurried to his side, gently prying his fingers away from the wound.

“John, give me the gun.”

Johnny ignored Murdoch. “All of you, go over there, next to Scott. Except Laura. I need to talk to you, alone.” A new light shone in his eyes as he watched her carefully unbutton his shirt and pull it aside to examine the bullet hole. It almost made getting shot worthwhile. He whispered something in her ear. She stopped her examination, suddenly more interested in what he was saying, suddenly even more alarmed than when her father had been shooting. She nodded to him, wide-eyed.

“You keep away from my daughter!” Mr. Besser started over toward Laura.

“Watch it. I’m crazy, you know.” Johnny’s voice had gone icy flat. Mr. Besser stopped in his tracks. “Mrs. Besser, please join him. Don’t worry, Laura will be fine. Let’s all take a trip inside.” He motioned with the gun, and Laura helped steady him as he climbed to his feet and followed his herd of hostages into the house. He remembered that the bedroom upstairs he and Moses had been in briefly had a lock. It would take too much time to tie everybody, so he dragged himself up the stairs behind them and locked them in. He almost fell on his way back down, but Laura steadied him.

“Johnny, I’m out of medicine,” Laura said once they were alone and Johnny had shown her the note. He’d been careful not to tell her where Turner was hidden. “I was supposed to get some from Albert, uh, Dr. Turner, tomorrow morning. But I know where we can get some now. It’s downtown, though.”

Although Johnny had envisioned himself helping Laura into the buggy, in the end it was she who helped him. He wasn’t quite sure when she took over the reins, but he suddenly realized they were galloping too fast down a street lined with hotels and saloons, careening into an alley. Laura pulled up the horse next to a wagon and started tugging on him. “There’s a policeman, come on, he’s right behind us!”

“How many?” Johnny was suddenly wide awake.

“Just one. He noticed us, I guess because the horse was running. I saw him run to his horse, then I panicked. And he’s coming! Hurry!”

Johnny staggered toward the rear entrance just as a policeman galloped into the alley, yelling for them to halt. They didn’t, and the policeman drew his gun. Johnny twirled, falling backward, and shot, sending up a puff of dirt in front of his horse, spooking it so it reared and almost threw its rider. But not before the man locked eyes with Johnny. Johnny cursed silently as he recognized the sergeant. Mostly because the sergeant obviously recognized him.

Laura pulled Johnny backwards until he got on his feet and scrambled inside the hotel behind her. Johnny bolted the door and stayed beside it while Laura went to find who she was looking for.

She was taking too long. Finally he heard footsteps coming down the back hallway, not just her delicate ones but heavy ones, too. His attention was caught by what he heard outside, though. The sound of dozens of galloping horses along with raised voices. He turned to tell Laura they had trouble.

He realized he didn’t need to. Not once he found himself looking down a gun barrel.

“Hello, Breed,” Driscoll drawled. “We been missing you out on the bay. Ain’t filling up nearly so fast without you.”

Johnny hardly had time to wonder what the asylum’s slavemaster from his bay filling days was doing in this fancy hotel, and what’s more, how Laura knew how to find him. Hardly had time before Driscoll poked the gun barrel into his bloodied shirt, making him suck in his breath as his wound shrieked. Driscoll stared at him, his lip drawing in a sneer. “That hurt? Kind of bloody there, ain’t ya?”

“Don’t touch him! He still has a bullet in there!” Johnny really wished Laura hadn’t said that.

“Yeah, I expect that could be right painful,” Driscoll said, pulling back the gun and then ramming it straight into the wound. Johnny gasped and staggered, but Driscoll drew his fist back and slammed it directly in the same place. Johnny went down to his knees, clutching at his shoulder. Driscoll landed a direct kick to the same spot with his pointed boot, and everything pulsated red, then sparkly black, until the sparkles faded with the next kick.

 

Chapter 52

Scott rode hard toward the place Johnny had been seen, frustrated by having to stay with the police. But he couldn’t ride ahead for the simple reason he didn’t know how to get to this Madison Hotel on his own. The police had been at the Besser house, assuring them they would find their kidnapped daughter, when the messenger had arrived with news Johnny was holed up at the Madison. They had tried to tell Scott and Murdoch they couldn’t come, but the two men had jumped on their horses and started out before the police could do anything. Scott had heard them making plans. Johnny Madrid was too dangerous, and too crazed, to risk taking alive.

More police kept joining up with their group, until they numbered more than twenty mounted policemen. Scott saw a dump of a hotel up ahead with a sign proclaiming it to be the Madison. He pointed down an alley to Murdoch, hoping to beat the rest of them inside by going the back way, but half the police were also turning down it. The police shouted for them to halt, but he and Murdoch ignored them. They galloped right up to the back entrance, planning to go in and convince Johnny to give himself up. Before they could do anything, a rear window broke and a shot rang out. They hurled themselves off their horses and took cover behind a wagon.

Murdoch stood and shouted, “John, it’s us! Don’t shoot!”  He staggered, suddenly clutching his thigh, another shot still ringing in the air. Scott scrambled to drag him back to the wagon, helping to lift him inside for cover, stopping momentarily as his attention was caught by print stenciled on a trunk within: PROPERTY OF CALIFORNIA STATE INEBRIATE ASYLUM.    

Murdoch’s leg was bleeding badly, but he waved Scott away. “I’ll be fine. Get to Johnny. But be careful, he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

Scott pointed to the print. “Sir, I have a feeling he knows exactly what he’s doing.”

The alley was filled with the shuffling of horses and murmuring of men, but the lone voice that called out from the hotel quieted the air. “I caught the breed! I want to know what he’s worth!”

The police captain shouted from behind Scott. “There’s no reward! Send him out!”

Scott looked at the wall of policemen behind him, guns all cocked and leveled at the door. He yelled the first thing that came to mind. “I’m offering a reward! A thousand dollars! But only if he’s alive and unhurt!” He glared back at the captain. “And don’t send him out!”

“Lancer, you have no authority! That man’s an escaped murderer, and you need to stay out of this!” The captain turned back to the hotel. “You in there, send him out!”

“Captain, this is murder!” Murdoch had pulled himself up so he could confront the captain. “Call your men off!”

The voice shouted out again. “I want to see this thousand dollars!”

“Murdoch, how much money you have on you?” Scott whispered. “I only have about a hundred.”

“Less than that.”

“Men, let’s go in after him!” The captain was waving his men forward.

Another gunshot blasted from the hotel, followed by the voice. “I wouldn’t do that! There’s a passel of innocent ladies in here, almost certain to get caught in the crossfire if your men come stormin’ in. Best bet is to bring me the money, I’ll get him out so nobody gets hurt.”

“I’ll bring it in to you!” Scott shrugged at Murdoch’s questioning look. He really didn’t know what else to do.

The voice was silent for a long time before speaking again. “Let me see you throw your weapon down. Walk in with your hands up. You try anything funny, the breed gets it, trying to escape, you know.”

The captain waved his arms. “Fine, you want to give away your money, go ahead. But that prisoner is coming with us. You interfere in any way, and you’ll be joining him.”

Scott followed orders. He walked to the rear door, saw a slight movement in the window next to it, then heard the bolt pulled out of position. He pushed the door open, stepped into the dark corridor. “Where are you?” A whack on the back of the head was his answer. He fell to his knees, tried to fight the hands trussing his arms behind him, gave up when he felt himself being dragged and thrown to the floor, thudding against a body.  Heard Laura’s voice call his name. He tried to get his wits back, saw the body was Johnny, his shirt soaked in blood, his hands at least free, reaching toward Laura as she bent over him, syringe in hand.

“Johnny, no! Don’t do it,” Scott whispered urgently while the man’s attention was on counting the money he’d grabbed from Scott’s hand. “Johnny, my pocket.”  He stopped talking as the man looked over.

“What the fuck is this?” The man started counting the money again as though in disbelief. He strode over to them and flung Laura away, giving Scott a hard kick that sent him doubled over half on top of Johnny. “You think you can fuck with me, asshole?” He kicked him again in the side, the gut, aiming at his head, stopping in mid kick as a pop sounded and a red hole appeared in his forehead, slumping to the ground with a surprised look on his face.

Johnny dropped his arm, the derringer, the one Scott had grabbed from Mr. Besser and Johnny had fished from Scott’s pocket, suddenly too heavy to hold. He slumped back just as the door crashed open and the corridor filled with policemen running toward them, aiming their guns at Johnny. Scott tried to roll the rest of the way on top of his brother, his tied hands making it nearly impossible to shield him, the guns leveling at both of them as the steps pounded closer.

“No!” shrieked Laura. “He’s telling the truth!”

 

Chapter 53

Scott sat outside his brother and father’s cells. The last couple of hours had been harrowing. Murdoch had refused treatment at a doctor’s office, demanding that as long as Johnny had to go back to jail and be treated there, that he would be treated there as well. It finally took him punching the police captain to get him in an adjacent cell, charged with assault.

Murdoch’s bullet had burrowed in deep, and even the morphine hadn’t totally dulled the pain as the doctor extracted it. Johnny’s bullet had not been as deep, coming from the derringer like it did, but the subsequent damage done by the man Scott now knew as Driscoll was extensive. Digging out the bullet had turned into such an agonizing procedure that it had been all Scott could do not to tell the doctor to give Johnny morphine, even though Johnny himself never asked for it. Scott figured he had given up on him, after pleading so much to Scott for medicine to no avail before. In the end, they’d had to cuff him and sit on him to keep him still. Eventually Johnny had mercifully passed out, taking the decision out of Scott’s hands.

Scott winced as he shifted his weight. The doctor had insisted on examining him when he was through with the other patients, picking up on his bruising and stiff movements. As Scott had suspected, he had a couple of cracked ribs from Driscoll’s kicking. The doctor had bound them up and told Scott to stay still, preferably in bed. They both knew that wasn’t going to happen. Not with Johnny and now Murdoch injured and in jail. He wasn’t going to leave them, and he had no intention of getting arrested himself just to have a bed there.

He heard the outer door open and recognized their attorney’s voice in the other room. A few minutes later Jack walked down the corridor and pulled up a chair to sit next to Scott.

“They’ve agreed to let Murdoch out on bond, so he can go anytime you want to post it,” he said. “I’m working on them dropping the charges altogether.”

“What about the hearing? You might as well know I’m withdrawing the insanity plea.”

“I figured. Well, Johnny’s obviously in no shape to attend. With the new evidence I’m not sure he’s even needs to be there.”

Scott raised his eyebrow. “So where do we stand? Who’s testifying?”

“That depends in part on what they find during their search of the hospital this morning. As it stands, they still plan to call some witnesses from the day he escaped from the asylum and took Turner and Miss Besser hostage. Only Miss Besser is going to testify she went willingly, and that Johnny killed Fritz in self defense. Nobody’s been able to locate Turner so we don’t know if he’s going to show.  If he doesn’t, then they don’t really have a case for the murder charges, since nobody else has come forward to testify against Johnny. Even if he does show, the testimony of those girls they picked up last night backs up Johnny’s story. Miss Besser has told me things that back it up further, but she still doesn’t want to testify about that aspect, and quite honestly, she’s not our best witness since she’d previously denied any wrongdoing there.”

“What’d she say?”

“Basically what the rest of the ladies said. Every one of them was still addicted to whatever they came here to be treated for, and every one was basically forced into prostitution to feed that addiction. They’d been staying at the hotel for the past week or so, my guess is ever since Johnny started raising suspicions, but before that, they stayed at the hospital and went there almost every night to work.”

“I don’t understand why they didn’t tell their families,” Scott said, recalling too late his own reaction when Johnny had tried to tell him.

“From what I understand they were chosen mostly from families that didn’t come to visit a lot, or who were ashamed of having an addicted family member and just wanted them kept out of sight, or that didn’t seem to trust the person in the hospital very much.” He must have seen the distressed look on Scott’s face. “I’m sure they were wrong about that in Johnny’s case.”

“Yeah,” mumbled Scott.

“Hey, I hear one good thing has come out of all this. Johnny and Miss Besser are engaged?”

 

Chapter 54

Long after the attorney had left, Scott sat immobile.  The man’s words about family had cut deep. For all the talk they had given Johnny about becoming part of a family who trusted him, who were proud of him, they hadn’t believed him when it really counted, and they hadn’t wanted anyone to find out about him. They’d hardly raised an eyebrow when the hospital had cancelled visitation. Had accepted it was all Johnny’s fault. They had played right into the hospital’s hands.

Then there was the matter of Laura. Apparently she had accepted Johnny’s proposal. How could Johnny be so blind? Laura was certainly not the innocent Johnny seemed to think she was, the last thing from it. Then again, maybe it would work out. Scott almost chuckled. Johnny sure wouldn’t be bored at bedtime.

It was no doubt going to be difficult living at Lancer with her there, at least unless she changed her ways toward Scott. If Johnny ever found out, he’d be crushed. Not to mention, he’d kill Scott. He already seemed pretty set on that, anyway.

Scott had done the math some more. There was just no probable way Laura was with child. At least not Scott’s child. He knew he needed to sit down and explain that to Johnny, but it was just as likely to widen the gulf between them. Johnny seemed to have some vision of Laura’s purity that was not shared by reality. Maybe he was insane, after all.

His thoughts were interrupted by a low moan from Johnny as he turned in bed. He quieted soon after. Both Murdoch and Johnny were still sleeping pretty soundly, Murdoch aided by drugs, Johnny by sheer exhaustion. His thoughts on his brother, Scott never heard the quiet steps until they were right beside him, until he felt a gentle hand on his arm.

“How are they?”

“They seem fine, Laura, as well as can be expected. Sound asleep.”  The jail seemed suddenly ear splittingly silent. Scott almost wished Johnny or Murdoch would wake up. Murdoch gave a snore, and Scott looked at him hopefully. He turned on his side and continued sleeping.

“Scott, were you serious when you said you wouldn’t marry me?” She rubbed his arm, pressing up close beside him.

He wondered how much more serious he could have made himself. “Were you serious when you said you were with child?”

“Would it matter?”

“Yes. But you’re not in a family way, are you?”

Laura didn’t answer.

“I heard you said yes to Johnny’s proposal.”

She pushed away from him. “I plan to. I plan to be Mrs. Lancer one way or another. You can come visit us in Boston.”

Scott about choked. “Boston! I’ve got news for you, Johnny’s not moving to Boston! He’s never been there, and I’m sure has no desire to even visit there.”

Laura stood up straight. “Oh, I bet he could learn to like it, once he goes to all the parties. I’m sure your grandfather will see to that.”

“Uh, no, he won’t. My grandfather would prefer to think that Johnny doesn’t exist. Listen Laura, if you think Johnny has the sort of money I do, or the social connections, you’re wrong. He has his share of the ranch, and his own connections, but I don’t think they’re what you’re looking for.”

A dark look clouded Laura’s face. “Are you accusing me of marrying him for money?” she hissed. “I’ll have you know my family could buy and sell that half breed!”

Scott glared at her in disgust, trying hard to hold his voice down. “All I’m saying is this. I have no intention of letting you use my brother. Johnny doesn’t need to be kicked in the gut again. I’ll tell you this right now, if you hurt him, you’ll wish you never met a Lancer. And by the way, don’t you ever, ever, call my brother a half breed. You got that?”

“I already know one Lancer I wish I’d never met! And guess what, Scott, you’re lousy in bed!” She twirled around and flounced out of the room, leaving Scott to seethe. Her last comment made it clear she was a liar of the worst sort.

He glanced over to make sure Murdoch and Johnny hadn’t been disturbed. Murdoch was still sleeping, breathing deeply. Johnny, too, lay still. Except his eyes were wide open, staring at Scott.

Scott didn’t know what to say, finally mumbling, “Johnny, I’m sorry.”

Johnny looked at him for a long time, then a crooked smile took over and he slurred, “I bet you are, brother, but maybe I can give you some pointers…”

 

Chapter 55

"Johnny, you awake?"

Sort of. He'd been lying there trying to forget what Laura had said. Thankful he wasn't stuck with the bitch. Unable to keep the stinging out of his eyes when he thought about life without her.

On the other hand, he'd apparently regained a brother. He just wasn't so sure he wanted one anymore.

"Johnny?" Scott repeated.

"Yeah."

“Ready to get out of here?”

He weakly pushed himself up to his elbows, looking around to see if an escape route was open. He noticed they’d forgotten to shut the cell door. “What do you mean?” he asked suspiciously.

“I mean the hearing’s over. You ready to trade this cot for a nice bed?”

Fury swept over him as he realized they had really done it. "No! I ain't crazy, damn it, and hanging's better than another fucking hospital!" He started to push himself out of the cot, wondering if he could make it past Scott to the door. "You didn't have to lock me up. You could've just said you didn't want me at Lancer!" He pushed himself out of the cot, but his knees buckled.

"No!" Scott jumped to catch Johnny before he hit the floor. "Johnny, no, listen to me. That's not true! I swear, it's not true. We only took you to the hospital because we thought it would help. It was a mistake, but we didn't know what it was like. We do want you at Lancer. Both of us do."

“Yeah, sure, Scott. That why you didn’t bother to tell me it was a six month sentence until it was too late? Hell, turns out I guess it’s a life sentence! Oh yeah, and I appreciated all those visits, by the way.”

“Johnny, I’m sorry about that. They said we couldn’t visit, for your treatment. We just didn’t know---” He was interrupted by Murdoch’s murmuring in the next cell. “Hold on, Johnny, let me check…”

Murdoch's eyes were half open and he gestured weakly at Johnny. "Son," he slurred. "Home." His hand flopped down and his eyes drooped. "Love you," he mumbled, the words barely discernable.

Johnny remained looking at him, wondering how to react, wondering how much of what he’d said was from the medicine. Nobody had ever told him they’d loved him, drugged or not, not since his mama died.

“He does love you, Johnny. And so do I.” Smiling slyly, Scott added, “Just don’t tell anybody. We both want you back at Lancer, more than anything. And we want you well, too, but we’ll do it together. No hospitals. Now come on, get off the floor before somebody comes in and thinks you’re crazy.”

Johnny still didn’t know how to react, but he let Scott help him back into the cot. “No hospitals? Then what about the hearing?”

“The hearing’s over and you’ve been cleared. You don’t even have to testify. They found more evidence when they raided the hospital, all the stuff you said they would. Men in cells in the basement who all said they were being used as slave labor, plus the women who testified. Unfortunately, even though they all thought Turner was behind it, with the attendants dead and nobody to testify against him, it looks like he won’t even be charged. Not that it matters. He’s apparently missing.”

Turner! Now Johnny remembered what it was he’d forgotten.

Johnny’s face must have given something away. “You know anything about that, Johnny?”

Johnny thought for a moment, then slowly shook his head no. Later on he’d ask to see those two policemen, Red and Cooper. Tell them where they could find Turner. Nothing like a long voyage at sea to cure a drug habit.

 

Chapter 56

Scott hurried back to the hotel room where he’d left Johnny. Johnny had been anxious to leave the cell as soon as he’d found out he’d been cleared and was going home. Scott wanted him free, too, but he worried that Johnny’s freedom was premature. He couldn't shake the image of what he’d seen as he’d been dragged into the Madison that night. Johnny hadn’t exactly been pushing that needle away.

Still, he’d promised no hospitals, and right now he knew keeping his promise was the difference between keeping his brother and losing him. Even if it meant taking a chance on giving him up to drugs again. He’d put Johnny in the extra bed in his room so he could keep an eye on him, not that it was easy with Murdoch in the room across the hall. Scott was feeling pulled in both directions. It hadn’t helped that he’d been called back down to the police station to sign more papers. The procedure had taken longer than anticipated, and now Scott couldn’t stop worrying about his two patients. Murdoch was still in a lot of pain. Johnny, too. At least they’d both been sleeping when he’d crept out.

He opened the door a crack to check on Johnny, sucking in his breath when he saw the bed was empty. He quickly looked around the room. No Johnny. Damn! Scott kicked the door shut. Johnny could already be in one of the opium dens by now.

He stomped across the hall, uncertain what to tell Murdoch, flinging the door open in his anger.  Johnny looked up from the bedside, an expression of shock on his face, an open bottle of laudanum in his hand.

Apparently he’d only had to go across the hall to get what he wanted. Scott cursed himself for not hiding the bottle better. It just hadn’t occurred to him that Johnny would get out of bed and rummage through Murdoch’s room.

“Hand it over, Johnny.”

Johnny looked at the bottle, looked at Scott, looked like he was fishing for words. “I heard the old man moaning from across the hall. Figured you had to have something for him, found this in the drawer.” He met Scott's eyes, his expression suddenly cold. "I didn’t take any, if that's what you think.”

“I’ll keep it from now on.”

Johnny looked down before he started speaking softly. “Scott, this ain’t nuthin’ new for me. It’s goin’ on near ten years, I ain’t never seen a bottle of laudanum didn’t call out my name, hell, scream it, every time I was in the same room. It ain’t ever gonna change, Scott, but I lived with it once before. I can do it again.”

Scott held his hand out toward the bottle. “A little help never hurt, brother.”

Johnny studied him for a few seconds, as though making some kind of decision. He held up the bottle, poured some of it into a cup, and capped it before he handed it to Scott.

Scott looked at him searchingly, holding his breath. Murdoch's eyes fluttered open as Johnny held the cup to the man's lips, a cheeky smile on his own. "Drink?"

 

~end~

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