The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Caroline and Linda (Kona)

 

 

A New Beginning

The central theme of this story is bigotry and prejudice.

If you are not comfortable with this please do not read.

The rating is a very strong PG13

 

Chapter 1

After four long days on the trail, the Lancer brothers were happy and relieved to see some signs of civilization.

“Will you look at that, Boston?” Johnny grinned, sitting back in the saddle to stretch his aching back. “If that ain’t a sight for sore eyes, I don’t know what is.”

Scott nodded, wiping the sweat from his brow as he read the sign nailed to a tree, “’Ten Miles to Serenity.’ I hope it lives up to its name.”

“Anything’s better than sleeping on the hard ground like we’ve been doing the past three nights. I tell ya, Brother, these last four months living at Lancer have made me soft.”

Sleeping under the stars was all well and good, but both young men were missing the comforts of home…good food, a comfortable bed and, most of all, the pleasure of a nice hot bath. They had washed up as best they could in an ice-cold stream that morning, but Johnny knew that Scott in particular felt conscious of their dishevelled appearance.

For the next few miles they followed the line of a barbed wire fence. At regular intervals they saw signs warning people to keep out.  They stopped by one of the signs and unhooked their canteens.

“Whoever owns that land sure ain’t keen on gettin’ any unwanted visitors,” Johnny commented before drinking deeply. He pushed his hat off his head and poured a thin stream of water over his dark hair.

Johnny saw Scott’s attention was caught by two men three hundred yards away, riding parallel to the fence with their rifles drawn.  “Johnny?”

“I see ‘em.”

“Fences, signs, patrols…I wonder what they’re protecting.”

Johnny shook his head, scattering droplets of water. “None of our business. Let’s go.  I’d kill for a cold beer round about now.” He lightly tapped the palomino with his spurs and Barranca took off at a canter.

Scott groaned at his brother’s choice of words and ignored the cheeky grin as he gently urged his horse into a canter to catch up.

As they got closer to town they saw a lone farmhouse, its feeble crops a testament to the hardships a farmer faced in this dry, dusty scrubland.

Scott stared at it. "How many of those do you think are around here? A hell of a place to try to grow anything.”

"You do what you have to do to survive out here, Scott. Ain't none of it pretty."

It wasn’t long before they reached another sign proclaiming ‘Serenity one mile ahead’ and the brothers slowed their tired horses to a walk. They still had at least three days hard riding ahead of them and a night in the livery stable with decent feed would set their animals up for the rest of the journey.

Scott automatically tried to slap the worst of the dirt off his trousers. Having grown up in Boston, where appearances counted, he was still finding the constant grime hard to contend with. He caught his brother’s grin as Johnny gave him a sidelong look.

 

“You can take the man out of Boston, but not Boston out of the man,” Johnny quipped.

“Don’t let my grandfather hear you say that. It would give the poor man false hope.”

****

Serenity was typical of the small towns that had sprung up close to the Mexican border except for one thing, a thing that was immediately noticeable to the ever-observant youngest Lancer. As they rode down the main street he didn’t see one Mexican face. A slight frown creased his forehead and deepened as he realised that they…he…was being regarded by the townsfolk with distinct animosity. By his side, Scott rode relaxed and oblivious to the undercurrents. Johnny pulled his hat lower over his eyes and continued to scan the street surreptitiously for signs of trouble.

The only saloon was at the far end of the main street. There was a small hotel set apart from the line of shops and businesses just at the town limits. As they rode past the jail the sheriff emerged onto the boardwalk.  He was short, with a thickly muscled neck and a bad tempered face. As he watched Johnny his face took on a red flush.

When Johnny dismounted outside the saloon he looked back and, as expected, found that the sheriff was still staring in their direction.

“Trouble?”

“I hope not.” His hand automatically dropped to his gun, caressing the handle without even realizing it. “All I’m interested in right now is a cold beer followed by a nice long soak in a hot tub, something to eat and then…”  Johnny grinned as he left the remainder of his answer hanging.

Scott slapped him on the back, raising a cloud of dust.  “I wouldn’t say no to some female company later either. After you.” Scott stood aside to let Johnny enter the saloon first. Over the last few months it had become a habit… with Scott appearing to accept his brother’s need to know if there was a threat waiting for him inside. Even the saloons in Green River and Morro Coyo didn’t escape Johnny’s scrutiny.

Johnny pushed open the batwing doors and stopped to allow his eyes to adjust to the darker interior.  His gaze settled on a young man who was pushing a broom half-heartedly across the floor.  Sensing that he was being watched, the man looked up and met Johnny’s stare before returning to his task with new vigour. Having satisfied himself that it was safe to enter, Johnny sauntered over to the bar.  He reached into his pocket for a coin and flipped it on the wooden surface.  “First round’s on me.”  He waited for the bartender to acknowledge him, but the man just kept on polishing glasses.

Johnny tilted his head to one side and looked the man up and down.  He could tell that the bartender was aware of him as a slight flush crept up the man’s neck.  “I can see that you’re awful busy,” Johnny’s soft sarcasm caused the flush to deepen.  “We are kinda thirsty, so d’you think you could stop what you’re doin’ and pour us two beers?”

A hush fell over the saloon.  The bartender ignored Johnny and walked toward the other end of the bar.  As he passed Scott, the young blond reached over and took hold of the man’s sleeve.

“You heard my brother.  Is there a problem?”

For the first time, the man acknowledged the brothers’ presence.  He cast a sour look in Johnny’s direction before turning his attention to Scott.  “He’s the problem.  We don’t serve his kind in here.”

“What do you mean ‘his kind’?” Scott demanded angrily.

“Leave it, Scott.  It’s not worth gettin’ all riled up about.”  Johnny was starting to get a real bad feeling about this town.  “Let’s go over to the hotel and get checked in.”

The sound of chairs scraping across the wooden floor drew Scott’s attention away from the bartender. From the mirror behind the bar he could see three rough looking men approaching. Scott was suddenly aware of everyone in the bar. As he turned around he took a step closer to the counter, conscious of Johnny doing the same and of the bartender scurrying for cover.

The look on Johnny’s face gave the men pause.  His slight smile wasn’t mirrored by his eyes.  His level stare was cold and he had gone completely still.  The men’s eyes travelled from Johnny’s face to his right hip where his hand now rested on his gun.

The spokesman for the small group licked his lips nervously, clearly debating whether or not to continue.  The man to his right shifted uneasily from foot to foot, while the man to his left found a sudden interest in a knothole in the floor.  When the spokesman did eventually pluck up the courage to speak, his voice hitched in his throat.  “You won’t find no vacancies over at the hotel.  It’d be best if you just rode out of town.”

Scott watched Johnny lean back and rest his left elbow on the bar.  His seemingly relaxed stance fooled no one, least of all his brother.  He saw Johnny's smile broaden and knew his sibling was appreciating the effect he was having on the three bullies.

“We’re not looking for any trouble.  All we want is a drink and a room for the night.”

The doors to the saloon swung open and the sheriff stepped in, his deputy at his side.  He looked hard at the two men, his eyes lingering on Johnny’s blue eyes and low slung gun.  “We don’t hold with Mexicans or half-breeds in this town, Boy.  You can either leave peaceful like or I’m gonna have to arrest you for disturbing the peace.”

"Doing nothing to disturb the peace," Johnny drawled, his voice low.  "We just want a drink."

“He can have a drink.” The sheriff pointed at Scott then shifted his gaze back to Johnny. ”But you’re leaving town.”

"Now wait just a minute, Sheriff.  There's no law that says my brother can't get served a drink or take a room in the hotel."  Scott tried to keep his tone reasonable, not wanting to inflame an already incendiary situation.

"This is my town, Boy...my rules. No Mexicans allowed."

“That’s outrageous!” Scott took a step toward the sheriff only to be pulled up short by his brother.  He could feel his face redden. He looked to Johnny and was infuriated even more by the calm look on his brother’s face.

"He ain't worth it, brother." Johnny sighed. "Let's get out of here...something stinks."

“See, he ain’t nothing but a cowardly wetback.” One of the men sneered, seemingly emboldened by the sheriff’s presence

Scott shook off Johnny's hand and turned on the man who had just insulted his brother.  "That does it."  He swung his fist at the man's face.

Johnny couldn't help the grin that spread over his face, before he dived in after his brother.

The few remaining patrons of the saloon scattered as Scott's blow knocked the man flying into a nearby table. The table collapsed under his weight and he hit the floor hard. Scott got off one more solid punch before his arms were grabbed from behind and he was dragged toward the back of the saloon.

Scott knew that Johnny had grown up fighting. His brother could take a punch and deliver one. Three men were no match for him until the sheriff came up from behind and pistol whipped him across the head. Scott’s warning shout, seconds before the blow connected, was lost in the chaos of the moment. Johnny fell to the ground, a thin trickle of blood flowing toward his ear.

Fear for his brother lent Scott extra strength and he tore himself free.  Johnny was sprawled face down on the floor when Scott reached him.  "What is wrong with you people? My brother didn’t do anything!" Scott yelled.

"He was born," the sheriff said coldly.

Scott fell to his knees and gently turned Johnny over.  The blue eyes were tightly shuttered and Scott swore when he realized how shallow his brother's breathing had become.  “He needs a doctor."

"Well, he won't get one here."  The sheriff casually dismissed Scott’s concern.

"You can't leave him just lying here.”  Scott had pulled out a handkerchief and was vainly trying to stop the bleeding.

"Don't worry," the sheriff sneered.  "I've got a nice cozy cell just waiting for him."

Scott stood up and glared at the sheriff in disbelief.  "You have no reason to arrest him. I started the fight. Arrest me."

The sheriff ignored the irate blond and pointed to his deputy. "Carl, you and Jimmy get this piece of garbage over to the jail."

“Sure thing, Sheriff Rayner.” Carl slapped Jimmy on the shoulder, grinning. "We can do that, can't we Jimmy?”

Scott positioned himself between his brother's inert body and the approaching men, his hand hovering close to his gun.

"Don't be a fool, Boy," the sheriff warned.  "He's not worth stopping a bullet for."

Recognizing that getting himself shot wasn't going to help Johnny, Scott slowly moved his right hand away from his gun. He watched in impotent fury as one deputy unbuckled Johnny's gunbelt and handed it to the sheriff before the other deputy helped him lift Johnny roughly from the floor

The bartender hurried over to the group.  "You might want to have Vinnie swab this floor real good," the Sheriff advised.

Scott followed them outside, suddenly aware that the ruckus in the saloon had gotten the town’s attention.  A small, and distinctly unfriendly, crowd had gathered in the street.

As the sheriff hurried to catch up with his deputies Scott reached out and snagged his arm. “You haven't heard the last of this, Sheriff.  I'll have an order from the judge for Johnny's release before the day is over."

"What judge?"  The sheriff laughed at Scott’s surprised look. "You can have your brother back in the morning if you can come up with the two hundred dollar fine for trashing the saloon."

"That's blackmail." Scott fought for control of his temper.  "How am I supposed to find that kind of money? Besides, there’s nothing in there worth two hundred dollars.”

The sheriff shrugged.  "Take it or leave it.  Don't worry...I'll take real good care of him."

"The hell you will, I'm coming with you. I've already seen how you take care of him."

"You keep trying my patience and I'll lock you up right along with him."

“Then you won’t get your money.”

The stalemate lasted for the length of time it took for Scott to realize the hopelessness of his position.  “If you’ve got a bank I can get the money,” he said through tightly clenched teeth.

The sheriff nodded to two men standing in the crowd.  “Take him over to the bank.”  Turning back to Scott he grinned. “I sure hope you have the money to get your brother out or else he’s gonna be enjoying my hospitality for a good long time.  I don’t think he’d thank you for that much.”

As the two men flanked Scott he threw a disgusted look at the sheriff before shouldering past him.

****

By the time the sheriff reached the jail, the two men had dumped Johnny on the narrow cot in one of the cells.

"You want us to tie him up, Sheriff?"  Carl asked.

"Good idea.  Half breeds can be tricky. It'll make it easier to teach him a lesson later."  The sheriff pulled a length of rope from his desk drawer and threw it to Carl.  “Make sure you don’t tie it too tight,” he warned with a nasty grin.

Johnny was roughly pushed onto his stomach, a faint groan escaping his lips.  Carl wrenched his arms behind his back and looped the rope around Johnny's wrists.  After tying him securely, Carl rolled him onto his side, ignoring the trail of blood turning the mattress red.

The two men left and the sheriff had just settled down with a cup of coffee when the door slammed open to admit a very frustrated Scott Lancer.  “Why didn’t you tell me the Bank was closed?” Scott yelled.

"Well, what do you know? It's Wednesday.  Bank always closes early on a Wednesday. I guess your brother'll be spending the night after all.” The sheriff took a sip of his coffee.  “Why don't you go get a room at the hotel?”

Scott ignored the sheriff and crossed to the locked door separating him from his brother.  His concern at finding Johnny still unconscious was immediately overtaken by his fury at seeing that they had tied him up.  “There’s no need to tie him, he’s out cold.”

“Can’t take a chance…a man like that.”

“Like what?”  Scott clenched his fists, barely suppressing the urge to punch the sheriff in his smug mouth.

“A filthy half-breed gunhawk.  The worst kind.”

The depth of loathing took Scott by surprise.  He had rarely encountered prejudice during his sheltered life in Boston, but had still taken a stand against the evils of slavery by fighting in the war.  To hear such unreasoning hatred directed toward his brother shook him deeply. "Keep the insults to yourself, Sheriff, or I might forget you are the law around here.”

The Sheriff lunged at Scott, slamming him against the bars, pinning his shoulders against the cell door. "You better watch what you say, boy. I can put you in there with your brother...then neither of you will be coming out soon.”

They both heard a moan and Scott cocked his head to see Johnny slowly regaining consciousness

The sheriff released his hold on Scott and, before the young man could react, snagged his gun out of its holster. "Don't want you getting any ideas about breaking your brother out of jail."

"Just let me inside. Can't you see he's hurt?" He could see that Johnny's eyes were now open and that a look of confusion had settled on his brother's face.

Johnny moved slightly before obviously realizing that his hands were tied behind him.  “What's going on? What hit me?" he asked, struggling to sit up. “And why the hell am I tied up?”

“I hit you. Just getting the riff raff off the street,” the sheriff answered.

"You mean Mexicans," Johnny spat.  “Hijo de puta.”

"Don’t know what you just said, Boy, but that’ll cost you another hundred.”

As Scott opened his mouth to protest the sheriff continued.  "One more word from either of you and I'm gonna raise that fine so high you won't never get him out."

"Take it easy, Boston." Johnny’s voice came weakly from the cell. "You won't do either of us any good in a cell next to me. Find a room and cool down. I'll be alright. I've had worse...and you know it."

Scott was forced to the reluctant conclusion that his presence was doing Johnny more harm than good.  He turned to the sheriff.  "I'll be back in the morning with the money.  You'd better make sure nothing happens to him in the meantime or you'll have more trouble than you can handle.”

"You threatening me, Boy?" The sheriff looked past Scott to Johnny sitting on the bunk. "I'd watch my step if I were you. You never can tell who could get hurt around here."

Scott held out his hand, ignoring the threat.  "My gun?"

"You won't be needing it while you're in town."

Scott gritted his teeth in irritation. "I think you'll find, Sheriff, that the Lancer name carries a lot of weight in this state."

"Lancer huh?  Well, that name don't mean a thing down here…’cept that you can pay your brother's fine.”  The sheriff stared harder at Johnny. "You don't look like no Lancer to me, Boy,"

"He's my half brother," Scott snapped. “Not that it’s any of your business.”

"Seems to me I've heard something..." The sheriff looked speculatively at Johnny.

Johnny braced himself against the wall and quelled a surge of nausea.  He had a crushing headache and noticed blood staining the mattress, but he knew the sheriff was on the verge of making the connection. "Don't say too much, brother," he whispered to himself.

“I heard tell that Johnny Madrid found himself a real fancy set up in the San Joaquin.” The sheriff laughed.  "Well, if that don't beat all.  Johnny Madrid.  I'd say your freedom just got a mite more expensive.  A thousand bucks might just make me keep that bit of information to myself."

"That's extortion."

"Yes, Boy, it surely is."

"Easy, Scott," Johnny warned. "Let’s just pay the fine and get out of this town. We can talk about it later. Ain’t no use both of us being locked up."

Scott looked as if he wanted to argue, then gave a reluctant nod. "I'll see you in the morning."

Johnny watched as Scott slowly walked out of the jail, then glanced over at the sheriff. He knew what was coming…had known before the sheriff made the connection between Lancer and Madrid  He braced himself and managed a slight smile.

The sheriff grabbed the keys to Johnny’s cell. "Let's see how tough Johnny Madrid really is."

 

Chapter 2

Scott woke early after an uneasy night worrying about his brother.  He had been confident of persuading the bank manager to hand over two hundred dollars on the strength of the Lancer name, but a thousand was another matter entirely.

After leaving the jail the previous evening he had booked into the hotel before eating a barely adequate meal in the small dining room.  His feelings of guilt had grown with each passing moment.  He had food and a reasonably comfortable bed…his brother was stuck in jail, bound and most likely suffering from a concussion. He had returned to the jail intent upon checking on Johnny before heading back to his room only to find the front door already locked.  His feeling of unease intensified, but there was not a damn thing he could do about it. The more he pushed the sheriff, the more Johnny became a target.

He had thrown the first punch.  The fight had been his fault and yet it was Johnny who was suffering.  The feeling of guilt caused his stomach to roil. And what hurt even more was Johnny’s acceptance of the whole thing. Why hadn't it set his brother on fire with indignation? Had he experienced so much in his lifetime that it didn't matter any more?

Breakfast was the last thing on his mind as he quickly washed and dressed. He wanted to reassure himself that Johnny hadn't come to further harm. The street was still quiet as he left the hotel although he was conscious of the unfriendly stares from the few people he saw on his way to the jail. He couldn't get out of this town fast enough.

The door to the jail stood ajar as Scott approached. He swallowed the panic that rose in his throat and quickened his steps, nearly running as he reached the opposite boardwalk.

He cautiously pushed the door open until he could see inside. The office was empty except for the lone figure of his brother lying still as death on the cot inside his cell. Johnny had his back turned to the bars and was curled up as if protecting himself, the rope still binding his wrists.

He looked round for the keys hoping that the sheriff had left them lying around.  The peg on the wall, where they had been hanging the night before, was empty and he cursed under his breath.

He crossed to the cell door, calling his brother's name. His heart skipped a beat when he didn't get an answer

"Johnny," he called softly, not wanting to startle his brother if he were merely sleeping, but there was no response.

"Johnny!” He said louder.

Nearly frantic with worry Scott turned on his heels at the sound of someone approaching. Before the sheriff had taken a step into the room Scott had crossed the short distance between them and taken hold of the man’s jacket with his left hand, his right balled into a fist.

"What the hell did you do to my brother?" he demanded fiercely.

"Nothing that he didn't have coming."

Scott could barely think and he was overcome with such hatred at that moment. He pulled back his arm to punch the sheriff when Rayner grabbed his arm and twisted him around.

"You listen to me, Lancer. You may be a big name up where you come from, but around here you're only the brother of a half breed. Now I'd suggest you go get that money so you can get that bean counter out of here before something really bad happens to him.”

"I want to see him first. I have a right to see my brother." Scott struggled against the firm grip.

"You ain't got no rights around here. You better get that through your head. Now, you can see him just fine through them bars.”

Scott's shoulders slumped in defeat. As the sheriff released his arm Scott crossed back to the cell. He was encouraged to see some movement now from his brother although he still couldn't see Johnny's face. "Time to wake up, Brother."

The only answer he received was a deep moan that turned his blood cold.

"Johnny?  Johnny, are you ok?" Scott turned on the sheriff. "What did you do to him?" he demanded.

"Scott?" the whispered word distracted Scott from the sheriff and he turned back to stare intently through the bars. Scott watched as Johnny struggled to turn onto his back, his bound wrists making it doubly hard for his brother to move. He could tell by the smothered grunts of pain that Johnny was hurting bad.

Johnny sucked in a shallow breath. "Got...got the money?"

"Sorry, Johnny. The bank was closed yesterday remember, and it’s still too early."

Johnny's eyes found his brother's and he said softly. "Get me out of here."

Scott nodded wordlessly and turned to leave.

"Scott," Johnny called, his voice too weak. "Don’t do anything to rile them. I just wanna go home.”

As Scott approached the sheriff he saw a glint appear in the man's eye.  "You're not gonna be able to come up with a thousand dollars today and we both know it." Rayner smirked at the blond.

Scott's step faltered.  This was what had kept him awake most of the night. "Don't be too sure about that, Sheriff," he replied with more confidence than he felt. He looked back on Johnny and had a sickening feeling that the sheriff was right.

As the door closed behind him, Scott had a terrible feeling that things would not be going their way in this town. He looked across the street and saw the bank office. Someone had just turned the sign in the widow from closed to open. He took a deep breath and stepped off the boardwalk.

***

Scott ran a hand through his hair in frustration.  He had been sitting in the Bank Manager’s office for half an hour and, so far, the man was stubbornly refusing to release any money to him.

"Mr Harper," Scott said, more reasonably than he was feeling. "I have explained to you that Lancer is good for the money.  It will be repaid with whatever interest you feel is fair in a few days."

"I'm sure it will, Mr. Lancer, but you have to understand my position. I can't just hand over one thousand dollars to a complete stranger. I can tell you are an intelligent man, and therefore you must understand I have a duty to my investors.”

Scott stood up abruptly. "Look, I don't know if you're part of this set-up or not. My brother is over there in that cell, hurt, I don't know how badly. I need that money!”

The Bank Manager’s condescending smile disappeared as he rose to his feet.  "I will not be insulted in my own office.  I suggest you send a wire to your Bank and arrange a transfer because that is the only way you'll be getting any money out of my Bank."

"And where can I send that wire?" Scott spat.

"The nearest telegraph office is in Norton, about thirty miles from here." Calvin Harper started to shepherd his troublesome visitor toward the door.

Scott resisted the man’s efforts to get him to leave. "Thirty miles?"  He knew that he didn't have a hope of getting there and back in less than a day. "Can you send someone there?" he asked.

The banker shook his head.  "You know you have to be present to provide identification and send the bank account details."

Scott picked up his hat and gloves.  "Thank you for your assistance," he said sarcastically.  "What time will the Bank be closing today?"

"Three fifteen as always."

"But I can't possibly get back...."

"Not my problem, Mr. Lancer. Bank hours are bank hours. They change for no one. We will reopen at nine am sharp tomorrow morning.  Good day."

Scott stepped back out onto the boardwalk and noticed the sign over the saloon.  Serenity! Nothing could be further from the truth.

****

Scott stepped off the boardwalk oblivious to all the horses and wagons passing by him in the street. All he knew was that he was going to have to tell his brother that he had to leave him here alone, and that he had to spend at least one more night in that cell.

He still hadn't gotten a good look at Johnny. He had been worked over, that he was sure of but, how badly he was almost afraid to find out. He wished there was one decent person in the town that he could turn to.  He was sure that Johnny would have been given nothing to eat or drink since his arrest and he couldn't trust the sheriff to treat him with any compassion while he was out of town.

As he passed by the saloon he saw the swabber sweeping the boardwalk. The boy looked at him then looked away.  Was he ashamed of what was happening here? So far, it seemed he was the only one.

Scott stopped, unsure whether or not to speak to the boy.  "Is there anywhere round here I could get some food for my brother?"

Vinnie nodded. "Got some beans already cooking inside. Won't be ready for another hour though."

"I have to leave town.  Is there any way you could get some over to the jail later?  I'd really appreciate it."  Scott tossed the boy two dollars.

"The sheriff don't take kindly to anyone interfering with his prisoners," Vinnie said doubtfully.

"How about when he goes out on his rounds?"

Vinnie looked over at the sheriff's office.  Nodding uncertainly he said, "I could do that..." before going back to sweeping the boardwalk.

"Thanks."

Scott reached the front door of the jail, uncertain about how he was going to explain to his brother that he had failed to obtain the money necessary to free him.  He found the sheriff sitting at his desk, a plate of eggs and bacon before him. He looked past to see Johnny still lying on the cot, motionless. "You feed your prisoners around here sheriff?"

"Don't waste good food on worthless half-breed gunhawks."

Scott fists tightened...he was so close to knocking the bigot straight to hell, but he kept his calm. It would only make things worse for Johnny. He saw his brother shift at the sound of his voice and hurried past the sheriff.

"You all right, Johnny?"

Johnny nodded, but Scott could tell by his labored breathing he was far from all right. Pain dulled blue eyes looked in his direction.  "Been better."

Scott bit his lip as he watched his brother struggle to sit up, hindered by both his injury and his hands still tied behind his back.

Scott lowered his voice. "What happened? And tell me the truth.”

Johnny looked away.  "Just roughed me up some.  I've had worse."

"Stop acting like it doesn't matter. That bastard had no right to lay a hand on you."

"Just give him the money and we can get out of this town."

Now it was Scott's turn to look away.  "I haven't got it."

Silence hung between them for a moment. "You went to the Bank?”

"I tried, Johnny, but the Bank wouldn't advance that amount just on my say so."

"I can't stay here, Scott.  You've got to find a way to get me out."  The desperate plea cut Scott to the quick.

"I'm going to Norton to send a wire to our Bank. I'll be able to get the money in the morning...first thing. You just have to hang in there a little longer. I'm sorry Johnny...I know this is all my fault....I threw the first punch.”

"I don't reckon it matters much who started it.  I'd have wound up in here anyway just for being a mestizo.”

Scott looked enquiringly at his brother.  "It means half-breed," Johnny explained bitterly.

"Don't talk like that.  You've nothing to be ashamed of."

Johnny shook his head sadly. “You don’t understand, Brother.  This is no different to what I’ve faced my whole life. My gut tells me there's something real wrong with this town.”

Scott arched an eyebrow.  "We are going home as soon as I get you loose, aren't we?"

"Sure Scott." But, Johnny had to turn away from his brother's probing eyes.

Scott sighed.  Over the last few months he had become quite adept at reading his brother and he knew when he was being lied to "I'll be back as soon as I can.  Try and stay out of trouble while I’m gone.”

Johnny smirked as best he could. "When don't I?"

“When do you?”

Scott reached into the cell, damning the bars that separated him from his brother. He was truly afraid of what would happen to Johnny while he was gone. He ruffled his brother's dark hair affectionately.

"I'll be here. Just hurry." Johnny leant against Scott's hand for a moment

Scott backed away, finding it hard to turn from his brother. He looked down at the sheriff.  “Just remember that if my brother dies you don't get your blood money."

Sheriff Rayner followed Scott out onto the boardwalk, easing himself down into the rocking chair outside the jail, and watched as the blond collected his horse and rode out of town. It was already warm.  It promised to be another hot day.

The more he thought of Lancer’s threat the angrier he got. No one talked to him like that and got away with it. He gazed up into the sky and an evil grin appeared on his face.  Eying the water trough in front of the saloon he had an idea. He pushed himself to his feet and set off in search of his deputies

Johnny sat back, leaning against the wall. His ribs hurt with each breath he took, and the lack of food and water were starting to make his stomach ache. He knew the sheriff wasn't about to feed him so he was in for a long day. He had just slipped into an uneasy doze when he heard heavy footsteps approaching his cell and he opened his eyes reluctantly.

The sheriff stood with a coil of rope slung over his left shoulder and the key to the cell in his right hand. "Thought you could do with some sunshine, Boy." He grinned.

The nasty chuckles from the sheriff's two companions warned Johnny that he was in deep trouble

The cell door was opened and Johnny was roughly pulled off the cot. "Outside Madrid."  The sheriff pushed him toward the open door. With his hands still tied behind his back he had to fight to keep his balance.

He squinted against the bright sun and noticed a crowd had gathered around the sheriff's office. A hanging party was his first thought. With a deputy on each side of him he was steered across the street to the saloon. As they approached the horse trough, Johnny looked longingly at the water.  He was pushed down to the ground, his back pressed up against the wooden trough.

"You can thank your brother for this," the sheriff hissed. "I don't take kindly to being threatened. He said I wouldn't get my blood money if you died. Well, Boy, you're gonna wish you were dead by the end of the day."

The sheriff handed the coil of rope to Carl.  "Make sure he can't get loose."  He turned to the crowd..."Anyone helping this Mexican trash will spend the day in my jail. Everyone understand?”

There were murmurings but no one appeared brave enough to stand up against the sheriff.

Johnny squinted up at the sun.  He reckoned it wasn't much past ten o'clock. He hissed as the rope pulled tight around his chest...his ribs on fire. He still had a long day ahead of him.

 

Chapter 3

By the time the sun had reached its zenith, Johnny was drifting in and out of consciousness.  No one had come near him thanks to the presence of an armed deputy sitting in the shade on the boardwalk. The sound of the water gently sloshing in the trough was like torture. He couldn’t remember ever being so thirsty.

The sheriff had appeared once and had stood in front of Johnny taking a long drink of water from his canteen before emptying it in the dirt at Johnny's feet. “Thirsty, Boy?” he taunted.

Johnny had glared at the sheriff as best he could, but his eyes burned from the harsh rays of the sun and the sweat dripping into them.

Seeing Johnny's hate filled look the sheriff laughed. "Be sure to thank your brother for this when he gets back." He aimed a kick at Johnny's right leg before walking away, still chuckling to himself.

Johnny had almost lost his grip on reality when he realised that a shadow had fallen across his face.  He heard an angry female voice speaking in Spanish and a ladle of cool water touched his lips.  He heard her mutter "animals."

He drank greedily, but the woman pulled the cup away. “Not too much,” she warned.

He felt her hands tugging at the rope. He could hear the deputy swearing at the woman and gathered his strength to tell her to leave him for her own protection.  “Gracias,” he whispered his throat still too dry to speak. "Go," he gasped.  "Not safe..."

"You Mexicans sure are all the same… stupid."

Johnny heard the sheriff's voice and tried to lift his head.  The image of a dark haired woman wavered in front of him. His eyes met hers and he could see the pain and anger there.

"Didn't you get the message after we sent your husband home in a wagon?"

He raged against the ropes as he saw the woman's arm jerked backwards and she was swung away from him, landing in the dirt. As she fell, he saw that she was heavy with child.  Despite his own pain and weakness he struggled harder against his bonds. "Leave her alone," he tried to yell, but his words caught in his dry throat.

She scrambled backwards in the dirt, her arms clutched protectively around her swollen belly.

"Get her out of here," the sheriff ordered. "And see to it that she leaves town. We got one too many Mexes here already."

"But I need supplies..." the woman yelled, trying desperately to crawl back to Johnny.

"You and your kind ain't welcome here.  How often do you have to be told?  Get back across the border where you belong."

Suddenly stopping, the woman climbed to her knees and faced the sheriff. "There are no borders here, Senor....it is a free country.

"Not for the likes of you and him." The Sheriff leaned down and grabbed a handful of Johnny's hair, yanking his head up. “You tell her boy...you tell her how it is."

Johnny licked dry lips. "Go – shouldn’t risk the Nino for me."

She ignored Johnny's plea and looked up at the sheriff. “You can’t leave him here like this,” she cried, stunned by the brutality. “He’ll die.”

Johnny watched helplessly as Carl grabbed her arm, dragged her over to her wagon and pushed her roughly up into the seat. She cast one last agonised look at Johnny before she slowly drove out of town, her back straight in the seat, her head held high. She was a proud woman.

The sheriff released his hold on Johnny's hair and walked off laughing.  Johnny cast one last miserable look at the townsfolk who seemed content to watch him being tortured because of the color of his skin.  His gaze fell on Vinnie who was the only one to look away in shame.

Johnny sagged back against the water trough, his eyes too heavy to hold open.  "Hurry, Scott…Dios…hurry."

*****

Scott arrived back in town as the sun was setting.  He was exhausted and covered in trail dust, but he finally had the piece of paper that would guarantee his brother's release. The bank in Green River had confirmed the transfer of the funds necessary to ransom Johnny from the sadistic sheriff. And ransom was what it was. If Johnny's life were not on the line he would have fought with everything he could to take down the bigot.

It had been a long gruelling ride. He had pushed his horse as hard as he could and he feared what he would find when he returned. But nothing he could have imagined was as bad as the sight that met his eyes as he rode down the center of the town.

His heart jumped to his throat as he saw his brother sagging against the water trough in front of the saloon. A rope tying him to the trough was the only thing that kept Johnny from sliding to the ground.

Johnny's dark head was bowed, he wasn’t moving and it was clear to Scott that his brother was unconscious. Jumping from his saddle, he grabbed his canteen. The route to his brother was blocked by an armed deputy.  Scott didn't stop to think. He smashed his fist into Carl’s face, sending him hurtling back against one of the wooden posts.

Scott dropped to his knees next to Johnny, gently stroking his brother's cheek. His skin felt too hot and dry. He must have been in the sun all day. "Johnny?” Scott said carefully, lifting his brother's face up. "Come on..." he dribbled a little water onto Johnny's parched lips "Just a little...."

He heard a gun being cocked seconds before the cold steel pressed against the back of his head.

"That's my prisoner you’re messing with, Lancer.”  The sheriff warned as his finger tightened on the trigger.

Ignoring the threat to his own safety, Scott turned furiously on the sheriff "That's my brother, you bastard."

Carl snickered, wiping the blood from his cut lip. "I wouldn't be so quick to call that heap of trash my brother."

Scott exploded and charged Carl again. Carl scrambled to his feet, barrelling into Scott and sending them both rolling in the dirt.

The sheriff watched the two men trade punches for a while before pointing his pistol into the sky and pulling the trigger. "That's enough!" he barked.

The sheriff and Jimmy pulled Scott and Carl apart, Jimmy keeping hold of Scott's arms.

"I've just about had all I'm gonna take from you, Boy, so I'm gonna arrest you for attacking my deputy."

Gasping for air, Scott watched as the sheriff leaned down with a knife and cut the rope around Johnny's chest and his brother slowly slid down the water trough and lay lifeless in the dirt.

"Get him inside," the sheriff ordered, not taking a step forward to help. No one did. Scott wrenched his arms free of Jimmy’s and gently lifted Johnny into his arms carrying his limp form back into the sheriff’s office.

Scott heard the cell door clang shut as he eased Johnny onto the cot. He was appalled at his brother's condition. This was far worse than he had feared. "He needs water and a doctor," Scott begged as he struggled to untie the knots binding his brother's hands.

"The bank draft first," the sheriff said.

Scott dragged it out of his pocket and threw it through the bars. "Now, a doctor, please."

The sheriff picked it up and read it slowly and carefully. “I’ll hold onto this until morning. I'll escort you to the Bank myself. Then you two can be on your way. Carl," the sheriff yelled.  "Fetch Doc Jamieson."

"And the water?" Scott hated pleading with this man, but he had seen the effects of sun poisoning before and knew that without water his brother could still die.

The sheriff studied Johnny. "There's why ya shouldn't interbreed. If he was full Mex the sun wouldn't have bothered him."

Scott bit back the sharp retort that rose to his lips.  Antagonising the sheriff was too dangerous. "Please." Scott's respectful tone was at odds with the hatred coursing through him.

The sheriff scratched his chin while he considered Scott's request.  It was satisfying to have the high minded whelp begging for his help and he had a suspicion that allowing one of the Lancers to die wouldn't be the smartest thing he'd ever done in his life. Grabbing the ladle in the water bucket he filled it and handed it through the bars to Scott.

Scott looked at him in disbelief.  "That's not enough."

"It'll do for now. Take it or leave it," the sheriff stated dismissively.

Fearful that the water would be snatched away again, Scott took hold of the ladle and carefully pulled it through the bars. He gently lifted Johnny's head, knowing he should be grateful for just this little amount. He carefully drizzled it over Johnny's parched lips.

The faintest of moans came from deep within Johnny's throat and Scott coaxed him to drink a little more water. Dark lashes fluttered as Johnny opened his eyes to stare in confusion at his brother.

"Hey, I thought I told you to stay put," Scott said softly, trying to make his voice light.

"S...sorry," Johnny stammered.  "Got...got the money?"

Scott nodded. "We'll be out of here in the morning."

Johnny looked at him in disbelief. "Now..." he rasped.

"Johnny, the Bank doesn't open until the morning…and you’re in no condition to travel yet. Besides it seems I've been arrested as well."

The smallest of smiles touched Johnny's lips. "Couldn't keep out of trouble either?"

"Been around you too much." Scott returned his brother's smile and helped him into a semi reclining position, propped up against his pillow.

Johnny nodded, the simple move bringing a groan of pain. His head throbbed and there had been no lessening in the aching from his damaged ribs.

Scott offered his brother another small sip of water. "The doctor's on his way. He'll give you something to ease the pain."

Johnny looked at him, startled. "NO..."

"I'll watch your back," Scott said gently. "I promise."

The discussion was interrupted by the front door to the jail opening to admit an elderly gentleman carrying a doctor's bag. "What have you got for me, Sheriff?" The doctor looked into the cell with complete indifference.

"Nothing much, Doc. Sorry to drag you over here but this one," he indicated Scott, "has been making a fuss about his brother."

"What's wrong with him?”

"Seems the boy doesn't know when to come in out of the sun.” The sheriff laughed.

"I suppose I'd better examine him," the doctor said, grudgingly.

The sheriff drew his gun, pointed it at Scott and unlocked the door.  "You...out."

Scott hesitated, looking down at Johnny.

"I won't tell ya twice," the sheriff warned.

Scott stepped out and was shoved into the adjoining cell.

"Just so you won't get in the doctor's way," the sheriff grinned maliciously as he locked the door.

Scott grabbed the doctor's arm through the cell bars and pulled him away from Johnny. "You take good care of my brother or I will see that you lose your licence...and I can do it."

The doctor irritably shook himself free and reached over to feel Johnny's forehead. Johnny jerked backwards and the doctor grabbed his arm to hold him still. "He's hot and dehydrated.  Give him plenty of water and he'll be just fine."

"What about his ribs?" Scott shouted. "He's in pain."

"Leave it, Scott.  It ain't nothing I can't handle." Johnny's blue stare bored into the doctor.

Scott held his tongue. He knew whatever he said would just be taken out on his brother.

"Let's get your shirt off and I'll take a look." The doctor was impatient. His dinner was waiting for him at home and he was in no mood to tend to a surly, ungrateful, half-breed.

Johnny edged back on the cot.  “Don't need no doctoring...especially from the likes of you."

"Johnny, behave yourself.  If you want to be fit to leave tomorrow, you need help," Scott admonished his brother.

Johnny muttered under his breath as he fumbled with the buttons of his shirt, his fingers still numb from the ropes. Scott watched and willed himself to stay calm. He should be in there helping.

The doctor examined Johnny's chest, pressing harder than need be. Johnny held in the grunt of pain and glared back at him.

"Seems to be all right to me," the doctor said. Turning to the sheriff he handed him three packets of white powder. "Put this in some water. It'll knock him out and give you some peace tonight."

"No drugs." Scott heard an edge of panic in his brother's voice.

"You don't need to knock him out.” Scott pressed hard against the bars.  He knew how Johnny felt about drugs...and especially here. “Just let me back in with him and I'll look after him."

The sheriff looked at Scott. "You make any noise tonight and I'll force them down your throat too. And I won't waste the water."

After mixing the sleeping powder with some water the sheriff thrust the cup at the doctor.  "Time to go to sleep, Boy." He smirked, enjoying the thought of holding his prisoner down.

Johnny tried to scramble away, but his ribs were on fire and every ounce of his strength had been leached from him by the hot sun.

Scott watched helplessly as the sheriff held Johnny down and the doctor forced him to swallow the drug.  He had to clench the bars to keep from shouting. He couldn't risk being drugged himself.  He had promised his brother he would watch his back and that was what he would do.

As the sheriff and doctor left the cell Johnny looked back at Scott.

"I'm right here, brother," Scott said, the anger in him making his voice shake.

"I know." Johnny slurred as his eyes slid shut.

Scott watched as Johnny's body went limp against the mattress. They would pay for this, he promised. As God was his witness...They would pay for this.

*****

Scott hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but he woke with a start and saw that the sun had risen some time ago. He jumped to his feet and looked through the bars.  Johnny had not moved an inch all night. He looked out into the office and saw that it was empty. The keys to the cells sat on the desk, so near and yet impossibly out of reach.

Pushing his arm through the cell bars, he reached as far as he could to touch Johnny's head. "Johnny?" he called softly.  "Come on, Brother, wake up."

Johnny moaned softly as the front door opened and the sheriff walked in.

"Time to go, Lancer.  The Bank's about to open and I reckon I've earned my money."

Scott had his own views about what the sheriff had 'earned' but he kept his comments to himself.  They were so close to freedom and he wasn't about to jeopardise that. As the sheriff led him out of the cell, he broke free reaching for the cell bars that separated him from his brother. "Johnny...Johnny can you hear me?"

The sheriff pushed him toward the front door. "Get it done Boy. You don't want nothing else happenin' to that brother of yours...do ya?”

Johnny heard the commotion but kept his eyes closed. He just wanted out and on the road. He grimaced inwardly at the thought of sitting a horse with his ribs…but he had had worse - and that was a fact, but it didn't mean that his ribs hurt any less.

As Scott stepped outside he saw Carl and Jimmy waiting with their horses.  "What're they for?"

"They're gonna make sure you both leave town."

"Johnny can't ride," Scott balked.

"He ain't staying here stinking up our town. And there ain't no wagon for you either.”

Scott stalked across the street to the Bank with the sheriff standing in front of the jail watching him like a hawk. Once he had made the withdrawal, he walked back to the sheriff with the bail money searing his hand. It rubbed him raw that he had to submit to the bigots in this town, but he would do anything right now to get Johnny out of here.

To his right, he saw a flicker of movement and Vinnie walked toward him, a canteen in his hand. “There’s a ranch about ten miles north of here...it’s owned by a Mexican family…they can help. Take your brother and never come back. Next time he won't make it out of here alive.”

Scott took the canteen, listened to Vinnie's whispered directions, nodded then walked away. He knew the boy had taken a chance to help them. He hoped he would not pay for the kindness.

Scott watched as Johnny's cell door was opened and the sheriff hefted his brother off the cot. Johnny's knees almost buckled, and Scott rushed to grab him before he fell.

"You get that scum out of town right fast, you hear?' The sheriff ordered. "And don't ever show your faces around here again. Next time we might not be so nice.”

Scott supported his brother as Johnny walked unsteadily toward Barranca.

"I think I've had enough Serenity for a lifetime," Johnny grumbled as Scott helped him lift his foot into the stirrup.

"I hope you mean that, brother, I really do."  Scott boosted Johnny into the saddle before mounting his own horse.

Slowly Scott led Johnny out of town, his brother slumping over the saddle. He prayed they could make it to the ranch.

 

Chapter 4

Scott noticed the long line of fencing continued as they were escorted out of town. Carl and Jimmy rode on either side of him and Johnny. Johnny had slowly but surely slumped lower over the pommel of his saddle until his head was nearly touching Barranca's neck. Scott kept shooting anxious glances his way, hoping that Johnny would stay in the saddle long enough for them to reach the ranch that Vinnie had told him about.

After a couple of miles, Carl indicated that they should pull up. "You head north," he ordered, “and don't think about coming back.”

Scott moved his horse closer to Barranca and reached out a hand to steady Johnny, worried that his brother was going to slide to the ground.

Jimmy chuckled. "I don't think even a half Mex would be that dumb."

"Our guns?" Scott demanded.  "You can't leave us unarmed."

Jimmy's chuckle turned into a malicious laugh. "Who says we can't?"

Scott could feel the color rising in his face. The impulse to smash his fist into the deputy’s face was almost more than he could control. He kept tight hold of Johnny and his temper.  They were too close to freedom for him to jeopardise it by an ill-timed outburst.

"Now, that would be plain mean to leave them out here defenceless,” Carl said. “Give them their guns, Jimmy."

Jimmy nodded reluctantly and tossed both guns as far as he could throw them. "Just so you don't get no ideas about back shooting us."

As the two men turned to leave Scott dismounted, grabbed his canteen and hurried to Johnny's side. Johnny's face was ghostly white. He couldn't ride like this. His ribs needed binding and he needed some place to rest and recover his strength.

Scott swore to himself and lowered Johnny to the ground. "They're going to pay for this," Scott whispered. The depth of his anger surprised and shook him.  He had encountered violence and viciousness before while being held in a Confederate prison and had hated the guards for their brutality.  However, he had accepted it as part of the horrors of war.  The treatment meted out to Johnny solely because of the color of his skin was something outside his comprehension.  There could be no excuse and he found himself trying to come to terms with a need to exact vengeance on his brother’s behalf.

"Thought we were going home?" Johnny's voice was so low that Scott had to lean close to hear him.

"You can't make it like this. Listen…Vinnie, the swabber at the saloon, told me about a ranch near by. We can make it there and let you rest up.”

"No one’s gonna help me." Johnny’s bitterness couldn't be contained.

Scott eased Johnny's shoulders off the ground and gave him some water. "The owners are a Mexican family, so maybe we'll be able to trust them."

Scott began to pull his shirt off and Johnny grabbed his arm. "What are you doing?"

"I’m going to do what the doctor should have done, wrap your ribs."

"Leave it on, Boston,” Johnny said. "Take my shirt...you'll burn to a crisp out here."

"And you won't? I think you spent enough time in the sun yesterday." An idea occurred to Scott.  “I’m going to check the saddle bags.  If we haven’t been cleared out, there should be something we can use. Let's get you in some shade first. Can you make it to that boulder over there?" Scott asked. "It may not be much, but at least it’s  better than staying out here in the sun."

Johnny gritted his teeth and nodded.  With Scott's help he managed to get to his feet although he was almost doubled over with the pain coming from his ribs. The day spent in the sun yesterday had left him exhausted and weak.

The sleeping powder the doctor had given him had made it impossible for Scott to give him the water he needed throughout the night. More sun was the last thing he needed…but here he was again...feeling the life sucked out of him. His legs gave out and he collapsed against his brother.

Scott supported his weight and almost carried him into the pitifully small amount of shade. If there was a ranch nearby and they were willing to help, maybe he would have to leave Johnny here and go bring back a wagon. Abandoning his brother in the middle of a clearly hostile area was the last thing he wanted to do, but if he didn't do something soon it might be too late.

"Johnny," Scott lifted Johnny's head just a little to tip the canteen against his lips. "I’m going to go for help..."

"No." Johnny grabbed his arm and looked past Scott's shoulder to the sky above. Scott followed his brother's line of sight. Two large vultures circled overhead.

"They're just waiting..." Johnny said.

"There isn't a choice," Scott argued.  "You can barely sit on your horse and we can't stay out here indefinitely."

"We can ride double..."

"It'll take too long.  You need to stay out of the sun."

"I can make it,” he hissed. “Just bind these ribs."

"Johnny, be sensible.  I'll be back before you know it."

“Don’t leave me.”

Scott had never heard his brother beg…but he was very close to it now. He couldn't leave him behind. Against his better judgement, Scott acquiesced and saw Johnny relax. "Alright," Scott sighed, "let's get you ready. But if you don't make it, I'll never forgive you, you hear me?

"Yeah, Boston, I hear you.  Let's get this done."

*****

The sheriff sat at his desk counting the bail money. He was proud of himself...he had just made a killing on those two. He heard the door open and hurriedly stashed the money in his desk drawer.

Tom Everett stood in the doorway. A big man, he spoke softly and only when he had to. "Mrs. Rawlings wants to see the prisoners before you let them go.”

The sheriff looked back at the empty cell and paled, suddenly regretting having sent word to the lady rancher about Lancer and his no good brother. "I already let them go.”

Tom removed his hat and brushed a hand through his thinning brown hair.  "She's not gonna be happy about that."

"I got them to pay the fine..."

Tom held out a hand.  "Seventy five percent, just like normal.  Maybe if it's enough she'll let you keep your job."

The sheriff sat back in his chair. He could never figure that woman out. She ruled the town with an iron hand but she was fair...to everyone with white skin. He had heard rumors of her losing her husband to a band of Comancheros. He’d never worked up the nerve to ask her if they were true. All he knew for sure was that she had been in charge of this town when he had arrived five years earlier.  Sheriff Rayner reluctantly pulled out the wad of cash and began to count out the notes.

Tom held out his hand. "On second thoughts I’ll take all of it."

"Hell no! I did my job. I threw their sorry asses in jail...”

"And you let them go before you were given permission. Now hand it over and I’ll try to settle it with Mrs. Rawlings." Tom's eyes widened as he took in the amount of money being held by the sheriff. "Since when did some half-breed drifter and his brother become worth that much?"

The sheriff's eyes danced for a moment. "When I found out that the blond was a Lancer and the breed was Johnny Madrid."

Tom's eyes narrowed.  "You sure you want Mrs Rawlings to know that you had Madrid locked up and you let him loose?"

"Why? I got the money for him."

"You are one stupid son of a bitch.  You know about Madrid's reputation.  Think about it.  Why would he turn up here?"

Sheriff Rayner stared at Tom and shrugged.

"You know why Madrid was standing in front of a firing squad a few months back?"

The sheriff shook his head.

"He was helping them damn Mexicans revolt. Don't you think he might have the same thing in mind here?”

The sheriff began to sweat.  He ran his finger round the neck of his shirt in agitation "We scared the hell out of the half breed....he won't be back."

Tom shook his head pityingly.  "Madrid's no coward."

"What did ya want me to do...kill him?  If I did that I woulda had to kill his brother too. I don't want no Lancers down my throat."

"Where do the Lancers come into this?  Never heard of Madrid having family."

“That blond was his half brother.”

Tom put his hat back on and held his hand out again.  "The money.  Mrs Rawlings is gonna want to know about this right away."

Rayner nodded, handing the money over after counting out his share.

"All of it," Tom reminded him menacingly.

The sheriff considered his options.  He could keep the money and risk the wrath of Mrs. Rawlings or hand it over.  He caressed the banknotes for a minute before holding them out to Tom.

Having handed over the money he drew a bottle of whiskey out of his desk drawer and poured himself a shot. "I'm telling you Tom, we're in for some trouble. I can feel it. I think..." He took a sip of the whiskey for liquid courage. "I think we better do something about them two before it’s too late. I made a mistake letting 'em go...but I can find 'em again and do it right."

"You messed up once.  Best thing you can do is sit tight until you get your orders.  Any idea where they went?"

"Headed north.  No reason to think they weren't going home.  Not that Madrid'll be in any shape to go anywhere for a few days. Come to think of it that kid from the saloon...Vinnie...he was talking to Lancer before they left."

"Maybe we should go and have a talk with him," Tom suggested with an evil grin.  "See if he knows where they were headed."

*****

Scott's arms were aching from the strain of holding Johnny in place.  Johnny's head was resting against his chest and there hadn't been a sound from him for the last hour. Scott noticed a rutted path leading off from the main road, just a rough trail...scored by wagon wheels - but not very old. The fence line hugged the well travelled road, just as Vinnie had told him and he steered his horse toward the other one.

"This must be the way," Scott said, lowering his chin down to rest for just a moment on top of Johnny's head. Johnny didn't answer, and Scott was grateful that he didn't. With a road like this, and Johnny's ribs, it would have been a painful ride.

The path ran straight for a while before bending to the right. Scott saw a house. The walls - some complete, others in mid construction - were made of adobe...so much like the Lancer hacienda. He wondered if it would one day look like the house he now cherished as home. A thin ribbon of smoke curled up from the chimney. That must be the kitchen...the heart of any Spanish home.

He heaved a sigh of relief and urged his horse on faster.  The sooner he could get Johnny inside and settled the better.

A crude corral held a half dozen horses....beautiful horses.  He wished his brother were awake to see them.  Their presence suggested that the family had money and he wondered why they were settling in this inhospitable part of the country

Scott urged Barranca on...the palomino didn't like being towed. He was nearly to the porch when the door opened and a woman stepped out, rifle pointed straight at him.

Scott looked appraisingly from the gun to the woman holding it.  There was a determined look on her face leaving him in no doubt that she was capable of shooting them if she had to.  She took a step closer, turning toward her right and he saw her swollen belly. It would not be long before she had the baby she was carrying. It was only then that he noticed a small dark haired boy peeking out from behind her skirts.

"This is private property, Senor," she called, her voice heavily accented in Spanish.

"I need help," Scott said. "My brother..."

"I cannot help you. Leave...before I use this.”  The woman's gaze turned to Johnny just as he raised his head painfully. "Dios!" She was off the porch and at Scott’s side faster than he thought possible. "He is your hermano?" she asked incredulously.

"Yes.  Please, he needs help.  The sheriff..."

"I know what that puerco did to him. I was there yesterday, I tried to help."

Scott looked at her swollen stomach and knew he couldn't ask her to help get Johnny down. "Ma'am, if you would just steady Johnny for a minute, I'll ease him down."

She laid the rifle down and turned to speak to the boy who was still clinging to her skirts. "Go inside, nino.  Tell your papa that we have visitors."

The little boy's eyes went wide. "Si." He stared at Scott until his mother turned and shooed him away.

"I'm sorry, Senor.  He's never seen anyone with hair as light as yours."

Scott looked down at Johnny's coal black hair and understood.  Carefully dismounting, he planted his feet firmly on the ground just as Johnny slid out of the saddle into his arms.

"Inside, por favor," the woman directed.

Scott carried his brother into the house and followed the woman into a small bedroom that clearly belonged to the boy he had seen earlier. He settled Johnny onto the bed and the woman pushed him aside.

"It’s his ribs," Scott said.

She brushed Johnny's hair back out of his eyes.  "He is burning up." The woman began yanking at Johnny's clothes. "It is sun poison. I saw what they did to him yesterday. We must get him cool...he is fevered from the heat. He could die. Go outside and you will find a wooden tub.  Take it into the kitchen and fill it with cool water...not too cold or it will be too much of a shock for his body. Nino...you show the senor..."

A small hand crept into Scott's larger one.  He looked down to find two deep brown eyes staring solemnly at him. Except for the brown eyes he could have been looking at Johnny at that age.

"Hurry!” the woman ordered.

As the little boy tugged Scott out of the room, the woman began unbuttoning Johnny's shirt.

Scott allowed the boy to show him the tub and he carried it inside. Barrel after barrel of water was dumped in....then the hot water from the stove. Satisfied that it was just tepid, Scott went back into the room. He found that Johnny had been stripped of his clothes with only a towel wrapped around his waist.  He flushed as he realised that his brother hadn't been wearing any underwear.

The woman smiled faintly at Scott as he eyed the towel. "Every man needs some dignidad."

Scott slipped his arm under Johnny's shoulders and gathered him into his arms again, carrying him into the kitchen.  He lowered Johnny carefully into the water. Johnny bucked the moment the cool water touched his skin, but Scott lowered him until only his head was above water.

Johnny's eyes opened and he looked around in total confusion.  "Where...?"

"It’s all right, Johnny, we're safe. Just relax."

The woman kneeled next to the tub and gently poured water over Johnny’s head, making sure it didn't spill into his eyes.  As she did so, she spoke to him in Spanish. Scott could not understand the words but he didn't need to...it was the timbre of her voice that settled Johnny.

She looked up at Scott. "We must do this dos maybe tres more times.”

Johnny locked eyes with her.  "You’re the one... helped me yesterday."

"Si. I am shamed that I was not able to do more."

"Enough that you cared."

Johnny felt his eyes closing and he settled back into the cool water, allowing it to soothe him to sleep.

Scott heard the soft steps of the boy come up behind him. He watched as the boy looked over the top of the tub then at Scott. "Su hermano?” he asked, confused.

The woman put a finger to her lips.  "Hush, Miguel.  You'll wake him."

"Porque es he sick Mama?"

"He has been in the sun too long.  Remember I have warned you how pelyroso (dangerous) that can be?"

"Si. Will he die?"

The simple question shook Scott.

"I think not," the woman answered, combing her wet hands through the boy’s hair. "We will take care of him and make sure that he gets well."

She handed Scott a towel.  "We should dry him off now and put him to bed.  We can do this again in a few hours."

Scott nodded, carefully lifting Johnny from the water. The wet towel was clinging to his brother's body. Only a mild groan of protest parted Johnny's lips as he was briskly dried and settled into the bed.

"I will get you a pair of my husband's longjohns," the woman offered.

Scott nodded his thanks and removed the towel, covering his brother with a sheet while he awaited the woman's return. Johnny would kill him if he knew what he was doing.

"They are a little big," she said, as she began to cut them down to mid thigh. "He will be more comfortable without so much material.”

Scott accepted the garment and pointedly looked at the woman.  With a smile she left him alone.

By the time the woman returned to the room, Scott had Johnny lying comfortably on the bed. He used a sheet to cover his waist and let the air cool the rest of his body.

"He feels a bit cooler already," Scott said, brushing the hair off Johnny's forehead.

"He looks settled.  Why don't you come into the kitchen and get something to eat?  You'll hear if he wakes."

Scott looked worriedly at his brother then nodded. He did seem to have settled into a deep sleep. "Just leave the door open," Scott said.

 

Chapter 5

All his good manners manner forgotten, Scott leaned over the table, his elbows propped near the edge with his head resting in his cupped hands. Now that Johnny was safe and being cared for he could give into mind numbing exhaustion.

The little boy crawled up into the seat next to him and folded his hands on the table, resting his chin as he stared at Scott. Uncomfortable, Scott tried to look away but he felt those deep brown eyes boring into him.

"Como se llama usted?" (What is your name?) Miguel asked curiously.

"Scott," Scott answered. Why did he feel trapped by this little boy? For the first time he wished that he had more experience with children.  In Boston, a life that now seemed a million miles away, children had rarely crossed his path and he had shown very little interest in them.  Amongst the friends and acquaintances of his grandfather, children were seldom seen and never heard.

The boy stared at him, truly confused. Finally he asked. "Is your mother like Meda?" he asked innocently.

Scott looked to the woman for an explanation, only to find that she was trying helplessly to hold back her laughter. "Meda is our cow. She is half black and half white. Miguel!" his mother chided him gently.  "Where are your manners, nino?" But tears were still running down her face.

Scott tried to keep a straight face, but her laughter was infectious. "Johnny and I have the same father but different mothers.” Scott explained.  “Johnny's mother was Mexican."

The woman wiped away her tears before carrying a cup and a pot of coffee over to the table and setting it down in front of Scott. A thick cut ham sandwich and a plate of cookies followed, reminding him how hungry he was. She took a seat next to the boy and handed him a cookie. "My name is Elana De La Vara.  This is my son, Miguel." She spoke of her son with unmistakable pride.

"I gathered that," Scott smiled. "He is precocious."

"Por que?"

Scott thought for a moment.  "He is very smart."

"Si - and asks muy (many) questions," she said gently, running her hand through the boy’s hair.

"He reminds me a lot of Johnny, my brother.  Always full of questions." The affection for his brother shone through.

"That is good, no?"

"Most of the time.” Scott took a sip of the hot coffee, acutely aware that Miguel was watching his every move. He cleared his throat self-consciously. “I seem to have forgotten my manners.  My name is Scott Lancer and I am very grateful to you for all your help."

Elana set her cup down, leaning across the table to lay her hand atop Scott's. He couldn’t help but notice her wince at the movement. He was no expert, but he thought her time was very near. "You are safe here. I saw your hermano yesterday.” She lowered her eyes. “It was terrible what they did to him...if I could only have done more."

"It sounds like you did far more than all those cowards in town.  How could they stand by and watch while Johnny was tortured like that?" Scott could feel his anger rising again.  In deference to the presence of the child he made a conscious effort to moderate his tone.

"They are afraid. Mrs. Rawlings owns the town and everyone in it. She makes slaves of the workers just because they are Mexican. She is a bruja." Elana pushed herself clumsily to her feet.  The baby was kicking hard and her back was aching.

"How long before the baby comes?" Scott asked.

"Four or five weeks," she answered with a look of despair in her eyes. "I'm not really certain.  It has been so long since I have seen a medico."

Scott's expression clouded as he remembered the disgrace of a doctor in town and the appalling way he had treated his brother. "I met the doctor and, believe me, you wouldn't want him anywhere near you."

"Si, he would not dirty his hands by touching me anyway. We are not welcome in town. To Mrs. Rawlings we are less than human. It is because of the Comancheros, I am told."

"What do you know about her?  We saw the fence line and armed men patrolling on our way into town.  Does she own all the land around here?"

"Si.  More than the eye can see, except for the land owned by la familia de mi marido. My husband’s family,” she translated seeing the lost look in his eyes. “Excuse me, I thought you spoke Spanish.”

Scott smiled. “My brother is attempting to teach me.”  But then his smile faded as he asked.  "And she is trying to drive you out?”

"She was not happy that we came here, but it is our land and we have a right to live where we choose."

Scott nodded. "I fought a war for just that reason."

“And she is ruthless. She will stop at nothing. As soon as your hermano is able to travel, you must get him away from here."

"Johnny won't be ready to ride for awhile. Maybe we can lend a hand around here."

"But it is too dangerous." She looked toward the closed bedroom door. "Johnny has already paid too big a price for stepping foot into that town.”

Scott looked from Elana to Miguel.  "It is no more dangerous for us than it is for you.  We owe you for all your help and Lancer always pays its debts."

Before Elana could answer there was a knocking sound that came from inside the room next to the one occupied by Johnny, and Scott heard a low voice call out in Spanish.

"Excuse me," Elana said before getting up and hurrying into the room.

"Who is that?" Scott asked Miguel.

"Papa. He is hurt. His leg is roto."

Although Scott concentrated hard he wasn’t able to understand what the little boy was telling him.

Miguel looked around the kitchen then jumped from the chair picking up a piece of kindling from next to the stove. He snapped it sharply in half and repeated the word ‘roto’. His eyes grew misty as he lowered his head.

Scott felt helpless. He didn't know how to talk to children...especially one that was so distraught. He reached his hand out and Miguel came to him slowly. "I am sorry about your papa.  How did it happen?”

Miguel shook his head and wiped away a tear. "In the town.  My mama says bad men hurt him."

"Bad men?"

Miguel nodded then looked at Scott. "Gringos.”

"Oh." Scott was lost for words.  He had never before felt ashamed of the color of his own skin but now he was disgusted with the actions of his fellow countrymen. "Not all gringos are bad, Miguel." Scott didn’t like the name, it sounded dirty, but to the boy that was what he was.

Miguel cocked his head to one side, again reminding Scott so much of Johnny.  "You are not a bad man."

Miguel tugged at his chair until it was almost next to where Scott was sitting.  He climbed back up and sat looking trustingly at his new friend.  Unable to meet the boy's direct stare Scott looked around, taking in his surroundings for the first time.

It reminded him of Lancer, not quite as big, but the smells of the spicy Spanish dishes, so like those Maria prepared for Johnny, made him think of home.  It also reminded him of how hungry he was. He looked over at the stove and saw a pot of stew bubbling away.  He could smell fresh baked bread and his stomach rumbled in anticipation.  The sandwich Elana had made for him still sat, untouched, on the plate.  He offered half to Miguel before taking a bite and chewing appreciatively.  He couldn’t actually remember when he had last eaten and he knew for a fact that Johnny hadn’t had anything to eat since before their disastrous arrival in Serenity.

The kitchen was spotlessly clean, the terra cotta floor gleaming in the sunlight pouring in through the large window behind the sink. A dark wooden dresser stood in one corner.  The china on display was beautiful and reinforced Scott's view that this family had money.

What would have brought a well to do family to this place? Was it the same lure that Murdoch had felt so many years ago? There seemed to be a need to civilize the wild...that man had to work it and turn it into something he could call his...but was it ever really his? Or was it just loaned to him - to keep until God or fate proclaimed it time to give it back?

Until a few months ago he wouldn't have understood the impulse to take the land and make it his own.  He had drifted aimlessly through his life until his arrival in California.  Now he could see what made people give up everything they owned to start over and build a new life with their own hands. Now - he could see through his father’s eyes.

"Senor?" Scott's elbow was jostled and he looked down to see Miguel staring at him. "Can you help my mama and papa to keep our casa?"

"I don't know, Miguel.  Who is trying to take it from them?"

Miguel shook his head. "I don't know. But they are very bad men. Mama won't let me go into town or anywhere.”

Having had the misfortune to meet several of the townsfolk, Scott could understand why the child was being kept away.  He hated to think what the boy would be exposed to if he did venture into town.

Miguel looked down at his hands and whispered. "I don't like it here. I wish we could go back home."

Scott reached out a hand and ruffled the boy's dark hair.  "Where is home?"

"This is home, nino."  Elana quietly closed the door leading to the bedroom.

Scott looked. "Your husband?" he asked gently, eyeing the closed door.

Elana's expression darkened.  "He went into town for supplies two weeks ago.  He had the misfortune to run into the sheriff.  When he refused to leave they broke his leg.  The only blessing is that they brought him home."

"So Johnny is not the only one they worked over. Are you safe out here?"

"So long as we stay away from the town we are left alone."

"But you need supplies," Scott said.

"That was why I was in town yesterday, but they made me leave.  We have enough food for a few weeks but after that..."

Scott stood up and looked toward the room where his brother was sleeping.  "I'm going to check on Johnny.  When I come back you can give me a list of things that need doing around here.  It'll be my way of paying back your kindness.  Before we leave I'll make sure you have enough supplies to last you until your husband is back on his feet."

"I could not ask you to do that, Senor."

"There's no point arguing.  We Lancers are a stubborn bunch. And what I didn't learn before, Johnny taught me," Scott added with a grin.

"Gracias. With my husband in bed it is hard to do everything.” Elana gave in gracefully.  It was becoming harder and harder for her to do things around the house, and in the dark hours of the night, she had often given way to panic about how they would cope. "But it can wait until tomorrow. You must be tired from your journey and your worry over your brother. But I do not have another bed to offer you. You can sleep on the sofa here." She pointed to the sofa facing the fireplace.

"I'd rather keep an eye on Johnny.  I can use my bedroll and sleep on the floor."

"Si, I understand. But I will give you another blanket and pillow.”

"I'd appreciate that."  Scott walked into the bedroom, unaware that he had a little shadow following close on his heels.

Miguel looked up at him.  "Is your hermano broken like my papa?"

"His chest is hurt but he isn't hurt as badly as your papa.  He should be up and about in a day or so.  My brother isn't very good at staying in bed even when he's hurt or sick."

"Mama makes me stay in bed when I'm hurt. She can make him stay in bed too."

Scott laughed, finding himself surprisingly at ease with the little boy. "I'd like to see her try."

"Try what, Senor?" Elana asked as she walked in.

"I was just explaining to Miguel that Johnny isn't very good at following orders.  As soon as he wakes up he's going to want to get out of bed."

"I doubt that. He will be very weak for some time. The sun can be very unforgiving."

"And my brother can be very determined."

"Then we will see who is strongest. I say the sun." She smiled at him, a beautiful smile that lit up her face. "Besides, he won't be going very far without his clothes." Elana held up Johnny's shirt and pants.  "I would say that these need to be washed."

Now Scott laughed outright. Perhaps his little brother had finally found someone more stubborn than him. "I can see you are used to getting your way."

The sound of Scott's laughter roused Johnny from his increasingly uneasy sleep.  Scott held a glass of water to his lips.  "Nice to have you back with us, brother."

Johnny looked around the room, confused. "Where are we?"

"That ranch I told you about.  This is Elana and this," Scott gestured to the boy who was peering curiously at his brother, "is her son, Miguel."

Johnny's eyes travelled from the woman to the boy, then back to the woman. "I know you," he said, his voice weak and unsure.

Elana laid a cool hand on his brow.  "You rest now and I will fetch you something to eat.  Miguel, stop staring, it is rude."

Johnny shook his head. "Gracias, but I'm not hungry. And we need to be going. Got to get home before...”

"You are not going anywhere, senor, and you will eat." Elana put her hands on what were once her hips and held his gaze.  "You have been very sick and you are not leaving that bed until I say you are strong enough."

Johnny looked up at Scott for help, but he knew he was trapped if Scott's smile was any indication. "Must have been taking lessons from Sam," Johnny mumbled ungraciously.

"You rest," Elana said. "I will wake you when it is time to eat."

She held out her hand to Miguel.  "You come and help me, and let our patient rest."

"I ain't nobody's patient," Johnny barked. "And I'll get up when I want to."

"Of course you will." Elana used the tone she would adopt when addressing a petulant child.

Scott couldn't contain a laugh.

"But you might catch a chill." Elena said, unable to keep from smiling as she gently pushed Miguel out of the room.

Johnny had the nasty feeling that he was being patronised.  He hated it when that happened. Suddenly realizing that he was barely covered he tried to pull the sheet up over his chest. "Where're my clothes?  Scott?"

"I saw Elana taking them to wash. But I think she might be too busy to do the laundry right away," Scott smirked.

"That's down right sneaky, brother."

"I know. Now get some rest. You might as well enjoy it while you can."

Suddenly Johnny realised that something else was missing.  “My gun!”

Scott looked around the room and spotted Johnny’s gunbelt resting on top of a dresser.  It was far enough from the ground to keep it out of reach of Miguel’s inquisitive fingers.  He retrieved it and handed it to his brother who grasped it gratefully.  “Rest,” Scott ordered.

Johnny had to concede that the bed was very comfortable.  His abused body ached, and he felt dizzy and light-headed from too much sun.  It wouldn’t do any harm to rest up for a while, but he was damned if he was going to be out-smarted by his brother and some woman who thought she could control his actions.  He’d get up when he was good and ready.  The fact that he was staying in bed now was his choice.  He turned his head into the soft pillow, his eyes closing almost of their own accord.  Just let them try and keep him in bed once he was ready to get up.  They had no idea how determined he could be and no-one…no-one was gonna make Johnny Madrid Lancer stay somewhere he didn’t want to be.  The sleep his body craved crept over him and he slipped into dreamless oblivion.

 

Chapter 6

Tom dipped his hat to the guard who was standing watch at the gate leading to the main house. The path was bordered by well trimmed bushes - everything that Madeleine Rawlings touched was perfect in every way. A Mexican gardener was hunched over a row of rosebushes trimming back the buds. The Mexican workers were treated like slaves here, guarded at all times and prevented from leaving the ranch. He knew it was wrong, but good jobs and good pay were hard to find, and he was too selfish to give either up.

The whitewashed house gleamed in the early afternoon sunshine. It looked welcoming unless you knew what waited for you behind the heavy carved front door. Tom took a deep breath. What he had to say was not going to go over well.

The gardener lowered his eyes as Tom rode past.  The servants learned quickly not to look anyone in the eye. It was considered an act of defiance that would be dealt with quickly and severely.  He felt sorry for them....but not enough to go against Mrs. Rawlings’ orders. She ruled the town and everyone in it.

He stood outside the closed door rehearsing in his mind what he would say.  He and the sheriff had spoken to Vinnie. In truth they had beaten the information out of him.  The young man hadn't been in good shape when they left.

As the door opened the smell of wood polish and leather suddenly surrounded him.  She had every inch of the house cleaned and polished every day and pity the poor servant who missed even a speck of dust.

"Is Mrs. Rawlings in?" he asked the servant.

"Yes, sir.  She is in the study." Tom heard the woman struggle to speak without her Mexican accent. It was a rule, set down and followed to the letter, that no one spoke Spanish on the ranch. If someone was caught speaking their mother tongue, even amongst themselves, they would be severely punished.

Tom stepped into the house, following the woman down the hallway. He hated this house. It felt like ghosts were everywhere. Mr. Rawlings had died five years ago, but his hat and jacket still hung from the hat rack where he had left it that last day of his life.

Tom wiped his palms down the side of his trousers and raised his right hand to knock on the door leading to the study. A woman's voice, strong, bordering on masculine, bid him to enter. Even though Mrs Rawlings had lived in California for over twenty years, her voice still retained a trace of her Boston accent.

Madeleine Rawlings was standing, looking out the picture window as Tom entered the room.  She was dressed for riding and was tapping her riding crop irritably against her leg. "Tom, I'm glad you’re here. Did you tell the sheriff that I'll be in town later to see that half breed he has locked up?”

Tom cleared his throat nervously. "There's something I gotta tell you, ma'am.  See, the sheriff let him go this morning."

There was a cold silence in the room except for the sound of the whip tapping against her leg. "I didn't order him released," she finally said.

"There's something else." Tom looked into the cold blue eyes of the woman in front of him. "That breed...ever heard of Johnny Madrid?"

"No.  Should I?"

Tom nodded. "He could be trouble."

"How so?"

"He's a gunfighter.  Got a real reputation.  A few months ago he led a revolution in Mexico against one of the big landowners.  Found himself facing a firing squad, only he got away."

Mrs Rawlings didn’t answer, although her stare bored into Tom who lowered his eyes and cleared his throat self-consciously.

"He's on the side of all the Mexicans,” Tom continued.  “Who knows what he could do."

"Are you telling me that we had a cold-blooded killer like that locked up and that incompetent sheriff let him loose?"

"For a price. Made his brother pay a hefty fine. But Lancer came up with it."

"Lancer?" Mrs Rawlings stopped tapping her whip, looking thoughtfully out the window. "I've heard that name before."

"He's got a big spread in the San Joaquin.  Turns out that Madrid's his kid.  He's not the sort of man you want to mess with."

"Then we must be discreet...we don't want trouble like that in our backyard.”

"But when those boys go home and tell Daddy what went on here..." There was a long silence. Tom shifted his weight from foot to foot.

Finally Mrs. Rawlings spoke, determination in her voice. "Then, perhaps we should make sure they don't go home."

"Madrid was in pretty bad shape when he left town. I don't think his brother could get him far."

"Well, why are you standing around here?” she asked irritably.  “Get some men and find them."

"We think they've holed up at the De La Vara place."

Mrs. Rawlings scowl deepened, accentuating the hard lines around her mouth and eyes.  "That family has been nothing but trouble since they got here.  I thought you said they'd give up and go back where they belong.  You haven't been trying hard enough."

"We've done everything but burn them out and they still stay. The old man's got a busted leg so he can't do much and the woman is about to drop another kid any time."

A look of distaste crossed her face.  "They breed like rats.  They're not fit to breathe the same air as decent folks. I'm relying on you, Tom.  You understand the consequences of letting me down?"

Tom nodded his head. "I understand, ma'am. I'll get the men ready to go."

"Good." She turned back to look out the window.  "Report to me when it's done."

Tom said nothing, just opened the door and stepped out.

*****

Johnny awoke slowly, every inch of his body protesting. He couldn't quite remember what had happened. He turned his head cautiously and saw Scott sitting by the bed, snoring softly. Johnny spotted a glass of water on the nightstand next to the bed and suddenly felt incredibly thirsty. He started to reach for it and his gasp startled Scott from his sleep.

"Sorry," Johnny said contritely. "Didn't mean to wake you up.  You looked real peaceful."

Scott quickly grabbed the glass and gently lifted Johnny’s head to help him drink. "Easy now," he warned. "Drink it slow."

The water caressed his dry throat and Johnny eased back against the pillow. "I feel like I took on a grizzly and lost," he grinned.

"You're not far wrong there, brother.  The people in that town are nothing but animals."

"Animals don't hate just because of the color of your skin," Johnny snapped, then lowered his eyes. "Sorry I got you into this."

"I think you'll find it was the other way around.  If I hadn't thrown that first punch none of this would have happened."

"Don't kid yourself.  They'd have found an excuse."

"I thought this kind of prejudice was a thing of the past.  What did we fight for if not to make this country safe for everyone?"

Johnny looked away. "I’ve been fighting one way or another all my life. Ya just can't change people when they are raised to hate. It’s better now, but there are still towns like this all along the border."

Scott reached over and laid his hand on Johnny's shoulder. "Well, Brother, you don’t have to fight that battle alone any more."

"I know, Scott, and it feels good." Johnny’s grateful smile warmed Scott’s heart.

There was a light tap on the door and it opened. Elana poked her head around. "I thought I heard voices. How are you feeling?” she asked Johnny.

"Kinda hungry." Johnny tried to give her his best smile, but it failed miserably.

Elana smiled back sympathetically. "That’s good. I'll fix you something light."

Johnny’s smile disappeared. "I ain't an invalid."

"Be nice, Johnny," Scott warned.

"Not to worry," Elana said, "I have dealt with injured men before. They tend to turn into ninos."

"I ain't a baby either," Johnny glowered as he tried to sit up.  "If someone could get me my pants, I'd like to get up."

Scott pressed his brother back against the pillows. "Not just yet, Brother. You need to rest a day or two first."

"Si, you were very sick. You need time to heal."

"I'm better." Johnny flung back the sheet, took one look at Elana's smile and covered himself back up again. "Damn it, Scott, give me my clothes!"

"Sorry, Johnny.  You just stay there like a good boy while I go and tend to the horses."

That infuriated Johnny no end. Not thinking about anything but his hurt pride he wrapped the sheet around himself and tried to sit up. The pain in his ribs sent him back down, gasping for air.

Scott's smile disappeared.  "Please Johnny, just for once do as you're told."

Johnny nodded, sinking back down onto the mattress. "Just one day," he countered. "Just one day."

***

Half an hour later Scott finished grooming the horses.  The normal routine of caring for the animals had done much to restore his usual equilibrium. The truth of the matter was that he was a little apprehensive about what might happen. The sheriff could not be trusted, and this family had been through too much all ready. Once his brother knew about what was going on here he wouldn’t leave until he felt they were safe. And Scott knew he could not turn his back on them either.

He looked up from his task to find Miguel sitting on a bale of hay in a corner of the barn.  The little boy had trailed after him and had been watching him the whole time.  He found it unnerving to be the focus of the child's attention.  "Can you put some oats in that bucket, Miguel?"

The boy's eyes brightened as he leapt to his feet, eager to help. "Si. I take good care of the horses. Papa can't..."

"I know, Miguel." Scott felt awkward at that moment. "Do you think your mama and papa would mind if Johnny and I helped out a little around here?”

Miguel's smile lit up his face.  "I'll go and ask."

"No, no." Scott grabbed the boy's shoulder. "Let's keep it a secret for now." Scott squatted in front of the boy, looking into those wide brown eyes. It felt as if he were talking to Johnny at that age. Or what could have been Johnny if his mother had loved him like Elana loved this boy. "Johnny and I will stay as long as your mama and papa need us."

Scott helped Miguel to feed and water the horses, and was in the middle of washing up when he heard hoof beats.  He pulled the little boy out of sight and put a finger to his lips.

Once he had Miguel safely secreted behind some bales of hay, Scott drew his pistol and eased the barn door open.  He saw half a dozen men sitting on their horses only feet away from the front porch.  From his position he couldn’t tell if he had seen any of the men before.  He swore silently when he saw the front door open and Elana step out.

“What do you want?” she demanded, levelling a rifle at the riders. Her accent seemed heavier as she tried to disguise her nervousness.

Tom moved his horse forward.  “Word is you’re harbouring a couple of fugitives.  Hand them over and you’ll be left in peace.”

Elana squinted into the sun. “I don’t know anything about fugitives.  You are trespassing, Senor.  I must ask you to leave.”

“Can’t do that.” Tom said flatly. “Mrs. Rawlings wants Madrid and his brother back in custody.  You can either hand them over or we can tear the place apart until we find them.  Course if we have to do that there’s no saying who might get hurt.”

Scott had heard enough.  He cocked his pistol and stepped out into the sunshine.  The sound drew Tom’s attention away from Elana as he turned his horse to meet the threat.  “You gentlemen have made a mistake.  My brother’s fine has been paid.  Ask your sheriff…he released Johnny this morning.”

“He let him go without authority.  This don’t have to get ugly, Mister.  Drop the gun and tell us where the half-breed is hiding.”

“I ain’t hiding,” Johnny stepped out onto the porch to stand by Elana.  He’d reacted as soon as he heard the horses.  He hadn’t been able to find his own clothes but had found a serviceable pair of trousers and a shirt in the washing basket.  His gun was pointed at the leader of the group and he hoped that the effort needed to keep it there wasn’t visible to anyone but his brother. “The Senora told you to leave.”

“We don’t take orders from the likes of her.”

“Mama!” Miguel had crept out of his hiding place and had followed Scott out of the barn.  The presence of the men frightened him and he darted across the yard intent only upon finding the safety of his mother’s arms.

Scott raced after Miguel as one of the men moved his horse to block the little boy’s panicked flight.  Before Scott could reach him the man leant down and scooped Miguel up into his arms. Scott bowed his head in defeat and allowed his gun to clatter to the ground.

Elana gasped in fright and took a step forward.  Johnny turned to catch her arm.  “Don’t,” he warned before lowering his gun.

Two of the men dismounted and grabbed Scott while Tom relieved Johnny of his gun and Elana of her rifle.  “Tie ‘em up and let’s get out of here,” he ordered.

“You’re making a big mistake,” Scott shouted desperately as his wrists were bound in front of him.  “If anything happens to us our father will send for a Federal Marshall.”

“Not much of a threat seeing as no-one knows where you are.”

Johnny stumbled to his knees as he was pushed forward after his hands were bound painfully tight.  He could hear Miguel sobbing quietly and the sound broke his heart.

“You’re wrong.  I sent him a telegram.” Scott was resisting the pull on his arms as he was hauled toward the horses.

Tom snorted in disbelief.  “Quit lying.  There ain’t a telegraph office within twenty miles of here.”

“I’m not lying. I had to send a telegram to our bank to get the money.  I rode to Norton yesterday.  Ask your sheriff if you don’t believe me.  I wired our father while I was there.  He knows where we are.  If you don’t let us go you’ll have more trouble than you can handle.”

Scott's words gave Tom pause.  His instructions from Mrs. Rawlings had been clear...take care of the problem.  Suddenly the problem didn't seem so straightforward. Tom considered the so-called brothers. If the blond one was telling the truth then they could have a hell of a problem explaining how Lancer’s sons were killed.  He walked right up to Scott and grabbed the front of his shirt.  "I'm gonna check that out and if I find you've been lying to me you and that half-breed’ll be a long time dying."

While Tom was distracted Elana helped Johnny to his feet.  He stood stoically not wanting anyone to see how near to collapse he really was. He watched silently as Scott was manhandled.

No one heard the front door open slowly or saw the man hobble out, a rifle in his hand.

"What is going on here?" The man demanded, his voice heavily accented, and cold as ice.

Elana hurried to her husband's side, concern written all over her face.  She pointed to their son, still held in the grip of one of the men. A single tear trickled down her cheek. She spoke in rapid Spanish...Johnny the only one to understand what she said.

Arturo looked from Scott to Johnny then levelled his rifle at the group of men. "These men are my guests, you will leave at once. And..." he looked at his son, overwhelmed at the fear he saw in the boy's face. "If you hurt my son you will wish you were dead."

Tom shoved Scott away and glared at the man.  "This ain't over.  Mrs. Rawlings doesn't take kindly to low-lifes like you getting in her way.  We'll be back and, if these two ain't here, I guess we'll just have to make do with you, your pretty little wife and this boy. Put the kid down and let's get out of here," Tom ordered his men as he returned to his horse.

Miguel raced to his parents, burying his face in Elana's skirt.

"It is all right, hijo," she soothed.

Scott walked slowly over to his brother.  Johnny was propped up against the wall breathing hard.

Elana passed Miguel to her husband and hurried to untie the brothers.  As soon as Scott was free he put an arm around Johnny's waist.  "We'd better get you back inside."

As they reached the doorway Johnny pulled to a stop and smiled at the man who more than likely had just saved their lives.  "Gracias, senor.  If there is anything we can do to repay you, just ask."

"I am Arturo De La Vara.  This is my home and you are welcome to stay as long as you wish." Arturo looked critically at the young man in front of him.  "I heard that gringo call you 'Madrid.'”

Johnny nodded, taking in the heavy splint that encased the man’s left leg and his trembling hands as he bore the weight of the rifle.

Arturo set the boy on the ground and drew his wife next to him protectively. "Then I wish to hire you."

A small smile played at Johnny's lips as he lowered his head, his dark hair covering his eyes. "I don't hire out anymore,” he answered softly.

"But we will both help you," Scott put in quickly.

Johnny looked up and smiled broadly.  "That's just what I was gonna suggest."

 

Chapter 7

Elana wrapped her arm around her husband's waist and helped him back into the house. Miguel followed closely behind his mama and papa, wiping away the tears that were running down his cheeks.  Elana guided Arturo to a chair and lifted his splinted leg onto the coffee table facing the cold fireplace. Miguel latched onto his papa's shirt, his eyes wide with fright.

Scott followed close behind supporting the majority of Johnny's weight.  Johnny's strength was almost at an end but he resisted the pull toward the bedroom.  "No, Scott, I think it's time we found out what's going on around here."

Arturo looked up and nodded. "You deserve that," he said. "Please sit."

Johnny didn't need to be asked twice and collapsed heavily into the nearest chair with a stifled groan.

"Elana has told me what happened to you in town, Senor Madrid."

"It's Lancer," Johnny said automatically.

There was the faintest of smiles on Arturo's face. "Si...but to us you will always be Madrid."

Johnny looked beyond their host to the frightened little boy and nodded. "You were very brave out there," he said soothingly.

The boy looked from his father to his mother, pride in his eyes. He crept out from behind his father and grasped his mother's hand.

Scott watched with a hint of envy as Johnny effortlessly put the child at ease. Although the brothers had only known each other a few months Scott had noticed Johnny's affinity with children.  He wondered how much of Johnny's easy going manner with them came from his own lonely and deprived childhood. Johnny's treatment at the hands of the sheriff had shocked Scott.  How much worse had it been for an abandoned child, living on the streets without anyone to show him love?

Elana looked at her son with concern.  There was a growing look of hero worship on his face. "Si, Niño." She combed her fingers through his hair. "You are a good boy, but now I think you have had enough excitement.  It is time for you to have a nap."

"No, I want to stay."

"You will do as your mama says, Miguel." Arturo spoke quietly, but with undeniable authority

The boy nodded, resigned to his fate. Elana excused herself and led Miguel into the bedroom, all eyes on the door as it quietly closed.

Left alone, Arturo looked at the two men sitting before him. "You are welcome to stay until you can travel." But there was something left unsaid. Scott caught it and he saw the wary look in his brother’s eyes.

Johnny shook his head.  "We can't leave.  You heard what they threatened.”

"They are always threatening. So far, it has only been that."

"Your leg?" Scott asked.

Arturo shrugged.  "I went into town.  That is not permitted.  So long as we stay out of their way they leave us alone.

"That is no way to live," Johnny growled.

"Besides," Scott added.  "This time they'll be back."

"And if you are not here..."

"Ain't gonna happen," Johnny said softly, his voice as cold as ice.  "You heard what he threatened.  We're not gonna turn tail and run and leave you and your family to face those bastards. Besides I don't hold with rich landowners telling people where and how they can live.  We're staying."

Johnny's determination gave Arturo momentary hope then he shook his head. "You can't take on people like that and hope to win.  Mrs. Rawlings is too powerful.  She owns the town and everyone in it."

"Who is this woman?" Johnny asked.

"She is the richest landowner in this area.  You must have seen the fence line that borders her ranch. Senora Rawlings came here many years ago with her marido (husband). They built their ranch...became very powerful then her marido was killed by Comancheros. She hates everyone who carries Mexican blood in their veins. She hates us because we will not bow to her. We won't!"  He pounded his hand on the arm of the chair just as Elana slipped out of the bedroom.

"We saw the signs and the armed guards.  What's she protecting?" Scott asked, looking toward Johnny as if he could answer the question as well.

"That which is hers,” Elana answered with unmistakable anger.

Arturo nodded. “She uses Mexican workers.  They are treated no better than slave labor.  They live on the rancho...are never allowed to leave."

"She is a dangerous woman," Elana agreed as she walked to stand behind Arturo. She rested her hands on his shoulders affectionately.

"Slavery is illegal," Scott stated fiercely.  "She has no right to treat her workers that way."

"She rules with a puno de acero." Elana hissed.

Scott looked to Johnny for a translation.

"With an iron hand," Johnny told him sharply.

"Why do you stay then?" Scott asked and saw a shadow cross Johnny's face.

"Boston, this is their land. Some things are worth the fight."

Arturo nodded, knowing that Johnny Madrid would understand. "This is our land," he said proudly.  "It was gifted to my grandfather by the Mexican government many years ago.  Neither he nor my father was interested in it, but to us it is a new beginning for our family.  My family has wealth and land, all of which will be inherited by my older brother.  I could have chosen to remain in Mexico, living a worthless life, relying upon the generosity of my brother.  What kind of an example would that be to Miguel and our other children?  We wanted to make something for ourselves…something that we could be proud of.  This will be a legacy for our children.  I think my grandfather understood.  He gave us the horses you see in the corral and allowed us to bring the things we would need to make a new start.

“Senora Rawlings has tried to drive us away.  She does not believe in Mexicans owing land. Besides," Arturo added with a smirk, “she is afraid we will dam up the stream, but we would never do that...there are others who rely on it too."

Johnny nodded. "But she still sees you as a threat."

"Si."

"So she will stop at nothing to drive you out." Scott said thoughtfully.

"Si, I know the risks. But I must. This is now my home. This is home to my son and the nino my wife carries now...it is their birthright to live here." Arturo took Elana's hand and kissed it with clear and open affection.

"You know what kind of fight you have on your hands?" Johnny asked.

"I understand only too well, Senor Madrid."

"I told you, I go by Lancer now."

Arturo raised his head high, capturing Johnny’s eyes. "To the people you will always be Madrid.  That is who they need to lead them to freedom."

Scott stiffened at the implication. "Johnny is not strong enough to…"

"Don't worry, Boston.  I'll be fine and besides, I've got you to back me up.” Johnny's initial intention was to reassure Scott, then it hit him...he finally and for the first time in his life had someone he could trust absolutely to look out for him.

Silence fell over the room as the enormity of the task sank in. A coughing spasm suddenly grabbed Johnny and he gripped his chest, hunching forward. Scott caught him and dragged him to his feet. "That's enough for now," he said.

"Si," Elana said. "He must rest."

"We can discuss this further in the morning." Scott determinedly steered his brother back toward the bedroom.

Elana followed, looking over her shoulder at her husband. "I will return shortly."

"I don't need no help," Johnny gasped as Scott lowered him onto the bed. His face had gone pale beneath his sunburn and sweat covered brow.

Elana leaned over and gently felt Johnny's forehead. "He still has the fever. Remove his clothes," she ordered. "His body must be allowed to breath. The sun, it still burns within him."

Johnny feebly tried to bat Scott's hands away as his brother unbuttoned his shirt.  "I can do it."

Scott stood back and folded his arms.  "Go on then."

Johnny's movements were slow and uncertain and it was all Scott could do to stand and watch, but he did, and he saw a smile of understanding from Elana.

By the time Johnny had finished undressing he could hardly keep his eyes open.  Scott waited until he was sure his brother was asleep before quietly leaving the room. As Scott pulled the door closed he wondered when would be the right time to tell Johnny that he hadn't sent a wire to Murdoch.

***

Tom made his way toward the den again. He was beside himself with indecision. He was convinced that he had been right to leave the Lancers alone, but would Mrs. Rawlings think the same way? If Scott Lancer had sent a telegram to his father there could be trouble if anything more happened to the brothers...damn...there was no way they could be brothers. He had left two men in a position overlooking the De La Vara house.  They had instructions to take whatever steps were necessary to stop the Lancers trying to escape. God help him if there was no telegram, Tom thought as he knocked on the door.

Mrs. Rawlings was sitting behind her desk, still dressed from her afternoon ride. She looked up expectantly. "Well?" she asked. "Have they been taken care of?"

"We ran into a small problem," Tom informed her hesitantly

"Explain," she demanded curtly.

Tom turned his hat around in his hands and studied the floor. "We - ah - the blond said he sent a telegram to his father...I thought..."

"You thought what?" Mrs. Rawlings waited, Tom’s discomfort growing by the second.

"That if he was telling the truth, we could be in for a hell of a lot of trouble.”

“And you believed him?”

"Couldn't take a chance.  He was in Norton yesterday sending a wire to the bank.  So...it's possible."

"Wasn't anyone watching him?" she asked incredulously

"It was all the sheriff's idea.  Guess he figured there was no need.  If he hadn't raised the fine so high in the first place, Lancer would never have had to leave town."

Mrs. Rawlings sat back in her seat, disgusted. "The stupidity around here never ceases to amaze me.  Have you sent someone to check it out?"

"Yes, ma'am, we should know in a few hours"

Mrs. Rawlings stood up slowly, turning to look out the window. "You should have brought them here. If they were to get away..."

"I left a coupla men to keep an eye on them..." Tom replied defensively.

"Imbecile!” Mrs. Rawlings leaned forward and slammed her hands down on the desk. “Two guards won't do much if they really want to get away. Get your men together and bring them back now, while there is still time."

"But the Mex is hurt pretty bad. I don't think...”

"I don't pay you to think...just take orders."

"Yes ma'am," Tom replied submissively, glad to have an excuse to get out of her way and relieved to have gotten off so lightly.  "I'll go and get them."

"I'll want to see them for myself when you bring them in." Mrs. Rawlings said as she turned her attention back to her paperwork.

"Where do you want us to put them?"

"In the cells, where else?"

Tom shivered involuntarily. The cells were in the root cellar, cold and dank. "I was only thinking that the blond one, well, he's kinda well spoken."

Mrs. Rawlings raised an eyebrow. "So?"

"So maybe the cells ain't the right place to put him." Tom ventured his opinion cautiously.

"If he is consorting with Mexicans and half-breeds then he will be treated the same way they are."

Tom nodded. "I'll round up the men."

***

Scott sat down with a cup of coffee, watching Elana prepare for dinner. Heavy with child her movements were slow and cumbersome. He wanted to help her, but he thought of Maria and knew that she would not welcome the help. A job was a job and she took pride in what she did. Elana would be the same way.

Arturo had returned to his room to get some rest and to keep an eye on Miguel. The little boy was asleep now, but he had seen too much today. No child should see that kind of violence.

"I am making your brother tamale soup. He should not have solid food yet...but I think..."

"You have no idea how much Johnny will enjoy that. Our housekeeper and cook, Maria, she makes Johnny some of the hottest dishes I have ever eaten. It burns your mouth like fire...and yet he acts like it is ice cream."

"Ice cream, senor?"

"Ice cream...milk and sugar turned and cooled until it is solid."

"Ah, helado. We have that at our fiestas. Yes it is very good."  The tension seemed to leave the room as they began talking about food and different cultures.

Elena checked the pots simmering on the stove then sat down next to Scott. She could not help but sigh deeply. "I never heard of Madrid having a brother.”

"He didn't either. We were raised apart. Our father remarried after my mother died in childbirth." Scott looked at Elana's swollen belly and regretted the words. "I grew up in Boston.  I had no idea Johnny existed until a few months ago.  There is still so much I don't know about him.  He rarely talks about his life as a gunfighter."

"Ah, Senor, he is not just a gunfighter...he is a hero to our people. He helped so many, and asked for nothing.”

“I'd like to understand him better.  It is hard for me to imagine the kind of life he had. All I know is that when our father finally tracked him down he was standing in front of a firing squad. It's strange to think how close I came to never knowing my brother.”

"We too had heard that he was killed...and it saddened our hearts. Not to say that I believe everything that is said about Johnny Madrid. Legends sometimes grow bigger than the man...but Madrid, he gave the people hope.  He made them believe that they were worthy of a better life. That is why Arturo thinks Johnny can help us now."

Scott’s thoughts drifted in a different direction. “If this woman treats her workers as badly as you say then Johnny would be a real threat to her. No wonder she is so intent upon getting him out of the way.”

"He is in great danger." She leaned forward as best she could, whispering conspiratorially. "You should take him away as soon as he can travel."

"We've been through this with your husband.  You are even more of a target now. We can't leave.”

The sound of horses galloping toward the house sent Scott running for the door. He reached for his gun before he remembered it was missing. Peaking out from behind the curtain he saw the riders returning.

A feeling of horror washed over him as he realised that they had no weapons.  All the guns had been confiscated during the confrontation earlier in the day. Then he remembered Arturo's rifle and glanced at it leaning against the fireplace. "Get in the bedroom," he ordered.  "And don't come out.  It's us they want."

Before Elana or Scott could move, the front door slammed open. Tom stood in the doorway, his gun drawn. He stepped aside and two more men walked in, guns drawn. "Where's the half breed?" he demanded.

Scott pushed Elana gently behind him. Glancing at the rifle he gauged the distance and knew he would never make it.

"He's asleep," Elana blurted out. "You nearly killed him. What more do you want?"

"Just doin' my job," Tom stated dismissively.  "Mrs. Rawlings wants to see both of them. Now where is he?"

Scott backed away, protecting the door into Johnny's room. "She can see him when he's stronger," he said, keeping his voice low and hard.

"It don't work that way, cowboy. Mrs. Rawlings speaks, you jump."

Scott was about to put up a fight when he heard the bedroom door crack open and he looked to his right to see Miguel peaking his head out. They could not take the chance of the boy getting hurt. "He's in there." Scott stepped aside, nodding at the closed door leading to the room where his brother was sleeping. "But he's hurt. Give me a chance to help him dress first."

Before Scott could lead the way into Johnny's room Arturo hobbled from his bedroom.  Scott was relieved that Miguel wasn't with him and hoped the boy had the sense to stay hidden this time.

"This is our home," Arturo shouted. "Leave us be!"

Tom ignored the irate Mexican.  "Murphy, you keep an eye on them." He pushed Scott toward the closed door.  "Move it, Lancer, and don't try nothing stupid."

***

Johnny had heard the sound of horses and the door slamming open.  He painfully slipped out of bed, pressed his back against the wall next to the door and waited. His plan to attack the intruder from behind was doomed as soon as he realised that his brother had a gun to his head. Stepping out into the open, he stood helplessly, wearing only his longjohns and feeling very vulnerable.

"Very sensible," Tom sneered.  "Now get dressed and make it quick or you won't have a brother to worry about any more."

Johnny nodded and quickly pulled on his clothes, nearly passing out. But he stood before Scott and their captor a minute later, still barefoot.

"Don't bother with your boots. You won't be needing them.  Besides I bet you feel more at home like that."

As Tom herded the brothers toward the front door, he pushed Elana to one side.  She fell awkwardly with a startled cry and clutched her swollen belly. Johnny and Scott both instinctively tried to reach for her but they were roughly pushed in the other direction. She bit her bottom lip to stop herself moaning as a stabbing pain ripped through her abdomen.  As Arturo lunged for his wife his broken leg betrayed him and he fell inches away from her foot. Hearing his mother's cry Miguel rushed out of the bedroom and pressed himself against her, crying softly.

Johnny staggered toward Elana. "Don't hurt her. She's going to have a baby!"

Tom caught Johnny by the arm and swung him around, making him crash into Scott.  "It's not your concern.  Now move."

Scott caught him and steered him through the door. "You'll make it worse for her," he hissed.

Johnny lowered his head.  He knew his brother was right which didn’t make it any easier to bear.

Their horses had been saddled and were waiting for them. Scott was pulled away from Johnny and his hands were roughly tied behind his back. Johnny received the same treatment, the pain of having his arms pulled behind him too much for him and he felt the ground spin.

"Take it easy!" Scott shouted. "He's hurt. Or don’t you remember the sheriff beat him to within an inch of his life?"

"That's nothing compared to what's waiting for him once Mrs. Rawlings gets hold of him"

The statement made Scott weak in the knees. What was waiting for them at the Rawlings spread?

He was helped into the saddle, his bound hands making it hard for him to balance, and watched as Johnny was thrown stomach first over the saddle and tied down like a side of beef. Damn...if only he had sent that telegram to Murdoch.

 

Chapter 8

The house was depressingly quiet.  For years Murdoch had known nothing but silence and emptiness, and after a while he had ceased to notice it.  The silence had come crashing down around him on that dreadful morning when he awoke to find that his wife had stolen his precious dark-haired son.

In the four months since his sons return to Lancer he had become used to the laughter and noise that seemed to follow them wherever they went.  Oh, he sometimes complained about it, but they knew he wasn’t serious.  He missed them.  They had been gone for over three weeks.  He had been overjoyed when he received their last telegram saying they were on their way home.  In another couple of days they would all be back together again.

He had been disconcerted when Johnny had announced a month ago that he had some business to take care of in Mexico.  Fear had gripped his heart.  Mexico wasn’t safe for his son and Murdoch couldn’t understand why Johnny would want to go back there.  His deepest fear was that Johnny had decided that the life of a rancher wasn’t for him and that his real intention was to leave his family for good.

He had pressed his son and Johnny had finally explained why he had to go.  A good friend, a woman, was in trouble.  She had been taken ill and had fallen behind in paying her debts.  There was a danger that she could lose her home.   Murdoch had suggested wiring her some money, but Johnny had stubbornly insisted that he had to go.  During one argument on the subject Johnny’s temper had exploded.  The truth had come tumbling out.  This woman had been like a mother to him when he was in his early teens.  She had taken in the wild, angry child and had treated him like her own son.  The implied accusation hung between them…she had done what Murdoch and Maria between them had failed to do.  Then the hostility had drained away and Johnny had confessed that he had been worried about hurting his father by telling him too much about his life.

They had talked then, really talked rather than yelling at each other, and Murdoch had given the trip his blessing.  It was then that Johnny had asked if Scott could accompany him.  That had prompted some more emotions, not all of them welcome.  Along with the pleasure of seeing his sons bonding so strongly, came a hint of jealousy.  Scott had been enthusiastic about the trip and Murdoch hadn’t had the heart to deny him the chance to find out more about Johnny’s childhood.

He sighed as he looked out the large window.  How could he have been so stupid as to think that this land was more important than his sons?  His unthinking comment that first day could so easily have driven them away.  They were remarkable young men and he looked forward to their return.

***

Scott was exhausted by the time they made their way along the winding road that opened onto the huge house sitting atop the hill. They had been riding for nearly an hour and the sun was beginning its slow decent into darkness. Standing up in the stirrups, he tried to stretch his legs without losing his balance. It had been a long hard ride trying to stay in the saddle with his hands tied behind his back.

He couldn't even begin to imagine how Johnny must be feeling.  Draped over the saddle must have been excruciating for him with his injured ribs. He had tried several times to move his horse up level with his brother.  Each time he had been prevented from getting a good look at Johnny. He was so consumed with worry for his brother that it was only when Tom held up his hand that he realised they had arrived at their destination.

Scott watched helplessly as Tom moved his horse close to the animal that Johnny was tied to and reached over to grab a handful of Johnny's dark hair.  "You're gonna wish you'd never crossed paths with Mrs. Rawlings," he promised. Tom dismounted and pulled Scott out of the saddle holding his arms until he caught his balance.

The kitchen door opened and Sheriff Rayner stepped out onto the porch.  "Mrs. Rawlings wants to see both of them in the study."

Scott yanked his arms free of Tom and glared up at the sheriff. "You took your bribe, you bastard.  Does she own you as well?"

Tom quickly cut the ropes binding Scott's wrists behind him. "Take care of your brother there. Mrs. Rawlings don’t like to be kept waiting. You make one wrong move and your brother won't like the consequences. Understood?"

"Perfectly."  Scott flexed his fingers and waited for the feeling to return. He stood patiently while the ropes securing Johnny to the horse were cut away then he gently guided his brother to the ground.  To his surprise he saw that Johnny was still conscious, although he was very pale and his sweat damp hair hung limply around his face.

Scott looked up at Tom.  "Untie his hands."

When Tom ignored him, Scott eased Johnny into a sitting position and reached round to untie the ropes.  Tom turned and kicked out with his foot, catching Scott in the side.  "He stays tied."

"Help me up," Johnny whispered in Scott's ear as his brother leaned over him. He couldn't stand the thought that Tom and his bunch had got the best of him. “I can walk," he announced with more conviction than he felt. He glared at Tom as he spoke, but he didn't protest as Scott wrapped a strong arm around his waist for support.

"Move it Lancer." Tom punctuated the order by shoving the barrel of his rifle into Johnny’s back causing the younger Lancer to lose his footing.

Scott steadied his brother and guided him up the short flight of steps to the porch.  With a nasty grin, the sheriff turned to lead the way into the darkness of the house.  Tom and two of his men followed closely behind, cutting off any possible avenue of escape

Scott watched two women hurriedly light the sconces on the walls as the hallway darkened. They didn't say a word, their faces turned from him as if they were afraid to make eye contact. The house felt empty...lifeless.  Paintings lined the wall, each of a man in his late fifties. A black ribbon framed each picture giving Scott a morbid feeling. He was reminded of a visit that he had made with his grandfather to the family crypt when he was a child.  The same chill crept over him now.

The sound of boots echoed in the long corridor, overshadowing the sound of Johnny's bare feet as he staggered next to Scott.  As they moved down the hallway, Scott could feel Johnny's strength waning.  He tightened his grip, offering what support he could.

As Johnny raised his head for the first time he noticed the servants, eyes lowered to the ground and shoulders slumped.  He straightened up, a cold fire in his eyes and pulled to a halt before one young woman.  "Senorita?" he queried.

She shook her head, fear in her eyes and hurried past.

"A word of warning, Madrid. No one speaks to the help around here. You'll get yourself and them in trouble. And don’t use that heathen language around Mrs. Rawlings.  She's had men flogged to death for less." Tom gave the brothers a push in the direction of a closed door at the end of the hallway.

Tom knocked lightly on the door and it was opened from inside by another servant...an old man, bent from years of stooping in submission.

Johnny allowed Scott to lead him into the den before drawing on his last reserves of strength and pulling away from Scott's supporting arm.  Scott let him go, knowing how important it was for Johnny to meet this threat on his own terms.

Scott was stunned as they walked into the room. Memories of Boston came flooding back. This room could be a duplicate of his grandfather's study. The walls were lined with bookcases and the room was dominated by a massive desk.  A woman dressed in evening wear was sitting behind the desk, her eyes glued to Scott. Every corner of the room was lit, as if the shadows held ghosts in hiding.

The woman stood up and her eyes wandered over to Johnny for just a moment, the contempt on her face obvious. "I've seen enough.  Take him to the cells while I speak to this one," she said, nodding from Johnny to Scott.

Tom and the sheriff moved toward Johnny only to have Scott interpose himself between them and his brother.  "You're not taking him anywhere."

"Tomelo con calma, hermano," (Take it easy, brother), Johnny warned. "I’d say they were riled up enough."

A thunderous look crossed Madeleine Rawlings’ face. "Tom, did you not explain to him what would happen if he used that barbaric language in my presence?"

"I told him ma'am but I guess he don't listen so good."

"Then teach him his first lesson."

Tom shouldered Scott out of the way and sank his fist deeply into Johnny's back.  Johnny fell to his knees, his bound hands making it impossible for him to cushion the blow.  He toppled sideways and hit the carpeted floor hard with his shoulder.

"You speak English here," Mrs. Rawlings demanded.

"Punta" Johnny hissed quietly into the rug.

Scott stiffened. ‘Careful brother.”  He wondered if she had heard the insult or even knew what it meant.

She looked distastefully at Johnny who was now curled up in a ball on the expensive rug.  She picked up a riding crop from her desk and slapped it lightly into the palm of her hand. "It looks like our guest didn't learn his lessen. Bring him over here."

Scott tried to lunge toward the two men who grabbed Johnny and dragged him across the room, shoving him to his knees with his back to the woman. "There's no need for this," he yelled.  "He's done nothing to you."  His frantic efforts to reach his brother were foiled by Sheriff Rayner who caught his arms and pulled him to a standstill.

Mrs. Rawlings continued to tap the riding crop in her hand and spoke to Johnny distastefully. "There are rules here and consequences for those who break them. No Spanish is to be spoken here. I hope this will be a reminder to you.”

As the woman raised the riding crop to strike Johnny, he looked straight at his brother.  "You get the chance, Boston, and you get the hell out of here."

"Boston?" Mrs. Rawlings looked at Scott.

Scott ignored her, keeping his eyes on his brother.

"I asked you a question." Mrs. Rawlings kept the crop poised over Johnny's back.

"I was raised in Boston," Scott answered automatically.  He couldn't take his eyes off Johnny.

"Boston is a civilised place, Mr. Lancer, as I'm sure you'll agree.  It has been far too long since I last visited my family there.  California is wild and requires to be tamed."

"Tamed or broken?" Scott asked curtly. Now that he knew what to listen for he could hear the faint trace of a Boston accent.

"The difference is immaterial." As she focussed on the blond, she unconsciously lowered the riding crop to her side.

Scott watched with mounting concern as Johnny swayed unsteadily.  He wasn't sure how much longer his brother could stay on his knees before he keeled over.  He turned his attention back to the woman who was holding them prisoner. "My grandfather raised me to be fair minded and to accept my responsibilities toward those less fortunate.  The way you treat people is barbaric."

"It's a barbaric land, Mr. Lancer. These people don't understand any other way."

Scott was appalled by the callous nature of her comment.  Despite the precarious nature of their position he prepared to argue with her. "They do, given half a chance."

Mrs. Rawlings looked down at Johnny coldly. "I gave them half a chance once...my husband was killed because of it."

"I'm sorry for your loss, but torturing my brother isn't going to bring him back.” Scott felt the sheriff relaxing his hold on him and willed himself to stay calm…to wait for his chance to reach Johnny.

"You say the word so easily. How can you claim him as your brother?”

"Because it is the truth," Scott said flatly, every fibre of his being wanted to run to his brother, to help him as he struggled to get to his feet. But it would only encourage the woman to mete out more punishment.

"Then I pity you. And I'm sure your grandfather does as well.”

"My grandfather was a hard man when he needed to be, but he never treated his people like this.”

"He never had to deal with people like this.  I am sure if he were here he would see things my way."

Inwardly Scott knew she was right. In fact, Harlan Garrett would most likely cherish this moment, but to Mrs. Rawlings he said, "He would never beat anyone, especially not my brother."

"Has he ever met your brother?  How could he possibly condone his grandson living with that half-breed?"

"He understands that Johnny is my brother and I love him no matter what color his skin is.”

"Then the man is a fool," she said with finality.

Scott saw his opening disappear, and the situation take a turn for the worse, as Johnny finally made it to his feet and turned to confront the woman, his eyes boring into her.

"You’re some piece of work, lady," Johnny spat out.  "Treating your workers like slaves, killing their spirit.  Bet your husband would have been real proud."

The whip struck Johnny hard on the side of the head, the momentum shoving him backwards, sending him crashing to the floor.

“Johnny!" Scott cried. "Stop." He wrenched himself free from the sheriff, moved to his brother's side and gently lifted him, easing him back against the wall, mindful of Johnny's bound hands.

Johnny glared at him.  "Why're you bothering talking to this bitch? She's gonna kill us whatever you say to her."

Scott looked steadily into his brother's eyes, hoping that Johnny would understand what he was about to do.  "I think you misjudge her, Brother.  Mrs. Rawlings has made some valid points."

Johnny looked up at Scott in disbelief until he saw the look in his brother's eyes. He nodded - just enough to let Scott know that he understood.

Scott gave a furtive glance toward Johnny then addressed the woman, his words making him sick. "I think there is room enough for more than one culture.”

"How can you possibly believe that?" she asked in disbelief.

"I believe it strongly enough to have fought in the war against slavery."

“Then you wasted your time. Inferior people will always be inferior. How did a well brought up young man come to be travelling with such a person?" Mrs. Rawlings glanced down at Johnny who was beginning to sag toward the floor.

"I told you - he's my brother and he needs medical attention."

"He needs to be taught a lesson.  I've heard all about his exploits and I can tell you now that no one is going to come in here and encourage my workers...my property...to revolt against me,” she said, momentarily losing her composure.

Scott nodded, knowing he had to step lightly here. The wrong word and his brother could pay with his life. "We were simply passing through town. It was your men who attacked him."

"I'm not a fool, Mr. Lancer.  Johnny Madrid is a notorious gunfighter.  It can hardly be a coincidence that he shows up just after that family moves in.  They are trying to drive me off my land...land that my husband and I worked hard to build up."

Scott nodded. "I can understand the need to protect your property, to fight for what you have built for a lifetime...but they are not a threat to you. They only want to be left alone. They have a right to stay on their own land."

Mrs. Rawlings slammed her riding crop against the side of the desk.  "They have no rights.  Can't you see that?  They are no better than savages."

"I wouldn't go that far...but they are inferior to us." Scott squeezed Johnny's shoulder, seeing a hint of understanding in his eyes. He prayed Johnny would not react.

But Johnny pulled himself as far away from Scott as he could get.  "Gotta give you credit, Boston.  You sure had me fooled. Thought I meant something to you.  Guess I was wrong."

Scott rested his right hand lightly on Johnny’s shoulder. "No, Johnny, you weren’t wrong. But now,” he looked up at Mrs. Rawlings. “I can see what I have been missing back in Boston. You have to understand, Johnny, I’m not cut out for this kind of life. I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”

Johnny tried to shrug Scott’s hand off his shoulder. "Doesn't mean you aren't a back stabbing son of a..."

The whip came slapping down on the desk next to Johnny. "You should show respect to your betters," Mrs. Rawlings warned Johnny coldly.

Scott turned his attention back to his brother.  "Mrs. Rawlings is giving you good advice.  You would be wise to listen."

Mrs. Rawlings looked thoughtfully at her blond prisoner.  He was saying all the right things, but how could she be convinced of his sincerity? “Dinner will be served in an hour, why don't you join me, Mr. Lancer? We can talk about Boston…and your situation here.”

Scott looked down at Johnny and his heart broke inside. On the outside he looked up and just smiled. "If it is a good old fashioned Boston dinner I would be honored.” Scott kept a tight rein on his feelings of guilt which were threatening to suffocate him. “What about Johnny?"

"He'll be taken care of."

The cryptic words sent a shiver down Scott's back. "We may understand one another Mrs. Rawlings, but Johnny is still my brother.  If you are expecting me to sit down and eat dinner with you then I want your assurance that he won’t be mistreated."

Mrs. Rawlings raised an eyebrow. "You are not in the best of positions to be making demands on me, young man. But I assure you, your 'brother' will be treated like all the other workers here."

“My brother is part owner of a successful ranch.  He can hardly be classed as one of your workers."

“To me, he’s just another filthy Mexican.”

All Scott's good intentions evaporated.  "Then you can damn well eat dinner alone."

"I suggest you reconsider your disrespectful behaviour," Mrs Rawlings cautioned.

Scott choked back his anger and nodded. He had to keep an open dialogue with this woman.  It was Johnny's only hope. "I apologise." He bowed his head to hide the hatred in his eyes.

"Accepted. Now, Consuela will see you to your room so you can freshen up.” Mrs. Rawlings said the name as if it left a bad taste in her mouth. “She will also provide you with acceptable clothing. You'll understand that I have to post a guard.  However, if you behave yourself there shouldn't be any need for any unpleasantness."

Johnny turned away.  He knew what Scott was doing, but he still felt sick listening to his brother rejecting him. But he had to play the game. Johnny struggled to sit up, his eyes as cold as steel. "I knew the minute I saw you, you were nothing more than a fancy Eastern dandy. I don't know why I wasted my time on you...Mi Hermano."

"Gag him," Mrs. Rawlings ordered, her face flushed angrily at Johnny's continued disrespect.

Tom pushed Scott out of the way and hauled Johnny to his knees. Mrs. Rawlings walked back behind her desk and snatched open the bottom drawer.

Scott scrambled to his feet, speechless with disbelief as he saw her withdraw a leather strap which she handed to Tom.

Tom removed a grubby handkerchief from his back pocket before yanking Johnny's head back and stuffing it in his mouth.

"No," Scott whispered.  He felt hands on his arms as he was dragged back toward the door.  He kept his eyes fixed on his brother as Tom sealed the filthy cloth in Johnny’s mouth with the strap. Scott felt the bile rise in his throat.

"That is how to silence a cur," Mrs Rawlings informed Scott. "See that you are on time for dinner or..." she smiled as she left the threat hanging.

As Scott was removed from the room he heard her ordering Tom to take Johnny to the cells.

 

Chapter 9

Scott sat on the comfortable bed trying to make sense of the events of the last hour. The woman was clearly deranged which made her deadly. He had to step lightly or Johnny would be the one to pay. He couldn't get the image of Johnny out of his mind. The thought of sitting down to dinner with her, pretending to enjoy her company, left him with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

All his deeply held ideals were defiled by her prejudices.  He had fought a war against people like her.  Johnny had fought his whole life against the filthy ideas that permeated this house like a sick fog. Everything was tainted by her cruelty.

He heard the key turning in the lock.  The door was pushed open and a young woman entered the room trying to balance a large bowl full of water and an armload of clothes. The young woman held her eyes downcast...never once looking up to face him. Seeing how she was struggling under her heavy burden he rushed over to take the bowl from her. She seemed startled at first, sloshing the water over the brim of the bowl to splash at Scott's feet. She looked horrified at her clumsiness.

"I am sorry, Sir," she blurted out.  "Please don't tell Mrs. Rawlings."

"It's all right," he said softly. ""There is nothing to tell. It's only water." He took the basin from her and set it on the dresser. “My name is Scott...what’s yours?"

She seemed startled. No one had ever asked her that before.  In fact, no-one had ever spoken to her except to issue orders or reprimands. "You should not be speaking to me.  You will get us both into trouble," she whispered, looking back toward the door that still stood ajar.

"Why? I simply asked your name."

"Mrs. Rawlings forbids us to talk unless we are taking instructions or speaking to her. It is not wise to go against her wishes."

As she turned to leave Scott caught her arm.  "Wait. Do you know where they have taken my brother?"

"Please, I can not say. I will be in much trouble."

"Then you know?" Scott persisted.

"Si!” The woman brought her hand up to her lips....frightened beyond reason that the Spanish word had slipped out. "It is forbidden." She was almost sobbing now with fright.  "We are not allowed to speak our own language."

"You don't need to be frightened of me," Scott told her. "Tu secreto esta a salvo.” (Your secret is safe).

She wiped away a tear that was trickling down her cheek before leaning close to Scott.  "Your hermano has been locked up in the cellar.  It is a bad place, Senor.  You must get him away from here before she orders his death."

Her words sent a stab of fear down his spine. He had known from the moment he set eyes on Mrs. Rawlings that Johnny was in mortal danger. "I have no intention of letting her kill my brother," Scott told her with far more conviction than he felt. He dipped down to look in her eyes. "Will you help me?" he asked gently.

She backed away from him in fear.  "I cannot.  Please do not ask this of me. No-one will help. We face the whip if we do...or worse."

"Johnny’s done nothing. He doesn't deserve any of this," Scott hissed.

"He is half Mexican...that is his sin."

Scott looked startled. "Johnny's heritage is no sin and neither is yours."

"That is easy for you to say, Senor.  She will not punish you.  You are just like her. It has been a way of life here for as long as I can remember. I am afraid, like everyone else. You must understand. I can do nothing.”

"How can you expect anyone to help you if you won't stand up for yourselves?" Scott asked.

"We are not worthy,” she said, her voice dropping to a mere whisper. “We are less than the mud beneath your shoes. It is the way it is, has always been."

Scott could feel his temper rising.  He gripped her arms.  "Stop talking like that.  You are human beings just like everyone else.  If you help me free my brother, we will fight for you."

"Then you will die along with your brother."

"That's a chance I'm willing to take."

The young woman raised her head, her eyes meeting his for the first time. "You risk everything to do this."

"I risk much more if I don't. I risk losing my brother.”

"You ask much, Senor, but I will think about what you have said.  Now I must go before the guards become suspicious.  Be careful."

***

Scott looked at his reflection in the mirror.  The clothes provided for him weren't a perfect fit but they were close enough. He struggled with a strong sense of unreality.  Here he was, dressed in evening clothes about to have dinner with a madwoman, while his brother was locked up in a cell. He adjusted his bow tie automatically.  It had been a long time since he had had occasion to wear clothes like this. He heard the key in the lock turn and an old servant walked in.

"If you are ready, Sir, I will take you to the dining room."

"Si," Scott answered, seeing the moment of fear wash over the servant’s face.

"We do not speak Spanish here," the man cautioned. "You know what happened to your brother.  You cannot help him if you upset her."

"Have you seen him?"

"I saw him being taken from the study.  He did not go quietly." There was pride in the man's voice.  It was not often that one of their own showed such spirit.

Scott caught the look of respect on the old man's face. "Will you help me get him out of here?"

"It is not possible.  You must come now.  Mrs. Rawlings does not like to be kept waiting."

"You would let him die down there?" Scott demanded.

"Your brother has challenged Mrs. Rawlings' authority. He will be punished as an example to the others. I am sorry.”

"My brother almost gave his life for people like you," Scott said contemptuously.

The servant lowered his head in shame. "I know this. I know who he is.”

"Then you know that he would not walk away from you. Whether you will help me or not, I am not going to leave him to die."

"I know what Johnny Madrid would do, but we are not brave like him. We are simple people. We do what we are told, and we survive."

"Don't you see...it doesn't have to be like that? If you stand up to her..."

The old man waved his hand, looking back at the door. "Do not speak of such things. You will get us both killed!"

"I would rather die trying, than the alternative.” With a disgusted look Scott pushed past the servant and walked out the door.  He ignored the two guards standing in the hallway and stalked toward the stairs.

***

Madeleine Rawlings smoothed the skirts of her gown, anticipating a pleasurable evening.  It had been a long time since she had such a handsome and well-bred dinner companion.

The table had been set with her finest bone china. The crystal glasses shimmered in the soft candlelight from the lamp sconces on the walls. An exquisite candelabra sat in the center of the large table. She checked the three place settings and nodded her satisfaction. She looked over at the clock on the mantle and frowned.  He was late and she detested lateness.  Perhaps she should send someone down to punish his brother. She was on the point of sending one of the servants to find Tom when her guest arrived. "Mr. Lancer, you are late." Her severe tone indicated her displeasure.

Scott bowed discreetly and gave her his most charming smile. "It has been a while since I dressed for dinner like this. I wanted to make sure I made a good impression. I would never deliberately keep a fascinating lady waiting."

Mollified, Mrs. Rawlings smiled. "Just don't let it happen again. Your brother would not like the consequences."

"I'm sure we can find more pleasant topics of conversation than my brother," Scott replied, fighting a surge of nausea at the perceived betrayal.

Pleasantly surprised, Mrs. Rawlings beamed back a smile. "Please, sit, Mr. Lancer."

Scott looked at the table and noticed the three place settings.  "Is someone else joining us?"

"The chair at the head of the table belongs to my husband of course," she told him, appearing surprised by the question.

Scott looked at the empty seat and frowned. Didn't they say that her husband had died years ago? Rather than voice his thoughts aloud he followed her to the table and held her chair for her until she had taken her seat.

"I'm afraid he may be late," she continued. "We will start without him this evening. I hope you like the dinner I have selected for us."

"I’m sure I will," Scott smiled, even though the bile was rising in his throat.

She picked up a small bell that had been sitting beside her plate and rang it. "Tell me, Mr. Lancer, how long has it been since you sat at a civilized table?”

"It has been too long," he smiled. “Even the most elaborate dinner at Lancer could not come close to this.” Inwardly he longed for the uncivilized table at Lancer. Surrounded by family - Johnny breaking every rule he could get away with and Murdoch raising a scathing eyebrow. But he knew his father was enjoying every moment of his brother’s antics. That thought brought him perilously close to losing his calm. For now, he had to play the game and pray that he could get to Johnny.

Mrs. Rawlings nodded, pleased with the answer.  “It is not often that I get a chance to dine with a true gentleman.”

The door from the kitchen opened and a servant carried in a large tureen. Scott could tell immediately what it was. He unfolded his napkin and laid it in his lap.  "I confess that I have missed the comforts of Boston.  Good food and congenial company."

"I'm sure you have." Her eyes sparkled as she watched the servant ladle out a steaming portion of chowder.

The smell of the food was making him feel ill.  How could he sit here and eat knowing that Johnny was suffering? A servant walked around the table and Scott watched him fill the bowl at the vacant seat with chowder.

As if she could read his mind, Mrs. Rawlings laid her hand gently atop Scott's. "My husband will be here soon. I like to have his plate ready for him when he arrives."

Scott nodded and fought the urge to pull away from her touch. He managed to swallow two mouthfuls of the soup before laying down his spoon.

"Is the food not to your liking, Mr. Lancer?"

"No, no, not at all," Scott said quickly. "It is just that it has been so long since I had food that reminds me of my life in Boston. I want to savor it for as long as I can."

"I would hate to think that my cook has embarrassed me in front of a guest."

"This is the finest chowder I have tasted in years. You have an excellent chef." Scott forced himself to pick up his spoon and continue eating.  He didn't want to give her any excuse to mete out further punishment to Johnny or to reprimand any of her staff.

"Just where in Boston do you come from, Mr. Lancer?"

"My grandfather owns property in Beacon Hill."

"Then you come from a well to do family."

"I was fortunate," Scott replied.  "My grandfather has a successful business and I was well provided for."

"Yes, I can tell. You have impeccable manners. Tell me, how did you come to be associated with that vulgar half-breed?”

Try as he might Scott couldn't keep his temper.  "I'd be grateful if you didn't refer to my brother like that."

"Your brother?" Her voice rose. "You call that...thing...your brother? I'm sure your grandfather would not tolerate such talk." She rang the bell again harshly.  "I don't think you quite understand your position here.”

Her sudden change in personality stunned Scott.  He knew now that he had to tread very lightly.  This woman was completely insane.

One of the servants crept quietly into the room.  "Send someone to fetch Tom," Mrs. Rawlings ordered.

Scott rested his spoon on the table carefully. He knew he had let his temper get the best of him. "Mrs. Rawlings..."

"You will learn, Mr. Lancer, that there are consequences for bad behaviour."

A hush fell over the dining room and Scott could only wait. He knew that if he said anything more that he would risk something even worse befalling his brother. He hoped, in vain, that she would punish him for his actions....not Johnny.

The door from the kitchen opened and the servant stepped into the room with a tray of food. "Please wait to serve the main course. We have some unpleasantness to take care of first."

It took only a few minutes for Tom to arrive.  He waited just inside the door for Mrs. Rawlings to issue her instructions.

"Ah, Tom.  Mr. Lancer has had a serious lapse in manners.  Tomorrow morning I want you to bring the half-breed to the yard and prepare him for his punishment."

Tom grinned.  "It'll be my pleasure ma'am."

"What punishment?" Scott exploded.  "He did nothing wrong."

"You were in the wrong, Mr. Lancer and it is your 'brother' who will pay the price. That is how it is here."

"I'm sorry," Scott said desperately. "You're right, of course. I hadn't realised until today just how much life in California had affected my manners.”

Mrs. Rawlings nodded. "I accept your apology, but the punishment will be carried out as I ordered. Next time you will think before you speak. Now, let us get back to our dinner. The cook has worked so hard to prepare the perfect meal."

A ring of the bell brought the servant back in with a large ham which he set before Scott.

“If you will do the honors, Sir.” Mrs. Rawlings smiled.

Scott found his hand was shaking as he reached for the large, sharp carving knife.  Never before in his life had he felt an impulse to harm a woman, but all he wanted to do was plunge the knife into her black heart. He placed a slice of meat on a plate and handed it to the waiting servant who carried it to Mrs. Rawlings.  The second plate was placed before the empty chair. It was an effort to act normally, but he was rewarded with a pleased smile from Mrs. Rawlings.

Scott forced himself to eat and carry on the expected small talk associated with formal dinners.  Every morsel of food that touched his mouth reminded him of what Johnny did not have.  He felt an overwhelming surge of guilt, but he knew that this was the only way to help his brother. As the wasted food was cleared away he wished fervently that it was going to Johnny.

Finally the main course was over and the table cleared before dessert was served. Their wine glasses were refilled with a rare, expensive Cabernet and Mrs. Rawlings lifted her glass for a toast.

“To a pleasant evening.  I am sure we will have many more.”

“To a gracious hostess,” Scott returned.

"You do have impeccable manners, Mr. Lancer. They were just a bit tarnished."

"It is my grandfather who deserves the credit.  He made sure I had a proper upbringing." Scott waited for the dessert to be set on the table, a light custard baked in small individual bowls.

"You will find this to be an excellent custard. Now, tell me, would I know your grandfather?”

"It is possible. He is very well known in the city.  His name is Harlan Garrett."

"Harlan Garrett is your grandfather?” she asked in amazement.  “The Garrett family has a long and illustrious history.  I cannot imagine how he could have allowed you to lower yourself to associate with that half-breed."

Scott struggled to keep his temper in check. "My grandfather was not happy when I moved out west. He still thinks it is below my station in life."

"He is right, of course. My husband and I worked very hard to turn this ranch into what it is today, a homage to the life we knew back east. And your ranch, Mr. Lancer...what is it like?

"It is beautiful, Mrs. Rawlings.  It covers one hundred thousand acres of prime land.” What he didn't tell her was that there was Spanish influence in every inch of that land. Scott cleared his throat. "Is there really a need to punish Johnny for my indiscretions?”

"I don't make idle threats Mr. Lancer.  The staff know he is to be punished.  Would you have me appear weak by backing down?"

"I hardly think that you would ever appear weak, Mrs. Rawlings."

"Perhaps, but I am not about to change my ways now."

"What...what are you proposing to do to him?"

"I intend to make an example of him.  He will be chained in the yard like the wild animal he is.  Had you not been such a gracious companion this evening I would have had him whipped."

"But he can't take any more sun.  Your sheriff kept him out in the sun all day yesterday...it almost killed him."

"You should have thought of that before your ill-advised outburst earlier. Just remember that they are nothing but mongrels…dogs…and you have to treat them that way. It is the only thing they understand.”

"What use will he be to you if he is dead?"

Mrs. Rawlings contemplated that. She reached over and poured a tumbler full of water from a crystal pitcher. "He can have this much water. Even a dog needs water."

"And food?" Scott asked hopefully

"He will be fed like the rest of the prisoners."

"I was wondering, as you have been such a perfect hostess this evening, if you would do me one favor?"

"And what is that?" she asked, letting a little more of her Boston accent out.

"If I could just be allowed to check on Johnny...only for a minute."

"Why?" she asked with a hint of suspicion in her voice.

Scott looked down at his hands, not trusting his expression as he said, “Johnny is my brother and, whether I like who and what he is, I still have an obligation to my family.”

"You call him family?"

Scott nodded. “I am the older brother and I have responsibilities.  It is my duty to reprimand Johnny and teach him how a civilized person acts.”

Mrs. Rawlings nodded her approval and smiled at him. "Very well, you can have ten minutes with him. I will expect you at breakfast on time tomorrow morning."

Scott stood up, his knees feeling weak. He didn't know if he had the strength to do this.

Mrs. Rawlings followed him to the door and issued instructions to the two guards and a waiting servant. As she watched Scott walking toward the stairway leading to the cellars she saw Tom striding down the hallway, scowling.

 

Chapter 10

The guard led Scott through the kitchen and down a narrow flight of steps leading to a dank and cold root cellar. A torch burned in one stanchion, casting dark shadows on the line of cages along the back wall. As he took the last step the guard pointed to one of the six foot square metal cages.

"The breed's in there."

A low, guttural moan came from the end cage and a guard banged his baton on the cage. "Shut up, or you know what'll happen," he warned.  The moan stopped and the cellar was deathly quiet.

Scott stared in horror at his brother's prison.  In the dim light it was hard to make out any details. The stench of rotting food and human waste nearly gagged him. He reeled back. Memories of Libby came back to assault his mind.  He swallowed back the fear those memories invoked and moved forward again. He heard the guard chuckle behind him and it took all his will power not to turn and break the man’s neck with his bare hands. But his first priority was Johnny. He had to remain strong if he was going to find a way to save his brother

The guard shoved Scott in the back toward the middle cage. "Ya got ten minutes...don't waste em."

Scott moved closer to the cage, almost afraid to look inside.  In the dim light Scott could make out Johnny's form, huddled in the corner. His hands remained bound behind his back with the gag still in place.

The sight of his brother knocked all the breath from his body. Mrs. Rawlings’ words came back to him...'they are nothing but mongrels...dogs...'  And that was how she was treating Johnny. His anger rose. He could feel the carving knife in his hand again and wished to God that he had used it. He gripped the cage and rattled it, trying to tear it apart with his bare hands. Johnny didn't move; just lay there in the filth on the floor.

The guard gripped his shoulder and spun him away.  "You'd better behave yourself.  If you don't calm down, I ain't unlocking that door."

Scott nodded. Every fibre of his being wanted to hurt this guard as much as he was hurting Johnny...but he needed to get to his brother. Turning back, he saw the bowl of water laying close to Johnny, too dirty for human consumption. Scott turned as he heard the sound of footsteps coming down the steep stairs. He saw an old servant struggling with the weight of a pail.

"Leave it, old man," the guard ordered, and the servant set the pail next to Scott's feet.

The slop inside reeked and Scott swallowed back the bile that rose in his throat. He thought about the meal he had just eaten, the wasted food and his anger intensified.

The guard kicked the bucket and chuckled, tapping Scott on the shoulder with his baton. "You want ta slop the hogs tonight?"

Scott saw his brother finally stir lethargically.  He caught a glimpse of pain dulled blue eyes before Johnny turned away. Scott gathered his shattered composure and turned on the guard.  "Mrs. Rawlings said he could have food and water.  He can't eat and drink tied up like that."

The guard scratched his chin and grinned nastily.  "Guess you're right.  You can go in there and get rid of the gag." He searched through his pockets and produced a key.  He shoved Scott to one side and unlocked the door.  "You're wasting time.  You’ve got five minutes left."

The cage door opened on rusty hinges and Scott was pushed roughly inside, the cage door slamming behind him. Fear and anger waged a bitter battle until Johnny lifted his head, just enough for Scott to see his eyes again. There was so much lost hope in those eyes.

Scott fell to his knees on the damp and dirty floor, ignoring the filth that was now clinging to his borrowed trousers, and gently unbuckled the strap holding the gag in place. He pulled the handkerchief out of Johnny’s mouth. He looked at the water sitting next to Johnny and saw the layer of slime on top. “Johnny,” he said softly, his hands shaking as he reached for the ropes tethering his brother’s hands.

“Go away,” Johnny whispered.

“Leave it!” the guard warned.

"I'm not leaving my brother tied up like this," Scott snarled.

"You want ta join him?" The guard had his gun drawn now and pointed threateningly at Scott.

Scott pulled his hands away from the rope. "Can he at least have his hands free so he can eat?

"He stays the way he is. Can't trust these animals, ya know."  The guard opened the cell door and pushed the servant inside. "Put that slop down where he can reach it then get out."

The old man set the bucket next to Scott and locked eyes with him for just a split second...there were years of pain and anger in those eyes.

"Scott," Johnny's voice was almost too weak to hear. "I ain't eating like some damn animal."

Scott looked back down at the slop in the bucket and knew he could never feed it to his brother. With a twitch of his knee, he knocked the pail over, the contents spilling on the ground.

The guard brought the baton down hard on the servant’s shoulder. "That was your fault.  You should have watched where you put that bucket. You can come back later and clean that up."

Seeing that Scott was about to react to the brutal treatment, Johnny nudged him and shook his head.

Shaking with fury Scott reached for the bowl of water, but the sting of the baton hit his shoulder. "If he's thirsty he can drink himself."

"Not with his hands tied behind his back!"

"That's his problem."

Scott laid his hand gently on Johnny's shoulder. "You have to drink some water." He felt sick when he thought about what Mrs. Rawlings had in store for his brother the next day.  He had to get Johnny to drink otherwise he wouldn't get through the ordeal to come.

Johnny looked up at him, pleading to be left alone.

"You have to Johnny. You'll die down here if you don't."

Johnny shook his head miserably.  "Can't, Scott. You gotta understand."

"Johnny, please, you have to drink."

"Would you?" Johnny asked.

Scott looked at him and answered with loathing. "I have."

Johnny searched his brother's face and saw the truth of that statement. With Scott’s help he struggled to his knees. Scott balanced him and he watched in horror as Johnny lapped up two mouthfuls of water before falling back on his side. Their eyes met and brother knew brother...trusted each other. Still the shame of it made Johnny turn his face away from Scott. The brothers ignored the mocking laughter of the guards.

"Yer time’s up,” the guard warned, the baton he used to rattle the cage tapping Scott painfully on the shoulder.

"I have to go now, Johnny,” Scott whispered in Johnny’s ear. “I promise I'll find a way to get you out of here."

Johnny nodded without enthusiasm.  He couldn't see any way out of this mess.  His only hope was that Scott would survive.

Scott was hauled to his feet and pulled out of the cage. The door slammed closed and the lock clanked into place. "I’ll come back for you, hermano," he vowed silently.

Scott's eyes met those of the elderly servant.  He was heartened to see a smouldering anger and began to feel that he was not as isolated as he had thought.  He wondered how many workers were confined on the Rawlings ranch and whether or not they could be incited to revolt against their oppressor.

He walked out of the root cellar. As the door closed behind him his brain was working furiously as he drew on all his experience of warfare and started to formulate a plan to free his brother. He would keep his vow or die trying.

***

Mrs. Rawlings sat back in the comfortable leather chair and took a sip of expensive cognac.  "I'm very disappointed in our guest.  I thought he was such a nice young man." She looked out the window into the darkness. "He has so much potential, just like..." She broke off with an angry shake of her head.  The past was over with and nothing would change what had happened. The best she could do was to make sure another young man didn't make the same mistakes. “The grandson of Harlan Garrett...I would think his breeding would show through more. But perhaps it will just take time."

She listened intently for a minute.  "Yes, I believe you are right.  He has clearly been corrupted by that half-breed.  I think it is our duty to help him see the truth." She stood up and walked over to the liquor cabinet, fetching the bottle of brandy and pouring a measure into a second glass.  "For now, I think he needs a firm hand. What do you say we make an example of his brother tomorrow? That outburst at dinner earlier needs to be addressed.  I was inclined to be lenient until I found out that he had lied about that telegram.  What well brought up young man lies like that? As for that brother of his…I worry. Johnny Madrid could cause us problems, dead or alive.”

She returned to her seat and considered the problem.  "We need to show the workers that Johnny Madrid is nothing...that he will be of no help to them.  We need to break him. That fountain we spoke of in the center of the courtyard...perhaps it would be a good time to start that project. It will be hard, back-breaking work to dig it out and then quarry the stone and bring it to the house.”

She took another long sip of her drink then set the glass down. "Divide and conquer...I believe you are right. We will turn them against each other. It will be a challenge, I know.  They are clearly far closer to each other than Scott was leading us to believe.  It will take time. We must also make a decision on those heathens squatting on American soil. They must be punished for harboring the Lancers. I think I'll send Tom back there tomorrow.  It's time they understood their place. But we have all the time we need. Murdoch Lancer has no idea where his sons are, and no one will help them here. I think five lashes tomorrow for our prisoner and then we will put him to work. I believe I still have the plans for the fountain. First the hole must be dug...deep enough to catch the water table below. Then the rocks can be set. It will take a dozen men three months to finish.”

She finished her drink and stood up.  "I'm going to bed.  There is so much to do tomorrow and I need an early start."  She smiled affectionately in the direction of  the empty chair.  "Don't stay up too late, my darling."

As she left the room a servant carefully returned the untouched cognac to the bottle as he did every night.

***

Elana lay on the bed and bit her lip.  It was impossible to find a comfortable position.  Her only consolation was that the pains were coming less frequently now, which was a relief as she was sure she wasn’t yet far enough along for the baby to be born safely. She had heard of false labor. Hopefully the next time she felt these pains it would herald the arrival of her new baby. She smiled weakly at her husband.  "It is not yet time.  I feel the baby moving." She guided his hand down to rest on her swollen belly.  "The nino is safe."

Arturo looked up in wonder as he felt the baby kicking strongly then his expression darkened.  "We should not have come here."

"Hush," Elana said softly, placing her finger to his lips. "This is our home. We will make a life for ourselves here.

"At what cost?" Arturo demanded.

"And what would the cost be to our souls if we turn away and return home?

"And what of Miguel and the new nino?"

Elana shook her head.  "We knew this would be hard.  Even Mrs. Rawlings will not hurt the children. Now I must prepare breakfast..."

"You should be resting," Arturo complained.

"No, it is best that I move around. The nino will get restless and want out that much sooner," she laughed. "And I need to check on Miguel.  The poor child has been through so much, but he will survive.  He has his father's strength." She squeezed Arturo's hand and struggled off the bed.

***

Miguel had listened to the low moans coming from his mama behind the closed door of her bedroom. He was afraid. Not just of what was happening to his mama but of everything. His world had been turned upside down and he had no one to go to...no one to protect him. He was lost. He had sat in the corner, near the warmth of the stove and wept until he fell asleep.

He awoke the next morning to see Elana moving slowly around the kitchen. He saw that her hair was unkempt and she looked so pale. He wanted to ask how she was, but the words would not leave his mouth. He yawned and rubbed his eyes before getting up and flinging his arms around her legs.  He buried his face in her skirt.

"Are you hungry, nino?" she asked, and her smile eased his fright.

He nodded and crawled up into a kitchen chair. "Do you think we will see Johnny and Scott today? I like them.”

Elana brushed a stray strand of hair out of her eyes.  "I like them too, Miguel, but we may not see them again."

The sounds of horses and the rattle of a wagon approaching drew Elana's attention to the window. "Go to your papa," she ordered. "Now!  And don’t come out until I call you."

Miguel hesitated and Elana took hold of his arm, dragging him from the chair and pushing him toward the bedroom.  "Do as you are told." Her panic made her harsh. As she watched the bedroom door slowly close she opened the front door and stepped out onto the porch.

"What do you want?" she demanded.

"You, your husband and the kid.  Come quietly and no one needs to get hurt," Tom said curtly, but he could not look her in the eyes. "I brought the wagon for you and your husband. Hurry before I change my mind and put you all on horses.

As Elana hesitated the door behind her opened and Arturo limped unsteadily to her side.  "We have no choice," he said softly to her. "We can not fight them."

She raised her head proudly and looked at Tom and each of his men in turn.  They all looked away, embarrassed.  "Miguel," she called and waited for the boy to step out onto the porch. "We are all taking a ride, nino.”

Together the family climbed into the back of the wagon and looked back on the house as they pulled away, the fear that they would never see their new home again etched on their faces.

***

Murdoch arrived at the Bank just as it was opening.  He had a meeting of the Cattleman's Association in an hour and a mountain of business to take care of before then.

"Murdoch, I had a hunch I'd see you this morning. Is everything all right with Scott?"

Murdoch looked at the bank manager in surprise.  "So far as I know Scott is fine.  Why do you ask?"

Harry Johnson looked away, embarrassed. It was not his place to poke his nose in other people’s problems. "He, ah, he withdrew a large amount of cash a few days ago. I thought you were aware of it.”

Murdoch looked round, noting other customers arriving.  He wasn't comfortable having this conversation within earshot of whoever might come in.  "Could we go to your office?" he asked.

Murdoch waited for the door to close before asking. "How much?"

"One thousand dollars. Most of the time I would wait for a second signature on an amount like that...but he said it was urgent."

"A thousand dollars?" Murdoch slumped back in the chair.  "Did he say why it was urgent?"

"No. Just a simple request. The password was correct, so I sent it out."

"Where did the wire come from?"

"Norton. Never heard of it myself."

"Neither have I.  Do you still have the telegram?"

Johnson nodded, opening his drawer and rifling through some papers. "I'm sure it's here somewhere.  Ah, yes, here it is." He withdrew the piece of paper and passed it to Murdoch. "You'll find it is all in order."

"I'm sure it is." Murdoch spoke distractedly as he tried to read some meaning into the simple request in front of him.

"If he should ask for more money, should I send it?"

Murdoch nodded. "Until we know what is going one, do as he asks." He handed the telegram back to the bank manager.  "If you hear from him again could you send someone out to Lancer to let me know?"

"Certainly, Murdoch. I do hope he and Johnny aren't in any kind of trouble."

Murdoch nodded. "So do I. I think I'll drop in on the sheriff."

***

Murdoch walked toward the sheriff’s office, deep in thought.  He couldn’t come up with a single good reason for Scott to withdraw such a large amount of cash in a hurry.  He was of two minds about involving the sheriff.  Val Crawford had turned up in Green River a few weeks after Pardee and his gang of cut-throats had been defeated.  His arrival had been fortuitous. The valley was still reeling from Pardee's rampage and he had been hired without question.

It was only after Crawford had been appointed sheriff that Murdoch had found out that he had been invited to Green River by his younger son.  It appeared that Johnny and the sheriff had a history although, so far, Murdoch hadn’t been able to find out how they came to know each other.

He had only had a few dealings with the new sheriff and had found him to be unprepossessing and blunt to the point of rudeness.  He pushed open the door leading to the jail to find the sheriff fast asleep with his feet up on the desk.  Dust swirled from every available surface and a stack of papers slid sedately to the ground.  The room smelled of burnt coffee and unwashed humanity.

Murdoch began to wonder if he was over-reacting.  His sons were, after all, grown men well used to taking care of themselves.  He was on the point of leaving when the sheriff opened his eyes.  “Sheriff Crawford…I was wondering if you could do me a favor?”

 

“Mr. Lancer.” Val stifled a yawn.  “Take a seat.”

Murdoch looked at the chair and decided he would rather stand.  “I’m concerned that Scott and Johnny might have run into some trouble.  Scott wired our bank a few days ago and withdrew a thousand dollars.  Normally such a large withdrawal should have been cleared with me first, but he said that it was urgent so the bank manager approved the transfer.”

Val whistled.  “That’s a lot of money.”

“The money doesn’t bother me,” Murdoch snapped.  “I’m worried that Scott might have needed the money because Johnny was in trouble.”

“Where’d the wire come from?” Val asked, not appearing in the least put out by Murdoch’s display of temper.

“A place called Norton.  Have you ever heard of it?”

“Small place, not much to it.  Near the border, could spell trouble.  When were the boys due back?”

“I’m not expecting them for a day or two.”

“Not sure there’d even be a sheriff in Norton. I know a few people round those parts. I'll send a wire, maybe they know something.”

“Thank you, Sheriff.  I’m grateful for your help. Do you mind me asking how you and Johnny know one another?”

“Threw him in jail once.  He sure had a mouth on him and he was a cocky little bastard…sorry Mr. Lancer.  Once he settled down and we got to talking we found we had a lot in common.  Kept in touch after that.  Rode together a few times too when I wanted a break from being a lawman.  Tough as nails on the outside but underneath he was a good kid. I ain’t never seen anyone faster with a gun. He's a good friend." The implication hung heavy between them.

Murdoch nodded, impressed with the passion in the sheriff’s voice. "If you hear anything I'll be out at Lancer."

Val stood up and collected his hat.  “I’ll head over to the telegraph office now and I’ll ride out myself as soon as I get any replies.  It could take a day or two so if the boys turn up in the meantime you be sure to let me know.”

Murdoch closed the door behind him. He couldn't shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong with his sons. He had lost them for so many years...he would not lose them again.

 

Chapter 11

“Time to get up, Lancer.”

The harsh comment coupled with a rough shake startled Scott awake.  It took a moment for his exhausted mind to comprehend where he was.  The comfortable bed and unfamiliar room confused him.  He focused on the man who had just woken him up and his stomach cramped as memory returned.

“Mrs. Rawlings is expecting you to join her downstairs in fifteen minutes.  Don’t keep her waiting.”

The guard left, slamming the door behind him.  Scott lay quietly as he reviewed the events of the previous night.  When he had been returned to this room and locked in, he had nearly given in to despair.  In disgust he had torn off the beautifully tailored jacket and shirt and, in a pointless show of defiance, had flung them into a corner of the room.  He couldn’t rid his mind of the picture of his brother lying in that filthy cell, hurt and alone.  To see him degraded like that…it was more than he could bear and his anger was hot enough to scorch anyone within reach.

The rational part of his mind was screaming a warning.  He had to be calm, to plan and execute that plan with cold precision.  He flung the covers aside and forced himself out of bed.  He was good at planning, that was one of his strengths.  The logistics of warfare fascinated him and that was how he had to look at this situation.  He and Johnny were in the middle of a war…only this time he was close enough to see the faces, the despair.  This time his brother’s life, and the lives of others, was at stake.

He noted that his dirty clothes from the night before had gone and that there was a pile of clean clothing waiting on top of the dresser.  A bowl of fresh water waited for him beneath the mirror together with soap and a razor.  His dismay at finding that someone had been in the room while he slept was mixed with a sudden curiosity.  Who did these clothes belong to?  From the numerous portraits he had seen of the late Mr. Rawlings he could safely assume they hadn’t belonged to him.  He had been a big, broad shouldered man.

He allowed the normal routine of washing and shaving to settle him down.  There was nothing to be gained by showing his temper to Mrs. Rawlings.  Johnny was already facing a wholly unjustified punishment.  He wouldn’t do anything more to add to his brother’s pain and discomfort.

Scott moved to the window and parted the curtains. The ranch was nothing like Lancer, and he felt a pang of homesickness. His door opened and a servant waited while he crossed the threshold and walked down the hallway. As he entered the dining room he saw covered dishes set out on the sideboard.  The smell of the food made him feel ill.  He could not get the sight of Johnny in the cellar out of his mind.

Mrs. Rawlings was already sitting at the table studying some plans.  "Sit down Mr. Lancer.  I would be interested in hearing your opinion on the design for a fountain we are thinking of having built."

Scott pulled out a chair as one of the servants hurried to fill plates with food. When the plate was placed in front of him he pushed it away.  How could he eat while Johnny was starving?

"It is not polite for a guest to refuse the hospitality of the hostess.”

"I'm not hungry."

"Think of how much your brother would enjoy this meal.”

Scott pushed himself to his feet.  "That's the point.  He was given nothing but slop and couldn't even eat that with his hands tied.  How can you expect me to sit here and eat good food while he is being treated like that?"

"Your good manners seem to have deserted you again," Mrs. Rawlings said mildly.  "You do remember what happens when you cross me, don't you?"

Silence hovered over the dining room. Scott nodded, sank back into his chair and stabbed the steak on his plate with his fork. He had no other option than to follow orders. In the end, whatever he did, Johnny would pay for it.

After Scott had forced down an acceptable amount of food Mrs. Rawlings again drew his attention to the plans. "My husband had these plans drawn up years ago. But I think now would be a good time to start working on it.”

He looked at the drawing without interest.  He was already imagining what his brother was to face that morning.

"This," she said, pointing to a round circle in the center of the plans. "This is the focal point of the design. Can you see the fountain?"

Scott nodded and tried to concentrate.  "I'm sure it will make a fine addition to the house."

"It is a difficult project.  The ground here has been baked solid by the sun.  Who knows how far we will have to dig before we reach water."

"Isn't a project like this better suited for the cooler months?"

Mrs. Rawlings looked confused.  "The Mexican workers are used to the sun.  Besides why should I delay for their benefit?"

"Because they are human. They are not pack animals. Where has your humanity gone?”

Mrs. Rawlings allowed the plans to roll closed and looked at the clock.  "I believe we have other business to attend to now. Come," she said lightly, "it is time to see to your brother's punishment."

Scott stood up on shaky legs. He didn't know if he could continue with this charade.

"And remember," she warned, "If there are any outbursts from you, it will be your brother who will pay the price."

"You have my word.  I'll do anything you say."

"I'm not sure how far I can trust your word, Mr. Lancer.  It appears that you are quite an accomplished liar."

Scott looked at her in confusion.

"Tom confirmed that you never did send a telegram to your father. He has no idea where you are."

"He's knows we stopped in Serenity."

"Does he? The telegram was sent from Norton. So you see, Mr. Lancer, you have no bargaining chip anymore."

Scott bowed his head in defeat.  "So what happens now?"

"I find it agreeable to have company.  So long as you continue to amuse me I will let you and your brother live. Besides, we have a lot to talk about. It has been so long since I spoke to someone from Boston.  Of course I can't let your deceit go unpunished.”

There was a discreet knock at the door and a guard poked his head in and nodded.

"It appears everything is ready for us."

Scott followed Mrs. Rawlings out the door and was immediately pushed face first, into the wall, his wrists bound behind him.

"I can't allow you to interfere," she explained.

Scott was pushed along the hallway until they came to a door that opened onto a large central courtyard.  The hot air hit Scott in the face, taking his breath away. He was ushered to a line of chairs beneath the shade of the porch awning and told to sit down beside Mrs. Rawlings. Tom stood behind him with his hands pressing down hard on Scott's shoulders.

In the center of the courtyard was a large, sturdy post set into the sun baked ground.  Chains had been threaded through a metal ring at the top of the post.  Iron cuffs were attached to the end of each chain.  With a sickening feeling, Scott knew exactly what those chains were for. As he looked away he noticed a horsewhip coiled on the ground.  Scott looked at the whip in horror and then turned to the woman sitting beside him. "You told me last night that you weren't going to have him whipped."

"That was before I found out that you lied. You will learn, Mr. Lancer, that there are consequences to your actions. I'm sure your grandfather taught you that."

"This is inhuman."

Mrs. Rawlings turned to him with hatred in her eyes. "These people aren’t human. Now I suggest you hold your tongue.”

Scott watched in enforced silence and in mind numbing guilt as a long line of servants trailed from the buildings into the courtyard, not one of them raising their heads to look up at Mrs Rawlings. He knew from personal experience how humiliating it was to be punished in front of spectators.  How was his brother going to cope?

Scott heard a door open and felt Tom's hands dig into his shoulders.  He tried to twist round and bit back a gasp of disbelief as he saw his brother. Johnny was led past him and pulled to a halt in front of Mrs Rawlings.  A leather collar had been buckled around his neck and one of the guards held tightly to the chain attached to the collar. Scott wanted nothing more than to rip the collar from Johnny’s neck, but with his hands tied he was helpless to aid his brother. There was a fresh bruise on Johnny's right cheek and he looked exhausted.

Despite everything he had been through, Johnny had his head held high. He made eye contact for just a moment and shook his head, warning Scott not to interfere.

Mrs. Rawlings looked coldly at Johnny.  "Proceed," she instructed.

The guard yanked on the chain and Johnny stumbled down the short flight of steps leading to the yard.  His shirt had been removed and he faltered for just a second as he saw what awaited him. He was pulled to a halt in front of the post and one of the guards untied his hands.  As soon as he was free Johnny made a lunge for the guard who was holding the chain. He wrapped his hands around the guard's neck.

All hell broke loose as Mrs. Rawlings yelled orders for him to be subdued. Hands grabbed his shoulders but he would not let go. He had a death grip around the man's neck. The whip cut through the air landing on Johnny's back and Scott screamed his brother's name as he fought helplessly against the hands holding him pinned to his chair

The sudden pain made Johnny release his hold and he was yanked backwards.  He was forced face first against the post and the iron cuffs were fastened around each wrist.  Satisfied that he was secure the guards pulled the chain through the ring, dragging Johnny to his feet. They didn't stop until only his toes touched the hot ground.

A guard leaned into him, his foul breath warm on Johnny's ear. "You don’t behave, breed, and your brother tastes the whip too.”

Hearing the threat to Scott, all the fight went out of Johnny.  He clenched his jaw to stop himself crying out and steeled himself for the pain to come.

"Five lashes," Mrs. Rawlings ordered. "Then put him to work."

Scott opened his mouth to protest and Mrs. Rawlings leant over, speaking softly.  "One word out of you and it will be ten lashes."

Scott jerked with each crack at the whip, his soul bleeding as he watched Johnny hang from the chains. Each lash sent a hushed gasp from the servants forced to watch. When it was over he looked at the silent line of servants.  His gaze fell upon the young woman he had spoken to the night before.  Tears were streaming down her face.  She looked at him in disgust before turning away.

The chains were unlocked and Johnny fell in a crumpled heap on the hot ground. Mrs. Rawlings walked over to him and bent down.  She picked up the chain and jerked it, tightening the collar painfully around Johnny's throat. "Get him on his feet." She waited until the guards had hauled Johnny into an upright position. "Your brother displeased me last night and this is his punishment, but it goes both ways. If you displease me, he will taste the kiss of my whip. You will be put to work.  If you give my men any trouble your brother will be the one who suffers."

"Don't believe you," Johnny gasped.  "Your kind only spill Mexican blood."

"You think I'm bluffing?  Take a look at the window behind your brother.”

Johnny looked past Scott and saw the barrel of a gun pointing out of the window, aimed at Scott. Johnny sagged against the arms that held him upright.

"Put him to work," she ordered before turning back to Tom.  "Take Mr. Lancer back to his room.  I have some business to attend to."

Johnny was released and he fell to the ground.

"Bring the tools," the guard ordered the workers. “I expect to see this hole half dug by the end of the day.”

Tom pulled Scott to his feet and pushed him toward the doorway leading back into the house.  Scott's last view of his brother was of Johnny pushing himself painfully to his feet.  He stood submissively waiting to be given his orders, the collar around his neck an abomination.  Scott couldn't understand why his brother wasn't fighting back. He couldn't believe that he had been broken...not his brother.

****

The hot sun beat down on his unprotected head.  He had been given a loose white shirt to wear and it was sticking uncomfortably to his lacerated back. The chain was attached to a toggle set deep in the post.  It gave Johnny only sufficient freedom to reach the area to be dug. The collar chafed the skin around his neck. His fingers itched to reach up and unbuckle it, but the only time he had touched it he had received a hard prod in the back from the barrel of a rifle. One of the guards had added a small padlock to the buckle, locking it in place.  Only a key would now free him from the leather.

A half dozen men were herded into a small circle around him carrying picks and shovels. A pick was shoved into his hands and a rifle was pointed steadily at him.

"Start digging," the guard ordered, and stepped back, but the rifle remained, trained on Johnny's heart.

The other workers began attacking the hot dry ground, not one of them looking up. He hid his feelings of anger and humiliation.  He had learned that trick many years ago and it stood him in good stead now.  He was damned if he was going to give them the satisfaction of seeing how much this was hurting his pride. He wondered how Scott was coping.  He had seen the helpless anguish on his brother's face as he had been dragged away.

He tightened his grip on the pick, the handle already slippery with his sweat, and struck the earth with all his might. The hard ground nearly sent the pick flying out of his hands.

"Put your back into it," one of the guards growled.

Johnny gritted his teeth and swung the pick with all his remaining strength.  He would much rather have buried it in the guard's heart but he wasn't ready to die and he wouldn't do anything to put his brother in more danger.

With each strike of the pick his back screamed. The deep furrows left by the whip split wider and he felt the trickle of warm blood drip down his back. He tried to make sense of what was happening.  He had been almost convinced that he and Scott were dead as soon as they set foot on this ranch.  Mrs. Rawlings’ fascination with Scott appeared to be keeping them alive but didn't explain why he had been put to work with a threat against Scott to keep him in line. For now the only thing he could do was bide his time.

Soon the only thing that existed for Johnny Lancer was the sound of picks striking rock hard ground and the shovels that followed, digging the loosened dirt and forming a pile behind the workers. He lost track of time until one of the guards called a halt. Johnny dropped to his knees then sat back, his arms shaking from exhaustion. The lead attaching him to the post prevented him from moving far enough to find shelter from the sun.  He saw looks of sympathy from the other workers and forced a smile onto his face.

A small boy lugged out a bucket of water and Johnny's heart sank. He could not believe his eyes when he recognized Miguel spilling the water as he was prodded by a grinning guard warning him not to spill another drop.

He saw the boy's bewildered look and struggled to his feet.  "Miguel," he called softly. The chain was yanked harshly and Johnny grunted with the pain. He fell to his knees, holding his arms out to the little boy

"No speaking. You want the boy to be punished too?"

"Johnny," Miguel whispered.  He let the bucket fall to the ground and ran toward the only person he knew he could trust.  He managed to dodge around the guards and grabbed Johnny around the chest burying his face in the rough material of Johnny's shirt.

Johnny wrapped his arms around the boy and sent a glacial stare toward the guard who was about to reach out to grab the boy.  "You need to do as you are told, Nino.  Do you understand me?"

Miguel nodded, sucking back the tears as best he could.

"Are your mama and papa here too?" Johnny asked as quietly as he could.

Miguel nodded, too scared to speak.

Johnny glared at the guard.  "Don't you lay a finger on him or I'm gonna bury this pick in your chest and I don't care what happens after that."

The guard grabbed the chain, yanking sharply on it sending Johnny falling backwards. He buried his fist in Johnny's unprotected stomach.  As Johnny gasped for breath the man leaned over.  "Mrs. Rawlings has left orders that any acting up on your part is to be reported.  Your brother's gonna pay for that."

"Reckon he'll think it was worth it," Johnny ground out.

The guard lashed out, kicking Johnny in the side. Grabbing a handful of Johnny's hair he yanked his head up, the sun almost blinding Johnny as he looked into the ugly face of the guard.

Miguel was trembling uncontrollably.  He had never encountered violence like this before and he wanted his mama.

"Sometimes a dog ain't worth training...just putting him down is best. Want us to put you down, Boy?”

Johnny's gaze fell on the frightened child and he bit back his impulse to reply in kind.  He shook his head and lowered his eyes. Miguel brought the ladle of water up to Johnny's lips and Johnny drank it greedily.

The guard shoved Miguel and the boy continued to give the rest of the workers water.

Johnny forced his anger down. He had the boy to think of now.

Each of the workers, including Johnny was given a chunk of bread and cheese.  Johnny seized upon the food gratefully.  It had been days since he had eaten. He had barely swallowed the last bite of bread when the guards yelled that is was time to get back to work.

He watched as Miguel disappeared back into the house, and prayed that Scott would be able to take care of him. With a resigned sigh he took hold of the pick and began to dig.

 

Chapter 12

Scott paced around the bedroom like a caged animal.  He couldn't accept that Johnny had given up.  It wasn't in his brother's nature to go down without a fight. A moment of panic rocked him backwards. Did Johnny believe the words he had said to Mrs. Rawlings the previous night? He thought he had seen a sign in his brother's eyes that he understood why he had said those hateful words.

He cursed himself for not taking advantage of the opportunity presented at dinner.  He should have used that knife and faced the consequences. Somehow, he thought, the consequences would be minor. The woman was deranged and dangerous. There were probably very few people, except her small group of guards that would not cheer at the news of her demise. But the fact remained that he wasn't a cold-blooded murderer.  He had to trust that Johnny’s strength would keep him alive while he worked out a way for them to escape.

Anger and helplessness raged through him.  He couldn’t rid his mind of the image of his brother’s back, torn and bleeding. There had been sheer hopelessness in Johnny’s expression as he had waited with that damn collar around his neck to be ordered around like a slave.  Those images merged with his own horrific memories.  They had been pushing their way relentlessly to the surface since he had seen his brother tied up in that cage.  His time in Libby had been harsh.  He had suffered physical and mental torment. He could hear again the sound of the whip cutting through the air and feel the agony as it connected with the tender flesh of his back.  He had spent time restrained in a small cell, forced to eat and drink without the use of his hands.

Those memories, and the recurrent nightmares they had provoked, had almost destroyed him after the war.  He had never spoken about them until it had become necessary to convince his brother to drink. Now they would give him the strength to save his brother and bring an end to Mrs. Rawlings reign of terror.  He had miscalculated badly in too many respects since their disastrous arrival in Serenity.  It was time for him to stop feeling guilty and work on putting matters right.

He had to find a way to regain a measure of their captor’s trust.  She was no fool, but she was susceptible to flattery and there was an underlying willingness on her part to believe that he was just like her.  If she wanted a selfish and wilful Boston gentleman then that was what he would give her.  It gave him no pleasure to realize that he was perfectly placed to play the part.  He had spent years moving from one meaningless society function to another, being polite to men with no moral fibre, but a lot of influence in the right quarters.  He had been adept at hiding his true thoughts and feelings.  It was time to slip back into that role…a role that might lose him his brother’s trust, but which would hopefully save his brother’s life.  He finally understood what had kept Johnny alive all these years – the ability to push his emotions away to a place where they couldn’t intrude upon what needed to be done.

The ends justified the means…his grandfather had told him that more than once and he had always rebelled against the concept. It offended his sense of justice and fairness.  Well, there was nothing just or fair about the way Mrs. Rawlings treated her workers or the treatment that had been meted out to Johnny so far.  The heat of his anger cooled, leaving it no less potent and dangerous.  He crossed to the locked door and hammered on it with his fist.

*****

A soft knock at the door distracted Madeleine Rawlings from her contemplation of the plans for the courtyard.  Seeing Madrid humbled before the entire staff had given her undeniable satisfaction and had significantly eased the disappointment she had felt about Scott Lancer’s behaviour.  True, he had kept quiet during the whipping, but that was only due to the threat of further punishment for his worthless brother. While she could keep the young Bostonian in line, she wanted more than that.  She wanted…needed to make him understand where his proper place lay.  He was a gentleman and shouldn’t be consorting with scum like Madrid.  She couldn’t understand how Murdoch Lancer could have lowered himself to marry a Mexican peasant.  No doubt she had trapped him into a marriage by getting herself pregnant.  She wasn’t the only slut to have taken that route into a rich man’s world.  If the man had more honor than sense…

The knock was repeated and she called out an irritable invitation to enter.  One of the guards that she had left in charge of Scott shuffled self-consciously into the room.

“It’s Lancer,” he informed her.  “He’s demandin’ to speak to you.”

Before she could answer she heard a scuffling sound in the hallway.  The door was slammed fully open and her young blond prisoner elbowed his way past the guard.  She drew back in momentary fear as he crossed the distance to her desk and slammed his hands down on the wood.

“How dare you embarrass me in front of your workers?”

His guards hurried to catch up with him and grabbed his arms, pulling him backwards.  A look of cold fury crossed his face, although he made no attempt to free himself.  Mrs. Rawlings waved the men away.

“Wait outside,” she instructed, intrigued by this development.  “I’ll call for you if I require anything.”

She saw indecision on their faces, but they knew better than to argue.  As they removed their hands, Scott crossed to an armchair beside the fireplace and sat, crossing one long leg over the other.

Mrs. Rawlings rolled up the plans she had been studying and returned them to the bookcase before joining Scott.  She sat in a matching armchair and folded her hands in her lap before looking at him quizzically.  “I thought we had discussed your manners?”

A frown appeared on the handsome well-bred face.  “How do you expect me to behave?  I can tell you now that there’ll be hell to pay when my grandfather finds out what’s been going on. I’ve been kidnapped, locked in a room and bound like some common peasant requiring discipline.”

The lack of any reference to his father and brother didn’t escape her notice.  “You do require discipline, Mr. Lancer.  You lied to my men, and if you hadn’t been restrained, you would have tried to save your brother from further punishment.”

“And if I hadn’t lied?  You’re not going to deny that you had sent those men to kill us?”  Furious blue-grey eyes stared her down.  “Do you really think I lied to save Johnny?  I have no wish to die with a bullet in my back in some god-forsaken backwater of a town.”

“I can see that you have a well developed instinct for self-preservation.” There was a hint of admiration in her voice and a look of cold calculation on her face.  “Perhaps you can explain why you have been so vocal in your defence of your half-breed brother?”

Scott stiffened at the insulting tone and kept a tight rein on his temper.  “You made a mistake bringing him here and an even bigger mistake when you ordered that public flogging.”

“Explain.”

Scott uncrossed his legs and leaned forward; speaking softly and with an intensity she hadn’t yet heard from him.  “You are afraid of him because of his reputation.  If your tame sheriff hadn’t hauled Johnny in and tortured him for his own amusement we’d have left town without even knowing this ranch existed.  We weren’t looking for any trouble.  His stupidity put you in a position where you felt you had to act.  Now Johnny knows how you treat your workers and they know that he is here.”

“That problem can be easily solved.”

“By killing him?” Scott snorted contemptuously.  “You make a martyr of him and I can guarantee that your workers will rebel.”

“Then what do you suggest?” she asked, curiously.

“The more you punish him, the greater the effect it will have upon the others.  They will find their courage and will rise up to free him.  Put him to work by all means, but treat him no differently from the rest of your staff.  See that he gets adequate food, water and rest. Let them see that he is just a man, not a hero or a legend.”

“He will not work willingly, and he strikes me as a man who would take any and every opportunity to escape.”

“I accept that he will have to be locked up at night and that there will be times when he deserves punishment for disobeying orders.  I know my brother and I know that if you try to break him too quickly or too harshly it will backfire on you.”

“You will have to excuse my scepticism.   It is an interesting theory, Mr. Lancer, although I have to wonder at your change of heart.”

“Whatever else you might think of me, Mrs. Rawlings, I am not a fool.  Your display of power this morning was…enlightening.  If I am going to survive...and I fully intend to, then I must learn to bow to the inescapable fact that you hold my life in your hands.”

“And Madrid?”

“I have only known Johnny for a few months.  I will admit that in that time I have become fond of him.  I would mourn his death, as would our father.  Which brings me to another problem.  Murdoch is expecting our return.  If he doesn’t hear from us he will come looking and he has a number of contacts on both sides of the border that would help him. It will only be a matter of time before he finds us, and I can assure you, his retribution will be swift.”

“I sense an offer.  What do you think you have to bargain with?”

“Let me send a message to my father in terms that will convince him that Johnny has decided to stay in Mexico.  It won’t come as a complete surprise to him.  Johnny has been restless, finding it hard to settle to the routine of being a rancher.  At the same time I can tell him that I am returning to Boston.”

“And what do you want in return?”

“My brother’s life.”

“Not his freedom?”

Scott shook his head.  “You and I both know that you can never release him.”

“I will consider what you have said, but you would do well to heed this warning.  If I find that you are seeking to deceive me, it will not only be your brother’s life that is forfeit.”

Scott bowed his head in acknowledgment.  “If you do decide to follow my advice, will it still be necessary to keep Johnny on a leash?”

“The collar stays.  It is a recognised form of punishment for unruly workers.  Once he starts to display the appropriate level of obedience I might reconsider.” Mrs. Rawlings stood up, pleased to see that Scott followed suit.  “We have time for a light lunch then we can inspect the progress of the work in the courtyard.  I would be interested in hearing any suggestions you might have about that project.  I might even be persuaded to put you in charge of the work.  Of course, that would also mean that you would be responsible for ensuring your brother’s co-operation and dealing with any displays of wilfulness on his part.”

“I’m quite capable of controlling my brother.”

“We shall see.” She walked to the door and waited for him to open it for her.  “Which reminds me…I have a surprise for you.”  As she preceded him from the room she smiled in anticipation.  She would see how sincere his words were once he found that she was also holding the Mexican family that had so rashly interfered in her business.

*****

Lunch was long since over, yet Mrs. Rawlings appeared to be in no hurry to inspect the progress of her building project.  She and Scott lingered at the large dining table, a pot of coffee cooling between them.  The plans had been discussed in minute detail.  Scott had bent all his outward attention on the woman, exuding charm and polite interest.  The whole time his heart and soul were suffering with Johnny in the hot courtyard.

The nature of Mrs. Rawlings’ ‘surprise’ hadn’t yet been revealed.  He was certain he wasn’t going to like it and that it would be a test of some kind that he couldn’t afford to fail.  A tentative reference to his proposed communication with Murdoch had been brushed aside.  He was going to have to prove himself before being allowed any communication with the outside world.  Despite this captivity being nothing like his time in Libby, he felt as isolated as he had during that dreadful year.  Freedom was so close and appeared utterly unattainable.

He could feel his impatience mounting.  He needed to check on his brother.  He laced his fingers tightly together to still the impulse to grab Mrs. Rawlings by the throat and throttle the life out of her.

“Time for that surprise I promised you.”

Scott dragged his attention back from his contemplation of dealing out a violent death.  Mrs. Rawlings rose gracefully to her feet and he followed suit.

“Wait here,” she instructed.  “I will only be a moment.”

He sank back into his chair as she left the room.  His restless gaze wandered around the tasteful elegance of his surroundings.  He couldn’t understand how a woman with such an obvious eye for beauty could be so black of heart.

As the door opened again he began to rise, only to stop stunned as he saw Elana being dragged into the room.  Her appearance was dishevelled, her eyes red-rimmed and exhausted.  She was struggling feebly against the hand on her arm and hadn’t yet seen him.

Scott looked behind her and met the amused gaze of the most evil woman he had ever encountered.  “What is she doing here?” The catch in his voice echoed tauntingly in his ears.

Elana’s struggles ceased and she looked up at him with a mixture of confusion and hope.  “Scott?”

“You will address him as Mr. Lancer.” Mrs. Rawlings moved forward so that she could keep a watchful eye on both her prisoners.

“They have taken Miguel,” Elana sobbed, ignoring everyone except Scott.

A dozen thoughts and emotions passed through Scott’s mind.  One wrong word now could condemn them all.  “As a gentleman I can’t condone violence toward a woman or the forcible removal of her child.”  He straightened to his full height and stared steadily at Mrs. Rawlings.

“The family needed to be taught not to interfere in my business.”

“When they agreed to shelter Johnny they didn’t know it was your business.  You can see how close she is to giving birth.  Her husband is already hurt and the boy can hardly be considered a threat.  Remember my earlier warning.  How do you think your workers will react to this development?  Lock her and the boy up somewhere out of sight.  Once she’s given birth you can pack the whole family off back to Mexico where they belong.”

Scott heard Elana’s shocked gasp and couldn’t bring himself to look at her.  He could barely breath, was almost choking on the words.

Mrs. Rawlings nodded thoughtfully.  “You may have a point.”  She turned to the guard.  “Find her brat and lock them both up in the storeroom. Her husband stays where he is.”

Scott noticed that she didn’t say where Arturo was being held captive.  He could only assume that he had been locked up in the same prison as Johnny.

As Elana was dragged from the room she glared at Scott and spat on the ground at his feet.  “I hope your hermano kills you for this betrayal.”

The door slammed behind her leaving Scott physically shaking with shock and horror.  He recoiled as Mrs. Rawlings touched his arm.

“It is time to check how the work is progressing.” Mrs. Rawlings looked at him in concern.  “You don’t look well.”

“I’m fine…please, lead the way.”

*****

Johnny remembered the song well. The rhythm of pick and shovel gouging at the hard sun-baked earth.  The groans of men pushed past their endurance. The smell of sweat and fear and hopelessness.

The sun reached its zenith, and then slowly travelled toward the far horizon, bathing the objects below in a fiery hell. Neither man nor beast escaped its tyranny.

Memories of another God-forsaken patch of land, another gang of men forced to labor beneath the sweltering sun came hurtling back. The bite of the whip, the pang of hunger and thirst. The dust that clogged the nose and mouth, the air so hot it seared the lungs.  Then too, he had been beaten, his ribs cracked, dehydration threatening to turn his body into so much windblown sand.  But there was a big difference between then and now. Then he was just Johnny Madrid. No one would miss his passing, except the poor peasants who needed his gun or the gunhawks who would be robbed of their chance to outdraw him and claim his title. There was no family to grieve his passing, no gravestone to mark where he lay, no evidence that he had ever existed – except for a reputation and the legend of Johnny Madrid that was not all his to keep.

Now he had a family. A father he was growing to love and trust more each day. A brother who was as much a part of him as the blood that ran through his veins and Teresa, the little sister he would do anything for.

The Rurales camp was so much easier than this. He had no one to worry about then. If he died…it was his time and he accepted it. Men worked from dawn to dusk knowing that their time on earth was limited. That they would soon face a firing squad, and if they were truthful to themselves, they knew they prayed each morning that today would be the day. Death spelled salvation and peace.

But not here; there was no firing squad to end a man’s misery. He worked until his body gave out. Until his heart could no longer pump, his muscles could no longer lift and his lungs could no longer breathe. With just enough food, water and sleep, a man could last for years.

Johnny looked up and saw each sweat drenched face staring at the ground as they swung their picks or shovelled the dirt. They were beaten. All hope lost.

“No one said it was break time,” a guard growled behind Johnny and the chain was whipped back, choking Johnny as he landed hard on his rear. He heard the crack of a rib and wondered how much longer before that rib gave way completely and snapped in half.

He felt the sting of the whip as it bit into his shoulder and all his anger rose at once. The humiliation of being chained like a dog, of Scott seeing him like this. And Madre de Dios, Miguel witnessing it all. He reached back and grabbed the chain, jumping to his feet at the same time. Where his energy came from he didn’t know, but he yanked the chain toward him, hauling the guard holding it into his arms. He felt the bones of the guard’s jaw shatter beneath his fist.

Another guard landed on Johnny’s back and he threw him off like he weighed nothing. The shouts of the workers rang in his ears and he knew he was giving them hope. Maybe not enough…but if he died now, at least he had given them something.  The whip lashed at his back and his arms, the front of his shirt turned red with his blood, but he didn’t care.

The sound of a rifle shot echoed in the suddenly still air. The only sound was his own gasps for breath.

“Haul him up!” a guard shouted and Johnny was roughly dragged onto his back, the collar squeezing his windpipe until everything turned dark.

“NO!”

Even through the darkness and the drumming of his heart in his ears, Johnny recognized Scott’s voice.

The pressure on his neck relaxed and he gasped again for a breath, the movement setting his ribs on fire.

“He’s no good to you dead,” Scott yelled.

“Who in hell put you in charge?” a guard called back sarcastically.

“I did.”

Johnny could not believe what he had just heard. He painfully rolled onto his stomach then levered himself up to his knees.

Scott stood beside Mrs. Rawlings, her rifle pointed toward Johnny. “Mr. Lancer is in charge of this project now. You will do as he tells you. If you have any complaints come to me.”

Johnny’s mouth fell open in disbelief. What was Scott doing?  He heard the low murmurs of the guards around him. The workers stood still, their picks and shovels still in their hands.

“This is a big project,” Scott said, his voice carrying the authority he had learned as an officer in the military. “Every one of these men will be dead before it is done at this pace. I want a tent over there.” Scott pointed to an area to the left of the courtyard. “Big enough to give these men shade when they are resting.”

Scott quickly cut off any comments from the guards. “The men will have a break in the morning, and water every hour. They will have lunch and an hours rest at noon. Believe me; you will get more work out of them this way.”

Johnny tried to struggle to his feet, but his strength was gone. He saw Scott look his way, and he couldn’t read the look in his brother’s eyes.

“The first break starts now,” Scott ordered.

“What about Madrid? He needs to be punished for disobeying,” one of the guards yelled.

“He will be,” Mrs. Rawlings said. “And it will be Mr. Lancer who decides on that punishment.”

A shadow fell across Johnny and he looked up into the face of a stranger…the face of the man who had disembarked from the stage in Morro Coyo just a few short months before.  There was no hint of warmth, friendship or compassion in Scott’s impassive expression.

“Your problem is you just don’t know when to quit.” Scott’s voice was cold.

“No.” In that moment Johnny Lancer fled, leaving behind the icy hard presence of Madrid.  “Although it sure looks like you do.”

 

Chapter 13

Rage coursed through Scott’s veins at the sight of Johnny sitting on his heels, his bare feet exposed to the sun baked sand. With his head bowed, Johnny struggled to take a breath without cringing with pain at every inhalation. New lashes on his shoulders left rivulets of blood seeping through his torn shirt.

Sickened at the thought of what he had to do, Scott searched for a punishment that would not physically hurt Johnny more than his weakened condition could stand, but would satisfy Mrs. Rawlings. But Scott knew he had to be ever so careful not to push Johnny over the edge, not push him over to the darker side of Johnny Madrid, too far for him ever to return.

Silence hung heavy in the air as he made his decision. Not only was Johnny’s life at stake, but also Miguel and his mother with her unborn child. So many lives hung in the balance. And the only way to tip the scales in their direction was to hurt and humiliate Johnny. He only hoped that Johnny would some day understand and forgive him for what he was about to do.

“Put him in leg irons,” Scott ordered, no hint of the desperation he felt in his voice.

Johnny’s head shot up, a look of utter disbelief in his eyes.

“That is hardly an adequate punishment,” Mrs. Rawlings snapped. “He needs to be taught a lesson. One that everyone here will understand.”

Scott nodded, not taking his eyes off Johnny’s. “They will.” The words tasted foul in his mouth, but he continued. “Have you ever seen a wild horse hobbled? It breaks their spirit, beats them into submission.” He saw a moment’s hesitation in Johnny’s eyes and wondered if his brother knew what he was trying to do. *Please, Johnny, understand. This is what I must do to keep you and the others safe.* But the look of hatred and betrayal forced Scott to take an involuntary step back. 

Mrs. Rawlings smiled, impressed with Scott’s handling of the volatile situation. “Bring the leg irons,” she ordered. “It appears that Mr. Lancer knows how to handle these animals.” She looked directly at Johnny. “Especially his brother.”

Scott could barely watch as Johnny was pushed back and the ankle cuffs were locked into place. A short length of chain attached to either cuff would allow him only small stutter steps.

“The chains will come off when you show me you can behave,” Scott said, his voice not revealing his torment. “The next time you act up it won’t be so easy.”

“Vaya al infierno, hermano,” (Go to hell, brother) Johnny spat at Scott’s feet.

Mrs. Rawlings lunged forward and snapped the chain, tightening the collar around Johnny’s neck. “You will speak English here, do you understand me?” She snapped the chain again. “Only English!”

Scott carefully pulled the chain free from her hands. “I think he understands.” He leaned over and spoke hurriedly into her ear. “If you choke him to death, here in front of all the workers, then he will have won.”

“Very well.” Mrs. Rawlins released the chain. “You keep him under control or I will.”

Scott nodded. Turning to the guards he ordered them to start erecting the canopy, and then turned back to the workers. “You’ll have shade in an hour. Now get back to work.”

Johnny groped for the pick and used it to lever himself up. He swayed for a moment, unable to steady himself with the short chain restricting his movements, before swinging it over his head.

Scott grabbed it in mid swing. “I don’t think so, Brother. I don’t want you getting any funny ideas. I’d like to live a little longer.” Dropping a bucket in front of Johnny he ordered him to fill it.

Sagging back down to his knees, Johnny began scooping up handfuls of sand and rock and filling the bucket.

Scott turned just in time to see Mrs. Rawlings nod to the guards as she walked back toward the house.

The canopy was quickly erected and Scott called a halt to the work an hour later as he promised. Slowly the workers dropped their picks and shovels and made their way to the shelter of the tent. Johnny shuffled behind them. He was only inches from the canopy when the collar around his neck pulled him backwards. The guards laughed cruelly as Scott realized that Mrs. Rawlings had ordered them to build the shelter just out of Johnny’s reach.

Scott’s jaw muscles tightened as he curbed his frustration.  Mrs. Rawlings was going to push him every step of the way to test his sincerity.  It would be foolish for him to publicly disagree with her orders so he had to find another way to get his brother out of the sun.  Johnny had sunk wearily to the ground, head down so that Scott couldn’t see his expression.  All the other workers were alternating their attention between the brothers.  If Scott had hoped to provoke a reaction from them he had succeeded…they looked ready to tear him apart with their bare hands.

He walked over to the water bucket and filled the ladle, bringing it to his lips and drinking deeply.  It was now mid-afternoon and the sun was hanging lower in the sky.  The heat in the enclosed courtyard hadn’t lessened and Johnny wasn’t the only worker who looked ready to collapse with exhaustion.  He dipped the ladle into the water again and carried it over to Johnny.  He positioned himself so that his shadow would fall over his brother, the only immediate protection from the sun that he could manage.

“Here.” He held the ladle out.

Johnny looked up from his contemplation of the chains on his ankles.  “Don’t do me any favors.”  He licked dry lips without making any move to accept the water.

“I’m not,” Scott replied harshly.  “You won’t be of any use if you pass out from the heat and dehydration.”

Johnny laughed bitterly.  “You’re all heart, Brother.”  His hand was shaking as he took hold of the handle and his eyes narrowed as Scott steadied his grip.  “I can manage.”

“Have it your way.”  Scott released his hold and stepped back, being careful to keep what little shade he could covering his sibling. As he watched Johnny drink, an idea formed for getting his brother the care and attention he needed.  All he needed to do was provoke him, which in Johnny’s present mood shouldn’t be hard.

“I’ve seen Elana,” Scott began, conversationally.  “I’ve suggested to Mrs. Rawlings that she have the family escorted back to Mexico once the baby’s born.”

Johnny felt a surge of anger.  “What happened to all that outrage about tellin’ people where they could live?”

“They’re not welcome here,” Scott replied flatly.

“You’ve made sure of your welcome though, haven’t you?  It didn’t take you long to change your tune.”

Scott reached down with his left hand and took hold of a handful of Johnny’s shirt, hauling his brother to his feet.  He pulled Johnny toward him until they were standing face to face.  “That smart mouth of yours is going to get you killed one of these days.”  Hating himself, yet knowing that he was doing the best he could, Scott clenched his right hand into a fist and swung his arm.  “Lo siento, hermano,” he whispered desperately before hitting Johnny hard on the chin.

In the final second before Johnny’s eyes closed Scott saw a glimmer of confusion mingled with hope.  Johnny collapsed into his brother’s waiting arms and Scott lowered him gently to the ground.

“We’re not going to get any more work out of him today.”  He swung round to look at the guards.  “Take him back to his cell.”

As two of the guards moved forward to pick up the limp form Scott glowered at them in irritation.  “We can’t afford to leave the rest of them with inadequate guards.”  He pointed to two of the older workers.  “You two, get over here.”

As they shuffled over obediently he began to issue orders.  “Get that chain unlocked from the post.  I want a mattress put in his cell and get those wounds cleaned out and covered.”

“Wait a minute.”  The guard who had challenged Scott’s authority earlier strode over to stand menacingly in front of him.  “Mrs. Rawlings didn’t say nothing about that.”

Scott stood straight backed and unafraid and stared the man down.  “Do you want to be the one to explain to Mrs. Rawlings why Madrid can’t work tomorrow?  If he doesn’t get some attention those cuts will fester and I can guarantee he’ll develop a fever.  She wants him back in this courtyard tomorrow and every day after that.  In order for that to happen he needs to be in reasonable health…not half dead.”

The guard lowered his rifle and stepped back.  “Fine, but don’t push too hard Lancer.”

Scott glared at the Mexican workers.  “What are you waiting for?”  He stared after them as they carried his brother carefully into the house, followed by one of the guards.  Then, taking a shaky breath, he turned back to the rest of his workforce.  “Back to work,” he ordered before turning on his heels and following his brother into the house.

*****

Johnny heard a voice, low and urgent.  The voice was vaguely familiar although he couldn’t immediately place it.

“Juanito, puede usted oirme?” (Can you hear me?)

Forcing his eyes open he saw that he was back in his cell, sprawled face down on the filthy dirt floor. The smells of blood and human waste nearly made him gag and his already throbbing head took on a life of its own. He couldn’t do this. Not like this. Not at the hands of the one person he thought he could trust.

Why hadn’t he trusted his instincts? Why had he left himself vulnerable? He had known the truth of it while he was Johnny Madrid; that you could trust no one. He had been careless, had let Scott breach his defenses. He had opened himself up to the pain of betrayal and that betrayal cut deeper than any of the physical wounds he had suffered during his short life.

He knew the first week he was at Lancer that he was in danger of losing the shield he hid behind as Johnny Madrid. The process had started the minute Scott had risked his life to save him after he had been shot.  No one had ever done that for him before. Scott had whittled away his defences like a master craftsmen with a knife, reshaping Johnny Madrid into Johnny Lancer. It had been too easy. In retrospect, he knew he had wanted it too much. And now he was paying the price.

There was a scraping noise on the floor and the disembodied voice was only a few feet away from him now. “Juanito, can you hear me?”

Johnny didn’t answer. He couldn’t. His heart was beating in his throat so hard it nearly suffocated him. The man he had seen out in the yard was not the Scott Lancer he knew. Was it just an act, or was this the real Scott? Was the lure of his beloved Boston too much for him to ignore? Was the fact that his half-brother was a mestizo suddenly too repugnant? Had Mrs. Rawlings reminded him of how uncivilized this land and its people were compared to back east? He would never have believed it. But he had seen the look on Scott’s face. If it was an act he was damned good at it.

His aching jaw reminded him forcefully that Scott had hit him.  It wasn’t the first time that he had been on the receiving end of his brother’s fists.  The only other time his brother had struck him in anger had, Johnny knew, been well deserved.  He had sat back and watched as Pardee’s men had attacked his brother.  His act that day had been good enough to fool both Scott and Teresa, although if he was being honest, he hadn’t quite decided at that point where his loyalties lay.  When Scott had challenged him on it he had lost his temper and provoked his brother further.  Even then Scott had been able to breach his defences.  Was Scott playing the same dangerous game?  He hadn’t thought so earlier, but…Scott had said something before hitting him.  Johnny had the feeling it was important that he remember what it was, only the memory was elusive and he hurt too much to chase it down.

“Juanito, contesteme por favor.” (Please answer me.)

Johnny could no longer ignore the voice and he painfully lifted his head to look through the cage to the cell next to him. His eyesight still hazy from the glaring sun and the sweat dripping down his face made it hard for him to make out the face that was pushed up against the wire mesh of the cell.

“Es yo, Arturo.” (It is me.)

Arturo. Of course. He had forgotten. If Rawlings had Miguel she would have the entire family. Because of him. They were being punished because of him.

“Lo siento,” Johnny whispered and, in defiance of the edict to speak English continued in the language of his childhood. “I didn’t mean to get you mixed up in this.”

“No, Juanito, this is not your fault. It has been a battle we have been fighting since we first arrived here. It was my pride, my stubbornness in refusing to believe I could not win against someone as strong and evil as Senora Rawlings that got us all into this. It is I who must apologize to you.”

Suddenly enraged, Johnny tried to push himself up to his knees but his arms would not take his weight and he sprawled back down on the ground with a painful grunt. He could tell by each inhalation that his ribs were cracked, close to breaking. The sun had left him beaten, dizzy and nauseated. But he would not lay here in this filth like an animal.

“You must lie still,” Arturo warned. “You must give yourself time to heal.”

Johnny shook his head, pushing back with the palms of his hands until he was on his knees. The leg irons were still in place, adding to the difficulties caused by his injuries, and his bitterness against his brother resurfaced.  Undignified or not, he crawled toward the cell wall and collapsed against it, the firebrand in his back eliciting a gasp of pain he had not wanted Arturo to hear.

“The guards brought you in two hours ago,” Arturo said, his voice gentle, a voice Johnny envisioned he used to calm Miguel. “You should take advantage of the rest.”

Johnny lifted a shaky hand to the collar around his neck. “They knew they couldn’t get work out of a dead man.”

“Si,” Arturo agreed. “And for that I am grateful. As long as you are alive there is hope for us. Hope these poor people have not had in a very long time.”

Johnny swung his head sharply to look at Arturo. “You think Johnny Madrid is going to save you? Any of you?”

“I think it has begun already. The guards were not pleased they had to bring you in so early. They also brought a mattress. I am certain it was not their idea or that of Senora Rawlings.” Johnny followed Arturo’s gaze toward the corner of his cell and saw the thin mattress bunched against the wall, an empty bucket lying on top.

“They said the new boss ordered them to bring it in for you to lie on.”

“The new boss is my brother,” Johnny growled. “Mi hermano. That’s a laugh.”

Arturo shifted his weight on the floor, the sound of the heavy cast scraping against the dirt again. “I think you should not jump to conclusions, Juanito. Perhaps your brother is helping you in the only way he can. I heard the guards talking amongst themselves.  They were not careful about what they said.  I doubt it even occurred to them that I could understand them.  After all, to them, I am just another filthy uneducated Mexican.  They were forced to build a tent for the workers to rest under, out of the hot sun. I think he has a plan, but you must play your part. If it is true that he is working to help you, you can not let Senora Rawlings know this. You must show your hatred for the brother who turned on you.”  Arturo paused while he tried to make himself more comfortable.  “They were also complaining that he had ordered your wounds to be tended.”

Johnny thought about it, realizing for the first time that someone had cleaned and bandaged the deep cuts inflicted by the whip. Could it be true? Was Scott siding with Mrs. Rawlings to give them time to escape, to somehow get word to Murdoch? He wanted to believe it. But he had seen the look in Scott’s eyes, had heard his cold, hurtful words, searing words that he would take to the grave with him.

Exhaustion crept up and claimed Johnny, even as he fought it off. But his body was too injured, his mind too hurt, his soul too broken to fight back.

Arturo watched as Johnny’s chin slowly dropped to his chest, his breathing evening out as sleep overtook him. He prayed he was right about Johnny Madrid’s brother. He and Juanito were their only hope. Hope for himself and Miguel, his wife and their baby who rested in her womb and the workers whose lives were a living hell. So much rested on the shoulders of those two young men. He silently made the sign of the cross on his chest and looked upward. “Madre de Dios, please give them the strength,” he prayed.

 

Chapter 14

The noise of clattering feet dragged Johnny out of sleep.  As he moved he felt the vile collar dig into his neck and he had to shift his head to ease its bite into his skin. His head was fuzzy from too much sun and too little sleep. Johnny couldn’t remember ever feeling more demoralized in his life. The noise had stopped and he raised his eyes to the bars separating him from freedom.  His lips curled in a sneer when he saw Scott standing watching him expressionlessly.

“What d’you want?  Come to make sure I’m gonna be fit to work tomorrow?”  He gripped the bars and pulled himself to his feet.  Scott was immaculately dressed in clean clothes, his face freshly shaved and his hair damp.  By contrast he was filthy, blood stained and wearing a shirt that had been cut to ribbons by the whip after he had attacked that guard.  That particular memory brought a cold smile to his face.  Dios, it had felt so good to fight back.

Scott ignored the question and turned to the guard standing beside him.  “Unlock the door and get that mattress unrolled.”

The man looked at Scott mutinously.  “I ain’t going in there.  He’s a killer.”

“Then I’ll do it,” Scott snapped.  He held out a hand to the servant who hovered behind him.  “Give me that.”

Johnny watched, puzzled as the servant handed over a tray.  The guard, muttering to himself, unlocked the door and then drew his gun.  Johnny stayed where he was and watched as Scott laid the tray down just inside the cage before spreading the mattress on the floor.

“There’s food and water.  It’s the same as the other workers receive so don’t get any ideas about special treatment.”

“Don’t worry, Brother.  I’m already used to your sort of ‘special treatment.’” Johnny raised a hand to the collar and then looked down at the chain linking his feet.

“The solution to that is very simple.  So simple that even you should be able to understand.”  Scott backed out of the cell and gestured for the guard to relock it.  “Behave, do as you are told when you are told, and the chains will come off.”

“And if I don’t behave?  What’re you gonna do, Scott?  Order another whipping?”

“If I have to.”

The dispassionate tone shocked Johnny back to reality.  This was no act.  The brother he had loved and trusted couldn’t have stood there and said that without giving something away.

“Then I guess you’ll have to ‘cause I ain’t no one’s slave.”  Johnny heard Arturo move suddenly in the next cell and ignored the whispered warning to be careful.

“Don’t push me too far, Johnny.  I will do whatever it takes to secure my position here.”

This time Johnny did hear something in Scott’s voice that gave him pause.  He lowered his head and thought about it while the guard was occupied in thrusting another tray of food into Arturo’s cell.  When he raised his eyes again he saw a softening of Scott’s expression. For just a moment he was looking again at his brother.  He gave a slight nod, hoping that he wasn’t mistaken.

As Scott turned away Arturo called out to him, “Wait, please.”

Scott looked enquiringly at the young Mexican, his face once again wiped clean of any expression.  “Yes?”

“My wife and son…are they alright?”  Worry infused his voice.

“They are together and you have my word that they won’t be harmed.”

“Ain’t up to you,” the guard smirked before falling silent as Scott reached over and grabbed him by the front of his shirt.

“Do you want to make an issue of it?” Scott asked with deceptive pleasantness.

The two prisoners watched with interest as the guard began to sweat.  When he didn’t reply Scott shoved him backwards against the bars of Johnny’s cell.  Had Johnny been able to move quickly enough he might have taken the chance on snatching the man’s gun.  He looked at Scott’s hips and saw that his brother wasn’t wearing a gun.  It appeared that Mrs. Rawlings’ trust only stretched so far.  Johnny wasn’t sure what he would have done if he had taken possession of the weapon.  Could he have pointed it at Scott and would he have been able to pull the trigger had it been necessary?

The guard straightened his shirt, glowering the whole time at Scott.  “We’ll see what Mrs. Rawlings has to say about this,” he muttered and then shut up as Scott’s glacial stare fixed on him.

“The baby will come soon.” Arturo’s words cut through the tension.  “When it does my wife will need help.”

“I’ll speak to Mrs. Rawlings,” Scott replied.  “And I’ll make sure you know when the birth is over.”

“Gracias.”

“English,” Johnny whispered, afraid that Arturo would be punished and knowing that the young man wasn’t fit to withstand any more injuries.  He saw Scott acknowledge the warning with a slight smile before his brother turned and disappeared up the stairs.

Once they had been left alone Johnny shuffled over to the tray and lifted the lid from the bowl.  He could smell the herbs and spices in the savoury stew and his mouth began to water.  A thick slice of fresh baked bread lay beside the bowl and he sank down to enjoy the most welcome food he had eaten in days.  After eating every mouthful and drinking the water he settled down on the mattress and let his exhaustion carry him into a deep sleep.

***

For the next two days Johnny did his best to stay out of trouble.  It wasn’t easy as the guards took great delight in trying to goad him.  Scott was obviously taking his new role seriously, spending long periods of time outside watching the work.  Seeing his brother standing there, cool and composed, while he sweated and struggled in the blistering heat was almost more than Johnny could bear.  He had been shocked to see Miguel again, hauling water.  The little boy had kept his eyes fixed on the ground and his mouth shut, but Johnny had seen the look of betrayal on the child’s face on the one occasion he had looked directly at Scott.  He had seen no answering reaction from his brother.

Johnny had managed a few hurried words with the boy.  He and his mother were being kept confined in a small room leading off the kitchen.  They had been given a mattress and food, but other than that were being left alone.  Johnny conveyed a brief message about Arturo before being roughly shoved back to work.

Occasionally Mrs. Rawlings came out to inspect their progress.  It made him feel sick to see her and his brother together, talking and smiling.  Scott never failed to treat her with deference, explaining how well the work was going.  It was going well alright…thanks to the blood and sweat of the workers. He always made sure to look her steadily in the eye and her obvious irritation never failed to bring a smug smirk to his face.

He had hoped that Scott might have ordered the removal of the leg irons.  He was being co-operative, following orders and he hadn’t answered anyone back recently.  The metal was chafing his bare ankles just as the leather of the collar was irritating the skin on his neck.  Eventually, as his second day of good behaviour came to an end without any obvious benefits, he couldn’t keep quiet any longer. He waited until Scott had accompanied him and his guards back to his cell before breaking his self-imposed silence.

“Hey, Scott.  Thought you said that if I was a good boy the chains would come off.”  Rather than pleading he thought he had achieved just the right amount of insolence.

A look of displeasure crossed Scott’s face as he walked over to the bars.  “I wondered how long it would take you.  You can’t keep that mouth shut, can you?”

“You sure been using yours,” Johnny sneered. “Been sweet talking your boss, Boston?”

Scott stepped back, his face darkening. He could feel the guard behind him waiting. Johnny had just opened the door for him to prove his allegiance to Mrs. Rawlings. But was he strong enough to take it? Would Johnny understand? Or would he forever destroy the bond he had worked so hard to form between them?

“Bring him back to the courtyard in ten minutes,” he ordered the guard, not looking back at Johnny as he walked up the stairs. “And leave the leg irons on.”

***

The hot sun beat down on his unprotected head.  He had been given a loose white shirt to wear and it was sticking uncomfortably to his lacerated back. The chain was attached to a toggle set deep in the post.  It gave Johnny only sufficient freedom to reach the area to be dug. The collar chafed the skin around his neck. His fingers itched to reach up and unbuckle it, but the only time he had touched it he had received a hard prod in the back from the barrel of a rifle. One of the guards had added a small padlock to the buckle, locking it in place.  Only a key would now free him from the leather.

A half dozen men were herded into a small circle around him carrying picks and shovels. A pick was shoved into his hands and a rifle was pointed steadily at him.

"Start digging," the guard ordered, and stepped back, but the rifle remained, trained on Johnny's heart.

The other workers began attacking the hot dry ground, not one of them looking up. He hid his feelings of anger and humiliation.  He had learned that trick many years ago and it stood him in good stead now.  He was damned if he was going to give them the satisfaction of seeing how much this was hurting his pride. He wondered how Scott was coping.  He had seen the helpless anguish on his brother's face as he had been dragged away.

He tightened his grip on the pick, the handle already slippery with his sweat, and struck the earth with all his might. The hard ground nearly sent the pick flying out of his hands.

"Put your back into it," one of the guards growled.

Johnny gritted his teeth and swung the pick with all his remaining strength.  He would much rather have buried it in the guard's heart but he wasn't ready to die and he wouldn't do anything to put his brother in more danger.

With each strike of the pick his back screamed. The deep furrows left by the whip split wider and he felt the trickle of warm blood drip down his back. He tried to make sense of what was happening.  He had been almost convinced that he and Scott were dead as soon as they set foot on this ranch.  Mrs. Rawlings’ fascination with Scott appeared to be keeping them alive but didn't explain why he had been put to work with a threat against Scott to keep him in line. For now the only thing he could do was bide his time.

Soon the only thing that existed for Johnny Lancer was the sound of picks striking rock hard ground and the shovels that followed, digging the loosened dirt and forming a pile behind the workers. He lost track of time until one of the guards called a halt. Johnny dropped to his knees then sat back, his arms shaking from exhaustion. The lead attaching him to the post prevented him from moving far enough to find shelter from the sun.  He saw looks of sympathy from the other workers and forced a smile onto his face.

A small boy lugged out a bucket of water and Johnny's heart sank. He could not believe his eyes when he recognized Miguel spilling the water as he was prodded by a grinning guard warning him not to spill another drop.

He saw the boy's bewildered look and struggled to his feet.  "Miguel," he called softly. The chain was yanked harshly and Johnny grunted with the pain. He fell to his knees, holding his arms out to the little boy

"No speaking. You want the boy to be punished too?"

"Johnny," Miguel whispered.  He let the bucket fall to the ground and ran toward the only person he knew he could trust.  He managed to dodge around the guards and grabbed Johnny around the chest burying his face in the rough material of Johnny's shirt.

Johnny wrapped his arms around the boy and sent a glacial stare toward the guard who was about to reach out to grab the boy.  "You need to do as you are told, Nino.  Do you understand me?"

Miguel nodded, sucking back the tears as best he could.

"Are your mama and papa here too?" Johnny asked as quietly as he could.

Miguel nodded, too scared to speak.

Johnny glared at the guard.  "Don't you lay a finger on him or I'm gonna bury this pick in your chest and I don't care what happens after that."

The guard grabbed the chain, yanking sharply on it sending Johnny falling backwards. He buried his fist in Johnny's unprotected stomach.  As Johnny gasped for breath the man leaned over.  "Mrs. Rawlings has left orders that any acting up on your part is to be reported.  Your brother's gonna pay for that."

"Reckon he'll think it was worth it," Johnny ground out.

The guard lashed out, kicking Johnny in the side. Grabbing a handful of Johnny's hair he yanked his head up, the sun almost blinding Johnny as he looked into the ugly face of the guard.

Miguel was trembling uncontrollably.  He had never encountered violence like this before and he wanted his mama.

"Sometimes a dog ain't worth training...just putting him down is best. Want us to put you down, Boy?”

Johnny's gaze fell on the frightened child and he bit back his impulse to reply in kind.  He shook his head and lowered his eyes. Miguel brought the ladle of water up to Johnny's lips and Johnny drank it greedily.

The guard shoved Miguel and the boy continued to give the rest of the workers water.

Johnny forced his anger down. He had the boy to think of now.

Each of the workers, including Johnny was given a chunk of bread and cheese.  Johnny seized upon the food gratefully.  It had been days since he had eaten. He had barely swallowed the last bite of bread when the guards yelled that is was time to get back to work.

He watched as Miguel disappeared back into the house, and prayed that Scott would be able to take care of him. With a resigned sigh he took hold of the pick and began to dig.

 

Chapter 12

Scott paced around the bedroom like a caged animal.  He couldn't accept that Johnny had given up.  It wasn't in his brother's nature to go down without a fight. A moment of panic rocked him backwards. Did Johnny believe the words he had said to Mrs. Rawlings the previous night? He thought he had seen a sign in his brother's eyes that he understood why he had said those hateful words.

He cursed himself for not taking advantage of the opportunity presented at dinner.  He should have used that knife and faced the consequences. Somehow, he thought, the consequences would be minor. The woman was deranged and dangerous. There were probably very few people, except her small group of guards that would not cheer at the news of her demise. But the fact remained that he wasn't a cold-blooded murderer.  He had to trust that Johnny’s strength would keep him alive while he worked out a way for them to escape.

Anger and helplessness raged through him.  He couldn’t rid his mind of the image of his brother’s back, torn and bleeding. There had been sheer hopelessness in Johnny’s expression as he had waited with that damn collar around his neck to be ordered around like a slave.  Those images merged with his own horrific memories.  They had been pushing their way relentlessly to the surface since he had seen his brother tied up in that cage.  His time in Libby had been harsh.  He had suffered physical and mental torment. He could hear again the sound of the whip cutting through the air and feel the agony as it connected with the tender flesh of his back.  He had spent time restrained in a small cell, forced to eat and drink without the use of his hands.

Those memories, and the recurrent nightmares they had provoked, had almost destroyed him after the war.  He had never spoken about them until it had become necessary to convince his brother to drink. Now they would give him the strength to save his brother and bring an end to Mrs. Rawlings reign of terror.  He had miscalculated badly in too many respects since their disastrous arrival in Serenity.  It was time for him to stop feeling guilty and work on putting matters right.

He had to find a way to regain a measure of their captor’s trust.  She was no fool, but she was susceptible to flattery and there was an underlying willingness on her part to believe that he was just like her.  If she wanted a selfish and wilful Boston gentleman then that was what he would give her.  It gave him no pleasure to realize that he was perfectly placed to play the part.  He had spent years moving from one meaningless society function to another, being polite to men with no moral fibre, but a lot of influence in the right quarters.  He had been adept at hiding his true thoughts and feelings.  It was time to slip back into that role…a role that might lose him his brother’s trust, but which would hopefully save his brother’s life.  He finally understood what had kept Johnny alive all these years – the ability to push his emotions away to a place where they couldn’t intrude upon what needed to be done.

The ends justified the means…his grandfather had told him that more than once and he had always rebelled against the concept. It offended his sense of justice and fairness.  Well, there was nothing just or fair about the way Mrs. Rawlings treated her workers or the treatment that had been meted out to Johnny so far.  The heat of his anger cooled, leaving it no less potent and dangerous.  He crossed to the locked door and hammered on it with his fist.

*****

A soft knock at the door distracted Madeleine Rawlings from her contemplation of the plans for the courtyard.  Seeing Madrid humbled before the entire staff had given her undeniable satisfaction and had significantly eased the disappointment she had felt about Scott Lancer’s behaviour.  True, he had kept quiet during the whipping, but that was only due to the threat of further punishment for his worthless brother. While she could keep the young Bostonian in line, she wanted more than that.  She wanted…needed to make him understand where his proper place lay.  He was a gentleman and shouldn’t be consorting with scum like Madrid.  She couldn’t understand how Murdoch Lancer could have lowered himself to marry a Mexican peasant.  No doubt she had trapped him into a marriage by getting herself pregnant.  She wasn’t the only slut to have taken that route into a rich man’s world.  If the man had more honor than sense…

The knock was repeated and she called out an irritable invitation to enter.  One of the guards that she had left in charge of Scott shuffled self-consciously into the room.

“It’s Lancer,” he informed her.  “He’s demandin’ to speak to you.”

Before she could answer she heard a scuffling sound in the hallway.  The door was slammed fully open and her young blond prisoner elbowed his way past the guard.  She drew back in momentary fear as he crossed the distance to her desk and slammed his hands down on the wood.

“How dare you embarrass me in front of your workers?”

His guards hurried to catch up with him and grabbed his arms, pulling him backwards.  A look of cold fury crossed his face, although he made no attempt to free himself.  Mrs. Rawlings waved the men away.

“Wait outside,” she instructed, intrigued by this development.  “I’ll call for you if I require anything.”

She saw indecision on their faces, but they knew better than to argue.  As they removed their hands, Scott crossed to an armchair beside the fireplace and sat, crossing one long leg over the other.

Mrs. Rawlings rolled up the plans she had been studying and returned them to the bookcase before joining Scott.  She sat in a matching armchair and folded her hands in her lap before looking at him quizzically.  “I thought we had discussed your manners?”

A frown appeared on the handsome well-bred face.  “How do you expect me to behave?  I can tell you now that there’ll be hell to pay when my grandfather finds out what’s been going on. I’ve been kidnapped, locked in a room and bound like some common peasant requiring discipline.”

The lack of any reference to his father and brother didn’t escape her notice.  “You do require discipline, Mr. Lancer.  You lied to my men, and if you hadn’t been restrained, you would have tried to save your brother from further punishment.”

“And if I hadn’t lied?  You’re not going to deny that you had sent those men to kill us?”  Furious blue-grey eyes stared her down.  “Do you really think I lied to save Johnny?  I have no wish to die with a bullet in my back in some god-forsaken backwater of a town.”

“I can see that you have a well developed instinct for self-preservation.” There was a hint of admiration in her voice and a look of cold calculation on her face.  “Perhaps you can explain why you have been so vocal in your defence of your half-breed brother?”

Scott stiffened at the insulting tone and kept a tight rein on his temper.  “You made a mistake bringing him here and an even bigger mistake when you ordered that public flogging.”

“Explain.”

Scott uncrossed his legs and leaned forward; speaking softly and with an intensity she hadn’t yet heard from him.  “You are afraid of him because of his reputation.  If your tame sheriff hadn’t hauled Johnny in and tortured him for his own amusement we’d have left town without even knowing this ranch existed.  We weren’t looking for any trouble.  His stupidity put you in a position where you felt you had to act.  Now Johnny knows how you treat your workers and they know that he is here.”

“That problem can be easily solved.”

“By killing him?” Scott snorted contemptuously.  “You make a martyr of him and I can guarantee that your workers will rebel.”

“Then what do you suggest?” she asked, curiously.

“The more you punish him, the greater the effect it will have upon the others.  They will find their courage and will rise up to free him.  Put him to work by all means, but treat him no differently from the rest of your staff.  See that he gets adequate food, water and rest. Let them see that he is just a man, not a hero or a legend.”

“He will not work willingly, and he strikes me as a man who would take any and every opportunity to escape.”

“I accept that he will have to be locked up at night and that there will be times when he deserves punishment for disobeying orders.  I know my brother and I know that if you try to break him too quickly or too harshly it will backfire on you.”

“You will have to excuse my scepticism.   It is an interesting theory, Mr. Lancer, although I have to wonder at your change of heart.”

“Whatever else you might think of me, Mrs. Rawlings, I am not a fool.  Your display of power this morning was…enlightening.  If I am going to survive...and I fully intend to, then I must learn to bow to the inescapable fact that you hold my life in your hands.”

“And Madrid?”

“I have only known Johnny for a few months.  I will admit that in that time I have become fond of him.  I would mourn his death, as would our father.  Which brings me to another problem.  Murdoch is expecting our return.  If he doesn’t hear from us he will come looking and he has a number of contacts on both sides of the border that would help him. It will only be a matter of time before he finds us, and I can assure you, his retribution will be swift.”

“I sense an offer.  What do you think you have to bargain with?”

“Let me send a message to my father in terms that will convince him that Johnny has decided to stay in Mexico.  It won’t come as a complete surprise to him.  Johnny has been restless, finding it hard to settle to the routine of being a rancher.  At the same time I can tell him that I am returning to Boston.”

“And what do you want in return?”

“My brother’s life.”

“Not his freedom?”

Scott shook his head.  “You and I both know that you can never release him.”

“I will consider what you have said, but you would do well to heed this warning.  If I find that you are seeking to deceive me, it will not only be your brother’s life that is forfeit.”

Scott bowed his head in acknowledgment.  “If you do decide to follow my advice, will it still be necessary to keep Johnny on a leash?”

“The collar stays.  It is a recognised form of punishment for unruly workers.  Once he starts to display the appropriate level of obedience I might reconsider.” Mrs. Rawlings stood up, pleased to see that Scott followed suit.  “We have time for a light lunch then we can inspect the progress of the work in the courtyard.  I would be interested in hearing any suggestions you might have about that project.  I might even be persuaded to put you in charge of the work.  Of course, that would also mean that you would be responsible for ensuring your brother’s co-operation and dealing with any displays of wilfulness on his part.”

“I’m quite capable of controlling my brother.”

“We shall see.” She walked to the door and waited for him to open it for her.  “Which reminds me…I have a surprise for you.”  As she preceded him from the room she smiled in anticipation.  She would see how sincere his words were once he found that she was also holding the Mexican family that had so rashly interfered in her business.

*****

Lunch was long since over, yet Mrs. Rawlings appeared to be in no hurry to inspect the progress of her building project.  She and Scott lingered at the large dining table, a pot of coffee cooling between them.  The plans had been discussed in minute detail.  Scott had bent all his outward attention on the woman, exuding charm and polite interest.  The whole time his heart and soul were suffering with Johnny in the hot courtyard.

The nature of Mrs. Rawlings’ ‘surprise’ hadn’t yet been revealed.  He was certain he wasn’t going to like it and that it would be a test of some kind that he couldn’t afford to fail.  A tentative reference to his proposed communication with Murdoch had been brushed aside.  He was going to have to prove himself before being allowed any communication with the outside world.  Despite this captivity being nothing like his time in Libby, he felt as isolated as he had during that dreadful year.  Freedom was so close and appeared utterly unattainable.

He could feel his impatience mounting.  He needed to check on his brother.  He laced his fingers tightly together to still the impulse to grab Mrs. Rawlings by the throat and throttle the life out of her.

“Time for that surprise I promised you.”

Scott dragged his attention back from his contemplation of dealing out a violent death.  Mrs. Rawlings rose gracefully to her feet and he followed suit.

“Wait here,” she instructed.  “I will only be a moment.”

He sank back into his chair as she left the room.  His restless gaze wandered around the tasteful elegance of his surroundings.  He couldn’t understand how a woman with such an obvious eye for beauty could be so black of heart.

As the door opened again he began to rise, only to stop stunned as he saw Elana being dragged into the room.  Her appearance was dishevelled, her eyes red-rimmed and exhausted.  She was struggling feebly against the hand on her arm and hadn’t yet seen him.

Scott looked behind her and met the amused gaze of the most evil woman he had ever encountered.  “What is she doing here?” The catch in his voice echoed tauntingly in his ears.

Elana’s struggles ceased and she looked up at him with a mixture of confusion and hope.  “Scott?”

“You will address him as Mr. Lancer.” Mrs. Rawlings moved forward so that she could keep a watchful eye on both her prisoners.

“They have taken Miguel,” Elana sobbed, ignoring everyone except Scott.

A dozen thoughts and emotions passed through Scott’s mind.  One wrong word now could condemn them all.  “As a gentleman I can’t condone violence toward a woman or the forcible removal of her child.”  He straightened to his full height and stared steadily at Mrs. Rawlings.

“The family needed to be taught not to interfere in my business.”

“When they agreed to shelter Johnny they didn’t know it was your business.  You can see how close she is to giving birth.  Her husband is already hurt and the boy can hardly be considered a threat.  Remember my earlier warning.  How do you think your workers will react to this development?  Lock her and the boy up somewhere out of sight.  Once she’s given birth you can pack the whole family off back to Mexico where they belong.”

Scott heard Elana’s shocked gasp and couldn’t bring himself to look at her.  He could barely breath, was almost choking on the words.

Mrs. Rawlings nodded thoughtfully.  “You may have a point.”  She turned to the guard.  “Find her brat and lock them both up in the storeroom. Her husband stays where he is.”

Scott noticed that she didn’t say where Arturo was being held captive.  He could only assume that he had been locked up in the same prison as Johnny.

As Elana was dragged from the room she glared at Scott and spat on the ground at his feet.  “I hope your hermano kills you for this betrayal.”

The door slammed behind her leaving Scott physically shaking with shock and horror.  He recoiled as Mrs. Rawlings touched his arm.

“It is time to check how the work is progressing.” Mrs. Rawlings looked at him in concern.  “You don’t look well.”

“I’m fine…please, lead the way.”

*****

Johnny remembered the song well. The rhythm of pick and shovel gouging at the hard sun-baked earth.  The groans of men pushed past their endurance. The smell of sweat and fear and hopelessness.

The sun reached its zenith, and then slowly travelled toward the far horizon, bathing the objects below in a fiery hell. Neither man nor beast escaped its tyranny.

Memories of another God-forsaken patch of land, another gang of men forced to labor beneath the sweltering sun came hurtling back. The bite of the whip, the pang of hunger and thirst. The dust that clogged the nose and mouth, the air so hot it seared the lungs.  Then too, he had been beaten, his ribs cracked, dehydration threatening to turn his body into so much windblown sand.  But there was a big difference between then and now. Then he was just Johnny Madrid. No one would miss his passing, except the poor peasants who needed his gun or the gunhawks who would be robbed of their chance to outdraw him and claim his title. There was no family to grieve his passing, no gravestone to mark where he lay, no evidence that he had ever existed – except for a reputation and the legend of Johnny Madrid that was not all his to keep.

Now he had a family. A father he was growing to love and trust more each day. A brother who was as much a part of him as the blood that ran through his veins and Teresa, the little sister he would do anything for.

The Rurales camp was so much easier than this. He had no one to worry about then. If he died…it was his time and he accepted it. Men worked from dawn to dusk knowing that their time on earth was limited. That they would soon face a firing squad, and if they were truthful to themselves, they knew they prayed each morning that today would be the day. Death spelled salvation and peace.

But not here; there was no firing squad to end a man’s misery. He worked until his body gave out. Until his heart could no longer pump, his muscles could no longer lift and his lungs could no longer breathe. With just enough food, water and sleep, a man could last for years.

Johnny looked up and saw each sweat drenched face staring at the ground as they swung their picks or shovelled the dirt. They were beaten. All hope lost.

“No one said it was break time,” a guard growled behind Johnny and the chain was whipped back, choking Johnny as he landed hard on his rear. He heard the crack of a rib and wondered how much longer before that rib gave way completely and snapped in half.

He felt the sting of the whip as it bit into his shoulder and all his anger rose at once. The humiliation of being chained like a dog, of Scott seeing him like this. And Madre de Dios, Miguel witnessing it all. He reached back and grabbed the chain, jumping to his feet at the same time. Where his energy came from he didn’t know, but he yanked the chain toward him, hauling the guard holding it into his arms. He felt the bones of the guard’s jaw shatter beneath his fist.

Another guard landed on Johnny’s back and he threw him off like he weighed nothing. The shouts of the workers rang in his ears and he knew he was giving them hope. Maybe not enough…but if he died now, at least he had given them something.  The whip lashed at his back and his arms, the front of his shirt turned red with his blood, but he didn’t care.

The sound of a rifle shot echoed in the suddenly still air. The only sound was his own gasps for breath.

“Haul him up!” a guard shouted and Johnny was roughly dragged onto his back, the collar squeezing his windpipe until everything turned dark.

“NO!”

Even through the darkness and the drumming of his heart in his ears, Johnny recognized Scott’s voice.

The pressure on his neck relaxed and he gasped again for a breath, the movement setting his ribs on fire.

“He’s no good to you dead,” Scott yelled.

“Who in hell put you in charge?” a guard called back sarcastically.

“I did.”

Johnny could not believe what he had just heard. He painfully rolled onto his stomach then levered himself up to his knees.

Scott stood beside Mrs. Rawlings, her rifle pointed toward Johnny. “Mr. Lancer is in charge of this project now. You will do as he tells you. If you have any complaints come to me.”

Johnny’s mouth fell open in disbelief. What was Scott doing?  He heard the low murmurs of the guards around him. The workers stood still, their picks and shovels still in their hands.

“This is a big project,” Scott said, his voice carrying the authority he had learned as an officer in the military. “Every one of these men will be dead before it is done at this pace. I want a tent over there.” Scott pointed to an area to the left of the courtyard. “Big enough to give these men shade when they are resting.”

Scott quickly cut off any comments from the guards. “The men will have a break in the morning, and water every hour. They will have lunch and an hours rest at noon. Believe me; you will get more work out of them this way.”

Johnny tried to struggle to his feet, but his strength was gone. He saw Scott look his way, and he couldn’t read the look in his brother’s eyes.

“The first break starts now,” Scott ordered.

“What about Madrid? He needs to be punished for disobeying,” one of the guards yelled.

“He will be,” Mrs. Rawlings said. “And it will be Mr. Lancer who decides on that punishment.”

A shadow fell across Johnny and he looked up into the face of a stranger…the face of the man who had disembarked from the stage in Morro Coyo just a few short months before.  There was no hint of warmth, friendship or compassion in Scott’s impassive expression.

“Your problem is you just don’t know when to quit.” Scott’s voice was cold.

“No.” In that moment Johnny Lancer fled, leaving behind the icy hard presence of Madrid.  “Although it sure looks like you do.”

 

Chapter 13

Rage coursed through Scott’s veins at the sight of Johnny sitting on his heels, his bare feet exposed to the sun baked sand. With his head bowed, Johnny struggled to take a breath without cringing with pain at every inhalation. New lashes on his shoulders left rivulets of blood seeping through his torn shirt.

Sickened at the thought of what he had to do, Scott searched for a punishment that would not physically hurt Johnny more than his weakened condition could stand, but would satisfy Mrs. Rawlings. But Scott knew he had to be ever so careful not to push Johnny over the edge, not push him over to the darker side of Johnny Madrid, too far for him ever to return.

Silence hung heavy in the air as he made his decision. Not only was Johnny’s life at stake, but also Miguel and his mother with her unborn child. So many lives hung in the balance. And the only way to tip the scales in their direction was to hurt and humiliate Johnny. He only hoped that Johnny would some day understand and forgive him for what he was about to do.

“Put him in leg irons,” Scott ordered, no hint of the desperation he felt in his voice.

Johnny’s head shot up, a look of utter disbelief in his eyes.

“That is hardly an adequate punishment,” Mrs. Rawlings snapped. “He needs to be taught a lesson. One that everyone here will understand.”

Scott nodded, not taking his eyes off Johnny’s. “They will.” The words tasted foul in his mouth, but he continued. “Have you ever seen a wild horse hobbled? It breaks their spirit, beats them into submission.” He saw a moment’s hesitation in Johnny’s eyes and wondered if his brother knew what he was trying to do. *Please, Johnny, understand. This is what I must do to keep you and the others safe.* But the look of hatred and betrayal forced Scott to take an involuntary step back. 

Mrs. Rawlings smiled, impressed with Scott’s handling of the volatile situation. “Bring the leg irons,” she ordered. “It appears that Mr. Lancer knows how to handle these animals.” She looked directly at Johnny. “Especially his brother.”

Scott could barely watch as Johnny was pushed back and the ankle cuffs were locked into place. A short length of chain attached to either cuff would allow him only small stutter steps.

“The chains will come off when you show me you can behave,” Scott said, his voice not revealing his torment. “The next time you act up it won’t be so easy.”

“Vaya al infierno, hermano,” (Go to hell, brother) Johnny spat at Scott’s feet.

Mrs. Rawlings lunged forward and snapped the chain, tightening the collar around Johnny’s neck. “You will speak English here, do you understand me?” She snapped the chain again. “Only English!”

Scott carefully pulled the chain free from her hands. “I think he understands.” He leaned over and spoke hurriedly into her ear. “If you choke him to death, here in front of all the workers, then he will have won.”

“Very well.” Mrs. Rawlins released the chain. “You keep him under control or I will.”

Scott nodded. Turning to the guards he ordered them to start erecting the canopy, and then turned back to the workers. “You’ll have shade in an hour. Now get back to work.”

Johnny groped for the pick and used it to lever himself up. He swayed for a moment, unable to steady himself with the short chain restricting his movements, before swinging it over his head.

Scott grabbed it in mid swing. “I don’t think so, Brother. I don’t want you getting any funny ideas. I’d like to live a little longer.” Dropping a bucket in front of Johnny he ordered him to fill it.

Sagging back down to his knees, Johnny began scooping up handfuls of sand and rock and filling the bucket.

Scott turned just in time to see Mrs. Rawlings nod to the guards as she walked back toward the house.

The canopy was quickly erected and Scott called a halt to the work an hour later as he promised. Slowly the workers dropped their picks and shovels and made their way to the shelter of the tent. Johnny shuffled behind them. He was only inches from the canopy when the collar around his neck pulled him backwards. The guards laughed cruelly as Scott realized that Mrs. Rawlings had ordered them to build the shelter just out of Johnny’s reach.

Scott’s jaw muscles tightened as he curbed his frustration.  Mrs. Rawlings was going to push him every step of the way to test his sincerity.  It would be foolish for him to publicly disagree with her orders so he had to find another way to get his brother out of the sun.  Johnny had sunk wearily to the ground, head down so that Scott couldn’t see his expression.  All the other workers were alternating their attention between the brothers.  If Scott had hoped to provoke a reaction from them he had succeeded…they looked ready to tear him apart with their bare hands.

He walked over to the water bucket and filled the ladle, bringing it to his lips and drinking deeply.  It was now mid-afternoon and the sun was hanging lower in the sky.  The heat in the enclosed courtyard hadn’t lessened and Johnny wasn’t the only worker who looked ready to collapse with exhaustion.  He dipped the ladle into the water again and carried it over to Johnny.  He positioned himself so that his shadow would fall over his brother, the only immediate protection from the sun that he could manage.

“Here.” He held the ladle out.

Johnny looked up from his contemplation of the chains on his ankles.  “Don’t do me any favors.”  He licked dry lips without making any move to accept the water.

“I’m not,” Scott replied harshly.  “You won’t be of any use if you pass out from the heat and dehydration.”

Johnny laughed bitterly.  “You’re all heart, Brother.”  His hand was shaking as he took hold of the handle and his eyes narrowed as Scott steadied his grip.  “I can manage.”

“Have it your way.”  Scott released his hold and stepped back, being careful to keep what little shade he could covering his sibling. As he watched Johnny drink, an idea formed for getting his brother the care and attention he needed.  All he needed to do was provoke him, which in Johnny’s present mood shouldn’t be hard.

“I’ve seen Elana,” Scott began, conversationally.  “I’ve suggested to Mrs. Rawlings that she have the family escorted back to Mexico once the baby’s born.”

Johnny felt a surge of anger.  “What happened to all that outrage about tellin’ people where they could live?”

“They’re not welcome here,” Scott replied flatly.

“You’ve made sure of your welcome though, haven’t you?  It didn’t take you long to change your tune.”

Scott reached down with his left hand and took hold of a handful of Johnny’s shirt, hauling his brother to his feet.  He pulled Johnny toward him until they were standing face to face.  “That smart mouth of yours is going to get you killed one of these days.”  Hating himself, yet knowing that he was doing the best he could, Scott clenched his right hand into a fist and swung his arm.  “Lo siento, hermano,” he whispered desperately before hitting Johnny hard on the chin.

In the final second before Johnny’s eyes closed Scott saw a glimmer of confusion mingled with hope.  Johnny collapsed into his brother’s waiting arms and Scott lowered him gently to the ground.

“We’re not going to get any more work out of him today.”  He swung round to look at the guards.  “Take him back to his cell.”

As two of the guards moved forward to pick up the limp form Scott glowered at them in irritation.  “We can’t afford to leave the rest of them with inadequate guards.”  He pointed to two of the older workers.  “You two, get over here.”

As they shuffled over obediently he began to issue orders.  “Get that chain unlocked from the post.  I want a mattress put in his cell and get those wounds cleaned out and covered.”

“Wait a minute.”  The guard who had challenged Scott’s authority earlier strode over to stand menacingly in front of him.  “Mrs. Rawlings didn’t say nothing about that.”

Scott stood straight backed and unafraid and stared the man down.  “Do you want to be the one to explain to Mrs. Rawlings why Madrid can’t work tomorrow?  If he doesn’t get some attention those cuts will fester and I can guarantee he’ll develop a fever.  She wants him back in this courtyard tomorrow and every day after that.  In order for that to happen he needs to be in reasonable health…not half dead.”

The guard lowered his rifle and stepped back.  “Fine, but don’t push too hard Lancer.”

Scott glared at the Mexican workers.  “What are you waiting for?”  He stared after them as they carried his brother carefully into the house, followed by one of the guards.  Then, taking a shaky breath, he turned back to the rest of his workforce.  “Back to work,” he ordered before turning on his heels and following his brother into the house.

*****

Johnny heard a voice, low and urgent.  The voice was vaguely familiar although he couldn’t immediately place it.

“Juanito, puede usted oirme?” (Can you hear me?)

Forcing his eyes open he saw that he was back in his cell, sprawled face down on the filthy dirt floor. The smells of blood and human waste nearly made him gag and his already throbbing head took on a life of its own. He couldn’t do this. Not like this. Not at the hands of the one person he thought he could trust.

Why hadn’t he trusted his instincts? Why had he left himself vulnerable? He had known the truth of it while he was Johnny Madrid; that you could trust no one. He had been careless, had let Scott breach his defenses. He had opened himself up to the pain of betrayal and that betrayal cut deeper than any of the physical wounds he had suffered during his short life.

He knew the first week he was at Lancer that he was in danger of losing the shield he hid behind as Johnny Madrid. The process had started the minute Scott had risked his life to save him after he had been shot.  No one had ever done that for him before. Scott had whittled away his defences like a master craftsmen with a knife, reshaping Johnny Madrid into Johnny Lancer. It had been too easy. In retrospect, he knew he had wanted it too much. And now he was paying the price.

There was a scraping noise on the floor and the disembodied voice was only a few feet away from him now. “Juanito, can you hear me?”

Johnny didn’t answer. He couldn’t. His heart was beating in his throat so hard it nearly suffocated him. The man he had seen out in the yard was not the Scott Lancer he knew. Was it just an act, or was this the real Scott? Was the lure of his beloved Boston too much for him to ignore? Was the fact that his half-brother was a mestizo suddenly too repugnant? Had Mrs. Rawlings reminded him of how uncivilized this land and its people were compared to back east? He would never have believed it. But he had seen the look on Scott’s face. If it was an act he was damned good at it.

His aching jaw reminded him forcefully that Scott had hit him.  It wasn’t the first time that he had been on the receiving end of his brother’s fists.  The only other time his brother had struck him in anger had, Johnny knew, been well deserved.  He had sat back and watched as Pardee’s men had attacked his brother.  His act that day had been good enough to fool both Scott and Teresa, although if he was being honest, he hadn’t quite decided at that point where his loyalties lay.  When Scott had challenged him on it he had lost his temper and provoked his brother further.  Even then Scott had been able to breach his defences.  Was Scott playing the same dangerous game?  He hadn’t thought so earlier, but…Scott had said something before hitting him.  Johnny had the feeling it was important that he remember what it was, only the memory was elusive and he hurt too much to chase it down.

“Juanito, contesteme por favor.” (Please answer me.)

Johnny could no longer ignore the voice and he painfully lifted his head to look through the cage to the cell next to him. His eyesight still hazy from the glaring sun and the sweat dripping down his face made it hard for him to make out the face that was pushed up against the wire mesh of the cell.

“Es yo, Arturo.” (It is me.)

Arturo. Of course. He had forgotten. If Rawlings had Miguel she would have the entire family. Because of him. They were being punished because of him.

“Lo siento,” Johnny whispered and, in defiance of the edict to speak English continued in the language of his childhood. “I didn’t mean to get you mixed up in this.”

“No, Juanito, this is not your fault. It has been a battle we have been fighting since we first arrived here. It was my pride, my stubbornness in refusing to believe I could not win against someone as strong and evil as Senora Rawlings that got us all into this. It is I who must apologize to you.”

Suddenly enraged, Johnny tried to push himself up to his knees but his arms would not take his weight and he sprawled back down on the ground with a painful grunt. He could tell by each inhalation that his ribs were cracked, close to breaking. The sun had left him beaten, dizzy and nauseated. But he would not lay here in this filth like an animal.

“You must lie still,” Arturo warned. “You must give yourself time to heal.”

Johnny shook his head, pushing back with the palms of his hands until he was on his knees. The leg irons were still in place, adding to the difficulties caused by his injuries, and his bitterness against his brother resurfaced.  Undignified or not, he crawled toward the cell wall and collapsed against it, the firebrand in his back eliciting a gasp of pain he had not wanted Arturo to hear.

“The guards brought you in two hours ago,” Arturo said, his voice gentle, a voice Johnny envisioned he used to calm Miguel. “You should take advantage of the rest.”

Johnny lifted a shaky hand to the collar around his neck. “They knew they couldn’t get work out of a dead man.”

“Si,” Arturo agreed. “And for that I am grateful. As long as you are alive there is hope for us. Hope these poor people have not had in a very long time.”

Johnny swung his head sharply to look at Arturo. “You think Johnny Madrid is going to save you? Any of you?”

“I think it has begun already. The guards were not pleased they had to bring you in so early. They also brought a mattress. I am certain it was not their idea or that of Senora Rawlings.” Johnny followed Arturo’s gaze toward the corner of his cell and saw the thin mattress bunched against the wall, an empty bucket lying on top.

“They said the new boss ordered them to bring it in for you to lie on.”

“The new boss is my brother,” Johnny growled. “Mi hermano. That’s a laugh.”

Arturo shifted his weight on the floor, the sound of the heavy cast scraping against the dirt again. “I think you should not jump to conclusions, Juanito. Perhaps your brother is helping you in the only way he can. I heard the guards talking amongst themselves.  They were not careful about what they said.  I doubt it even occurred to them that I could understand them.  After all, to them, I am just another filthy uneducated Mexican.  They were forced to build a tent for the workers to rest under, out of the hot sun. I think he has a plan, but you must play your part. If it is true that he is working to help you, you can not let Senora Rawlings know this. You must show your hatred for the brother who turned on you.”  Arturo paused while he tried to make himself more comfortable.  “They were also complaining that he had ordered your wounds to be tended.”

Johnny thought about it, realizing for the first time that someone had cleaned and bandaged the deep cuts inflicted by the whip. Could it be true? Was Scott siding with Mrs. Rawlings to give them time to escape, to somehow get word to Murdoch? He wanted to believe it. But he had seen the look in Scott’s eyes, had heard his cold, hurtful words, searing words that he would take to the grave with him.

Exhaustion crept up and claimed Johnny, even as he fought it off. But his body was too injured, his mind too hurt, his soul too broken to fight back.

Arturo watched as Johnny’s chin slowly dropped to his chest, his breathing evening out as sleep overtook him. He prayed he was right about Johnny Madrid’s brother. He and Juanito were their only hope. Hope for himself and Miguel, his wife and their baby who rested in her womb and the workers whose lives were a living hell. So much rested on the shoulders of those two young men. He silently made the sign of the cross on his chest and looked upward. “Madre de Dios, please give them the strength,” he prayed.

 

Chapter 14

The noise of clattering feet dragged Johnny out of sleep.  As he moved he felt the vile collar dig into his neck and he had to shift his head to ease its bite into his skin. His head was fuzzy from too much sun and too little sleep. Johnny couldn’t remember ever feeling more demoralized in his life. The noise had stopped and he raised his eyes to the bars separating him from freedom.  His lips curled in a sneer when he saw Scott standing watching him expressionlessly.

“What d’you want?  Come to make sure I’m gonna be fit to work tomorrow?”  He gripped the bars and pulled himself to his feet.  Scott was immaculately dressed in clean clothes, his face freshly shaved and his hair damp.  By contrast he was filthy, blood stained and wearing a shirt that had been cut to ribbons by the whip after he had attacked that guard.  That particular memory brought a cold smile to his face.  Dios, it had felt so good to fight back.

Scott ignored the question and turned to the guard standing beside him.  “Unlock the door and get that mattress unrolled.”

The man looked at Scott mutinously.  “I ain’t going in there.  He’s a killer.”

“Then I’ll do it,” Scott snapped.  He held out a hand to the servant who hovered behind him.  “Give me that.”

Johnny watched, puzzled as the servant handed over a tray.  The guard, muttering to himself, unlocked the door and then drew his gun.  Johnny stayed where he was and watched as Scott laid the tray down just inside the cage before spreading the mattress on the floor.

“There’s food and water.  It’s the same as the other workers receive so don’t get any ideas about special treatment.”

“Don’t worry, Brother.  I’m already used to your sort of ‘special treatment.’” Johnny raised a hand to the collar and then looked down at the chain linking his feet.

“The solution to that is very simple.  So simple that even you should be able to understand.”  Scott backed out of the cell and gestured for the guard to relock it.  “Behave, do as you are told when you are told, and the chains will come off.”

“And if I don’t behave?  What’re you gonna do, Scott?  Order another whipping?”

“If I have to.”

The dispassionate tone shocked Johnny back to reality.  This was no act.  The brother he had loved and trusted couldn’t have stood there and said that without giving something away.

“Then I guess you’ll have to ‘cause I ain’t no one’s slave.”  Johnny heard Arturo move suddenly in the next cell and ignored the whispered warning to be careful.

“Don’t push me too far, Johnny.  I will do whatever it takes to secure my position here.”

This time Johnny did hear something in Scott’s voice that gave him pause.  He lowered his head and thought about it while the guard was occupied in thrusting another tray of food into Arturo’s cell.  When he raised his eyes again he saw a softening of Scott’s expression. For just a moment he was looking again at his brother.  He gave a slight nod, hoping that he wasn’t mistaken.

As Scott turned away Arturo called out to him, “Wait, please.”

Scott looked enquiringly at the young Mexican, his face once again wiped clean of any expression.  “Yes?”

“My wife and son…are they alright?”  Worry infused his voice.

“They are together and you have my word that they won’t be harmed.”

“Ain’t up to you,” the guard smirked before falling silent as Scott reached over and grabbed him by the front of his shirt.

“Do you want to make an issue of it?” Scott asked with deceptive pleasantness.

The two prisoners watched with interest as the guard began to sweat.  When he didn’t reply Scott shoved him backwards against the bars of Johnny’s cell.  Had Johnny been able to move quickly enough he might have taken the chance on snatching the man’s gun.  He looked at Scott’s hips and saw that his brother wasn’t wearing a gun.  It appeared that Mrs. Rawlings’ trust only stretched so far.  Johnny wasn’t sure what he would have done if he had taken possession of the weapon.  Could he have pointed it at Scott and would he have been able to pull the trigger had it been necessary?

The guard straightened his shirt, glowering the whole time at Scott.  “We’ll see what Mrs. Rawlings has to say about this,” he muttered and then shut up as Scott’s glacial stare fixed on him.

“The baby will come soon.” Arturo’s words cut through the tension.  “When it does my wife will need help.”

“I’ll speak to Mrs. Rawlings,” Scott replied.  “And I’ll make sure you know when the birth is over.”

“Gracias.”

“English,” Johnny whispered, afraid that Arturo would be punished and knowing that the young man wasn’t fit to withstand any more injuries.  He saw Scott acknowledge the warning with a slight smile before his brother turned and disappeared up the stairs.

Once they had been left alone Johnny shuffled over to the tray and lifted the lid from the bowl.  He could smell the herbs and spices in the savoury stew and his mouth began to water.  A thick slice of fresh baked bread lay beside the bowl and he sank down to enjoy the most welcome food he had eaten in days.  After eating every mouthful and drinking the water he settled down on the mattress and let his exhaustion carry him into a deep sleep.

***

For the next two days Johnny did his best to stay out of trouble.  It wasn’t easy as the guards took great delight in trying to goad him.  Scott was obviously taking his new role seriously, spending long periods of time outside watching the work.  Seeing his brother standing there, cool and composed, while he sweated and struggled in the blistering heat was almost more than Johnny could bear.  He had been shocked to see Miguel again, hauling water.  The little boy had kept his eyes fixed on the ground and his mouth shut, but Johnny had seen the look of betrayal on the child’s face on the one occasion he had looked directly at Scott.  He had seen no answering reaction from his brother.

Johnny had managed a few hurried words with the boy.  He and his mother were being kept confined in a small room leading off the kitchen.  They had been given a mattress and food, but other than that were being left alone.  Johnny conveyed a brief message about Arturo before being roughly shoved back to work.

Occasionally Mrs. Rawlings came out to inspect their progress.  It made him feel sick to see her and his brother together, talking and smiling.  Scott never failed to treat her with deference, explaining how well the work was going.  It was going well alright…thanks to the blood and sweat of the workers. He always made sure to look her steadily in the eye and her obvious irritation never failed to bring a smug smirk to his face.

He had hoped that Scott might have ordered the removal of the leg irons.  He was being co-operative, following orders and he hadn’t answered anyone back recently.  The metal was chafing his bare ankles just as the leather of the collar was irritating the skin on his neck.  Eventually, as his second day of good behaviour came to an end without any obvious benefits, he couldn’t keep quiet any longer. He waited until Scott had accompanied him and his guards back to his cell before breaking his self-imposed silence.

“Hey, Scott.  Thought you said that if I was a good boy the chains would come off.”  Rather than pleading he thought he had achieved just the right amount of insolence.

A look of displeasure crossed Scott’s face as he walked over to the bars.  “I wondered how long it would take you.  You can’t keep that mouth shut, can you?”

“You sure been using yours,” Johnny sneered. “Been sweet talking your boss, Boston?”

Scott stepped back, his face darkening. He could feel the guard behind him waiting. Johnny had just opened the door for him to prove his allegiance to Mrs. Rawlings. But was he strong enough to take it? Would Johnny understand? Or would he forever destroy the bond he had worked so hard to form between them?

“Bring him back to the courtyard in ten minutes,” he ordered the guard, not looking back at Johnny as he walked up the stairs. “And leave the leg irons on.”

***

Johnny leaned against the chain link divider between him and Arturo and slid down to the ground, stunned. He had thought he had seen a glimmer of hope in Scott’s face…a sign that his brother was trying to free them. But now he didn’t know. Now all the doubts that plagued him as he tried to leave Johnny Madrid behind and trust the love and security of a family returned. He had been a fool. Just like he could not leave Johnny Madrid behind, Scott could not leave Boston and the life Harlan Garrett had provided.

Arturo dragged himself across his small cell, the sound of the wooden splint on his leg scraping across the hard pack dirt. “You must not antagonize him, Juanito,” he warned. “He is your brother, but he is fighting for his life also. There is no telling what a man will do when he faces death. Do what he says por favor. You are the hope of all the people who have been imprisoned here. You have given them hope, when they thought all hope was lost.”

Johnny shook his head. He didn’t want this mantel. He could not do it again. Not when his own world was collapsing around him. “I can’t,” he sighed. “Not again. I’m not strong enough to be Johnny Madrid again.”

Arturo slipped his fingers between the chain link, just enough to touch Johnny’s shoulder. “You are,” he hissed. “Or you would have given up already.”

Johnny took a deep breath and cursed Arturo for his words. Why couldn’t he just be a man striving to survive? Why did he have to be Johnny Madrid? Why did he have to be their one great hope for freedom?

***

Ten minutes passed in a blink of an eye…and the guards were standing over him, attaching the leash to the leather collar around his neck and dragging him to his feet like a dog.  Was that what Scott thought of him now? Was he lower than scum, like Rawlings thought? He tried to grab the chain, but his hands were clubbed back as he was hauled up the stairs.

The kitchen door was flung open and Johnny was led to the center of the courtyard where Scott stood at the head of two lines of workers standing two feet apart. At each end of the human gauntlet a red flag hung motionless in the hot air.  His hesitation was not appreciated by the guard who yanked the leash to keep him moving.

Scott regarded his brother severely. “I hoped you would learn your lesson before this, Johnny. But you obviously haven’t.”

“Lo siento, hermano,” Johnny spat.

He noticed Scott’s crisp white shirt and clean shaven face and felt an overwhelming hatred. If he had believed for a mistaken moment that Scott was doing all this just as a diversion to buy time until they could escape, he knew the truth when he saw his brother glance behind him. Following Scott’s line of vision he was sickened to see Mrs. Rawlings standing in the doorway watching with approval.

Johnny tried to jerk his arms free of his two guards, regretting the movement immediately as his ribs burned in protest. He stood as straight backed as he could manage, evincing a dignity that was being deliberately peeled away layer by layer.  Tearing his eyes away from the gauntlet of servants, waiting apprehensively for the punishment to start, he struggled to control his breathing.

“You clearly need another lesson,” Scott told him.  “From one side of this courtyard to another is exactly thirty paces.  You will walk until I tell you to stop.”

“And if I don’t?” Johnny asked harshly.

“Then I will select one of the other workers to undergo your punishment.”

Johnny sucked in a shocked breath and looked back at the faces of the men and women standing motionless in the shimmering heat.  He could feel the searing hot sand burn through the soles of his feet. Rivers of sweat ran down his body, dripping into his eyes.  "You bastard," he snarled at his brother as he took his first shaky step.

He shuffled forward, the leg irons biting deeply into his flesh, the short chain forcing him to take small uncertain steps. The only sound was the clinking of the chains as they dragged between his feet in the sand, and the soft sobs of the servants forced to watch his punishment. It tore at his insides…engulfed him with a rage the magnitude of which he had never felt before.

His knees nearly buckled and anxious hands reached out to catch him. Suddenly the crack of a whip split the air.

“Stand back!” Scott ordered. “Anyone helping him will be punished. Do I make myself clear?”

There was a muted yes, and the helping hands were pulled back.

Scott nodded toward Johnny.  Johnny swayed but staggered forward again. He wouldn’t let Scott beat him. 

He couldn’t remember ever being consumed by so much hatred. He had been betrayed by the one person he had trusted. There had been a handful of people in his lifetime who tried to reach out to him, tried to make a difference in his life, but he had turned away from them, too afraid of being hurt. Then he picked Scott. A strange guttural laugh erupted from somewhere deep inside him. The devil was getting the last laugh.

Johnny struggled to the flag at the far end of the courtyard. Each step was a study in agony. The soles of his feet, softened by years of wearing boots, burned from the hot sand and bled from the sharp rocks. The sun baked every ounce of moisture from his body. He heard his own labored breaths trying to draw air into his exhausted body. He turned, hesitating as he did so.

"Keep walking," Scott instructed.

With his next step, Johnny’s legs buckled beneath him and he landed hard on his knees. Dust swirled in his mouth, up his nose, stung his eyes. The servants gasped and in a mass, surged forward as one to help him but he quickly pushed himself back up.

“No,” he warned in Spanish. “Do not give the devil his due.”

“That will cost you one more lap,” Scott ordered. “You know the rules about speaking Spanish here.”

Johnny swayed, smirking viciously. “Vaya al infierno.”

“Keep it up, Johnny, and we’ll be here until tomorrow morning.”

Johnny opened his mouth for another retort when he suddenly became aware of movement near him and looked down, horrified to find that Miguel was pushing his way between the servants.  The little boy was holding a battered tin cup and Johnny could practically taste the water.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Scott yelled, striding across the yard to knock the cup from Miguel's quivering grip.

"Leave him alone," Johnny shouted, lunging for Scott.  Two guards grabbed his arms yanking him back before he could get his hands around Scott’s neck. He could hear Mrs. Rawlings laughing...a stark contrast to Miguel's heartbroken sobs.

"Get the boy out of here," Scott ordered.  He turned to Johnny.  "No one told you to stop walking."

Johnny glared at his brother, still struggling against the two guards. “I won’t forget this, Scott,” he hissed.

“Keep walking.” Scott ordered.

Johnny lost track of time as he walked from one end of the courtyard to the other.  His head was pounding with the heat and only sheer stubborness kept him on his feet.  He was finding it harder and harder to keep a straight line, his steps faltering.  Finally he heard Scott's voice again through the humming in his head.

"That's enough.  I'd say he's learned his lesson.  Return him to his cell."

"Gracias, hermano," Johnny whispered, his voice heavy with irony, before his eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed in a dead faint onto the blisteringly hot ground.

***

Johnny was unconscious when he was carried from the courtyard.  Scott stood rooted to the spot as the guards rounded up the remaining workers and herded them away.  The blood pounding in his head made it hard to think.  How had he allowed the confrontation to get so out of hand?  He was vaguely aware that Mrs. Rawlings had been present while he had been meting out Johnny’s punishment.  She hadn’t interfered, had probably enjoyed the whole sickening spectacle.

He felt bile rise in his throat and his stomach cramped.  He was going to be sick.  He staggered over to a secluded corner and retched miserably.  He could only be thankful that Mrs. Rawlings no longer felt it necessary to have any guards dogging his footsteps.  After all, he had proven his loyalty to the bitch at the expense of his brother.

Falling to his knees he doubled over, heaving until there was nothing left.  His face was covered in a sheen of sweat and he was shaking uncontrollably.  He started violently when he felt a hand on his shoulder.  A soft female voice began speaking words he couldn’t understand, but the tone was soothing.  He kept his head bowed, unable to look anyone in the eye.  Gradually he brought his rebellious body under control and realised that he was listening to lyrical Spanish.  He raised his head and met the concerned gaze of Consuela.

Seeing that she had his attention she began speaking to him in English.  “I know what you are trying to do.  Come, sit back against the wall and I will fetch you some water.”

Scott did as he was told, settling his back against the sun-warmed stone.  He watched the sway of her hips as she crossed to the water barrel, only to look away in shame as she returned with a cup of water.

“Rinse your mouth out then drink slowly,” she instructed him, waiting patiently as he did her biding. When he was finished he handed the cup back with a mumbled thank you.

“You are playing a dangerous game, Senor.  If Mrs. Rawlings finds out she won’t spare you or your brother.”

“I know.  I didn’t know what else to do. Johnny would be dead now if I hadn’t intervened.”

“At first I thought you had turned against him.  I hated you.  Then I remembered the things you had said to me so I began to watch you more closely.  Sometimes, when you think no one is watching, your thoughts betray you.”

“I thought Johnny understood, but today he pushed too hard for me to let it pass.”  Scott felt his stomach tightening again.  “Even if I do manage to get him free he’ll never trust me again. And how can I face our father and explain what I did?”

“What you were forced to do.  You are as much a victim as he is.”

“Johnny doesn’t see it like that and he can’t take much more.”

“The mood is changing, Senor.  Having Johnny Madrid here, seeing his courage, has made us realise that there is a better life within our grasp.  If you ask for help I do not think it will fall on deaf ears.”

Scott looked at the young woman with a resurgence of hope.  “You would trust me after everything I have done?”

“I am trusting you now.  If I am wrong about you then you will report me to Mrs. Rawlings and I will be punished.  But I do not think you will do that.  I will speak to the others.  You should go inside now before she sends someone to find you.”

Scott grabbed her arm.  “Be careful and…thank you.”

He stayed where he was for another few minutes then pushed himself wearily to his feet and sought the sanctuary of his room.  He had an hour to bring himself under control before he would have to present himself for dinner. Then, perhaps, if he could find the courage, he could go and check on his brother.

 

Chapter 15

Scott stared out the upstairs window into the courtyard.  His mind replayed over and over the picture of Johnny stumbling from one end to the other.  Only his brother’s sheer force of will had enabled him to complete the required number of steps before he had finally collapsed.  He banished the memory with a ruthlessness that both surprised and appalled him.  If anyone had told him a few days ago that he would willingly torture his brother he would have said they were deranged.  Maybe he was the one losing his mind.  Right now, that would be a kindness.

There was an emptiness inside him now that nothing could fill.  When this nightmare was finally over…if it ever ended…he would have no choice except to return to Boston.  He wouldn’t be welcome at Lancer, wouldn’t be able to face his brother and father after all that he had done.  But, how could he face his grandfather either?  He felt dirty and ashamed, and lost.

He made his way down to the sitting room and poured himself a large glass of whiskey.  He settled in a comfortable armchair in front of the fireplace and stretched his legs out.  After taking a sip of his drink he rested his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes.  It would only be a few minutes until Mrs. Rawlings joined him and he would have to face yet another evening pretending he didn’t long to rip out her black heart.

“You did well today.”

Scott opened his eyes, disorientated, before realizing that he must have dozed off.  He rose hurriedly to his feet, offered a wan smile and went to the liquor cabinet to pour her a glass of sherry.  “Thank you.  It was never going to be easy to tame him.”

 

“He will keep challenging your authority.”  Mrs. Rawlings took the seat opposite Scott.  “How far are you prepared to go to keep him in line?”

Scott took a large mouthful of whiskey while he considered the question.  “It isn’t easy to punish a man who shares my blood, but I chose my course and I have to see it through…whatever the cost.”

“I’ve been giving a lot of thought to your warning about Murdoch Lancer.  I assume he will be getting concerned by your absence.”

Scott could feel his breathing increasing as he allowed himself some hope.  “We should have been home a few days ago.  He may already have put enquiries in hand to trace us.”

“Then I think you should send him that telegram to throw him off the scent.  I’ve asked Tom to join us after dinner.  If you write out the message he can take it to Norton tomorrow morning.”

His first reaction was disappointment that he wasn’t going to be permitted to leave the ranch to send the message himself.  He swept that away.  This was the chance he had been hoping for…the reason he had made Johnny suffer.  He feigned indifference even though his heart was now racing.  “I think that’s wise.  And I have my own neck to think about now.  Murdoch will never forgive me for my treatment of Johnny.”

Mrs. Rawlings leaned forward and patted his arm.  “You don’t have to worry, Scott.  You’re safe here.”

“Am I?  Your men envy and despise me.  It is only your patronage that prevents one of them from shooting me in the back.” He noted her look of concern and wondered about it.  There was something more going on here than the fact that they had been born and raised in the same city.

Before he had time to think any more deeply about the issue she was on her feet.  “Come with me.”

He followed her to the study and watched curiously as she crossed to her desk, pulled out a small key, and opened one of the drawers.  He caught his breath when he saw that she was now holding his gunbelt.  Was Johnny’s rig in there as well?

“Can I trust you with this?” she asked.

“What more do I need to do to convince you?  I’ve turned on my own brother.  You’ve seen how he looks at me.  He’d kill me if he was given the chance.”  He held his breath as she looked steadily at him, weighing his words and his sincerity.  Finally she walked over to him and held out his gunbelt.

“Thank you.”  Had he been wearing evening clothes he wouldn’t have felt comfortable strapping on his gun.  Fortunately, the formality of that first dreadful evening had been relaxed.  He was still smartly dressed, but wearing a gun would not be incongruous.

Having buckled it in place he drew his gun and checked that it was loaded.  He could feel her eyes boring into him, never doubting for a moment that this was another test.  If he tried anything, the room would be swarming with guards and he would find himself locked up with his brother…or worse.  He was not going to jeopardise his chance to get word to Murdoch.  He holstered the gun and turned his most sincere smile on the woman.

“I believe it is almost time for dinner.”  He offered her his arm and she slipped her hand through, smiling warmly.

***

While the servants were occupied with preparing and serving dinner, Consuela prepared a tray of food and carried it to the room where Elana and Miguel were being held.  The bar was in place, preventing them from opening the door from the inside.  However, there were no guards.  Even if they had been able to escape from the room, where would they have gone?  She laid the tray on the floor and removed the heavy bar.  Reaching for a lantern she opened the door and stepped inside.

The light fell on the pallet where the woman sat, her arms around the little boy who had started whimpering in fear.  “I’ve brought you something to eat.  There is no need to be afraid.”

She hung the lantern on a hook, collected the tray and closed the door behind her.  After balancing the tray on top of a crate, she handed a glass of milk to Miguel.  It broke her heart that he hesitated to accept it from her, looking instead to his mother for reassurance.

“It’s alright, nino.” Elana kissed her son gently on the top of his head and encouraged him to take the glass.

“How are you feeling?” Consuela asked as she uncovered the dishes.  She saw a flash of fire in Elana’s eyes and smiled.

“Have you seen my husband?  What has that bruja done with him?” Elana demanded.

“She has locked him in one of the cells in the cellar.  I haven’t seen him, but I know he is there.”

“And Johnny?  He was sick when they took him.  Do you know how he is?”

“He fights them.” Consuela lowered her eyes.  “He gives us hope, but he suffers for it.”

“Miguel told me that they have him chained like a dog and that it is his hermano who makes him work.”

“That is true, although I do not think things are as they seem.  I believe Senor Lancer works to free his brother…to free us all.  If Mrs. Rawlings realizes he is deceiving her, his death will not be easy.”

Elana scrambled awkwardly to her feet and grasped Consuela’s hand.  “Are you sure?  He is a gringo.” She spat the word before looking hurriedly at Miguel who was now eating hungrily.  “I thought he cared for Johnny. Now, having listened to what Miguel has told me, I doubt it.”  She laid her other hand on her swollen belly.  “I don’t want my baby born into captivity.  Please tell me there is hope.”

“Si, Senora, there is hope.”

“Thank you.  We will rest easier tonight.  You should go before you get into trouble.  If you can get a message to my husband, tell him I love him and that we will be strong.”

Consuela nodded, tears in her eyes for this courageous woman and her innocent little boy.  “I will do what I can.  Let someone know when the baby starts to come.”

Elana’s face hardened.  “I will not ask for help from that woman.”

“Then ask it of us.  Any of us would be honored to help you.  It is not only Senor Madrid who is an inspiration to us.”  She ducked her head in embarrassment and left the room, dropping the bar back into place.

***

“Juanito…”

Johnny heard Arturo’s worried whisper and tried to crawl back into the safe void that only unconsciousness provided.

The conscious world was filled with too much pain, both physical and mental. It was safer here, where his feet didn’t feel like they were held over an open flame and his ribs didn’t sear like a hot poker stabbing him with each breath.

“Juanito, por favor…are you all right?”

Then the unmistakable sound of Arturo’s heavy cast being dragged across the hard dirt floor.

“Juanito…Johnny…please…are you all right?”

Johnny could not ignore the concern in Arturo’s voice any longer and slowly lifted his head just far enough for him to see into the next cell.

“I’ll live,” Johnny whispered hoarsely. “How long…?”

“It is hard to say. Maybe two hours. You must not antagonize them so. They will kill you.”

Johnny shook his head and lay his cheek back down against the filthy dirt floor. “Not a bad idea,” he sighed deeply.

“No!” Arturo clamped his fingers around the wire fence that separated them. “I will not listen to words like that. You are a fighter. You have faced many enemies and won. You will do so again.”

“Maybe I’m tired of fighting,” Johnny said softly, his breath raising small eddies in the dirt.

Johnny heard the rattle of the cage as Arturo shook the wire. “You can’t. You don’t have the right to give up now.”

Anger surged through Johnny and he awkwardly rolled over onto his back. “Why?” he ground out as he dragged himself into a sitting position against the wall. “Why can’t I live and die like anyone else? I’m tired of being Johnny Madrid…of fighting other people’s wars.” He looked down at his feet, fiery red from sunburn and infection. “I’m not what you think I am. I’m not the hero legend created.”

“Juanito, it was not a legend I saw fighting to help save my family. It was a man, a brave man who cared more for strangers and was willing to risk his own life to help them.”

“And where did it get them?” Johnny snapped.

“They are still alive. I am still alive, and we all have hope because we know you will not stop fighting. Please, do not take that away from us.”

Johnny’s head sagged forward. Arturo was right.  He could not turn his back on Miguel and Elana. No matter what, he would fight the Rawlings bitch, and his brother. The brother he would see burn in hell for what he was doing.

The sound of the door at the top of the stairs brought Johnny’s attention to the steps and he watched as Scott emerged from the shadows.

“Come to see your handy work?” he snarled as Scott walked up to the cell door. The gun belt strapped around his brother’s waist didn’t go unnoticed. If he was allowed to carry a gun it meant there was no doubt which side he had chosen. As much as it angered him, it also pained Johnny to think that he had misjudged Scott so easily. He suddenly felt violated by all the secrets he had offered his brother, thinking that Scott would understand. What a fool he had been to trust anyone…especially a gringo from Boston.

“No,” Scott said simply. “I’ve come to tend to your feet. You can’t work if you can’t walk. Open the cell,” he directed the guard following behind him.

“I’ll kill you before I let you touch me,” Johnny warned, his voice dark with hatred.

A young woman followed Scott into the cell with a basin of water and a stack of clean towels.

As Scott approached, Johnny lashed out at his brother with his manacled feet. Scott sidestepped the vicious kicks and jumped behind Johnny grabbing the tether attached to the collar around Johnny’s neck and dragging him backwards until his head was lying against Scott’s shoulder.

“Your biggest problem, Johnny, is your unwillingness to accept the inevitable. You only have two options here…co-operate…or die.”

Johnny struggled feebly to reach Scott’s hands behind him. As he fought Scott he caught sight of the guard standing outside the cell, watching intently. It seemed wrong somehow, but his mind could not assimilate it.

“Go to hell…” Johnny gasped as Scott pried his mouth open and the young servant trickled an all too familiar taste down his throat.

“No!” he gasped. But Scott pinched his nose shut and he was forced to swallow the vile laudanum.

Scott leaned close to his ear and whispered, “Trust me…” but the words were lost in a haze of fear and the narcotic speeding through his system. Johnny never heard Scott’s plea. 

Johnny felt disjointed as he struggled up through the layers of confusing sounds and feelings brought on by the laudanum. The dose had not been enough to put him out for long, just dull his senses and the pain. He opened his eyes and saw a shape swirling in front of him that soon coalesced into the form of his brother kneeling by his feet.

Johnny watched in morbid fascination as Scott lifted first one foot then the other, wiping away the caked dirt and blood covering his feet. It should have hurt. He should have felt more than a dull ache as his brother worked the water soaked towel into the deep cuts around his ankles made by the leg irons and the raw tissue on the bottom of his feet. The lack of feeling escalated the growing fear within him. He was no longer in control and the man who he thought would protect him at any cost was now his persecutor. The towel turned red from the blood that flowed freely from a deep cut on the bottom of Johnny’s left foot. He remembered the pain when he felt the sharp rock slice open his foot, but he would not give Scott the satisfaction of seeing him falter.

 

Someone bathed his sunburned face with a cool rag and Johnny realized as she leaned forward to whisper in his ear, that it was the young woman who had followed Scott into the cell. His back was cradled against her shoulder and when she spoke her soft breath caressed his cheek. “Lo siento, Senor Madrid…” she began.

Scott suddenly lunged across Johnny and grabbed the girl’s wrist shaking her roughly. “You know the rules about speaking English here. Don’t make me punish you too,” he warned.

Johnny wanted to plunge his fists into Scott’s mouth, but his arms and legs felt boneless. He could only lay there and watch as if it were someone else’s body being manipulated like a marionette. Hatred for his brother and self loathing for himself for being Johnny Madrid wrapped itself around his heart and he found it almost impossible to breath.

“Please, Mr. Lancer, I am sorry,” the young woman pleaded as she gently lowered Johnny back to the ground. “It will not happen again,” she promised, crawling closer to Scott so she could help with the binding of his feet.

Scott nodded and handed her the bandages. “You finish this while I wrap his ribs. He can’t work with those ribs like that.”

Johnny wanted to push his hands away, yell at him to go to hell. Instead, he could only watch through an increasingly darker haze as he was lifted into a sitting position. Scott wound his arms around him and wrapped the bandaging tightly around his chest.

 

“Hopefully,” Scott said, his words slipping away as Johnny fell deeper into the numbing clutches of the laudanum, “this will be the last time you try to test my authority. The next time I won’t be so lenient.”

“Go to hell,” Johnny uttered softly as his eyes slid closed.

***

Tom didn’t trust Scott Lancer.  He’d seen at first hand how hard the blond had fought for his brother when they had first been taken captive.  The sudden change of heart after Madrid’s flogging just didn’t sit right.  Lancer had lied before about wiring his father.  What if he was lying again about his change of allegiance?  He’d tried to discuss it with Mrs. Rawlings, only the woman seemed to have been completely taken in by the young man’s charm.  And, of course he had to concede that Lancer had been enthusiastic about keeping his brother in line.  Nonetheless, the nagging doubts remained.

He had witnessed Madrid’s latest punishment with grudging admiration for the man in charge.  It had been a shock, however, to find that Lancer had been given back his gun, his loyalty apparently now unquestioned.  The wording of the telegram had seemed innocuous enough as well.  He’d send it as instructed and then make some discreet enquiries of his own.

He’d accompanied Lancer down to the cells, more out of interest than anything else.  Madrid’s reaction to his brother’s visit had been violent and transparently honest.  If the easterner was playing a game, his brother knew nothing about it.  It had been necessary to subdue the gunfighter with laudanum before his most recent injuries could be tended.  Even then he had continued a weak resistance.  Lancer’s treatment hadn’t been gentle and his words had been cold and mocking.  Still, something wasn’t right.  It occurred to him that Lancer had removed the leg irons and he furrowed his brow as he considered the implications.

Tom sat in his small room and mulled over recent events.  Finally he realized what was bothering him.  The words and actions didn’t fit with the look on Scott Lancer’s face.  And the servant girl with him had seemed concerned with his welfare, which didn’t make sense.  Surely the servants should all hate him for degrading their great hero.  He was sure he’d seen her touch Lancer’s arm gently on more than one occasion, something unheard of in this household.  He let out an amused snort – maybe Lancer had charmed his way into her bed.  He’d just bet that the well-bred young upstart was as talented in that department as he seemed to be at everything else.  A nasty smirk appeared on his face.  Mrs. Rawlings didn’t approve of relationships between her men and the Mexican women.  How would she feel if she found that her ‘pet’ was lowering himself to sleep with that slut?

Unwilling to be played for a fool he decided to return to the house and air his suspicions one last time.  Maybe it would be enough to stop this foolish notion of sending a telegram to Murdoch Lancer.  The front door was opened in response to his knock by the elderly manservant and Tom noticed a subtle difference in the man’s demeanour.  Instead of keeping his head demurely bowed the man dared to raise his eyes, just for a second.  A shiver travelled up Tom’s spine.  He knew it had been a bad idea to bring Madrid to the ranch.  His mere presence was like an infection spreading among the workers.

Knowing that Lancer had retired to his room after tending to his brother, he wasn’t surprised to find Mrs. Rawlings sitting alone in the study.  As usual, an untouched glass of cognac sat on a low table beside the empty armchair on the far side of the hearth.  He was under no illusions about his employer’s sanity.  She alternated between a steadfast belief that her husband was still alive, and a deep hatred of an entire race of people who she blamed for his death.

“Come in, Tom,” she instructed amiably.  “How was our difficult prisoner this evening?”

Tom pulled up a stool and sat down.  “Unhappy.  His brother had to force some drugs down his throat before he could get near enough to see to his injuries.”

“I do feel for poor Scott.  It must be hard for him to deal with the fact that he is related to that vicious animal.”

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.  I know I’ve raised concerns before…”

Mrs. Rawlings held up a hand.  “I won’t hear one word of criticism against him.  He is doing a fine job of keeping Madrid in line and he’s getting more work out of the men than any of my previous overseers.”

Tom bowed his head while he considered his tactics.  “I’m worried that he might have been led astray by one of the women working in the house.”  He bit back a gasp as he saw her face contort into an expression of raging fury.

“No, I won’t believe it.  He wouldn’t fall for their tricks.  He’s not as naïve as…” She halted, making a visible effort to control herself.  “I’m sure that he would seem attractive to many of the girls and we know that they have no morals.  I won’t have him corrupted that way.  Who is it?”

“I believe her name is Consuela.  She was with him when he visited Madrid earlier.”

“I will keep an eye on her.  Thank you, Tom.  Was there anything else?”

“Just that I don’t think sending that wire is such a good idea.”

Mrs. Rawlings regarded him coolly.  “I have made my decision.  I want you to leave for Norton first thing in the morning.”

Tom sighed quietly.  “Yes ma’am.”

 

Chapter 16

Murdoch hadn’t even had time to dismount in the yard before Teresa was rushing out of the house waving an envelope.

“This telegram came for you,” she informed him breathlessly.  “Do you think it could be from Scott and Johnny?”

“There’s only one way to find out.” Murdoch swung out of the saddle and took possession of the wire.  Although his sons couldn’t yet be said to be seriously overdue, his unease since learning about the withdrawal of the money had affected everyone else in the household.

Tearing open the envelope he withdrew the telegram.  His eyes immediately travelled to the end to see who had sent it.  His relief at seeing Scott’s name was swept away as the first word leaped out to punch him in the gut….’father’.

His first uncomfortable meeting with his long lost sons was engraved in his memory.

“What should I call you?” Scott had asked with infuriating politeness.  “Under the circumstances father hardly seems…”

Then his own harsh voice interrupting. “Call me what you like.  We’re strangers to each other.”

Since then Scott had addressed him by his name or had called him ‘Sir’.  He would have resented the formality, except that Scott used the term naturally and with a respect that he wasn’t sure he deserved.  Sometimes he almost preferred Johnny’s slightly mocking ‘Old Man.’  It might be his imagination, but lately he had thought that he detected a hint of affection in his younger son’s voice.

“Murdoch?” Teresa queried as he stood, lost in thought.

“Sorry, darling.” He returned his attention to the paper.  The remainder of the short message only served to reinforce his belief that his boys were in trouble.

‘Father. Johnny staying with mother in Mexico.  Returning to Boston to see grandfather.  Your obedient son, Scott.’

“I need to go away for a few days,” he informed Teresa, surprised to find that his voice was steady.  “The boys need help.”

“Are they alright?” Teresa clutched his arm.

“I don’t know,” he replied honestly.  “The telegram is from Scott, but he doesn’t go into any details.  Can you ask one of the hands to saddle a fresh horse while I pack?”

He saw her visible effort to compose herself.  The strength residing in this slender young girl never ceased to amaze him.  “I’ll bring them home safely,” he promised.

“I know you will.”

By the time he returned to the yard carrying his rifle and saddlebags, he found everything ready.  He issued quick instructions to Cipriano, hugged Teresa and set   out for Green River.

His first port of call was the telegraph offices where he established that Scott’s wire, like the previous one, had been sent from Norton. He crossed to the jail and slammed open the door.  “The boys are in trouble,” he informed the sheriff.  “Is your offer to help still open?”

The change that came over Val was as dramatic to Murdoch’s eyes as Johnny’s transformation from Lancer to Madrid.

“Give me an hour to round up a deputy,” Val responded. “You can tell me what’s going on while we ride.”

***

"Tom." Mrs. Rawlings looked up from her paperwork.  "Did you send the telegram?"

Tom nodded, still not happy with her decision. He did not trust Lancer, but without evidence of Scott’s duplicity he knew he would be wasting his breath raising his concerns again.

"I'm glad you're back.  I have a task for you." She laid down her pen.  "It appears that Madrid isn't well enough to work on the fountain project today.  I don't like the idea of him being left idle.” She stood up and walked to the window overlooking the courtyard and saw Scott ordering several men to start digging in a new location. He would be busy all afternoon.

"Lancer doesn't want him working today, his feet are a mess. But,” a cold smile came to Tom’s lips, “that doesn't mean he can't be on his knees."

Mrs. Rawlings looked thoughtfully at him, an equally cold smile touching the corners of her mouth.  "Then I have the perfect job for him.  The kitchen floor needs to be scrubbed and polished. I think it would be appropriate for the staff to see him on his hands and knees."

Tom’s cold smile turned to a smirk.  "That can be arranged."

"Then do it. I want these Mexicans to see their hero as he really is....just another worthless wetback."

"My pleasure...only what'll Lancer have to say about it?"

Mrs. Rawlings squared her shoulders almost imperceptibly. "It's not up to Scott,” she stated firmly. “This is my ranch and I give the orders."

"Yes ma’am," Tom grinned inwardly. If his suspicions were correct then the easiest way to goad Scott would be to mistreat the half-breed. He would expose Lancer for what he was....and then let Mrs. Rawlings at him.

Mrs. Rawlings looked out the window at Scott. So far he had proven himself to be an educated gentleman and a tactful leader of men. But she wondered if he would pass this test. For that was what this was, a test. She had been bitterly disappointed before…her fist clenched in a troubled memory. She would not let it happen again.

“Don’t be gentle,” she called as Tom closed the door behind him.

***

Johnny lay on his side and continued his mental tally of his injuries. The insult to his body was escalating. There was never time to heal from one injury before he sustained another one. He wondered at what point his body would simply give out. In the back of his mind, he almost wished it would. He supposed that it was his own fault.  If he could just keep his mouth shut maybe he could get through a day without further injury.  Only it wasn’t in his nature to bend to the will of a tyrant.

He had slept deeply thanks to the laudanum and it had been a relief to be free of pain even if only for a short time.  However, he would be damned before he admitted that to anyone, especially his bastard of a half-brother.

At least he knew he would have a day to rest. Even Scott understood that he could not get work out of a man nearly dead on his feet. It had been a welcome surprise to find that he was no longer wearing the leg irons.  The only pity was that the collar was still fastened securely around his neck.

Johnny heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs and expected to see the smirking face of his brother. He painfully rolled onto his back, ready to face Scott, but instead he recognized the vicious Tom and his partner. He tried to look behind them to see if Scott was heading down the stairs too. But it was only the two guards and Johnny felt fear tighten in his gut. For the first time in days, he wished that his brother would put in an appearance.  A small part of his mind still seemed to feel that Scott would protect him. He didn’t have time to linger over that thought as Tom reached the bottom of the stairs.

As Tom slipped the key into the lock, Johnny called on all his resources to appear outwardly calm. But his bravado slipped when he saw the leg irons in Tom's hand. "I think," Tom jangled the restraints as he smirked viciously, "that your brother forgot something."

Johnny moved cautiously backwards, trying to put as much distance as he could between him and a man he knew would kill without remorse if it was asked of him.

“Where are you going, breed?"

Tom's companion crowded into the small cell and pulled Johnny to his feet.  The pain was indescribable and he felt his head reeling. Arturo's shouted complaint from the next cell was ignored as Tom fastened the leg irons around Johnny’s bandaged ankles, locking the cuffs one notch tighter than necessary, smiling when he was rewarded by a strangled hiss of pain from his captive.

"Mrs. Rawlings has a job for you, Madrid."

Johnny felt what was left of his world collapse. He could not go on. Fighting a wave of nausea, he didn't have the resources to respond as he was dragged from the cell and up the stairs. Johnny found himself led down the short hallway, struggling to keep on his feet despite the pain. He needed to keep the last shred of his dignity intact.

A bucket of water and a scrub brush awaited him in the kitchen. Tom yanked on the leash and Johnny was forced down to his hands and knees.

“You will scrub every inch of this floor, then polish it. Mrs. Rawlings demands a clean kitchen, and this floor is filthy,” Tom ordered.

Tom removed the leather leash and attached a length of chain to the ring on the collar, winding the other end around the leg of a heavy work bench in the center of the large kitchen. After locking it with a padlock, he stood up, making sure he had the attention of every servant in the room.

“No one is to help him,” he cautioned. “If anyone does, they will be punished and Madrid will have to clean the floor like the dog he is…with his tongue.”

Johnny heard the words and it took every ounce of will power left in him not to try to lunge at his tormentor and strangle him with his bare hands. Only the certain knowledge that it would be a suicidal act gave him pause.

Tom kicked the bucket and watched as the sudsy water spilled over the rim, soaking the knees of Johnny’s pants.

When Johnny mumbled an oath under his breath, Tom reached down and grabbed a handful of dark hair, yanking his head up so that his knees barely touched the floor. “What did you say, breed?” he hissed.

Johnny knew he needed to keep his mouth shut, but the words came out before he could stop them. “I said you were a stinking son of a bitch.”

Enraged, Tom grabbed the back of Johnny’s collar and pushed his head into the bucket of water.

Johnny tried to push himself up, but his hands slid on the slippery floor, his strength running out rapidly. He held his breath as long as he could, his heart beating in his chest, his lungs screaming for air. The need to fill his lungs with air was a reflex his mind could not control and he sucked in a mouthful of the water. Choking, he began to cough, drawing in more water. Tom pulled his head out long enough for him to take a gasp of air before shoving his face back down in the bucket again.

“You think I’m a son of a bitch?” Tom shouted, pushing Johnny’s head under the water for a third time. “You filthy breed. No one says that to me. No one!”

Johnny’s strength gave out. He felt the darkness deepen and he didn’t fight to keep his mouth closed any longer.

Realizing that he might have gone too far, Tom quickly yanked Johnny’s head out of the water and dropped him belly down on the floor. “Damn it,” he muttered, slapping his comatose prisoner on the back, “Breathe.”

Johnny suddenly gasped and began choking, throwing up the water and the little food he had left in his stomach.

Satisfied that he had not killed his prisoner, Tom dragged Johnny to his hands and knees again and kicked the scrub brush toward him. “Get this mess cleaned up,” he ordered. “Then get to the rest of the floor.”

Johnny slowly reached out and grabbed the brush with a shaky hand and began scrubbing the floor, his mind resting elsewhere, just letting his body work as best it could. They had not broken him yet…but Johnny feared that it was only a matter of time now.

***

As the afternoon wore on Scott found his thoughts turning more frequently to his brother.  He hadn't seen Johnny all day and wanted to reassure himself that his sibling was getting the rest he needed. He couldn't get the image of Johnny out of his mind. The look of betrayal and hatred clenched his heart like a fist. Would he ever look into his brother's eyes again and see anything but loathing?

Looking up at the sun, he realized it was getting close to the afternoon break. At least, if nothing else, he had made life a little better for the workers. Signalling for a break he looked at the house and knew he needed to check on Johnny, no matter what Johnny's reaction might be.

He spoke quietly to one of the guards and turned toward the house.  After the bright sunshine in the yard it took time for his eyes to adjust to the dimmer light in the kitchen. As soon as he stepped inside he could feel it. Something was terribly wrong. As his vision cleared he saw the faces of the cooking staff looking at him. He followed their eyes and his heart missed a beat. Without stopping to think about the consequences he crossed the room and fell to his knees beside his brother.  "Johnny," he breathed softly.

Johnny's head was bowed, his right hand slowly brushing the floor with a scrub brush, backwards and forwards, mindlessly and repetitively.  His hair hung heavy in his face, still dripping with soapy water. He coughed and winced with pain.

Scott's hand was trembling as he placed it under Johnny's chin and gently lifted his brother's head so that he was looking him in the eyes - eyes that were now dull and bereft of hope. Scott's mind spun. What had happened?  "Johnny...?  Johnny what happened?"

Johnny looked at him without any recognition.  "Gotta clean the floor," he mumbled.

A harsh cough racked his body and Scott watched as his brother tried to hold his sides as his ribs screamed in pain at the newest assault.

Scott's hands moved of their own accord to pull uselessly at the collar around Johnny's neck.  His gaze travelled down the length of the chain and then he froze as he heard a malicious laugh

"Come to see your brother? It seemed a shame to leave him in that cell with nothing to do....and these floors needed a good cleaning"

"What the hell do you think you’re doing?" Scott moved on to the offensive in the hope of distracting Tom from his own disastrous mistake.  "Mrs. Rawlings put me in charge of this prisoner and I gave orders that he was to be rested today."

"Mrs. Rawlings thought you were being too nice to the breed." Tom stood up slowly from his chair, coming to stand on the other side of Johnny, his knee tapping Johnny's shoulder. "He needs to know where he stands....or…" Tom laughed at his own joke, “crawls."

"I was handling him my way," Scott rose to his feet.  "I know my brother and how best to deal with him."

Tom stared at Scott, sizing him up. "I don't buy your act, and I'm going to make sure Mrs. Rawlings knows too.”

Scott forced out a laugh. "You think this is an act?  Well, by all means take your suspicions to Mrs. Rawlings if you're so sure."

With a cruel smile Tom lifted his foot and pushed Johnny over, the pail of water toppling over with him.

Scott clenched his fists, his breathing harsh as he fought against the urge to go to his brother's aid. "You truly are a fool," he spat. "You think you can get anything out of him if he's dead? Every time you lift a finger against him you get the workers more riled.  Do you want a mutiny here?"

From the far side of the work table one of the cooks quietly dropped a knife to the ground, using her foot to slide it across the floor. She watched and waited, hoping Johnny would notice the knife just inches from his hand.

Johnny lay where he had fallen, his mind numb, unable to make sense of what was happening around him. He could hear angry voices and tried to gather his scattered senses.  Something told him that it was important to concentrate, only the effort seemed to be beyond him. Prying his eyes open he saw something shiny laying just inches from his outstretched hand. He studied it for a long moment trying to make sense of it.

He slowly reached out and his right hand closed around the handle of the knife.  He lifted it, fascinated by the light striking the blade.  Recognition came as he heard Scott's voice...the brother who had betrayed him. He tightened his grip around the knife and pushed himself slowly to his knees.  Scott was standing a few feet away, his attention concentrated on Tom. Lunging forward he saw Scott turn just as he swiped the knife through the air. He heard a surprised hiss as the knife sliced across Scott's unprotected hand and body.  Johnny just had time to feel a combination of satisfaction and regret before he passed out.

***

Scott caught his breath as Mrs. Rawlings finished cleaning out the shallow cut across his ribs.  He was still in shock after the sudden vicious attack by his brother. Fortunately Johnny had been too weak to do any serious damage. The cut across his left hand looked worse than it was and the gash across his chest, though painful, was far from life threatening. He had been stunned by Mrs. Rawlings’ reaction and embarrassed at having to remove his shirt so that she could tend to his wound. She wouldn’t hear of him asking one of the servants to see to his injuries. He hissed as the cool cloth wiped away the blood from the long slice Johnny had cut across his chest.

"I knew he was too dangerous to have around. I should have done what I intended when he first came here...kill him like the mongrel he is.”

"He was provoked." Scott glared at Tom who was sitting morosely in a corner.  "He should never have been made to work today."

"It was my order," Mrs. Rawlings said stiffly, her hand freezing as she heard the tone of Scott's voice.

Scott swallowed hard and bowed his head contritely.  "I'm sorry.  I didn't realise it was on your orders."

"You will never learn, Andrew," she said coldly. "You never learned to listen. Your father tried...." Suddenly Mrs. Rawlings’ voice trailed off, as if lost in a memory.

Scott's head shot up and he stared at her in confusion.  "Andrew?" he queried

Grabbing his cut hand rather roughly, Mrs. Rawlings ignored the question. "You are lucky he didn't kill you. Which of the kitchen staff gave him the knife? She will have to be punished as well.”

"I didn't see anyone giving him the knife.  Perhaps it just fell on the floor." At least Scott felt there was some truth in his answer.  He hadn’t seen anyone give Johnny the knife.  However, he doubted that it had been an accident.

Mrs. Rawlings raised an eyebrow but said nothing else.

"What're you goin' to do about the breed?" Tom asked

"If you had done as I said, and not sent him back to work, none of this would have happened,” Scott snapped unwisely.

Mrs. Rawlings took a step back and regarded Scott coldly.  "You always were lacking in discipline.  I warned your father, but he was too soft with you.  It is time you learnt the way of the world.  Tom, bring Madrid here."

Confused, Scott could only watch as a cruel smile played across Tom's face as he marched out of the room.

"It is time you learned a lesson, young man. The workers have to understand who is in charge.  You have been too soft with them…too soft with him.  You can’t treat a wild animal as a pet. Now, put your shirt back on. You don't want the likes of him seeing you like this.”

"I don't understand," Scott replied helplessly.

Mrs. Rawlings stared at him for a long moment, then seemed to recover. "What don't you understand, Scott? You of all people know the importance of discipline. He must be made to pay for hurting you.”

Scott pushed away his confusion.  There would be time later to work out the significance of her behaviour. "He's too weak.  He can't take any more punishment...not without it killing him.  At least wait a few days until he's had a chance to recover."

 You seem overly concerned."

"No.  It's just that I want to make sure that's he's strong enough to appreciate his punishment. You wouldn't want the point of the lesson to be lost," he continued forcefully.

Mrs. Rawlings stared down at the deep cut on Scott's hand. "I agree. But I do believe the punishment should fit the crime. Perhaps a hand for a hand..." she said thoughtfully.

"NO." The shout escaped from Scott's throat before he could stop it.

Mrs. Rawlings grabbed Scott's hand and caressed it tenderly. "He could have maimed you for life."

Scott resisted the urge to pull his hand away.  Disgust at her touch coursed through him.  "It is nothing to worry about.  And if you damage his hands how will he work?"

Mrs. Rawlings kept hold of his hand. "We have to make an example of him. He is in no condition to offer any real work. But if he...”

"Give him time to heal and I guarantee he will be the best worker you've ever had," Scott said desperately. He knew he was in danger of showing his true feelings for Johnny, but the thought of doing anything to his brother's hands terrified him.

"You are too soft hearted, my dear." Mrs. Rawlings finally released his hand.  "He will be here in a minute.”  The tenderness disappeared from her voice. “Put on your shirt and don't cross me further."

Scott nodded, looking down at the floor. He had come so close to losing it. But what would he do when Johnny came in? He couldn't watch them hurt Johnny, but if he tried to interfere he took the chance of getting thrown in the cells right along with his brother. He could do nothing from there.

"Good.  Now, I want you to stay well away from him.  We don't want to risk further injury."

Scott dragged on his shirt, well aware that the blood that stained the white material would most likely infuriate the woman more. But he had to follow orders.

A soft tap at the door heralded Tom's return.  Scott clamped his mouth shut and sat as far away from the doorway as he could get.

His heart skipped a beat at the sight of Johnny as he was half dragged into the room. His hair was still glistening wet, hanging in his face. His hands had been cruelly bound behind his back and the leg iron's made a terrible rattling noise as he was drawn up to stand in front of Mrs. Rawlings.  Scott wasn’t even sure his brother was fully conscious.  Johnny’s chin rested on his chest and he made no effort to straighten up.

Mrs. Rawlings looked in disgust at the half breed, dripping water on her carpeting. "This is useless," she snapped. "Take him back until he can understand what his punishment will be. It will mean nothing if he can't experience it. And Tom, he's to be kept tied.  I don't want to risk him causing further injury to Andr...Scott."

"Yes, Ma'am," Tom grinned.

As Johnny was dragged back out of the room Mrs. Rawlings turned to Scott. "I will take your advice and wait until Madrid can appreciate his punishment. Meanwhile, I want you to rest for the remainder of the day. And, I don't want you anywhere near that heathen. I believe he would kill you if he got the chance.”

Scott opened his mouth to argue and saw her expression darken.  "You will go to your room, young man. Don’t force me to lock you in again."

Scott could only nod and obey. His brother's life depended on him keeping on her good side.

 

Chapter 17

Scott had spent the afternoon resting fitfully in his room.  His thoughts were with his brother and the depth of loathing on Johnny's face when he had struck out with the knife.  He had no doubt that Johnny had intended to kill him. What had they been forced to do? Scott could not believe what a simple detour into a town for a cool beer had cost them. Their lives perhaps, and worst of all, it had cost him the love and trust of his brother.

He had to find a way to reach Johnny and make him understand.  He couldn't live with the knowledge that Johnny was suffering so much that he was willing to commit murder. But, and a chilling thought came to him...killing was something Johnny had lived with most of his life. Had this encounter erased everything that was left of Johnny Lancer and resurrected Johnny Madrid? Arturo had wanted the help of Madrid.  Now it looked as if he was going to get his wish.  Only, if Johnny really had been pushed that far; was there any chance of him returning to Lancer, where he belonged, once this was over?

Scott could feel a profound despair settling over him.  He wasn't sure how much longer he could keep up his act, especially now that Tom was suspicious. But he didn't have a choice. Not only did Johnny's life depend on his subterfuge, but also the lives of Elana and her unborn baby. And Miguel...how could he live with himself if anything happened to Miguel?

Hopefully the telegram had been sent to Murdoch, so it should only be a matter of time before they were found.  If only he could find a way to give Johnny some hope in the meantime. Suddenly the need to see his brother was overwhelming. He didn’t care that it was foolish and directly contrary to Mrs Rawlings’ orders. He slipped off the bed and headed for the door.  When he wrenched it open he found to his dismay that an armed guard was sitting in the hallway.

The guard stood slowly, his hand moving to his sidearm.  Scott tried to smile innocently. "I need to visit the outhouse."

"I'll escort you.  Mrs. Rawlings is worried that you might come to some harm, given the way you’ve been treating Madrid." There was a grudging respect in the man’s voice.

Scott nodded. Somehow he needed to get the guard waylaid.  As he walked down the hall he saw Consuela exiting Mrs. Rawlings’ room, carrying an armful of dirty laundry. As they passed, Scott motioned Consuela with his eyes. She nodded imperceptibly.

As the guard went to pass her, Consuela appeared to stumble, knocking the man against the wall.  He lost his balance and landed hard on his backside.  Scott continued walking, smiling to himself as he heard Consuela's apologies mixed with the man's curses. He reached the downstairs hallway, moving fast.  He knew he wouldn't have much time to give the guard the slip.

He arrived in the kitchen and hesitated.  His eyes were irresistibly drawn to the spot on the floor where his blood had pooled after Johnny’s attack.  It had been scrubbed clean, all the evidence of his brother’s desolation erased without trace. He swallowed hard and continued walking. One more step and he would reach the door leading down to the cells...but he froze at the sound of Mrs. Rawlings' voice as she entered the kitchen.

"Scott?  I thought I told you to stay in your room until dinner?" She looked around.  "And where's the guard I posted?"

"He'll be along in a minute," Scott smiled. "I had to visit the..."

"I don't want you wandering around on your own," she interrupted.  "This is for your own protection.  You have to trust me to look after you."

Scott nodded. "It's hard. I'm used to taking care of myself."

Mrs. Rawlings smiled.  "I understand that, my dear. You are used to being around civilized people, not the mongrels around here. Why don't you come into the study and have a drink? You look pale."

Scott looked uncomfortable.  "I really need to, ah, I'll be with you in a minute."

Mrs. Rawlings left the room as Consuela entered, followed closely by the guard.  Scott knew that his chance to get down to the cells had been lost. As Scott headed toward the door he hissed to her, "Check on Johnny."

****

Miguel looked up fearfully as the door opened.  His mother lay on the thin mattress and he shrank against her side trying hard to stop shaking.  Since being separated from his father he had tried to be strong, only it was so hard. He watched Consuela enter the room, a look passing between her and his mama.

She knelt down in front of him and put her hands gently on his shoulders.  "I need you to do something for me."

He looked back anxiously at his mother. Elana nodded.

"Miguel," Consuela said softly, "I need you to do something for me that is very important, but it is very dangerous, and only a brave man can do it. Are you brave enough Miguel?”

Miguel swallowed hard and stood as straight as he could.  "Si," he said hesitantly.

"It is very important that you not get caught. That means you must be very careful."

Miguel nodded, hoping that his fear wasn't obvious.  He was determined to be as brave and strong as his papa and Johnny.  He wanted them to be proud of him.

"Bueno.  I need you to go down to the cells and check on your papa and Senor Madrid."

Miguel's eyes opened wide. "Papa?"

"Senor Scott can't get to them anymore,” Consuela explained. “Someone has to make sure they are alright. And you must give them this message.” Consuela squeezed his hand gently, making sure he was listening carefully…”that he is not their enemy. They will understand."

Miguel nodded slowly. "But...he hurt Johnny.  He would not let me give him water."

Consuela smiled sadly. "Senor Scott is trying to help in any way he can. But no one except your familia and I and Senor Johnny can know. Do you understand, Miguel? It is very important that no one else knows.”

Miguel looked doubtfully from Consuela to his mother.  "But...he is mean to Johnny." He reached back to lay his small hand on Elana's swollen belly.  "I would never hurt my hermano or hermana."

Elana whispered weakly from the bed, her discomfort evident. "Not everything in life makes sense, my son. Please trust us that we are doing the right thing."

Miguel gently laid his head on his mama's shoulder. "Si, Mama," he whispered.

"Good," Consuela said. "Now, you must go while the house is active. If they see you walking around at night they will be very suspicious. Go to the kitchen and look around, act like you are hungry. When you can, sneak down the stairs to the cells.”

Miguel kissed his mother and crept quietly through the open door, his heart pounding with fear and his mouth dry.  But he was determined to complete the task entrusted to him.

Elana crossed her heart, saying a silent prayer. What kind of world caused a boy to do a man's job? She felt a fluttering in the muscles of her womb.  The baby would soon be here. A tear slid down her cheek. This was not how she had imagined things would be.  The child should have been born in their own house, surrounded by love.  Here, there was only hate.

****

Miguel slipped into the kitchen, heading straight for the work bench in the middle of the room.

"Ah, Miguel," the oldest cook smiled. "Your tummy rumbles? No?"

Miguel nodded. "Si."

"Then we will fix that. Sit..." she ordered.

Miguel looked round worriedly.  Consuela had said that he was to try and sneak down to the cells.  He struggled up into a stool in front of the counter. The cook pushed a plate of tortillas and cheese in front of him.  "Eat," she said, running her hand through his hair.

He nibbled slowly at the food as the kitchen staff bustled around preparing dinner.  When he was sure no one was watching him, he stuffed some of the cheese and tortillas into his pocket and slid down to the ground. With his heart pounding in his throat he reached the door to the cells and slipped through. When he reached the steps he hesitated, fearful of descending into the dark unknown. But he knew he had been given a great trust. He could not fail them. With a deep breath, he took the first step.

As he crept slowly down the stairs he could hear small sounds like animals scurrying in the shadows.  Then he heard his father's voice. He held onto the railing with both hands, making sure his small foot was planted on each step as he descended. The stench of the room below made his stomach churn.

"Papa," he called softly…fearfully.  "Papa, can you hear me?"

One small torch set in a bracket on the wall lit the room dimly. The silence that followed seemed to last for hours. But then from the darkness below he heard his father's voice. "Si, Miguel....Si..."

Emboldened by the sound of his father's voice, he hurried down the last few steps, skidding to a halt as he looked at the rough cages which housed the prisoners. Miguel peered fearfully through the bars.  "Papa?" he queried, suddenly afraid to approach the cell. The smell in the small dank cellar stuck in his throat and he worked hard not to gag. How could his papa be in a place like this?

He heard a rustling sound as his father moved closer to the bars and he bit back a shocked gasp. He sucked in a sob, barely recognizing his father in the hollow eyed figure before him.

"Papa!" His small hands wrapped around the bars, then he reached in, trying to touch his father.

"Oh, Miguel, it is so good to see you, but it is not safe for you to be here." Arturo grasped his son's hand and held on tight, tears forming in his eyes for the boy and the horrors he had been forced to witness.

"I don't understand, Papa. Why are they doing this?"

"Because they are stronger than we are and don't care who they hurt." Arturo swallowed hard, afraid of the answer he would get. "How is your mama? The baby - is it time yet?"

"Soon, Mama says.  She is upset that we are here." Miguel started to sob.  "I want to go home."

"I know, chico," Arturo said softly. "And we will, soon. I promise. But you should not be here. If they catch you it will be very bad."

"I need to tell you something." Miguel stepped back in fear as he heard a low moan coming from the next cell.  His eyes were wide and he had to hold himself back from bolting up the stairs, back to his mother.

Arturo reached through the bars to rest his hand on his son’s arm. "What do you have to tell me, Miguel?”

"Senor Scott...I am to tell you that he is not your enemy.  Only...only he has done terrible things.  He has hurt Johnny.  Why would he do that?"

Arturo's hand slipped from his son's arm. How to tell a boy that sometimes people must hurt others to help them?  He had suspected all along that Scott was doing this to buy time. But he was doing such a good job that the lines may have been crossed.

"I cannot explain, Miguel.  You just have to trust that Scott is trying to help.  I know that it is hard for you. But," Arturo cautioned, "no one must know he is trying to help. It must remain our secret. Now you must go.  I love you, Miguel.  Tell your mama I love her too and that she is always in my thoughts."

Miguel grasped his father's hand again and bent his head to kiss it.  "I love you, Papa," he sobbed. He scrubbed his tears away, remembering the food he had taken from the kitchen.  His hands shook as he pulled the tortillas and cheese from his pocket and thrust them at his father.

As he stepped back a low moan caught his attention and he shifted just enough to see into the next cell. "Johnny," he whispered, his voice echoing his shock. He saw Johnny raise his head a few inches from the ground.  The blue eyes were barely open and Miguel wasn't sure that his friend even knew he was there.

"Miguel," Arturo hissed. "You must go. You can help Johnny by keeping our secret. Go now - quickly."

"Si, Papa." Miguel tore his eyes away from his friend, took one last look at his father and ran back up the stairs.

Johnny heard the harsh whispers and lifted his head. He could barely make out a small figure standing just beyond the bars. Only a few words had penetrated his consciousness as he languished in a deep depression from which he wasn't sure he would ever emerge.  He only had vague memories about the events of the day except for seeing the spurt of blood when he struck his brother with the knife.  He wasn't sure if it had been a killing stroke. Disgust and fear surged through him. He had wanted to kill Scott, had thought of nothing else for too long. But now, when it was a reality, when for all he knew he had driven that knife into his brother's flesh....nausea overcame him and his body withered beneath the agony as he threw up nothing but bile.

He wanted it to be over.  He couldn't cope any longer with the pain and the agony of betrayal.  Dios, he wanted it over. He heaved breathlessly, unable to find a comfortable position with his hands bound and the leg irons around his ankles. Squeezing his eyes shut he heard Arturo calling to him, but the words were only garbled noise. He let the darkness take him...hoping he would never have to see the light of day again.

****

He made his way up the stairs, forgetting about the need for secrecy.  Tears were pouring down his face and he rushed through the door leading to the kitchen.  He had tried so hard to be brave, but his papa had looked so ill and Johnny...How could anyone believe that Scott was trying to help him?

Nearly blinded by his tears he bumped into someone and gentle hands suddenly drew him in the comfort of a caring embrace.

"What were you doing down there, little one?" the head cook asked, brushing the hair from his eyes.

Miguel took great gulping lungfuls of air.  "My papa," he whispered.  "I wanted to see him."

"You took a terrible risk. You must promise me never to go down there again."

The woman shook him gently.  He lowered his head and nodded miserably.

"I had to. Papa needed me. He had to know...” Miguel nearly bit his tongue as he remembered all the warnings to keep silent about Scott.

"He had to know what?” she coaxed gently.

"I can't," he whispered.  "I promised."

"What?  We are here to help you, Miguel. I know you don't understand."

"Senor Scott.  Consuela thinks he is trying to help Johnny." The words spilled out before he could stop them.

The old cook looked at the boy. Could there be truth in what he said? "What does your papa say?"

Miguel's eyes widened...he had done just what he was not supposed to do.

The woman saw his fear.  "Don't worry, little one.  You will not get into trouble, but if Senor Scott is doing as you say then we have done him a great injustice." She pulled Miguel tightly against her chest. "It is all right, Miguel. You go back to your mama, she needs you now."

Watching as the boy walked out of the kitchen the cook knew in her heart now that all was not lost. Thinking of her husband, she counted the hours until she could see him again that night. It was time for the truth to be known and for them to take back their own destiny.

****

Scott made his way down the hallway toward the dining room. His chest still smarted from the shallow slash across it. The fact that Johnny had struck out at him hurt a hundred times worse than the actual injury. He had waited as long as he could to see if Consuela had any news about his brother.  In the end the guard had become irritated with the delay and he had been left with no option other than to join Mrs. Rawlings.

As he opened the door he saw Mrs. Rawlings standing at the window wearing a formal dress. His own clean white shirt and dark brown pants suddenly felt out of place. "I'm sorry.  I didn't realize we were dressing for dinner tonight."

Mrs. Rawlings turned toward him. "Not to worry, dear," she smiled. "I just felt like this was a special occasion. We have thwarted the beast within our castle. He languishes in the cell below..."

Scott could not help but notice a strange glint to her eyes and his worry went up a notch. "I'm not sure that it is much cause for celebration," he said carefully. The taste of Mrs. Rawlings' brandy was still foul on his tongue. He had toasted their success earlier on and then excused himself to rest and change for dinner.

He slowly crossed the room. "I don't feel good about breaking a man, any man." Taking a deep breath, he forged ahead. "You were wrong. You should not have let Tom put Madrid to work. You are undermining everything I am trying to do. If you continue to torture Madrid he will only become a martyr to his people...you will have an uprising on your hands.”

"Yes, so you've said, but I've noticed a change in the attitude of the servants and I think you were mistaken.  The only way to bring them back under control is to kill him."

A feeling of panic gripped Scott.  He was running out of time.  Even if Murdoch had left as soon as he received the telegram, it would be days before he would find them. He smiled slowly, deliberately. "You don't know how to treat these people. I've lived with them for three months. I know how they think now. Believe me, you will be forcing their hand.”

"And I have lived with them for over twenty years.  I think, my dear, that I understand them better than you do."

Scott raised an eyebrow, disturbed by her affectionate tone.

"I know you can not trust them," she said. "But then again, you have always been too soft, Andrew."

"My name is Scott," he said.  "That isn't the first time today you have called me that.  Who is Andrew?"

Mrs. Rawlings looked startled. "You must be mistaken."

Scott shook his head.  "I'm not. How would I know the name if you hadn't told me?"

Tears welled up in her eyes, the first sign of weakness that Scott had seen.  "Andrew was my son."

Scott didn't move for fear of breaking the mood. He waited and watched as she looked around the room as if searching for something, someone...

"What happened to him?" he asked softly.

She looked at him strangely. "We don't speak of him in this house."

"Why?" Scott pressed.

With an unsteady hand she filled two wine goblets and set one on the table for Scott. "He betrayed me...us." She took a quick sip of the liquor.

The pieces finally fell into place for Scott and he took a healthy swallow of his own drink.

"Andrew disappointed you," he said carefully.

"He turned his back on his heritage." She set her glass carefully back onto the table.  "I intend to see that you don't emulate his mistakes."

Suddenly everything fell into place. Her hatred of Mexicans....he knew he had to tread carefully now. If he pushed too far he could lose her all together and his chances of rescuing Johnny would evaporate.

"I appreciate your concern and I hope that I haven't disappointed you in some way."

His contriteness had the effect he wanted. Mrs. Rawlings looked at him and smiled. "You could never disappoint me, Scott."

 

Chapter 18

It was dark by the time Val managed to convince Murdoch to stop for the night.  "We ain't gonna do the boys any good if we break our necks ridin' when we can't see the way," the sheriff stated reasonably.

Reluctantly, Murdoch had agreed and now he lay on his bedroll looking up at the star filled sky. How he loved this land, and yet again it was threatening to tear his boys away from him. Scott's letter had been nothing short of a cry for help.

Only where should they start?  There had been no clue in the telegram as to their whereabouts.  He and Val had discussed this while preparing camp.  Val's earlier enquiries hadn't produced any leads.  The best they could do was head to Norton, from where the telegram had originated, to see what they could find out.

He had to assume that his sons were under duress.  Nothing else would explain Scott's wording.  Anyone else reading the wire would take it at face value. Only he would be able to read between the lines.

Pulling the blanket up around his shoulders, he looked at the cold sky and sighed deeply. He turned to thank Val for accompanying him, but the sheriff's soft steady breathing told him that Val was already asleep. Something he needed to do...but he knew sleep would never come this night.

****

Tom slouched back in his chair and stared morosely at his beer.  He'd been so sure he could expose Lancer for the liar he was.  Seeing the look on the blond’s face when he’d walked in on Madrid scrubbing the floor had convinced him that he was right.  It had almost made up for the humiliation of being supplanted as Mrs. Rawlings’ right hand once again. “Damn them,” he cursed softly. He'd had the proof within his grasp, then Madrid had ruined everything by getting his hands on that knife.  After seeing the wounds, Mrs. Rawlings hadn't had any patience with his suggestion that Lancer was playing her for a fool.

He continued to brood. The voices of the other men in the saloon surrounded him, blending into nothing but background noise. Then suddenly he heard the name. Madrid. He was instantly alert.

"I'm telling you," the drunken voice continued loudly from behind him.  "Madrid's as good as broke.  That brother of his sure has tamed him.  I heard he'd been running wild, killing everyone who got in his way since his mother died when he was just a kid."

Tom continued to listen, his heart beginning to beat just a little faster. The words of the telegram that he had sent to Murdoch Lancer were engraved on his mind.  They’d seemed odd, only he couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong. Now he knew.

"Killed the man that murdered her, so the story goes,” the voice continued.  “Wasn't much more than ten years old.  Being half Mex and all, it’s no wonder old Mrs. Rawlings was worried about him being in these parts."

Standing up slowly, Tom headed out the door. He had to think about how he was going to tell Mrs. Rawlings about this.

****

The night was hot and oppressive, just like all the other nights here in this hell hole. But something was different this night. There was a hum of hope in the air.

The evening meal was over and everyone was relishing the few hours of peace before they would be ordered to bed.  Mrs. Rawlings kept a strict timetable.  They rose well ahead of the sun and were locked up for the night an hour after sunset.

No one seemed to be inclined to sleep. Normally, they were too exhausted to do more than eat before retreating to their uncomfortable cots. Tonight, though, they whispered quietly among themselves, speculating feverishly about Senor Madrid and his brother.  Word had reached them from old Beatriz in the kitchen that things were not how they appeared to be.

"Could it be true?" one man whispered. "That Lancer is only trying to help?”

"How can that be?" another asked.  "We have all seen how he has treated his hermano...the chains and the punishments."

Another worker joined the debate. "I saw the look on his face when Madrid was carried away. And if it hadn't been for Senor Lancer things would have been worse.  Think about it," the man urged.  "He has made our work easier and no one has taken a whip to Madrid since he was put in charge."

Silence ruled as the idea was swallowed and digested.

"No,” a voice rang out tentatively. “We cannot trust him. He works for Senora Rawlings.”

"I think you are wrong," one old man interjected.  "He was concerned for his brother when they first arrived.  Now, I believe he works to save his life."

"If this is true, then we must help him also. We have cowered under the blankets for too long.  It is time for us to become men again."

There was a murmur of sound. "Si. Tomorrow we begin to live again."

****

Dinner, in Scott's opinion, had lasted for an interminably long time.  Mrs. Rawlings had insisted on toasting Johnny's downfall so often that he could feel his head spinning.  Between the blood loss and the alcohol, he was finding it hard to concentrate. He picked at his food, hoping Mrs. Rawlings wouldn’t notice.

"I am very impressed by the progress you have made on the fountain, Scott. In spite of a few distractions, things are moving along very quickly.”

"I'm glad you're pleased," he replied distractedly.  "I was wondering if anyone had checked on Johnny." Realizing he had let his mind wander, he pulled himself back to the moment and added. “As I’ve said before, we risk turning him into a martyr. We don’t want to evoke the sympathy of the workers.”  

Mrs. Rawlings put her fork down slowly, looking at Scott. "Not to worry, I’m sure he is fine.” She looked pointedly at his bandaged hand. “I would think that you had enough of him this afternoon."

"Yes, you're right of course. He deserves to be punished.” He unwisely took another deep swallow of the wine, trying to wash away the sour taste of his words.

Mrs. Rawlings arched an eyebrow. "So you say."

"Do you doubt my loyalty?" he enquired cautiously.  "I can assure you that my brother doesn't.  He would hardly have stabbed me if he thought I was trying to help him." The words were all too true and Scott suddenly felt sick. He had seen Johnny down in the filth of those cells. If he didn't get him out soon he knew he would lose his brother forever.

Mrs. Rawlings reached over and patted him on the arm.  "Of course I don't doubt you, my dear.  I just worry that you are too easily led.  It's a mother's prerogative to worry about her son, you know."

Scott’s skin crawled, and he used every ounce of self control to smile back. Andrew was the key to their freedom. He just had to play his cards right…

Suddenly, there was a light tap at the door and Tom peeked his head in. "Sorry to interrupt your dinner, Mrs. Rawlings, but I have some information you may want to hear."

Mrs. Rawlings regarded her employee irritably.  "Now is hardly the time, Tom.  Andrew and I are in the middle of dinner."

Tom searched the room for anyone else besides Lancer. Finding no one, he moved on. The information he had was boring a hole in his gut. What he knew would lead to the downfall of both Lancer and Madrid. "I know, Ma'am, but I don’t think this can wait. Can I see you out here? It’ll only take a minute.”

"Very well." She sighed and rose gracefully from her chair. Scott scrambled to his feet to pull the chair back for her.  "Sit down, dear," she told him kindly.  "I won't be long."

Scott watched as Mrs. Rawlings disappeared into the hall. What information did Tom have that was so important? He felt a cold shiver run down his spine, and he knew he and Johnny were quickly running out of time.  As he sat brooding and turning the delicate wine glass between his fingers, he heard a discreet cough coming from the direction of the door that led to the kitchen.

Turning toward the sound, he saw the old cook peeking around the door. "Your hermano needs you tonight," she whispered.

Scott stared at her in shock.  "You know?" he gasped.

She nodded. "Si, we are behind you. Por favor, be careful."

Fear and hope warred within Scott.  If all the workers knew what he had been trying to do then how long before all the guards became suspicious?  How long before he could no longer convince Mrs. Rawlings? And what was Tom telling her beyond those doors?

He started guiltily as the door opened and Mrs Rawlings returned to her seat.  Scott thought she looked pensive and that her previous good mood had evaporated.

"I apologize for the interruption, dear, Tom sometimes gets carried away. He was worried about your brother. I told him to go check on him, ease his mind."

Scott stood hurriedly.  "Maybe I should go with him."

"Sit," Mrs. Rawlings said coldly. "Where are your manners?"

Scott sank back into his chair.  "Is everything alright?"

"Of course, dear. But I do insist that you follow proper etiquette while you dine at my table."

"I'm really not feeling very well this evening," Scott told her truthfully. “Would you excuse me, please?”

Mrs. Rawlings looked at him sternly. "I had hoped to have an evening of good conversation. I thought we could discuss your brother.  I know so little about his past."

Scott suddenly felt trapped.  She’d shown no interest in Johnny as a person before, being more intent on punishing him simply for having the nerve to have been born. "I know very little about him myself," he answered. "He has always kept his past to himself."

"Yet, you told your father that he was staying with his mother.  How long have his parents been separated?"

Scott hoped Mrs. Rawlings couldn't read his mind. "From what I know, she left Murdoch when Johnny was two years old. I know Johnny only sees her once in a great while.”

"And how does she feel about having a son who became a gunfighter...one of the scum of the earth?"

"I don't know. I have never met her. Johnny doesn't speak of her very often."

"I find it strange," Mrs Rawlings said thoughtfully, "that you refer to your father by his first name."

"I first met Murdoch Lancer as an adult.  It hardly seemed appropriate to call him 'father'..." Scott looked at her predatory smile, realizing far too late what he had just said.

"You never said that before..."

"I saw no reason to mention it." Scott pushed his chair back slightly from the table.  The weight of the gun on his hip was tormenting him.  Did she know the truth?  If so, they were dead anyway. so what did he have to lose?

A strange look suddenly played across her face. "I had thought you had learned your lesson, Andrew. You know I will not tolerate a lie. Johnny Madrid's mother died when he was a boy. What kind of message were you sending to Murdoch Lancer? Whatever you said, he will not be in time to save that half-breed. Or your son.”

Scott looked at her in shock.  "My son?"

"I told you nothing good would come of your dalliance with that Mexican whore. You broke my heart, Andrew. Now you will have to be punished - again.”

"You're crazy," Scott blurted out, getting to his feet and pulling the gun from its holster.

Mrs. Rawlings’ cool calm demeanor flustered Scott and he faltered for just a moment, a moment too long. The door opened and Tom stepped in, his own gun pointed directly at Scott.

"Put it down, Lancer.  One of my men has a gun to the half-breed’s head and if he hears a shot from up here, he'll send your precious brother to hell."

Scott looked in disbelief as Mrs. Rawlings sighed resignedly. "You have been a terrible disappointment to me, Scott."

"You saw what you wanted to see," he responded coldly, laying his gun on the table and raising his hands.  "You thought I was like you...and you were wrong."

"You think so?  You can't tell me that you didn't enjoy my company, a respite from the vulgarities of your brother and his kind."

"I have loathed every second I have been forced to spend in your presence."

She stepped quickly round the table and slapped Scott hard across the face.  "I've heard enough of your lies.  Sit down and let me tell you what those lies will cost your brother."

Scott felt the sting of her hand, but his heart skipped a beat at the mention of Johnny. A dread came over him. ‘No,’ he whispered desperately to himself. He gathered his courage and faced her bravely. "I'm the one who misled you.  I'll take whatever punishment you decide, but you've done enough to my brother."

A cruel smile darkened her face, "This punishment is for both of you." Looking pleased with herself she went on. "Since your brother has done so much to build the fountain outside, I think it only fitting that he should rest there for eternity. And you will be the one to dig his grave."

"I've warned you what will happen if you kill him.  Not only will your workers rebel, but you'll have to answer to our father.  Murdoch will be here soon, so it's time you faced up to the fact that you have lost."

"You are a fool, Andrew. You know you can never beat me...never!  If you don't do as I say, I will have your whore and her boy buried instead of your brother. You crossed the line when you lay in her bed. You disgust me!"

Scott felt light-headed as the blood drained from his face.  She could only be referring to Elana and Miguel.  In her warped mind she was convinced that Miguel was his son...her grandson.  And yet, she was threatening to kill the boy.

"You can't do that..." he said softly, knowing he had lost. He tried one last desperate appeal. "You can't do that to your own grandson."

A look of loathing crossed her face.  "I will never accept that bastard as a member of this family.  He should have been drowned at birth. And now your whore is about to give birth again and I can’t allow that."

Scott felt sick at the utter vindictiveness in her voice. He had tried his best and it hadn’t been good enough.  All his hopes of saving his brother, Elana and her family came crashing down around him.  The weight of his defeat crushed him.

"Please.  It doesn't have to be like this,” he begged.  “If you murder my brother you will hang. Is your revenge on him worth the price of your own life?"

"I have no intention of killing him.  That task will be left to you. Don't forget, Andrew, this is my world here. You will be the one who hangs. Now, go and rest. The coffin is being built as we speak..."

Scott barely felt Tom pull his arms behind him and tie his wrists.  He was too stunned to struggle.

"Where do you want me to put him?" Tom asked, tightening the knots.

"Put him in the cell with his brother. If he's lucky, Madrid will kill him." She turned away from Scott dismissively.

"It'll be my pleasure, ma'am." Tom gripped Scott's arm and pushed him toward the door leading to the kitchen.

As the old cook watched Scott being pushed roughly through the kitchen with his arms tied, she knew things were at the breaking point. She caught the blond's eye for just a split second and saw the look of failure there. She had to do something to help him...to help Madrid.

They reached the doorway leading to the cellar and Tom yanked Scott around to face him.  "I'm gonna make you wish you'd never been born," Tom hissed vengefully. “You’ve made a fool out of me and now you’re gonna pay.”

Scott didn't have time to set himself before Tom sank a fist into his mid section. The next blow to his face slammed him back against the wall.  He felt his teeth connect with his lower lip and tasted blood. Seeing black, he felt himself dragged toward the stairway. He tried to fight against the relentless hold on his arm.

Tom tightened his grip.  "You keep that up and I'll make sure to give your brother a good kicking when we get downstairs," he threatened.

The words sank through Scott's fuzzy mind and he stopped fighting. But it didn't stop Tom from shoving him hard in the back. He lost his footing and threw himself against the railing trying to keep from falling forward down the remaining steps.

Tom yanked him back and led him down the stairs shoving him against the cell that contained his brother. "Hey, breed," Tom laughed, looking into the cell at Johnny huddled in the corner. "Look who's here to see you. Want a closer look, Madrid? I’m sure your brother’ll be real happy to spend some time with you."

Johnny looked up without interest, then he sat up straighter and an unpleasant smile crept across his face.

 

Chapter 19

Scott's eyes were riveted on his brother as Tom unlocked the cell door.  He was caught unprepared when Tom shoved him in the back. With his hands tied behind him, he couldn’t stop his forward momentum and slammed into the steel bars with his shoulder landing in a heap next to Johnny, his head ending up on his brother's thigh.

He didn't have time to catch his breath before Johnny pulled his leg to one side, leaving him sprawled face down in the dirt, the filth stinging his eyes and dusting the inside of his mouth. He fought back the urge to vomit, knowing that act would make him all the more vulnerable.

Scott heard the sound of chains clanking and his blood ran cold.  He'd heard it all too often during his time in Libby, a time he had worked hard to forget. Tom used his boot to send him flopping onto his back then crouched down, a pair of leg irons dangling from his hand.  “Figured your brother here would like to see how these fit around your ankles for a change.”  He felt the leg irons lock into place and knew with a sick certainty that Johnny would never forgive him for inflicting that punishment on him.

Yanking the chain to make sure the shackles were secure, Tom turned to Johnny and pulled him away from the wall, shoving him face first into the ground. Scott watched as Johnny submissively waited for Tom to cut through the ropes then lay there unmoving. It was so unlike Johnny, and it sickened him to know that he had played a major part in breaking his brother's spirit. He wanted to reach out and somehow take away all the pain.

A deep guttural, almost animalistic snarl broke the fraught silence in the cell.  Johnny slowly raised his head, eyes hidden by hair that obscured his face… black as coal, filthy and heavy with sweat. Fear flooded Scott's mind, paralyzing him. What would Johnny do? Not taking his eyes off his brother, he heard the door slam shut and Tom's cruel laugh. "Nothing like a family reunion....huh Lancer?"

Scott’s heart thundered in his chest. Johnny’s smile had been all too familiar. He’d seen that look many times in Libby. It was the smile of a man who had been pushed beyond the limits of human endurance, whose ability to reason was quashed beneath the heavy hand of brutality.

He pushed himself awkwardly away from his brother, his head hitting the iron bars of the cell. Struggling with his hands tied, he managed to maneuver himself into a sitting position.

Johnny slowly climbed to his hands and knees, every move a symphony of pain. He crawled back to the sanctuary of the corner he had been occupying, his eyes slowly sweeping around its confines before he contented himself with rubbing the circulation back into his swollen hands. He reminded Scott of a wounded animal slinking into a corner for protection. His movements were slow and disjointed, not the fluid motions of the Johnny he knew.

Scott felt nervous sweat begin to trickle down his back.  The air in the cell was thick with tension and fear, a tangible presence. He jumped nervously when he felt someone move behind him in the next cell and suddenly felt fingers prying at the ropes.

“He has gone to a bad place, Senor,” Arturo hissed from behind him. “Be muy careful. He is not the hermano you remember. You must find your brother again. For his sake, as well as your own, and for the sake of my people.”

The words struck like a dagger in his gut. He couldn’t absolve himself from the guilt he felt, knowing he had played a part in Johnny’s torture. Intellectually, he knew he had been forced to do it all to save his brother’s life. But at what cost? Would it have been more humane to let Johnny go when he knew there wasn’t a chance in hell of escaping? But that was it…he could not bring himself to think that escape was impossible. He had to hold on to the smallest iota of hope. He had survived a year in a hell hole of a Confederate prison by refusing to believe that he wouldn’t eventually regain his freedom. Somehow, he had to get through to Johnny that life was still worth fighting for. Watching his brother, he couldn't remember a time when he had felt so helpless - or so alone.

After a minute, he heard a resigned sigh from behind him and Arturo gave up his fight to untie the rope. In the dim light he tried to see Johnny's eyes...to look into his thoughts...but he could see nothing behind the heavy eyelids. "Johnny..."

"Shut up," Johnny snarled. The viciousness in Johnny’s voice startled Scott and he involuntarily pressed himself tighter against the cell bars.

Scott watched silently until Johnny finally looked up. The look of absolute hate on his brother’s face appalled him. Johnny slowly uncurled himself and twisted around until he was on his hands and knees, the chain attached to the collar around his neck rattling as he moved.

Scott felt an overwhelming need to escape, but he knew he was trapped. He found himself praying that the chain would be too short to allow Johnny to reach him.

Stopping inches away from Scott’s face, Johnny smiled coldly and malevolently. "You finally get on that punta’s bad side?"

Scott swallowed, trying to summon the strength to utter the words he knew were so inadequate. “You have to listen to me," he pleaded, forcing himself to look straight into the eyes of his brother. But what he saw there scared him more than any battle he had ever fought, any nightmare he had ever had. Had Johnny’s humanity been beaten out of him?  Arturo was right, the Johnny Lancer he knew no longer existed, and with a clarity that frightened Scott beyond measure, he realized Johnny Madrid no longer existed either. Hate was the only emotion that filled his brother’s mind and heart, a hatred that Scott feared would allow him to kill without thought or remorse.

“Johnny….”

Scott stopped as Johnny held up a shaky hand.

"Tired of takin’ orders from you." Johnny was close enough now for Scott to feel his warm breath on his cheek, dry and rancid from days of near starvation.

He barely recognized the man who hovered next to him. The rough stubble on Johnny’s face had turned to a full beard. His face, which just yesterday was lined with pain and hopelessness was now devoid of all emotion but hate. Scott squeezed his eyes shut. His biggest fear when he entered the cell was his part in tomorrow's execution...now he wondered if he would live that long. Maybe it would be best for everyone if he didn't.

Scott lowered his head, his shame eating him alive.  "I'm sorry," he said inadequately.

"Sorry?" Johnny asked, his tone incredulous. He reached a filthy hand out to touch the blood that trickled down Scott's chin. "A little late, don't ya think?" He pressed his hand against Scott’s throat, forcing his brother’s head back against the bars, his grip tighter than it had any right to be. With frightening determination he increased the pressure, until Scott found himself struggling uselessly to take a breath.  He heard Tom laughing as his eyesight began to dim.

“No!” Arturo’s voice split through the buzz in Scott’s head as Johnny squeezed harder and harder. “No, Juanito. You can not do this. No matter what has happened, he is still your hermano!”

Johnny’s hand eased up, a look of confusion on his face. Scott sucked in a deep breath, watching Johnny. If there was a moment of confusion, was there hope?

Scott swallowed back his fear. "I tried to help,” he gasped through the pain in his throat, but lowered his eyes in shame when he saw Johnny’s face turn a shade darker. “It doesn't matter,” he said, sagging against the bars. “I let you down."

Johnny snorted derisively and slowly removed his hand. "Let me down? Is that what you call it?" He sat back on his bare heels and Scott saw him grimacing in pain.   "You got a taste of the life you used to have and couldn't turn your back on it,” he spat.  Johnny's voice came haltingly, ragged from exhaustion and illness, but fuelled by an implacable hatred.

"It wasn't like that," Scott protested uselessly.  He was painfully conscious of Tom standing just outside the cell with his arms folded, watching what was happening with undisguised pleasure. Johnny’s knee hit his leg and Scott heard the metallic clang of his leg irons.  It was a vivid reminder of his utter helplessness.

"No...?" Johnny sneered, bending closer to Scott again. "Want to tell me how it was, ‘brother’?"

"Johnny, it was the only way to keep you alive." Scott cast a quick glance over his shoulder at Tom, but knew he was saying nothing that the man had not figured out already for himself. "Do you think I liked making you suffer? But if I hadn’t punished you, then someone else would...and they would have been much harder."

Johnny's laugh had a hysterical edge to it.  "Harder?” he hissed menacingly. “You damn near killed me."

"I knew what you could take, Johnny. I prayed each time that I was doing the right thing...the only thing. Above all, we needed time...time to get Murdoch a message...time to form a plan. You have to believe me, it was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life."

Johnny shifted closer. "Who the hell gave you the right to decide how much I could take?  And how hard was it to eat good food and sleep in a comfortable bed? Harder than this?" Johnny looked around the squalid cell, his fingers clawing at the leather of the collar.  “Harder than being chained like a dog, forced to work when all you want to do is crawl off into a corner and die?” Johnny’s voice shook with raw emotion.

Scott lowered his head. "It was incredibly hard. I know you can't understand that, but I would have done anything to keep you alive."

Johnny’s face contorted into a mask of pure fury and he pressed his hand across Scott’s mouth, cutting off his words. "I ain’t listening to any more of your lies." Angry blue eyes bored into Scott.  “You said I could trust you.  Said you understood, that you knew what it was like to be humiliated – you got no idea what it’s really like.”

Scott’s muffled protests only appeared to increase Johnny’s anger.  He pressed harder and Scott fell silent.

"You make me sick,” Johnny snarled.  “But don’t think I’m gonna give you the easy way out.  I ain’t gonna kill you.  I hope that bitch makes you suffer the same way you made me suffer." He pushed himself away from his brother, crawled back to the corner of the cell and sank to the floor, drawing his legs back up and laying his head on his folded arms.

"Johnny?” Scott asked tentatively after a few minutes. “My hands?"

"What about 'em?" Johnny asked carelessly.

"Untie me?"

Johnny lifted his head just enough to see Scott. "Go to hell, brother," he muttered.

****

"Dios," Elana gasped as a sharp stab of pain shot through her abdomen.  It wasn't the first pain she had felt that day, but it was certainly the strongest.  She recognized the early signs of labor.  How she had prayed that she would not be bringing her child into the world in a place like this. She clung on to Miguel's hand.  The child was frightened almost beyond reason.  He had returned from his visit to the cells silent and tearful, unwilling or unable to answer her questions.

"Miguel," she whispered. "What is it, Nino?"

The boy could only shake his head and bury his face in the blankets.

How she wished that Arturo was with her. Gently she combed her fingers through her son’s dark hair. "It will be all right, my nino, I promise."

"Si, Mama," Miguel whispered.  "When can we go home?"

"Soon. Your papa and I will take you and your new brother or sister home. You just have to be brave for a little longer."

Miguel nodded silently, climbing carefully onto the bed and snuggling up against her, resting his head on her shoulder.  She kissed him tenderly and said a prayer for his safety and the safety of the child within her...the child she knew would be born in the next few hours.

It was comforting to hold her son in her arms.  How different his birth had been.  They had lived in luxury then at the home of Arturo's family.  She had received the very best of care and Miguel had been welcomed into the world with love and happiness. It was so different from the hate and brutality she felt here. This child would be born in squalid conditions...alone...and she was afraid.

The sound of the door opening startled her and she saw Consuela sneak in. Tapping her lips with her finger for silence, the young woman motioned for Miguel to join her. "We are moving your mama in just a few minutes."

Elana strained to hear what Consuela was saying and gave an audible gasp as the pain intensified again.  She held her breath and tried to ride out the wave of agony.

Consuela was at her side, caressing her cheek. "It will be all right, I promise. Now tell me when you are ready to move."

"Where are we going?" Elana asked, relaxing as the labor pangs eased.

"To my room. You will be more comfortable there – and safer.”  Consuela lifted her head at the sound of boots running toward the kitchen.  “Ah...it has begun. We must go now."

"What about Mrs. Rawlings? And the guards?  They aren't going to let Miguel and I leave this room.”

“They will be too busy," Consuela smiled. "Now, let us go."

Elana gripped the young woman's sleeve.  "Something has happened. Tell me," she demanded.

"Mrs. Rawlings has discovered Senior Scott’s deception.  He has been locked up with his hermano. I fear for their lives now. The time has come to fight and nothing can stop it. One way or the other we will all be free soon.”

****

The old cook dropped the last of the kindling into a pile next to the huge barrel of water in the kitchen. Looking around she saw anxious faces. She took one last look at the cooking staff, smiled and with a flick of her wrist lit a match and dropped it into the wood. Smoke billowed up quickly, reaching for the ceiling and spreading through the kitchen. The door was quickly opened and the smoke poured out into the hall. The old cook smiled as she heard the sound of hurried footsteps running toward the kitchen. No one saw her slip out of the room and disappear down the stairway to the cells below.

She came to an abrupt halt as she realized that Tom was standing in the shadows at the bottom of the stairs.  "Fire," she said quickly.  "There is a fire in the kitchen.  Please help."

Tom sniffed the air. "Shit!" He nearly knocked the old cook down the stairs as he leapt up the steps.

Her triumphant smile disappeared as she looked into the cages.  Johnny was huddled in a corner, his head down, seemingly asleep.  His brother sat as far away as the small cell would allow, his hands still bound and his ankles in irons.  Despite the fact that he was still wearing the collar and leg irons, she noticed that Johnny’s hands were free.  Why had he not untied his brother?

She pulled a bundle she had tied around her waist and shoved it under the cell door. "Quickly, there is not much time. You must make your hermano eat and drink.”

Scott edged his way over to the door.  "Can you untie me?"

"Si."

Scott turned his back to her and felt her fingers work the knots.

"Leave him." Johnny didn't move, but there was no mistaking the menace in his voice.

"Senor Madrid...?"

"I said leave him." Slowly Johnny crawled across the cell, the chains clinking as he moved. "He don't deserve the help."

“Johnny, be reasonable,” Scott protested.

“There ain’t nothin’ reasonable in here,” Johnny snarled.  He snatched the bundle.  “Tell me, brother.  How does it feel to be helpless?”

"You must listen to me,” the cook begged. “Senor Scott has been trying to help you.”

"You know I'm gettin' real tired of hearing that," Johnny said as he bit into a chunk of bread.

"It is the truth," Arturo said from his cell.

"Why're you all standing up for him?" Johnny demanded.  "He's a lying yellow bastard who only cares about saving his own skin."

"You think you know me so well, Brother," Scott sighed sadly.

Johnny stared into Scott's eyes. "Actions speak louder than words...didn't you say somethin' like that once?”

Scott opened his mouth to respond, but before the words emerged they all heard footsteps coming down the wooden stairs. The cook looked fearfully around her and scurried into a dark corner, pressing herself against the dank wall.

Johnny looked up and quickly stuffed the sack of food behind him. Mrs. Rawlings appeared on the steps followed by Tom.

"Well," Mrs. Rawlings smiled, standing back from the bars, not wanting to soil herself on the filthy cells. "Whoever started that little distraction upstairs in the kitchen will be punished, severely. If you know who it is Andrew, it would go a long way to regaining my trust in you."

Johnny frowned in confusion and looked at his brother. Scott was staring directly at the woman, mouth set in a hard line.  He shook his blond head.

"I don't want to hurt you, Son, but your loyalties are misplaced in this savage. I had hoped you had seen the error of your ways."

"My only error," Scott said coldly, "was thinking there was anything human inside that shell of yours."

Mrs Rawlings' eyes flashed.  "Then you can stay in there until you are ready to apologize."

Scott looked up and a strange smile crossed his face. "Go to hell, Mother."

"We will see how you feel in the morning. I think you can taste my whip before you dig that grave and bury your brother alive."

 

Chapter 20

Scott could never remember a longer night, each minute lasting an eternity. And yet it wasn't long enough. He had listened as the house quieted above him and waited in silence, the subdued light from the wall sconce sending dark shadows flickering across Johnny's bowed head. From time to time his eyes slid shut, exhaustion and too much alcohol taking their toll. And now he heard the rushed footsteps in the kitchen. Mrs. Rawlings demanded breakfast at dawn each morning. That meant the horror of the day was nearing.

Johnny's immobility frightened him. For just a second, their eyes had met when Mrs. Rawlings had casually referred to Johnny's fate.  The momentary spark of brotherhood had faded as quickly as it had arisen, and for the remainder of the night Johnny had been silent. Scott had gone over Mrs. Rawlings’ words a thousand times. His broken sleep was haunted by the vision of what was to come. How could he force himself to dig a hole that was intended to bury his brother alive? He knew if he did that, he would never escape the guilt...not even in death.

Yet, in reality what choice was left to him?  She had already made it clear that he either did as he was told or Elana and Miguel would take his brother's place.  He couldn't condemn them to death, but the horror of knowing Johnny would still be alive as the dirt hit the lid of the coffin nearly left him breathless. How long would his brother survive? How long before there was no more air for his starved lungs? In that moment, Scott knew he couldn't condemn Johnny to that slow agonizing death.

After Mrs Rawlings and Tom had left, he had tried to talk to Johnny - to explore possible avenues of escape - only Johnny had turned his back and ignored all his overtures. Compounding his difficulties was the fact that Arturo was in the next cell.  He didn't want the young man to find out about the threat to his wife and son.

Scott shifted miserably and tried to stretch his cramped muscles.  He hadn't dared suggest again to Johnny that he should untie him, and Johnny hadn't made any move to help him. The gulf between them was too vast and it left him devastated to know that his brother would go to his death hating him. He heard the sound of the door opening and heavy boots making their way down the stairs. It was no surprise to see Tom's expectant leer as he slipped the key into the lock.

"Ready for your big day, Lancer?"

Tom began to unlock the cell when he heard a sound in the corner. Scott held his breath. He had forgotten about the cook. She must have fallen asleep in her little nook and never made it upstairs.

As Tom walked away to investigate Scott shimmied his way over to Johnny. "Listen to me," he hissed. "Johnny, you have to trust me. I won't let it happen. You won't be buried alive. I promise." The promise hung heavy in the air.

Johnny's head came up slowly and his eyes held Scott's for just a moment. "You know what that means..."

“Yes…” Scott cautiously moved a little closer, his knee touching his brother’s hand.

Johnny's eyes were full of sorrow as he nodded.  He made no effort to move his hand, allowing the first passive contact between them for days. For Scott the action spoke more than any words between them could. He was not naïve enough to think that all bridges had been mended between them, but it was a start.

"You keep that promise, but it still don't change things," Johnny told him with unconcealed bitterness.

Scott felt his chest tighten with regret.  “I know,” he replied softly.

A startled cry rang through the dank cellar.

"Well, well," Tom's voice was filled with menace.  "What do we have here?" He pulled the elderly cook to her feet and dragged her toward the dim light from the torch.

"Leave her alone." Johnny struggled to pull himself upright, wincing as he took his weight on his injured feet.

Scott saw the old cook frantically trying to break free of Tom's hold on her arm. In her terror she cried out in Spanish.

"What you goin' to do about it, Madrid?" Tom taunted, pushing the woman against the bars of the cell.

"Get your filthy hands off her," Scott seethed.

"You had your chance to give orders.  Now it's my turn.  Get up.  It's time to go."

Tom grinned at the two guards who had been shadowing him. "Get this filth upstairs," he ordered, pushing the woman roughly into the arms of one of the men.

Tom unlocked the door and advanced upon the brothers. Grabbing Scott from behind, he dragged him away from Johnny, dumping him by the open door as he pulled a length of rope out and tied Johnny's hands behind his back again.

"We better get a move on," Tom grinned. "Your audience is waiting for you.” He pulled Johnny toward the door before adding maliciously, “It's a fine day for a burial."

A shove in the back sent Scott staggering toward the steps.  Negotiating the steep stairs with his ankles chained and his hands tied was difficult.  He could hear Johnny's slow laborious progress behind him, hampered not only by the leg irons, but the injuries to his feet.

As they emerged from the relative gloom of the kitchen, Scott snapped his eyes shut against the glaring light.  The sun was only just peeking over the roof opposite him, but after a night in the cells his eyes were abnormally sensitive. He heard the chains rattling against the floor as Johnny was pushed along behind him, the sound echoing his own chains.

He could only imagine how much worse it must be for his brother who hadn't seen daylight for nearly two days. As he waited for his eyes to adjust, he felt Johnny bump into his back and then recoil instinctively. The loss of his brother’s trust was a deep wound.

When his vision cleared he found his gaze irresistibly drawn to the open coffin lying in the centre of the courtyard. A lone shovel stood propped against the casket, waiting. Tom grabbed his arm and held him back.  He heard a shocked gasp coming from his brother as Johnny was dragged past him, his bare feet scoring a line in the dirt.

Already the workers had been assembled, sullen and quiet. There must have been nearly a hundred present, with the men far outnumbering the women. Scott noticed that none of the children were present and sent up a quick prayer that Miguel was safely far away from this horror.

Scott’s eyes swept around the crowd, seeking Consuela.  Now that his deception had been uncovered he was afraid that her position had been compromised as well.  He wasn’t sure if he should be afraid or relieved that she wasn’t there. Scott looked to his left to see Mrs Rawlings sitting in her customary chair.  The raw hatred he saw there chilled him to the bone. A line of armed guards separated the workers from the shaded porch.  As he looked up he could see more armed men stationed on the first floor balconies.

Scott was suddenly struck with the realization that he had seen this kind of scene before.  He had never been able to forget his first sight of the Coliseum in Rome.  Standing in the centre of that vast arena, he had looked up at row upon row of seating where men and women had sat to indulge their lust for blood. Now, he and Johnny were to take part in a spectacle no less barbaric and just as pointless. He turned his attention back to Mrs Rawlings and saw her cold smile as she met his gaze.

Without looking away she called to Johnny's guards.  "Make sure he is secure.  I have some unfinished business with Mr. Lancer."

He had to make one last effort to appeal to her humanity.  He couldn't allow this to happen...wouldn't allow it to happen. "Johnny is a human being, for God's sake."

"That's where you are mistaken.  He is an abomination and it is my duty to see that he is wiped from the face of the earth.” She shook her head sadly. “You could have had it all, Scott. I offered you the world, and you threw it away for that..." She pointed to Johnny who had now reached the post.  One of his guards supported him while the other fastened the chain attached to his collar to the toggle set into the wood.

Scott's legs trembled. How could he reason with insanity?  "I had all that I needed," he snapped back.  "A home, a family." He turned to look at Johnny. "A brother.” Scott watched Johnny chained to the post again. He was not an animal. Looking toward Mrs. Rawlings he swallowed his self respect and pleaded. “Think of your son. How would he feel if he could see this?"

Mrs. Rawlings’ face turned murderous. "It is because of filth like your brother that my son turned on me...and all this.” She snapped her head around to look at the guard standing beside her. "Prepare Lancer. I want to get this over with before it gets too hot.”

Scott squared his shoulders and stood straight backed, giving no sign of the fear he was feeling. She could have him whipped until he could not stand on his own two feet, but she would not break him. The barrel of a rifle was pressed against his spine and he moved forward.  He would not give her the satisfaction of having to be dragged. As he walked a horrible thought came to his mind and he faltered as the weight of his guilt threatened to overwhelm him.  He had broken Johnny, had done what no one else had ever managed to do.  And that success had been made all the easier by the fact that his brother had trusted him. But he could not, would not, let Mrs Rawlings see this.

Johnny struggled to stay upright, straining against the rope binding his hands.  Scott had his back to him now, facing Mrs. Rawlings, and Johnny could see the tension in his brother’s posture.  The guard walked behind Scott and untied his hands, leaning in close to whisper something in the blond's ear.  Unexpectedly Scott struck out at the man, sending him tumbling to the ground.  Taking his cue from his brother’s actions, Johnny used his shoulder to barge into the guard standing beside him.  Scott moved forward toward the steps leading to Mrs. Rawlings, his progress impeded by the shackles around his ankles.  Ignoring the raised rifles of the guards he had made it to within ten feet of her before Tom intervened.  A blow to his lower back sent Johnny to his knees at the same moment as Tom charged into Scott, forcing him to the ground.

Shaking off their immobility, two men gripped Scott’s arms, pulling him to his feet and dragging him toward the railings surrounding the porch.  Several blows fell on Scott’s back and stomach, yet still he silently resisted.  Johnny’s attempt to rise was frustrated as the chain tethering him to the post was jerked back viciously and he was pinned against the pillar, the collar pressing against his throat making it difficult to breathe. A roar of voices rose up around the courtyard and Johnny saw the workers move as one. The guards within his line of sight moved back as if startled before raising their rifles aggressively.  He feared a blood bath and tried to catch enough breath to tell the workers to stay where they were.

"Get back," Tom yelled.

There was a low murmur, the very ground beneath Johnny’s feet pulsing with the tension in the air. Johnny licked his dry lips. It was too soon. He had to make them wait somehow. He looked toward Scott. His brother was still making it difficult for the guards to secure him.

“¡Espera para el tiempo correcto!” (Wait for the right time!)  Johnny shouted with all his strength, the guard behind him driving a fist into his unprotected back. Johnny lost his footing and hung in the air for a moment, the collar cutting his air off.

A hand grabbed him and pulled him back to his feet. "You have a date with that coffin over there, Breed. You ain't getting out of it that easy."

Johnny gulped in lungfuls of air and looked back toward his brother as Scott’s arms were forced above his head, his wrists finally being secured to the wrought iron railings edging the raised patio.  What was left of Scott’s once white shirt was cut away and pulled back to expose the bandages wrapped around his torso.  Johnny felt a surge of guilt as he remembered slashing at his brother’s body with the knife.  What had he become?  Even in his extremity of pain and anger, how could he have tried to kill Scott? For the first time he noticed a bandage, now dirty and ragged, around Scott’s left hand.  If he’d bothered to untie Scott in the cell he would have seen it earlier.  His guilt intensified.  He’d wanted Scott to experience a small amount of the humiliation he’d endured since their arrival in Serenity…but not this.

Tom used his knife to cut away the bandages, and the revelation that followed shook Johnny to the core. His shocked gaze became riveted on the old lash marks marring his brother's back.  His mind spun back to his first night in this hellhole and the moment when Scott had assured him that he knew what it was like to be forced to eat and drink like some mindless animal.  At some time in his past Scott had been tortured and degraded.  Johnny found his anger rising again.  Knowing what it was like should have made Scott fight against it, not become a willing participant.

“Twenty five lashes,” Mrs Rawlings ordered.  “I want to make sure he understands the consequences of disobeying me.  But he still has a grave to dig, so give him five now and the rest once he’s buried Madrid.”

Johnny heard the first snap of the whip.  In the long hours when he had been toiling in the hot sun, or locked helplessly in the dark, he had dreamed of making his brother suffer.  Now that it was finally happening, it left him cold and shaken and further away than ever from being able to understand how Scott could have inflicted such dreadful punishments on him. His anger dissipated only to be replaced by a bottomless well of sorrow.

Four more lashes rent the air and Johnny felt sick, then he looked over at the coffin. Would Scott be able to keep his promise or would he betray him again?

The ropes holding Scott pinned to the railings were cut and he staggered unsteadily.  Tom walked over to fetch the spade, shoving it into Scott’s hands and pushing him toward the hole.

"Dig!" Tom ordered.

Scott was pale, his breathing ragged.  He staggered one step back before facing Tom with a determined set to his jaw. "Go to hell. You might as well get it over with and kill us both.  It's what you're planning to do anyway."

Johnny saw Scott tighten his grip on the handle and prepare to swing the spade at his tormentor.

"You forget so easily," Mrs. Rawlings smiled calmly. The door behind her opened and Elana was half carried, half dragged onto the porch. Miguel followed, clutching Consuela’s hand, his eyes wide with fear. "I gave you a choice last night,” she continued. “You either do as you are told and dig that grave for your brother, or watch your whore and her bastard buried in his place."

Johnny’s knees nearly buckled.  He looked in disbelief from Scott to Mrs. Rawlings, shaking his head slowly in horrified denial. His eyes drifted from Elana's swollen belly to Miguel’s wide and terrified brown eyes.  Elana moaned and panted for breath, her face contorted with pain. Johnny couldn’t allow her and her family to continue to suffer.  Whatever happened, Mrs Rawlings would never leave him alive so their deaths would be meaningless. Turning his eyes on Scott, he demanded his brother’s attention. 

 

Straining to talk against the pressure of the collar around his neck, Johnny simply shook his head. They looked at each other silently for a moment then Scott nodded to show he understood. The silence in the courtyard at that moment was deafening. Everyone understood the enormity of the decision the two brothers had made.

Johnny glanced back at the workers. They were a lit fuse. He hoped they would wait.

Tom pulled Scott over to a hole already started for the fountain and pushed him down inside.  "Another foot and that coffin will fit just fine."

Johnny could only see Scott's head and shoulders as he shovelled more dirt onto the existing pile. It was unnerving, watching his own grave being dug. His guard shoved him to the ground and he bowed his head, trying to remember the words of a prayer.  This wasn’t how he imagined his life would end, but at least his death would buy Elana and Miguel precious time.  He steeled himself for the ordeal to come.  There would be no sudden rescue, no last minute reprieve…not this time.

The silence pressed in on Scott, just as the earth would soon press down on his brother's coffin. He no longer felt the pain from the lashes on his back or the slashes from Johnny's knife. The only thing he felt was failure. He had tried so hard to save his brother...and now he was the instrument of his death. Sweat trickled down his body, making tracks in the dirt coating his skin.  The sun had cleared the roof of the building and blazed down on his bare head.  He had made Johnny a promise in good faith and having to break that promise was more than he could endure.  He understood now how Johnny had felt.  He had reached the limits of his endurance.

***

Mrs. Rawlings sat in her chair, watching. A myriad of emotions swelled up inside her. Satisfaction that Madrid was getting what he deserved, disappointment that Scott had not turned out like she had hoped, and triumph that she was the ruler of all these people. Some day they would come to know what a privilege it was to work for her. She sipped her tea and considered how she would deal with Scott once the half-breed was dead. Perhaps the worst she could do to him was to keep him alive, allow him to relive the moment he buried his precious brother. Yes...death would be too easy for him. Of course he would have to suffer the remainder of his punishment. That was regrettable, but unavoidable.  No one was allowed to challenge her will.

She heard a harsh scream from the De La Vara woman behind her and turned to see her collapse to the ground. Her treacherous maid was tending to her and it was clear that the baby would be born soon.  She idly wondered what she would do with it. Perhaps she would be merciful and just pack the family off back to Mexico where they belonged. That reminded her of her other prisoner and she beckoned Tom over to join her. "We are missing one member of the family. Bring the father up."

While she waited for Tom to return she tapped her hand irritably against the arm of her chair.  This was taking too long.  The day was growing uncomfortably hot and she had other things to attend to. The sound of the shovel hitting the hard packed dirt was both annoying and satisfying. Another cry of pain came from the stricken woman, followed by a stream of Spanish.  Her intention to spare the family evaporated in her anger at hearing the barbaric language being spoken in her home.

That reminded her about the fire in the kitchen and the need to punish the person responsible.  She looked over at her cook. The woman had served her faithfully for years.  Madrid's influence was like a quick spreading poison and she was right to end his life before he corrupted even more of her workers. The woman was snivelling pitifully in the grip of one of her men.

"Did you set the fire in the kitchen?" she demanded. The cook shook her head, but her eyes said yes. Mrs. Rawlings sighed heavily. "You know the punishment for wanton disobedience?"

The cook’s face turned white.

"Shoot her," Mrs. Rawlings instructed calmly.

The guard drew his pistol, put it against the terrified woman's head and pulled the trigger, allowing her lifeless body to drop to the ground.

"No...!" Johnny cried harshly, struggling pitifully against the grip of his guard.

Alerted by the shot, and his brother's cry Scott stopped digging and turned to look. If not for the shovel to lean on he would have collapsed in the hole.

There was a sharp gasp then silence as everyone looked at the crumpled figure of the cook. Women began to sob, men swore softly in Spanish. Miguel cried out and buried his head in Consuela's skirt.

"Let that be a lesson to all of you," Mrs. Rawlings called out. "If you disobey me you will be punished."

Mrs. Rawlings allowed herself a moment to scan the crowd of workers.  Instead of fear she saw something else...something that frightened her.  Her gaze stopped on Madrid and she found herself looking into icy blue eyes that promised her a long and painful death.

 

Chapter 21
 

Arturo had managed the last step leading from the cells when he heard a shot.  Tom swore savagely and dragged him toward the door leading to the courtyard. At first, he was shocked by the blinding sun and shimmering heat, but all too soon, his vision cleared and he stared at the scene before him in disbelief. The smoke from a guard's gun curled lazily in the stifling heat and a woman lay crumpled at his feet.

"Papa!"

He heard Miguel's terrified cry and turned frantic eyes in the direction of his son. A young woman he did not recognize grabbed the boy, pulling him tightly against her, shielding his face from the gruesome sight. The sound of Miguel's muffled sobs and Elana's exhausted cries of pain struck him like a hammer in the chest. He nearly cried himself as the heavy cast on his leg, and Tom's hand on his arm, prevented him from covering the short distance to his wife and son.

After the brothers had been dragged from their cell, he had been left alone to worry helplessly about what was happening.  He had been almost out of his mind with fear and anger by the time Tom returned. He hadn’t known what he would find when he emerged from the cells, but the horror before him now was immeasurably worse than anything he could have envisioned.

Tearing his eyes away from his family he looked around the courtyard.  Workers stood shoulder to shoulder in the shimmering heat. Men and women were forced to watch the atrocity played out for the benefit of Mrs. Rawlings’ pleasure. Unshed tears welled in his eyes as he saw Johnny, chained and helpless, sagging in the arms of an armed guard. A few short feet away, he saw Scott standing in a deep pit in the center of the yard, his chest and arms covered in dirt and blood as he slowly dug the hole deeper.  Beside it sat an open coffin and Arturo knew with a sickening certainty that it waited for Johnny.

“Madre de Dios!” he whispered. He had never thought Mrs. Rawlings would play out the threat he had heard below in the cells. To bury a man alive was unholy. He crossed himself, the chains pulling tight around his wrists. A sharp tug on his arm started him moving and he clumsily staggered along by Tom's side.

Tom pushed him hard in the back and he fell forward, reaching out with his bound hands to steady himself on the wall. Soundlessly, he slid down to sit by his wife's side.  His son scrambled over to him. Quickly Arturo slid his bound hands over Miguel and drew him into his chest, trying to shelter him from the horrors that surrounded them. Horror was replaced by anger. His eyes shifted up to see Mrs. Rawlings sitting supremely on her chair like a queen over looking her empire.  He made a promise to himself. If it was the last thing he did on this earth, he would send this woman to hell for doing this to his family and the friends who had tried to help them.

"Get on with it!" Mrs. Rawlings raised her voice...a hint of fear laced with her madness.

"Ma’am, we'd get this done a whole lot sooner if Lancer had some help." Arturo heard Tom suggest and added the guard to his list of people he would send straight to hell.

The workers stood silent – waiting – and Arturo could feel rebellion in the air. He clutched Miguel tighter, afraid for his son, and his wife, if the storm broke. The sun glinted off the barrel of a rifle from an upstairs balcony and he knew there would be many deaths before this day was done.

"Yes," Mrs. Rawlings nodded. "You and you..." She pointed to the two men who were closest to the hole. "Help him dig. I want Madrid’s grave ready in fifteen minutes."

Arturo watched the men shuffling off to a large tent that had been erected in one corner of the courtyard.  When they returned, they were carrying shovels. They jumped silently into the hole next to Scott and began digging.

He turned his attention back to his wife.  The fear in her eyes broke his heart and he bent closer to whisper words of encouragement and love.

The butt of Tom's rifle struck him in the shoulder. "Silence!" Tom ordered

He glared defiantly at the man, sick at heart, knowing that there was nothing he could do to help Elana.  He shuffled up against her, letting her feel his presence and bent his head to rest his chin on his son's dark hair.

The sound of flies swarming drew his attention back to the body lying in the dirt.  He drew in a deep breath as he realized, for the first time, that it was the kindly woman who had brought food for Johnny the previous evening. How many more people would have to die to appease this woman's hatred and fear of Mexicans?  He no longer believed that he and his family would live to return to their home.  This was his fault.  His pride had brought them to this place and their deaths would lie on his conscience for all eternity.

***

Scott was barely aware that he had been joined by other workers.  His mind was filled with the picture of the elderly cook lying dead in the courtyard and overwhelmed with the hopelessness of their situation. There was no doubt now how far Mrs. Rawlings would go. He had lost his tenuous hold on his sanity when the guard had whispered in his ear.  In mocking tones, the man had described how long it would take Johnny to die, enclosed in the coffin and buried under tons of earth.

His heart nearly broke with the knowledge that he had no way of saving his brother. Even if he could, and it meant the death of any member of the De Vara family, he knew that Johnny would pick death first. Guilt knifed deep into his soul. Everything he had put Johnny through had been for nothing.  From the outset, this had been his fault and Johnny was now paying the ultimate price for his actions.  He would gladly trade places with his sibling, only he knew that Mrs. Rawlings would never allow that.  He could only pray that she would order his death and end his misery quickly. He didn’t want to live with the knowledge of what he’d done.

"Senor?" Scott heard the whisper and looked up listlessly.

The man working next to him shuffled closer, speaking in low impassioned tones. "You can not go through with this. Madrid is..."

"Lancer...his name is Lancer," Scott replied with conviction.

"To us he is Madrid....the man we have hoped would save us. We needed his strength...and...Senor, we need yours as well. "

The shovel froze in Scott’s hand and he looked from Johnny, to Miguel and Elana huddled next to Arturo. "It's too late,” he responded sadly.  “If you do anything, that woman up there and her son will die. Could you live with that on your conscience?"

"Could you live with the blood of your brother on your hands?” the man persisted quietly.

Scott’s head dropped. "I already have his blood on my hands."

The bite of the whip across his bare shoulders caught Scott unprepared.  He turned slowly, to look up out of the grave, squinting in the bright sunlight.

"Enough talk. The hole is deep enough. Get your brother," Tom ordered.

Scott looked imploringly at Mrs Rawlings, searching for some measure of sanity in her face, but he saw only her triumphant smile.

The two workers climbed out of the hole and reached back to pull Scott out, supporting him between them. Scott turned to look at Johnny who was struggling to climb to his feet. He couldn’t. He’d thought he could, had thought the threat against Elana was enough....but it wasn't. This was his brother for God's sake. His eyes were drawn back to the open coffin. "I can't," he whispered desperately. “I can’t.”

"You refusing to do as you're told, boy?" Tom demanded.

Scott dropped to his knees, physical and mental exhaustion finally claiming him.  The blood pounded in his head.  He knew he should get up.  If he didn't follow orders Elana, her unborn child and Miguel would die.  If he did as he was told his brother would die.  He was no longer capable of making that choice.

"Persuade him," Mrs. Rawlings ordered.

His head shot up as he heard Miguel's terrified scream. The sound of the child's cries merged with the shouts of his distraught parents. He saw Elana stretching her arms out, Arturo trying to crawl across the porch, his heavy cast preventing him from moving fast enough. Miguel was carried roughly across the courtyard toward the coffin.

Scott forced himself to his feet, "No," he cried.

"His fate lies in your hands, Scott."

"Have pity!" Scott shouted at Mrs Rawlings.  "He's only a child."

***

"No," Johnny’s harsh voice rang over Miguel’s frightened cries.  "This is my choice to make - not yours." Johnny saw the horror in Scott's eyes. "It's my life, Scott, and I get to say what happens." He couldn't help the animosity that laced his words.  It should always have been his choice, only Scott had taken it upon himself to make decisions for him.

What little strength he had was deserting him as he turned to Tom.  "Get this chain off me."

Tom smiled. "Playing the hero for your brother, huh?"

Johnny's icy stare wiped the smile off Tom's face and he nodded to the guard to unlock the chain from Johnny's collar.

"I'll see you and that puta in hell," Johnny whispered, just loud enough for Tom to hear.

The sound of Johnny’s shuffled steps joined the sound of Elana’s wretched cries and Miguel’s terror filled sobs.

Workers and guards alike were frozen in place as they watch the horror unfold.

Johnny was only a few yards away from the coffin, but it was the longest walk of his life and each step rekindled every hurt inflicted upon him.  He struggled to put one foot in front of the other, but kept his eyes firmly fixed on Scott, willing his brother to do what was necessary.  He wondered once more if his brother would betray him again, like he’d done so often since they’d been taken captive. If only Scott hadn't given in so easily perhaps they could have worked together to escape.  Instead, Scott had left him to his fate, had played a part in wearing down his resistance until he had been too weak to fight back any longer.

"I can't," Scott said helplessly. "I can't do this."

He glared at his brother upon hearing those words.  "You have to, Brother. It's the only way," he hissed.

"I'm sorry." Scott bowed his head.  "Please don't ask me to do this."

"I've been here before," Johnny said. "But never with so much at stake. Look around you...they are all depending on you now. Don't let them down like you did me. Besides, I should'a died in front of that firing squad. I’ve been living on borrowed time. Well, now I guess my time is up. And this time, my death will mean something, it will make a difference.”

Unshed tears glimmered in Scott's eyes and Johnny leaned forward.  “Are those tears for me, Brother?” he whispered harshly. “It’d be a shame to waste them on a mestizo.”

“Johnny…no.” Scott's stricken gaze met his own.  "I've never thought of you that way.  You're my brother."

Johnny suddenly looked away. "I know," he said so softly even Scott could barely hear it.

"She will pay for this," Scott vowed. "They will all pay for this!"

“Words are easy,” Johnny said flatly.

"Johnny, you can't believe I wanted this to happen," Scott said, the horror that Johnny still believed that he was capable of this atrocity nearly sending him to his knees.

"You didn't do much to stop it." Johnny swayed, his eyes glazing over for a moment. Scott tried to reach out for him but Johnny shifted his shoulders away.

The soft cries and mumbled words of the workers grew louder. As all eyes turned toward the brothers, first one and then another of the men stepped back, unseen, his place soon filled by another worker. All the way down the line, men stepped into the vacant spots until twenty men were missing. Unnoticed by the guards, they silently made their way to the tent where they collected the picks and shovels. Arturo’s premonition was about to become a reality. The storm was about to hit.

Miguel's frightened scream brought both brothers’ eyes toward Tom as he let Miguel slip just a little closer to the coffin.

"No!" Scott yelled. "No..." He turned to stare at Mrs. Rawlings, his shoulders sinking in submission. "You win,” he conceded.

"I was always going to win, Scott.  I thought you understood that."

Scott reached a hand out and Miguel's hair brushed his fingers as he was carried back toward his parents. Gratitude for the brothers' sacrifice was etched on their faces as they waited, arms outstretched, for their son to be returned to them.

Now that the moment had come, Scott couldn't find the words to say goodbye to his brother. A sad smile played at the corners of Johnny's mouth and Scott felt his knees nearly buckle. "Remember, this is my choice." Johnny said. “You may have treated me like an animal, but I’ll die like a man.”

"Get on with it," Mrs Rawlings instructed impatiently.

Johnny hung his head, his dark hair hanging limply over eyes. "You heard the lady," he whispered, his voice heavy with irony.

***

The courtyard was bathed in a silence so deep that Scott was sure everyone could hear his heart drumming in his chest. Tom shoved him in the back, pushing him toward Johnny.  His feet became entangled in the chain and he stumbled against Johnny.  He quickly put out his hands to stop his brother falling to the ground, and could feel faint tremors running through the younger man’s body, but none of that fear was present on Johnny's face

Scott held him for a long moment, then Johnny shrugged him off harshly and turned to lift his foot into the coffin. The chain on the leg irons was too short. Johnny’s head dropped, rage and despair filling his voice. “I need help."

Scott swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded. His arms shook as he carefully lifted Johnny in his arms, his brother’s compact, but heavy, body now pounds lighter. Memories of the last time he had carried Johnny, after being felled by Pardee’s bullet, a stranger then, a brother in name only, flooded his memory. How could he have known that Johnny would become so much a part of his life? But there was so much more he wanted to know about the enigma that was Johnny Madrid Lancer. Tears fogged his vision as he shuffled one step closer to the coffin, one step closer to Johnny's death.

He felt the eyes of the workers on him and felt their pity. Why the hell weren't they doing something?  Just as quickly, he dismissed the thought.  The will had been beaten out of them and all he had done was let Mrs Rawlings wine and dine him. Now, any attempted rescue would only lead to more bloodshed. He lowered Johnny so that his brother was standing in the box, then gently helped him to lie down; his brother’s bound hands making it difficult for him to lay on his back. Johnny's eyes strayed past his shoulder and Scott felt Tom shift uncomfortably behind him. Johnny stretched his legs out, taking the full length of the coffin and he nodded at Scott.

The hot sun pounded unmercifully on his head and sweat poured down his face, to mingle with the thin track of tears that were trickling from his eyes. Scott turned his anguished gaze to Mrs Rawlings and saw only a sickening anticipation on her face. He believed he could never hate another human being as much as he hated her right now. If she were within his grasp, he would have killed her without remorse.

The sound of the leg irons shifting on the floor of the coffin brought his gaze back to Johnny. He could not fathom the strength it took for his brother to lay there, staring up at him...knowing what was to happen next.

"Adios, hermano," Johnny whispered.  "You get the chance and you kill that bitch."

Scott nodded. "I promise."

Tom nodded to two of the workers and the lid to the coffin was carried over to them. Scott locked eyes with his brother and didn't move even when the lid was lowered into place, cutting off his final view of Johnny.

He had failed Johnny again. He had promised that he wouldn’t allow them to bury Johnny alive, and he had broken his promise.

Tom shoved a handful of nails into Scott's palm. Scott counted them - twelve. Once they were all driven in place, there would be no way of freeing Johnny in time. "Get it nailed down," he ordered as another worker handed Scott a hammer.

Every inch of his body cried out to turn and smash the hammer over Tom’s head. To kill the man who was forcing him to kill his brother. He turned and saw Miguel shuddering in Arturo’s arms, Elana seized with another labor pain. He swallowed the rising bile in his throat. He had to do it for them. 

Scott placed a nail on the coffin lid and raised the hammer to sink the first nail into place.

***

The last sliver of light disappeared as the coffin lid was lowered into place. Johnny's heart skipped a beat as complete darkness enveloped him. He tried to quell his rising panic, to control his breathing. He thought he could do this. He thought he was ready. But the sound of the first nail sealing him in, nearly shattered his resolve

He could hear Scott's leg irons jangle as he moved around the outside of the coffin, nail after nail being driven into the lid...each nail bringing him closer to the end. Dust rained down on him with each strike of the hammer, invisible in the darkness. It covered his face and stung his eyes. He fought back the panic. He would die with dignity.

The sound of the hammer struck one last time then there was silence. Johnny lay very still…waiting.

He heard Scott's anguished cry and Tom yelling for guards to hold the prisoner. The sounds of a scuffle followed and Johnny realized that it could only mean his brother was fighting to reach his side. He could still feel Scott's arms around him, gently lifting him into the coffin, his body shaking with fear and regret. ‘Too little, too late,’ he thought, and that thought suddenly made him feel guilty. Had he made a dreadful mistake? Memories crowded in on him, of Arturo's words and those of the cook who now lay dead because she had tried to help him.

Any uncertainties he may have had were swept away as the coffin was suddenly lifted and swayed, then he felt it lowered...down and down...into the grave. It came to a rest, gently, almost reverently. He waited. And then he heard it...the first shovelful of dirt hitting the lid of his coffin, burying him alive.

 

Chapter 22

A powerful rush of energy swept over Scott, as he saw the first shovel full of dirt disappear into the gaping hole. He struggled frantically against the two men who had gripped his arms, trying to pull him back. Breaking away from his guards, he threw himself toward the grave, landing on this stomach, his head hanging over the edge. He desperately reached for the coffin lid, his mind swirling with gruesome thoughts of what Johnny was going through inside the box. His fingers had nearly touched the lid when he was dragged backwards once more.

"No!" he screamed, losing all sense of reality. He didn't notice the careful placement of the earth as the workers filled the sides of the hole, leaving the lid with just a dusting of dirt. He didn't feel himself being hauled back across the courtyard, fighting with all his strength to break free.

He only knew that Johnny was in that coffin – the coffin he had put him in - and soon his brother would take his last breath. "No!" he screamed again. "You Bitch! You God damn Bitch!” he raged at Mrs. Rawlings who regarded him placidly, fuelling his anger. “I'll see you in Hell!" A blow to the stomach forced the breath from his lungs and stunned him into silence.

"Show some respect," Tom ordered.

He was forced to his knees facing Mrs. Rawlings, who stood up and moved to the edge of the patio.  She stood looking down at him thoughtfully. "You disgust me," she said. "I thought I saw something in you, but now you’ve proven you’re no better than them."

Scott raised his head proudly, fury and agony coursing through him.  "I consider it an honor to be compared to them, rather than to a cold-hearted bitch like you.”

"You really think I care what you, or anyone else, think about me?” she asked scornfully.  After slowly and deliberately scanning the crowd she turned her back on Scott and returned to her chair.  She took her time arranging her skirt before looking back at her prisoner. “But I do believe a man should finish a job he has started. Tom, give him a shovel. Let him fill that hole in, and then he will receive the rest of his punishment."

Pushing himself to his feet, Scott wrestled his way out of his captors’ arms, taking a menacing step closer to the porch. "You will pay for this, I swear to you. Whip me, beat me, nothing will make me do one more thing for you,” he spat. Tom’s hand landed heavily on his shoulder, bringing him to a standstill.

"The woman!" Mrs. Rawlings ordered shrilly. "Bring the woman!"

Scott felt Tom's hand suddenly tense.

"I don't think that's a good idea," Tom said hesitantly.

"I'm not asking you for your opinions. You take orders from me! Now bring the woman!"

"No!" Scott yelled, sick at heart as he silently acknowledged the menacing hold she still had over him. "No...I'll do it. Just...just leave her alone."

"I knew you would come to your senses.” Mrs. Rawlings smirked.  "You'll soon learn to do as you are told, just as your brother did.  I won't tolerate disobedience from any of my workers."

The words made no sense to him.  He had no expectation beyond a further beating and then death - a death he would welcome with open arms.  "Learn?" he queried in confusion.

"You'll learn your place and you'll earn your keep.  I've decided you should take Madrid's place.  Killing you would be too merciful.  You lied, played on my good nature to deceive me.  Now you will be punished for it. But first you will finish the job you started. Tom, give him a shovel."

“My father…” Scott began.

“Even if Murdoch Lancer comes here,” Mrs. Rawlings cut him off sharply, “I will never allow him to find you.  How do you think he’ll feel when he hears you killed your brother and then fled from justice?” She nodded to his captors.  “Get on with it.”

Scott barely felt his feet touch the ground as he was led back across the courtyard. Every eye was on him. His heart pounded in his ears as the shovel was gently placed in his hand by a worker. Scott could not look him in the eye, but the worker laid a hand on top of his. "You must do this," the worker said. Looking at Scott pointedly, he pressed again, enunciating each word as he spoke quietly. "You must do this, Senor." And another worker threw a shovelful of dirt into the hole, missing most of the lid.

Scott gazed at the man, reading the determined look and sensed the beginning of a fragile hope.  He could feel the tension building. Was the situation finally about to explode?  Would it come soon enough to save his brother?

***

Johnny fought to control his breathing, fought to keep the panic from overtaking him. How long before he could no longer breathe?  How long before merciful unconsciousness claimed him?

Already the air smelled stale. The darkness closed in on him, hot and fetid. Sweat trickled into his eyes and soaked his shirt. He could hear the dirt shift as it sifted down the sides of the coffin, the wood groaning from the weight. The primeval fear of dying alone in the dark suddenly gripped him and he struggled in mindless terror against the rope securing his wrists. Slamming his shoulders against the sides of the coffin, he thrashed and bucked, using up precious air, but the only thing he could think of was escaping his deathtrap. He kicked his manacled feet against the lid, ripping toenails and driving splinters deep into his flesh. He shredded his knees until they bled too. He didn’t feel any of it, only the terror that consumed him.

Faces crowded in on him.  Nameless faces of the men he had killed looked down into his coffin, laughing as the maggots crawled across his dead body.  How could this be fair? He cried to a God he had once believed in. Why this? He raged. Why now, when he had turned his life around.  He had a family, a father, a brother. Scott...had his brother really betrayed him? He couldn’t believe that. He couldn’t let that be his last thought as he died.

Suddenly a sense of calm washed over him. He went limp, no longer struggling against the inevitable. He could hear everything now with crystal clarity, his own short harsh gasps for air, the blood running in his veins, the pumping of his heart. And the steady thump of the dirt burying him forever.

***

Consuela stood frozen in place, barely able to breathe. So much was happening around her. She looked down at Arturo, his bound hands encircling Elana as her labor pains came faster and harder. Miguel clung to his father's arm, silent and terrified. She could scarcely bring herself to look across the courtyard to see Scott slowly shovel dirt into the hole. She could not imagine the horror he felt, burying his own brother. She cried for him. She cried for them all, but then she sensed the mood changing.  The time had come for action.  None of them would be able to forgive themselves if they allowed Johnny Madrid and his brother to die.

There was hardly a sound in the courtyard. It was as if life and death were both hovering over them all, watching to see which won. It hadn't escaped her notice that some of the men had been slipping away.  It hadn't been hard, since everyone was watching the brothers and the horror of Johnny's slow execution. She watched Mrs. Rawlings.  The woman was quivering with excitement, seemingly unaware of the change in mood.  Tom was looking around restlessly now, his finger poised on the trigger of his rifle.  She prayed that he would suffer a long and agonizing death.

The scrape of the shovel continued to sound loud and full of despair. A lone hawk soared above them, looking down on the pitiful sight. Would it understand how a human could be so cruel? She didn't.  But she could understand the desire to kill – if she could, she would kill Mrs. Rawlings with her bare hands. All these men and women, made to stand, watching this horror for her amusement…any one of them would kill her without a moment’s hesitation.

Suddenly the missing men made sense to her. She searched the courtyard. There, on the balcony she saw a flash of color. A guard slipped out of sight replaced by a worker. A thrill of hope surged through her. She leaned over, whispering to Arturo, “be ready to move her inside."

Arturo looked up at her, his eyes swollen with tears and she drew his attention up to the balcony opposite them.

"Dios!" he breathed, squeezing Elana's arm.

Consuela quickly looked around. No one had noticed. There was another flash of color near the tent where the tools were kept. The line of workers forced to watch the final moments of Johnny Madrid's life seemed to breathe as one as the time for action drew nearer.

***

Scott's arms shook as dirt from his shovel struck the top of the coffin lid with a loud thump. The sides were filled and, from now on, each shovel full of dirt would seal Johnny in forever. His own chest constricted as he thought of his brother. What hell was Johnny going through, knowing that he was being buried under a ton of earth?

He couldn’t do it any more and refused to continue sealing his brother’s fate. Consequences, be damned. He turned furiously back to Mrs. Rawlings and threw the shovel away, receiving a blow to his lower back which drove him to his knees.  A rifle barrel was pressed between his shoulder blades.  "Do your own dirty work," he sneered, oblivious to the pain.  He stared proudly at his captor as her face turned a furious shade of red.  Then he heard the sound of the other men dropping their shovels to the ground.

"Pick up that shovel!" Mrs. Rawlings shouted.

Pushing himself up slowly, Scott stood and shook his head in defiance.

"Do as you're told or the woman..."

Scott saw her look to her right at the empty floor. He saw her eyes, even from this distance, take on a wild, frightened look.

Tom whirled around, his rifle aimed at Scott again. "Get back to work," he ordered.

Once more, Scott shook his head and took a step backwards, jumping down into the hole. As if it were the sign the workers had been waiting, for a shot rang out and Tom looked shocked to see a bright red swatch of blood blossom on his abdomen. He dropped his rifle, hands clutching frantically at the wound.  He fell to his knees in agony and Scott grinned coldly in satisfaction.

A pick landed in front of him and he seized the handle eagerly. He could hear shouts and screams mingled with the sound of gunfire.  He ignored it all, fitting the end of the pick under the lid of the coffin.  "Hold on, Brother...hold on," he begged.

***

The pains were coming quickly now and Elana knew that the baby would soon be born.  She held tightly to her husband's hand, letting his voice soothe and encourage her.  She was only vaguely aware that she was now inside the house, in a lavishly furnished sitting room.  She lay on a soft sofa, Miguel perched beside her. Arturo knelt on the floor, holding her hand.  Whenever he moved, she heard the chains around his wrists clattering and mourned the fact that her child was to be born into captivity. The first shot startled her and she cried out in fear.

"Shush,” Arturo said soothingly. “It is alright. It has begun."

"Don't let them kill the children," she begged, tightening her grip on his hand.

"I will protect them with my life. You have work to do now, my love. Our niño will not wait."

"I love you," she whispered.  "Whatever happens, I need you to know that."

"I do." Arturo reached back and drew Miguel to his side. "We will be alright, I promise you."

He moved back so that Consuela could take his place.  Elana felt gentle hands resting on her swollen belly as the young woman checked the progress of her labor. She looked up, and Elana could see wonder and joy on her face.

"The baby is coming," Consuela said.

***

Mrs. Rawlings watched in horror as Tom corkscrewed to the ground, blood spewing between his fingers. "NO!" she screamed.

Shots rained down on the workers, and then she heard a scream and one of her men plummeted from the balcony, landing in the dirt only a few feet away from her. More shots rang out. Another guard collapsed where he stood. This couldn't be happening, she thought. The mob began to close in on her and she backed away fearfully. As if of one body and mind they sought revenge.

The sound of screams filled the courtyard. The smell of gunpowder and blood sickened her. In her haste, she stumbled and fell to her knees. A guard next to her went down, his bloodied hand reaching out to her for help. She pushed it away and grabbed the railing, pulling herself back to her feet.

***

Johnny no longer heard the sound of the dirt hitting the coffin. His air was nearly gone. His lungs burned with each shallow breath. Blackness, deeper than the inside of his tomb, settled over him. Not even the heavy thud on top of the coffin brought him back. Death was upon him and he accepted it.

***

Oblivious to the mayhem erupting around him Scott strained to pry the nails out of the coffin lid. He caught the edge of one of the planks and yanked at it, panic and dread nearly driving him to madness. Would he be in time or would he find...? No, he wasn't going to give up hope.  Not again.

One board snapped and broke. The smell of stale air and fear blasted his face. "Johnny!" he screamed, only to be greeted by silence. Other hands joined his and a space just big enough for him to see inside revealed a lifeless body. Frantically he tore at the boards, ignoring the pain in his hands as the rough edges sliced into his skin. "No!" Scott stretched out the length of the coffin, his hand reaching for Johnny. He felt the wet hair, the hot sweat soaked skin. Warm air brushed his hand and he realized Johnny was still breathing.

"He's alive! Help me," he begged and the other men redoubled their efforts.

"Senor, we need your help!" a worker shouted in his ear. "Let us free your brother. We need your skill with the gun."

Hands reached down and yanked him from the hole. He fought them, tried to scramble back into the hole. He couldn’t leave Johnny down there. The workers pleaded with him once more and finally, reason took over and he realized they could not free Johnny in the small space with him in the way. But the idea of being separated from his brother again nearly killed him.

The sound of a bullet whizzing by close to his ear caused Scott to drop to his knees.  He tore his eyes away from the frantic activity in the grave and realized, with a sense of shock, just how vulnerable he was in his exposed position. In his haste to save Johnny, Scott had forgotten the chaos going on in the courtyard. Bodies, both workers and guards, lay in pools of blood.

Pandemonium filled the courtyard. Figures ran in every direction, some with rifles and a purpose, others fleeing from the carnage. Smoke and the smell of blood bit at his nostrils. He searched the porch and saw Elana and her family had all disappeared. He prayed that they had found a place to hide. A worker carrying a rifle ran toward him, zigzagging across the courtyard, his arm extended.  The weapon was almost in his hand when the worker screamed and fell to the ground, his eyes vacant as he looked up into the sky. Scott dove for the rifle and began to fire.

Caught between helping Johnny and defending the workers, he aimed the rifle, taking out a guard running for the kitchen door. With cold calculation, he began to take revenge for his brother.  He took careful aim and fired, before immediately seeking another target.  His shots were precise and lethal. He had to protect the men who were working to free Johnny. He dropped to his stomach, the cries of the wounded and the scared echoing in his ears.

He looked around for Mrs. Rawlings and caught a glimpse of her huddled behind a pillar.  She was no longer a threat, so he turned his attention to the guards who had been caught out in the open when the workers had rioted. He took aim, but his intended victim suddenly screamed as a pick tumbled through the air and hit him in the back. The very tools that the workers had been forced to use to tend the ranch were now deadly weapons in those same hands. Other workers had picked up stones and were using them to batter their previous tormentors. All shred of humanity had fled, leaving only the savage urge to seek retribution for years of degradation and misery.

The sound of the coffin lid being ripped open drew Scott’s attention back to the hole. Suddenly, nothing existed but the sight of Johnny lying in the coffin. He rose unsteadily to his feet, the rifle falling from numb hands. He had come so close to losing his brother - might still lose him if Johnny didn't receive the care he so desperately needed. He shuffled toward the edge of the grave, no longer aware of the chains around his ankles. He sank to his knees, everything around him disappearing into a vast nothingness- only Johnny existed, only his need to save his brother

Faces, filled with so much sympathy and worry, looked up at him.  Their compassion tore at him – he did not deserve it. Slowly, gently, they lifted Johnny's limp body between them, raising him up toward Scott's waiting arms. With trembling hands he laid Johnny beside him and prayed that he hadn’t lost him. He rolled Johnny carefully onto his side and attacked the rope binding his brother’s wrists.  The torn and bleeding flesh presented a vivid picture of Johnny's frantic efforts to escape his tomb.

"Senor, Senor." A worker grabbed him by the shoulders. "He needs water. He is burning up."

Scott came out of his stupor as a canteen of water appeared and he hurriedly lifted Johnny's head. He trickled water onto dry, cracked lips, but to his dismay, there was no response. "Please, Johnny drink." Another thin stream of water followed and this time Scott received the reaction he had been praying for.  Although his eyes were still tightly closed Johnny licked the water from his parched lips.

"Senor," a hand gently squeezed Scott’s shoulder, "he needs shade."

A tarp appeared out of nowhere, shielding Johnny from the sun's rays.  Scott heaved a sigh of relief.  He'd had no intention of relinquishing his hold on his brother, but neither did he think he possessed the strength right then to carry him out of the fierce sunlight. With a sadness that nearly left him breathless he knew that when Johnny woke, he would no longer be welcome by his brother’s side.

***

Johnny had reached that place where fear and pain no longer existed.  It had been a long, hard road and not one he had traveled willingly. Now, he was at peace. When he felt his body being jostled, with his quiet darkness being disturbed by voices, the sounds and sensations held no meaning for him.

Something wet kissed his lips and he sought it eagerly.  Tepid water flushed the inside of his mouth and ran down his dry throat.  Knowing that he was nearing death, this could only be a cruel illusion.  He kept his eyes shut, unwilling to open them only to see the blackness of his tomb.

Voices buzzed around him like insects.  The words were indistinct and he shook his head, willing them to leave him alone, to let him die in peace.  One voice, more insistent than the rest, was familiar.

“Easy, Johnny.”

He jerked in surprise, taking a breath and then another.  But it wasn’t enough.  He was suffocating.  He felt himself being pushed down, deeper into his grave…deeper into the hell that awaited him.  Terror resurfaced and he thrashed at the unseen enemy, trying to break free and find enough air to fill his tortured lungs.

“Take it easy, Brother.”  There was that voice again.  He clung onto it, feeling instinctively that the person speaking those words was important to him. Still, the hands pulled at him, and he fought, sobbing with the effort.

The insistent voice continued to calm him and he finally recognized it. ‘Mi Hermano!’ The thought gave him pause and he went limp.  Why didn’t the thought of his brother bring him any comfort?  He couldn’t remember, only knew that he was feeling a deep sadness which he couldn’t identify.  He opened his eyes, closing them hurriedly as the light stung them. The significance of that was lost on him. He turned his head and tried again, finding himself looking up into the concerned face of his brother.

A multitude of emotions overwhelmed him, feasting on his already weak and confused mind. Then one thought came to him with shattering clarity.  He was alive!  And Scott…Scott was there with him.  He was too weak to smile, to give any sign of relief.  His brother’s face was infused with joy.  He wanted to respond, to tell Scott that he would be okay, but the words wouldn’t leave his dry throat.  Exhaustion washed over him.  There were things he needed to remember, but he shied away from them. All he wanted to do was savor the fact that he was still alive.  He closed his eyes and turned away.

But Scott wouldn’t let him go so easily.  His brother’s hand gently turned his face back so that he was forced to look into those serious blue-grey eyes, and his heart lurched as he remembered the betrayal, the abandonment.

“Johnny…Thank God, Johnny.”

Johnny hadn't noticed the sound of gunshots and screams until there was suddenly no sound at all. He felt Scott stiffen and turn to look back at the house. "H...help me," he stammered and felt Scott's arm snake around his shoulders to help him sit up.

He leaned against Scott's chest as they both watched Mrs. Rawlings slowly driven backwards on her patio, rocks and stones pelting her. Her screams for help went unheeded by the workers, driven by their need for revenge, and hatred for all the years of ill treatment.

Mrs. Rawlings was driven to her knees, still shouting a mixture of entreaties and orders. Johnny felt Scott’s chest rise and fall as a large stone struck Mrs. Rawlings on the forehead, opening a deep gash.  He felt only a cold satisfaction as he watched the blood pouring down her face.  Scott's arms tightened around his shoulders, trembling with exhaustion and needing support and comfort himself.  Johnny slowly raised his hand to touch Scott’s. Just for a moment, and then he let it fall back. They watched together as the workers closed in, finally hiding her from sight.  All of a sudden there was silence. And a new sound broke the silence...echoed around the courtyard. The cries of a new born baby.

The door leading to the patio opened and Consuela stepped through, cradling a small bundle in her arms.  A broad smile lit up her face as she saw the brothers together. Opening the blanket she raised the child high in the air, a tribute to all who had fought and won their battle for freedom. “Un nuevo principio.” (A new beginning).

 

Chapter 23

Consuela knocked softly on the door leading to the study.  She didn't really expect to receive an answer and pushed the door open quietly.  As she had anticipated, she found Scott fast asleep with his blond head resting on his arms.  So much had happened in the last twenty-four hours that most people were still in a daze. Many knew what the young man had done, how he had tried to save his brother, but still others did not trust him. And the person he needed the trust from the most, trusted him the least.

Johnny had succumbed to unconsciousness shortly after Mrs. Rawlings’ death.  It had taken time to locate the keys to remove the leg irons from both brothers and the collar from around Johnny’s neck.  Many had turned away, not able to look upon the Johnny Madrid who lay so still next to the open grave, his body bruised, torn and streaked with blood. She didn't know where Scott had found the strength to deal with that sight.  He had been incredibly efficient, taking charge and issuing orders. His calm acceptance of his role as leader had been a gift in the aftermath of chaos. What was deeply disturbing to her, was the fact that Scott, having seen his brother safely put to bed, had left the room and hadn’t returned since.

She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder, not wanting to wake him but wanting him to feel her presence. He mumbled sleepily to himself and turned his head without opening his eyes.  He was exhausted and she suspected he hadn't been to bed. The work of tending to the injured and laying the dead to rest had gone on late into the night. The cries of the wounded, and the tears of those in mourning, still echoed in her ears. Even in death, Mrs. Rawlings still reached out from the grave.

The remaining guards had been rounded up and were now locked up in the same cells which had so recently been a prison for the brothers and Arturo. They had not fared well beneath the punishing hands of the workers....but they deserved it. She wondered when and how it would all end.

The one joyous event had been the birth of Elana's daughter. Miguel had been overcome with curiosity about this new life and it was helping him to forget his ordeal. Consuela smiled to herself. It was God's way to add a new, innocent life to take the place of one so filled with hate. She shook her head in sorrow then. It would be a long time, however, before the Lancer brothers forgot and she wondered if Scott would ever forgive himself for what he had been forced to do.

Scott sighed softly and opened blood-shot eyes.  His face was pale, apart from the bruises inflicted during his captivity. Her heart went out to him.  No one knew how much this had cost him. She had watched him from the beginning…had watched him die a little each day, every time he had to inflict a punishment on his brother.  She brushed back a tear that sprang from those memories.

"Senor Scott, you should go to your room and get proper rest. You have been through so much."

He stared at her for a moment, appearing confused by his surroundings. Then comprehension returned to his eyes. "I'm fine.  There's too much to do." He pulled a stack of paperwork toward him.

"It can wait.” She reached over, putting her small hand over his larger one. “Everything can wait. Everything, but your brother. You must go to him. He needs you."

Scott paused and looked away.  "How is he?"

"Why don't you go and see for yourself?" she asked.

He shook his head. "I can't. He doesn't want to see me. And I can't blame him. Can you?"

"You are wrong," she insisted.  "He needs his family."

"His family, yes, but not me. Don't you see? I stepped over the line. No matter how much I was trying to help him, I hurt him. I can't ask for his forgiveness. Hell, I can't even ask for my own."

"You did what you thought was right,” she insisted. “What would have happened if you hadn't chosen that path? You would both have died. Give him time and he will realize that."

"There are some things that time can’t heal." Taking a deep breath he looked toward the window. "Tell the men that I want them to pick a leader to come and see me in one hour. We have to get some organization started here."

"You are a stubborn man, Scott Lancer," she told him severely.  "You think that you have let your brother down? By ignoring him now, that is exactly what you are doing."

A look of intense anger crossed his face. "I am doing what needs to be done here." He pushed himself to his feet.  "I know you mean well, but this is none of your business.”

A tear trickled down her cheek as she watched him striding from the room.  What would it take to reunite the two brothers?

***

Their trail had led from the telegraph office in Norton to the town of Serenity.  Murdoch's anger resurfaced as he thought about the information they had obtained there.  Johnny had been arrested and tortured by the sheriff.  The man had been foolish enough to admit it with a satisfied smirk.  Of course, that had been before he had realized who he was talking to.  The news that both his sons had been kidnapped, and were being held captive, had enraged him. He rubbed his sore knuckles and smiled coldly. The sheriff hadn't known what hit him, nor would he, until he came to in his cell. Val had stuffed the key in his back pocket, and the sheriff would not see the light of day until they all returned safely.

Inquiries amongst the other townsfolk had only served to confuse him.  They seemed to be suggesting that Scott was working with this Rawlings woman - but that couldn't be right. It had also become clear that rescuing his sons wouldn't be easy.  She had a small army at her disposal, which was why he was now engaged in a heated debate with Val.

"You can't go in there alone," Val protested.

"If they have Johnny and Scott in there, a show of force could get them killed."

"And you could get killed."

"I learned a long time ago that my life isn't worth much without my sons. You wait here and stay out of sight," Murdoch ordered. "You'll know if I need help."

Val looked over at the group of men they had recruited from Norton.  The sheriff there had suggested that they might need back up and both men were glad of it now.

Murdoch nodded back at the men and slowly headed up the road leading to the main house. It was too quiet. Murdoch noticed no one around. The grounds were well maintained, and they did not get that way without constant attention, so the silence was unnerving.

As he rounded a curve in the drive, Murdoch got his first look at the house.  It was an imposing building, but all he could think about were his sons and their safety.  He worried for both of them. If what he had heard in town was right, Johnny was in danger because of his heritage, and Scott would risk his own life to save his brother. He vowed that nothing would prevent him from rescuing them.  And, if anything had happened to either one of them, he would send the bitch to hell where she belonged.

He was still a good distance from the front door when two men, armed with rifles, stepped out and barred his way. He knew that Val would be watching and hoped the sheriff would keep calm.  It took a moment for Murdoch to realize what was wrong. Everything he had been told about Mrs. Rawlings suggested that she treated her Mexican workers like slaves.  Yet, the men now standing in front of him were Mexican.  They carried with them an air of suspicion and determination.

 “Hola,” Murdoch called, bringing his horse to a standstill.

"Stay where you are," one of the armed men instructed.

"I would like to speak to Mrs. Rawlings," Murdoch called out again.

"What business do you have with her, Senor?” the appointed spokesman demanded.

"That is between her and me.” Murdoch fought hard to hold onto his temper and curb his impatience. “Just tell her I'm here."

"You will not need that gun, Senor," the other guard said. "Remove it and raise your hands."

Moving slowly and carefully, Murdoch did as instructed.  He wasn't going to take any chances with his sons’ lives.  He was prepared to be cooperative - at least until he knew how things stood. He dismounted and walked up the steps toward the porch, feeling a sense of unease that he could not put his finger on. He had still not seen anyone but these two guards.

"Stay there," he was told.  One man was left to guard him while the other disappeared inside the house.

The hot afternoon sun beat down and Murdoch felt beads of sweat trickling down his back.  He licked dry lips and tried to be patient.  The uncertainty was killing him.  When the door reopened and Scott stepped out, the tight bands of fear that had been constricting his heart began to loosen.  He took a step forward, ignoring the guard and his rifle. "Scott! Son, am I glad to see you!"

"It's alright," Scott said tiredly to the guards.  "You can let him in.  He's our father."

There was a confused look on the guards’ faces, but they obediently lowered their guns.

"I am glad to see you, Sir."

Murdoch moved forward slowly, brows drawn together in a puzzled frown. The words of welcome sounded more polite than heartfelt. Plus there was something wrong with the way Scott stood there. His son’s air of confidence was gone and he looked exhausted.  "Are you alright?" he asked, unnerved by Scott's stillness.

Scott nodded. "I'm fine. It's Johnny who needs you."

Murdoch could not read the emotions in Scott's voice.  He seemed cut off - lost beyond redemption. What had happened here?

His son turned to a young Mexican woman who had walked out with him.  "Consuela will show you the way.  Excuse me."

"Scott! Wait. What is going on here?"

"Later, Murdoch.  I have things to take care of, and you, should check on Johnny."

Murdoch could only watch his son walk away. Scott’s footsteps seemed so heavy and he walked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. The rancher looked down at the young woman at his side. "My God, what has happened here?”

"All in good time, Senor.  I am glad that you are finally here.  Your sons need you."

She led him into the house and up the stairs.  When they reached the landing, she stopped and turned to face him.  "You need to prepare yourself.  Senor Johnny has been badly hurt in both body and spirit.  He will need your love and strength to get well."

 

He followed her down a hallway, feeling eyes watching him. They reached a bedroom, the door ajar. Someone walked out with a basin of water and towels hung over her arm and quickly disappeared in the direction of the stairs. Murdoch laid a hand on Consuela’s arm.  "Please...at least tell me how Johnny came to be hurt."

She shook her head sadly and pushed the door fully open. Murdoch's heart skipped a beat as he saw Johnny lying motionless on the bed. A towel covered his hips, but everywhere else his body was covered in deep bruises and lacerations. His knees and feet were flayed open...whatever had happened to him had been horrific.

"God in Heaven...what happened?"

"He was tortured, forced to work by Mrs. Rawlings," she said, her voice filled with hate.  "And then...he almost died, Senor."

The revelation that Johnny had come close to death re-ignited Murdoch's rage.  Once he had tended to his son, he would find Mrs. Rawlings and make her pay for every mark on Johnny's body.

"Go to your son.  He needs you now."

"Why isn't Scott here?"

"He will not come.  He was forced to do terrible things to save his brother and now he labors under a great weight of guilt."

Her words didn’t register, he could think only of his younger son. He walked closer to the bed, barely able to breathe.  Seeing so many horrendous injuries on his son’s body was a severe shock, for which he was totally unprepared.  It was clear that his son was undernourished, his body far thinner than when he had left Lancer only a few weeks previously.  He reached out with trembling hands and felt Johnny’s forehead.  His skin was too warm to the touch.  A fever burned there, complicating his recovery. Then his gaze fell upon the vivid bruise around his son’s neck. “What caused this?” He gently traced it with his fingers.

The young woman bowed her head in shame. "A leather collar."

Murdoch looked at her in disbelief. "Like a dog?"

"Si, Senor. As punishment," she added, as if that was an adequate explanation.

"For what? What could Johnny have done wrong that would make anyone treat..."

“He is half Mexican," she said softly, the bitterness in her voice choking the words back.

Anger so powerful that it slammed into every nerve of his body nearly floored Murdoch. Why? Johnny had suffered all his life because he was neither white nor Mexican. But this...! He had loved Maria and had felt only happiness when he found she was expecting his child.  If he had known...if he'd thought about the kind of life that child would have...When Johnny was born, neither he, nor anyone else on Lancer, had thought of the boy as a mestizo – God, he hated that name.  But later, after Maria had stolen the boy away, then he'd worried and wondered.

"Where is Mrs. Rawlings?' he asked through gritted teeth. He had never struck a woman in his life, but he was about to change that.

Consuela turned away, shaking her head.  Murdoch pulled her back to face him.  He could see by the look on her face that he was hurting her, but he didn't care.  He was beyond worrying about anything except his sons.  "You said that Scott had been forced to do things.  What things?” His voice rose uncontrollably.  “Tell me that the stories I heard in town aren't true!  Tell me Scott didn't have a hand in this!"

Her voice was so low he could barely hear it. "I can not."

He looked at her in shocked incomprehension.

"Please, Senor, do not judge him until you know all the facts. He did what he did to save Senor Johnny, and all of us. You must help him overcome the guilt that is keeping him from his brother's side."

Murdoch looked at his younger son, lying so still and quiet.  Johnny was never still.  Then, he thought of Scott and of how tired and unwell he had looked.  Something truly disastrous had occurred here and he needed to get to the bottom of it. "Please tell me what happened," he begged.  "How can I help them if I don't understand?"

“There is much to tell, Senor, and it would be better if you spoke with your sons first.”

He reached down and picked up Johnny's limp hand, his eyes moistening at the evidence of more abuse. He traced the deep bruises and lacerations around his son’s wrist. "I need to see Scott now," he said, his voice nearly failing him.

"He is probably in the study.  I will show you the way."

Murdoch followed her, his mind in a whirl. How could any of this have happened?

***

Murdoch eased open the door leading to the study.  Consuela nodded her encouragement and quickly walked away.  Scott was sitting behind the desk, surrounded by paperwork.  Only, he wasn't working.  He was leaning back in the chair, eyes closed, looking so tired and lost that Murdoch’s heart ached for him.

"Scott?"

Scott looked toward him, but he seemed a million miles away. "Did you see Johnny?"

"Yes. He's resting. How are you, Son?"

"Me?" Scott seemed surprised by the question.  "Why would you be worried about me after what I've done?"

Murdoch took a hesitant step into the room. "I will always worry about my sons. Both of them."

"You don't know, do you?" Scott asked wearily.

"No. Why don't you tell me what happened?" Murdoch suggested gently.

"What happened?"

Murdoch saw the haunted look in Scott's eyes. Slowly, his son stood up and turned to gaze out the window. "That is what happened," he said.

Murdoch hesitantly walked across the room. He reached the window and looked out onto a courtyard.  It appeared as if a war had been fought there.  His eyes moved to a stout wooden post and then to a hole in the ground, beside which, sat the remnants of a coffin.

"That was Johnny's coffin," Scott said, his voice cracking with emotion.  “His hands and feet were tied and he couldn't...I picked him up and put him in it...I nailed it shut...and....and I shoveled the dirt…God forgive me..." His knees buckled and Murdoch caught him before he could slip to the ground. “I...I buried my brother alive."

Murdoch didn’t know what to say. The images of Johnny's torn knees and feet, his toenails ripped, made terrible sense now. The agony on Scott's face broke his heart...but his words...his words slammed into his gut...he could barely breathe. Murdoch saw all the hurt, all the anger, all the guilt suddenly explode and pulled Scott into his arms as his son began to sob with despair.

Scott wrenched himself free, tense and upset.  "I don't imagine you want to be in the same room with me.  I'll make arrangements for you to have a room near Johnny.  Let Consuela know if you need anything.  I'll keep out of your way."

"That's it? You’re just going to dismiss me? Scott I want to know what really happened."

"Johnny will tell you."

Scott walked toward the door, but Murdoch moved to bar his way.

"I don't want to hear it from Johnny. I want to hear it from you. What happened here?"

Scott shook his head wearily.  "I almost killed my brother.  I certainly killed any feelings he might have had for me.  There's nothing more to tell."

Murdoch stepped closer. "Whatever went on here I know you two can make it right. But you have to talk to him. When he is stronger, he needs to know that you are here for him."

He was surprised by the bitterness in Scott's laugh, and the hysterical edge to it worried him greatly.

"I'm the last person he'll want to talk to.  Let me go, Murdoch.  I've got work to do."

Anger rose up in Murdoch. Without thinking he reached out, grabbed Scott’s arm and shook him violently.  "You will tell me what happened! I want to know why Johnny is lying in that bed half-dead!”

Scott whipped his arm away. "Leave me alone!"

"Where's the woman who owns this house?"

Scott looked down at the desk, all the reminders of Mrs. Rawlings. "Dead," he said flatly. "They stoned her to death."

Murdoch's hand dropped. "My God!” he breathed, reading the empty desperation that filled his son’s eyes and regretting his forceful actions a moment before. Staring at Scott, he inhaled sharply.  It was as if the life had leaked out of those blue eyes and no amount of shaking would ever bring it back or force his son to reveal the demon which now seemed to possess him.  He lowered his voice, gently trying to bring forth some measure of cooperation. “Scott, don’t shut me out.  I want to help, only I can't when I don't know what you and your brother have been through.

Scott shook his head. "Please...just let me be."

Murdoch reached a hand out.  “I can’t,” he said softly, feeling Scott shaking beneath his touch.  He had never seen his son looking at him with such need before. His strong, self-reliant son was crumbling before his eyes. “Son, please…”

"I'm sorry," Scott's voice cracked, and his legs gave way.  Murdoch caught him, folding him into his arms and sliding down the wall to the ground.  He laid Scott's head on his lap, combing his fingers through the blond hair. His relief at finding that his sons were still alive was tempered by a deep fear.  Events had torn his sons apart and he didn't know how to make things right. The vision of that coffin sitting next to the open grave sent a shiver down his spine.  What hell had they both been through?

 

Chapter 24

Time stood still for Murdoch as he listened to the quiet breaths of his son. Even in sleep, there was an agony on Scott's face, not from physical pain, but from something much deeper. Anxious as he was to find out the whole story, he had no wish to disturb Scott. His son clearly needed this respite. Then there was Johnny...he ached to go back and check on his younger son.

The door opened quietly to admit Consuela. "Scott's collapsed," he explained in answer to the unspoken question on her face.

"I expected it before this. He is exhausted...both in body and mind. Help him, Senor. He needs to know that this was not his fault. He cannot live with this kind of burden."

Scott moaned softly and opened his eyes, clearly surprised to find himself lying in his father's lap. "Sorry, Sir," he said softly, eyelids drooping with exhaustion.

"Don't worry about it, Son.  Can you stand?  I assume you have a bed where you can get some proper rest."

"There's too much to do," Scott protested weakly.

"Everything can wait. You need rest. Now come on, I won't take ‘no’ for an answer."

Murdoch could have sworn that a look of relief crossed his son's tired face.  Scott's movements were stiff and slow as he pushed himself to his feet.

Taking more weight than he knew Scott intended, Murdoch guided his son down the hall following Consuela. By the time they reached the upstairs landing, Scott appeared barely conscious, putting one foot in front of the other by sheer force of will. Without a word, Murdoch scooped him into his arms, ignoring his protests which soon tapered off into silence.

He heard the wavering cry of a young baby and then a door further along the hallway opened and a small dark haired boy slipped through.  He caught his breath, imagining Johnny at that age.  The boy's eyes opened wide in terror and he pressed himself against the wall. Murdoch’s concern deepened as he wondered what had gone on here, where a child could be so fearful. The rancher’s expression had darkened and the child sobbed once before turning to hide his face against the wall

Consuela pushed past and dropped to her knees, taking the child in her arms.  "It's alright, Miguel.  This is Senor Lancer.  He is Johnny and Scott's father."

Miguel look up, his eyes glistening with tears. "Senor Lancer?" he asked quietly. "He is a gringo," he added fearfully.

"Si, but you remember, he is Senor Scott's father, too."

Miguel looked over her shoulder and Murdoch could see that he was studying Scott.  The strain of carrying his son was beginning to tell on his arms and shoulders, but he didn't want to do anything that might frighten this child more than he already was.

"He hurt his hermano," Miguel said accusingly.

Murdoch's heart dropped. This boy's fear was real.

Consuela shook her head.  "Your mama and papa explained to you..." she began, only to stop as Miguel wrenched himself out of her arms.

"No! I saw him! I saw him put Senor Johnny in the ground! I saw him! I saw him!" the boy screamed.

The sound roused Scott and he opened his eyes, looking around in confusion.  Seeing that he was awake, Miguel shouted, "I hate you," before running off down the hallway.

Scott turned his head, guilt and shame written clearly on his face.  “Let me down,” he whispered.

Once he was on his feet, Scott reached out a hand to steady himself against the wall.  "You see? Even a child is afraid of me."

“I want to help you, Son, but I can’t if you shut me out.  Please, let me be the father I should have been to you.”

"It's too late," Scott replied sadly. "Leave me alone." He walked unsteadily down to the door of the bedroom occupied by his brother.  His hand caressed the doorframe. He hesitated, then, resolutely turned away.

***

As Murdoch looked indecisively from one room, to the other he heard shouting from outside the house. He swore under his breath as he recognized the voice at the heart of the commotion. Val's belligerent tones were rising in volume.  He had been so distracted that he had forgotten about the sheriff and his posse.

He hurried downstairs and out of the front door, towering over everyone. "It's all right," he said. “He’s a friend – an amigo."

The air was filled with suspicion.  A number of the Mexican workers were pointing rifles at Val, who was glowering down at them from his horse.  Murdoch was afraid that one or more would lose their heads and fire. "This is Sheriff Crawford," he explained hurriedly.  "He and Johnny have been friends for a long time.  He is here to help."

The workers looked suspiciously from Murdoch to Val, clearly not trusting this new gringo.

Consuela stepped forward. "Mrs. Rawlings hated us because of the color of our skin. Are we so bigoted that we act the same way? Senor Lancer is the father of Johnny Madrid, and this is his amigo. We do him a disservice if we turn our backs on his father and his friend. We have won nothing if we carry on her legacy of hate."

"How do we know we can trust these men?" one of the workers asked and there was a general buzz of agreement.

"Both Senor Johnny and Senor Scott spoke of their father. He is a good man if his sons love him so."

"Senor Madrid we trust," the man continued.  "His hermano...that is different."

"I know it is hard, but I believe in my heart that you are wrong about Senor Scott. For now, though, the trust must start somewhere. Let it start here...now."

Murdoch held his breath as the men debated amongst themselves.  He shot a warning look to Val to ensure that the sheriff kept quiet.  He had come to admire Val during their journey, but knew he had a short temper.  The wrong word now could be disastrous.

They looked from Murdoch to Val. One man spoke hesitantly. "Senor Lancer can stay. His amigo must go."

"Alright," Murdoch conceded.  "But I need time to speak to the sheriff before he leaves."

"And I ain't going until I've seen Johnny," Val growled. Before anyone could object, Val spoke again. "Johnny's been a good friend for a lot of years. From what I heard in town he's been through hell here. I wanna see him for myself."

Val dismounted and walked over to the rancher.  "Well, are ya gonna stand there all day or can we go inside?  The sooner I see Johnny, the sooner I can get the men outta here."

Consuela led the way up the stairs. Murdoch was leery of what would happen when Val saw Johnny. It was hard looking at a son or a friend who had been mistreated so badly. And what would happen if - no when - he found out the extent of Scott’s involvement?

 

Even though he had seen Johnny before, it was still a shock to see his pitifully weakened condition.  Murdoch heard Val give a harsh gasp as he entered the room.

"What the hell!"

"I haven't had time to find out all the details," Murdoch said hurriedly.

Val's scowl was dark and dangerous.  "Who did this to him?" he demanded.  "Cause right about now I'm ready to forget that I'm a lawman."

"The woman responsible is dead," Murdoch told him, still unable to believe what Scott had told him.  To be so hated that your own workers would stone you to death...

"No woman alone did this." He looked down at Johnny and promised, "I'll see that every man who laid a hand on you will pay."

Murdoch swallowed down the lump of fear in his throat.  He had never expected to have to protect Scott from the sheriff, but it might just come to that. "We should leave him to rest."

"What about Scott? Is he hurt too?" Val inquired.

"Yes. Not as bad as Johnny. But he’s resting."

Val jammed his hat back on his head.  "Alright.  I'll round up the men and head back to town.  Send word when Johnny wakes up.  I want to talk to him."

Murdoch nodded. "I will."

"I'll need to talk to everyone about what happened here eventually. I'll be taking over for the sheriff until they get a new one in town."

"Good idea.  I want to get to the bottom of what happened myself.”

Murdoch spotted a chair sitting in the corner and dragged it over to the side of the bed. "I'm going to stay with Johnny for awhile," he told Val. "I want to be here when he wakes up. I'll let you know when they are both able to talk." He was determined to get to the truth before Val found out what Scott had been forced to do.  Surely, that truth would clear Scott of all blame.

With a gentleness that surprised Murdoch, Val reached out and brushed the hair from Johnny's forehead. "Ah, Amigo, who done this to ya? Those things they were sayin' in town," Val looked up at Murdoch. "How much of it is true?"

"I don't know, Sheriff, but I know enough about Scott to know that he would never willingly hurt his brother."

Val nodded slowly. "And I know how Johnny trusts his brother. John's a good judge of character."

Murdoch sighed unobtrusively.  At least Val wasn't jumping to conclusions.  His limited experience of the sheriff was starting to suggest that Crawford was a fair-minded man underneath his gruff exterior.

He reached down and took Johnny's hand again. "I'll let you know when I find anything out."

"I'll be on my way, then.  You can trust me to keep a lid on things in town while you sort things out here."

"I know I can, Sheriff. You’re a good man. And you’re right about Johnny being a good judge of character."

Val ducked his head in embarrassment before muttering a brief farewell and hurrying from the room.

Left alone, Murdoch leaned down close to Johnny's ear and whispered. "Whatever happened here, we'll get through it. All of us...together."

***

It was dark and the house was quiet.  Murdoch had spent the afternoon alternating between his sons' rooms.  Neither had woken. Consuela had brought him food, which he was too distracted to eat.  Not knowing what had happened was wearing at his nerves.

"You must eat, Senor," Consuela said from the doorway looking at the untouched plate on the nightstand next to Johnny's bed. "You cannot help your sons if you become ill yourself."

He rubbed his tired eyes.  "I know, but I don't have the stomach for it right now."

"Then there are some people who would like to meet you. They are just down the hall."

"What about Johnny?  I don't want to leave him alone. After being in that coffin..." He paused, heart racing at the thought that had tormented him all afternoon.  "I don't want him to be alone when he wakes up."

Consuela nodded, motioning to someone in the hallway beside her. "Anita will watch him. She will call if he wakes up. Please, Senor, it will do you good to talk to them."

Responding to the entreaty in her voice, Murdoch stood up, groaning as his back protested.  He laid a hand on Johnny's forehead.  The heat was still concerning.  "I won't be long, Son," he promised.

Following Consuela out the door, he looked back to see the young woman gently wipe Johnny's face with a cool cloth. His son would be in good hands for the short time he was gone. He looked at Consuela inquiringly as she led him to the room from which the young boy had come earlier in the day.

She knocked lightly at the door and a soft voice bid them to enter. He was surprised to see a woman sitting up in bed, a newborn baby in her arms. The little boy, who had run from him in fear and anger, sat by her side. A man reclined in a chair by the window, his leg propped up on a footstool.

The little boy's eyes grew wide with fear as he saw Murdoch and he jumped from the bed to stand next to the man in the chair. The man put a comforting arm around the boy and drew him close.

"Senor Lancer, I would like to introduce Senor and Senora De La Vara.  You have already met their son, Miguel.”

Murdoch nodded to them, lost as to why he was here.

"Senor Lancer, it is good of you to spare the time," the woman told him.  "We owe your sons a great debt and wanted to have a chance to tell you."

"I don't understand." Murdoch looked to Consuela.

"They risked their lives to help us. When they could have turned away and been safe, they instead stayed with us. We are so sorry they suffered so," the woman said sadly.

Murdoch didn't know what to say. He couldn’t accept these people's thanks when he didn't even know what had gone on.

"I’ve seen my sons and it is clear that they’ve suffered.  What I don't know yet is what happened to them.  Scott told me..." he paused to gather his courage to say the words that had cut him to the heart, "that he buried Johnny alive.  I don't understand what would have driven him to do that."

The woman lowered her head, her voice rough with emotion. "Because of us. They were trying to save us."

Murdoch turned bewildered eyes to the man.  "Who would threaten to hurt a woman and innocent children?"

"Mrs. Rawlings threatened to bury Miguel if Senor Scott did not do what she said."

"She was an evil woman. The devil himself would not shake hands with her," Arturo growled.

"The devil is welcome to her," Murdoch growled.  "Because of her, Johnny is half-dead and Scott is blaming himself."

"You must make Senor Scott know that he is not to blame. When he is ready, bring him here. Maybe a word from us will help," Elana offered.

A wavering cry filled the room and Elana smiled down at the child in her arms.  "I should introduce you to the newest member of our family.  Without your sons, she might never have been born."

Murdoch felt overwhelmed. There was just too much to take in.

"Her name is Esperanza," Elana said fondly.

Murdoch looked at the child.  "Hope," he said, almost to himself.

"Come and sit down," Elana invited.  "And we will tell you about your sons."

***

Scott lay in the darkness.  His sleep had been disturbed by nightmarish images and he felt no more rested than he had before.

The sound of footsteps walking down the hallway grew louder then stopped outside his door. He knew those heavy footfalls. But never had he wished more that they did not mean his father was about to enter. What could he say to him? He debated turning over and pretending to be asleep.  But, he had to start facing this.  He had to face his father and his brother.

There was a hesitant knock at the door and then it opened.

He pushed himself wearily to his feet, running a shaky hand across the soft stubble on his chin.  He’d forgotten how long it had been since he’d washed and shaved.  And, right now, he was too tired to care. Nothing mattered any more.  Nothing, except Johnny lying in bed two doors away from him. He almost found it too hard to ask the question. "Murdoch. How...how's Johnny?"

Murdoch stepped into the room and closed the door before answering, and Scott had never seen his father looking so lost. "He is very sick. He needs a doctor's care."

"The doctor in Serenity is a disgrace. Even if he would come here, which I doubt, Johnny would refuse his treatment."

Murdoch waited until Scott looked up and held the young mans gaze. "Scott, I know this is hard on you. But, when Johnny wakes up he’ll have questions. And he’ll want to know why you’re not by his side. Tell me what I can say to him.  Tell me why you aren’t there.  Please, Son, tell me what really went on here.”

Scott's eyes were full of pain as he stared at his father, unable to find the words to explain why he couldn't be by Johnny’s side - and why his brother wouldn't want him there.

Murdoch waited, the silence between them separating them still further. “I’m sure he knows you did everything you could to save him, but…”

Scott lowered his eyes.  "He doesn't know.  He thinks I betrayed him...and he is right.  There were times I could have acted differently.  I had chances to kill Mrs. Rawlings and I didn't take them.  There is nothing you can tell him that will make him feel any better about what I did."

Murdoch stared and waited. Scott turned away - his face cast in dark shadows. "What in the name of God happened here, Scott?” Murdoch walked over to the dresser and picked up a picture of a man and woman sitting for a portrait. "She was a strong woman, this Mrs. Rawlings, wasn't she?

"Yes. Yes, she was.  And she was quite mad.  There were times when she thought I was her son, Andrew.  I tried to play along, to find a way to save Johnny, but she was always one step ahead of me."

"Does Johnny know this?"

"It doesn't matter.  None of it excuses what I did."

Murdoch stepped away from the dresser and walked over to Scott who was sitting on the edge of his bed, his head in his hands.  He laid a hand on Scott's shoulder. "No one is asking for excuses. I trust you, Son.  I know you did what you thought was right.  I’ve spoken to Elana and Arturo, and they’ve told me about the threats made against them and their family. You did what you had to do to save Johnny’s life, and you did save him. Now you have to get past this guilt that’s burning you up inside.”

"It's not that easy," Scott whispered. "And, even if I could, do you really think Johnny will want to see me?  You don’t know what it's been like for him.  He was locked up in a cage, forced to work.  And do you know who forced him?" Scott's face was full of anguish as he finally looked up.  "I did."

***

Murdoch's throat seized up. The words were said with a depth of despair he had never heard from another human being. What had Mrs. Rawlings done to his boys?  He knew Elana and Arturo had told him only half the story. The pain he saw in Scott's eyes told of so much more. He prayed he could find the answers before he lost his son forever. And, if he lost Scott he would surely lose Johnny as well…if not in body, then in spirit.

Murdoch reached out and stroked Scott's hair.  He couldn't let his fears take hold.  He had to try and find a way to reunite his sons. He spoke with more self-assurance than he was feeling. "He will forgive you, Scott, just as you would forgive him. It will just take time for his mind to clear…”

"He's already made his feelings quite clear. It's hopeless, Murdoch.  I knew there was a risk that I would lose him, but now that it's happened, I don't know how to cope with it.” Scott walked over to the mirror, and Murdoch could see his son staring at his haggard image. “Time...I need time. Please don't misunderstand me, I appreciate all that you are trying to do, but I need time to think about what has happened, about what I’m going to do."

Sadly Murdoch realized that now was not the time to push Scott. If his son asked for space he would give it…for now. “Take all the time you need, Son. I'll be here when you're ready to talk.  Now, I'd better go and check on Johnny.  I'm worried about his fever."

Murdoch felt Scott's eyes on him as he walked out of the room, closing the door softly behind him. Only God and his sons truly knew what had happened.  He hoped somehow he could help them both, because the thought of losing either one of them nearly broke his heart.

 

Chapter 25

Johnny's temperature continued to climb.  Murdoch had lost count of the number of times he had to send for fresh cold water to wipe his son down. It seemed there was nothing they could do, there were just too many points of infection. He had been battling the fever all night.  Now it was a new day and Johnny was becoming progressively weaker, his breathing labored. Murdoch knew it was only a matter of time before the congestion in his lungs developed into pneumonia.  His hand stopped in mid-air as Johnny suddenly opened his eyes and looked right through him. "Dios, no...Scott, no..."

"Take it easy, Son," Murdoch cautioned, putting a restraining hand on Johnny's shoulder, and exchanging a concerned look with the woman who had been helping him tend to his son.

Johnny thrashed on the bed, his arms flailing in the air. "No - don't bury me - don't - can't breathe...can't breathe...too dark...Scott - stop!  Stop!"

Murdoch caught his breath at the fear in his son's voice and on his face.  "You're safe now, Johnny.  You need to calm down."

"No...not Miguel...you bitch!  Don't touch Miguel! You can't bury him. Scott! Where's Scott?"

"Scott's resting." Murdoch wasn't sure if his words were penetrating Johnny's fevered state.  "He'll be here later.  I've seen Miguel and no one hurt him."

Johnny's eyes focused for just a moment, catching Murdoch's, pulling him into his son's pain. "Why..." he asked.

Murdoch tried to swallow back the bile that rose in his throat. How could he answer that? "Scott loves you, Johnny."

"Murdoch?  You're here," Johnny sounded confused and Murdoch realized this was his son's first rational moment since his arrival.

"Yes, Son, yes. I'm here. You're safe now. You just have to rest and get better."

Johnny turned his head weakly, looking around the room.  Murdoch knew what – who - he was looking for.  With a sigh, Johnny closed his eyes again, but not before the rancher had seen the hurt loneliness on his face.

"He's sleeping, Son," he said gently. "He'll be here later. Can you tell me how you feel?"

"It hurts..." Johnny said softly, and Murdoch knew he was not just talking about his physical pain. “I trusted him.  Shoulda known better.”

"He's confused. He's feels guilty..."                             

Johnny's eyes opened wider.  "Guilty?"  He grabbed weakly for his father's hand, his face betraying his growing panic. "Buried me...buried me..." his words trailed off as his breath caught in his throat.  He gasped fearfully, unable to breathe.  Murdoch raised him up, patting his back. A deep rumbling cough shook his body and he collapsed against Murdoch.

From the door a familiar voice said tonelessly. "He needs a doctor."

Murdoch turned back to see Scott standing there, his hand clutching the door frame for support.

"Scott! Thank God, you're here.  He's been asking for you."

Scott's expression darkened.  "No, Murdoch, he's been blaming me."

"He's out of his mind with fever. He doesn't know what he's saying."

Scott moved further into the room.  "He has every right to think that way.” He stood looking down at his brother, who now lay back against the pillows with his eyes squeezed shut.  “I'm going into town to get the doctor.  Johnny won't like it, but we don't have a choice."

Murdoch leaned over Johnny, brushing back his damp bangs from his fevered forehead. "Stay, Scott. He needs you. Send someone else for the doctor."

The woman tending Johnny jerked her head up at the mention of the doctor. "Senor," she offered with a trembling voice. "The doctor...he is not a good man. He will not treat your son."

"Which is why I have to go," Scott said.  "He won't come if we send one of the men.  I've had dealings with him before and I'll make sure he comes."

Another bout of coughing shook Johnny’s body and Murdoch looked at him helplessly. "All right, Son, but hurry."

***

Val slid the last plate of food under the cell bars, not worrying about the stew slopping on the floor. To him, the former sheriff and his deputy were no better than pigs. Worse in fact. They hadn't stopped complaining since he'd arrived back from the Rawlings ranch.  He had too much on his mind to pay their complaints any mind.

"Shut your damn mouths!" he yelled as he closed the inner door. "Or I'll shut 'em for you," he added to himself. Through the window, he saw Scott Lancer riding up the street and he froze in surprise. What was he doing here? He grabbed his hat and gunbelt and hurtled through the door.  "Scott," he called loudly, repeating the call when Scott failed to acknowledge him. He ran down the boardwalk, ignoring the startled looks as he pushed himself past a family making their way toward the general store. Val saw him pull his horse up in front of the doctor’s office, and his heart skipped a beat. He knew that Johnny was in trouble.

"Hold up," Val yelled as he got closer.  "What's goin’ on? How’s Johnny?"

Scott dismounted slowly, his every move transmitting how tired he was. His face, when he turned in Val's direction, was completely devoid of color.  He staggered and gripped the pommel of his saddle for support.

“You all right?" Val asked flatly.

Scott ducked his head and nodded.  "I don't have time to stop, Val.  We need the doctor right away.  Only I don't think he's going to come of his own free will.  He doesn't approve of 'half breeds.'" Scott almost spat the words, disgust dripping off his tongue.

Val nodded. "So I've heard.” He grabbed Scott's arm and squeezed harder than he needed to. "I've been hearing other things too. Things I don’t like."

Scott looked tiredly down at the sheriff's hand.  "I don't have time for this now." He made no effort to dispute the implications behind Val's words.

Val stared at him. He didn't know Scott that well. He’d accepted and trusted him because he was Johnny's brother. But if even a little of what was said around town was true...He looked into Scott's eyes and tried to see the truth there. But, all he saw were the eyes of a man too yellow to fight for his brother. He shook the blond aggressively.  "It's true isn't it?  You turned on your own brother.  You bastard!"  Before he could stop himself, Val drew back his arm, his fist connecting with Scott's cheek.

Scott took the punch without a word. It was as if he expected it...deserved it. Val waited for the blond to say something, anything in his defense, but he simply turned and stepped onto the boardwalk. Turning back he said. "Johnny needs the doctor. Whatever you think about me doesn't matter right now."

"I'm not finished with you," Val yelled.

Scott's face suddenly turned dark with anger. "To hell with me. It's Johnny you should be worried about."

Val's hands were balled into fists.  The temptation was to pound Scott into the ground, but unfortunately he was right.  Johnny's welfare was all that mattered.  "You and me'll finish this up later." He spat on the ground between Scott's feet and walked away. But, he would check later just to make sure that Scott really was in town to get the doc. He wouldn’t see Johnny die because of a no-account brother and spineless doctor!

***

Scott turned back to the office door and opened it, the tinkling of a bell alerting the doctor of his arrival. The smell of antiseptic was strong, making Scott's stomach turn. It galled him to have to ask this poor substitute for a doctor to help Johnny. The elderly doctor looked up and frowned.  Scott was pretty sure the man recognized him from that night in the jail.

"What do you want?" the doctor asked, not disguising his contempt.

"My brother needs medical attention and, God help me, you're the closest thing there is to a doctor in these parts."

The doctor turned back toward the inner rooms of his office. "I'm busy with other patients. The veterinarian is down the street. See if he'll lower himself to tend to a..."

He stuttered to a halt as Scott grabbed him by the lapels, bringing his face to within inches of the doctor's.  "You'll mind your tongue and start remembering your oath to help people."

The doctor pushed himself away. "I haven't forgotten."

"Then, get your bag.  Johnny has a fever and a bad cough.  He needs help now."

"Keep him cool and elevate him to a sitting position. Nothing more I can do. Now, as I said, I have other patients to attend to."

Scott pulled his gun out and shoved it under the doctor’s chin. “My brother has been through hell. He's got more lacerations than I can count and they're all infected. He was nearly starved to death. Do you know he was buried alive?!  He was treated worse than an animal. Are you going to refuse to treat him, Doctor?”

The doctor took a startled step backwards, looking nervously at his assailant. "You’ve no right to pull a gun on me. You'll go to jail for this,” he warned. “This is kidnapping."

"No, it ain't," Val said from the doorway.  "Mr. Lancer is just remindin' you of your duty."

The doctor rolled his shoulders back, staring indignantly at Val. "It is a long ride out to the Rawlings ranch. Have him brought in here."

"He isn't fit to be moved.  We're wasting time." Scott's voice was tight with anger and frustration.

"You heard the man," Val said, his voice just as dark. "Johnny is in no shape ta come ta you. I saw him. Now you get your ass in gear or I'll throw you in jail and throw away the key! And don't think I won't. Johnny's a friend of mine - a good friend. And I don't take kindly to those who don't treat him with respect."

The doctor looked from Scott to Val and back again.  Scott's gun was still pointed threateningly at him and he visibly deflated as he finally bowed to the inevitable.  "Send to the livery stable for my buggy," he ordered harshly.  "But, I warn you, I am not going to let this rest."

There was an edge of hysteria to Scott's laugh.  "Do you really think, after all I've done, that I give a damn about your threats?"

Val shoved the older man toward the door roughly. "I'm real scared, too, doc.  Now get moving."

***

Johnny had lapsed into unconsciousness again shortly after Scott left for town.  He was agitated and his uncontrolled cough was worsening.  Murdoch looked at his watch again.  His elder son had been gone for over three hours.  What was keeping him?

Consuela walked in with a steaming pot, the scent of menthol heavy in the air. "This will help him to breathe a little easier," she said, placing it on the nightstand. "His lungs are very full now. We must make him cough. I know it will be painful, but it is necessary. Él tiene congestion. I have seen it before. It is very dangerous.”

The sound of footsteps running down the hallway drew Murdoch's attention away from the bed.  The door was flung back on its hinges.  "The doctor's here,” Scott announced. He hesitated in the doorway, looking toward the bed.  His distress was plainly written across his face.  For a moment Murdoch thought - prayed - that Scott would stay, but then his son turned quickly away and left the room.

Murdoch wanted to run after him, do anything to help him, but Johnny needed him also. He looked down at his youngest son and wondered again if they would ever be the same after this. He remained convinced that having Scott by Johnny’s side would help him to recover.  He still clung to the hope that the bond between his sons had not been irrevocably broken, while lamenting the fact that he would never have the chance to confront Mrs. Rawlings and personally make her pay for her actions.

The doctor entered the room and Murdoch gathered his senses as he watched the old man begin to pull his stethoscope from his bag. A deep rumbling cough wracked Johnny’s body.  Tossing his head from side to side he struggled to catch his breath. The doctor raised an eyebrow. "It sounds like pneumonia. I don't know if I can do much for him."

"I expect you to do your best," Murdoch warned.

The doctor looked up at him in disgust. "I will, Sir. But I will have you know that young man brought me here against my will.”

"He was working under my orders," Murdoch said coldly. “Now, please, treat my son. You will be paid for your time."

"I certainly expect to be paid – and well," the doctor informed him as he grudgingly approached the bed.  "I have never been treated with so little respect in over thirty years."

Murdoch wondered if the man had ever merited much respect, but bit back a retort and kept his silence as he watched the doctor start his examination.

***

Scott paced the living room, his mind on the room upstairs. He feared that his brother would not make it. And it was his fault. He should have killed Mrs. Rawlings when he had the chance. He knew that he should be there - that Murdoch needed his support, but he no longer felt that he had the right to be by Johnny's side.

Fear and anger welled up inside him and he lashed out, swinging his arm wildly over the table lamp in front of the window. He heard the lamp crash and looked down at the broken glass and the oil seeping into the carpet.  Falling to his knees, he began to pick up the pieces.  As he reached under the table his hand brushed against an envelope. He closed his fingers around it and pulled it out, looking at it with only mild interest.

As he turned it over in his hand, he realized it had never been opened. Yet, it held the look of age. Why hadn’t she opened it? He carried it over to one of the chairs that sat on either side of the fireplace.  The handwriting looked familiar, very similar to that of Mrs. Rawlings.  When he turned the envelope over, he saw with surprise that the return address was in Mexico.  Given her hatred of all things Mexican, why would someone be writing to her from there? His interest was stirred, but what right did he have to read her correspondence?  Oh, he'd been running the ranch since her death, but someone had to do it until any heir that she might have was traced.  Perhaps the letter might point him in the direction of some family member. With a hand shaking from fatigue, he slid his thumb beneath the flap and opened the letter. It was one sheet of paper, folded crisply. He hesitated...but drew it out and unfolded the missive.

His eyes were immediately drawn to the salutation.  He turned the paper over and studied the signature.  It had never occurred to him that Mrs. Rawlings son still lived, yet here was proof that Andrew had escaped from this place and had started a new life in Mexico.  The irony wasn’t lost on Scott. No wonder, in her eyes, she had preferred to act as if her son were dead.

"Dear Mother, I hope this note finds you in good health.”

Scott paused there.  Given the things Mrs. Rawlings had said, it was a surprise to find that Andrew retained fond feelings for his mother.

"I have spoken at great length with Rosa. We have tried in vain for four years to persuade you to accept her as my wife and the mother of my son. But, there comes a time when a wife and child come before anything. That time has come.”

The reference to a wife and child made sense.  In her delusional state she had believed that Miguel was her grandson.  Scott felt a sense of relief knowing that Andrew and his family were safe.  He also felt a deep sadness for her son that Mrs. Rawlings had been so prejudiced that she couldn't accept he had fallen in love with a Mexican girl.

"I hope that in time you will realize how much you have lost by choosing to cut us out of your life.  Your grandson is growing into a fine boy and he would like the opportunity to get to know you."

Scott looked around the room, noticing for the first time how devoid it was of personal mementos of her family. She had punished herself through her bigotry. And, in the end, she had punished Johnny...through his hand.

"If we do not receive a reply to this letter in three months time we will accept that as your answer. Think twice, Mother. You will be the one who loses in the end.”

Scott laid the letter down in his lap.  She hadn't even opened it.  He glanced down and saw the date.  The letter had been written just over a year ago. He felt an overwhelming sadness for everyone. Love and hate...they were two of the strongest emotions a person could have. She had ruined countless lives. Well, maybe he could mend the bridges she could not. He looked again at the return address on the envelope. It meant nothing to him. Maybe Johnny would know where it was.  Johnny - his brother was hovering between life and death because of his actions.

"Scott," Consuela stood in the doorway. "Your Padre wishes to see you in Senor Johnny's room. The doctor has finished."

Scott rose to his feet almost unwillingly.  He couldn't refuse a direct request from Murdoch and his heart ached to know how Johnny was, and whether he would recover.  His guilt, however, was overwhelming.  If Johnny died he didn't think he could live with it.

***

Scott stepped hesitantly into the room.  He could smell the distinctive odor of carbolic acid.  Clean, white bandages were wound around Johnny's feet and hands and he was sitting propped up against a mound of pillows.

"How is he?" Scott asked, his voice devoid of emotion.

"Why don't you ask me yourself, 'Brother'?" Johnny’s voice was little more than a whisper.

Scott blanched at the sight of his brother's fever bright eyes staring at him, not missing Johnny’s sarcastic address to him.

"Your brother is very sick." The doctor spoke with more compassion in his voice than Scott had heard previously.  "He is weak and his lungs are congested.  However, if he does exactly as he is told, I hope that, in time, he will recover."

Scott nodded slowly, unable to tear his eyes away from Johnny's face.

Murdoch raised his hand toward Scott. "Come in, Scott. Johnny has been waiting for you."

Scott heard the words, but the look on Johnny's face convinced him that his father was wrong.

“You asked to see me, Sir? Because I know Johnny didn’t.”

Johnny shook his head weakly, but what ever he had thought of saying was lost in a painful coughing spasm.

Almost against his will, Scott moved toward the bed, stopping before he reached it as he saw anger flare in Johnny's eyes.

Murdoch looked on in despair as Scott turned away.  He, too, had seen the anger on Johnny's face.  What he saw, but Scott didn’t, was the expression change to one of confusion.  He reached out to grab his older son's arm before he could retreat.  "Wait, Scott. He's confused.  Give it a chance."

Scott looked at Johnny, trying to catch his breath, Consuela wiping away the sweat on his brow. "No. He's right. I don't belong here," he said as he headed for the door.

As Scott left the room, Murdoch heard a whisper from the bed.  It was the sound of his heart-broken son calling his hermano’s name.

 

Chapter 26

Three days had passed since the doctor's first visit.  Three days in which Murdoch hadn't had any opportunity to sit down and speak to Scott. Johnny's condition had improved enough that he could now begin to get the healing sleep he needed. And, for the first time, Murdoch felt that it was safe to leave him. The doctor had warned them all that it would take time for Johnny's injuries to heal. It would be a long, slow process and Johnny was already showing signs of rebelling against the medical advice, especially as it came from a man who had been guilty of serious medical malpractice during their earlier encounter.  However, the doctor had been providing excellent medical care and his behavior toward Johnny had been beyond reproach.

Murdoch continued to be of a mind that Johnny would heal a lot faster if he had his brother's support. Support that Scott seemed unwilling or unable to give. He had made up his mind to confront Scott this evening.  This estrangement between his sons had gone on long enough. Touching his son's forehead to assure himself that the fever had not risen again, he quietly slipped out of the room, taking one last look back at Consuela as she tirelessly tended to Johnny.

The house was quiet as he made his way down to the study.  He knew that was where he would find Scott.  When he wasn't there working on piles of paperwork, he was out riding the range and supervising the work crews.  Murdoch wasn't sure that his son was sleeping or eating regularly.  He did know that Scott looked to be a shadow of his former self. He knew the feeling all too well. Burying yourself in ranch work and paper work, to block out the pain. For him, it had been the loss of his wives and his sons. For Scott, it was the loss of his brother. But his brother was right here, just a few yards down the hall. It angered and worried him that Scott would not even take a step toward emotional healing. And as long Scott's wounds lay open, so did Johnny's.

Johnny had expressed a wish earlier in the day to return home.  The doctor had been against the idea, arguing that it was too soon to make the arduous journey.  Murdoch's view was that it would do them all good to be away from this place. However, he didn't relish the idea of traveling all that way, while his sons weren't communicating with each other. But it was up to Scott. They had all been walking on egg shells around him, knowing that he had been hurt by what he had been forced to do. As the days went by, Murdoch had got a clearer picture of what had happened here. He couldn't think of anything worse that could have befallen his sons. They had no foundation to fall back on, none of the important memories that should be shared by siblings. Their connection to each other had been shattered and it was up to him to find a way to help them reconnect. But how?

He made a detour to the kitchen, conversing easily with the cook and kitchen staff.  They prepared a tray of food, enough for him and Scott, and confirmed that his son hadn't eaten anything all day. He also spied a bottle of wine in an open cupboard, and grabbed that with an opener and a couple of glasses. Maybe a little wine would knock down the defenses that Scott had so carefully built around himself.

He pushed open the door leading to the study.  Scott looked up warily before clearing a space on the desk for the tray.

"You and I need to talk," Murdoch stated bluntly.  "But, before we do, you're going to eat something."

Scott shook his head dismissively. "I'm not hungry, Sir. Maybe later."

Murdoch's large hand slammed down on the desk, too worried and tired himself to exercise any tact.  "This has gone on long enough.  You’re neglecting your health and will make yourself ill.  You'll damn well do as you’re told."

Scott's head snapped up. "I am not a child or one of your workers to be ordered around like a simple peon!"

Murdoch took a step backward, stunned by Scott's derogatory statement. Where had that come from? That wasn’t the Scott he knew. He bit back an angry retort, making a conscious effort to moderate his tone. "No, Scott, you're not.  But, I'm your father and I'm allowed to worry about you."

He saw a softening of Scott's expression and a hint of embarrassment. "I apologize," Scott said softly.  "That was uncalled for."

"Yes," Murdoch agreed. "And I will ignore it, this one time. Now, I could go for a glass of wine. You?"

Scott looked at the bottle and licked his lips.  "Yes."

Murdoch made a show of pulling out the cork and pouring the wine like he had seen done in finer restaurants. He poured a small amount in Scott’s glass, and waited for him to take a sip and approve it. With the first trace of a smile that Murdoch had seen since his arrival, Scott picked up the glass and gently swirled the liquid around.  He inhaled the scent of the wine and took a sip, nodding in satisfaction.  "It will do. You may pour, sommelier."

"My pleasure, Sir," Murdoch smiled back and filled the two glasses. It was an exceptionally fine wine and he savored the taste, allowing his tired body to relax.

He watched as Scott sipped the wine and sat back, appearing to relax for the first time since Murdoch had arrived.

"I thought we could start back home the day after tomorrow," Murdoch said, watching closely for a reaction.  “The doctor is not happy with Johnny traveling so soon, but you know your brother. He is chomping at the bit to be on the road. We could use your help getting him back to Lancer. It won't be an easy trip for him."

Tension returned to Scott's shoulders and he laid the glass carefully on the desk.  "I don't think I can leave just yet.  There are things that need to be looked after here."

Murdoch raised an eyebrow. "This ranch isn't your responsibility. Surely someone else can take over. Your place is with your brother. He needs you."

"I have an obligation to the workers here.  They risked their lives - some lost their lives - to save Johnny.  I'm not going to run out on them. Besides, this ranch became my responsibility when I chose not to kill that murderous bitch, when I had a chance.” He picked up a knife next to his plate. “I...I had the knife in my hand..."

Concerned by the desperate, but dazed, look that suddenly clouded his son’s eyes, Murdoch reached over and gently pushed Scott's hand down.  "It's over, Son.  You're being too hard on yourself.  Everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that there was nothing you could have done.  She gave you no choice."

"I had a choice, Murdoch. I could have killed her before...before..." He quickly reached for his glass of wine and downed it.

Murdoch picked up the bottle, hurriedly refilling the glass.  If this was what it was going to take to get Scott to talk, then he'd have no scruples about getting his son drunk.

"I've talked to Johnny, you know," he said softly. "Your brother understands." This wasn’t entirely true.  On the rare occasion when Johnny had been awake, he’d pried gently, trying to get a sense of how his son was feeling about his brother.  Apart from that one heart wrenching moment when Johnny had called for Scott, the replies had been non-committal.

"Does he?  I know what you're trying to do, but I'm not sure I understand myself.  I made a decision - a bad one - and Johnny paid the price.  Even if he can forgive me, I don't think I can forgive myself."

Murdoch leaned forward. "Scott, it’s a part of life. We all make decisions. Some are life changing. And some, like yours are the most difficult kind. Could you, or Johnny, live with yourselves if that little boy had been torn from his parents and buried alive?”

"I could have stopped it before it got that far.  If I'd only stood up to her..."

"If you'd only stopped her...If you had only known what she was capable of.  ‘If's’, Scott...Don't let ‘if's’ ruin your life. Don’t let Madelaine Rawlings win."

Scott stood unsteadily.  "She has already won.  It's time we all started to accept that."

Murdoch moved to reach out to Scott, but thought better of it. It would take time and he needed to be patient. This was the first time his son had spoken of his feelings. He would have to accept that as a beginning. As the door closed behind his son, he sighed heavily. Letting Scott walk out was one of the hardest things he had ever had to do. The room seemed to close in on him. This place that held so many ghosts

***

Johnny woke the next morning feeling better than he had for some time and he sure wasn't in the mood to be treated like an invalid. He awkwardly pushed the offending spoon of medicine away. "It tastes awful," he complained.

"And the doctor has already told you that if you don't take your medicine, he won't agree to you going home tomorrow," Consuela told him severely.

Johnny looked down at his lap. "I know. Don’t mean I have to like it." He sighed, feeling the lingering tightness in his chest.  He wanted to go home – wanted things to be how they were before.  Most of all, he wanted to resolve his feelings about his brother. "How's Scott?" There was a catch in his voice as he asked the question.

Consuela could not look him in the eyes. "He is working too hard. Everyone worries about him."

"I wish he'd come talk to me," Johnny said sadly.

The young woman sighed deeply, carefully sitting on the side of the bed. "He is filled with guilt. He believes you hate him for what he did. I believe there is nothing that will change his mind, except, perhaps, his hermano.”

"I don't hate him," he said softly.  "But...I don't know how I feel. I guess I'm angry that he didn't stand up for me right at the start.  And, it ain't easy to forgive him for punishing me that time...making me walk up and down the courtyard."

Consuela shook her head sadly. "He made a decision when you were both brought here to try to protect you. I know it doesn't seem that way now, but I know what Senora Rawlings was capable of and it would have been much worse for you if Scott hadn’t intervened.  He did protect you, Johnny. You have to believe that.”

"It sure didn't feel like it." Johnny could feel his anger and disappointment rising again.  However much time he spent trying to rationalize what had happened it always came back to this.

He looked down at his bandaged hands and feet. It would be weeks before he could walk properly again. He didn’t know if he could ever forgive Scott completely. He couldn't forget what happened, and that made it hard to forgive, no matter how much he wanted to.  He just didn't know how to do it, when the reminders of all that he had suffered were still so vivid.

A discreet knock at the door brought his head up. Every time someone came to the door he could feel his heart rate quicken.  He both wanted and dreaded the possibility that it might be his brother. But, it was Elana and Miguel standing there. Elana held a bundle carefully in her arms. He hadn't seen them since that dreadful day in the courtyard and a broad grin lit his tired face.

"Come in, por favor."

"We do not want to disturb you," Elana told him.  "But Miguel had been asking to see you and I wanted to introduce our daughter, Esperanza."

"Esperanza," he said softly. “Hope. The perfect name. May I see her, Senora?"

Miguel climbed onto the bed as Elana leaned over and laid the baby beside Johnny.  She pulled back the blanket so that he could see the child's face.  "She's beautiful," he breathed softly.  "Just like her mother."

"Gracias.  She is here because of you and your hermano. I can never thank you enough."

"You don't owe us any thanks.  If we had never come here, you would all have been safe in your own home."

"I will keep her safe," Miguel said fiercely, moving protectively closer to his sister.  "I will never do the bad things your hermano did to you."

Johnny saw the hatred in the boy’s eyes and it struck him deep in his soul. This kind of hatred was just as bad as the old lady’s. "Miguel, Scott did what he had to do to save you and your sister. It is not always easy to make the right decisions when you know you are hurting someone you love.”  As he said the words, he could feel himself accepting them.  It was a first step in the healing process.  He knew he had a long way to go, but for the first time, he began to believe that he could find a way to overcome what had happened.

Elana leaned forward and gently kissed Johnny on his cheek. "We owe you a lot and we will not forget. Would you and Scott agree to be Esperanza’s Godparents? I can see no one more fitting."

"I'd be happy to.  But  Scott -  I don't know how he feels right now.”  A cloak of sadness settled over Johnny and he turned his face away. "You have to ask him...I hope he says yes." Those last words were almost lost to the silence in the room.

"I will, but not just yet. He has to heal, just as you do. You both carry injuries deep inside." She gently laid her hand over his heart. "It will take time, but you both need patience."

Johnny nodded and looked again at the baby.  His expression softened.  "At least something good came of all this," he said.

"Si." Elena turned to Miguel and shooed him off the bed. "It is time to let Johnny rest. We are returning home this afternoon. I hope, when you have healed, you and Scott will return so we can thank you in the proper way."

Johnny watched Elana lead Miguel out of his room, the boy looking back at him once more. How could he ever forget the look in the boy’s eyes as he tried to bring him water? Would that memory forever stand between him and Scott? He prayed that it wouldn’t.

 

***

Murdoch had been surprised to receive a request from Scott for a meeting - surprised and apprehensive.  His older son hadn't been near him since the previous evening, when they had briefly shared a bottle of wine. He stood in front of the study door for a long moment, before finally knocking on the door.

"Come in."

His heart sank at the despondent voice he heard beckoning him in.  Scott looked worse than he had the day before.  He appeared to be wasting away with grief and through neglect of his body's most basic needs.

"Is Johnny ready to travel?" Scott asked flatly.

"Yes, Son.  We'll have to take it slow, but I think it's time to leave."

Scott nodded. "I spoke with the doctor myself before he left. You will need help with him."

Murdoch sat down uninvited, the implications of Scott's statement confirming his worst fears.  "We should be able to manage," he said cautiously.  "Between you, me and Val..."

Scott looked out the window. The courtyard had already taken on a new look under his son’s supervision. "I'm needed here," he said flatly. "At least, until a member of the family can be found to take over."

"You're needed at Lancer.  Appoint a Segundo.  We'll leave the estate in the hands of an attorney.  You need to come home, Scott, and not just for your own sake."

"Murdoch, please, don't push. I have made my decision. When I am done here, when I'm ready, I will get in touch with you."

"You expect me to just accept this? You are tired...you don't know what you’re doing."

"I know exactly what I am doing. Don't belittle me, Murdoch. You have no idea what went on here. You think you do, but you don’t." Scott's expression was sad, but determined.  "I've thought of little else these past few days.  I've something to show you.  Perhaps then you'll understand."

He walked to the door and held it open.  Once Murdoch had joined him, he walked quickly in the direction of the kitchen.  Curious, Murdoch followed. Their journey led them through the kitchen and down a steep flight of stairs.  The smell took Murdoch's breath away and he strained to see in the dim light.

"This is where Johnny was kept," Scott explained.  "He was chained to the wall by a collar.  For most of the time, he wore leg irons that I ordered fastened around his ankles.  He slept on a cold, filthy floor with little food or water.  When he acted, up I was the one who punished him.  You've seen the state of his feet.  That was my doing."

"I know what you were forced to do..." Murdoch began.

"I did it because that was how I chose to deal with the situation.  I could have done things differently - refused to play her sick game."

"And what would have become of Johnny? She would have killed him, would probably have killed both of you. You know that. And he will, with time. You saved his life."

Scott looked earnestly at his father.  "For most of his life, Johnny was alone.  What I did was abandon him.  What I should have done was to be here - with him - regardless of the consequence.  Don't you see, Murdoch? I left him alone."

Murdoch's head dropped, deliberately keeping his voice soft. "Scott, what you did, what you had to do...I won't lie to you, it makes me sick to my stomach. But things happen in war, and this was a war. You have to get past it or you and Johnny will relive it every day of your lives."

"I'm trying, Murdoch.  I don't want to spend the rest of my life feeling like this.  But, I'm not ready to go back to Lancer.  I might never be ready.”  He drew a shaky breath.  “I can’t stand another second here, the smells and memories of what happened...what I…”  He bolted for the stairs.

Murdoch followed him quickly. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, resigned to the inevitable fact that his son would not return with him, he laid a gentle hand on Scott’s shoulder.

"When we get back to Lancer, I will have Cipriano join you here. He can help”

"Thank you, Sir." Scott sounded relieved that his decision was being accepted.  "There is something else you can do on your way.  I found a letter from Mrs. Rawlings’ son.  The return address is in Mexico.  I've no idea if he is still there, but if you could send a telegram, we might be able to trace him."

"Of course. I will have Cipriano bring the answer, if there is one." Murdoch hesitated. "Will you talk to Johnny before we leave?"

Scott looked back at Murdoch. "I can't,” he said softly.

 

Chapter 27

Johnny watched as the activity increased in his room. They were getting ready to go home, a place that he had thought for awhile he would never see again. Although still very weak and confused about everything that had happened, he couldn't contain his excitement at the thought of leaving this place, where he had endured so much pain and misery. The doctor had made his final visit that morning, changing his bandages and giving everyone strict orders about how he should be moved. With his hands and feet still heavily wrapped, he could not assist himself, even if he had the strength. Malnutrition, callous treatment and a raging fever had all taken their toll on his body and his spirit. He hated this feeling of dependency. The bitch had robbed him of so much, yet her death now brought him no satisfaction.

Even in the hands of his father, and his long time friend, Val, Johnny felt his dignity swept away as Murdoch gently lifted his hips and Val pulled his pants up. The waistband was so big now that they could have belonged to another man. In a sense, they did, because he surely wasn’t the same man who had ridden into Serenity.  Had it really been less than three weeks?  It felt more like a lifetime.

He sealed his eyes shut, not just against the pain that his dressing caused, but also against the thought that he wished more than anything that it could be his brother caring for him. A term he had known nothing about until he had met Scott. Now the word brought an ache to his heart that hurt more than anything.

Johnny felt Murdoch gently lift his shoulders off the mattress, while Val slipped a light cotton peasant shirt over his head. The loose fitting sleeves easily fit over the thick bandages binding his ribs. He almost rebelled, despite recognizing that the clothing would be more comfortable than a tighter fitting shirt.  It was a vivid reminder of the clothes he'd been forced to wear during his captivity.

“We’ll be done soon,” Murdoch’s voice said softly from the darkness beyond Johnny’s eyelids. “We’re not going to button the conchos on your pants. It will make it easier to change the dressings on your legs.”

Home…would it really feel like home? Would any place ever feel right again?  Damn that puta! She had destroyed his life so easily. He had survived bullets, knives, beatings - but she had killed him with her hate. She had taken from him the single most precious gift he had ever been given.  For the first time, he wished that he had died in front of the firing squad in Mexico.  He wished he had never found out that he had a brother.

“Dios!” he whispered brokenly.

"John..." Murdoch's voice sounded far away. "Are you all right, Son?"

“No,” he cried silently. He would never be all right again.

Exhaustion claimed him and the nightmare came almost immediately, dragging him back to the day in the courtyard when he had been convinced he was going to die. “No!’ he screamed, dirt rushing into his mouth to gag him as the coffin lid slowly lowered into place. Already, the sound of the nails deafened him as Scott looked down into his grave, the hammer in his hand, his face contorted in anguish. Johnny coughed and the pain in his chest was agonizing. The air was thick with the stink of sweat and death…and blood. But the blood wasn’t red, it was black, and it flowed from Scott’s hand, his chest, and a knife appeared in Johnny’s hand, covered by the same warm black blood.

“You tried to kill me,” Scott accused. “I only wanted to help.”

Johnny tried to scream again, but no sound came from his throat as the lid slid ever closer to sealing him in. He could just see Scott and then it wasn’t Scott anymore…it was Mrs. Rawlings and she was laughing at him, calling him a dirty mestizo.

Miguel screamed from behind him....too many sounds...too much pain. The pounding of the nails grew louder, more urgent. And, suddenly, complete blackness surrounded him, and hands were pulling him down, covering his mouth…not letting him breathe.

***

Murdoch tightened his grip on his son, pulling him into a tight embrace as he tried to still Johnny's violent movements. He wished he hadn’t sent Val away. He needed help.  He’d been packing the last of their personal possessions when Johnny had started mumbling and tossing restlessly in his sleep.  Within moments, the agitation had increased so noticeably that Murdoch was afraid Johnny was going to end up on the floor. His reassurances had failed to penetrate whatever nightmare was holding the young man in its pitiless grip.

"Johnny, no. Wake up." Murdoch ran his hands through his son's thick black hair. He felt so light, so frail. "You're safe, Son."

"What's wrong?  I could hear him all the way downstairs?" Scott stood in the doorway, looking troubled.

"He's having a nightmare. Help me. If we can’t calm him down he's going to hurt himself further."

Scott stood and watched helplessly until Murdoch sharply repeated his plea for help.  "Damn it, Scott, grab his legs. Help me keep him still!"

Murdoch saw that Scott was shaking as he finally grabbed Johnny’s legs, finding it hard to find a place that wasn’t bandaged.

"No!" Johnny screamed. "Stop!  I can't breathe! Scott! No!”

Scott paled noticeably, pulled his hands away as if he had been stung, and stepped back from the bed.  "It would be better if I wasn't here."

"Better for who?" Murdoch snapped, unable to moderate his tone.  "Damn it, your brother needs your help." He wasn’t sure if Scott had even really listened to his words.  His older son appeared to be drowning in an ocean of guilt.  He was being pulled in two directions, with both his sons needing him.  However, Johnny’s increasing delirium prevented him from pursuing the point. "Johnny." He pushed his younger son back down on the mattress, slapping his cheek smartly with his hand. "Come on, Son, wake up."

Johnny's eyes flew open.  His pupils were huge in his pale face, leaving his stare dark as they fixed on Scott. For an instant, there was lingering fear in Johnny's eyes as he awoke from his nightmare. Then, Murdoch saw his son’s face harden.

"Johnny...I'm sorry..."

"Too late." Johnny interrupted the apology and turned away, but not before Murdoch had seen his son’s terrible vulnerability.

Scott looked toward his father shaking his head. "I don't belong here."

Johnny looked back toward him.  "That right?" he queried.  "Seems to me you've made yourself right at home. Maybe you’re plannin’ on taking this place over for yourself."

‘Where were these words coming from,’ Murdoch asked himself? He knew the things that Scott had done had hurt Johnny terribly...but it looked like Johnny believed it was deliberate.

"Johnny...I know it’s hard for you to understand, but I did what I had to do…"

“And you didn’t think to ask my opinion on dealing with that bitch?”

Johnny’s challenging tone provoked a passionate response from Scott. "You knew exactly what I was doing the first time we met Mrs. Rawlings. I saw it in your eyes."

“That was before I was locked in that cell and forced to drink with my hands tied behind my back.  How do you think I felt, seeing you all fancied up, clean and with enough to eat, while I starved?  And then when she put you in charge..."  Johnny shot back bitterly. "She gave you your gun back, Scott.  If you were doing all those things to help me, why didn't you use it to send her to hell?"

Murdoch felt his heart jump into his throat. What was he hearing?

"Because I'm not a killer!" Scott growled.

"Not like me." Johnny's voice was hard. "If it was you in that cage, I would’ve blown her to kingdom come!"

Murdoch drew in a stunned breath. He always knew there was a dark side to Johnny. His life had been hard, but now he heard unmitigated hatred in that voice. He wanted to intervene, but this was between his sons and he had to trust that they would find a way to resolve it.

"I didn't mean that!" Scott shouted back. "I thought I could sway her to let you go! I was trying to buy time – to get a message to Murdoch. And there were others to consider, like Miguel and Elana. "

"You could have stopped her before she had a chance to hurt Miguel,” Johnny accused.  “Face it, Scott, with all your fancy education, you don't know nothin’ about people like her. There was only ever going to be one way to stop her."

"I couldn't resort to outright murder."

"You were ready enough to bury me alive…that’s murder."

"That’s not true. It was only going to be a matter of time before the workers rebelled. I did all I could to keep you safe until that happened. Why couldn’t you have cooperated?” Scott yelled. “I thought you understood.  I was trying to keep you alive.  Do you think I enjoyed it? I tried to find ways to punish you without hurting you too badly!  I had to convince her that I had you under control."

"I didn't need 'controlling’.  I needed a brother I could trust."

"This isn't helping," Murdoch stated firmly. Passions were running too high. "Now isn't the time for this conversation."

Johnny ignored his father, his face now glistening with sweat, his breaths labored, but he wouldn’t give it up, not now. "This is the perfect time for this conversation. Tell me, Scott...what did you think would happen when she put that collar around my neck?"

"I tried to get her to remove it.  I did all I could to make things tolerable..."

"Tolerable?” Johnny asked in disbelief. “You buried me alive!  Goddamn you! You buried me alive!" He was clearly no longer in control as he teetered on the brink of hysteria.

Scott went completely white, his shoulders sagging.  Murdoch stepped toward him in alarm, worried that he had finally reached the end of his endurance.

"Yes, I did, and I can never forgive myself for that."

"Do you know what it was like to lay in that coffin?” Johnny persisted, not even acknowledging Scott’s words.  “To hear those nails hammered in? No air, no light. You promised you wouldn't let that happen and I trusted you. I trusted you!"

The rawness in Johnny's voice tore at Murdoch's heart and he couldn’t begin to imagine what it was doing to Scott.

"I know," Scott admitted dejectedly.  "I know I let you down in so many ways.  That's why I'm not coming back to Lancer."

Murdoch closed his eyes in despair.  He hadn’t had a chance to tell Johnny of Scott’s decision.  In truth, he’d been putting it off, hoping that Scott would change his mind.

Johnny looked at him, stunned. "You think not coming back is going to make it any easier for either of us?"

"I don't know," Scott said truthfully. He bowed his head. "I need time."

"Time for what? To think? Thanks to you, I’ve had plenty of time to think. About this..." he indicated his bandaged feet, "and this." He raised his head to reveal the rawness around his neck. "But the worst thing you could do is run away."

"I'm not running away.  I'm giving us both some time and distance."

"I guess you've got your mind all made up," Johnny spat at him.  "Makin' decisions for me again.  Alright, Scott, if that's what you want, stay here or go back to Boston.  It's not like I give a damn anymore."

"Johnny, you don't mean that," Murdoch interjected.

"I hated him," Johnny continued softly. "It was the only thing that kept me alive."

Scott gave a bitter laugh.  "That's what's so sad about everything that happened.  I did all of that, because you are my brother and I didn’t want to lose you. But it wasn’t enough.  I still failed you."

A horrible silence fell over the room. Murdoch watched the animosity drain out of Johnny and his son collapsed back against his pillows.

"I hated you enough to want you dead."

"Do you think I blame you?  Nothing could be further from the truth.”

"You think I don't feel guilty too?" Johnny asked, his anger returning. "When I had that knife in my hand I meant to kill you."

Murdoch felt his world disintegrate around him.  How much more horror was there to be dragged into the light?

Scott took two hesitant steps back to the bed.  He reached a hand out toward his brother, then his arm fell back to his side.  “We both have our demons, Johnny. Maybe too many.  I know I can't hope that things can be the way they were before but perhaps, in time, we can find a way to get past what happened here."

Murdoch felt a sadness in the room that tore at his heart.  He was watching the death of two brothers.

“And just how do you think we’re gonna get past this, with you here and me at Lancer?”

"Johnny." Scott started to lean over the bed, but stopped. "I thought I was doing the right thing and, when I realized I wasn’t, it was too late to do anything else without risking Miguel’s life. Johnny…I’m so sorry.”

There was a wealth of sorrow on Johnny's face.  He no longer appeared to have the energy to be angry.  "Leave me alone, Scott.  I need to finish getting ready to go home."

Scott nodded, his own misery surrounding him like a shroud, and walked out the door.

Murdoch was torn between staying with one son and following the other.

"Murdoch?" Johnny's voice was weak. "D'you think you could give me a few minutes on my own?" It wasn't often that Johnny begged for anything, but the plea for solitude was too strong to ignore.

Murdoch nodded, pulling the blanket back up over Johnny's chest. "Try and get some rest," he said gently. "We'll be leaving soon."

Reaching the doorway he paused and looked back.  Johnny had turned his head away, but Murdoch was convinced there would be no rest for his son now, or at any time in the near future.  The long anticipated meeting between the brothers had only made things worse, and the words spoken in anger between them could never be taken back.

***

Scott stood on the porch and watched as the final load of supplies was placed in the wagon.  The sight of the mattress being set in the back of the wagon was a stark reminder of how badly hurt Johnny was.  Scott knew that his brother would hate the indignity of being treated like an invalid. Val was supervising, with a scowl on his face, and the sheriff was making no secret of his feelings. He wished he could be going with them. He should be the one to be at Johnny's side. But it wasn't possible now. He had been right to fear an encounter with Johnny and it had left him with even less hope of reconciliation. He heard footsteps behind him and a hand landed on his shoulder, spinning him around to face his father.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Murdoch's voice was harsh with emotion.

"What? That I drove my own brother to try to kill me?”

"Stop it! Ever since I arrived, you've been tearing yourself up because of what you did.  Now I find that Johnny has his reasons to feel guilty."

Scott turned on him. "There is no way you could ever know what really went on here...how cruel I became. Johnny was fighting for his life, and I was one of the enemies. He had every right to attack me."

"So you're willing to absolve him of everything?  Did it ever occur to you that he might be willing to forgive you as well?"

"Maybe, but not yet. Not for a long time. Now, I would appreciate it if you would just honor my wishes and take Johnny home. I will follow if, and when, I can."

"How bad was the wound?  Did anyone treat it?  Damn it, Scott, you can't carry on ignoring your own health like this."

"It wasn't bad. Johnny didn't have the strength.  Now, are you going to honor my wishes?"

Murdoch abruptly released his hold, causing Scott to stagger slightly.  "You've given me no choice. I'll go. But I want you to keep in touch. I want to know how you are doing. I'll send Cipriano back to help out here. I hope you'll come home, once the rightful owner arrives.”

"Take care of Johnny. He's been hurt, deeply.”

"I'll do my best," Murdoch said bluntly.  "But, I don't know how he's going to respond. He needs you as much as you need him.  Don't forget that.”

Murdoch quietly walked back into the house, leaving Scott to watch as the wagon was finished. Johnny would be gone soon...would he ever see him again?

***

The conversation with Scott played over and over in Johnny's mind.  He had said things - cruel things - that he would never have said if he'd been stronger and more in control of his feelings. It wasn't so much the words he regretted, as the cold anger that had accompanied them. Johnny gritted his teeth as Murdoch and Val gently lifted him from the bed and laid him on a stretcher. There were so many people in the room watching, seeing how weak and vulnerable he was. He wished they would all go away. If he were being honest with himself, the person he needed the most was Scott. Even after all that had happened, he couldn't escape his true feelings. He didn't want this parting from his brother, and certainly not with anger and unresolved accusations lying between them.

"Are you all right, John?" Murdoch asked anxiously.

His father must have seen the sheen of sweat that now plastered his face. This was harder than he had expected both physically and emotionally. He gave a tight nod, not trusting himself to speak.

"Ya better give him some o’ that laudanum," Val advised. "He ain't lookin' so good."

"No! I'll be okay.  Just give me a minute."

"You heard the doctor," Murdoch said. "If this was too much for you, he wanted you to take the laudanum. And you promised."

"Not yet," he begged.  He didn't want his last view of his brother to be through a drug induced haze.

Consuela stepped forward, a glass of water in her hand. "Please, Johnny.  I have put in just enough so you can manage the pain. It will not put you to sleep. It is best that you take it."

Who was he fooling?  Scott probably wouldn't even be there when he left.  Maybe it would be better to hide from the reality.

He nodded and Consuela gently lifted his head, tipping the glass to his lips. Dios. He hated having to be waited on for everything. He could do nothing for himself...nothing! Again anger rose in his gut...and Scott was at the heart of it. Would he ever be able to forgive his brother?

They waited until the medication had taken effect to move the stretcher from the bedroom, down the stairs to the wagon.  The short journey seemed to take forever, as they carefully maneuvered him onto the mattress and blankets that had been used to pad the bed of the wagon.

The courtyard was filled by all the ex-servants, watching silently, respectfully. He hated this more than anything.  His eyes ranged around, looking for the one person who was missing.  A deep depression gripped him and he momentarily closed his eyes, seeking some inner strength that seemed to have deserted him. He had hoped to see Scott. To have his brother say one last word to him. So much had happened, had been said. He felt as if a part of him was ripped away, leaving a savage tear in his mind and body. He never knew, until this very moment, how much Scott truly meant to him. He was a part of him...the good part, the part that made him whole. What was he going to do? How would he go on? The wagon lurched forward and he was overcome by an almost irresistible urge to call to his father and tell him to stop.  He couldn't leave like this.

He struggled weakly to sit up, hampered by his injuries and the drug coursing through his system. As he looked back toward the house, he saw Scott, standing so alone, so broken. Their eyes met, and for a moment, Johnny thought that his brother would call out, tell him to wait.  Then Scott's head dropped and he turned away, entering the house and closing the door. Johnny closed his eyes and felt the wagon bearing him away from the only person he had ever truly trusted with his life. Hot tears ran down his face and he did nothing to wipe them away.

Continued in A Vision of Hope

~end~
Nov 06

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