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Helen Cooper (Coop)

 

 

FScion

All the usual disclaimers; don’t own the characters (sadly); the copyright, (would that I did!!) don’t get a cent etc etc etc.  It’s all for love…especially for the love of Scott Lancer!!  
This story could be read as a WHI for ‘Legacy’ or could be read as a stand-alone story. I leave that entirely to the reader to decide. 
As with all fiction, some creative license has been used – heck the Lancer scriptwriters used it in spades!    Muchas gracias, once again, to Lacy for her superb beta skills, such a big job with this one which she handled with aplomb. Also to Judi, for reviewing the work in progress and offering encouragement when it was needed and to Evi for the much-needed assistance with the Spanish.   You’re all awesome ladies and you’re all definitely ‘hired’ for the next one…whenever that might be!
As always, any and all errors are mine for which I take full responsibility.

Cheers
Coop
Jan 2011.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Prologue

Day 1:  Friday 2nd December 1870

Scott Lancer pulled his collar up in a feeble attempt to ward off the frigid December wind that cut through his slicker like a knife, and chilled him to the bone. The furious gusts drove icy sheets of rain straight at him, quickly rendering numb the areas of skin exposed to the elements.  It was the kind of day when all he wanted to do was curl up in the Great Room in front of a roaring fire with a steaming cup of coffee and a good book.  But as third shareowner of the biggest ranch in the San Joaquin it was not a luxury that he could afford, especially with Murdoch absent this past week and a half. With their father due to be away for three weeks, joint responsibility for the running of Lancer fell to he and his younger brother, Johnny, who was currently out battling the elements in the south pasture with a team of men. They were being kept busy mending the fences that had been blown down by the fierce winds that had persisted for the past few days. The seemingly relentless stormy weather had created more work than usual for the men, and they would certainly have earned their Saturday night in town, which they looked forward to all week.  But they wouldn’t be having any fun at all if he didn’t get to Morro Coyo to draw their wages from the bank. And so that was what found him now, riding against the bone chilling wind towards town instead of poring over ledgers as he had done for the past few days.

Despite his yearning for hot coffee, a warm fire and a good book, however, Scott had to admit to being grateful for the few hours’ respite he would get away from the hacienda. The last few days had been ‘testing’ to say the least. Not because Murdoch was away, he and Johnny were more than capable of managing things in their father’s absence. No, it was because of his father’s ward, Teresa. He loved her dearly, he really did, but once Teresa got a bee in her bonnet about something, her over-exuberance could be extremely trying. And her latest pet project was his birthday. A little over two weeks away, she was busy making all sorts of plans for a big celebration, despite his protestations that he’d rather it remain as low key as possible.  He had his reasons, which he was loath to explain to Teresa. Even if he were to find a way to verbalize to her how he felt about that particular date, he wasn’t convinced that she would truly understand.  She would simply just dismiss his concerns and go ahead with her plans anyway. The truth was, though, that since he was old enough to understand the circumstances of his birth, he had never truly ‘celebrated’ his birthday at all, and it had seemed even less appropriate to do so since he had arrived at Lancer eighteen months before.

He had gotten away with it the first year. The only person who would have known the significance of the day had been Murdoch himself.  And as they had been experiencing weather similar to what was battering them now, and all the associated problems that created around a busy ranch, he had not really seen his father until early evening, when his new family had all sat down to dinner together. For which he had been immensely grateful.

Having managed to get through the meal without the subject being raised and, having managed, successfully, to avoid eye contact with his father for most of the repast, he had excused himself and retired early to his room, relieved that the day had passed without incident.

Buried in his copy of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, he sat in the chair by his bedroom window as the wind howled outside, and he had almost missed the soft tap at the door. Looking up irritably, he had been somewhat surprised to see his father hovering sheepishly in the doorway.

“Murdoch,” he had greeted, apprehensively.

“Scott.” His father had looked every bit as uncomfortable as his elder son felt. Scott had been marginally disappointed that his father appeared to have let his birthday pass without making any kind of reference to it at all, but this was far outweighed by his relief that at least the day was over for another year.  Yet there stood his father in front of him, seemingly wanting to say something but apparently having a hard time finding the words.

His own discomfort increased to see this bear of a man struggling so, and he wanted to break the deadlock as much for himself as his father. So Scott had risen, set his book aside, and made the first move.

“Sir, I was about to turn in…if its not important then perhaps it can wait until….”

“I’m sorry, Scott, I can see you’re tired,” Murdoch quickly apologized.  “I just wanted to give you this…” He gestured to a small package that he had held hidden behind his back and had subsequently set down on the nightstand. “It’s not much. Just something to mark the occasion. I didn’t want you to think I had forgotten. Good night son.”

Before Scott had had a chance to respond, Murdoch had quickly withdrawn. Scott stood for some time trying to come to terms with the significance of what had just happened as he stared at the small package sitting on the nightstand where his father had deposited it.  It was the first birthday gift he had ever received from Murdoch Lancer.   From what he had learned about his father since he arrived at the hacienda eighteen months before, he had come to accept that is was more than likely that he had sent him gifts for his birthday and Christmas, but even more likely that his grandfather, Harlan Garrett, had withheld them from him. Much as he respected his grandfather for raising him in the way that he had, wanting for nothing from a material perspective, what Scott had really wanted, really yearned for, and had never received, was the love and nurturing bond that a father has for a son. Even then, as he reached the milestone of his twenty-fifth birthday, part of him had still been that little boy, with that same yearning to experience a father’s love. And right there and then, all those hopes had been tied up in that small package sitting on the nightstand.

It had taken what seemed like an age, but was perhaps only a few minutes, before he had tentatively padded over to the other side of the room and reached for the precious offering from his father.  It had been wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. He could tell from the knot used that his father had taken the time to wrap it himself; it was the type of knot only a rancher would use. Somehow, that had made it all the more special, and he had been reluctant to undo his father’s careful handiwork. But there was twenty-five years’ worth of anticipation built up in that small package, and he needed to see what Murdoch had chosen for him to mark his first birthday spent with his new family.

Surprised at how much his hands were shaking, he fumbled with the knot, gradually releasing the string and pulled away the paper to reveal a dark leather billfold. As he turned it over, pressed into the soft leather in intricate gold letters were the initials SGL. His initials. Scott Garrett Lancer.  He ran his fingers slowly over the gilt lettering and smiled. ‘Scott’ had been the name that both parents had agreed upon prior to his birth, homage to his father’s homeland. ‘Garrett’ had been at his mother’s insistence, considering her father, his grandfather, had no male heir to continue the family name. And then there was ‘Lancer’, his father’s name. The one he had cursed for all those years, believing that Murdoch had abandoned him. That had certainly been how his grandfather had told it. But while he didn’t know the whole story, he knew enough now to realize that Murdoch could never willingly have allowed Harlan Garrett to take him back to Boston. And during the past eighteen months he had gotten to know and respect the man whom he had become proud to think of as his father, even if he still had difficulty addressing him as such.

There were still a lot of bridges to mend between them, but progress had been made. This gift from his father told him more than words could ever have been adequately expressed by a man who, like himself, had difficulty verbalizing how he felt.  But this one small gift had told Scott everything he needed to know right at that moment.    It may have ‘just been a billfold’, but to Scott it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. It was clear a great deal of thought had gone into the gift, and it was not something that Murdoch could or would have just purchased across the counter in Green River.  It most likely would have been ordered from one of the catalogues his father regularly perused, many weeks in advance.   Not a man usually prone to displays of emotion, Scott had struggled to hold back the lump that had risen up in his throat. He was grateful that, for once, Johnny had chosen not to barrel in to his private chamber to bid him good night en route to his own room.  He suspected that Murdoch had had a hand in that, too.

After almost a year at Lancer, however, and having celebrated her own birthday, and one for Johnny as well, Teresa had realized that Scott had been holding out on them and had scolded him for having had a birthday and not revealing when it was. She had browbeaten the date out of him and had insisted that his next one would be a raucous affair, with all the trappings. It would make up for the previous one having passed without acknowledgement.

That had been over six months before, and Scott had hoped that Teresa would have forgotten all about it by the time his birthday came round again.  But he had reckoned without her marked determination to ensure that he had a day to remember.

As the angry clouds continued to unleash their fury as he journeyed on towards town, Scott thought back to the last dinner they had all shared together before Murdoch left on business.  Teresa had prepared a list of supplies that she wanted Murdoch to bring back with him for the party, knowing that his travels would take him to San Francisco and Sacramento where such items could be far more easily obtained. Scott had tried to, once more, protest that he really didn’t want a fuss. Murdoch’s primary concern was the business that was taking him away, and Scott hardly thought purchasing streamers and bunting would be high on his list of priorities.  But, once again, it had fallen on deaf ears as Teresa dismissed him, insisting that the list wasn’t too long, and she was sure that Murdoch would have time to pick up the few things she had asked of him between his ‘stuffy’ meetings.

Scott had looked to Murdoch, exasperated, seeking support, wanting to see if his father felt as wary as he did about what Teresa was planning, but his father’s expression had remained impassive. There was neither enthusiasm for the planned celebration nor any real objection from him. Murdoch had caught Scott’s eyes for a moment and, as far as Scott was concerned, couldn’t have failed to have read the unspoken question in his elder son’s gaze,  ‘you feel as uncomfortable about this as I do, don’t you?’ But Murdoch had quickly looked away again and returned his attention to Teresa, asserting that he would try to get the items she requested, but he wasn’t making any promises.  Then he had quickly changed the subject, quizzing Johnny about the work he had completed that day.  That told Scott all he needed to know.  That he was right in his assertion about not wanting to make a big deal of his birthday. It was never going to be a day that he would ever want to celebrate as others would.  If only he could convince Teresa of that.                         

Chapter 1

“Missing? What do you mean he’s MISSING?”

Murdoch Lancer’s day was going from bad to worse. It had certainly not been the homecoming he’d been expecting.  He had been away for the past two weeks, traveling around California in his capacity as President of the Cattlemen’s Association. Early December was never the best time to be traveling, and for the last few days all Murdoch had been able to think about was getting home to the hacienda and having a long soak in the bathhouse, before enjoying one of Maria’s home cooked meals, with a glass or two of Talisker to wash it down. Then he would relax in the company of his family in the Great Room in front of the fire, catch up on all their news before immersing himself in the copy of ‘The Iliad’ that Scott had gifted him for his birthday a few months before.

It had been the first time he had gone away alone for such a lengthy period since his sons had arrived home. Before now it had, more often than not, been Scott that he sent on buying trips to Stockton or Sacramento, Murdoch preferring, instead, to remain at home and oversee things at Lancer.  However, it was testament to how well his sons had settled into life as ranchers, that he had finally had the confidence to leave things in their capable hands when his position with the Cattlemen’s Association had required him to take some time away.

He realized that there was something wrong when there was no one to meet him off the stage. He had sent a wire five days before to inform them that he anticipated concluding business ahead of schedule and would be arriving back, all being well, on Tuesday. He knew that Scott would have been heading into town on Friday to pick up the mail and to draw the hands’ wages from the bank, and he would see the wire. Knowing his perceptive older son, he would likely be there personally to meet his father when he got back. But after waiting over an hour, drinking a below par whiskey, which he suspected was severely watered down, at the cantina, he had surmised that no one was coming to meet him after all. Perhaps the inclement weather was keeping them all too busy for anyone to spare the time? Or perhaps the wire had not gotten through after all? More than a little stiff, sore, and ornery from being jostled about in the rickety stage, Murdoch had resignedly gone to the livery and hired a horse to get him back to Lancer, resolving to have one of the hands bring the wagon in the next day to retrieve his luggage.

As he had ridden through the Lancer arch, however, he was disturbed by the hunched gait of the guard, Jorge, who gave a weak signal in welcome and seemed incapable of making eye contact.  The clenched feeling spreading outwards from the pit of his stomach warning him that something was wrong. Seriously wrong. 

His fears were confirmed as he reined up by the corral to be met by Johnny, emerging from inside the hacienda closely followed by Teresa. For Johnny to be in and around the estancia at this time of the day something had to be wrong, and from the grim expression on his son’s face and the red-rimmed eyes of his ward, it was clear that something was gravely amiss. Murdoch’s sharp blue eyes scanned the immediate vicinity, but all he saw were the hunched forms of his hands as they half-heartedly and silently went about their chores. There was no sign of his eldest son. Coupled with his failure to meet him off the stage, and the morose atmosphere around him, it wasn’t hard to figure that something was clearly not right, and it likely had something to do with Scott.

“Johnny. Teresa,” Murdoch greeted the duo as he dismounted, nodding to Walt as the ranch hand came forward to take care of his mount.

“Murdoch,” Johnny acknowledged. “We weren’t expecting you back so soon.”

“Evidently,” Murdoch asserted in a clipped tone. It disturbed him to see the hunched stance of his usually easygoing younger son. It didn’t escape his attention that his young ward leaned heavily into her ‘brother’, whose arm was protectively draped around her shoulder, imparting comfort. It wasn’t like Johnny to be so physically demonstrative either.

“What’s wrong? Where’s Scott?”  Murdoch demanded.

That was clearly too much for Teresa. She practically launched herself at her guardian, burying her head in his chest as the sobs she had been struggling to keep at bay demanded release.   

Holding her to him, trying to offer reassurance but at the same time, bracing himself for what he was about to hear, Murdoch regarded his younger son closely as his eyes dropped to the ground. Johnny’s shoulders were slumped, his face lined with worry. His whole stance spoke of sleepless nights and a dejection that Murdoch had never seen before now in the young man. Johnny looked up once more and piercing blue eyes met his own.

“He’s missing, Murdoch. Scott’s missing.”

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

“I just don’t understand it, Johnny. Scott knows better than to just go off and not tell anyone where he was going or when he would be back.”

Murdoch was still having a hard time coming to terms with the sudden disappearance of his levelheaded older son.  It was a rule that had been instilled into every resident and ranch hand of the estancia: to always ensure that someone knew where you were going and how long you would be away so that others knew to come looking if you were overdue.   And Scott, of all people, knew the importance of that and how, as third shareowner of the ranch, he should lead by example. 

“I know that, Murdoch,” Johnny sighed, as he collapsed on the sofa,   “But according to Ed Hawkins, whatever was in that letter had him really spooked. He just ran out, mounted Rambler and was gone. Ed didn’t even see which way he went. He just assumed he headed straight back here.”

And that was another part of the mystery that Murdoch could not readily comprehend. Who could be sending Scott a letter that would rattle him enough for him to just ride off to who knows where and not send word to anyone where he was going, or for how long? It was the sort of impulsive behavior that he might have expected from Johnny when he first arrived at Lancer. There had certainly been plenty of people in his past that could have, and had, come looking for him. But even he had settled enough and now knew better than to do anything or go anywhere without making damn sure that someone else knew about it first.  

They had been talking around in circles for the past hour now. Johnny had informed Murdoch that Scott had been missing for four days with not so much as a word to anyone. When Johnny had returned from mending fences in the south pasture on Friday evening, cold and tired and looking forward to a hot bath and a good meal, he had been surprised to find that his brother had not yet returned. The men, restless to be heading into town to spend their hard-earned wages over the next two nights, were, also, more than a little perturbed that they had not been paid. Teresa, who had been busy all day in the kitchen baking, hadn’t realized anything was awry either. She had assumed that Scott had returned for long enough to put the funds in the safe and had then ridden out to assist Johnny, and she had simply just missed him.

By the time they realized that Scott was actually missing, it was too dark to do anything about it. The weather had closed in, and it wasn’t safe to venture out and look for him. Besides, there were any number of plausible explanations as to why Scott had decided to stay in town, not least of all the inclement weather. So aside from being slightly annoyed that he would have to be the one to pacify the men, and assure them that he was confident that Scott would be back with their wages in the morning, neither Johnny nor Teresa had, initially, been unduly concerned.

Johnny stayed close to the hacienda the next day, partly to be company for Teresa with Murdoch away and Scott absent, but also to await the return of his brother. Despite his assertions to his ‘sister’ that he was sure Scott would be back any time, he couldn’t quite ignore the growing feeling in the pit of his stomach that something just wasn’t right.    The storm had finally let up, and there was enough maintenance to be carried out in the immediate vicinity to both keep him busy and enable him to maintain his vigil for Scott. But as morning merged into afternoon, there was still no sign of his brother, and the gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach could no longer be contained.    He was loath to leave Teresa, but he could see she was just as worried as he was. It looked increasingly like something had happened to him, and if Scott was lying hurt somewhere, he wouldn’t last long, and especially with the icy blasts they were experiencing. The rain might have stopped for now, but there was a distinct chill to the air, and come nightfall the temperature would plummet even further. 

And there wasn’t just the potential that Scott had had an accident that bothered Johnny. There was a far more sinister possibility. Scott would have been carrying a considerable amount of money, having drawn the men’s wages from the bank, and on his own would have been a prime target for bushwhackers. Johnny cursed Scott’s stubbornness. In normal circumstances, if Murdoch had been home, one or the other of them would have accompanied their father to retrieve the funds, providing safety in numbers. Johnny had wanted to accompany Scott, but his brother had pointed out that one of them needed to be on hand to oversee things at the hacienda. Johnny reluctantly conceded the point, but had tried to convince Scott to at least take Walt or Frank along with him.  Scott had, however, countered that all the men were needed on work parties around the ranch and that he was a big boy and could take care of himself. He had quipped sardonically that he had, after all, had a lot of practice over the years.

Johnny couldn’t help resist a wry grin at the memory. It was easy to see Scott with his lean frame, fair complexion, and privileged Boston upbringing and think of him as being too genteel, but appearances could be very deceptive. Scott had more than proven his mettle on several occasions and was highly respected by all who knew him. There was certainly no doubt that he could take care of himself.  But against an ambush? Nobody could buck those odds.

Despite his brother’s introverted nature and tendency, at times, to seek out periods of solitude, especially with the way Teresa had been riding him lately, it was clear that this was not one of those occasions. His absence was both out of character and increasingly disturbing. So it was time to do something about it.  It wasn’t long before Barranca was saddled up, and Johnny was on his way into Morro Coyo.

It was slow going to town, but Johnny wanted to ensure there was nothing he had missed on the trail, no matter how minute, that could give him any sign as to his brother’s whereabouts. As he entered the outskirts of Morro Coyo, however, he was convinced that Scott had at least made it into town without incident but apparently had never left, or at least not to head back to Lancer.

Being Saturday, the bank was closed, but he knew Mort Stimmings, the Bank Manager, could always be found in the cantina enjoying a round of poker and a few drinks with some of the town’s men. In fact, Johnny had been known to join them on occasion when he had been sent into town to pick up some supplies, always finding some excuse to offer Murdoch as to why he had been ‘delayed’ returning.  True to form, he found Mort frowning over the hand that he had been dealt. That was the thing with Mort; he may have been an astute businessman, but you wouldn’t know it around the card table. He was entirely unable to mask his excitement when he had a good hand nor his frustration when he had nothing. It made him a lousy poker player.

He looked up as Johnny entered. “Ah Johnny, wondered if we’d be seeing you today. Join us in a hand or two?”

“Nah, sorry Mort, can’t,” Johnny asserted. “But I do need to talk to you. Can you come outside for a minute?”

While he had no idea what had happened to Scott, he wanted to be cautious about how much he said, and who he said it in front of, so, he reasoned, the cantina wasn’t the best place to discuss his brother’s uncharacteristic disappearance.

“Sure, Johnny.” Stimmings pulled back his chair to allow his considerable girth free passage past the card table as he rose heavily to his feet. He tossed his cards aside on the table in resignation. “Wasn’t gonna do much with this hand anyway. Deal me into the next one boys. I’ll be back soon.”

The portly bank manager followed Johnny out onto the boardwalk noting the grim expression on the usually jocular young man’s face.

“What’s wrong, Johnny?” He was struggling to keep up with the young man as he strode away, clearly wanting to get out of range of any prying ears.

Once Johnny was satisfied they were a safe distance away from the cantina, he turned and addressed the squat bank manager, who, despite the chill air, had already broken out in a sweat as he struggled to keep pace with the young ex-gunfighter.  

“Scott come and draw the Lancer payroll from you yesterday, Mort?”

Stimmings retrieved the handkerchief from his breast pocket and wiped the moisture from his brow. He frowned as he thought back to the day before.

“Nope. Never saw hide nor hair of him. Wondered about that. Problem?”

Judging by the worried expression on the young man’s face, it was clear there was.

“I dunno, Mort,” Johnny sighed tiredly.  “But that’s what he came into town for yesterday. He just never came back, is all.”

Breathless from his recent exertion, especially considering his sizeable bulk was ill used to it, Stimmings sat down heavily on one of the public benches outside the mercantile.  “Well, I’m sure there’s a plausible explanation. Have you spoken to anyone else?”

Johnny shook his head. “Not yet. Thought I’d try you first.”

“Maybe he didn’t get here…weather was awful yesterday. Perhaps something happened on the way?” Seeing the stricken expression on the young man’s face, Stimmings was quick to add, “I’m sure he’s fine. Maybe his horse threw a shoe, and he was left afoot. Maybe took shelter somewhere?”

Johnny managed a weak smile. He could see what Mort was trying to do, and he was grateful. Truth was that Stimmings knew as well as he did that it was highly unlikely that Scott would ever be left afoot, not with his cavalry training.   “No, I think he made it here, Mort. I saw no sign of anything having happened to him on the way.” 

“So have you checked with Ed over at the Stage Office? See if Scott went there to pick up the mail?

“Not yet. But that’s my next stop… After you open up the bank.”

“Oh, no, Johnny, its Saturday… we’re closed…you know that,” Stimmings whined.

“I know, Mort, but if I don’t get the men’s wages to them today, I’m gonna have a riot on my hands,” Johnny lamented. “C’mon, please, it won’t take long.” 

“All right, Johnny,” groused Stimmings resignedly, seeing the determined look on the young man’s face. “But we’ll go in the back way. If people see I’m opening the bank up on a Saturday, everyone’ll wanna come in and draw funds, and there’ll be no end to it.” 

Johnny’s lips curled into a semblance of a smile. Mort was certainly right about that. “Thanks, Mort. I owe ya one.”

Ten minutes later, Johnny headed over to the Stage Office. From here all the mail that came in on the stage was stored and distributed. Fortunately, Ed Hawkins was a single man, with no family, whose work was his life. He even lived in a small room at the back of the office, so you were always guaranteed that the office would be open, and he would be there or thereabouts. 

As Johnny entered, there was Ed in his usual place behind the meshed screen in the small, enclosed, booth where much of the registered mail was stored for collection. He looked surprised to see Johnny.

“Well, two Lancers within the space of a day. Glad you’re here, though. There’s mail here needs collecting.  Yer brother left it behind.”

Johnny regarded him sharply. “Scott was here yesterday?”

“Well, sure.  Like I say, came in for the mail. Like one of ya always does on a Friday. Only he didn’t take…”    

“How’d he seem?” Johnny interrupted. “He say anything to you at all?”

“Well he….” The postmaster stopped short, alarmed by the urgency in the young man’s voice. “What’s this all about, Johnny? Somethin’ wrong?”

Johnny could see that the postmaster was concerned, but he needed confirmation of what had happened to Scott. Knowing he had at least been here was already a relief. “Please Ed, it’s important. Just tell me how he was.”

“Well, like he usually is, friendly like, kinda social,” recalled Hawkins. “Came in and asked for the mail. I handed it all over, and he had a look through, but one piece caught his eye, and he started to open it there and then. We was just passin’ the time of day, talkin’ about old Murdoch and how long he was gonna be away and about the weather and such like, and all the while he’s openin’ this one letter. I carried on talkin’, but he went real quiet like as he read the contents and went kinda pale. Before I knew it, he was out the door. I called after him that he had left the rest of the mail, but I guess he didn't hear me…just heard him ride off and figured he'd headed back to Lancer. Guess he didn’t, huh?"

“No…no he didn’t,” breathed Johnny, alarmed at this revelation.   “Was there anything about the postmark? Any idea of where the letter was sent from?”

Hawkins shook his head. “Sorry, Johnny. Can’t recall there bein’ one. Not all letters get a mark if they come from local parts….”

Johnny nodded dejectedly. He’d figured as much.  “Sure Ed, I understand….”

Disturbed by the crestfallen expression on the young man’s face, Hawkins countered, “but I can tell you it came in on the southbound stage, so it would have come from anywhere between here and San Francisco. Whatever was in that letter, though, it sure did drain the color from his face and make him leave in a hell fired hurry… hope everythin’s alright.”

“I’m sure it is,” Johnny replied although his tone and expression belied the words.  “Thanks Ed, you’ve been a big help…” He acknowledged the postmaster as he headed out the door. 

“Wait, you’ve forgot….” But Johnny was already headed out the door, as fast as his elder brother had run out the day before. The rest of the uncollected mail grasped in his hand, Ed Hawkins sighed and put it back into the secure box for whenever one of the Lancers next came into town to claim it.   

Johnny had mounted Barranca and was resignedly turning the palomino to head out of town and back to Lancer when his attention was drawn to the telegraph office. Depending on where Scott had gone, there was a chance that he had already sent a wire to let them know where he was. At least if he had contacted them, it would put Teresa’s mind at rest, he told himself. Not to mention his own. And then he could think of all the choice words he would have for his brother, when he eventually did get back to Lancer, for running off like that. Not to mention what Murdoch would say if he got wind of it. 

As he headed into the telegraph office, the wire operator, Seth Clancy’s teenaged son, Ethan, was behind the counter. Of course, mused Johnny, his father had been propping up the bar in the cantina when he had gone in to speak to Mort. 

The gangly teenager gave him a toothy grin as he looked up and spotted the young man he clearly idolized. Johnny did his best not to encourage him, but he felt sorry for the boy all the same; the kid really didn’t have much going for him.  He already had far fewer teeth than he had a right to at his age, and he was never going to attract the interest of any girl unless he was willing to pay for her. And if that wasn’t enough, well, he wasn’t too long on brains either.   But one thing he wasn’t short on was enthusiasm, and he had an over-abundance of it. Johnny was sure it was going to get the kid into a lot of trouble some day, especially considering his interest in guns and gun fighting. 

“Hey, Johnny, was wonderin’ when I was next gonna see ya,” enthused Ethan. “‘Bin practicing my draw. I’m gettin’ real fast, mebbe not as fast as you, but I figger I got time. Ya wanna see?”

“Sorry, Ethan, can’t right now. Kinda in a hurry.”    It was as if the boy deflated right there in front of him. “But, hey, I’ll be back in town in a few days,” Johnny quickly countered. “I reckon I’ll have more time when I come back. What d’ya say I swing by then, huh?”  Johnny hated misleading the boy. The truth was it was unlikely he’d get back into town for a few weeks with all the work that needed to be done in and around the ranch, but he hated to see the kid look so disappointed.  And if it were at all possible, he’d try and find a way to come see the kid and do his best to steer him in the direction of a much safer ‘hobby.’

“Sure thing, Johnny, whatever you say’s good with me.” The boy was easily pacified.  “So, you wanna send a wire? Pa says I’m ‘sposed to call him if someone wants to send anythin’, but I reckon I can do it if you keep it short and spell the words out for me.”

“Nah, ‘s’ok, Ethan, but I was wondering if you had a wire come in this morning or maybe yesterday from my brother, Scott?”   Johnny inquired.

The boy shook his head. “Well, I’ve ‘bin here all day, and the wire’s been pretty quiet.  And I’ve been waitin’ here with my paper and pencil and everythin’. I know what all the letters mean when they come down the wire. I just have trouble spellin’ the words when I have to send ‘em.”

“Sure, Ethan, you’re a better man than me,” smiled Johnny. “I wouldn’t know what all those funny clicks mean.”

The boy grinned happily to receive such a compliment from his idol. 

“So there’s nothing from Scott? You’re sure?” persisted Johnny.

The boy finished looking through the stack of undelivered wires and nodded empathically.  “Sure am Johnny, nuthin’ from yer brother at all.”

“Ok, thanks for checking Ethan, I appreciate it. You keep practicing now, and I’ll see you in a few days.” Johnny turned and exited the telegraph office, leaving a young boy with a slightly worse case of hero worship than he had a few minutes before.

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



A few moments later, Seth Clancy returned from his two-hour liquid luncheon to once more wait vigil over the wire. His son was where he had left him, behind the counter, practicing his draw with the wooden gun he carried around in the makeshift holster he had fashioned for himself. Clancy shook his head. In a few years he wouldn’t be able to put off giving the boy a real gun and God help him or anyone around him when that happened. 

“Hey, boy. Was that Johnny Lancer I saw come out of here a minute ago?”

“Yeah, Pa. I was gonna show him my draw, but he was in a real hurry, so he’s gonna come back in a few days and then I’m gonna show him how quick I’ve gotten.”

Clancy shook his head. He knew that Johnny Lancer was loath to encourage his boy, but that he clearly felt sorry for his simple son, and had merely told him what he had thought he wanted to hear.

“Well, what did he come in here for? You didn’t send a wire for him did ya? After everythin’ I’ve told ya?”

“No, Pa, honest,” spluttered Ethan. It wasn’t a lie, even if he had intended to disobey his father to show off in front of the ex gunfighter he so idolized.

“Well if he didn’t come in here to send a wire, what did he come in for?” Clancy demanded as he lifted the wooden hatch and joined his son behind the counter.

“Well he was seein’ if there was a wire for him, Pa.”

Seth Clancy was now going through the pile of wires awaiting collection and delivery. Now that he was back from lunch, he’d send Ethan off to deliver those to the recipients who lived close enough to town so that the boy could find his way there and back. That was another thing about his hapless son - he could get lost in his own back yard.   

“Well, why didn’t ya give him this then?” Clancy held up the wire that had arrived a few days earlier from San Francisco.

Ethan looked at the piece of paper in his father’s hand in confusion.

“Well, I looked real hard, Pa, and I never saw anythin’ from Scott Lancer and that’s what Johnny was looking for….”

Clancy just shook his head in disgust. How on earth had he produced such an imbecile? Not one ounce of common sense did that boy possess…

“Sure, son,” he patted the boy on the back and gestured out towards the back entrance of the office. “Why don’t ya go saddle yer horse, and you can go deliver these wires for me? Then you go on home to yer ma. I’m sure she’ll have plenty of chores waitin’ for ya.”

He sighed as the boy compliantly took the wad of papers he held out to him and scurried out to do his father’s bidding. He replaced the wire from Murdoch Lancer back on the top of the uncollected pile. It was too far out of town for the boy to deliver it. It would just have to wait until Johnny or one of the other Lancer hands came back into town to retrieve it.

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

It was with a heavy heart that Johnny headed back to Lancer as the dark clouds gathered once more, promising more rain to accompany the icy winds that refused to abate.  Well, at least he had some kind of answer. Scott had made it into town, and a letter that he had received was undoubtedly the cause of his disappearance. But that was where the trail ran cold. There could be any number of places Scott could have headed to between Morro Coyo and San Francisco, and he didn’t know where to start looking or even if Scott would want him to.  Scott had been ill equipped for a long journey, though. But he did have the means to buy supplies on the way if he needed to. Heck, there were just too many unanswered questions, and the more he thought on it, the more questions presented themselves.   Despite the knowledge that Scott had been seen and was hale and hearty twenty four hours earlier, it bothered Johnny that there could be anything that would disturb his level-headed brother enough to just take off the way he had.

No, there was nothing to do but head back to Lancer and wait it out.  At least he could tell Teresa that Scott had made it safely into town. Beyond that, though… well, maybe Scott would get in touch when he had dealt with whatever had taken him away so urgently.  With more questions than answers mulling through his brain, he headed back to the hacienda to update Teresa, with more than just the chill wind sending shivers down his spine.



 

Chapter 2

“Well, whadd’ya think Ed can tell you that he hasn’t already told me?”

Johnny was frustrated. Murdoch had informed him that he was heading into town himself to look for answers. Five days with no word from his older son was out of character and he was damned if he was going to just sit around and wait. But Murdoch had barely been back at the hacienda twelve hours, and looked far from rested after his return journey from San Francisco. And he was now preparing to ride out again seeking answers in Morro Coyo about his errant son’s disappearance.

“I don’t know, Johnny, but there must be something else that Ed can tell us,” countered Murdoch. “About that letter. Something.  Anything.  Someone in town must have seen what direction he rode off in. He can’t have just disappeared. He might have sent a wire. And I can’t believe you haven’t been back in town since Saturday to check.”

“Oh, c’mon, Murdoch, you saw how bad the road was when you rode back in. The weather has been lousy all week and we’ve had our work cut out here. Besides, with you away and Scott missing, I didn’t want to leave Teresa here on her own. Scott’s disappearance has hit her hard.”

Seeing the worry lines etched on his younger son’s face and the dark circles beneath his eyes, Murdoch’s expression softened. It was clear that the inclement conditions had provided more work around the ranch than usual and Johnny had certainly been doing the lion’s share. Not to mention worrying about Scott as much as anyone, and trying to console Teresa while he, himself, was away. “I’m sorry, son. Of course, you’re right… I just can’t understand any of this, though. It’s not that I don’t trust you, but Ed might have remembered something since you spoke to him, anything that might give us some clue as to where Scott could have gone. And wherever that is, he might have had time to send us a wire, let us know how and where he is. I may come back empty handed but I have to do something.”

Johnny regarded his father closely, all the heat and anger evaporating as quickly as it had arisen. Hell, he could see how worried the old man was. But chewing on each other sure wasn’t helping any of them, and they were all pretty much at the end of their ropes wondering what had happened to Scott. Something had to give, and he could understand his father’s need to do something other than wait around for news.  Not for the first time since his brother’s disappearance, Johnny resolved to have more than a few choice words with Scott when he eventually did show up safe and sound. Because right now, the thought of any other outcome was not one he was ready or willing to entertain.

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

Murdoch made good time heading into Morro Coyo, grateful for the respite in the weather. Despite the broiling black clouds overhead that constantly threatened to open and spill their frigid contents on an already saturated landscape, for now, it was only the bone chilling wind that Murdoch had to contend with.  But that had already made its presence known, cutting through his troublesome back like a knife and he knew it would take several of Sam Jenkins’ powder preparations to dull the pain enough to allow him to rest tonight. Not that sleep would come easily, or even at all, all the while his older son was missing. He just hoped that wherever Scott was, he was under cover. Johnny had said that he was ill equipped for camping out and he wouldn’t last long in this weather if he were sleeping rough without adequate provisions.

By mid morning Murdoch entered the outskirts of town, acknowledging the polite nods he received from the many towns’ folk going about their daily business. Murdoch was a well liked and respected figure in Morro Coyo, a small town that he had been instrumental in helping establish and build into the thriving community it had become today. Many of the business owners owed their livelihoods to Lancer, and were always eager to greet him on the few occasions he ventured into town.   But today he didn’t have the time or inclination to engage in small talk. He was looking for answers, and he hoped that he would find them with either Seth Clancy or Ed Hawkins.

Murdoch made his way to the telegraph office first, tying his mount, Toby, loosely to the hitching rail outside. He hoped that there would be something there from Scott to advise his worried family that he was safe; wherever that was. If that was the case, then it might not, then, necessitate a visit to Ed at the stage office. Of course it depended on the content of such a wire. Scott was very good at imparting information without really revealing anything at all. 

As Murdoch bent his tall frame through the low door into the wire office, Seth Clancy was busy scribbling down a message that was just coming through. Without looking up he greeted the anonymous newcomer“Take a seat, I’ll be right with ya.”

“Sure Seth, take your time.”  Murdoch acknowledged, managing to sound more patient than he felt.

At the sound of the influential rancher’s voice, the wire operator looked up and smiled. “Mr. Lancer. Good to see ya, this won’t take long.”  He turned back to his scribbling as the wire continued to click away. It seemed to be a lengthy message.  

Murdoch paced up and down, loath to stand still and even less inclined to sit down with his back aching the way it did, in case it seized up entirely. 

As the wire operator continued to scribble down the notes, Murdoch noted Clancy’s gangly son emerge from the back.

“Hey pa, I delivered those messages like you asked me, but…” He stopped dead when he saw the tall rancher waiting for his father.

“Hello Ethan,” greeted Murdoch pleasantly. 

The color suddenly drained from the boy’s face as he backed up, then turned tail and ran. Murdoch sighed. Was he really that imposing a figure?

“Sorry about that Mr. Lancer.” Clancy had finished scribing the message and was now reaching for a piece of paper from the wire tray behind him. “I don’t know what gets into that boy sometimes. He was probably scared that you’d yell at him because of this.”  He held up the piece of paper. Murdoch’s heart leapt. Perhaps it was from Scott? But his hopes were soon dashed.

“Don’t seem right givin’ it to ya seein’ as you were the one who sent it in the first place, but when Johnny came in here a few days ago lookin’ for somethin’ from Scott, Ethan didn’t think to give this to him at the same time. Sorry ‘bout that but it is my duty to deliver all messages.”   

Murdoch smiled weakly, trying to hide his disappointment as he took the proffered note. “That’s all right Seth, no harm done. Tell Ethan I’m not mad at him if that’s what he thinks.”

“Well, that’s very gracious of you, Mr. Lancer,’ smiled Clancy.  “But the boy needs to learn more sense. Will do him good to fret on it for a while.  So, what brings you here today? You wanna send a message?”

“No, actually, the same reason that Johnny came in a few days ago. To see if Scott has sent a wire through.”

Clancy shook his head, his brow furrowing in consternation. “Sorry Mr. Lancer but there’s hardly been a thing through these past few days. That one I just got in is all I’ve had this mornin’ so far. Somethin’ wrong?”

Murdoch shook his head. “I’m sure it’s nothing.” He was loath to give too much away; he didn’t want the entire town to know that Scott was missing and it was well known that Seth Clancy liked to partake in liquid luncheons that always seemed to loosen his tongue. “If you do hear anything can you get someone to ride out and deliver it straight away? I’ll pay extra?”

“Sure thing Mr. Lancer. I’ll bring it myself.”

Murdoch nodded, and turned towards the low door that lead out onto main street, tossing his own crumpled wire into the waste paper basket before heading back outside.  He strode across Main Street purposefully and headed towards the Stage Depot; all his hopes now hanging on Ed Hawkins to see if he could provide some answers. 

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

Johnny headed back into the estancia. He had been trying to break a stallion all morning and it was proving to be frustrating work. His heart hadn’t been in it and the snorting brute knew it. The stallion was picking up on Johnny’s own dark mood, which was exacerbated by the pounding headache he had developed due to lack of sleep, and the keen wind whistling around his unprotected neck. The more frustrated and ornery he got with the stubborn creature, the more it snorted and snarled and bucked and pitched. Johnny was bruised and battered from being thrown and covered head to foot in mud. Added to that, his insides were all churned up with both worry for and anger towards his brother.  It was hard to do anything when thoughts of his errant brother monopolized his every waking moment.  Hell, did Scott have any idea what he was doing to him? To any of them?

He half-heartedly washed up at the pump and then headed inside, removing his mud caked boots in the entranceway, not wishing to incur the wrath of either Maria or Teresa. It was lunchtime but food was the last thing he had on his mind. But maybe a cup of Maria’s strong coffee might ease the ache in his pounding skull, and settle the churning in the pit of his stomach. If nothing else, at least it might warm him up some, he mused to himself.

The smell of freshly baked bread permeated the house and in ordinary circumstances would have had Johnny salivating. But not today. It just added to the maelstrom that was wreaking havoc with his insides.  He felt if he ate anything right now it wouldn’t take too long before it made a swift reappearance. As he headed into the kitchen, Teresa was spooning a generous helping of thick broth into a bowl. She looked up as he padded across the flag stone floor, and watched him as he picked up the coffee pot from the stove and poured himself a generous cup.

“That was good timing.” She set the heaped bowl down on the table and gestured to it. “Sit down and get that inside you, it’ll warm you up. The bread will be out of the oven in a minute.”

Johnny sat down tiredly and sipped at the bitter brew before replying. “Thanks Teresa, but I’m really not hungry right now, maybe later.”

A blast of cold air announced the arrival of Maria through the back door as she came in carrying an armful of wood for the fire. Johnny jumped up, glad of the distraction. “Hey, Maria, c’mon, you shouldn’t be doin’ that. Let me take those for you.”

Before the Lancer housekeeper could utter a word of protest he had scooped the wood from her arms and was bent down, busily arranging it in the basket next to the stove.

“Johnny Lancer, you are going to sit there and eat. You hardly ate anything for breakfast and if you’re not…”

“Teresa, will you just let it alone?” Johnny snapped, as he rose too quickly, sending shards of agony through his pounding head.  He immediately regretted his harsh tone when he saw the shock register on the pretty young brunette’s face, before she dissolved into tears and turned tail and ran up the back stairs, sobbing. Johnny ran his fingers through his hair distractedly, wishing he could ease the ache in his pounding head. As he looked up he met the disapproving gaze of Maria.

“Sé, Maria, I know.  I shouldn’t have snapped. I’m sorry.”

“Si Juanito but it is not I you should be apologizing to. Señorita Teresa is hurting as much as you. She misses Señor Scott too. You should go after her,” Maria chastised.

The last thing that Johnny wanted to do was impart comfort to another right now with the way his head was pounding and his stomach churning, but as much as he was worried about his brother, he knew that Teresa was just as concerned. And the strain of keeping body and soul together was taking its toll on them all, but not least of all on his young ‘sister’.

“And Teresa is right Juanito,” continued Maria. “You need to eat. She is missing one brother. She doesn’t want you to get sick and leave her too.”

Johnny smiled weakly. “You’la re derecha Maria. I’ll go talk to her.”

He climbed the back stairs and slowly made his way to his ‘sister’s’ room. He could hear her distress from down the corridor and he cursed himself for being the cause of it.  He knocked softly on the door but there was no response save for the stifled sobs.

“Teresa. It’s me. Can I come in?”

Still no response. Never one to stand on ceremony, Johnny gently opened the door and peered into her room. Teresa was laying face down on her bed, her face buried into the comforter, her body wracked with the pent up emotion that had finally demanded release.  Johnny padded over to the bed. He sat down and gently lifted her up into his embrace.  She responded by burrowing into his shoulder, her thin arms gripping him tightly as her tears soaked into his shirt.

“I’m sorry Teresa, I didn’t mean to yell at you. Honestly, sometimes I could kick myself. You wanna do it for me?”

His attempt at humor was lost on her though as she continued to cry. He rubbed her back awkwardly, not really knowing how to comfort her. He had never seen her like this before. He knew it was more than his having snapped at her. That had just been the final straw.

“C’mon honey, what is it? I know you’re worried about Scott…we all are but I’m sure everything’ll be fine…why old Boston’ll be back before you know it wondering what all the fuss was about. You know what he’s like.” He took out his bandana from his pocket and offered it to her. “Here, it was clean yesterday.”  

She lifted her head off his shoulder and took the bandana with a weak smile and dabbed at her eyes.  “Oh Johnny, I don’t think he will come back. I think it was me that drove him away. And if anything has happened to him I’ll never forgive myself.”

“Oh now Teresa, what makes you think that? Scott thinks the world of you. You know that. There’s nothing that you could ever do or say that would drive him away.”

“But I kept on at him about his birthday, “ persisted Teresa miserably. “And about throwing the party. I wouldn’t take no for an answer. And then just before he went to town I kinda lost my temper with him.  I asked him to pick up some things from the mercantile for the party and he was telling me he didn’t want a fuss and I just snapped at him and told him how ungrateful he was being.”

Johnny could just imagine the scene. Teresa had been pushing a little hard that was for sure, and the closer Scott’s birthday got, the more tense he had seemed to become about it all, but he still couldn’t see that being the reason for Scott disappearing like he had. Johnny reached out and gently brushed a lock of hair away from Teresa’s face.    “Go on. What did he say to that?”

“Well,” she continued falteringly, “he apologized to me. Said he was sorry and knew that I meant well, it was just he had never had people fuss over him that way before. But Johnny, it should have been me apologizing to him. I meant to when he got back from town, only…” but the tears burst forth again, and she was unable to continue.

He gathered her towards him once more; suddenly mad as all hell at Scott for putting Teresa, putting all of them through the hell they were experiencing.   “Oh Teresa, wherever he’s gotten to, you can be sure he didn’t go off because of you. You could never drive him away, you hear? I know how much Scott loves having a ‘sister’. Whatever’s eating at him, it’s got nothing to do with you. That much I know.” He disengaged himself from the sobbing young woman and guided her to her feet. “Now c’mon, dry those eyes.  I reckon I could manage some of that soup and bread right about now and you need to eat too. Anyone ever tell you you’re too skinny?” He flashed an impish grin at her.

That did the trick. Teresa smiled back through her tears. “Only a certain brother of mine almost every day.”

“Well, it must be true then.” He caressed her cheek gently.  “Now you go on, I’ll be down in a minute.”  He followed her out of her room, closed the door behind them both and watched as she made her way along the corridor to the back stairs that led down to the kitchen. Once she was out of sight, he made his way to Scott’s room.  He hesitated outside for a moment before opening the door and venturing inside.  Everything was in order, nothing out of kilter. That was the way that Scott lived his life. Ordered, structured; everything had its place. It had infuriated Johnny at first in those turbulent days when they had both first arrived at Lancer and struggled to come to terms with the new circumstances they found themselves in. Whereas Johnny had spent his life living on his wits, never being able to put roots down anywhere for too long, Scott had lived a life of order and stability. He had been more grounded. And whereas Johnny had tended to drop things where he was assured of finding them the next day, Scott had been far more particular; more meticulous in the way he did things, always ensuring things were replaced where they had been originally located.    But, after a fashion, Johnny had come to find it comforting because if Scott had used something, you were assured it would always be right back where it belonged when he was finished with it.  And that was indicative of the man Scott was, in all facets of his life, reliable, ordered, always there.  You could always rely on Scott to be there.  Except now he wasn’t there. And, looking around his room, Johnny suddenly hated the ordered state of it. No discarded book, no ruffled bedclothes, no dirty laundry scattered on the floor; nothing. Everything in its place. As if he had never been there.

Suddenly the sterile surroundings were overwhelming to him and Johnny had to get out.  “Damn Scott, where the hell are you?” he muttered before turning around and heading towards the backstairs, to eat the lunch he still didn’t have the stomach for.

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

As Murdoch arrived at the Stage Depot, Ed Hawkins had just seen off the mid morning stage, headed for Stockton, and was in the process of sorting out the mail that had come up from Fresno. He greeted the Lancer patriarch warmly  “Hey, good to see you Mr. Lancer. How was the trip to San Francisco? Didn’t expect ya back for a few days. Was real surprised to hear ya’d been on the stage that came back in yesterday. Sorry I missed ya, guess I was busy takin’ care of things in here.”

Murdoch removed his hat, placed it on the counter and moved over to stand by the stove that provided a modicum of heat in the small office. It was proving to be the bitterest winter Murdoch had experienced in many years, and he suspected the first snowstorm of the year wasn’t going to be too far away.  “Yes, I didn’t expect to be back so soon,” he confessed.  “But I was able to conclude business ahead of schedule.  And I had expected to be met by one of my sons so went looking over at the cantina.”

Hawkins flashed a wide grin. “Well, I guess that’s as good a place as any to find ‘em. But it’s always good to see ya Mr. Lancer, sir. I do have some mail waitin’ here for ya to take, though. Seen both them boys of yers lately and the both of ‘em left here without takin’ it with ‘em.

“Yes, and its about that I wanted to see you Ed.” Murdoch wanted to cut to the chase. Ed Hawkins was a master at small talk and what often set out to be a five minute sojourn into the Stage Depot to collect the mail, could frequently turn into an hours debate with Ed. Ordinarily Murdoch didn’t mind so much, Ed was an eternal bachelor with no family close by and didn’t miss a thing when it came to what was going on in and around town. From that perspective, he was a good source of information about everyone and everything, but today Murdoch was only interested in getting the very specific answers he sought. So he planned to firmly drive this conversation. “I understand Scott came in here to pick up the mail last Friday and there was something about one of the letters that seemed to disturb him. Is there anything you can tell me about that letter, anything you can remember which may afford some clue as to where Scott may have gone?”

Hawkins furrowed his brow as he tried to recall the events of five days earlier.  “Well, I dunno what else I can tell ya that I didn’t already tell Johnny. Scott seemed his usual self really when he came in, making conversation like, flickin’ through the mail, checkin’ out whether they was anythin’ important like, I guess. But then when he opened that particular letter, somethin’ changed about him. It was like the light went outta his eyes or somethin’. He just went real pale and distant like and I could tell that letter sure didn’t carry any good news.  After that I don’t reckon he really heard a word I said to him. Just excused himself real quick and headed out the door.”

Murdoch tried to take all this in. What had it been about the letter that had made Scott open it there and then in the first place when he had just scanned all the rest and left them unopened? Was it something to do with Harlan Garrett? Was that it?  Had Scott been recalled to Boston? Harlan Garret wasn’t getting any younger and it was conceivable that something could have happened to him.  Although, thought Murdoch uncharitably, that bitter old goat would probably outlive them all just to spite them.

“He still not back yet?”

“Huh?” Murdoch was startled out of his reverie.

“Scott. He still not come back?” 

It was clear Hawkins was fishing for information and loath as he was to give it to him, Murdoch didn’t see how he could not tell him about Scott’s continued absence. The fact that he was here right now interrogating the postmaster about the letter that appeared to be at the root of Scott’s sudden flight, clearly illustrated how uncharacteristic the young man’s disappearance really was.

Murdoch sighed. “No Ed, he hasn’t. We’ve had no word from him either, and that’s not like my son.  His absence clearly has something to do with that letter and I really need you to try and think of anything that you can tell me that might help us locate him so that we can bring him home. Can you tell me anything about the hand it was written in? Did it seem to be an educated one? Someone who had been well schooled, for example?  And what about the paper, was it good quality? Branded? ”

Hawkins shook his head slowly. “Not as I recall. Paper was kinda coarse. The writin’ was sorta scrawly, difficult to read if ya know what I mean. The person knew their letters but the writin’ weren’t that fancy, and the ink was smudged some. So they likely didn’t put no sand on it to dry it off before sealing it. Don’t reckon they was used to writin’ many letters whoever they were.” 

Well at least we’re getting somewhere thought Murdoch. He knew that Hawkins would know more than Johnny had gleaned from him. You just had to know the right questions to ask. Ed Hawkins had nothing much else to do all day but jaw with anyone who came in, and analyze the uncollected mail when he was alone. And there certainly wasn’t much that got past him. But of course he never shared his findings with anyone other than the intended recipient of the mail items, and only then if the information was asked for. From that perspective he took his role very seriously.

“And you’re sure you didn’t see the postmark at all?” pressed Murdoch. “There was no return address on the back of the letter?” 

Hawkins shook his head. “I’m sorry Mr. Lancer, was like I said to Johnny. There weren’t no postmark as I can recall and there weren’t no address on the back neither.  I would have remembered if there had been. I’m sorry, I guess I ain’t been much help at all.”

Murdoch grimaced dejectedly as he contemplated what Hawkins had told him. Well, it looked more and more unlikely that the letter had come from Harlan Garrett, then. It would have been emblazoned all across the letter for all to see if it had been from him and there would, at the very least, have been a return address. That, in itself, was some relief.  But much as he disliked the idea that his son would return to Boston for any reason, at least he would have known where he was.

“I’m sorry to press you Ed,” apologized Murdoch. “I know you have work to do, but one more question. Where did the mail sack originate? Where had the stage come in from that morning? San Francisco or Stockton?”

“Well that I can tell you Mr. Lancer. It was definitely San Francisco and the letter would have been stamped if it had come from there, so I guess it would have been put on the stage at any one of the towns it stopped at on the way through.”

“And that’s a lot of towns,” sighed Murdoch.  He knew first hand just how many small towns the stage from San Francisco stopped at. It was a two-day journey with an overnight stay in San Jose and his back was still paining him from the jolting around he had experienced. And the exposure to the icy December wind was certainly not helping any. 

“Well, thank you, Ed. You’ve been a big help. I appreciate it.” Murdoch retrieved his hat and turned back towards the door. He’d got as much out of Ed Hawkins as he was going to and while he had eliminated Boston as a destination for his errant son, he was no further ahead in determining exactly where Scott had gone. And why he had not made contact.

“Err, wait Mr. Lancer, you forgot this.”

Murdoch turned to see Hawkins waving the uncollected mail at him that both Scott and Johnny had previously left behind. He smiled weakly and took it.

“Sorry Ed, I can see why both the boys left without it.  Thanks for all your help. I appreciate it. If you think of anything else….”

“Well, there is one thing Mr. Lancer,” piped up Hawkins. “I dunno if it helps any, and I didn’t really think much on it at the time, but there was somethin’ else about the letter that I can tell ya.”

“What is it Ed?”

“Well, that letter that Scott opened, ‘t’weren’t addressed to him.”

Murdoch looked at the postmaster sharply. Wondering why the hell he hadn’t revealed this before.  “It wasn’t? Well, who was it addressed to?”

“You Mr. Lancer. It was addressed to you.”

Chapter 3

“The more I think about it, Johnny, the more disturbed I feel about this whole situation. I think its time to call Val into this.”

It was early evening and Johnny and Murdoch were sat in the Great Room trying to sort through the facts, as they presented themselves. Murdoch had returned a few hours before and it had been a tense repast that had been shared by the family, all painfully aware of the empty chair and place setting at the table.   Scott was so unassuming when he was around, so neat and ordered in the way that he did things, you hardly noticed he was there at all sometimes, not like Johnny who always seemed to leave a trail of disorder and discarded items wherever he went.   But now Scott wasn’t here, the gap left by his absence was like a huge chasm that had opened up in all their lives.  Suddenly, it seemed to Murdoch, there were reminders of him everywhere, from the empty place setting to his neat hand in the immaculately kept ledger that sat open on his father’s desk. Murdoch had only been aware of his son’s disappearance for twenty-four hours but already the strain was becoming more than he felt he could bear. He could only imagine what it must be feeling like for Teresa and Johnny who had endured five days of worry. 

As Murdoch returned from his investigative mission into town, his mind had been working overtime at the implications of what Ed Hawkins had told him.  He wracked his brain trying to consider all the possibilities of what could have transpired, of what could have been contained in that letter and who could have sent it.   Sure, Murdoch knew he had ruffled more than his fair share of feathers over the years and he couldn’t rule out the possibility it had something to do with a score that someone felt needed settling, but he couldn’t think for the life of him who could still bear him a grudge. He had gone to great lengths over the years to make amends with those he felt he had wronged, and to tidy up any loose ends that had the potential to come back and pose any threat to Lancer. So he was hard pressed to think of anyone or anything that he or his family would need protecting from.   The most recent incidence of ensuring his past didn’t threaten the present had been when Murdoch had done a disappearing act of his own, riding to Mesa Roja in the middle of the night to make his peace with Judd Haney. That had taken twenty-five years to resolve, but having his sons back with him had been what had prompted him to action. He had heard that Haney was out of jail and he didn’t want anything from his past coming back and hurting either of his sons. Only the irony was, that could be exactly what was occurring now, and it disturbed Murdoch to think that there was a stone he had left unturned and that whoever was hiding beneath it could now be endangering Scott.

As the bitter wind intensified and swirled around to the north, the pregnant clouds that had been gathering ominously overhead unleashed their pent up fury, the near horizontal rain pellets stinging his exposed cheeks, the darkening skies matching his own festering mood.

By the time he arrived back at the hacienda, he was soaked to the skin, the penetrating cold had seeped into his marrow, and had awakened every old injury he had ever suffered in his fifty plus years. He had never felt so old and beaten as when he had walked dejectedly through the door to be met by his younger son and ward.  From the expectant looks on their faces he knew that both Teresa and Johnny were desperate for information from him, but one look at his grim expression and they knew he was no nearer to discovering Scott’s whereabouts than he had been before he had set out that morning.   He could tell just by looking at her red-rimmed eyes that Teresa had been crying and despite knowing that she needed answers, deemed there was nothing to be gained in revealing that the letter that had taken Scott away from them had actually been intended for her guardian. 

So all he had told them was that Ed hadn’t been able to provide him with any more information than he had given Johnny when he had interviewed him the day after Scott’s initial disappearance.   Johnny, however, clearly hadn’t bought it; Murdoch had seen it reflected in those piercing blue eyes of his. His younger son, clearly, hadn’t stayed alive all those years as a hired gun without knowing how to read a person. But at least he’d had the good sense not to confront him about it until an exhausted Teresa excused herself and retired for the night. Then he wasted no time demanding what his old man had REALLY found out.  It was then that Murdoch revealed to Johnny, as they had both partaken of a glass of cognac, whom the intended recipient of the letter had actually been.

Johnny rose from his position on the sofa and placed another log on the fire as he contemplated his father’s proposed plan of action.  He’d considered talking to Val himself but, hell what did they really have other than an instinctive feeling that something was amiss? Val knew Scott and he would agree that it wasn’t like him to just go off like that without a word to anyone.  But aside from being as good a friend as any of them had, Val was first and foremost a lawman with a reputation to consider. And he needed more evidence than intuition that something was wrong to get any kind of search going.  He sighed, knowing his old man wasn’t going to like what he had to say as he turned back to him. 

“Well, what could Val really do Murdoch? Where the hell would he start? For all any of us know Scott could be off with a girl somewhere?”

Murdoch shook his head emphatically as he drained the remainder of his brandy and immediately reached for the bottle to refill it. “You and I both know that’s not true Johnny. And so would Val.”

“Yeah, I know,” countered Johnny. “But he’s gonna need more than a hunch that something’s wrong to do anything. We’ve got no evidence that anything has happened to Scott and while Val knows as well as we do how out of character this is for Scott, he’s gonna need more than that to convince anyone else to join in any kind of search.”

Murdoch stared into the fire as he took another sip of brandy, watching the flames flicker as a gust of wind whipped down the chimney. The storm outside was showing no sign of abating; if anything it seemed to be increasing in its ferocity, the violent gusts flinging the icy rain pellets angrily against the windows, making them rattle and shudder.   He shivered involuntarily, but not from the cold.  Johnny was right, they had nothing more than their own instincts to go on and it wasn’t enough to justify any lawman expending time and resources on searching for a man who for all Val knew neither wanted nor needed to be found.  But there was no doubt in Murdoch’s mind at all.  Scott did need to be found. Maybe that was the essence of what it was to be a parent, that sixth sense that told you that something was seriously wrong with your offspring.

“Murdoch? You hear what I said?”

“Yes, Johnny I heard you,” Murdoch sighed.  “But ride in and talk to Val in the morning anyway, he could circulate Scott’s description, see if anyone has seen him. And he might also have heard if there has been any trouble in any of the smaller towns between here and San Francisco.   I’ll write up some wires that I’ll get you to send as well. We can’t just sit back and do nothing.”    

Johnny nodded silently in acquiescence and watched as his father slowly got up and made his way over to the picture window. He had never seen his old man look so tired, so defeated and suddenly, so very old.  Hell, had that been what it was like for him when his mother first left, taking him with her all those years before?  And for all the subsequent years, not knowing if his younger son was alive or dead? If one day of not knowing what had happened to Scott could do this to him, he could only imagine what it was like all those years being parted from him, from both of his sons.  It made Johnny reflect guiltily on the many reckless things he had done since he had returned to Lancer; it had just never occurred to him that the old man could worry so much. 

“Johnny!”

He looked up to see Murdoch advancing rapidly towards the door, his aches and pains seemingly forgotten.

“What is it?”

“I can hear something out there. Sounds like a horse approaching.  Get a lantern.”

“Oh, c’mon, Murdoch, in that wind? I can’t even hear myself think let alone hear anything beyond the storm that’s blowin’ out there”

“Just do it Johnny,” Murdoch barked. “Then meet me outside.”

Johnny rolled his eyes but did as he was told, even if he did think his father was hearing what he wanted to hear.  He didn’t blame him. He had lost count of the times during the past few days where he thought he had spotted someone on the horizon only to realize it was nothing, just his imagination and wishful thinking that it was Scott returning from wherever it was he had been.  He headed into the kitchen and grabbed one of the kerosene lanterns that was hanging up by the door and carefully lit it before heading back through the Great Room towards the open front door, grabbing his coat and slicker from the coat tree as he did so.

Murdoch had already donned his waterproofs and had ventured out to try and determine who it could be approaching on such a foul night, hoping against hope it was Scott returning home to them. He couldn’t think of anyone else who would be paying them a visit at such a late hour and in such inclement conditions.  Not with good news anyway.

It was so dark, the rain so torrential that it was virtually impossible for Murdoch to see more than a few feet ahead of him. He yelled back for Johnny, hoping the wind would carry his voice and guide his son towards him. As he turned back towards the house, he saw Johnny emerge, his hand held protectively around the lantern to prevent the howling wind and driving rain from extinguishing the flame. He could see from the light of the lantern, his son’s face contorting as he yelled for him, but he was calling against the wind, and there was no way that Murdoch would hear him. He ventured back towards Johnny, the wind, now, at his back, propelling him forward.

“Johnny! Over here,” he called as loudly as he could, and was rewarded as the younger man looked up in his direction and made his way slowly towards him, battling the elements every step of the way.  Murdoch turned back towards the direction of the hoof beats, which were growing increasingly louder, competing with the shrieking voice of the wind as it buffeted everything around them. He could now feel the vibration through the sodden ground and knew that the rider was almost upon them. He felt a hand on his shoulder as Johnny drew parallel to him.

The younger man leaned in close and yelled.  “Can you see anything?”

Murdoch shook his head vigorously, his eyes still firmly fixed in the direction of the approaching rider.  “Not yet but he’s not far off whoever he is.” He averted his gaze for a moment to focus on his younger son and noticed the lantern in one hand, his drawn side arm in the other and nodded grimly; grateful to have him by his side if whoever was coming towards them were to pose any kind of threat.  

Yeah, and us standin’ here with this lantern and the lights of the hacienda behind us will give him one helluva target to shoot at when he gets close enough, thought Johnny as he waited to see just who would emerge out of the night.

“Johnny, why don’t you give me the lantern, and take cover, just in case?” Murdoch yelled over the roar of the storm. 

Hell, thought Johnny, when did the old man suddenly become a mind reader? 

“Murdoch…” he started to object but was quickly interrupted.

“No arguments Johnny,’ he cried. “I’m relying on you to cover my back. Just until we know what we are dealing with.” 

As usual the old man was right, there was no arguing with that. He grudgingly handed him the lantern and took up position behind the wall, which at least afforded some protection from the stinging rain, and waited. He kept one eye on his father and the other trained in the direction of the approaching rider. Ready for whatever was coming.  It wouldn’t be long now; he could feel the ground reverberating as the horse, definitely a lone rider, approached. He cocked his weapon and took a deep breath. 

Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder and jerked back in surprise.

“What’s goin’ on Johnny?”

“Mierda, Jelly, don’t do that,” spat Johnny.   The old ranch hand had managed to approach without being heard but then again that wasn’t difficult for anyone to do in a storm like this. It was damn near impossible to hear anything in these conditions, let alone anyone or anything down wind of you.

“Well, whadd’ya doin’ out here?”  Jelly, too, was adorned in his waterproofs, the reflection of his flickering lantern dancing in the pools of water amassing at their feet. “Couldn’t sleep for that infernal racket. Was gonna go check on the horses when I saw the light and wondered if it was Scott comin’ back?”

“Well, that’s what we’re waitin’ to see,” countered Johnny. “There’s a rider comin’ in. Lord knows how Murdoch heard it above all this brimstone and fury but he did. He’s not far off either.”  He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and turned back towards the house and saw that Teresa was standing in the doorway. “Jelly, go and take Teresa inside will ya? Just ‘til we know what we’re dealin’ with here?”

“Sure thing. You want this?”   Johnny nodded as the old ranch hand handed him the lantern before heading back towards the door, guided by the lights of the estancia and propelled by the fierce tempest at his back. Johnny refocused his attention on his father, standing a few feet ahead of him. Suddenly he noted Murdoch’s stance relax, and the older man sprang forward, at the same time turning his face back and calling out for him.  Johnny jumped up and headed to his father’s side and saw what he had, the rider less horse emerging from the gloom. Murdoch took the bridle and patted it on the nose.  The creature responded by dipping it head and nuzzling Murdoch’s shoulder.  It was clearly exhausted and very pleased to have arrived at its destination.  Murdoch turned back to look at Johnny, a stricken expression on his face. Johnny felt sick to the stomach. It was Rambler, Scott’s horse. And there was no sign of his brother.

“Let’s get him into the barn out of this wind and rain,” yelled Murdoch.  “We can take a better look at him there. ”  Johnny stared out into the gloom, in the direction that his brother’s mount had come in from, his stomach clenching at the implications. 

“Johnny, come on, let’s get him under cover,” reiterated Murdoch, pulling at the younger man’s arm, forcing him out of his reverie.

The bedraggled horse was more than happy to be lead into the dry refuge of a warm stable to escape the ferocity of the storm that had done its best to confound, confuse and divert him from his intended destination. But it had been pure instinct that had brought him home; to those he knew would be able to help. He followed passively as Murdoch led him into the barn; his duty fulfilled.

Dejectedly following his father, Johnny detoured over to Jelly and Teresa who were both still standing at the door. Teresa was wrapped in her dressing gown, her eyes owlishly large with fear.

“What is it Johnny? Is it Scott?”

“Jelly, I want you to get me a couple more lanterns, some blankets, and some warm jackets.’ instructed Johnny.  “Wrap ‘em up in a tarp will you; I’ll need to keep ‘em as dry as I can.  Teresa, put a pot of coffee on and make me up a flask. And then get as many blankets as you can and set them to warm in front of the fire.”

“Scott…is he…” Teresa persisted.

“I dunno,” Johnny interrupted, not wanting to contemplate what she was going to ask but not wishing to lie to her either. “Rambler just came in without him. Murdoch’s just takin’ him in the barn now to check him out.”

“Oh Johnny, if Scott’s lying out there somewhere….”

“ I know. That’s why I’m goin’ out there to look for him. Now go on, the sooner you get me that coffee, the sooner I can get goin’”

He squeezed her arm, in a feeble attempt to reassure her, but Teresa was no longer a child. She had grown up in this wilderness and she knew the implications of Scott being lost out there in those unforgiving conditions as much as any of them.  

She nodded, her lip quivering as she headed back inside to do as she was asked. Johnny looked into Jelly’s eyes for a moment and saw his own fear reflected back at him.  They both knew that Scott’s chances out there weren’t good. And that was if he was still alive. With his cavalry training, it took a lot to separate Scott from his mount.  That was the most unsettling thing.

“Go on Jelly,” he murmured softly as the old man shook his head dejectedly and headed off to gather the supplies that Johnny would need in his search.

Johnny headed over to the barn, guided by the soft glow emerging from the cracks between the wooden panels. He struggled to pull the door open against the ferocity of the storm; the sheer power of the wind almost wrenching it out of his hands as he quickly closed it behind him. Outside the intensifying maelstrom screeched and continued to unleash its relentless fury, the saturated wood creaking as the rain battered the building mercilessly. At least, inside though, Johnny could hear himself think.  Murdoch had settled Rambler into a stall and was busy checking him over for any sign of injury and, Johnny surmised, any clue as to what might have happened to Scott. He noted that Scott’s saddlebags seemed intact and his carbine was still in its sheath. Whatever had happened to his brother seemed to have taken him by surprise if he had been left afoot without his weapon and belongings.  If he was afoot and not…. Johnny shook his head to dislodge the unsavory images that were passing through his head.  He needed to stay focused.

“Anything?” he inquired.

Murdoch shook his head as he continued his examination. “No blood that I can see. Scott’s or Rambler’s. Apart from being soaked through and caked in mud, Rambler seems fine.”  

“Well, that’s real good,” snapped Johnny.  “But that don’t help Scott.”

“Johnny, it means that Rambler doesn’t appear to have traveled that far,” reasoned Murdoch, understanding that his younger son’s tone was borne of the same fear that he himself was struggling to contain.   “Wherever Scott has been it can’t be too far away.” He regarded Johnny as he entered the adjoining stall; the one occupied by his own mount, Barranca, and sighed heavily as the younger man hefted his saddle onto the handsome palomino.

“Son…”

“I gotta go out there and look Murdoch,” Johnny cut him off, without looking back at his father.

“Johnny, the visibility out there is terrible. You can hardly see your hand in front of your face. You’ll never find….”

“It’s the only chance Scott has got,” insisted Johnny.  “If he’s laying out there somewhere you know as well as I do he won’t last until morning.”

“Johnny…” chastised Murdoch gently, “I may already have lost one son….”

“Don’t say it Murdoch. I know what I might find out there, and I may find nothing at all but I have to try. If Scott’s still alive right now, he sure as hell won’t be for long if he stays out there all night. I have to give him that chance. Besides, any tracks that Rambler has left will be washed away by morning.  I have to go now or I’ll never find him.”

Johnny pulled the cinch tight, a little too tight for Barranca’s liking, causing the feisty palomino to toss his head back and try to back away from his master.  “Sorry amigo,” he crooned, “pero le necesito ayudar, por favor.” He leaned against the handsome stallion, whispering in Spanish to calm him, apologizing in advance for what he had to ask of him. He knew he was subjecting him to the risk of crippling injury by going out in such perilous conditions. But much as he loved Barranca, this was Scott’s life they were talking about, and he would trade anything, even his own life, especially his own life, to bring him home.  And if there was even the remotest chance that Scott was alive, then he would be relying on his brother to find him.  It was obvious he had been trying to get home and Johnny would make sure he got there.  Alive or…well, he’d get him home either way.  

The howling wind grew louder and the dust eddied around his feet as the door swung open and Jelly entered armed with several lanterns, primed and ready, and a pile of blankets, all wrapped in the waterproof tarpaulin to keep them dry until they were needed.  Johnny said a silent prayer hoping they would be used to impart warmth on the way home, and not be required to act as his brother’s shroud.

“Teresa’s just heatin’ the coffee up now. Be ready by the time you’re all set.”

“Thanks Jelly.” Johnny acknowledged. “Take care of Rambler would you? Get him cleaned up and bedded down?”

The old man nodded, silently, as Johnny took the supplies and secured the load across Barranca’s back.  “I’m all set now.” He paused, and fixed his gaze on his father. Hell, when did he become so old looking, so haggard?  Thought Johnny. Is this what we do to him every day?  “Murdoch?”  He was seeking his father’s blessing but they both knew he was going whether he got it or not.

“All right Son.  You do what you have to, but be careful.” He reached out and put his hand on his son’s shoulder.  “Don’t take any unnecessary risks.”

Johnny just nodded as he stepped into the stirrup and swung himself up onto Barranca’s back.  He‘d do whatever he had to.  Scott would do no less for him.

As he nudged Barranca forward and headed out the barn door, Teresa now dressed in pants and her heavy coat, ran up and handed Johnny the flask of coffee.

“Gracias querida.” His stomach clenched to see the fear registered on her wan features. She had seen too much tragedy in her young life already, and he hoped to God that he wouldn’t have to inflict more on her when he returned.

“Bring him back Johnny,” she whispered.  “Just bring him home.” 

Johnny smiled weakly at her. Yes, she had seen too much tragedy and knew as well as he that the odds were stacked against finding Scott alive.   

He reached down and stroked the moisture from her face with his gloved hand. It was impossible to differentiate between the warm tears and the frigid raindrops that mingled together as they ran rivers down her pale cheeks.   “I’ll bring him back Teresa. Prometo.”   He kicked his heels into Barranca’s flank and headed out into the night, not looking back.

Murdoch strode forward and put his arms around his young ward, pulling her close.

“If anyone can find him, Johnny can,” he tried to console her.  “He won’t give up until he does. Come on, let’s go inside, and get things ready for when they return. Your brothers are going to need you.”    

She nodded and allowed her guardian to guide her back into the house to begin their tense vigil.  

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It was rough going riding against the fury of the storm but it made Johnny all the more determined to find Scott.  He couldn’t bear the thought of his brother lying out there, exposed to the elements, having the warmth and life sucked out of him by the frigid air and the sodden ground.   Johnny bent low against Barranca’s neck to both protect him from the icy barrage, and to focus on Rambler’s tracks which were becoming increasingly difficult to follow as the ground beneath them turned to a sticky quagmire.  His arm hung low by Barranca’s side, the lamp virtually beneath the palomino’s girth, to shield it from the wind and afford enough light to keep them on the right trail.  Johnny figured he had been going for two hours or so before the lamp gave out on him and he was forced to dismount, using Barranca as a barrier between him and the buffeting winds as he attempted to light the second of the four lanterns that Jelly had supplied him with. He had no idea where he was; it was impossible to tell in conditions like this, no matter how well you knew the land, and Johnny had come to know this land very well. But he couldn’t make out any landmarks all the while the visibility was so poor. Murdoch was right, he could hardly see beyond the length of his own arm as he moved ahead.

The ground was getting so sodden underfoot now Johnny decided it would be better to lead Barranca than ride him any longer. He didn’t want to risk any injuries to either of them. Scott was reliant on them both to get him home. He managed to, finally, get the second lamp lit and then continued on, fighting the elements all the way.

Johnny had lost track of time and was beginning to lose heart as the wick of the second lantern started to diminish, the light fading with it. He only had two more lamps left and if it had taken two to get this far then it would take the same again to get back.  Despite wanting to continue his search for Scott, he knew if he didn’t turn back now, he could end up being as hopelessly lost as his brother and would be forced to find shelter to wait out the storm. And despite not really knowing exactly where he was right now, he knew that there were few places between Lancer and the surrounding towns where you could hunker down and safely wait out a storm, especially one as ferocious as this. He had never known anything like it. And he was sure that he had seen lightning flashes way off in the distance.     It had been impossible to tell if the booming overhead was the roar of the wind or thunder but Johnny was concerned that the way the wind was continuing to build, there could be a tornado brewing. It was unusual in winter but not unheard of in these parts. 

Suddenly the second lantern snuffed out and Johnny cursed. It was time to make the impossible decision that he had really hoped he wouldn’t have to make. Rambler’s tracks had long since petered out, washed away by the rain as the trail began to resemble a mini river.  He had to face the cold hard fact that he wasn’t going to find Scott. Not now. Much as he hated to have to go back empty handed, Murdoch couldn’t lose two sons. Johnny couldn’t do that to him. But neither did he relish seeing his father’s pained expression and Teresa’s tear streaked face if he returned home without Scott.   It was the hardest decision that Johnny had ever had to make and it was tearing him apart.

Barranca tossed his head and snorted, his hoof pawing at the ground.

“I know m’amigo, I know, we can’t stay here,” Johnny muttered with a heavy heart. He lit the third lantern and pulled at Barranca’s bridle, dejectedly turning him to head back the way they had come. Towards home.  But Barranca pulled away, refusing to budge, pawing more insistently at the ground. 

“What is it boy, I know you’re scared. C’mon. We’re goin’ home.” 

But Barranca refused to move, stubbornly resisting Johnny’s attempts to turn him around, tossing his head back and forth, almost jerking the bridle out of Johnny’s hand.  “What is it, boy? C’mon, we can’t stay here,” he reaffirmed, disturbed at the palomino’s petulant behavior.  A sudden gust of wind snuffed out the lantern and Johnny cursed, as Barranca continued to persistently paw at the ground.

Just at that moment a bolt of lightning streaked across the sky, lighting up the landscape for several feet all around for just a few seconds. But it was enough. Right there in front of them, not more than a few feet away was something that looked very out of place in the sodden landscape. It was the prone form of a man.

“Scott!” cried Johnny, as the light faded, plunging the area into darkness once more. He fumbled for the matches in his pocket with renewed vigor and lit the lantern, hoping against hope that what he had seen was not a figment of his overwrought mind.  With the fresh glow of the new lantern, he flung himself in the direction of the body, crawling through the mud until he gained purchase on the prone form.  Scott’s body was lying face down, as caked in mud as he now was. Johnny set the lantern down and got his hands underneath the prone form, trying to disengage it from the sticky pools of mud that were trying to suck his brother down into the bowels of the earth. With all the strength he could muster, Johnny managed to turn him over onto his back so that he could get a better look at him. “Please, please, please…” he muttered the litany over and over again in Spanish.    Reaching beneath his slicker he removed the bandana from around his neck and did his best to wipe the mud from his brother’s waxen face. Now he could see just how pale Scott was, his skin opaque, his lips tinged blue. Johnny shook him desperately.  “Scott, c’mon, please, give me a sign here.  Por favor hermano, por favor.”  He removed his left glove and pressed his fingers to the pallid skin at his brother’s neck, desperately seeking any sign of life.   He sat back, the tears pouring down his cheek as he regarded Scott’s lifeless features.  “Oh Dios,” he sobbed, as he gathered his brother’s unresponsive form to him and held him tight.    



          

Chapter 4

 Murdoch was pacing. He looked at the Grandfather clock for the umpteenth time in the last few hours.  It was 3am and there was still no sign of Johnny. It had been a little past 9pm when he had set out.  Murdoch knew that because he had checked the clock the moment he had re-entered the Great Room, having watched his son disappear into the raging storm that was still blowing outside unabated. Between them, he and Teresa had made short work of getting both sons’ rooms ready, piling on extra quilts for both of them, knowing that Johnny would be just as much in need of a warm bed as his brother if he was successful in finding Scott. But the more time passed, the more despondent Murdoch was becoming about that. Not for the first time since he had watched Johnny ride into the raging tempest, he cursed his own selfishness. He should have stopped him. To know that both his sons were out there exposed to those freezing conditions made him painfully aware that his passiveness could well have lost him both of them.   

Despite the initial concerns he had expressed to Johnny about him going out there, secretly he had been relieved when his youngest son had insisted on embarking on the seemingly impossible search. In fact he would have expected nothing less from either of his boys if they felt the other was in danger.  Still, he could and should have put up more of a fight, he mentally berated himself, even if Johnny had defied him anyway. Hell, what did he really think he could have done to stop him?  Nothing short of hog tying Johnny would have prevented him going out there after Scott.  But it still didn’t make Murdoch feel any less inadequate as a parent than he did right now.

In the eighteen months since his boys had come home to him, he had learned more and more about the painful and impossible decisions that a parent sometimes had to make. He’d been forced to make one such choice tonight.   Should he give up on one son altogether, or take the chance that he was still alive? Was it worth risking one child in his desperation to find the other?  He was forced to speculate on just how much he was willing to forfeit as he took that wager; knowing that he may never see either of his sons alive again. Would the wiser option have been to insist on keeping one son safe, but then, to always wonder if, in doing so, he had irrevocably signed the death warrant of the other?

In allowing Johnny to go he had gambled with both their lives.  It was all or nothing.  And only time would tell which way the cards would fall. But with every tick of that infernal clock, with every chime that announced the passing of another hour, his hopes of holding the winning hand rapidly diminished.

Murdoch’s restless pacing had taken him to the picture window. He rubbed at the glass, steamed up by the battle for supremacy between the frigid air outside and the warm air inside.  Jelly had dutifully tended the fire, keeping it burning in the hearth, ensuring the Great Room was kept warm, and the blankets hanging in front of the hearty blaze absorbed some of its heat for when they would be needed.   

The old ranch hand had spent over two hours out in the barn after Johnny had left. He had tended to Rambler, rubbed him down and forked in enough hay to keep the plucky bay warm and comfortable after his gargantuan effort to find his way home and alert them to Scott’s plight.  Murdoch guessed it was Jelly’s inimitable way of feeling that he was doing something for Scott by taking care of his horse. Especially one who could, ultimately prove, to be Scott’s savior. If Johnny gets there in time. Please God let him get there in time.

Murdoch’s stomach lurched as the storm flung yet another unrelenting barrage of its angry tears at the window. Yet again, he mentally chastised himself for not allowing good sense to prevail over his own selfishness. In allowing Johnny to go out and look for Scott, it was looking more and more likely that he had lost them both.

“You couldn’t have stopped him you know, no matter what you said to him.”

Teresa wrapped her arms around her guardian’s waist.  She leaned against the bear of the man who had become more of a father figure these past two years since her own had been murdered by Day Pardee and his land pirates.

Startled out of his reverie, Murdoch pulled her close, bending to kiss her on the crown of the head.  She had had to grow up so fast these past few years and had acquired wisdom beyond her tender years. Paul would have been proud of the steadfast young woman she had become.  Still, thought Murdoch, it should be me imparting comfort to her, not the other way around.  He had truly descended into a vicious spiral of self-recrimination. “I know darling, but I should have tried harder. Made him see sense.”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference. He would’ve gone anyway, and all that you’d have achieved would have been to part on bad terms. Like I did with Scott.” He heard her voice catch. She had been so strong; getting everything they needed ready, keeping hot water constantly on the boil, placing blankets in front of the fire to be warmed, ready for when they would be required. Murdoch hoped to God they would be.  

Again, he chastised himself for being so absorbed in his own worry and not seeing what all of this was doing to her. Guilt was a constant companion that would allow him no rest. And the way Murdoch figured it, it was no less than he deserved.

“Oh Teresa, I don’t think Scott would have seen it that way at all. I don’t think he has it in him to bear a grudge of any kind. He’s like his mother that way.” He guided her away from the window and set her back down on the sofa, moving away towards the fire, absently adding another log and watching as the sparks flew up from the glowing embers.

“What was she like, Murdoch. Scott’s mother?”

Murdoch hesitated for a moment, mesmerized by the flames as they licked hungrily at their fresh and unsullied prey, carried away by his memories. He hesitated before responding; suddenly feeling vulnerable and exposed that he could have so readily mentioned her when he had not even talked about her to Scott. Another regret to add to the growing list.

“Murdoch?”

Such a simple question, but how to answer?  How could he describe the essence of Catherine in just a few short words?    He turned back towards his ward and smiled weakly.  “She was an enigma. Like Scott,” he replied wistfully, images of his radiant first wife flooding through his memory.  “She never judged. Always thought the best of people, even those who didn’t deserve her compassion.” He closed his eyes as he recalled the day he had lost her; the urgent and frantic flight he had taken to get to Carterville, only to be confronted by her freshly dug grave.  It had also been the day Scott had been taken away from him for the first time.  Was history about to repeat itself? Had he now lost Scott forever? 

“Murdoch, I’m sorry I didn’t mean to dredge up painful memories for you.” Teresa was disturbed by the pained expression that passed across his face and cursed her own insensitivity.

“No darling, you didn’t. No need for you to apologize.” He once more regarded her wan features.  He couldn’t help his sons right now, their fate was out of his hands, but Teresa needed him and he wouldn’t shirk on his duty towards her.  The seeds of despondency may well have been taking firm root inside of him, but she didn’t need to know that. She needed to keep a firm grasp on any hope she still held within her, until there was irrefutable proof that there was no longer any to be had.   “Now come on, there’s no telling how long it will be before they get back. You need to get some rest.”  He grabbed one of the spare blankets that had been draped on the armchair, awaiting its turn to be warmed in front of the fire, and offered it to her.  “If you won’t go to bed for a few hours, at least lie down here and try to get some sleep. There’s at least four hours before dawn and I’ll need you alert when Johnny gets back with Scott.”  He patted the arm of the sofa, gently urging her to lie down.

“But Murdoch, I’m fine, really…I….”

“He’s right Teresa,” interjected Jelly, who had just re-entered from the kitchen where he had been keeping water on the boil. “Y’ain’t gonna be no good to anybody if ya fall over from lack of sleep. Reckon we’re gonna have our work cut out keepin’ them two in bed when they do get home, without lookin’ after you, too, when ya keel over from exhaustion. I’ll keep the fire stoked and the water hot, and even keep an eye on the boss for ya. So don’t ya worry ‘bout a thing.”

Murdoch looked up and smiled. Jelly was gruff, set in his ways and downright ornery the majority of the time, but in moments of crisis, a man really couldn’t have a more loyal friend.  In fact, Jelly had long since been tacitly accepted as part of the family. And right now Murdoch was grateful for the old ranch hand’s perceptiveness in the way he was riding herd on his ward.  Especially as he had to be feeling the strain as much of any of them.

“Go on Teresa. I’ll wake you as soon as they get back. I promise,” Murdoch coaxed.

He could tell that she was torn, but she was also exhausted. The past few days had been hard on her and he knew she wouldn’t take any rest of her own volition. She needed him to make the decision for her.  To give her permission to surrender to her fatigue, even if just for a little while.

“Alright,” she acquiesced, reluctantly.  “I guess I am tired. Maybe just a few hours then. But you need to rest too Murdoch.”

“I will do darling,” he smiled as reassuringly as he could.  “As soon as they’re home. Go on now. Sleep while you can.”

“You’ll wake me as soon as they get back?”

“I promise.” 

That seemed to pacify her and Murdoch watched as she tiredly fumbled with her boots. He waited until she was settled on the sofa, watching as her heavy eyes drifted shut. Once he had satisfied himself that she was on the cusp of at least getting a little rest Murdoch, slowly, made his way over to the liquor cabinet and poured two glasses of Talisker, one for himself and one for Jelly. He crossed back over to the old ranch hand, and wordlessly handed him the drink.

Jelly was unable to hide his surprise. He was unused to sharing a drink with the tall rancher, especially when it was the boss’s sacred whiskey, which was out of bounds to all, unless it was offered. And that was an exceedingly rare occurrence.

“Go on, we both need it,” Murdoch stated simply in response to the raised eyebrow.

He turned back to Teresa, her breathing already evening out as she finally passed exhaustedly into the warm embrace of sleep.  He tenderly smoothed aside an errant wisp of hair that had fallen across her forehead and then bent to tuck the blanket more snugly around her.

“She’s right boss, you should get some rest too.”

“Not until they’re home Jelly. Not until then.”

He trudged heavily back over to the picture window to continue his silent vigil, leaving Jelly to sadly shake his head as he turned back to gather more logs to feed the blazing fire. 

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

Johnny’s relief at finding a faint pulse in his seemingly lifeless brother’s neck was palpable.  It had been pure instinct and relief that had seen him gather his brother’s unresponsive form to him and hold him close. Johnny had come so damn close to missing him entirely.  He offered a silent litany of thanks; for Barranca’s intuitiveness, the opportune flash of lightning, and pure Lancer stubbornness that had Scott still clinging desperately to life.

Had it not been for Barranca’s obstinate insistence, and for once, the inclement weather casting him a break, he would have likely turned around and headed home, and Scott would have died in the quagmire, right where he lay.  Johnny made a mental note to ensure that he found some way to reward both his own mount and Scott’s for the part they had played in finding him. But once the initial euphoria of finding Scott alive had passed, the reality of the situation kicked him in the gut. Scott was alive, but just barely and there was no guarantee that he would stay that way for long unless he got him out of the storm.  Johnny still had to find out what, beyond severe exposure, ailed Scott and then try to get him home, which was still at least another few hours away in the deteriorating conditions. It wasn’t going to be easy on either of them. 

At least, though, thought Johnny with some relief, the storm would now be at their backs and would, hopefully, make the going faster and more bearable for them both. But he was still worried about the potential for a tornado. He certainly didn’t want that devil chasing them all the way back to the hacienda.  All the more reason he had to work fast.

He gently lay his brother back down and headed over to Barranca to retrieve the supplies that Jelly had provided him.  While it was vital to get Scott home as fast as he could, he needed to try to get some warmth back into his hypothermic body first.

Pulling on Barranca’s bridle, he guided him over to stand in front of Scott, to try and afford his brother some protection from the near horizontal rain pelting at them mercilessly.  Despite the worsening conditions, Barranca stood his ground, as if he sensed what Johnny required of him and why.  Johnny patted his neck softly and whispered in his ear “Buen Muchacho. Gracias mi amigo. Gracias por mi hermano.”  He hoped that Scott would soon be able to add his own thanks, but he was a long way from being able to do that right now as he lay there, ashen and unmoving.   Setting the tarp down beneath the palomino, Johnny removed his gloves and fumbled at the knot holding the bundle together. Exposure to the icy rain had made the rope contract and the knot tighten making it difficult for his rapidly numbing fingers to get it undone. But finally his efforts were rewarded and the knot gave away, allowing him access to the dry contents of the parcel.     

After replacing his gloves, he slid his arms beneath Scott’s shoulders, lifted him once more and gently eased his sodden jacket off him. Underneath, his saturated navy shirt was plastered to his skin but Johnny decided to leave that in place for now. Johnny figured it wouldn’t do Scott any good to expose his naked skin to the elements right now.  He inspected his brother, as quickly and as well as he could by the flickering lantern light to ensure there was nothing that necessitated his immediate attention.  But there didn’t appear to be any holes where there shouldn’t have been, no sign of any bullet wounds.  That at least, was something, thought Johnny. Exposure and blood loss were not a good combination.  One thing did disturb him, though. There were rope burns around Scott’s wrists. Wherever he had been, he had been bound and judging by the raw and broken skin, for a considerable period of time.   Disturbing as this revelation was, right now it was the very least of Scott’s worries.  

Johnny reached for one of the blankets and wrapped it around his brother, removing Scott’s belt and using it to secure the woolen coverlet in place. He frowned as he noted his brother’s mud caked and saturated hair plastered to his skull.  Somewhere along the way he had lost his hat. Johnny recalled a conversation he’d had with Scott the previous winter. Johnny had not easily adapted to having to adhere to a tight work schedule and had slept in, as he had many times back in those early days. He had finally headed out to attend to his daily chores with a flea in his ear from Murdoch but minus his hat, forgotten in his haste to escape his father’s wrath.  When he had joined him later on, as the temperature began to drop dramatically, Scott had chastised him for leaving the hacienda without any protection for his head. Johnny could hear Scott’s voice in his head, explaining, that it was the place from which he would lose the most body heat when exposed to the elements. Johnny just scoffed at him, saying he’d never heard of anyone dying from not wearing a hat.  Scott had let that go but had ultimately had the last laugh. Within a few days Johnny was forced to take to his bed with a head cold that he just couldn’t shake. But Scott had never said a word. He didn’t have to. And that was Scott to a tee. Never one to say,  ‘I told you so’.  Even if he was, secretly, thinking it, the sense of satisfaction reflected in his eyes. 

“Well brother,” Johnny murmured softly, “You’ll be pleased to know I do listen to ya some of the time. You’ve even managed to teach me a thing or two. But don’t let that go to your head. K?”  He wrapped the second blanket around Scott’s head and neck, tucking it in to the one around his torso to keep it in place. All the while, he kept a running commentary to his unresponsive brother about what he was doing and how he was going to get him home and that he’d be just fine.  He didn’t know if Scott could hear him at all, but it helped Johnny to say it anyway. It kept him focused on the task at hand, and from thinking too far ahead.  Finally he reached for the slicker that Jelly had packed and pulled it over his brother’s head, in an attempt to keep the blankets dry.  He hoped that they would at least offer some measure of protection against the bone chilling cold that was literally sucking the life out of Scott.

Remembering the flask of coffee, he reached up into his saddlebag and retrieved it. He removed the plug, and took a quick swill of the potent brew to ensure it wasn’t too hot. After more than four hours it was now merely luke-warm, but it would do.  Scott needed to be warmed from the inside as well as out if he had any chance of making it through this. Leaning his brother against his chest, he held him in place with one arm as he pressed the flask to Scott’s slack lips, trying to dribble some of the contents down his throat. He wasn’t sure whether any of it went where it was intended, most trickling down his chin and running in murky brown rivulets down his slicker.  Scott was totally unresponsive, not even gagging in his attempts to swallow. Johnny knew that wasn’t a good sign, it meant Scott’s systems were shutting down, but he didn’t want to risk him choking.  He decided not to persist. He had done all he could for his brother for now.  It was time to get him home.  Taking a final swill of the tepid brew, Johnny screwed the plug back on and set the flask aside. Leaning Scott forward, he rose to a crouch position and sought purchase under Scott’s shoulders. With a strength he didn’t know he possessed, he hefted him to his feet. Scott had always been lean but he was tall, taller than Johnny and, unconscious, he was a dead weight; his sodden clothes caked with mud, and the extra weight of the blankets adding to the burden.

When he later tried to recall those moments, Johnny couldn’t honestly remember just how he managed to get his unconscious brother up onto Barranca’s back, fighting the buffeting winds all the way. But manage it he did.  Exhausted as he was, he guessed something he didn’t quite understand took over, an overwhelming need to get Scott home had given him the strength he needed.   With his brother slumped forward over Barranca’s neck, his arm escaping the warm refuge of his protective wrappings and dangling like a rag doll, Johnny mounted up behind him.  He gently pulled Scott back up towards him, his head lolling on Johnny’s right shoulder.  Johnny snaked his left arm protectively around Scott’s waist to hold him in place and, did his best to drape the tarpaulin securely around them both, to offer further protection from the elements.  Finally he wrapped the reins around his right arm, freeing up his hand to carry the lantern that they needed to light their way.  He then urged Barranca forward.   “Nos lleva a casa, mi amigo,” he whispered. His words lost to the wind.   “Take us home.  

 

CHAPTER 5

Murdoch looked up towards the clock once more as the chimes rang out.  It was 5am and for the past hour and half he had been trying to read his copy of The Iliad, to keep his mind occupied and try to contain the dark thoughts that were threatening to overwhelm him.  But in his mood of self-recrimination and regret, Murdoch couldn’t help but compare the circumstances that Homer had created to his own. Just as Apollo had sent a plague to decimate the Greek army, so too, did Murdoch feel that a pestilence had been hovering over Lancer all these years, destroying everything he had held dear. Or was it his own blind ambition that was responsible? An ambition that had robbed him of two wives, his sons during their formative years and the best segundo and friend he had ever had. And now his precious sons so recently returned to him after such a lengthy absence, out there in that tempestuous storm.  Were they, too, to be cruelly torn from him once more? Was this the price he continually had to pay for Lancer?      

He had only been able to read two pages since he had picked up the precious gift from his elder son. Both he and Scott shared a love for classic literature. That shared affinity had been a way to help nurture the growing bond between two men who struggled to articulate, in any meaningful way, how they felt about the circumstances that had finally reunited them.  With Scott, actions always spoke louder than words. And this gift had told Murdoch so much about how his son felt towards him. He flicked to the front of the book and allowed his eyes to linger, once more, on the inscription written in Scott’s educated hand inside the leaf. ‘Just to mark the occasion’.  

While the inscription may have seemed a stuffy and formal even cryptic, greeting from a son to his father, Murdoch knew differently.  It was Scott’s way of acknowledging the developing relationship between them, the seeds of which had been sown almost a year earlier.  He knew that Scott’s discomfort about his upcoming birthday stemmed from a reluctance to re-ignite memories of such a painful chapter in his father’s life, the day he had lost his beloved wife. But Murdoch swore that if he were to be offered this last chance to be a better father, they would do more than ‘mark the occasion’ from now on. It was time to leave the past behind once and for all and firmly focus on the future. He only hoped there would be a future for him and his sons, because he couldn’t begin to contemplate one without them.

He closed the book and set it aside, rose from the chair and stretched out his aching back. Sitting too long in one position pained him but, running a busy ranch, it wasn’t something that happened too often.   Teresa was still asleep on the sofa, Jelly dozing in the armchair closest to the fire, his soft snores competing with the ticking of the Grandfather clock. Murdoch made a mental note, once this was all over, to do something about the ancient timepiece. Family heirloom it might be, but for Murdoch it would serve as too much of a reminder of a tense night spent facing his own demons. Whichever way things went.

He wandered over to the picture window once more. The wind and rain had died down as, finally, the storm seemed to have expended all its energy and had blown itself out. Dawn would be breaking in a few hours and so the clean up would begin. The hands would soon be rising, reporting for morning orders, oblivious to the dramas of the night. Murdoch knew that he would need to carry on for their sakes; deploy work parties to check for damage to fence lines, dam up flooded creeks. He was sure they would have their work cut out for them. But the men relied on him. Life had to continue for their sakes. Murdoch’s life, however, would be forever bereft compared to what he’d had and let slip through his fingers if his boys did not return to him.

He continued to stare out into the inky blackness for some time, lost in his own thoughts and self-recriminations. He was just about to turn away and head back towards the kitchen to heat up some much-needed coffee when something caught his eye. He blinked and rubbed at his eyes, to be sure it wasn’t a figment of his tired and overwrought mind, a hallucination borne out of desperation.  But it was there. Faint, but definitely there, a light flickering out in the distance like a beacon of hope in a sea of despair.

“Jelly! Teresa!” he cried, “It’s Johnny! He’s back.” He might have been jumping the gun but he didn’t see who else it could be. 

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

Johnny could have cried with relief when the lights of Lancer emerged from the gloom.   The journey home had been arduous, not merely because of the constant threat of the tornado he thought might be gathering force behind them, but because he had no way of telling if his unresponsive brother was even still alive. Even if he hadn’t had Scott so bundled up against the elements, his own hands were full holding his brother in place and concentrating on following what was left of Barranca’s tracks to get them home.  But Scott had been so near the brink when he found him that, for all he knew, he could have been cradling his brother’s corpse the entire way home.  He had made a promise, though, to bring Scott back to Lancer, either way. But, oh, how cruel it would be for Murdoch and Teresa to see Scott there in front of him, the relief reflected in their eyes, only to be replaced by abject sorrow when they discovered that he was beyond any of their help.  Variations of that torturous scene had been playing out in his exhausted mind for the past hour or so as Barranca slowly guided them home.

After a few hours the strength of the storm had begun to wane and Johnny was optimistic that they had outrun the invisible enemy he perceived to be behind them, or it had, at least, run its course and finally petered out.

As the wind died, the calm that was left behind was almost eerie. Much as the constant roar of the wind had been deafening in its intensity, in contrast, the stillness was even more unbearable.    Johnny filled the void by talking to Scott, reliving all the trials and tribulations they had experienced together in the short time since they had entered each other’s lives.  He recalled the selfless way that Scott had fought his way through a hail of bullets to get to his wounded brother when Day Pardee and his men had attacked the hacienda. And how in the days that followed, whenever Johnny had awakened, weak and fevered, Scott had never been far from his side. This man who hardly knew him, and owed him nothing, had risked his life for him. Especially as not hours earlier Johnny had stood by while Pardee’s men had given Scott a beating.  Johnny had had his reasons for not intervening of course. It was all part of his own plan to use his prior association with Pardee to infiltrate his forces and find out their plan of attack. And he couldn’t jeopardize that by jumping to Scott’s aide. But Scott hadn’t known that.   

For a long time Johnny had been suspicious of the quietly spoken Bostonian who he had suddenly been expected to accept as a brother. He had learned the hard way, growing up, that nobody did anything in this life that didn’t serve their own agenda. There was no such thing as selflessness in his book, but in his inimitable way, Scott had taught him differently. 

For a while Johnny had stubbornly stuck to his guns, refusing to let his guard down, but eventually curiosity had won out. When he finally asked Scott why he had risked his own life to save him Scott had replied simply, “because you’re my brother and I didn’t want to watch you die.”  Johnny had been too stunned to respond. He’d been disturbed by the unfamiliar feeling that had almost liquefied his legs to hear those words spoken, the sincerity and intensity reflected in his brother’s eyes taking his breath away.  For the first time in his life, Johnny had been struck dumb, no smart quip ready to roll of his tongue, no witty retort to offer up as a defense.  He had watched in bewilderment as his brother walked away. Was it really that simple? That cut and dried? Could someone really be so selfless? 

As he had come to know his brother, he had learned that they could. He had wasted so much time trying to figure Scott out, but in the end it was easier just to accept him, as Scott had accepted Johnny. Unconditionally.

Johnny had done his best to vocalize those, previously unrevealed feelings, to his silent brother as he held him close. He was beyond exhaustion himself, but it was a rite of passage he had to take, telling Scott what he knew he should have told him long before, but had lacked the words to express. He hoped that if Scott was still alive, and if there was any way he could hear him, it would be enough to make him hold on. To know that finding out he had a brother had been the best thing that had ever happened to Johnny.  

And then just when the dark thoughts of what losing Scott would do to his father and Teresa, and he thought that he couldn’t hold on any longer, there it was, emerging out of the dissipating mist, the welcome lights of the hacienda.  Barranca had seen them too and without being urged, picked up the pace. Johnny just gripped Scott tightly, trusting the palomino to carry them home, offering whispered words of comfort to his beloved brother, willing him to still be alive, and begging him to hold on just a little longer.

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

Murdoch’s heart was in his mouth as he waited for the approaching horse to draw close enough to see if he carried one or two riders across his back.  He had dispatched Teresa to light the lamps in both sons’ rooms and then ready the bathhouse, to fill the tub with warm water. He anticipated that both sons would be sorely in need of getting some heat back into their freezing bodies, especially Scott. Murdoch knew Teresa had wanted to come out and greet her brothers but if Johnny had been too late in finding Scott, then he didn’t want her last memory of his eldest son to be seeing him slung over the back of a horse, shrouded in a blanket.  He may have sent her on a fool’s errand but it was the distraction he needed for her until he knew whether he still had two sons or not.     As they drew closer, the heavily lit hacienda provided enough light for him to make out the pale form of his younger son’s distinctive Palomino.  

“Boss? Is it them?”  Jelly had been out in the barn, getting the lamps lit, making preparations to tend to the exhausted mount once its precious cargo was taken care of.

“Yes, Jelly, it looks like Barranca.”

“Can you see if…?”

“Can’t tell yet,” interrupted Murdoch, knowing what Jelly was going to ask.

“Can’t quite make out, but the pace he’s going, I’d say he is carrying a double load.”

Jelly exhaled softly. Murdoch couldn’t tell if it was relief or the realization that double load didn’t necessarily mean a positive outcome.

“I’ll just go help Teresa take the hot water into the bathhouse. Don’t want her scalding herself,” the old ranch hand muttered.

Murdoch was grateful. He knew that Jelly was giving him the privacy that he needed with his sons. Whether it was to be grief or relief that would soon overcome him, it was a moment that he needed alone with his boys.

He maintained his silent vigil as the rain clouds finally cleared and the moon emerged for the first time that night, determined to make its appearance before being banished by the approaching dawn’s early light.  Its iridescent luminosity bathed the approaching palomino, casting its precious load, his sons, both his sons in its Celestial glow.  Murdoch had never considered himself to be a religious man but that image of deliverance was to be forever imprinted in his consciousness, and would stay with him until his dying days.

He ran forward as Barranca finally came to a halt just a few feet away, the liquid brown eyes regarding him with an inherent intelligence that he had always marveled at. He patted the exhausted creature’s neck in silent gratitude before walking around his flank to check on his sons. 

“Johnny,” he called softly, reaching up to shake his son’s arm. Johnny’s left arm encircled his brother firmly, Barranca’s reins tightly woven around his right arm. In his hand he gripped a lantern that had long since been extinguished.

“Son,” Murdoch persisted. Johnny seemed to be in a kind of daze. It was clear he was profoundly exhausted.

“Murdoch?” he mumbled in confusion.

“Yes, Son. You’re home. You brought Scott home.”  Murdoch was anxious to determine his older son’s condition, but he didn’t want to push Johnny too quickly. It was nothing short of miraculous that he had found his brother at all and he couldn’t even begin to imagine what he had been through out there to achieve what had seemingly been such an impossible feat.

“Scott…. Murdoch is he…” whispered Johnny, still clinging tightly to his precious burden.

“Can’t tell yet, son,” murmured Murdoch gently.  “We need to get him inside, and take a good look at him. We need to get you both inside.”

“I did all I could Murdoch, but I dunno, I just don’t know…”

“I know Son, I can see that. No one could ask for more than you’ve done for your brother.”

Murdoch turned back towards the house and, as expected saw both Jelly and Teresa hovering expectantly in the doorway.

“Jelly, come and give me a hand here,” Murdoch called. He turned back to his exhausted younger son, gently trying to prise his hand from its vice like grip around his brother’s waist. “C’mon, Son, let me take him,” he coaxed gently. 

Johnny’s tired mind processed what Murdoch required of him and finally he relaxed his hold on Scott, and relinquished him into the care of his father.

As Jelly arrived, puffing away from the cold air that still lingered, Murdoch barked, “Help Johnny down and bring him into the house, then get one of the hands to take care of Barranca. I’ll need your help with Scott.”

Jelly nodded gruffly, reaching for Johnny, who was already trying to clumsily dismount, his aching body not responding as quickly as he wanted or needed it to.

Murdoch hurried into the house, clasping his older son close.  He strained against Scott’s dead weight, weighed down by the layers that Johnny had wrapped around him.   The hood of the blanket and slicker masked most of his features, but one thing that stood out clearly, exacerbated by the moonlight as it streamed down upon them, was the blue cast of his lips.  Murdoch knew it wasn’t a good sign.

Teresa stood aside to let him pass as he entered the house, her eyes brimming with tears as she looked at the bundled form in her guardian’s arms. 

“Teresa, get me a mirror, quickly.”  She looked confused for a second but then, realizing what he wanted it for, ran into the kitchen as Murdoch took Scott into the Great Room and gently laid him down on the sofa. He started to unravel the blankets so that he could get a better view of his son and whatever injuries lay beneath, but more importantly, to determine what they all needed to know… if Scott was still with them.

Murdoch sat perched on the edge of the sofa, tracing his hand across his eldest son’s waxen features. His skin was cold as ice. He gently pressed his fingers against the pallid flesh at Scott’s neck, but if there was any kind of pulse, it was too faint for him to detect it.  There were no obvious signs of life but there was one further way to tell. 

Teresa returned with one of the best silver salvers that they brought out on special occasions and handed it wordlessly to her guardian as she stared down at the seemingly lifeless form of her ‘brother’. 

Murdoch held the tray over Scott’s face, his own breath catching as he waited to see if there were still any traces of life left in his son’s body.

“Murdoch?”

He looked up to see Johnny leaning heavily against the sofa, one arm draped around the old ranch hand, the other slipped around the waist of Teresa as she snuggled into him, needing to both give and receive comfort as they all waited for the verdict.

He continued to watch the underside of the tray, for any sign of a dulling of its polished service. After what seemed an age, the incessant ticking of that infernal clock reverberating in his brain, Murdoch finally saw the sign that he had been silently praying for, the faint but spreading mist as it worked its way across the surface. He closed his eyes in grateful thanks.

“He’s alive,” he breathed.

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

After that, everything moved into a blur of activity. Despite the abject relief of discovering that Scott was still clinging to life, it was clear to all of them that Scott’s grip was tentative at best. His pulse had been undetectable when Murdoch had first checked but on further examination the faintest of beats had been detected. His pulse rate was so slow, however, his breathing so shallow, that he wouldn’t survive long if they didn’t try and get him warmed up as soon as they could.

With Jelly’s help, Murdoch carried Scott straight to the bathhouse to get him submerged into some warm water. He figured it was the quickest way to warm him up.  Despite instructing Johnny to go get out of his own wet clothes lest he catch pneumonia, Johnny had stubbornly refused, wanting to be there for Scott. Murdoch had sensibly not pressed the issue, instead asking Teresa to make him a strong cup of whiskey laced coffee.

Once in the bathhouse, Murdoch and Jelly set to work stripping Scott of his sodden clothes while Johnny looked on. He was now wrapped in one of the blankets that had been hanging in front of the fire, his hands clasping the steaming brew that Teresa had brought him.

The pretty brunette had then sensitively withdrawn, partly for propriety’s sake to preserve Scott’s modesty, but also to take the remainder of the warmed blankets to Scott’s room to be ready for when they transferred him to his bed.

As Murdoch pulled open Scott’s shirt he gasped in shock at what was revealed underneath. Scott’s whole torso was a mass of bruises that ran up and down his ribs. The areas of deep purple fanned out to areas of red, gold and green indicating that the abuse appeared to have been inflicted over several days.  The livid bruises were in marked contrast to the sickly hue of the rest of his pallid skin.

“My God,” breathed Murdoch. “ Who could have done this to him?”

“Whoever it was, they were a coward ‘cuz they made damned sure he couldn’t defend himself.  They had him tied,” spat Johnny. 

Murdoch had noted the rope burns around Scott’s wrists and now that Jelly had relieved Scott of his boots and pants, his ankles told a similar story.  Lifting his son gently, Murdoch finished removing the shirt and sat him forward to get a look at his back. He winced as he saw the same treatment reflected there as on Scott’s chest, the thin white criss cross scars, legacy of his time in a prison camp standing out ghoulishly against the blackened skin that somehow escaped the cruel tongue of the lash.  

“Some of them ribs have gotta be busted,” exclaimed Jelly. “It’s not gonna help with his breathin’ any.”

“I know Jelly,” replied Murdoch, “But right now, that’s all academic unless we get him warmed up and ensure he at least stays breathing. Get his underwear off and let’s get him in that tub. We can deal with any other injuries once we at least get his body temperature up.”

Once Scott had finally been relieved of his sodden underwear, he was gently lifted into the tub, his arms and legs hanging out ungainly, as they worked to impart warmth and return circulation to the areas of most critical need.  Johnny moved to hold Scott’s head up out of the water, frowning as he felt the sizeable knot on the back of Scott’s head.  Parting his hair, he noted the bruising already turning green and yellow, indicating that it was several days old. But at least the skin hadn’t been broken.     Scott remained insensible throughout their ministrations, not stirring once.

While his body was submerged, Murdoch ran his hands down Scott’s ribs, feeling for any breaks. He found two, low down on either side, but thankfully, away from his lungs. Scott didn’t need the added complication of a punctured lung.  Elsewhere, there were several others that appeared to be cracked and would be extremely painful once he woke up. As soon as they had him upstairs, he would need to have them tightly bound and would have to be propped up to help with his breathing.  

Despite wanting to see some indication of life from his eldest son, Murdoch was glad that Scott didn’t appear to be feeling any pain right now.  That would come soon enough if they were able to reverse the effects of the hypothermia.

They all worked silently at their assigned tasks, all focused on what they needed to do to for Scott to really say anything. Johnny wetted a cloth and wiped the remainder of the mud from his brother’s face, tenderly washing out the cloying particles that were caked into his hair.

Murdoch continued to check Scott’s limbs for any further sign of injury, running his well-trained hand up and down his body to ensure there was nothing that they had missed.   But all he found were bruised and swollen knuckles on his right hand.  At least Scott had tried to make a fight of it against whoever it was who had inflicted the damage on him.  Jelly, for his part, worked to clean the areas of broken skin around Scott’s wrists and ankles to ensure infection didn’t get the chance to set into his already weakened body.

After an hour, and having topped up the tepid water several times to keep Scott in a constant temperature, Murdoch was satisfied to see a semblance of color starting to return to his son’s pale features. His lips had lost much of their cyanotic hue as the circulation slowly started to return.  Placing his fingers at his son’s neck, Murdoch was heartened to detect a pulse straight away. It was still weak but the fact that it was now even detectable was a vast improvement to how Scott had presented when he first arrived home.

“All right,” asserted Murdoch. “Let’s get him out and up to his room.”

Between them, Jelly and Murdoch carefully eased him out of the wooden tub. Scott was wrapped tightly in several heated towels that Teresa had supplied before being lifted once more, into his father’s arms.

As Murdoch swept out of the bathhouse and through the kitchen, with Scott cradled in his arms, he called out orders. “Johnny, I want you to stay right there and get warmed up in the bath. I’ll have Teresa bring some fresh clothes for you.”

Johnny opened his mouth to protest, but Murdoch cut him off as he mounted the back stairs with his unconscious burden.  “No arguments, I’m not having you get sick too. Teresa, heat up some broth and then bring it up. We need to get something warm inside Scott.  Then I’ll need your help.   Jelly, as soon as it’s light enough I want you to get Cipriano to send one of the men for Sam Jenkins. Make sure he knows how urgent it is.”   His voice echoed back down the stairwell as he reached the landing and whisked Scott off towards his room.

Jelly turned to carry out his instructions but hesitated as Johnny grabbed his arm.

“Jelly.  See to Barranca for me, will you?”

“Already ahead of ya there. Cip has already taken him in the barn and soon as I’ve done what the boss wants me to, I’ll be headin’ in there to give that stubborn old horse of yours the best rubbin’ down and brushin’ he’ll ever have had. And I’ll give him somethin’ extra special in his feed too. Doncha worry none.”

“Thanks Jelly.” Johnny smiled weakly.  He shivered. He didn’t know if it was the cold, the shock of seeing what someone had done to Scott or the stark reality of what he had just been through.  Maybe a combination of all of those things.  But whatever it was, he had to admit the thought of a soak in a warm tub was definitely an attractive one.  And the sooner he got in there, the sooner he could get upstairs and commence his vigil by his ailing brother’s side.



Chapter 6

Thirty minutes later, as dawn finally announced itself on the horizon, a warmed and rejuvenated Johnny headed upstairs, eager to check on Scott’s progress. Maria had arrived while he had been in the bath and having been apprised of the night’s events by Teresa, cooked a hearty breakfast, which she insisted both Johnny and Teresa partake of.   Teresa had finished hers by the time Johnny emerged from the bathhouse and had headed upstairs with a thin broth for Scott.   Johnny had tried to protest that he didn’t think he could manage a thing, so desperate was he to get to his brother’s bedside, but Maria insisted. She firmly pointed out that he needed to maintain his strength if he was to sit vigil with Señor Scott. But despite his reservations, Johnny had been surprised at just how hungry he really was once he started to eat. Maria smiled in satisfaction at the cleared plate he left as, reenergized, he vaulted the stairs two at a time, a heaped plate of food for his father in his hands.

As he entered his brother’s room, Murdoch was trying to hold Scott while Teresa attempted to dribble some of the thin broth down the insensible young man’s throat, with little success. Most was soaking into the towel wrapped around his shoulders to prevent the bandages that had now been wrapped tightly around his chest from becoming soiled.  It didn’t help matters that he was shivering uncontrollably.  

“Hey Teresa, let me do that.”  Johnny set the plate of food down on the nightstand and took his place perched on the edge of the bed as Teresa made way for him.   

“Sorry, Johnny,” apologized Teresa. “I can’t seem to get any down him the way his teeth are chattering.”

“But that’s a good sign, him shivering the way he is, right?” Johnny directed his question to Murdoch as he half filled the spoon with some of the thin broth and held it to his brother’s lips.

“That’s right,” Murdoch nodded. “It’s an encouraging sign. It means he’s fighting back.”

Johnny nodded in satisfaction as Scott swallowed involuntarily, remembering his brother’s complete lack of response hours earlier when he had tried to get some of the coffee down him out in the storm. He gestured to the heaped plate of bacon and eggs on the nightstand as he managed to get more of the broth into his brother.  “Maria sent that up for you, Murdoch.  Said that plate better not come down the same way it got sent up if you know what’s good for you.”

Murdoch chuckled absently as he repositioned Scott against him, making the most of the physical contact that Scott would likely not remember nor have tolerated had he been responsive. “Heaven forbid I should incur the wrath of Maria.”  The truth was though, the smell of the eggs was making his churning stomach lurch even more.  He figured it would be some time before the turbulent emotions that were assaulting his insides would allow him to eat anything and keep it down. For now he’d make do with strong coffee to get him through. He didn’t think anyone would dare call him on it.

He watched as Johnny tried, unsuccessfully this time, to get a third spoonful of the broth into his brother, the salty liquid trickling down Scott’s chin and seeping into the towel.  “All right Johnny, I think he’s had enough for now. Let’s lay him back.”

Johnny removed the towel, wiped the excess liquid from Scott’s chin and then allowed Murdoch to set him back against the pillows and bolsters that had him propped into a near sitting position. Murdoch pulled the quilt up to Scott’s neck, tucking it around the blankets that lay beneath, to impart extra warmth as his eldest son continued to shiver.    

Murdoch turned to Teresa.  “Darling would you set some more blankets to warm in front of the fire? Take some off the beds in the guest rooms if you need to. Then you go and get some rest for a little while.”

She smiled weakly and nodded. Johnny smiled encouragingly at her as she made her way out the door. After what had happened to her father it had to be hell for her every time one of them came home injured. It probably hurt even more to feel she was being excluded by being sent out of the room every time he and Murdoch needed to talk, but he could see what the old man was trying to do. He wanted to shield her as much as he could. Johnny understood that.

Murdoch turned his attention to his younger son. “And what will it take to make you get some rest?”     

“Oh, about the same as you, I guess,” drawled Johnny. He stared fixedly at his father, those intense blue eyes scrutinizing his old man, daring him to order him to do something he wasn’t prepared to do himself. 

Murdoch smiled. “Well, since neither of us is intending to take any rest for at least the next little while, what do you make of all this?”

Johnny slouched back in the chair next to his brother’s bed, taking a moment to watch Scott’s swaddled chest rise and fall, his breathing still shallow but much improved from how it was.

“I dunno Murdoch,” he replied, finally. “I don’t get it. Whoever did this, Scott went willingly to it, even if he didn’t expect what he got from ‘em. Looking at those knuckles he at least tried to fight back, but someone gave him a helluva whack on the head for his troubles.”   

Murdoch nodded silently and walked over to the window.  It had dawned a clear day, and there was already a hive of activity in front of the hacienda with men being dispatched to all areas of the ranch to check for storm damage and make good the repairs.

“From the looks of those bruises,” Johnny continued, “They didn’t happen all at once. There’s fresh as well as older ones. I reckon he was taken soon after he went missing and beaten, and kicked too by the looks of things, over and again during the few days they had him.”

Murdoch turned back, angrily. “But why Johnny? Why do that to him and then let him go? From those marks on his wrists and ankles he was securely bound, and with those ribs, there’s no way he could have escaped on his own.”

Johnny considered. He had been thinking about that too, and what it could mean. It had been really bothering him. Before he could respond, though, there was a soft knock on the door.          

Jelly stood hovering in the doorway, Scott’s soiled jacket and saddlebag in his hand.

“Come in Jelly.” Murdoch gestured him in.  “Everything all right out there?”

“Cipriano sent Frank off to go fetch Doc Jenkins. He’s given the men the mornin’ orders so you don’t have ta worry. They all send their best. How’s he doin?’”   He gestured to the shivering form in the bed.

“Thanks Jelly,” Murdoch acknowledged.  “He seems to be holding his own. I’ll feel better when Sam gets here though.” Murdoch winced as stabbing pains lanced through his protesting back. He knew he’d need to have one of his powders if he was going to make it through the day. Pain clouded his judgment and he needed to be clear headed while he tried to figure all this out.

“I got Barranca cleaned up and bedded down,” Jelly addressed Johnny. “Never did meet a more ornery creature. He sure let me know when he’d had enough brushin’.”

Johnny smiled. “Thanks Jelly, I appreciate it.”

“Don’t mention it. I brung Scott’s saddlebag and jacket. Dunno if it might give ya some kinda clue what happened to him?”

Johnny reached out and took his brother’s jacket, something suddenly occurring to him. He reached into the pocket and pulled out Scott’s leather billfold, opened it up and checked the contents. His eyebrows rose as he noted the three ten-dollar bills inside.  He closed it once more and tossed the wallet across the bed towards his father. “Take a look inside.”

Murdoch picked it up, his fingers tracing across the gilt lettering. He knew Scott already possessed a good quality billfold when he had considered a birthday gift for his son the previous year, but he hoped that it was something that Scott would appreciate nonetheless. He had been heartened when he noted that his older son had immediately cleared out his old wallet and placed all his documents into the one his father had gifted him.

He checked the contents for himself and noted the money, a fairly considerable sum for anyone to be walking around with.  “So whoever they were, robbery certainly wasn’t a motive,” he noted, more perplexed than ever.

Johnny was busy inspecting the contents of the saddlebag. That in itself would have been of considerable interest to any opportune thief who would have been able to make good use of it, or at least get a good price for it in the next town they happened to find them self in.  No, there was nothing opportune about any of this. It was a targeted and deliberate attack and the key to it all was that letter.

Murdoch looked on as Johnny spilled out all the meager contents, looking for the one item that might offer some clue as to what had Scott lying there battered and unconscious.

Johnny looked up, as he finished clearing the contents, tossing the bag aside dejectedly. 

His youngest son’s expression said it all. There was no sign of the letter.

“Jelly.” Murdoch addressed the old ranch hand whose features were gray from exhaustion. “Tell Cipriano to post a double guard at the gate, and for all the men to be vigilant. Whoever did this to Scott might not be done with him yet. I don’t want to take any chances.”

“Sure boss.  You want me to send someone for Val Crawford?” inquired Jelly.       

Murdoch shook his head. “No, not yet. Not until we know a little more.  And once you’ve spoken to Cip, I want you to go and get some rest. No arguments, I may need you to take a turn sitting with Scott later.”

Jelly nodded and left without protest. The fact that he made no comment, when usually Jelly had something to say about everything, showed just how done in he really was. They all were.

“You sure about not wanting to bring Val into all of this?” Johnny questioned as the three Lancer men were left alone once more.

Murdoch shook his head as he looked down at his older boy, lying insensible in the bed. “Where would he start? What do we really know, Johnny?”

Johnny shrugged.  The old man had a point. “Sure would have helped if we could have laid our hands on that letter,” he sighed.

Murdoch leant over his unconscious son, tenderly smoothing back an errant lock of hair from his forehead.  “Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait for Scott to wake up and tell us. Whenever that might be.”

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

It was another four hours before Frank returned with the elderly Doctor in tow, on horseback.  It wasn’t Sam’s favorite method of transportation, preferring, instead the comfort of his buggy. But after the amount of rainfall they had had of late, he wouldn’t have gotten far before he got bogged down in the sticky quagmire that now served as the road between Morro Coyo and Lancer.

As Maria let him in, he headed straight up the stairs, not needing to be shown the way to any of the Lancer mens’ rooms. Between the three of them they had certainly kept him busy over the past couple of years.

As he reached the top of the stairs, and turned onto the landing he almost collided with a bleary eyed Johnny as he came barreling out of his room, his hair standing on end.

“Hell fire boy,” chastised Jenkins. “You want to give an old man a heart attack?”

“Sorry Doc,” apologized Johnny. “It’s Scott, he’s…”

“I know, I know,” interrupted Sam. “Why do you think I’m here? Now c’mon, lets go see what your brother has done to himself this time.”

Murdoch rose from his chair by Scott’s bed as Teresa entered the room.  She was closely followed by the elderly Doctor and Johnny, who was desperately trying to rub the sleepy fog from his eyes. 

Murdoch regarded his younger son with pride. He hadn’t yet had an opportunity to tell him just how proud he was of what he had done overnight; for the selfless way he had ridden out to look for his brother with no thought for his own safety.  He had marveled at the unbreakable bond that had been developed between the brothers in such a short a space of time and was immensely grateful for it.  But Johnny looked done in. Murdoch had finally succeeded in ushering him off to bed less than two hours before, when his head had started nodding as he sat by Scott’s bedside. Johnny had protested but had eventually relented when his father promised that he would rouse him once Sam arrived.  When Murdoch had noted the doctor’s arrival as he stood at the window contemplating recent events, he dispatched Teresa to wake his younger son. The boy needed his rest and two hours was not nearly enough but he had promised and he wasn’t about to break his word.

“Thanks for getting here so soon Sam,” Murdoch greeted his old friend, the relief that the old doctor had finally arrived reflected on his haggard features.

“Well, your man nearly didn’t find me,” Sam acknowledged gruffly.  “I was just leaving the Connor place when he rode up. That twister, or whatever it was, leveled their house last night.  A miracle they got out. Only injury was to Lem Connor. Got a broken arm when a wall fell in on him.  Mack at the hotel has taken them in for a few nights until they can make further arrangements. Damn good of him if you ask me.”

Johnny and Murdoch exchanged knowing glances. The Connor spread was only five miles from Lancer on a direct westerly path. If it had been the storm that Johnny had felt sure was at his and Scott’s backs as they headed home, well, that told him something about where Scott was when he found him. Johnny aimed to go out and check as soon as he was able.

“I’m sorry to hear about the Connor’s, Sam,” acknowledged Murdoch. “But I’m glad nobody was badly hurt. Lancer would be happy to spare some men and materials to help rebuild.”            

Sam nodded. It was nothing less than he expected from this bear of a man whose size and formidable presence belied the compassionate human being the elderly doctor knew him to be.  “Now what’s Scott been up to?” Sam cast his well-trained eye on the motionless form of the soft-spoken young man who had endeared himself to all who came to know him. “How come he was out in that storm?”

Murdoch sighed, shaking his head, momentarily lost for words. It was a question he desperately needed answers to as well.

“It’s a long story Doc,” Johnny interceded on his father’s behalf.

Sam looked around at the strained expressions on each of the three faces around him. None of them looked as though they had slept properly in days.  “Well, I’m sure your father can tell me all about it over a nice glass of that good Scotch of his once I have taken a good look at your brother.”  He opened up his leather case and extracted his stethoscope and set it down on the nightstand until he was ready to use it. He perched on the side of the bed and pulled the coverlets down and noted the bandages swathed around Scott’s chest. Sam turned to Murdoch. “Ribs?”

Murdoch nodded.  “He’s black and blue front and back. Two ribs broken low on either side as far as I can figure, several more may be cracked.”

Jenkins frowned. “We’ll get those bindings off in a minute and I’ll take a look.”

He placed his hand on Scott’s upper chest and felt his skin.  It was clammy to the touch but that was hardly surprising considering, from the sketchy account Frank had been able to give him, Scott had seemingly been lying out most of the night in the frigid storm. The doctor took Scott’s left hand and looked at the fingers and pressed the tips.  He was heartened to see the pink color rapidly return on depression. Circulation was good.

“You did a good job of warming him up, all of you,” Sam observed without looking up. “Undoubtedly saved his life.”

He paused momentarily to look at Scott’s right hand, and noted the swollen and blackened knuckles.  “Well, looks like whatever happened to him, he at least tried to fight back. Will have blooded someone’s nose, I’m sure. I don’t think the hand is broken though, just badly bruised. I’ll leave it unwrapped for now, all the while he’s unconscious and not likely to be using it. I’ll take another look at it when he’s awake. I don’t want to wrap too many things and compromise his circulation after what he’s just been through.”

Sam continued with his running commentary as he inspected the minor cuts and abrasions Scott had suffered. His eyes lingered on the tell tale signs of imprisonment etched into the young man’s wrists. As he pulled aside the quilt and continued his inspection of Scott’s lower limbs he noted the twin marks around his ankles.

He looked up at Murdoch and saw the haunted look in his old friend’s eyes. In contrast, Johnny’s burned with a smoldering anger. Sam returned to his ministrations without commenting.   Whatever had befallen the boy, the superficial cuts, sinister as they appeared, were the least of his concerns.   He’d get the details later. Right now Scott had more serious problems that needed to be addressed.  

His cursory inspection completed, Sam pulled the quilt back up to Scott’s waist and picked up his stethoscope. He inserted the earpieces and traced the bell across the unconscious young man’s chest, listening intently.  His heart rate was weaker than he would have liked but stronger than he expected considering Scott had undoubtedly been suffering from a severe case of hypothermia.

“Has he been shivering at all?”

“Yes, he started after we got him out of the bath,” explained Murdoch.  “I figured that was a good sign.” 

“You figured right,” confirmed Sam. “When did he stop?”

“About an hour or so ago. Is that good or bad?”

“It’s good, it means his defenses kicked in the way they should and did what they needed to, to get the circulation back up and running to all the vital areas.” Sam turned to the dark haired young man hovering in the background. “Johnny, help your father. I need you to lift Scott forward so I can listen to his lungs.”

Johnny and Murdoch moved to hold Scott in place while the doctor took his time listening to his lungs, the young man in question remaining entirely oblivious to the thorough examination.

“Well, his lungs are clear, which is a good sign,” confirmed an obviously relieved Sam, as he set aside his stethoscope.  “But we need to keep them that way. Teresa, come over here and help me remove these bindings.  I need to get a look at those ribs.”

Between them, the doctor and the young brunette made short work of removing the wrappings. Teresa had seen the damage done to Scott when she had assisted Murdoch in applying the bindings in the first place. It was no less of a shock, however, to once more, see the results of the horrendous abuse that had been meted out on her unassuming older ‘brother’. Nobody deserved that, least of all Scott.

As for Sam, he had seen some atrocious injuries in his time, due to accidents, gunfights and bar brawls but never before had he seen such damage wantonly and deliberately inflicted on one man. Coupled with the evidence of the rope burns he realized that much of the torture had to have been inflicted when Scott was tied and unable to defend himself. Whoever had done this was cowardly, sick and, quite likely, very dangerous.

“My God Murdoch, who did this to him?”  whispered Sam.

Murdoch shook his head as he cast his eyes over the myriad of colors spreading across his son’s skin. “We don’t know Sam…” 

“But whoever it was, when I find ‘em, they’re gonna pay,” interrupted Johnny, unable to hide the venom in his voice.

Murdoch cast a disapproving eye at his youngest but let it pass. Johnny was exhausted and as worried as they all were, but when he was more rested Murdoch would make sure Johnny knew exactly what his father thought about quests for vengeance. It never solved anything.

“We’re waiting for Scott to awaken, to see if he can tell us anything,” Murdoch countered. “If he’s able to.”

Jenkins was busy running his well-trained hands down Scott’s ribs.  As much as he was pressing and prodding, Sam’s examination didn’t elicit so much as a whimper from Scott.  “I think you could be waiting quite a spell,” concluded Sam.  “Even unconscious I’d be expecting some kind of reaction from him, with the way I’m palpating his ribs. You were right though, Murdoch, two breaks and a number of cracked. And it’s the cracked ones I’m more worried about because if he gets pneumonia, coughing could be enough to break them.  They’re right above his lungs and I don’t need to tell you the implications of that. ”   He retrieved the bindings and as Murdoch and Johnny continued to hold Scott in place, wrapped them as tightly as he could while still enabling the young man to breathe, albeit shallowly.

“Alright, set him back down.”

They did so and father and son, once more, withdrew as the Doctor pulled back his patient’s eyelids to see if he could find any further clue as to what was keeping Scott so deeply unconscious.

“Hmmm…. pupils are a mite dilated. Could be suffering from a concussion too.”

“He does have a lump on the back of his head,” chimed in Johnny. “I figured that’s how they got the jump on him. But if that’s the case, then it’s at least five days old” 

Jenkins placed his hands either side of Scott’s head and felt around the young man’s skull, quickly locating the knot that Johnny had referred to.

“Well, that could be the cause.” He frowned once more.  “But if the injury is that old I think it more likely that Scott’s deep unconsciousness comes from his very close call with death this morning. He’s extremely lucky that he is both young and generally in excellent health, and that you, Johnny, found him when you did.  It takes the body time to recover when it has been as close to shutting down as Scott’s was when you brought him home. But he’s not out of the woods yet. Pneumonia is still a very real possibility.  I want you to keep him propped up to keep his lungs clear and enable him to breathe as comfortably as he can. Any sign of a cough or any fever at all, give him steam treatments. It’s imperative to keep his lungs clear at all costs. I’ll come back in the morning to check on him. If he should wake before then, he’ll likely be in extreme pain, so I’ll leave some laudanum. But only give him enough to take off the edge. Too much could impact his breathing and would leave him more susceptible to pneumonia. Also, make sure you get plenty of fluids in him. If someone can inflict those injuries on him then I doubt they either fed him or gave him water over the past few days. ” He finished by pulling the coverlets back up to the young man’s neck and ruffled his hand through his hair affectionately.

He turned away from his patient to ensure that those present in the room had taken in his instructions.   They all looked shattered, all three of them, as they gazed at the pale features of the young man lying in the bed. Sam cursed himself, realizing that the clinician in him had taken over and that they really needed to hear a little more from Sam Jenkins, family friend.

“Try not to worry too much,” he smiled encouragingly. “He’s doing much better than I expected. His heart rate is stronger than I thought it would be and his circulation is good. He’s a tough young man. He’s come this far and if you do everything I’ve instructed, and there are no complications, he should make it through.” He replaced his stethoscope in his leather satchel and clamped it shut.  He addressed Murdoch, clasping his old friend on the arm. “Now how about that whiskey? And you can tell me everything you do know about what’s led to Scott being in the state he’s in.”        



Chapter 7

Johnny slouched in the chair in his brother’s room, his socked feet propped up on the bed.   He was sure Scott wouldn’t approve, especially as it was the seventh day straight Johnny had worn that particular pair of socks, but he figured if the odor alone didn’t wake Scott then nothing would.

Before Sam had returned to Morro Coyo, he had issued yet another set of instructions; this time aimed at the rest of the inhabitants of the hacienda, but more specifically targeted at Murdoch. The doctor had reasoned that, much as they all needed to take some rest, Johnny and Teresa were young and fit enough to cope with a few missed nights’ sleep with no adverse affects.  Murdoch however, was far too long in the tooth to think he could carry on overseeing the running of Lancer by day and watching over his son by night and not take any rest.

Only Sam Jenkins, who had known Murdoch more than twenty-five years, could get away with speaking to the senior Lancer that way, especially as Sam was no spring chicken himself. Johnny had just been spelled by Teresa and had temporarily left his brother’s side to go and answer a call of nature before heading downstairs to get a much-needed cup of coffee. With unerring timing, he had walked in on the conversation just as Sam had imparted his pearls of wisdom. Johnny had chuckled to see Murdoch being scolded like a naughty child, especially as his old man’s chagrined expression suited the role perfectly.  But the grin was soon wiped off Johnny’s face by the stormy glare his father sent his way. Johnny had beaten a hasty retreat to the kitchen where he availed himself of a cup of Maria’s coffee and then disappeared up the backstairs to resume his vigil at Scott’s bedside.

Despite not appreciating being reminded of his mortality quite as bluntly as he had been, Murdoch had, however, at least heeded the doctor’s advice.    After satisfying himself once more that there had been no deterioration in Scott’s condition, he had taken one of his powders and had headed to his room to rest for a few hours, after first ensuring that Teresa did the same.   

That had left Johnny to watch over his brother for the afternoon, knowing that his father fully intended to take the night shift when he had rested up. Johnny would lay easy money though that, right at that moment, his old man would be lying on his bed wide awake, too many things spiraling around in his head to ever allow sleep to claim him.   Johnny wondered what it must be like for his father to be getting older and be forced to face his own mortality. It was something that Johnny himself had never given much thought to before. All those years as a gunfighter, he had lived by his wits, knowing as every day dawned that there was a real possibility it could be his last if he faced off with someone faster than himself.   He had never worried about getting old because he had accepted that it was highly unlikely that he ever would.

But it was different for Murdoch. He had built Lancer up from nothing and had had to fight tooth and nail for every inch of that land, every piece of mortar, every blade of grass, always under threat of attack.  But finally he had succeeded in building his empire.  Murdoch Lancer had the largest, most successful cattle ranch in the San Joaquin and people respected him and listened to what he had to say. He was a man of great influence, renowned throughout California. 

But the day had come when Murdoch had started to question what it meant. Suddenly he realized that he was no longer a young man; he couldn’t run Lancer alone indefinitely and neither had it ever been his intention to do so. It was an empty shell without the sons that he had built this legacy for.  It wasn’t just the threat of Day Pardee and his land pirates that had prompted Murdoch to send for he and Scott. It had been his impending sense of mortality and to have, in his twilight years, the sons that had been lost to him for so long, by his side.

At least that had been how Scott had figured it. Johnny had been far too angry initially to see beyond his father’s gruff exterior, to see past the way the old man rode herd on him constantly, openly criticizing him in front of the hands.     But Scott had even had a theory about that too. He figured it was Murdoch’s way of building the self-discipline and resilience Johnny would some day need to manage his half share of a spread of this size. Because like it or not, Lancer was his and Scott’s legacy. Murdoch had built it for them. 

Johnny regarded his silent brother ponderously. Scott sure had a way of figuring people.  He wondered how long it had taken Scott to figure him out.  It kinda spooked him at times when Scott fixed him with one of those intense gazes of his. Like he could see right through him, know what he was thinking before Johnny himself even knew it.  He sure knew how to get under a person’s skin, that much Johnny did know. Despite initial resistance on Johnny’s part, Scott had worn him down with that darned dogged persistence of his and made Johnny care about more than just his own hide.

It had snuck up on Johnny when he wasn’t looking but, hell, Scott had reeled him in, hook line and sinker and before long a solid bond had formed. Johnny had to admit that he had never felt closer to anyone in his life.  And, if his suspicions were correct, he figured that same feeling was what was keeping Murdoch awake right now.  Because rightly or wrongly, the old man was feeling responsible for what had happened to Scott. And he was worried sick that whoever had done this to him was still out there and posing a threat to them all. The way Murdoch saw it, he was responsible for every single person that lived on and around Lancer and no one would ever persuade him otherwise. 

Johnny and Scott had both seen that first hand during the eighteen months since they had arrived home. Murdoch took every injury, every death that occurred to each of the men as personally as he would have had they been related by blood. They had lost twelve good men when Pardee and his men had attacked; eight children had lost a father, five women had been widowed. And Murdoch had taken personal responsibility for each and every one of those left mourning, ensuring they would always be taken care of.  Hell it was enough to make anyone feel old. How long could he really go on shouldering all that responsibility alone?

In the many discussions they had about their father, Scott had made Johnny see a whole different side to the man he had spent so many years trying to hate. And that level of understanding had extinguished much of the fieriness he carried inside. Not all of it; Murdoch still knew how to push his buttons, but Scott had laughed it off and said that they were just too alike for their own good and that was why they butted heads so often.    

“Hell Boston,” Johnny muttered.  “I never thought about things so much since I met you. It sure does make my head spin at times.”     

He yawned loudly, arching his back and stretching his aching arms up over his head. It was so tempting to allow the easy lassitude that was flooding through him to take over, and allow sleep to pull him down into its warm embrace, but Scott needed to be carefully watched. Besides, it would only be a couple of hours before Murdoch spelled him to take the night shift and then Johnny could stretch out in his own bed and get the shut eye he so badly needed.

He rose from the chair and lit the oil lamp positioned on the nightstand. Dusk was beginning to fall and he could hear the thunder of hoof beats as the men returned from their duties across the length and breadth of Lancer land. Johnny sauntered over to the window and looked out at the thin tendrils of light on the horizon as the sun surrendered its tenuous grip on the day and gave way to nightfall.   He smiled as he listened to the banter of the men, mostly calling out to each other in Spanish. Two of the men were having a good-natured debate about which of them had sunk the most fence posts out in the South pasture. A third had quipped that he would likely have to go out there the next day and redo all of them if the ‘Jefe’ had entrusted such a pair of incompetents with the task. 

A barely audible gasp from the bed behind him diverted Johnny’s attention from his observations.   “Scott?” he rushed to his brother’s side.  Scott’s breathing pattern had changed. While his eyes were still firmly shut, he frowned and moved his head slightly to the side. “Scott?” Johnny persisted. “Can you hear me? You’re home brother, you’re back at Lancer.” 

Johnny figured that Scott would be more inclined to wake up if he knew he was home, safely away from whoever it was that had inflicted such terrible abuse upon him.  He wondered how many times his brother had regained consciousness to find he was still in the hands of his captor or captors. He didn’t blame Scott in the least for not wanting to wake up to that incessant torture.

But Scott didn’t respond and gave no audible sign that he had heard his brother. Still, Johnny figured, it was at least an indication that his level of consciousness was increasing. And from the pained expression contorting his features and the slight alteration in his breathing pattern, it was clear Scott’s ribs were making their presence known.   Johnny wouldn’t have wished that kind of pain on anyone but after the way he had found his brother less than twenty-four hours before, it sure was good to see him show some initial sign that he was at least trying to wake up. 

Johnny poured some of the water, from the pitcher on the nightstand, into a glass and held it to his brother’s lips. “There you go Boston. I’ll bet you’ve got a mouth as dry as the Mojave right now. This’ll help moisten it up some.”     He trickled some of the water between Scott’s lips and was encouraged when he saw his brother make a clear swallowing reflex.  Scott’s tongue snaked out instinctively, licking his cracked lips, searching for more of the cool liquid to sooth his parched throat.  Johnny offered more but this time it went down a little too quickly and Scott started to choke. Johnny quickly set the glass down and moved to sit his brother forward, rubbing his bandaged back until the coughing fit was over.   As he laid him back down, Johnny noted that beads of sweat had broken out on Scott’s forehead and his face was set in a grimace of pain, his eyes still firmly closed.  “Easy, now, Scott,’ Johnny soothed. “Hell, I’m sorry, brother, didn’t mean to do that to you.”  He poured some more of the water into the bowl on the nightstand and dampened a washcloth, wringing it out before gently wiping away the perspiration soaking his brother’s brow. 

Johnny felt the side of Scott’s face with the back of his hand, satisfied that the perspiration was brought about by the exertion of the coughing fit rather than the onset of fever. Sam had mentioned that Scott might experience a mild bout, brought about more by his body’s attempts to handle the extreme pain of his broken and cracked ribs than any thing else. However, if any fever were to be accompanied by a productive cough, then they would know that Scott had developed more serious issues. 

Scott licked his dry lips yet again, but Johnny was loath to give him more water if it was going to make him choke like that. Instead he rewetted the cloth and held it just over Scott’s mouth, dribbling in enough drops to moisten his lips and introduce a little hydration, enough to ease his parched throat.   

Johnny set the cloth back down as Scott appeared to settle once more, the lines of pain smoothing out as he seemed to pass into a more peaceful and restful sleep.

“That’s it brother, you rest easy,” soothed Johnny.  “You’re home now. You’re safe.”

As Johnny leaned over to rearrange the blankets over his brother’s chest, Scott’s lips moved ever so slightly as if he was trying to say something.

Johnny leaned in close as Scott breathed the barely audible whisper.

“Never…. home…again.”  

Johnny shook his head as he finished tucking the blankets around his brother, and settled back in his chair once more.    He wondered what kind of hell beyond the obvious signs of injury that Scott had endured, could lead him to believe he would never see his home again. 

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Scott had been relieved to get to Morro Coyo by late morning. He’d spent the last hour or so reliving the heated exchange that had passed between he and Teresa before he had left the hacienda. He hadn’t meant to upset her but try as he might he just couldn’t hide his discomfort at the fuss that she was planning to make over his birthday. Nor could he tell her why he felt the way that he did. How did you explain something like that? Scott wasn’t good at expressing how he felt about things at the best of times but this time it wasn’t just about how he felt. There were someone else’s feelings to consider. If Murdoch had been comfortable with the planned ‘event’ he would have come out in support of Teresa. But he hadn’t. Yet he hadn’t supported Scott either. And Scott figured he knew why that was too.   Because Murdoch didn’t want to have to explain why he was reluctant to mark his son’s birthday.  He didn’t want to reveal that the day held an alternate, more painful significance for him.  

For twenty-four years his father had been able to deal with the day in his own way, as a day of loss and of grief. But when Scott had come home, suddenly the day had taken on a whole different connotation. With Scott being raised by his grandfather in Boston, Murdoch had never had to make the effort to put on a brave face and ensure that the day was more about the living than the dead. But suddenly, last year, all that had changed. And Scott had seen how conflicted his father had been. There was so much that Scott had wanted to ask Murdoch about his mother, to talk to him about her, find out what she was like, whether he favored her in any way, and about what happened that day in Carterville. Above all, he wanted to know how Murdoch felt about him, his son. But he had never asked because he didn’t want to cause his father any more pain.  And that was what lay behind his reticence to have any big fuss made over a day that, to Scott, during the past few years, had become one of sadness and filled him with an overwhelming sense of guilt.  Because it was the day that his mother had died so that he could live. 

No, he couldn’t explain that to Teresa.  Not to anyone. The only person he could and would want to discuss it with had made it quite clear, as far as Scott was concerned, that it was a closed subject. Murdoch was not one to talk about the past, and that reluctance to provide his sons with the answers they both desperately needed and wanted, had brought the development of their relationship with their father to an uneasy standstill.   Still, Scott at least understood Murdoch’s reasons, even if he didn’t fully agree with them.   He at least hoped that some day Murdoch might let his defenses down enough to allow them to talk. But it had to be on his father’s terms, not be forced upon him. And that was what Teresa was unwittingly doing by making something else out of that particular anniversary than it had meant to Murdoch for all those years. It made Scott all the more determined to try and gently coax Teresa away from her grandiose plans for a big celebration.

His thoughts drifted back to the altercation with his ‘sister’. Scott prided himself on his patience and diplomacy but he was at a loss to know where things had gone wrong that morning. His ears were still ringing with Teresa’s passing shot to him before she had stormed back to the kitchen, informing him how ungrateful he was.

Scott sighed as he rode into the outskirts of town. He’d make it up to Teresa somehow. The last time he had brought her into Morro Coyo he had caught her gazing wistfully at a pretty blue dress hat in the Milliner’s shop window. She had little money of her own and having been raised on a ranch wasn’t usually one to waste what little she had on frivolities. But he and Johnny regularly teased her about the fact that she seemed to live in pants and needed to get prettied up every once in a while or she’d turn into an old maid. It was a running joke between them, as both brothers knew there’d be no shortage of suitors if they and Murdoch were to let any of them ever get anywhere near her!   So the hat would be a perfect peace offering. He could call it an early Christmas present. He had $30 in his wallet, more than enough, he figured, to buy a pretty hat and a quarter of the molasses candy she loved so much.

Decision made and confident that his peace offering would be well received, Scott guided Rambler over to the stage depot to collect the pile of mail he knew would be waiting. Mostly bills, he suspected, and with Murdoch not due back for at least another week, maybe two, it would fall to him to deal with the creditors.  He snorted derisively to himself. No good expecting Johnny to take his turn, his response was always the same, “Hell, you’re the one with the education, Boston.”  And with a business studies degree from Harvard, Scott really couldn’t argue with that.

He dismounted and tied Rambler to the hitching post outside the stage depot. The ten o’clock stage had been and gone so the generally busy office was devoid of any waiting passengers as Scott stepped through the door.

Ed Hawkins was in his usual place, in the tiny booth at the back of the office where he stored all the uncollected mail and any other transit items that happened to be left in his care. He looked up as Scott stepped into the office.

“Hey Scott.  Wondered if I’d see you today. How’re you doin’?”

“Very well, Ed, thank you,” Scott acknowledged as he removed his hat, and strode confidently towards the counter. “And you? How’s business?” he added conversationally.

“Oh, middlin’ Scott, but I cain’t complain none. All the while folk have to go all the way’s to Cross Creek to catch the train, the stage’ll keep on runnin’, but if they bring that ol’ steam behemoth any closer….”

“Well, I don’t think there’s much chance of that Ed,’ laughed Scott, as he set his hat down and leaned against the counter. “Not for a little while anyway. Murdoch seems to think the land around here would need to be extensively surveyed and at considerable cost to the government. Besides,” he added sardonically, “with all the rain we’ve had lately, the tracks would likely sink.”

Hawkins chucked. “Ain’t that the truth.  Stage was an hour late this morning ‘cuz they got bogged down ‘tween here and Green River.  We get much more rain and ain’t nothin’ gonna get through.”

“I think if it rains any more Ed, we’ll have to start gathering all the animals up two by two,” quipped Scott. “As for the stage line, well, I’m sure Wells Fargo will make sure it gets through. They’ve got too much at stake for it not to. Besides, I’m really counting on it because I don’t think I can handle doing all my father’s paperwork for too much longer. I will be very happy to hand it all back to him when he returns from San Francisco.” 

“Well, sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings Scott,’ apologized the postmaster somewhat sheepishly, as he bent to retrieve something from below the counter, “But…”

“I know, I know,’ sighed Scott good naturedly, “You’ve got a whole bunch of financial demands waiting right there for me. You know, I swear all Murdoch’s creditors wait until he’s out of the territory before they send their bills just to spite me.” He grinned at Ed as the postmaster handed over the wad of mail that had amassed in the short time since Murdoch had been absent.

“You heard from yer Daddy at all since he went away?” inquired Hawkins as he watched the young man flick absently through the correspondences.

“No, net yet. I was going to go over to ask Seth before I head home to see if anything has come through. If I know my father he’ll have remembered something else he’ll want Johnny or me to do. Just to remind us that even when he’s not here, he’s still the boss.” He smiled wryly, pausing his sifting as he came across a letter addressed to his father that stood out from all the rest. The paper was crude, the writing uneducated and smudged, yet the author had addressed it to ‘Murdoch Lancer Esq,’ a quaint way for someone to be addressing his father. Unless of course they were being ironic or wanted to make their letter stand out from the rest. Well, in that they had succeeded.  Scott started to tear open the envelope as he continued.  “And as he keeps reminding us, he most definitely calls the tune. Still all the while he’s away, I get the dubious honor of opening the mail and paying the bills. Lucky me.” He looked up at Hawkins, grinning as he pulled out the contents from the envelope.   “That’s the price I pay for a Harvard education so Johnny keeps telling me.”

“Well, yer Daddy is real a big man around here and Morro Coyo sure wouldn’t be the town it’s grown to be without his help…and that’s another thing….”

Scott didn’t hear much beyond the words ‘big man’ as he started to digest the contents of the note.  Hawkins voice was nothing more than a distant buzz in his ears. His whole world, his whole universe was suddenly centered on the devastating words etched in the coarse paper. They leapt off the page and sucker punched him in the gut. He could feel the bile rising in his throat as he forced himself to continue, sickened beyond all measure at their implications. He focused on the last sentence, underlined four times by the author to emphasize his intent.  A time and a place.  Scott couldn’t see how his father could have ignored something like this.  And the author would have counted on that.  But neither could Scott ignore it because he had a very personal stake in this.  Something primeval had taken over and all he could think about was confronting this man and making him pay for the things he described so graphically in the letter. And the sick bastard wouldn’t be expecting anyone but Murdoch at the assigned rendezvous. From that perspective Scott would have the element of surprise.

Scott didn’t remember retrieving his hat, exiting the stage office or even mounting Rambler.   The next clear recollection he had was reining up outside of town, leaning over his mount and vomiting the contents of his stomach across the trail.  What remained of his undigested breakfast mingled with the muddy pools of water left over from the night’s rainstorm.   Scott pulled out his bandana and wiped his mouth, gulping in mouthfuls of the cool air, desperately trying to control his hitched breathing.

He was acting on pure instinct. Gone was the rationality that Scott Lancer was known and respected for that saw him often intercede as mediator when Murdoch and Johnny got into one of their heated disagreements. Neither of them would recognize this emotionally charged young man who now expelled the final remnants of the bile that had beaten a hasty retreat from his clenching stomach.   He took a swig of water from his canteen, and swilled it around his mouth to rid himself of the acidic taste of vomit, and spat it out again. Scott shivered, but it wasn’t just the icy wind that sent the tremors coursing through his body.

With one last look at the tiny town that lay behind him, Scott Lancer turned and kicked his mount into a gallop with an aggression seldom seen in the young man. He headed away in the opposite direction from the one he had come from that morning, hell bent on facing the man who threatened to sully the good name of his father and another who was no longer able to defend them self.

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

Johnny turned to look towards the door as his father entered. It was as he figured; the old man didn’t look like he had slept a wink.  Hell, thought Johnny, if that’s what parenthood does to you, I think I’ll pass.

“Hey Murdoch, sleep all right?” inquired Johnny, daring his father to lie to him.

“I won’t bother telling you I did seeing as we’d both know it to be a lie,” replied Murdoch, fixing his son with an intense gaze, which slowly turned into a tired smile.

Johnny grinned back. “Yep,” he agreed.  “But I guess its no good me callin’ you on it ‘cuz I know it won’t do me a bit of good.  Right?”

Murdoch smiled. “Right. Because I wasn’t the one who was out all night in the storm saving his brother’s life. When I do, finally, manage to get some sleep, it will be because I still have two sons by my side. And I’m under no illusion as to how close I came to losing them both.” He gazed intently at his younger son, still marveling at the strength of both will and character that it had taken for him to go out there and find Scott, faced with insurmountable odds.  As he and Sam had sat down earlier to talk, the old doctor had told him about the total devastation at the Connor ranch. There had really been nothing left to salvage after the storm had decimated their property. And Johnny by all accounts had been heading right into that monster, Scott lying right in its path. The fact that he still had both sons with him in this room was nothing short of miraculous.

Johnny rose from the chair, unused to such sentiment from his father but secretly thrilled by it. It disturbed him that he could feel such a need to make his father proud when he had spent so many years trying to hate him. He    stretched, his tired muscles protesting after hours spent in the same position, not to mention hours in the saddle, desperately trying to hold his brother in place less than twenty-four hours earlier.    Murdoch was right, Johnny’s entire body was crying out for rest and he would soon have to listen and take to his bed for some much needed sleep.  

“How’s he doing?” Murdoch gestured towards Scott as he moved over to the bed.

“He’s sleeping but not real easy,” reported Johnny, fixing his gaze on his brother once more. “I think he’s dreaming, maybe reliving something. I don’t know. And I reckon he’s really starting to feel those ribs.”   

A light sheen of sweat dusted Scott’s brow and his eyes darted to and fro beneath the darkened lids, his lips moving wordlessly. Murdoch reached out and placed his hand across his son’s forehead. He was a little warm but nothing to be too concerned about and his breathing, although shallow, as was to be expected with his injuries, did not seem to be compromised in any way. The fact that he was dreaming meant he had passed from unconsciousness to sleep, which was another encouraging sign considering how close Scott had come to dying just a short time ago.

Murdoch reached for the damp washcloth and wiped away the beads of perspiration gathered across Scott’s brow and continued to wipe his face and neck, more to impart comfort to his son than anything else.    “Has he been awake at all?” he inquired as he replaced the cloth on the nightstand.

Johnny shook his head. “No, although I think he is more aware of what’s goin’ on around him. I think he can hear us.”

Murdoch regarded his younger son seriously. “What makes you say that?”     

Johnny shrugged. “Just some of the things he’s been saying in his sleep.”

Murdoch returned his gaze to his sleeping son as his lips continued to move soundlessly. “Such as?” 

“Nothing that makes much sense.  Said something about someone having a ‘hat on’.  Before that, when he got a little restless I was telling him he was safe, that he was home.” Johnny regarded his silent brother sadly. “Murdoch, whatever happened to him, he didn’t think he’d ever make it home. I think he’d given up hope.”

Murdoch reached under the covers and took his son’s left hand, regarding the insidious marks on his wrists.  “No Johnny, Scott’s a fighter. Whatever happened to him, he had unfinished business here and that’s what brought him back to us. And for that I’m very grateful.”

 

CHAPTER 8

As awareness slowly returned, he realized that something was different. He was no longer trussed; his wrists no longer tied to his ankles via the short length of rope that had kept him crouched in a fetal position.  It made it far easier to breathe than it had before. And it felt like someone had bound his damaged ribs, and that he was now lying propped up in a warm bed. 

He tried to make sense of it. Where was he? How had he gotten here? How had he managed to escape his confinement? There were flashes of memory, a roaring sound in his ears, the penetrating cold that made him feel like he would never be warm again. Then there was a swaying motion, a disembodied voice that had anchored him, when all he had wanted to do was let go.  But he couldn’t arrange any of it into any semblance of order.  Not yet.

As awareness increased, so did his senses. The pain spreading throughout his body was growing in intensity. He listened for any sign that anyone was close by. Because when ‘he’ was around it meant more agony, and he was the sort of man who would get a warped satisfaction from allowing him to heal before starting the cycle of abuse all over again.  But the sounds around him had changed.    He could hear hoof beats away in the distance, and the far away cries of people calling out to one another.  And it smelled different too.  Whereas on each and every previous awakening his nostrils had been assaulted by the redolent smells of his own sweat and urine, they were now replaced by the smell of clean linen and, from far off, the comforting aroma of home baking.   

His tired mind tried to process all the information his returning senses were sending it.  And then there it was, the final piece of the puzzle that left him in no doubt where he was, as the familiar chime rang out. He counted, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.  And then it stopped.  He finally opened his eyes blinking several times to clear his blurred vision. As the familiar objects around the room swam into view, he knew with certainty where he was.  It was Lancer. He was in his ‘own’ room. Somehow he had made it back.  

He swallowed back the lump that rose rapidly in his throat.  It was the ultimate cruelty to have made it all the way home just to have to leave once more. But of course it was no longer his home. Could never be again.  That was the final punishment his captor had inflicted upon him. Yes, he remembered now.   He had sent him back to face them all, the people he cared most about in the world, only to be forced to walk away from them forever. Because they could never find out who or what he was.  No, as soon as he was recovered enough, he would do what he had been sent back to do and then he would leave the hacienda, and the life and people he loved, forever.

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Johnny sauntered back along the landing with a cup of coffee in one hand and a plate of freshly baked biscuits in the other. He had already demolished a heaped plate of eggs, bacon and fried onions but for some reason it had not been enough to satiate him. He had awakened ravenous this morning so Maria had sent him on his way with some extra biscuits to tide him over until lunchtime.  And now he was returning to Scott’s bedside to take the morning watch. His father had emerged from his brother’s room a short time earlier, having kept vigil throughout the night. Murdoch had grabbed a cup of coffee and a handful of biscuits and had headed straight out to issue orders to the men.  Johnny and Teresa had exchanged knowing glances as they noted how haggard he looked. They both knew that Murdoch couldn’t go on much longer without getting some decent rest.  Johnny resolved to talk to Sam about it when he came out later that morning to check on Scott.  He would ask him to leave a sleeping powder that he could slip into the old man’s coffee if he had to.

As he reached Scott’s room, with his hands full, he turned around and nudged the door open and backed his way in. As he turned around, he was met with the glassy-eyed gaze of his brother.

“Well hell, brother,” exclaimed Johnny. “All this time you’re out for the count and we leave you for five minutes and you wake up on us.”  He quickly set the coffee and biscuits down on the nightstand and perched on the side of the bed. 

Scott grimaced as the movement sent shards of pain knifing through his chest. “How long?” He gasped.

“Just over twenty four hours since I found you,” Johnny confirmed, gently.

“And before?”

Johnny regarded his brother seriously. “You don’t know?”

Scott shook his head weakly, averting Johnny’s penetrating gaze. “Tell me.” 

“Six days. You were gone for nearly six days Scott. Today’s Friday. It’s been a week since you disappeared on us. You remember anything?”

Scott gave an imperceptible shake of his head but did not respond. Instead he closed his eyes against the flood of despair that washed through him. He remembered. Of course he did. He would never forget, but they could never know. Never.

Johnny interpreted the pained expression on his brother’s face as symptomatic of his battered ribs. He poured a glass of water and took the small bottle that Sam Jenkins had left and mixed in a couple of drops of laudanum, heedful of the doctor’s warning about not giving Scott too much. He gently held the glass to his brother’s lips, coaxing him to drink. As Scott swallowed the first sip, his eyes flew open and he turned his head aside violently.  “No!” he spluttered.

“C’mon Scott,” Johnny urged. “It’ll help with the pain. Take the edge off it. You took a helluva beating brother.”

“No,” insisted Scott. “No drugs.”

“Scott,” reasoned Johnny gently, “You’re safe now, whoever did this to you, you don’t have to worry about…”

“I said no!” spat Scott through clenched teeth. Beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead from the exertion of trying to talk and breathe at the same time. It just required too much energy and he was already exhausted. He closed his eyes once more and concentrated on breathing in a way that gave him the least discomfort.

Alarmed at his brother’s sudden gray pallor Johnny gave it up. “All right Boston, have it your way,” he sighed.    He set the glass back down on the nightstand and reached for the washcloth. Wetting it, he wrung it out and reached across to wipe the perspiration from Scott’s brow. He frowned as Scott flinched at his touch almost propelling himself backwards trying to escape the physical contact.

“Easy, brother, easy,” he soothed as Scott’s eyes flung open, his pupils wide with fear.

“Leave…. please…” gasped Scott. “Want…alone…tired.”     

“All right, its all right, calm down,” Johnny tried to pacify him, concerned at the wildness in his brother’s eyes. Dios, what the hell did they do to him?   Johnny wondered as he watched Scott struggle to control his breathing as fresh beads of sweat amassed across his ashen features.

Johnny backed away. “It’s ok, Scott, I’ll move away. I’m gonna go get Murdoch, ‘k? He’ll be real relieved to see you awake.”

Scott closed his eyes once more, confused. But Murdoch was supposed to have been in San Francisco – at least for another week, maybe longer, when he had ridden to Morro Coyo that day.  Johnny said it had been a week since he had disappeared.  Had he really lost that much time?  He had hoped Murdoch wouldn’t be here. He didn’t think he could face him. Not after…well, not ever.

“No…don’t want….” He shook his head vigorously.

“Why not?’ Johnny questioned, his concern mounting. He gestured to the discarded copy of The Iliad that lay on the chair, the bookmark indicating that considerable headway had been made during his father’s nightlong vigil.   “Hell, Scott,” Johnny whispered softly. “Do you have any idea how worried he’s been about you? He hasn’t slept for days. He spent all night by your side. He needs to see you.” 

Scott swallowed against the dryness in his throat, the bitter aftertaste of the trace amount of laudanum lingering in his mouth. Reminding him.  He didn’t want any drugs poisoning his system, he needed to remain clear headed and focused. He couldn’t afford to give anything away. His initial shock that Murdoch was home had already alarmed Johnny. As reluctant as he was to face him, Scott knew that he couldn’t avoid Murdoch. Not without incurring suspicion. He would just have to endure for a few more days until he was strong enough to leave. And break all of their hearts. “’K….” he mumbled, as he opened his eyes, staring intently at the pristine quilt wrapped around him.

Johnny scrutinized his brother, watching as he struggled against the pain that had to be knifing through him every time he drew a shallow breath.  He didn’t have to be in that amount of pain. Why the hell wouldn’t he take anything for it? Was he afraid that whoever had inflicted those dreadful injuries upon him would be coming for him? Didn’t he trust his family to protect him? Who the hell was this madman if Scott was so afraid that he could breach all of Lancer’s defenses to get to him? “All right Boston, you just sit tight there, I’ll go get the old man.  I won’t be long.” Johnny watched Scott’s eyes slide shut once more as he fought to control the pain. He shook his head before heading out towards the main stairs. He didn’t intend to leave his brother for long.

Johnny had been partially right. Scott was fighting a battle with pain but it wasn’t the physical pain of his wounds that was troubling Scott the most; it was the deep unreachable ache right at the core of his being.  It was a debilitating wound that would always be there, raw and incessant. The agony of having to push the people he loved the most in the world away, to make it easier on all of them when he had to leave. He welcomed the physical pain of his ribs, because it gave him something else to focus on.  In a strange way it sharpened his mind. And he would need that over the coming days; he would need to be strong. He focused on the paroxysm’s extending through his chest and around his back and embraced them, absorbing their energy in readiness to face the man he had not intended to ever see again. Murdoch Lancer.

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

Murdoch took the stairs almost two at a time, his aching back forgotten in his haste to reach his son.   He was closely followed by Johnny who had cautioned him that Scott ‘wasn’t quite himself’. Johnny had even gone so far as to prevent Teresa from following, telling her that Scott wasn’t up to too many visitors just yet. That had been too much for Teresa who had dissolved into floods of tears. They had left her wrapped in Maria’s arms as the housekeeper tried to console her. “Hell Johnny, did you have to do that to her? “ chastised Murdoch as he neared the top of the stairwell.

“Yeah Murdoch. I’m sorry, but I didn’t think Scott could handle Teresa right now. You’ll see what I mean when you get in there.”

Murdoch nodded gruffly, not entirely convinced, as he reached his older son’s room and strode through the door.

Scott looked very much like he had during the long night he had sat by his bedside. The flickering lamplight had reflected off his pale features as he slept, casting a serene glow about him, the protective embrace of sleep smoothing away the lines of pain that had been present earlier. But now, the lines were back with a vengeance. The cold tendrils of light that insinuated themselves through the window further exacerbated his pale complexion. His chest rose and fell rapidly with the shallow breaths his injured ribs allowed him to take, his face glistening with perspiration. 

“Scott?” Murdoch voiced gently.  He waited to see if there would be a reaction. He looked towards Johnny who shrugged. Murdoch felt a pang of disappointment that Scott had fallen asleep before he could have an opportunity to talk to him. But as the senior Lancer took in every minute detail of his son’s condition, Scott’s eyes slowly drifted open and met his gaze.

“Welcome back son,” Murdoch breathed, swallowing against the rising lump in his throat.  “It’s good to see you awake. How do you feel?”

“K…” Scott mumbled, averting his gaze from the man who looked at him with such deep compassion.  It sent fresh shards of pain coursing through him from the depths of his soul.  

It was obvious to Murdoch that his son had to feel anything but OK, despite his stoicism. He sharp eyes fixed on Scott’s fingers as they clenched the quilt, the knuckles on his left hand white with the tightness of the grip. Murdoch took in his son’s blackened and swollen right hand. Making a fist had to be excruciatingly painful but it didn’t seem to register across Scott’s features.

“Those ribs of yours have got to be painful.” Murdoch continued gently.  “Johnny tells me you won’t take any pain medication?”

Scott shook his head wordlessly but decisively. It clearly hurt him to speak.

“Can I ask why?” Murdoch pressed, slowly approaching his son’s bedside.

“Don’t …need…” Scott’s eyes followed Murdoch warily as he made his way softly towards the nightstand.

Johnny snorted derisively and shook his head. “That’s not how it looks from where I’m standing, brother.”

“Johnny,” cautioned Murdoch as he regarded Scott’s dull eyes, the pupils still almost enveloping his usually vivid slate blue irises. There was no doubt that Scott was groggy after his ordeal.  He was still far from well and clearly in considerable pain, but Johnny’s caution had been well merited. There was something about Scott’s demeanor that wasn’t quite right. There was something wrong with his eyes, as if the light had been extinguished from them. Johnny had been wise to advise prudence and keep Teresa away for the time being.

Scott continued to watch Murdoch like a hawk, his body as tense as a coiled spring.  The Lancer patriarch moved closer towards the bed, noting that his son’s eyes followed him the whole way but that he didn’t seem able to make direct eye contact.  It unnerved him. It was as though Scott was afraid of him. Or hiding something.

“Son, I want you to know, whatever happened while you were missing, you’re safe here. No one will harm you. I’ve posted a double guard, day and night. It’s safe for you to sleep, if that’s what’s worrying you...” he reached for the glass of water that Johnny had laced with a few drops of laudanum. “Now, why don’t you swallow just a little? Johnny says there’s only enough to take the edge off that pain.  It won’t send you to sleep…”

“NO!” Murdoch was shocked at the ferocity with which Scott flailed out with his left arm and knocked the glass out of his hand, sending the receptacle flying though the air, its contents spilling out on the carpet before it landed with a dull thud on the soft pile.       

In that sudden violent action Scott had nearly propelled himself out of the bed. Johnny sprang forward to hold his brother, who was panting heavily, his face drenched with sweat. Even then he was still weakly trying to struggle in Johnny’s grasp. “Easy Scott, quit fighting me, you’re gonna hurt yourself.”

Murdoch bent to pick up the glass and set it down on the nightstand, watching as the fight left Scott, and Johnny gently laid him back against the pillows.  Scott looked ghastly; he was drenched in sweat, his hair plastered to his skull, his features ashen.  But his eyes, owlishly large, remained wide open, darting from one to the other of them, poised to fight them if he needed to.

“All right Scott, you’ve made your point. No laudanum, I promise.” Murdoch searched his son’s pallid features for a reaction but there was none save for the hitched breathing. Hell, he must be in agony Murdoch thought. What is going on in that boy’s head?

“You do need to drink though,’ coaxed Murdoch. “What say I get Johnny to fetch a fresh glass? Then will you take some water?”

There was no reaction from his son, just the same glassy eyed unfocused stare.  

“All right son,” Murdoch relented with a sigh. “We’ll leave you alone for a while. That’s what you want isn’t it?

“Murdoch…what…” Johnny spluttered but was silenced by a frown from his father.

“We’ll let you rest for a spell,” Murdoch continued. “And we’ll come back in a few hours once you’ve regained your bearings a little more.” He beckoned to Johnny to withdraw. He could tell Johnny was torn but noted with satisfaction that he did as requested, albeit reluctantly. He watched as his younger son slouched out the door into the passageway. Murdoch retrieved Johnny’s forgotten cup of coffee and the biscuits and followed him to the door. As he turned in the doorway he noted that Scott’s gaze had not wavered. “Get some rest son,” he sighed and gently pulled the door shut.

Scott closed his eyes in relief, centering in on the fire emanating from his ribs, using its intensity to try to block the deeper ache that was spreading out from the pit of his stomach and threatening to swallow him whole.   Better to push them all away. Better that they come to hate him than mourn his loss when the time came for him to leave forever. A lone tear trickled down his cheek unchecked as he worked the plan through his mind.

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

“You see what I mean?” exclaimed Johnny, as he paced distractedly at the end of the passageway.  “Murdoch what the hell was that all about?”

“I don’t know Johnny,” sighed Murdoch worriedly, “But I think we’re going to have to tread very carefully with him. I don’t think we’re going to get any answers out of him anytime soon.  We’ll see what Sam says when he gets here.” He rubbed the back of his neck distractedly as he considered his eldest son’s precarious condition.

“If he’ll even let the doc near him,” snorted Johnny. “Hell Murdoch, I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of pain he’s in with those ribs but it’s almost like he’s not feeling it at all”  

“Oh, he’s feeling it alright Johnny,” murmured Murdoch. “But what worries me is that he seems to welcome it.”

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

Ordinarily it was a half a days ride to Hard Luck but somehow Scott was there in less than three hours.  It was reckless to say the least to push a horse that hard in the saturated conditions. At any time Rambler could have stumbled and broken a leg, but Scott was beyond considering anything or anyone other than what was taking him to the ramshackle little town. He could feel the scrunched up note weighing heavily in his inside pocket, its contents filling his mind with horrific images that, try as he might he just couldn’t expel.

Hard Luck was one of those places that you only stopped at en route to somewhere else. Anywhere else. It was inhabited mostly by drifters and mudsills. The cantina provided all the entertainment for those who had enough money to waste on the poker tables and a selection of girls for those who preferred a different kind of gambling. Because anyone who lay with these girls more often than not left Hard Luck with a lot more than they had arrived with.  And that’s how the town had come by its unfortunate name. Because if you left with your pockets cleaned out and a nasty itch, well, that was just pure ‘Hard Luck.’   

As he rode into town, Scott spied the town’s only hotel, which also doubled as the cantina on the left hand side.  There were two entrances, one for the hotel on the right hand side where guests could discretely register, Scott surmised, without having to be accosted by drunken patrons.   Similarly, the second entrance was provided for those whose sole purpose was to slake their thirst, gamble, or satiate other more primordial desires.

Scott dismounted and tied up Rambler at the hitching post directly outside the hotel. He took his watch out of his pocket and checked the dial. It was quarter to four. He still had fifteen minutes until the proposed assignation.  He figured his mark wouldn’t be in the bar yet. Most likely he was somewhere out on the street, watching and waiting.  Scott scanned the boardwalk up and down.  He could be any one of the dirt scratchers passing through this town.  It was impossible to tell. Murdoch would know which one he was though. And it was Murdoch for whom the author of the note would be looking. He wouldn’t be expecting anyone else. Scott figured that would, at least, bend the odds a little in his favor.

The light was already beginning to fade and Scott realized that he’d need to book himself into the hotel. He didn’t relish staying in the squalid town overnight but it would be idiocy to try riding back to Lancer in the dark with the ground so treacherous underfoot. Besides, he felt with a pang of conscience, he had almost ridden Rambler into the ground. He needed to be stabled overnight to rest and recover.

Scott sauntered into the hotel, exuding more of a casual air than he felt inside.  He could feel the note pressing against his breast pocket, the images conjured by the words making his stomach turn. He clenched his fist in anticipation. How could anyone who could write of such unspeakable acts blend in and mingle with civilized society? Surely such a monster, such a deviant would stand out amongst decent folk?

But maybe that was why he had selected Hard Luck for the assignation? Because decent people didn’t come here if they could really help it. The town had been without a lawman for a year now. No one wanted the job. It had fallen to Val and Gabe between them, as Sheriffs of the two closest towns, to keep an eye on the hot bed of lawlessness.   So who would notice one more deviant amongst a town that was populated by them?

Scott checked in with the hotel clerk and headed into the bar area to wait. Ordering a beer, he positioned himself at the end of the bar, his hat pressed low, shielding his face and allowing him to surreptitiously watch all the comings and goings.  

Ten minutes later he had drained his beer and watched as several men entered and ordered drinks. Many gathered around a high stakes poker game that was underway at one of the front tables. Scott’s well-trained eye had already observed that at least one of those at the table was cheating.   More patrons entered the saloon, bypassing the temptation of beer and cards entirely, and headed to the stairs at the back of the saloon. From the rhythmic thudding reverberating through the ceiling, it seemed that part of the hotel was reserved for games of a more ‘intimate’ nature.

As Scott watched yet another disheveled-looking man take the stairs two by two, his attention was drawn to another figure who suddenly appeared at the top of the landing. The man briefly scanned the room and then slowly glided down the stairwell. He was a scrawny looking excuse for a man; about fifty, maybe older Scott figured, almost skeletal looking. His deep-set eyes looked almost black set back in his cadaverous face. His hair was thick and unkempt, a greasy blond that was flecked with white, his chin peppered with gray stubble. As he slowly made his way down the stairs, scanning the room the entire time he did so, Scott knew for sure that this was the one he was looking for.  

Scott turned back towards the bar and watched the man’s every move reflected through the back mirror.  He took note as the man slowly took a seat at a table beneath the stairwell. It afforded him a view of both entrances to the cantina, the one directly from the street and the one from the hotel foyer. He was definitely Scott’s mark. There was no doubt in Scott’s mind. He could feel the bile rise up into his throat as he reached for the crumpled parchment in his breast pocket and pulled it out.  Reaching down to his side, his hand hovered over his side arm. Just in case he was forced to use it.   The man wasn’t wearing a gun belt but that didn’t mean he didn’t have something secreted away inside his threadbare jacket.

Taking a deep breath Scott turned and strode towards the man.

As he approached, the man looked up at Scott irritably. He was blocking his view of both entrances.

“Are you Silas Hatton?” Scott demanded coldly.

“Who wants ta know?” He spat a wad of chewing tobacco that landed right at Scott’s foot, his eyes trying to see past Scott’s imposing form.

“Just answer the question and I’ll be pleased to step aside,” Scott replied pleasantly, his cool exterior belying the fury building inside.

“Yeah, I’m Hatton, what of it?” the man sneered arrogantly.

Hatton certainly didn’t expect the response he got. Before he knew what was happening, he was thrown backwards off his chair as, lightning fast, Scott’s right fist connected with his jaw. Stunned, he barely had time to recover before Scott physically lifted him by the collar and started to pummel him with right hook after right hook, making a bloody mess of his nose.

It was all a blur for Scott. As he laid into the piece of shit lying there before him, all he could visualize were the images conjured up in his mind. Visions of how Hatton had laid out in graphic detail to Murdoch all the things he had allegedly done to his precious wife, to Scott’s mother. Whether it was true or not, and please God it wasn’t, he couldn’t, wouldn’t let Hatton get away with it.

He felt strong arms grab him from behind to restrain him, pulling him back off his quarry, but Scott was beyond reasoning. He was filled with a primeval frenzy that wouldn’t be satiated.  More arms grabbed at him, and eventually, he was wrenched back, still struggling, his wild eyes focused on the pathetic blood spattered form lying dazed on the floor in front of him.

“Now just ease off son. I dunno what yer beef is with him but you ain’t doin’ it in my saloon. I don’t want no trouble in here. Whatever’s eatin’ ya, ya take it on outside.”   Scott heard the voice but he had tunnel vision, he was blinkered to anyone or anything else around him, save the ‘animal’ lying there in front of him.

“Y’all saw it,” whined Hatton, spitting out a globule of blood as he was helped to his feet.  “That man just attacked me for no reason. Yer all witnesses.” Hatton looked around the crowd for support. They had gathered, drawn to the excitement of the fight like flies to newly laid cow pies. Scantily clad women, in outfits that left nothing to the imagination hung over the banister rails, pouting that the excitement downstairs had been of more import to their ‘guests’ than the personal entertainment they were providing them.

Scott attempted to launch himself at Hatton once more but was held firmly. “I had my reasons Hatton. This.”  He wrenched his left arm free from the grasp of the man holding it and held the letter up. “Only you weren’t expecting me, you were expecting my father. Well I am glad to say that he never saw this and he never will. And that is just a taste of what you will get if you come anywhere near him or any of my family.”

Hatton’s face blanched as he saw the piece of paper wafting in Scott’s hand. He wavered and sat down heavily. 

“All right you’ve said your piece,” asserted the proprietor of the establishment, for Scott’s benefit. He gestured for the crowd to disperse and return to their drinking, cards and whoring before turning back to Scott. “Now you get on out of here and cool off,” he warned.  “Else I’ll have the boys show you out, and they won’t be as polite as me.”

“Alright, I’m leaving,” breathed Scott, sending Hatton a contemptuous look, as the barkeep’s henchmen moved in to emphasize the point.    He felt the grip on his arm relax, and bent to pick up his hat that had been tossed onto the floor when he had launched himself at Hatton.  He turned and made his way to the adjoining door that led into the hotel lobby. He needed to get himself cleaned up. As he turned the handle he winced as pain lanced through his hand. His knuckles were swollen and already turning purple where his fist had connected time and time again with Hatton’s bony face. Hell he could have killed him. Probably would have if the barkeep and several of his heavies hadn’t weighed in. But he had left Hatton’s face a bloodied mess and plenty of that blood still sullied his own fist.

Scott shuddered. It would take more than a wash to rid himself of the taint of Silas Hatton.  He made inquiries at the front desk of the hotel and then headed off to Hard Luck’s squalid excuse for a bathhouse. Once there, he spent half an hour in a frigid tub scrubbing off the remnants of Hatton’s blood and the physical stigma of the man that made his skin crawl.

After he had rubbed himself raw, he emerged from the freezing water, shivering, and quickly dressed. He decided that he couldn’t face going back to the hotel for the night, not after what had happened. The thought of potentially spending a night under the same roof as that man made his blood run cold. So he unhitched Rambler and led him to the livery fully intending to stay the night with his mount. He had his bedroll and he’d certainly slept in worse places.

Dusk had fallen and the livery was dimly lit by several oil lamps hanging on the wall. The liveryman had taken Scott’s proffered coin and had headed across the street to join the rest of Hard Luck’s population in the cantina.

Scott sighed as he listened to the disembodied cry of the wind whistling eerily through the empty streets of the town.  Every now and again raucous explosions of laughter drifted out from the hotel across the street, mingling with the sordid grunts and cries that emanated from the rooms above. Hard Luck was living up to its reputation, and Scott couldn’t wait to leave. 

He reached into his saddlebag and retrieved Ramblers brush, wincing once more as his bruised knuckles pressed into the leather of the bag. He took the brush in his left hand and started rubbing Rambler down.  His mind drifted back to the incident in the saloon.  He hadn’t believed he had been capable of such a frenzied attack. Did that make him as bad as Hatton, by stooping to his base level? Maybe it had been a mistake to come here after all? Perhaps he should have let Val take care of Hatton?  But then he would have been required to show him the letter. And Scott didn’t ever want anyone to see what Hatton had written about his mother. He didn’t want her memory sullied or shamed that way, whether any of it was true or not. And Scott would never be able to verify that because he could never talk about this with Murdoch.  It would kill his father.  No, the burden of that letter was Scott’s to carry and his alone.  Better to destroy it.  The words may have been imprinted on his own memory, but he could ensure that no one else would ever be exposed to those horrific details.

He made his way outside and down into the side alley that ran parallel to the livery, to shelter from the chill wind.  His breath formed white clouds of steam in front of him as the frigid air seeped through his thin jacket. He took a match out of his pocket and struck it on the side of the building. Scott reached into his pocket and removed the offending item.  Just the feel of the rough paper set his skin to crawling all over again.   He put the match to it, watching as the flames licked hungrily at the coarse parchment in his hand. He held onto it until the last moment as the mini blaze devoured the last piece of its quarry, then he let it go and watched as it disintegrated into the cold breeze. As he turned to head back towards the livery to bed himself and Rambler down for the night, he was suddenly aware of a movement in his peripheral vision. Instinctively he reached to his holster and tried to spin round but he was too late, a sudden sickening blow to the back of his skull registered briefly across his consciousness before everything went black, and he knew no more.    

A few moments later, a stooped figure emerged from the livery, under cover of darkness, leading the snorting bay, protesting at being taken out of his warm stall.  Across his back, a motionless form was draped, arms dangling unceremoniously, slapping against the bay’s flank.  The shadowy figure slowly led the horse and its prone master down the abandoned streets towards the outskirts of town where they disappeared into the misty rain that had enveloped the town like a shroud. Nobody saw them leave.

 

Chapter 9

Johnny couldn’t explain the way he was feeling right now. The elation of finding Scott, getting him home alive and winning the battle to keep him that way, had evaporated.  It was replaced by a deep and growing sense of unease.     

After the earlier ‘stand off’ with Scott, he and Murdoch had headed back downstairs and had talked each other around in circles for almost an hour trying to work out the best way to deal with him. It didn’t sit well with Johnny just to leave his brother alone up there as badly injured as he was, unable to do much, if anything, for himself.  As much as he hated to admit it, Johnny felt cheated somehow. He had gone through hell to find Scott and haul him home, and then spent hours sitting by his side, watching over him while he drifted in and out of consciousness.  So, to then be ushered unceremoniously out of the room, and be told his brother needed some time and space alone was devastating to Johnny. Hell, what his brother needed was his family to help him recover from his ordeal, not relive it over and over again in his solitude. And if he was entirely honest, Johnny needed to be with Scott as much as he felt certain that Scott needed his family close by.  He and Murdoch had argued at length about it and neither had been prepared to yield their position.

Murdoch had tried asking what Johnny thought the alternative would be? It was clear that their presence was making Scott agitated and he pointed out that, in his weakened condition it could be more of a hindrance to Scott’s recovery than leaving him alone to rest and perhaps even feel able to sleep.

Johnny had countered that, right now in his disoriented state, Scott wasn’t in any condition to make any decisions over what was and wasn’t best for him. The discussion had gotten somewhat heated before Teresa had tearfully intervened saying it wouldn’t do Scott any good to hear their raised voices. What he needed right now was peace and quiet, not to hear them both bellowing at one another.

An uneasy truce had been forged after that with Johnny agreeing to the compromise of at least staying away from his brother until Sam arrived. The doctor was already overdue and so, hopefully, they wouldn’t have to wait too much longer to get his take on Scott’s precarious mental state.  They had stalked off in opposite directions, Murdoch out the front door to seek out Cipriano for a progress update and Johnny out the back, headed for the stable.

Johnny hadn’t seen Barranca since he had folded heavily from his back into the waiting arms of Jelly less than thirty-six hours before. He felt somewhat guilty about neglecting him the past day or so. Since the day that he had first broken the spirited stallion, not a day had gone by when Johnny hadn’t ridden him, brushed him or just spent time ‘chewin’ the fat’ with him as he was now. Johnny had often sought out the company of the palomino when he had things on his mind that he needed to work through.

He held up another handful of oats, which Barranca snaffled up greedily.

“You like that boy, huh?”   Johnny crooned. “Looks like old Jelly took real good care of you, didn’t he? That coat of yours feels so silky I reckon if I tried to put a saddle on you, it’d slide right off again.”  Barranca whickered contentedly as he pushed his muzzle against Johnny’s hand, looking for more of his favorite treat.

Johnny scooped up one more handful and held it out to his trusted confidante. He could say anything he liked to Barranca and he wouldn’t judge, or tell him he was wrong.  His trusted mount just listened patiently. Or maybe not so patiently where food was concerned. But it was during the time he spent in his stall with the handsome palomino that Johnny felt most at peace.

He picked up Barranca’s brush and started to give him a good rub down. It wasn’t as though he needed it. Jelly had more than seen to that. But it was comforting for both he and Barranca. It provided that cohesion that Johnny needed right then. Because it felt like that intense sense of connection that he had shared with his brother for the past eighteen months had been severed and Johnny couldn’t explain it. His overwrought mind had replayed, time and time again out there in the storm the keen sense of loss that he, Murdoch and Teresa would have endured if Scott had died before he got him home. For that entire arduous journey, not knowing whether Scott was alive or dead, he had imagined the grief and the horrendous void that would be left with Scott no longer a part of his life. Yet, how ironic to be experiencing that same feeling of desolation right now even though Scott was alive and breathing up stairs in his room.

To Johnny’s mind, the man lying up there in that bed wasn’t the man that had left just a week before. Johnny recalled the haunted look in his brother’s eyes, the inability to hold eye contact for too long and the monosyllabic responses made to any of his or Murdoch’s inquiries. Sure it probably hurt like hell to speak and breathe at the same time, but it was as though the Scott he knew was locked away somewhere, unreachable, and all that was left up there in that room was a pale imitation of the man he had been.

It was the lack of eye contact that disturbed Johnny the most. Johnny hadn’t stayed alive living the life of a hired gun for all those years without learning how to read a man. And he had learned a thing or two about his brother. When he didn’t want you to see something, he pushed you away, built an impenetrable wall around himself. And then he would use diversionary tactics, change the subject on you, and twist things around making you so turned about that you clean forgot what you were talking about in the first place. Maybe it was his military training; confuse the enemy or something.  Hell, Johnny didn’t know. But whatever it was, that was exactly what his brother was doing right now, injured or not. He was building a wall around himself, and diverting them away from what was really going on.  Murdoch had fallen for it. And Sam would too. Neither he nor Murdoch would want to do anything that would exacerbate Scott’s condition or hinder his recovery. And Scott had undoubtedly counted on that.

“Well brother, you may have fooled Murdoch but you ain’t foolin’ me,” muttered Johnny decisively as he replaced Barranca’s brush on its hook.    “Gracias m’amigo, you’ve been a big help.” He patted Barranca on the neck as he strode purposefully out of the barn towards the house and a confrontation with his brother.

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

Johnny stalked back into the hacienda via the kitchen. Maria was there rolling out pastry, her face smudged with flour. From the smell of stewed apples, she was preparing an apple pie for dinner. It was Scott’s favorite.  It was a thoughtful gesture but somehow Johnny didn’t think that Scott would appreciate it.

The Lancer housekeeper looked up as Johnny grabbed a fresh glass and headed towards the backstairs, his fingers held up to his lips in a silent gesture.

Maria had heard the heated altercation earlier and had also no doubt been made aware of its results by Teresa. She shot him a disapproving glare, her eyes then flicking nervously towards the Great Room where the low tones of Murdoch deep in conversation with Cipriano could be heard.  

“Where’s Teresa?” mouthed Johnny.

“She has gone to gather eggs from the henhouse. But Juanito, you must not go up there. prometió

Se, pero es mi hermano, Maria,” justified Johnny. “Es mi hermano”

“Si, Juanito, I understand.” Maria nodded sadly as she noted the desperation reflected in the young man’s eyes.  She knew how close he had grown to his older brother and how hard it was for him to be forcefully separated from him for any length of time.   “Go. I did not see you come in.” She ushered him up the stairs and turned back to her baking.

“Gracias Maria,” whispered Johnny as he turned away and headed up the stairs towards his brother’s room. 

As Johnny pushed open the door, he realized that he had gotten there not a moment too soon.  Scott was stood tottering by the side of the bed, the quilt clasped around his midriff, sweat glistening from every visible pore.

“Dios Scott, what the hell d’ya think you’re doin’?” Johnny spluttered angrily.

“Trying to regain…dignity,” rasped Scott, the defiance burning in his eyes.

“Seem to have no clothes…” he finished.

“Well hell Scott, how dignified do you think it would’ve looked to find you face down passed out on the floor with your bare ass sticking up for all to see?”

Scott shot him a baleful glare but remained silent.

Johnny cautiously approached and pushed him back into a sitting position on the bed, shaking his head. “You want some underwear, fine, I’ll get you some,” he groused. “Was it too much to ask for a little help, brother?” He pulled open the top drawer of the dresser situated on the far side of the room and started to rummage.

“Not that drawer…bottom one…” Scott panted irritably as he tried to control his breathing, each breath stabbing through him.

“Well, how the hell would I know where you keep your draws?” muttered Johnny as he retrieved a pair of the cut away long johns that Scott favored. “Dios, Boston, how the hell d’ya put up with that coarse material around your parts? I’d be forever scratching.” exclaimed Johnny as he tossed the undergarment towards his brother.

“You do that anyway…” countered Scott. The words were out of his mouth before he even thought about it. 

Johnny sauntered back over towards the bed, grinning. “Nah, just making sure they’re still there is all. Break a lot of girls hearts in Green River if I didn’t take care of these babies…” Just to emphasize the point he placed his hand down the inside of his pants and made some ‘readjustments.’

Scott rolled his eyes but didn’t respond. Instead his focus fixed on the garment sitting on his lap. Hell, why did Johnny have to walk in at that moment? The banter with Johnny was so easy, so instinctive. It was one of the things he’d miss the most, he thought, with a pang of regret. Why did Johnny have to be so darned stubborn?  Why couldn’t he make it easier on them both and just leave him alone?

Johnny regarded his brother, the grin disappearing as he watched Scott sitting there staring at the underwear, as if it was the first pair he had ever seen in his life.

“So what? You just gonna sit there and cradle those ball scratchers or are you gonna put ‘em on?”   

“Not with you watching me,” Scott rasped petulantly. “I’d appreciate a little privacy.”

Johnny folded his arms and shook his head. Classic Scott, pushing away again.  “Nice try Boston but it won’t work.”

“What won’t work?”

Johnny decided to cut to the chase. “What happened to you out there Scott? How’d you end up half dead out there in that storm?”

It was nothing less than Scott expected from Johnny.  It was a wonder he’d waited this long, although, Scott surmised, Murdoch had probably had something to do with that. And he probably would not have sanctioned this current interrogation. 

“Can’t remember…” Scott mumbled, implementing his plan of action.

“Can’t or won’t?” demanded Johnny.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You ain’t being straight with us Scott,” Johnny responded, softly.

 Scott looked up and saw intense blue eyes scrutinizing him, as though he could see right through him. He should have known that Johnny would be harder to convince. Still, if he stuck to his story, there was nothing Johnny could do about it. He averted his gaze, and closed his eyes against the dizziness that was enveloping him. Sitting on the side of the bed for too long was expending energy he didn’t have. And he certainly didn’t want to give Johnny the satisfaction of passing out.     “Can’t tell you what I don’t know,” he muttered.

“Alright,’ Johnny decided to try another tack. “Whadd’ya figure happened?”

This should be good. He thought.    

“I don’t know, maybe I was bushwhacked. Robbed,” Scott offered.

Johnny picked up Scott’s billfold from the dresser where Murdoch had left it. He tossed it at his brother. “Go on, look inside.”

Scott didn’t bother. He knew he’d had a considerable amount in dollar bills when he had headed into Morro Coyo and that it was likely still there. Money hadn’t been what his captor had been interested in.    “All right, maybe I got thrown, got disoriented out there and wandered. ”

Johnny snorted.  “For five days? You know how ridiculous that sounds? C’mon Boston, you can do better than that.”

Scott was getting tired of this. “Hell Johnny, what do you want from me?”

“I want the truth Scott. I want to know what you’re not telling me. I want to know what was in that…”

“Johnny! That’s enough.”

Johnny spun round and was met by the thunderous glare of his father. Sam Jenkins was by his side and neither man looked in the least bit pleased to see Scott precariously perched on the side of the bed.

“Look, Murdoch….” Johnny began, already in defense mode. 

“Outside. Now.”  Murdoch’s expression and tone brooked no argument and Johnny knew better than to try.  With a last despondent glance at Scott, he stormed out into the passageway, and down the hall towards the back stairs.

Murdoch watched him go until he was out of sight and shook his head. He’d give Johnny time to cool off and would then go talk to him. No point right now. They’d end up locking horns, and it wouldn’t do either of them any good.   He made his way into Scott’s room, and picked up the leather billfold that had fallen onto the floor and set it back onto the dresser for when Scott needed it. 

Sam had already begun to assist the invalid back into his bed, disengaging Scott’s hands from the quilt that he had cocooned around himself and arranging it neatly around him once more.   Scott was passively complying, staring disconnectedly into space.

Murdoch frowned. It was as if the very essence of his boy had been left behind out there in that storm or in that unknown place where he had been held. The quintessence of what made Scott the man he was seemed to have been stripped from him or buried so deep inside to be unreachable. It left his son an empty shell and Murdoch with a profound sense of loss. He hoped that Sam would be able to shed some light on what was causing Scott’s disconnectedness and that it was a condition that could be reversed in time.     

“Murdoch?”

Murdoch was startled out of his reverie by the gruff tones of the doctor.

“I’m sorry Sam. What did you say?”

“I said, you too,” barked Sam, as he started to pull his stethoscope out of his worn leather satchel. 

“I beg your pardon?”

“Out,” asserted Sam, exasperated. “I would like to examine my patient and seeing as he is over twenty-one I don’t think he needs a chaperone, do you?”

Murdoch felt a flash of annoyance to be facing eviction from his own son’s room, but he could see the sense in what Sam was trying to do. Scott might feel more able to open up to the physician, someone who wasn’t family and who had taken an oath of confidentiality. As much as Murdoch wanted to know what had happened to his son, he just wanted Scott to talk to someone. Because before too long, whatever it was that he had buried deep inside of him, was going to destroy the affable young man he had come to love so dearly.  And that would, ultimately, destroy them all.

“All right Sam,” Murdoch acquiesced, albeit reluctantly. “I’ll be downstairs. I’ll talk to you when you’re finished.” He took one last look at Scott, who appeared to have lapsed into a catatonic stupor, before he silently exited the room, gently pulling the door shut behind him.

“Thanks Doc,” Scott whispered.

“Oh. So you are in there then?” observed Sam as he eased himself down onto the side of the bed to commence his examination. “I was beginning to wonder.”

“They just won’t let me be,” Scott complained.

“And you figure the silent treatment will get them to leave you alone?”

“Something like that.” 

“Not working though is it?”

“No.”

“Damned Lancer’s. All as stubborn as each other,” muttered Sam as he took hold of Scott’s left wrist and felt for the pulse, counting the beats as he referred to his pocket watch. Satisfied he set Scott’s arm back down on the bed, this time reaching across for his right one.  He gently pressed the blackened and swollen knuckles. “Can you make a fist?”

Scott did as he was asked.

“Now squeeze as hard as you can,” Sam instructed.

Scott complied. The pain shot up his arm as he did so but he didn’t react.

The doctor’s well-trained eye, though, spotted the beads of sweat as they broke out on his young charge’s brow.

Jenkins reached for his stethoscope and hung it around his neck. “Can you sit forward a little for me or do you need me to support you?”

“I can manage.”  Scott leaned forward, and on instruction breathed as deeply as he could as Sam listened to his lungs.  He honed in on the physical pain, the agony of each breath; the protesting muscles stretched taut over his damaged ribs, the throbbing knuckles of his hand sending intense pulses lancing through his arm. 

“All right, you can lay back now, I’m done,” said Sam as he removed the stethoscope from his neck and set it aside.

Scott leaned back on the pillows once more, feeling the moisture dripping from his forehead down the side of his face, the sweaty bangs plastered to his skull.

Sam regarded his patient seriously.  It was obvious that Scott was in extreme pain, but what concerned the doctor the most was that the young man didn’t seem to care.

“Your father tells me you won’t take any of the pain medication that I prescribed.”

That brought a reaction, albeit minor - a nervous flick of the eyes.  “Don’t need it.” 

“Oh, I see.  Forgive me. I thought it was business you studied at Harvard, not medicine?”

“Don’t like how… makes me feel…”

“And how’s that? How does it make you feel?”  Sam pressed.

Scott shook his head wordlessly, unable or unwilling to verbalize his feelings.

“All right, let me see if I can put it into words for you, persisted Sam. “It makes you feel disconnected, not in control. But the pain, the pain is real, tangible, something to hold onto. It’s all encompassing, and reminds you you’re still alive. And it’s a distraction from other deeper hurts that you don’t want to face. Does that about cover it?” he asked gently.

Jenkins watched as a solitary tear rolled out of the corner of Scott’s eye and down his cheek. Yes, he had hit a raw nerve there.   The elderly doctor reached for the washcloth and gently wiped away the moisture from Scott’s brow, sluicing the cloth over the rest of his sallow features, catching the errant teardrop without making it obvious.

“The trouble is,” the doctor continued, gently, “Those physical wounds will heal in time and the pain will fade, and then what will you have to hold onto? Whatever it is that you’re trying to bury deep inside of you will have to come out sooner or later. And it could destroy you and everyone you care for in the process if you let it fester for too long.”

Sam waited to see what Scott’s response would be, to see if he had gotten through to him in any small way, but Scott remained silently staring into space.  There were small physical indications, though; a slight quickening of his patient’s hitched breathing, a visible gulp as if he was trying to suppress something that was threatening to burst forth, demanding release.

“I’m not only your physician Scott. I hope I’m your friend,” Sam persisted. “And I want you to know that you can talk to me and it won’t go any further. I won’t tell Murdoch or Johnny. I won’t tell anyone. It’ll be between you and me.”

He watched to see if Scott would yield at all, but the young man just shook his head, stubbornly.

“Can’t.”   

“Why not?”

“Can’t tell you what I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember anything at all? Nothing at all about the time you were away. ” Sam was surprised that Scott could have lost an entire week.

“Nothing,” Scott lied. “Remember getting to Morro Coyo. Nothing after that.”

Sam sighed heavily as he scrutinized the young man closely. Scott had experienced a blow to the back of the head, it was true, but the injury didn’t appear to have been serious. A mild concussion would have ensued, although Sam wouldn’t have expected this level of amnesia. Some mild confusion, perhaps, but not to the extent that Scott appeared to be suffering. Unless his memory loss was more of a psychological nature. That was a far more likely possibility given Scott’s demeanor.

Still, he couldn’t entirely rule out the head injury being the culprit. Scott’s pupils did still seem to be slightly dilated. “I’m going to look in your eyes,” Sam cautioned, not wanting to take the young man by surprise. Murdoch had warned him that Scott was wary of any physical contact and had become quite agitated at one point.  Sam had seen evidence of the wariness for himself, feeling how Scott had physically tensed up during his examination.

“Look up for me.” Sam pulled up Scott’s eyelids and peered closely, his well-trained eye looking for any indication of a more serious underlying injury. He instructed Scott to look down and from side to side. Scott dutifully complied but showed no sign of discomfort.

“Does your head ache?”

“Some.”

“Yes, well, I would say that is more due to dehydration than anything else. I’ll concede on the laudanum, Scott, but you have to drink.  If you want out of this bed as much as I think you do, you’re going to have to eat too because it’s the only way you’re going to regain your strength.  And it’s the only way your family, or I for that matter, will leave you alone.”

Sam looked for any sign that Scott was willing to capitulate.

“Do we have an understanding?”  Sam firmly pressed for an answer.

“Ok.”

“Good. We’re getting somewhere.” Sam poured a measure of water from the pitcher into the fresh glass that Johnny had brought up earlier. Scott watched him closely. He wanted to make sure the Doctor didn’t surreptitiously add anything to it.

“Scott, I’ve given you my word. I hope you know me well enough by now to at least concede that?”   Sam chastised him.  “Here.”

The doctor moved to hold the glass up to Scott’s lips but Scott reached out his right hand to intercept it. Sam watched as Scott clasped the glass tightly, his knuckles turning from black to white as he tightened his grip and guided it towards his mouth.  He sipped at the water first, testing it, still not entirely able to trust. But it was cool and sweet and Scott was thirsty.  He took several gulps, his swollen hand quivering with the exertion of clasping the glass so tightly. As he continued to drain the glass, drops ran down his chin and soaked into the bandages swathed around his chest.

Sam reached to take the glass from him. “Easy Scott, you’ll make yourself sick. Believe me, you don’t want that to happen, not with those ribs.  The pain would be indescribable. Not to mention that it might just finally break some of those cracked ones.” He set the glass back down next to the pitcher and refilled it for when Scott was ready for more. “Now, what do you say I get Teresa to bring you up something to eat? Maybe some broth to start with?”

“Tired,” breathed Scott, closing his eyes. It wasn’t a lie. The pain and the effort of keeping everyone at arms length had worn him down. Sam was right. If he was going to get out of there he needed to rest, conserve his strength. And at least if he slept some more, they would leave him alone.

“All right,” conceded Jenkins. “But when you wake up, you will need to eat.  You’ll give your word you’ll try?”

“I’ll try,” mumbled Scott.

“Good. Get some rest. I’ll come back to see you in two days.”

Scott didn’t respond. Sam pulled the quilt back over his patient’s chest and sighing, picked up the bottle of laudanum from the night stand and put it in his pocket. If the boy wouldn’t take it there was no point leaving it there when its mere presence distressed him.  He packed away his stethoscope and slowly made his way to the door. As he reached the doorway he turned back to look at the fragile young man lying in the bed. What had happened to the polite, jovial, stoic young man that he knew? It pained him to see Scott this way. Lord knew what it was doing to Murdoch. He knew his old friend would be looking for answers from him but Sam really didn’t know what to tell him. He shook his head sadly as he pulled the door closed behind him and headed downstairs to update his patient’s anxious family.

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

Scott was exhausted. He hated lying to them all; hated to see the hurt and pain in their eyes as he pushed them away and retreated further into himself. But it was his only defense. It was the only way he was going to endure until the time came to leave for good. Murdoch had already started to back off, but Johnny was going to be more of a challenge. Well, he’d just have to try a little harder. He had already let his guard down once with Johnny, almost falling into the easy banter he had so enjoyed with the easygoing young man over the last eighteen months.   But it wouldn’t happen again. By the time he had finished with them they’d be pleased to see the back of him. He’d make sure of that, even if it broke his own heart.

He lay there and centered in on the pain in his ribs, seeking it out like an old friend. Finally sorrow and exhaustion did what he would allow no drug to do and he drifted into an uneasy slumber, where pain was his only ally and held him in its constant embrace.

Chapter 10

“Well?” demanded Murdoch as Sam stepped heavily into the Great Room, setting his bag down on his old friend’s desk.

Murdoch had been standing behind his desk gazing distractedly out the window when he heard Sam’s slow tread on the stairs. Johnny was sprawled sullenly on one of the chairs, staring into space, fiddling with the concho’s on the side of his pants. Sam could feel the tension as it crackled in the air between the two of them. It was obvious that their opinions on how to deal with Scott were poles apart, and Sam suspected that they would each be looking to him to support their cause.

“Well, physically he’s doing very well considering all he’s been through,” reported Sam.  “Pulse is much stronger and his lungs remain clear…” He tailed off, uncertain as to how much he could or should reveal about Scott’s mental state.

“But...” Johnny rose and turned to confront Sam, seeking confirmation from the physician that his suspicions about Scott were merited.

“Well, I don’t know what to make of it,” relayed Sam. “He seems to be afflicted with some type of amnesia.  He says he doesn’t remember anything after he rode into Morro Coyo on the day he went missing.”

Johnny gave a derisive snort, shaking his head. 

“Johnny…” Murdoch sent him a warning glare, but the young man remained silent, as he waited for the doctor to continue with his report. It was clear from the atmosphere between the two men that an uneasy truce had been called until they had a chance to regroup and re-arm, courtesy of Sam’s prognosis. 

Murdoch walked over to the liquor cabinet and poured two measures of cognac. “Johnny?” he offered, but his younger son shook his head morosely.  The senior Lancer crossed back over to Sam, handed him his brandy and ushered him towards the family area close to the fire. As Sam took his seat in one of the armchairs, Murdoch collapsed heavily onto the sofa.  He was aware of Johnny as he paced back and forth across the room, finally stopping to hover behind him.

“What do you think is causing the memory loss?” Murdoch addressed the family doctor and his dearest friend.

“Well,” said Sam, shaking his head, “I can’t be sure about that but I do have a theory. Scott did take a blow to the back of his skull but I am reasonably satisfied, having examined him, that the injury wasn’t serious enough to cause amnesia. Especially not for the period of time that he appears to have lost. Of course, I can’t entirely rule it out but I would say it’s unlikely.”

“So what else could be causing it?”  Murdoch pressed impatiently, eager to get to the heart of what was wrong with Scott so that they could try to find a way to help him.

Sam took a sip of his brandy as he considered the hypothesis that had been formulating in his mind.  “Well, like I say, I can’t be sure, but I believe that whatever happened to Scott was so traumatic that his mind has entirely blocked it out. It’s like a defense mechanism; it shuts the memory away where it can do no further harm in the immediate aftermath of the event.  But it is still lingering there just beneath the surface of his consciousness. While Scott can’t remember what happened, there is still that underlying sense of unease, that apprehension that something is there and at some point it will resurface and come back to haunt him.”

Murdoch considered thoughtfully. “That could explain the way he has been acting.  He may not remember the actual beating he experienced but when we try to get close to him it’s as if he believes that we are going to hurt him, like whoever it was that inflicted his injuries in the first place, hurt him.”

“So you think that’s the most likely explanation for what’s happening to Scott?”  Johnny spoke softly, fixing his gaze on the doctor, not fully understanding nor believing his explanation.

The truth was, Sam wasn’t sure. He couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that there was a third possibility. That Scott remembered exactly what had happened to him and, for reasons only known to himself, he didn’t feel inclined or able to talk about it.  Sam had nothing more to go on, though, than a gut feeling. It was hardly scientific and certainly not the basis for a diagnosis.   “Well,” he replied, “I’m certainly not an expert when it comes to things like this. My expertise lies with the physical, not the psychological… that is ailments of the body as opposed to the mind,” he corrected himself as he noted Johnny’s confused expression. “All we can do is just be patient. Wait.  Give Scott the time he needs. As he heals physically, hopefully, with no further complications, perhaps we will see an improvement in his mental state.”

“Wait?’ spluttered Johnny. “For what? For Scott to suddenly remember what happened to him? And give us a detailed account? ‘Cuz I’ve got a feeling we’ll be waiting a long time. I don’t reckon he’ll ever ‘remember’.” Johnny stalked over to the fire where he could be assured of the undivided attention of both men.

“What makes you say that?” Murdoch snapped, his patience with his younger son already worn thin enough to be virtually threadbare.

Johnny ignored him. He was scrutinizing the doctor, looking for a reaction but Sam deliberately didn’t return his gaze.  Johnny took note. Yeah, it was as he figured. Sam was holding back on them.

He returned his gaze to his father. “I know my brother.”

“And he’s my son!”  blustered Murdoch as he rose angrily from the sofa using all of his impressive height to quell his younger son’s rebelliousness.     

“Then fight for him.  ‘Cuz by leaving him alone up there, you’re as good as giving up on him,” Johnny countered, returning his father’s glare and refusing to give an inch.

“Giving up on him?” Murdoch, erupted. “Do I need to remind you that the reason he is up there in the state he’s in is because of me? That letter was meant for me in case you’ve forgotten.”  He ran his hands distractedly through his hair as he noted the obvious discomfort on his old friend’s face as he was forced to bear witness to the heated exchange. Hell, what must Sam think? thought Murdoch. With Scott lying up there and all we can do is argue? “Johnny, I want answers as much as you do,” he continued resignedly, “But we can’t brow beat them out of him. Not in the condition he’s in. And if what Sam says is true, and he really can’t remember, then all we’ll be doing is making him even more agitated and wary than he already is.  Now, whether you like it or not, we’re going to play this the way Sam advises us to. We give Scott the time and space he needs to recover, and maybe we’ll start to get some answers when he’s able to give them to us. Right Sam?”

Murdoch looked to the elderly physician for support. Sam shrugged.  “It’s the only thing I can suggest right now.” He shot a sympathetic gaze to the younger man.

Johnny gave the doctor a long hard stare before turning back to his father and countering, “Well, that may be good enough for you, but it’s not for me. I’m not gonna lose my brother.”    He stalked off towards the door.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Murdoch roared angrily.

“You figure it out,” spat Johnny, petulantly. “I just hope you don’t take too long. For Scott’s sake.” He slammed the door behind him as he exited the hacienda, the echo reverberating throughout the Great Room.

Murdoch sighed, as he once more took his seat, the fatigue etched in his haggard features.  “I’m sorry you had to hear all that Sam.”

“I think the entire household heard it,” Sam chastised. “Including Scott.”

“Point taken,” Murdoch accepted. “I just don’t know what to do for the best. Johnny does have a point,” he conceded, “but its just knowing how far we can push Scott right now. He’s never been one for talking things through at the best of times.”

“Yes, he’s like his father in that respect,” observed Sam dryly.

Murdoch smiled weakly. “Any suggestions?”

Sam shrugged. “Well, for the record, you were right to prevent Johnny from mentioning the letter. It might have triggered something - something that Scott’s maybe not well enough to face just yet. I know its hard Murdoch, I can see how badly you both need answers, but it really does come down to time and patience and just letting Scott recover as well as he can over the next few days.”

“Sure Sam. I’ll make sure he gets the time he needs,” Murdoch acquiesced, seeing the sense in the physician’s words.

“And what I don’t want to hear when I come back to check on him is that Scott has been out of that bed,” continued Sam, with a warning edge to his voice. “If he wants, you can get some underwear on him. It looks like that was the main reason for his little escapade earlier, but nothing on his top half; those ribs need time to knit, and they’re not going to do so if he is exerting himself by pulling shirts on and off every time those bindings need adjusting.”

“That’s fine Sam. I’ll go up a little later and help him get more comfortable,” agreed Murdoch.

“And make sure he eats. And especially, drinks.” Sam took the small brown bottle out of his pocket and held it up. “I removed this from the nightstand. I don’t like the fact that he is enduring that much pain without any assistance, but I respect his reasons for not wanting to take the medication. It’s only going to antagonize him to have it sitting there. He’ll see it as a threat. But I’ll leave it with you. Just in case.”

“Thanks Sam.” Murdoch reached over and took the bottle and rolled it around in his fingers, absently. “Are you able to share with me Scott’s reasons for not wanting to take the laudanum?”

“Now come on Murdoch,” chastised Sam. “You know better than that. I can’t break a patient’s confidentiality, not even for you. And not even if it’s your son.”

“I’m sorry Sam,” apologized Murdoch. “I shouldn’t have asked…”

“It’s all right.” Sam rose and drained the remainder of his brandy before setting the glass down on the liquor cabinet.  “I do understand. Now I’ll be back on Sunday morning to check on Scott’s progress.”

“You sure Sam? Isn’t that supposed to be your one official day off?”  Murdoch rose stiffly and moved to escort his friend out.

“Well, officially yes. But unofficially a doctor is never off duty. And besides, it’ll be the excuse I need to miss Sunday services. The Widow Jackson has got her beady eye on me and always insists on reserving the pew next to mine. And hell, when that woman sings it’s louder and more tuneless than a screeching alley cat.” Sam grinned as he retrieved his medical bag from Murdoch’s desk.

“Murdoch returned a conspiratorial grin. “All right Sam, Sunday it is. I’ll see you then.”

“Send for me if there are any problems in the meantime,” instructed Sam. “Any sign of escalating fever or coughing. And try not to worry.” He gently laid his hand on his old friend’s shoulder offering as much reassurance as he was able.  “I’m sure things’ll work themselves out.”

“Thanks Sam.” replied Murdoch wearily, shaking his friend’s hand.  “I appreciate it.”  

Murdoch watched his old friend as he stiffly mounted up, and he waited until the doctor was past the Lancer arch before he tiredly turned and trudged back inside. He made his way over to his desk and sat down heavily, looking at the mounting pile of paperwork stacked up, awaiting his attention. He exhaled heavily. Well, maybe it would take his mind off things for a while. And the ranch business certainly wouldn’t take care of itself. He reached for the letter opener and sliced open the first envelope.

He was soon well and truly immersed in the financial juggling that it took to maintain a successful ranch. So engrossed was he, his ear so attuned to the thud of hoof beats, the sound of a lone rider heading away from the hacienda a few moments later didn’t register as anything out of the ordinary to him. Had he looked up from his mound of paperwork, he would have seen the familiar figure of a dark haired young man on a palomino, hot on the trail of their recently departed visitor.

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

A sudden sharp pain to his ribs brought Scott back to consciousness with a jolt. He groaned as hot shards of agony flared through his sides and around his back.  It was hard to pinpoint just where he was hurt; his whole body was aflame with hellish torment.  He tried to move and was rewarded for his efforts by another kick, this time to his back.   He attempted to curl away from the source of the torment. He was already in a fetal position, but he soon realized that it had been no protective instinct that had him contorted that way. It was an enforced condition.  As he tried to move his arms, he realized they were tied, and he bit his lips to avoid crying out as the ropes cut savagely into his wrists.  He felt rough hands grab him and force him into a sitting position, his knees hunched up, his thighs cramping painfully.    

“So yer finally awake. Was gettin’ fed up waitin’ fer ya to come round. You and me’s got unfinished business, and I’ve waited long enough to conclude it, ” came the high-pitched nasally voice of his captor.

Scott opened his eyes and blinked several times as his eyes adjusted to the gloom.  The figure in front of him wavered as Scott tried to focus, the throbbing ache at the back of his skull reminding him that someone had pistol-whipped him. He swallowed dryly, trying to rid himself of the acrid taste in his mouth that made the bile rise in the back of his throat.  As he regained his focus the familiar features of his captor swam into view, the blackened eyes and misshapen nose making him appear even more cadaverous than he had before.

“Remember me?” sneered Hatton.  “’Cuz, by the time I’ve finished with you boy, you ain’t never gonna forget this face, and yer gonna rue the day ya ever crossed me.”  To emphasize his point he leapt forward and laid a vicious kick to Scott’s ribs that knocked him over onto his side once more. Scott registered the first three or four kicks before the pain overwhelmed him, and he gratefully retreated back into unconsciousness.

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

“Wait up Sam!”

Sam turned to see the familiar combination of Johnny on the back of his magnificent palomino galloping towards him.  The elderly doctor sighed. He had been half expecting this. 

“What do you want, Johnny?” he demanded irritably as the young man finally reined up alongside him. 

“I think you know,” responded Johnny, cutting to the chase. “I wanna know what you really think.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jenkins grumbled fractiously as he urged his horse back into a walk.

“I think you do,” persisted Johnny as he pushed Barranca to keep pace with the elderly physician’s mount.    “You don’t believe that amnesia bull any more than I do. Scott may be good at a lot of things, but lying ain’t one of them.  And you’re as bad as he is at it.”

The doctor sent the young man a baleful glare at that last passing shot. Although Sam hated to admit it, the boy was right.  It had been obvious back at the hacienda that Johnny had figured out that he was avoiding telling them both what he really thought.  Sam never had been much good at lying because he didn’t hold with doing it.  Still, he had given his word to Scott. He stared straight ahead as he considered how much to say without breaking the fragile young man’s confidence.

“Doc?” Johnny prompted.

“All right, Johnny,” Jenkins relented. “Let’s say for the sake of argument that I do agree with you, that Scott does remember what happened to him. It doesn’t change anything. He clearly doesn’t feel able to talk about it, and to force the issue will only make him clam up more. You know that as well as I do. Whatever is going on in his head, I don’t need to remind you that his physical condition is still extremely precarious and any pushing on your or anyone else’s part could have very serious repercussions on his health.  Surely you can see that?”

“Yeah doc, I hear what you’re saying,” ceded Johnny. “But I can’t just sit back and do nothing. I’m scared that we’re gonna lose him. I think he’s fixing to leave.”

“How do you mean?” demanded Sam.

“Well, it’s like he’s working to a deadline or something,” maintained Johnny.

“Before you arrived I found him out of bed trying to make it to his wardrobe to get some clothes. That’s what all that ruckus was about when you walked in. I was trying to find out what he was in such a hell-fired hurry to do.”

Sam nodded. He’d had that impression too. That Scott was working to some kind of schedule. “Well, he’s in no fit state to go anywhere any time soon,” he asserted. “Not with those ribs. And especially not out in these damp conditions. The risk of pneumonia is still a very real one, and in his weakened state, he won’t be able to fight it. Any over-exertion could be extremely dangerous.”

“That don’t mean he won’t try.  I know my brother,” offered Johnny worriedly.

“Murdoch said something the other day about Scott coming home because he had unfinished business. I think he was partly right. He has got unfinished business - only it ain’t here. It’s back wherever he was for those five days, and I’ve got an awful feeling that when he’s done whatever it is he thinks he needs to do, he doesn’t intend on coming back.”

Sam looked across at the earnest expression on the face of the young man riding beside him. “Well you’ll have to stop him, any way you can, Johnny, because to try to go anywhere in his current state, could kill him. He’s been lucky so far but he can’t go on pushing that luck forever.”

Johnny nodded grimly. “I don’t think he’d agree with you right now about being lucky, but I hear what you’re saying doc. I’ll watch him, don’t you worry about that. ‘Cuz I ain’t losing him, Sam.  I won’t let that happen.” Johnny pulled on Barranca’s reins and started to turn him back towards the direction they had ridden up from.

“I understand son,” sympathized Sam, pulling up his own mount, wanting to give the impulsive young man one last piece of advice. “And for the record, I do agree with you. Without breaking any confidences, I do think Scott is holding back. Whether to protect himself or anyone else, I can’t say.  Just tread carefully with him. And go easy on your father too. Because Murdoch is just as worried as you are.  Having you two boys around, well, it’s all still pretty new to him. That stubborn old Scotsman might never admit it but he’s gotten quite attached to you both.”

A smile ghosted Johnny’s lips as he reined Barranca around. He had gotten the confirmation that he had come looking for.  “I’ll try Sam. On both counts. The old man and me butt heads from time to time, but I know what all this is doing to him. That’s why I can’t afford to wait.  For all our sakes. Be seeing you.”  He finished wheeling Barranca around and then, as an afterthought, he looked back over his shoulder towards the doctor.  “And Sam?”

“Yes Johnny?”

“Thanks. ”  

The doctor nodded silently in acknowledgement. His horse jerked its head up and down, clearly eager to get going again as the wind howled around them. Sam shivered, suddenly gripped with a terrible sense of foreboding.

He watched as Johnny spurred the spirited stallion back in the direction they had come from. He continued to watch, lost in his mounting concern for his old friend and the two young men he had also grown immensely fond of. Eventually, stirred out of his reverie by his restless mount and the bitter cold, he sighed and resumed his journey back towards Morro Coyo, hoping that he had done the right thing.

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

But Johnny didn’t head straight back to the Hacienda. He veered off, taking the west fork that led towards Lem Connor’s place. He had a hunch that he needed to explore. It had been growing in his mind ever since Sam had told him and Murdoch about the catastrophic power of the wind that had destroyed the neighboring ranch. Whether it had been a tornado, which would have been unusual for that time of year, or some other cataclysmic event, Johnny had had a strong feeling that he and Scott had been directly in its path before it had blown itself out. 

In daylight he knew every inch of the land in this territory, so he knew the exact route to take to find where the Connor ranch used to be, nestled on the western boundary of Lancer land.  He rode on for about an hour until he found what he was looking for.  There, half submerged in the mud was the flask that Teresa had given him when he had set out to look for his brother.  He hadn’t intentionally left it behind, but he had realized later on that it was missing and that it would serve as a marker to pinpoint the exact location where he’d found Scott. He hoped that it might afford some clue as to where his brother had been for all that time.  Johnny dismounted and bent to pick up the flask. As he did so, his attention was drawn to something else. A piece of wood was wedged down in the mire.  He pulled it, the sticky mud reluctant to give up its quarry. Eventually, with a firm tug, the boggy ground surrendered its prize, and Johnny could see that there was something etched in the wood.  He pulled out his bandana and wiped away the muck.  The words he saw on the broken signpost ignited the growing suspicion that had been smoldering in his mind.

The arrow, if the signpost had still been erect and facing the way it should have been, would have pointed west.  Johnny turned his gaze off in that direction. It was late afternoon, and the light was already beginning to fade. As much as he was tempted, it would be foolhardy to head there now. Murdoch had enough to worry about without his youngest son doing a disappearing act too. No, better to wait, he reasoned, especially given the location. He’d go see Val tomorrow, get his take on the place, see if he’d heard of any trouble and then maybe recruit him to take a ride out there with him.

His mind made up, he tossed the piece of wood back down on the ground, mounted Barranca once more and wheeled him back around to head home to Lancer.

The signpost had landed face up, its arrow pointing ominously in the direction it was supposed to. It read…       

“Hard Luck - 15 miles”

Chapter 11

Scott’s next awakening was just as unpleasant as the previous one. Another boot slamming into his already battered side. He tried to groan once more, but all that came out was a muffled gasp. He struggled in panic as he realized he had been gagged. He felt himself once more propelled into a seated position by his captor and rough hands pulled out the soiled rag that had been stuffed into his mouth. Scott wheezed as he tried to draw in some much-needed air, but it only exacerbated the stabbing pain in his chest and back.  Eyes still firmly closed he tried to control his ragged breathing, but his captor had other ideas. Scott felt his tormentor grab a fistful of his hair, and he felt his head jerked backwards. He tried to cry out as the throbbing in the back of his head reverberated through his skull, but his protest was cut short as an unpleasant tasting liquid was poured down his throat. He choked as he tried to turn his head away but he received another kick to his side for his efforts.    

Scott had no other choice but to comply. He was thirsty, but he knew it wasn’t simply plain water he was being forced to swallow. The pungent taste told him there was something else added to it. Considering the way he had been bound, gagged and mistreated, he didn’t think that Hatton would have his welfare at heart.   So, Scott figured, whatever he was being given, it served some part of Hatton’s sinister agenda.

Opening his eyes, Scott fixed Hatton with the most defiant stare he could muster given the circumstances. Whatever Hatton wanted with him he wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of showing any fear.  “Why are you doing this Hatton?” he rasped.

Hatton sat back on an old three-legged stool and watched him intently, the madness glistening in his blackened eyes.

“So you’re Murdoch Lancer’s son, huh?”  he chuckled, ignoring Scott’s question. “Well, who’d a thought old Murdoch would have a pup. Never saw him as the family type.”

“Get to the point, Hatton,” Scott spat though clenched teeth as he tried to control his hitched breathing. It was agony to breathe at all and he could barely draw enough air into his lungs in the restricted position he’d been forced into.  Hatton had bound his wrists and ankles and tied them together with a short length of rope that kept Scott in a hunched sitting position when he was upright or a fetal position when he was on the ground. Either way it was torturously uncomfortable and made breathing a chore.     

“The point is, boy, yer Daddy stole somethin’ from me a long time ago and now its payback time.  I want him to know what he did to me, exactly what I had to endure for all those years on his account.”

“And you think that sordid lies about my mother would have been enough for him to come running? Well you’re wrong. He’d have seen you for the deviant that you are.”

Scott was rewarded for the insult by another sharp kick to his ribs as Hatton leapt up from the stool. He groaned as the pain lanced through him, the blackness beckoning once more, but Hatton was pouring more of the bitter fluid down his throat before Scott could protest.  The blackness started to dissipate, and Scott wondered if the liquid he was being force-fed was some kind of stimulant.  He’d heard of such things being used during the war. 

“Oh, they weren’t lies, boy,” chortled Hatton as he took his seat once more. “All that was true. You reckon I could make up somethin’ like that?” He grinned wolfishly, revealing blackened and rotting teeth adding even more weight to his ghoulish appearance.  “Besides, it had you runnin’ hard n’ fast to defend yer momma’s honor. You coulda ignored it. But what is it they say? Ain’t no smoke without fire?”

“I won’t have you or anyone else sully the memory of someone who can no longer defend herself,” hissed Scott, painfully.  “My father wouldn’t have let you within a hundred feet of her.” 

“Memory?” snapped Hatton, the grin evaporating from his face.  “What’re ya saying? She ain’t alive no more?”

“That’s right,” confirmed Scott, through gritted teeth as he struggled to speak and breathe at the same time.

“How long?”

“What does it matter?” Scott was baffled by the haunted look that crossed Hatton’s face. What was it to him?

“I said how long!”  Hatton snarled, as lightning fast he sprang up and kicked Scott in the ribs once more.

“Almost twenty-six years,” gasped Scott as he tried to breathe against the fire burning through his tortured ribs.

Hatton sat back heavily on the stool, taking this in.  “How did she die?” he whispered.

“It’s none of your business,” retorted Scott angrily.

“I said how?!” Hatton leapt to his feet again, his eyes blazing and his fists clenched.

Scott was perplexed as to why the manner of his mother’s passing was of such import to Hatton, but was wary of antagonizing his unstable captor any more than he had to. Especially if he was going to survive his captivity. “Childbirth,” he muttered, the reminder painful to him with the anniversary so close. 

“You?”  accused Hatton.

“Yes,” Scott mumbled dejectedly.

Hatton stared down at him for a few seconds as if digesting this new piece of information. Then the sickly smile was back, spreading across his warped features, his blackened eyes suddenly lighting up. The glow of the shack’s only lantern cast a demonic hue over him as he reached for a thick wedge of wood that had been leaning against the door.  “Oh this is gonna pleasure me…” he sneered as he advanced slowly towards his helpless prisoner.

Scott was unprepared for the frenzied attack as Hatton sent blow after blow raining down onto his battered ribs. He rolled onto his side but there was no way to escape, no way to protect himself. He just simply closed his eyes, tears of pain and despair running down his cheeks, and prayed for the darkness to drag him down.  Before long his prayers were answered, and merciful oblivion came to claim him.

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

The next morning Johnny and Teresa shared a tense repast in the kitchen.

It was getting dark by the time Johnny had arrived back at the hacienda the evening before to be met by the thunderous form of his father.  Having spent a couple of hours catching up on paperwork, Murdoch had sought out his younger son to try and resolve their differences. He had been concerned when he couldn’t find Johnny in any of his usual haunts. He had peered around Scott’s door first, but his older son was alone and appeared to be sleeping. Checking Johnny’s own room and having not found him there either, he had gone to the stable to see if he was tending to Barranca. Finding the palomino missing too, he had checked with Jorge who was serving sentry duty on the roof. The young vaquero had confirmed that, yes, Johnny had ridden out several hours before, and he thought that the Jefe had sanctioned it. Murdoch had been on the brink of sending out a search party for him when Johnny rode back in, oblivious to the frenzy of activity his brief disappearance had initiated.  He had, then, been subjected to the dressing down of his life for riding out and not telling anyone where he was going.

The lecture had seemed to go on forever and despite the promises he had made to Sam, Johnny had been at the end of his own, extremely short, tether. The shouting match that had ensued had the gathered hands running for cover; none of them keen to be caught in the verbal crossfire between two Lancer males who had literally reached their wit’s end.   

Once again it had been Teresa who had assumed the role of mediator; providing them with a few home truths that they both needed to hear.  Her words had resounded in their ears as Teresa reflected that she didn’t know how much longer she could bear to live in the middle of a battleground.  She had stormed up to her room and refused to come out for the remainder of the night.

Maria’s efforts in the kitchen had gone untouched that evening as neither Murdoch nor Johnny were inclined to spend a tense hour around the table sharing a meal together. The unbearable tension had robbed them all of their appetites.   The apple pie that had spent all day cooling in the pantry remained uncut, although the Lancers’ loss was to be the hands’ gain as Maria hated to see anything go to waste.

All three of them, Murdoch, Johnny and Teresa, had spent a restless and, by and large, sleepless night, too churned up with worry to get any real rest. Johnny for his part had tuned into his brother who lay in the adjoining room.  Scott had belligerently insisted that the door that linked their rooms be locked from his side to afford him a modicum of privacy. It smarted, but Johnny had agreed, and so access to his brother from that perspective had been denied him. It was just another way for Scott to close the door on Johnny, both literally and figuratively. It allowed his brother, to push him away and withhold access.  While Johnny couldn’t deny that it hurt, he wouldn’t allow it to break his resolve.

He had gotten up several times during the night and put a glass to the wall, listening to the sounds coming from Scott’s room. At least once he had heard Scott moving around. He’d heard the creak of the loose floorboard beneath the rug, had heard the sound of the wardrobe being opened and had heard Scott’s stifled gasps of pain as the exertion took its toll on his battered body. Later, as the grandfather clock had struck 5am, and Johnny wearily dressed, he had heard the muffled cries of his brother as he called out in the restless sleep to which he had finally surrendered.

As Johnny and Teresa sat down to breakfast, Murdoch emerged from issuing the morning orders. Without acknowledging either of them, he had grabbed a bowl of oatmeal from Maria and headed straight upstairs to Scott’s room with it.  Before too long, raised voices were heard filtering down the stairs.

Johnny and Teresa’s eyes met across the table as they heard a door slam and the sound of Murdoch’s heavy footsteps as they trounced along the passageway and down the back stairwell. Johnny rose, quickly draining the remainder of his coffee, and reached for his gun belt draped over the back of his chair. He was eager to escape and thus avoid a confrontation with his father. He was almost at the back door when Murdoch stalked into the kitchen and slammed the uneaten bowl of oatmeal heavily down on the table, the force flinging out some of the contents and soiling the checkered tablecloth.

“Johnny, did you help Scott get dressed during the night?”  he demanded.

Johnny fixed his father with a defiant stare as he started to buckle his gun belt. “I’m banned from going into his room, remember?”  he muttered impudently.

“Just answer the question, Johnny,” snapped Murdoch impatiently.

“No, I didn’t.” Johnny looked him straight in the eye.  “Can I go now?”

“Where’re you going?” demanded Murdoch.

“I’m going to see Val.”

“What about?”

“Murdoch, since when did I have to justify visiting a friend?” lamented Johnny, irritated at the interrogation and tired of the constant bickering with his father.

“Since a mad man decided to attack your brother,” countered Murdoch, looking to Teresa for support. 

“Well, all the more reason to talk to Val don’t you think?” challenged Johnny.  “Anyway, I can take care of myself.” To emphasize the point, he took his .45 out if its holster and double-checked the load, even though he knew it was primed and ready. It always was.

“I’m sure your brother would have said the same thing,” remonstrated Murdoch, knowing it was a thin argument. There was no doubt that his younger son was more than capable of taking care of himself, and the fact that he was still alive after living the life he had more than proved that. He decided to take a different tack. “Besides, I can’t spare you. There’s plenty of work that needs doing. The men are stretched as it is.”

“Look Murdoch,” replied Johnny wearily, “I just wanna talk to Val, get his take on all this. He might have heard something. Anyway, I thought you wanted me to rest up for a few days?”

“Well, if you’re recovered enough to ride out all over the territory, then you’re well enough to go back to work,” retorted his father, determined to get the last word.

Johnny sighed. “Murdoch, I’m tired of arguing, so if you’re spoiling for a fight, take it elsewhere. I’ll be back in a few hours, and then I’ll put in a full day from there if you want me to, work past supper time, if that’ll satisfy you. But I’m going to see Val, and you’re not gonna stop me.” He stalked out the door before his father could say anything else.

Furious at Johnny’s blatant disregard of his wishes, but fueled by worry, Murdoch started to follow his younger son, intent on physically dragging him back into the house if necessary, but he was stopped in his tracks by Teresa.

“Murdoch? Let him go. Please?”  she pleaded.

He turned to look at the pale features of his young ward. The dark circles surrounding her eyes made her look so terribly fragile all of a sudden.

“Teresa…”

“Sit down please, Murdoch,” she interrupted. “I need to talk to you.” 

He was torn, needing to go after his angry son, but knowing deep down it wouldn’t prevent him from leaving anyway. But he at least needed to try. One look at those dark eyes of his ward, however, begging him to stay, made him relent. Murdoch looked around awkwardly, his eyes meeting those of Maria who had been trying to be as inconspicuous as she could while she busied herself at the sink.

“I will go up and collect the laundry from Juanito’s room,” she replied to the unanswered question in her patron’s eyes.  “That should take a long time.” Maria smiled.     

“Gracias, Maria,” acknowledged Murdoch, grateful for the housekeeper’s perceptiveness, as she grabbed the basket and quickly padded up the back stairs.

Murdoch folded heavily into his seat at the head of the table. Teresa had already been busily serving up a portion of the eggs and bacon that she had been keeping warm. She pushed the plate towards him and then proceeded to pour a cup of coffee for her guardian.

“Go on eat.  You need it,” she urged as she resumed her place at the table.

“I’m sorry darling, I haven’t been doing very well in the parental stakes recently have I?” sighed Murdoch as he reached for the coffee, taking a sip of the steaming brew.

“Oh Murdoch, I’m worried about you.  About all of us,” censured Teresa.  “Things seem to be falling apart. And it doesn’t feel like home anymore. Can you understand that? I just want things to be the way they were before…well, before Scott went missing.”

“I know Teresa, I’m sorry. But with what happened to Scott, we can’t take any chances, and what Johnny did yesterday afternoon….”

“I know you were worried Murdoch,” interrupted Teresa. “I saw how frantic you were when you were looking for him, but Johnny doesn’t know that. All he saw was the anger and the way you chewed him out in front of the hands.  You humiliated him and treated him like a little kid.  It’s no wonder he reacted the way he did. Maybe if he’d seen the worry instead of the anger…”

“Yes, darling, I know, you’re absolutely right,’ agreed Murdoch wearily as he took another sip of his coffee. “And, if it’s any consolation, I lay awake all night thinking about it.  I was wrong to do that to him in front of the hands. I meant to apologize to him but…”

“You’re stubborn. Like he is. And Scott too,” interjected Teresa.  “Honestly, if I didn’t love the three of you so much…” her voice caught as the tears she had been working so hard to contain started to fall unchecked. 

Murdoch rose and walked over to his pretty ward. He gathered her towards him, allowing her tears to soak into his shirt as she wrapped her arms tightly around him. He bent to kiss her on the head.  Teresa was right. In his desire to do all he could to give Scott the time and space he needed, Murdoch hadn’t realized that he had neglected one son to cater to the demands of the other.  He was pushing Johnny away in his desperation not to lose Scott, when they needed to be pulling together and supporting one another.

And he wasn’t doing all that well with his eldest son, either.  Murdoch was bitterly ashamed at the outburst that he had unleashed on Scott when he had discovered him out of bed. Somehow he had managed to pull on a pair of pants and was in the process of trying to put on a pair of socks when Murdoch had walked in on him. His eldest son’s face was gray with fatigue, the pain of his damaged ribs etched across his finely sculpted features, his breath coming in convulsive gasps.  That had been the final straw, and the worried father just hadn’t been able to hold back.

The constant strain of the past few days that had robbed him of his appetite and any rest that he needed to take, had come flooding out in a similar fashion to the night before when he had confronted his younger son. And now he was at odds with them both.  Fatherhood was proving to be the most challenging role that Murdoch Lancer had ever had to assume.  And, much to his dismay, here was his ward looking as dejected and defeated as he had ever seen her. He was failing all three of them miserably.

He stroked her hair and kissed her head once more. “Teresa, shhhh, it’s all right. Everything’s going to be all right.”

“Oh Murdoch. I wish I could believe that. It just feels like everything is coming to an end. I’m so scared. I don’t want to lose any of you.”

Murdoch mentally chastised himself. How could he not have seen what all this was doing to her? It hadn’t been that long ago that Paul had been killed. She had already lost so much.  But Murdoch Lancer had made it a tenet in life never to make any promises he wasn’t reasonably assured of being able to keep, so he chose his words carefully.    “I’ll try not to let that happen,” he consoled. “I’ll do everything in my power to make things right, I promise. Everything.”  

“Well, there’s one thing you can do right now for me, Murdoch,” Teresa sniffed, disengaging herself from her guardian.

“What’s that, darling?”

“You can sit down and eat your breakfast.”

She had him there, and she knew it. “Yes ma’am.” He smiled as he sat down to eat the first proper sustenance he had taken in days.  

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

Johnny rode hard to Val’s place. He wanted to make good on his promise to Murdoch to be back to do his share of the work around the ranch.  But he also wanted to stay close to Scott.  His suspicions about the sounds he had heard coming from Scott’s room during the night had been confirmed by his father.  His brother had been getting dressed, and it had sounded like a laborious and painful process. It told him that Scott was upping the ante and was in a hurry to be somewhere else. Johnny had a good idea where that was.  Hard Luck. Not a place that Scott would deign to go to voluntarily unless he really had to. Something had already taken him there once, though, and it looked more and more to Johnny like the same place was luring him back.  He thought back to the conversation with Sam, about the concept of Scott having ‘unfinished business’.  Johnny had a real bad feeling about it and hoped to hell he was wrong. 

Val was sitting in the rocking chair on his porch when Johnny reined up. Johnny grinned.  It was unusual for Val to be home on a Saturday, but Johnny knew why he was there. The hands were all talking and laughing about Val’s ‘affliction’. His old friend was whittling away on a piece of wood. It was what he liked to do to relax, and he had a whole shelf full of tiny wooden creatures in the little shack he called home.

“Hey m’amigo,” Val greeted. “Ya must be a mind reader. Was gonna come out and see ya later.”

Johnny dismounted and loosely tied Barranca before stepping up onto the porch, slouching casually against the rail.

“Oh you were, huh? What about?”

“See if what I heard about Scott’s true?”

Johnny nodded his head. “ So you’ve seen Sam Jenkins?” It was more a statement than a question.

Val looked at him in confusion. “The Doc? What’s he got ta do with it?”

“Well, Sam told you what happened to Scott?”

“I ain’t seen Sam since Wednesday when he…” Val checked himself. “Well, let’s just say it ain’t right for a man to do somethin’ like that to another man and then expect ta be paid for it.”  

“What’d he do to you?”  Johnny was working hard to keep a straight face. The pile of cushions stacked on the rocking chair told their own story, even if he hadn’t already heard about the sheriff’s embarrassing ailment.

“Ain’t sayin’,” mumbled Val sulkily.

Johnny shrugged. “All right.  I’ll just ask Sam next time I see him.”

“He wouldn’t tell ya, would he?” spluttered Val. “It’s against that hippo…hippo…oh hell, you know that oath that docs are supposed to swear?”

“I have no idea what you’re talkin’ about Val,” Johnny grinned, folding his arms.  He was enjoying the banter after so many days of tension. But he also knew it took a real lot for Val to drag himself off to the Doc’s office, and he sympathized as he watched his friend shift uncomfortably in his chair.

“So what did you hear about Scott?”  Johnny steered the conversation back to the purpose of his visit.  

“Well,” replied Val as he set aside his whittling, “I was in that god forsaken hole ‘Hard luck’ a few days back, heard that Scott got inta some kinda trouble over there.”  

“Trouble?  What kinda trouble?”  questioned Johnny, bolt upright now.

“Picked a fight with some drifter that had come inta town a few days earlier.  Really laid inta the guy. Took several men to pull him off ‘im. Barkeep over there reckons he woulda killed the guy if he hadn’t stepped in.”

Johnny frowned. “This man have a name?”

“Yeah,” Val furrowed his brow as he recalled the details. “Fella name of Hatton. Silas Hatton. You heard of ‘im?”

Hatton. Johnny couldn’t say he immediately knew the name, but there was something vaguely familiar about it that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He shook his head. “Nope. You talk to him, check up on him?”

Val shook his head. “Nah, he weren’t nowhere to be found when I went lookin’ for ‘im. Did some checkin’ when I got back to Green River but there ain’t no warrants out on him far as I can tell. Name came back clean when I sent out a few wires to check. Certainly not wanted in this state.”

Johnny considered this new information. “When d’ya find all this out Val?”

“I was out there on Tuesday.  Me and Gabe manage the place best we can ‘tween us, but it ain’t easy, ” complained Val.

“And when did the barkeep say all this happened?” persisted Johnny, his concern mounting.

“Friday last as far as I can tell. What is it, m’amigo?” Val was disturbed to see the worry etched on his affable young friend’s face. It took a lot to spook Johnny, and it made Val feel uneasy to see him looking so haunted and, dang if it didn’t look like he hadn’t slept in days.

“Scott went missing,” relayed Johnny tiredly. “Went into Morro Coyo to pick up the mail last Friday and just disappeared. Ed Hawkins said it was some letter addressed to our old man that had him spooked.  Then his horse came back without him in that storm Wednesday night. I found him out there a few hours later, more dead than alive. He’s pretty beat up, and from the marks on his wrists and ankles, he was tied pretty good. But since he regained consciousness, he’s clammed up on us. Won’t tell us what happened. Doc says it could be amnesia, but I don’t buy it. I’m worried that whatever he started with this Hatton guy, he’s aiming to finish it.”

Val frowned.  “Well that don’t sound like Scott.”

“No Val, it don’t. None of this does,” agreed Johnny despondently. “And the way he’s acting, well, I ain’t never seen him this way.”

Val regarded his young friend closely. He had never imagined that the fiery young man he had ridden with for all those years could ever bond with someone seemingly so diversely opposite as Scott Lancer. Nor that Val himself could ever think of someone like the young Bostonian as a friend. But somehow, against all odds it had happened. It was hard not to like Scott Lancer, and he shared Johnny’s concern.      “That why you came to see me?” he asked, softly.

“Yeah.” Johnny distractedly ran his fingers through his hair. “Sam Jenkins told us about Lem Connor’s place. You heard about that?”

Val nodded silently.

“Well, the storm the doc said flattened Lem’s place was right at my back when I found Scott,” continued Johnny.  “ I could feel it coming at us. So when Sam mentioned what had happened, it gave me an idea of where to start lookin’. I rode out yesterday and found a flask that I left behind out there.  And right there lying nearby was the sign for Hard Luck. So I figured that was where Scott was comin’ back from when he got caught in the storm. From all you just told me, I guess my hunch was right. And now I got a name too.” He absently fingered the weapon at his side, not even aware that he was doing it as he considered the new information Val had provided him with.

Val looked at his friend worriedly. He recognized that look.  It was the look of Madrid. “So what are you fixin’ to do?” he asked tentatively.

“Well,” Johnny exhaled heavily. “I reckon I need to pay me a visit to Hard Luck.  Ride out there tomorrow and look up this Hatton fella.”

“Johnny…” Val cautioned as Johnny’s hand continued to hover over his weapon.

“Don’t worry Val,” interrupted Johnny. “I aim to do it all legal. ‘Cuz you’re comin’ with me.”

“Oh hell, Johnny,” groused Val bitterly. “Tomorrow’s Sunday. Its bad enough I gotta go to that shit tip in the week without havin’ to ride all the way out there when I’ve got a…”

“Pain in your ass?” Johnny finished for him.

“Why that snake eyed Doc I’ll…” bit Val, struggling to rise from his chair.

“He didn’t say anything, Val,” chuckled Johnny moving forward to push him back down and noting the pained expression on his old friend’s face as he did so.  “He didn’t have to.  It’s all over town how Steve’s been deputizing for you most of the week ‘cuz you’ve been walkin’ around like you had a cork stuck up your ass. It’s all over the bunkhouse. How d’ya think I knew to come here instead of heading into Green River?  I reckon Sam’s the only one who ain’t talkin’ about it.  Just put a few of them Indian blankets over your saddle for extra padding.”

“Oh hell….” muttered Val petulantly. “And ta think I was pleased ta see ya and all…”

“So I’ll see you in the morning. I’ll ride out here to meet you just before sun up.  I don’t want Murdoch to know where I’m going. He’s riding me enough at the moment. ‘K, amigo?”

“Oh hell, Johnny,” grumbled Val resignedly, seeing the earnest expression on his young friend’s face.  “All right. Sun up it is.”

“Thanks Val.” replied Johnny as he headed back down the porch steps and began to untie Barranca. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

Johnny mounted up, grinning as he watched Val gingerly rise and stagger back into his shack, muttering the whole way.



Chapter 12

As awareness returned once more, added to the agonizing discomfort of his numerous injuries, Scott was conscious of two more distinct sensations. Firstly, the frantic thudding of his own heartbeat in his ears. He wondered if he had a fever? But he didn’t feel hot. Quite the opposite in fact. The drafty shack that served as his prison, offered little protection from the frigid temperatures outside, and his hands and bare feet had turned a bluish gray color leaving them bereft of feeling.  But whether that was from the cold or the circulation being restricted by the tautness of the ropes as they bit into his skin, Scott couldn’t be sure.

The second thing he was shamefully aware of was that he had soiled himself. The smell of his own urine assaulted his nostrils, and there was no escaping it.  The acidity of his own waste burned through his pants and seeped into his skin, adding to the degradation his captor was gleefully inflicting upon him.   Scott had completely lost track of time. He had no idea how long each period of unconsciousness lasted, how long he had been held by Hatton, nor for what purpose. All he knew was that, upon each awakening, his feeling of despair deepened.    

He was relieved that Hatton was absent this time, as the mad man seemed to delight in taunting him, regaling him with stories of what he had been doing with Hard Luck’s bordello girls. It sickened Scott that anyone could be capable of such inhuman acts, let alone want to boast openly about them. And, even worse, when Hatton got really excited, the one – sided conversation would, inevitably, return to Scott’s mother. 

Scott sensed that he had been unconscious for some time after the beating he received from Hatton after he’d revealed that his mother was dead. In fact, Scott had been surprised that he had awakened at all. The pure hatred reflected on his captor’s face had made him believe that this was how his life was going to end, beaten to death by a mad man without truly knowing the reason why.  It was clear from what he had revealed thus far that Hatton had been infatuated with his mother, but why wait all this time to come back to taunt Murdoch about her? What purpose did it serve?

Scott shook his head irritably, frustrated that it was getting harder and harder to think. He felt weak and lightheaded and that infernal pounding in his ears made it difficult to focus on anything else. He could feel a lethargy creeping through him, and he was feeling less able to resist its pull.  He closed his eyes, and allowed himself to be lulled away into the deepening void where he was tortured by images of unspeakable acts and the disembodied voice of his mother begging, in vain, for mercy.

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

It was late morning by the time Johnny arrived back at the hacienda. He dismounted and allowed one of the hands to lead Barranca back to his stall. He was eager to grab something to eat and then head out to join one of the work parties. He wasn’t ready to share what he had learned with Murdoch just yet, though. He hoped to avoid his father and head off to Hard Luck with Val in the morning and get the whole mystery of Scott’s disappearance solved before the old man got wind of it.  Of course, he’d have to come up with something convincing to explain where he was going for the day, but he figured he had the whole afternoon to think of something.  As long as he could avoid Murdoch. And that had always proven to be easier said than done.

He removed his muddy boots at the front door and hesitated at the bottom of the stairs.  Should he go straight up there or maybe see how the land lay first? Before he had time to decide one way or another, Teresa appeared from the kitchen, her sleeves rolled up and her face red. From the mouth watering aroma emanating from the kitchen, she and Maria were baking up a feast.

“I thought I heard someone come in.” She clasped her arms around his waist. “Murdoch will be glad you’re back.” Judging by the fierce way she hugged him, Johnny could tell that she was equally as glad. It had to be hard on her every time he rode off, especially with what had happened to Scott after he had set off on what had been a seemingly harmless errand.

“Where is Murdoch?” Johnny asked cautiously, peering into the Great Room.

“He rode out to the North gully with Cipriano not long ago. There’s been a mudslide there and it’s dammed up part of the river. He wanted you to go, but he couldn’t wait any longer for you to come back.  He didn’t want to leave me alone, but I told him that I had Jelly and that you’d be back soon. He says you’re to stay here.  There’s plenty of work around the house to keep you occupied.”

“He said that, huh?” Johnny’s eyebrows raised in surprise. 

“Uh huh,” she nodded hugging him tightly once more.  “You know he’s just worried don’t you? About Scott, you, about everything.”

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny murmured softly. He’d had a lot of time to think about that on the ride back.  But he still aimed to avoid the old man for the remainder of the day if he could.   Every time they breathed the same air lately they seemed to lock horns over Scott, and it wasn’t doing any of them any good, least of all his brother.  And his father certainly wouldn’t like the plan that was formulating in his mind.   “How is the patient?” He gestured upstairs with his eyes, changing the subject.

“I don’t know Johnny,” Teresa sighed. “I thought I heard him moving around up there earlier, so I went up to see if he needed anything. I knocked on the door and called out to him, but there was no response. But I was sure I heard that loose floorboard creak. Like he’d been walking about.   I guess he just doesn’t want to see me,” she reflected sadly.

Johnny stroked her hair affectionately. “Nah, he probably just didn’t hear you is all. Most likely he was sleeping. He’ll be all right when he’s had a little more rest. You’ll see.” 

She smiled thinly at him, but he could tell she wasn’t convinced.  Hell, what did Scott think he was doing treating her this way?  Treating any of them that way? It helped crystallize a few things in Johnny’s mind. It was time to test the waters a little.  See what reaction he got. Push his brother a little.  “Now c’mon,” he enthused. “ It smells like you and Maria are cookin’ up a storm through there, and you don’t want any of it to spoil. So go on, I’ll go check on Boston, make sure he’s all right. Then I’ll come sample some of that baking. You make sure you leave some spoons for me to lick. ‘K?”

“All right….” She turned, reluctantly, and started to head back towards the kitchen.

“Oh Teresa…” he called after her. “Don’t tell Murdoch. About me going to see Scott. It’ll be our little secret?”

She smiled sadly. “Sure Johnny. Just be careful with him, huh?”

Johnny nodded silently and watched her go.  He tried to swallow the anger towards his brother that had suddenly welled up inside him. It wouldn’t do to confront him seething the way he was right now.  But hell, Johnny hated to see Teresa so churned up over Scott.  He reached down inside himself and tapped into the coolness of Madrid. He was still there, just below the surface where Johnny kept him contained, until he needed his cool, calm, collectedness. Then he allowed him to resurface.  Now was one of those times. He quietly climbed the stairs and made his way towards his brother’s room to test his theory.

As he made his way along the passageway, he immediately observed that the natural order of things was out of kilter. Scott’s door was open.  Fiercely protective of his privacy, his brother had always insisted on the correct levels of propriety when it came to his personal space, and it had caused him no end of frustration in the early days when Johnny just sauntered into his room unannounced. That was why he always kept his door closed and insisted that people knock before they entered. But it wasn’t closed now. And it wasn’t the only one. Murdoch had demanded the same etiquette as his older son and nobody, not even Johnny dared enter the old man’s room without invitation. But someone was in there now. And Murdoch was at the North gully.

Johnny padded softly down the passageway and peered into his brother’s room. As suspected, it was empty. He quietly continued down the corridor, stopping just outside his father’s room, and listened.    It sounded like someone was looking for something, and from the heavy breathing and grunting coming from inside, he was satisfied that it wasn’t Maria cleaning.  He silently peered around the doorjamb to see what Scott was doing.

His brother was bent down pulling open a drawer and was rummaging inside. His breathing was ragged, and the exertion was clearly taking its toll. What the hell was he doing?

“You lost brother?”  Johnny drawled softly.

Startled, Scott dropped the wooden drawer on the floor and almost fell as he staggered around to confront the person who had discovered him.

“Hell, Johnny,” gasped Scott. “What do you think you’re doing sneaking up on me like that?”

Johnny regarded his brother closely, the guilty expression of one caught in the act etched across his face. But caught in the act of what?  One thing was for sure; he looked like hell. Scott wavered, reaching out to his father’s nightstand for support, barely able to remain upright.  His unbuttoned shirt was soaked with sweat, the bandages swathed around his midriff stained and yellow, matching the hue of his sallow skin. His left arm was wrapped protectively around himself as he tried to control his ragged breathing.  Who the hell was this desperate looking wretch standing before him, thought Johnny, because it sure didn’t look like his brother.

“Well, I thought maybe you took a wrong turn or something,” Johnny continued softly. ”It’s a big house, easy to lose your way. Is that what happened brother? You lose your way?”

“I was looking for something,” Scott spluttered. “My copy of ‘Great Expectations’. I loaned it to Murdoch a while back. I felt like reading a few chapters to pass the time.”

“And you reckoned you’d find it in with the old man’s underwear?” Johnny made his way into the room, not convinced by his brother’s hurried excuse. He picked up the drawer from the floor where Scott had dropped it and looked inside mockingly.  “Nope. No big heavy book in there.”  He slotted the drawer back into place and rose, looking Scott straight in the eye.

“So what were you really doing, Scott?”

Scott eyed him warily, stalling for time. “How long were you standing there?”

“Long enough.”

Johnny’s piercing blue eyes seemed to be boring right through him, and it made Scott feel even more exposed. He turned away, guiltily, not able to look Johnny in the eye.  “So, what, are you spying on me now, Johnny? Is that it?” Scott tried a diversionary tactic.

“I’m not the one rummaging about in the old man’s room,” maintained Johnny, simply.

“I’m not having this conversation,” Scott snapped as he turned to move towards the door. But his legs folded, and he would have fallen to the ground had Johnny not grabbed him by his arms and held him up. Scott shrugged him off angrily. It was pure strength of will and downright stubbornness that kept him on his feet.

Johnny shook his head dejectedly and followed Scott as he staggered back to his room. He stayed one step behind, ready to catch his brother if he fell. Even then Scott bypassed his bed in preference for the chair by the window, and he collapsed heavily into it, staring out at the darkening clouds as they gathered once more.

“Hell, Scott, look at the state of you.” Johnny crossed over to the nightstand and poured a fresh glass of water and then returned to his brother’s side, handing it to him.  “You need to lie down.” 

“What I need Johnny is to be left alone,” glowered Scott, snatching the glass irritably.  “I’m sick and tired of people thinking they know what’s best for me. What I need is to get out of this house.” He took several long gulps of the water, much of it spilling down his front and soaking into his soiled bindings.

“Why Scott? You got someplace else to be?”  drawled Johnny softly.     He looked slowly around the room for the little clues that would provide him with any indication of what Scott was planning to do. The boots pulled out of the closet, set down next to the chair hadn’t been there yesterday. Neither had the fresh jacket draped over the back of it.

Scott watched him nervously as he made his appraisal.

“I see you managed to get your socks on.” Johnny continued. “All that bending and pulling must have taken some effort, brother.”   

“I just need some space,” rasped Scott, “and I’m not going to get that with you and Murdoch watching my every move.”

“All right, brother.  If that’s the way you want it, I’ll leave you alone,’ shrugged Johnny. “In fact, I can just about guarantee you’ll get all the solitude you want tomorrow ’cuz Murdoch and Teresa’ll be heading into Morro Coyo to attend Sunday services and me, well, I promised Val that I’d help him out.” He watched Scott carefully for a reaction.  The part about Murdoch and Teresa was a fabrication.  There was no way they would leave Scott alone right now, and he counted on Scott having forgotten about the doc’s scheduled visit too.  Still, Johnny hadn’t failed to notice the hopeful glint in his brother’s eye, and he watched carefully for further reaction as he continued.  “Yeah, me and Val, we’re gonna take us a ride over to Hard Luck.”  

Scott worked hard to hide it, but there was the minutest flicker of a reaction, and Johnny was onto it. “Yeah, Val heard about a stranger in town who’s been stirring things up,” Johnny continued.  “Not that that particular pot needs much stirring. Name of Hatton.” This time the reaction was more pronounced; a distinct swallow, a nervous flick of the eyes. Scott’s hand was visibly shaking as he lifted the glass to his lips once more and drained the contents.  Johnny reached over and gently took the glass from him and crossed back over to the nightstand to replace it and to give Scott the chance to regain his composure. It was as he thought.  It confirmed what Johnny had figured out as he rode back from Val’s. Scott hadn’t been mumbling about someone with a ‘hat on’ when he first started to come round. He was referring to Silas Hatton as he relived parts of the lost five days.

“Yep, Val’s fixin’ to run the guy outta town once and for all, and I’ll be happy to back him up,” avowed Johnny.  “So like I say, you’ll have all the room to breathe that you need with no one looking over your shoulder.”

He returned to his brother. Scott was staring listlessly out the window, his eyes fixed firmly westwards.

“Well, I’ll leave you be,’ capitulated Johnny. “I promised Teresa I’d sample some of that fine baking of hers.  You don’t know what you’re missing Boston.”

Scott didn’t respond, he just continued to stare unblinkingly out of the window.  Johnny turned away, satisfied. The seeds had been sown. Scott had unwittingly given him the confirmation he needed. He turned and padded towards the door, pausing as his sharp eyes honed in on the bulky object staring out at him from the bookshelf. He picked it up and read the title.  “Oh, and Scott?”

Scott looked at him distractedly, a haunted look in his eyes.

“I think this is what you were looking for.”

Johnny tossed the bulky hardback onto the bed, the pale sunlight filtering through the window catching the gilt lettering of the title etched into the red leather.  ‘Great Expectations By Charles Dickens’. Scott didn’t need to look to know he had been caught out in a lie. Johnny didn’t miss a trick.

As Johnny closed the door behind him, Scott pitched forward violently as the water that he had drained a few minutes earlier made a rapid reappearance. Sam had warned him that vomiting would be agonizingly painful on his ribs, and he was right. Scott bent double over the chair as he frantically tried to get his breathing under control. He could feel his vision dimming to pinpricks as he desperately fought to maintain his tenuous grip on consciousness. He cursed his own weakness as he struggled to focus on taking each painful breath, centering in on the pain, and the hate.  Oh, Hatton had trained him well. It was the hate that was keeping him going. He was drawing on its raw and destructive energy. It would keep him on his feet long enough to do what he had to.  He’d go back to Hard Luck just like Hatton wanted him to, but he wouldn’t get what he’d sent Scott back for.  Even if Johnny hadn’t interrupted him in his search, Scott had already made up his mind that Hatton wasn’t getting anything of his mother’s.

He wasn’t going to listen to that deviant’s threats anymore; he wasn’t going to kow tow to that madman out of fear of what he might do to those he cared about. He was going to finish it once and for all. Because as far as Scott was concerned, he had nothing left to lose. Hatton had taken everything from him already.  He had played on Scott’s care and concern for the inhabitants of the hacienda, but especially his love for Johnny, Murdoch and Teresa; sending him back there to do his bidding, all the while knowing that Scott couldn’t be a part of that world anymore. Not after what Hatton had delighted in revealing to him.

And now Johnny was onto Hatton.  He didn’t know how he had found out about him, but it meant Scott had to bring forward his plans. He needed to get to Hatton before Johnny did.  This was Scott’s fight, and his alone. He’d return to Hard Luck tonight, and he’d seek Hatton out. He wouldn’t give him what he was expecting, but he’d sure give him everything he deserved.

The thought of what he was going to do had him heaving over the side of the chair once more as fresh spasms of agony coursed through his battered body. This time he didn’t bother to fight the enveloping blackness; instead, he surrendered himself to its welcoming embrace, his last conscious thought, the taunting face that would, tomorrow, damn him to hell.

 

Chapter 13

Scott was aware of movement in the shack. Hatton was back. And he hadn’t announced his presence in his usual inimitable way, with a sharp kick to his prisoner’s ribs to check if he was conscious. If Scott wasn’t beforehand, he certainly was afterwards.   He hated to think what his battered torso looked like, and what damage had been done inside.  He had heard at least one rib snap during Hatton’s many frenzied attacks, and Scott was afraid that the mad man wasn’t going to stop until he had shattered his entire rib cage. If he was still alive by then. 

He wondered what Hatton was doing. He usually came back for just one purpose.  To torture and taunt. But for some reason he was preoccupied with something else. Scott opened his eyes a crack to see what it was that had distracted him from his usual ‘entertainment’.

Hatton was working at the small trestle table nestled on the far side of the dimly lit shack.  He seemed to be crushing something in a bowl, using the hilt of a boning knife as a crude pestle.  As Scott surreptitiously looked on, Hatton poured the contents of the bowl into the pitcher, the same one that he had continually forced him to drink from since he had first regained consciousness in his cramped prison. 

Scott had no idea how long Hatton had kept him here. The windows were blacked out, and there was no way of telling whether it was day or night.  Scott’s existence when alone was one of perpetual darkness. Whether wrapped in the merciful embrace of unconsciousness or, when conscious, immersed in the abject misery of his darkened confinement, he was haunted by the gnawing agony of his wounds. And a deeper anguish which was fueled by the disturbing revelations about his own existence that Hatton delighted in taunting him with.

The only respite Scott had from the darkness was when Hatton himself was present. But only because the light served his own purpose, so that he could see to mete out his frustrations on his captive and enjoy seeing the physical and emotional agony he caused register across his victim’s face.

What Scott had learned, though, was that Hatton wasn’t the kind of man to provide anything for anyone unless it served his own purpose to do so. With the abuse that had been heaped upon him, he had been initially surprised when Hatton offered fluids. But Scott had soon come to realize that its intent was not to hydrate and sustain life.  There appeared to be a far more sinister purpose.  The more he was forced to imbibe, the less control he felt, of his thoughts, his reason, of his own mind.  The pulsing of blood through his veins, the thud of his own heartbeat in his ears, reverberated through him and became all encompassing. It became impossible to think of or consider anything other than what Hatton was feeding him.  And the tiny part of reason that he was still vainly clinging to, told him it had something to do with that pitcher.

As time passed, Hatton revealed more and more to him, unraveling his sordid agenda, and feeding more and more of his vitriol into Scott. The pain in his ribs and the thudding in his ears made it harder to deny the truth of the words that he was hearing. Much as he wanted to scream at Hatton that he was lying, that none of it was true, it all made sense. He couldn’t help believe the validity of his words, because everything Scott knew about his life to date, everything he had experienced, told him it was the painful and devastating truth.     

As Scott lay there, broken and dejected, Hatton finished his ministrations and noted that his ‘plaything’ was awake.

“Now there’s good timin’,” he grinned sickeningly, as he approached. “I was just fixin’ to wake ya. It’s medicine time.”   He gave Scott a firm kick to his side just for good measure and then bent down and roughly yanked out his gag and pulled him into a sitting position. Scott gasped as he struggled to cope with the fires of agony that burned through his tortured body.

“You bastard,” he hissed as he struggled to draw in enough air.

“Now, now, I thought we already had that discussion…I at least knew my Daddy when I was growin’ up,” Hatton chuckled as he took his familiar position on the stool.  He grinned manically at his hapless victim.  Hatton’s blackened eyes had now turned to a yellowy green as the bruises slowly healed, but his nose would be permanently misshapen, courtesy of Scott’s own bruised and blackened fist. 

Scott glared back at him defiantly. “Why don’t you get it done Hatton? Kill me if that’s what you want. I don’t care anymore,” he rasped, bitterly.

It was true. Since Hatton had revealed the horrific truth, Scott really didn’t think there was anything left to fight for. He had been stripped of everything he had ever held dear. For a magical eighteen months he had been a part of something at Lancer that he could only ever have dreamed of growing up in the sterile environment of Beacon Hill. But Hatton had deprived him of all that. He had robbed him of his dignity, and he had stripped him of the will to carry on. There was nothing else for Hatton to take from him.

“Now Scottie, my boy, is that any way to talk?” taunted Hatton, the glow of the lamp casting a demonic hue across his gaunt and misshapen features.

“Don’t call me that,” spat Scott, hatred burning in his eyes. “Don’t ever call me that or so help me I’ll….”

“Now that’s more like it,” interrupted Hatton gleefully.  “Hold onto that hate. Nurture it, feed it, ‘cuz that’s what’s gonna keep ya goin’ boy, like it kept me goin’. It’s what’s kept me alive all these years, waitin’ for the time that I could make the one responsible for sendin’ me to that hell hole pay.”

“I’m nothing like you Hatton,” hissed Scott. “And I never will be. I’d rather die than do your bidding.”  

“If I’d wanted ya dead, ya would’ve been long before now,” snarled Hatton sinisterly. “But I’m countin’ on ya boy. I’m countin’ on ya to do one last thing for me.”

“I’m not doing anything for you,” countered Scott, emphatically.

Hatton grinned wolfishly. “On the contrary, Scottie boy, you will. You’ll do exactly what I want.”

“What makes you so sure?” Scott grimaced as pulses of agony shot through his side. Despite the frigid atmosphere in the shack, he could feel beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead.

Hatton rose, bent down towards him and took Scott’s chin in his right hand, wrenching his head up, making him look him in the eye. Scott responded by trying to turn his head away but received a sharp jab to his ribs for his pains. He gasped as sensitive nerve fibers erupted in an explosion of agony once more, enveloping his entire being.

As Scott opened his eyes, fighting against the beckoning darkness, Hatton’s face was just a few inches away from his own, his fetid breath making Scott want to gag.

“What makes me so sure?” he repeated Scott’s own question mockingly. “’Cuz you got a weakness boy. You care. Ya see, ya might not care what happens to you any longer, but ya do care about old Murdoch and that gunfighter ‘brother’ of yers.” He paused for effect and noted the battered young man’s eyes widen. He had his full and undivided attention. And now for his trump card.  “And then there’s that pretty little sister….”

“You leave her…” Scott struggled against his bonds. If he could have launched himself at Hatton at that moment, he would have as he recalled all the sickening ‘conquests’ that Hatton had relayed to him in graphic detail.

“Yeah, I hear she’s a real looker,” interjected Hatton, enjoying himself.

“Young, untried. Uhm hmm hmm,” he smacked his lips. “Them’s the kind I like the most. Oh, the things I could do to her.”

“You’d never get near her, you son of a bitch,” Scott hissed, struggling against his bonds with an energy he hadn’t known he still possessed.

Hatton savagely pulled Scott’s gag back up and forced it, roughly, back into his mouth. Scott tried to resist once more but Hatton kicked him savagely as he rose.

“But they don’t know about me do they?” he sneered. “They don’t know where y’are. And if ya die here, after a little while, they’ll stop lookin’, give ya up for dead, have a little ceremony, and maybe put up a nice marker to lay flowers at on Sunday’s. Then after a few months, they’ll let their guard down. And that pretty little gal, she’ll go out ridin’, and I’ll be watchin’ and waitin’. ‘Cuz I can bide my time. I’m a patient man. Real patient.  Like I have been for nearly twenty-seven years. And I’ll pick my moment, then I’ll take her, like I took your momma, out on one of them lonely trails where there’ll be no one around to hear her screams.” Hatton seemed almost aroused at the memory of what he had done, at the prospect of what he was going to do. “Oh, how I love to hear ‘em scream…” he breathed, his eyes closing in a warped ecstasy.

Scott’s face was almost purple; he was literally choking on his rage. He struggled, savagely, against his bonds, not even feeling the fresh blood that flowed anew as the ropes bit further into his shredded skin. If he could have ripped apart those bonds and throttled Hatton with his bare hands then he would have there and then.

“That’s it, boy, you hold onto that rage…you dig deep down into that hate,” Hatton crooned. “’Cuz that’s what’s gonna keep you alive and take you home one last time. And then it’ll bring ya back to me again. After that we can conclude our business once and for all. And we’ll both get what we want. We both win.”

He bent back down towards Scott once more and took measure of the young man hunched in front of him, whose eyes burned with an unquenchable hatred.  He noted, with satisfaction, the renewed vigor that appeared to be coursing through his prisoner as he allowed that fury to pulse through his veins unchecked.  Yes, thought Hatton with smug satisfaction, his protégé was ready to be unleashed.

He gently pulled the gag out of Scott’s mouth. “So do we have an understanding?”

All Boston etiquette forgotten, Scott responded by spitting into Hatton’s face, his expression a mask of pure insolence.

Lightning quick, Hatton had the boning knife an inch from his eye. Scott’s eyes went wide, but he didn’t flinch.

Hatton’s features spread into a sickly grin as he lowered the knife and started to slice through the bonds at Scott’s wrists.  “I’ll take that as a yes,” he sneered triumphantly. “Now here’s what I want ya ta do…”

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

Johnny was crossing back towards the hacienda when he heard the thunder of hoof beats coming in.  As he looked out in the fading light he noticed several riders just clearing the Lancer arch, led by the unmistakably erect form of his father.

It was dusk, and the temperature was already plummeting.  After a day out inspecting the damage done to the property and assessing the many weeks of work it would likely take to fix it, Johnny figured that Murdoch would be cold, tired and likely in a foul mood. Especially as it should have been his younger son out there surveying the damage with Cipriano.  Johnny, for his part, had spent much of the afternoon as he hammered away mending the bunkhouse roof, trying to think of something convincing to tell Murdoch about where he would be going with Val the next day. Problem was, he found it virtually impossible to lie to his father. Not just because it felt like the old man could see right through him when he tried, but because he just had too much respect for him these days to do it. It surprised Johnny to discover that he felt that way. It also surprised him that he felt God-damned awful every time he butted heads with his father. The old Johnny would have just shrugged it off in the early days, but now, it bothered him every time there was tension between them.

Johnny watched and waited as Murdoch reined up, his face gray with fatigue and worry.  Hell, he didn’t want there to be any more arguments tonight. Not for either of their sakes.  

“Johnny,” greeted Murdoch gruffly as he dismounted heavily, leaving Toby to be led away by one of the hands.

“How’s it looking out there?” inquired Johnny, eager to keep any conversation away from his planned sojourn with Val in the morning.

“Not good.” Murdoch pulled off his gloves as he limped towards the house, his troublesome back clearly paining him. “It’s going to take several days to clear out all the debris damming up the river, and we can’t afford to wait. I’m going to need you to lead a team out there starting tomorrow.”

“Hell, Murdoch,” protested Johnny, dismayed at the sudden threat to his own plans. “The men have been working around the clock as it is. Can’t you allow them one day off?”

“No Johnny, I can’t,” asserted Murdoch. “That creek provides all the water not just for Lancer, but for all the ranches in this valley. I’ve already spoken to Cipriano. The men will understand, and I’ll make sure they’ll be suitably compensated. I trust I won’t have any difficulties with you fulfilling your duty?”

Johnny could feel his hackles rising once more. Hell, why did the old man always make him feel that way? “Murdoch if you mean my going to see Val today, I had good reason.”

“Care to fill me in on that?” Murdoch replied casually.

Damn, thought Johnny, he had walked right into that one hadn’t he?

Before he had a chance to respond, however, the exchange was interrupted by a piercing scream from inside the house.  Their differences momentarily forgotten, both men instinctively sprinted towards the house. As Johnny flung the door open, only narrowly beating his father, Teresa was hurtling down the stairs and virtually flew into her guardian’s arms, sobbing her heart out.

“Teresa, what is it?”  Murdoch wrapped his arms around her trembling form, seeing his own concern mirrored on the face of his younger son as he tried to impart comfort to his inconsolable ward. 

“Oh, Murdoch, it’s Scott. He hates me, he really does…” she hiccupped, as she gripped her guardian tightly.

That was enough for Johnny. His expression darkening, he was already part way up the stairs before he was stopped in his tracks.

“Wait, Johnny,” cautioned Murdoch sharply, beckoning him back down. He guided Teresa back into the Great Room, gesturing for Johnny to follow. He set his ward down on the sofa and sat down gently beside her. “Now, tell me what happened, darling.” He handed her his handkerchief and waited patiently while she wiped her eyes and worked to control her wracking sobs. 

“Well,” she sniffed, “Scott seemed to be so restless, like he was having a bad dream or something. I just wanted to comfort him. I tried to soothe him, to tell him it was all right, he was safe, that he was at home now. He said my name, and I thought he was calling to me, that he needed something.  So I leaned over to wipe his face and, without warning, he just grabbed me. His eyes flew open, and it was like he wasn’t seeing me, he was seeing someone else.  Like he thought I was going to hurt him.  And then his eyes seemed to focus again and he just screamed at me to get out, to leave him alone. Oh Murdoch, I was right, he is still mad at me.”

“Now darling, I’m sure that’s not the case,” soothed Murdoch. “Maybe you took him by surprise, that’s all.” He smoothed her hair as she leaned into his shoulder. Murdoch glanced worriedly at Johnny once more.  “Scott’s still a little disoriented.”

“But Murdoch,” Teresa sobbed once more, “I’m so worried about him. He really didn’t seem to know me at first. He looks so ill. When I found him collapsed and couldn’t wake him, I was so scared. I’m scared that we’re going to lose him.”

“Collapsed?” queried Murdoch sharply, looking towards his younger son. “When was this?”

“Not long after I got back from Val’s,” confirmed Johnny, feeling guilty that he had somehow contributed to his brother’s relapse. “Teresa went up to take him some lunch and found him passed out in the chair. He’d thrown up by the looks of it. The pain must’ve been more than he could take.  Teresa called Jelly and me, and we managed to get him into bed, but he didn’t stir at all when we moved him.”

“I’ve been up there sitting with him ever since,” continued Teresa. “And that was the first time he’s been awake all afternoon. And I just ran out on him when he needed me.” She started sobbing once more, her tears soaking freely into Murdoch’s shirt. Her slim arm snaked around his waist seeking comfort, the sleeve of her shirt riding up as she did so revealing the red finger marks where Scott had grabbed her.  Seeing those marks, Johnny was unable to suppress the anger that suddenly welled up inside him again. Enough was enough. Things couldn’t carry on like this. He rose and headed towards the stairs intent on confronting his brother once more.

“Johnny?”  He turned to look into the haggard face of his father as he continued to offer comfort to his inconsolable ward.

“Don’t worry, Murdoch,” Johnny reassured softly, heeding the warning in his father’s eyes. “I’ll be careful with him.”

Murdoch nodded tiredly as he watched his younger son disappear up the stairs, while Teresa continued to sob quietly in his arms. 

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

As Johnny opened the door to his brother’s room, Scott was attempting to get out of bed. Watching him struggle, Johnny had no idea what was keeping him going. By his figuring it had to have been over a week since Scott had eaten anything more substantial than a few spoonfuls of broth.  The weight had literally fallen off him, and he was so pale that Johnny reckoned he had seen corpses that looked healthier. But what disturbed Johnny the most was the haunted look in his brother’s eyes. He recognized that look, and it was one he had never thought he would see reflected back at him in Scott’s eyes. It made his blood run cold.

“Whatever it is you’ve come to say, Johnny,” gasped Scott, clutching hold of his side as he struggled to stay on his feet, “Get it said or leave me alone.”

Johnny slowly entered the room and softly closed the door behind him.       

He regarded his brother as he wavered, fighting the pain and the dizziness that was clearly enveloping him. “Why are you doing this, Scott?”

“Doing what?” muttered Scott as he tried to maneuver himself around the bed towards the armchair where Teresa had found him passed out earlier.

“Hurting yourself. And everyone around you. What happened to you to make you not care anymore?” 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Scott mumbled as he focused on getting to the chair, fighting the blackness that threatened to overwhelm him.

“I’m talking about Teresa crying her eyes out downstairs, “ rebuked Johnny, as he paced back and forth trying to contain his frustration. “Can’t you see what you’re doing to her? To all of us? You seen the old man lately? How haggard he looks? I ain’t ever seen him look so old.”

“And you’re saying that’s my fault?” muttered Scott irritably as he finally made it to the chair and gratefully slumped into it.

“Well you sure ain’t helping, Scott,” affirmed Johnny forcefully. “Hell, you ride off outta Morro Coyo without a word to anyone about where you’re going, you’re missing for almost six days, and then I find you close to dying on the trail out there.  I spend the worst few hours of my life, brother, carrying you back, not knowing if you were alive or dead in front of me and knowing it would kill Murdoch and Teresa if I hadn’t got to you in time.  Then we all take turns sitting with you and waiting for you to wake up but when you do, its like it’s a whole different person lying there in front of us. It looks like Scott Lancer, it’s his voice, but it ain’t him.  ‘Cuz the man sitting there in front of me, he don’t seem like my brother anymore.”

Johnny frowned as a strange expression came over Scott’s face.  What was it? Sorrow? Regret? But just as quickly it passed and the unreadable mask was in place once more.  

“What is it Scott?” Johnny cried, his agitation increasing. “What’s going on with you? I don’t get it. Something kept you alive, kept you holding on to get you back home, yet, now you’re back, it seems to me you’re doing your best to kill yourself. Now I wanna know why.”

He watched as Scott somehow managed to pull himself out of the chair again and staggered back across the room. Johnny reached out to lend a hand, but Scott shrugged him off as he somehow managed to negotiate his way back around the side of the bed once more. Johnny shook his head in frustration. What was his brother trying to do to himself? “Scott?” 

“I didn’t mean to scare her,” Scott whispered as he slumped down on the side of the bed. “I could never hurt her… Teresa…I…”

“I know that Scott, and so does Teresa,” assured Johnny, as he took stock of the pained expression on his brother’s face. It wasn’t just the physical pain he was experiencing, it was much more than that.  “She was just scared is all. And she’s worried about you. We all are. We just wanna know what happened to you so that we can understand and try to help you.”

Scott shook his head emphatically. “You can’t help me,” he replied simply.

“Why don’t you try me,” persisted Johnny. “What happened to you out there? Who did that to you?”

“I can’t tell you…”

“Why not?” pressed Johnny, sensing that his brother wanted to talk but something was preventing Scott from confiding in him.

“Damn it, Johnny, because I can’t tell you what I don’t remember,” snapped Scott.

“I think you do,” drawled Johnny softly, his arms crossed as he studied his brother intently.

“What? So you’re calling me a liar? Is that it Johnny?”  spat Scott, his eyes fixed firmly on the carpet.

Johnny regarded his brother closely, the way his hands gripped the side of the mattress as he fought to stay seated, the skin stretched taut over the swollen knuckles on his right hand.  It had to hurt like hell, yet Scott seemed to revel in it.  It seemed to be feeding an inner rage that was burning inside him and had him spoiling for a fight. And it wasn’t like him.   “Well you sure ain’t tellin’ us the truth, Scott,” countered Johnny softly, not taking the bait. “If you were, you’d be able to look me in the eye.”

“Well, I guess its good to know where I stand,” muttered Scott bitterly. “I think you’ve said all that needs to be said.”  He grimaced as he tried to rise once more.

“Scott, you really should take a look at yourself in the mirror, you know that?” asserted Johnny, trying to contain his increasing frustration with Scott’s stubborn refusal to accept any help. “Hell you’re in so much pain you can’t see straight. You weren’t just sleeping all afternoon; you were out cold for most of it. Throwin’ up had you passed out in the chair, and when Teresa couldn’t rouse you, she called Jelly and me to put you to bed. You haven’t stirred for nearly five hours. Would it kill you to take some laudanum just to get some relief?”

“I don’t want any drugs,” Scott snapped, emphatically, as he wavered, placing his hand on the nightstand for support.

“Why, Scott?” pressed Johnny.  “Because whoever held you all that time forced something on you? Is that it? Because they had control and you didn’t?”  The idea had been forming in Johnny’s mind for some time. If Scott had been under the influence of some kind of concoction that impaired his ability to reason things out, well it could go some way towards explaining his behavior.  And judging by Scott’s reaction, his theory seemed to have some merit.

“Johnny. I don’t know how many ways I have to tell you this, but I can’t tell you what I don’t remember,” hissed Scott, without conviction, as he folded heavily back onto the bed. “Now quit riding me. I just want to be left alone.”

“All right, Scott. I’ll let you be on one condition.” Johnny wasn’t going to leave without at least getting one commitment out of Scott.

“Which is?”

“Teresa’s had something warming on the stove all day for you. You need to eat something. If you won’t do it for yourself, do it for Teresa. If you care anything for her at all.”

“Of course I care.”

Johnny felt a pang of regret at the pained expression that crossed his brother’s face, but Scott needed to understand what he was doing to them all, and somehow be held accountable for it.  “Then prove it. Tell her when she comes up here with it in a few hours.”

Scott swallowed. “All right, I’ll try.”

Johnny nodded. He couldn’t be sure whether Scott was in earnest or just telling his brother what he wanted to hear to get rid of him, but Johnny hoped it was the former.  “Get some rest, Boston,” he entreated. “I’ll see you later.”

As Johnny finally withdrew, Scott could have collapsed in relief. It had been so difficult to steel his resolve and not tell Johnny everything. Johnny was doggedly persistent, and he was getting close to finding out the truth. He knew about Hatton. He maybe didn’t know everything that had gone on but he knew Hatton came into the picture somewhere. Scott had no idea how Johnny knew about the laced water but he had been unerringly accurate in his assessment.    Scott could still feel that poison running through his veins, even if he hadn’t received a dose for days. What it was or how long it would remain in his system, he couldn’t say, but he got the sense it worked on a cumulative basis. And Scott had the impression that Hatton had been dosing him carefully, building up the potency over time to achieve maximum effect.  Whatever the case, Johnny was right, Scott wanted to regain a semblance of control. He needed to be clear headed to mentally prepare for what he was going to do, and he wouldn’t be able to do that if he took any kind of narcotic to counter the pain of his ribs.

But the bitter irony was, Scott knew he was fighting a losing battle.  All this time Hatton was still the invisible puppet master, and Scott, his marionette. But that didn’t prevent Scott from wanting to cut those strings and try to regain some control while he still thought he could. And he knew he no longer had a choice. It had to be tonight. Scott had wanted one more day to ready himself, but Johnny had forced his hand. He had said he was going to Hard Luck in the morning to confront Hatton, but Scott couldn’t allow that. He had to get to him first. It was his fight and his alone. Tonight he would say goodbye to Lancer forever and leave the place and ‘family’ that had made this the only real home he had ever known. 

Johnny’s words echoed in Scott’s ears.  ‘The man standing there in front of me, he don’t seem like my brother anymore’.  Did Johnny have any idea just how prophetic those words were? A silent tear rolled down Scott’s cheek as he lay back. He closed his eyes and focused on centering in on the pain of his ribs, on the hate festering inside of him.  He needed to contain the emotional pain just a little longer. Channel it into that one last act, and then he could let go.

He took as deep a breath as his ravaged body would allow, and steeled himself to face Teresa one last time.

 Chapter 14

It was a subdued meal that was shared around the table that evening, with neither Murdoch, Teresa nor Johnny having much of an appetite. They had picked at their food, all too tired and churned up to really feel much like eating. Maria had cleared the plates tsking at the amount of food that had gone to waste, but also disturbed at the marked change of atmosphere in the usually vibrant household. There was a terrible sense of foreboding as if something had been lost, and it had every single resident of Lancer on edge.  

This fledgling ‘family’ had only been together for eighteen months, and it had been a turbulent time as they all struggled to adapt to the new set of circumstances they had found themselves in. But suddenly, now faced with the very real threat of losing one of their tight knit group, it had shaken them all to their very core.  Such was the endearing nature of Scott Lancer. He had earned the respect and admiration of all who knew him, and while he had the reputation for being fair-minded, he was certainly nobody’s fool.  

Of all of them, he was the least volatile, the most steady in the way that he conducted himself. And that was why his current behavior was so disturbing. Because it had broken down the natural order of how things were supposed to be. Scott was often the peacemaker, the mediator, the voice of reason when things became heated, and they all realized how much they had come to rely on his neutrality.   But the man lying upstairs was no longer the same person that had left over a week earlier. The man who had come back had changed and brought about, in all of them, a sense of deep and irreplaceable loss that they were all struggling to understand and come to terms with.

Johnny watched the old man take a sip of his after-dinner brandy as he stared off into space. Johnny doubted his father even tasted it. Murdoch had the whole ranch to think about; keeping the huge spread running and the men working.  He couldn’t let things slide. But he was also a father, worried about holding his family together and powerless to do anything to help Scott. Especially as everything that had happened seemed to stem from that mystery letter that had been addressed to him. The fact that what Scott had been through, and was still going through, could all have been on his account had to be eating his father up inside.      It pained Johnny to think that his father’s worry was only going to increase if his hunch about what Scott was fixing to do was accurate.  But Johnny had his own plan about that. Wherever Scott was going, so was he, whether his brother liked it or not. They weren’t going to lose him again. And he suspected that place was Hard Luck.

“I think I’m gonna go out, check on Barranca, and then turn in for the night. I’m bushed.” Johnny pushed back his chair and tossed his napkin onto the table as he rose. 

“I don’t blame you Johnny. I think we can all use an early night,” reflected Murdoch tiredly as he finished off the last of his brandy. “There’s a lot to get through tomorrow.” He turned to his exhausted looking ward who had already started to clear the table. “Teresa, why don’t you go on off to bed? You look tired. I’m sure Maria can finish that for you” He glanced hopefully at the housekeeper who had come through from the kitchen to assist the pretty young woman she had grown so fond of.

“Si, Teresa, I will finish here. You must get some rest,” agreed Maria as Murdoch smiled in grateful acknowledgement at her.

“I should check on Scott…” Teresa began doubtfully.

“I’ll do that darling,” interjected Murdoch. “You just go on now.” He stood as Teresa rose from her chair and bent to kiss the top of her head as she tiredly gave him a hug. She bade goodnight to Johnny in a similar fashion before heading silently and dejectedly up to her room.

The two men watched her leave. Murdoch hadn’t seen the lively young woman look so lost and disconsolate since her father had been killed two years earlier.  He picked up his glass and strode wearily back over to the liquor cabinet, feeling the burden of responsibility weighing more heavily on his shoulders than ever before.

“Who’s on guard tonight, Murdoch?” asked Johnny, casually, as he watched his father fill his glass once more. 

“Frank and Walt are up on the roof, Jorge and Eduardo at the arch,” confirmed Murdoch as he refilled his glass.  He turned back to his son, perplexed.  “Why do you ask?”

“Well, no reason really,” shrugged Johnny. “Just the men are really putting the hours in lately with all the storm damage and posting double guards and all. Thought I’d take some of that blueberry pie out to them seeing as none of us could manage a bite. It won’t keep, and I’m sure they’d appreciate it.”

Murdoch nodded, appeased. “Good idea, son.” He laid his hand on his younger son’s shoulder in a silent gesture of thanks. “Don’t stay out with that horse too late. I need you rested and ready tomorrow.  I’ll see you in the morning. Good night”

“Good night,” whispered Johnny softly, as he watched his father trudge wearily towards the stairs with his brandy, as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. And tomorrow that weight was only likely to get heavier if the night panned out as Johnny thought it was going to. 

He stared out of the window for a while, watching the silhouetted figures on top of the arch as the moonlight caught them, fleetingly, as it darted in and out of the clouds.  They were there to prevent intruders from getting close to the hacienda, and from their vantage point, it was nigh impossible for anyone to sneak past them.  And that applied to anyone trying to leave too. But tonight Johnny was relying on their discretion.

He waited for a few minutes until he heard no further sounds emanating from the kitchen and then headed to retrieve the pie from the parlor. With hardly any cleaning to be done, Maria had completed her chores for the night and was heading out across the yard to the quarters she shared with her daughter and her grandchildren. Her son-in-law had been one of those killed in Pardee’s raid.

Johnny watched her through the window until he was satisfied she was inside and then slipped out the back door to embark on his own little ‘mission’.  He hadn’t told Murdoch the whole truth, but he hadn’t lied either. It was true, the men had been working hard, and they did deserve a little of Maria’s good cooking every once in a while as a treat, but he had an ulterior motive and just needed an excuse to go talk to the sentries. He wanted to warn them of the likely departure of two riders from the hacienda under cover of darkness and ask them to turn a temporary blind eye to it.  Not report it to the patron until the morning. It was asking a lot because, once Murdoch discovered his and Scott’s absence, he would certainly have questions to ask of the men who allowed them to leave. But Johnny hoped that it would buy him enough time to stop Scott from doing what he was planning, at least until Murdoch could catch up. Johnny would spell it out in the note that he was going to leave for his father.   But it all hinged on the men staying quiet for long enough. 

Half an hour later Johnny had spoken to all four men and was assured that he and Scott would be able to leave unchallenged. Thus satisfied, he headed off to the stable to enact the next part of his plan.   He lit one of the oil lamps hanging on the wall and slowly crept down the line of stalls.  He bypassed Barranca and made his way first to his brother’s mount, Rambler.   The bay whickered softly as Johnny entered his stall. He patted his neck softly. “Hey boy, how’re ya doing?  I’m gonna need you to take care of that stubborn master of yours again. Reckon you can do that for me?” he crooned as he made his way back out to the saddle rack at the back of the stable.  Scott’s saddle was set on the low rack a foot or so off the ground where Jelly had left it after giving it a thorough wax and polish.

Johnny frowned. He wondered how on earth Scott imagined he was going to get the saddle on his mount with his ribs the way they were. Trouble was, if he saddled Rambler for him, that would make it obvious that he knew what his brother intended to do.  And you didn’t just leave a horse saddled overnight.

While Johnny planned to go with Scott, he wanted his brother to think he had gotten away alone first. Johnny intended to follow him surreptitiously and then confront him once it was too late for either of them to turn back.  Well, the only thing he could do was put the saddle over the rail of the stall, at a parallel height to Ramblers back. At least that way, all Scott had to do was transfer it across. It would still hurt like blazes but at least he wouldn’t physically have to lift it.   Decision made, Johnny arranged the saddle as best he could and then set about packing provisions before moving onto Barranca’s stall to prepare his own tack ready for a fast getaway.

After he had completed his preparations, Johnny crossed the yard back over to the hacienda and after ensuring no one was up and around, headed into the kitchen. There he packed up some food and brewed a flask of coffee ready to take on the journey he was sure he was about to take.

Finally he grabbed some paper and a pencil from his father’s desk and then padded back up to his room. If he knew his brother, he would be listening for him to come to bed. He would have heard both Teresa and Murdoch retire for the night and would be waiting for the house to finally go quiet before he made his move.    Johnny made sure he made enough noise to alert Scott that he was finally in his room, and then he lay down, fully dressed, to wait his brother out.

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

Scott lay on his bed staring at the ceiling, his ribs throbbing in time with the rapid beat of his heart reverberating in his ears. He knew he had a low-grade fever, could feel the heat coursing through him, and he knew it was foolishness to contemplate what he was about to do, but he just didn’t care anymore. Without being entirely sure how he managed it he had been able to finish the thin broth that Teresa brought up to him. It had cut him like a knife to see the wariness that registered on her face as she set the bowl down by his side. He had wanted to apologize to her, tell her he was sorry, that it had never been his intention to hurt her. But all he’d been able to do was fix her with an impassive stare as she weakly told him that she’d return for the empty bowl when he was done.

Once she had left, despite his stomach doing somersaults at the prospect of ingesting anything, Scott had slowly sipped at the tepid liquid, taking it in gradually to avoid it all coming back up again. Then he had lain back to wait for things to go quiet. Some time later, he’d been aware of the heavy footsteps in the passageway, and his heart started to race when they paused outside his door.  He didn’t want to face Murdoch, he couldn’t. So, to Scott’s eternal shame, he feigned sleep.

He heard the low creak of the door as it opened and the slow tread across the room as the Lancer patron approached the nightstand. He registered the low scrape as the empty soup bowl was removed and the sharp exhale as the lamp by his bedside was extinguished. He had been aware of Murdoch’s lingering presence after that, could hear him breathing. It had seemed an age that the man he called ‘father’ had stood there, but it was perhaps only thirty seconds. Then he had felt the blankets being gently rearranged around him before Murdoch slowly crossed back towards the door and exited, closing it softly behind him.

An hour later, Scott heard the last of the household retire for the night. Johnny was finally in his room. He’d wait another hour, just to be sure. When he heard the clock strike ten he would leave Lancer forever.

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

It was the telltale creak of the floorboard that alerted Johnny that Scott was making his move. Hell, he had hoped and prayed that he was wrong about what his brother was fixing to do, but it looked like Scott did, indeed, intend to go after Hatton.  Johnny listened for the soft click of the door as his brother stole out into the passageway and then, after waiting for a few minutes, rose from his bed and put the note on the pillow. He padded towards his door and listened intently to ensure the coast was clear before quietly heading out after Scott.

As he reached the end of the passageway, he felt the cool air rushing up the stairs, making the flame of the night lamp flicker as his brother quietly exited the house.  Johnny crept down the stairs and made straight for the gun cabinet.  As he suspected, Scott’s carbine was missing as was a .45 and a spare gun belt. When he had found Scott, his brother’s own gun belt and weapon had been missing, but his carbine had still been in his sheath attached to the side of Rambler’s saddle. It had been removed and replaced in the gun cabinet where all the weapons were stored until they were needed.   All except Johnny’s. He preferred to keep his weapons close by where he could easily reach for them if he needed to. His own carbine was all ready and waiting in Barranca’s stall, his gun belt firmly tied around his waist, the familiar weight of his .45, lying comfortingly at his side as if it were part of him.

He sat quietly in the darkness, waiting patiently, to allow his brother time to saddle Rambler and guide him quietly out of the barn.  It was twenty minutes before he heard the soft snort of a horse outside. Johnny waited a further five minutes and then slipped out. He peered off into the gloom. The clouds had rolled in, obscuring the moon, and it was going to be a difficult ride without any natural light, but he was determined that he’d keep Scott in sight.

“Johnny?” a voice called softly out of the darkness. Johnny looked up to see Frank peering over the balustrades at the top of the house. 

“Yeah, Frank, it’s me,” Johnny confirmed. “You see him?”

“Yeah.  He didn’t head for the arch though. Looks like he headed north,” reported Frank.

Figures, thought Johnny. Scott’s too smart to head out through the arch, even if it is the most direct route to where he wants to go.  It wouldn’t take him long to cut back west, though, as soon as he was out of sight of the hacienda guards.

“Thanks.  I’m heading out now. I’ve left a note for the old man. He won’t chew you out for this, don’t worry.”

“I ain’t worried about that Johnny,” replied the affable hand. “Just be careful out there. He didn’t look none too steady on his feet,” he finished, his whispered voice heavy with concern. 

“Yeah, I know,” agreed Johnny, fully cognizant of his brother’s precarious state and how the ill-advised trip would likely exacerbate it. “See ya later Frank.” He made his way quickly to the barn and two minutes later was quietly leading Barranca out, following in the direction that his brother had taken a short time before.

As soon as he was far enough out, he mounted and followed Scott’s trail, staying close enough to keep track of him but holding far enough back to ensure his brother remained unaware that he was being trailed.

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

“Well,” sneered Hatton, “ Look who’s come to heel like the well trained pup he is?” His eyes glinted in anticipation. “But Scottie boy, question is, did the pup fetch what he was asked for? Have you got it?”

Scott stared at him impassively. “Yeah.  I’ve got it.”

Hatton grinned wolfishly. “Good, that’s real good. Then you’d better give it to me.” He reached out his hand greedily to take the object he coveted.

Scott reached into his inside jacket pocket, his fingers closing around the familiar item safely secured there, reveling in the feel of its cold, hard surface. “Oh you’ll get it Hatton.” He slowly pulled it out and saw the smile vanish from the madman’s misshapen features. “You’ll get it right between the eyes you son of a bitch.”  He pulled the trigger and saw the shock register momentarily across Hatton’s face before he pitched backwards, his eyes staring sightlessly back up at his executioner as the blood trickled lazily from the hole in his forehead.

“No!” Scott’s eyes snapped open and he struggled to control his breathing as he tried to expel the image of Hatton’s corpse from his mind, the stark reality of what he was embarking on starting to set in. He closed his eyes as his ribs reminded him just how foolhardy he was to contemplate taking such a journey in the first place. But there was no other choice.

“Bad dream?” A familiar voice rang out of the darkness.

Scott opened his eyes once more, disoriented.  He blinked as his vision cleared, and the dark haired man sitting opposite him swam into focus, his features illuminated by the firelight.  Scott took in his surroundings; he was lying propped up against something firm and was wrapped in blankets. Not far off the two horses, his own bay and the unmistakable palomino, were ground-tied, contentedly feeding on some oats.  Johnny was sitting there watching him intently, his hands clasped around a tin mug. The strong smell of coffee and wood smoke permeated the air. 

“What are you doing here, Johnny?”  he snapped, already starting to figure out things in his own mind.

“Well, I would have thought that was pretty obvious, brother,” offered Johnny casually. “Saving your fool hide.  It’s getting to be a habit, me finding you passed out flat on your ass in the middle of nowhere. Now you wanna tell me what’s so important that you have to sneak out in the middle of the night and make me forgo my own warm bed to haul back your sorry carcass?”

“Not particularly,” bit back Scott, frustrated at his own weakness, but even more annoyed at Johnny for following him. 

“Well, the way I figure it, you’ve got two choices, Scott, “ reasoned Johnny. “You either level with me right now and, depending on what you have to say to me, I might just be inclined to work with you on this. Or we just sit it out until morning when Murdoch catches up with us. And boy is he ever gonna be pissed when he gets up and finds us both gone. ” 

“I would have thought the time and the manner of my departure would have made it clear that I don’t want anyone following me nor do I need anyone’s help. Least of all yours,” shot back Scott petulantly.

“You might not want my help, Scott, countered Johnny, matter-of-factly, “but you do need it, and like it or not, even if you were in a fit enough state to travel, you’re not going anywhere until I get some answers. So we can talk now, or we can wait until Murdoch gets here… it’s entirely up to you.  But you might find I’m more willing to listen than the old man will be considering what I think you’re planning.”

Johnny continued to watch his brother as he stared into the flames, the constant discomfort of his injuries etched on his face. He was battling a mounting fever, too, and it was all taking its toll. When Johnny had found him lying face up on the side of the trail, Scott’s face had been drenched in sweat, despite the chill wind that had been a constant presence of late.  From the appearance of the mud that encrusted the front of Scott’s jacket and pants, he had landed face down and had at least tried to get up before his strength had finally given out, and he had succumbed to the infirmity of his injuries. But Johnny had never been any more than ten minutes behind his brother, so he hadn’t been lying there too long before he’d found him.  He had quickly hauled Scott to the relative shelter of a rocky escarpment where he had managed, with some difficulty, to get a fire going to keep his brother warm. 

“All right, Boston, have it your way,” sighed Johnny when he received no response to his ultimatum. “It’ll be dawn in a few hours. We’ll just wait for Murdoch to show up and haul both our sorry asses back home.” He rose, tossing the remnants of his coffee into the mud and turned towards his own bedroll laid out by the side of the fire.

“Wait,” Scott whispered.

Johnny turned back towards him and saw the uncertainty reflected across his brother’s face. And what else? Fear?

“How did you know that I was planning to leave?” Scott murmured, resignedly.

Johnny sat down once more and regarded his brother seriously. “Well, let’s just say you’re not as hard to get to know as you think you are.”

“Why did you follow me?” persisted Scott.

“’Cuz you needed me to, “ replied Johnny unswervingly. “And you’d have done the same for me.”

“You’re wrong. I don’t need your help.”

Johnny snorted.  “Right, because you were doing just fine on your own passed out on the ground when I found you,” he countered, sarcastically.   

Scott shot him a baleful glare but didn’t argue. How could he? Much as he hated to admit it, Johnny was right. He was too incapacitated by his injuries to play this the way he wanted to and, like it or not, he did need Johnny’s help. But just to make it there in once piece. After that, he’d have to make sure that Johnny left him alone to do what he needed to do. He wasn’t sure how he’d manage that, but he had time to figure it out.

“So, you gonna tell me why we’re heading to that hell hole, Hard Luck?”

Scott looked at his brother sharply. “How’d you…”

“C’mon Scott,” censured Johnny, “I ain’t stupid. I know this is the shortest way cross-country to get there from Lancer. Lucky for you Rambler knew the way home the other night. Otherwise you might never have been found until it was too late. Now you already know that I know that’s where you were for those five days you were missing.  I just need you to fill in the blanks and tell me why.”  

Johnny watched as Scott instinctively gripped the blanket that covered him with his swollen right hand.  There it was again, as if his brother was using the pain to fuel something, to give him the strength he required as he considered his next move.

“Alright, so I am headed for Hard Luck,” Scott capitulated, finally. “But its personal business, Johnny. It has nothing to do with you or Murdoch.”

Johnny shook his head empathically. “That ain’t how I see it Scott. You know why? Because that letter that had you running off in the first place was addressed to Murdoch, not you. So it has got something to do with the old man. And that makes it my business too.”  He scrutinized his brother carefully, trying to make sense of the myriad of emotions crossing Scott’s face.

“You know about the letter?” Scott whispered.

“Yeah Scott. We’ve known all along it was reading that letter that made you run. But we don’t know what was in it. Only that it was addressed to Murdoch and whatever was written there was bad enough to make you take off. It wasn’t on you when I brought you home, though.”

“I burned it.” Scott whispered, once more haunted by the imagery conjured up by what had been contained in the rough parchment.

“What was in that letter, Scott?” Johnny could sense that Scott’s resolve was weakening.

But Scott just shook his head wordlessly, unwilling or unable to reveal what had been so disturbing to him.

“Murdoch will want to know, Scott,” Johnny persisted.  “And like I say, he won’t be far behind us when he finds my note in the morning.”

“No, he can’t…. I don’t want Murdoch involved in this…. He….” Scott’s voice trailed off as he closed his eyes once more. He just couldn’t bring himself to repeat the things that he had read in that letter, that Hatton had constantly regaled him with during his captivity.  It was getting harder and harder to think straight, dealing with the unrelenting agony of his battered body and broken spirit.   Why the hell did Johnny have to be so persistent?  

He was vaguely aware of the rustling of leather and then felt his head being gently lifted, and something being pressed to his lips. He opened his eyes and met the piercing blue gaze of his brother; his stubborn, loyal, beloved, brother…. Only…. He turned his head away in despair, the feeling of utter desolation enveloping him once more.

“Scott, it’s just water.  C’mon, you need it. You’ve got a fever,” Johnny coaxed gently.

Scott turned his head back and reached with shaking hands to take the canteen. He gulped back the water, grateful for its cool clarity as it slipped down his parched throat.   He handed it back and lay back once more, exhausted.

“Why are you doing this, Johnny?  Why can’t you just leave me alone?” murmured Scott, clearly spent.

“You have to ask?’ replied Johnny softly. “Because I waited all my life for a brother and I ain’t just gonna sit by and let him go. Especially when I get the feeling he really doesn’t want me to. Now I’m about at the end of my rope with your stubbornness, Scott. Whatever trouble you’re in, whatever got you beaten within an inch of your life, and whatever threatens you, well that’s my trouble too. You’re my brother, Scott. You’re my brother. That’s why.”

“Well, that’s just it, Johnny,” Scott whispered, unable to disguise the bitterness in his voice. “We’re not brothers. We’re not even remotely related. It’s all been a lie.” 

 

Chapter 15

Scott gasped in shock at the brutality by which he was returned to consciousness this time, the freezing water drenching him from head to toe.

“You stink, boy,” sneered Hatton as he threw the bucket aside and bent to remove Scott’s gag and raise him to a sitting position.  He retreated once more and took his place on the stool in front of his prisoner.  “Ain’t right for a grown man to piss hisself is it?” he taunted. “Ain’t, what’s the word…dignified. Yeah, that’s the one. It ain’t dignified. But then there ain’t no dignity being locked up like a caged animal is there, Scottie boy?”

“What’s your point, Hatton,” spat Scott as he tried to control his chattering teeth, his whole body wracked with violent trembling that send fresh shards of white-hot fire pulsing through his abused ribs.

“My point, Scottie boy, is you ain’t even scratched the surface of what I had to endure for all those years locked away.”

“I’m sure you deserved everything you got, Hatton. You’ll get no sympathy from me,” retorted Scott, in no mood for Hatton’s penchant for twisted mind games.

“Sympathy is one thing I don’t need or want from you, boy. Thought you’d’a figured that out by now.” He licked his lips as he waited for the retort that didn’t come. Instead, Scott sat hunched, his head bent down, tensed, waiting for the inevitable explosions of violence that came whenever Hatton was around. While he had no intention of kow towing to the madman, neither did Scott wish to antagonize him needlessly. 

“I’ve been doing some findin’ out about you.” Hatton grinned sinisterly as he continued. “Bin’ real interestin’.”

Scott looked up at him warily, but didn’t respond. He didn’t want to give Hatton the satisfaction. He was tired of playing his games.

“Yeah, took me a little ride into Spanish Wells. Needed some ‘fresh’ company to have some fun with if you know what I mean?”  Hatton smacked his lips and Scott turned his head away in disgust. He’d already been subjected to Hatton’s graphic descriptions of what he deemed to be fun, and Scott didn’t want to begin to imagine the degradation that his jailer’s most recent  ‘playmate’ would have endured.

“You’d be surprised at what ya can find out in the most unlikely places,” continued Hatton. “But I got a way of finding out things from people. You gotta know the right people to talk to and the right questions to ask.  And of course, the right way to ask ‘em. And I can be real persuasive when I wanna be if ya know what I mean?” He chuckled to himself. “Yep, it was a real interestin’ trip.   You wanna hear what I found out.”

“Do I have a choice?” retorted Scott insolently. 

“Well, yer learnin’, boy,” chortled Hatton. “Guess ya know I’m gonna tell ya anyway.  Although whether you get to keep the gag out or I put it back is entirely up to you, ‘cuz ya know I don’t like to be interrupted.”       

Scott glared at him contemptuously. He was eager to keep the foul rag out for as long as possible, but he wasn’t going to give Hatton the satisfaction of letting him know that. “Well, I can’t guarantee I’ll stay awake for the telling,” he retorted sarcastically. “Can’t seem to keep my eyes open too long these days.”

“Oh, you’ll keep ‘em open, boy,” fired back Hatton as he leapt up and reached for the pitcher. He grabbed his captive’s jaw roughly and forced his mouth open. Scott tried to jerk his head away, but Hatton kicked him roughly until he submitted. He hated the taste of the acrid fluid as it assaulted his taste buds and flowed insidiously down his throat. Soon he would feel the buzzing in his head and his own heartbeat thudding in his ears, which made it impossible to focus on anything other than the venomous rhetoric the madman fed him.

“There, that should keep yer attention just long enough for the tellin’, and then I can leave ya thinkin’ on it.  Wouldn’t want ya to miss any of this. ‘Specially as I reckon it’s gonna bring us so much closer together.” Hatton gave a sickly grin that made Scott’s skin crawl.

“I don’t think there is anything you could say that would make me relate in any way to someone like you,” hissed Scott in disgust.  

“Well, boy, that’s a real shame,” replied Hatton in mocked disappointment. “But I reckon you’ll soon change yer mind on that one.  ‘Cuz it seems we got more than a few things in common. Ya see, you and me bein’ in this room together, we’ve come full circle so to speak.”

He waited for his captive to respond, but Scott didn’t take the bait. Hatton looked mildly irritated but carried on regardless. “Well, like I say, I’ve been findin’ out a lot about ya. Seems you’ve only been livin’ at Lancer for a little while. Yer Daddy didn’t raise ya. Seems you grew up back east.”

“That’s hardly a revelation,” scoffed Scott. “It’s common knowledge that I grew up elsewhere. You’ll have to do better than that, Hatton.”

“Yeah, but you ever wonder why yer Daddy let someone else raise ya?” There was a dangerous glint in Hatton’s eye and it made Scott feel uneasy.

“He had his reasons,” he replied dismissively.

“Yeah, and I reckon I know what those are,” persisted Hatton insidiously. “Ya wanna hear what I think? What I know?”

“No, I don’t. But you’re going to tell me anyway, right?”   sniped Scott sarcastically.

“Right again, Scottie boy. I’m impressed.” Hatton was clearly enjoying himself. “Ya see… I got to thinkin’… now why would a father willingly let someone else raise his boy on the other side of this great country of ours?  Unless, of course, for some reason he couldn’t bear to look at that child? ‘Cuz, mebbe, it was that child enterin’ this world that caused his beloved wife to depart it?”

“I’m not having this conversation, Hatton.” Scott knew the manner of his and Johnny’s arrival at Lancer had to have been subject to local gossip, but he could never be comfortable with anyone speculating about the unusual circumstances of his upbringing, least of all Hatton. And he certainly didn’t need the painful reminder that his birth had robbed Murdoch of a wife and his grandfather of his only daughter.

“Well, that’s yer call, boy. If ya don’t wanna talk, then that’s just fine with me. All’s ya gotta do is listen.” Hatton bent down and savagely stuffed the gag back into Scott’s mouth. 

Scott stared at him defiantly, annoyed at himself for so easily falling into Hatton’s trap. Now his captor was firmly in control, and Hatton knew it. Scott could feel the drug starting to take effect as it slowly seeped through his system. It was hard to concentrate, to think of anything but what Hatton had fed him over the past few days. The horrific images of torture and degradation that his tormentor had delighted in regaling him with, flooded his tired and overwrought mind. He so wanted to surrender to the darkness and block it all out, but closing his eyes just heightened the potent images flashing through his consciousness.  There was no escape from it. Hatton knew exactly what he was doing.

“But ya know, “ Hatton droned on, “The more I thought on it, the more I figured there had to be somethin’ else to it. I mean women die birthin’ all the time don’t they? It’s hard on them delicate bodies of theirs. They’re easily broken.” He grinned manically.  “So I got to figurin’ that it had to be somethin’ more than that. Somethin’ else that had old Murdoch so churned up that he couldn’t bear to look at the poor innocent iddy biddy baby….” He regarded his prisoner closely, watching for his reaction.  “Like mebbe he was someone else’s bastard…”

It got the reaction he was looking for. Scott’s eyes went wide with shock as he vainly struggled against his bonds, his curses muffled by the soiled rag in his mouth, the hatred burning in his eyes. Yes, Hatton noticed with satisfaction, that had definitely gotten his attention.

“Ya see, when I found out about yer Daddy sendin’ you away, it got me to thinkin’. You said yer momma died almost twenty-six years ago, so I’m figurin, you was born, what, near the end of ‘44? Well, it just so happens that it was early ‘44 that I got acquainted with yer momma. Now ain’t that a coincidence?  And like I’ve told ya, we got real close. I would have preferred she was willin’, but a few well-placed slaps, and she was compliant enough. Ya see old Murdoch, he was too busy buildin’ up his empire to realize what he had with yer momma. If she’d been mine, I wouldn’t have let her outta my sight, but well, old Murdoch just plain neglected her, and she was ripe fer the takin’. I remember the day I took her like it was yesterday. Early spring it was, everythin’ all greened up and sweet smellin’and I saw her out takin’ a ride. Couldn’t believe my luck when she reined up at the creek to take a drink and water her horse. There was no one around, so I took my chance, and I took her. And she was the best I ever had. No one has ever compared to dear, sweet Catherine since then.  And I reckon I gave her somethin’ real special too. And yet she never told no one…”

He noted the stricken expression on his prisoner’s face, how the color had literally blanched away from him, and he nodded in satisfaction. Oh, this was working out so much better than he could ever have anticipated.

“Or maybe she did….” He grinned sickeningly. “Makes sense don’t it?  And the timin’ works out. Maybe old Murdoch would have been prepared to raise another man’s bastard for her sake, but when she died, he just couldn’t bear to look at ya.”  Hatton reached inside his jacket pocket and retrieved a battered photographic print.  “Now let’s see. Who exactly do ya favor?”

Scott looked in horror at what Hatton was holding up in front of him. It was a faded image of his mother.

“Well, you got the fair hair, but we both had that. Let’s see, what about the nose? ‘Course its hard to tell with mine all bent outta shape now,” he quipped sinisterly.  “And this picture of yer ma is kinda faded now.  Now, eyes, hmmm…I seem to recall hers were blue too. Her eyes were real wide when I was holdin’ her down. Got a real good look at ‘em…. sorry boy, what’s that, you trying to say somethin’?”

Scott was like a man possessed, struggling futilely against his bonds, biting at his gag, fueled by a desperate need to liberate his mother’s image from the foul hands of the madman. It was as if by having her picture in his possession he was somehow, violating her all over again.

Hatton grabbed for the piece of wood that he had frequently used to beat Scott with and approached him. He bent down in front of his captive and gently removed the gag.

“You bastard!” hissed Scott as he tried to physically launch himself at his tormentor, kicking and flailing out with his bound limbs as best he could.

“Now is that any way to talk to yer Daddy?” grinned Hatton sardonically. “And besides,” he reflected as an afterthought, the grin disappearing, “ain’t me who’s the bastard, Scottie boy, now is it?”

“Where did you get that?” Scott was unable to take his eyes off the faded image that Hatton taunted him with. It infuriated him that Hatton could have a likeness of his mother in his possession.

“Oh, this?” quipped Hatton innocently, thrusting the photograph towards Scott and taunting him even more. “Oh, I’ve held this close for the past almost twenty-seven years since Murdoch Lancer took my life away from me. Was all that kept me goin’ was the thought of yer momma and that soft skin of hers, keepin’ me warm at night in that cold place with rats crawlin’ over me.” He tucked the picture back into his pocket as he rose.  “Ya know what happens to men when they’re denied female company for any length of time, Scottie boy? They seek out other men. And you wanna know what they do? ‘Cuz I can tell ya boy, I got first hand experience.  They pick on the small ones who can’t fight back.   But you wouldn’t know about that with yer fancy high falutin’ Boston upbringin’ now would ya?”

The truth was Scott, knew exactly what it was like to be incarcerated in those conditions. He had endured a year of degradation in a Confederate prison camp where he had witnessed multiple atrocities, and to his shame, turned a blind eye to them. Because if it happened to someone else, it meant they left him alone. That was the brutal reality of survival in a prison camp.  And he had only just barely survived it.  Enduring those conditions explained how twisted Hatton was, but it didn’t excuse it. And he had raped Scott’s mother before all that happened.   

“You’re not getting one ounce of sympathy from me, you son of a bitch,” Scott vented.  “You’re a coward. Why don’t you untie me, face me like a man.  Let’s finish this now. Once and for all.”

Hatton laughed, infuriating Scott even more.  “No, Scottie boy, we finish it when I say we do, not before. I ain’t done with you yet. ‘Cuz there’s somethin’ I still want you to do for me. One last thing you can do for yer ‘Daddy’.”

“You may have sired me, Hatton, but you’re no father to me and you never could be. I’m not doing anything for you, you deviant,” snarled Scott contemptuously.

“Oh, you will Scottie, you’ll do it,” sneered Hatton with a chilling certainty. “If there’s one thing I’m sure of, by the time I’m done with you, you’ll be more than happy to give me what I want. I’m countin’ on that, boy.”

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

“Ok, Boston, now I know that beating you took has scrambled your brains good and proper. What the hell are you talkin’ about? ‘Course we’re brothers.” Johnny was incredulous.  It was about the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. “What the hell did Hatton do to you to make you believe such a fool notion?”

“Forget it, Johnny,” muttered Scott. It had been a moment of weakness that had him blurting out the cold, hard reality that he and Johnny were not related after all, and he cursed his own infirmity. Because Johnny was like a dog with a bone; he just wouldn’t let things go.   

“Forget it? You brought it up, brother.” Johnny emphasized that last to leave Scott in no doubt what he thought about this most recent revelation.  “Now I’m just about out of patience with you, Scott. What did Hatton say to you? And what the hell was in that letter?

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Scott mumbled, turning his head away. He just wanted to lie back, close his eyes and drift away, but he knew it was impossible. He still needed to face Hatton. 

“Don’t give me that, Scott,” snapped Johnny, fighting the temptation to physically shake the information out of his fragile brother. “Don’t you dare clam up on me.”

“I’m tired, Johnny,” muttered Scott stubbornly, starting to close his eyes. “I said I don’t want to talk about this now, and I mean it.”

“Oh no you don’t, Scott,” retorted Johnny forcefully. “You can sleep when you tell me what this is all about, and don’t even think of trying to play the memory card with me ‘cuz it won’t work. Now you started this ‘we’re not brothers’ crap, so c’mon you tell me what this Hatton said to you to make you believe the word of a man you’ve only just met and who tried to kill you in the process…”

Johnny was disturbed to see Scott look so resigned, so beaten.  He knew his brother was sick and in pain, but it was more than that. Much more. It was as if the man, the brother he had come to depend on, was withering away right in front of his eyes, and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it. The only thing that seemed to be keeping Scott going was a primordial desire that Johnny recognized. It was a look he had seen many times before, and it scared him to see it reflected in Scott’s eyes. They were the cold, dead eyes of a man intent on killing. It didn’t look right on him. It could never look right on him.

“Look, Scott.” Johnny tried a more gentle approach. “I can see you’re in pain and not just from those ribs of yours. Whatever it is, you can tell me. We’ll face it together. C’mon, level with me brother. I thought we’d vowed never to hold out on each other?”

Scott swallowed back the lump in his throat brought about by Johnny’s insistence at calling him ‘brother’. He hadn’t realized just how much having a brother had meant to him until suddenly it was all wrenched away from him by Hatton’s revelation. He’d wanted to slip away quietly, finish things with Hatton once and for all and then just disappear. He had no idea where he was going to go, but all he knew was that he couldn’t face any of them ever again, Johnny, Teresa, Murdoch. Especially Murdoch. Because he was another mans’ progeny, another man’s scion.

But those plans had gone awry thanks to Johnny’s damned dogged persistence, and he, clearly, wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

“All right, Johnny,” he conceded wearily, “but only because I know you won’t let me alone until I do. But once I’ve told you, that’s it. That’s where it ends. We go our separate ways. Because I don’t intend to ever return to Lancer.”

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

Val Crawford was not a happy man. As if it wasn’t bad enough to have to get up at the crack of dawn on his one official day off, it was bitterly cold, and he had waited around for two hours for Johnny to show up.  It wasn’t like Johnny to miss a rendezvous that he had been so insistent on making in the first place so Val had reluctantly saddled up and set off to see if he could intercept his young friend on the way.   But there had been no sign of him and, added to the growing concern he had for his amigo, was the increasing discomfort spreading out from his nether regions.

And now, to add insult to injury, there ahead of him as he approached the Lancer hacienda was Sam Jenkins driving his buggy in the same direction.

Val figured, if he held back, maybe the doc wouldn’t notice he was there, but this was Sam Jenkins, who never missed a trick. And Val swore the man had eyes in the back of his head.

His hunch was confirmed as Sam suddenly reined up and stopped. He appeared to be waiting for something.  “Oh, hell,” Val muttered to himself, knowing that he was in for a lecture.   

Sam had a thunderous expression on his face as Val meekly reined up alongside the doctor’s stationary buggy.

“Mornin’, Doc,” greeted Val sheepishly.

“I thought I told you to stay out of the saddle?” groused Sam. “That carbuncle is never going to heal unless you….”

“I know, I know, Doc, but it’s feelin’ much better,” whined Val miserably.

“Besides, it ain’t practical for a sheriff to stay out of the saddle too long. I’m fine, honest.” He shifted uncomfortably and winced as a sharp pain lanced through his posterior and made a liar out of him.

Sam took in the pained expression coupled with the evidence of several blankets piled atop the sheriff’s saddle for extra padding, and shook his head. “Sure you are,” he grumbled. “I’d have a lot less work to do around here if certain stubborn young men were to do as they were told.” He clicked the reins bad-temperedly and urged his horse on.

“You headin’ out to see Scott?” Val decided a change of subject was in order as he spurred his own mount on and rode alongside the doctor.

“You heard about that?” inquired Sam.

“Yeah, Johnny came to see me yesterday,” affirmed Val. “Said that Scott took a helluva beating. Johnny and me was gonna ride out to Hard Luck this mornin’ and follow up some leads. Only Johnny never showed up at my place. I’m on my way to see what’s keepin’ him.”

Sam nodded grimly. “Yes, whoever did that to Scott is a very dangerous man, Val. If it was just one man.  Scott’s injuries indicate a prolonged and sustained beating over a period of days, and whoever did it knew how to inflict maximum pain while causing minimal damage.  In other words, they delight in torture. They need to be stopped.  And quickly.”

Val shot the doctor a disgruntled glare. He didn’t need to be told how to do his job by a man who knew how to inflict his own form of torture. Except Sam had a certificate on his wall to qualify him for the job, and he sent out a bill afterwards.  Val shifted uncomfortably in the saddle as he considered the information they had thus far.  “Johnny says Scott ain’t talkin’?”  He decided to test the water, see if Scott had told the doctor something he had yet to reveal to anyone else.

“No, and if you’re planning on questioning him, I would rather you refrain until I have had a chance to examine him and determine whether he is in a fit enough state to be interviewed, “ asserted Sam, more than aware that the sheriff was fishing for information.   “He certainly wasn’t when I last saw him and I doubt that much will have changed.”     

“Whatever you say Doc,” accepted Val.  They were approaching the Lancer arch now, and already they could see a frenzy of activity outside the main house, at least a dozen or more men gathered on horseback at the front of the hacienda. 

“Bit late for the work parties to be settin’ out for the day,” observed Val with a frown.

“Even if they were to be working on a Sunday,” replied Sam, equally as concerned as the sheriff.

As they passed under the arch, Val yelled up to one of the sentries,

“What’s goin’ on?”

“The patron is setting up search parties. Señors’ Johnny and Scott are missing,” replied the vaquero on duty.

The doctor and Val exchanged worried glances.  “ Oh hell, I was afraid of this,” exclaimed Val as he spurred his mount into a gallop and headed for the house. Behind him Sam clicked his horse into a canter, concerned for his oldest friend, but even more so for his eldest son, somewhere out there exposed to the elements in his precarious condition.

As Val sped into the yard, he spotted the imposing form of the senior Lancer on foot amongst the men, barking out orders.    Murdoch caught sight of him as he reined up and quickly marched over to him.

“Val, I’m glad to see you. How quickly do you think you can form a posse? Scott and Johnny are missing.”

“Well, how long have they been gone”? Val demanded, concerned at the stricken expression on the tall man’s face.

“I’m not sure. Sometime during the night, I think. Here.” He thrust a crumpled note at the sheriff as he dismounted.  Val quickly scanned the contents of the note written in Johnny’s scrawled hand.

‘Murdoch, gone to stop Boston from doing something stupid. Don’t worry. I’ll take care of him. Don’t chew the guards out. Johnny’

Val frowned as he digested the contents and thought back to the conversation he had had with Johnny the day before. He recalled what Johnny had said about Scott.  ‘I’m worried that whatever he started with this Hatton guy, he’s aiming to finish it.’ It seemed like his young friend’s fears for his brother were well founded.

“Murdoch, what is it? What’s going on? Where are Scott and Johnny?”  A grim-faced Sam had now reined up, shocked at how haggard his old friend suddenly appeared.

“Val?” Murdoch gestured to the sheriff to show the letter to the doctor. Sam took the proffered note and quickly took in the brief content.

“How long ago did they leave? Any idea where they might have headed?” the doctor demanded, his concern mounting for Scott’s mental as well as physical condition.

“Sometime before midnight as far as I can gather from one of the hands who was on duty last night,” confirmed Murdoch. “As to which way they went, well, I’m just getting some men together now to track them, but there’s a lot of ground to cover.

“You won’t need them.”

Murdoch spun round to face the sheriff. “You know something Val?”

“I know where they’ve gone, “ admitted Val, sheepishly. “Johnny came ta see me yesterday and told me what happened to Scott. If he hadn’t come over I was gonna pay you all a visit anyway. Was gonna come over and talk to Scott about a fracas I heard about ‘tween him and another man last week in Hard Luck.”

“Hard Luck?”  spluttered Murdoch incredulously. “What on earth was he doing there?” Of all the places he imagined Scott could have been while he was missing, that was the last place he would ever have considered.

“After Johnny came to see me yesterday, I headed back into town and got on the wire to see what I could dig up on this fella. I tell ya, after what I’ve learned, we’d better get after them two boys ‘cuz I reckon he’s dangerous. ”

“Murdoch, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, in Scott’s condition…” the doctor interjected, worriedly.

“I know, Sam,” interrupted Murdoch. “That’s why I’m going after them. Val, I hate to ask but…”

“Its all right, Mr. Lancer, me and Johnny was headed to Hard Luck today anyway. I’ll ride along with ya.”

“Well, seeing as I am the last to find out anything around here, perhaps you would care to fill me in on the way on just what my younger son was planning, seeing as he did not see fit to include me?” groused Murdoch.  Before Val had a chance to respond, the tall rancher turned to the doctor. “Sam, would you stick around here please to look out for Teresa? Maria’s with her now but she’s very upset. Jelly is here too, and I’ll stand all the men down for now and keep them around to keep watch on the hacienda. You’ll be well protected.”

“Don’t worry about us, Murdoch, we’ll be fine,” assured Sam. “I’ll keep Teresa occupied. We’ll need to get things ready for when you bring them both back. Scott, at the very least, will be in need of my services after this ill-advised excursion.” Sam grabbed his medical bag from the buggy seat and stepped down, making his way towards the house. One of the hands stepped up to lead his horse and buggy away until they were required once more.

Val mounted back up as one of the hands led a fully saddled Toby out for the Lancer patron. 

 “So, Val, you’d better tell me everything you know about what happened between Scott and this man he had the altercation with.  What’s his name?” inquired Murdoch, as he stepped his foot into the stirrup and swung himself stiffly into the saddle. 

“Just a drifter,” offered Val dismissively. “Only recently arrived in town. Name of Hatton. Silas Hatton.”

“Hatton,” Murdoch whispered, as he wavered in the saddle, the color draining from his granite features.

Val reached out to steady him. “Whoa there, easy. You know ’im?”

Murdoch swallowed against the bile rising up the back his throat. He hadn’t thought he would ever hear that name again. Not after all this time. 

“Yes, Val, I know him,” he affirmed grimly, “And I can confirm that he is a very dangerous man indeed.”  

 



Chapter 16

“So what yer tellin’ me is this Hatton fella had some kinda claim on Scott’s mother? How come?” It had taken some time for Val to catch up with Murdoch as he sped off through the Lancer arch. He was heading westwards, intent on intercepting his sons, after Val had revealed the identity of the man, most likely, responsible for Scott’s injuries and incarceration.

Val had to resort to frantic shouting to get him to slow down, but finally Murdoch had seen sense. They were both skilled horsemen, but in the saturated conditions it was foolishness to ride so hard, and neither of them was going to be of any help to Scott and Johnny if they killed their horses or themselves in the process. Val had convinced Murdoch that if he knew Johnny at all, his young amigo would have ensured that he and Scott holed up somewhere to wait for daylight before continuing, even if Scott’s condition hadn’t already forced the issue.  So now the sheriff and the worried father were heading towards their destination at a gentle canter. Fast enough, though, to, at least, guarantee a late morning arrival in Hard Luck.

Murdoch nodded grimly. “Because, Val, he was sick in the mind. I don’t pretend to understand such things, but he had an unhealthy obsession with my wife, Scott’s mother.  He was a ranch hand at a neighboring spread,” Murdoch began to explain, “Belonging to a friend of mine, Gil Lawson. One evening, Catherine, Scott’s mother, and I, accepted a dinner invitation from Gil and his wife, and it was then that Hatton first laid eyes on her.  At that point no one could have known what Hatton was capable of. He was a good hand by all accounts, worked hard, and seemed to get on well with the other men, but there was a hidden side to him.  Morro Coyo was only a small fledgling town back then.  Very transient population, a little like Hard Luck is these days.” He grimaced at the memory. “Around that time, there were a number of assaults on the saloon girls. I’m ashamed to say they went largely uninvestigated. We had no real law here at that time and, well, no one really had much sympathy for ‘loose women’ as they were termed back then.  So it was assumed that the attacks were unrelated and likely carried out by strangers passing through.”

Val nodded in silent agreement at the assumption. He had seen it repeated throughout the towns he had frequented in his younger years.

“From the day he saw Catherine, he became obsessed,” Murdoch explained. “At first it was hardly noticeable. If Gil sent out an invitation to us for dinner it was always Hatton who delivered it. But then he would just show up at odd times and for no real reason. He’d bring flowers and small gifts for Catherine, which at first she found endearing.  But then he got bolder. One day he showed up in a rig of Gil’s and said that he wanted to take her for a ride. I was out hazing cattle in the south pasture at the time. Of course, there were plenty of hands around to ensure that Catherine was protected. She was never left alone at any time, I always made sure of that. So she was never in any danger.  She gently rejected his offer and explained to him that she was a happily married woman, and that it wouldn’t be proper, but that she hoped he would find a young lady of his own.  But he didn’t take the rejection well. Something seemed to snap inside him, and he started to make all sort of threats against Catherine, against me.  Paul O’Brien, Teresa’s father, ran him off the property and, once I returned home, I went over to Gil’s ranch to tell Hatton once and for all to stay away from my wife.”

Murdoch paused for a moment as he recollected that time, so long ago. He pulled his collar up tightly to ward off the chill wind, which whistled unrelentingly around them.

“So what happened?” asked Val gently.

“Well,” continued Murdoch, “Gil fired him there and then, told him never to come back. That was never my intention; I just wanted him kept away from Scott’s mother. Shortly after that things started to happen; fields of crops would be burned and calves were found slaughtered on both properties. There was even a break-in at the hacienda one night. Once I did an inventory, all that was found to be missing was a small likeness of Catherine taken on our wedding day.  I never told her that though. I didn’t want to worry her. Gil and I couldn’t prove that all these incidents were Hatton’s doing, but it was pretty clear to us both that he was the one responsible and, his theft of the picture was particularly disturbing to me. After that I made sure Catherine had a chaperone wherever she went.”  Murdoch reined his horse up for a moment and took out his canteen, unscrewed the cap, and took a long swig.

Val stopped by his side and took advantage of the break to do the same.

Murdoch replaced the stopper, and hung the canteen back over the saddle horn, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve as he stared ahead in the direction of Hard Luck.   

“I take it that things got worse from there?”   Val shifted position in the saddle, wincing as he did so.

“Yes,” murmured Murdoch, oblivious to the sheriff’s physical discomfort. “One night he went too far. He set a fire in one of Gil’s barns. Only what he didn’t know was that a little boy was playing hide-and-go-seek in the hayloft.  The segundo’s son. They could hear his screams, but no one could get to him. The flames were too intense.” He swallowed before continuing. “Well, between us, Gil and I got a posse together, and Hatton was soon located living in a rough shelter he had built for himself up in the hills. When we found him, he reeked of kerosene. He had minor burns on his hands and arms where the fire had reared up at him, such was the intensity when he set it. Well, as you can imagine, Gil and I had a fight on our hands to avoid a lynching, but I had the jailhouse on my property built by the Spaniards, so we kept him there until the circuit judge was able to get here.”

Murdoch paused as he recollected that turbulent period of his life. Of the choices that he had been forced to make.

“Eventually Hatton was tried, and he would have been sentenced to hang had I not interceded at the behest of Catherine, and the boy’s parents who had no desire to see another life destroyed,” he continued with the story. “My wife was convinced that Hatton was suffering from some infirmity of the mind, not in full control of what he was doing, and I guess she hoped he would be sent somewhere where he could receive the help he needed.  And while my lobbying did succeed in the judge applying clemency, Hatton was sentenced to thirty years’ hard labor. As he was taken away, he was screaming revenge at both Gil and me, swearing that one day he would get even. And that was the last we ever heard of him. I don’t know where he was sent initially, but I did hear that most prisoners in the state went to San Quentin when it opened some years later.  I assume that’s where he ended up? ” He looked to Val for confirmation.

“Yep,” agreed Val. “Most do.”  

Murdoch spurred his horse on once more with Val following suit. “Well, Gil died a few years ago.  His wife had passed several years before that, and they had never had a family of their own. After Maria, Johnny’s mother, left, I was alone for such a long time and I never expected to see either of my sons again. Gil and I had a loose agreement that, if anything ever happened to either one of us, one would get first refusal on the other’s ranch.  So when Gil died, I purchased his spread and added it to Lancer land.”

“So, Hatton’s back for revenge.” It might have been stating the obvious but Val needed to know exactly what they were riding into.  

“So it would seem,” confirmed Murdoch, grimly. “But this time he has hurt a member of my family, and I can’t let that pass. He’s dangerous, and if he knows that Scott is Catherine’s son…well, I think it’s safe to assume that it was him who was responsible for Scott’s injuries. And now Scott is intent on finishing what Hatton started, probably trying to protect me. But he’s in no condition to stand up to that madman.”

“Well, at least Johnny’s with him,” placated Val, as he shifted position once more.

“Yes, that’s the only positive thing about this situation,” assented Murdoch.

“As livid as I was this morning when I found Johnny’s note, Scott likely didn’t leave him any choice.   I guess Johnny figured if he couldn’t stop him, the next best thing was to go along with him to keep him safe.”

“So you reckon attacking Scott was Hatton’s way of luring you out?”  questioned Val, trying to determine whether revenge was the sole motive or whether there was anything else they needed to consider.

“Well, no, not intentionally,” countered Murdoch. “The letter that Hatton sent was intended for me, but with my being away in San Francisco, Scott intercepted it. I can only imagine what was contained in that missive to have Scott act so impulsively, but knowing my son, he was intent on stopping whatever it was Hatton had planned. No, Val, Hatton wouldn’t have expected anyone else but me, but somehow he managed to overcome Scott and adapted his plans accordingly. I guess he figured sending my son home beaten half to death would be enough to call me out. And he would have been right.  Only he underestimated Scott. Johnny was convinced that Scott wasn’t telling the truth when he said he didn’t remember anything about what happened to him. I can see now that he was right. I should have seen it too.”

“So, you think that Scott will try and take the law into his own hands?” Val distractedly rubbed at the stubble on his chin, disturbed at the concept of someone like Scott Lancer turning vigilante. No wonder Johnny had been so concerned.

“It’s not generally his way,” allowed Murdoch, “But yes, I’m afraid that Hatton will force his hand and leave him with no other choice. It worries me what Hatton said and did to him during those five days. We have to catch up with them, Val. I don’t want to lose either of my sons because of a mistake I made over twenty-six years ago.”

“We’ll get there. If I know Johnny, and I reckon I do, he’ll have figured I’d have gone lookin’ for him and hooked up with you to come after him. He’ll be doin’ his best to stall things until we get there, I’m pretty sure of that.”

“I hope you’re right, Val. For all our sakes,” murmured Murdoch as he spurred Toby on.  “I lost my sons once. I can’t lose them again.”

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

Johnny swilled the remainder of his coffee as he continued to keep vigil over his brother.  It was an hour past dawn, and he had spent a cold and sleepless night watching over Scott, and trying to come to terms with what his brother had revealed to him. Johnny still had a hard time believing any of it, or that Scott could even believe it after everything they had been through together. His brother was usually the rational one of the two; the one who reasoned things through, got all the facts before making an informed decision. It wasn’t like him to be so ready to believe the word of another, especially someone like Hatton, without hearing Murdoch’s side of the story. But Scott did believe Hatton, and that was what made Johnny even more convinced that Hatton had plied his brother with something to make him more susceptible to suggestion.  And Johnny figured he finally knew what that was.

Watching his brother sleeping fitfully, Johnny could only imagine the hell that Scott had been going through, suddenly being forced to question his origins and his place in the world. Johnny knew what that felt like. It had been that way for him for years growing up alone along the border after his mother had died. Seemingly abandoned by his father, and considered a ‘half breed’ he was neither part of one culture nor the other. And neither was he fully accepted by either. That had been what had led to his living the life of a hired gun. He belonged nowhere and had no loyalty to anyone. He was the perfect candidate to be a gunfighter.  But on the day that Pinkerton agent had saved him from the firing squad, all that had changed. At Lancer he had found that sense of place, of belonging, that he could only ever have dreamed about. And in the process he had discovered the father he had grown up hating and, in his bravado, had sworn to kill and, even more remarkably, he had acquired a brother.

When Johnny hadn’t known whether Scott was alive or dead in front of him on Barranca out in that storm, he had never felt such a sense of desolation. The thought of life without Scott in it, even though he had only known his brother for eighteen short months, had been more than he could bear. But now he was losing his brother in a different way. Because somehow, this complete stranger had exerted such a powerful influence over Scott that he was convinced that their father had lied to him. He had come to believe that not only was he not Murdoch’s son nor, by default, Johnny’s brother, he was the product of a brutal attack on his own mother. 

His reasoning compromised by whatever Hatton had plied him with, as well as an escalating fever, Scott was a man who no longer felt he had anything to lose.  His warped logic rationalized that everything about his life now made perfect sense; why Murdoch had never come to claim him and why his Grandfather had left him in the hands of nursemaids and governesses throughout his childhood. Because neither of them could bear to look upon the progeny of a rapist who had ultimately robbed them of their beloved wife and daughter respectively.   And the only thing that would give him any solace, that was literally keeping him going, was the thought of facing it out with the man who had taken away everything he held dear.  And whichever way it went, Johnny would, assuredly, lose his brother.

After he had relayed the whole sorry story, Scott had been ready to mount up there and then to continue to Hard Luck alone, and Johnny had been hard pressed to know how he was going to stop him. Fortunately, the decision was taken out of his hands as the exertion of getting to his feet and trying to get to Rambler had been too much for Scott’s battered body, and he had passed out in Johnny’s arms.  He eventually lapsed from unconsciousness into a fitful sleep and had remained that way ever since.

Johnny looked up at the gray clouds as they flitted across the sky, hurried along by the frigid wind that had plagued them for weeks now. It was way past dawn, and Murdoch would have discovered they were missing by now.  And, with any luck, he would have had the good sense to stay put until Val showed up looking for him. Johnny had deliberately not mentioned his and Scott’s destination in the note that he had left for his father. If he had, he couldn’t be sure that Murdoch wouldn’t have come straight after them. At least, the way Johnny figured it, if he had no real place to start looking, he would still be at Lancer by the time the sheriff came looking.  And Johnny would feel a whole lot better if Val was around to deal with all this.

Now all he had to do was hope that Scott stayed out for the count long enough for Val and Murdoch to catch up with them.  But as he looked over towards his brother once more, it seemed Scott had other ideas. He was stirring. Johnny sighed and, grabbing his canteen, made his way over to his stricken brother.

As he bent down, Scott’s eyes slowly fluttered open.

“Hey brother. How’re you feeling?” Johnny murmured softly.

Scott was trying to focus, and it was clear that he was disoriented. He struggled to rise, but Johnny gently pushed him back. “Take your time, take your time,” he soothed. “Here.” He held the canteen to Scott’s lips, but his brother looked at it suspiciously, keeping his mouth firmly closed.

“Its just water, Scott. C’mon you need it,” Johnny asserted patiently. He placed his hand behind his brother’s head and gently lifted him to meet the canteen. Finally getting his bearings, Scott took a few sips and then turned his head away.

“What time is it?” he winced as he tried to sit up again, the fiery pain erupting throughout his battered body once more.

“About an hour after dawn,” Johnny confirmed.

“We need to get going.” Scott struggled to get up, this time rolling out of his blankets and ending up on all fours, his breaths coming in wheezing gasps.

“C’mon, Scott, “lamented Johnny.  “You’re in no fit state to go anywhere. Why don’t you rest up for a bit longer? It’s only another few hours to Hard Luck.  I don’t think Hatton’s going anywhere, do you? You could use the rest. ”

“And buy more time for Murdoch to catch up?” retorted Scott insolently, as he pulled himself up, leaning heavily against the rock face that had sheltered them overnight. “That is what you’re hoping for, right? Come on Johnny, I’m not stupid.”

“Nobody said you were, Scott,” asserted Johnny softly. “But you’re not thinking straight. I can’t just stand by and watch you kill a man.”

“Nobody’s asking you to. I told you, this is my fight. And I don’t need the great Johnny Madrid lecturing me on the morals of killing,” Scott snapped acerbically. And then, seeming to regret his own harsh words, “You don’t owe me anything.” 

“What, you’re just asking me to forget the past eighteen months on the word of this one man? Well, I can’t do that, Scott. I won’t do that, and I can’t believe you would ask me to.” Johnny ignored the reference to Madrid.  He knew that wasn’t his brother talking, and that there was still enough of the Scott Lancer he cared so much about to regret the words as soon as they had come out of his mouth.   

“But it’s all been a lie. Can’t you see that, Johnny?” pleaded Scott, bitterly.

“None of it was real.  Maybe we believed it because we wanted to. Sometimes if you want something badly enough…well, you just believe it. Doesn’t mean it was ever true.” He wiped his forehead roughly with his sleeve as he wavered.  

“Well, I’m sorry to hear you say that, brother, but…”

“Johnny….” protested Scott at the other’s stubborn insistence on using the term he no longer felt applied.

“No, Scott,” cried Johnny emphatically. “You don’t just stop being my brother on the word of one man that neither of us ever heard of before just over a week ago. Now I wanna wait and hear what Murdoch has to say about all this before I even think about giving up on having a brother.”

“Fine, well you wait,” ceded Scott wearily. “But I’m going on to Hard Luck, and you’re not going to stop me.” He started towards Rambler, holding onto the rock face for support.

“No, Scott, I won’t stop you, but how do you think you’re gonna stand up against Hatton without this?”  Johnny picked up the gun belt and holster from the ground and held it up. “I took it off you when you passed out. You didn’t even notice you weren’t wearin’ it, brother.”

Scott instinctively looked down and realized that he had, indeed, been disarmed. He turned, glowering, and looked towards Rambler a few feet away. His carbine was also missing from its sheath.      

“Now I’ll go to Hard Luck with you, Scott,” continued Johnny, “But I look after your weapons until we get there ‘cuz you ain’t in any fit state to do anything with ‘em right now. Then we find out where Hatton is and we play it my way.”

“Johnny, listen to me…” began Scott desperately.

“No, you listen to me, Scott. We’ve all been to hell and back on your account these past few days. For a while there we thought we were gonna lose you, and I can’t even begin to tell you what that was doing to the old man. Now here’s what’s gonna happen. I’ll go into Hard Luck with you, and we’ll find Hatton. But we’re gonna hold him until Murdoch shows up.  ‘Cuz, I’m not gonna let you walk away from this family until he’s had a chance to tell his side of things. If what he says confirms Hatton’s story, then, well, I don’t wanna lose you, Scott, but I won’t stop you from leaving if that’s what you want.  But we leave Hatton to the law.  Do we have a deal?”

Scott was leaning against the rock for support once more, his breathing labored as he considered the limited options presented to him.

“I don’t suppose I have much choice, do I?” he panted resignedly.

“No brother,” replied Johnny deliberately. “I guess you don’t.”  

“All right,” acquiesced Scott reluctantly. “We have a deal.”           

Ten minutes later, Johnny had doused the fire and had broken the temporary camp. With great difficulty, Scott managed to mount Rambler, refusing assistance, and now sat wavering in the saddle, looking as if he was going to pitch right back onto the ground at any moment. As he finished tying on his bedroll, Johnny looked back towards the east for any sign of Murdoch and Val. By his figuring, if they had set out when he thought they would, they wouldn’t be much more than maybe two hours behind. It was still a two-hour ride ahead at a fair gallop to Hard Luck, and Scott was certainly in no condition for a hard ride. So if they took their time, it was just possible that his father and the sheriff could catch up before he and Scott made it to the backwater little town.  Johnny hoped so anyway; otherwise, he didn’t have the first clue how he was going to handle Scott when he got there.   One thing was for sure, he couldn’t let Scott call Hatton out, because whichever way it went, it would mean losing his brother.  And he wasn’t prepared to let that happen.

With one final look eastwards, he stepped up into the stirrup and swung his leg across Barranca’s back. He gazed across at Scott, his brother’s hands gripped tightly on the reins, his head bent forward. “Ready?” Johnny asked.

Scott nodded wordlessly, an unreadable expression on his face.

“All right,” Johnny wheeled Barranca around positioning him parallel to his brother’s mount. “Let’s go.”

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

It was an uneventful journey across the seldom-used trail that cut across Lancer land towards their destination. The main stage route to Hard Luck ran from Morro Coyo and then onto Green River, and so only those in the outlying ranches had call to use the largely under-utilized trail they now found themselves on.  And not many people willingly went to Hard Luck unless they really had to.   Johnny had alternated his time between watching Scott like a hawk to ensure he didn’t fall out of the saddle, and looking behind for any sign of Val and Murdoch.  But there was no sign of the sheriff or his father.  For the most part, Scott dozed in the saddle, but his cavalry training came to the fore, and he remained seated for the duration of the journey. At times Johnny had tried to engage his brother in conversation, but Scott either didn’t hear or chose to ignore him. To Johnny it was further sign of Scott’s increasing detachment. He felt his flagging spirits sink even further when, with no sign of assistance in the form of Val and Murdoch, Hard Luck came into view as they crested a small rise.

Twenty minutes later they rode into the outskirts of town, and Johnny reached out to nudge his brother. “Scott. We’re here.”

Scott jerked his head up as he was roused and looked around groggily, trying to get his bearings.  They had ridden into town from the opposite direction to the one he had entered the last time he had arrived in Hard Luck from Morro Coyo, over a week before. The cantina and hotel, where he knew he would find Hatton, was over on the right side of Main Street down towards the other end of town.  He closed his eyes against the wave of dizziness that suddenly enveloped him, his nemesis’ parting words echoing in his mind.

“I’ll be waitin’ for ya, boy. I won’t leave town until you come back with what I want. But if you ain’t back within seven days, then I’ll come lookin’. For that pretty sister of yers. And she won’t be so pretty once I’m done with her...”

“Scott?” Johnny looked down and saw the whites of Scott’s knuckles as he gripped the saddle-horn.

Scott swallowed and opened his eyes. “Livery,” he gestured over to the small, dilapidated looking building over on the left side of the street. He turned Rambler towards it, and Johnny reluctantly followed, looking behind him as he did so.

Outside, the livery owner was totally engrossed in a card game with two other men, and he looked up irritably as Johnny dismounted and tied Barranca loosely to the hitching rail before sauntering over.

“Lookin’ to stable two horses for a couple of hours,” he stated, casually.

“Out back, there’s one empty stall left. Ya can share it,” the livery owner spouted without looking up. “Door’ll take you out into the alley that leads round and back onto the main street. Hotel’s over yonder if ya want some entertainment.” He gestured further down the street and, then chortled, as an afterthought, “If ya like to live dangerously that is.” His two cronies chuckled knowingly at the in-joke.

“Thanks,” smiled Johnny, easily sizing up all three of the men, and determining that none of them posed any threat.  “But we won’t be here long enough for that. We’re just passing through.”

“That’s what they all say,” the livery owner chucked to his two friends, as he considered his hand. “That’ll cost ya two bits for the stablin’ and food.”

Johnny tossed the two coins onto the table, which bounced into the middle of the considerable pot already amassed there.  The liveryman grabbed them irritably and put them in his rapidly diminishing pile of stake money.

Johnny turned back to his brother, still hunched over in the saddle.  “Scott?” It hadn’t escaped his attention that Scott had been staring down the street, his attention seemingly fixated on the hotel.

Scott turned back and looked blearily towards the younger man.  “Huh?”

“You all right?”

“Yeah.”

Scott looked far from all right, but Johnny wasn’t going to labor the point. He just hoped that the combination of his injuries, exhaustion, and the fever would finally win out, and they could sit tight in the stable until Murdoch and Val arrived. Somehow though, he didn’t think Scott would make it that easy for him.  “C’mon.” Johnny untied Barranca and led him into the livery, gesturing for Scott, still atop Rambler, to follow.

Johnny found the stall at the back as the liveryman had indicated. It was far from ideal. The straw was damp and didn’t look as if it had been cleaned out for days. There was no feed hanging up either, but it would have to suffice for now. As Scott rode in, Johnny reached up to help his brother from the saddle, but Scott stubbornly pushed him away.    Johnny sighed as he turned back to Barranca and started to undo his cinch.

Behind him he heard Scott grunt as he slowly slid out of the saddle. Glancing   back over his shoulder, he saw his brother leaning against Rambler, holding onto the saddle-horn for support.  Johnny shook his head and turned back to what he was doing once more. He hefted Barranca’s saddle off his back and set it across the rail that separated the stall from the next one. 

“Leave your saddle,” he instructed Scott. “l’ll do it for you. You’re in no fit state.”

“Johnny.”

He turned to see Scott holding out a shaking hand.  “What?” Johnny asked quizzically.

“I’d like my gun belt back, please,” Scott asserted resolutely.

“Now c’mon, Scott, let’s wait for Murdoch and Val, please,” complained Johnny as his brother wavered before him.  “We had a deal.”

“What do you think I’m going to do, Johnny, shoot you?” demanded Scott acerbically.

“Of course not…but….”   

“Then let me have my gun,” insisted Scott. “I agreed to your terms, but if Hatton were to walk in here right now I need to be able to defend myself. So, if you don’t mind, I’d like my weapon and gun belt.”

Johnny sighed. There was little point in arguing with his brother in his current state of mind, so that just left Plan B. It was one that he’d hoped that he would only have to use as a last resort. But hell, if nothing else would persuade Scott that he was a true blue Lancer, surely his darned stubbornness would.  He turned away to reach for his saddlebag where he had stowed Scott’s gun belt and .45.  “All right Scott,” he acquiesced. “But only because I’m trusting you. When we eventually find Hatton….” But he didn’t get to finish his sentence. As he turned back towards Scott, his brother’s gun belt in his grasp, he barely had time to register before Scott’s right fist connected with his jaw, wrenching his head backwards and sending him sprawling into the wet straw. He was out cold before he hit the ground.

“Not we, Johnny….” rasped Scott breathlessly, “Just me. This is something I’ve got to do alone.” He staggered, clutching hold of his injured limb as he struggled against the dizziness that threatened to overwhelm him. The haymaker he had planted on Johnny had expended more energy than he had to spare. And it had also finally succeeded in breaking his already swollen hand.   As the blackness finally dissipated, he bent to check on the prone form of the young man he had been so proud to call brother. He gently rolled Johnny over, grunting at the exertion, and tenderly placed one of the rolled up blankets beneath his head. Reaching for the gun belt and holster that Johnny had dropped when he fell, Scott rose and buckled it around his slim waist. He looked down on the unconscious form of the one person who had meant more to him than anyone ever had, nor ever would, with a pang of regret.  As an afterthought, he bent once more and removed his ‘brother’s’ weapon from his holster and tucked it down the front of his pants.  A solitary tear coursed down his cheek as he checked his weapon, ensuring it was primed and ready, grimacing against the throbbing pain in his rapidly swelling knuckles as he manipulated the chamber. “Sorry, Johnny,” he whispered. “But this is goodbye.”   He turned away and, summoning the last vestiges of energy remaining to him, retrieved one more item that he’d need before he slipped out into the alley, headed to his last showdown with Silas Hatton.                  

 

Chapter 17

The two riders had upped the pace after they came across the remnants of the recently abandoned campsite.  The ground was firm enough to justify pushing the horses a little harder in their haste to get to Hard Luck, and both men were eager to make that sooner than later. Since Val had revealed the identity of Scott’s attacker, Murdoch had been eaten up with guilt. If he had only let justice take its course and allowed the town of Morro Coyo to have the hanging it wanted all those years before, none of this would have happened. He felt responsible for everything that had happened to Scott at the hands of Silas Hatton. He could only imagine how much more warped Hatton had become after so many years incarcerated, allowing his bitterness and need for revenge to fester deep inside. Whatever he had done to Scott, it had sapped his son of his reason and had infected him with something feral.  Because that was what Silas Hatton did; he corrupted everything and everyone he touched with his poison, and it was time he was stopped once and for all. Before it was too late. If it wasn’t already.

Val, for his part, had been mulling over everything he had discovered during the past few days. During his previous visit to Hard Luck, the barkeep there had complained bitterly to him that someone was being overly rough with his bordello girls. Val had initially been surprised that he cared enough for their welfare to report it, until the barkeep had gone on to gripe that he was ‘losing business’ because the attack had left his best girl too incapacitated to work.   Val had turned away in disgust. After that he had tried to follow up as best he could to see if he could establish the identity of the attacker and get one of the girls to make a formal complaint. But none of them had been willing to talk to him, and so that had been where he’d been forced to leave it. There was nothing he could do if no one was willing to take it any further. He hadn’t thought to link the attacks on the girls to the report of the altercation that Scott had had with the stranger, but the reports of Scott’s injuries were very similar to those inflicted on the saloon girl.  This man liked to hurt people, but only in places where it didn’t show. On a hunch he had gone into Green River and had wired a number of other sheriffs to see if there had been any similar reports in their towns. And there had. It seemed that Silas Hatton had left a trail of misery behind him leading all the way up from the Mexican border. 

As they rode into the outskirts of town, Murdoch scanned the surroundings to see if he could see any immediate sign of his sons or anything that was awry, but people seemed to be going about their business as usual.  He spotted the livery over on the left hand side and the three men outside, still engrossed in their poker game, and gestured to Val.

“Let’s ask these men if they’ve seen Johnny or Scott. The boys would have had to have left their horses somewhere.”

Val nodded and steered his mount, following the tall rancher, towards the ramshackle stable. 

“Livery’s full,” groused the owner, sensing the two riders but not diverting his attention from his game.

“You wouldn’t be gamblin’ on a Sunday now would ya?”

The livery owner looked up irritably, about to come out with a sharp retort until he saw who it was who had spoken.   “Oh, err… sheriff, err…well, it’s just a harmless bit of fun, to while away the time.  Just a friendly game. Ya know how it is?  No high stakes or nuthin’.” He looked down to the sizeable pot that made a liar of him and had the good grace to look embarrassed. “Errr…somethin’ I can do fer ya?” he licked his lips nervously.

“We’re looking for two men who may have recently arrived in town,” asserted Murdoch. “Maybe about an hour or so ago?”

“One of them ridin’ a palomino?” quizzed the liveryman.

“That’s right,” replied Murdoch, exchanging a confirmatory glance with Val. 

“Yeah, I seen ‘em, they took the last stall.” He gestured inside the dimly lit stable.

“Where did they go?”  demanded Murdoch

“Well, I never seen ‘em come out,’ affirmed the livery owner. “But there’s a back door, leads out into the alley down yonder there.” He referred to the side of the building. “They mighta come out that way, and we never saw ‘em.”

“I’ll go check.” Val dismounted and loosely tied his horse at the hitching post before he strode into the livery. Murdoch similarly dismounted, but remained outside scanning the main street for any sign of his sons. Or Silas Hatton. It had been well over twenty-six years since he’d laid eyes on him, but he’d know him again in an instant. Of that he was sure.

“Murdoch!”

At the sound of Val’s urgent cry, Murdoch quickly headed inside the livery.

“Val?” In the damp and gloomy stable, Murdoch couldn’t see where the sheriff had disappeared to.  Suddenly Val’s head popped up from one of the stalls right at the back of the building. “Over here,” he beckoned.

Murdoch hurried down to where the sheriff had emerged and arrived in time to see a very groggy Johnny being helped into a sitting position by his friend.

“Johnny!” cried Murdoch. “What happened? Where’s Scott?”

Johnny groaned as he rubbed his already blackening jaw. “Shoulda known he’d pull something like this,” he muttered, annoyed with himself for allowing it to happen.  “Murdoch, we gotta find him before he does something stupid.”

“Scott hit you?” Murdoch was incredulous.

“Yeah. He’s gone after Hatton. We’ve got to stop him. Oh hell.” His hand instinctively moved to his holster but, to his dismay, he found it empty. He felt naked without his weapon.

“What?” demanded Murdoch worriedly.

“He’s taken my gun,” confirmed Johnny miserably. He glanced over towards his saddle draped across the rail and noted the empty sheath where he had stowed his brother’s favored weapon. “He’s got his carbine too. I think he’s aiming to call Hatton out, and it don’t look as if he’s gonna take no for an answer.”

“Is this the same Scott Lancer we’re talkin’ about?” Val was confused. He’d have expected this kind of vigilante behavior from Johnny in days of old, but not Scott. Never Scott.  “What the hell did this fella do to him?”

With both Murdoch and Val reaching out to support him, Johnny struggled to his feet, wavering a little as he put his hand out to hold onto the side of the stall. He glanced up at the expectant face of his father but immediately looked away again, suddenly unable to look him in the eye.  That was the final straw for Murdoch. He’d had enough of being kept in the dark. 

“If you know something Johnny, spit it out,” he commanded. “I need to know exactly what Hatton did to him. If we’re going to stop him doing something he’ll regret, or worse still, getting himself killed, you’d better tell us what you know.”

“All right,” Johnny submitted reluctantly, “But you ain’t gonna like it.” He took a swig from the canteen that Val offered him before beginning. “He believes that you’re not his father. Hatton told him that he raped Scott’s mother and that, well, Scott was the result. And the reason you never claimed him was that you couldn’t bear to look on another man’s bastard, who in the process of being born, killed your wife.”  

“Hell,” muttered Val, breaking the heavy silence that ensued and shuffling his feet awkwardly. “That’s a helluva weight for one man to carry.”

The color had blanched from Murdoch’s face as he absorbed this information.

“He doesn’t think he’s got anything to lose,” continued Johnny dejectedly. “The way Scott figures it, he’s lost everything already. He planned to finish things with Hatton and then just leave for good. Never come back. But it’s not true what Hatton said, right Murdoch?”

I should have let the lynch mob take him twenty-six years ago when I had the chance….” murmured Murdoch. He looked up at the earnest features of his younger son, who was waiting for his father to refute the allegation. Perhaps needing him to. “Of course it’s preposterous, Johnny. Silas Hatton is a very sick man and it seems is still as obsessed with Catherine as he ever was.” He flicked a meaningful glance at Val, who nodded grimly.  “Hatton never got within a hundred feet of Scott’s mother unaccompanied. I made sure of that the first time I set eyes on the man. So no, he never raped my wife, and he most certainly is not, nor ever could be, Scott’s father. I don’t know how Hatton could have persuaded him otherwise.”  

“I think I do,” admitted Johnny. “I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but when he came round after I first found him you know how moody he was. We put it down to his injuries and his being disturbed about whatever hold Hatton had over him. But there was something else - his eyes didn’t look right, and there was the irritability like he was comin’ down off somethin’. It’s been bugging me, but I think I know now what it is. I’ve seen something like it before. It’s a kinda drug used by the Mexicans down on the Arizona border to make people susceptible to persuasion. Usually to get a girl to take a tumble with a man if they couldn’t get one any other way. It comes from the Saguaro cactus. I guess it works a bit like peyote, but not with the pleasant visions you get from that. And it’s real addictive. Takes a few days to come down off it, but you’re real irritable while you do. Sometimes violent.”

“And you think Hatton was forcing it into Scott?” questioned Murdoch.

“Well, it makes sense,” Johnny affirmed. “It takes time to build up in the system. Why else would Hatton keep him for five days and then just let him go again? Unless he was priming him for something? Wanting to get him turned around enough to fill his head with his poison. I don’t think Scott would have believed it otherwise.”

“And I made it even easier for him,” whispered Murdoch, recalling his failure to mark Scott’s last birthday in any public way and his seeming reluctance to get involved in Teresa’s plans for his upcoming one. He recalled the surreptitious glances that Scott had sent his way at dinner the night before he had left for San Francisco. He had been trying to gauge what his father had felt about ‘celebrating’ a day that had only held unhappy memories for him for the previous twenty-five years. And Murdoch hadn’t done anything to assuage his son’s concerns over how it would impact him. He had badly let Scott down and had unwittingly assisted Hatton in somehow making Scott believe that he was the product of Hatton’s fictitious violation of his mother.

“Murdoch?”

“It’s all a fabrication of Hatton’s sick mind, Johnny. Scott is my son. He’s my son,” spat Murdoch angrily.

“You don’t need to convince me, Murdoch, but we do need to find Scott and make him see that. Because right now, as far as he is concerned, he’s a man who’s got nothing left to lose. And the only thing that’s keeping him on his feet is the hate that Hatton has built up inside of him. I really don’t think he’s got the strength left in him to see past the lie.”

“Then we’ve got to find him and give him that strength. Are you all right?” Murdoch was concerned to see that Johnny still appeared to be reliant on Val’s steadying hand.

“Yeah.” Seeing the concern reflected in his father’s eyes, Johnny shrugged off his friend’s arm, nodding at him in gratitude.  “Its my pride that’s more hurt than anything. I can’t believe I didn’t see it comin’. I’m just worried about Scott is all.” 

“Do you know where he might have gone looking for Hatton?” pressed Murdoch, only partly mollified by his bleary eyed younger son’s assurances.

“I dunno, but the hotel seems to be the most likely place.  I caught him lookin’ that way when we first got to the livery. My guess is he will have headed there. If not, well, it’s as good a place as any to start lookin’.”

“Agreed.  Let’s go.” Murdoch marched purposefully towards the back door with Johnny at his heels.

“I’ll go talk to the livery man. Get the horses taken care of,” gestured Val as he headed back towards the front entrance. “I think he’ll be only to happy to help. I’ll meet you down there,” he called after them.

Johnny and Murdoch had just emerged from the alley when they heard the concussion of the discharged weapon. Val, who had been deep in conversation with the livery owner, jerked his head up sharply. There was no mistaking where it came from. The crowds spilling out onto the street from the cantina told them exactly where Scott had discovered Hatton. 

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

As the three men raced down towards the hotel, a small crowd of disgruntled patrons, irritated at having their entertainment interrupted, was already assembling outside with more still rapidly exiting the cantina.

Recognizing the caretaker sheriff, the barkeep approached Val purposefully.

“Sheriff, it’s that same fella I told ya about last week,” he complained bitterly.  “Started shootin’ the place up he did, tellin’ everybody to get out.”

“He’s in there alone?” quizzed Murdoch.

“Nah, he’s got that other fella in there,” the barkeep replied, testily. “The one he had the beef with the last time. He’s one of my best customers. Has a real taste for the ladies, if ya know what I mean?” he raised his eyebrows and dipped his head knowingly.

“Well, we don’t much care for his tastes,” quipped one of the scantily clad women whose thin outfit stretched over her buxom frame left nothing to the imagination, especially given the frigid temperatures. Murdoch didn’t know where to look, but more than a few of the men were enjoying the view. “You should see what he just did to Ellie. She’s gonna be covered in bruises. She ain’t gonna be fit to work tonight. Maybe for a few nights.”

“Oh quit it Lila, that’s what you get paid fer, doncha?” sniped the barkeep.

“Not enough for that, Ezra, not nearly enough…” She turned and strode away down the street, a retinue of saloon girls following in her wake, not to mention a sizeable number of the assembled crowd.

“We only heard one shot,” interjected Val, trying to get the conversation back on track. “Didn’t sound like no one was shootin’ up the place to me.”

“Well, yeah, alright,” sniffed the barkeep, wondering where he was going to find more saloon girls on such short notice. “But he near took that fella’s head off when he saw him come down the stairs. Shot right through the wall, just over his head, he did. Is gonna be real expensive to fix.”

“It was a warning shot,” Johnny reassured Murdoch. “If Scott had meant to kill Hatton, he wouldn’t have missed from that range.”

Murdoch nodded grimly. Scott was a crack shot with a carbine. It gave him some hope. If he hadn’t killed Hatton at the first opportunity, it meant that he wasn’t entirely beyond reason.

“So whadd’ya gonna do, Sheriff, I’m losin’ money here,” persisted the barkeep irritably.

“Shut up, Farris,” blustered Val. “Yer lucky that I ain’t already shut ya down afore now. Now why don’t you make yerself useful and get the rest of these people away from here.”

He didn’t wait for a response.  Instead, he turned to Murdoch and Johnny. “Well, how d’ya wanna play this? You know I can’t stand by and let Scott shoot a man down in cold blood. No matter who that man is and what he’s done.”

“We need to get a look inside. See how the land lies.” Johnny frowned as he looked at the front of the building. Two thirds of the front window of the cantina had been painted with blacking to stop people from seeing inside. It was necessary in a town that had more than its fair share of trigger-happy yahoo’s. Too many people had died from a bullet to the back of the head at a poker table or while drinking a cold beer, after being shot through the window. It wasn’t good for business.  Not to mention the expense of constantly having to replace the glass. So now, the only light that filtered into the cantina came from the top third of the window. Trouble was, a man needed to be eight feet tall to see through it.

“Val, give me hand with this bench, will you?” With a great deal of tugging, they managed to maneuver the wrought iron bench sitting outside the cantina enough to position it so that Johnny could stand on the back. He climbed up, tiptoeing precariously, his hands holding onto the overhang above the window.  As he surreptitiously peered in, he could see Scott standing against the near end of the bar, his .45 trained on a wiry looking figure standing at the bottom of the stairwell. Johnny could tell just by looking at his brother that he was close to collapse. His gun hand shook uncontrollably as he faced his nemesis.  He glanced towards Hatton. He was an unremarkable little man; slight of build, unkempt, and not at all dangerous looking, but Johnny knew that appearances could be deceptive. There was one telling thing he did notice about Hatton, though. He didn’t appear to be armed. He climbed down carefully to convey his findings to his father and the sheriff.

“Scott’s closest to the door, a little way over to the right by the bar,” he reported. “Hatton’s at the bottom of the stairs. Scott’s got a gun trained on him, but it don’t look like Hatton’s armed.”

“How’s Scott looking?” Murdoch demanded, his face lined with worry.

“Not good.” Johnny shook his head worriedly. “Looks like that bar is the only thing that’s keeping him on his feet.”

“I’m going in there,” Murdoch asserted decisively.  “Alone.”

“Now, Murdoch I don’t think that’s a….” Johnny started to caution his father.

“No, Johnny, he’s my son,” interjected Murdoch. “I’m to blame for all this. It was me Hatton was after, and I’m also to blame for making it so easy for Hatton to have Scott believing his lies.” Murdoch started to unbuckle his gun belt, his jaw set determinedly as he held it out to his younger son.  “Here, take this…”

“Hell, Murdoch you can’t go in there unarmed,” protested Val.

“Why?  Do you think that Scott’s so far gone that he would hurt me? My own son?” snapped Murdoch, glaring at the hapless sheriff. 

“Well, no but…” stammered Val before he was interrupted.

“If I walk in there armed, Val, it’ll make an already delicate situation even worse,” justified Murdoch. “I need to get Scott to listen to me, to trust me. He won’t if I go in there with a gun at my hip.”

“What about Hatton, Murdoch?”

Murdoch turned to study the worried features of his younger son. It was clear he didn’t like his father’s plan any more than Val did.

“He doesn’t want me dead, Johnny,” explained Murdoch softly. “That’s not what any of this has been about. He wants me to suffer.  That’s what Hatton does. He likes to inflict suffering and pain and misery. There’s no gratification for him if it’s all over too quickly.” He laid his hand gently on his son’s shoulder, his deep-set gray eyes filled with determination. “Trust me. I know what I’m doing.” But he didn’t wait for either Johnny’s or Val’s blessing. Instead, he strode purposefully to the door, slowly turned the handle, and walked straight in.

Both men held their breaths as the door closed, but there were no sounds of gunfire or raised voices.

“So far so good…” quipped Johnny grimly, as he moved in to listen at the door.

“Anything?” inquired Val as Johnny strained to hear against the murmuring of the still sizeable crowd.

“Nah, can’t make out anything over all this racket.”  Johnny looked around in frustration at the assembled throng as they waited out the siege, ever hopeful of getting back to their drinking, gambling and whatever other sordid activities the cantina could offer them.

Val shook his head as he looked at the sea of faces all around him. “I sometimes wonder what the hell I wear this badge for,” he groused.

“Sheriff, when will this all be over? I got a business ta run ya know,” whined the sniveling barkeep.

“It’ll be over when it’s over,” blustered Val, his patience wearing thin. “Now get these people outta here, or I’ll shut ya down for good.”

“What for?” cried Farris petulantly.

“I’ll think of somethin’!” threatened Val menacingly, advancing towards the hapless barkeep.

“Wait a minute, Val.” Johnny turned to Farris. “There any other ways in there?”

“Sure. Through the hotel lobby over there.” Farris gestured off to the door on the right hand side of the building. 

“What about up there?” Johnny gestured up to the second floor of the hotel. “Any other way to get up into those rooms at the top of the stairs?” he persisted. 

“Yeah there’s a back exit for those guests who, well, like to come and go a bit more privately, if ya know what I mean.” Farris grinned knowingly as he gestured around to the alley that separated the hotel from the mercantile next door.

Johnny ignored the suggestive grin on Farris’s face. “Val? You wanna go upstairs and see if you can get up onto that balcony? Stay out of sight, though, if you can. I want you to have Hatton covered just in case he’s got any tricks up his sleeve. I ain’t taking any chances with Scott or the old man.”

“What about you? What are you gonna do?” Val regarded Johnny closely, concern written all over his face.

“I’ll see if I can sneak in behind Scott and disarm him if I have to,” avowed Johnny as he took his father’s weapon out of its holster and stuck it in the waistband of his pants. He slung the gun belt over his shoulder and headed towards the hotel door.  “When I do, I’m likely gonna have my hands full, and with the old man unarmed, I’m gonna need you to watch Hatton.” His eyes met those of the sheriff.

Val nodded. Words weren’t required. Val had covered his back more times than either of them cared to recall, but this time Johnny was trusting him with so much more than his own life.  Something far more precious to him. The lives of his father and brother.  “Sure m’amigo,” he breathed softly.

“Thanks, Val.” Johnny dipped his head in acknowledgement and then slipped inside the hotel entrance.

“Well, what am I ‘sposed ta do?” whined Farris.

“You stop anyone gettin’ in, and I mean ANYONE. Or I’ll shoot ya myself,” groused Val, before he headed off around the back to get in position.

 

Chapter 18

Scott headed straight for the hotel after he overpowered Johnny in the livery stable. He figured that Hatton would make no attempt to keep a low profile, and he was right. Scott entered quietly by the hotel entrance, his carbine pressed close to his right side as he leaned against the bar, careful not to draw any attention to himself. The barkeep was being kept occupied by a drunken exchange at the other end of the bar, which kept his focus away from Scott. He didn’t want to be recognized. Not yet. He had, initially, been disappointed not to see any sign of his quarry, but just as Scott was    beginning to get disheartened, Hatton appeared. He came out of one of the rooms off the landing, a self-satisfied grin on his face, and slowly made his way down the stairs.

Scott could feel his heart thudding in his chest, the perspiration pouring down his face, his palms slick with sweat. He swallowed and wiped his hands on his pants before he slowly reached down for the carbine. He watched, his eyes fixed on Hatton as he traversed the stairs, oblivious to the presence of the young man he had delighted in taunting for five torturous days.    

Scott picked his mark, a spot on the back wall about a foot above Hatton’s head, and then, lightning fast for a man in his condition, he raised the carbine and, without hesitation, squeezed the trigger.  The concussion sent waves of pain lancing through his broken hand, and shooting up his arm. Scott swallowed against the nausea that welled up inside, and concentrated on channeling the pain, using its energy to keep him on his feet as long as it took to finish things with Hatton once and for all.   

He got a moment’s satisfaction watching his nemesis dive for cover as the plaster on the wall behind him exploded outwards in tiny shards, covering his greasy hair with a chalky white film of dust.

Already men were running towards the door, and Scott could see movement out of the corner of his eye upstairs to the right as patrons hurriedly exited the ‘guest’ rooms with their scantily clad companions.

“Now that I have everyone’s attention, this gentleman and I,” Scott gestured across to Hatton, “have some unfinished business to attend to. Private business. I would, therefore, appreciate it if you would all leave.”

More men edged towards the door, and there was a swish of silky fabric as several of the bordello girls hurried down the stairs. Scott took note of one who had to be helped by two of her colleagues, her face ashen, her arms clasped around her sides. He didn’t miss the fearful look that the women gave Hatton as they scurried past and fled towards the door.

“Now you cain’t come in here shootin’ up the place! Whatever yer beef is with this fella, ya can take it elsewhere,” complained the barkeep as he rose from the floor behind the bar where he’d been forced to dive for cover when the weapon had discharged.

“Look, I don’t have any argument with you or any of these ‘good’ people,” reasoned Scott. “But unless you leave right now, I will start shooting the place up, and I’ll start with that mirror and those bottles. I’m sure I can take them all with one load.” Scott waved the carbine in the direction of the whiskey and tequila bottles lined up along the bar, all the while never taking his eyes off Hatton.

The barkeep noted the determined set of the young man’s jaw. Despite his ravaged appearance, the stormy eyes were alert to every movement in the cantina.  He followed the young man’s gaze and turned his attention to the disheveled man standing at the bottom of the stairs. The same man that they had pulled the younger man off of over a week before. The atmosphere positively bristled between them as they faced each other.  The barkeep had been around long enough to know that, whatever there was between these two madmen, it was inevitably going to be finished in this bar. And at least one of them wouldn’t be leaving. No point in innocent people being caught in the crossfire.    “All right,” he muttered resignedly. “Everyone out.”

Scott backed towards the lobby door to ensure he had everyone in front of him or within his peripheral vision. He waited patiently, until the barkeep ushered all his customers out of the cantina, leaning on the bar for support, all the while keeping the carbine trained on Hatton.

As the last of the patrons exited, the barkeep turned to Scott who gestured upstairs with his eyes.  “Make sure there’s no one up there.”

The barkeep did as he was told and hurried up the stairs, checking each of the rooms that opened off the landing. “All empty,” he confirmed, testily.

Scott gestured back towards the door with the carbine. “Then leave.”

The barkeep shot him a stormy look, but he was in no position to argue.  With one last look around his beloved cantina, he reluctantly withdrew.

As the heavy wooden door clicked shut, it was Hatton who spoke first, the arrogance back in full force.  “So, Scottie boy, its just you and me. I knew you’d come back. In fact, I was countin’ on it. You brung that pearl necklace of yer Momma’s?”

“The only thing you’ll get from me, Hatton, is made of lead. You’ll get nothing of hers,” Scott replied evenly, trying to keep his voice devoid of emotion.

“On the contrary, Scottie boy,” Hatton grinned maniacally, “I’ve got the most important thing.” He pointed at Scott. “I got you. Right here, right now. You’re my legacy.  Mine and yer momma’s.”

“Don’t you speak of her in the same breath as yourself, you son of a bitch.”  Scott could feel the perspiration running down his face, could taste the salt of his own sweat as it trickled over his lips; he could feel his own heart thudding in his ears. 

“Now, Scottie, is that any way to talk to yer daddy?” Hatton sneered in mock chastisement.

“You’re nothing to me, Hatton. You may have sired me but that’s where it ends.”

“So what’re ya here for, Scottie boy?”  grinned Hatton smugly. “Why’d ya come back?”  

“I want that picture,” Scott asserted matter-of-factly.

Hatton laughed aloud. “Is that all ya want? Nothin’ else? After what I did to yer momma? After what I’ve done to you?” Hatton taunted, a sly grin spreading across his warped features. He reached inside his pocket and took out the photograph, holding it up mockingly. “Nah, sorry Scottie boy, I just can’t bear to be parted from the lovely Catherine. I’ll be keepin’ it if it’s all the same to you.” He put the photograph deliberately back in his pocket and licked his lips suggestively. “ I’d say its yer move, Scottie boy.”   

Scott was in no mood for Hatton’s games. He wanted this finished, once and for all. He set the carbine down, his whole body quivering at the exertion of having held the heavy weapon up for so long. He gritted his teeth against a wave of dizziness and leaned against the bar for support until it passed. 

All the while Hatton just watched and waited. Taunting him. It fueled Scott with the reserves of energy he needed.

With his left hand, Scott took Johnny’s gun from his waistband and tossed it across the floor.  It skittered along the floorboards, spinning lazily before it landed a few feet away from Hatton.   Scott wiped his sweaty palms against his pants, once more, his broken right hand hovering over the holster. “ Pick it up,” he instructed forcefully, gesturing to his brother’s weapon.   

“No, Scottie boy, “ chuckled Hatton sardonically, shaking his head slowly. “That ain’t yer style. Maybe that gunfightin’ brother of yers, but no, that ain’t the way of a fancy eastern gentleman like you. Nah, if you wanna shoot me, yer gonna have to do it. Here and now.” He held out his arms in mock supplication.  “Ya see, I’m a peaceful man. I don’t wear a weapon. Never have. I guess I’m one of them, what d’ya call ‘em… pacifists? Now yer an educated man, you’ll know what one of them is won’t ya?”

“I said pick it up,” spat Scott through gritted teeth, fighting another wave of dizziness. He cursed his own weakness and squeezed his right fist, using the pain to ground him once more.  

“You should think of that pretty little sister of yers,” taunted Hatton. “You leave me alive, yer always gonna be lookin’ over yer shoulder. Ya can’t watch her forever…sooner or later yer gonna let yer guard down, and when you do…oh, the lovely Teresa…”

“Don’t you talk about her! I’ll never let you near her!” Scott drew his .45 and aimed it straight at Hatton’s head. Fresh shards of pain shot through his broken hand as he gripped the weapon tightly, but he welcomed the clarity it gave him, the renewed energy that coursed through his battered body. It was almost euphoric. Was this what it had felt like for Johnny all those years as a gunfighter?

“Well ya know what you gotta do then, Scottie boy…” mused Hatton insidiously. “’Cuz I got me a real hunger…ya gotta pull that trigger ‘cuz it’s the only way yer gonna stop me from takin’ what I want.”

“No, Scott, you’re not a killer.”

Scott’s eyes flicked warily over to the figure who had entered silently and unnoticed. 

“Murdoch…” he started, dismayed to see the man who represented the life that had meant so much to him, come between him and the man who had destroyed it all.  He didn’t want Murdoch to see this.

“Son, you don’t need to do this…” urged Murdoch.

“Johnny…is he…?” 

“He’s fine, Scott. He’s outside.”

“Then I’ll tell you what I told him. Stay out of this, Murdoch. This is none of your business.   This is between me and Hatton.”

“I’m sorry son. I can’t do that.”  Murdoch shook his head as he shot a look at Hatton. “This was my business long before it was yours. I can’t let you do this. I won’t let you.” The last words were as much for Hatton as they were for Scott.

Well, well, if it ain’t the big man hisself,” sneered Hatton. “Been a long time Lancer….”

“Not long enough, Hatton,” snapped Murdoch, cutting him off. He turned back towards his stricken son, taking in the fever bright eyes, the tremulous shudders that wracked his thin frame. He was beyond exhausted and very close to total collapse. “Scott, whatever he’s told you…it’s all been a lie.   He’s been manipulating you to get to me.”

“No, I don’t want you Lancer,” chuckled Hatton. “I got what I want right here - my son and heir. Standin’ there right in front of me.” He gestured mockingly. “It’s you that’s been lyin’ to the boy. You know the truth of it. That’s why you sent him away.  You couldn’t bear to look at him knowin’ that my seed was more powerful than yers…I’ll bet she couldn’t lay with ya after I was done with her. What, was she damaged goods after that huh…?”

“Shut up, Hatton…” screamed Scott as he cocked his weapon, biting his lip against the pain that surged through his damaged limb.

“I should have let them hang you, Hatton,” whispered Murdoch, as he worriedly regarded his stricken son.

“On that we agree, Lancer,” replied Hatton bitterly.

“What do you want Hatton?” Murdoch demanded, regarding him contemptuously.

“I don’t want anything from you, Lancer,” Hatton retorted, sinisterly. “Scottie knows what I want though don’t ya, boy…and he knows I ain’t gonna stop until I get it…feed that hunger…scratch that itch…” His hand went suggestively to his own crotch, leaving no doubt in Scott’s mind what he was referring to.

“I said shut up,” Scott screamed, his finger hovering over the trigger dangerously, his whole body wracked with uncontrollable tremors.

Murdoch looked anxiously towards his oldest son and saw the door behind him slowly creep open. He watched warily, as Johnny quietly edged in, crouching low, nodding towards his father. He gestured silently towards the top of the stairs and Murdoch flicked his eyes upwards just in time to see the dark head of the sheriff as he lay prone on the landing.  Murdoch was relieved to see that his drawn weapon was trained not on Scott, but on Hatton.  He turned his attention back towards his son, but Scott was oblivious to the presence of his brother and the sheriff, his attention focused entirely on the man who had taken everything from him.

Hatton also appeared unaware of the new arrivals and the second weapon that was now trained on him.

“Go on, Scottie boy, what’re ya waitin’ fer?’ he mocked. “You already killed yer momma, didn’t ya? And now yer here to kill yer daddy too.” He gestured to himself. “ So c’mon. What’s stoppin’ ya? Or ain’t ya got the balls ta do it?” 

“No, Scott, “ persisted Murdoch. “Don’t you see that’s what he wants? He’s dead inside, and he wants to do the same thing to you. Because if you pull that trigger, kill an unarmed man, you’ll be no better than he is.”

Murdoch watched as Scott’s arm dipped slightly, as the weapon became a lead weight in his grip, his strength rapidly diminishing.  Scott closed his eyes, shaking his head, desperately trying to clear the fog that threatened to envelop him and drag him down.

“No, I can’t let him… can’t let him hurt her…” he vowed weakly.

“Listen to me, son,” asserted Murdoch. “He’s been manipulating you. He wants to die but he’s too gutless to do it himself…that’s it isn’t it, Hatton?”

“Well, you started it, Lancer, when you sent me to jail, to rot in that filthy hellhole,” accused Hatton bitterly.  “I thought the labor camps were hard enough, but that weren’t nuthin’ compared to San Quentin. You sentenced me to a slow and painful livin’ death, and with every day I survived in there, bein’ violated and humiliated, I swore I’d get even with you. And when I got paroled six months ago, after twenty-six long years, I didn’t know how to live, or how to be because I didn’t know anythin’ but life in the pen. It’s like an animal that ain’t known nuthin’ but livin’ in a cage. You let it loose, it keeps runnin’ back to that old cage. And that’s what life’s been like fer me. I spent twenty-six years dreamin’ of gettin’ out, and now I just dunno how to live free. And you did that to me. So I wanted you to know what that feels like. That livin’ death. I wanted you to feel that humiliation, that degradation. And then I wanted you to be the one to finish what ya started.” 

“I’m not a vengeful man, Hatton, but I should have turned a blind eye to that lynching party all those years ago and let them string you up from the nearest tree.”  Murdoch shook his head in disgust. “I wish I’d let them put you out of your misery back then. Maybe then a lot of people would have been spared your evil taint. Not least of all my son.”

“But doncha see, Lancer?” enthused Hatton, the insanity glinting in his eyes. “What’s even better is that Scottie boy’s here now to finish it for ya. And you got here just in time to watch it. ‘Cuz it seems you got kinda attached to my boy. So what poetic justice fer you to be here to see him pull the trigger. ’Cuz he ain’t got no other option seein’ as I raped his ma and made a bastard outta him. Ain’t that right, boy?” He turned his manic gaze to the stricken young man in front of him, willing him to do what he had trained him for, what he had prepared him for. What he yearned for.

Murdoch saw Scott’s finger pressure the trigger once more, and he risked a glimpse back at Johnny who looked ready to move.  Murdoch could see what he was planning to do. Much as it would likely pain him to do it, Johnny was prepared to forcefully disarm his brother if he had to, to prevent him shooting a man down in cold blood. Because Johnny of all people knew that it wasn’t something that Scott would easily be able to live with. But right now Murdoch could see that the situation was too precarious to try anything. He shook his head in dissent and Johnny backed off, heeding his father’s warning.

“Wait, Scott, just hear me out,” cautioned Murdoch, holding his hand up and stepping into the line of fire. It was a risky move, considering his son’s unstable condition, but one he felt he needed to make. It was time to take a stand against Hatton once and for all if he was going to reclaim his son.

“You see this, Hatton?” demanded Murdoch. “I’m standing in the firing line. Because that young man standing there is my son, and I know that he’s not capable of shooting anyone down in cold blood. Not even a cockroach like you.”

“Get out of the way, Murdoch…” pleaded Scott, the tall rancher’s broad frame masking his view of the man he had vowed to kill. 

“Sorry son, but you know I can’t do that,” avowed Murdoch, his attention fixed on the sniveling wretch standing at the base of the stairs. “You know how I know he’s not capable of pulling that trigger?” continued Murdoch, “Because I know who he is, and what he is.  It’s not something you can explain to someone unless they have sons of their own. Scott may not have lived with me for the first twenty-four years of his life, but I know enough about him to know what he is and is not capable of, and I know, if it wasn’t for the drugs you plied him with and the putrescence of your diseased mind, he wouldn’t be standing there now. And even with all that, with the torture you inflicted upon him, he still hasn’t pulled the trigger, and he never will. And the reason I know all that Hatton?  Because he is my son. MY SON,” Murdoch roared.

He stepped closer to Hatton, using every inch of his six foot five frame to get the message across.  “You didn’t even know of Scott’s existence until he intercepted that letter. You had to adapt your plans quickly, didn’t you? You saw your opportunity. So much the better to get to me by hurting my son.  But we both know that you never got anywhere near Scott’s mother.”  He turned back to ensure Scott was taking all this in, the narrative as much for Scott’s benefit as Hatton’s.    “And we both know that there’s no way you could ever be his father, don’t we?  In fact, you could never have fathered anyone. That’s the truth of it isn’t it, Hatton?”  Murdoch noted with satisfaction that Hatton had lost much of the self-assured air he had been carrying.  He had found Hatton’s Achilles’ heel.

“That’s why you beat all those girls back then,” accused Murdoch, “ and left them marked only in the places where it didn’t show, where it could be covered up. Why you’re still doing it.  Because you weren’t a man back then, and you’re still not one now. You couldn’t consummate a physical relationship, but that was never your fault was it? No, it was always their weakness, never yours. And so you took your frustrations out on them. You couldn’t get any physical satisfaction, so you found other ways to achieve your sordid gratification. But the plain and simple truth is, you just aren’t capable of making love to a woman and you never were.”  

He paused for effect, stepping back enough for Scott to see how quickly Hatton was deflating under the barrage of truths that Murdoch was broadsiding him with.

“Look at you, you’re a pathetic excuse for a human being,” Murdoch continued his verbal assault as he advanced on Hatton. “And the only way you can insinuate yourself onto anyone is to drug them, make them open to suggestion, so that they give you what you want. But you bit off more than you could chew when you tried to hurt my son.  MY SON, Hatton, not yours.”

Murdoch was fueled by a paternal pride that suddenly engulfed him as he noted his fiercely loyal younger son hovering behind his brother, ready to intervene when needed.    He pointed towards Scott for both Hatton’s and his older son’s benefit.   “That young man standing there was conceived out of the deep and abiding love that a man and a woman share. That I shared with my wife.  That’s not something you could ever understand, Hatton, because you are just not capable of that depth of feeling. All you understand is fear, hate, and misery and you feed on those emotions like the leech you are. No, you could never have produced anything as remarkable as that young man standing there.”

Murdoch derisively regarded the quivering form for a moment before he turned back to address Scott, noting the confusion that registered across his son’s face.  “God knows I’ve not told you all the things I should have, and I intend to rectify that if you’ll give me the chance. But there’s one thing you do need to know right now.  I’ve never lied to you, Scott. Never.  And I’m not about to start now. You’re my son, and I couldn’t be more proud of the man you’ve become.  Now give me the gun, son. It’s over. It’s time to go home.” He held out his hand in a gesture of absolute trust as he felt the invisible barriers his son had constructed to protect himself start to crumble.

“Don’t believe him, Scottie, “ screamed Hatton, mounting one last, desperate counter attack. “’Cuz I took your momma, and she was a real screamer. I gave her somethin’ no one ever could, and I’ll bet she screamed the same way when she birthed you. I bet her last words were callin’ my name, and cursin’ you….”

“No… you’re wrong.” Scott shook his head, the ghost of a smile playing on his lips. He was tired, so very tired, but he had finally seen the truth in his father’s eyes. It was time to let go of the hate that had infected him like a disease, to let go of the pain. It was time to go home.  He looked at the haggard face before him, regarding him with so much love, compassion, and understanding, and he wondered how he could ever have doubted where he belonged. He lowered his arm, not even registering the hand that gently removed the weapon as his fingers released their grip.    “Murdoch…I…” he whispered, trying to find the words, before his eyes rolled up in his head, and his legs buckled beneath him, his strength finally giving out.

“Johnny!” cried Murdoch as he strode forward, but his younger son was already there, dropping Scott’s weapon on the floor as he wrapped his arms tightly around his sagging brother, breaking his fall. “I got you, brother,” he whispered. “I got you.”

Murdoch gazed down at his younger son as he cradled the limp form of his unconscious brother, their eyes meeting in silent relief.  The humbled father swallowed against the rising tide of emotion swelling within him to see the closeness that his two boys shared. As he moved to help his younger son ease Scott gently onto the ground, he saw Johnny’s expression turn to one of pure horror.  At that moment, it was as if time suddenly slowed down.  Murdoch turned to see Hatton reaching into his jacket. Instinctively, Murdoch reached for the weapon that he knew was no longer at his hip.  He watched with a fatalistic fascination as Hatton pointed the derringer straight at him.   Out of his peripheral vision he could see Johnny desperately trying to hold his brother up and scrabble for the weapon tucked into his waistband, to save his father, the anguish registering on his face, as the explosion rang out.    Murdoch closed his eyes and waited for the impact that he knew would end his life.  But it never came. After what seemed an eternity, but was perhaps only a few seconds, he opened his eyes in time to see the staring eyes of Silas Hatton as he registered the gaping hole in the middle of his chest. As the trickle of blood seeped out of the side of his mouth, the briefest of smiles ghosted across his warped features before he fell backwards, dead before he hit the ground.

“Damn, Val,” breathed Johnny, breaking the stunned silence. “You cut that a bit fine, didn’t you?”

“Sorry, m’amigo,” apologized Val, rising from his position on the landing. “But I had to make sure of it. Was a hell of an angle.”

As Val made his way down the stairs, Murdoch bent to help Johnny ease his brother down to the ground so they could get a better look at him.  Johnny sat with his arms tightly wrapped around his brother, Scott’s head nestled limply against his shoulder while Murdoch conducted a cursory inspection of his unconscious son. He reached out and tenderly pushed back the damp hair from Scott’s sweat soaked forehead, feeling the heat emanating from his skin.   

“He all right?” breathed Johnny.

“He will be now,” murmured Murdoch as he gently wiped the perspiration from Scott’s face with his bandana.  He was aware of the soft tread of the sheriff as he approached behind him. “He dead?” He looked round at Val for confirmation.

“Yep. Found this on the floor.  Must’ve come out of his pocket when he took that gun out.” Val handed him the crumpled piece of sepia. Murdoch looked at it, a strained expression crossing his face, before he silently put the photograph in his breast pocket. “Thanks, Val,” he whispered softly.

“What’s wrong, Val?” Johnny regarded the pained expression on the genial sheriff’s face as he weighed Hatton’s weapon in the palm of his hand.

Val stepped forward and handed it to Johnny who disengaged one of his arms from around his brother and took it from his friend.  As he felt the weight of the weapon and checked the barrel, he realized why the sheriff looked so disturbed. “Ain’t loaded,” Johnny confirmed. “You couldn’t have known Val. You had to shoot. Hatton gave you no choice.”   

Val nodded grimly. “I know it. And so did he. He knew I was there. Before I pulled the trigger, he looked straight up at me.”

Murdoch shook his head dejectedly. “He just wanted to finish it but he didn’t have the courage to do it himself. That’s what this elaborate charade was all about.”

“Yeah, well if anyone’s gonna do any shootin’ in this town, it might as well be the one wearin’ the badge,” sniffed Val. “And Hatton ain’t gonna be no loss. Not after the misery he’s caused. How’s Scott doin’?”       

“It looks like he’s finally broken his hand on that hard jaw of Johnny’s,” observed Murdoch, gently taking his unconscious elder son’s hand and examining it. “As to the rest, I’ll feel better when Sam’s taken a good look at him.”

“You want me to ask Farris to rent us a room overnight so Scott can rest up?” inquired Johnny, feeling the heat emanating from his unconscious brother, in stark contrast to the condition he had found him in only a few nights earlier out in the storm.

“No, Johnny,” replied Murdoch emphatically. “I don’t want him to stay in this town any longer than he has to. Go and see if you can hire us a buckboard from the livery. We’ll get it padded up and get him as comfortable as we can for the journey home. Looking at the condition he’s in, I don’t think he’ll know anything about it anyway. Let’s just get him home where he belongs.”

Johnny closely regarded his father’s granite features. The old man was gray with fatigue, dark circles beneath his eyes, the worry lines carved into his forehead more pronounced than they had ever been. There were chinks in his armor. Johnny found it comforting to find his father was human after all.  He didn’t blame Murdoch for wanting to get Scott home.  If Scott still did have a mind to leave after everything that had happened, it would be harder to do that from Lancer once he was recovered.  It looked as if the old man would make it as hard for him as he could, and on that front, Johnny and Murdoch would forge a solid alliance. Scott had seemingly achieved the impossible. He had unwittingly caused Murdoch and Johnny to finally agree on something. 

Johnny slid out from behind his brother and gently handed him over to the tender ministrations of his father.  He silently gestured to Val who had sauntered back over to Hatton’s body and had just finished covering the corpse with a dustsheet he found behind the bar.  “Give him a minute, will you?” mouthed Johnny, gesturing towards the door as he retrieved his weapon from the floor and re-holstered it. Val nodded his understanding and made his way outside to give the Lancer patriarch the time he needed with his son, and to fend off the protesting figure of Farris, while Johnny headed down the street to the livery.

Half an hour later, Scott was settled in the back of the ramshackle wagon, wrapped in blankets, and held tightly in the firm embrace of his younger brother. Murdoch had insisted that Johnny ride in the back with Scott, reasoning that he was exhausted too. Johnny had tried to protest that the old man should try looking in the mirror himself, but Murdoch had countered that Johnny had been knocked unconscious and had been pretty groggy when he and Val had found him.  He wasn’t going to risk him passing out while driving the team. Johnny hadn’t put up any more of a fight after that, secretly needing to have the connection with his brother restored.  

With Toby and Rambler hitched to lead the buckboard, and Barranca tied to the back, Murdoch climbed stiffly up into the driver’s seat, ready to commence the journey back home with both of his sons.

Val emerged from the cantina as they made final preparations to leave.

“You not comin’, Val?” inquired Johnny from the back of the wagon.

“I’ll be along later,” asserted Val gruffly. “Gonna tie up a few loose ends here. Get rid of the mess in there.” He referred to Hatton’s body, still lying where it had fallen, shrouded in the sheet.  “Otherwise, Farris is gonna keep chewin’ on my ear until there ain’t nuthin’ left of it. Then I’ve got somethin’ I wanna take a look at. I’ll stop by this evenin’ when I get back. Check how Scott’s doin’.”

“Thanks, m’amigo,” Johnny breathed, the words loaded.

Val nodded grimly. “Be seein’ ya.” As he walked around to the side of the buckboard, Murdoch extended his arm. “Val, I want to thank you for what you did. If you hadn’t been there….” He didn’t manage to verbalize what he was thinking; it was too hard to find the words.  But once Murdoch had opened his eyes and watched as Hatton took his last insidious breath in the cantina, the next thing he had registered was that Johnny had somehow managed to lay his hands on a weapon. A split second later, it could have been him pulling the trigger and giving Hatton what he wanted. And Murdoch was eternally grateful that neither of his sons had Hatton’s foul blood on their hands.

“No need,” interjected Val, as he shook the senior Lancer’s hand. “And don’t worry about the buckboard. Ike at the livery said he would be happy to donate it.” There was a twinkle in his eye.

Murdoch smiled wryly. “Well, I guess we’ll be needing some extra fire wood,” he acknowledged, grateful for Val’s perceptiveness. It was one less thing to worry about.

“Just keep them two outta trouble.” Val gestured to the occupants in the back of the buckboard. “I got enough ta do without chasin’ around after stubborn Lancers.”

Murdoch nodded in acknowledgement as Val headed back into the cantina, the streets now eerily quiet. He wondered absently where everyone could have gone, but he was grateful for the lack of crowds gawking.

He turned towards Johnny. “Ready?”

Johnny nodded. “Let’s get outta this hellhole.”

Murdoch turned back and flicked the reins, urging Toby and Rambler on. Towards home.

As Johnny lay back, with his brother’s head resting on his shoulder, his mind drifted back to the last journey home he had taken with Scott. That time, he had held on just as tightly to his brother, but then he hadn’t known whether Scott was alive or dead. Johnny’s hand snaked instinctively under the blanket and came to rest over his brother’s chest. He drew comfort from the steady rhythm of his heartbeat as it reverberated against his palm.  This time there would be no such insecurity. Scott was wounded and sick, but he was alive, and they were taking him home.  Where he belonged.

It wasn’t long before drowsiness overcame him.  Lulled by the rocking motion of the wagon moving in time with the gentle thud of his brother’s heart, Johnny finally let go, and surrendered to the welcome embrace of sleep.

 

CHAPTER 19

Murdoch was pacing. He’d done a lot of that lately. And waiting. And he had never been what he would have considered to be a patient man.  But Sam had given him little choice.

It had been a welcome sight for Murdoch to see his oldest friend and his ward waiting at the door as they drew near to the familiar lights of Lancer, as the gathering black clouds gave way to an early dusk. Much to Johnny’s chagrin, Sam had made a quick visual assessment and had deemed the bleary-eyed young man unfit to assist with his brother. Instead he ushered him into the kitchen where Teresa had a hot meal and a steaming pot of coffee waiting for him. Johnny had tried to protest, but Sam’s expression and tone brooked no argument, and so Johnny had reluctantly left his father to carry his unconscious brother up the stairs to his room.

Sam had permitted Murdoch to stay long enough to help strip Scott, and advise the physician about the drug that Hatton had dosed his son with.  He had then ushered the concerned father unceremoniously out of the room. Murdoch had protested just as loudly as Johnny, but Sam had been insistent. He’d be able to conduct his examination far more quickly and efficiently unencumbered by well-meaning relatives who would only get in his way.

Of course, it was Sam’s way of making sure that both father and younger son took some well-needed rest before he ended up with three patients on his hands. Prevention was better than cure as far as Sam Jenkins was concerned, and one stubborn Lancer male as a patient was bad enough.  Especially when said patient would insist on roaming around the countryside when he had no business being out of bed in the first place.    

Murdoch had reluctantly complied, and had joined his younger son and ward in the Great Room. Johnny sat on the sofa, drowsily staring at the fire, clasping a cup of coffee. Teresa was curled up beside him, her head leaning against her ‘brother’, imparting, as well as receiving, comfort while they waited for news. As Murdoch joined them both, Teresa rose and hugged her guardian.

“You too, huh?”  she sympathized.

“What’s that, darling?” Murdoch replied distractedly as he returned the hug.

“Sam threw you out as well?” Johnny mused as he took a sip of his coffee.

Murdoch shot Johnny a disapproving glare as he extricated himself from Teresa’s grasp.  “Well, no, Sam needs to concentrate on conducting a thorough examination of your brother,” he chastised gruffly. “He doesn’t need you or me in the way, that’s all.” The scowl belied the sincerity of his words.

Johnny didn’t respond. He just stared into the fire, the corners of his mouth turning into a bare hint of a smile.

 As Teresa returned to the kitchen to try and tempt her guardian with a bowl of the meaty stew she had already plied Johnny with, Murdoch crossed over to the liquor cabinet. He poured a generous measure of his favorite malt and then sat down to wait and reflect.  It had been an arduous ride back from Hard Luck. Although the ground had firmed up in many places, Murdoch still had to concentrate hard to negotiate the sodden trail and avoid the areas where there was a risk of getting bogged down.  As the dark clouds had begun to gather ominously overhead once more, he had focused on getting home as fast and as safely as he could in a bid to beat the threat of yet more rain and impending nightfall. He’d turned to check on his sons several times, but Scott had remained unconscious for the entire journey, and Johnny had fallen into a fitful doze as he held his brother close. And so it had been a lonely and reflective journey home for Murdoch with only his self-recriminations and the eerie sound of the wind as it whistled around him for company. 

An hour later, the waiting had become almost intolerable, and the strained atmosphere was taking its toll.  Teresa had finally retreated to the kitchen to dispose of her guardian’s uneaten bowl of stew, and Johnny had fallen into a light doze. It left Murdoch, once more, alone with his thoughts. It was eerily reminiscent of the night he had waited as Johnny searched for Scott out in the storm. It had only been four nights before, but it seemed like he’d lived a lifetime since then, and he felt a decade older.   As with that night, the wind shrieked outside, rattling the windows and shutters, furiously flinging the frigid contents of the swollen clouds at the hacienda as they spewed forth once more. And as with that night, Murdoch’s skull reverberated with the ticking of that infernal clock. Heirloom or no heirloom, Murdoch decided that, come morning, he’d take an axe to it and be done with it.   With his patience worn thin, he returned to the passageway outside his son’s room and was almost ready to barge in when the door finally opened and Sam emerged.

“I thought I told you to go downstairs and eat?” grumbled the doctor.

“I did, Sam,” lied Murdoch, “but you’ve been over an hour. I couldn’t bear the waiting any longer. What took you so long? Scott, is he… ” Murdoch strained to see past the doctor, but Sam stood his ground.

“Well, you needed to get something warm inside you, and I knew neither you nor Johnny would take care of yourselves unless I forced the issue,” asserted Sam.  “I take it you did eat something?”

“You mean it didn’t take you all that time to examine Scott?” demanded Murdoch, deliberately evading the doctor’s question.

“Hell, no, I was done with the boy over half an hour ago,” he replied casually. “Just been sitting here flicking through one of those books of his. Just giving you time to draw breath,” he maintained deliberately.

“Well, do you think I can see my son now?” Murdoch glowered.

“Sure, go right ahead.” Sam stood aside and motioned his old friend into the room. 

Murdoch shot the doctor an irritable glare as he swept into the room and made his way straight to his son’s side. Sam just smiled to himself. Murdoch might be annoyed with him now, but whether he cared to admit it or not, he’d needed to take the time the doctor had given him to regroup.  

Scott lay propped up in his bed, the blankets pulled up to his chest, his bandaged right hand lying atop the covers. His forehead was bathed in sweat, but the lines of pain that had been so pronounced over the past few days were smoothed away, and he seemed to be sleeping peacefully.

Murdoch perched gently on the edge of the bed and laid his hand on the side of his son’s cheek. It was warm to the touch but not burning hot. “Sam?”  he questioned, eager to hear the doctor’s prognosis.

“He’ll be fine, Murdoch,” Sam reassured him.  “Although, frankly, I’m surprised he’s come through all this so well, considering he’s been riding all over creation in the state that he was in. I must admit I was expecting the worst, but, amazingly, his lungs remain clear and, against all odds, he’s done no further damage to his ribs. In fact, they seem to be healing well. He has, however, finally managed to break his hand.” He gestured to Scott’s tightly bound right hand.

“Hardly surprising,” Murdoch mused wryly. “It was Johnny’s jaw that he broke it on.”

Sam raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Can’t wait to hear that story,” he quipped.

Murdoch couldn’t help but chuckle at the comedic expression on his old friend’s face. It eased the tension between them.  “Well, I doubt Johnny’ll want to be reminded, and I’m sure Scott’ll be equally reticent in the telling. That one might just have to remain between the two of them.” He reached for the washcloth and gently sluiced the beads of sweat away from Scott’s forehead. “What about the drug, Sam?”

Jenkins shook his head. “Well, again, he was lucky, in more ways than one. I’ve heard of people dying from taking that stuff. If you get too much of that poison in your system, it can cause a heart attack.  Amongst other things, what it does is make the heart work harder, pump faster, but if it goes too fast the heart muscles can’t cope, and they can give out. Luckily this Hatton fella seemed to know just how much to give and when to give it to Scott to get the effect he wanted. That and the fact that Scott is, ordinarily, a very fit and healthy young man, seems to have prevented any permanent damage.”

“Well, if that’s supposed to make me feel better about what Hatton did to him, Sam, you can forget it,” snapped Murdoch as he flung the cloth angrily back in the bowl, sending droplets of water flying out over the carpet.

“Well, there’s something else, Murdoch,” Sam continued hesitantly. “You’re not going to like it, but, well, the irony is, if Hatton hadn’t drugged Scott, he most likely wouldn’t have made it through that storm.”

“What do you mean?”  Murdoch glared at Sam sharply.

“Well,” breathed Sam, as he paced the room. “When hypothermia sets in, the heart slows right down, and is much slower to pump the blood and the oxygen around to the extremities where it’s most needed. Particularly to the brain. When Scott was found, he was as close to death as he could have been, but I believe it was that saguaro drug that had his heart pumping faster than it ordinarily would have, and thus it kept his vital organs functioning longer than they might otherwise have done. I know it’s hard to come to terms with, but it was having that drug in his system that undoubtedly saved Scott’s life.” Sam gazed intently at the pale features of the young man lying silently in the bed, still marveling at his miraculous survival. Fate was most certainly a wondrous and enigmatic mistress.

Murdoch shook his head. He just didn’t want to have to reconcile himself to being grateful to Silas Hatton for anything. “Well, if you’re telling me I should be grateful to Hatton for still having my son, I won’t accept that. Not from you, Sam. Not from anyone. If it hadn’t been for that vile excuse for a man, Scott wouldn’t have been out in that storm in the first place.” 

“No, Murdoch.” The doctor placed his hand on his old friend’s shoulder as both men looked down on the oblivious form of the young man who had provided his father with yet more white hairs to add to the already thriving thatch atop his head. “I’m not telling you to be grateful to Hatton. Just to be grateful. That he’s still here. He’s a remarkable young man.”

“Yes,” whispered Murdoch, a lump forming in his throat. “Yes he is.”

“Well anyway…” Sam turned away to continue with his report, and give Murdoch the chance to recover his composure. “Potent as that stuff is, by my estimation, he had five days of build up in his system, and with him not being given any for at least four days now, he should be all clear in the next day or so. That’s the reason for the slight fever he’s running. His body is gradually expelling the last remnants. That and complete exhaustion. But it’s nothing to worry about. Pneumonia is still a risk, but only a slight one as long as he stays propped up in bed and rests. I trust my instructions will be followed to the letter this time?” He turned back to Murdoch and despite his gruff tone, there was no disguising the twinkle in his eyes.

“Yes,” Murdoch smiled, grateful for the long and fruitful friendship he shared with the physician. “If I have to hog tie him myself. There’ll certainly be no more clandestine nighttime escapades. Not if I have anything to say about it.”

“Good,” Sam grinned. “And he’s lost a fair bit of weight, too. Hardly surprising since he’s not eaten for over a week by the looks of things. So you’ll need to start him off with light meals, little and often. Every two to three hours or so, but he’ll need to take it slowly. I still don’t want to risk him vomiting, not with his ribs still mending.  Then, if he’s keeping things down ok, gradually reintroduce solids when he feels stronger.”

“Sure, Sam. Between us we’ll make sure he does as he’s told.” Murdoch rose tiredly and crossed over to the window, alerted to the sound of an approaching rider. He pulled back the curtain and noted, through the rivulets of water running down the windowpane, the arrival of a very bedraggled-looking Val Crawford. He watched as the Green River sheriff climbed gingerly out of his saddle and made his way to the door. Murdoch quietly replaced the curtain and moved back towards his son. As he looked up, he noted Sam was watching him intently. Fixing him with that beady-eyed stare of his.  Murdoch found it somewhat unnerving. It was the sort of look that usually preceded a lecture.

Murdoch decided diversionary tactics were in order. “Well, I’m going to sit with Scott for a while. Why don’t you go check on Johnny? He was out cold when Val and I found him, and he dozed all the way back in the wagon.  I think, maybe, he has a slight concussion.”

“Murdoch,” chastised Sam, “I’ve already planned to stay the night. You need to rest…”

“I want to be here in case he wakes up,” asserted Murdoch stubbornly.

“Murdoch, he did come around briefly during my examination,” admitted Sam sheepishly.

“Sam, why the hell didn’t you tell me? Did he say anything?” demanded Murdoch, annoyed with Sam for holding back on him but eager to ascertain whether Hatton’s shroud of deceit had once and for all been lifted from his son’s overwrought mind.

Sam shook his head. “I’m sorry Murdoch,” he tried to placate the agitated father. “He wasn’t really lucid. I doubt he was feeling too bright with the drug withdrawing from his system. I managed to get some water down him and a little laudanum and sent him back to sleep again.”      

“How’d you manage to get him to take the laudanum?” countered Murdoch, testily, still perturbed that Sam had spoken to his son before he’d had a chance to.

“Well, I told him he didn’t need to hold onto the pain anymore,” Sam affirmed simply.  “I told him he could let go. But I think he’d already figured that out for himself.”  

Murdoch collapsed heavily into the chair as his perceptive old friend’s words sank in. “Why does the past keep coming back to haunt us, Sam?” he sighed, bitterly, as he stared at the pattern on his son’s quilt.

“Because, my friend, it’s always there, and we can’t change it,” Sam offered, gently. “But we do have to face it and live with it.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Murdoch muttered dejectedly.

Sam sat down on the end of the bed and regarded his oldest friend compassionately. “Not everyone in life knows where they’re going, but most of us know where we’ve come from and why. But both those boys arrived here with plenty of questions about the past, and it doesn’t look to me like they’ve been given many answers.”

“You think I’m driving my sons away?” exclaimed Murdoch defensively, knowing that was exactly what he had, unwittingly, been doing.

“Well, I didn’t say that exactly,” Sam countered, trying to find the right words. “But…well…just how much have you told Scott about his mother and the circumstances of his birth?”

Murdoch looked up, a haunted expression crossing his haggard features. “Well, it’s a painful subject, Sam… what happened in Carterville… you know that …”

“I know Murdoch,” interjected Sam quickly. “But it seems to me that all Scott knows is that she died shortly after giving birth to him. But does he know that she was going to die anyway, and that she held on long enough, longer than any of us ever expected, so that he had the best chance at life? Does he know any of that Murdoch?   Because if you haven’t told him, then you can be sure he didn’t get it from Harlan Garrett either, from what you’ve told me of the man. And if that boy grew up thinking he was the cause of her death, and that was why you didn’t claim him, because you couldn’t bear to look at him…well, then you have got a lot of bridges to mend, my friend.” 

As the color drained from the senior Lancer’s face, Sam wondered if he had gone too far.  Over the years, Sam had never been one to hold back when he thought Murdoch needed to hear something. He had always worked on the premise of telling him what he needed, rather than what he wanted to hear, and it had been that honesty that had forged the strong friendship that they had shared for over twenty-seven years.

“It’s his birthday next week…” Murdoch whispered as he regarded his sleeping son.

“Well then, I would say that conversation needs to happen sooner rather than later, wouldn’t you?” coerced Sam gently.  “Sometimes you have to set aside your own pain, my friend. You got a second chance with he and Johnny. They deserve some answers, and you’re the only one who can provide them.”

 Murdoch pondered for a moment, and then shook his head dejectedly. “You know Sam, I’ve built this spread up from nothing; I’m respected throughout the San Joaquin. There’s nothing that I don’t know about how to run a successful cattle ranch, and it doesn’t sit well to be in a role where I don’t feel in control or truly know what I’m doing.”

“Welcome to parenthood, Murdoch,” chuckled Sam as he reached forward and clasped his friend’s arm. “I don’t think any of us really figures it out entirely. We just muddle along as we go. What I do know is, you’ll never have a more rewarding role in life. That I guarantee. And besides, you must be doing something right because both Scott and Johnny have stuck around. And neither of those two young men strikes me as being in it for the money or the status. So something is keeping them here…”

“Yes, they have bonded with each other very well,” murmured Murdoch.

“It’s more than that Murdoch, and you know it,” chastised Sam. “They want to get to know their father and it’s about time you let them. A man can only get so many second chances,” he added sternly.  “And I reckon you’ve had your quota now, old friend.”  Sam rose and patted the tall rancher on the shoulder before heading for the door. “Now get some rest, Murdoch. I’ll go find that other stubborn son of yours and see if I can pin him down long enough to take a look at him.”

“Thanks Sam,” Murdoch whispered tiredly, as the doctor closed the door behind him.  He cast his mind back to the cantina when Hatton had produced the derringer. His life had flashed before his eyes, and he had realized at that moment that it had been a life lived full of regret. A life spent trying to escape the past while never fully appreciating the present. During the past few days he had come close to losing everything because he had been unable to reconcile the past and move on. It was time he faced it and gave both his sons what they needed from him. The truth.

He reached inside his pocket and took out the faded image that Val had returned to him. As the flickering lamplight reflected off his pale features, Murdoch couldn’t help but marvel just how much Scott resembled his mother. 

With his finely sculptured cheekbones, Scott wore the same look of fragility that she had. But it was equally as misleading with his son as it has been with his wife. Despite his privileged upbringing, Scott had more than proven his mettle, being cited on numerous occasions for his bravery during the war and at such a tender age.   Since his arrival at Lancer, he had earned the respect of all with his reserved strength and sense of justice, and he could more than hold his own in a fight, even if he did prefer to win a debate with reasoned arguments rather than with his fists.  Murdoch’s eyes were drawn once more to his son’s bandaged hand. He winced as he reflected on Scott’s desperate need, when he had first read that mystery letter, to protect his father and to avenge the honor of his dead mother; a mother he knew next to nothing about. And that was Murdoch’s fault. There was a lot to make up for.

He had found it painful at first to see Catherine reincarnated in this remarkable young man, but now Murdoch found it comforting.  As he turned his gaze back to her faded image, he almost imagined that he could see reproach in his wife’s eyes.  “I’m sorry, Catherine,” he whispered, suddenly feeling her presence all around him. “I’ve been a blind old fool. Too wrapped up in what I had lost to see what I still had.  But if he’ll let me, I’ll make it right, I promise.”  He took the image and set it down on the nightstand so that his son would, finally, have both parents together, watching over him while he slept.

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

As Johnny slowly opened the door, his father stood at the window, staring out into the darkness as the rain continued to spatter against the glass.   Johnny took in the still form of his brother sleeping peacefully in his bed.

“Murdoch?”  he breathed softly, not wishing to startle his father who seemed lost in his own thoughts.

Murdoch turned and smiled at his younger son.  “Johnny. How’s the jaw?”

“Well, I won’t be chewin’ on any nuts for a while, but it’ll be fine,” Johnny grinned. He gestured towards his brother as he entered the room. “Sam says he’s gonna be fine.”  

“Yes. He managed to get him to take some laudanum, so he’ll likely sleep until at least morning,” confirmed Murdoch.

“That’s not what I meant. I mean about what he did. He wouldn’t have thought about leaving if he hadn’t been so mixed up by that stuff Hatton fed him. You know that, don’t you, Murdoch?”

“Do I, Johnny?” cried Murdoch despairingly. “He looked so lost standing there with that gun trained on Hatton, and I…” he trailed off. And I did that to him, he thought, by not doing what needed to be done with Hatton twenty-six and a half years ago, by not fighting for Scott when Harlan took him away and by not telling him about his mother. But I’ll make it up to him, he promised himself once more, and, looking towards his younger son, I’ll make it up to both of them.

“Val brought these back,” Johnny began awkwardly, referring to his brother’s hat and gun belt that he had brought up with him.  It concerned him to see his father look so disturbed.

It forced Murdoch out of his reverie. “Where’d he find them?”

“Abandoned shack up in the hills about two miles outside of town, near some old mine workings, “ confirmed Johnny. “Hatton had blacked out the window so it looks like Scott was kept in the dark the whole time. Val found signs that Scott was buck tied and gagged.  And he found some traces of that saguaro poison Hatton was cookin’ up.”    

Murdoch shook his head as he regarded the silent young man lying in the bed. He couldn’t even begin to imagine the living hell that Scott had endured for those five days. And Murdoch felt personally responsible for every single minute of them. 

Johnny set his brother’s hat and gun belt down on the dresser as he regarded his father worriedly. “C’mon you look tired, Murdoch,” he began uncomfortably, not used to seeing his father so preoccupied. “You want me to spell you so you can get somethin’ to eat? Teresa spilled the beans about you not eating earlier, and Sam’s spittin’ tacks about that. She’s still got some of that stew she can heat up for you. If Val hasn’t finished it all off that is.”   He shuffled his feet awkwardly, not knowing quite what to say to comfort his father. He had felt cold shivers run down his spine himself when Val had described the isolated location of the shack and what he had found inside.      

“No thank you, son,” sighed Murdoch tiredly. “I’m not hungry. I think I’ll just settle here with my book and keep an eye on Scott in case he gets restless or wakes up. You, on the other hand, need to get a good night’s sleep.” The commanding tone was back. “You took a pounding yourself today which I am sure your brother is going to regret for some time to come from the look of that hand, and tough as you no doubt think you are, I can’t afford to have two sons out of commission. We have, as you might recall, a ranch to run.”

Johnny smiled wryly. “I guess there ain’t much point in arguing?”

“None whatsoever,” agreed his father, returning the smile. “Now - we’ll decide in the morning if you are fit to work or not. I may well need your help in keeping your brother down, but either way, I’ll need you rested.”

Murdoch had already decided that Johnny wouldn’t be working the next day. He needed both of his sons close for the next few days, and he knew that they would need each other. The ranch could wait a few days longer.

Johnny dipped his head in silent acknowledgement and, with one last look at his brother, padded back towards the door.

“Johnny?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you, son.”

Johnny smiled.  “Good night, Pa.”

Johnny was already half way down the passageway, headed for his own room before Murdoch was able to swallow back the lump enough to reply.   “Good night, son,” he whispered.  

He crossed back over to his older son and readjusted the covers around him. Not because they needed it but because Murdoch needed that connection. He found it hard to be physically demonstrative with his sons, and he knew they wouldn’t want that from him anyway, but it was easier to let his defenses down with Scott while he was blissfully unaware. Murdoch smoothed back an errant lock of hair that had fallen down across Scott’s forehead, encouraged that his skin already felt somewhat cooler.  He then picked up his copy of The Iliad that Maria had tidied away onto Scott’s bookshelf, and settled back in the chair to maintain his vigil once more.

  

CHAPTER 20

Scott lay with his eyes closed for some time, listening to the sounds around him. He could hear the sound of the rain as it lashed against the window and the wind as it swirled eerily around outside. He had heard the same sounds on the occasions he had come to alone in the shack, the incessant wind and rain that never seemed to let up, taunting him and reminding him of just how alone he was. But now he could hear other sounds. More familiar and comforting, however, was the sound of the clock. Scott mentally counted the chimes as he savored the feel of the soft pillow cradling his head, and the warm blankets tucked around him.  He shifted position, wanting to burrow further down into the blankets and allow the sound of the wind and the rain to lull him back to the welcome and healing embrace of sleep. But as he moved, he received a painful reminder of what had him laid up in bed in the first place. He gasped as the pain erupted down his side, and opened his eyes.  

As his blurred vision cleared he took in the familiar sight of his room and swallowed against the tide of emotion welling up inside of him. He had come so close to giving up his family, his home, giving it all up on the word of a madman. And yet Johnny and Murdoch had come after him, not taking no for an answer when he had continually pushed them away.  He swallowed once more, the emotion threatening to get the better of him. His mouth was dry, and he could taste the telltale tang of the laudanum that had kept the pain in his ribs to a dull ache and allowed him to sleep.  Needing to slake his thirst, he gritted his teeth against the agony he knew would erupt throughout his battered body. As he turned to reach out towards the pitcher on the nightstand, he was brought up short by the crumpled image that sat like a sentinel watching over him. His mother. The same image that Hatton had taunted him with time and time again, regaling him with indescribable images that Scott found difficult, even now, to erase from his mind.  But it had been a lie, a fabrication of a very sick mind.   Scott bit his lip against the pain as he reached out, at full stretch, to take the likeness of his mother.  He eased himself back against the pillows, shaking from the exertion of that one small task, waves of dizziness coursing through him. As he tried to get his panting breaths back under control, the door opened and his eyes met those of his brother.

“Damn, Boston, I sat here all morning and there wasn’t so much as a peep outta you. I turn my back for five minutes and what do I find  - you awake.  That’s the second time you’ve done that to me.” 

“Sorry,” Scott panted. “It’s nothing personal.”

Johnny grinned as he sauntered over to the nightstand and poured a glass of water. “Well, it was about time you woke up anyhow. It’s past midday. Thought you was gonna sleep the day away.” He gently settled on the edge of the bed, being careful not to jar his injured brother. “Mind you, it’s the kind of day out there to do just that. Hell, I’ve never known it to be so bad. Here.” He held the glass up to his brother’s lips, his right arm snaking around to support Scott’s back as he sat him forward.

Scott sipped gratefully, relishing the feel of the cool liquid as it slid down his parched throat.

“Easy Scott, take it slow. You don’t wanna be sick. Not like last time,” Johnny gently reproached.

Scott nodded ruefully as Johnny took the glass away, deeply ashamed of the way he had behaved. He settled back against the pillows, the picture of his mother still clasped tightly in his left hand.  “Johnny…” he began. “Hatton… did I…”

“He’s dead. Val shot him,” replied Johnny deliberately. “He pulled a gun on Murdoch…”

Scott’s eyes opened wide in panic. “Murdoch! Is he…”?  

“Whoa, there, easy brother,” soothed Johnny, pushing Scott back down against the pillows. “He’s fine. He was up with you all night.” He gestured to the discarded copy of The Iliad lying on the armchair next to the bed. “Sent me to bed on account of this.”  He pointed good-naturedly to the blackened area spreading around the left side of his jaw.

“Sorry,” mumbled Scott apologetically.

“Forget it,” grinned Johnny.  “Seems my jaw was a helluva lot harder than your fist anyway.”

Scott smiled weakly. “I always said you were a hard head. Guess I found out the hard way.”

Scott was transported back to that moment when he had struck Johnny. He had done it to protect him, to keep him away from Hatton. He’d thought it was the last thing he could do for the young man he had come to love as a brother. Even if he wasn’t...     

“So, how d’ya feel brother?” It was as if Johnny could read his mind as he emphasized that last word. He was his brother, and Johnny had never had any doubts about that.

Scott looked up, his stricken eyes meeting the piercing blue ones of his brother as he regarded him intently.  “Like an idiot,” he admitted shamefully.

“Damn straight,” quipped Johnny, trying to make light of his brother’s dismay. “Hell, you’ve got too much stubborn in you to be anything but a Lancer.”

Scott smiled weakly. “Yeah, I’ve caused a lot of worry the past week or so, haven’t I? I guess I’ve got a lot to make up for.”

“Well, riding off to Hard luck without tellin’ anyone where you were going wasn’t one of your best moves,” reflected Johnny, disturbed at how crestfallen his brother appeared. “But after that, you’ve got nothing to beat yourself up about, Scott. Hatton doped you. Used sap from the saguaro cactus; its use is pretty rife down on the Mexican border.  Let’s just say it left you open to persuasion, and it didn’t make it hard for Hatton to peddle his poison. It mainly gets used by men on women when they want a tumble and can’t get it any other way. But when you showed up in Hard Luck, Hatton saw a better way to get at Murdoch.”

“And I sure walked into that one, didn’t I?” sighed Scott ruefully.

“Yeah, brother, ‘fraid you did at that.”

“I knew he was giving me something,” Scott whispered as he recalled the bitter taste of the concoction Hatton forced on him. “And that it was sapping my ability to reason things out. It just got harder and harder to deny what he was saying. I didn’t want to believe it, but…” he trailed off, transported back to that dark place, with Hatton’s nasally voice resounding in his ears, taunting him, mocking him.

“It’s all right, Scott. It’s all over now. He’s where he belongs. Six feet under feedin’ worms,” asserted Johnny steadfastly. “Forget about him. He can’t hurt anyone now.”

Scott met his brother’s resolute gaze and nodded wordlessly. He wondered what he had done to deserve such unwavering loyalty from this man sitting before him. 

“Johnny? Why’d you come after me?”  he asked tentatively.

“C’mon, Scott,” scoffed Johnny. “Didn’t we have this discussion already? You really have to ask me that?”

“Humor me.” For some reason Scott needed to hear the words.

“Well, I waited a long time for a brother, and I was damned if I was gonna let him go that easily,” replied Johnny simply.

Scott swallowed against the renewed dryness in his mouth.  “Is that why you wanted to prevent me from shooting Hatton?”

“Yeah, Scott,” breathed Johnny softly. “You ain’t no killer. I know what it’s like to live with shooting a man down like that. I know you did it in the war, but that was for your own survival. What you were gonna do, that was killing out of hate, out of vengeance, and that ain’t you, brother.  That ain’t ever gonna be you.”

Scott could feel Johnny’s piercing eyes boring into him, but he couldn’t bring himself to look up. If he did, he knew he’d lose the composure he was battling so hard to retain. Instead, he looked at the faded likeness of his mother once more. “Johnny, what was your mother like?” he whispered.

Johnny was taken aback at the question and not sure how to respond, but seeing the wistful expression on his brother’s face as he gazed at his mother’s image, felt he owed it to him to at least try. “Well, she was…uh….” he struggled to find the right words. “Well, she was my mother,” he shrugged.  “Oh, she had a fiery temper that’s for sure. I used to come in for a lot of grief being a half-breed. Mexicans can be just as unforgiving about that as anyone, and she’d certainly give them a lashing with her tongue if she heard about it. But then she’d take me in her arms and hold me, and she’d smile at me and tell me I was special, and that she was never gonna let anyone hurt me.” He smiled at the recollection. “And the smile would light up her face, and in those moments it was like nothing could ever touch me again…But when she died…” he trailed off, remembering how lost and alone he had felt, ten years old with no one to turn to, no one who cared. “Well, at least I had her for ten years. I guess at least I have memories… I know you never got to know your mother Scott, and I’m real sorry about that.”

“Well, you can’t miss what you never had…” Scott lamented sadly trying to memorize every part of his mother’s face, trying to imagine what she might have looked like now.

“Yeah, you can…” murmured Johnny, his eyes filled with compassion for his brother.

Scott smiled weakly as he looked up and met his brother’s intense gaze. “Well, I guess if she’d survived, I wouldn’t have had a brother. At least not the one I have right here, right now.  And I wouldn’t change that for anything. I guess there’s a reason for everything that happens in this life and while it’s hard to figure at the time, things work out the way they’re meant to. I’m glad you’re my brother Johnny. I’ll always be glad.”

“Back at ya, Boston,” Johnny whispered, overwhelmed by the sincerity and intensity of his brother’s words. 

Scott turned his head away from his brother, fixing his gaze on the water droplets racing down the windowpane as the unrelenting rain continued to fall.

“Hey, you think you can manage something to eat?”  Johnny jumped up from the bed, needing to break the tension before the emotion of the moment overcame them both. “Teresa’s been keeping some broth warm for when you woke up. Sam’s orders.  You gotta build your strength back up.”

“Sam still here?” Scott asked fearfully as he turned back towards his brother. He had a great deal of respect for the elderly doctor, but he really couldn’t face one of his lectures right now. 

“Yeah, guess he didn’t trust us enough to watch over you, seein’ as how you managed to run off the last time he left you in our care,” grinned Johnny. “He’s spent the morning ridin’ herd on Murdoch to get him to rest up. I tell ya, it weren’t pretty.”

“So who won?” replied Scott, the amusement twinkling in his eyes as he comfortably slipped back into the much-loved banter he shared with his brother.

“Well, Murdoch’s currently snoring like a prize sow courtesy of one of Sam’s powders,” chuckled Johnny. “He ain’t gonna be too pleased when he wakes up, that’s for sure. And don’t even get me started on Val…”

“What ‘s up with Val?” quizzed Scott.

“Well, consider yourself lucky you was out for the count last night, Boston. Sam put Val in a salt bath. Hell, they could hear his screams out in the bunkhouse.”

“Salt bath?” spluttered Scott incredulously. “What for?”

Johnny was grinning inanely, enjoying himself now. “Well, let’s just say the expression ‘pain in the ass’ has recently taken on a whole new meaning for Val. The ride back and forth to Hard Luck sure didn’t help any, and when he arrived back here last night he was walking so bad I thought the doc was gonna make him drop his pants there and then when he set eyes on him.  Val never stood a chance. Sam said he either took a salt bath or got gangrene, and he’d have to cut half his ass away. It was entirely up to him. But hell, I never heard anyone yell so loud.”

Scott tried not to laugh. It hurt too much. “How’s Val now?”

“Well, he was walking a whole lot better when I saw him this morning,” confirmed Johnny.   “In fact he ran across to the barn and was ridin’ on out of here before the doc was even up and around. So I guess it did the trick.”

Despite the pain in his ribs, Scott laughed. “Poor Val. Guess he’ll be too scared to show his face around here for a while?”

Johnny grinned. “I reckon so. I’ll go out to his place tomorrow, see how he’s doin’.” He watched his brother as he yawned loudly. Scott was beginning to look drowsy again. “So, about that broth…” Johnny headed towards the door. “Do I tell Teresa she can bring some up? I know she’d really like to see you. She’s been real worried about you. Reckon you can stay awake long enough?”

Scott smiled tiredly. “Sure, I think I could manage some. Tell her to bring it up. I do want to talk to her. ”

Johnny hesitated in the doorway and turned back as his brother called to him once more.

“Johnny?”

“Yeah, Scott?”

“There is one more thing you can do for me”

“Sure, brother,” Johnny replied earnestly. “Name it.”

“Get me the damn pot from under the bed.”

Johnny’s face broke into a wide grin. “Sure thing, brother. You want me to hold it up for you?”

“If you are referring to the pot, then no thank you, I can manage,” asserted Scott stiffly. “If, on the other hand, you are referring to something else, you may end up with a bruise on the other side of your jaw to match the one you already have. The pain would be well worth it.”

Johnny laughed as he handed Scott the pot and left him to it….

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

Finally, having had his first meal in as long as he could remember, endured a short but relatively painless lecture from Sam, and having made his peace with his relieved ‘sister’, Scott had been overcome with exhaustion.  His battered body reminded him that he still needed rest, and plenty of it. As Teresa had chatted happily to him, he felt the drowsiness that he had done his best to stave off suddenly overcome him and had been unable to keep his eyes open. As he had fallen into a deep and healing sleep, Teresa had smiled and pulled the covers high around his chin and withdrew, leaving him to his rest.

It was the chimes that woke him this time. As he lay there, gradually allowing himself to wake up fully, he counted them. Never had there been a more welcome sound, because it was what reminded him that he was home. Home where he belonged.

He was aware of a presence in the room, the turning of a page, a heavy sigh.  He opened his eyes and met those of his father who sat in the armchair next to him, his copy of The Iliad in his lap.  The clock had chimed 7.00pm and it was already pitch dark outside, the room lit only by the lamp sitting on the nightstand.

“Hello, Son,” breathed Murdoch softly. “I’m sorry, did I wake you?”

Scott shook his head. “No sir, the clock…”

“That infernal thing,” groused Murdoch. “That’s it, I’m taking an axe to it first thing in the morning.”

“No, please, don’t do that,” entreated Scott. “It’s comforting. It tells me I’m home. I like it.”   

“It’s good to hear you say that, Son. It’s good to have you home. How are you feeling?”

“Much better. I’ll be up and around in no…”

“You’ll be up and around when Sam gives you the all clear, young man, and not before,” snapped Murdoch, more harshly than he intended. “And as he’s not coming back for two days, you can resign yourself to staying put until at least then.”

Scott was about to protest but Murdoch’s expression brooked no argument and he knew better than to try and challenge his father, even if his weakened body would allow him to.

Scott watched his father silently as he reached for the glass on the nightstand and offered him some water. He could see the frustration on Murdoch’s face and knew that his father regretted his strident tone. Despite the pain, exhaustion, and fever that had afflicted him as he faced Hatton in the cantina, the strength of his father’s words had obliterated the haze of deceit and uncertainty that had been erected by Silas Hatton. Scott had reached a whole new level of respect and understanding for the man who, even as he struggled to articulate his feelings now, had laid bare his soul in front of Hatton in order to save his son. 

“Thanks,” acknowledged Scott gratefully as he handed back the empty glass, his thirst quenched for now. He decided to make it easier for his father and made the first move. “Murdoch I’m sorry that I…”

“No, Scott, “ interrupted Murdoch as he replaced the glass on the nightstand. “It’s me who should be apologizing to you. All of this could have been avoided if I had taken action against Silas Hatton over twenty-six years ago when I should have. He was wreaking havoc around these parts, attacking women, beating them black and blue  - but only in the places you couldn’t see. That was his specialty, but as they were all what you would nowadays call ‘fallen women’, and none of them could be persuaded to press charges, there was nothing that could really be done about it.  No way to prove it.   Hatton worked as a ranch hand out at a neighboring ranch for a friend of mine. It was when we were there visiting that he first spotted your mother….”

Murdoch went on to tell Scott about Hatton’s obsession with his mother and how the arson attack had led to the death of the boy.

“There wasn’t much law back in those days,” he continued. “So towns made their own. I was considered to be someone of influence even back then and as it was decreed that Hatton hadn’t deliberately intended to kill the boy, to my eternal regret, I pushed for a jail term. But what that man really needed was a doctor. I can see now that he was never going to receive any kind of rehabilitation in what we laughingly termed a penal system back then.  But if I had given the towns’ people what they wanted, let them hang him, then he wouldn’t have come back and done all this to you.”

“I would have done the same sir,” breathed Scott softly. “You did what you felt was right. There’s no way you could have known that any of this would have happened. Hatton was sick. He needed help, not a rope.” 

Murdoch’s gaze fell once more on the picture of Catherine set back on the nightstand and smiled wistfully. “You have your mother’s compassion,” he murmured. “But perhaps the noose would have been kinder. What we sentenced Hatton to was far worse….” He looked up at the expectant face of his older son. Murdoch knew he was waiting for answers from him, and he deserved them too.  “He never got anywhere near your mother, Scott. I can promise you that. We didn’t know at the time, but your mother was already expecting you when the incident at the ranch happened that got Hatton dismissed and started all this.”

“I know that now, sir…about Hatton’s lies …it’s just…”

“It was easy to believe Hatton’s story because I made it easy,” interjected Murdoch. “By not claiming you. You thought that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to bear to look at you, or be able to raise the child of a man who raped his wife. Is that it?”

Scott nodded, ashamed that he could ever have believed Hatton’s sick fantasies. “Something like that. And the fact that Grandfather, well, he made sure I had the best of everything - the best tutors, all the finest clothing, all the best toys. But I didn’t see him for days, even weeks at a time. I had seemingly everything that a young boy could ever have wanted. Except for one thing…”

“A father’s love?” reflected Murdoch guiltily.

“Yes, Sir,” agreed Scott tentatively. “Or a mother’s.”

“Oh, Scott,” sighed Murdoch, running his hand through his hair distractedly as he rose from the chair. “I never wanted to leave you there in Boston. It tore me apart losing your mother, and I admit it took some time before I emerged enough from the grief of losing her to try to get you back. I tried on several occasions, but I was no match for your grandfather’s money and influence. Harlan thought he was doing what was best for you and, as time went by, I realized that your life there with your grandfather was all you had ever known. I sent gifts every year. They weren’t much, usually things I had carved myself that I thought a little boy would enjoy playing with, certainly no comparison I imagine to what your grandfather could have given you.”

“I never received them, Sir,” Scott recalled sadly. “But they would have meant more to me than anything else I ever received because they would have come from my father.” 

Murdoch regarded the wistful expression on his son’s face. All those years, he had told himself that he had done the right thing by Scott in leaving him in Boston with his grandfather; but all he had succeeded in doing was to sentence his son to a sterile, lonely childhood bereft of any real affection.

“I did visit, you know,” he explained gently. “On your fifth birthday.  You probably don’t remember, but Harlan allowed me a brief glimpse of you. You were waiting to cut your cake. I knew then that to put you through years of legal wrangling could do irreparable damage to you. You looked happy, and your grandfather convinced me that you were wanting for nothing.”

“I do remember Sir…vaguely… and I remember that party was just for appearances. That was the first and last party I ever had. Because my birthday also happened to be the day his only daughter, my mother died. And Grandfather saw no reason to mark it. So I never had a birthday party after that. Because I was responsible for her death.”

“Harlan told you that?” spluttered Murdoch incredulously.

“No, Grandfather would never have said that to me, and I do believe that, in his own way, he loved me. But I don’t think that he could get past the fact that she had sacrificed her own life for mine. So it was easier for him to avoid facing it altogether. ”

“And when you came home I did the same thing to you last year….” Murdoch chastised himself. “I’m sorry, Son. I told myself back then, that if you had wanted to let everyone know it was your birthday, you would, and it wasn’t my place to make a fuss. But I see now I was wrong. And If I am being entirely truthful, it was the first time that I had to look upon the day as anything other than the anniversary of your mother’s death. Because you weren’t there for the first twenty-four years.  I tried to justify my inaction by telling myself I was avoiding marking the day because I thought it was what you wanted.   But it was really about me and how I was feeling, and it was wrong of me to do that to you.”

“I can understand, Sir,” Scott tried to reassure his father. “It must have been hard for both you and Grandfather to look at me knowing that it was because of me that she died.”

“No, Scott,” Murdoch shook his head emphatically. Enough was enough. “I’m sorry, Son.  I thought Harlan would have told you this before now, and it’s certainly been remiss of me not to have set you straight on this, but you were not responsible for your mother’s death. If anything, you kept her going for far longer than was expected. Certainly longer than Sam had predicted. He was our attending physician even back then. Not too far into her pregnancy your mother started to experience excruciating headaches. They weren’t that frequent at first, and Sam assured us that it was just symptoms of the pregnancy, that it sometimes happened that way. But as the pregnancy progressed they got steadily worse, and she would get so sick.    Then one day when she was about six months into her confinement, she suddenly collapsed, and when she eventually came around her sight was affected.  Your mother was very fragile so I paid for a specialist to come down from San Francisco, and that was when he confirmed that your mother was dying. He only gave her a few weeks even then, but your mother was determined that she was going to give you every chance to live and was going to hold out to term. We discussed a name for you and your mother chose Scott to reflect where I came from, and also because she knew it would rile your grandfather.” 

Murdoch gave a wry smile as he cast his mind back.  “She had such a wicked sense of humor. To placate Harlan, and because there would be no Garrett male heir to carry on the family name, that was to be your middle name and Lancer, of course, my name. She didn’t even choose any girls’ names as nothing would persuade her you were going to be anything other than a boy. She said a young lady would never kick as vigorously as you did. She used to say that you were sure in a hurry to come out and that was likely as well….” He tailed off sadly.  He regarded his son closely; saw that he was struggling to contain the emotion that was threatening to burst forth. Hell, he had sentenced the boy to twenty-four years of needless guilt by allowing Harlan to raise him. Worse still, Scott had been home for eighteen months, and he had never told him what he needed to hear. Suddenly, Scott’s reticence over his birthday the year before, and his dismay over Teresa’s plans for his impending one, made absolute sense. “Your mother loved you fiercely even before you were born and was determined that out of her death you would thrive. So you did not kill her Scott. You gave her reason to live far beyond any of our expectations.” He placed his hand gently on Scott’s shoulder as he gently perched at his son’s side on the edge of the bed.

“My biggest regret is sending her away when she was so close to term.  Those were turbulent times, and the hacienda was under constant threat of attack. Your mother had seemed to rally, so I thought that the risk was greater keeping her here than sending her off to safety for a few days. But I should have known better.  The headaches disappearing was just a sign that the end was near. And so I never got a chance to say goodbye to her. Nor welcome my first-born son into the world. And that is a regret I will live with for the rest of my life.”

Scott swallowed, quivering with repressed emotion. “Thank you, sir,” he whispered.

“No, thank you, Son,” breathed Murdoch softly. “For allowing me a second chance. What do you say we start over and really try to get to know one another?”

“I’d like that, Sir.” Scott smiled, the relief flooding through him. It was as though a huge burden that he had carried his whole life had suddenly been lifted from his shoulders.

“Good,” asserted Murdoch, clasping Scott’s shoulder as he rose once more. “Now as to your birthday, I know that before all this started up, Teresa’s plans to throw a big party were causing you some concern, and I know why. Now that I have allayed your concerns about the actual day, can I assume that you will consent to allowing your family to mark the day in a suitable fashion?”     

Scott smiled. “Well Sir, I will be happy to have a quiet family dinner, to signify the occasion, either a few days before the date itself, or maybe afterwards. Teresa can still have the party she is itching to throw in my honor, but perhaps that can be for the benefit of the hands’?  To thank them for all their hard work lately?”

“Sounds reasonable,” agreed Murdoch.  “But what about you, Scott? What would you like to do to mark the actual day itself?”

Scott swallowed before replying, uncertain as to how his father would react to his request.  “Well, there is something that I would like to do, sir.   Somewhere I’d like to go. I haven’t liked to ask before but…” 

 



EPILOGUE – Day 18:  Monday 19th December 1870

Seven days later, two men stood in a wind swept valley.  One stood vigil over a solitary grave, the pristine white picket fence surrounding the raised mound standing out starkly against the desolate landscape.  The other stood a few feet away, waiting patiently by the buckboard and horses, watching over his son.

Scott had followed a strict regimen of bed rest and regular meals to make it this far, but it didn’t prevent his father from looking on worriedly as his son stood exposed to the elements in this lonely, isolated place. Sam Jenkins had been totally against Scott making the trip but, eventually, Murdoch had persuaded him that it was a rite of passage his son needed to take to aid in his mental recovery.  As to his, still fragile, physical condition, Murdoch had vowed to ensure he didn’t overdo it.

The tears ran freely down Scott Lancer’s face as read the epitaph etched on the simple stone marker.

Here lies Catherine Elizabeth Lancer,

September 18th 1820 – December 19th 1844

Beloved wife of Murdoch and loving mother of Scott

She gave so much and asked so little in return”

It was hard for Scott to reconcile that this was the very spot where his mother’s life had so tragically ended and his own had begun.  The town of Carterville lay a mile off in the distance, within view of the gravesite.  So near but yet, for his mother, so very far. She had not been able to hold on long enough to get to shelter, to draw her final breath in the comfort of a warm bed, surrounded by people who cared. Instead, she had used her last vestige of strength to bring her only son into the world before she had succumbed in this god-forsaken spot, without any loved ones to see her on her way. Then she had been hurriedly buried without ceremony or concern, even as her son was spirited away, to be raised in the sterile environment of his grandfather’s household.

Scott reached into his breast pocket and removed the picture of his mother. He wanted to memorize every line, every curve, every part of her, so that her image would be forever imprinted on his memory. Even if he had been denied the privilege of knowing her.

He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Son, it’s freezing out here. We need to get you out of this cold wind.”

Scott had been grateful for the time his father had given him alone at the grave, and even more so for agreeing to make the journey with him at all. When he had tremulously made the request of his father, he hadn’t been sure how he would respond. But Murdoch had surprised him by agreeing instantly, admitting that it was a trip they should have made together long before now.  It was a two-day journey to Carterville, with Sam insisting that they go by buckboard so that Scott could rest; but even so, the journey had been harrowing, and Scott was beyond exhausted.

“Scott?”

“Murdoch, why did you leave her here?” entreated Scott, gazing around at the isolated setting. The simple posy of peonies he had laid on his mother’s grave provided the only color in the gray and pitiless landscape.    “Why didn’t you take her home to Lancer?” Scott found it hard to conceive how his father could have left his mother alone in such a cold and unforgiving place. He shivered as the wind whistled around him, permeating the many layers that he was wrapped in and chilling him to the bone.

“I didn’t want to disturb her anymore,” his father responded softly. “She had already been uprooted enough. I couldn’t bear to disturb her rest. So I found some good people in Carterville who vowed to take care of the grave for me. And they have done so ever since.” He put his arm around Scott’s shoulder feeling the violent tremors as they wracked his son’s painfully thin frame. “There are some good people in this world, Scott.”

“Yes, sir.” Scott whispered, surprised at the physical contact his father had initiated but grateful for it. “There’s one question I have always wanted to ask…”

“Name it, Son.”

Scott swallowed.  It was something he had spent his whole life wondering, and he almost couldn’t bear to ask the question, but he needed to know, one way or another.  “Did she ever see me? Hold me? Before she died. Did she know she had a son?”

Murdoch hesitated. He had been afraid of this.  The truth was, he didn’t know the answer to that question. He had arrived in Carterville too late. He had discovered the freshly dug grave adorned with a simple wooden marker to tell him that his young wife was the occupant, and had found no sign of his newborn son. At first he had thought that the infant had perished too, but once he had located the midwife, she had revealed only the basic facts, that his wife had succumbed and that the child had been taken away by agents acting on behalf of his grandfather.   Murdoch looked at the haunted expression reflected in his son’s eyes.  Scott was desperate to hear that his mother had looked upon him and held him and loved him before she had drawn her final breath. But Murdoch recalled the words he had instilled in Scott in the cantina in Hard luck. He had told Scott that he had never lied to him. Never. And that was the simple truth. He never had. And he wasn’t about to start lying now, even if it was to tell the boy what he wanted to hear. What he needed to hear. No, he wouldn’t break that vow.  He wouldn’t lie to his son.

“I’m sorry, Scott. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but I just don’t know. What I do know is, before you were even born, your mother loved you. And if there was any way she could have held on long enough to look upon you and tell you she loved you, she would have. She would have sent you on your way with all the love that she had inside her. Because that was the woman your mother was.  That was the woman I fell so completely in love with.” 

Scott nodded silently in acknowledgement, too overcome with emotion to speak.  She had given him so much.

“She did leave something for you, though,” continued Murdoch. “I have it safely stored in a safety deposit box in the bank.  It’s a pearl necklace. It was her mother’s, and she loved to wear it on special occasions. When she knew she was dying, she instructed me to keep it safe for you. So that when you found the girl you wanted to marry, you could give it to her. Until then it was to remain in my safe keeping. I’ve kept that promise, and I will continue to do so until you bring your bride home. That is, if you ever do bring her home. I’m not getting any younger you know.”

Scott looked into this bear of a man’s eyes, saw the suggestion of a smile, the twinkle that belied the gruff tone, and wondered how he could ever have missed the love and the pride shining in his father’s eyes.  He was glad that he hadn’t found the pearls when he searched Murdoch’s room, glad that they hadn’t been soiled by Hatton’s insidious touch. They remained untainted, pure, and, one day, he would fulfill his mother’s wishes and present them to the one he chose to be his wife.

He smiled tiredly back at his father. “Thank you, sir, for everything. Would you like some time alone with her?”

Murdoch shook his head. “No, son. There’s nothing I could say to your mother here that I wouldn’t be able to say elsewhere. Besides, she’s not here anymore. Not really.  I never truly understood that until now. Because her essence is all around us, wherever we are.  She’s omnipresent, and I now get to see her every day. In you.”  

The intensity of his father’s gaze and the potency of his words finally breached Scott’s crumbling defenses, and the pent up emotion that he had fought so hard to contain suddenly burst forth.  And they weren’t the only barriers that had come down.  Instinctively, Murdoch Lancer gathered his son into his embrace, holding him tightly as Scott finally released the guilt and the grief and the pain that he had been holding onto for so long.

As his son’s sobs subsided, Murdoch gently steered him away from his mother’s final resting place. “C’mon, let’s go home, son,” he coaxed, gently, anxious to get him back to the bosom of his family as soon as possible to continue his recovery. “No more grieving. No more pain. It’s the future that matters now. Your mother would be glad that you’ve finally come home to where you belong. As am I. To have both my sons at my side is the best gift I could ever have received.  Happy Birthday, son."

 

 

~ end ~

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