The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Caroline

 

 

FAll That Glitters

With thanks as always to my betas Linda & Lacy.

*****************

Murdoch Lancer sat at the kitchen table enjoying his first cup of coffee on that fine Monday morning.  He raised his head from the paper he was reading as he heard his two sons clattering down the stairs, still engaged in the friendly argument that had been raging since the previous day.

“I tell you, little brother, she was only making eyes at you to make me jealous.”  Scott put his arm around Johnny’s shoulders and punched him affectionately in the stomach.

“Oh come on Scott, anyone could see that she was only stringing you along.”  Johnny replied complacently, being entirely comfortable with the knowledge that his dark, exotic, good looks attracted more than their fair share of admiration from the young ladies of the district.

Teresa rolled her eyes to the ceiling and put both hands on her slim hips. “Suzie Wilkinson has had her sights set on Tommy Oliver for months.  The only reason she behaved so brazenly toward you two on Saturday night was to make him sit up and take notice.  And if you had stopped arguing long enough, you would have seen that it worked.  He took her home and he’s taking her to the dance next Saturday.”

Murdoch smiled at the downcast look that appeared on his sons’ faces.  After a moment Scott’s expression cleared.  “Oh well, there’s plenty more pretty girls and I prefer mine a bit older anyway.”

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed, grinning broadly.  “She was a bit skinny for my taste.” He made a grab for one of the flapjacks on the plate Teresa was carrying toward the table.  Anticipating the move she sidestepped neatly.

“Men!” Teresa stated in disgust before stifling a giggle as she remembered the last conversation she and her friends had had about the available young men in the area.  Not surprisingly her two ‘brothers’ had featured prominently in that discussion.  Not that Teresa had any intention of telling them – she already regarded them as being much to vain for their own good.

The debate about the respective merits of the unattached females continued throughout breakfast, until Murdoch felt compelled to remind his sons that they had a very big ranch to run and a lot of work to do.

“Johnny, I want you to check all the bridges in the eastern section.  Find out what repairs are needed and make a list of the supplies required.  Make sure the details are on my desk by the end of the day.

“Scott, check the fence line between Lancer and the Turnbull spread.  Some of our cattle have wandered over there again and I want you to remind Ted Turnbull that it’s his responsibility to keep that fencing in good order.  If Lancer has to fix it again I’m going to personally deliver a bill for supplies and labour.  Now I suggest you two get going.  I’ll see you at supper.”

“Yes, sir,” came the response in unison, causing Murdoch to smile again, as his boys left in good humour to get on with the jobs assigned to them.  As he watched them leave, he reflected how much better his life had become since their return.

Making his way to his desk, he pulled a small key out of his pocket and unlocked the bottom drawer.  He extracted an envelope and removed the letter it contained, unfolding it and laying it flat.  He had read and reread the letter several times since it had arrived three weeks previously.  He pinched the bridge of his nose and wondered, not for the first time, if he had been wise to keep the contents secret despite the request that he do so.  His sons were not likely to be happy with him once they found out what he had agreed to behind their backs.

He heard the door open and looked up to see Jelly making his way across the room.  The old handyman stood in front of the desk, pushed back his waistcoat, and hooked his thumbs in his braces.  “You wanted to see me, boss.”

“Yes, Jelly.  I need you to thoroughly check over the guard house.  Pay particular attention to the locks and hinges on all the doors.  If any work needs doing that you can’t get done in the next two days you can pull someone off another job to help you.”

 

Jelly puffed his chest out and prepared to be offended.  “I don’t need no help.  I hope you’re not suggestin’ I’m not up to doin’ my chores.”

Murdoch was used to Jelly’s crotchety ways.  “Of course not, Jelly, but this needs doing urgently. That’s why I’m entrusting the job to you.”

“Well, I reckon I can understand that.” Jelly replied with a complete lack of modesty.  “Mind telling me why this is so all fire important.”

After getting up, and walking round his desk, Murdoch put an arm around Jelly’s shoulders, and began steering him toward the door.  “I’ll explain it to you in a day or so,” he replied somewhat shortly.  Seeing the hurt look on Jelly’s face he hastened to placate him.  “I need to speak to Scott and Johnny first.”

Jelly harrumphed a few times to show his displeasure but allowed himself to be led out to the yard.  After seeing Jelly on his way Murdoch returned to his desk, put the letter back in the drawer and locked it securely.

*****

It was mid afternoon when four men rode up to the hacienda and stopped by the hitching rail outside the front door.  They remained mounted as Murdoch came out to greet them.  He had never seen any of them before, and studied them carefully.  The man who was obviously in charge of the group was of middle age, smartly dressed, and with tidily cut greying hair.  He had a hard face, marked with deep lines which spoke of a bitter disposition.

The other three were younger, well built and more casually dressed.  Murdoch automatically checked out how they were wearing their guns and frowned when he saw that they were lower slung than normal.

“Are you Murdoch Lancer?”  The older man asked.

“I am.  What can I do for you, gentlemen?”

The first man dismounted and held his hand out to Murdoch.  “My name is Nate Butler.  I have something I need to show you.”

Not liking the look of the man Murdoch ignored the outstretched hand.  “I don’t wish to be rude, Mr Butler, but I doubt very much if I would be interested in anything you might have to show me.”

“I wouldn’t be so hasty if I were you.” Butler reached into his saddle bags and withdrew a package.  He unwrapped it and presented it to Murdoch for his inspection.  “I think we should go inside, don’t you, Mr Lancer?”

Wordlessly Murdoch nodded and led the way into the house.  Butler looked around appreciatively before taking a seat, uninvited, on the sofa.  “Nice house.  I think we’ll enjoy our stay here.”

Murdoch didn’t respond to the comment as he stared at the item being held by the man.  “May I?”  Murdoch asked softly, before reaching over and taking the package from Butler’s unresisting hands.

Butler watched the rancher as Murdoch ran his large, work roughened fingers over the smooth and supple leather.  The gunbelt was as lovingly tended by his youngest son as the colt, which was conspicuously absent from its usual resting place in the holster.

The look of fury that was directed toward Butler would have intimidated most men.  “Where’s my son?”

“He’s quite safe and mostly unharmed.  He’ll stay that way so long as you do exactly as you’re told.”

“What’s this about?”

Butler laughed.  “Don’t play games with me, Lancer.  You know exactly what this is about.  Sit down and we’ll discuss what you’re going to tell your other son when he gets home.”

*****

It had taken Scott some time to complete his inspection of the fence line.  He had then had an unpleasant meeting with Ted Turnbull, who had insisted that the problems had all been caused by Lancer stock.  It had taken all Scott’s considerable diplomatic skills to placate the man and reach an amicable compromise that involved him providing the materials and Lancer providing the manpower.  Scott wasn’t sure how his father would react, but had figured it was better than all out war which had been the only other alternative.

He spotted Jelly as he rode into the yard.  “Is Johnny back yet?”

“How would I know?  I’ve bin workin’ on that old guard house all day.  Hardly had time to stop for a drink and a bite to eat.  I don’t keep track of all the comin’s and goin’s around here.”

Scott grinned, knowing full well that Jelly always knew exactly what was going on.  As he swung down off his horse he noticed three strangers walking toward the bunkhouse.  Since making the acquaintance of his brother he had developed the same habit of checking how a man was wearing his gun.  Like his father he was immediately on his guard when he saw the low slung rigs. “Who are they?”

“Your pa’s got company, and those three were tagging along with him.  And before you ask, I don’t know who he is or why he’s here.  But I can tell you now, I don’t like the look of any of ‘em.”

Scott had to agree with that assessment.  He pulled off his gloves and strode quickly toward the house.  He entered by the main door and hung up his hat and gunbelt before going into the great room.  His father was sitting in his favourite leather chair ignoring the other man in the room.  Murdoch leapt up when he saw his son and Scott could have sworn that there was a look of relief on his face.

“Scott, I’m glad you’re home.  This is Nate Butler.  He’s an agent for the railroad and he’s doing some surveying around this region.  I’ve invited him to stay for a few days. Mr Butler, this is my eldest son, Scott.”  There was a slight emphasis on the word ‘eldest’ which Scott noted but couldn’t understand.

Butler stood and sized up the young man in front of him.  Scott was frowning at his father as if sensing that things weren’t quite what they appeared.  Belatedly remembering his manners, Scott shook hands.  “I’m pleased to meet you Mr Butler.  I didn’t realise the railroad was interested in any land around here.”

“My employers are always interested in keeping their options open,”  Butler replied smoothly.

“Why don’t you go and get cleaned up, son.  Supper will be ready soon.”

“Has Johnny gotten back yet?”

“There’s been a change of plan.  I’ve sent Johnny to Stockton.”  Murdoch looked away as he told the enforced lie.

Scott looked at his father in surprise. “Stockton?  What for?”

“I….I got a telegram earlier today about a prize bull that’s up for auction.  I sent Johnny to check it out.”

Scott couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong but something wasn’t adding up.  He looked from his father to their visitor and decided not to press the point any further until they were alone.  “I see.  If you’ll excuse me Mr Butler, I’ll see you again shortly.”  Scott was in a very thoughtful mood as he climbed the stairs to his room.

*****

Johnny woke to darkness.  A feeling of panic engulfed him.  Ever since temporarily losing his sight to a sniper’s bullet, he had harboured a deep fear of going blind again.  His first instinct was to raise a hand to his eyes, and his anxiety levels rocketed when he found that his hands were bound behind his back.  He swallowed the bile that had risen up into his throat and forced himself to concentrate.

He realised that he was lying on the ground.  The air smelt damp and musty and there was no hint of a breeze so he reckoned he must be inside somewhere . His attempts to move his legs were hampered by the rope around his ankles.  After taking several deep breaths to calm himself, his senses told him that he had been blindfolded, a recognition that produced an almost absurd feeling of relief.

As he struggled to free himself there was a surge of pain in his right arm and a familiar feeling of bloodlessness swept over him.  The signs all pointed to him having been shot and, probably, losing a fair amount of blood.  His last memory was of riding Barranca, followed by the impression that he was falling.  He could identify a number of bruises that he knew hadn’t been there when he had woken up that morning. His next thought was that he had no idea how long he had been unconscious.

Not knowing if he was alone, he tried to suppress the groan that was threatening to escape past his teeth.  He heard a noise just before he was jerked into a sitting position.  “Back with us are you?”  The voice right by his ear made him jump.

“What’s going on?  Where are we?”  His mouth was dry and he licked his lips to try and moisten them.

“That arm’s got to hurt,” the voice continued without a hint of sympathy.  A cup touched his lips and he reflexively turned away only to have the man grab a handful of his dark hair and pull his head back.

“It’s time for your medicine.”  The liquid was forced down his throat and he realised that the water had been laced with laudanum.  Although he fought the effects it wasn’t long before he sank back into oblivion.

*****

After Scott had left the room Butler advanced on Murdoch.  Although smaller than the physically imposing rancher he had an unmistakable air of menace about him.  “You’re going to have to do a great deal better than that if you want to keep that boy of yours alive.”

Unwilling to be impressed, but terrified for his younger son, Murdoch bit back the first sharp retort that entered his head and moderated his response.  “Perhaps you can tell me how I’m supposed to act when you’ve kidnapped my son and threatened his life.”

“Just make sure Scott doesn’t get any more suspicious than he already is.  Remember it’s not just Johnny who’s at risk.  It would be a real shame if some unfortunate accident were to happen to Scott or that pretty little dark haired girl of yours.”  Butler couldn’t contain a self satisfied smirk, knowing that he held all the cards.

Murdoch’s face turned red as he forced himself not to give in to the impulse to beat the man to death with his bare hands.  “I’ll do whatever you want but if you or any of your men lay a finger on Scott or Teresa I won’t be responsible for my actions.”

“You do your part and there won’t be any further violence.  All I need is for life to go on as normal at Lancer for the next few days.  Once we’ve got what we came for Johnny’ll be released and we’ll leave you in peace.”

Murdoch snorted in disbelief.  “I’m not a fool, Butler, so don’t treat me like one.  You’re not just going to walk out of here and leave us free to contact the sheriff and raise a posse.”

“I guess not,”  Butler conceded.  “Johnny’ll be along for the ride; for a while at least.  We see anyone following us and….well I’m sure you can imagine the consequences.  Of course if you give me any problems before then we might just take Teresa along as well.”

Butler waited for that threat to sink in and knew he had won when Murdoch’s shoulders slumpted in defeat.  “There’s one more thing for you to take care of.  I noticed that the guard house has windows at the front.  Make sure they’re boarded up.  Now I think I’d like a drink before dinner.”

*****

Scott reached his room with all kinds of questions swirling around in his head.  After washing quickly and changing his shirt he made his way to his brother’s room.  He had no idea what specifically he was looking for; he supposed that he just wanted some reassurance that his brother had gone to Stockton.

After sitting on the bed for a while he began to feel rather foolish.  If his father said that he had sent Johnny to Stockton what reason was there to disbelieve him?  Shaking his head at his own stupidity he headed for the kitchen by way of the back stairs.

Teresa and Maria were putting the finishing touches to the evening meal.  The atmosphere in the kitchen was strained and quite unlike the usual noisy and welcoming feeling Scott was used to.  Maria looked angry and Teresa had a pinched look about her as if she had been crying.

“What’s wrong?”  Scott felt his own unease rising again.

Maria let loose a barrage of quick fire Spanish which Scott was quite unable to follow.  He held up a hand.  “Por favor, Maria.  I need you to slow down.”

“Those men who came this afternoon – they said things to Senorita Teresa – vile things that no young woman should have to listen to.”

“Did they touch you?” Scott demanded before letting out his breath in a sigh of relief when Teresa shook her head.

Seeing the look that had appeared on Scott’s face, and recognising the danger if he were to try and confront the three men alone, Teresa grabbed his arm.  “I’m ok, really I am.  It was just a shock.  I’m sure they meant nothing by it and that it won’t happen again.”

“It certainly won’t happen again,”  Scott retorted angrily.  “I’ll make sure some of the men stay close to the house to keep an eye on things and I’ll have words with Mr Butler about the behaviour of his employees.”  The blond radiated protective fury as he put an arm around Teresa and held her close for a moment.

“Murdoch has sent all the work crews out for a few days.  There’s only Jelly and a couple of the other men still here.”  Teresa sounded puzzled.

“What is going on around here?” Scott burst out in frustration.  “First Murdoch sends Johnny off to Stockton and now all the men are gone.  He didn’t say anything about any of this at breakfast.”  Seeing that he was starting to scare the women he forced himself to calm down.  “I’m sure there’s an explanation for all of it.  I’ll speak to Murdoch after supper.”

Scott joined Murdoch and their guest in the great room and accepted his father’s offer of a drink.  He noted the tension in his father’s posture which was in stark contrast to Butler’s relaxed appearance.  Scott decided it would be better to speak to the man privately about Teresa so as not to upset his father.

“Have you been in California long, Mr Butler?” Scott asked, breaking the strained silence in the room.

“I’ve been here a few weeks.  I imagine I’ll be moving on shortly.  I’ve almost accomplished what I came to do.”

Scott’s next question was interrupted by Teresa’s quiet announcement that supper was ready.  Scott normally sat to his father’s left with Johnny and Teresa at the opposite side of the table.  Deciding that he didn’t want Butler sitting by Teresa he took Johnny’s usual seat and indicated to her that she should sit beside him.  Murdoch raised his eyebrows in a questioning look that Scott ignored.

Conversation during the meal was kept to neutral topics with Teresa saying very little.  After dessert and coffee had been served she excused herself.  While Murdoch was pouring the brandy Scott invited Butler to step out onto the patio, conscious of his father’s concerned gaze watching his every move.

“Is there something on your mind, Scott?”  Nate Butler was enjoying himself enormously.

“Those men with you made inappropriate comments to my sister.  I would appreciate it if you could speak to them and tell them to stay away from her. If there is any repeat of that behaviour they will have me to deal with.”

“I must apologise if any offence was caused.  I’ll go and have a word with them immediately.  Perhaps you could tell your father that I’ll be back shortly to sample his splendid brandy.”

*****

Scott slammed the French door behind him causing the glass to vibrate in the frame.  “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” He demanded of his father.  “Teresa tells me that you’ve sent out all the work crews leaving next to no one to do any of the work around here.  I don’t recall us having a discussion about it, and Johnny didn’t mention it, so perhaps you could explain.”

Normally such an outburst would have earned Scott the thin edge of Murdoch’s temper.  He braced himself for the outburst that failed to materialise.  He realised that, rather than looking angry, his father was looking scared.

“Keep your voice down, Scott.  There’s nothing to be concerned about.  It’s quiet around here at present and I thought it would be a good chance for the men to get to work on those bridges your brother was checking out and to refit the line shacks.”

It sounded plausible and Scott silently berated himself for over reacting.  His nerves were on edge and he could not, at that moment, explain to anyone why that should be.  “Sorry, Murdoch.  I don’t know what’s got into me tonight.  Maybe I’m still wound up from my meeting with Ted Turnbull.  To listen to him you would think that it’s all Lancers fault that his spread is rundown and neglected.”

Murdoch heaved an unobtrusive sigh of relief as Scott turned his mind to other things.  They were still discussing the Turnbull problem when Butler rejoined them.

*****

Scott had been on his way to bed when he remembered Jelly telling him that he had been working on the guard house.  As the building was never used it struck him as odd.  Being reluctant to rejoin his father and their guest he made his way to Jelly’s room and knocked at the door.

He could hear Jelly grumbling about being disturbed in the middle of the night before the door was pulled open, allowing lamplight to spill into the courtyard.  Jelly had obviously been getting ready for bed.  His shirt was hanging out and he was struggling to pull his braces up over his shoulders.

“Sorry to bother you so late, Jelly.  Can I come in for a minute?”

“This had darn well better be important.  You can’t go around disturbin’ a man’s rest like this.”

“I’m not sure how important it is but it is something that’s been bothering me.”  Scott followed Jelly back into the room.  “Why has Murdoch got you working on the guard house?”

“I asked him the very same question and near got my head bit off.  He said he was goin’ to speak to you and Johnny about it.  Where is that boy anyway?  I didn’t see him’n Barranca come back.”

Scott frowned.  “He’s gone to Stockton.  He must have come back here to speak to Murdoch before he left unless Murdoch went out to find him after he got that telegram.”

“The boss was here all day and I don’t know nothin’ about no telegram.  No one came by until those men showed up this afternoon.”

Scott sat down heavily in a chair.  “That doesn’t make any sense.  Murdoch said he got a telegram and sent Johnny to Stockton to attend an auction.”  A sudden fear gripped him. “You don’t think Johnny’s in trouble do you?”

“Johnny can take care of hisself.  He’ll be back in a few days and he’ll laugh himself silly if he finds out we’ve been worried about him.”  A chill  ran down Jelly’s back and he wasn’t sure if it was Scott or himself he was trying to convince.

“You’re probably right, Jelly, but just in case I think I’ll go and have a word with Val in the morning.”

*****

The next time Johnny woke up he was relieved to find that the cloth that had been covering his eyes had been removed.  The laudanum that he had been forced to drink had left an unpleasant after taste in his mouth and his head was pounding.

He could make out very little of his surroundings in the dim light from a couple of lamps.  As he appeared to be alone he pushed himself into a sitting position up against a wall and assessed his situation.

His wrists and ankles were still bound.  His shoulders ached and there was a well defined pain in the upper part of his right arm.  Turning his head carefully and quelling a surge of nausea he saw that a rough bandage had been wrapped around the bullet wound.  The bandage was stained with dried blood and traces of fresh blood so he knew that he hadn’t yet stopped bleeding.

He could now clearly identify various developing bruises probably caused by a hard landing when he was shot out of his saddle.  His gunbelt was missing which was hardly a surprise.

Looking around he realised that he was in an old mine.  The air was damp and chilly and he shivered as the cold air penetrated his thin shirt.  A table and chairs had been set up along with some cots so whoever had taken him didn’t appear to be planning on leaving any time soon.

He began twisting and pulling against the ropes binding his wrists and was so engrossed in his task that he didn’t realise he had company until his head was rocked by a backhanded slap.  He tasted blood as his teeth connected with his bottom lip.

“You ‘aint goin’ nowhere so you may as well stop that.”  The voice was the one Johnny had heard last time he was awake.

He looked up warily at the large man looming over him.  Then he produced his best insolent grin;  the one that never failed to ignite his father’s temper.  “You don’t expect me just to sit here and accept your kind hospitality do you?”

Seeing the blow coming and avoiding it were, Johnny discovered, two very different things.  His head hit the wall and his eyesight became unfocussed.  He blinked a few times and his vision cleared although his head hurt worse than ever.

His captor leaned down and grabbed a handful of his shirt.  “Mr Butler said to keep you drugged if you didn’t behave yourself, so don’t give me any trouble.”

The name meant nothing to Johnny and his head hurt too much for him to think.  “What’s this about?”

“There’s something we need your father to do for us and you’re here to make sure he does as he’s told.”

The thought of being held as a hostage to force his father to carry out some unspecified task was too much for Johnny.  He shook free of the man’s hand and wrenched furiously against the ropes.  A blow to the stomach stopped him and another cup of drugged water was forced on him before he could catch his breath.  The pain, blood loss and medication combined to send him back to the darkness.

*****

Scott was up bright and early the next day having had no success in getting any sleep.  He had tossed and turned for hours worrying at a problem that might not even exist.  Eventually he had given up and gone down to the kitchen where he had sat drinking coffee until sunrise.  He went back to his room, had a quick wash and shave and headed out.

He walked from the house to the barn, unsettled by the lack of activity and the silence.  He hadn’t bothered stopping for breakfast, intending to get something to eat when he got to town.  He wasn’t even sure why he was so intent on speaking to Val although he wondered if taking a look at the outstanding wanted posters might be worthwhile.  He really didn’t like the look of the three men with Butler.  He thought briefly of telling his father where he was going before rejecting the idea.  His father was acting so out of character that he couldn’t predict how he would react.  He wasn’t going to risk being ordered off to do some pointless task that would prevent him making the trip to town.

He had almost finished saddling his horse when the barn door opened to admit Butler and one of his men.  Scott frowned in annoyance and bent to tighten the girth in order to hide his expression.

“Good morning Scott.” Nate Butler greeted him cheerfully.  “We missed you at breakfast.  Your father didn’t seem to know what you were planning on doing today.”

The unspoken question hung in the air between them.  “I have some business in Green River.” Scott replied with the minimum of politeness.

“What a coincidence.  Samuels and I are heading into town ourselves.  D’you mind if we ride along with you?”

Scott did mind but he but wasn’t sure how prudent it would be to say that.  He disliked Butler and his men and had a feeling that he was being backed into a corner.  “What about your other two men?”

“Gould and Reid’ll wait here for us.  I’m expecting a telegram which should dictate the events of the next few days.”

“I assume you have spoken to them about their behaviour.”  Scott began to worry about leaving Teresa and Maria virtually unprotected.

“Don’t worry.  I have explained to them that I will not tolerate any repeat of what happened yesterday.”

“Good.  I’ll wait for you outside.”  Scott led his horse out of the barn, cursing under his breath.

The ride into town passed quietly and Scott took his leave of the men once they reached the main street.  Butler went to the telegraph office while Samuels waited on the boardwalk and unobtrusively observed the young blond.

Deciding to forego breakfast all together Scott headed for Val’s office.  He pushed the door open and found Val in his usual position with his feet up on his very untidy desk. The sheriff was asleep and snoring softly. A small gust of wind blew through the open door and stirred up the dust causing Scott to sneeze and startle Val out of his doze.  The front legs of the chair hit the ground with a thud as Val’s feet slipped off the edge of the desk.  The sheriff’s scowl disappeared when he recognised his visitor.  “Scott, what brings you to town?  Is Johnny with you?”

“Murdoch says he sent Johnny to Stockton.”

“That’s a mighty peculiar way to put it.  He’s either sent Johnny to Stockton or he ‘aint.”

Scott sighed.  “I know.”  He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped the seat of the only other chair in the room before sitting down.  “Some men turned up yesterday, saying they are with the railroad, and since then Murdoch has been acting odd.  I was wondering if I could take a look through the wanted posters.”

“What d’ya think you’re gonna find?”  Val was puzzled by Scott’s attitude but knew him well enough not to dismiss his concerns out of hand.

“I don’t know.”  Scott rubbed a hand over his eyes.  “Could I take a look at them any way?”

Val handed over an untidy pile of paper and settled back to wait.

*****

Nate Butler left the telegraph office with a pleased grin on his face.  “Everything is going according to schedule,” he informed Samuels.  “Where did Lancer go?”

“He’s over at the jail.”

“Now why would he be paying the sheriff a visit?  I think we may need to adjust our plan and let him know what’s going on.  It’s important that we keep him in line.  We can’t afford to have people getting suspicious.  D’you think you could create a diversion to get the sheriff and Lancer out of that office?”

Samuels nodded.  “No problem Mr Butler.”

Butler scanned the street.  “When you’ve finished join me in that alley over there.  We don’t want any witnesses to our little discussion.”

*****

Val’s boots hit the floor again as he heard the sound of gunfire and women screaming.  Scott threw the wanted posters onto the desk and followed the sheriff out the door with his gun drawn.  The shooting had stopped but a crowd had gathered around a man lying in the street clutching the top of his leg.  Blood was seeping through his fingers and he was moaning in pain.

“Somebody get the doc.”  Val ordered.  “Who was doin’ the shooting?”

Everyone spoke at once and Val yelled at them to be quiet.  He quickly established that no one knew where the shots had come from or who the shooter had been.  The shots had been seemingly random in nature, which wasn’t much comfort for the victim who was lying bleeding in the street.

As Val took control of the situation Scott allowed his gaze to travel up and down the street.  His eyes narrowed when he saw Samuels appearing from the side of the hotel only to disappear into an alleyway.  He eased his way out of the crowd and followed the man.

The alleyway ran between two shops.  As he passed the back of one of the shops a hard body barrelled into him, forcing him against the wall.  Samuels pressed his forearm across Scott’s throat, removed his gun and then backed off holding his own gun on the stunned young man.  Butler walked out of the shadows and looked thoughtfully at their furious prisoner.

“What were you doing in the sheriff’s office?”

“What the hell has that got to do with you?  When Murdoch finds out about this he’ll throw you and your men off Lancer for good.”

“Your father will do exactly as he’s told, just as you will.”

The pieces started to fall into place in Scott’s head and his previously irrational seeming fear for his brother returned with full force.  “Why?”

“It’s quite simple really.  If either of you gives us any trouble your brother dies.”

Scott’s instinctive move forward was halted by the sound of Samuels cocking the pistol he was holding.  He moved back until he felt his shoulders striking the wall.  “I don’t understand.  Where’s Johnny?  If you’ve hurt him I swear I’ll….”

“You’ll do nothing.  You’re not in any position to make threats.  What did you say to the sheriff?”

“Nothing.” Scott lied.  “Val’s a friend of mine.  I always stop by to say hello when I’m in town.”

“You’d better be telling the truth.  We don’t want a nosy lawman turning up at Lancer.  Now move.  We’re going back to the ranch.  Your father can explain things to you and you’d better make damn sure that no one else finds out there’s anything wrong.”

Samuels holstered his gun, satisfied that the threat to Johnny would ensure that Scott did as he was told.  As Scott and his companions rode out Val looked up in time to see the anger on his friend’s face and to notice the absence of his gun.  Sam’s arrival to tend to the wounded man distracted him but not before he had promised himself that he would look into what was going on at Lancer.

*****

Murdoch had been informed by Alan Gould that his eldest son was on his way into town accompanied by Butler and Samuels.  After telling the man to get the hell out of his house he tried to still his growing anxiety.  He could think of no good reason for Scott to be riding into Green River and the fact that his son had, in effect, been under escort on his way there, increased his fear for his family.

He paced around the great room until he heard the sound of horses.  The heavy front door was flung open to admit his highly agitated son.  He covered the distance between them rapidly and gripped Scott’s arms.  “You need to settle down.”  He shook his son slightly.  “Please, this is important.”

Murdoch looked toward Butler for permission to speak.  “Johnny is in danger.  If we don’t do exactly what these men say they are going to kill him.”

Scott looked pleadingly at his father.  “What’s going on?  Why are they here and where are they holding Johnny?”

“I need to you to read a letter I received a couple of weeks ago.  It’ll explain why this is happening.  As for your brother – I wish I knew where he is but the truth is that I have no idea.  All I know is that these men turned up yesterday afternoon and that they had Johnny’s gunbelt.”

Up to that moment Scott had been hoping that it was all a bluff and that Johnny was safe.  For them to have Johnny’s gunbelt meant that his brother was either their prisoner or dead.  He refused to allow his mind to dwell upon the possibility that Johnny had been killed.

Murdoch released Scott’s arms and crossed to his desk.  Unlocking the drawer he withdrew the envelope and handed it to his son.  Scott pulled out and unfolded the letter making an effort to still the shaking of his hands.  He read the words with mounting disbelief before glaring at his father.  “You agreed to this?  How could you do something like this without discussing it?  It’s your fault Johnny’s been kidnapped.  If anything happens to him I hope you can live with yourself.”

*****

Johnny had woken from his last enforced sleep to find that he had been moved from the floor to one of the cots and that he was being guarded by half a dozen men, not just the one he had already had the misfortune to meet.

His wrists were tied to the headboard but his ankles were free giving him some scope for movement.  It was only marginally more comfortable than his previous resting place on the floor.  For a time no one paid any attention to him which suited him just fine.  He suspected that he was still on Lancer and probably not too far away from the hacienda but beyond that he had no idea where he was.  The ranch was littered with abandoned mines, a legacy from the days of the California gold rush.

Try as he might he couldn’t imagine what it was his captors wanted his father to do.  He wondered if Scott was all right and if he knew what was going on.  Despite his own precarious situation his worry was more for his family than for himself.  If they needed him as a hostage his life wasn’t likely to be in any immediate danger.

His stomach rumbled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten for some time. He had no idea how much time had passed since he left the house.  It could be the same day or the next day for all he knew.

His arm was throbbing painfully and he had the unpleasant feeling that he was developing a fever.  That would pretty much be the icing on the cake!  He groaned as he saw his least favourite person approaching carrying a plate and a cup which he dumped on the mattress beside Johnny.

“You learnt your lesson yet boy?”  The man growled at him.

“What lesson?” The tone was insolent.

“The one where you’re punished if you act up or mouth off.”

Johnny stared the man down before answering quietly.  “Yeah.  You’ve made your point.”

He was surprised when the man reached over and started removing the rope from around his left wrist.  “I’m gonna let you sit up to eat.  Give me any trouble and you won’t enjoy it next time I decide to feed you.”

Once his wrist was released Johnny pushed himself into a more upright position.  He had to wait for an unpleasantly long interval before the feeling returned to his hand and arm.  “How long’re you gonna keep me here?”

“A couple of days and then you’re coming with us when we leave.”

Johnny took a moment to digest that information.  “Are my family all right?”

The man scowled.  “How would I know?  I’m stuck here looking after you.  Now shut up and eat before I change my mind.”

Johnny’s hunger overcame his reservations and he ate the food, which was no better, and no worse than he had eaten many times on the trail.  He picked up the cup and sniffed at the contents suspiciously.  If they wanted to drug him again they were going to have a fight on their hands.  Once satisfied that it was only water he drank gratefully.

Seeing that Johnny had finished, his jailor pulled his gun and untied his right wrist, indicating that he should move further back into the mine to attend to any business he might have.  “You’ve got two minutes and don’t even think about trying anything.”

 

Even without the presence of the gun Johnny doubted if he could make much of an effort to escape.  His arms and legs felt weak, his headache hadn’t noticeably decreased and there were at least four or five men between him and freedom.

Reining in his frustration he did as he was told before being secured again to the bed.  He was fairly sure that he wasn’t going to be able to get out of this mess without some outside help.

*****

Sam arranged to have the wounded man moved to his office.  Val accompanied them and established that the wound wasn’t life threatening.  Returning to the scene of the shooting Val tried to figure out where the shot had come from.  As no one had seen anything he reckoned that the gunman had probably been on a roof and the most likely place was on top of the saloon.

Although it was still early the saloon was crowded with men discussing the excitement of the past hour.  Val fended off their questions and yelled to the bartender that he was going to take a look around upstairs.  Several of the rooms had windows that gave access to the flat roof behind the sign.  Muttering to himself he climbed through and looked down at the dust covered wooden surface.  There were boot marks in the dirt and the sun glinted off a cartridge shell that had rolled to one side.  Val picked up the shell and sniffed it, catching the unmistakable smell of cordite.

He returned downstairs to speak to the bartender, but the man denied any knowledge of who might have gone up to the roof, saying he had been mainly in the back room tidying up prior to the shooting.

Val’s next stop was the telegraph office where he sent a wire to the railroad company to find out if they had anyone in the area.  In his experience Scott Lancer wasn’t given to fanciful notions and Val hadn’t liked the look of the two men who had ridden out with him.  The fact that Scott’s gun had been missing nagged at Val.  Neither of the men with Scott had been holding a gun on him and Scott would have had plenty of opportunity to attract attention if he had wanted.  Val added it to the list of unanswered questions that Scott’s visit and the shooting had generated.  He could feel in his gut that something was wrong but he wasn’t about to make the mistake of charging off to Lancer demanding answers.

Back at his office he leafed through the wanted posters.  He had only caught a fleeting glimpse of the men with Scott and didn’t really expect to find any matches.  Half an hour later he had been through all the posters without finding anything of use.  He put on a pot of coffee and settled back to worry the problem round in his mind.

*****

Murdoch didn’t know what to say in answer to his son’s accusation.  It wasn’t a new thought – in fact it had been the first thought that had crossed his mind upon hearing of Johnny’s abduction.  He silently berated himself for the hundredth time for failing to confide in his sons and for allowing life to go on as if there was no possible danger to his family.

In truth it had never occurred to him that, if anything was going to happen, it would be ahead of the arrival of the expected delivery.  He had intended to tell Scott and Johnny what was going on slightly in advance of that time with the reassurance that there would be extra security in the form of the men guarding the wagons.  In hindsight he realised that he should have discussed the matter with them prior to agreeing to the request that he had received.

Now they were helpless to do anything but wait and hope to minimise the damage.  He was sure that Butler must have other men close by, kept out of sight until they were needed.  Johnny was likely to be near by as well; Butler wouldn’t want his hostage held too far away.  The thought that his son was hurt and helpless tore at Murdoch.  Butler had taken great delight in telling Murdoch about the bullet wound as an added incentive to co-operate and get his boy home as quickly as possible.

Butler had informed Murdoch at the outset that he didn’t intend for Scott to find out what was going on until it was too late for him to interfere.  He had only wanted to have to control one Lancer rather than two.  Murdoch blamed himself for being unable to carry through the charade without alerting his eldest son to the fact that something was wrong.  He could only hope and pray that Scott would keep his temper in check and not do anything to provoke retribution, either against himself or, more likely, against his brother.

“Do you think I would ever forgive myself if anything happened to Johnny?”  Murdoch asked quietly.  “Right now we need to focus on getting him back safely.  We can talk about why this has happened once he’s home.”

Knowing that Murdoch was right did nothing to improve Scott’s temper and he turned away from his father to confront Butler.  “I want to see my brother, you son of a bitch.”

Butler ignored Scott, turning instead to Murdoch.  “You need to control him, Lancer.  I don’t make idle threats.  If he doesn’t behave your other son will suffer.”

Infuriated, Scott swung his fist at Butler’s face only to be pulled up short by his father’s hand on his arm.  Murdoch pulled him round to face him and Scott’s anger drained away as he saw the fear and guilt on his father’s face.  He allowed his arm to fall to his side.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t like feeling helpless.”

“I know, son, but we’ll get him back.”  Murdoch pressed Scott down into a chair before moving away and giving his son a chance to compose himself.  He could understand Scott’s feelings of shock and outrage at the violation of their home and family.  Given time those feelings would transform into a cold determination to do whatever was necessary to free Johnny and bring these men to justice.

Murdoch squashed down his own urge to punch Butler.  “We won’t give you any trouble.  How much longer is this going to go on?”

“They’ll be here the day after tomorrow.  Until then you keep things all nice and normal.  If anyone comes out here, be polite and get rid of them as quickly as you can.  I’ve got some business to attend to but I’ll be leaving Gould and Reid here to keep an eye on things. Don’t try anything stupid while I’m gone because you won’t like the consequences.”

*****

An hour later Butler rode up to the entrance to the mine where Johnny was being held.  He wanted to reassure himself that everything was in hand and he needed to give his men their final instructions.  He had left Samuels a few miles down the trail to make sure that no one was following him.  He wasn’t concerned about the Lancers who had looked like beaten men when he had left the house.  He was simply a cautious man who believed in good planning and not taking any unnecessary chances.

He had done his homework, aided by information from his employer, before deciding which son to take prisoner.  The decision had been easy once he found out about Johnny’s background.  Having a former gunhawk running around loose, particularly one as well known as Johnny Madrid, wasn’t safe or sensible.  They could probably have taken him without injury but he wasn’t leaving anything to chance and Johnny was less likely to be able to mount an escape attempt if he was hurt.

He was met by Dixon, his second in command, who had been given the responsibility of containing the youngest Lancer.  “Any problems?”  Butler asked as he dismounted.

“I had to knock some of the fight out of him but he’s docile enough now.  It looks like he may be starting to run a fever so I don’t think he’ll be trying anything.  D’you want to see him?”

Butler nodded and allowed Dixon to precede him into the dim passageway.  Reaching the cavern where he had based his men, he allowed his eyes time to adjust from the bright sunshine outside.  Three men were sitting around playing cards and drinking and he assumed the other two were on sentry duty.

Johnny still lay on the cot and Butler could see that he was shivering slightly.  He felt some measure of concern but only because he needed to keep his prisoner alive for the time being.  Once the job was over he didn’t care one way or the other.

Noting the new arrival Johnny gritted his teeth and made a concerted effort to still the tremors that were running through his body.  He guessed that this was the mysterious ‘Butler’ that his captor had referred to.  He wasn’t prepared to show the man any sign of weakness.

“Have you checked his arm lately?” Butler enquired.

“Not since last night.”

“Check it out and put on a clean bandage.  We can’t have him dying on us just yet.”

Dixon moved over to the bed and reached for Johnny’s arm.  Johnny tried to pull away but the ropes around his wrists prevented much movement.  Butler could see abrasions on both wrists and bruising on the boy’s face.  His lips were swollen and encrusted with dried blood.

As Dixon grabbed his arm Johnny took hold of the ropes tethering him to the bed, pushed back for leverage and lashed out with both feet.  He caught Dixon squarely in the gut and a satisfied smile crossed his battered features as the bigger man lost his balance and crashed to the ground.

Butler had to admire Johnny’s spirit even if he seemed to be lacking in common sense.  As Dixon lurched to his feet, and Johnny braced himself for the retribution he knew was coming, Butler interposed himself between the two men.  “You can make him pay for that later.  For now we need him alive and fit to ride.  Tie his feet and check his arm.”

Dixon growled an order to one of the other men who came over and forced Johnny’s legs down against the mattress.  Johnny tried to buck the man off and received a hard blow to the face for his trouble.  He felt blood trickling from the newly reopened cut on his bottom lip. Dixon fetched a length of rope and tightly bound Johnny’s ankles together before securing them to the frame of the bed.

Johnny breathing quickened as Dixon pulled off the bandage and examined the wound.  “It doesn’t look too bad,” he reported.  “It’s just a bit red round the edges.  Pass me a bottle of whisky and a clean rag.”  He used the alcohol soaked rag to clean the inflamed area before covering the wound with a clean bandage.  His less than tender ministrations had caused beads of sweat to break out on Johnny’s forehead but he had managed not to make a sound.

Butler pulled over a chair and sat beside the bed.  He looked into the hard blue eyes of his prisoner and knew that he had made the right decision.  This man would have been real trouble if his role and Scott’s had been reversed.

“I imagine you’re wondering why you’re here.”

Johnny glared at the newcomer.  “I know you’re trying to force my old man to do something for you.  It won’t work.  Murdoch’s no better at following orders than I am.”

“He’s following them just fine and so is your brother.”

“You’d better not do anything to hurt Scott.”  The implied threat should have sounded ridiculous coming from a man in Johnny’s position but it was backed up by an air of menace and absolute certainty cultivated during five years as Johnny Madrid.

“I have no reason to hurt Scott.  If he gives me any problems I’ll just come back here and hurt you.”

If Butler had been hoping that threat would quench the fire raging in Johnny’s heart he was to be disappointed.  No hint of fear crossed Johnny’s face.

“What is it you want Murdoch to do anyway?”

Butler could see no harm in telling the young man his plan so he leant forward and started to explain.

*****

Val read the reply from the railroad company and considered what to do about it.  He was convinced that there was trouble at Lancer and, knowing Johnny, he was probably mixed up in it somehow.  He decided to take the problem to Sam Jenkins.  Someone needed to go out to the ranch and get a feel for what was going on.  As sheriff his presence might only serve to make matters worse but Sam, if he was willing to go, could visit without arousing suspicion.

It was early evening before Sam had time to talk to him and Val explained his concerns over a glass of Sam’s whisky.  “I hate to ask you to do this but I can’t risk goin’ myself.”

“I know you wouldn’t ask if you weren’t worried but, so far, it all seems a little circumstantial.”

Val ran his fingers through his untidy hair and sighed.  “I know that and I hope I’m wrong.  You gotta understand doc, Johnny and Scott are good friends and Murdoch Lancer’s been good to me too; he helped me keep my job at the last election.  If there is something wrong, and I sit back and do nothin’, I’m gonna have a hard time livin’ with myself.”

“I know how you feel, Val.  Murdoch and I have been friends for years and his sons are fine young men.”  Sam took a sip of his drink and made up his mind.  “I’ll take a trip out there in the morning.  Murdoch’s back’s been playing him up a bit recently so I can use that as my excuse.”

“Thanks, I appreciate you doin’ this.  If somethin’ don’t feel right you get out of there as fast as you can.”

*****

Scott had another disturbed night that simply served to increase his exhaustion, anxiety and anger.  After breakfast Butler told him to stay close to the house, not wanting the young man out of sight of his men.  Scott had been on the point of protesting when Jelly arrived to say that work needed to be done on the guard house roof and that his old bones weren’t up to climbing ladders and crawling across slates.  Scott had volunteered to assist, needing something to try and take his mind off his missing brother.

Taking out his temper on the nails was therapeutic, although Scott would rather have taken the hammer to Butler’s head.  He kept an eye on the house to make sure that none of the men went near Teresa and Maria, being conscious the whole time that he was being watched by at least one of those men.

*********

Butler hadn’t returned for supper the previous evening, something that Scott had counted as a blessing.  He wasn’t sure he could have sat down to a meal with the man knowing what he had planned and that he was responsible for his brother’s disappearance.  He and Murdoch had done their best to act normally so as not to worry Teresa and had then retired to the great room for several large glasses of brandy to fortify their nerves.

The fiery liquid worked to reduce the tension in Scott’s shoulders and he relaxed somewhat into the comfort of the chair.  He cast a sidelong look at his father who was staring with unfocussed eyes at a point above the fireplace.  Scott was still angry with Murdoch, but he could also see the toll that Butler’s actions had taken on his father, and he regretted his earlier outburst.

“I spoke to Val when I was in town this morning.”  Scott’s announcement shattered the silence between them.

Murdoch sat up straight, alarmed by the news.  “What did you tell him?”

“Not much.  I’d not been there long when there was a shooting.  My guess is that Butler set that up to get Val and I out of his office.”  His next words were so soft that Murdoch had to strain to hear them.  “Bobby Wainwright got shot.  God, Murdoch, what sort of men would shoot an innocent bystander as a diversion?”

“How badly was he hurt?”

“He got shot in the leg.  It didn’t look too bad but it’ll put him out of action for a while.  It was my fault.  If I’d just trusted you and not gone into town…..”

“And if I’d told you and Johnny what I’d agreed to maybe none of this would have happened.  Now isn’t the time for self recrimination.  We can offer help to the Wainwright family once this is all over.”

Silence settled between them again as each man became lost in his own thoughts.

“Do you think he’s all right?”

Murdoch had no doubt to whom Scott was referring.  “They need him alive and mobile so I’m sure he’s fine.”  He had decided against telling Scott that his brother had been shot; considering his eldest son’s present state of mind that would have been counter productive.  Murdoch was intent upon limiting the damage but once they got Johnny back there would be nowhere on earth that Butler could hide to evade an aggrieved father’s retribution.

********

Scott continued to hammer aggressively at the nails as his thoughts ran round in circles.  He and Murdoch had spent hours trying to find a way out of the impasse in which they found themselves.  The bottom line was that as long as Butler and his men held Johnny there was nothing they could do.

The sun was climbing higher in the sky as Scott wearily threw down the hammer and returned to solid ground to take a long drink of water.  He poured some of the cold water over his head, shivering slightly as it ran down the back of his neck. He could see that Jelly was regarding him with suspicion.

“What’s got into you today?”  The old handyman asked.  “Iffen you hit those nails any harder you’re gonna bring the roof down.”

“Sorry, Jelly.  I’ve just got a lot on my mind.”  Scott was distracted by the sound of an approaching buggy and almost groaned aloud when he saw it was Sam.  The last thing they needed was for anyone to visit, particularly someone who knew them all so well.  It wasn’t unusual for Sam to stop by if he was in the area but Scott wished his timing had been better.

Putting the top back on his canteen he walked over to greet the elderly doctor.  “Morning Sam.  What brings you all the way out here?”

Sam set the brake on the buggy and wrapped the reins around it.  He climbed down and collected his bag from the seat.  “I thought I’d see how Murdoch’s back’s doing.  Has he had any more problems?”  Sam cast an expert eye over the young man in front of him.  Scott looked tired and there were stress lines around his mouth.  His normally direct gaze was evasive and he kept his head down, much as his brother did when he had something to hide.

A smartly dressed man that he didn’t recognise strolled over and Sam saw Scott tense up.  “Um, Sam, this is Nate Butler.  He works for the railroad.  Mr Butler, this is Sam Jenkins, our local doctor.”

Sam held out his hand in greeting, somewhat surprised that Scott hadn’t said anything about him being a friend of the family.  “Are you staying at Lancer, Mr Butler?”

“Indeed I am.  Murdoch has been most hospitable.”  Butler could feel Scott seething with suppressed anger.  “I believe Murdoch is indoors.  Why don’t I accompany you?  I know that Scott has a lot of work to do.”  The dismissal was clear and Scott knew that if he stayed there any longer he would do or say something that he, or more likely, his brother would regret.  With a nod of farewell to Sam he returned to work.

Entering the house Sam saw the same tension on Murdoch’s face as the elder Lancer rose to greet him.  “Sam, this is unexpected.  Can I offer you some coffee?”

“No thank you.  I can’t stay long.  I just wanted to see if you have had any more trouble with your back.”  Sam sat down and looked up at the tall rancher.

“Nothing I can’t handle.”  Murdoch forced himself to make conversation.  “How’re things in town?”

“We had some excitement there yesterday.  Bobby Wainwright was shot in the street in broad daylight.  No one saw anything and Val’s clean out of leads.”

“Is he going to be ok?”  Murdoch asked anxiously.

“Fortunately it was just a flesh wound.  He’ll be up and around in no time.”  Sam was conscious of Nate Butler hovering just in the background and decided to take a chance.  “I saw Scott outside.  You’ve obviously been working him hard, he was looking tired.  Been a while since I saw Johnny.  I hope that boy’s keeping out of trouble.”

The pause was just a heart beat too long.  “He’s fine, Sam.  He going to be in Stockton for a few days.  I’ll make sure he comes by to see you when he gets back.”

“Well, if you’re sure your backs ok, I’ll be on my way.”  Sam stood up and prepared to leave.  “Pleasure to meet you Mr Butler.  I can find my own way out Murdoch.”

Sam’s hands were shaking as he climbed back into his buggy.  Glancing around he saw a couple of men he didn’t recognise and only one or two of the Lancer hands.  He spotted Scott and Jelly working on the guard house and could think of no reason for them to be spending so much energy on a long disused building.  With a mental nod of approval for Val’s suspicious nature he drove his team away from the hacienda.

From the shadow of the porch Butler watched the doctor leave.  Unaware of how close Sam was to the Lancers he was happy that the visit had gone off without any problems.  He allowed himself a satisfied smirk as he considered what was to happen over the next few days and the wealth that would be his at the end of it.

*****

Since Butler’s visit, and his enthusiastic recital of his plans, Johnny had been a model prisoner.  He had been stunned by the ingenious plot and had to admit that it stood a fair chance of success.  The only thing that could sabotage the scheme was for him to escape and make it safely back to Lancer.

He was still running a slight fever but it hadn’t worsened since Dixon had started taking care of his wound.  If he was going to have any chance to escape he needed to regain his strength. Dixon was clearly suspicious of Johnny’s change of attitude and appeared to be upset that Johnny was no longer giving him any excuse to beat the living daylights out of him.  Johnny was looking forward to having the opportunity to return the favor and doing some serious damage of his own.

Food and water were provided at appropriate intervals after which Johnny was allowed a few minutes privacy.  These were the only times that he was untied and, so far, he hadn’t been confident enough of his abilities to try anything.  The darkness of the mine was disorientating but Butler had told him enough for him to make a rough guess at the time.  He reckoned that he had a little breathing space in which to recover before it would become critical for him to make his escape attempt.  He got as comfortable as possible and closed his eyes.

*****

Val was impatiently pacing around his small office as he waited for Sam to return from Lancer.  It had been hard for the sheriff to entrust the task to the elderly doctor and he had to keep pushing away visions of Sam being hurt, or worse yet, killed.

At intervals of roughly five minutes he would pull open the door and step out onto the boardwalk to glance anxiously up and down the street.  He was aware of the curious stares being directed his way and couldn’t have cared less.

The telegram from the railroad company had confirmed that they had no one working in the San Joaquin Valley.  That, in and of itself, didn’t mean the men at Lancer were up to no good but it did give grounds for further investigation.

He heaved a sigh of relief as he saw Sam approaching in his buggy during one of his forays into the street.  He hopped from one foot to the other, unable to keep still, as he waited for Sam to pull up and dismount.  He hustled the doctor into his office and locked the door.

“Well?” he asked impatiently.

Sam sat down, considered asking Val for a cup of coffee and rejected the idea.  He had too much respect for his stomach.  “Something is definitely wrong.  I saw Murdoch and Scott.  They were both on edge and neither looked like they’d slept much recently.  I didn’t see any sign of Johnny and got the story about him being in Stockton.

“Scott introduced me to a man called Nate Butler and said he was with the railroad which we know isn’t true.  There were some men hanging around who are probably with Butler.  The strange thing was there weren’t many of the hands around.  I saw Jelly working with Scott on the guard house, and a couple of others, but they were too far away for me to see who they were.”

“I think I’ll take a ride out and see if I can find any of the other men; maybe Cipriano or Frank’ll know something.”  Val stopped in the act of buckling on his gunbelt.  “Did you say the guard house?  What are they wasting their time on that old place for?”

“I don’t know, Val, but Lancer felt like a place under siege.  Butler all but ordered Scott away from me and Scott was like a coiled rattler while that man was nearby. Butler was also in the room all the time I was talking to Murdoch.  I can only think of one reason why Scott and Murdoch would be deferring to that man.”

Val’s heart sank even though Sam was only confirming his own worst fears.  “He’s got Johnny.”

Sam nodded. “That would be my guess but it it’s right how do we find him?”

“By keeping an eye on the house.  They can’t be holding him there or Scott would have known, so this Butler character will have to keep in touch somehow with whoever’s holding him.  If anyone leaves the ranch I’ll trail ‘em and hope they lead me to Johnny.”  Val settled his hat on his head, adjusted his gunbelt and grabbed his rifle.  “No one threatens my friends and gets away with it.”

Sam had to smile as he watched the scruffy sheriff making his way to the livery stable.  Val may not be much to look at but he had a good heart and a fierce loyalty coupled with a far shrewder brain than most people gave him credit for.  As Sam made his way back to his buggy, he could only hope that Val was right and that he could track Johnny down before any harm could come to him.

*****

Val spent the afternoon riding cautiously around the Lancer estate trying to find one of the work crews.  It was early evening and frustration was setting in before he located one group of men who were able to direct him to where Cipriano was working.  Val caught up with Cipriano as the segundo and his men were settling down to their evening meal, and Val gratefully accepted the offer to join them.

As he explained his fears and suspicions to the large foreman he could see a cold and frightening anger developing.  Cipriano had worked for Murdoch Lancer for many years and had been honored to accept the post of segundo following Paul O’Brien’s death.  He had been one of the few men to stand by the Lancers when Day Pardee launched his attack on the ranch, and would do anything for the patron, his sons and ward.

Val asked Cipriano to pull some of his men off the work they were doing and position themselves closer to the hacienda.  He urged them to be careful – the last thing they needed was to alert Butler and his men while Johnny and the others were still in danger.

As darkness fell Val took his leave and rode off to take up a position overlooking the house.  He tethered his horse out of sight among a small stand of trees and settled as comfortably as possible on the hard ground.  Any discomfort that he might have to endure was secondary to his desire to help his friends.

*****

By the end of the day Scott and Jelly had finished the repairs.  Scott was hot and tired and shut himself in the bath house for a long soak in a tub full of cool water.  He scrubbed off the dirt and grime before ducking himself under the water to rinse off his hair.  He settled back in the water with his head leaning against the back of the tub.  The chill he felt in his bones had nothing to do with the temperature of the water.

Try as he might he couldn’t shake the feeling that his brother was hurt.  He knew Johnny wouldn’t have gone quietly and that his smart mouth was likely to have got him in further trouble.  He felt an absurd feeling of guilt.  Although he and Murdoch were prisoners as well, their incarceration was likely to be considerably more comfortable than Johnny’s and his mind flew from one scenario to the next, none of which brought him any comfort.

After half an hour he decided he couldn’t be alone with his dismal thoughts any longer.  Standing up, he allowed the water to stream from his lean body before towelling himself off and getting dressed.

He strode into the great room and stopped when he saw that Butler was there with his father.  He fought back an impulse to turn around and walk out, not wanting to give Butler any excuse to send one of his men to hurt Johnny.  Like it or not he was going to have to pretend that nothing was wrong.

It had been hard keeping the truth from Teresa, Jelly and Maria although they would find out soon enough what was going on.  Ignoring Butler he poured himself a drink and waved the bottle in the general direction of his father.  Murdoch declined the offer, wanting to keep a clear head.

“Now that you’re here, Scott, I can tell you both what will be happening tomorrow.  The rest of my men will arrive before noon.  Tomorrow morning you can tell your people what is happening – by then it won’t matter.  Make sure the women stay out of the way – you wouldn’t want them to get hurt.  The men can be locked in the bunkhouse.  It’s important that they understand the consequences of interfering with my plans.”

“What about Johnny?  We’ve only your word that he’s still alive.  I want to see my brother.”  Scott’s hatred for the man was oozing from every pore and Murdoch’s concern grew.  If Scott could not control his temper the consequences were unthinkable.

“He’ll stay where he is, under guard, until everything is in my control and then he’ll be brought back here.  If you behave I might let you both see him. He’ll accompany us when we leave to make sure we’re not followed.  It’ll be up to you to make sure no one gets suspicious until we’re well away from here. When the wagons arrive you two will go out to meet them. Have the cargo put in the guard house over night.  As soon as the wagons have been unloaded my men will spring the trap.

“Don’t get any ideas about playing the hero.  I know about your Army career and I also know how close you are to Johnny.”  Butler looked directly at Scott.  “Unless the man holding Johnny gets a message from me by a specific time he will kill your brother.  There is too much at stake for me to take any chances of you jeopardising this plan.  Do you understand?”

Murdoch frowned thoughtfully.  How much did this man know about his family and where had he gotten the information?  The other burning question, of course, was how he knew about the shipment.  So far as Murdoch was aware, he had been one of only a select handful of people who knew of it and of what was being transported.

Scott was feeling sick to his stomach but he managed a curt nod to show that he would comply.  Having lost his appetite Scott set his glass down on the table and got up to leave.  He was stopped in his tracks by Butler’s hand clamping down on his arm.

“Teresa is expecting you for supper.  It wouldn’t do to disappoint her.”

Scott tried, unsuccessfully, to free himself.  “Go to hell. I….”  He shut his mouth hastily as he saw Teresa hovering in the doorway leading from the kitchen.  She had a shocked look on her face and a hand over her mouth.

Murdoch pushed himself to his feet and went to put his arm around Teresa’s waist.  “Scott and Mr Butler were just discussing politics and I’m afraid it got a little out of hand.  Scott, I believe you owe our guest and Teresa an apology.”  Murdoch silently begged his son to make matters right.

Nate Butler smiled and released Scott’s arm.  “Don’t worry about it, Murdoch.  If you’ll excuse me for a few minutes I’m just going to have a word with my men before supper.  I’ll be back shortly.”  He could see the panic stricken look on Scott’s face as he tried to decide whether or not his outburst was going to cost his brother additional pain.

Scott waited as long as he dared while Butler challenged him to stand his ground. “I’m sure your men are fine, Mr Butler.  I apologise for my rudeness.  Teresa, I’m sorry if my language offended you.”  Scott held his breath while he waited for Butler’s response.

“Apology accepted.  I do believe that Maria has started to serve supper.  Shall we sit down?”  Butler revelled in the knowledge that he held complete power over the Lancer family as he watched Murdoch and Scott obediently making their way to the table.

*****

Johnny had slept for most of the day and he woke up feeling much better.  He had fought off the fever that had been bothering him for the last twenty four hours.  His arm was sore but manageable and his head had cleared.  He kept his eyes closed as he listened to the men talking.  From their conversation he gathered that it was evening and that all but Dixon were to move out early the next morning.  Johnny had hoped to make his escape before they converged on Lancer but only having one guard to deal with was certainly more in his favor.

He heard footsteps approaching the cot from his left, turned his head and opened his eyes.  Dixon glowered down at him suspiciously.

“You’re not fooling me, boy.  I know your reputation and I’m sure you’re planning something.  Mr Butler has left me some sleeping powders and I’m gonna see you take them before the rest of the men leave in the morning.  You can’t get up to any mischief if you’re asleep.”

Johnny’s heart sank.  It appeared he was going to have to do it the hard way and take on six men.  His irrepressible sense of adventure took over and he grinned – it wouldn’t be the first time.  He saw Dixon’s scowl deepen in response.  He tried to make himself more comfortable with only limited success.  His arms and shoulders ached from being bound for so long and the rough ropes had rubbed his wrists raw.  His ankles were still tied together and his feet had gone blessedly numb..

When the food was ready Dixon untied Johnny’s feet and left wrist, allowing him to sit up.  He stretched the kinks out of his spine and then looked around intently while he ate.  He marked the position of each of the men.  Four of the six men were visible.  He suspected that the other two were acting as lookouts.

The men all wore sidearms.  Although none of the rigs were as low slung as his he wasn’t about to make any assumptions about how fast they were.   There were a couple of rifles lying up against the wall but he discounted them.  They would be of limited use in such a confined space.

Dixon was standing only a few feet away from him with his arms folded.  The other three men were sitting on chairs around the small fire, paying no attention to him.  Assuming that Dixon followed the normal routine he would be completely untied after his meal and escorted further back into the passageway.  On his way back he would have to pass the men and that would be his chance to grab a gun and make his getaway.

He pushed away his building excitement and reached  into the calm place he went to before a gunfight. He set his empty plate and cup on the floor and looked expectantly at his jailor.   Dixon unfolded his arms, drew his gun and came over to untie the rope around Johnny’s right wrist.  He indicated that Johnny should precede him and encouraged him to hurry up by pressing the muzzle of his gun against Johnny’s spine.

On his way back Johnny stumbled slightly, throwing Dixon off balance and into a collision with the wall.  He made a lunge for one of the men sitting by the fire, barging into the chair and sending the man hurtling to the floor.  Johnny’s right hand snaked out and snagged the man’s gun before he turned on his heels and sprinted for the opening.

He could hear raised voices behind him and rock splintered close to his head as someone fired.  The narrow tunnel twisted and turned, preventing his pursuers from taking a clean shot at him.  His heart was hammering in his chest and his lungs were almost at bursting point when he saw the opening ahead of him.  Without a thought in his head but getting out of there he raced out into the fresh air.  Before he could do more than take in some gulping breaths he heard a rifle being cocked, causing him to slow his headlong flight.  He could see some rocks a hundred yards or so ahead of him.  If he could reach them he would have enough cover from which to return fire.

“Stop right there Lancer, and drop the gun.”  The voice came from behind him and to the right.

Still intent upon flight Johnny rapidly reconsidered when a bullet hit the ground a few feet from him.  “The next one goes in your leg,” the voice continued, chilling in its lack of emotion.

He slid to a stop, his breathing harsh and uneven, bowed his head in defeat and let the gun slide from his hand.  Rough hands spun him around and held him still.   He saw Dixon advancing on him, a jagged cut down one cheek from where he’d made contact with the wall.  Johnny summoned up his best ‘Madrid’ glare to mask the crushing disappointment he felt.  He knew he wasn’t going to get a second chance.

Dixon pulled out a kerchief and dabbed at the bleeding cut as he locked eyes with his prisoner.  “Figured you’d try that sooner or later.  That’s why I had Jed waiting out here.”

“I’m glad I didn’t disappoint you.  I’m only sorry I underestimated your intelligence.”  Johnny figured he was in for some pain whatever happened so he might as well get in some insults while he had the chance.  He could just hear one of Scott’s lectures now!  That got him to wondering how his father and brother were holding up, which just depressed him further.

To his surprise, and relief, Dixon didn’t seem inclined to punish him physically – at least not yet.  Despite his lack of co-operation he was dragged  inside and tied back up to the cot.  He watched with detached interest as Dixon poured a cup of water, opened a small bag, and added some powder to it.

Dixon brought over the cup and instructed one of his men to hold Johnny’s head still.  Johnny clenched his teeth and kept his mouth tightly closed.  He grunted as Dixon’s fist connected with his solar plexus.  The next blow caused him to open his mouth to gasp for air.  Dixon took hold of his jaw and poured the liquid into his mouth.  He felt as if he was drowning as the drugged water cascaded down his throat.  He managed to cough some of it up but he knew it was a losing battle.  As the flow of water continued he could feel the drug dulling his senses.  His limbs became heavy and it suddenly seemed too much of an effort to fight.  Dixon grinned in satisfaction as the vivid blue eyes became unfocussed and then closed.

*****

Scott stood quietly in the doorway leading to the kitchen watching as Teresa and Maria cleared up the dishes from breakfast.  Butler had decided that it was time to let everyone know what was going on.  Scott had asked to be the one to collect the women, not wanting them to be any more frightened than was necessary.  He wanted the day to be over without bloodshed and for Johnny to be returned home.  He needed the reassurance of seeing his brother alive, even if the plan then was to take him as a hostage when Butler and his men moved on.  Well Scott had his own views on that and was prepared to beg Butler to take him instead; Johnny had been through enough and deserved the comfort and safety of his own home.  ‘Safety!’ Scott almost choked on the thought.  There had been no safety for any of them at Lancer since his fathers ill thought out acceptance of the request made of him.

He cleared his throat causing Teresa to spin round, dropping the plate she had been holding.  His eyes followed the path of the plate as it fell end over end until it smashed on the tiled floor.  Tears sprang to Teresa’s eyes and she stifled a sob.  She bent down to start cleaning up the smashed crockery as Scott hurried to her side and took her in his arms.

“I’m sorry I startled you.  Murdoch wants to speak to us.”

Teresa clung tightly to him and buried her face in his shirt.  “I’m afraid.”  Her words were muffled by the material.

“It’ll be all right.  Don’t worry; nothing bad is going to happen to you.” He stroked her dark hair and tightened his grip on her slender waist.   “Murdoch’s waiting.  Maria, you need to come as well.”  Keeping an arm around Teresa’s waist, Scott led them into the great room.  He sat Teresa down on the sofa and was pleased to note that Maria sat next to her, taking the girl’s hand and squeezing it reassuringly.

Murdoch stood in front of his desk with Butler standing beside him.  Butler’s men were spread out around the room carrying rifles.  Jelly, Juan and Hector had been herded off to one side.  Satisfied that Maria would look after Teresa, Scott went to stand on the other side of his father.  Whatever he might feel about his father’s decision he wasn’t going to give Butler the satisfaction of witnessing any dissention on his part.

Nate Butler stepped forward, barely suppressing his anticipation.  “Mr Lancer has some information for you.  It is important that you do exactly as he tells you.”  He turned to look at Murdoch, who looked back expressionlessly.

“These men have invaded our home.  They are very dangerous but they will be gone soon and my only concern is to see that no one is hurt while they are here.  A few weeks ago I received a letter from an old friend of mine.  He is the Governor of the United States Mint in Carson City.  He had been ordered to deliver a quantity of gold bullion to the Mint in San Francisco.  He asked if his men could stop at Lancer for a day or so to rest and carry out any repairs to the wagons.  He thought the gold would be safer here than in a bank as no one would be expecting it to be kept on private property.

“He has visited Lancer in the past and knew about the guard house.  He suggested that the gold could be stored in there.  For security reasons he asked that I say nothing about this, even to my sons, until nearer the time.”  Murdoch cast an apologetic glance toward Scott who stared back expressionlessly.  “However, it appears that word got out, and it is the intention of Mr Butler and his men to ambush the guards and steal the gold.

“He has more men arriving later this morning.  We are to let the wagons be unloaded without arousing suspicion.  If we do anything to alert the guards…..”  Murdoch hesitated and looked around the room.  “They are holding Johnny as a hostage.  If we do anything wrong they’ll kill him.”

There were mixed looks of anger and disbelief on the faces of his family and friends.  Jelly stepped forward, ignoring the armed men in the room.  “How can you be so sure they’ve got him?  That boy’s tricky.  He could be holed up somewheres just waiting for the right time to come home.”

“I wish that were true, Jelly, but I believe them.”  Murdoch walked round his desk, opened the top drawer and lifted out Johnny’s gunbelt.  He saw Jelly’s look of disappointment.  Everyone knew that there was only one way to part Johnny from his rig and that was to take it by force.

Scott held out his hand and took the gunbelt from his father.  He traced the tooling on the leather, obscurely grateful to have something tangible to remind him of his brother.

Butler stepped forward again and all eyes followed him.  “Samuels, I want you to lock the men in the bunkhouse.  Just remember,” he looked at the three men, “you try anything and Johnny is the one who’ll suffer and I’m sure you don’t want to be responsible for that.”

Before he could turn his attention to Teresa and Maria, Murdoch spoke up.  “The women will be safe and out of the way in Teresa’s room.  You have my word that they won’t interfere in any way but I want them left alone.”

Butler considered this and then nodded.  So long as they weren’t in the way he wasn’t too worried about them.  He was confident that they wouldn’t do anything to put Johnny in danger.

Scott walked over to the sofa and helped Teresa to stand up.  She was shaking and crying quietly but still managed to give Butler a defiant look.  Maria’s look of contempt would have curdled milk.  Scott felt hugely proud of both of them.  “I’ll get them settled in Teresa’s room.”  He told Butler, half expecting to be told to stay where he was.  He was surprised when all he got was a nod of dismissal.

As he escorted the women from the room he saw Butler’s men pushing Jelly and the two ranch hands at gun point toward the front door.

*****

Val had spent a very uncomfortable night dozing uneasily and keeping his ears open for any activity.  For the last couple of hours he had been lying on his stomach watching the house and courtyard.  He could see some comings and goings but was too far away to see any details.  The rumble of approaching horses vibrated up from the ground.  He wriggled backwards until he was in the shade of the trees where he had tethered his horse.  Standing up, he caught the horse’s reins and soothed it to keep it quiet.

He saw five men riding in the direction of the hacienda.  Even from a distance he could tell that he didn’t know any of the men.  He was disappointed not to see a familiar palomino and its rider and he had no means of establishing quickly where the men had come from.  He decided to sit tight and await developments.

*****

Dixon had sent his men on their way not long after daybreak.  Johnny had only roused once during the night and it had been an easy task to force more of the sleeping draught on him.

“Make sure that Mr Butler sends me word as soon as it’s done,” he instructed his men, still rankling at the orders that kept him babysitting their prisoner rather than taking an active part in the ambush.  If their hostage had been anyone but Johnny Madrid he could have entrusted the task to one of his men, but Butler wasn’t prepared to leave anything to chance.

He consoled himself with the knowledge that he was about to become richer than he had ever dreamed possible.

*****

Scott retreated to his room for a little while after the arrival of the remainder of Butler’s men.  Butler was engrossed in giving them their final instructions and seemed to be prepared to leave the Lancers to their own devices until he needed them.  He sat on his bed and studied his brother’s gunbelt before setting it on the table by the window.  He would see that it was returned to Johnny at the first opportunity.

A yell from outside heralded the sighting of the wagons.  He heard his father calling his name and went downstairs to meet him.  Butler had his men well concealed.  He was waiting in the entrance hall with Murdoch.

“You both know what you have to do.  If you start anything my men will shoot and you’ll be responsible not only for Johnny’s death but also for a bloodbath.  It is in everyone’s best interests for this to go exactly according to plan.  I’ll be here listening to what’s said, so just be calm and careful, and you’ll have nothing to worry about.”

With a last look of loathing at Butler, Murdoch and Scott collected their hats and stepped out into the bright sunshine.  It was mid afternoon and the courtyard was stiflingly hot with not a breath of air to provide any relief.  They looked toward the driveway and saw two large, heavily laden, and fortified wagons being escorted by six outriders.

Murdoch shielded his eyes to get a better look at the man leading the small convoy.  He exclaimed in surprise as the man got close enough for him to make out his features.  “That’s Josiah Prentiss.”

Scott looked at him curiously.  “The man who wrote to you?  Why would the governor be travelling with the gold?”

“I’m not sure.  Whatever happens we have to make sure that he isn’t hurt.  He’s been a good friend to me these last fifteen years.”

As the wagons entered the courtyard and Josiah called out in greeting, Scott studied the guards.  There was something about them which he couldn’t quite put his finger on.  They were dirty and unshaven, clothes filthy from being on the road for so long, but there was something about the way they rode, and the look in their eyes, that intrigued him.  He almost caught a glance of recognition from one of the men before being distracted by his father.

“Scott, this is Josiah Prentiss.  Josiah, this is my eldest son, Scott.”

Scott took the man’s hand and shook.  “We weren’t expecting you Mr Prentiss.”  The governor looked to be about Murdoch’s age although he was smaller in stature.  His sandy colored hair was receding and his grey eyes sparkled with intelligence and laughter.

“I have business in San Francisco and decided to ride with the gold.  Murdoch, I’m grateful to you for agreeing to my request.  Perhaps my men could start unloading the gold and getting settled.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Scott informed his father and strode over to where the guards were dismounting.  As he was showing them where to put the gold, conscious all the time of the many pairs of hidden eyes watching him, Murdoch was escorting his friend into the house.

“I expect you could do with a cool drink.  I’ll get some lemonade.  Sit down and make yourself at home.”

Murdoch walked into the kitchen, laid his hands on the table, and took several deep breaths to calm himself.  He hoped that Scott was holding up ok, although his last look at his eldest son’s face had told him that Scott had his emotions ruthlessly under control.

He gathered up a pitcher of lemonade, and three glasses, and returned to the great room.  “It’s been a long time, Josiah.  Have you been keeping well?”

“I’ve been just fine, Murdoch.  And you must be delighted to have your sons home.  Where’s your youngest boy?”

“He….he’s away on business for a few days.”

“What a pity.  I was hoping to meet him.”  Prentiss accepted a glass of lemonade and drank the cool liquid gratefully.  “It must have been quite a shock to discover that your long lost son was Johnny Madrid.”

Murdoch frowned for a moment.  “I don’t recall telling you that.  Johnny is a Lancer, whatever name he might have chosen to go by in the past.”  He became aware that Scott had joined them and handed him a glass.

“I didn’t mean any offence.  People talk, you know that.  Word got back to me about Johnny’s past that’s all.”

“I’m sorry; I’m a bit on edge.  It’s not every day that a large shipment of gold ends up on Lancer.”

Prentiss chuckled.  “I can understand the apprehension.  This is by far the largest amount of gold to be moved from Carson City to San Francisco.”

“Do you mind me asking how much you are transporting?”  Scott asked before taking a long drink of his lemonade and wishing it were something stronger.

“Two point five million dollars.”

Scott and Murdoch looked at each other in shock.  No wonder Butler was so determined to pull off this robbery.  If either of them had had any doubt before that Butler would carry through on his threats those doubts evaporated in the face of so much wealth.

Footsteps could be heard approaching the great room from the direction of the staircase.  Nate Butler rounded the corner, entered the great room and smiled.  “Mr Prentiss – nice to see you again.  Everything’s in place.  We’re just waiting for you to give us the word.”

*****

Murdoch stared uncomprehendingly at his one time friend.  Josiah Prentiss smiled before standing up and moving away to speak to Butler.  Scott recovered his wits first and, taking his father’s arm, led him to a chair.  Murdoch sank down, still gazing fixedly at Prentiss.

All of Scott’s anger and resentment at the threat to his family bubbled to the surface.  “You set us up.  You and Murdoch have been friends for years.  How could you do this to him?”

“Two point five million dollars in gold is a powerful motivator.”  Prentiss smirked, enjoying the look of impotent rage on the young man’s face.

“But why involve Lancer?  There are other ways you could have gone about this.”  Scott persisted.

Prentiss sat down, with Butler taking up position behind the chair.  “This was the safest way from our point of view.  That amount of gold is very heavy and difficult to transport.  We’ve been storing it in bank vaults overnight up to now.  Had my men tried to steal it from a bank they would have either been shot or arrested before even getting a fraction of it loaded on the wagons.  If they had ambushed the wagons out in the open they may have been driven off and that wasn’t a risk I was prepared to take.  This way the guards will have no advance warning of the attack and we don’t need to worry about nosy sheriffs or civic minded citizens getting in our way.”

“Surely someone will miss the gold tomorrow when it doesn’t turn up where it’s supposed to?  That won’t give you much of a head start.”  Scott was still furiously trying to understand the implications.

“Actually no one will realise anything’s wrong for several days.  I wired the Mint in San Francisco before we left this morning to say that we were staying in the last town for a few days to make repairs to one of the wagons.  No one else knows that I was planning on bringing the gold here and you’ll all keep your mouths shut and do exactly as you’re told if you want to get Johnny back alive.”

The reference to his youngest son brought Murdoch out of the deep shock he had been feeling.  Moving faster than Scott would ever have expected he leapt up from his chair and crossed the short distance to where Prentiss was sitting.  Murdoch wrapped his large hands around Prentiss’s throat and began to squeeze the life out of the man.

Scott yelled at his father before grabbing Murdoch’s wrists and trying to pry his hands away from Prentiss.  Prentiss himself was frantically scrabbling at Murdoch’s fingers while gasping for breath and turning purple from lack of oxygen.  Scott pleaded with his father to let go, to think of Johnny, but nothing could penetrate Murdoch’s blind rage.

Butler drew his gun and struck it against the side of Murdoch’s head, drawing blood.  He had to hit the rancher a second time before Murdoch released his hold.  He staggered backwards, appalled by what he had just done.  He raised a shaking hand to his forehead and then looked in disbelief at the blood staining his fingers.

Butler holstered his gun and poured some more lemonade, which he passed to Prentiss.  The banker’s face was twisted in a mixture of pain and fury.   He grimaced as he tried to force the cool liquid down his bruised throat.  It took several minutes before he could speak and even then it was only in a whisper.

“Once we have control of the gold I want those two tied up and locked in their rooms.  And when you send one of your men to get Johnny tell him to break two of the boy’s fingers – on his right hand.”

Scott turned pale.  “You can’t do that.  You’ve got what you came for – you don’t need to hurt him.  I swear we won’t get in your way; we’ll do anything you say just, please, don’t do this.”

Prentiss stared at Murdoch.  “You were warned.  Butler?  Make sure that Johnny understands why he’s being punished.  Sit down both of you.”  Scott opened his mouth to protest further.  “Say one more word and I’ll have Johnny’s left hand damaged as well.”

Scott shut his mouth and led his father back to his chair before taking a seat on the sofa and closing his eyes against the overwhelming despair in his heart.

*****

The unloading of the wagons was going well with most of the boxes now safely stored within the guard house.  The wagon drivers unhitched the horses and led them, as instructed previously by Scott, into the barn to rub them down and feed them.  As the two men entered the barn they were overpowered by two of Butler’s men.  After being relieved of their weapons at gunpoint they were bound, gagged and locked in the tack room.

One of the outlaws was stationed in the bunkhouse with Jelly and the other two Lancer hands.  They sat quietly on their bunks, listening to the noise filtering in from outside.  Even without the presence of the armed guard they wouldn’t have tried anything; none of the three were prepared to jeopardise Johnny’s safety.

Teresa and Maria huddled together on Teresa’s bed.  Maria had locked the door from the inside after Scott left, determined to do everything to protect the young woman from harm at the hands of these men who had dared to kidnap Juanito and threaten the family.

The last box was unloaded.  The men were hot and tired and totally unprepared for the attack.  They found themselves surrounded and outgunned and surrendered without a fight.  They were locked in the guard house with the gold and Butler stationed two of his men outside the door.

Butler looked around in satisfaction.  Everything had gone exactly to plan.  He called Samuels over.  “Go and tell Dixon that we have the gold.  We’ll be leaving tomorrow so I want the two of you to bring Johnny back here at daybreak.  Mr Prentiss has ordered that you break two fingers on his right hand and you’re to tell him that it’s because his father didn’t care enough about him to follow orders.”

Samuels smiled and nodded before heading for his horse.  He rode away from Lancer as the sun set, unaware that Val had been watching everything and was now in pursuit.

*****

Scott and Murdoch had sat unspeaking in the great room while the gold was being stolen.  Scott had tried to check his father’s head wound but Murdoch had waved him away.  Murdoch felt sick, not just from the blows to his head.  He had never lost control like that before in his life.  He hadn’t even considered the consequences and now his youngest boy was going to suffer further hurt because of him.  He wasn’t sure that he would ever be able to look Johnny in the eye and beg his forgiveness.

When Butler returned to report the success of their plan he was carrying two coils of rope.  He hauled Scott to his feet and pulled the blond’s arms behind his back.  He swiftly looped the rope around Scott’s wrists and tied them tightly together.  Scott gritted his teeth against his almost overwhelming desire to get down on his knees and beg these men not to hurt his brother.  Only the promise of further retribution kept the words penned in his throat.

Butler repeated the same procedure with Murdoch and then stood back to await further orders.

“Take Scott upstairs and lock him in.  You can come back for Murdoch in five minutes.  I want to talk to him first.”

Murdoch couldn’t watch as his eldest son was led from the room.  He could imagine how Scott felt about him.  Instead Murdoch regarded the man before him with loathing and not a little fear.  He had no doubt that Prentiss would do whatever was necessary to get away with the gold.  The silence stretched between them with Murdoch refusing to be the one to break it.

Prentiss’s right hand went up to feel the skin at his throat.  Had he looked in a mirror he would have seen the deep bruising already developing.  He was in agony every time he swallowed and his airway felt so constricted that he had to fight down a feeling of panic that he wouldn’t be able to catch his breath.

He was disappointed when Murdoch didn’t immediately start begging him not to follow through on his threat.  He had been prepared to be lenient for the sake of past friendship until Murdoch had attacked him.  Now, in addition to the gold, he wanted revenge.

“Johnny will be brought back here tomorrow morning and I’ll give you the chance to explain to him why he’s been hurt.  If you do as you’re told from this point on you’ll eventually get him back alive but, before I release him, I’m going to let Butler and his men give him a good beating.  You really shouldn’t have laid hands on me, Murdoch.”

Murdoch took a step forward.  Even though he was bound and no immediate threat Prentiss took a hasty step backwards.

“There’s something you don’t know about me, Josiah.  You have injured my son and threatened my family so I will track you down and kill you if it’s the last thing I do.  There is nowhere on this earth that you can hide from me and my sons.  Lancer takes care of its own.  You have the upper hand now and you’d better enjoy it while it lasts.  You’re a dead man.”  Murdoch spoke with calm certainty and watched as the man in front of him visibly wilted.

Prentiss began to think that perhaps he should just shoot them all and save himself the trouble of dragging along a hostage.  He quickly dismissed that appealing thought.  So far no one had been killed so there was little chance of them being hung if they were caught.  If he had Butler kill them all and someone stumbled across their bodies, pursuit would follow swiftly and any posse would be unlikely to give up the chase.  The only way they could be sure of escaping was to follow the original plan and, regrettably, that meant leaving Murdoch Lancer, and everyone associated with him, alive.

He was relieved when Butler returned to take Murdoch away.  Prentiss sank down onto a chair and tried to control the cold fingers of fear that were working their way up and down his spine.

By the time Butler returned Prentiss had poured himself a large brandy and had got himself somewhat under control.

“Those two are to be kept restrained until we leave.  I’m going to give Murdoch a few minutes with his boy just so I can watch him try and explain his actions.  Scott is not to be allowed to see his brother.  He’s to be kept under lock and key and guarded from the time Johnny gets here until the time we leave. I don’t want all three of them in the same place, it’s too risky.  Where have you placed your men?”

Butler poured himself a drink and sat down.  “I’ve got Kelly and Johnson watching the gold, Gould’s guarding the men in the bunkhouse, Reid and White are patrolling the grounds.  I’ve sent Jed Mooney up to the roof – he’s the best marksman we’ve got.  McCarthy is keeping an eye on the area around the corral.  Samuels is on his way to get Dixon and the boy.  He understands his orders.”

Prentiss took a sip of his brandy and settled back comfortably in the chair.  “I’m going to make sure Murdoch regrets attacking me.  He’ll get his boy back alive but I’m going to let Dixon beat him senseless before we dump him.”

Butler smiled.  “I’m sure Dixon will be delighted to hear that.”

*****

Val had watched the activity in the Lancer courtyard from a distance all afternoon.  Although he couldn’t see what was being unloaded from the wagons it didn’t take a genius to work it out.  It was early evening when he saw a lone rider leaving Lancer.  He mounted up and followed from a safe distance.  The man in front of him showed no caution and clearly wasn’t worried about anyone following him.  That overconfidence was going to cost him dearly.

After riding for over an hour Val realised that they were approaching a part of Lancer that was riddled with caves and old mineshafts.  Even knowing that Johnny was being held in that area Val wouldn’t have been able to track him down without his involuntary guide.

The man rode up to the entrance to a mine and dismounted, tethering his horse to a stunted bush near the opening.  Val waited until he had gone inside before dismounting himself and drawing his gun.  He waited five minutes before following the man inside.

 

Samuels called out a greeting as he entered the passageway.  As the narrow path opened out into the wider area they had been using as living space he looked toward the bed.  He noted that their prisoner was still tied securely and that he appeared to be fast asleep.  Clearly Dixon had been taking no chances.  Dixon immediately demanded a full account of the raid while pouring two cups of coffee.

“It all went like clockwork.  Mr Butler wants us back at the house tomorrow at daybreak with the boy.  You might want to wake him up.  I’ve got a message for him from Mr Prentiss.”

Dixon looked enquiringly at his companion but, before he could ask for an explanation, they both heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked.  “Make one wrong move and I’ll blow your brains out.”  Val informed them pleasantly.  “Turn around and lose the gunbelts.”  After they had complied he gestured toward two wooden props.  “I want you both to stand  facin’ one of ‘em posts.  Put your arms round ‘em.”

Val made short work of handcuffing both men with their arms around the posts so that they couldn’t move.  He holstered his gun and walked over to the bed.  His face darkened with fury as he looked at the cuts and bruises on Johnny’s face.  Johnny’s shirt had been torn in several places during his various struggles against his captors.  Bruising was clearly visible on his chest and stomach.

Val pulled out his knife and cut away the ropes tethering his friend to the bed before placing a hand on Johnny’s shoulder and shaking him.  “Johnny.  It’s Val.  Time to wake up buddy.”

When his efforts failed to have any effect he turned furiously on the two men.  “What’ve you done to him?”  His question was met with silence so he drew his gun again and pressed it against Dixon’s left cheek.

“That’s my friend you’ve been beatin’ on.  I’m not feeling right well disposed to you two right now so you’d better answer my question.”

Dixon turned his head to regard the sheriff.  “You’re a lawman.  You’re not gonna shoot us in cold blood.”

Val considered this for all of thirty seconds before reaching up and pulling off his badge.  “I ain’t a lawman now.”

*****

It didn’t take long for Dixon and Samuels to realise that Val was serious. Saving their own hides suddenly became more important than keeping secrets.  “I’ve been keeping him unconscious with sleeping powders,” Dixon informed the irate sheriff.

“How long have you been givin’ him those?”  Val queried, knowing how much Johnny hated drugs of any description.

“Since last night when he tried to escape.”  Dixon decided against telling the sheriff that Johnny had previously been dosed with laudanum.

Val wasn’t surprised to find that his friend had tried to escape; he was, however, furious at the lengths to which these men had gone to keep Johnny under wraps. The state of Johnny’s wrists told him that the young man had been kept tied up for prolonged periods, while the cuts and bruises clearly showed how badly he’d been mistreated. To drug him as well was just an added act of cruelty. “D’you know how dangerous it is to keep using those?  You’d better hope he’s ok when he wakes up.  How long since you gave him the last lot?”

Dixon had to think about that, it being hard to keep track of time in the mine.  “Couple of hours?” he said uncertainly.

Val scratched his head, thinking furiously.  “We don’t have time to let sleeping beauty wake up natural like.”  Looking around, his eyes fell on a bucket of water.  He sighed heavily, picked it up and dumped the contents over his friend.

The bitterly cold water hit Johnny, he gasped and his eyes shot open.  He groaned at the sudden pain in his head and slammed his eyes shut again, breathing heavily.

“Wake up, dammit.” Val ordered.

Hearing his friend’s voice, Johnny cautiously opened his eyes again.  “Val?  What’re you doin’ here?”  His tongue felt too big for his mouth and his speech was slurred thanks to the effect of the drug.

“What d’you think I’m doin’ here?”  Val was tired and not in the best of moods.  “I’m saving your sorry ass, that’s what.”

“Oh.”  It gradually penetrated the fog in Johnny’s mind that he was no longer tied up.  His relief was short lived as the feeling returned to his hands and feet, accompanied by severe pins and needles.  As the cold penetrated his body he began to shiver.

“Why’d you throw that water over me?” he asked with an aggrieved edge to his voice.

“You needed to wake up.  Are you finished with the damn fool questions yet?”

Johnny nodded and continued to shiver.  Cursing, Val helped him to sit up, removed the tattered remnants of his shirt and wrapped him in a blanket that he had pulled off one of the other cots.

“T…thirsty,” Johnny announced through chattering teeth.

“Well there ‘aint no water left.  I’ll get you some coffee.”

“You d….didn’t make it did you?”  Even if it meant freezing to death there was no way Johnny was going to drink any of Val’s coffee.

“No.” Val pressed the cup into Johnny’s shaking hands and helped guide it to his mouth.  Johnny winced as the hot liquid made contact with the healing cut on his lip while, at the same time, welcoming the warmth that coursed through his body.

“Can you see if you can find Barranca?  I had a jacket with me.  That’ll have to do until I get back to Lancer.”  Johnny pulled the blanket tightly across his chest as he helped himself to another cup of coffee.  He wrapped both hands gratefully around the hot cup, unable to remember the last time he had felt warm.

When Val returned he was carrying Johnny’s brown buckskin jacket but he pulled it away when Johnny reached for it.  “Gotta check you over first.”

“Don’t fuss, Val.  I’m fine.”

“You’ve got some nasty bruises on your chest and it looks to me like you got yourself shot – again.”

“Yeah, well, they just winged me.”

Johnny edged back as Val made a grab for the blanket.  “Hey, Val, ‘aint you got any decency?”

Val folded his arms and began to tap his foot.  “The sooner we do this, the sooner we can get goin’.”

Johnny had no idea how long he’d been unconscious or how far Butler’s plan had progressed.  “What time is it?”

“A bit after ten would be my guess.”

“Morning or night?”

Val was about to say what a stupid question that was when he saw the confusion in Johnny’s eyes and realised that he probably didn’t even know what day it was.  “It’s Thursday night.”

“The gold!”  Johnny leapt to his feet, losing his grip on the blanket which fell in a heap at his feet.

“It arrived this afternoon. It’s being stored in the guard house.  The men who were with the wagons have been locked up in there as well.”

Johnny grabbed Val’s arm.  “Have you seen Scott and Murdoch?  Are they ok?”

A snort from one of his prisoners attracted Val’s attention.  He advanced on the man.  “You’ve just come from the ranch.  Tell him.”

“They were in one piece when I left,” Samuels conceded, “but I have a message for Madrid.”

“It’s Lancer.”  Val backhanded the man.  “And don’t you forget it.”

“What message?”  Johnny asked quietly.

Samuels ran his tongue over his lips to see if they were bleeding. “Your daddy wasn’t so good at following orders so we were told to break the fingers of your right hand.”

Val saw the shock on Johnny’s face as he held his right hand protectively against his chest.  For a gunfighter any injury to his hand was the worst thing that could happen.  No one survived such an injury for long.  Johnny flexed his stiff fingers, causing pain to flare from his bullet wound.  He bowed his head as he considered the implications.  Would his father really have disobeyed an order knowing what the consequences would be?  Didn’t Murdoch care about his welfare?

When he raised his eyes again Val saw a world of feeling in their blue depths.  It worried the sheriff that Johnny was even considering that there might be some truth in the man’s statement.  Murdoch Lancer loved both his sons to distraction and would do anything to keep them safe.  Perhaps Johnny had been let down so often in the past that he didn’t understand that.  Val was just about to say something when he saw Johnny’s expression clear.

“I told your boss that none of us Lancers is very good at taking orders.”  Johnny pushed down his anger and hurt, hiding his feelings with practiced ease.

Val heaved a sigh of relief and steered Johnny over to a chair.  Now that the need to get back to Lancer was uppermost in his mind he no longer protested against Val’s wish to check him over.  He yelped when Val prodded the bruises on his chest.

“How’d yer ribs feel?” Val enquired.

Johnny took a few deep breaths.  The ache was localised to the chest wall without the pulling sensation or sharp pain that would indicate cracked or broken ribs.  “They’re fine.”

Val looked at him sceptically.  “You sure?  You’re not gonna be of much use if you pass out in the middle of a fire fight.”

Johnny was rapidly losing patience with his friend.  “I know that,” he snapped, before instantly regretting it.  “Sorry, Val.  I just want to get going.”

Val unwrapped the bandage around Johnny’s arm.  There was a deep score where the bullet had struck but the wound was clean and starting to heal.  He started to bandage it up again.  “You’ll need to get Sam to check that out.  Can you move your arm?”

“Yeah.  It’s a bit sore but it’s better than it was.  I can hold a gun and that’s all that matters.”  Johnny looked around.  “Where is my gun?” he asked of no one in particular.

Dixon nodded toward a far corner of the mine.  Johnny found his colt under a pile of rags.  Val could see the relief flooding through his young friend as he took hold of the weapon.  Johnny ran his left hand along the barrel before checking that the gun was fully loaded.

“Where’s my rig?”

“Butler took it with him to give to your father.  We needed something to convince him quickly that we were holding you.”

Johnny shoved the gun into the waistband of his pants and pulled on his jacket.  He welcomed the warmth as the mine was bitterly cold and his trousers were still soaked and sticking to him like a second skin.  “How long’ve we got before Butler expects us back at the ranch?”

When he got no answer he walked over to Dixon and, without any warning, punched him hard in the kidneys.  He reckoned that the pain this provoked in his arm was worth it.  Dixon caught his breath.  Johnny hit him again.  “Let me explain how far I’m prepared to go to protect my family.  I’ll take you apart piece by piece and then I’ll do the same to your friend over there.”

Dixon looked into the cold blue eyes and had no doubt that Johnny meant what he said.  “Tell him,” he begged Samuels.

Samuels was in an impossible position.  He could keep quiet but Johnny now knew he had the answer and would turn his attentions his way.  He was unable to defend himself and had heard the menace in Johnny’s voice.  “Daybreak,” he answered rapidly.

Johnny smiled encouragingly.  “That wasn’t so hard now was it?  How many men has Butler got at the ranch?  Will he have any guards posted on the approaches?  How many men were travelling with the gold?”  The questions came thick and fast and were answered just as quickly.

Once Johnny was satisfied that he had all the information necessary he turned to go.  Val hurried to catch up, having had the pleasure of seeing, at first hand, Johnny Madrid at work.

Dixon looked over his shoulder at the departing men.  “You’re not just gonna leave us here are you?”

“If I remember about you I might come back and haul you off to jail when this is all over,” Val informed the men with an evil grin before following Johnny out into the darkness.

Johnny stood for a moment outside the mine entrance, savouring his freedom.  The air was warmer than it had been in the mine and he tipped his head back to look above him.  There was only a crescent moon hanging low in the sky.  The inky blackness was pierced by pinpoints of lights as the stars started to appear.  It was too dark for Johnny to identify any landmarks and he looked around in confusion.

“Where the hell are we?”

“About an hours ride north of the house.  How d’you want to play this?  I’ve got Cipriano and some of the men hidden a mile or so away from the ranch but we’ll be cut to pieces if we try a frontal attack.”

Johnny looked down at the ground and drew circles in the dirt with the toe of his boot while he thought things through.  “You get Cip and the men.  I’ll get in to the house to free Scott and Murdoch and then we’ll see about getting those guards that came with the wagons out of the guard house.  Get as close to the house as you can without being seen and….” Johnny lifted his head and a joyous grin appeared on his face, “wait for all hell to break loose.”

Val groaned and went to collect his horse.

*****

Butler pushed Scott toward the stairs.  “Let’s go, boy.  I don’t want any trouble from you and you’ll keep your mouth shut if you know what’s good for you.”

Apart from a backward glance at his father Scott did exactly what he was told.  He didn’t care by that point what happened to him, but Murdoch’s loss of control had already ensured that Johnny was to be punished and Scott had no intention of adding to his brother’s pain.  Reaching the upstairs hallway Butler pushed open the door to Scott’s room and gave him a shove which sent him crashing painfully against the end of his bed.  After taking a moment to get his breath back he straightened up and stood quietly while Butler locked the door leading to the back stairs, taking the key with him.  With a final order to behave himself Butler left the room, locking the door to the hallway behind him.

Scott sat on his bed and got to work on the ropes binding his wrists.  For the next few hours, as darkness fell, he attempted, without success, to free himself.  The strain on his arms, shoulders and temper, was immense and he had to keep stopping to rest. He had no idea when his brother was to be returned home but he was determined to get loose before that happened.  Once they were all together they had a chance.  He ignored the pain and the warm trickle of blood from his wrists that was staining the bed clothes.

Unfortunately Butler seemed to go about everything with an enviable thoroughness.  Try as he might Scott couldn’t slip his bonds.  He finally succumbed to his exhaustion and fell asleep sprawled across his bed.

*****

Johnny rode Barranca at an easy gait, trusting his horse not to misstep in the dark.  He felt exhilarated as the warm breeze caught his hair, pushing it back from his face.  Barranca was fresh and eager having reacted as badly as his master to being penned up for the last three days.  Samuels had told him that there would be no outlying guards and Johnny believed him.  Butler had taken great delight in explaining the plan to Johnny knowing how much it would frustrate his young captive.  To the outside world life had appeared to go on as normal at Lancer so no one would be expected to visit the ranch in the early hours of the morning.

The darkness that was slowing his progress would be a boon when he got close to the hacienda.  After riding for more than an hour he reached a spot from where he could see the house.  He dismounted and stood looking down at the lights blazing from almost every downstairs room of the house.  He felt a rush of anger when he thought about the men who had invaded his home.  He noticed that the upper part of the house was in darkness.. He wished he knew where his father and brother were being held.  They were likely to be in the house somewhere but where?  He didn’t want to start anything - and he very badly wanted to start something - until he knew where everyone was

Leaving Barranca tethered out of sight he moved silently toward the house.  He avoided both the bunkhouse and the guard house as he could hear voices coming from outside both buildings.   Butler had clearly posted guards on the gold and his prisoners.  He made his way round to the back of the house and entered through the kitchen.  As he had hoped and expected, at that time of night the area was dark and deserted.

He drew his gun and climbed the narrow stairs, barely breathing.  At the top of the stairs, and out of sight of anyone who might be on watch in the upstairs hallway, he stopped and listened intently.  When he needed to Johnny could remain perfectly still for hours, a fact which never ceased to amaze his family on the odd occasion when that talent was called for.  He slowed his breathing and waited.

Once he was satisfied that all was quiet he poked his head around the corner.  Lamps had been lit in the hallway and he could clearly see that it was deserted.  He slipped quietly into his own room and pulled out a clean dark shirt.  He discarded his jacket, pulled on the shirt and buttoned it quickly.  Opening the door a crack he again waited until he was satisfied that there was no one around.

Scott’s room lay directly opposite.  The door was closed and the key was in the lock.  He tested the handle cautiously and found that the door was locked.  As Butler didn’t have an unlimited supply of men, the locked door was likely to mean that Scott was in there and that he wasn’t being guarded.  Johnny turned the key and cringed as the sound of the tumblers turning seemed to echo down the hallway.

Holding his gun in his right hand he eased the door open with his left.  The room was completely dark and it took a few minutes for his eyes to adjust.  He saw his brother lying fast asleep across the bed and the knot of fear which had been lying in his gut started to uncoil.  He withdrew the key from the lock and closed the door before making his way over to the bed.  He leant over and shook his brother while at the same time softly calling, “Scott.”

“Huh?”  Scott struggled to wake up.  His tired eyes refused to focus.  He could tell that someone was standing over him and opened his mouth to yell.

Johnny pressed his left hand gently over Scott’s mouth to muffle the sound.  “Hey, brother, it’s me.”

Recognition dawned in Scott’s blue grey eyes as Johnny removed his hand.  “Johnny!”

“Sit up and I’ll get rid of those ropes.”  Johnny instructed, laying his gun down on the bed.

 Scott looked at the weapon in confusion before doing as he was told.  “How did you get here?  How come you’ve got your gun?  Butler said they were holding you hostage.”

Johnny worked diligently at the knots.  “Yeah, they were until Val turned up and rescued me.”

“Val?”  Scott wasn’t sure how much more confused he could become.  “How did Val find you?  How did he even know to go looking for you?”

Johnny paused in his assault upon the knots.  “Didn’t think to ask him.”  Deft fingers returned to their task and he gave a satisfied sigh as the ropes fell away from his brother’s wrists.

Scott pulled his arms in front of him and tried to work some feeling back into his numb fingers.  He rotated his shoulders and gave a gasp of pain as abused muscles protested the movement.  “Did they tell you what’s going on?”

“In great detail.  That Butler fella was full of himself.  We need to get to Murdoch and work out a plan.  Butler’s expecting me to be delivered at daybreak so we need to be ready to move before then.”

Scott looked at the bruises and healing cuts on his brother’s face and, involuntarily, his eyes travelled down to Johnny’s right hand.  Johnny saw the look and knew what it meant.  “They told me what they were gonna do.  Val had them in custody by that time.  We can talk about it later.  D’you know where Murdoch is?”

“Probably locked in his room.”  Scott remembered something and walked to the table.  “This belongs to you.”  He held up Johnny’s gunbelt and received one of Johnny’s brightest smiles in return.

Once Johnny was satisfied that the gunbelt was properly positioned – which seemed to Scott to take hours – the brothers made for the door.  Scott was just about to open the door when they heard voices in the hallway.  They froze and waited as the voices receded.  Doors could be heard opening and closing.

“Damn,” Scott muttered.  “That was probably Butler and Prentiss.”

“Prentiss?” Johnny queried.

“He’s the man behind all this.  He’s the governor of the Carson City Mint and he was a friend of Murdoch’s for many years.  He was the one that approached Murdoch about bringing the gold here.  Murdoch only agreed because they’d been friends for so long.  Murdoch’s feeling really guilty.”

“So he should be.” Johnny snapped.  “If he’d told us about the gold we could have been on our guard.  I rode right into that trap with no warning at all.  I’ve got a few things I want to say to our father once this is over but right now we need to get moving.”

Scott couldn’t blame Johnny for feeling bitter.  He was the one that had suffered the most throughout the last few days.  He also knew that there was no point in trying to discuss it now.  Johnny was focussed on the task in hand and nothing would sidetrack him. With hearts hammering in their chests they made their way to Murdoch’s room which was at the far end of the hall.  Johnny turned the key and they crowded quickly into the room.

Murdoch was so consumed with worry that he had been unable to sleep.  Johnny prided himself on his prowess with a gun.  He couldn’t imagine how his son would react to an injury to his hand.  He berated himself over and over for his failures over the past days and weeks.  In hindsight he couldn’t understand how he could ever have agreed to a request that so clearly put his family in danger.  When he heard the key turning in the lock he didn’t bother looking up.  If it was Prentiss or Butler coming to visit he had nothing to say to them.

“Aren’t you pleased to see me, old man?”

The shock of hearing his son’s familiar soft drawl made Murdoch feel dizzy.  He slowly realised that Scott was kneeling by the side of the chair urging him to turn round so that he could untie the ropes.  He raised his eyes to Johnny, drinking in the sight of his youngest boy.  He could see by the way that Johnny was holding himself that he had been hurt.  Like Scott he examined Johnny’s right hand, relieved beyond measure to see that it was undamaged.  His smile went unanswered.  He knew then that Johnny had taken refuge in his alter ego.  Johnny’s face was expressionless, his eyes hard and cold.  Murdoch could only hope that the coldness wasn’t directed at him but rather at the task at hand.

“We need to keep our voices down,” Scott cautioned.  “There are at least two men on this floor.”

“Where’s Teresa?”  Johnny asked.

“In her room with Maria.  They’re quite safe.”  Scott answered.  “Jelly, Juan and Hector have been locked in the bunkhouse and I’m pretty sure there’ll be a guard close by.  There were six guards with the gold and two wagon drivers.  So far as I know they’re all in the guard house with the gold.”

“Butler has seven men around here somewhere.  Dixon and the one he sent to get me are back at the mine where they held me.  They won’t be going anywhere any time soon.  Val has gone to meet up with Cipriano and some of the men.”

“Val?  Cipriano?”  Murdoch queried.

“Val rescued me.  Don’t ask how he knew ‘cause he didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask.  All I know is that he stumbled onto something and brought Cipriano into it.  They aren’t far away and they’ll provide support if we need it.  I’d like to do this nice and quiet though.  On my way in I heard men talking near where the prisoners are being held – there were two or three of them I think but I didn’t wait around to find out.  That leaves at least four or five unaccounted for in addition to Butler and his boss.

“We need more fire power.  One gun isn’t gonna get the job done.  D’you still keep a gun in your desk?” he asked his father and received a nod in return.  “Our rifles are probably where they usually are in the entrance hall.  Any idea what they did with the guns they took from the men guarding the gold?”

Scott thought for a moment.  “I don’t know.  We were inside when they took them down.  They must have stashed them somewhere.  I wonder if they left them with the wagons.”

“Let’s get going.” Johnny ordered.  “Once we’ve got the gun from Murdoch’s desk and the rifles we need to split up.  Murdoch, I want you to go and check out the wagons.  Scott, you come with me and we’ll see about getting Jelly and the others out of the bunkhouse.  Whatever you do try not to shoot anyone.  We need the element of surprise until we have more men and weapons.  If you do have to shoot – shoot to kill.  There’s too much at stake for them to go quietly.”

Neither Scott nor Murdoch thought to query Johnny’s orders.  He had spent many years fighting these sorts of battles in range wars up and down the Mexican border.  All three men understood what they were up against.  The men they were dealing with would kill without hesitation.  What Prentiss and his men hadn’t fully appreciated, but were about to find out, was just how far the Lancers were prepared to go to protect their family, friends and property.

They reached the great room by way of the back stairs and kitchen without running into any trouble.  Murdoch retrieved his gun while Scott collected the rifles and some ammunition.  He checked and reloaded the rifles before handing one to his father and keeping the other for himself.  Before leaving the house Murdoch pulled them both to a halt.

“Be careful and remember that no amount of money is worth your lives.”

*****

Murdoch watched as his sons disappeared into the darkness.  His feeling of relief at seeing his youngest son safe, and relatively unscathed, had been quickly crushed by a weight of guilt and worry about both his boys.  Prentiss and his men would stop at nothing to escape with the gold and he found himself wishing that Johnny hadn’t managed to get free so that everything could have played out as intended.  At least that way they would all be alive at the end of it.  That thought, in turn, only intensified his feeling of guilt and added a note of betrayal.  They may all have survived the experience but Johnny would have had his right hand maimed and, according to Prentiss, would also have had to suffer a severe beating in revenge for Murdoch’s own moment of insanity.

He had to trust his sons to keep each other safe – something that he seemed to be incapable of doing.  With a heavy heart he made his way toward the barn to see if he could locate any additional weapons.  When he reached the barn he heard muffled thumps coming from the tack room.  On opening the door, he found the two wagon drivers, still tied up, and hurried to free them.  As they were rubbing the feeling back into their arms and legs he returned to the main part of the barn.  Finding nothing of use he was about to leave by the side door to search the wagons when he was stopped in his tracks.

*****

The brothers made their way cautiously from the kitchen door toward the bunkhouse.  They kept to the shadows, listening intently for any footsteps or voices.  They could hear sounds drifting over from the direction of the guard house which suggested that there were at least two men on sentry duty.

They froze when they heard footsteps crunching on the gravel path.  Johnny put his left hand on Scott’s arm to attract his attention, grinned and then stepped out onto the path.  Scott’s eyes widened in shock and he bit back a curse.  Joe Reid walked round the corner of the building, not as alert as he should have been as they weren’t expecting any trouble, and froze when he found himself confronted by Johnny.  Johnny’s gun was pointed unwaveringly at his chest.

“Hit him.” Johnny advised his brother.  His voice, which contained an inappropriate hint of amusement, was barely above a whisper.

Reid turned to see to whom Johnny was talking,  before collapsing in a heap on the ground as the butt of Scott’s rifle caught him on the side of the head.  A number of different thoughts occurred to Scott, the most prominent one being that his little brother was insane.

He swung round to give Johnny a piece of his mind only to remember, belatedly, that now was not the time or place.  Johnny was still smiling happily as if this was the most fun he’d had in years.  Scott shook his head in despair and helped drag the unconscious man into the shelter of some bushes.  He turned around to see that Johnny was already moving again.  With a sigh, Scott hurried to catch up with his brother.  He had the feeling that this was going to be an interesting night.

They approached the bunkhouse from the rear.  The building was in darkness and peering carefully in through the window told Johnny nothing about who was inside, or where they were.  He took a quick look round the corner and saw one guard sitting on a chair that was tipped back against the wall.  Gould’s hat was pulled down low across his eyes and his rifle lay beside him.  Johnny was starting to see a pattern.  These men clearly believed that there was nothing to worry about so long as the youngest member of the family was being held as a hostage for everyone else’s good behaviour.  His grin widened as he reflected that their over confidence was going to be their undoing.

*****

The atmosphere in the bunkhouse was hot and oppressive.  The windows and door had been shut since mid morning, trapping all the heat inside.  Once the outlaws had taken possession of the gold the guard had moved outside, locking the door behind him.  Jelly, Juan and Hector had been left alone and no one had bothered with them since.  They hadn’t been given anything to eat or drink and hadn’t dared to raise a complaint in case they increased the danger to Johnny and the rest of the family.

Once it was dark Juan and Hector had settled down as best they could to try and sleep.  Jelly sat on one of the bunks and fretted about his young friend.  Johnny was like a son to him and the thought of anyone harming him made Jelly’s blood boil.  He had just concluded that he might as well get some sleep himself when he heard a scuffling noise from outside.

The key turned in the lock and the door swung open to admit two men carrying another man between them.  “Jelly?”  Johnny asked into the silence.

“Johnny?  How in tarnation did you get away?”

“Keep your voice down.”  Scott warned.  “We don’t know where Butler has all his men stationed.”

Scott and Johnny dumped the unconscious guard down on a bunk.  “Can you find something to tie him up with?”  Johnny asked, as Juan and Hector started to rouse from sleep.  “There’s another one we left in the bushes round the side of the house.  Juan, can you and Hector go and get him and bring him back here?”

“Si, Juanito.  It is good to have you back safely.”  The two men left silently.

Johnny handed Gould’s pistol to Scott and the rifle to Jelly.  “We need to leave someone here to keep watch on these two lowlifes.  I’d like someone to go and check on Teresa and Maria.”  He looked meaningfully at Jelly.

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily, boy.  If’n I know you, you’re out lookin’ for trouble an’ you’ll need ol’ Jelly along to help keep an eye on you.”  Jelly could see by the look on Scott’s face that he wasn’t far from the truth.  “Where’s your pa?”

“He’s off seeing if he can find any more weapons.  We need to try and free the men from the guard house.  That’ll give us the advantage in terms of numbers but that won’t help if we can’t get enough guns.  He was going to check out the wagons.”

Juan and Hector returned carrying Reid who was still unconscious.  After tying the two outlaws up Johnny instructed Hector to stay with them and asked Juan to go to Teresa’s room to protect her and Maria.  Scott gave the man his rifle and Hector took possession of  Reid’s pistol.  The brothers and Jelly set out for the barn to meet up with Murdoch.

*****

“Mr Lancer.”

Murdoch stopped on his way out of the barn and turned impatiently back to look at the man who had hailed him.  Both of the wagon drivers had emerged from the tack room and it was the older of the two who had addressed him.  “I’m in a hurry.  I suggest you two stay here out of sight.”

The man didn’t seem perturbed by the curt dismissal.  “My name is Willoughby, I’m a Pinkerton agent.  This is my partner, Peter Vaughan.”

Murdoch’s mouth dropped open and he realised that he was staring at the men.  “Pinkerton agents?  What the hell is going on Mr Willoughby?”

“We were hired by the Treasury Department.  There have been a number of robberies recently during the transfer of small amounts of gold and currency.  There was a suspicion that it was an inside job but no proof.  When this shipment was proposed, it raised major concerns that whoever was behind the thefts would go for the big score, so we were brought in as extra security.  No one outside of Washington knew of our involvement.  When Mr Prentiss said that he was accompanying the shipment we knew that we had found our man.”

Murdoch’s expression turned thunderous.  “You knew there was going to be an attempt on the gold and did nothing to prevent it?”

“We were instructed to catch the whole gang, so we had to let Prentiss put his plan into action.”

“You put my family at risk.”  Murdoch hissed in a barely controlled voice.  “They took my youngest son hostage.  They could have killed him.”

“Mr Lancer, you must understand our position.  We didn’t know when, or how, the theft was to take place.  It was only this morning that Prentiss told us we were coming here.  We’d been expecting either a bank robbery or an attack on the open road.  When you and your son met us this afternoon we were caught completely by surprise.  We had no reason to be suspicious of you or to think that Prentiss’s men had already taken control of the ranch.  You’ll realise that your family is known to the Agency, you having employed us a number of times over the years.  If I remember rightly the last occasion was when you wanted to track down your younger son and make contact with Scott in Boston. I take it that he’s still holding your other son.  If that’s the case, aren’t you putting his life at risk by trying to prevent the theft?”

“Johnny was rescued earlier this evening by the sheriff of Green River.  He’s here working with his brother trying to free our men.”  Murdoch scowled fiercely.  “When this is over I will be lodging an official complaint with your agency.  This plan not only risked the loss of a fortune in gold but also put innocent people in danger.  It was foolhardy and irresponsible.”

“I can understand your anger, Mr Lancer.  Had we known what Prentiss had planned we would never have let matters go so far.”

Unprepared to be mollified, Murdoch continued to glower at the two hapless agents.  “And just how were the two of you planning on stopping an entire gang hell bent on stealing the gold?”

“We…..”  Willoughby spun round as the barn door opened.

Murdoch also turned, raising his rifle.  He lowered it with a sigh of relief as his two sons, closely followed by Jelly, appeared.  He noticed that Johnny was looking pleased with himself and that Scott had a longsuffering expression on his face.

“We’ve taken out two of them.  There are another couple outside the guard house.  There’s been no sign of Butler or Prentiss and there are three others around somewhere.”  Johnny grinned.  “I’d say we’ve evened the odds a bit.  Did you find any more hardware?”

“Not yet.” Murdoch couldn’t help smiling back at his irrepressible son.  “I got sidetracked.  There two gentlemen,” he indicated Willoughby and Vaughan, “are Pinkerton agents.  It appears Washington was concerned about an attempt on the gold and sent them along to try and stop it.”

“Fine job they made of it,” Scott muttered ungraciously.

“We have extra weapons stashed in the wagons.”  Willoughby ignored the blond’s sarcasm.  “I suggest we go and get them.”

The two agents went to retrieve their weapons leaving Murdoch, his sons and Jelly, to consider their next move.

“It’s not gonna be easy to get the drop on those men outside the guard house.  They’ve got a clear view of anyone approaching.  We could take them out with a rifle.  Even in this light Scott’s a good enough shot to do that.”  Johnny raised his eyes to his brother and acknowledged the look of surprise at his endorsement of Scott’s prowess with a rifle.  “Trouble is that would bring everyone else running.”

“I don’t see that we have a choice.”  Murdoch considered the implications.  “We need the extra men and, if we can move quickly enough, we can get at least some of them armed before it’s too late.  What about Val and Cipriano?”

“If they hear gunfire they’ll come running but there’s no guarantee they’ll get here in time to be of any real use.  We’re just gonna have to risk it.  If you cover Scott while he’s taking those shots, a couple of us’ll get as close to the guard house as we can.  You and Scott can then provide cover in case we can’t get inside before any more of Butler’s men turn up.”

Willoughby and Vaughan had arrived back in time to hear the end of the discussion.  They were both now carrying rifles and each had a pistol tucked into their belts.  “As the ranking agent I’ll be taking command.”  Willoughby announced.

Murdoch Lancer drew himself up to his full, formidable, height.  “This is my home and my responsibility, Agent Willoughby.  I have had enough of my family being used as pawns in some dangerous game being played out between the government and a man that I used to regard as a friend.  If you know what’s good for you, you and your partner will do exactly as you’re told.”

Willoughby’s expression turned hard.  “I am trying to be accommodating Mr Lancer but my partner and I will not take orders from a notorious gunfighter like Johnny Madrid.”

“It’s Lancer,” Murdoch growled and punched the man in the mouth.

*****

Murdoch gradually realised that four pairs of eyes were staring at him.  Agent Willoughby had landed heavily on the floor of the barn, having been taken completely by surprise by Murdoch’s actions.  The blow had split open his lip which was now bleeding freely.

Johnny’s initial shock turned to a warm feeling of pleasure.  “Thanks, Murdoch.”  He lowered his eyes, embarrassed by his father’s public display of support.

“You’re welcome, son.”  Murdoch glared at the two Pinkerton agents.  Peter Vaughan had stirred himself sufficiently to offer a hand to his partner who was painfully struggling to his feet.  “You two can either follow my son’s orders or stay out of the way.”

Scott had never seen this side of his father before.  Twice, in less than twenty four hours, his father had resorted to violence in support of his youngest son.  Murdoch Lancer was a hard man who normally preferred to resolve his problems with words rather than with his fists.  Scott felt a surge of pride that his father was prepared to place his faith in Johnny to lead the fight against Prentiss and his men.

Jelly looked at his boss with a newfound respect.  Jelly hadn’t known Murdoch before the return of his sons but knew that he took pride in being the one to “call the tune.”  It said much for his growing relationship with Johnny that he was willing to follow the young man’s orders.  Jelly knew how much that would mean to his friend.
Vaughan could see that Willoughby was on the verge of provoking a further confrontation and hastened to step between his partner and the irate rancher.  “We don’t have time to disagree among ourselves.  James, it seems to me that Johnny has already proven himself.  He got into the house past all of Prentiss’s guards, rescued his father and brother and got the men out of the bunkhouse.  He and Scott have taken out two of the guards and, so far, Prentiss is none the wiser.  This is their home and I think we just have to trust them.

“Mr Lancer, I apologise for my partner’s rash words.”  He turned on Willoughby who was opening his mouth to protest.  “Shut up, James.  Tell us what you need us to do, Johnny.”

“Give Scott your rifle.  He’s gonna try and take out the men watching the guard house.  Murdoch’ll cover him. He’ll have the clearest shot from the front of the house. You and me’ll work our way round to the back of the barn and make a run for the building through the corral.  That still leaves us with a couple of hundred yards of open ground to cover so it’s too much of a risk while those guards are on patrol.

“Jelly, if you keep watch from here you’ll be able to see if there’s any movement from the house.  You,” Johnny looked at the older Pinkerton agent coldly, “can cover the courtyard.  We know there’re three other men somewhere around but we don’t know where they are.  Butler and Prentiss are in the house, hopefully still upstairs, so they’re not an immediate threat.”

As Johnny was speaking Scott was checking out the balance of the rifle having already made sure that it was fully loaded.  He wished now that he’d kept his own weapon.  “Anything I need to know about how this rifle handles?”  he asked Vaughan.

“It drifts slightly to the left,” the younger agent replied.  “The trigger’s pretty sensitive too and you need to watch the recoil but it’s a good piece.”

Satisfied that everyone knew what was expected of them, Johnny ordered them to move out.  Before leaving he laid a hand on Scott’s arm.  “Just take it nice and steady.”  Scott nodded.  “And be careful, brother.”

As he passed Murdoch, Willoughby stopped, dabbed at his mouth with a kerchief and hissed, “This matter isn’t closed.  That was an unprovoked attack. I’ll be making a full report when I get back to Washington.”

“I’m sure you will.  I’ll be delighted to justify my actions by pointing to the incompetent way you have handled this matter so far.”

Jelly held back as Scott, Murdoch and Willoughby got ready to leave.  They needed to cross the open space between the barn and the house without being seen.  Scott looked at the sky.  From the position of the pale crescent moon he reckoned that it was about midnight.  The lack of moonlight would make their task in getting to the house easier but would severely hamper him after that.  He knew that he was a good shot with a rifle but what he was about to do was something outside his experience.  Always before he had used his rifle in the heat of battle.  This would be cold and clinical and he wondered how he would feel about it afterwards.

He reminded himself that these men had invaded his home, threatened his family and that they had done unnecessary physical harm to his brother.  Scott had no doubt that if Prentiss felt that killing one or all of them was required in order to escape with the gold, he wouldn’t hesitate to give the order.  Scott knew that his brother was right and that he was prepared to follow Johnny’s orders.  He would worry about his conscience later.

Murdoch made a run for the house and made it safely into the shelter of one of the pillars that lined the front of the building.  Willoughby went next and disappeared between the double gates leading to the courtyard.  Scott took a deep breath and sprinted across the open ground.

Two of the outlaws were patrolling the outside of the guard house.  At intervals of roughly two minutes one man would set off to walk round the building leaving the other by the front door.  Once they joined up again they would exchange a few words before repeating the routine.

Scott positioned himself so that he was standing almost sideways on to the guard house with his legs slightly apart and his right knee flexed to provide balance.  He steadied his breathing, shut out all external sounds and lifted up the rifle.  He lined up the sights and waited.  Visibility was poor due to the lack of moonlight and he had to wait several minutes for his eyesight to adjust.

Murdoch stood watchfully a few feet away.  He marvelled at Scott’s stillness and focus.  He knew that what his eldest son was being asked to do was hard.  He would have to shoot two men in cold blood.  While it was necessary it was also distasteful.  Had conditions been different he suspected Scott would aim to wound rather than kill.  This night, however, he would have neither the luxury nor the opportunity to go for anything other than a potential killing shot.

*****

Ben Kelly and Davie Johnson were bored.  They had been stuck outside the guard house for hours.  In the early stages the men imprisoned inside had tried to break through the doors and the boarded up windows.  Davie had bellowed at them to stop and had threatened to shoot them if that was what it was going to take to get some peace.

For the last couple of hours all had been quiet.  Butler had brought out some food earlier in the evening.  Their request for a bottle of whiskey was rejected and Butler had left after reminding them to stay watchful.  Neither man could see what Butler was concerned about.  The remaining Lancer hands were locked up, as were the old man and his son.  The younger, dark haired boy, who they had been guarding until that morning, wasn’t likely to be going anywhere until Dixon said so.

“D’you think we’ll be leaving in the morning?” Ben asked his friend for the tenth time that evening.

Davie sighed.  He and Ben had been riding together for a couple of years and he liked the young man but he wasn’t sure his friend was cut out for this job.  Ben was nervous, jumping at any unexpected noise and it was wearing on Davie’s nerves.  “I reckon we’ll be moving out soon.  Mr Butler’ll want to put as much distance between the gold and Lancer as he can before someone gets suspicious.”

Ben nodded and set off on his rounds.  Davie laid his rifle against the wall.  He pulled off his hat and took a bandana out of his back pocket, using it to wipe his forehead.  It was a hot and humid night and he would have given anything at that point for a glass of cold beer.  The thought of all that gold behind the locked door sent a shiver of anticipation running down his back.  He would be wealthy beyond even his wildest dreams.  He would never have to work again or grub around in some two bit town for a bed and a hot meal.

He was rejoined by his partner who also laid his rifle down and reached for the canteen of water that Butler had left them with.  Ben pulled out the stopper, put the canteen to his mouth and then cried out in pain.  As Davie turned to see what was wrong a bullet caught him in the centre of his chest throwing him backwards.  He hit the wall, slid to the ground and sat with open, but unseeing eyes, as his life drained away.

*****

The night was so still that Scott had been able to hear the man’s footsteps as he approached the front of the building.  He held his breath then let the air escape from his lungs in a steady stream as he zeroed in on the first man and squeezed the trigger.  He didn’t even register the cry of pain before firing again.

He felt a steadying hand on his shoulder.  “You did it,” Murdoch whispered encouragingly.  Scott lowered the rifle and could just make out two shapes lying on the ground.

Johnny and Vaughan had left the barn by the side door and moved carefully to the back corner from where they could see the side of the guard house.  As soon as the first shot was fired Johnny was on the move, not waiting to see if Vaughan was following him.  He had only covered a few yards when the second shot sounded.  He ran flat out, clambered over the rails surrounding the corral and reached the front door of the guard house as a bullet kicked up the dust at his feet.  Cursing, he dived round the corner of the building followed seconds later by the young Pinkerton agent.

“Roof,” Johnny gasped breathlessly.  There was at least one sniper positioned on the roof of the main house and, while he was there, they were pinned down.

Scott had watched in horror as the bullet hit the ground right in front of his brother.  He thrust the rifle at his father.  “Give me your gun,” he demanded before taking off for the outside stairs leading to the roof.

Voices raised in alarm could now be heard coming from the house and more shots were being directed toward the guard house.  Armed only with pistols, there was nothing Johnny and Vaughan could do.  Johnny risked a glance around the corner and ducked back quickly as a bullet embedded itself into the wall.

“There’s a back door,” he yelled to Vaughan, leading the way round to the back of the building.  As expected the door was securely locked.  Their efforts to break it down went unrewarded and Johnny was just about to suggest that they go and take another look to see how things were progressing when he heard a rifle being cocked behind him.

Jeff McCarthy pointed his rifle steadily at the two men.  “Drop the gun belts, turn around and keep your hands where I can see them.”

Johnny recognised the voice as belonging to one of the men who had been keeping him prisoner.  His breathing harsh and uneven, he considered his options.  Hidden as they were at the back of the building there was no way for anyone to know that they had been captured.  Whoever was doing the shooting from the roof would ensure that no one got anywhere near them.  He had holstered his pistol while he and Vaughan had been trying to break down the door.  He might be fast but there was no way he could turn, draw and fire before being shot.

With a deep sigh he reached down to unbuckle his gun belt, aware that Vaughan was doing the same.  After letting it slip to the ground he turned round.  Until that moment McCarthy had not had any idea who he had just got the drop on.  Recognising Johnny his mouth dropped open in amazement.

“How’d you get here?”

Johnny sighed again.  “Long story.”  He raised his hands in surrender.

*****

After leaving Johnny, Val had ridden to meet Cipriano at the pre-arranged rendezvous.  Cipriano had half a dozen men with him and looked up expectantly as Val rode into the clearing.

“I found Johnny.  He was being held in one of them old mines up in the northern section of the ranch.”

“Where is he now?  Is he hurt?”  Cipriano demanded answers.

“He’s gone back to the hacienda.  He’s been knocked around a bit and he’s got a bullet wound in his right arm but it’s healing.”  Val could see Cipriano frowning.  “Don’t blame me.  You know how stubborn he can be when he makes his mind up.  He’s sure to cause trouble sooner rather than later so we’d best get as close to the house as we can so that we can pull his sorry butt out of the fire.”

They moved out quietly and took up a position about half a mile from the house.  Neither Val nor Cipriano wanted to risk getting any closer than that until they had to.  They settled down to wait as the crescent moon rose higher in the sky.

Val was full of nervous energy and paced around until Cipriano grabbed his arm and pulled him to a halt.  “Sheriff Crawford, por favor. You are making the men nervous,” the Segundo informed him.

Before Val could reply the sound of gunshots echoed faintly through the silence.  Val ran for his horse, conscious that Cipriano and his men were right on his heels.  They spurred their horses into a canter and headed for the archway leading to Lancer.

Once through the archway Val held up his hand and brought his horse to a halt.  The shooting had stopped as abruptly as it had started and his sixth sense told him that something was wrong.  He quickly revised his plan and communicated it to Cipriano and his men.

*****

Jed Mooney lay prone on the roof with his rifle pointed toward the guard house.  He had been stunned to hear the shots and to see his two colleagues drop to the ground, dead or seriously wounded.  Exhaustion and the warm night air had combined to send him into a comfortable doze from which he had been abruptly awakened.  His first instinctive shot had missed its intended target by only a fraction.  He had been pleased to see the two men racing for cover and knew that it would be a simple matter to keep them away from the front door of the guard house, and the key being held by one of his downed comrades.  He fired a couple more shots to keep the men occupied.

Scott had reached the bottom of the stairs before pausing to think.  His heart was hammering in his chest;  a reaction to seeing how close the bullet had come to striking his brother. There were still three guards unaccounted for and he didn’t know how many men were on the roof.  His hope was that there was only one and that he would be distracted by the activity around the guard house.  Scott pressed his back against the wall and sidled up the stairs as quietly as he could.  Reaching the roof he looked toward the front of the house but was unable to make out anything in the shadows.

He crept forward, being very careful where he placed his feet.  His breathing sounded loud in the silence that again enveloped the house.  He reached the front of the roof and found, to his surprise and dismay, that it was empty.  He hesitated, heard a sound behind him and then felt the barrel of a rifle being pressed into the base of his spine.

“Drop the gun, get down on your knees and put your hands behind your head.” Jed Mooney instructed.

Scott felt bile rising in his throat and swallowed hard.  He opened his mouth to yell a warning to his father but the words died in his throat as he was driven to the ground by a blow to the back of the head.  He lost his grip on his gun which hit the roof with a clatter.  His senses reeled and then left him completely as he fell into the welcoming darkness.

Jed aimed a malicious kick at the unconscious man’s side before removing his belt and using it to bind Scott’s hands securely behind his back.

*****

The first gunshot had woken Prentiss and Butler out of a peaceful slumber.  They had both fallen asleep fully clothed and were out of their rooms and in the upstairs hallway as soon as the second shot sounded.

“What the hell is going on?”  Prentiss demanded furiously.  He dashed down the hallway and pushed open the door leading to Scott’s room.  Butler had turned his attention to Murdoch’s room.  “Where are they?  I told you to keep them tied up and locked in.”  He looked accusingly at Butler as if it were all his fault that Scott and Murdoch weren’t where they were supposed to be.

“I did exactly what you told me,” Butler protested.  “Someone must have helped them escape ‘cause there’s no way they got out of those ropes and through a locked door by themselves.”

“What about the women?  Could they have helped them?” Prentiss wondered before shaking his head.  “It doesn’t matter.  We need to get them back.  Why would they take a stupid risk like this while we still hold Johnny?  I’ll make Lancer sorry he crossed me.  He can watch while his precious son gets beaten half to death and then we’ll take the girl with us instead.”

Several more shots had been heard but now it was silent.  Prentiss and Butler ran downstairs.  “You go round the back and find White and Reid.  I’m going to the roof, that’ll give me the best view of what’s happening out there.”

Butler eased open one of the French doors and stepped out onto the patio at the back of the house while Prentiss headed for the kitchen, and the stairs leading to the roof.

*****

Jelly hovered in the doorway of the barn, uncertain as to his best course of action.  He had seen the flashes of light as the rifle on the roof was fired and was under no illusion as to his chances of making it safely across the yard to the house without the risk of being shot.  He could just make out Murdoch’s large figure still partially concealed in the shadows of the porch.

As he debated with himself he caught a slight movement beside him and turned on suddenly shaky legs.  Recognising the person who had just slipped in through the side door he let out his breath in an enormous sigh of relief.  “Val, what’re you doin’ here?”

 

Val Crawford grinned.  “I thought you might all need a hand.  Any idea what’s going on out there?”

They got their answer, although not the one they were looking for, when Prentiss called down from the roof.  “Murdoch?  I know you can hear me so listen up.  I’ve got your boy up here.  One of my men has a gun pointed at his head.  If you want him back alive you’ll tell your men to drop their weapons and give themselves up.”

*****

Johnny and agent Vaughan sat with their backs to the guard house wall.  McCarthy had instructed Vaughan to fetch two lengths of rope from the corral and had enforced the order by placing a gun against Johnny’s temple.  Vaughan had followed his instructions and had bound Johnny’s hands in front of him before submitting to being tied up himself.

Johnny swore when he heard Prentiss telling his father that Scott had been captured.  McCarthy prodded the two men with his rifle.  “On your feet.”  He herded them at gunpoint to a place where they were visible to anyone close to the house.

“Mr Prentiss,” he called loudly.  “I’ve got Lancer’s other kid.  He got away from Dixon somehow.  Got another one as well, I think he was driving one of the wagons.”

Josiah Prentiss quickly recovered from the shock of finding that Johnny had not only escaped from the mine but that he had made it back to Lancer.  That explained Scott and Murdoch’s earlier escape.  He bared his teeth in a feral grin.  “It appears I hold all the cards Murdoch.  Care to see if I’m bluffing?”

Murdoch had very little doubt that Prentiss was deadly serious.  However he knew from Johnny that Val should be on his way with help so he wanted to play for time.  “How do I know you’ve got Scott?”

Prentiss looked down at the young man lying at his feet.  “Wake him up,” he instructed Mooney.

Jed bent down and shook Scott viciously, eliciting a groan from the blond as he struggled back to consciousness.  He pulled Scott into a sitting position.  “Your daddy wants proof that we’ve got you so I suggest you say something to persuade him.”

Scott tried to focus through the pounding pain in his head.  Jed kicked him on the leg to encourage him to wake up and Scott grunted in pain.  When he stubbornly kept silent Jed kicked him again, this time in the ribs and Scott cried out before clamping his mouth shut.

Both Johnny and Murdoch heard the cry of pain.  Johnny called out his brother’s name and moved forward only to be halted as McCarthy’s hand grabbed his collar and yanked him backwards.

“Convinced yet?” Prentiss called out.

“Alright,” Murdoch threw his gun out and stepped clear of the pillars at the front of the house.  He waited as McCarthy pushed Johnny and Vaughan across the yard.

On the roof Mooney hauled Scott to his feet and pushed him toward the stairs followed by Prentiss.  Scott was so disorientated that it was only Mooney’s hand on his arm that kept him upright.  He stumbled down the stairs and into the yard.

Johnny looked at his brother in concern, worried by the lack of awareness on Scott’s face.  Murdoch glowered furiously at Prentiss as Butler and White joined the group.

“There’s no sign of Reid,” Butler informed his boss.  “I’ve not had a chance to check the bunkhouse yet so I don’t know about Gould.”

“Tell your men to drop their weapons and show themselves.”  Prentiss ordered.

“There’s no one else,” Murdoch lied.

“Don’t lie to me, Murdoch,” Prentiss warned.  “My patience is running out.”

Murdoch stared at the man he had regarded as his friend for so many years and then bowed his head in defeat.  “Jelly, Willoughby,” he shouted.

In the barn Val pushed Jelly toward the door.  “Go on.  We need to keep them distracted.  Cip and the other men are working their way round to the house.  If we’re lucky we can pick them off one by one without them realising what’s happening.”

Jelly nodded and pulled open the door.  “I’m comin’ boss.”  He threw out his gun, raised his hands slightly and walked toward the house.

In the courtyard Willoughby debated with himself for a long time but in the end his professionalism overcame his personal hatred for Murdoch Lancer.  “I’m coming out,” he yelled in reply before following Jelly’s example.

“What about the other men that were in the bunkhouse?” Prentiss enquired.

“I sent them to get help.”  Murdoch looked Prentiss steadily in the eye and prayed that the man would believe him.

Prentiss nodded slightly and turned to Johnny.  “You’re a resourceful young man.  How did you escape?”

Johnny regarded him without expression and kept his mouth shut.  Prentiss took a step backwards and struck Scott hard in the ribs.  Scott gasped, lost his precarious grip on reality and his knees buckled.  Before anyone could stop him Johnny had moved forward to support his brother and he eased Scott gently to the ground, falling to his knees beside him.  The venom in his eyes caused Prentiss to retreat slightly.  “Your men got careless, and if you or any of your men touch my brother again I’m gonna break your neck.”

*****

Even in the dim light Johnny could see the angry flush that crept up Prentiss’s face.  Prentiss ripped open the collar of his shirt to display the vivid bruises on his neck.  “Your father already tried that.”

Johnny looked uncomprehendingly from Prentiss to his father and was taken aback to find that his father couldn’t meet his eyes.  “Murdoch?” he asked softly.

“I’m sorry, son.  I lost my temper.  I never meant…..”  Murdoch found that he couldn’t continue his apology in front of so many people.  His feelings of guilt were overwhelming and he would have done anything at that moment to protect his son from the consequences of his actions.

Prentiss stared thoughtfully at Johnny’s bound hands, which were resting protectively on Scott’s right shoulder, and an evil gleam appeared.  “I see that Dixon didn’t get a chance to carry out my order.”  He waited to see what reaction he would get from Johnny, unsure if the young man was aware of the punishment he had decreed for Murdoch’s actions.

Johnny looked down at his hands and curled his fingers into his palms.  A feeling of dread washed over him.  The threat had shaken him when he first found out about it. However,  he had comforted himself with the knowledge that he was free and that it couldn’t be carried out.  Now he and his family were prisoners again and the threat was very real.  His own harsh treatment during his kidnapping, and the brutality recently meted out to his brother, convinced him that there was only one course of action for him to take.  After composing himself he raised his head defiantly.  “I don’t care what you do to me so long as you leave my family alone.”

“Are you telling me you’d willing to stand there and let me break your fingers?”  Prentiss enquired eagerly.

“Johnny – no!”  Murdoch was appalled.  His move toward his son was brought up short as several guns turned in his direction.

Johnny turned on his father.  “Shut up, Murdoch.”  His blue eyes blazed with fury as he turned back to Prentiss.  “I want your word that you won’t harm anyone else and that I’m the only hostage you’ll take with you when you leave.”  He risked a glance at his brother and was relieved to see that Scott was still unconscious.  There was no way his brother would have let him make such an offer.

“Leave him alone, Josiah.  You’ve got what you came for.  There’s no need for you to hurt him or Scott any more.”  Murdoch put all his pride aside and all but begged on behalf of his sons.

Prentiss ignored the rancher and concentrated instead on the young man who had caused him so much trouble.  The appeal of the situation was undeniable.  To have Murdoch watch while his son voluntarily put himself in peril wasn’t something he could pass up. “We have a deal.”

Butler attracted his employer’s attention.  “I think it’s time we got out of here.”

Prentiss nodded thoughtfully.  “Send someone to check on the men who were shot and to see if they can find the two that’re missing.  Once we know where everyone is we can start getting the gold loaded up.”

“What about Dixon and Samuels?”  Butler asked.

“Well, boy, are they still alive?”  Prentiss enquired.

“They were when I left ‘em.”  Johnny raised his head proudly.  All he wanted to do was hide in a corner as he had so often as a young child when facing violence from adults.  None of that fear showed on his face.

Prentiss considered this before coming to his decision.  “We don’t have time to go back for them.  Once we’re on the move Murdoch can send someone to let them loose and they can catch up with us.”  He turned back to the rancher.  “The plan remains the same.  Once we leave here you’ll carry on as if nothing has happened until I send you word.  Do that, and you might still get this boy of yours back alive.  If anything goes wrong I guarantee you’ll never find out where he’s buried.”

Butler dispatched White to see if Johnson and Kelly were still alive.  It didn’t take him long to return with the news that both men were dead.

“Start with the bunkhouse and see if you can locate Gould and Reid.”  Butler ordered and watched as the man disappeared into the darkness.

“I want everyone inside,” Prentiss instructed.

Mooney shoved Johnny out of the way and reached down toward Scott only to find that Murdoch had got there first. “I’ll carry him.  I don’t want you touching my son again.”  Murdoch towered over the smaller man ignoring the guns that swung in his direction once again.

Mooney looked at his boss and Prentiss shrugged.  “I don’t care how he gets there.”

Murdoch helped Johnny to his feet from where he had landed sprawled in the dirt.  He could feel his son shaking and had to turn away from the accusation in Johnny’s eyes.  He bent down again and gently lifted Scott into his arms.  The movement elicited a moan from the unconscious blond.  Johnny was immediately by his side murmuring soft reassurances to his brother.  Prentiss smiled nastily at the show of affection.

Prentiss led the way into the great room with Butler, Mooney and McCarthy bringing up the rear with guns drawn to ensure that no one tried to make a break for freedom.

*****

Try as he might Val couldn’t hear what was being said.  When Prentiss had punched Scott, it had taken more self-control than Val had realised he possessed to hold himself back from racing to the rescue.  Outnumbered as he was that would have been suicide.  He intended to do this right and to make the men pay in full for what they had put the Lancers through.

Before Jelly had surrendered, Val had established from him that two of the outlaws were being held in the bunkhouse guarded by Hector.  He had already sent Cipriano and one of the other men to check out the bunkhouse with the others approaching the house from different directions.  He saw a man check on the bodies by the guard house before being sent off toward the bunkhouse.

He waited until the way was clear before running silently to the house.  He stationed himself outside one of the French doors, finally able to see and hear what was going on.

*****

Cipriano and Sim approached the bunkhouse cautiously.  For such a large man Cipriano could move without a sound when he had to.  They had seen enough to know that the Lancers had been recaptured, and that Scott was hurt and rage coursed through Cipriano’s veins.  Val had impressed upon them the need to keep their presence a secret so he put away his gun and drew his knife.  He looked in the window and saw Hector guarding two bound and gagged prisoners.  As Hector looked up, Cipriano put a finger to his lips to indicate that he should remain silent.

Footsteps could be heard approaching.  White reached the door and put out a hand to grasp the handle.  He died without even being aware of Cipriano’s presence.  After dragging the body inside they spoke briefly to Hector and obtained enough information to convince them that the remaining outlaws were now all in the house.  Cipriano’s smile was not pleasant; it was filled with anticipation of taking revenge for the patron and those he cared about.

*****

Murdoch laid Scott down on the sofa.  McCarthy put Johnny’s and Vaughan’s gun belts on the table and indicated that Jelly, Vaughan and Willoughby should stand over to one side where he could watch them carefully.  Scott started to rouse and tried to sit up only to find himself hampered by the fact that his hands were still bound.  He looked at his father in confusion.

“Let me untie him,” Murdoch pleaded.  “He’s hurt and no threat to you.”

“I think we’ll just keep him as he is until I finish with your other son,” Prentiss looked at Johnny in anticipation.

“What’s going on?”  Scott had given up the struggle to sit up.  He could see his brother standing close by, his hands bound in front of him.  Scott’s heart sank as he realised that they had all be recaptured, with his first coherent thought being for his brother’s safety. “Johnny, what does he mean?”

“Nothing for you to worry about, brother.  How’s your head?”

The blond recognised Johnny’s standard delaying tactic. “Don’t change the subject. I…..”

Scott hesitated when he heard Prentiss laugh.  “It’s beautifully simple really.  Your noble brother has offered himself as a willing hostage if the rest of you are left untouched.”

Scott tried again to rise only to be pressed back by his father’s hand on his shoulder.  “Lie still.  You need to rest.”

“What I need,” Scott replied furiously, “is to knock some sense into my little brother.”

“What a protective family you are.” Prentiss sneered.  “I think I’d like the women here for the next part.  Mooney, go and get them.  Treat them nice and gentle though.  I wouldn’t want Johnny to think that I was reneging on our agreement.”

Jed Mooney left the great room and took the main stairs up to the first floor.  He hammered on the door leading to Teresa’s room.  “Mr Prentiss wants to see you both right now so unlock this door.”  He was unaware that one of the Lancer hands had already checked out the first floor and had alerted Teresa, Maria and Juan to their presence.

Teresa unlocked the door and pulled it open, being careful to keep out of the line of fire.  Mooney found himself facing two guns being held by men who looked ready and willing to use them.

***** 

“Mr Butler, would you kindly untie Johnny’s hands and bring him over to the table?”  Prentiss enquired.

Johnny gazed steadily at his tormentor while holding out his hands so that the rope could be removed.  Butler holstered his gun and worked the knots free.  Johnny rubbed his wrists and waited for the feeling to return to his fingers.  Even without looking he knew where his gun was, having watched McCarthy put it down earlier.  He calculated his chances of getting to it without being shot down.  He was pretty sure that Val and the others would be around somewhere by now and his fingers itched to get hold of his pistol.

Butler shoved him toward the table, which was fine with him because that was exactly where he wanted to go.  A small part of his awareness knew that Murdoch was holding Scott down, his brother having worked out what was about to happen.  He ignored his brother’s desperate orders not to give in to Prentiss.

Everything around him seemed to slow down and he began to feel as if he was in a dream.  He had experienced this often before in his gun fighting days and had never been able to explain it to himself satisfactorily afterwards.  He knew with an absolute certainty that he would have enough time to do what was required.  Without being told he laid his right hand palm down on the table.  His gun, sitting in its holster, was only a few feet away but he still didn’t glance toward it.

He saw Prentiss smile, draw his gun and take hold of the barrel, ready to smash the handle down on his unprotected fingers.  Prentiss’s smile faltered as he looked into the hard, fearless, eyes of the man he was about to cripple.

From across the room Murdoch stared at his son, struck dumb with horror.  No one was paying any attention to him, they were all watching with morbid fascination the scene playing out before them, so he took the opportunity to remove the leather belt from around Scott’s wrists.  As soon as he was free Scott gripped his father’s forearm.  “You’ve got to stop him.”

Johnny was brought back to harsh reality as a number of things all happened at once.  A loud scream sounded from upstairs quickly followed by a gunshot.  The French doors leading to the back of the house flew open with a splintering of glass.  Willoughby launched himself at McCarthy and knocked the man into Cipriano’s waiting arms.  Cipriano drove his fist into the side of McCarthy’s head and the outlaw crumpled to the floor.

Val took aim at Butler who reached for his gun before being brought down by two bullets to the chest from Val’s gun.

Murdoch raced to cover the distance between himself, Prentiss and his unarmed son.  Prentiss reversed his gun and took aim at the approaching man.  Seeing that his father was about to be gunned down in cold blood, Johnny reached across the table and pulled his pistol out of its holster.  His first shot caught Prentiss in the right shoulder. As the bullet struck, Prentiss tightened his finger on the trigger.  The bullet left his gun and sped toward its intended target. As his father stumbled and started to fall Johnny fired again, and then again, and kept on firing until his gun was empty.

*****

Through the noise of the blood pounding in his head Johnny could hear someone calling his name.  He swung his gun up and pointed it at the approaching figure feeling completely disorientated.

“Johnny, it’s over.  Put the gun down.”

Johnny recognised the soothing tones of his brother’s voice and he lowered his, now empty, gun.  Scott breathed a sigh of relief and turned his attention to Murdoch who was sitting propped up against the back of the sofa, bleeding from a wound in his left side just above the hip.  He was conscious and the site of the injury suggested that it was not life threatening so long as he received prompt treatment. Scott staggered slightly and had to grab a chair back for support.  His ribs were on fire and his head ached fiercely.

A blur of movement heralded the arrival of Teresa and Maria from upstairs.  Teresa’s eyes swept the room, taking in the devastation and the fact that both Scott and Johnny were still alive.  Tears sprang to her eyes as she realised that Scott was hurt and that Johnny had healing cuts and bruises on his face.

“What happened upstairs?” Scott asked.  “We heard someone screaming and then a shot.”

“That dreadful man pointed his gun at me but Juan shot him.”  Teresa shuddered as she relived the moment when she thought she was going to die.

“Murdoch’s been hurt.  He needs help.”  Scott drew her attention to his father.  Teresa gave a little gasp before hurrying to his side.

Val finished securing McCarthy before approaching the brothers.  “I’ve sent someone to town to get Sam.  Those two Pinkerton agents have gone to release the men in the guard house.  Are you two ok?”

“We’ll be fine, Val.  I don’t know all the details but I do know we owe you.”

Val looked down at the floor in embarrassment.  “Just doin’ my job,” he mumbled.  “Wouldn’t have known anythin’ was wrong if you hadn’t come into town that day.”  Val moved off to start getting things organised.

Scott regarded his brother with concern.  Johnny had neither moved nor said anything.  He hadn’t even looked at Murdoch to see if his father was all right.  Instead he was staring fixedly at the blood stained body of Josiah Prentiss.  Scott straightened up with an effort, ignoring the flare of pain in his chest, and covered the short distance between him and his brother.

“Johnny?  What’s wrong?”

Anguished blue eyes turned to Scott.  “I was too slow.  Murdoch was shot because I was too slow.”

Scott gripped Johnny’s arm and shook him.  “You saved his life.  You weren’t wearing your gun.  No one else would have been fast enough to reach the gun to draw it let alone fire.  You listen to me, brother.  Murdoch’s going to be fine thanks to you.”

“You don’t understand, Scott.  I was angry with him and I wasn’t fast enough.”  Johnny pulled his arm free and walked out into the early morning air.

Scott was about to follow him when Teresa called his name.  He hesitated before walking over to where Murdoch was sitting.  His father was pale and the towels that Teresa was holding against his side were heavily stained with blood.

“How are you doing, Murdoch?”  Scott knelt carefully down beside his father.  He could see that his father was in a lot of pain and that his gaze was unfocussed.  Scott looked enquiringly at Teresa.

“The bullet is still in there.  I can’t get the bleeding to stop.  We need Sam.”  A note of hysteria was creeping into her voice.

“Scott.”  Murdoch’s voice was weak.  “Where’s your brother?”

Scott swallowed hard.  “He went outside.  He’s blaming himself for not stopping Prentiss.  I tried talking to him but he wouldn’t listen.  I’ll speak to him again once we’ve made you more comfortable.  Do you think you can stand?  I’d like to get you on the sofa.”

Between Scott, Val, Cipriano and Murdoch’s own determination they got him moved from the floor to the sofa.  Teresa sat beside him, keeping pressure on the bullet wound and, after what seemed to her to be an eternity, the bleeding slowed down.

Murdoch by that time was unconscious, his breath coming in harsh gasps.  As the first hint of daylight appeared in the sky Sam arrived and took charge, ushering everyone but Teresa and Maria out of the room.

Scott went looking for his brother and found him in the guard house staring at the boxes containing the gold.  “Sam’s here.  He’s going to have to operate to remove the bullet.  Come inside and let’s talk.  We can go into the kitchen and get some coffee and something to eat.”

“Not hungry.”

The sound of the door opening caused Scott to turn round.  He found himself facing one of the men who had been guarding the gold.

“Hello, Scott.  It’s been a long time,” the man greeted him.

Scott peered at the man in amazement.  “Jack?”

The surprise in his brother’s voice led Johnny to turn and regard the newcomer.  The man looked to be about Scott’s age and, upon close inspection, didn’t look the normal sort of man to be working as a wagon guard.

Noting the dark-haired man’s scrutiny the stranger hastened to introduce himself. “Lt. Jack Williams of the 5th Cavalry and you are?”

Seeing that Johnny had no interest in answering Scott did it for him. “This is my brother, Johnny.  I don’t understand.  Why are you here?”  Scott thought back to the arrival of the wagons the previous afternoon and the nagging impression that the guards weren’t what they seemed.  “You’re working with those Pinkerton agents.  The men with you are members of your troop?”

“That’s right.  Much good we did though.”  Jack looked embarrassed.  “We walked right into that trap like greenhorns.  I’m sorry, Scott.  I heard your father got shot.  How is he?  And I don’t recall you ever mentioning a brother.”

“Jack and I served together in the 83rd during the war.”  Scott explained to Johnny before turning back to his friend.  “The doctor’s with our father now.  We should know more soon.  I didn’t know I had a brother last time you and I met.  I didn’t find out until I came to Lancer last year.”  Scott could see Johnny’s interest waning as his black mood took hold.  “I assume you’ll be wanting to get this gold moved out of here as quickly as possible.  Are you taking it on to San Francisco or back to Carson City?”

Lt. Williams rubbed a weary hand over his forehead.  “There is no gold.  It never left Carson City.  These boxes are full of rocks.  Prentiss supervised the packing of the gold and then left it to us to load the wagons.  The boxes that got loaded weren’t the ones containing the gold.”

Johnny began to laugh, a harsh and unpleasant sound.  “Well if that isn’t just perfect.  I’ve gone and got our father killed for a bunch of rocks.”

Jack looked in bewilderment from one brother to the other.  “I thought you said your father was with the doctor?”

“He is.  Johnny, pull yourself together.  None of this was your fault and Murdoch’s going to be fine.”

Johnny began to back up toward the door.  He looked down at his right hand and his gun before throwing the weapon convulsively away from him.  Before Scott could stop him he turned and strode from the building.

Scott’s move to follow his brother was brought up short by a wave of nausea and dizziness.  Jack caught his arm and supported him while he was sick.  The pain in his ribs increased in intensity and he blacked out.

*****

Inside the great room Sam was probing gently for the bullet.  The position of the bullet was not, in itself, of concern but Sam was worried about the amount of blood loss suffered by his friend.  Teresa’s hands were shaking but she was determinedly swabbing the area down to keep it as free from blood as she could.  Maria stood behind her, with her hands on the girl’s shoulders, speaking encouragingly to her.

Maria had tried to persuade Teresa to relinquish her post without success.  Her heart swelled with pride for this young woman who had been through so much, yet was willing to put her own fears aside to help the doctor tend to the man she loved like a second father.

Sam finally located the bullet and extracted it carefully.  He heaved a sigh of relief as he prepared to clean out and stitch the wound.  “He’s going to be weak from the blood loss and we’ll have to watch him carefully to make sure no infection sets in but he should be fine.”

One of the doors leading to the patio opened and a man who Sam didn’t recognise poked his head into the room.  “I’m sorry to disturb you doctor.  When you’ve finished in here can you come and take a look at Scott.  He’s collapsed.  It looks as if he has a head injury and I’m guessing he’s also taken a couple of blows to the ribs.”

“Teresa, Maria and I can finish up here.  Why don’t you show this gentleman upstairs and get Scott settled in bed.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  Sam could see that she was torn between staying with Murdoch and going to take care of Scott.  “Murdoch is in good hands.  Scott needs your help now.  You have done a wonderful job here but I need you to take care of Scott until I can get there.”

Teresa stood up, straightened her shoulders and pushed away the urge to break down in tears.  She looked down at the blood on her hands and her blood stained dress.  There was a bowl of water on the table which she used to wash away the worst of the blood.  She dried her hands and dabbed, ineffectually, at the marks on her dress with a towel. “This way,” she informed the man and led the way to the stairs.

*****

It was some time before Scott regained consciousness.  Sam had taken the opportunity, while his patient was incapable of objecting, of carrying out a thorough examination.  There was a large swelling on the back of Scott’s head, which he probed with gentle fingers.  Scott moaned but didn’t awaken.

Next Sam undid the buttons on Scott’s shirt and checked his chest.  Bruises were forming at several points and he suspected that some of Scott’s ribs were cracked.  He asked Teresa to get some bandages and had made good progress by the time Scott woke up.

 

“I’d guess your head feels as if it has a train running through it.”

Scott smiled weakly.  “Several trains.”

“You won’t be surprised to hear that you’ve got a concussion and a couple of cracked ribs.”

Scott opened his eyes fully and squinted at the doctor.  There was something important he had to ask him and he wished he could remember what it was.  Seeing the confusion Sam volunteered the information.

“Your father is resting comfortably.  I removed the bullet and got the bleeding stopped.  He should make a full recovery.”

Scott sighed with relief and relaxed only to bolt into a sitting position a second later.

“Does Johnny know?”

“I have no idea.  I haven’t seen him.  Lie back and I’ll get someone to find him.”

Scott fretted for fifteen minutes, fending off Sam’s attempts to get him to take some pain medication, until there was a knock on his door.  Cipriano entered, clutching his hat to his chest.

“We have looked everywhere but no one can find Juanito.”

*****

Scott’s eyes widened in shock on hearing the news that his brother had disappeared.  Sam forestalled Scott’s anticipated move to get out of bed by pressing down on the blond’s shoulders.  “You’re not going anywhere.”

Scott’s fury was obvious as he attempted to fight against the restraint.  His efforts to rise were feeble and short lived and he sank back against his pillows in frustration.  “We have to find him.”

“We will find him but you, young man, are staying exactly where you are until I say different.”  Sam’s tone was brisk and left no room for argument.

“I have sent men out to see if they can pick up his tracks,” Cipriano advised, “and Sheriff Crawford is helping.”

Scott relaxed slightly upon hearing of Val’s involvement.  The sheriff was an excellent tracker, almost as good as Johnny himself.

Once Cipriano had left, Sam sat down.  “Why don’t you tell me what’s been happening?  Hector told me some of the details on the way back from town.  What I don’t know is why Johnny appears to have taken off.  I assume he knows that Murdoch has been shot?”

 

“That’s the problem.  He’s blaming himself.”

“Why?  As I understand it, you were all being held prisoner.”

“We were.” Scott sighed wearily.  “The man in charge, Josiah Prentiss, was Murdoch’s friend.  He used that friendship to set all this up.”

“I think I met him once.  It was a number of years ago and he was staying at Lancer.  He was some sort of banker wasn’t he?”

Scott nodded.  “He worked for the Treasury.  He was governor of the Carson City Mint.  When Murdoch realised that he had been used he just snapped.  I’ve never seen him like that before.  He tried to throttle Prentiss with his bare hands.”

Realisation struck Sam like a blow.  “Prentiss took his revenge out on Johnny.”

“He was going to.  He ordered his men to break Johnny’s fingers – on his right hand.  They didn’t get a chance; Val turned up in time to prevent that, but Johnny knows they were going to do it and why.”

Scott reached over and gripped Sam’s arm.  “Can you imagine how he must have felt?  He lived by the gun for so long.  Any injury to his right hand would have to have been his worst nightmare.”

“But if Val turned up in time then the threat wasn’t carried out.”

“No, but that coupled with his kidnapping made him very angry with Murdoch. They hurt him, Sam.  While they were holding him hostage they beat him. He wouldn’t discuss it and then we were recaptured and….”

“And what?” Sam prompted gently.

“And Johnny made a deal with Prentiss.  In return for Prentiss and his men leaving the rest of us alone Johnny would allow him to carry through with his threat and would go with them as a willing hostage.

“Prentiss was about to smash his gun down on Johnny’s hand when Val burst in.  Johnny’s gun was in its holster on the table.  Murdoch tried to tackle Prentiss.  He was never going to make it without being shot but he tried anyway.

“Johnny drew his gun and shot Prentiss.  It was enough to deflect his aim so that Murdoch was wounded rather than killed.  I’ve never seen anyone draw so fast.”

“I still don’t understand what Johnny is blaming himself for.”

“For not being fast enough to stop Prentiss firing.  He’s convinced himself that he was too slow because he was angry with Murdoch.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I know.  He thinks Murdoch’s dead.  He didn’t even look at him after it was over and wouldn’t listen to me when I told him Murdoch had only been wounded. The final straw was when he found out that the gold had never left Carson City.  That was when he took off.”

Scott’s strength was fast giving out but he had one more thing he needed the doctor to know.  “He threw his gun away, Sam.  He’s out there somewhere, unarmed, believing that he’s responsible for our father’s death.”

*****

Johnny lay in the shade of an ancient oak tree, relieved to be in the open air.  The last few days had been especially difficult for someone who valued his freedom and the ability to ride with the wind.  A light breeze had sprung up as the sun climbed higher in the sky and he closed his eyes, listening to the sounds around him.

After leaving Scott, he had retrieved Barranca and ridden off, not much caring where he went so long as he was on his own.  He was exhausted in body and spirit and filled with a depth of self-loathing that he had never experienced before even when living as a gun fighter.

Everything had spiralled out of control.  Facing the prospect of an injury to his hand he had found himself hating his father for putting him in that position.  Until Prentiss had told him, he hadn’t known what Murdoch had done to provoke that brutal punishment.  To find that his father had let his emotions override his concern for the safety of his son had been a bitter blow.  Everything that had happened since his escape had become meaningless to him.  All his father’s show of support had simply been motivated by guilt.

He hadn’t realised how angry and hurt he was until he had to reach for his gun.  He had frozen, just for a second, but it was enough; enough to get his father killed.  He couldn’t look at his father afterwards, unable to cope with seeing the evidence of his failure.

Snatches of conversations drifted through his mind.  His brother’s voice had comforted him but he hadn’t really heard the words.  To find that there had never been any gold had been more than he could cope with.  Prentiss’s death and the deaths of the other men had been as meaningless as everything else that had happened.

A strong surge of anger ripped through him at the way they had been manipulated, not just by Prentiss, but by the government and the Pinkertons.  Men in authority who should have been protecting them had torn his family apart.  He almost laughed at the thought; he had grown up protecting himself, so why should he expect anything different now?

He would have to go back soon and face the consequences of his actions - but not yet.  He couldn’t look his brother and Teresa in the eye yet and deal with their condemnation.  His thoughts drifted on the breeze and he fell asleep.

*****

As the day wore on without any sign of his brother Scott became more and more frantic.  Cipriano and Val had both returned only to report that they had found no trace of his missing sibling.  Scott’s fear was that Johnny would just have taken off.  Without his gun that would be tantamount to a death sentence.  He slept for a few hours; the head injury ensured that.  When he woke his headache had lessened and he had been able to persuade Sam to let him get up.

Sam had arranged for Murdoch to be moved to one of the down stairs bedrooms where he was being watched over by Teresa and Maria.  He had woken only briefly following the surgery and had asked for Johnny.  Teresa had told him that Johnny was resting and he had drifted back to sleep.

Scott looked in on him before going to find something to eat.  By late afternoon he couldn’t sit still any longer.  Sam was with Murdoch, Val had returned to Green River with the two Pinkerton agents and his prisoners while Jack and his men had loaded the wagons and set off on the slow journey back to Carson City.

The house was quiet and Scott made up his mind.  Sam’s advice be damned, he was going to find his brother.  He had no idea where his gunbelt was but Johnny’s was still on the table and he assumed his brother’s colt was still in the guard house.  He grabbed the gunbelt and his hat, retrieved the gun from its resting place on the floor of the guard house and headed for the barn.

He found his route blocked by the large bulk of Cipriano.  “Senor Scott, you’re not thinking of going out after your hermano?”

Scott attempted, without success, to sidestep the Segundo, frowning in irritation.  “Someone’s got to find him.”

“Where will you look?”  Cipriano asked, reasonably.  “There are no tracks.  He could be anywhere.  With the patron injured you are in charge.  What will we do if you get sicker than you are now?  Who will run the ranch?”

“I don’t care about the ranch,” Scott burst out in frustration.  “I need to find Johnny.”

“You need to fulfil your responsibilities.  Juanito will come back when he is ready.”

“How can you be so sure of that?”  Scott felt tiredness wash over him again as the encounter with this implacable man took its toll.  “What if he doesn’t come back?”

“Trust him.  He will do what is right.”  Cipriano stepped aside, doing Scott the courtesy of letting him make up his own mind.  He watched the play of emotions on the young man’s face before Scott nodded and returned to the house.

*****

It was dark when Johnny woke up.  Barranca was grazing nearby.  He checked automatically for his gunbelt before remembering that he had left it and his gun at the hacienda.  In the moment when he threw his gun away he had hated it.  Now he wanted it back.  He didn’t feel complete without it and he knew he was going to need it when Scott showed him the door.

It was late by the time he got back to the house and all was quiet.  He took a long time caring for Barranca, wanting an excuse to put off the inevitable.  When he could delay no longer he headed for the guard house only to find that his gun was no longer there.

The kitchen and great room were deserted but he did find his gun and gunbelt hanging in their accustomed place in the porch.  His gun had been cleaned and oiled as had his gunbelt.  It touched him that someone would go to the trouble of doing that for him; that his brother would do that for him, as he couldn’t imagine anyone else handling his gun.

He left it where it was and climbed the stairs.  Lamps had been lit, casting a pale yellow glow on the walls and floor.  He hesitated outside Scott’s room before turning away to gaze at the door leading to his father’s room.

He rested his hand on the handle and fought an overpowering urge to turn and run and never look back.  Pushing open the door he was surprised to find the room in darkness.  He had expected to find Scott and Teresa sitting with his father’s body.  He felt his way toward the table where he knew he would find a lamp, pulled out a match, lit it and touched the flame to the wick.

Light flared, illuminating the bed that proved to be as empty as the rest of the room.  He looked round in confusion.  Hearing the door open behind him he bowed his head and waited for the inevitable.  Strong hands gripped his arms and he allowed himself to be turned round.  He took a deep breath, lifted his head and looked into the blue eyes of his brother.

*****

For a long moment the brothers didn’t speak.  Scott kept a loose hold of Johnny’s arms, afraid that his sibling was going to disappear again.  Johnny braced himself for Scott’s anger, half expecting his brother to resort to violence.

“Where have you been?  We’ve been worried about you.”  Scott spoke softly so as not to alarm the young man.  He could feel Johnny shaking under his hands.

Johnny’s mind retreated behind protective barriers.  “Why?  Were you afraid you wouldn’t get the satisfaction of throwing me out?”

Scott tightened his grip and felt Johnny tense up.  “Why would I want to throw you out?  Come with me; there’s something I need to show you.  Then I want Sam to check you over.”  He guided Johnny toward the door, relieved that his brother was obediently following his orders.  Clearly telling him that Murdoch was alive had done no good; he needed to see for himself.

Johnny’s thoughts were in turmoil.  Scott didn’t seem to be either mad at him or upset.  They reached the door leading to one of the downstairs bedrooms and he stopped abruptly.  He knew what he was going to find behind that door and he didn’t think he could cope.  Shaking his head he began to back up.  “I can’t, Scott.”

With a sigh of frustration Scott pushed open the door, gripped his brother’s arm and shoved him into the room.  Murdoch was sitting up in bed talking to Sam.  He was pale and tired.  Sam had just given him some pain medication and he was waiting for it to take effect before trying to settle down to sleep.  A feeling of relief swept through him when he saw his youngest son and he smiled.

Johnny looked from his father to Scott in confusion.  “I thought….”

“Thought what?”  Murdoch asked.

Johnny swallowed hard.  “Nothing.  How’re you doing?”

“Sam says I need to rest up for a few days.  I got lucky.  If your shot hadn’t thrown Prentiss’s aim off I wouldn’t be here.  You look tired, son.  Are you ok?”

Johnny looked at the floor as he considered the question.  “Yeah, I’m fine now.”  He raised his head and gifted his father with a smile that lit up the room.  He could feel Scott hovering protectively behind him, his hand resting lightly on his back.  He leaned back slightly, needing the warmth of the physical contact.

Sam rose stiffly from the chair.  “I’ve already tended to your father and brother so I may as well take a look at you.  Shall we go to your room?”  He turned to regard Murdoch.  “You should try and get some sleep.”

“I’ll stay with him,” Scott offered.

“I’ll be back in a little while and then I want you to go to bed as well.  Don’t forget you’ve got a concussion and cracked ribs so I don’t want you overdoing it.”

Johnny’s expression turned serious.  He had been so wrapped up in his feelings of guilt that he hadn’t given a thought to Scott’s condition.  “Make sure you do what Sam tells you, big brother.”

“If you promise to do the same,” Scott shot back, being acutely aware of how bad a patient his brother was.  “We’ll talk in the morning.”

*****

Johnny sat wearily on his bed.  He had taken off his shirt and Sam was tut tutting to himself as he probed the bruises on his chest.  After listening to Johnny’s heart and lungs Sam untied the bandage around his upper arm.

“They gave you quite a beating although you seem to have escaped any serious damage.  How long ago were you shot?”

Johnny had to think about that.  All the days had merged into one long nightmare.  “Monday afternoon.”

“There’s no sign of any infection and it seems to be healing well.”  Sam pressed the palm of his hand to Johnny’s forehead.  “No fever either.”

“Is Murdoch really going to be ok?”  Johnny asked anxiously.

“So long as he does as he’s told, and rests, he’ll be fine.  It’ll be up to you and Scott to make sure he takes things easy for awhile.”  Sam picked up a lamp and held it close to Johnny’s face before frowning.  “Your pupils are a bit sluggish.  You haven’t been hit over the head have you?”

“No. They kept me drugged though with laudanum and then sleeping powders.”

“For how long?  Prolonged use of any sort of drug can be dangerous.”

“They used the laudanum to start with but I’m pretty sure that’s out of my system.  I think they gave me three doses of the sleeping powder and that I was out of it for a day or so.  Val woke me up late last night with a bucket of cold water.”  He gave Sam a wry smile.

“Murdoch’s told me how quickly you moved to get your gun and shoot that man.  With the wound to your arm and the drug still in your body I’m surprised you were capable of that sort of speed.  I’d say Murdoch should be grateful to have Johnny Madrid as his son.”

Sam was busy repacking his bag as he spoke and didn’t notice the closed look that appeared on Johnny’s face.  By the time he turned back the look had disappeared.  “Get some sleep and don’t you overdo it either for a couple of days.  I’m sure Cipriano and Jelly can keep things under control while you all get well.  It’s been quite an ordeal for all of you.”

After Sam had left Johnny undressed and got into bed.  His relief at finding his father alive had mitigated some of his feelings of guilt, while doing nothing to relieve the underlying anger and distress.  Murdoch’s failure to discuss the request to house the gold at Lancer had put the whole family at risk and his father’s attack on Prentiss had put him in serious jeopardy. Set against that was his father’s trust of the night before when he had stood up to the obnoxious Pinkerton agent.  He felt all his old uncertainties rising to the surface as he tried to analyse the mass of contradictions.  Sleep overcame him before he could reach any conclusions.

*****

Johnny woke at daybreak.  It had not been a restful night’s sleep as he had tossed and turned uneasily.  He could feel the walls of his room closing in on him and threw back the covers.  His reflection in the mirror did nothing to make him feel any better.  He had several days’ growth of beard that only accentuated his pallor and the dark circles under his eyes.  The bruises on his face had turned an interesting combination of blues and purples and his lips were still swollen from the cuts inflicted by Dixon and his men.  He had a quick wash, deciding to shave later when he had a bath, pulled on clean clothes and headed for the kitchen.

He could hear Teresa and Maria talking as he neared the kitchen door.  When he appeared in the doorway Teresa gave a little squeal of delight before throwing herself into his arms.  Maria patted him on the arm before returning to her cooking.

“Johnny.  I missed you so much.  Come and sit down and have some breakfast.  Did they hurt you?”  She pulled back and stared up into his face.  Tears sprang to her eyes as she regarded the evidence of abuse.

“I’m fine.  Are you ok?”

“They didn’t hurt me or Maria but we were so frightened.”  Teresa grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the table.  “I’m just going to take Murdoch his breakfast.  Have you seen him?”

“I saw him last night.  I’ll go and talk to him later.  Sam says he needs his rest.”  Johnny looked away, ashamed that he was making excuses to avoid seeing his father.  “Is Scott up yet?”

“Right here, brother.”  Scott strolled into the kitchen, giving Teresa and Maria a welcoming smile.  He had woken up to find his headache had disappeared along with the nausea and dizziness although his ribs still pained him and he was being very careful with his breathing.

He sat down at the table and accepted a cup of coffee.  After the tension and uncertainty of the last few days the simple act of sitting down to breakfast with his brother brought him a feeling of profound pleasure.  The brothers ate in silence, enjoying the feeling of companionship.  Teresa put together a light breakfast for Murdoch and left carrying the tray.  Maria kept a motherly eye on the boys to make sure they ate enough.

Once they had finished Scott lounged back in his chair and stretched his legs out in front of him.  Johnny sat with his head down, absently turning his cup round and round between his hands.

“I doubt if Sam would be very pleased with either of us if we went for a ride,” was Scott’s considered opinion, “but I could do with getting some fresh air.  How about we take a walk over to the corral and see how the horses are doing?”

Cipriano had brought all the work crews back in so the corral and barn areas were a hive of activity.  Hearing the cheerful conversations passing back and forth between the men and seeing evidence that the life of the ranch was returning to normal did much to comfort the brothers.  A number of the men paused in what they were doing to ask after Murdoch’s health.  In each case Johnny allowed Scott to answer, not noticing the looks of respect that were directed toward him and his brother.

Barranca was loose in the corral and came trotting over to see Johnny.  He stroked the silky mane and allowed the horse to nuzzle his ear.  It was still early and the sun hadn’t yet risen high enough to make the air uncomfortably hot.  Johnny breathed in the familiar smells, crossed his arms on the top rail and laid his head down, feeling a small breeze tickle the back of his neck.

Scott turned his back to the rails, leant back carefully and turned his face up to the sun.  He closed his eyes and allowed the warmth to seep into his bruised body and relax his muscles.  “Sam told me what they did to you.”

“They didn’t like me trying to escape.  I guess they figured if they kept me drugged they would have nothing to worry about.  They would’ve been right if Val hadn’t shown up.”  Johnny lapsed into silence.

“Have you seen Murdoch this morning?”  Johnny’s silence answered Scott’s question.  “He seems to be doing well.  Sam thinks he’ll be up and about in a couple of days.”  Scott waited in vain for some acknowledgment.  “You’re not still blaming yourself, are you?”  He opened his eyes, turned and subjected his brother to close scrutiny.  “If it had been anyone other than you Murdoch would be dead.”

“Anyone other than Johnny Madrid,” the tone was bitter.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I froze, Scott.  Oh it wasn’t for long, and no one else would even have noticed, but it happened.  Johnny Lancer screwed up.”

“Stop it.”

Johnny’s head shot up at the unbridled anger in his brother’s voice.  Scott was staring at him furiously.

“You’d been shot, beaten and drugged senseless.  By the look of your wrists you’d been tied up for days.  Those men were animals that’d not only tortured you, but had threatened further violence.  All right, maybe you only escaped because of Val but you got into the house past any number of guards and masterminded our retaliation.  In what way did you screw up?”

Johnny could feel his own anger rising.  “I got caught.  And then I let my feelings get in the way of what needed to be done.”

“I got caught as well in case you’ve forgotten.  I’m not going to beat myself up about that.  As for your feelings, I’d remind you that you’re only human.  You’re allowed to feel hurt or angry.  You’re not allowed to feel guilty because of it.  I won’t let you blame yourself.  I will, however, beat you senseless myself next time you do something so stupid as to offer yourself up as the sacrificial lamb.”

The tension crackled between the brothers and everyone within ear shot stopped what they were doing to listen.  “What choice did I have, Scott?  I’d already been cast in that role by our beloved father.”

*****

The truth from Johnny’s perspective was undeniable and unpalatable, especially with their father lying wounded and weak from blood loss. His assault on Prentiss had set the scene for Johnny’s later actions. Scott’s anger with his brother died as quickly as it had been born. The fact that his brother completely misunderstood why Murdoch had acted that way only made matters worse.  There was a haunted look on Johnny’s face as he tried to justify his actions to one of the few people whose opinion mattered to him.

“Prentiss was going to follow through on his threat whatever I said or did.  I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of watching me beg. Who knows what else he might have done. He’d lost a number of his men. I couldn’t take the chance that he might decide to take you or Teresa instead of me.  I wanted to keep him focussed on me in the hope that Val and the others would arrive before it was too late.”

“The man was out of control.  What made you think you could bargain with him?” Scott asked reasonably.

“Having me co-operate was the one thing guaranteed to destroy Murdoch.  He wasn’t going to pass that up,” Johnny spoke wearily.  His blue eyes were unreadable as he looked at his brother and then away again.  “Why’d Murdoch do it?  If he’d killed Prentiss I’d have been as good as dead.  Didn’t he care what happened to me?”

Scott’s heart broke as he heard the pain and uncertainty in his brother’s voice.  Only the realisation that they had an audience stopped him from answering straight away.  “Let’s find some shade and sit down.”  He led Johnny over to the patio and pulled out two chairs.

Johnny sat hunched forward, playing with the beads around his right wrist.  He kept his eyes downcast.

Scott eased into a comfortable position, avoiding any pull on his injured ribs.  “I know you’re upset and, believe me, Murdoch will understand.  He was prepared to do anything to keep them from hurting you.  He stopped me, more than once, from making a potentially serious mistake where Butler was concerned.  He knew he’d made a bad decision in agreeing to the gold being brought here and that he should have discussed it with us first.  He never expected to find that he’d been betrayed by a friend and, when he did, he just snapped.”

Scott’s eyes became unfocussed as he thought back to his father’s violent reaction to the news that Prentiss had used his friendship to hurt his family.  “I’ve never seen him like that before.  He’d been living on his nerves for days – we both had – and it all became too much for him.”  Scott leaned forward and captured his brother’s wandering gaze. “You need to talk to him about how you feel.  If you don’t get this out in the open it’s going to eat away at you.”

“How can I tell him I nearly got him killed because I was angry with him?”  Johnny leapt to his feet and began pacing, unable to keep still.

Scott’s anger resurfaced as he watched his hard-headed brother beat himself up over something that wasn’t his fault.  Standing up he grabbed Johnny’s arm and pulled him to a halt.  “YOU ARE NOT TO BLAME.  Do you understand me?  You were hurt, suffering the after effects of being drugged and you were still ten times faster than anyone else I know.  I don’t care how fast you think you should have been or how much faster ‘Madrid’ would have been.  You are Johnny Lancer, my brother, and you saved our father’s life.  If you can’t see that then I pity you.”

Scott abruptly released his hold on his speechless brother.  The intensity of his emotions was making his head ache and he was unaware that he had gone very pale.  Furious blue grey eyes bored into Johnny’s sapphire ones.  Gradually Scott realised that Johnny was smiling his lop sided grin; the one which always succeeded in disarming him.

“Boy, you sure know how to get mad.  You’d better sit down; you don’t look so good.”

“I used to be perfectly even tempered until I met you,” Scott responded with a smile of his own before taking his brother’s good advice and returning to his chair.  “You do know that Murdoch cares about both of us.  He may have a tough time showing it sometimes but he’d never intentionally do anything to hurt us.”

“Yeah, Scott, I know.”  Johnny sank back into his chair.  “It’s just hard sometimes.”

Scott frowned.  “What’s hard?”

“Being a living legend.” The half smile on Johnny’s face indicated that he wasn’t entirely serious.  “You come to believe the stories, you know.”  He sighed.  “Butler told me that they grabbed me because of who I was.  They didn’t trust a former gunfighter to behave and follow orders.  They went to extremes to make sure that I couldn’t escape – all because of my reputation. Will it ever leave me alone?”

“I don’t know, but your past is a big part of who you are.  You lived as Madrid longer than you’ve lived as Lancer.  Give it time and the memory should start to fade – if you want it to.  In the meantime stop being so hard on yourself.”

The brothers lapsed into silence, enjoying the peace and tranquillity.  Now that the danger was over Scott found his thoughts increasingly turning to his unease about killing the two men outside the guard house.  He shifted uneasily in his chair aware that he was doing exactly the same thing as his brother; he was trying to bury his feelings of guilt.  He leaned forward to ease the aching in his ribs and ran a hand through his hair causing strands to fall across his forehead.  As he brushed them away he realised that Johnny was watching him like a hawk.

“What’s wrong, big brother?”

Scott swallowed, irritated, but at the same time relieved, that he had been caught out.  “Those men…..the ones I shot….they never stood a chance.  I’ve killed men before but never like that; never in cold blood.”

“You killed men during the war?”  Johnny waited until Scott nodded.  “Well, this was just another kind of war.  If things had been different they’d have killed you, me, Teresa …. anyone, just to get away with that gold.  They put themselves on the wrong side of the line knowing that if things went wrong they would either have to kill or be killed.”

“Did you ever kill anyone like that?”

“Once.  Didn’t like it any more than you do but it was necessary and I can live with it.”  Johnny laid a hand on his brother’s arm.  “You did the only thing you could.  I know it’s hard to come to terms with.  I asked you to do it and you trusted me enough to go against what your conscience was telling you.”

“I do trust you but make no mistake, brother, if I hadn’t believed it was the right thing to do – the only thing to do - I wouldn’t have done it.”

“I guess we all did things we’re not proud of.”  Johnny was on his feet again.  “I hate that man Prentiss for what he did to this family.”

“He’s dead, Johnny, and his men are either dead or in custody.  We’re all still here, a bit battered but alive.”  Scott’s slow smile received a glimmer of a response.  “I think it’s time to go and see how Murdoch’s doing.  He’s been carrying his own load of guilt.  If we’re going to have a chance of forgiving ourselves maybe we should start by forgiving each other.”

Johnny came to a complete halt, not entirely sure he was ready to see his father while, at the same time, knowing that to delay any longer would be unfair.  He offered Scott his hand and pulled him carefully to his feet. “Let’s get this over with.”

***** 

Murdoch had awakened early, sore and weak but clear-headed.  Shortly afterwards Teresa had appeared to see how he was feeling.  Scott had also looked in on him and he was pleased to hear that his eldest son was also on the mend.  He waited in vain for Johnny to turn up.  When Teresa returned with his breakfast he was snappy and irritable, his mood not being improved by the news that Johnny was up and about.  Teresa had managed not to call him ungrateful and difficult and had left looking hurt.

He had picked at the food before setting the tray to one side and brooding.  He had seen the look of betrayal on his youngest son’s face when Prentiss had, gloatingly, explained why his hand was to be damaged.  He had been relieved to see his son the previous evening and had hoped that Johnny had, perhaps, found a way to forgive him.  His son’s absence since then suggested otherwise.  He owed Johnny his life and, at that moment, he felt that it was far more than he deserved.

Voices outside the door alerted him to the fact that he was about to have visitors.  The door opened to admit both of his sons with Johnny lagging behind his older brother.

“How are you feeling, sir?” Scott enquired.

“A little sore but nothing I can’t handle.”  Murdoch kept his eyes on his dark-haired boy who was looking everywhere but at the bed.  “Johnny, son, come and sit down.”

Johnny’s gaze strayed to the door and then to Scott’s face.  Seeing his brother’s determined expression he edged over to the bed and perched on the end.  Scott pulled up a chair and sat close enough to stop Johnny from bolting if he had a mind.

“I owe you both an explanation and an apology.  The request from Prentiss to house the gold at Lancer came completely out of the blue.  He assured me that no one would know about it and that there would be no risk.  He told me that there would be plenty of security and asked, for everyone’s protection, that I not say anything in advance even to the two of you.

“I had no reason to distrust him.  I’d met him many years ago in San Francisco.  He was a manager of one of the larger banks.  The ranch was doing fairly well and I wanted to expand by buying up some of the surrounding land.  None of the banks around here were big enough then to advance the sort of money I was looking for and I could offer only limited security.

“As you can perhaps imagine my request wasn’t met with a great deal of enthusiasm.  Initially Prentiss refused my request but we did strike up a friendship and got to know one another.  When he discovered why I wanted the land he agreed to speak to the Board.  I don’t know how he did it but he got them to agree.”

“Why did you want the land?”  Despite his unease Johnny was curious.

Murdoch looked toward the window.  “I still hoped that one day my sons would come home.  I wanted to build up a legacy for you both.  I had nothing else left by that time; just hope.  Scott was about ten years old, settled in Boston and doing well at school.  You….it had been five years since I’d last seen you.  I had no idea where you were.  All the leads had dried up years before.  Paul O’Brien had just become my foreman.  He was a good man and I wish you both could have known him.  He encouraged me to think of the future instead of the past.

“That loan was the turning point.  The ranch prospered.  I would travel to San Francisco a couple of times a year and always spent a pleasant few days with Josiah.  He spent a few weeks here when Teresa was still quite small.  After that he joined the Treasury department and moved to Washington and I didn’t see him for a long time.

“The last time I saw him was not long before Pardee started making trouble.  He’d been appointed as the Governor of the Carson City Mint and he invited me to attend the dinner held in honor of his appointment.  I wrote to him when the two of you came home.  I invited him to visit to meet you.”  The silence stretched between the three of them as they thought back to that fateful meeting, so unlike anything Murdoch must have expected.  “How could I have been such a fool?”

Having heard the story Johnny could understand only too well the shock his father must have felt at finding he had been betrayed by a man he regarded as being a good friend.  “Oh, Murdoch, how could you have known? I wish you’d been honest with us though.  We could have taken some precautions.”

“It was stupid of me.  I wish I could change what happened.  I’ve no excuse for not trusting you both and even less for losing control knowing what the consequences could be.”

“Prentiss was a cruel man.  He knew about my history so he knew exactly what threat would cause the most hurt.  I don’t know how I’d feel if it had happened, if Val hadn’t turned up in time.”  Johnny unconsciously flexed his fingers before wiping his right palm down the side of his trousers to remove the sweat that persisted in appearing every time he thought about what he might have suffered.  “Must remember to ask Val how he worked it all out.”

“Do you think Prentiss was always an evil bastard?”  Scott asked.

“In my experience good people don’t turn bad like that.  There’s bad inside them all along and it just needs something to bring it out.”  Johnny spoke from bitter personal experience.

“Two point five million dollars in gold would be enough to bring out the evil in anyone,” stated Murdoch flatly.

Johnny suddenly grinned.  “Hey, you know what upsets me the most?  The fact that Prentiss died without knowing that there was no gold; that it had all been for nothing.”

Seeing his father’s enquiring look Scott hastened to explain.  “The gold never left Carson City.”

“Then what was it that he was dragging all over the countryside?”

“Rocks!”  Johnny couldn’t contain his amusement.  “Boxes full of rocks.”

“The wagon guards were actually members of the Cavalry.”  Scott informed Murdoch.  “The man in charge was a friend of mine, as it turns out, only I was too distracted to recognise him when they arrived.”

Murdoch shook his head in astonishment.  After all that had happened his sons could still find humour in the situation.  “I’m sorry for everything that happened.  I hope, in time, you can both forgive me.”

“Already done,” Scott replied, before looking over at his brother.

“Hell, Murdoch, where would we be without a little excitement now and then.  Just one suggestion though.  Next time let’s invite some of my old friends to visit.  I bet it’d be a whole lot quieter.”

The laughter filtered past the door and reached Teresa and Maria, who had both been standing outside shamelessly eavesdropping.  “Bueno,” Maria stated emphatically before ushering the young woman away and leaving the patron and his sons in peace to rebuild their relationships.

*****

From Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.
O hell! what have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I'll read the writing.
All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:

 

~end~
July 05

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