The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Cindy and Kathy K

 

 

Choices
 

 

 

 

“The doors we open and close each day decide the lives we live.”
Flora Whittemore

There was activity in the sheriff's office; yellow light, muted by the window shade, glowed cautiously in the predawn gloom. Johnny walked steadily toward the familiar building, his bootsteps interrupting the silent chill with a hollow crunch, the sound echoing behind him down the empty street. Feeling crept up over his shoulders and settled there, unwelcome and heavy with recognition . He scanned the area before him but there was nothing amiss, nothing moving but the faint wisp of his breath in the bare light before his face. Nothing but that light up ahead.

The little voice drawing him along wouldn't let him go, telling him that the soft light shining from the sheriff's window meant more than just a deputy on duty. A gang shooting up the town, the stationmaster told them as the overdue stage, limping in from a breakdown, finally arrived home. Sheriff's been in his office ever since, he continued to the weary passengers, Johnny among them.

Johnny's steps went soft and then slowed. He looked around once more, but his only companions were the shadows and the deepening chill of the pre-dawn dark. No open doors, no other lit windows, no horses – and no other people. Not even a stray dog barking or any other noise indicating the town was waking up. Nothing was out of place, not even a stray crate or barrel. It was perfectly calm and quiet, like it was supposed to be. And yet…

He'd checked his watch back in the lamp glow of the stage station – after four o'clock. Hours since that gang had barreled through, and yet that light still burning up ahead…

Trouble, came the whisper as Johnny pulled himself up onto the boardwalk in front of the office.

He suddenly thought of home and wanted to be there, just in time to be greeted with Maria's warm and filling breakfast and a welcome from his father and brother. And to issue a special apology to Scott for taking the extra few days of fun and leaving his brother to pick up chores in the absence. He hadn't meant for it to turn into the time it had, and he needed to make it up to his brother without too much more of a delay.

But this town was family now, too. Things had changed since he'd first arrived two years ago, and where he once could have walked away – maybe even would have – he was no longer able. If there was trouble and he could help, then this is where he needed to be for now. His brother of all people would understand.

The feeling he'd been carrying shifted, sent a finger of fresh warning down his spine. The heavy chill of the early morning darkness pressed in upon him. Instinctively his hand brushed the Colt tied, as always, to his thigh. He eased the catch loop holding the gun to the holster, ready for whatever might be on the other side. His other hand reached for the door latch and rested there while he listened. From within came the sound of muffled voices, quiet and calm in some sort of discussion . Perhaps the sheriff was in the process of just forming a posse. If so, then it'd be easy enough to pick a horse from the livery and join up. It'd be daylight soon enough, and he was a fair tracker. And a gang of the size described would leave an easy enough trail to follow, at least at the start. Well, Brother, he thought, looks like I might be doing double chores when I get home…

He quietly let the door fall open.

“Lancer takes care of its own.”

His father's voice was tight and strained.

“Takes care of its own what?”

Johnny met the quick silence that filled the room, reading the faces of the men staring back at him. The sheriff, anxious through exhaustion. Stanley Roberts the tax collector, pale and nervous. Jelly, swallowing hard and telling a story with his eyes. And his father, his face all but closed except to those who knew him intimately. Murdoch was worried – it pinched his eyes, turned down his mouth. That look was an expression usually reserved for his sons.

“Johnny…” Murdoch turned towards him. “Son…”

Johnny looked around the rest of the room, felt his lips turn into a frown of confusion. Lancer interests were heavily represented here but one important family member was missing.
He stepped into the room and let the door slam behind him. “Murdoch, what's going on? What are you and Jelly doing here?”

Murdoch gave a little jerk, like he'd been hit. His legs seemed to crumble under him as he reached for the nearest chair. Johnny closed the space that separated them. Something was wrong here – definitely wrong. And it wholly involved Lancer.

“Murdoch?” he queried again.

“Some men - they shot up the town,” Murdoch stammered, his gaze hardening, struggling for control. “Demanded the tax money. They took over the ranch…”

“The ranch? What do they want with the ranch?” It didn't make sense – to shoot up the town and then take the ranch.

Murdoch cringed slightly, as if a pain had just barreled through him and he was trying to curb it.

“Murdoch, where's Scott?” Johnny asked him, ignoring the others in the room even as their stares punched him with heat. Murdoch swallowed hard, hesitated, his gaze yet unblinking. Johnny dropped to one knee beside his father who looked very old now, reached out and touched a sleeve, feeling the tremors beneath the fabric. “Murdoch…” he pressed with careful urgency. “Tell me…”

“He's there. With them. At the ranch.”

Shooting up the town, taking the ranch – Scott…Johnny's mind began to string it together. “What happened, Murdoch?” he carefully questioned.

“They're holding Scott hostage,” Murdoch hoarsely replied, but his eyes were still fast on Johnny. There was raw fear in his gaze.

His brother – held hostage.

Johnny pressed his emotion back, though some lingered on his tongue. Now was not the time for it. Scott would need him to think clearly, even as he trusted his brother to be doing the same on his end. “What do they want?”

“The tax money,” Roberts spoke up. “And soon – or…”

“They'll start a rampage,” the sheriff added. “They've got a Gatling gun – already used it on the town. They're going to use it again if we don't act soon.”

“I tried to blow it up,” Jelly interjected, worry making him fidget. “But I don't know…”

Johnny nodded at his friend, knowing the older man – all of them – needed some encouragement. His gaze came back to his father again, held fast. “What about Scott?” he asked.

“They said they'll hand him over in exchange for the money,” Murdoch got out. He eased out of Johnny's grip as he stood, took a step, and rubbed the back of his neck. His shoulders drew up and he made a slight sound, as if he meant to say something more. A shadow crossed his face, deepened the well of worry present in his eyes; there was more to this situation than could be discussed in this room. Lancer takes care of its own…

Johnny glanced about and noted the little metal box at Stanley 's elbow. “Is that it?”

Roberts nodded. “Over ten thousand.”

“I'll deliver it.” Johnny stood.

The sheriff quickly shook his head. “No, Johnny, that's my job.”

“And it's my brother,” Johnny strongly reminded him.

“Son…” Murdoch turned a tortured gaze onto him.

“They don't know who you are,” the sheriff continued. “They might think it's a trick and go for Scott. Though I could swear you in, give you a badge – that might help…”

“If there's a bagful of money in my hand, they'll know.” Johnny told him, eyeing his father. Murdoch knew something else, something more. “I'm the best you've got, Sheriff. Collect up a posse to back me up – that should work.”

The sheriff stepped up, fresh frustration clearly working across his features. “Did you hear what I said before? They've got a Gatling gun, Johnny. They can cut you to pieces with it.”

Murdoch was starting to stiffly pace the room.

“One man can slip in around them. Deal with their leader. Give you time to get into place.”

“You can't take them all on by yourself!”

Johnny's smile was thin but genuine. “I've got some experience with men of their kind.”

“We're wasting time!” Murdoch suddenly snarled, whirling on them. His face was ashen.

Johnny put a calming hand on the quivering arm. “Then it's settled,” he said to them all. “I'll need a horse.”

“I'll get one from the livery,” Jelly offered, jumping forward.

“Make it a fast one, Jelly.”

“Don't you worry – I'll pick the best one.”

“Thanks. Sheriff…?”

The sheriff nodded resignedly, picking up a set of saddlebags on his desk. “Give me a few minutes to round up some men. Stanley , get that money ready .” He swung out the door.

Stanley sighed and reluctantly picked up the metal box but did as he was told. His look was worried as he handed the now laden saddlebags to Johnny, but he did not say anything. Johnny gave him a nod and slipped it over one shoulder.

Jelly herded the tax collector to the door, but then the Lancer handyman turned back. “Boss, what about…?” he began to Murdoch, but his stare bored into Johnny.

“Go on, Jelly,” Johnny directed. Go get me that horse , all right?”

“But Scott--”

“Jelly, do as I ask – please,” Johnny cut him off.

The smaller man hesitated, shot a look to Murdoch, but then quietly went out the door.

Johnny whirled onto his father. “Alright Murdoch, what aren't you telling me?”

Murdoch's expression showed momentary relief then quickly fell back to concern. “I saw Scott. He--”

“You were there? You talked to him?”

His father quickly nodded. “Jelly and I went to the ranch. I tried to get him out, but…” He broke off, defeated.

“Scott – was he all right?”

“He's holding his own,” Murdoch tersely replied. Then he crammed his lips shut, swallowed hard. “These men…” he began with difficulty. “They think Scott is Johnny Madrid – and for some reason Scott is not denying it.”

Madrid… Johnny frowned, confused. “Why would they think…?” The mention of his old name caught him by surprise. Of all the scenarios he'd quickly thought of in regard to his brother and these men, Madrid had not been one of them. He'd left Madrid behind him a while ago now and, although it had taken time, he'd thought those days were squarely settled in his past.

Murdoch shook his head. “I don't know. But they called him Johnny. And Scott made it clear it was Madrid they were talking about, not Lancer.” He lifted a hand in a helpless gesture. “Perhaps as a warning of some kind?”

Yes, a warning – for me, Johnny silently agreed. His brother would have quickly assessed the situation, found the best way to cope with it, and then determined a way to get some idea of that to Murdoch. And his past name could be holding one helluva lot of trouble.

“The sheriff doesn't know, does he?” Johnny guessed.

Murdoch sighed. “No, I didn't tell him.”

Johnny paced a little about the suddenly too small room. This was no longer just a random hostage situation, a deal for the money. These men had gone to the ranch for a specific reason – to find Johnny Madrid. And they thought they had him. Scott had led them to believe it. But why?

The door rattled back open and Jelly barreled through. “Horses are all ready. Sheriff's still working on the posse.” He paused, eyed Johnny. “You know?”

“I know,” Johnny affirmed. He turned back to Murdoch. “How many men?”

“Six to ten,” Murdoch reported. “In and outside. There's a girl with them…”

“Did you hear any names?”

Murdoch shook his head and sighed. “I don't know…”

“What about that gun?”

“It was right outside the front door,” Jelly told him. “Threw some dynamite in that general direction, but I don't know if I hit it or not.”

“How'd you get in?”

“Through the wine cellar,” Murdoch shrugged, but they've probably found it by now.”

“That might work in our favor,” Johnny grunted wryly stepping back outside. The gloom was beginning to lift and the edges of dawn were just peeking through the sky . He stepped up to the horse waiting for him, checked the cinch, mounted. The animal shifted under him, eager to move. “Momento, caballo,” he murmured, patting the long neck as Murdoch climbed up beside him.

His mind turned inward, considering. The gang wanted the money, but also Madrid for whatever reason. And Scott's impersonation was a warning to Johnny, should he arrive home during the interim. Warning heard loud and clear, Brother. Now it's my turn to take some of this on. Scott likely figured that the exchange of money would save the town, but was astute enough to know that his own life would be part of the trade. I can't let it be you, Johnny told him silently. This isn't your fight. And for one powerful moment the guilt swept him for being late in coming home, for lounging those extra days in Frisco with nothing more to do but enjoy himself.

Johnny shoved it down deep. He was here and hopefully in time to help get Scott out of this.



Murdoch took another look at Johnny riding quietly by his side, recognizing the concern held in his youngest's face. Johnny was contemplating Scott's acceptance as Madrid – and the warning that went with it.

Scott's warning was a form of protection, Murdoch silently told himself . He'd seen his son put this sort of action into force before. It had occurred when Scott had protected the very man who had come to kill him – Dan Cassidy, even after Cassidy had already directed a bullet into Scott. Because for Scott, it was the right thing to do. Because Cassidy had a wife and a future, even if the man did not realize the value of either. Scott had also protected Polly Foley, because she needed to find a path for herself and her child. No matter that she was a bordello girl. She was broken, she needed help. Scott Lancer knew what he could do for her, and he'd done it.

And he's done it for me, too, Murdoch thought heavily. For his son had also sought to protect his father from Harlan Garrett's harm during that ill-fated visit earlier this year. Garrett, lonely and bitter. When he couldn't lure Scott back to Boston, he'd turned deception to his favor. Scott had only been too willing to return East for the sake of his father's life – and for Johnny, as well. Murdoch knew his son would rather endure his own private pain than tear apart his recently united family.

And now this…

Scott – how much he still had yet to know about his son. The Pinkerton dossier had been slim, categorized into Boston , education, enlistment, and business. All ordered, all confined, seemingly all simple. By contrast, Johnny's file was a mass of travel and gunfights, and the alias Johnny Madrid. The unrest of poverty versus the stability of wealth. He expected the arguments from Johnny, the quick temper, the frustration of responsibility; knew that under all that lay the capability and strength to succeed. He had but to guide – and sometimes push and cajole – and the rest came along.

Yet there was no need to guide his eldest, let alone push or cajole. Hardly much to argue over. Scott had arrived already possessing so much. From the start Murdoch had recognized in his eldest a quiet self-assurance and capability that seemed to go beyond his 24 years. He'd seen in him a young man who knew himself well and was confident enough in his own skin to move forward, with or without other's approval. It had been Scott who had led the defense of the ranch against Pardee despite what others, including Johnny at the time, might have thought of his ability to do so. And he'd done it in that quiet, unassuming way of his, causing what men Murdoch had had left at the ranch, including his well-established foreman Cipriano, to listen and follow. His success had put any doubts still held by those around him quickly to rest, and Murdoch had noted with great satisfaction the respect awarded his son from that day on by the ranch hands.

This inherent nature had served Scott well as he'd stepped from one world into another so different. But Murdoch knew now that it had been somewhat of a double edged sword. Confident in his son's abilities, he'd left him to his own devices for the most part, turning more of his attention as he'd healed to the running of the ranch and, truth be told, to Johnny whose adjustment to responsibility and authority had been rougher. In doing so he realized now that he'd denied himself the opportunity to get to know this son better. They'd spent less time together and because of it the distance between them had not closed as quickly as it had between him and Johnny. His own words to Sara Cassidy, “My son, there are things about him I don't know,” had tasted bitter in his own mouth as he'd said them. So much of what he'd seen in his son from day one had in fact been explained by Dan Cassidy's visit and Murdoch had regretted since that it had taken almost losing Scott to open his eyes to what he'd so quickly taken for granted.

That visit from Cassidy had explained something else as well. Sending off the requests through the Pinkertons for his sons to come to him had been done despite many concerns. If Murdoch had to admit to them, one would have been how his eldest would get along with those he'd come in contact with in this new place. Scott's world had been one of privilege. He was educated, refined, and knew what it was to associate with men of like stature. Murdoch had almost expected that his son would look down on men he himself knew to be good even if they were not of the same social standard Scott was used to. And Murdoch knew of what he spoke, having been treated that way by Harlan and others in his time in Boston . But that was not Scott Lancer. Scott treated others as he himself would hope to be treated, and Murdoch had noted time and time again the compassion he'd shown for those in need whom others may have overlooked or disregarded. He knew Johnny had noted it, too, and he was sure it was a major reason those walls of defense Johnny so quickly put up had come as quickly down with Scott. Murdoch now knew that Scott's compassionate heart, a heart he'd often attributed to his beloved Katherine, was also the product of a year in a Confederate prison where all men, no matter their social status, had been equals in suffering and survival.

“That night – of the escape…” he'd asked haltingly when Scott was on the mend and the need to know more of that time in his son's life was strong.

“It was a long time ago,” Scott had countered lightly, though by now Murdoch had recognized the conciliatory tone. And perhaps his sons had already discussed something of it – the boys were growing quickly close.

“Cassidy…” Murdoch could hardly get the name out.

“He was a good man, Murdoch,” Scott explained as if anticipating where Murdoch's thoughts were headed. “He was our leader, bold…fearless. We knew if we threw in with him we'd go all the way, or die trying. We believed in him.”

“But why go on when he couldn't?” Murdoch persisted, trying to understand. “Why not wait until he was recovered and could lead you?”

Scott glanced away. “There wasn't time,” he began, staring into the flames of the hearth, remembrance evident in his demeanor. “The longer we waited, the greater the chance of discovery. It was a place of great suffering, Murdoch…indescribable.” His gaze swung up; emotion had tightened his features. “It was a chance to escape, to return to our side, to fight again – to be men again. Dan had said from the start there would be no waiting for anyone when the time came – not even for him. Those were his orders and we obeyed them as any good soldier would.”

He shook his head, turned his gaze back to the fireplace. “It went so wrong,” he said so quietly, and the emotion in his tone had Murdoch stepping close, ready to apologize for asking.

“Son…” He put a hand on the uninjured shoulder, felt the quivering muscles underneath.

“They were waiting for us,” Scott continued. “And when it was over there were none left alive – but for me.”

“How…”

“They stood at the sentry posts and picked us off…I took a graze – here…” He reached up and ran a hand alongside a spot just past his left temple. His fingers stopped, parted the strands of hair, revealing a lumpy scar marring his scalp. “It knocked me out. They found me alive – two others had landed on top of me.”

Murdoch had hesitated then, trying to absorb all he'd been told, a picture unfolding in his mind of the suffering his son had had to endure. He had never been in prison, but he didn't need to be to know the true nature of men. He'd seen enough vindictiveness of his own over the years. He knew his son's captors would not have gone easy on the only survivor of an escape attempt.

“Those scars, the ones across your back… they're the result?”

Scott nodded.

“Son, I…”

“So, in Dan's eyes, I failed,” Scott said, interrupting him. “I failed my orders, failed my mission – failed the men…failed him. Dying with them would have been honorable. But he thought I had backed out, sold them out. Men have accepted cowardice for much less.”

But Sara Cassidy had revealed the truth. It was Dan who had betrayed the escape, not Scott. His son had not backed out. He had not given up. An entire year in Confederate prison, beaten, starved, deprived of so much…yet, Scott had emerged not broken but somehow stronger for it. Perhaps from that he'd developed his keen sense of compassion and conviction.

And he wasn't giving up now, Murdoch realized. He would see it through, act the part, be Johnny Madrid to protect his brother, save the family, spare the ranch.

“No,” he uttered as a pair of bands tightened about his heart. “Scott, no…”

“Was he hurt?”

Murdoch pulled out of his reverie, reined up. “What?”

“I asked you if Scott was hurt any,” Johnny softly repeated.

They'd shoved him down those stairs – hard. He had plenty of bruises…And after all this time…His eldest was not one to stop for blood or bullets when there was a situation to be settled. Murdoch's heart gave a jolt, quickly remembering that bloody graze to the head during Harlan's recent visit, and last year, when Cassidy's bullet had torn through one shoulder.

And those old prison scars…

“Murdoch?”

“Looked like he put up a bit of a fight,” Murdoch roughly returned. At Johnny's nod he snapped, “Well, you know he'll do what he has to do.”

Once again Johnny's hand came onto his arm, secure and steady. “I know. But he's strong, Murdoch. He'll be all right.”

What if he isn't? Murdoch wanted to shout back at him. What if they know he's not Madrid ? What if it's already too late? “I hope you're right,” he said instead, trying to attach himself to this son's confidence.



“It's Mr. Lancer that had two.”

Johnny could still hear them – those words he'd never anticipated. Words that had changed everything it seemed in a matter of minutes. He'd come to Lancer for one reason and one reason only – the money. Nothing else had ever enticed him to make the trip before, but one thousand dollars was a lot of money and, in his opinion, the very least he was due. That it would also afford him the opportunity to finally confront the man who had fathered him and tell him just what he thought of him would be an added bonus. So the plan had been simple - in and out in an hour, relieved of the pent up anger he'd carried for all his years, and a thousand dollars richer.

“Two wives … and sons. You two.”

The old man had been married before. The first wife had a baby and died, and the kid had been tossed over to someone else to raise. Not so different from his own situation, at least that part of it. And now there they were, standing before each other, the old man's blood running in both of them.

Brothers – they were brothers. He was drawn to the word in a way he couldn't explain. It'd kept him awake all that first night as he'd struggled with the very notion of adding a brother to a scenario that didn't include anyone else but him and the old man. A brother - a relative, kin, someone besides himself. He'd never known, his mother had never said. A brother – hijo mio; even saying it in Spanish gave it a strange taste on his tongue, and in his mind.

And it was what had caused him to make Scott's room his first stop the next morning. For as he was drawn to the word, so it seemed he was drawn to the man. Oh, he'd tried at first to have it otherwise. What good was a brother anyway? And this one was from considerable privilege, another one of those men who had so much, who didn't know hardship. One who'd never slept in the dirt, or ate with his hands. One who never had to want for anything. And as the days wore on Johnny tried to lump this Easterner into everything he associated with his father. Tried to belittle him and prove him inferior to what he considered a man to be. Tried even to hate him. But he couldn't.

Maybe it had something to do with that emptiness he'd been feeling for so long. Maybe it was simply that Scott wouldn't let him. Whatever the reason, this brother – his brother – had early on impressed upon him the man of honor, courage, and compassion he was. And Johnny'd stayed, because if nothing else he wanted to know this brother – and what it meant to have one – more.

His brother – quiet yet forthright. Johnny knew Scott silently accepted the role as cushion between himself and his father, and the explosive temper the two shared. Scott's calm demeanor, his distinctive voice, made them listen. Most of all Scott believed in Johnny – he held no disdain for what Johnny was, or had been. Like that day in the saloon with Wes when he was ready to walk away from it all – or thought he wanted to. Or when Joe Barker tried to pin Evans' escape on him. Without Scott's steadying presence he would've surely taken Murdoch's offer to run. Yet he hadn't – despite being locked into that guardhouse and helpless to do anything. Instead, he'd extended his trust through the barred door to Scott, and his brother had selflessly taken it up and pursued the truth.

Scott saw things clearly when others did not. He found the right things to say to make a man think – about himself and his situation. It was Scott who showed him that you sometimes had to try harder even when you thought you'd given it your all; that you sometimes had to put aside your own selfishness and reach for something more lasting. Made you realize that there was more at stake than your own measure of prideful satisfaction.

That you had to allow for worry when others were involved, even if it got uncomfortably close to your own heart.

Worry was something foreign to him when he'd been alone. He hadn't even been concerned about what he'd eat or where he'd sleep, content to let each day take care of itself. It wasn't until he'd let himself care for someone else that worry had woven into his being. It wasn't a feeling that he necessarily welcomed, yet in a stray way it made him feel more connected to his existence, made him realize just where he fit into the tiny part of the world he occupied. Being a part of this family gave him purpose. What he gave up in return – selfishness, loneliness, solitude – was replaced with belonging. He was responsible to more than his own self. He mattered to others - and they to him. There was more to being accepted into this family besides the commitment. It was an investment, and a worthwhile one. Having others believe in you did a lot to a man's own sense of self-respect. He'd be eternally grateful to his brother for helping him see it.

“We didn't expect you home today.”

Johnny started at the voice – he'd been too long in his own thoughts. He glanced over to his father, saw the tightly held features; this was going hard on Murdoch. “Would've been home sooner,” he began, “if that stage hadn't broken down.” He allowed a sigh and the heaviness of the feeling that swept over him. “Should've been home before this. Everything was done in San Francisco – I just took an extra couple days…” He shook his head. “Should've come home,” he said again in a voice with an edge of emotion he could not hold back.

“You couldn't have known, son.”

No, but he could have been home on time.

He didn't know just how much he really had to worry about his brother, since he knew Scott to be the man he was, but he knew what men like those who had taken over the ranch were like and what they were capable of. They were ruthless, deadly, let fists – or bullets – do their talking. Johnny knew Scott could hold his own, had witnessed it before. Truth be told, he held unabashed pride for his brother and his abilities.

But that didn't stop the feeling that was working in him. For more than anything at this moment, he wished he was the one being held hostage in that house – and not his brother.

He shifted in the saddle, felt the threat of time creeping up over him. It was still cold but the sun had made it up over the first hills. Johnny glanced behind him; the posse was riding quietly behind, waiting for instructions. “Let's move,” he said to Murdoch and pushed the horse forward.



Johnny brought the field glasses out from his saddlebags and hefted them for a moment. The suggestion that he carry them came from his brother, and they'd aided him many times over since he'd first packed them for his travels. And would aid him now, he thought as he focused the lenses onto the ranch house below.

“Once they have the money they'll leave,” he predicted to Murdoch.

Murdoch frowned. “They'll have to expect a posse.”

Johnny shrugged. “The odds against a posse are better if that Gatling gun is still in one piece. They'll take the chance, either way.” He lowered the glasses. “They're packing up. I can get in while they're busy.”

“Johnny…”

He turned at the tortured sound of Murdoch's voice, saw the lined face staring back at him. “Murdoch, you need to wait with the posse, like we agreed,” Johnny counseled quietly. “I have to go – it's me they want.”

“You don't know what you're walking into!” Murdoch lashed back. His hand on the reins trembled. “I've already left one son in there, and now if you…” He broke off, shook his head, looked away.

Johnny kept his own tone even, for his father's sake. “Scott's in danger, and they don't sound like a patient bunch. I can handle it.”

Murdoch swung his face back around. “They could ambush you, son.” The rest spilled quickly over his lips. “Your one gun against all them – against that Gatling gun? And Scott…What – what if--?”

“There's only one way to find out,” Johnny told him firmly. “A posse charging there won't help Scott's chances any. The best way to get them is on the run. If they take Scott with them then he'll know to try and break away. If he's still in there…” and alive, he thought to himself, nodding to the saddle bags. “…then I've got both Madrid and the money to bargain with.”

“Son…” Murdoch's hand closed tight and hard on his arm.

“Go back to the posse,” Johnny urged him. “You got in there and did what you could, found out some good information. Let me do the rest, all right? Trust me, Murdoch. Lancer takes care of its own, remember?”

He wasn't sure Murdoch liked having his own words given back to him, but they both understood their meaning. This was a family matter, Madrid included. Johnny would lay down his life for his brother, just as Scott would lay down his life for him. Murdoch knew it. God willing, both Johnny and Scott would get out of this alive.

“Give me ten minutes to get to the back of the house, then move in toward the fence line,” Johnny directed. “We've got enough men to get the house surrounded on three sides. That gun is still in the front yard – I saw it. That's where they'll leave from. They're not going to expect any fight – that's why they shot up the town first. If anything, they'll be expecting one man to deliver the money.”

“Then let me…” Murdoch began but Johnny was already shaking his head no.

“One man,” he told his father. “Me.”

Murdoch had protest all over his face, had opened his mouth as if to further argue, but then he just clenched his jaw and gave a tiny nod. “Good luck, son,” he got out. “Be careful.”

Johnny left them, angled down off the hill toward the trees crowding the road. Once there he eased the horse toward the back of the house, but knew he couldn't get in too far without being seen; the area here was well cleared, and until he could get to the protection of fence and outbuildings he'd be a ready target for any man posted to watch this side of the house. As it was, any man on the roof could surely detect movement in this field. But if they were readying to leave then they might not be guarding things too close – except maybe Scott.

He left the horse in the trees and crept forward on foot. If the activity was focused on the front then he'd have a better chance of coming in unseen through the kitchen and along the back hall. Caution made him take his time, though his heart was already inside the house. So he moved silently toward the barn, paused when he reached its secure wall. Quietly he peered around the edge, but the corral was empty and no one lingered here. The trampled ground showed where the horses had recently been, and the track of their hooves pointed toward the front of the house. Swiftly Johnny got around the fence. Bending low, he sprinted to the edge of the house, clutched its rough exterior wall with small comfort. Nearly there.

He took a breath and listened. Men were tramping back and forth amid a blend of quick shouts, terse replies, and harsh curses. Boots scuffed along the dirt, spurs jangled. A horse blew, and another joined in. No one spoke with authority, and his brother's distinctive tone was not among the voices. Nor were there any calls from a woman. Inside then – the girl was likely there with the leader, and perhaps another guard. A prize like Scott, nee Madrid, was not going to be left alone.

He slipped up to the kitchen door, put his hand to the latch—

A finger of fresh warning trailed down his spine. The saddlebags pressed heavily upon his shoulder, the ransom money lashed to the memories of his past. Just a couple hours ago he was standing at another door and wondering idly what was going on. Now here he was at the door of his own home, and what lay beyond was fraught with far more concern for the uncertainty of what he'd find. Instinctively his hand brushed the Colt tied, as always, to his thigh. He eased the catch loop holding the gun to the holster, ready for whatever might be on the other side.

Well, Brother, he thought, I'll happily do double chores once we get out of this…

He quietly let the door fall open.

~end~



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