The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Maureen

 

 

FBlood Lust

Okay ladies, I’m just gonna come right out and say it:  This story is pure gothic romance novel, serious in tone but shamelessly passionately inclined.  Doesn’t matter if you believe in vampires or not – just suspend your disbelief, turn out the lights, burn a candle, fluff your pillows, and sit back with a glass of wine (preferably red).  Homage is paid to the Dracula tales we all know and love, but exact comparison is absolutely not to be applied.  Warning for occasional rough language.  Given that this will be a public posting, I’ve written this with more innuendo than detail, so please, please, let your imagination fill in the blanks – that’s what Blood Lust is here for . . .

This was supposed to be my Halloween story for 2004 . . . sigh . . . Let’s just call it my Valentine’s Day story of 2006.  However, I’m quite sure Johnny would consider it the worst display of affection ever received.

Thanks:  To Enneirda, Adnil, and Nej, my sister witch muses, for eye of newt, wing of bat, and blood of dragon.  “Vul ay,” Eom chants to ye all.

Thanks also to Karen F. for the whip and chains.  “Please, sir . . . may I have another?”

Finally, thanks to Hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne, during the summer of 2004.  Oh, how the imagination does wander when you’re sequestered in a boarded up house with the power off, candles flickering, and the wind howling . . .

MP – Feb. ‘06

 

L L L L L L L L

Scott continued to hope that he wasn’t being obvious – but he knew he was.  He couldn’t help himself.  The woman sitting across from him was absolutely mesmerizing.

Millicent Fairfax had arrived in Morro Coyo with little fanfare two days before, but her appearance was anything but simple.  She was a stunningly beautiful woman, with a sophisticated air about her that made it difficult to guess her age, although she appeared no older than Scott.  Her long black hair curled around her face and cascaded down her back in a torrent of swirling locks that just begged to be touched.  Tall for a woman, but not overly so, her forehead was at just the right height for Scott to want to lean forward and lay a warm kiss upon her brow.  But then her mouth had been inviting too, full and moist, with just the right amount of red lip rouge that would be acceptable for a continental woman but shameful for an unmarried woman of her age in this small California hamlet.  Her dress was the latest fashion out of Europe and too low cut for the sensibilities of the area, the bodice revealing two mounds of alluringly smooth milky white skin.  Below her well-endowed breast was a shapely waist, tempting for any man to want to wrap his arms around to draw the young woman into a close embrace.  Her own arms were long and lithe, with elegant hands and immaculately manicured fingernails.

Then there were Millicent’s eyes.  The lashes were long, thick, and black like her hair, and occasionally she would bat them provocatively.  Millicent’s eyes were deep and beguiling, but Scott would have been hard pressed to state their color, as they seemed to change with her mood – first greenish, then more brown, with entrancing gold flecks – but always dark, mysterious, compelling . . .

Sensing the attention, Millicent suddenly turned to once again catch Scott staring most ungentlemanly.  Those inviting lips parted to reveal two rows of strikingly white teeth, and she laughed – a husky yet feminine laugh from deep in her throat.  She threw her head back slightly in her mirth, accentuating her long, graceful neck.

Scott felt exceedingly embarrassed, but Millicent set him at ease.  “You flatter me with your gaze, Scott,” she uttered in a melodic British accent.  “No doubt you recognize my dress from Boston’s House of Bertrand.”  Her lie on his behalf came easily.  “Our dear friend William helped me select it.”

William Harker was Scott’s lifelong friend and a schoolmate at Harvard.  Now employed as a solicitor of real estate for wealthy patrons, it had been Will’s inquiries that had brought Millicent west.  His cousin Andrew Harker was similarly employed in London, and had worked with Will to purchase several holdings in the Boston area for Miss Fairfax.  However, only a couple of months after arrival she had suddenly declared the climate was too much like London’s and requested that suitable properties in a warmer area be investigated.

Remembering that Scott had resettled in California, queries had been made, available estates identified, and land finally purchased – all sight unseen by Miss Fairfax, simply at Scott’s recommendation.  So the Lancer son felt a sense of responsibility for her satisfaction with the acquisition.

He needn’t have worried.  Millicent was absolutely delighted with the old Morris estate.   The holdings featured a manor house that was just about as large as the Lancer hacienda, promising much more room than a lone woman might seemingly require.  Uninhabited for years, local carpenters had been engaged by Mr. Harker to facilitate necessary repairs prior to Miss Fairfax’s arrival.

The young lady had appeared in the evening, completely unannounced.  Wildly rampant rumors declared that she had driven through town just after dusk in an elegant black closed carriage, and had brought her own servants with her – two “huge” men seen driving the carriage and a fully-laden wagon, and a young woman who had visited the mercantile the next day to purchase supplies.  Since no one had actually seen Miss Fairfax herself, an impatience to meet the mysterious new resident was rising throughout the area.

Scott had beaten everyone to the introduction.  At Teresa’s urging he had invited Millicent to dinner at Lancer, and the invitation had been readily accepted – and that was how the young woman came to be sitting comfortably in front of Scott with a demure but knowing smile on her face.

His own smile reflected a grateful appreciation for her excuse of his dreadful behavior.  “The dress is indeed extremely lovely, Miss Fairfax.”

Millicent Fairfax could excuse Scott’s behavior all she wanted, but Teresa O’Brien was practically scandalized.  As a general rule, Murdoch Lancer’s ward considered Scott and Johnny Lancer to be as brothers to her.  But not being true blood siblings, she couldn’t help but feel jealous of any female attention the two handsome men might receive.  Teresa was rather sorry she had so hastily encouraged Scott to invite Millicent to dinner.

Murdoch stood near the fireplace, a barely concealed smirk on his face.  He’d watched his older son practically fall over himself to please their guest since she had arrived.  The woman had merely picked at her meal – because of lack of appetite or distaste for the food itself, Murdoch couldn’t tell.  But he knew Scott’s failure to eat had been due to his inability to concentrate on mere food when he had such a feast for the eyes before him.  Murdoch had to admit that if he were only a few years younger he’d be vying with his own son for Miss Millicent Fairfax’s attention.

That idea presented an uncomfortable thought as Murdoch remembered that his younger son, Johnny, had yet to return home for the night.  Not only was he worried about the man’s lateness, but any potential rivalry that might develop between his sons.  So far the young men had avoided any such conflicts of the heart.  Murdoch sincerely hoped that trend would continue.  ‘Heaven help the Lancer household if Johnny is as attracted to this woman as Scott.’

As if on cue Murdoch heard riders enter the courtyard and the murmur of men’s voices.  Relieved, he caught eyes with Scott and simply stated, “Johnny.”

“It’s about time,” Scott answered, his own tacit fears lessened as he joined his father at the great room’s open French doors.

Instantly curious to see this person who could so easily draw attention away from her, Millicent was suddenly between the men.  She gazed intently through the darkness of the courtyard to the shadows that milled about the corrals.  “Ah, so I will have the opportunity to meet your brother this evening after all,” she stated amiably.

For some reason Millicent’s seemingly innocent statement elicited in Scott a fleeting twinge of jealousy.  But it was quickly forgotten as Murdoch hailed the group of men and gained Johnny’s attention.  Scott dimly made out a hand rise up in acknowledgement, and then the unmistakable saunter of his brother as he headed toward the group gathered on the veranda.

Millicent felt her breath quicken, her heart begin to race – feelings she had not had for a very long time.  The figure coming toward her reminded her of a tiger she had once observed at the London Zoo.  She’d been unable to take her eyes off of the large cat as it moved with a power matched to grace.  The perfect blend of exotic allure, strength, and fluidity had masked the inherent danger within the beast.  The experience had been intoxicating, and that was how Millicent felt now – exhilarated with anticipation as she waited to meet this man who she sensed held a depth of perilous excitement that she would be most willing to try and tame.

Johnny was dead tired, the day having been long and demanding, and he had looked forward to returning home to the comfort of his family.  But as he made his way toward the hacienda he was suddenly set on edge, his nerve endings snapping with alarm.  Long years as a gunfighter had taught Johnny that his instincts were never to be ignored.  He slowed his pace and carefully viewed the area.

Most obvious was a carriage he didn’t recognize, parked at the far edge of the hacienda.  The hulking form of a man leaned against it.  The stranger was huge, and didn’t seem a bit threatened by Johnny approach.

Still feeling an omniscient threat, Johnny peered into the shadows around the veranda.  He sought anything else out of place, but saw nothing except . . .

The feminine figure between his father and brother was obviously not Teresa.  ‘Company tonight,’  he remembered – the new neighbor.  At first glance, standing in the backlight of the great room, the woman appeared innocent enough.  But Johnny had sufficient experience with females to know that most times they could hide their fangs a lot better than men, and they could poison you pretty quick through their feminine wiles if you didn’t watch out.  The closer he came to the porch the more uneasy he felt.  With a reminder to keep his guard up, Johnny moved forward to meet their guest.

Johnny stopped at the edge of the veranda and maintained a comfortable distance.  As he slowly emerged into the spill of light coming from the great room, Millicent had to take a deep controlling breath.  Not only was Johnny Lancer entrancing to look at, but her intuition had been correct – the man before her definitely had danger within him, held dark secrets, an added attraction more alluring than outward appearance to one of Millicent’s predilection.

‘He senses me . . . he knows.  Magnificent,’ she admired.

Scott’s voice interrupted the pair’s silent considerations.  “Johnny, I’d like you to meet Miss Millicent Fairfax.”

Millicent held out her hand, but Johnny did not move forward, his lack of reciprocation rude under the circumstances.  “I ain’t exactly presentable, ma’am,” he drawled easily.  “Don’t believe you’d be wantin’ ta touch me about now.”

‘Oh, if you only had any idea, my dear Johnny,’ Millicent eagerly thought.  But she, too, could play a patient game of subterfuge.  “I am not one to shy away from a hard working man, Mr. Lancer,” she responded evenly.  “I assure you that your appearance does not upset me.  Your injury does concern me, however.”

Teresa had joined the small group on the veranda, but neither she, Scott nor Murdoch had noticed the ragged bandage that spilled out of Johnny’s left shirtsleeve, wrapping his wrist.  “Goodness, she’s right!” Teresa exclaimed, distressed.  “What happened, Johnny?”

Johnny broke into a small smile as he gazed at Millicent, his intuition confirmed, as he perceived more than what was meeting his eyes.  “You’re pretty observant, Miss Fairfax,” he remarked simply.

Millicent smiled back, the subtle challenge recognized.  ‘My, he is going to be fun to play with,’ she thought, even as she parried, “As a woman of independent means it pays to keep one’s eyes well open, Mr. Lancer.  You never know what might be important.”

Murdoch had seen Johnny act with such reserve with men, but he’d never before witnessed his son take such an attitude with a woman.  His worry about a rivalry developing between his sons for Millicent’s affection now seemed unwarranted – Johnny definitely was not leaving an impression that he was going to be seeking much contact with Miss Fairfax.

His own concerns now raised, Murdoch insisted, “What happened to your wrist, son?”

Johnny’s attention finally left Millicent as he addressed his father.  “I told you that area wasn’t ready for grazin’.  The minute we moved those cows in they started bustin’ down fences . . . wood was rotted on too many posts.  We was tryin’ ta patch together some wire ta keep ‘em corralled, and . . .” Johnny held up his bloody wrist, “. . . I got bit a little.  It’ll heal.”

Their focus diverted, everyone seemingly missed the intensity of Millicent’s gaze as she stared fixedly at Johnny’s wound.  Her breath hitched and a hand came up to her breast as she fought to quell her desire, the blood, dark and dried upon the makeshift bandaging calling to her, threatening her control.  But the object of her need disappeared when Johnny lowered his arm back to his side.

“Ain’t nothin’ ta get excited about, Miss Fairfax,” Johnny assured her with a carefully measured nonchalance, as always missing little and having observed her overt reaction to his minor injury.

‘Of course he would be the one to notice,’ Millicent thought as she composed herself, embarrassed that her spontaneous craving had been caught, a rare occurrence.  Now uncomfortable with his flippant impertinence she spit back, “I assure you, Mr. Lancer, my consideration is no greater than I intend it to be.”

The pair stared at each other, deep blue eyes fixed on what were now dark brown, in a match of wills, for what apparent reason the others could not fathom.  The instant antagonism between Johnny and Millicent was baffling.

Murdoch didn’t know what had started the discord, let alone what was fueling it, but he decided to put a stop to it.  “Johnny, don’t be rude,” he commanded.

Johnny’s lips curled into a light smile as he broke the intense eye contact to flick his gaze toward his father.  When he again faced Millicent his apology came easy, but maintained a hint of insolence.  “No offense meant, ma’am.”

Millicent also relaxed and matched his manner perfectly.  “None taken, I assure you, Mr. Lancer.”

‘She sure is a hard one under all that pretty show.’  Johnny kept his grin – and guard – in place.  “Make it Johnny.”

The intensely matched stares were paired once again.  “Johnny then,” she agreed, adding, “and you shall call me Millicent.”

“Not Millie?”

Surprisingly to the others, Millicent’s smile actually grew with Johnny’s obviously absurd suggestion.  If the young woman was rankled at the continued impertinence, it didn’t show.  “Millicent, if you please,” she corrected demurely.

Johnny let that request hang in the air between them for a second, then smoothly responded, “Whatever you say . . . Millicent.”

Teresa was the first to decide that she’d had quite enough of the confusing exchange.  She took a step forward and offered, “Johnny, come with me and I’ll take a look at your wrist for you.”

Having taken his measure of Miss Fairfax, Johnny gladly accepted the excuse to leave.  “No, ya’ll go on with your visit.  I’ll get Maria ta look at it.”  He stepped up onto the veranda and gave Teresa a light kiss on the cheek.  “Don’t worry about it, querida, ain’t nothin’ much.  You enjoy the rest of your evenin’.”

Striding smoothly off the porch, Johnny turned to once more address their guest.  “Welcome to Morro Coyo, Millicent,” he proclaimed, then disappeared into the darkness as he made his way around the hacienda to the kitchen.

Millicent spoke many languages, and Johnny’s endearment to Teresa had not been lost on her.  ‘Don’t bring her into this, Johnny dearest.  You’re good, very perceptive, but you really have no idea who you are dealing with.  But you will.  You most definitely will.’

Her attention still focused on the figure fading into the night, Millicent uttered distractedly, “Your brother is so much darker than you, Scott.”

“I beg your pardon?” Murdoch replied, perhaps more gruffly than intended, his nerves set on edge by the strange conversation between this guest and his son.

Realizing the impression she’d given, Millicent covered her true intent.  “I meant no offense, Mr. Lancer.  It is only that he appears more Mediterranean in feature . . . as men I have known from Spain.”

“Johnny is my half-brother,” Scott explained.  “His mother was Mexican.”

“Ah, I see.”  She turned to them and smiled broadly.  “There is much nobleness in his heritage then.  What a delightful contrast you two men offer.”

Despite her pleasant demeanor, Scott got the distinct impression that he was being summarily dismissed from Miss Millicent Fairfax’s consideration as a potential suitor.  That twinge of jealousy was back.  It wasn’t the first time his younger brother had managed to make an impression simply by entering – or leaving – a room.

Like Johnny, Millicent was very perceptive.  Although she seemed to have assuaged her affront to Murdoch, Scott now seemed distant.  ‘Sorry dear, but you’re just going to have to live with the disappointment.  I’ve made my choice.’

Teresa’s feelings however could not be so easily ignored.  Keenly observing the young woman, Millicent knew that Miss O’Brien was not pleased with either the attention Johnny had been paid, or by the tenor of the conversation that had just taken place.  Millicent found Teresa’s quaint girlish protectiveness of Johnny exceedingly laughable.

‘Sister indeed,’ Millicent scoffed, sensing much more than mere sibling affection between the Lancer pair, at least on the girl’s part.

Realizing that an alliance with Teresa would prove advantageous, Millicent took steps to win her friendship – and perhaps keep Scott attentive as well.  As the group made their way back into the great room Millicent announced, “Teresa, it is getting late, but I did want to make a request of you before I left this evening.  Would you be willing to help me plan a party at my estate next weekend so that I may meet some of the other local residents?”

Millicent continued with her request in a rush, as if she knew this was just the most outrageous appeal that might be made.  “I hope you don’t think it presumptuous of me to ask such a thing, our having just met.  But I do so want to meet all the right people and feel that your wealth of knowledge could be indispensable.”

Suddenly she turned dramatically and addressed Murdoch, her hand once again upon her breast with an apologetic look on her face.  “I am so sorry, Mr. Lancer.  Perhaps it was improper for me to ask Teresa directly.  In my excitement I feel I’ve overstepped my bounds.  I would prefer her feminine touch on the festivities, but she would of course require an escort, as I’m afraid we would need to plan evening visits at this time.  There is still much work to be done on the residence, and I insist upon being present to direct the repairs.  I could send a man, but that would be equally inappropriate.  If you have no one to spare for such duty I shall just have to make due.”

“Well, we actually . . .” Murdoch started, but caught the look of excitement on Teresa’s face.  It was painfully obvious how badly his young ward wanted to accept the invitation.  Smiling lightly he turned to his son.  “Scott, if you feel you could juggle those bridge repairs you have planned, I could see you accompanying Teresa.”

Before Scott could even consider the suggestion each woman applied her own unique form of pressure.

“Oh, that would be wonderful,” Teresa stated excitedly.  “Please say you will.”

“Yes, Scott,” Millicent agreed, taking a step forward to wrap an arm around his own.  She batted the long lashes of those fascinating eyes up at him and implored, “You’ve already been so helpful to me securing my new home.  I would be ever so grateful to continue to receive your assistance while planning for this function as well.”

Drawn in by her compelling gaze and gentle touch, Scott found himself unable to even consider saying no.  “I would be pleased to escort you, Teresa,” he stated – but his eyes never left Millicent.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny made his way around to the kitchen entrance and took a moment to wash some of the day’s accumulation of dirt off his face and hands before entering.  Maria stood at the sink, washing dishes from the evening’s special dinner.

“Hola, Maria,” he greeted the Mexican housekeeper warmly.  “You got time to do somethin’ before you feed me?”

Maria looked back over her shoulder and recognized Johnny’s most playful smile.  After an evening of strictly observing formal proprieties in honor of the Lancer guest, she welcomed Johnny’s refreshing levity – although she would never admit to the  patrón’s younger son that she absolutely adored him for the joy he brought to her life.  Keeping her attention on her dishes, she exclaimed, “I feed and feed and feed you, Juanito, but still you are delgado.  I think I should start to give your food to the pigs.  At least they gain weight to show how much they like my food.”

“Don’t you dare,” Johnny chastised lightly as he snuck up behind her and laid a kiss upon her cheek.  “I see one scrap of your good cookin’ in that pigpen and I’m gonna lock you in this room, you hear me?”

The older woman couldn’t help but smile.  She had come to understand Scott’s reserved politeness and enjoyed his quiet but always pleasant company.  But Johnny, especially when they were alone, was like having a whirlwind of excitement around.  Maria always felt exhausted but surprisingly rejuvenated in her soul whenever Johnny left her.  Deep down she knew the young man had her wrapped around his little finger – and she didn’t care one bit.

Maria grabbed up a dishtowel and casually wiped her hands – then quickly turned and swiped it at him.  “You do not tell me how to run my kitchen, niño.”

“Hey!” Johnny jumped back, rubbing his arm melodramatically as if she had punched him.  “I’m already hurtin’.  You’re gonna make me cry now.”

Maria took ranch injuries very seriously, knowing they could easily become infected if not treated promptly and correctly.  Noticing the bandaging around Johnny’s wrist she immediately grew stern.  “Ah, Dios.  You come in and play when you need care.”

A litany of reprimands flew at him in Spanish.  She quickly led him to a chair and unwrapped the makeshift dressing, then bustled about the kitchen gathering medical supplies.  Johnny was unable to get a word in edgewise until she sat across from him, dabbing intently at his wrist with carbolic as it lay on a clean dishtowel spread over the table.

“You know, I told you I had somethin’ for you to do when I came in.”

Maria would have none of Johnny’s attempt to defend himself.  In her eyes, delay of any kind in such matters was not to be tolerated.  She stringed together some additional admonishments, ignored his excuse and simply poured more of the stinging but cleansing carbolic directly on his injured wrist.

“Ow!” Johnny yelled as he attempted to draw the limb away, but with surprising strength the petite housekeeper held it in place and continued to scold him.  Johnny thought it best to just shut up while he was ahead, and lowered his head to lay atop his other arm on the table, silently enduring the discomfort as he accepted the now none too gentle care Maria dished out.

Johnny didn’t look up until he felt a fresh bandage being wrapped around his wrist.  He peeked up sheepishly from the tabletop and caught Maria’s still stern gaze as she wordlessly finished her task.  “Lo siento, Maria,” he apologized.  And he meant it.

The housekeeper felt her resolve instantly weaken.  She always found it absolutely impossible to stay angry with Johnny for any length of time.  “With such things we do not play games, Juanito,” she stated emphatically as she finished tying off the bandage.  Her dour visage finally relaxed into a soft smile as she asked, “Do you eat before or after you meet the new chica?”

Johnny’s own grin widened until he thought his face would break.  “Oh, Maria,” he threw his head back and laughed, pleased that the serious moment between them had ended.  “I already met her, and I don’t think she’d cotton much to bein’ referred to as a chica!”

Maria gathered up her supplies and deposited them on a counter, then began to dish up a plate of food.  “Sí, Juanito,” she readily agreed.  “That one . . .” Suddenly remembering herself and realizing that she might be exceeding her position, she hesitated.

“Go on, Maria, it’s just me,” Johnny encouraged.  He knew the servant was much more open with him than she’d ever be with anyone else in the family, and was actually very interested in hearing someone else’s assessment of Miss Millicent Fairfax.

Given permission, Maria didn’t hesitate a moment.  “That one, she hides something.”  She shook a serving spoon at him for emphasis.

“And just where under that dress would she hide it?” Johnny quipped – but he knew what Maria meant.  He’d felt it himself, and was sorry to have his judgment corroborated.  He knew he’d be able to steer clear of Millicent, but Johnny wondered if Scott could be convinced to do the same.  It might mean a hard fight, but Johnny determined right then that there would be no way he’d let Millicent hurt his brother.

“Again you laugh when things are muy importante,” Maria chided.  “This woman will bring much trouble, you will see.”

Johnny played absentmindedly with the new bandage wrapped around his wrist as he considered the woman’s sage advice.  “Don’t worry, Maria,” he said quietly.  “I know what she is.  I seen her type before.  Too many times before,” he added pensively.

Catching the sadness mixed with Johnny’s admission, Maria brought his food to the table, laid a brimming plate before him, then placed a firm hand on his shoulder.  “Sí, your eyes have seen much, niño.  But that is what makes you strong now.  You know when to be careful, and what you protect.  Usted es el águila para esta familia.  (You are the eagle for this family.)  It is your eyes which see what they cannot.”

Johnny didn’t particularly want that kind of responsibility, but he’d never run away from a fight.  And she was right – his family was now the most important thing in his life, and he’d protect everyone in it with his own.

He reached a hand up to cover hers, and faced her with a smile.  “We’ll both keep our eyes open, won’t we?”

Smiling back, Maria agreed.  “Sí. But now, you eat, or I throw it all to the pigs.”

Glad to be laughing again, Johnny shook his head emphatically, even as he grabbed up his fork.  “You do and we’ll both be sorry.”  As he began to eat, Johnny could only hope that none of them would regret the day that Miss Millicent Fairfax had come to Morro Coyo.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

His entrance timed perfectly, Johnny didn’t reappear in the great room until Millicent’s carriage pulled away from the hacienda.  Teresa had already busied herself gathering up glassware from the evening’s entertainment, but stopped to rush over and give Johnny the exciting news.

“Oh, Johnny!  Millicent has asked me to help arrange a party for her.  She wants to meet everyone else important in the area and thought I’d be able to plan the perfect guest list.  Isn’t that wonderful?  It’s going to be a very large party, with food and dancing and just everything.  Scott’s going to help as well.  And you . . .” Teresa had barely taken a breath as she rambled on, but now she paused and looked at Johnny earnestly.  “Well . . . you didn’t seem to like her much, but . . . you will come, won’t you Johnny?” she pleaded.

Johnny had been more than ready to offer up his cynical opinion of Miss Fairfax, but seeing the absolute delight of anticipation reflected in Teresa’s face made it impossible for him to say anything negative in front of her that would dampen her enthusiasm.  He wrapped a supportive arm around her shoulder, smiled and hugged her close as he asked, “There gonna be somethin’ sweet for dessert?”

Teresa peered up at him and eagerly replied, “I’ll set a batch of churros aside just for you!”

“I’ll be sure to be there then.”

She hugged him tightly and buried her head on his chest.  “Thank you, Johnny.”  Teresa released her grateful embrace and announced, “I’m going right to bed so I can get up early tomorrow and start planning.  This is going to be so much fun.  Imagine how surprised everyone is going to be when they get their invitation.  Goodnight.  Scott, I’ll start a list and we can go over it tomorrow evening . . .”

The Lancer men heard Teresa babbling on with excitement as she made her way up the staircase.

Johnny smiled broadly as he turned to his father and brother, standing at the open French door.  “You really think she’s gonna get a lick a’ sleep tonight?”

Murdoch laughed heartily as Scott returned Johnny’s smile and replied, “Not one wink.”

The two men drifted back into the room as Johnny turned to pour himself a drink.  Murdoch considered letting it drop, but he couldn’t help being intrigued with his younger son’s reaction to Miss Fairfax, and decided to get his concerns out into the open.  “Johnny, I must say that I also noticed you didn’t exactly care for Millicent.  Have you two ever met before?”

“Never laid eyes on her until tonight,” Johnny replied honestly as he recapped the whiskey bottle and faced them.

“Well then, can you tell us what exactly bothered you about her?”

The older Lancer son was certainly glad his father had breeched the subject.  He’d also wondered at Johnny’s immediate enmity toward their new neighbor – and Scott hoped, friend.  He waited patiently as Johnny formed his thoughts.

After a swallow of whiskey, Johnny finally did answer.  “It’s not any one thing I can put my finger on, Murdoch.  I . . . get these feelings about people.  She just ain’t what she appears to be.”

“None of us are, Johnny.  You should know that.”  Scott’s observation had a too polite sharpness.  Only after he’d uttered the words did he realize how very badly they could sound, and how deeply they would cut.

Johnny knew exactly what Scott implied.  Blue eyes matched blue eyes, one set filled with remorse, the other shaded, unreadable.  But the sudden coldness between the brothers was all to clear.

“Yep.  You’re right brother.”  Johnny’s answer was carefully measured.  “Ain’t a one of us that don’t have secrets.  I’m just warnin’ you to remember that.”  He set his still half-full glass down on a table and turned to leave.  “Headin’ ta bed myself.  See ya’ll in the mornin’,” he threw back over a shoulder.

“Johnny, wait.”  Scott moved quickly toward his brother.  “Johnny that didn’t come out the way . . . well . . . I didn’t mean what you think.”

Johnny stopped and turned back slowly to face his brother.  “Yes you did, Scott.  And you’re right about me.  But that’s also how I know I’m right about Millicent.  She’s hidin’ somethin’.  I can feel it.”

The chill between the brothers grew palpable, until Johnny realized that the important message he wanted to get through to Scott was being lost in a petty argument.  He bowed his head and took a moment to rein in his anger and disappointment.  This wasn’t about him, it was about Scott – Johnny just needed his brother to see that.

Taking a deep breath, he looked up, softened his tone, and offered up one last piece of advice.  “Scott, if you fancy Millicent just make sure you find out who she really is before you get yourself in too deep.  I ain’t gonna stand in your way, and I hope I’m wrong.  But I wouldn’t be doin’ you no favor by keepin’ quiet.  You lookin’ at her with both eyes open is all I care about right now.”

With a genuine smile Johnny deftly lightened the subject.  “Helpin’ with this party of hers should give you plenty of time for that.  I’m lookin’ forward to comin’ ‘cause . . .” he turned to Murdoch and mischievously added, “. . . I heard Teresa’s already got me on the invite list.”

Johnny continued to smile as he addressed his brother.  “Like I said . . . I’m headin’ off to bed.  I’ll see you in the mornin’, Scott.”

Scott was glad that Johnny seemed willing to set aside his insensitive comment, but that didn’t mean he was pleased with his own behavior.  Johnny was right – he’d already let Millicent start to blind him, leaping to her defense and hurting his brother in the process.  “Yes, Johnny.  I’ll see you in the morning,” he offered back with a light smile of his own.

“’Night, Murdoch,” Johnny called out and headed up the stairs.

His sons’ quarrel had been painful for Murdoch to witness.  He recalled his earlier fear of what might happen should both men choose to vie for Millicent’s affections.  The Lancer patriarch now realized that it was going to be equally hard to have one of his sons attracted to the young lady while the other disapproved.

’Could Johnny really be that intuitive,’ Murdoch wondered?  He knew his younger son had learned to read men for their innate goodness or badness as an act of survival in his life as a gunfighter.  ’But what in heaven’s name could he possibly have detected in Millicent to make him feel so strongly against her that he’d come right out and warn Scott?’

“Murdoch, I’m sorry about what just happened.”

“Don’t worry about it son.  You apologized to Johnny, that’s what matters.”

“I didn’t really, you know,” Scott begged to differ.

“Well, maybe not.  But he knew you were sorry.  At least you listened to what he had to say, and that was important to him.  Do you believe him?  What he thinks about Millicent?”

Scott had to think hard about that question, and the answer came with a shake of his head.  “I don’t know.  I really do not know.  He’s been right before.  You and I have both seen him peg a man for trouble before we’d had any evidence.  I just can’t imagine what he could be concerned about.”

Murdoch laughed lightly, then explained, “I’ve already asked myself that question, and have absolutely no clue.  But he was right about another thing . . . you and Teresa helping with this party should allow you to get to know Miss Fairfax a lot better.  I trust you will keep your eyes open, for Teresa’s sake.”

“Oh, indeed sir,” Scott readily agreed, his curiosity definitely roused.  “Indeed I shall.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

The next week and a half passed quickly.  Teresa’s excitement only increased, creating a tempest of agitation that churned throughout the hacienda.  The frenzy of activity was unsettling, but Johnny actually felt more unnerved on evenings when Scott and Teresa visited Millicent.  Left alone with only Murdoch and Maria as his quiet companions, Johnny found the calm disquieting as the eye of “Hurricane Teresa” temporarily passed over them, the storm intensifying even more upon her return, leaving nothing but mayhem in her wake.

All three of the Lancer men suddenly found mundane ranch duties rather interesting.  They vied for even the most strenuous of jobs – as long as they needed to be performed outside the hacienda.  Otherwise the planning for the big party was looked upon sympathetically by Scott, curiously by Murdoch, and with continued concern by Johnny.

Johnny didn’t like the idea of Teresa becoming so companionable with Millicent before he could figure out her game.  And even though Scott seemed to have backed off from romantically pursuing Miss Fairfax – at least for the moment – Johnny was worried that his brother would not be able to resist Millicent’s attention for long.  He had gotten a real sense that she was not the type of woman who gave up easily.

The ex-gunfighter was also concerned about the curious evening visits Teresa and Scott were required to make in order to meet with Millicent.  A drifter who had set up camp near the Fairfax property had been found dead, the cause attributed to an animal attack of some kind, as the man had been bitten about the throat.  That disturbing occurrence alone was enough to put Johnny off his sister and brother’s nighttime travels.  But Johnny had also spoken with some of the men working to repair the new Fairfax residence.  It seemed strange to him that no one he talked to had ever seen Millicent in the light of day.  Such an unusual detail might have been overlooked, but Scott mentioned that the whole point for the evening meetings was because Millicent had specifically wanted to supervise the workers herself.

Johnny remembered Millicent as being extremely fair skinned, but her avoidance of the daylight seemed oddly obsessive.  He didn’t dwell on the issue, just added it to an ever lengthening list of things about her that continued to keep him on edge.

An opportunity for Johnny to look into things for himself came two days before the big event.  Teresa had made a list of supplies that still needed purchasing, and wanted to get it to Millicent’s servant, Lucy, as soon as possible.  As he was going to be working out near Millicent’s property anyway, Johnny conveniently suggested that he could drop the note off for her.  The offer was readily accepted.

As he slowly made his way up the newly cleared road leading to Millicent’s estate, Johnny took careful measure of the surroundings.  Evidence of recently made repairs was everywhere – bright paint and fresh-cut wood planking on the fences, barn and porch glowed vividly against the morning sun.  Despite the renovations, the place still looked – and felt – deserted.  Other than a corral holding horses Johnny saw no sign of any other stock on the entire premises.  The Lancer man was left to wonder what exactly Miss Fairfax planned to cultivate on her new property.

Nearing the main house, Barranca suddenly neighed and shied back.  The unexpected move might have thrown most riders, but Johnny’s expertise with horses kept him mounted.  Barranca pranced about nervously as Johnny tried to determine what had him spooked.  Seeing no apparent danger, he crooned calming words at the animal until it finally settled.

Spurring Barranca on, horse and rider quickly reached the front entrance to the house.  Johnny dismounted and looped the reins to a convenient post, then pulled Teresa’s list out of his saddlebag.  With a few more comforting words and a gentle pat on Barranca’s neck, Johnny ascended the three steps leading up to the broad porch, noticing as he climbed that all the curtains were still drawn against the sun on the lower level of the house, and shutters completely sealed the upper windows.

Johnny’s list of things that disturbed him about Millicent immediately got a little longer.

Raising a hand to knock, the front door was suddenly flung wide open.  The gunfighter’s hand reflexively dropped to the butt of his gun, but Johnny’s eyes never left the face of the giant who now stood before him.

From his size Johnny judged this the man he had seen from a distance the night Millicent had visited Lancer.  Scott had mentioned briefly meeting one of the woman’s two traveling companions, but his description of the man paid him nowhere near justice.

Taller than Murdoch, the man was broader in the chest, too.  Pure muscle strained against the dark red material of the man’s shirt and buttoned black vest.  A tree trunk of a neck formed the pedestal for an abnormally large head that displayed a face a mother would be hard pressed to love.  The man wasn’t ugly, but none of his features seemed to fit with the other, the combination of disjointed imagery calling attention to the whole.

If the giant had noticed Johnny’s instinctive action, he gave no indication of feeling threatened.  “Whadda yah wohnt?” a deep voice rumbled, in an accent that was a bastardized version of Millicent’s clipped British.

“I’m here to see Miss Fairfax.”  Johnny kept it basic.

“Shain’t acceptin’ no visitahs.”

Johnny waited, but that seemed the extent of what the giant had to offer.  He hadn’t yet taken his eyes off the hulking form blocking the doorway, but now Johnny peered around the man, trying to catch a glimpse of . . . what exactly, he wasn’t sure.  He had just enough time to catch sight of a timid looking young woman standing at the end of a long hallway, before the giant took exception to the obvious attempt to snoop and stepped forward to completely fill the doorframe.

Refusing to give ground, Johnny’s view became severely limited.  The cowboy tipped his hat back along with his head and met the expressionless gaze of what could only be Millicent’s bodyguard.

Johnny locked eyes on the beast and made his introductions.  “Name’s Johnny Lancer.  My brother and sister have been comin’ here for the last week helpin’ out with the party this weekend.”  He adopted an insolent smile and proudly stated, “I got me an invite.  How about you?”

The fleshy wall refused to fall for the gibe, and remained stubbornly silent.  ‘Gonna need to sharpen’ my pencil if this list gets any longer,’ Johnny humorously predicted, his unenthusiastic view of Millicent Fairfax only becoming worse through this interaction.

“As much as I’ve enjoyed our little chat, I do have work to do today.”  Holding up Teresa’s list between their faces, Johnny peered around it as he continued to gaze upward at an awkward angle.  “For Lucy,” he explained.  “Miss O’Brien suggests this stuff gets picked up for the party.  She knows I like to eat.”  Johnny eyed the giant up and down, and his impudent smile grew.  “I reckon you do, too.”

The bodyguard’s eyes narrowed slightly as the document was snatched roughly out of Johnny’s hand.  The ex-gunfighter was finally getting to him.

‘My, but I do have a way with people,’ Johnny self-complimented.

“I’ll see she gehts it,” the gruff voice declared.  “Anathin’ else?”

“Yeah.  Be sure to tell ‘Millie’ that Johnny was by.”

This time there was no acknowledgement.  The man simply took a literal giant step backward and slammed the heavy door in Johnny’s face.  He’d been close enough to the entryway to consider himself lucky to still have his nose in one piece – and to hear what sounded like a low growl resound through the woodwork.  ‘Yep.  No doubt about it,’ Johnny thought. ‘I do have a way with people.’

His “chore” done, Johnny reclaimed Barranca and headed back to Lancer, suddenly very intrigued by thoughts of the impending party.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Saturday morning at Lancer passed quickly – the afternoon even faster.  Scott and Teresa were up early to finish last minute preparations for the party.  Scott went about his duties with a military efficiency, while Teresa seemed to be everywhere at once.  They had a buckboard packed and ready to move by two – but didn’t leave until three.

The party was not due to begin until after sundown.  Given his recent musings, that particular detail came as no surprise to Johnny.  That also meant a late night for the guests, most of whom were accustomed to going to sleep as soon as it was dark and rising with the sun.  In order to better accommodate the daily routine of ranchers and farmers, large social gatherings in the area usually began in the afternoon and wound down soon after dark.  But Scott assured everyone that back in the east and in Europe, galas almost never began before dark and lasted well into the evening.

“If you say so, Boston,” Johnny had acquiesced.  “But there’s gonna be a whole lot of sleepy people milkin’ cows come sunrise tomorrow.”

Insisting that everyone else simply come and enjoy the party as guests, Scott and Teresa left first, followed by Murdoch and Jelly in the carriage, and Johnny much later on Barranca.  With Scott preoccupied with Millicent’s party, Johnny had voluntarily taken over his brother’s duties at Lancer.  But that meant a long day, and by the time Johnny was cleaned up and ready to leave it was already dark.

The night sky held a few wispy clouds, but otherwise was blanketed with bright stars.  The silvery light from a full moon added to the heavenly glow and made the journey easier, until a long line of torches took over and thoughtfully lit the entire road leading up to the Fairfax residence.  ‘Scott’s doin,’ Johnny proudly presumed.

In stark contrast to how Johnny had previously found the property, now the place seemed very much alive.  Row after row of buckboards, carriages, and tethered horses covered the front grounds of the house.  The curtains and windows on the first floor had been thrown wide – although the upper level remained conspicuously shuttered.  Light spilled from every opening, and guests milled about everywhere.  More torches led a path to the back of the house, where Johnny heard the distinctive sound of a local band of popular musicians playing a lively tune.

Despite the bustling activity, Johnny still perceived a sense of coldness . . . an unsettling detachment between the citizens of the area who were familiar to him and the harsh emptiness of Millicent’s domain that he knew would remain after the transient masses had departed.  Barranca seemed to feel it too, and once again shied away from approaching the house.

Johnny noticed that several other horses also appeared on the skittish side.  Some of the animals danced nervously in place, while others pawed at the ground or pulled on their tethered reins.  He took pity on his faithful friend and secured Barranca at the far end of the long line of saddled horses.

To heed Murdoch’s strict edict for all social functions, Johnny undid his gun belt and stored the weapon in his saddlebag, then headed up toward the mansion.

It took Johnny awhile to make it to the entranceway, as neighbor after neighbor stopped him in greeting.  Finally reaching the front door, he fully expected “the giant” to block his entrance.  But the path was clear and Johnny made his way unchecked into Millicent’s stronghold.

Food tables were scattered throughout the residence, and Johnny snacked idly as he took a self-guided tour of the dwelling, seeking his family as he moved.  The décor was nothing like that of Lancer – rustic simplicity was replaced here by opulent extravagance.  Some of the furniture seemed so delicate Johnny figured it would most likely break upon first use.  ‘Definitely not my type,’ he thought humorously as his head shook in dismissal.

Not shy about rattling door handles, Johnny found a few that were firmly locked, including one attached to a rather large door in the main hallway that had obviously been newly installed.  The cynical young man considered the fact that the security was owed more to the need for keeping secrets than maintaining privacy – and Johnny definitely knew all about the fine line that marked the difference between the two.

His casual meandering eventually led him into a large kitchen, where he found the timid young lady he’d previously only glimpsed.  She struggled to move an obviously heavy tray of dirty plates and glasses off a counter.  Johnny swept in quickly, sensing imminent disaster.  “Reckon you need a little help there,” he advised as he scooped the object deftly from her precarious grip.

“Oh no, sah,” she protested as her hands pulled at the tray.  “It nawt be propah fer you tah be ‘alpin,” she exclaimed in that peculiar accent the “giant” had used.

The girl was lean but sturdy, a little taller than Teresa, and not exactly unattractive, although not in an alluring kind of way.  Johnny figured she was used to hard work, but as she pushed a loose bit of wispy brown hair back into a tight bun at the back of her head, it was obvious that she’d already had a busy and tiring evening.  “Glad to lend a hand, ma’am,” he insisted.  “Where do you need it?”

She ran the back of a nervous hand over her forehead as her eyes flicked anxiously toward the outside entrance.  Johnny nudged her past her obvious fear of being caught making a guest work.  “If I put it down quick, nobody’ll catch us.”

His reasoning accepted she directed him toward a small table near the door he’d just entered.  “Royt ‘ere, sah.”

“Johnny,” he corrected as he maneuvered the tray down onto the table.  He held out a hand as he turned to face her.  “It’s just Johnny.  Johnny Lancer.”

The innocent pronouncement didn’t get quite the reaction he expected.  The young lady actually looked a little frightened at his introduction, and took a step backward.  “You be Johnny?” she questioned, eyes wide.

Johnny let the hand fall back to his side as he tried to puzzle out what the reaction meant.  Had she heard about his life as a gunfighter?  “Yep.  Johnny Lancer,” he repeated.  “You must be Lucy.”

Her doe eyes dropped to stare at the floor as her mouth scrunched in decision, teeth biting nervously at her lower lip.  Finally she looked up, and answered tentatively.  “Yes, sah.  Ah’m Lucy, sah.  Yor . . . T’resa’s brahthah.”

She’d left something unsaid, but Johnny let it pass and gave her a light smile instead.  “Scott’s brother, too.  Heard you been mighty helpful gettin’ this party arranged.”

Not used to compliments, Lucy again dipped her head.  But when her eyes once again met with Johnny’s, her lips had curled upward into the beginnings of a smile.  Johnny decided he preferred her face that way, happier and calmer, minus the furrowed brow.  His own smile widened in encouragement.  “Very nice to make your acquaintance, Miss Lucy.”

Her grin spread, but only for a brief moment.  The back door flew open, and another giant passed his huge frame into the room.  The previously expansive kitchen suddenly became much smaller as it accepted his bulk.  This brute was just as large, if not larger, than the first man Johnny had encountered at Millicent’s.  And just as unattractive.  The picked-over tray of food in his hand was quickly placed on a counter, and he moved forward threateningly.  “Guests ain’t ‘sposed tah be in ‘ere.  You knows that, Lucy.”

Having no desire to create further problems for the now cowering woman, Johnny bit back a caustic reply and worked to diffuse the situation, offering lightly, “I was just passin’ through.  No offense meant, mister.”

Johnny carefully kept his eyes off the young woman.  He skirted his way around Giant Two as he nonchalantly made his way to the outer door.  Lucy’s eyes were once again averted toward the ground, but the brute watched him closely.  “I’ll just let myself out,” Johnny offered as he went through the back door and closed it behind him.

An exit through the kitchen proved rewarding, as Johnny found his brother standing at the edge of the expansive back porch.  Scott closely watched the area below as a young man danced with Teresa.

“He keepin’ it proper, brother?” Johnny asked as he sidled up beside Scott.

A smile grew on Scott’s lips in acknowledgement for his young brother’s presence, but the pair kept their eyes fastened on Teresa.  “Matt knows who he’ll have to answer to if he doesn’t.  Don’t worry, brother.  The boys have been behaving.”

“What about you?” Johnny inquired lightly.

“I’m surprised by the question, Johnny,” Scott replied with mock indignation.  “You know I always conduct myself as a gentleman.”

“Ain’t what I heard.”  That rib finally drew a sideways glance from Scott.  Johnny offered him a broad smile, and was rewarded with an equally wide grin in return.

The brothers’ attention was set back on Teresa, their camaraderie easy and relaxed.  “You didn’t tell me Millicent had a pair of trained bears,” Johnny mentioned casually.

Scott laughed heartily at his brother’s analogy, and nodded his head.  “You mean Malcolm and Burt.  We were finally formally introduced this afternoon.  I have no idea where they’ve been keeping themselves hidden.”

“Probably in a cave nearby,” Johnny offered.  That elicited another laugh out of Scott.

“You should see them next to Murdoch,” Scott said with a certain amount of awe.  “I never thought he could be dwarfed by any man, but he looked absolutely small in their presence.”

“Whadda they do ‘round here?”

“Other than driving the carriage, I have no idea,” Scott replied.  “But I imagine whatever it is, they do it well.  Millicent doesn’t hire incompetents.  It took us all afternoon to load the buckboard, but that pair had everything unloaded and into the house in five minutes.  Flat.”  It was clear that Scott had been very impressed with their performance.

“I met Miss Lucy, too,” Johnny mentioned casually.  That drew another sideways glance from Scott, full of inquiry and speculation.  “She seems real nice,” was Johnny’s simple explanation as he refused to meet his brother’s curious gaze.

The subject came to an abrupt end as the music stopped and the crowd applauded heartily.  Teresa glanced over and spotted the brothers on the porch.  She made a quick getaway from her suitor and hurried to join them.

“Johnny!” Teresa exclaimed excitedly as she gave the younger Lancer a big hug.  “How long have you been here?”

“Oh, I don’t know . . . ‘bout fifteen minutes or so,” Johnny replied as he hugged her back.  “You both sure do know how to throw a party.  Never seen so many people . . . or so much food.  Only thing missin’ I reckon is the one payin’ the bill.”

Scott and Teresa shared a knowing look, and then faced Johnny with equally mischievous smiles playing on their lips.  “You haven’t seen Millicent yet?”  Teresa’s voice had an impish singsong.

Johnny stared back at her warily, then favored his brother with the same suspicious gaze.  That got both Teresa and Scott chuckling.  “Wait until you see, brother,” Scott encouraged surreptitiously as he shook his head and continued to laugh lightly.  “Just wait until you see.”

Further questions were cut off as friends stepped over to greet the trio.  Congratulations were offered to Scott and Teresa for the well-planned party.

A light murmur rippling through the crowd under the loud play of the musicians eventually drew Scott and Johnny’s simultaneous attention.  The hostess had once again appeared from around the side of the house, and gracefully wended her way through the dance area until she finally turned and headed toward the porch.  More than a half dozen young men, not surprisingly, trailed Millicent, each vying for her undivided attention.  Johnny also spotted “Giant One,” Burt, hovering in the background, trying to keep an inconspicuous distance while closely watching over his employer.

Johnny drew in every detail of Miss Fairfax – including the piece of cloth that hung around Millicent’s neck.  Overall the woman looked stunning in another beautiful dress of shimmering burgundy, this one not quite as low cut as the garment she had worn to Lancer, but still leaving little to the imagination.  Her hair was elegantly coifed, her make-up expertly applied.  But then there was that piece of cloth . . .

A standard cowboy bandanna made from simple black cotton was incongruously tied around Millicent’s neck.  It stood out like a sore thumb.

“What the heck is she wearin’?” Johnny commented, apparently a little too loudly for Teresa as she smacked him on the arm.  Hard.

“We felt it impolite to ask.”  Scott could barely conceal a chuckle, as Johnny rubbed at his battered limb.

“Scott and Johnny . . . behave yourselves,” Teresa admonished – but her own smile widened until she had to cover her mouth with a hand, giggles of her own again threatening.

Millicent’s path obviously led in their direction, so Scott fought off further laughter and simply proposed, “All I can guess is she wanted to fit in with the ‘west,’ and thought a bit of local garb might help.”

“Biggest dressin’ mistake I seen since you first showed up in them plaid pants, brother,” Johnny stated wryly to Scott – who promptly smacked the younger Lancer on his other arm while Teresa once again covered her laughter with a hand clamped tightly over her mouth.

“Ow!” Johnny complained lightheartedly.  “Looks downright silly,” he added under his breath as Millicent drew near.

The raven haired beauty glided up the steps of the porch without a downward glance, her eyes fixed on Johnny’s.  The men around her were steadfastly ignored, and a few shot baleful glares of jealously in Johnny’s direction.  The gentlemen all gradually drifted away as the object of their hopeless desire focused her attention totally on the Lancer family.

“Good evening, Johnny,” Millicent pointedly greeted her new guest.  Her smile was easy, but her eyes glinted with playfulness.

“Millicent.”  Johnny answered back with a cool smile of his own and a polite dip of his head.

“I understand you stopped by to see me the other day.”  Her tone suggested that she’d received the message exactly as worded.

“Not particularly.”  Johnny couldn’t resist clarifying her comment.  “Was droppin’ off a shoppin’ list, and thought I’d say hello.  But . . .” Johnny looked over Millicent’s shoulder to the “giant” who lingered at the bottom of the porch stairs.  “I was told you wasn’t acceptin’ visitors.”

Millicent knew exactly to whom Johnny referred.  “Burt and Malcolm can be extremely protective of me.  Sometimes they do take things a little too far.”  Somehow that sounded like a warning, but her tone lightened as she added, “However, you’re welcome anytime, I assure you.”

Scott and Teresa were beginning to feel like eavesdropping bystanders when Millicent suddenly changed the subject.  “I trust you are enjoying the festivities?” she inquired politely.

“Yep.  You throw a real fine party, Miss Fairfax.”

“I owe it all to Teresa and Scott, of course.”  Millicent reached for Teresa’s hand as she spoke and addressed her directly.  “My dear, I’ve heard nothing but compliments all evening,” she stated brightly.  “You are to be congratulated for a job exceedingly well done.”

Johnny was happy for Teresa, who beamed with pride over her accomplishment.  But he couldn’t help think that Millicent was laying the praise on just a little thick.

“And Scott,” she continued, her hand still clasped comfortably with Teresa’s.  “You of course played no small part in making this evening a success.  Your resourcefulness is ever amazing.”  Scott took the compliment with reserve, but it was obvious to Johnny that his brother was equally appreciative to Millicent for the acknowledgement.

“I am at your service,” Scott offered courteously.

“Ah, your Eastern manners continue to enchant me.”  Millicent spoke gaily as she reached out to stroke Scott’s arm – and his ego.

Her smile blazed as Millicent addressed both Scott and Teresa.  “Now is the time for you both to celebrate.  Neither of you shall work any further this evening.  I insist that you relax and enjoy the party for yourselves.”

‘Dios, she’s good.’  Millicent’s over-stated sugary sweet performance was near to giving Johnny a toothache.  “Well, reckon I’m gonna go find somethin’ ta eat,” he declared and attempted to get away.

“You haven’t been inside yet?” Millicent asked.

“Yeah, I’ve walked around an’ ate a bit,” Johnny answered.  “But I know I smelled fried chicken in there somewhere.  And . . .” he leaned into Teresa to whisper conspiratorially, “. . . someone promised me a batch of churros just for showin’ up.”

The reminder drew a giggle and a quiet “Johnny!” in admonishment from the young woman.

“It took a bribe to get you to come to my party?”  Millicent’s inquiry was laced with false outrage.  She dramatically placed a hand to her breast and added, “I’m shocked!”  Then she laughed broadly.  “Actually, I’m not a bit surprised.  But,” she added coyly, “let’s see if we can make your visit worthwhile nonetheless, and find you something a little more substantial to eat than just some childish little cookies.”

With merely a passing nod to Scott and Teresa, Millicent took Johnny’s arm and led him away.

Scott caught the condescending nature of Millicent’s seemingly innocent remark, and was sorry to see that Teresa had also noticed, her face the picture of dejection.  Determined to keep her spirits up, Scott stated sincerely, “You know, Teresa, you really did do a marvelous job arranging this party.  My assistance was minor.”  He placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face the dance area.  “Look around you.  Everyone is having an absolutely splendid time.  You should be very, very proud of yourself.”

Teresa gazed over the crowd, and saw couples dancing, people chatting, and caught several waves aimed her way.  She heard music and laughter, and she smiled.  Teresa reached up and placed a hand over her brother’s.  “Thank you, Scott.  It is wonderful, isn’t it?”

Scott leaned his head over her shoulder and stated truthfully, “It really, truly is.”

Pleased that he’d once again lightened her mood, Scott added, “Do you also realize that you haven’t danced with me once this evening?”  He grabbed the petite hand lying on top of his and pulled her around to face him.  “Miss O’Brien . . . would you care to dance?”

Her smile once again beamed as Teresa replied, “I would love to, Mr. Lancer.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny and Millicent entered the house through a wide French door that overlooked the back expanse of the property, into an elegantly decorated parlor.  A young couple stood chatting just outside the far entrance to the room, and glanced in their direction.  But after a cursory nod in greeting the pair looked away and continued their rapt discussion.  The young woman giggled flirtatiously at some most likely frivolous comment the young man had just made.

The ex-gunfighter didn’t waste any more time.  He grabbed Millicent’s arm off his, but kept hold of her elbow in order to pull her roughly around to face him.

“Johnny . . .” Startled by the handling, Millicent started to protest.  Her gaze darted from his firm grip up to his eyes.  But he cut her off, sharply.

“Shut up.”  Johnny’s lips maintained a slight polite smile for show, just in case anyone looked over.  But his eyes were full of contempt – and inside, he was seething.  “Don’t you ever talk like that again in my sister’s presence.  Do you understand me?”

 

Millicent met Johnny’s harsh stare unflinchingly.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  A gracious smile mirrored his own, the rules of the game well understood.

“Yes.  Yes you do.”

“Teresa is not your sister.”

“She is to me,” Johnny stated firmly, his gaze unwavering, “and you will never insult her again.  Do – you – understand?”  This time he enunciated each word of the question clearly.

The battle of wills was intense, but finally Millicent dropped her gaze.  She took in a measured breath, then faced him again as she released it.  “I apologize.  It was not my intent to insult Teresa.  I assure you, I have nothing but the utmost respect for the young woman.  She has been a great asset to me.”

The woman raised her other arm and reached over to briefly stroke the back of Johnny’s hand, before she deliberately lifted each of his fingers and extricated her elbow from his grip.  “Honestly, Johnny.  I shouldn’t have made the comment.  But it’s your fault, you know.”

“My fault?”

With an affected swish of skirts she walked away a couple of steps, then turned to face him.  “You made me angry.  Bribed to come,” she scoffed.  “Really Johnny.  Would it kill you to get to know me a little before you judge me?”

“Just might,” he answered with total sincerity.

“Might what?”

“Kill me to get to know you.  Been a lot of men who didn’t need to know anything more than my name to want my life.  Your pretty skirts don’t make you any less dangerous.”

Millicent gave a throaty laugh.  “I assure you . . . Johnny Madrid . . . my intentions are nothing but the best where you are concerned.”

A small smile crept over Johnny’s lips as he stared at Millicent intently, all his suspicions about the woman now confirmed with the mention of his alias.  “You are a sharp one, Miss Fairfax.”

“I told you,” she murmured as she took a step toward him, “I make it a habit to keep my eyes . . .” another step “. . . and ears . . .” she was right in front of him now “. . . open.”

All he had to do was reach forward, put his arms around her, pull her toward him . . . yet he didn’t move.

“Can’t we start over?” she urged provocatively with a bat of her luscious lashes.

Johnny’s smile widened.  “Nothin’ to start.”  He easily dismissed her attempt to beguile him.  “I ain’t interested,” he added simply, stepped around her, and began to walk away.

Millicent wasn’t used to being rebuffed, but she had actually anticipated Johnny’s response.  Eyes unnaturally darkening to an ominous near black, she followed him out of the parlor.

Several people attempted to speak to Millicent, but she ignored them all as she tracked Johnny through her mansion, outpacing him with determination and catching up quickly.

“Mr. Lancer,” she called brightly, maintaining a hospitable demeanor in front of the other guests.  “You’re forgetting something.”

Johnny stopped in front of that large brand new door he’d eyed suspiciously earlier, and turned impatiently.  “I don’t think I am, Miss Fairfax,” he drawled.

“Why I certainly think you are,” she replied undaunted, her tone light and flippant.  “I promised you a meal, and a meal you shall have.  Lucy,” Millicent beckoned, peering over Johnny’s shoulder to the young woman coming down the hallway.

Lucy rebalanced the small tray of fresh-cut finger sandwiches in her hands and efficiently quickened her pace.  “Yes, mu’um?” the servant asked as she drew closer.

“I’d like you to show Mr. Lancer up to my personal parlor.”

The request had been innocent enough, and Lucy tried her best to control her reaction.  But a sharp intake of breath was followed by a furtive glance toward Johnny that he immediately noted with caution.  “You wants ‘im upstairs?” the now perceptibly anxious woman questioned with a near whisper.

“Yes – Lucy,” Millicent declared firmly with a disapproving stare, all semblance of politeness gone, her ire over having to ask twice clear.  “Now,” she commanded.

Johnny didn’t know exactly why the obedient young woman would hesitate to do as requested, but he didn’t need any further warning that something was wrong.  “I told you before, Millicent, I’m not interested . . .”

He turned to leave, but now a firm hand grasped his elbow and roughly turning him back.  Thoroughly annoyed and on the border of losing his temper, Johnny allowed himself to be turned.  He faced Millicent, ready to end this now tiring game of one-sided pursuit.  But before he could utter a word in protest, Millicent’s hand moved off his arm and was placed firmly against his cheek.  She forced him to look at her, look into the abyss of her deep, compelling, now dark and unfathomable eyes, and his mind went drifting, sinking, racing away from him, and the last thing he remembered was Millicent repeating, “Show Mr. Madrid up to my personal parlor, Lucy . . .”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny woke . . . no . . . regained awareness, with his feet on the floor, seated on a chaise lounge.  He leaned awkwardly against the sloped arm.  Whatever had just happened had left him totally confused as to where he was or how he had gotten there.  He felt incredibly vulnerable and threatened, but at the same time indifferent to doing anything to protect himself.

The God’s honest truth was, he had no idea what to protect himself from.

His numbed mind incapable of coherent thought, Johnny settled on the basics and surveyed his surroundings.

Several well-placed candelabras lit the room just enough to allow him to make out the simple shape and size of the space, without revealing more than a little detail of the contents.  There was color in the room, but it was all in darkened hues, the upholstery, rugs and tapestries all variously patterned in rolling mixtures of blues, greens, maroons, and blacks.  None of it matched but all of it blended into a coherent whole.

The swirling designs seemed to actually ebb and flow, and Johnny found himself feeling dizzy and a little sick to his stomach.  He raised a hand to his eyes and massaged them through the lids, realizing that he also had a slight headache.

Still not trusting himself to stand, he again opened his eyes and tried to ignore the furnishings, looking past them to visually explore the space.  Judging from the depth of the shadows, he determined the room to be rather large.  There were heavy curtains hung on one wall, where Johnny assumed a couple of windows might be found.  As much as he tried he couldn’t find a door – his mind too confused to acknowledge it or the candles purposefully placed to keep the exit in total darkness.

His lethargy giving rise to tension, Johnny planted his hands firmly against the couch and forced himself to get up, to find a way out.  He stumbled a few paces until he rammed his right leg into a table.  It rocked precariously, and something fell to the floor where Johnny heard it shatter.  He ignored the damage and staggered onward, moving toward the windows and what he hoped might be a way out.

The closer he got to the curtains the more he discerned a scent that had been playing with his senses.  The cloying fragrance intensified with every step until he thought he might vomit from the agonizingly sweet perfume.  Incense.  Burning incense.  The aroma was a mask . . . he knew that instinctively.  There was an underlying stench of something else, something he’d smelled before, something . . . dead.

In an out and out panic Johnny reached for a curtain, pulled it aside . . . and fell to his knees.  Bricks.  The opening had been bricked over.  There had obviously been a window there at one time, but now in place of glass there was brick.

‘Trapped!’ his mind shouted.  ‘You’ve been trapped.’

Survival instincts kicked in, and Johnny hauled himself to his feet.  ‘Get out . . . find a way out!’  He commanded himself to move, turn, to step forward . . .

“Don’t be afraid, Johnny,” a familiar voice quietly bid him from the darkness across the room.   “I’m going to take good care of you.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Reflexively, Johnny reached for his hip . . . and cursed the decision not to wear his gun into the party.  He stared into the darkness, waiting, listening . . . hearing nothing more but his own breathing, his own labored breathing that was too loud, too fast.  Johnny stared, refusing to blink, while he demanded control.  In all his years as a gunfighter he had never reacted like this, with abject fear, to danger – and he held no doubt that he was in danger.  He still had no idea from what, but he knew full well from whom . . .

Millicent took a step forward, materializing out of a deep shadow into the dim light, and despite himself Johnny took a step back.  That was the last place he wanted to be, brushing up against those thick curtain shrouds covering the brick windows, surrounded by that odor, that reek of death that was now unmistakable.

“Don’t be afraid, Johnny,” Millicent repeated as she took another step forward . . . and then another.

Johnny didn’t know how, but he held his ground against her advance.  He couldn’t help being more than afraid . . . he was terrified, but he didn’t know why!

“I’m not going to hurt you, Johnny,” she assured him as she drifted forward, her voice melodious, her movement fluid as if she were not so much walking toward him as floating.  “I’m going to set you free, Johnny.  Free to accept the power within you that you refuse to use . . . to acknowledge.”

He continued to stare at her, trying not to blink as he sidestepped around the edges of the room.  Johnny strived to maintain some distance between them, willing himself not to pass out from the fear and the stench and the swirling dizzying patterns.  Somehow he kept his feet moving, and the pair circled, Millicent pirouetting in the center of the room as he revolved around her, seeking escape from his nightmare.

“I’ve wanted you since the first moment I saw you, Johnny,” she crooned hypnotically.  Her gaze equaled his but reflected a hunger, a need, a yearning.  “I know what you’ve been, but even more, what you could be.  No more games, Johnny . . . I’m tired of waiting.”

His hip bumped into something . . . a knob . . . a doorknob!  Desperate to flee, Johnny turned and grabbed at the handle.  But before he could grasp it he was turned and slammed up against the door with strength no woman should have been capable of wielding.

Millicent again laid a hand firmly against his cheek and compelled Johnny to look at her, into her eyes, and once more his mind went drifting . . .

Her body pressed closely against his, Johnny felt absolutely powerless to move as she held him trapped against the door.  The rapid pace of both her breathing and the beat of her heart matched his in a perfectly harmonized rhythm, her excitement and anticipation grossly mimicking his trepidation and dread.

Millicent leaned in even closer as her fingers moved upward to curl themselves tightly into his hair.  “Don’t be afraid of being evil, Johnny,” she whispered tenderly into his ear as she forcefully pulled his head back and to the side, exposing the left side of his neck.  “I’m not.”

Johnny’s world exploded as his neck seared with pain, the burning threatening to envelop his entire being, the horror continuing on and on and on until, suddenly, he felt, and knew, no more.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Awareness returned slowly, Johnny’s senses staggering their responsiveness.  Hearing came first, sounds of the party registering in Johnny’s ears before his already open eyes could regain sight and focus.  He once again stood in the downstairs hallway, leaning with his back pressed firmly against that large, strange door.  With a vengeance, smell returned next as the scent of fried food and flowers and something else best not remembered all assaulted him at once.  Nauseated, he drew in a sharp breath and judged that he just might throw up if he didn’t sit down.  He took a tentative step forward and realized his legs were weak . . . too weak . . . He broke into a cold sweat and knew right then and there, for certain and for sure, that he absolutely needed to sit down – quickly.

Johnny stumbled forward into a small sitting room and rammed his right thigh into a small table before falling into a cushioned chair beside it.  He immediately bent double over his knees and cradled his head in his hands, trying to make sense of why he felt sick and lightheaded . . . and tired . . . he was so tired all of a sudden . . .

Unaware of time passing, he remained in that position, perfectly still, until he finally felt like he could raise his head without retching or passing out.  He sat up and back slowly, his movements carefully controlled.

Johnny continued to sit there, motionless, trying to fathom what had just happened to him.  He remembered being with Millicent . . . and then he’d seen Lucy . . . and then . . . and then . . . and . . .

His quiet, confused thoughts were interrupted by his brother’s voice.  “There you are!” Scott called out enthusiastically as he entered the small room, closely followed by Teresa.  “We’ve been looking all over for you . . . or I should say, Murdoch’s been looking.  It’s been hours since anyone’s spotted you.  Where have you been hiding?”

Johnny tried hard to concentrate on his brother’s words, but found it difficult to comprehend much.  ‘. . . looking . . .  for you . . . hours . . .’  That didn’t make sense.  Nothing made sense . . .

“Ain’t been hidin’,” Johnny managed to answer – and he actually thought he could believe his own declaration.

A beautifully ornate, but essentially ineffective lantern hung in a corner to light the little room.  In the cozy dimness it was easy for Scott and Teresa to miss the degree of Johnny’s lethargy.  “Just been avoiding us then,” Scott replied, then after a wink to Teresa added, “It looks like you couldn’t escape Millicent though.”

Scott’s innocent tease sent an involuntary shiver through Johnny.  “Millicent?”  He shuddered as a fleeting forbidding remembrance barreled itself through the back of his mind.

“Yes . . . Millicent, brother,” Scott confirmed.  “I guess you really didn’t think it was that ‘silly’ after all,” he mocked lightly.  The reference drew an appreciative giggle out of Teresa.

“What?” Johnny asked, growing exasperated.  His still muddled brain was having trouble keeping up, and he had no idea what Scott was referring to.

“Don’t play dumb with us.  The bandanna . . .?  Millicent’s bandanna?  The one now tied around your neck?”

Johnny lifted a weary hand, and pulled aside his collar.  There, indeed, he found something folded neatly and tied around his neck, but he had to take Scott’s word for what it was.  Another transient memory rolled its way through his mind.  He captured it briefly, long enough to register a thought before the recollection tumbled onward.

“Millicent wanted me to have it,” he offered distractedly, knowing his statement was true but not really remembering how or when he’d received the “gift.”  His hand flopped weakly back down into his lap.

“Tied it tight, too,” Teresa said, noticing the bandanna’s small knot.  “She must not want it to come off anytime soon,” she added, a hint of peevishness coloring her voice.

Johnny found the confusing conversation and his inability to remember the recent past more and more disturbing.  The more he tried to concentrate the more frustrated he became – and the more exhausted he felt.

Scott was already saying something else, but Johnny couldn’t understand him.  He wanted to understand, he was just so ‘. . . damned tired!’

Johnny started to feel nauseated again and had to blot out all else just to concentrate on not getting sick.  He crossed his arms over his knees and laid his head back down, resuming the position that had allowed him to settle before.

Alarmed by Johnny’s now overt show of distress, Scott shared a concerned look with Teresa as they hurried to his side.  Scott knelt in front of his brother as he asked, “Johnny, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t feel so good,” came the muffled reply.

Teresa leaned over and reached down to feel Johnny’s brow.  “He doesn’t have a fever . . . if anything he feels cold, and a little clammy.  He’s definitely sick, Scott.”

The pair simultaneously looked toward the doorway, Murdoch’s distinctive voice beginning to echo down the hall as the Lancer patriarch conversed with some neighbor.  Without having to be asked Teresa offered, “I’ll get him,” as she sped out of the room.

It seemed only seconds later when Murdoch entered.  He moved directly to Johnny’s side and placed a hand on his shoulder, his simple questioning, “Son?” full of concern.

Johnny didn’t answer.  Scott leaned into him and firmly asked, “Johnny, tell us what’s wrong.”

Managing to raise his head a little, Johnny’s forehead crinkled in thought as he tried to answer honestly.  “Don’t know.  Just don’t feel right.  Kinda dizzy, an’ . . . sick . . .” That was all the explanation he could handle, his head dropping back onto his knees.

Actually, if he were going to be perfectly honest describing how he felt, he’d have likened the experience to when a bullet had dug a deep furrow into his head and he’d bled over half of Nogales before a friend had stepped forward to lend a hand . . .

“Dr. Jenkins is still on his trip, Murdoch.  What should we do?”  Teresa asked, growing ever more worried.

Murdoch answered decisively, taking control over the situation.  “We’ll take him home.  Hopefully it was just something he ate . . . or something that will pass quickly.  Jelly and I were just leaving.  He’s probably already outside with the carriage.  Johnny will go with us.”

“I should come too,” Teresa suggested.

“Good idea, dear,” Murdoch agreed, knowing his young ward was the closest thing to a nurse in the area.

Scott stood.  “I’ll let Millicent know and be right behind you.”

“I’ll take care of Johnny,” Murdoch stated as he countered positions with Scott.  “Give Miss Fairfax our thanks, and apologize for us having to leave so abruptly.”

“Certainly,” Scott replied, ready to help as Murdoch bent his large frame over Johnny.

“Come on, son.”  He placed a caring hand on Johnny’s back.  “Let’s get you to the carriage.”

Johnny took his time with what should have been the simple task of sitting up.  He was embarrassed by the fretful looks he found when he could finally face his family.  “I’ll be okay,” he tried to reassure them, but he had his own doubts when he attempted to stand.

“Take it slow,” Murdoch ordered as he caught Johnny’s slumping body, offering strong support as his son steadied himself against a bout of vertigo.

“I’m all right . . . it’s okay,” Johnny declared, trying very hard to believe the assertion.

Teresa backed out of the way as Murdoch led Johnny into the brightness of the hallway and directed him toward the exit.  Finally able to view him in better light, Teresa waited for father and son to move out of earshot before she would even dare whisper her concern.   “He’s pale, Scott.  So pale . . .”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Murdoch helped Teresa into the rear seat of the carriage where Johnny already sat, hunched over with his arms tightly crossed over his chest.

“Thank you, Murdoch.  Hand me that lap blanket under the seat there, would you please,” Teresa requested.

“I’ll get it,” Jelly offered.  He quickly retrieved the blanket and handed it to Teresa, as Murdoch made his way to the front to take control of the reins of the increasingly restless horses.

Johnny seemed oblivious to the activity around him, until Teresa leaned into him and asked, “Are you cold, Johnny?”

“Yeah,” he managed to answer, feeling poorly and already wishing they were home.

“This should help some.”  Teresa carefully wrapped the blanket around his shoulders.

“Thanks, Teresa,” Johnny offered quietly, his head bent low.

“Come on Jelly, get in,” Murdoch commanded, impatient to get his ill son back to the comfort of Lancer.

“Yes, sir.”  The old handyman climbed up beside Murdoch, feeling helpless to do anything more that would make the trip easier for his ailing young friend.

“Don’t forget Barranca,” Johnny’s weak voice bid from the backseat.

Grateful for the task, Jelly asked, “Where’d ya leave ‘im, Johnny?”

Jelly shared a concerned look with Murdoch when Johnny didn’t respond.  “Johnny, where’d ya leave Barranca, boy?” he asked louder.

“Down near the end . . . away from the house,” Johnny finally answered.

Murdoch flicked the reins, and quickly guided the carriage away from Millicent Fairfax’s estate.  As Johnny had indicated, Barranca’s golden hide was easy to spot at the end of the tethered line of horses.  Jelly scuttled down as soon as the carriage stopped, and headed over to retrieve Johnny’s faithful horse.

Not two strides toward the carriage, Barranca reared back.  He pulled at his reins and nearly got away from Jelly.  The old handyman held tight and crooned encouragement at the animal.  “Stop that, Barranca!  We gotta get Johnny home now, and we ain’t leavin’ without ya! Whoa there, boy . . . settle down now . . .”

Barely controlled, Jelly managed to tie the palomino to the back of the carriage, leaving the horse to prance nervously.  “Don’t know what’s done got inta that animal tahnight . . .” he muttered.

As he reclaimed his seat, Jelly spared a quick look back at Johnny.  He found the young man leaned up against Teresa, disturbingly fast asleep – or unconscious.  “He all right?”  Jelly asked quietly.

“Just sleeping I think,” Teresa whispered.  “Murdoch, let’s get him home.”

“As quickly as I can, dear.”  Murdoch once again flicked at the reins.  “Just as quick as I can . . .”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Scott found Millicent surrounded by potential suitors.  He again felt a fleeting twinge of jealousy, but not because of the men who flitted around Miss Fairfax.  Johnny had obviously spent a good deal of time during the evening with Millicent, and had been rewarded with her favor – that “silly” incongruous black bandanna.  Scott knew Johnny never cared much for the common wearing of a kerchief around his neck, except when needed while working cattle.  For Johnny to tie one on so readily could only mean that something serious had happened between the couple.

Scott couldn’t help but feel a little betrayed by his younger brother – Johnny had so vehemently warned him off Millicent, it was a disappointment, to say the least, to find that the antagonistic pair had actually developed some kind of very close relationship in such a few short hours.

He also knew this wasn’t the time for such considerations.  Johnny was on his way home, perhaps very ill.  There would be a chance for explanations later.  Scott shook off his resentful thoughts, and called out to Millicent.

“What is it, Scott?” she asked lightly as he stepped beside her.  Both easily disregarded the other men gathered there.

“I’m sorry, but my family has to leave immediately.  Johnny has taken ill.”

“Really?” Millicent questioned – but somehow Scott got the distinct impression that she wasn’t particularly concerned.  “Nothing serious I hope?”

“We’re not sure,” Scott answered somberly.  “It came on him quite suddenly.  Teresa and my father have already left to take him home.  They apologize for the abruptness, and hope you understand.”

“Why of course.  Send word tomorrow on how Johnny is faring, would you please?”

“Certainly,” Scott answered and turned to leave.

“Oh, Scott . . .” Millicent summoned.  “Tell Teresa again that I had an absolutely wonderful time this evening.  Most entertaining . . . and rewarding,” she added with a peculiarly disconcerting smile.

Unsure what to make of her reaction or pronouncement, Scott determined not to dwell on either, eager to get home to Lancer to check on his brother.  “I’ll let her know, Miss Fairfax,” he offered stiffly.  “Good evening.”

“Thank you as well, Scott,” he heard called out behind him, but his thoughts were already elsewhere.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Not a mile down the road, Murdoch grew concerned and Jelly shifted around to look as they heard sounds of agitated movement coming from the rear seat.

“Murdoch, stop!” Teresa cried frantically as Johnny fought at the blanket that covered him.

“Lemme out . . . gonna be sick,” Johnny panted, setting off a flurry of activity around him as everyone understood what was happening.  Teresa pulled away the blanket that hindered Johnny as Murdoch stopped the carriage.  Jelly hopped out just as fast as his old bones could manage to run around the other side to help.

Just in time, Johnny stumbled to the ground and fell to his knees, his hard fought battle with constant nausea finally lost.  Murdoch joined Jelly beside his son, both of them helpless to do anything more than support the ill man as he retched miserably.

Finally, hands on his knees and breathing heavily, Johnny’s piteous bout of vomiting ended.  “Get the canteen, Jelly,” Murdoch requested, keeping a supportive hand on his son.

“Here it is,” Teresa declared and held it out to Jelly as he turned toward the carriage.

Murdoch gripped Johnny’s shoulders firmly and pulled him away from the evidence of his sickness.  Jelly joined them and held out the open canteen.  “Take a swig, boy,” he encouraged.

Without looking up, Johnny quietly stated, “Gimme a minute.”  It took at least that long for the ill man’s breathing to settle to the point where he could finally hold out a hand to accept the much-needed water.

He lifted the canteen with his own hands, but Murdoch had to steady it as Johnny shook badly when he tilted his head back to get a drink.  The first mouthful was spit off to the side before a couple more small sips were swallowed, Johnny making quite sure each drink would stay down before adding another.  Finally satisfied, Johnny allowed Murdoch to accept the full weight of the container while his head dropped in exhaustion.

Murdoch handed the canteen to Jelly, then turned to Johnny and caringly asked, “Ready to get back on the road, son?”

“Would rather get offa it, if ya don’t mind,” Johnny answered, his attempt at levity unable to mask the weariness in his voice.

Murdoch ran an understanding hand over Johnny’s bowed head.  “Let’s get you home then.  Come on, we’ll help.”  He and Jelly each grabbed an arm, and together they got Johnny reseated comfortably into the back of the carriage.  Teresa again draped the blanket over Johnny.  She placed her arm around him and encouraged him to lay his head onto her shoulder, where he quickly fell back asleep.

The trio spent the remainder of the trip mostly in silence, as each contemplated the strange and sudden illness that had afflicted Johnny.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Scott quietly entered Johnny’s bedroom and found his father seated in a chair pulled up beside the bed.  Despite a couple of still brightly lit lamps, his brother was sound asleep.

“How is he?” Scott asked softly.

“As near as Jelly and I could tell, fine . . . except for being totally exhausted.”  Murdoch matched his son’s quiet tone.  “We looked him over good, and other than a bruise on his right thigh, couldn’t find a thing wrong with him.  He did get sick on the way home, so Teresa brewed some tea to help settle his stomach.  There’s still no sign of fever.

“I’m at a loss, and quite frankly, so is Johnny,” Murdoch added with not a little frustration.  “All we can figure is he either ate or drank something that had gone bad . . . although he doesn’t remember anything tasting strange.  We’ll have to see how he is in the morning.”

Scott stared hard at his brother and tried to discern what might have made Johnny ill.  But other than his breathing that seemed too shallow and rapid, and a much too pale complexion, Johnny merely appeared to be very tired . . .

Johnny did, however, look peculiar with a nightshirt on and Millicent’s bandanna still tied around his neck.  “What’s with . . . ?” Scott couldn’t bring himself to say it, simply indicated his own neckline with a wave of his hand.

Murdoch caught the gesture and glanced down at Johnny.  He faced Scott with a slight, perceptive smile on his face.  “Both Jelly and I tried to get it off, but we couldn’t manage to undo the knot.  Johnny finally slapped our hands away, telling us to leave it.  That Millicent . . . well, that Millicent wanted him to wear it.  How do you feel about that, son?” Murdoch asked cautiously.

Unconsciously adopting a guarded posture, Scott crossed his arms over his chest, and with a raise of his eyebrows uttered an ambiguous “humph” in response.  With a slight smile of his own, he explained, “I had the whole trip home to think about that and, honestly, I don’t know.  I’d pretty much already come to the conclusion that Millicent wasn’t really interested in me anyway.  But for Johnny to . . . after everything he’d initially said . . . felt about the woman . . . for him to show feelings for her just doesn’t seem right.  I can only hope he knows what he’s doing.”

Murdoch’s smile widened.  “Have any of us ever told you that you are a wise and gracious man, Scott Lancer?”

Scott’s own smile broadened as he gave a dismissive wave of his hand.  “Sure, sure.  A lot of good that usually does me.  Don’t worry about it, Murdoch.  I’ll be all right.  But thanks for asking.”

“You’re welcome, son.”

Actually relieved that the issue had been raised and effectively covered and closed for the evening, Scott turned his attention back to Johnny.  “Are you planning on sitting there all night?” he asked.

Murdoch sobered as he once again regarded his ill son, still sound asleep.  “I don’t think I could bring myself to leave just yet.  I’d like to keep an eye on him for awhile.”

With a supportive hand placed on his father’s shoulder, Scott offered, “Mind if I take over toward morning?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.”  Murdoch’s answer seemed surprising, but he quickly explained, “Teresa has already claimed the next watch.  Go to bed, Scott.  One of us will be sure to wake you if anything happens.  But I’m hoping the worst is already over and Johnny will just sleep through the night.”

Still reluctant to leave, Scott lingered.  To fill the awkward moment he asked, “Can I get you anything?”

“No thank you.  I’m fine.”  Murdoch knew how close his two sons were and how difficult it was for either of them to see the other in distress.  He practically commanded, “Go to bed, Scott.  You can visit your brother in the morning.”

Unable to think of any other excuse to stay, Scott could only nod his head at his father’s wisdom, glance one more time at Johnny, then retreat to his own room for what he hoped would be the good omen of an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Prophetically, not only did Johnny sleep through the night, but well on into the next day.  Teresa had sat her watch, then Scott.  Jelly had even taken a turn.  But Johnny barely stirred the entire time, an occasional toss of his head or slight movement the only indication that he was merely sleeping, not unconscious – a small consolation.

The longer the day wore on the more fretful Teresa became, her traditional co-caregivers unavailable to the young woman.  Maria was always given Sunday’s off at Lancer, and Doctor Jenkins was not due to return to town until at least Wednesday.  As Johnny no longer showed any outward signs of distress that warranted an emergency, the family was forced to do little more than sit vigil beside the ill man’s bed.

Murdoch was once again at Johnny’s bedside when his son finally started to actually wake up.  A quiet moan was heard first, and then his movements became more agitated, as if it were a struggle for Johnny to rouse himself from such a prolonged sleep.  Finally, with some encouragement from Murdoch, his eyes opened.  Johnny’s gaze wandered around the room for a moment, before once again settling on his father.

“Hey,” was Johnny’s simple quiet greeting.

Murdoch smiled, at once pleased that his son had wakened but aware that Johnny was not yet entirely lucid.  “Hey yourself,” he answered back, as Johnny pulled a hand out from below his blankets and rubbed at his eyes.  “How do you feel?  And answer me true, son.”

Johnny curled a hand behind his head and propped himself up a bit.  He had cleared enough cobwebs away to recognize the depth of worry on his father’s face.  Any intention he had of lying to his family was quickly forgotten.  After thoughtful consideration he responded, “Still a bit tired.  Got a headache, but it ain’t much.”

“How’s the stomach?” Murdoch asked.

“Seems okay,” Johnny answered, adding with a wry smile, “but I ain’t tried to sit up yet.”

Murdoch’s smile reappeared at his son’s welcome attempt at honesty.  He stood and suggested, “Might be a good idea to give that a try then.”

“Might be,” Johnny agreed and held out a hand.  Murdoch took the offering and added an arm behind Johnny’s back for support as he pulled himself upright.

Keeping his arm firmly in place, Murdoch peered warily at Johnny.  “How you doing, son?”

Johnny passed a shaky hand over his forehead as he took a deep breath.  “A little dizzy . . . but don’t think I’m gonna be sick.  Can I sit back some?”

Murdoch arranged Johnny’s pillows into a pile behind him, and then helped him work himself back until he seemed comfortable.  He reached over and handed Johnny a glass of water off a bedside table.  A still unsteady hand received the offering.  Murdoch watched very closely while Johnny took a first tentative swallow, then a couple more.  Satisfied, Johnny handed the glass back with a “thanks.”

“How you doing now?” Murdoch asked as he returned the glass to the table.

It seemed only a minor exertion, but Johnny needed another deep breath before he could face his father, and with relief answer, “Think I’ll actually live.  Had my doubts last night though.”

“We all had our doubts.”  Murdoch placed his hands on his hips, and roundly suggested, “Don’t ever do that to us again, Johnny.  Please?”

Johnny shook his head.  “Not like I did it on purpose, Murdoch.”

“I know, son.  I know.  How about I go tell the others you’re finally awake, and see what Teresa is willing to give you to eat?”

“Sounds good,” Johnny answered with a grateful smile.  “Try to convince her I can handle more than just tea and toast for breakfast.”

“Breakfast?” Murdoch exclaimed and favored his son with a pair of raised eyebrows.  “How about dinner?”

Johnny glanced over to the still closed curtains shading the room’s single window directly across from his bed, but he couldn’t make out the angle of the sun.  “What time is it?” he asked warily.

“Almost six.”

“In the mornin’, right?”  His concern mounted.

“No, son, evening.  You slept right through the night . . . and more.”

Johnny stared at his father in disbelief, then looked back toward the window and ran a hand slowly through his hair, as if the gesture might spur some remembrance from his ever more incomprehensible evening.

“Don’t worry about it, son,” Murdoch offered supportively, misjudging Johnny’s confusion.  “You were ill and really needed the sleep.  And don’t think for one minute you’re getting out of that bed any time tonight.  You’ll eat and drink what you can, and then rest.  If you’re lucky, you can come downstairs in the morning.

“Are you listening to me, Johnny?” Murdoch asked his still distracted son.

“Yeah,” Johnny answered, more out of courtesy than agreement.  He was too busy trying to figure out how he had slept away almost a whole day of his life . . .

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny spent the rest of that evening being fussed over by Teresa.  His pallor still concerned her, but she was greatly encouraged by his cautious desire to eat.  She plied him with every bland food she could think of, and more ginger tea than he could hold.  Although he amiably accepted her kindhearted attention, Johnny remained very quiet.  Teresa attributed his reserve to continued fatigue from his illness, but Johnny was actually consumed in deep thought.

Over and over Johnny reviewed the events of the party in his mind, and kept coming up with a gaping hole in his memory.  He’d taken Millicent to task over her insult to Teresa, and then she had followed him toward the exit, where they’d met Lucy.  And then . . . and then . . . and then he was leaning up against that peculiar door in the downstairs hallway, sick as a dog and confused as hell!

In between he could remember nothing, only the sense of an overwhelming unease that, each time, would force him to back out of his thoughts.  Johnny had never run away from a fight in his life, and he’d faced some pretty harrowing experiences over his young years.  But something had happened over the course of the last twenty-four hours that he couldn’t bring himself to face again . . . or, that he wasn’t being allowed to face again.  If he tried to force himself into the remembrance he would start to feel sick, his headache flaring and stomach dancing, and he’d have to back down, let it lay . . .

Johnny alternated moments of trying to fill the gaps in his memory with thoughts of Millicent Fairfax.  He continued to wear the bandanna she had given him, but still couldn't remember receiving it nor understand why he couldn't bring himself to take it off.  He'd tried to remove it a couple of times, but simply lifting his hands to his neck made him lightheaded to the point of passing out.  The experience had been so unsettling that he had given up on any further attempts.

Somehow Millicent had branded him hers, he knew that for a fact – but Johnny had no idea how or when or why she had done it.

It was after one such tiring series of lost battles with his memory that Scott came to visit.  He knocked quietly and entered tentatively – so he wouldn’t wake Johnny if asleep, he told himself.  Being more truthful he admitted that he simply didn’t want to confront his brother about Millicent just yet.  ‘Has to happen sometime,’ he conceded to himself, and Johnny’s quiet entreaty to “come in” sealed the timing.

Johnny watched his brother slink into the room, and at once felt amused and wary and repentant.  The hour was late and Johnny could full well guess why Scott had stayed away so long.  If he had felt better he would have hauled his brother into town to have this no doubt uncomfortable but unavoidable discussion over a beer or two, like men.  As it was, still weak and not a little confused, he was forced to sit there, hopelessly propped up against his headboard, and take his medicine however Scott planned to administer it.

"Hey, brother.  You're looking better," Scott politely lied through his teeth, Johnny appearing to be only minimally improved from the night before.

“Feeling better, too,” Johnny lied back – then recognized the trap of such deceit.  He didn’t have the strength to do battle with himself and Scott too.  He badly needed an ally, so changed tack to a head-on approach.

“Scott, about Millicent . . .”

“We don’t have to talk about her now,” Scott cut him off, surprising himself with the reluctance to take up a discussion he’d thought himself ready to start, and which Johnny seemed eager to broach.

“Yes, yes we do,” Johnny countered, nearly pleading, “I need to talk about this, Scott.”

Maybe it was Johnny’s tone of voice, or how ill he still looked, but Scott couldn’t bring himself to say no.  “All right.”  He moved closer to the bed, pulled a chair over and sat.

Given permission, Johnny wasn’t sure how to begin, what words he could use that would keep him from sounding like he’d gone loco.  Opening with a truth he so desperately needed, Johnny stated, “I don’t know what happened last night.”

“Sometimes relationships start unsure, Johnny,” Scott tried to be helpful.

“No.  No, it’s not that, Scott.  I really can’t remember what happened last night.  I . . . I got no memory for stuff that happened.”  A sliver of pain coursed through Johnny’s head with that decisive admission, but he charged on, determined to fight through a growing discomfort.  “I remember we were outside, with you and Teresa.  But then Millicent made that stupid remark and we went inside.  I was with her, that’s for sure.  But then I thought we were arguing, and I tried to leave . . . and . . . and then there was Lucy, and . . . and . . .”

“Johnny, take it easy!”  Scott was up out of the chair to steady his brother as Johnny swayed forward, his hands pawing at the bed sheets as he tried to keep himself upright.

“I got you, brother.”  Scott gripped Johnny’s shoulders tightly and moved one hand up to support his head as he laid him back down against the pile of pillows.

Johnny lay there, his eyes closed, and tried to steady his breathing as he fought off the sudden bout of severe dizziness.  As he settled, his determination to get things said actually strengthened.

“You’re not up for this tonight, Johnny.  We can talk more tomorrow.”

“No!”  Johnny opened his eyes and grabbed for his brother’s arm, frantic to make himself heard now, inexplicably sensing that he might not have a chance later.  “I gotta get this said tonight.  Scott, I think I got feelings for Millicent, but I ain’t exactly sure why yet.  I know what I said about her . . . you don’t have to throw my words back at me.  But . . . I can’t deny that somethin’ happened between us.  I don’t want to hurt you, Scott, but I gotta play this out, good or bad.  I know that don’t make much sense, but that’s the only way I know how to say it right now.

“I thought I’d be able to stand aside if she fancied you, but now that it’s me . . . well . . . I gotta know how you stand.  I gotta know, Scott . . .”

Johnny finally released his grip on Scott and leaned back.  He looked exhausted again, but Scott knew Johnny would never fall asleep until his concerns were addressed.  The brothers had a close enough relationship to understand that neither would intentionally do anything that might be hurtful to the other.  What seemed most disturbing was that Millicent Fairfax had been in Morro Coyo for only two weeks but had already been a source of conflict between the brothers twice.  Scott was determined not to let it happen a third time.

“You don’t have to worry about me.”  Scott worked through his own thoughts and feelings as he talked.  “Contrary to popular belief, I’m not blind you know,” he joked – and Johnny actually smiled back.  “I’d already come to the conclusion that I didn’t have much of a chance with her.  You may not have been interested, but it was obvious that Millicent had her eyes on you since the moment you first met.”

Something about that last statement made Johnny shudder, but he checked his reaction to hear Scott out.

“I can’t say I’m not jealous, but I do understand.  It’s your sudden change of heart about her that has me more than a little concerned though.  Just tell me you’ll follow your own advice and keep your eyes open.”

“I’m tryin’, I really am,” Johnny answered, and he meant it.  Appreciatively calmed by his brother’s words, he added, “Thanks, Scott.”

“You’re welcome,” Scott replied, more than pleased that they’d been able to reach an understanding – and one good look at his brother confirmed that the problem had been resolved none too soon.  “You need to rest now, Johnny.  I take back what I said about you looking better . . . you really don’t you know.”

Johnny peered up at Scott with a slight smile and gave a scoffing laugh.  “Flatterer,” he teased, and Scott laughed back.

“Can I ask you to do somethin’ else for me?” Johnny requested, somewhat nervously.

“Maybe,” came Scott’s cautious reply.

“Don’t tell Murdoch about me not rememberin’ stuff.  I’m sure it’s just ‘cause I got sick . . . there’s no other reason for it.  I ain’t really worried about it,” he lied, “but if you tell Murdoch, next thing you know Teresa’ll find out . . . and, well, I’d really like to get out of this bed sometime this year.”  He’d said it as a joke – but the forlorn expression on Johnny’s face told the real story that he was scared stiff the empathetic young woman wouldn’t easily turn him loose anytime soon.

Scott laughed heartily now.  “I won’t say a word – if . . .” he emphasized, “. . . you let me know if you have any other problems with your memory.  Honestly, Johnny, memory loss can be a sign of something serious.  You have to promise me.”

“I’ll tell you.  Promise,” he agreed, with all intents and purposes to do so.  But he hoped to God that he wouldn’t lose time like that ever again.

“Get some sleep,” Scott ordered as he moved the chair back away from the bedside and turned to leave.  “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Johnny propped himself up on an elbow.  “Thanks again, Scott.  I owe you.”

Scott pulled open the door, but turned to declare, “I’ll be sure to add the marker to your account.”  The brothers shared one last smile and their goodnights, and then Scott left Johnny to his thoughts.

Johnny lay back, worn out but satisfied he’d made peace with is brother.  He hoped his own peace might come as easily.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny saw points of light sparkling in the distance and thought them stars, but suddenly they loomed closer to reveal themselves as small, flickering flames that began to send long shadows dancing and curling their way toward him.  Strange patterns in shades of black and white and gray rose and fell everywhere around him, like stormy waves churned up from an ocean of desolation.  The sight made him lightheaded and sick.  He stumbled forward and heard something crash as his leg flared with a sudden deep ache.  He tried to keep moving but the shadows became longer, and darker, and more insistent, herding him to the center of the unknown space to ensnare him in a cocoon of darkness.

His breath came in quick shallow pulses as he fought a paralyzing fear, desperate to close his eyes to the unknown but willing himself to keep gazing into the ominous gloom that surrounded him.

A shapely shadow drifted in front of him, impossibly darker than the pitch that engulfed him, and he wanted to step back, get away.  But his feet wouldn’t move, even as a tendril of blackness snaked forward to curl itself over his shoulder and up into his hair, clutching him with its emptiness and drawing his head to the side.

“I need you, Johnny,” a voice oozed out of the night, right there beside him, the foul breath close enough to warm his bared neck.  “Be mine forever,” the voice begged, the desire palpable and urgent.

“No,” Johnny desperately wanted to say, but wasn’t sure if he’d been able to actually voice the word.  Not until he heard the response . . .

“You no longer have a choice,” was his inauspicious answer – and then there was only pain, overwhelming agony that twisted its way into his mind and sent his emotions spiraling out of control – past fear and hopelessness, on to resentment and deep into hatred and anger, down farther into unrestrained fury where he finally found a buried strength.  He heaved his way out of the depths of confusion and helplessness with a surge of malice, drawing on a darkness of his own that he’d found once, long long ago, but had carefully secreted away, frightened himself by the intensity of his potential wickedness and ashamed of its magnitude.

Johnny rode his own malevolence ever upward until he met the source of his pain.  He enveloped it in a shroud of wrath and defiance and thrust it away from him.  The effort left him panting but feeling heady with power and exhilarated with his aggression.

 

And then he heard laughter . . . a husky yet feminine laugh that was filled with delight . . . and triumph.  “I’ve chosen well,” the voice proclaimed.  “You are perfect for me, Johnny.  Stronger than I even imagined.

“Soon, Johnny.  We will be together, forever, soon . . .”

As the voice drifted away, the strength Johnny thought he felt waned, and he found himself swaying with weakness.  His own victory had been an illusion, a test of his will meant to measure his resolve, draw out his immorality, release his inner demons.  And in the analysis, Johnny knew that he had lost control.  This opponent was unlike any other Johnny had ever faced.  His own depravity that he had denied for years was hers now to use against him.  But to what end, Johnny still wasn’t sure . . .

 

L L L L L L L L

 

He woke with a start and staggered as his knees buckled.  Unaware that he had really been standing throughout his nightmare, Johnny reached out frantically as he fell for anything to steady him, but all he found was little purchase in a tangle of bed sheets, which followed him into a heap to the floor.

Johnny sat awkwardly where he’d fallen and swiped a cold sweat off his brow as he took in quick gulps of air.  He stared into the deep corners of his dark room, searching for shadows that didn’t belong.  He thought himself alone, until he looked toward his window – a window that had no second floor balcony and which lay behind curtains he had no memory of having opened . . .

There, in the brightness of the still full moon, he thought he saw eyes staring back at him.  But then they were gone, leaving him to wonder for the second time that night if he wasn’t going completely insane.

His answer came in a sprinkling of familiar laughter, drifting to him from the night.  As the sound echoed away, Johnny felt an overwhelming sense of despair fall over him, not because he felt utterly defenseless, but because he actually had a nascent urge to follow the sweet promises his tormentor offered.

In that moment, Johnny was truly afraid.  Something inexplicable had been initiated that he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stop – and for the first time, he wasn’t sure he really wanted it to end.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny had returned to his bed during the night – but not before he’d lit a lamp and closed his curtains to the night.  He felt totally foolish doing so . . . behaving like a frightened child who’d just been terrorized by campfire tales of evil spirits of the dead who come back to haunt the living.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t face the dark . . . it was the shadows he felt driven to keep at bay.

By morning, Johnny had only managed to sleep fitfully for minutes at a time.  As the rest of the hacienda woke, one by one he heard his family enter the room to check on him.  He knew they didn’t expect him to try to work today, but guessing that he looked pretty drawn and they’d only fuss, Johnny kept himself buried under his blankets.  He considered himself lucky when Scott and Teresa left him undisturbed, but Murdoch insisted on at least a grunt in acknowledgement before he’d get on with his day.

Johnny’s own day started slowly – and late.  Before he would even attempt to venture down the stairs he wanted to ensure that everyone had finished breakfast, so he lingered in bed, pretty much doing nothing more than staring at the ceiling.  He finally sat up carefully and gave himself a few minutes on the edge of his bed to make sure any remaining dizziness had passed.  Trusting himself to stand, he headed toward the washstand to try and rinse away his troubled night.

Trading his nightshirt for pants, Johnny was puzzled by a rather large bruise he found on his right thigh.  He had a fleeting memory of having bumped into a table . . . no, two tables . . . Deciding it wasn’t important, he moved over to the mirror to shave.  He wasn’t exactly impressed with the sight that greeted him, finding himself still looking too pale, which only served to highlight the dark circles under his eyes.

Rightfully concluding that further delay wasn’t going to change a thing, Johnny hurried to get his shaving done.  The bandana around his neck was soaked by the time he finished, but he still couldn’t bring himself to try again to remove it.  Something about it made him feel edgy whenever he thought about it, so he resolved to just ignore it until he could talk to Millicent.

Johnny found his holster and gun hung on his headboard where he always kept it – and he smiled.  He knew he’d been too sick to even think about retrieving them from his saddlebags, and figured Jelly had most likely taken care of that and Barranca for him.  A first stop this morning was going to have to be the barn to check on his horse, and find and thank the thoughtful handyman.

He donned boots, a clean shirt, and grabbed his holster.  Johnny considered himself ready and willing to face his day, and headed downstairs.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

He might have been willing to face his day, but by the time Johnny reached the bottom of the stairs he wasn’t so sure about how ready and able he’d be.  A surprising lethargy came over him from just that minor exertion.  Johnny was left feeling not only tired but increasingly irritable.  He didn’t much like being sick, and being sick for no apparent reason was even more exasperating.

The kitchen was blessedly empty.  He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat quietly at the table, contemplating the prior couple of days.  By the time Maria banged open the back door, Johnny’s mood had not improved one bit.  In fact, it had darkened, as he’d not been able to come up with one answer to any of the myriad questions that haunted his deep thoughts.

“Buenos dias,” Maria greeted Johnny brightly as she placed a basket of vegetables onto the counter.  “Your papa, he say to let you sleep . . . that you were very sick yesterday.”  Her voice echoed the concern on her face.  “How are you today, Juanito?”

“Fine.”  Johnny’s response was clipped.  He wrapped himself tighter around the coffee mug cradled in his hands to avoid her appraising eyes.

“With your mouth you say ‘fine,’ but with this way you sit you say ‘not so fine,’” she chastised, using her apron to wipe garden soil off her hands as she marched up beside him.  Taking familiar liberties, Maria grabbed Johnny’s bowed head by the chin and tried to force him to look at her.  She pulled his head back and to the side.  Her other hand brushed innocently against Millicent’s bandanna.

Johnny’s reaction was spontaneous and defensive.  He grabbed Maria’s hand roughly as he stood, knocking his chair over so violently it ended up toppled and pushed halfway across the room.  Maria’s face contorted in pain, as Johnny bent her hand back at an awkward angle.

“Don’t you ever touch me again, you hear me?” Johnny spit at her, seemingly unaware that he was hurting the woman who had become like a mother to him.  He stared at her contemptuously, his own features distorted by his hostility.

“Sí . . . Sí!  Juanito, por favor!” Maria exclaimed, tears in her eyes as she begged Johnny to let her go, frightened by the intensity of his ire.

Johnny tossed Maria’s hand away like he was flinging a piece of trash, spun on his heels and rushed out the back door, slamming it closed behind him.

Maria clutched her injured hand to her breast and sobbed uncontrollably – not only from the pain but the horror of having been treated so cruelly by Johnny.  She managed to pull out a chair and sit, unable to do more than consider the fact that Johnny had hurt her . . . her adored Juanito had hurt her . . .

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny stomped his way across half the courtyard before he stopped.  His hands grabbed at his head incredulously as he turned to look back toward the kitchen door.  He couldn’t believe what he had just done, nor comprehend what had come over him to react in such a manner.

He took a step forward to return and apologize to Maria, but again stopped abruptly as a strange enmity welled up inside him.

His hands fell to his sides as he relaxed.  ‘She deserved it.’  Any concern Johnny should have had for Maria was pushed aside for more selfish considerations.

‘Servants need to know their place,’ he thought indignantly.  Without a second thought Johnny turned and continued on to the barn.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

The interior of the barn was dappled in sunlight that filtered in from the many cracks and knotholes splattered across the seasoned wood of the sturdy old structure.  Johnny stood in the doorway for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the dimness, and then headed down the row of animal stalls to find Barranca.  Curiously, the few horses still stabled each neighed nervously as he went by, retreating away until he passed.

Johnny ignored them, his attention on his golden palomino.  As he neared, Barranca’s reaction was similar but even more aggressive.  The horse never took his eyes off Johnny as he stomped furiously in his stall.  He neighed uneasily and pawed nervously at the ground.

“What the hell’s gotten into you?” Johnny asked impatiently, his already gloomy mood made ever more dismal from his horse’s unusual behavior.

“Somethin’ wrong?” a voice behind him asked.

Johnny spun in a crouch, his gun drawn and aimed instinctively.

“Lord a’mighty, Johnny!” Jelly warned as he stumbled backward, fighting for balance until his feet finally caught up to his wavering body and he righted himself.  “It’s jest me, boy!”

The gun snapped upright to clear his aim as Johnny stood, his own agitation evident.  “Jelly, you know better than ta sneak up on me!”

“Weren’t sneakin’ . . . saw ya come in an’ followed ya, that’s all,” Jelly practically shouted.  Clearly upset, he took off his cap, ran a shaking hand through his hair, and then placed the cap back on his head . . . only to lift it to settle it again with a swift tug.

Johnny holstered his gun and just stood there, hands on his hips with his head down.  It had been a long time since he’d been caught unawares and drawn down on someone by mistake, and he’d never felt threatened at Lancer.  The thought that he might have killed his good friend was instantly sobering.  His black mood forgotten, with a heavy sigh Johnny lifted his head.  “I’m sorry, Jelly.  Real sorry.”

Jelly took Johnny’s regret as sincerely meant.  “Reckon you are, boy . . . an’ reckon I’ll be makin’ more of a racket whenever I come up behind ya again,” he added with a firm nod of his head.

With a sheepish smile, Johnny concurred.  “Reckon that’d be a good thing.”

Barranca neighed and pawed at the floor of his stall.  Johnny took a step toward him, but the horse shied back away from the gate, halting Johnny in his tracks.

“How long he been actin’ like that, Jelly?” Johnny asked with concern.

“Hasn’t been,” Jelly answered as he stepped up beside Johnny.  “Was jest fine yesterday.  He did seem awful skittish the night a’ the party . . . weren’t too happy to be trailin’ behind the carriage.  Was okay when I put him up, though.”

The pair stood there, side by side, a whole lot of years of horse experience looking Barranca over with appraising eyes.  Johnny took another step forward, but the animal just neighed nervously and retreated farther back in his stall.

“What’s got . . .?” Johnny’s voice trailed off, lost as to what to make of Barranca’s behavior.  “You go to ‘im, Jelly.”

Jelly crooned at Barranca to settle as he stepped toward the stall.  To Johnny’s dismay, the horse calmed, bobbed his head up and down at Jelly, and even came forward a pace.  But he spied Johnny again and stepped back.

“I don’t get it.”  Johnny’s temper once again flared.  “Why’s he doin’ that?”

Jelly caught the shift in Johnny’s disposition and proposed the first explanation he could think of.  “Don’t know fer sure,” he offered as he moved forward to put himself between Johnny and the horse.  “Maybe he knows you been sick an’ don’t feel like catchin’ it hisself.”

Hands back on his hips, Johnny looked at Jelly askance.  “That the best reason you got?”

“Well . . . yeah . . . fer now,” Jelly returned with embarrassment, knowing his answer stank like a dead dog buried shallow.  “Look, I don’t know what’s got ‘im riled, but it don’t matter anyway.  Yer pa said if ya managed ta crawl outta bed tahday ya wasn’t s’posed ta go nowhere’s near the back of a horse.  So if Barranca wants the day off, he can have it!”

Johnny’s eyes narrowed at that revelation as he crossed his arms over his chest.  “Murdoch said that, did he?”

“Yep,” Jelly answered, not intimidated a bit by Johnny’s reaction, the younger Lancer son’s health no small concern to the old handyman.

“And just what does he expect me to do today instead?”

“Oh, that was easy ta figure out,” Jelly offered enthusiastically.  He grabbed Johnny by the shoulder and led him toward the tack room.  “I been savin’ lots a’ sit down chores fer a rainy day, but been bright an’ sunny fer weeks.  I got enough stuff ready ta keep ya more ‘an busy!”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Jelly hadn’t been kidding when he said he’d been saving up chores.  Johnny had never seen so much busted gear in the Lancer tack room than the piles that greeted him that morning.  There were even a few pieces of broken furniture thrown into the mix, just to keep it interesting.

“Dios, Jelly,” he was prompted to remark while still surveying the view from the doorway.  “You’d think we’d just been on a drive for a month.  Whadda the hands been doin’ . . . draggin’ this stuff behind their horses, then fightin’ in the bunkhouse for good measure?”

“You sound jest like Murdoch!” Jelly exclaimed.  Laughter burst out of him that liked to rock the barn.

“That’s a downright nasty thing to say,” Johnny managed to retort through Jelly’s chuckles and snorts.  Despite himself a smile grew on his own lips over the comparison.  “Ain’t no way we’re gonna get this all done today,” Johnny added, still awed by the volume of tasks.

“Somethin’ wrong with my company, boy?” Jelly asked in mock offense.  He hooked his fingers around his vest and puffing his chest out proudly.

“Most times . . . yes,” Johnny replied, barely able to keep a straight face as he teased.

“Always knew you didn’t have no good taste,” Jelly teased back.  He gave Johnny a shove into the tack room.  “Go on, get started you no ‘count.  Sick or not, gonna expect you to make a mighty big dent in this pile by sundown.”

“Ain’t sick no more,” Johnny protested as he dodged a saddle on the floor.

“We’ll jest see ‘bout that, Mr. I’m Always Fine Johnny Lancer,” Jelly scolded. “Get to work now . . . an’ let me know if ya need a nap.”

“Nap?” Johnny repeated, even as he picked up a bridle and started looking it over.  “Anyone be lookin’ ta nap ‘round here it’s bound ta be you . . .”

The pair didn’t let up on their lighthearted cantankerous bickering with each other until hours later.  By then they’d fallen into a work rhythm that was busy but comfortable, the skills of the younger and older man well matched and complementary, each eager to learn from the other’s expertise and lend a hand when needed.  Their morning went uninterrupted until Teresa brought out fresh coffee and a snack.  She surprised them again when, before they knew it, lunchtime rolled around and she showed back up with a heavily laden tray of food.

Each time Teresa appeared Johnny was questioned intensely about his condition, permitted to continue working only after he satisfied both she and Jelly that he was feeling okay – although he didn’t make much of a case for himself by merely picking over his food.

Despite his assurances, by late afternoon it was more than clear to Jelly that Johnny was tiring, the younger man’s pace becoming slower as the day grew long.  He tried to get him to go back to the house and rest, but Johnny insisted he didn’t need no “nap,” and kept working.

Around dinnertime however, Johnny was more than willing to quit for the day, that gnawing lethargy back to unsettle him.  He found it harder and harder to hide his exhaustion.

Entering the hacienda through the front door, Johnny caught Murdoch at his desk.  Maria was setting the great room’s dining table for dinner.  The housekeeper looked to Johnny expectantly, longing for some explanation and reconciliation over the events of the morning.  But Johnny merely favored her with a passing glance – no apology, hardly any emotion.

The servant turned back to her task at hand, her heart fairly breaking with disappointment and confusion over what had come between them.  She had never been considered lowly in Johnny’s eyes before, but she knew it was not her place to confront him.  He was the  patrón’s son, and if he chose not so speak to her, she would have to accept this as the way it would be.

Maria practically ran back to the refuge of the kitchen.  She sat for a moment and contemplated the somber fact that she was going to have to wait for Johnny to explain . . . if he ever would.

Johnny stopped just short of Murdoch’s desk as the big man rose to greet him.

“Johnny, how are you?  Been trying to get out and check up on you all day.  Teresa said you should have come in hours ago,” he admonished lightly.

“She worries too much.”  Johnny rejected the young woman’s evaluation with a shake of his head.  “I was doin’ okay . . . a little tired now though.  Thought I’d go get cleaned up and sit awhile before dinner.”

It wasn’t like Johnny to admit to being ill.  “You do that, son.  Lay down if you want . . . one of us will come get you.”

“Nah, I’ll be down,” Johnny promised stubbornly, even as he rubbed a hand over his tired face and turned to head up the stairs.

Once again, despite his assurances, Johnny did not come back down as expected.  When Teresa announced dinner, Murdoch went himself to check on his younger son.  He found him on the bed, sound asleep, lying on his side with his feet dangling over the edge of the mattress.  Murdoch had to smile at Johnny’s attempt, even while ailing, to follow Teresa’s strict rule of “no boots on the furniture.”  He tried to rouse Johnny to get him to go to bed properly, but all he got was an irritable grumble in return.

Johnny had at least managed to take off his gun belt and clean up before succumbing to an obviously much-needed sleep.  Murdoch carefully removed Johnny’s boots, hefted him to a more comfortable place on the bed, and covered him with the other half of his blankets.  Satisfied his son was about as settled as he was going to get, Murdoch left the door cracked open slightly and returned downstairs to his own meal.

Jelly secured himself the open spot at the dinner table when, with impeccable timing, he showed up to find out how Johnny was faring, naturally exactly when everyone else was just sitting down to dine.  “Not a bit surprised,” he responded when informed that the young man hadn’t made it past dinner.  “He tried awful hard boss . . . an’ done a good day’s work too.  But I knew he weren’t hisself yet.  He can hide it from most, but not me!”

“Do me a favor then, Jelly.  Keep an eye on him tomorrow too, will you?” Murdoch requested.  “No use him pushing himself when we’re full handed right now.”

“I could keep ‘im busy for a week, Murdoch, you jest say the word,” Jelly eagerly responded, truly pleased to help.

The day ended as it had started as, one by one, Johnny’s family entered his room to check on him before retiring.  Scott was last.  Assured that his brother was sleeping comfortably, he lowered the wick on the lamp beside the bed until a mere glimmer showed, then retreated to his own room, leaving Johnny to his dreams.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny’s dreams were anything but restful, again full of dark images and voices that seemed too real as they teased and tempted him throughout the night.  By morning he’d once more slept only fitfully.  Johnny was left feeling so tired that he never heard anyone enter his room as his family again checked in on him.

Finally he gave up on his desires to sleep.  Johnny took stock while he delayed a moment on the edge of the bed.  Physically, Johnny seemed stronger than the day before, but mentally he was still exhausted.  He went through the motions of his morning routine without enthusiasm, and then headed down the back stairs toward the kitchen.  Hearing Teresa talking with Maria, Johnny looped around and returned down the main staircase, headed out to the barn, willing to forego a much-needed cup of coffee in order to avoid questions he was in no mood to answer.

He once again stood before Barranca’s stall and watched with mounting frustration as the horse pranced nervously before him.  A sudden, brief image of himself whipping Barranca flew through his mind, leaving him even more disturbed than before.  Never in his life had he ever mistreated an animal, so he couldn’t fathom where that vision had come from.

Johnny turned away from the horse and made his way into the tack room.  He picked up where he’d left off the day before, eager to lose himself in a hard day’s work.

Jelly joined him within the hour, but Johnny made it clear that he wasn’t much in the mood for idle chatter.  Determined to obey Murdoch’s request that he keep an eye on the Lancer son, Jelly held his tongue and just sat by Johnny’s side as the pair slowly whittled away at the still sizeable pile of repairs.

Since no one had witnessed Johnny’s escape from the house, Teresa came looking for him.  He was unusually snappish over her customary questions of concern, but accepted her offer of coffee with a sigh and a civil thank you.  He was only slightly more conversant during lunch, but with his appetite finally showing some improvement, both Teresa and Jelly wisely kept their mouths shut lest they say anything that might dare trod on Johnny’s patience.

By dinner Johnny still felt stronger than the day before, but his frequent yawning drew stares until he reluctantly explained, “Stop your worryin’ . . . just didn’t get good sleep last night.  I’m fine.”

“I suggest you go to bed early again tonight then, Johnny,” Murdoch stated, more of a command implied than an actual suggestion.

Johnny was instantly annoyed by the attempt to control him, and opened his mouth to utter a protest.  But what came out instead was, “Wanna go check on Barranca first.  He’s been actin’ peculiar.”

“I’ll go with you,” Scott offered.

“Nah.”  Johnny allowed for no negotiation as he stood and immediately headed for the front door.  “I won’t be long,” he added, and then he was gone.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Although the sun was well below the horizon, Johnny easily made his way across the swiftly darkening courtyard, a mere glimmer of illumination remaining to light the way.

Jelly always left a couple of lanterns lit just inside the barn doorway, extinguishing them for the night only after he made a last check on the animals.  Johnny grabbed one of the lanterns off its peg as he passed, and made his way down the stalls until he once again stood before Barranca.

The nostrils of the golden horse flared as he snorted his displeasure at Johnny.  His head bobbed anxiously as the man met his stare.  Barranca paced backward, putting as much distance between he and Johnny that he could manage within the confining walls of the stall.

Johnny had to fight to restrain an ugly rancor building within him.  He placed the lantern on a nearby hook and backed off a few steps, concentrating on the minutest reaction from the horse, using all his knowledge of animals to try and determine what had Barranca acting so aggressively toward him – and only him.

Man and horse performed their dance of advance and retreat for several minutes, Johnny backing away occasionally to watch Barranca intently.  The palomino never relaxed, but continued to become agitated whenever Johnny drew near.

Suddenly Barranca became destructively violent.  He reared up then kicked at his stall.  The horse’s actions chased Johnny to the opposite side of the barn in fear that the animal would break free of his confines.  But just as quickly Barranca calmed.  A shudder ran down the length of his golden hide before he completely stilled.

Remaining on his guard, Johnny stood back and watched the change with bewilderment and concern.  But his attention was distracted as a chill coursed through him with the realization that he wasn’t alone.

For the second time in as many days, Johnny turned in a crouch and drew his weapon.  He aimed into the shadows now blocking his exit from the barn.

“A gun can’t hurt me, Johnny,” a delicate voice floated to him from out of the darkness.

“Millicent?” Johnny asked in disbelief . . . but he knew it was her.

"Yes dear.  Put that silly thing away, will you.  I wouldn’t want you to risk injuring this beautiful animal.”

Millicent drifted out of the shadows and walked up to Barranca, their eyes locked.  The horse stood perfectly still as she reached over the gate to lay a hand gently against his muzzle.

Johnny lowered the gun to his side as he quickly stepped forward, ready to warn her that Barranca didn’t like strangers touching him.  But he stopped and looked on in amazement as the horse accepted Millicent’s attention without so much as a bob of his head, the animal’s focus on the woman rapt.

“He’s magnificent,” Millicent complimented.  “I’m not surprised you would ride such a remarkable animal.”  She reached up to run her fingers through the soft hair of Barranca’s forelock – and still the horse did not move.

Finally she turned and faced Johnny.  “You have good taste in flesh . . .” She smiled roguishly as she corrected herself.  “. . . horseflesh.”

“Millicent, what are you doing here?” Johnny asked impatiently as he holstered his gun, not at all amused by her blatant innuendo.

“My goodness, not so much as a good evening,” she countered with false indignation.  But then she laughed and took a couple of steps toward him as she added contritely, “But I suppose I deserve no better after what I did.  I came to apologize.”

“What for?”  Instant suspicion led to quick realization.  “What did you do?  You didn’t make me sick, did you?  What the hell did you do to me?”

“Johnny, please be calm,” she implored him and stepped forward.  “I’m afraid I was a little too greedy.  The last few days have been difficult, I know, and it’s all my fault.  Your first time wasn’t meant to be so unpleasant, but I simply couldn’t stop myself.”

“First time?”  Johnny’s suspicions once again ran rampant while his confusion increased.  “What are you talking about?”

“Us, Johnny . . . us!”  Millicent’s excitement over their greatly anticipated union was uncontrollable.  “We’re meant for each other, Johnny, more than you realize.  The other night was just the beginning.  I have such plans for us, my dear . . .”

“I told you before . . .” Johnny cut her off, more and more troubled by her obsessive behavior, “. . . I’m not interested.”

“Oh, I think you are, Johnny.  I really think you are.  You just haven’t let go yet.  But I’m going to help you, Johnny.”  She moved closer.  “And I’ll try to be more gentle this time.”

Johnny couldn’t help himself and backed off a step, even as he threatened, “You’re not welcome here.  I want you to leave me and my family alone.”

“Too late for turning back now, Johnny.”  Millicent continued her advance.

“Get out . . .” Johnny tried to persist, but she was suddenly right there in front of him.  With a gunfighter’s instincts he felt the threat coming and managed to react in time to place his hand on the butt of his gun.  But Millicent was already there, commanding his attention.  He looked into her eyes and was once again lost, drowning in her inexplicable power.  His hand fell to his side, unable to act on the danger he’d sensed.

Her hands moved around his neck, and the bandanna that no one else had been able to untie was somehow in Millicent’s hands.  She draped it lovingly around her own neck, then reached toward him again, her hands suspended in longing over his arms, his chest, his face, taking advantage of her control to behold his every feature.  But she was afraid to actually lay hands on him.  She wanted him so badly that to touch him was to be lost in his attraction, to find herself drowning in his essence.

Johnny mesmerized Millicent, everything about him combining into the ideal synthesis of a man she had long dreamed of but thought doomed never to find.  She’d hunted other men in the past, most recently a promising young gentleman from Amsterdam.  But never had she felt the kind of magnetism that drew her to Johnny.  He was the one . . . the perfect one.  And she would do anything to make him hers.

Unable to contain her desires any longer, Millicent finally let herself embrace Johnny, one hand cradled behind his back as the other curled around his head, positioning his neck just so . . . She pulled Johnny down to her, allowed her teeth to pierce the delicate skin of his throat, tasted the sweetness of his blood as it began to flow from him freely.  The warmth made her once more feel alive and made her heart beat rapidly as she fed her hunger.

Millicent reveled in the intoxicating effects of Johnny’s blood.  Only gradually . . . reluctantly . . . did she realize that she held his full weight in her arms . . . that she had once again allowed herself to drink too ravenously.  She made herself withdraw her teeth from his flesh and cursed her thirst as his head lolled back.  Only her unnatural strength kept him from falling.

Her grasp on Johnny tightened as she gently lowered him to a bed of hay scattered over the barn floor.  Knowing he was not yet prepared to join her, Millicent knelt beside him and watched intently to ensure that he still breathed, that she had not released him too late.  Consoled by the rapid rise and fall of his chest and a slight roll of his head, she briefly stroked her fingers tenderly over his cheek before pulling the bandanna from her neck.  She refolded it carefully and then retied it around his neck, hiding the evidence of her need.

“Soon, dear one,” Millicent promised as she ran a hand once more over Johnny’s now pale cheek.  “I’ll return soon.”

Millicent rose and crossed the barn to stand before Barranca.  The horse continued to respond to her with rapt attention, the spell she wove over the animal strong and binding.  “Take care of him,” she commanded.

Barranca nickered quietly in seeming response as Millicent passed a hand over his muzzle – and then she was gone, disappearing like a phantom into the night, leaving the golden horse as sole sentinel over her beloved.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

 

Scott thought he’d been discreet, but when he glanced up from his book toward the grandfather clock in the great room for the fourth time, Murdoch’s question came as no real surprise.

“Are you finally going to go check on him?” the Lancer patriarch asked drolly.

Actually glad he’d gotten caught, Scott closed his book with deliberation, and matched Murdoch’s wry smile.  “He said he wasn’t going to be long, but it’s been almost an hour.  Don’t you think I should?”

“It’s only been thirty-eight minutes, and he’ll be mad if you do,” Teresa offered her opinion casually, her attention on the button she sewed back onto one of Scott’s shirts.  Despite her valiant attempt to act totally nonchalant about Johnny’s extended absence, deep down she was dying to go find him herself.

“Only thirty-eight minutes, hmm…?”  Murdoch shared a look of amusement with Scott.

The young lady’s eyes glanced up just long enough to catch a peek of the clock.  “Thirty-nine,” she corrected.

A full minute passed with no further comments from the Lancers.  Teresa fumed, knowing they were going to force her to ask, just so they could blame her when Johnny got upset . . . so ask she did.

“Oh!”  Teresa met both their amused expressions with annoyance.  “For goodness sake . . . would one of you please go check on Johnny!”

The men laughed heartily, as Scott set his book aside, stood and headed toward the French door leading out to the veranda.  “I thought you’d never ask.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

The darkness now complete, Scott carefully made his way toward the small beacon of light that flowed from the entrance of the barn.  He paused in the doorway and saw the second light further inside.  He judged the distance and knew it glowed from near Barranca’s stall.

“Johnny?” Scott called, trained just as well as everyone else on the ranch that it was never a good idea to surprise his ex-gunfighter brother.  “Johnny, are you still in here?” he called again, but no answer was returned.

As he made his way slowly toward Barranca, Scott could tell that the horse was watching something intently across from his stall.  His own attention refocused, Scott caught movement on the ground in the spill of lantern light . . .

“Johnny!”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

There was a hand on his face . . . then hands at his neck . . . he thought he heard . . . Millicent? . . . talking softly . . . musically . . . to him . . . but floating on the edge of consciousness, he couldn’t be sure . . .

A horse nickered . . . Barranca.  Johnny knew that without a doubt.  But then he was sinking . . . giving himself to the darkness . . .

He perceived the ground under his back first . . . smelled the hay and horses next . . . felt lightheaded . . . sick . . . tired . . . so tired.  He raised a hand up to his head where a headache flared . . . dimmed . . . and he dared to open his eyes.

He managed to turn over, onto his side . . . raise up on an elbow . . . plant his hands . . . push up . . . gather his knees under him . . . push up higher . . . but the floor went spinning . . . dizzy . . . he was fighting for control . . . dizzy . . . losing the struggle . . .

“Johnny!”

Johnny collapsed with a grunt as Scott rushed to his side.  He lay there, sprawled on the ground, still fighting to get up, move, while his mind swirled . . .

Hands were on him again, helping him to find his knees.  “Johnny, what happened?” Scott demanded, bent over his brother, arms wrapped firmly around his chest to keep him from falling back to the ground.

“Dizzy . . . sick . . .” Johnny managed.  He let Scott help him, knew he was near to passing out again.

“Can you walk?”

“Ya . . .” Johnny answered, with no real belief, but wanting to try . . . needing to try.

“Let me do the work,” Scott ordered, then carefully pulled Johnny to his feet.  He maintained a firm grip as his brother swayed dangerously.  With Johnny’s left arm grasped over his shoulder and his own right arm around Johnny’s waist, Scott could feel his brother’s ribs pulse rapidly against him with every strained breath.

The pair made their way across the courtyard.  Scott practically dragged Johnny part of the time.

Johnny stumbled onward.  He hated his dependence but was powerless to do more than concentrate on staying upright and setting one foot in front of the other.

“Murdoch, help me!” Scott called out as soon as he felt close enough to the hacienda for his father to hear.  Within mere steps Murdoch’s silhouette appeared in the great room doorway, and then he seemed instantly beside his sons.  The father’s strength added to Scott’s, they quickly had Johnny into the great room and onto the couch, where they laid him down carefully.

Teresa wedged herself between the men and knelt at Johnny’s side.  She placed a nervous hand on his forehead.  “It’s the same as before.  No fever, but he feels cold . . . and he’s pale again.”

Johnny looked up at his family hovering around him, more than a little dazed and confused.  “What happened?” he asked drowsily.

“Don’t you remember, son?”  Murdoch leaned forward so Johnny could see him.

“Don’t know . . .” Johnny’s head tossed fretfully and his eyes blinked rapidly as he tried desperately to ward off the sleep that threatened to consume him.

Vague memories of a promise recently made passed through Johnny’s muddled brain.  “Scott,” he called, his voice already muted from the advancing fatigue.

“I’m here, Johnny,” Scott answered.  Murdoch shifted aside so Scott could move closer.

“Can’t remember, brother . . .” Johnny hoped Scott would understand why that was important.  “Tired . . . and can’t . . . remember.”

Johnny lost the battle to stay awake.  His eyes closed gently as he lapsed once more into unconsciousness.

“Johnny!” Murdoch called as he placed an anxious hand on his son’s chest.  He found little consolation in the shallow breaths Johnny struggled to take.

“Dammit.”  Murdoch stood and passed a frustrated hand through his hair.  “What did he mean that he couldn’t remember, Scott?  That seemed important to him.”

Scott answered, but found himself unable to take his eyes off the too pallid complexion of his brother.  “The night after the party, we talked,” he explained quietly.  “Johnny admitted that he couldn’t remember what had happened during part of the evening.  I made him promise to tell me if he ever had problems with his memory again.”

“And just when were you going to tell me this?” Murdoch fumed, his displeasure unmistakable.

“Now,” Scott stated simply, finally tearing his eyes from his ill brother to face his father.  “Johnny didn’t want to worry you about it before, but I’m telling you now.  He’s having problems with memory loss.”

A battle of wills between father and son threatened to ensue.  Scott was fully aware that Murdoch had every right to be told everything about Johnny’s condition.  But he also knew he’d been bound by a promise to this brother.  Murdoch was angry with both his sons for keeping such an important health consideration secreted from him.

Teresa’s distraught voice broke the standoff.  “Sam’s not back until at least tomorrow, Murdoch.  What can we do?”  She remained on her knees beside Johnny.  Tears threatened as her uncertainty over how to care for him became overwhelming.

Murdoch and Scott looked down and saw her distress.  Both realized that their burgeoning argument would be for nothing.  Without Doctor Sam Jenkins’ learned guidance, all the family could do was make Johnny comfortable and watch him closely.

“I’m sorry, dear,” Murdoch apologized.  “We’ll get Johnny to his room and take care of him like before.  I’ll send a man into town to leave a note for Sam to come as soon as he can.  Go get his bed ready.”  Murdoch reached down to take Teresa’s hand and help her stand.  “Scott and I will carry him upstairs.”

Without a word, Teresa wiped a tear off her cheek and nodded sadly, then headed up to prepare Johnny’s room.

“I’m sorr . . .” Scott started, but Murdoch waved him quiet.

“Don’t apologize.  Let’s just hope Sam can give us some answers.”

Scott nodded his agreement, happy to put their dispute aside so they could concentrate on what was really important – taking care of Johnny, and the mysterious illness that refused to go away.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Murdoch again sat first vigil over Johnny.  For minutes at a time he found himself unable to take his eyes off the rise and fall of his son’s chest as he slept, increasingly afraid that if he looked away Johnny might suddenly stop breathing . . . and leave him.  He’d lost so many years with both his sons, having them back in his life as adults felt almost like he’d been granted a miracle.  The initial circumstances of their return to Lancer had been grim, their first year together rocky.  But they were a family now, solid and strong in their bond to each other, looking toward the future.

Never in his wildest imaginings did Murdoch ever think that illness would threaten to take one of his hearty sons from him.  He had to admit however that, between Scott and Johnny, it was always his younger son’s life he considered most threatened.

After his wife had taken Johnny from the ranch . . . away from him . . . when he was only two, Murdoch considered his inability over the years to locate his son his greatest failure, leaving him feeling guilt-ridden and responsible.  Abandoned when he was still young, Johnny had felt forced to take up the life of a gunfighter to survive.  But he’d proved too good at the profession, and to this day he lived under the threat that someone would find him, challenge him, and finally be the better man with a gun.  Johnny never went looking for these confrontations, but somehow they still found him . . . and that had always been Murdoch’s darkest fear . . . until now.

Now illness had found Johnny, and all his skills with a gun, all Scott’s education, and all Murdoch’s land couldn’t cure him.  Maybe Sam Jenkins would have an answer . . . maybe the sickness would just run its course and leave both Johnny and Lancer in peace . . .

‘And maybe I’ll have to fight for him,’ Murdoch thought bravely, ‘that is . . . if I only knew what I needed to fight.’

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Scott took second watch over his brother, Teresa the third.  Just after noon she noticed that Johnny was starting to wake.  He tossed fitfully for a few moments while blinking his way into awareness, then reached a tired hand up to his face and rubbed at his eyes.  Finally he turned to discover Teresa sitting beside the bed, her smiling face beaming at him.

“Oh, Johnny.  I’m so glad you’re awake.  We were terribly worried about you again.”  Her concern was apparent behind her outward joy.

Johnny gazed at her, sitting beside him . . . beside his bed . . . all fresh and innocent, and it was as if he’d never seen her before.  He noticed the softness of her hair, the smoothness of her cheeks, the slight fullness to her lips . . . ripe . . .

Reaching out lazily, Johnny twisted his fingers into that soft, brown hair of hers, and unconsciously licked his lips.  “You been takin’ care a’ me, querida?” he asked slowly, as his thumb drifted over to run languidly down her cheek.

Teresa was stunned, not quite sure how to react.  Johnny had never touched her like this . . . looked at her like that . . . with such . . .

‘No . . . He wouldn’t want me like . . . that.’ Highly embarrassed but improperly excited, she thought she surely had to be mistaken about Johnny’s intentions – but then his thumb found her mouth . . .

Johnny slowly stroked his thumb back and forth over Teresa’s lips, brushing them ever so lightly.  She inhaled deeply.  Her lips parted.  A warm puff of breath tantalized his skin.  He let his thumb linger over the slight opening, pushed in just enough to touch the moisture waiting there, the promise of sweetness . . .

“I ever tell you how pretty you are?” Johnny drawled.  His eyes bore into hers, posed silent questions he had no right to ask and she had no right to answer.

Teresa sat there, unable to bring herself to move, her chest heaving, her cheeks rising to a flush.  She had never allowed herself to acknowledge the attraction she’d secretly felt for both the Lancer sons.  But Johnny’s passionate touch had ignited feelings that she was finding impossible to control.  He looked at her like she was already a woman.  But she was really just a girl . . . unable to cope with the sensual sensations Johnny had stirred up within her.

Telling herself this was wrong, indecent, she pulled away from him, stood and rounded behind the chair to place it between she and the bed.  “I’m going to go let Murdoch know you’re awake.  And then I’ll . . . I’ll get you something to eat,” she managed to stammer.

She turned away, unable to face Johnny another second, and rushed to leave, to put distance between them so she could think, something she couldn’t do with those deep blue wanting eyes gazing at her.

The door already stood open, following decorum, the only proper manner under which an unmarried woman would find herself alone with a single man . . . any man . . . including her brother . . .

. . . who really wasn’t her brother.

Teresa stood in the hallway a moment to gather herself.  She tried to justify Johnny’s actions . . . her inaction.  ‘He’s been sick,’ she reminded herself.  ‘He was confused . . . still half asleep,’ she reasoned.  ‘You’re nothing but a silly girl . . .’

She hitched in a breath as that last thought almost brought her to tears.  Because what she really wanted to be was the woman Johnny had just shown her, a woman who could inspire that kind of smoldering passion in a man like Johnny Madrid Lancer.

Now more confused than ever, she patted her hands against her cheeks, willing herself to regain some control so she could find Murdoch.  She would go get her guardian and tell him only that Johnny was awake.  The rest would remain a secret, for to explain . . . would be impossible.

 

 L L L L L L L L

 

Teresa found Murdoch and sent him to sit with Johnny.  She prepared a tray of food and some tea and took it back up to the bedroom . . . Johnny’s . . . bedroom.  She hesitated before entering, unsure of the reaction that would greet her.

Murdoch now sat in the chair that she’d pulled beside the bed.  Johnny lay on pillows piled against his headboard and looked drawn.   His head lolled to the side as she entered, and he smiled weakly.  “Hey, Teresa,” Johnny said.  His voice held no trace of passion, only fatigue.

It was as if their earlier interaction had never happened.  There was no awkwardness on his part, no fire in his eyes, not a thing that would acknowledge his previous behavior.

“I brought you some food . . . and some tea,” she managed to offer.

“I ain’t much hungry.  But thanks,” he responded, then adjusted his position on the bed slightly, and closed his eyes.

Teresa felt foolish, totally foolish.  She found a place for the tray, told Murdoch she had work to do in the kitchen and, without waiting for a reply, left the room, already convinced that she had completely misinterpreted Johnny’s actions.  She would spend the rest of the day and well into the night running the incident through her thoughts, but would refuse to believe that Johnny had any romantic notions about her whatsoever.

Despite all her reasoning, she couldn’t bring herself to be alone with Johnny, and deftly avoided his room for the remainder of the evening, leaving Murdoch, Scott and Jelly to look after him.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Mid-morning of the next day, Murdoch heard Sam’s carriage enter the courtyard, and practically flew out the front door to meet him.  “Hello, Sam,” he greeted heartily.  “How was your trip?  Had a nice visit with your sister I hope.”

“Don’t bother with the pleasantries, Murdoch,” Sam volunteered as he was helped out of the carriage.  He reached back across the seat to grab his medical bag.  “Your note was fairly cryptic, but I read enough between the lines to know that you’re worried.  Tell me.”

The doctor’s candor unexpected – but certainly appreciated – Murdoch smiled and nodded in agreement.  “Thank you for that, Sam.  I’m sorry to put you to work your first day back, but Johnny’s fallen very ill twice in the last week . . .”

Murdoch escorted Jenkins into the great room, and continued to succinctly outline the events of the prior five days, describing Johnny’s bouts of weakness and extreme fatigue.  The physician listened closely, his questions mostly about Johnny’s pale appearance when he was most ill.

“Do you have any idea what could be wrong?” Murdoch was more than a little hopeful.

“Not yet.”  Sam wasn’t surprised by Murdoch’s impatience.  “Could be any of a dozen things.  I want to get a look at him right way.  Is he upstairs?”

“Yes.  I’ll go up with you.”

The pair found Johnny propped against the headboard of his bed, sitting with his legs crossed Indian-style.  He looked totally bored and not a little ornery as he pitched playing cards into his overturned hat at the foot of the bed.

“Johnny, Sam’s here.”  Murdoch thought his son would be pleased.

“‘Bout time,” Johnny growled.  He flung the remaining cards in his hand as a stack toward his hat.  Most of the deck slipped across the blanket and over the footboard, to scatter across the floor.  “Let’s get this over with.”

“Johnny!  You’ll apologize,” Murdoch demanded.

Jenkins watched carefully as Johnny shot his father a look that the old doctor hoped never to see again.  For a moment, Johnny appeared downright vicious . . . but then he hid his face.  His hands briefly clenched into fists as he ostensibly gathered his self-control, until finally he faced them again.

“I’m sorry, Sam.”  He seemed truly contrite.  “Just tired of this bed is all.”

The physician suspected Johnny’s quick-tempered display went a lot deeper than just boredom and enforced inactivity, but he held his tongue and favored the young man with a reassuring smile.  “I understand, Johnny.  I’ll be as quick as I can.”

The doctor cleared a space on the bedside table and set down his medical bag.  He watched Johnny surreptitiously as he prepared for the exam.  Murdoch moved over to stand at the foot of the bed.  Johnny’s expression darkened as he tracked him closely with his eyes.

“Does he have to be here?” Johnny asked harshly, another spark of unpleasantness flashing.

“No.  Your father,” Sam censured, “does not have to be present.  Murdoch,” he immediately cut off any protests from the man, unwilling to allow an argument when he had a patient to examine.  “If you’ll wait for me downstairs, I’ll be along soon.”

Johnny looked away as Murdoch stared at him dumbfounded, his patience with his son’s increasingly antagonistic behavior just about gone.  Only by reminding himself that Johnny had been very ill was Murdoch able to check his response.  “I’ll have some coffee ready for you, Sam.”  He pulled the door closed as he left.

Jenkins had his stethoscope in his hand, but made no move to begin.  Johnny continued to stare off at some distant object, his thoughts unreadable.  “You gonna bite my head off, too?” Sam knew he was treading on dangerous ground with the young man’s temper, but was determined to set the tone for the exam.

Johnny sighed, but he still wouldn’t face the doctor.  “I’m tired of their hovering, Sam.  Tired of bein’ in bed.  Tired of bein’ sick.”

Despite the circumstances, Sam had to smile.  “Well, that certainly sounds like the Johnny Lancer I’ve come to know.”

Johnny caught the good doctor’s humor, and looked over.  He appreciated the smile that greeted him.  Johnny gave a crooked smile in return, and then let out a deeper sigh of exasperation.  “I just want outta here.”

“Cooperate, and we’ll see what we can do.  But I’m making no promises . . . you hear me, Johnny?”

“I hear ya, doc.”

“Good.  Now, is there something wrong with your throat?”

The unexpected question took Johnny by surprise.  “Why?”

“Because I’ve never known you to wear a bandanna, Johnny.  That’s why.”

“Millicent gave it to me.”  Johnny stared at the doctor with an intensity that made it perfectly clear he wasn’t about to explain any further.

Sam had of course heard all about Miss Fairfax’s arrival before he’d left town, but it came as a surprise to learn that in the short time he’d been gone she’d apparently made a hell of an impact on one Johnny Lancer.  “Well, I look forward to meeting the young lady,” Jenkins offered politely, pleased to change the subject and dismiss the issue, given Johnny’s edgy attitude.

“Let’s get on with your exam,” the doctor said, more eager than ever to try and find out what was troubling his young friend.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Not only Murdoch, but also Scott and Teresa were in the great room by the time Sam finished Johnny’s exam.  Jenkins set down his medical bag and ignored the coffee that was waiting, preferring to address the worried faces that surrounded him.  But he was pretty sure the family wasn’t going to like the answer he had to offer.  “I didn’t find a thing wrong with Johnny that would explain all the symptoms you’ve described.”

The three worried expressions turned to disbelief.  “Nothing, Sam?” Murdoch voiced their shared question.

“He’s lost weight, but I imagine his appetite wouldn’t be normal under these circumstances.  His heart rate is a little faster than I’d expect, but not alarming.  My greatest concern was that he might be bleeding internally somewhere, but I found absolutely no evidence for that, thank goodness.”

“What about the bruise on his leg, Sam?” Murdoch suggested.

“Insignificant,” the physician discounted the likelihood.

“What about the memory loss?” Scott asked.

Jenkins looked over at Murdoch, who seemed mortified that he’d actually forgotten to tell the doctor that very important detail – especially since he’d been so angry with Scott for withholding that information from him.  Murdoch gave Scott a look of apology as he explained, “I’m sorry, Sam.  Yes, it seems that when Johnny gets sick, he can’t remember anything that happened right before.  He told Scott about it after the first incident . . . then mentioned it happening again the other night.”

With the disclosure of that symptom, the physician grew pensive.  The Lancer family waited patiently as he made his silent deliberations.  Sam picked up his cup of coffee and took a few sips as he mulled over the possibilities.

Finally Jenkins turned to the others and carefully explained, “I was considering the possibility that Johnny might have a blood disorder of some kind.”  Seeing their anxiety increase, he continued on quickly.  “But I’m not aware of any blood disease that would have an affect on recent memories like that.

“Murdoch, I’m not going to lie to you . . . this has me baffled.  I’m going to have to do some research . . . maybe even consult some colleagues in San Francisco.”

“Whatever it takes,” Murdoch offered.  “If there’s a cost involved, I’ll cover it.”

“I’ll start looking into this as soon as I get back to town.  In the meantime, all you can do is what you’ve already been doing.  Keep an eye on him, don’t let him do any strenuous work, and absolutely no riding.  In fact, until I figure this out or he goes at least a week with no symptoms, don’t even let him leave the area around the house.”

The others shared a mutual look of skepticism over being able to get the youngest Lancer to follow that strict list of constraints.  “Have you told Johnny about these restrictions?” Scott asked doubtfully.

Sam had to smile, knowing that keeping Johnny still for any length of time was always a battle.  “Yes I did . . . and no, he wasn’t pleased.  But it’s for his own good.  You all know that, and I think he does too.  He said he’d been doing some repair work out in the barn.  That should be okay to keep him busy, as long as he doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting.”

“I’ll tell Jelly,” Murdoch said.  “He’s been keeping an eye on Johnny out there.”

“Good.”  Sam took another long sip of his coffee, set the cup down, picked up his bag, and headed toward the door.  “I have a lot of rounds to make today, so I better be going.  I know you will anyway, but try not to worry just yet.  Come get me if you need me, otherwise I’ll be back in a couple of days to check on him, or sooner if I find some kind of answer.”

“Thank you again, Sam,” Murdoch offered as they stepped out the front door, Teresa and Scott following.

“You’re welcome, Murdoch.”

As the three watched the physician’s carriage move away, each considered whether it would actually be a good or a bad thing, for Johnny’s sake, to see Sam Jenkins return to Lancer any time soon.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Turning to go back into the house, the three practically ran into Johnny as he charged down the staircase.

“Hold on there, son.”  Murdoch blocked Johnny’s path.  “Just where do you think you’re going?”

“Out,” Johnny answered shortly.

Teresa stepped aside, ready for the argument sure to ensue.  Scott took up a position of support next to his father.

“I think you should stay in the house another day,” Murdoch said.

“Why?” Johnny shot back.  “Sam said I could work.”

“There’s nothing to be done that can’t wait . . .” Scott tried to interject, but Johnny cut him off.

“Well I can’t wait,” he practically shouted.  “I’m tired of this house!  Now let me by.”

The flush of anger that colored Johnny’s face accentuated his continued pallid skin tone – and made it that much easier for Murdoch to issue his demands.  “You listen to me, Johnny.  Everyone here is concerned about you, and you will not do anything to make us worry about you more.  You want to work, fine.  But if you do anything past what Sam said you could, you will not leave this house again.  Do you hear me?”

Father and son stared at each other, everyone unsure how Johnny might respond.  His answer came as a surprise.  Johnny’s whole demeanor seemed to shift completely around as he practically begged Murdoch to let him leave.  “I’m just goin’ to the barn . . . same as I have been.  I can’t lay around no more, Murdoch.”  Johnny looked downright miserable to match his pitiable entreaty.

Murdoch couldn’t help but soften, but he didn’t back down.  “Go on and work, Johnny.  But I’ll expect you in well before dinner.  Don’t make me come looking for you.”

“I won’t!” Johnny declared, instantly brightening like a kid who’d just been told he could go out and play.  The transformation was certainly welcome, but Johnny’s drastic mood swings were becoming increasingly more disturbing to witness.

Johnny twisted his way past Murdoch and Scott, fleeing out the door with a carefree, “See ya later.”

The three turned and watched him go, wondering over Johnny’s incredible fortitude and ability to persevere.  All hoped he wouldn’t have to fight this illness – or his family – much longer.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny made his way rapidly across the courtyard and wished he’d remembered his hat.  He found himself squinting against the noonday sun, glad when he finally entered the dim interior of the barn.

He cautiously made his way down the row of stalls until he found Barranca.  The other horses still shied away as he passed, but to Johnny’s amazement his horse stood waiting for him with his head stretched over the gate, just as they had become accustomed.  Johnny reached out a hand and stroked it over Barranca’s head, finding a special spot behind the animal’s left ear.  He offered up a few scratches and Barranca responded, nickering quietly in approval as he pushed against Johnny’s hand for more.

“Reckon I’m tolerable again,” Johnny declared, truly pleased that whatever had been bothering Barranca seemed to have been resolved.

He gave the horse a few more pats, then went into the tack room and picked up his work where he’d left off, feeling a little tired but content to wile away the rest of his day on basically mindless repairs.

Jelly arrived at some point, Johnny intent on a particularly intricate repair and not really aware of when he’d been joined.  The pair worked quietly, side by side, until dinnertime approached and Jelly shooed him back to the house.  Johnny bristled with annoyance, knowing Murdoch had obviously found the old handyman and tattled about his orders, but he obeyed nonetheless.  A niggling headache made it easier to want to quit for the day anyway.

During dinner, Scott found himself fascinated by a peculiar exhibition of behaviors.  Maria went about serving with barely a word.  She never once looked at his brother nor waited on him directly, although she normally could be found hovering over the younger Lancer’s plate with extra spoonfuls of his favorite foods.  Teresa on the other hand glanced furtively toward Johnny at every opportunity, looking for what Scott hadn’t a clue.  Murdoch did most of the talking.  He discussed an upcoming meeting of the Cattlemen’s Association and how he expected his sons to participate.  Unfortunately his attempt at idle conversation came off sounding forced.  He, too, kept looking toward Johnny, obviously concerned and trying not to get caught, but failing pathetically in his efforts.

Johnny didn’t seem to notice any of this, or Scott’s inquisitiveness.  He attempted to eat, but merely picked at his food.  A rare steak got most of Johnny’s attention – if you could call stabbing at the beef repeatedly with the tip of his knife and watching the bloody juices flow from it worthy attention.

Scott tried to interest Johnny in a game of chess after dinner, but he begged off, instead going out alone to nurse a glass of whiskey on the veranda.  Scott specifically chose the chair in the great room that would give him the best opportunity to keep an eye on Johnny.  He attempted to read, but for a second night found himself distracted with concern for his brother.

Johnny appeared to do nothing more than stare off into the night, the drink in his hand just as badly neglected as Scott’s book.  From what Scott could make out, Johnny seemed to be looking for something, his head tracking back and forth as his eyes scanned the darkness intently.

Almost a half hour had gone by when Johnny suddenly moved to the edge of the veranda and focused on one particular spot in the distance.  He stared, unmoving, for a couple of minutes, and then stepped off the porch, the glass of whiskey dropped to the ground unconsciously as he walked forward with determination.  His eyes never wavered from some already chosen location.

Murdoch and Teresa were startled into alertness as Scott’s book hit the floor with a thud.  He’d leapt from his chair and was out the French doors before the others realized what was happening.  Scott rushed to Johnny’s side, caught up quickly and placed a hand gently on his shoulder to stop him.

“Hey, brother.  Where you headed so late?”  Scott asked casually, watching Johnny closely.

Johnny stared at Scott, dazed, downright confused, like he had no idea what he was talking about.  He once more looked off into the distance, then at Scott, back toward the hacienda, then at Scott again.  “What?” Johnny asked, definitely bewildered as to what was happening.

“It’s late, Johnny,” Scott explained again, careful not to say or do anything that might agitate him.  “Time to head to bed . . . don’t you think?”

Johnny stared at Scott and tried hard to comprehend what he was asked.  He shook his head slightly and started to say . . . something . . . before that distant spot once more drew his attention.  He peered into the darkness, searching, but whatever he’d sought was gone.  Johnny knew that without a doubt.

As if it had been his idea, Johnny turned to Scott and stated, “Kinda tired . . . think I’ll head up ta bed.”  He immediately moved off, back toward the hacienda.  He offered Teresa and Murdoch a simple goodnight as he passed them on the veranda, totally oblivious to why any of them would be wandering about the courtyard at that time of night.

Scott reached down into the dirt at the edge of the porch and picked up the glass Johnny had dropped.  He hefted it in his hand, and had to suppress a wild urge to hurl it against a nearby pillar.  He was growing frustrated beyond control over his brother’s behavior, not angry with Johnny but disappointed with himself for his inability to find a cause, any explanation that might help.

“Come into the house, Scott,” Murdoch said, and as if he could read his son’s mind added, “You did well.  Johnny’s gone up to his room now.  There’s nothing more we can do but keep an eye on him.”

He knew they would, but Scott somehow no longer believed that was going to be good enough to protect Johnny.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

“Don’t be afraid, Johnny . . .”

     . . . confusion . . .

“I’m going to take good care of you . . .”

     . . .  afraid . . .

“Show Mr. Madrid up to my personal parlor . . .”

     . . . trapped . . .

“I’m not going to hurt you, Johnny . . .”

“I’m going to set you free . . .”

     . . . pain . . .

“I know what you’ve been . . .”

     . . . no . . .

“I know . . . what you could be . . .”

     . . . no . . .

“Don’t be afraid of being evil, Johnny . . .”

     . . . terrified . . .

“I’ve wanted you since the first moment I saw you . . .”

“We’re meant for each other, Johnny . . .”

“I have such plans for us, my dear . . .”

     . . . sweet promises . . .

“I’m going to help you, Johnny . . .”

“. . . accept the power within you . . .”

     . . . despair . . .

“I need you, Johnny . . .”

“Be mine forever . . .”

     . . . no . . .

“No more games, Johnny . . .”

     . . .  searing . . .

“Too late for turning back now . . .”

     . . . agony . . .

“You no longer have a choice . . .”

     . . . out of control . . .

“Soon, dear one . . .”

     . . . insane . . .

“I’m tired of waiting . . .”

     . . . completely insane . . .

“I’ll return soon . . .”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

“No!”

Johnny snapped upright as he forced his way out of the nightmare.  In a cold sweat and panting heavily, he tried to gain control over himself.  The litany of entreaties instantly jumbled together into a chaotic mess and tumbled backward in his mind, heedless of his attempts to take solid hold on even one of them.

What was left were the roiling emotions he’d felt in the course of his dream, the fear, the pain, the confusion, the denial . . . those feelings remained intense and shocking in their reality.

He thought he could still hear echoes of the melodious voice that had spoken the words, but the sound was swiftly fading into nothingness as well.  He grabbed frantically at a passing remembrance, heard her whisper . . .  her . . .  Mill . . .

The door was pushed open.  Murdoch entered and rushed to the bed, his concern illuminated by the lamp he held.  “Johnny, are you all right, son?”

“Yeah,” Johnny answered between still panted breaths.  He nodded as he explained, “just a dream.”

Murdoch reached down and lifted a glass of water off the bedside table and handed it to Johnny.  He took a long drink, then handed it back with a noticeably shaky hand and a “thanks.”

“Can I get you anything else?  I could stay . . .”

“No, I’m okay.  Was just a dream.  Go back to bed, Murdoch, I’m okay,” he repeated – to convince himself or his father, neither was sure.

“Sleep late again tomorrow if you need to, Johnny.  You need your rest.”  Murdoch very much hoped Johnny would take him up on the offer.

“Just might,” Johnny hedged, then lay down, trying to end the conversation.

Murdoch caught the hint.  “See you in the morning, son.”  He left the door ajar on his way out.

As appreciative as Johnny was for his father’s consideration, the intrusion had allowed the dream to slip ever farther away.  But he had seized onto one sliver of a memory, an unsettling link to his illness . . .

‘Millicent.’

The revelation somehow made perfect sense, but he had no proof . . . yet.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Murdoch exited Johnny’s room and crossed the hallway.  Scott stood outside his own bedroom door, leaning up against the wall with his arms crossed, having listened to the entire conversation.

“He really okay?” Scott asked quietly.

“Yes, but it wasn’t a good dream.  He looked . . . frightened.”  The word described Johnny’s reaction perfectly, but it seemed unbefitting to associate an outright exhibition of fear with his son.

“He can’t be left alone anymore.  We should start taking turns.”  Scott was dismayed at how dire the situation was becoming.  “I’ll stay up.  You go on to bed.”

“You’re right . . . except I’ll be the one staying up.”  Murdoch raised a hand to the protest ready to be offered.  “I know you’re taking some of the hands out in the morning to begin redirecting that stream.  You’ll need to be sharp.  Once Johnny heads to the barn in the morning, Jelly will keep an eye on him and I’ll grab a nap.”

Scott couldn’t deny his father’s sound reasoning.  “All right.  I’ll check in with you before I leave.”

“You do that.  Hopefully I won’t have a thing to report.”

With a nod, Scott turned to his bedroom.  “Goodnight, sir.”

“Goodnight, son,” Murdoch responded and headed to his own room.  He left the door cracked open slightly, placed the lamp on a nearby dresser, then grabbed a chair and pulled it over to take up his watch.  He wondered how many more long nights like this there would be in the Lancer household before Johnny could once again sleep alone, in peace.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Thoughts of the dream left Johnny agitated and pensive.  He planned to get an early start, but despite his intentions, ended up sleeping in.  Johnny had alternated brief periods of exhausted sleep with hours of headache-inducing contemplation.  But finally a strategy had been devised.  He had planned a little fact-finding mission for the day – but first he had to get past his “guards.”

He knew Murdoch had spent the night awake watching his room – his door left ajar had allowed a two-way view.  Johnny had peered out during the night to see his father’s door left similarly open, dim lamplight spilling into the hallway.  He didn’t know whether to be infuriated or reassured by his family’s protective efforts on his behalf.  The one thing Johnny was sure of was that the extra attention would make it more difficult to get away from the house.

Johnny wasn’t awake when Scott left his own room and stopped briefly to check in with Murdoch before heading to breakfast.  Murdoch got himself cleaned up and dressed and followed his son down, asking him to send Jelly to the house on his way out for the day.  The old handyman was treated to breakfast while Murdoch explained to both he and Teresa the need to begin keeping a closer eye on Johnny.  Each agreed to do whatever they could.

By the time he made it down for his own breakfast, Johnny was already irritable.  It took all his patience not to lash out at Teresa as she chattered away, trying to engage him in conversation when all he wanted to do was get out of the house and be on his way.  He provided her every reassurance that he was feeling fine, then finally managed to extricate himself from her smothering care.

He specifically sought Murdoch out and found him at his desk, looking blurry eyed and worn out.

‘Serves ya right,’ Johnny thought.  “Mornin’, Murdoch,” he stated brightly – as cheerfully as he could manage given that he would have preferred to have just kept walking right out the door.

“Good morning, Johnny.”  Murdoch’s own geniality was strained against all good reason.  “Did you get back to sleep last night?” he feigned ignorance.

‘You should know,’ Johnny wanted to mutter.  Instead he opened with the truth and called with an outright lie.  “Off and on . . . mostly on though.”

“Glad to hear it, son.”  Johnny’s deceit easily made it past Murdoch’s fatigue.  “You going to be working with Jelly again today?”  He tried not to sound too expectant.

“Yep.  He’s got plenty for me to do.  Better be gettin’ to it.  You know how Jelly can be.”  Johnny headed toward the front door.  “Probably work through lunch again.  See you at dinner.”

Johnny was out the door before Murdoch could say one more word.  He stood and turned to look out the large picture window behind his desk, and watched carefully as Johnny made his way across the courtyard.  Other than pulling his hat unusually low over his eyes and staring mostly at the ground the whole way, Johnny seemed to walk with a lighter, more energetic step than anytime during the previous week.  That, added to the easy conversation, persuaded Murdoch that Johnny just might indeed be feeling better.

Seeing Johnny entered the barn, Murdoch watched for a few minutes, but saw no other movement.  Thinking his son was in Jelly’s good hands, Murdoch found Teresa and told her he was going to lie down for a few hours, and then did just that.  Sleep found him as quickly as he laid head to pillow.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny second-guessed his plans for the day as he made his way into the barn.  His eyes seemed even more sensitive to the light than the day before, and it wasn’t even near noontime yet.  Johnny wondered about his ability to travel if he had to stare at the ground the whole way.  It wouldn’t be safe . . . but he knew it wasn’t going to stop him either.  He couldn’t keep living like this, and he had convinced himself over the long night that Millicent Fairfax held answers.  He was bound and determined to find out what she knew – today.

First stop was a cautious look into the tack room, where Johnny found what he’d hoped for – no Jelly.  Unwilling to press his luck, Johnny quickly saddled Barranca and led him to the front of the barn.  He scanned the area outside, squinting hard against the light to ensure the way was clear.  Seeing no one, he pulled down his hat, then slowly walked Barranca out and halfway to the Lancer arch before he mounted up and rode off – toward Millicent’s.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Jelly entered the barn not ten minutes later, not really surprised that Johnny hadn’t yet arrived.  After all . . . Murdoch had said he would most likely sleep late.

Teresa went about her daily chores quietly.  She kept mostly to the main floor of the hacienda so Murdoch would not be disturbed.

It took Jelly several hours before he went up to the hacienda to make sure Johnny had decided to stay inside for the morning.  By the time Teresa confirmed that Johnny had been up and about long ago, and the pair had searched the house – and woken Murdoch – Johnny was long gone.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny lingered in the deep shade of the thick copse of trees behind Millicent’s house.  The shadows that had come to trouble him in the dark comforted him in the harsh light of the sun.  He scanned the area for over half an hour before he considered it safe to approach.

Leaving Barranca tethered loosely, Johnny carefully made his way up the back porch to the kitchen entrance.  A curtain in the door’s window obscured his view of the interior, so he listened for a minute.  All was quiet, so he slowly turned the door handle and was actually surprised that he found it unlocked.

Johnny entered the room quickly and silently shut the door behind him.  The curtain had shifted aside, allowing a long sliver of sunlight to slash across the floor.  The luminous arrow pointed the way toward his objective – the downstairs hallway and that large, strange door.  Every time he ran the events of the party through his mind, that’s where his nightmare began.  If he had his way today, that’s where it was going to end, too.

Creeping his way forward he had almost reached the kitchen exit leading into the house when he made out faint footsteps, headed his way.  The tread was light . . . definitely not one of the “giants.”  He couldn’t imagine Millicent ever coming anywhere near the kitchen herself.  That left . . . Lucy.

Johnny set himself behind the door.  As soon as she entered he grabbed her tightly with one arm while covering her mouth with his other hand.  Lucy struggled blindly against her captor, unable to see who held her from behind.

“I’m not gonna hurt you, Lucy,” Johnny whispered into her ear.  “It’s me . . . Johnny . . . Johnny Lancer.”

She went stone cold still as soon as she heard his name.  Johnny wasn’t quite sure what to make of the sudden change, so he continued to hold her tight as he repeated, “I ain’t gonna hurt you.  I just wanna talk to you, Lucy.  I’m gonna let you go . . . please don’t call out.  I just wanna . . .” he released her, “. . . talk to you.”

She didn’t call out.  She didn’t try to run.  She slowly turned to face him . . . and appeared absolutely terrified.

“I’m sorry, Lucy.  I didn’t mean ta scare ya like that.  I just . . .”

“Yah cahn’t stay ‘ere!” she cut him off in a panic.  “If they finds yah, they’ll take yah tah the Mistress.  She’ll . . . jest go!”

Lucy grasped his arm and started to pull him toward the outside door.  But Johnny pushed her hand away and backed up a step.  “No!”  His voice was low but vehement.  “I ain’t leavin’ ‘til I find out what happened the night of the party.”

He stepped forward and placed his hands on her shoulders.  “Lucy, you were there, I remember that.  We were standing downstairs in the hallway, and then . . . and then . . .” The familiar headache started to flare, and once again he had to back out of the remembrance.  But he knew without a doubt that Lucy could finish the thought for him.  “What happened to me, Lucy?  You have to tell me!  What happened?”

Tears formed in Lucy’s eyes.  She was desperate to answer Johnny, to save him any further misery and pain.  But to tell would bring down the wrath of the mistress . . . and she couldn’t risk that.  Not for anything.

“I cahnt’s tell yah,” she murmured, her head bowed in shame for her complicity.  But then she faced him and pleaded, “Yah needs tah leave ‘ere, Johnny.  Nawt jest ‘ere, but yor ‘ome . . . go fah!”  She once again pulled him toward the outside door and begged, “Run, Johnny.  Yah needs tah run!”

The inner door to the kitchen slammed open, and Johnny and Lucy turned to face the threat.  Giant One stood there enraged, his ire directed at them both.

Johnny took a step forward to meet Burt head on, putting himself between the man and Lucy.  “I want to see Millicent,” he demanded.

“You shut up.”  The giant marched past Johnny with hardly a glance to confront the cowering servant.  “Yah been told, Lucy.  No visitahs!”  Without warning Burt lifted a hand and slapped her, sending the young woman sprawling to the ground.

Johnny knew he’d regret it, but there was no way he could let that act go unanswered.  He clamped a hand onto Burt’s shoulder, and with a formidable effort, pulled the giant around to face him.  In a fluid motion Johnny hauled back his arm and let into Burt with everything he had.

The punch caught the man squarely on the chin . . . and had absolutely no effect.

Burt’s answer was automatic – and swift.  The giant’s huge hands easily circled Johnny’s chest as he picked him up and threw him toward the inner door.  Johnny landed on that same small table he’d helped Lucy place a tray on the evening of the party.  His forehead clipped a low-hanging shelf before he hit hard.  Johnny and the table collapsed to the floor in a heap.

As the noise of the crash faded away, the only sound that remained was a quiet sob coming from Lucy.  Burt stared at Johnny’s body.  The big man’s chest heaved, evidence of his continued rage.

Lucy wasn’t sure what to do.  She weighed whose punishment she feared more – Burt’s if she went to Johnny, or Millicent’s if she didn’t.  She made herself move and crawled to Johnny’s side.  Lucy gingerly turned his head until she could see the gash on his forehead.  She pulled a dainty handkerchief out of her apron and held it tightly against the wound, not daring to say a word but willing Johnny to wake up, to wake up and run.

But it was too late for that . . .

 

L L L L L L L L

 

The moment Johnny entered the house Millicent sensed his presence.  Awakened from her daylight slumbers, she now stood in the open doorway of the kitchen, looking down at Lucy as she tended to Johnny.  Millicent leaned forward and reached toward him, but the shard of light from the outside door crossed right over his chest, preventing her from touching him.

“Close the curtain, Burt,” she coolly commanded as she held her position, her hand hovering over Johnny.

Burt closed the drape, filled with dreadful thoughts of Millicent’s retribution for his ill-considered flash of temper.

The destructive sunlight sufficiently blocked, Millicent lowered herself to stroke her hand over Johnny’s face.  Lucy removed the handkerchief briefly to reveal the slight cut to Johnny’s forehead.  A thin line of blood quickly beaded up over the length of the wound.  Millicent’s breath hitched at the sight, her longing overcoming her concern.  She touched the edge of the gash with a trembling finger.  Lucy had to avert her gaze as Millicent raised the digit to her mouth to lick away the droplet of blood.

As Lucy again covered Johnny’s injury with her kerchief, Millicent stood and turned to Malcolm behind her in the doorway.  “Take him upstairs,” she ordered.  “Lucy, go with them.”

The pair obeyed immediately.  As Millicent stepped further into the kitchen, her gaze locked on Burt, Malcolm took her place and picked Johnny up like he was no more than a child.  Lucy led the way into the house.

“Did you hit him?" Millicent asked evenly.  She stood directly in front of Burt.  They made an incongruous sight – she having to look up at him as he towered nearly a foot above her, but he looking as if he wanted to be anyplace else in the world at that moment, fright stamped on him from every angle.

“No, mu’um,” he answered, quavering, “I . . .”

“You what?”  Her eyes commanded a reply.

“I tossed ‘im.”  Burt continued on in a rush.  “I didn’t mean tah ‘urt ‘im.  ‘E was tawkin’ tah Lucy when I founds ‘em, an I was jest tryin’ . . .”

“Stop talking, Burt,” Millicent ordered, her voice dangerously smooth.  She reached up with both her hands and wrapped them around his throat.  Her fingers barely made it around his thick neck . . . but she began to squeeze.  “You will never lay another hand on him again.  Do you understand me?”  She increased the force of her grip.

Close to passing out, his face reddened as his eyes bulged from the pressure – and in fright.  Burt could only manage a garbled groan in response.

A smile broadened on her face as Millicent gave him one last squeeze.  “I’ll take that as a yes.”  She released her hold and Burt crumpled to the ground, gasping for air.

On her way out the door, Millicent ordered, “Find his horse . . . look for a beautiful golden animal.  And saddle another . . . Mr. Lancer will need help getting home.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Upstairs in the parlor, Malcolm had laid Johnny on the chaise lounge, then lit several of the candelabras while Lucy continued to hold the kerchief to Johnny’s head wound.  By the time Millicent arrived the bleeding had stopped, but Johnny hadn’t shown signs of waking.

“Wait outside,” Millicent instructed Malcolm as she entered.  She passed him swiftly to approach Lucy, who stood immediately.  With a glance down at Johnny, Millicent asked, “How is he?”

“‘E ain’t woke yet, mu’um.”  Lucy nervously clenched the bloody kerchief in her hand.

“Lucy, what were the two of you talking about before Burt found you?” Millicent asked harshly, demanding the truth.

Unconsciously biting at her lower lip, Lucy struggled with what to say.  She knew her mistress would be able to tell if she lied.  Finally she answered, “’e wanted tah know ‘bout the night ‘a the pahty.  ‘E . . . ‘e wanted me tah tell ‘im what ‘appened.  ‘E don’t remembah nothin’, mu’um . . . an’ I didn’t tell ‘im, neither.  I was jest tellin’ ‘im tah leave when Burt come in.”  Everything she’d said had been the truth – Lucy could only hope she wouldn’t be pressed for more.

She didn’t dare avert her eyes, but Millicent’s probing stare was uncomfortable.  “You can go now,” Millicent finally allowed.

Lucy nodded slightly in submission, then moved quickly to depart.  But Millicent issued one additional command.  “Lucy.”  The servant stopped and turned to face her obediently.  “Don’t grow attached to him.  It wouldn’t be healthy.”

The threat fully understood, Lucy nodded her acknowledgment and counted herself very lucky as she quickly left the room, pulling the door closed behind her.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Consciousness returned slowly, Johnny’s first realization a pain that throbbed through his head with each heartbeat.  Almost at once he sensed someone sitting beside him as a too familiar smell reached out to him from his nightmares.

“Time to wake up, Johnny.”  Millicent’s voice was close.

Johnny opened his eyes.  Millicent sat there with her hip touching his.  She stared down at him.  A small smile played over her lips.  Candles flickering in the candelabras surrounding them sent long shadows dancing into the darkness behind her.  Johnny recognized where he was and panicked.  He rolled off the opposite edge of the couch and staggered to his feet, pulling his gun as he moved to point it unwaveringly at Millicent.

She laughed . . . not at him, but with joy from seeing him “work.”  She appreciated every nuance of his movements, his quick reaction, the ability to ignore pain, the fluidity of his aim.  ‘Pure poetry in motion,’ she thought admiringly.

"Johnny, put the gun down.  You may not remember, but I’ve already told you that bullets have no effect on a vampire.  You're thinking of a werewolf."

He tried to follow her line of reasoning, but in his muddled state, all Johnny could think to reply was, "What's a werewolf?"

Laughing again – this time at him and heartily – Millicent answered, "Oh, my dear one . . . a werewolf is something that, very soon, you will never have to worry about ever again."

Johnny had no idea what she was talking about, and that only revitalized his frustration and purpose for being there.  He lowered his gun but didn’t holster it.  “Millicent, where the hell am I? And what do you want from me?”

“You’re my guest, to answer your first question.  And as to your second . . . very simply, I want you.”  She had remained seated, but pulled her feet up onto the chaise and swept her dressing gown to the back and side, exposing her very shapely bare legs.

 

Johnny ignored her brazenness, incensed by her audacity.  “What do you mean, you ‘want me?’  You can’t just have a person.  I ain’t one to be taken.”

“Exactly!” she agreed, elated.  “And that’s why you’re perfect.  You’ve earned the right to be respected, but even more, to be feared.”

“I ain’t like that anymore.”  Her claim touched a deep-seated nerve.

“You’ll always be like that,” she countered.  “Tell me . . . why did you become a gunfighter?”

“None of your business.”

“Every bit my business.  You wanted power, that’s why.  Poor, oppressed, abandoned little half-breed child in Mexico, you wanted a way to make people fear you . . . make them pay for hurting you.  And they did . . . do . . . don’t they, Johnny?”

“It wasn’t . . . it’s not like that,” he rejected.

“Don’t lie to yourself,” she demanded in return.  “You found a way to hold sway over your tormenters, and you’ve relished every moment since you killed your first man . . . don’t tell me you haven’t.  Power is an addiction . . . you’ll never be able to do without it.  Men move out of the way when Johnny Madrid comes near, don’t they?  And you love that.”

“Don’t prod me, Millicent,” Johnny advised forebodingly.

“And don’t threaten me, Johnny.  You don’t want to see me angry.”

“You ain’t never seen angry . . . not yet you ain’t,” Johnny warned – then realized he’d fallen right into her trap.

“See?”  Her triumphant smile made him twice as disappointed with himself.  “That felt good, didn’t it, Johnny?  The thought of hurting me was exhilarating, wasn’t it?”  Entangling Johnny with his own words made her feel rapturous, and she found her need for him redouble.

Millicent stood and advanced on Johnny.  He felt the threat and once again raised his gun, but he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger.  She wouldn’t allow him to pull the trigger.  Capturing him in her lustful gaze, she simply pushed the weapon aside as she drew nearer – and he let her, once more caught in her rule, his own will enslaved.

Standing right before him, Millicent looked Johnny over longingly as she leaned forward and gently placed her hands on his chest, whispering, “One day soon you will be grateful for the gift I’m going to give you, Johnny.  But first, I want something in return . . .”

A low moan could be heard as, between their feet, the black bandanna fluttered to the floor . . .

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Hidden amongst the trees, Malcolm slapped Barranca on the rump and watched the horse carry Johnny back onto Lancer land, toward a group of men digging up a streambed.  As soon as the palomino was spotted Malcolm mounted his horse and returned home, Millicent’s orders carried out as instructed.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Frank looked up from his shovel and wiped at the sweat gathered on his brow.  He noticed a light-colored horse coming out of a patch of woods, and it didn’t take him long to figure out that it was Johnny Lancer’s distinctive palomino.  Nobody else in the area rode a horse like that, and nobody but Johnny rode Barranca, which meant the man slumping in the saddle had to be . . .

“Scott!” Frank pointed in the palomino’s direction as soon as he had Lancer’s attention.

Scott grasped the urgency, and looked over quickly.  He couldn’t believe what he saw.  “Damn him,” he uttered quietly, the rare curse rich with disappointment.  Scott ran to his horse and galloped forward to meet Barranca.

Scott reined up beside Johnny just in time to support him as he threatened to fall from the saddle – no easy task with his own horse shifting uneasily beneath him, refusing to settle.  With a strong hand Scott pulled his brother upright, then had to grab and lean him forward as he started to fall backward.

Two men rode over to lend a hand.  Jake dismounted to help steady both Lancer horses, while Frank held tight to Johnny’s other arm.

Assured that his nearly unconscious brother was going to stay in the saddle, Scott cupped Johnny’s face in his hands and held his head upright.  Johnny’s hat hung down his back from the stampede strap, revealing the gash on his forehead.  The wound had started to bleed again.  A slow trickle of dark red blood tracked down his cheek, appearing in alarming contrast to the pallor of Johnny’s skin.

“Johnny?  Can you hear me?  Johnny, what happened?” Scott demanded.

Johnny managed to open his eyes only briefly before he had to clamp them shut against the blazing sun.  “Don’t know . . . sick again . . . Scott . . . don’t know . . . don’t know . . .”

He sounded so wretched, so lost, and looked so ill that Scott couldn’t remain angry with Johnny for having left the house and gotten himself hurt.  ‘I’ll kill him later,’ Scott thought.  “Don’t worry, Johnny, I’ll get you home.

“Hang onto him, Frank,” he instructed and dismounted in order to remount behind Johnny.  His own horse eagerly moved away.

As Jake handed up Barranca’s reins, Scott ordered, “Frank, ride on ahead to warn Murdoch I’m bringing Johnny in.  Jake, go find Dr. Jenkins.  Tell him Johnny’s sick again . . . he’ll know what you mean.”

“Will do, Scott.”

“Be back quick as I can.”

Scott reset himself behind Johnny and made sure he had a firm grip as he spurred Barranca toward home.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

As the brothers approached the hacienda, Murdoch’s reaction to Johnny’s condition mirrored Scott’s perfectly.  He’d been ready to strangle his son – until he got a good look at him.

Father and son once more carried Johnny to his room and put him to bed.  The pair managed to hold their tempers until then, but as Teresa dabbed a moistened cloth over Johnny’s head wound, a simmering argument finally boiled over.

“You said you were going to watch him.”  Scott’s voice was quiet but full of intensity.

“I did!”  Murdoch bristled over the accusation.  “He went into the barn and I thought Jelly was already there.”

“Well either you thought wrong, or Jelly’s suddenly gone blind,” Scott snapped.

“You watch your tone, boy.  What was I supposed to do . . . hold his hand the whole way?”

“Yes!”  Scott didn’t care that the question posed had been outlandish.  “Anything but let him go off and get hurt!”

“Pulling his reins tight only makes Johnny buck harder, you know that, Scott.”  Murdoch’s own frustration was reaching a breaking point.

“You could have . . .” Scott attempted to continue, but Teresa had had enough.

“Stop it!  Both of you.  This isn’t helping Johnny.”  Teresa rinsed the bloody cloth off in a basin, leaving the water a distressing pink.  “He’s sick, and he’s hurt, and he’s not getting any better.”  Tears threatened to fall as she again concentrated on tending to Johnny’s injury.

Scott and Murdoch shared a look of repentance, their aggravation dissipated by her heartrending appeal.

“I’m sorry, dear.”  Murdoch stepped beside Teresa and placed an understanding hand on her shoulder.  “We’re just worried, that’s all.”

“I’m sorry too, Teresa,” Scott said, adding as he moved to the door, “I’ll go wait for Sam and bring him up right away.”

Teresa ran the back of a hand over the corner of her eye, wiping away the tears pooled there.  She looked down at Johnny and hoped Doctor Jenkins would have some kind of answer for them when he arrived.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

To his own chagrin, Doctor Jenkins didn’t have any answers, only more questions.  After shooing Teresa from the room he once again examined Johnny carefully.  But other than the head wound and some suspicious bruises across Johnny’s right knuckles and left hip, there seemed to be no other cause for the obvious case of anemia that had afflicted him.  Being able to observe his patient’s symptoms firsthand puzzled the physician all the more.

As he finished the exam Sam could feel two sets of eyes digging into him, father and brother searching for an explanation.  Jenkins was glad Teresa wasn’t present – he couldn’t bear having to disappoint her too.

He gave it to the men straight.  “Johnny is showing all the signs of severe blood loss, but I can’t find a cause.  He probably has a concussion from the head wound, but the injury isn’t severe enough to weaken him this badly.  My medical opinion is that he’s in shock, but I have no idea why.”

“My God, Sam . . . are you sure?” Murdoch asked.

Sam didn’t take his friends doubt personally – he was having a hard time believing the diagnosis himself.  “Yes, Murdoch, I’m sure.  It explains almost all his symptoms . . . the weakness, dizziness, confusion, vomiting . . . Shock even explains his changes in behavior – and don’t tell me you haven’t noticed that.  He’s been insufferable, I can tell, but it’s not his fault.  He’s very sick . . . I just don’t know why.”  The physician realized he was repeating himself, but he frankly didn’t know what else to say.

An uneasy silence descended over the room as each man digested the proposed facts.

He didn’t want to be right, but Scott couldn’t help ask, “Are you sure he’s not bleeding inside somewhere?”

“Yes,” Sam answered confidently.  “There were no signs of internal bleeding when I examined him before, and there are none now.  There wouldn’t be any way for him to hide the symptoms of internal blood loss to the degree I’m witnessing.  There’d be severe pain involved.  That’s what’s so confounding about this – Johnny has no more idea what’s happening to him than we do.”

“I take it you’ve had no luck with your research yet,” Scott said.

“No, not yet.  But I did get a chance to send off a few telegrams.  Parker has orders to find me if I get any responses.  I’m truly sorry, Murdoch.  I’m at a loss.”

“It’s not your fault, Sam.  I trust you, and I know Johnny does too.  What else can we do to help him?”

The resolve in Murdoch’s voice was hard to miss, and Jenkins couldn’t help but smile.  “That’s the right spirit, Murdoch.  You’re going to need a lot of patience to give me time to figure this out . . . because Johnny’s not going to like it.”

Scott stepped forward and added his own brand of determination.  “Whatever you say, Sam.  My little brother is done having things his way.”

Now both Murdoch and Sam smiled.  Scott only invoked his senior sibling status when Johnny pushed his brother to the highest state of aggravation.

“All right then.”  Sam sobered.  “Unfortunately the first thing I have to do is wake him up.  I want to know how bad that head injury is.  Scott, I need an empty basin, a clean towel, and some fresh water.”

The items were provided, and then Sam had Murdoch sit at the head of the bed to hold Johnny’s shoulders down.  “Don’t let him jump up.”  Jenkins waved a small bottle of smelling salts under Johnny’s nose.

It didn’t take long for Johnny to respond.  His head tossed back and forth, trying in vain to avoid the annoying scent.  As anticipated, he regained consciousness with a start, his eyes flashing open as he began to rise.  “It’s okay, son . . . you’re home,” Murdoch assured as he held him in place.

Johnny’s head settled back on the bed but his eyes darted about the room.  “What . . . Murdoch?”  Visibly confused, he hitched in a deep breath, paled even more and broke into a cold sweat.

“Sit him up.”  Sam motioned Scott over with the basin.

With Murdoch steadying his son’s shoulders, Johnny leaned his head over the side of the bed and heaved violently, the nausea inevitable, the men unable to do more than stand by and wait for it to end.

Finally spent, Johnny was laid back onto the bed where Jenkins wiped his face for him, waited a few minutes, then made him drink some water.

He looked ready to fall back asleep, but Sam had questions first.  “Johnny, look at me.”

Johnny honestly tried, but the doctor stood in line with the window, and with twilight looming, the descending sun spilled through at just the right angle so he couldn’t face him.  Squinting horribly, he finally gave up, turned his head away and placed an arm over his eyes.  “Can’t,” he said.

Murdoch started to reproach his seemingly uncooperative son, but the doctor waved him quiet and asked, “Light hurt your eyes?”

“Yeah,” Johnny confirmed quietly.

Scott crossed the room and pulled the drapes closed.  He lit a lamp as Jenkins proceeded with the exam.

“Try again, Johnny,” Sam encouraged.  Johnny let his arm flop down beside his head and opened his eyes.  “Better?”

“Yeah.”

“Any double vision?” Jenkins questioned as he pulled at Johnny’s eyelids.

“No,” Johnny barely whispered, overwhelmed with fatigue and fading fast.

“One more question, then you can sleep.  Do you have a headache?”

“Yeah,” Johnny managed with a lingering sigh and finally drifted off.

Jenkins checked Johnny’s pulse.  “He’s all right for now . . . definitely has a concussion, but I don’t think it’s too bad.  He should be feeling better again in a few days, but he’s going to need a lot of rest and a lot of watching . . . very close watching.”

Murdoch stood up from the bed and assured the doctor, “We’ll keep an eye on him.”  He wasn’t totally at ease, but at least he now felt somewhat relieved.  “You’ll stay for dinner, Sam?” he asked politely.

“I’ll be staying the night,” Jenkins corrected.  “I want to keep an eye on him myself . . . maybe get a better idea for what I’m dealing with.  You two make sure you get good rest tonight, because I’m going to count on you both after I leave.”

Already having clearly expressed their desire to do whatever was needed to help Johnny, the doctor got no argument.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

When he departed late the next morning, Jenkins left Johnny in a foul mood.  All he wanted to do was sleep, but all night long and throughout that Saturday, someone woke him every two hours, made him answer inane questions and forced him to drink glass after glass of water, tea or broth.  The one concession the family made was to leave the curtains on Johnny’s bedroom window closed, under the dangerously false impression that he was light sensitive due to his head injury.

 

L L L L L L L L

By Saturday night Johnny’s pattern reversed and he found himself restless and unable to sleep.  Per Jenkins’ damnable orders he was kept confined to his room.  It didn’t take long for Johnny to go more than a little stir crazy.  He refused to stay in bed and paced anxiously, his fingers in constant movement either shifting things around his room or flicking annoyingly against his thighs.

Scott pulled night watch with his brother and did everything he could to lessen his agitation.  He brought in a chessboard and a large stack of books selected from both his and Murdoch’s libraries.  Johnny at least attempted to look through the books.  Each held his attention for a minute or two – one actually garnered interest for almost a half hour.  But then Johnny set the tomes aside to once again begin his seemingly endless pacing.

In a brief moment of pity Scott considered letting Johnny out of his room for a foray downstairs.  But watching his brother closely he could tell that underneath the veneer of agitated movements Johnny was still exhausted, the energy a superficial expenditure of strength he really didn’t have.  Instead Scott picked up a deck of cards, betting that Johnny might find interest in a couple hours of poker.

The impromptu game lasted a whole twenty minutes.

By morning both brothers were bored to tears, tired of each other’s company, and ready for sleep.  Scott retired to his room to try and replenish his own strength for his next watch over Johnny.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny slept throughout the day but was up again at sundown, more agitated than the night before.  Murdoch allowed him downstairs for dinner with a firm warning that the great room was as far as he was going.  Johnny picked at his meal, stared out a window, played half a game of checkers with Teresa, stared out the window again, finished the checker game, read part of a newspaper, then was back at the window.

Scott and Teresa went off to bed, leaving father and son together for the night.  Murdoch read a book while Johnny paced and fidgeted.

“Go ta bed, Murdoch,” Johnny finally said.  “I’m fine now.”

“You’re better, but you are not well yet.”  Murdoch peered up from his book and added, “Sam will be here tomorrow afternoon.  We’ll see what he says.  Until then, we’re not leaving you alone.”

“I don’t need no nursemaid . . .”

“Stop right now, Johnny.”  Murdoch curled his fingers into his book to mark his page, laid it in his lap and leveled Johnny with a firm gaze.  “You’ve already been told what to expect until Sam figures out why you’ve been getting sick.  I know you’re bored, but you better find a way to deal with it.  You can work on the accounts, we can play chess, checkers or cards, or you can read or go to bed.  It’s going to be a long night, so I suggest you decide how you’d like to spend it.”

“A – lone!”  Johnny placed his hands on his hips and tried real hard to dig in his heels and get his way.

“Not an option.”  Murdoch opened his book and continued reading, leaving Johnny to mix his own remedy.

He paced . . . he fidgeted . . . he stared at the grandfather clock . . . he started to pour himself a drink . . .

“Sam said you needed a lot of water.”

The whiskey bottle slammed down onto the table.  “Dammit, Murdoch!”

“John.”  Murdoch peered up from his book once again.  “I want you well, son.  That’s all everybody wants.”  He didn’t know how he’d been able to act so calmly in light of Johnny’s recent behavior.  But watching his son wrestle with the confounding illness made it surprisingly easy for Murdoch to control his own temper.

Father and son stared at each other until Murdoch’s sentiment finally broke through Johnny’s resentment.  The bottle was simply recapped while Murdoch returned to reading his book.  Later came five games of checkers, two games of chess, twenty hands of poker . . .

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Dawn broke just as Johnny announced he was tired and wanted to go to bed.  Murdoch didn’t ask any questions, simply walked him upstairs to his room, where Johnny quickly fell into a deep sleep.

Scott poked his head in just long enough to find out how his brother was faring, then promised to be back home in time for Doctor Jenkins’ scheduled visit.  Jelly arrived soon after to sit his watch, allowing Murdoch to return to his room for some well-deserved sleep of his own.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Jelly meandered out of the barn into a cooling late afternoon breeze and pulled a handkerchief across his sweat-dampened neck.  The clatter of buggy wheels rolling over rough ground drew his attention as Doctor Jenkins rode into the courtyard, followed closely by another carriage.  Naturally curious, the old handyman stuffed his kerchief into a pocket as he made a beeline toward the hacienda.

Murdoch stepped out the front door.  His eyes flicked toward the second rig as he greeted, “Sam, welcome back.”

Two men climbed out of the carriage.  The first was about Scott’s age and build and very dapper, despite the layers of road dust that layered his clothing.  The second stranger was an older gentleman with a well-groomed white beard and mustache, dressed in a tweedy wool suit complete with vest that looked just a little too heavy for the California weather.

“Murdoch, these gentlemen seem to have some insight into what’s been happening to Johnny.”   Jenkins was barely able to contain his anticipation.  “They came to see me right from the stage.  I was sure you’d want to meet with them.”

Murdoch stared at Sam, heartened by the possibility.  “Your telegrams?  So fast?”

“Not at all.  Actually, I don’t know either of them, but they asked . . .”

“Will!”  Scott stood in the open doorway holding a mug of coffee, and stepped forward as the men approached.  “What in the world are you doing here?”

William Harker shook hands with Scott eagerly, but his expression was anything but reassuring.  “I’ve brought bad news, Scott . . . but someone who might be able to help.  We . . . I mean . . . oh, my, where to start . . .”

Harker’s stuttered attempt at an explanation left everyone staring at each other in confusion.

“Will, it’s all right . . . take it easy.  Perhaps if we began with introductions.”  Scott introduced his father and Jelly.  Heads bobbed politely as each was presented.

Scott waved a hand towards Will and added, “Everyone, this is William Harker, my friend from Boston.”  Extending a hand to the man beside Will, Scott began to ask, “And you . . .”

“I am Dr. Joseph Van Helsing,” the older visitor announced in a Scandinavian accented voice.  He stepped forward but ignored Scott’s outstretched hand to instead grab the Lancer son by the head and rock it back and forth, examining each side of the stunned man’s neck.

“I beg your pardon, sir!”  Scott pulled himself away.  Coffee spilled out of the mug and dripped over his hand as he stood back, appalled by the man’s behavior.

“You will excuse me, of course.  You are a vigorous young man, yaah?  One such as you is precisely who Millicent would seek.  It was important to know that you haff not been touched by her evil.”

“Millicent?” Murdoch repeated.  “Do you know her?  What does she have to do with anything?”

“Ah, everything, my dear sir.”  Van Helsing crossed to Murdoch and deliberately peered at each side of the elder Lancer’s neck, although he seemed to feel no need to manhandle him as he had Scott.  “And, yes, unfortunately I know her.  She is here . . . come to live in this area, yaah?”

“Yes, but . . .”

“And Dr. Jenkins has informed me that you haff a son who has a mysterious illness, yaah?”

“Yes.  My son Johnny.  But why should you be concerned?”

“Because Millicent Fairfax is a vampire, this is why.”  Van Helsing made his statement as if that would perfectly explain the entire situation.  Instead everyone was left even more confused than before.

“A what?”  Jelly certainly wasn’t going to be shy about his ignorance when the answer might help Johnny.

“A vampire!”  Repeating the accusation garnered no additional comprehension.  To be helpful, Van Helsing added, “She is Nasferatu . . . the undead.”

His explanation was meant to clarify, but was instead roundly met with more blank stares.

Will Harker had already muddled through a similar conversation with Van Helsing on his own several weeks before.  The confused and dubious expressions surrounding him came as no surprise.  “Scott,” he implored, “you must trust me that Dr. Van Helsing is an expert at what he does.”

“And just what does he do?”  Murdoch's voice was suffused with pessimism.

“I find and kill vampires . . . Nasferatu . . . the undead!”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, man!”  Fed up with the stranger’s nonsensical pronouncements, Murdoch demanded, “Do you know something that can help my son, or not?”

“Mr. Lancer,” Harker stepped forward.  “If we could go inside, our visit can be explained.”

“I’d certainly be interested in finding out what he might know,” Sam said.

The doctor’s request important to consider, Murdoch had to agree.  “Yes . . . and inside would be better.  Gentlemen.”  He indicated the open front door.  Scott led the way as Harker and Van Helsing proceeded inside.

Teresa descended the stairs as they entered.  “Is Johnny all right?” Scott asked with concern, stopping at the bottom of the staircase while the others continued to file in behind.

“Yes, he’s fine.  Still sleeping actually.  I heard a carriage . . .”

“What a lovely young woman.”  Van Helsing pushed himself past Harker and Scott and held out his hand.

Still two stair steps up, Teresa looked to Scott, stunned by the stranger’s forward manner.  “Teresa, this is Dr. Joseph Van Helsing,” Scott explained.  “He might know something about what’s been happening to Johnny.”

“Oh, how wonderful!” she exclaimed, now eager to be welcoming.

“Doctor, this is Miss Teresa O’Brien, my father’s ward.”

Teresa came down another step and extended her own hand.  Van Helsing grasped her fingers delicately and gently laid a kiss upon the back of her wrist, greeting her with a European charm.  “You are very beautiful, my dear.  Delightful.”

Keeping Teresa’s hand in his, Van Helsing guided her down the last step until she stood in front of the second guest.  “May I introduce you to Mr. William Harker, from Boston, Massachusetts.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss O’Brien,” Will greeted with a gentleman’s reserve, dipping his head politely while bowing slightly.  His eyes, however, unquestionably appreciated what they saw.

“Welcome to Lancer, Mr. Harker.”  Teresa greeted him back with a slight curtsy, her smile demure as she tried not to stare at the handsome young man.  “You’re Scott’s friend from school, aren’t you?”

“Why, yes, I am.  I trust he was charitable in the telling of our shared adventures.”  He flicked a hopeful glance at Scott.

“Teresa.”  Murdoch stepped up behind Harker to draw her attention.  “Could you please bring some coffee in for our guests.”

“Of course.  But . . .” she hesitated.  “I’d like to hear what the doctor has to say.”

“I’ll help you, Teresa,” Scott offered.

Murdoch settled their guests into the great room, while Scott and Teresa returned quickly and served the coffee.  Once Teresa was seated the Lancer patriarch led the discussion.

“Dr. Van Helsing.  You’ve said you know something about my son’s illness.  Can you please explain . . . without this nonsense about ‘vampires,’ whatever that is.”

“Ah, good sir, of vampires you must know, for Millicent is not what she seems.  She is exquisite, is she not?  Enchanting . . . alluring.  Her sire was very old, very powerful, and he coveted her beauty, knowing she could use it to attract victims.  Yet she is smart as well, very cunning, and she has become almost as powerful as he who made her.  She cannot be underestimated.”

“Jest looks like a pretty woman with lots ‘a money ta me,” Jelly offered.

“And where do you think her riches come from, Mr. Hoskins?  From those whose blood she takes first, before stealing their fortunes.”

“Ya mean she’s kinda like a gunfighter . . . killin’ fer money?”  The question was out of Jelly’s mouth before he realized it.  He looked sheepishly toward Murdoch, who stood beside the fireplace, his carriage stiff, his expression hardened.  “Sorry boss.”  Jelly bowed his head, kicking himself inside for his careless tongue.

Murdoch pushed past the uncomfortable moment.  “Never mind, Jelly.  Dr. Van Helsing, I still don’t understand what this has to do with Johnny’s illness.”

“I haff tracked Millicent and her kind across Europe, Mr. Lancer, and this chase has led me here.  If Millicent Fairfax has desire for your son . . .” He left something hanging there, but cleared his throat and added seriously, “ . . . he is in grave danger.  Of this I am certain.”

Scott was incensed.  “If you knew Millicent was dangerous, Will, why didn’t you warn me?”

“I’m sorry for that, Scott.  I wanted to, but Van Helsing insisted that you not be told we were coming.”

“I could not take the chance of her getting away from me once again.”  Van Helsing was adamant.

“That made sense, Scott,” Harker backed Van Helsing.  “After all the time I spent making arrangements for her to live in Boston, she gave everything up the minute she found out Van Helsing was on his way from Europe.  I didn’t put it together until he arrived.  She would have fled from here the moment I told you.  Millicent has ways of finding things out, and if she’s after your brother, he would have surely told her.  You have to trust me, Scott.  Millicent must be stopped.”

“But what does Millicent want from Johnny?  His money?” Teresa asked innocently.

“No . . . his blood!”  Van Helsing threw his hands in the air and stood to stalk about the room dramatically as he lectured.  “Since the beginning of man, there has been a belief in the power of blood.  Our ancestors smeared themselves with it, sacrificed it to our gods, and even drank it.  Yaah, this is so!  And this is what the vampire seeks.  A vampire must feed on blood from the living in order to survive.”

“Do you really expect us to believe that Millicent Fairfax has been taking Johnny’s blood from him?”   Murdoch’s skepticism ran deep.  “I find the whole idea totally ludicrous.   And you haven’t met my son, Doctor.  Johnny would never allow such a vile practice.”

“You speak as if he would haff a choice, my dear man.”  Van Helsing’s voice conveyed a palpable sadness.  “I haff told you, Millicent is very powerful.  It is doubtful your son could haff resisted her.”

“Sir, you’ve made some serious accusations,” Murdoch countered.  “Say I were to believe in this madness about vampires . . . what other proof could you offer?”

“There is much evidence I can provide.  You have heard of Lilith, Adam’s disobedient first wife, yaah?  It is written that she was transformed into a monster roaming the night.  Such it is with all vampires – blood is life, but the sun, death.”

That last statement got everyone’s attention, Johnny’s recent aversion to sunlight a compelling illustration of Van Helsing’s unbelievable allegations against Millicent.

Van Helsing noticed the peak of interest.  “Ah . . . this is familiar to you, yaah?”

“Yes,” Scott answered.  “None of us has ever seen Millicent in the light of day.  And Johnny . . .” The implications were too great, he couldn’t continue.

“Johnny’s been sensitive to light since his last episode,” Jenkins explained.

“And he’s been sleeping during the day now . . . up all night,” Teresa added.

Van Helsing crossed the room to look out a window.  “Mein Gott!  Dusk has already fallen.  Her time has come.”  He turned and addressed Murdoch with great urgency.  “I must examine your son immediately.  You will take me to him, yaah?”

Murdoch looked to Doctor Jenkins, a man he trusted, for guidance.

“It couldn’t hurt, Murdoch,” was the response.

“Very well.  Follow me.”  Murdoch set his coffee cup down and headed toward the stairs, Van Helsing, Doctor Jenkins, and Scott following.  But they didn’t have to go far to reach Johnny – he had come to them.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

In a sustained trance, Johnny made his way determinedly down the staircase, Millicent’s mellifluous, seductive voice calling to him, pulling him toward her.  As he descended he heard other voices, some recognized, others unfamiliar.  But the only words that mattered were Millicent’s as she grew ever more insistent, entreating Johnny to come join her outside . . . in the night.

Reaching for the handle to the front door, Johnny felt a hand on his shoulder, turning him gently around, away from her, as a nearby voice warily asked, “Johnny, where are you going, son?”

The allure from the honeyed call wavered just enough for Johnny to realize that Scott now stood beside him.  He looked past his brother into the great room, surprised to see his father, Jelly, Teresa, Doctor Jenkins and two others standing there, all watching him intently.

“Out,” Johnny managed, adding vaguely as he turned back toward the door, “Need to go out for a bit.”

“In your bare feet?” Scott’s voice came at him like the buzz of a pesky fly.  The simple question grated on Johnny as the lure from outside once more became desperate, compelling him to hurry.

Johnny’s temper flared.  “Don’t matter!  I’m just goin’ out!”

He reached for the door and yanked it open to escape into the darkness . . . but there came another voice, strange, accented, urgently demanding, “Stop him, Scott!  Do not let him leahv!”

The persistent hand seized his shoulder firmly before he could take another step.  Johnny felt a rage surge within him as he was pulled back into the house . . . away from she who was calling to him . . . she who needed him . . .

His reaction primal, Johnny shirked the hand off his shoulder, then smacked it away with a vicious backhand.  Many voices called him but he could hear only one clearly, begging him to get away, to run.

The restraining hand was back, gripping his arm now, and once again Johnny struck out.  His right hand balled into a fist as he rounded quickly.  Johnny put everything he had into the punch as he landed it firmly against flesh.

Momentarily freed, a cacophony of voices rose around him as he tried to flee, but quickly there were more hands on him, clutching at him, grabbing him tightly . . . around his waist, his legs, holding him back.  He tried to strike out again, but now his arms were being held as his legs were lifted and he was pushed roughly to the floor, his shoulders pressed down against the tiles.

Johnny fought back violently, blind to everything but his need to get away, to find her, to be with her.  His efforts doubled, but there were so many hands on him now he couldn’t possibly escape, but still he tried and tried . . .

His left arm was being moved, extended out and away from his body . . . his shirtsleeve pushed up.  Johnny pulled against the hands grasping his arm, but they held fast, the grip strong as he felt stinging at the crook of his elbow, a feeling he’d had before, a . . . needle!

‘They’re gonna make me sleep!’ he thought wildly.  A total fury enveloped him as he realized they were going to win, keep him from going to her.  Johnny strained against his captors but it was no use, the narcotic’s control swift.

In one last defiant gesture Johnny threw back his head and unleashed a guttural scream of enraged despair, but it was a hopeless reaction, his body and mind succumbing to the enforced sleep as unconsciousness took him and he fell back limply to the ground.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Teresa stood back, keeping herself out of the way as the incredible fight unfolded.  She would never have imagined ever seeing Johnny in such an uncontrollable state of rage, and the sight deeply disturbed the young woman.  She couldn’t stop the tears that formed in her eyes, but covered her mouth with her hands to stifle her own shout of panic and dismay as Johnny released that terrible ungodly anguish-filled scream.

Johnny finally stilled and Teresa’s distraught weeping turned to quiet sobs as she viewed the unbelievable scene before her.  Murdoch continued to hold Johnny’s shoulder’s firmly down against the floor, while Scott and Jelly both lay on top of Johnny’s legs.  Will Harker held tight to Johnny’s right arm, while Doctor Van Helsing grasped the left.  Doctor Jenkins knelt nearby, a syringe ready to fall to the floor from the stunned physician’s hand.

The men were still laboring to breathe easy when Doctor Van Helsing asked, “I take it that this is your brahther, John, yaah Scott?”

Scott looked up slowly.  His dazed expression complemented a badly split lip where Johnny’s punch had landed squarely.  He merely nodded his head in response.

“You haff my apologies,” Van Helsing offered.  “Obviously it is not you that Millicent covets, but your brahther.  Here, I show you.  Dr. Jenkins, you haff scissors in your bag there, yaah?”

Jenkins looked down beside him and had not even realized that he still held the syringe until he reached for his medical bag.  He swapped the hypodermic for a pair of scissors and handed them to Van Helsing.

Van Helsing gently released Johnny’s arm onto the ground, then turned his head to the side so he could safely cut away Millicent’s bandanna.  Their curiosity too great, no one moved to stop him, but as the black cloth fell away all were taken aback as he moved Johnny’s head to the right to reveal two clear puncture wounds.

“What the hell did that?” Murdoch asked gruffly, his patience spent.

“Those wounds, my dear fellow, are from the bite of a vampire.  I tried to tell you what Millicent Fairfax is, but now you see for yourself, yaah?” Van Helsing explained rather haughtily.

Teresa had cautiously moved closer and peered down at Johnny, her own inquisitiveness overriding her apprehension.  She watched as that irksome bandanna was finally removed, but what was revealed there appalled her.  “She bit him?” Teresa asked in disbelief.

“Yaah,” Van Helsing answered ardently.  “She takes from him so she may live.  But most victims die, immediately, their life force totally drained from them.  That John still lives proves that Millicent has greater plans for this man.

“You must not be angry or ashamed of your son’s behavior, good sir.”  Van Helsing continued zealously, as if detailing some strange new science project to a class of eager students – not horrified family members.  “To be bitten by a vampire is as if to be poisoned.  John has been infected with her evil toxin, and this has contaminated his will.”

Van Helsing pushed himself to his feet and waved a hand abstractly toward the still open front door.  He peered out into the night as if to dare Millicent to show herself.  “You see how he must answer when she calls?” he asked rhetorically, then gave the door a resounding slam as he turned dramatically to face the others, all still gathered on the floor around Johnny.  “John can act on his own no longer.  We can only hope things haff not gone too far yet.”

“My god, man!” Murdoch exclaimed, becoming ever more infuriated as he stood to face Van Helsing.  “How much worse can this get?”

“Ah, for your son I am afraid much worse indeed.  From what you haff told me of his illness, and what I haff seen for myself, I know without a doubt that he has not been sick, but chosen.”

“Chosen for what?” Scott asked quietly from the floor.  He looked up at Van Helsing with eyes that declared he didn’t really want to hear the answer.

Van Helsing knew this was the defining moment for the dismayed family, and they must trust him and accept – or condemn their brother, son and friend to time ever after in hell.  His voice grew solemn as he carefully explained, “Millicent has been feeding on John slowly, to prepare him to be as her . . . to become vampire.  She has found a consort, a man she would spend all eternity with.  John has no choice, no say in this, so we must help him . . . keep him from her, prevent that one last, final bite that would take his life but bring him immortality as the damned.”

If the others gathered there had not witnessed Johnny’s deteriorating condition and disturbing behavior for themselves, Van Helsing’s astonishing and inconceivable explanation of what awaited Johnny might have been considered laughably absurd.  But all they had to do was look at the bite marks on Johnny’s neck and remember his mindless desire to leave the house, and they all believed.

Scott remembered the conversation with his brother from the night after the party, and all Johnny’s confused concerns fell into place.  He stood and asked, “What do we need to do?”

Van Helsing smiled broadly at Scott’s courage and determination, and clapped his hands together in delight.  “You will not surrender this man to Millicent without a fight!  This is good . . . very good.  First, we take him back to his bedroom where he can be guarded.  Then we must talk.  There are many plans to be made if we are to save this one who is so dear to you all.  Come now . . . we haff work to do.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

As Murdoch and Scott carried Johnny carefully up the stairs to his bedroom, Van Helsing asked Teresa to fetch a sheet that could be cut into strips.  She was still distraught, not yet able to bring herself to totally comprehend the incredible story Van Helsing had told them.  But eager to help her brother, she did as requested.

Teresa entered Johnny’s room and found him still deeply unconscious.  He lay with his shirt open as Doctor Jenkins sat on the edge of the bed, his stethoscope placed over Johnny’s heart as he listened intently.

“How is he, Sam?” Murdoch asked nervously as he stood nearby.

Jenkins pulled the stethoscope from his ears and folded it in his lap.  He ran a shaking hand through his hair.  Having come to count Johnny as a good friend, the younger man’s latest outburst and uncontrolled behavior had been surprisingly disconcerting for Sam to witness.  He was finding it hard to concentrate on remaining an unemotional physician to the younger Lancer son.

“His heart’s still beating a little too fast, but physically I think he’s fine, Murdoch,” Sam offered as reassuringly as he could.

“Yaah, yaah . . . good, good,” Van Helsing exclaimed impatiently as he crossed the room and retrieved the sheet from Teresa.  “He is strong and, Gott willing, will live a long natural life.  Now,” he bit a tear into the edge of the sheet and started ripping off a long strip, “we make plans, but first we ensure John cannot leahv.”

Van Helsing had torn one long band off the sheet and crossed the room to hand it to Murdoch.  He bluntly instructed, “Tie your son to the bed so when he wakes he cannot answer Millicent’s call.”

Murdoch stared uncertainly at the strip of cloth in his hand, and then shared an apprehensive look with each of the others.  “Are you sure this is necessary, doctor?” Murdoch used the term loosely, not exactly convinced the man had sincere credentials, given his unusual area of specialization.

“Yaah!  Absolutely,” Van Helsing answered decisively.  “I need all your good council, so can spare only one to watch over him.  The night is still young, but John will wake soon and Millicent will once more beckon him to come.  We cannot allow this!”  He’d finished tearing off another strip and handed it to Scott, who stood on the opposite side of the bed.

Murdoch and Scott stared warily at the crude bindings in their hands.  Not completely unfeeling, Van Helsing recognized their hesitation.  “Come now.  You know this must be done, and to know you do it to protect John makes it easier, yaah?  I do not do it myself so you can be assured the ties are secure but not cruel.  So please . . .” He waved a hand carelessly toward the bed, and then continued tearing at the sheet.

Remembering the disturbing vision of how violently Johnny had fought against six men, Murdoch was the first to step over to the head of the bed.  He reached down and gently took Johnny’s left hand in his, then stretched the arm up toward the headboard.  As he looped the sheet around Johnny’s wrist, Scott mirrored his father’s actions with his brother’s right arm.  Jelly and Doctor Jenkins secured Johnny’s ankles and tied them to the low footboard of the bed – then each man stood by and silently contemplated the unbelievable but undeniably dire situation that had befallen Lancer.

Teresa hovered near the door, once again crying softly, disturbed over the need to confine Johnny in such a manner.  Although they’d barely met, Will Harker went to her side and placed a consoling arm around her shoulders, helpless yet to do little more than push aside his own feelings of shame and regret for having sent Millicent Fairfax to California . . . to threaten his friend’s home and family.

“Dr. Jenkins,” Van Helsing interrupted the group’s contemplations.  “We haff no time for niceties, so I speak frankly.  Someone must stay to look after John, and this is not a proper task for Miss O’Brien.  It is the strength of the younger, hardier men I need if we are to defeat Millicent.  You would therefore be the best man to remain . . . to attend to your patient, yaah?”

Although everyone knew he spoke sensibly, to a person each of them was already weary of how Van Helsing could simultaneously ask and answer his own questions with that increasingly exasperating rhetorical “yaah.”   But despite his own vexation at Van Helsing and the inference that he was “old” man out, Sam Jenkins had to admit he was the right person for the job of watching over Johnny.

“Of course I’ll stay with Johnny,” Sam directed his response to Murdoch.  “You men go do what you need to do.”

“Good, good!” Van Helsing again clapped his hands in delight.  “You understand the situation,” he added as he patted Sam on the shoulder on the way to the door.  “Let us know if you need us, and we will come.

“Ah . . . I make one last request.”  Van Helsing stopped and turned abruptly as he remembered an important warning.  “The air is warm tonight doctor, but you must not open the window.  Millicent could enter freely should she find the way clear.  I will explain how this is possible to the others but on this, you, good doctor, must trust me at my word.  You understand?”

Finally asked a direct question he could actually answer – although he didn’t truly comprehend why – Sam responded, “Yes.  I understand.”

“Good, good!” Van Helsing pointed to the doorway.  “Now, the rest of you go to the other rooms on this floor and close all the windows and doors.  We do the same downstairs – and then our planning can begin.

“Come . . . come!” he encouraged.  “For John Lancer, we must prepare our fight!”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

The others had reassembled down on the first floor over an hour before, and there they remained, grouped in the great room drinking coffee Teresa kept coming, hot and strong.  Sam had seen no one else since the thoughtful young woman had also brought him a mug of her best brew – although every now and then he caught Van Helsing’s distinctive voice filtering up the staircase as he expounded on some important issue.

Doctor Jenkins kept careful vigil over Johnny, so immediately recognized when he started to come around.  The physician had been dreading the moment, worried about Johnny’s reaction to being tied down.  He looked the bindings over carefully to ensure they were secure, then sat on the edge of the bed with a hand on his young friend’s chest, ready for the worst.

Johnny’s head tossed fitfully as he fought off the remaining affects of the drug.  His eyelashes flickered, and he seemed disoriented but calm – until he attempted to move one of his hands.  Realizing he was bound, Johnny’s eyes snapped open and he tried to rise up off the bed.  He pulled frantically at his bonds and panicked even more when he found he was trapped, spread-eagled, his legs tied as well.

His focus totally on trying to free himself, it took Johnny almost a minute to realize that Sam sat right next to him, imploring him to stop struggling and calm down.  Heart beating rapidly, with wild eyes and panting breaths, Johnny finally acknowledged Sam’s ever more urgent pleas to settle, and allowed his head to fall back against his pillow.  With a lot of confusion and not a little fear, Johnny asked, “Why am I tied, Sam?”

Jenkins took a steadying breath of his own, and matching Johnny’s intense gaze answered quietly, “You got violent, Johnny.”

With that simple statement, an expression of honest bewilderment appeared on the young man’s face.  “Do you remember anything that happened?” Sam asked carefully.

Johnny knew Sam well enough to know that his friend had told him the truth.  But it took another minute of hard thinking before he could actually recall one deeply disturbing distorted image.  Full of trepidation, Johnny asked, “Did I . . . did I hit Scott?”

Of the entire dreadful episode, Sam knew confirmation of that particular detail was going to hurt Johnny more than anything else, but he couldn’t lie to him.  “Yes,” Jenkins answered, then felt his own heart break as Johnny hitched in a breath and, for the first time, ever, since they had met, looked totally hopeless.

“What the hell’s happenin’ to me, Sam?” Johnny pleaded – but Jenkins wasn’t about to give him an explanation without his father and family present to support the young man.

“Johnny, listen to me, son.  I know you’re scared, but we’re all going to help you.  Murdoch’s downstairs right now with Jelly, Scott and his friend from college, William Harker.  He’s brought another physician with him . . . a Dr. Van Helsing.  I’m going to step over to the door and call them up here, and together we’ll explain.  Rest quietly, Johnny.  I’ll be right back.”

Sam meant to hurry, not at all comfortable leaving Johnny alone for even a minute in his distraught state of mind.  He crossed to the door, intending to merely summon Murdoch to come upstairs.  But he was suddenly stopped short by a strange voice calling to him, telling him he needed to close the door.  Jenkins couldn’t imagine why that would be important, but the feminine voice was full of urgency.  Before he realized what he was doing, Sam reached out and shut the door softly.

Unable to move, Johnny found himself lamentably caught up in his own tumultuous thoughts and roiling emotions.  But his attention was drawn to the doctor as he walked, as if in a trance, toward the window.

Lifting his head, Johnny glanced awkwardly toward the door and found it closed, then turned to observe Jenkins more carefully.  “Sam, are you okay?” Johnny asked, his concern growing.

The question went unacknowledged, Jenkins intent on the voice that now commanded him to open the window.  As Sam pulled aside the curtains, Johnny rose up as far as he could and strained against his bonds to peer through the space between his tied ankles to the window across the room.  He watched suspiciously as a light fog appeared outside the glass, swirling in a ballet eddy around the casement.  The mist was mesmerizing as it danced, but Johnny found no beauty there, only a palpable threat of danger emanating from the mysterious haze.

Sam reached a hand toward the window as Johnny fought against his bonds, trying to stop Jenkins with the only weapon he had for defense.  “Sam, don’t!” Johnny called out.  “Don’t open it, Sam.  Please, Sam, listen to me!  Don’t . . .”

The window slid open a mere few inches – but it was enough.  The haze instantly gathered unto itself, coalescing into an amorphous but intimidating form.  Before Johnny could utter another word of warning, Sam Jenkins was picked up by some unseen force and thrown sideways into a corner of the room.  His head hit the wall, knocking him unconscious . . . leaving Johnny alone to face the mist.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

“Sam?” Johnny called out, too quietly but surprised he could get his voice to work at all.

“Sam?”  He managed to be a little louder, but still got no response from the crumpled form in the corner.

The room suddenly grew colder, and Johnny shuddered involuntarily, his attention drawn back to the window.  The haze had pressed itself up against the glass, and now began to slowly flow down the pane.  It cascaded through the small opening like a vaporous waterfall, spilled over the sill and down the wall.  The fog continued to stream in, until the last wisps meandered their way downward, out of view.

Johnny had found himself spellbound by the mysterious sight, but a foreboding sense of imminent peril overcame him the exact moment the fog disappeared.  He looked around frantically as he pulled wildly at his bindings, feeling more vulnerable than he ever had in his life, not comprehending how but absolutely certain that Millicent had once again come to call.  This night, however, she would have no need to control him with her unnatural command – bound as he was to the bed, Johnny was powerless to defend himself, to get away.

He opened his mouth to shout for his family, but caught sight of Sam, still lying unconscious on the floor.  The shadowy image of his fist striking Scott flashed through his mind . . . and in that instant he chose to remain silent, unable to bring himself to ask his loved ones to stand on that dangerous ground between him and Millicent.

Something tickled his right foot, and he looked down to see a wisp of fog snake its way over the low footboard and mattress edge to play with the bottom of his foot.  The delicate strand twirled its way up and over the top of his foot until it looped itself around several times, finally pulling taut, giving Johnny a fantastically unexpected sensation of being squeezed.

The velvety mist unwound and drifted further up his leg, stroking his ankle around the binding that held him captive, teasing him with an empty promise of release.  The tip of the fog disappeared into his pant leg, whirling briefly atop his shin before withdrawing to continue on its way.

A second tendril of mist joined the first and wandered slowly up Johnny’s left leg.  The hazy tentacles wove their way ever higher, sometimes acting in concert – sometimes exploring independently.  The higher the mist climbed the more weight it seemed to bring to bear, intensifying the inescapable stimulating effects of the relentless caresses.

Johnny’s mind tumbled between belief and disbelief as his emotions spiraled out of control.  He felt at once vulnerable and rebellious, resigned and resistant, self-conscious and secure, violated and . . . aroused.  No woman had ever carried him to such a heightened state of wantonness before, and despite knowing it was depraved, Johnny couldn’t deny the allure, the need.  Millicent’s touch was practiced and deliberate, and Johnny found himself ardently responding to her temptations.

The nefarious tendrils thickened and worked in tandem as they slithered slowly over the top of his thighs, pressing down on the smooth leather of his pants, mischievous wisps straying off to flick at the buttons along the sides.  The misty pair of appendages slid languidly down along his hips, only to curl themselves upward to briefly linger atop his pelvis before inching their way to his waist.

Johnny’s shirt had fallen open with his struggles, and one of the wisps took the lead to run a finger along his waistband.  Johnny’s own fingers curled tightly around the strips of sheet binding his wrists as the mist teased him mercilessly and his willpower faded.  An uncontrolled gasping moan escaped his mouth before he could suppress it . . . no longer sure he wanted to conceal his mounting desire, even if he could.

By the time the mist reached his chest it was clearly gaining substance, Millicent’s image unmistakable, her body materializing into solid form as it pressed down upon him.  Her now very real hands pushed his shirt open even further and stroked brazenly across his bared skin as Johnny strained to control his reckless longing.

Millicent lay on top of Johnny, her hungered gaze finding his yearning eyes.  Her moistened tongue ran over her own wanting lips, as she passed a delicate finger over Johnny’s slightly parted lips, his quickened breath warming her cold skin.  Now it was she who moaned softly in anticipation, reminded of the intimate pleasure that Johnny’s heated blood would soon bring her.

“Johnny,” she murmured, as if making a supplication.  “I’d hoped to take you slowly . . . have you come to me freely, want me as much as I want you.  But we have no more time.  Van Helsing has found us, and the troublesome fool will try to keep you from me.”  Millicent laughed smugly as she arched back slightly to once again run a hand over Johnny’s chest.  “Not doing a very good job so far, is he?”

She laughed again and, with an ominous surety, proudly declared, “With you at my side, the good doctor will finally meet his match.  We’ll make him your first kill . . .”

Millicent ran her fingers through Johnny’s hair, and then passed them tenderly over his forehead.  She touched a finger delicately to his recent injury and remembered the blood she had tasted there.  She followed the path of her hand with her eyes as she took in every detail of his features, moving leisurely down his cheek until she grasped his chin.  Johnny’s anticipation was intense as she slowly turned his head to the side, the expectation agonizing while Millicent hesitated, indulgently hovering over his throat.

“Millicent, I don’t . . .” Johnny attempted to forestall what he knew was the inevitable, but Millicent was set on her purpose.

“Hushhh, my love . . .” she silenced him, and in a voice quivering from her own eagerness, initiated Johnny’s transformation.  “It’s time,” she decreed, then plunged her fangs into his flesh.

Pain once more flooded his being.  Johnny writhed on the bed under Millicent, his hands clutching his bonds in a vice-like grip as his legs wrenched reflexively.  On and on she drank of his life’s blood, until Johnny felt a familiar weakness overcome him, the strength flowing from his veins.  He drifted on the edge of awareness, his fingers falling away from the bindings around his wrists.

Sensing Johnny’s imminent collapse, Millicent had to force herself to pull away.  She watched his eyelids flicker, as he lay depleted upon the bed, trying to hold on to consciousness.  “Oh, Johnny,” she gasped as she stroked her hands over his pale cheeks.  “Your taste entrances me . . . again I have taken too much.”

Through some mystical means, Johnny’s bonds were all suddenly untied.  Millicent embraced him as she anxiously pulled him upright on the bed.  She knelt beside him on the mattress and held him as he threatened to yield to the comforting refuge of sleep.

With a hand on his face she forced him to look at her, needing him to listen, to understand.  “Johnny, tonight you must drink of me so we may start our life together . . . so you can be with me always.  Oh, my dear, how you have bewitched me!  I’ve been insane waiting for this moment . . . I must have you.”

She easily lifted Johnny and pulled him to his knees beside her.  Still unsteady, and not yet sure what she was asking of him, Johnny looked on bewildered as Millicent ran one of her elegantly manicured fingernails over the top of her left breast, above the bodice of her low cut gown, begetting a thick line of blood.  Then she faced him and ardently beseeched him to join her forever.

“Johnny I’ve been looking for someone like you for a very long time . . . a man who’s seen evil, confronted evil, been evil.   You’re a strong man, but evil scares you.  Don’t let it, Johnny.  Embrace it.  Embrace me, Johnny.  You don’t have to be afraid anymore.  I can make you the most powerful man in the world.  Come to me Johnny.  Accept me.  Want me.  Take me.”

During her entreaty she had moved ever closer to him, so all Johnny had to do was reach forward, put his arms around her, pull her toward him . . . and he did.

Millicent gasped in surprise as Johnny seized her around the waist to roughly draw her against him.  His passion once more aroused . . . his patience with her constant manipulation spent . . . Johnny finally released that powerful darkness within him that Millicent so coveted, and claimed his dominance.

Now it was Johnny who laid a hand firmly against her cheek, compelling Millicent to look at him as he continued to hold her tightly.  Their hearts once more beat in rhythm as Johnny slowly moved his fingers upward to curl into the flowing ringlets of her hair.

Cruelly jerking her head back, Johnny’s arm cradled Millicent’s shoulders as he leaned over her to whisper threateningly into her ear.  “Be careful what you wish for . . .”

. . . and then he kissed her, tasted his own blood on her lips as he forced himself on her, taking from Millicent that which was promised, submitting to an ever denied uninhibited baseness as he challenged the true depth of her lustful desires.

It had been one hundred and forty three years since Millicent had been kissed with such intensity.  The ferocity of Johnny's passion only strengthened her own obsession to be with him forever, to yield to his everlasting command in return for the fiery pleasure he would bring to her solitary life as an immortal.  She accepted his kisses fervently, Johnny's boldness making her heady with willful abandon.

She tried to return his kisses, but Johnny wouldn't allow it, his fingers still entangled in her hair tightening their grasp to keep her away from him.  But the anger she felt at being rebuffed was quashed as he began kissing at her neck, moving ever lower, lavishing her throat with his attentions as he traced a path downward, finding the swell of her breast and hovering there, teasing her with warm panting breaths and perfectly placed featherlike kisses until she thought she would go mad from her need, actually growing lightheaded as he ran a moistened tongue delicately around the wound she had opened, just for him.

Millicent’s breasts heaved in excitement and her breath quickened from the suspense, but Johnny only prolonged her agony, pulling away, torturing her with abject frustration until she couldn’t stand it another moment.  “Johnny, please . . .” she begged, ignoring the pain of his fingers still clenched in her hair as she tried to reach out to draw him back to her.

He let her loose, but only to grasp her shoulders to push her back upon the bed.  Johnny’s eyes locked on hers as he straddled her hips and slowly ran his hands down her arms to entwine their fingers.  He lifted her arms upward with a deliberate pace until Millicent lay as he had while tied, Johnny’s hands becoming the bonds around her wrists as he held her fast.  Only then did he lower his head once more to find her breast with his lips – to drink of his own blood mixed with hers, tasting her, drawing her essence into himself with mindless determination.

Now it was Millicent who writhed uncontrollably, reveling in the abduction of Johnny’s soul even as she totally surrendered herself to his sweet kisses, the soft strokes of his tongue driving her to a height of ecstasy surpassing any fantasy she might have imagined.

‘He’s mine now . . . mine for all time,’ Millicent rejoiced . . .

. . . until the door suddenly opened.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Murdoch entered the room first, followed by Van Helsing.  Both witnessed the couple luridly embraced upon the bed.  Before either could fully realize what was happening, in a quick chain of events Johnny was up and off the bed, grabbing his gun from the holster, hanging as usual on his headboard.

“Johnny, don’t!” Scott shouted as he entered behind the others, pushing their father out of the direct aim of the deadly weapon.

Van Helsing pulled a large silver crucifix from his breast pocket and placed himself between the Lancers, holding the religious icon out in front of them all – more afraid of the danger posed by Millicent than Johnny’s mortal threat.

The initial burst of adrenalin that had fueled Johnny’s quick reaction didn’t last long, his underlying weakened condition from Millicent’s last feeding revealed as he swayed backward.  His knees hit the edge of the bed as he added a second steadying hand to the raised gun.

Millicent lay catlike upon the bed, content to merely watch the scene unfold.  She found it at once humorous and gallant that Johnny would literally leap to her defense . . . to a practically invincible vampire’s defense.  Johnny’s actions only served to endear him to her even more.

Forced to avert her gaze from Van Helsing’s sanctified protection, she instead concentrated her attention on her love.  Seeing his distress, she languidly rose to her knees behind Johnny and curled a supportive arm amorously around him to lazily caress his bared chest.  Scott and Murdoch were both appalled by her brazenness and wary of her indifference, but even more troubled over Johnny’s antagonistic behavior on her behalf.

As worried as he was about his brother, Scott suddenly realized that Doctor Jenkins didn’t seem to be present.  He quickly looked around the room and noticed the crumpled form in the corner.  “Murdoch, I have to go to Sam,” he whispered, loathe to do anything that might alarm Johnny, but concerned about their friend.

Scott managed two slow, backward steps before Johnny’s gun shifted in his direction.  Millicent’s eyes caught Scott’s for a moment, and she offered him an insolent smile.  Realizing his intent, she leaned into Johnny and directed, “Let him go, dear.  He’s not the threat to us here.”

Johnny’s weapon was immediately retrained on the others, leaving Scott on edge but free to give Sam his attention.

“I can’t say it’s good to see you again, Doctor.”  Millicent acknowledged Van Helsing’s presence generally, unable to look at him directly . . . toward that sacred abomination he held.

“You will not speak to me, evil one!” he commanded, his voice rising in outrage.

Millicent ignored the demand to goad the doctor instead with a vindictively inspired question.  “How is young Abraham?  Recovered by now I should think . . .”

“My son is not your concern,” Van Helsing hissed.

“No. No he is not,” she agreed.  Millicent turned to gaze at Murdoch as she chillingly added, “I’ve found a better man.”

Murdoch had never had such murderous thoughts than those her implication inspired.  He met her impudent stare with unwavering resolve.  “You can’t have my son.”

Millicent laughed callously.  “Too late . . . he’s already mine.”

Johnny rocked back against her, drawing her consideration.  She cursed herself for her voracity, recognizing the signs as he weakened, the gun wavering, lowering perceptively as his strength waned.

Once more she addressed Murdoch with a terrible promise.  “I leave him with you . . . for now.  But soon I will come again, and if need be, I will take what I want.  You would do well to heed my warning . . . father.”

Her audacious familial endearment sent a chill racing through Murdoch as Scott looked on aghast at her dire pronouncement.

“And you, Dr. Van Helsing . . . stay out of my way,” she warned, her dark threat hard meant.

Millicent leaned into Johnny again to whisper affectionately, “I have to go now, my love.  But I’ll be back for you . . . wait for me.”

Before their disbelieving eyes Millicent transformed back into the mist.  Johnny felt her weight against him fall away, and turned on unsteady legs to watch as the amorphous haze hovered over the bed for a brief moment before streaming toward the window, quickly escaping through the small opening, Millicent pouring herself into the night.

Johnny staggered to the window and threw it full open as he shouted her name, entreating her to return.

Hesitant to approach his son with the gun still in his hand, Murdoch cautiously waited.  An outstretched arm prevented Van Helsing from moving toward Johnny.

Johnny finally turned away from the window, and as if waking from a dream seemed to see Murdoch for the first time.  “Murdoch, what . . .?” he asked, obviously confused.  He felt the gun in his hand and stared at it blankly, unsure why he held it.

Something in the corner caught his eye, and he looked over to find his brother kneeling on the floor, Sam Jenkins lying unconscious with his head cradled in Scott’s lap.

His condition deteriorating rapidly, the reality of the night’s events too daunting, his mind numbing itself with shock from the horror of remembrance, Johnny dropped the gun at his feet.  “What have I done?” he implored – and then he fainted.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Murdoch’s shock over the macabre display he had just witnessed gave way to concern for his son.  “Dr. Van Helsing, help Sam, please,” he asked as he moved to Johnny.

Van Helsing first crossed to the door and called out loudly, “Mr. Harker!  Come upstairs, quickly!”

Sam was coming around by the time Van Helsing knelt beside him.  “This is good, Dr. Jenkins . . . wake now.  But do not move too quickly,” Van Helsing advised.  He examined the head injury as Sam struggled back to consciousness and found a substantial bump and bruise blossoming at the edge of the doctor’s hairline.

“Ow!  Be careful there, man!” Jenkins groused as he lifted a hand to try and end Van Helsing’s painful probing.

“Ah . . . the physician is not a good patient, yaah?” Van Helsing teased as he continued his evaluation.  “How many of me do you see, good doctor?”

Jenkins focused on Van Helsing, and with a relieved sigh answered, “One.  And before you ask, yes, I have a headache, no, I do not feel sick, and yes, my left shoulder also hurts.”

“And now the physician treats himself, yaah,” Van Helsing replied with a glimmer of humor.  “Nevertheless, I should finish this exam for myself.”  He looked up at Scott, who still supported Sam from behind.  “You haff someplace the good doctor can take rest?”

“My room is just across the hall,” Scott suggested.

“Wait a minute,” Jenkins protested as he tried to sit up.  “What in the world happ . . .”

Sam started to rise just in time to see Murdoch carry Johnny’s limp body back to the bed.  The realization of where he was hit him hard.  “Johnny!  What happened to him?”  Jenkins fought against Scott’s firm hold.

“Settle down, Sam!  Murdoch.  How is he?”

“Same as the other times,” Murdoch replied tensely.

Jenkins had no choice but to lie back against Scott as his headache flared and he once again threatened to pass out.

Harker, Teresa, and Jelly crowded into the doorway, alarmed by the sight of Johnny unconscious on the bed, Dr. Jenkins sprawled on the floor.

“It’s all right, Sam,” Scott tried to calm him.  “Johnny let Millicent in.”  He explained as much for the benefit of the three assembled in the doorway as Doctor Jenkins.

“No . . . I . . .” Jenkins fought through his discomfort in an attempt to think straight, but his memories were halting.  “Johnny . . . he woke up.  He wanted to know why he was tied . . . he didn’t remember the fight.  I told him I was going to call for you all, so we could explain . . . and then . . . I went to the door . . . and then . . . and then . . .I don’t remember!”

Frustrated, Sam again tried to sit up.  “What happened?” he pleaded.

“Johnny let Millicent in through the window, and she attacked him,” Scott patiently explained again.

“No!”  Jenkins blurted intuitively, his thoughts and remembrances slower to acknowledge the horrible truth.  “No,” he repeated, quieter, solemn.  “Johnny was still tied.  It must have been . . . my God.  It had to have been me.  I opened the window.”

Sam Jenkins placed his hands over his face and hung his head in shame.  Scott steadied the distraught physician as Murdoch came over to crouch beside them.  “Sam, it wasn’t your fault.  Van Helsing was right about Millicent.  You couldn’t have stopped her on your own.”

“But Johnny . . .”

“Don’t do this, Sam.  If not tonight, she would have tried some other time.  We caught her . . . saw what she’s capable of.  You can’t blame yourself.”

Inconsolable, Sam kept his head bowed.  Murdoch looked to Van Helsing for guidance.

“Come doctor, let me examine you so I can see to John’s care.  Come now.”

Murdoch and Van Helsing cautiously pulled Sam to his feet.  Scott rose as well and took a firm grip on the doctor’s shoulders.  “We’ll get him settled,” Scott offered as he and Van Helsing started to lead Sam out.

“Teresa, go turn down Scott’s bed,” Murdoch requested.  His ward obeyed immediately.

“I’ll get some fresh water,” Jelly offered.

Van Helsing left Scott to support Sam as he grabbed Doctor Jenkins’ medical bag off Johnny’s night table.  He caught sight of Will still in the doorway.  “Close the window, Mr. Harker.”

Murdoch turned his attention back to Johnny.  He stared down at his son, who once again laid helpless, pale and panting for breath.  A streak of color caught his eye.  Murdoch turned Johnny’s head slightly.  There, at the edge of his mouth, was a smudge of blood.

The disturbing image of Johnny straddling Millicent flashed through Murdoch’s mind.  ‘Johnny was taking her blood,’ Murdoch remembered, the memory more than appalling – it scared him to death.  Van Helsing had already told them enough about vampirism for Murdoch to know the situation did not bode well for Johnny.

Murdoch considered the fact that the monster that repeatedly threatened Johnny had this time attacked brazenly, within the very walls of Lancer.  ‘How can I fight something that bold . . . so callous and relentless?’

Running a tired hand through his hair, Murdoch looked up and realized that Will Harker was still in the room.  The depth of his despair must have been apparent, for Will returned his gaze with a sadness of his own.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Lancer.  I am so sorry for sending this evil to your home.  I’ll do whatever I can to help.  You have my pledge.”

The man’s sincerity obvious, Murdoch nodded as his own resolve hardened.  “I want her dead, Mr. Harker.  Whatever it takes, before she returns for my son, I want her dead.”

Now it was Harker’s turn to nod as he took up Lancer’s diktat, determined to help protect his friend’s family.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Doctor Jenkins was settled into Scott’s room, properly examined, then left in Teresa’s care.  Van Helsing motioned the men to follow him out and led them back to Johnny’s room.

Van Helsing took Johnny’s pulse and listened intently to his heart, then set the stethoscope aside and faced Murdoch.  “Your son is weakened, but he lives.”

The doctor turned back toward Johnny and directed, “Look here, gentlemen.”  He shifted Johnny’s head to the side, once more revealing the bite marks on his neck.  But now the wounds looked fresh, the punctures garishly red against Johnny’s pale skin.  To Murdoch the wounds appeared as devilish eyes staring back at him, condemning him for the failure to protect his son against the beastly creature that claimed Johnny as hers.

“Millicent has fed again, infusing more of her poison into John’s blood.  But this time he has taken her blood in return.  This begins the last step in his turn . . .” With deep solemnity, Van Helsing proclaimed, “. . . his turn to vampire.”

An angry silence fell over the room, as father, brother, friend, strangers considered Johnny’s fate.

It was Murdoch who reacted first, but with a strange calmness Scott had seldom witnessed.  The father stepped up beside the bed, and reached down to pull a blanket caringly over his ill son.  He then turned to Van Helsing and said, “No.  I don’t accept that fate for my son.  You know of these things, this abomination.  Tell us everything that needs to be done, but do not tell me that my son has no chance.”

Scott couldn’t help but smile with pride as Murdoch declared, “Lancer takes care of its own, Dr. Van Helsing, and it’s about time Millicent Fairfax learned that.”

Will Harker turned toward his former schoolmate and stated, “I see now where you get your stubborn streak, Scott.”

Scott’s smile broadened as his resolve strengthened to match Murdoch’s.  “And my brother Johnny is even worse.  He won’t give up either.  My father is right, doctor.  What do we need to do to end this?”

“Very well,” Van Helsing granted.  “This last attack leaves us no time for delay.  If Millicent is allowed to feed on John one more time, she will end his life as it is now.  Then you would haff to do as I haff described – plunge a wooden stake into his heart.  Only then would he find everlasting peace.  Willingly or not, by partaking of her blood John has initiated his change to vampire.  This process can be stopped now only one way – Millicent must be killed.  As long as she is allowed to live, John will suffer a slow, painful death as his body prepares for immortality.  Millicent must die first to end her control over John.  There is no other way.”

“Then we kill her.”  Scott’s blunt declaration echoed everyone’s thoughts.  “What’s our plan of attack?”

“Millicent is cunning, and she will be wary now.  But her weakness is her desire for John.  It is rare for vampires to add to their numbers . . . their safety is protected by their discretion.  Millicent is now as much John’s victim as he is hers.  She will not stop until they can be together forever.

“It is too dangerous to search for her during the night.  Scott . . . Mr. Lancer . . . you haff seen her powers.  Her abilities.  To seek her now would mean your own deaths, and that would prove no service to John.

“By tomorrow morning she will haff abandoned her home.  Most likely she has already established places to hide, where she can feel safe during the day.  Do not be mistaken however . . . a vampire can move about in the sunlight, but their powers are weak and they must keep to the shadows.  It is only direct exposure to the sun that can kill them.  Remain on guard at all times.

“We will go to her house to look for clues to where she may hide, then destroy it so she can never return there to seek refuge.  We must work quickly during the day to find her.  John has but one night, perhaps two before she returns.  We can use her eagerness to be with him against her!  She will not go far, and that aids our search.”

“Scott, we’ll need help,” Murdoch built on Van Helsing’s strategy.  “But we have to be careful who we tell.  The last thing we need is anyone thinking we’ve all suddenly gone insane.”

“Cipriano, Frank, Jake, and a few of the other men would do anything for Johnny, without questions.”

“Good.  Start with them.  First thing in the morning I want Teresa and Sam out of here.  We don’t need them caught in the middle of any fight.  Take Sam back to town.  Have Teresa stay with Maria.”

“They ain’t gonna wanna go,” Jelly put in.

“I don’t care if you have to drag them away kicking and screaming . . . make it happen!”

Jelly ignored Murdoch’s outburst.  He knew it had nothing to do with him and everything to do with concern for Johnny and the whole unbelievable situation that cast a growing shadow over Lancer.

Scott pushed passed the moment as well.  “Who will stay with Johnny?”

“During the day, me,” Murdoch answered firmly, but with an afterthought added, “Jelly, I could use your help, too.  I want everyone else looking for Millicent.  When you find her, those two bodyguards of hers will surely fight to the death to protect her.  You’ll need every man you can get.

“Dr. Van Helsing.”

“Mr. Lancer?”

“I want you to know that I’m grateful for your help.  My son . . .”  Murdoch looked over at Johnny as an unexpected wave of emotions flowed through him.

Van Helsing sighed and nodded knowingly.  “I understand, Mr. Lancer.  I, too, have a son Millicent has threatened.  But I was fortunate, and was able to drive her away from Abraham before she could take him from me.  You can be assured, for that reason I fight now for John as if he were my own son.  I will help you find her.”

“Thank you.”  Murdoch regained control.  “Now tell me what’s going to happen to Johnny, so you can all get some rest.  We need to be prepared . . . it’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Dawn came too soon, and real rest proved elusive to them all, as anticipation for the hunt swelled.

The day started with a flurry of activities.  Scott and Jelly went out to gather help for the search.  They identified eight tried and true men willing to go along without question.  Six other men were set as lookouts around the hacienda, merely told that Johnny was in danger and they were to stop anyone from entering.  Two men were assigned to escort Teresa and Sam away from Lancer.

Van Helsing had Harker help him gather defenses for Johnny’s bedroom.

They found Maria already in the kitchen, having arrived early as usual to prepare the Lancer’s breakfast.  Johnny’s “illness” was discreetly explained, in prelude to the request to shelter Teresa away from the ranch house.  The housekeeper was obviously greatly relieved.

“It is this sickness that makes my Juanito so angry?” she asked.

“Yaah,” Van Helsing confirmed, reading between the lines, her affection for the young man apparent.  “He has been angry with you?”

Maria merely hung her head in affirmation, unable to speak even one word against Johnny.

“Do not worry.  His anger was not meant.  Not his to control.  But this is why Miss O’Brien can no longer stay here until John is once again well.  You will look to her care?”

“Sí!”

Maria proved helpful in gathering most of the items used to make Johnny’s room a fortress against Millicent.  The kitchen’s entire supply of garlic was collected.  Half was placed around the bedroom window, which Harker had nailed shut.  The rest of the garlic bulbs were strung together into two garlands and hung from Johnny’s headboard.  The talismans took the place of his gun.  The weapon was moved all the way to Murdoch’s room for safety.

Van Helsing tried to leave the bindings in place as well, but Murdoch yanked them from around the bed, wadded them all up and threw them into a corner.  “I will not tie my son down again,” he insisted.

Blessed crosses were placed about the room.  The doorframe was anointed with holy water.  The mirrors from both Scott and Teresa’s bedrooms were hung in Johnny’s room.  “Vampires do not like them,” was Van Helsing’s simple explanation.

Lastly, Van Helsing reminded them all that, although bullets could not harm Millicent, they would be effective against her bodyguards.  Murdoch strapped on his holster and Jelly stationed a shotgun nearby in the hallway.

Johnny’s room prepared, Scott and the other men ready to ride, Van Helsing issued one final warning to Murdoch and Jelly.  “Do not let your son’s weakness and ill health blind you with compassion.  You must be wary.  John’s mind as well as body will be changing now, and he will not be able to control all his impulses.  He may say, or do, things that will be hurtful to you.  You must be strong.  For John’s sake, we all must remain strong.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

During the night Johnny had been dressed in a nightshirt and examined repeatedly, but he did not wake until mid-morning.  As he struggled to awareness, Murdoch sent Jelly from the room so he could talk to his son alone.

Johnny forced himself awake and immediately rose and peered frantically toward the corner of the room.  “Is Sam okay?  Where is he?”

“He’s okay, son.  Lie back.”  Murdoch reinforced his request with a firm push on Johnny’s shoulders.  Still weak, Johnny had to comply.  He took in a couple of deep breaths in relief, and then lifted a tired hand to his eyes, attempting but failing to rub away the disturbing memories of the night.

Johnny looked across his room, to the window once again draped against the daylight . . . the window Millicent had used to come to him, to tempt him, to seduce him into releasing his malice so he could follow her into darkness.

Murdoch mistook Johnny’s sorrowful expression.  “You remember how Sam was hurt?”

“I remember everything this time, Murdoch.  Everything.”

Murdoch prepared for the worst, determined to listen without judgment.  “What do you remember?  It’s important.”

Johnny began with a suspicious apathy.  “Sam closed the door.  And then for some reason he opened the window.  I tried to get him to stop . . . there was this mist outside the window, and somehow I knew, I just knew it was Millicent.  How can that be, Murdoch?”  He grew anxious.

“Take it easy, Johnny.  Just keep telling me what you remember.”

“He wouldn’t listen to me . . . Sam, he opened the window, and it was if somethin’ threw him.  He got knocked out.  Is he all right?”

“He’s fine.  Don’t worry . . . Sam’s going to be just fine.  What happened next?”

“Millicent . . . she . . .” He couldn’t bring himself to describe how the mist had touched him . . . how it had made him feel.  “She . . .” Johnny’s hand slapped against his neck.  “She bit me.  Dios . . . what the hell is she?”

“What happened next, Johnny?”  Murdoch pressed, needing to know just how much Johnny remembered before he could explain.

He thought it would be harder to confess, but an emotional dam burst and the words tumbled out of Johnny in a rush.  “She said she wanted me . . . wanted us to be together.  That I was gonna have to drink . . . her blood . . . so we could be together forever.  She said she wanted someone who could be evil, Murdoch!  It was like she was looking right into me right into my heart and my soul and she saw what I been and that’s what she wanted cause that’s what she was . . . evil . . . like me!  And I shouldn’t be afraid ‘cause I’d have power and all I had to do was want her and take her and I did!”

He rolled over, unable to face his father, and cried out, “Dios, Murdoch.  What did I do?  What did I do?”

“Johnny, listen to me.  You have to get hold of yourself and listen.  I’m going to tell you what I know, and it’s not going to be easy to believe.  I’m glad you finally remember what Millicent’s been doing to you, because it’ll make it easier for you to believe.  And you have to believe, Johnny, because you’re going to have to help us fight her.  Do you understand?  I’m not ashamed of what you did, Johnny.  You didn’t have a choice . . . you think you did, but you didn’t.  Listen to me close, now.”

Murdoch forced Johnny to roll back over and carefully watched his reactions as he slowly recounted the unfathomable events from the last twenty-four hours.  He told him about Harker and Van Helsing, and why they had come.  He told him about vampires, explaining about their need for blood, their amazing powers and aversion to sunlight.  Most importantly, Murdoch stressed that he believed in vampires, because he had seen with his own eyes the horrible affects of Millicent’s attacks on Johnny, and how she had been able to turn herself into a mist to effect her escape.  What proved hardest of all for Murdoch was having to explain what was going to happen to Johnny if they didn’t catch Millicent.

“We’re not going to let her take you, son.  Scott, Harker, Van Helsing and some of our men are out looking for her now.”

Johnny had grown unusually quiet and introspective as Murdoch talked.  He faced his father with a wry smile.  “I finally did it, didn’t I Murdoch?  All that time I spent teasin’ the devil, he finally found a way to take me.  I’m damned now.  Ain’t I?”

“No.”  Murdoch was more than adamant, he was angry.  “No, you are not.  But you are a disappointment to me, Johnny.  Do you have so little faith in Scott that he won’t find Millicent and kill her?  Do you not trust me to protect you?”

“It’s got nothin’ to do with you or Scott!  It’s me who drew this trouble.  I don’t want no one else between me an’ Millicent.  People get hurt there, Murdoch!”

“And we accept that risk, Johnny.  If she were after Scott you’d do the same thing.  Johnny, you only have to answer us one question, and we’ll take that risk.  Do you want what Millicent is offering?  Deep in your heart and soul, do you want it?”

“No!  But . . .”

“No ‘buts’ Johnny!  You’re going to fight her . . . we’re going to fight her.  And we’re going to beat her.  Do you believe that?”

It took a long time for Johnny to answer . . . so long that Murdoch was compelled to ask again.  “Johnny, do you believe that we are going to beat her?”

“Yes,” he finally agreed.  “One way or another.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny told Murdoch he was too tired to talk more, and fell back asleep.

Murdoch was left unnerved by the conversation, uncertain how his son really felt about the explanation of Millicent’s nature.  Johnny had grown quiet . . . too quiet.  That usually meant he was either brooding or he’d made up his mind about something.  That’s what troubled Murdoch – because when Johnny made up his mind about something, there was little chance of changing his decision.  Not sure if Johnny was thinking clearly in his condition, Murdoch hoped his son wasn’t considering anything rash.

Johnny slept soundly for about an hour.  After barely moving, his head began tossing back and forth, slowly at first, then with more agitation.  When Johnny grimaced in his sleep, Murdoch called downstairs for Jelly.

Van Helsing had warned them, but seeing the worsening effects of Millicent’s foul touch was difficult to view.  The men were tempted to wake Johnny when he groaned and tossed about more violently, but they held off as instructed.  When Johnny clutched at his stomach and chest and gasped for air, Murdoch shook him until he woke.

Johnny immediately curled himself into a ball, holding his abdomen.

“What’s happening, son?”

Between panted breaths, Johnny described, “Feels like my insides wanna be outside.”

“You gonna be sick?” Jelly asked.

“No . . .” Johnny answered with a gasp, then rolled onto his back and tried to sit up.  “Feel like . . . bein’ ripped up . . . oh . . . Murdoch . . . what . . .”

He couldn’t finish, couldn’t spit out more than one word between the spasms of pain that were rippling through his body, making his skin crawl, his nerves tingle, his muscles weak.  Johnny felt out of control, like he was falling apart from within and all the pieces were going to explode out of him.

Johnny fell back onto the bed and curled back into a ball, literally trying to hold himself together.

The two older men shared a solemn look.  They’d both hoped Van Helsing had exaggerated, that Johnny might wake up with little more wrong than the weakness and headaches he’d had before.  Johnny’s suffering was a rude confirmation of the foreign doctor’s dire warnings.  The reality could no longer be ignored – Johnny was becoming vampire.

Murdoch placed a knee on the bed so he could lean over Johnny.  He grasped his shoulders and gently pulled him upright to rest against him.  “Hold on, son.  We’ll give you something to help.”

Jelly stepped over to the dresser and brought back a dose of laudanum.  He handed the glass off to Murdoch who put it to Johnny’s lips.  “Drink this.”

Johnny managed a sip before he pulled away.   “No . . . can’t . . . don’t . . .”

“Stop it, Johnny.”  Murdoch handed the glass back to Jelly to free both his hands to steady his son’s head.  “It’ll help.  Drink it.”

As Murdoch cupped his son’s chin, Jelly put the glass to Johnny’s lips.  He allowed the bitter liquid to be poured into his mouth, coughing a little as the last drop settled in his throat.

“Good, son.  Lie down now.”

Instead Johnny leaned back and curled into Murdoch’s chest, rolling over slightly to weakly grip his father’s arm.  Surprised by the gesture, Murdoch placed a hand on Johnny’s back and relaxed down onto the bed so he could sit on the edge and pull Johnny in closer.

Johnny moaned and shifted as he buried his head further into Murdoch’s arms.  Unsure what else he could do that would help Murdoch rubbed Johnny’s back in circles.  “Try to sleep, son.  Try to sleep,” he crooned until, finally, Johnny did.

“He’s asleep, Murdoch,” Jelly whispered from nearby, ready to lend a hand.

“I know,” Murdoch said, but he couldn’t bring himself to lay Johnny back onto the bed, to give up his hold, to let him go.

“It’s gonna be okay, boss.  Johnny’ll be okay . . . you’ll see.”

Murdoch wanted to agree, but he couldn’t get himself to voice the words.  Despite all his resolve, it was getting harder and harder to believe Johnny was really going to be all right.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

The laudanum only worked for a couple of hours.  After that Johnny again slept fitfully.  The painful spasms attacked him less often, but remained intense.

From his sentinel chair pulled beside the bed, Murdoch watched intently as Johnny pawed at his throat, his breathing increasingly labored.  He woke, sat up slowly, and looked around, anxious and confused.  “What’s that smell?”

Murdoch stood.  “Jelly just brought me some fresh coffee . . . do you want some?”

“No!”  Johnny searched tensely.  “What the hell is that?”

“Settle dow. . .”

“Get that shit off my bed!”  He’d twisted around and found the strings of garlic on his headboard, tossed aside his covers and scuttled back away from them.  “Get it off!”

“Johnny, they have to stay . . .”

Johnny kneeled on the bed to shout right at Murdoch.  “I said get ’em off, dammit!”

“No.  They . . .”

Johnny lunged forward and tore at the garlands meant to help protect him.  He threw the garlic around the room, headless of where it landed.

Ducking low, Murdoch dodged the first handful of bulbs.  He rose up and grabbed for Johnny’s hands.  It took him a moment to get hold of the flailing limbs.  He seized Johnny by the wrists and pulled him around to face him.  “Stop it, Johnny!  It’s there to help you!”

“I can’t breathe!”  Johnny tugged frantically away from Murdoch, trying to wrench himself free.

The older man held fast and drew Johnny forward.  He twisted him around and switched to a strong bear hug around his chest to pin his arms to his sides.  “Johnny, settle down!”

Jelly responded to the shouting and hurried through the door.  “Murdoch?”

“Get the laudanum!” Murdoch barked as he fought against Johnny’s struggles.  He was having a hard time keeping his footing, so used his weight and leaned over Johnny, nearly doubling him over on top of the bed.

“Johnny, I want you to settle down now.  The garlic is to keep Millicent away.  It’s to fight Millicent.”

“Can’t breathe . . . take it away!”  Johnny was clearly tiring, but not giving up.

“You’ll be fine, Johnny.  Relax . . . stop fighting me.”

Jelly came up beside the pair with a dose of the calming narcotic and tapped Murdoch on the shoulder.

“Johnny, I’m going to let you up, and I want you to drink this.”  Murdoch nodded for Jelly to get ready, then pulled Johnny upright.

Johnny saw the telltale liquid in the glass and turned his head.  “Don’t want it . . .”

Murdoch put his lips close to Johnny’s ear, and crooned softly.  “Johnny, listen to me.  You’re going to be okay.  You need to settle down.  You can breathe just fine.  Just relax.”

“Don’t want to sleep.”  Johnny shook his head weakly, the fight oozing out of him with the last of his energy.

“You’ll be fine, son.  Drink up now.  I’ll be here with you.  Drink.”

Jelly held the glass to Johnny’s lips.  He gave in and drank the liquid down.

“That’s it, son.  That’s it . . . You’ll be fine . . .” Murdoch kept up a calming murmur, until Johnny once again fell asleep in his arms.

“What happened, boss?” Jelly whispered.

“He had trouble breathing, woke up and started ripping away the garlic.  He couldn’t stand the garlic, Jelly . . .” Murdoch seemed in a daze.

There wasn’t anything to say that would change the truth of the matter, so Jelly simply set about straightening Johnny’s mangled bedding.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Jelly sat with Johnny and took notice when he began to shiver in his sleep.  The old handyman moved the blanket up higher over his young friend’s shoulders.  Johnny turned onto his side, grabbed a fistful of the blanket and pulled it tight under his chin.

 

A few minutes later Johnny’s eyelids fluttered and finally opened fully.  Jelly prepared to call for Murdoch if Johnny got violent again, but the ill man gave no indication of trying to move.

“Hey there, Johnny.”  Jelly gave him a smile.

“Hey,” Johnny greeted back wearily.  “‘M cold.”  He pulled the blanket tighter.

Jelly was on his feet right away.  “I can fix that.”  He crossed over to Johnny’s dresser and pulled another blanket out of a large bottom drawer.  He brought it back to the bed and draped it over Johnny carefully.  “How’s that?”

“Still cold . . .” he sighed.

“Want me ta get ya another blanket?”

“You been a . . . good friend.  Take . . . care ‘a my family . . . will ya?”  Johnny shivered again and pulled the second blanket under his chin.

“You kin take care ‘a yer own family, Johnny.  You ain’t goin’ nowhere . . . an’ you know it!”  Jelly’s blunt encouragement was nothing but a front to cover his fear.  Johnny looked and sounded done in, spiritless, broken.

“‘M cold,” Johnny repeated, then closed his eyes and fell back asleep.

Jelly stared down at Johnny, feeling desperate.  He just couldn’t believe the young man he’d come to think of almost as a son might be lost to him.  Lost to them all.

“How is he?”

Jelly jumped at Murdoch’s sudden appearance.  The old man glanced toward the door, then quickly turned away and snaked a hand up the length of his body so he could flick a migrant tear off his cheek without Johnny’s father noticing.

“Woke up fer a minute . . . said he was cold, so I gave ‘im another blanket.  Went right back ta sleep.”

Jelly backed off a step as Murdoch walked over and sat in the chair beside Johnny’s bed.  He leaned forward and placed the back of his hand gently against his son’s forehead.  His calm attention became frantic as he stood and reseated himself on the bed, his hand pressing against Johnny’s cheek.  “My God, his skin is cold.”

He reached under the blanket and uncurled Johnny’s hand from the cloth to sandwich it between his own.  Murdoch’s panic increased.  He tossed the blanket aside and rolled Johnny over, placing a hand on his chest.

Jelly stood beside Murdoch and matched his dread.  Johnny’s chest didn’t seem to be moving.

It took both men almost half a minute before they were convinced that he still lived.  Their relief was complete when Johnny rolled back onto his side and groped again for the covers.  He snagged one and drew it closer, never really waking.

Murdoch heaved in a breath.  With a shaking hand he reached over and grabbed hold of the second blanket to finish covering Johnny.  “I thought he was dead, Jelly.  I can’t lose him.  Not so young.  Not after all . . .”

“I know.”  Johnny’s fateful request to take care of his family haunted Jelly as he placed a consoling hand on Murdoch’s shoulder.  “I know.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

With only ten minutes to spare until dusk, Scott and the rest of the soot and dust-covered search party rode under the Lancer arch.  The hands headed toward the bunkhouses.  Cipriano followed Scott, Harker and Van Helsing through the courtyard to the hacienda.  Scott and Harker dismounted.  Both moved quickly to Van Helsing to help him dismount while Cip wrangled the horses.

“Ah, thank you, gentlemen.  It has been a long time since I haff ridden so far in one day.”  The younger men supported Van Helsing as his knees buckled once down on firm ground.

“I will care for the horses,” Cipriano offered.

“Thanks, Cip,” Scott said.  “Make sure the guards get changed out and doubled up for the night, then get some sleep.  We start out again at sunrise.”

“Sí.”

Jelly opened the front door and came out onto the porch.  “’bout time you got back.  Murdoch was worried you’d get caught by the dark.”

“How’s Johnny?” Scott asked as they led Van Helsing forward.

Jelly paused, choosing his words.  “He had a rough day.”

Van Helsing could feel Scott’s hand tense on his arm.  “Go to your brahther, Scott.  I will follow as I can.”

With a grateful nod, Scott left Van Helsing in Harker’s care and practically ran into the house.  He took the stairs two at a time, and with long strides was quickly at Johnny’s bedroom.

Scott pulled his hat off as he entered and crossed to the bed.  Murdoch rose to greet him, but Scott’s eyes were firmly fixed on Johnny.

“Thank God you’re home, son.  Did you find her?”

“No,” Scott answered quietly, his concerns more immediate.  “How is he?”

Murdoch took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “He’s changing, Scott.  Just like Van Helsing described.  I had a chance to talk to him before it started, so he knows about Millicent . . . about what he can expect.”

“How’d he take it?”

“He got very quiet.”

Scott shared a knowing look with Murdoch, understanding that particular reaction from Johnny was never very encouraging.

“Is everyone okay?  Where’s Van Helsing?  I’d like him to look at Johnny.”

“Everyone’s all right.  The doctor will be along . . . the riding was hard on him today, but he says he’s fine.”

“Yaah, I am well,” Van Helsing confirmed as he entered the room, Dr. Jenkins’ borrowed medical bag in hand.  “I will not sit much this evening, but I live.”

The Lancers made room next to the bed for the doctor, who retrieved the stethoscope before handing the bag off to Scott.  Van Helsing sat down, pulled the blankets low on Johnny’s chest and proceeded with the exam.  He looked at his eyes and took his pulse.  He seemed to listen to Johnny’s heart for a very long time, which only multiplied Murdoch and Scott’s uneasiness.  Finally Van Helsing laid the stethoscope on the bed and picked up Johnny’s left hand.  He cradled it in his own for a few moments before he laid it back down gently and pulled the covers back up.

“Has John had anything to eat or drink today?” Van Helsing asked while staring at Johnny.

“No,” Murdoch answered.  “We were even hard pressed to get him to take some laudanum.”

Van Helsing picked up the stethoscope and, with a growing stiffness, stood to face the Lancer men.  “His body is dying . . . I am sorry.  John’s heartbeat slows.  His blood is turning cold.  He no longer requires normal food or drink.  The change to vampire is progressing as I anticipated.  His only chance now for salvation is Millicent’s death.”

Scott set the medical bag down onto the bedside table, tossed his hat roughly into the corner by the door, and started pacing in frustration.  “If only we could search at night.  We found tracks, Murdoch.  Good tracks.  We should have kept looking.”

“Johnny is already worried about someone getting hurt because of him.”  Murdoch stepped into Scott’s path and stopped his restless movement.  “I know you did the best you could.  You’ll pick up the trail in the morning.  Please don’t start blaming yourself for this.  We’ll find Millicent.  We will stop her.”

Scott absorbed his father’s confidence, and nodded.

“Go get cleaned up, son.  Jelly’ll have dinner ready soon.  We’ll take turns watching Johnny for the night.”  Murdoch placed his strong hands on Scott’s shoulders.  “We’ll get through this, Scott.  Don’t lose heart.  For Johnny’s sake, we have to stay strong.”

Once more Scott accepted Murdoch’s assurances and nodded in agreement.

“Mr. Lancer,” Van Helsing said.  “During the night when Millicent can move freely, there should be two with John at all times.  I still feel the sway of the saddle, so could not eat just yet.  Please . . . ask Mr. Harker to join me.  Let us watch over John so you can dine with Scott.  He can tell you of our day.”

Murdoch considered Van Helsing’s offer.  “Thank you, Doctor.  That’s a good suggestion.  But please . . . go get cleaned up first.  We can go downstairs after you’re ready.”

“That would be wise.”  Van Helsing pulled at his jacket.  “I am afraid we all have the scent of Millicent’s burned house about us.  It would be good to wash her stench away.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Scott and Murdoch sat down to dinner with Jelly.  They forced themselves to eat, but actually tasted little of the food.

Murdoch gave Scott a brief description of Johnny’s day.  He refused to go into much detail, knowing it would be hard on Scott to hear of his brother’s suffering.  But the father’s evasiveness only served to annoy Scott.

Unfortunately Scott’s report of his day wasn’t much more encouraging.  They’d found Millicent’s house abandoned as expected, and made a thorough search.  But they found little in the way of clues as to where the vampire might have taken up hiding.  The carriage and saddle horses were missing, but some of the horses and a buckboard remained.  Scott had the animals freed, then the barn and house set aflame.  Cipriano had led them on a trail of some promising tracks, but insisted they stop looking just in time to get back to Lancer before dusk.  The search party planned to pick up the trail where they’d left off in the morning.

“Cip thinks they were headed toward those caves near Coyote Bluff,” Scott explained.  “Millicent would have good cover there during the day, and it keeps her close to Lancer.”

“There are a lot of caves there to search,” Murdoch said, laying down his fork.

“I know,” Scott replied.  He gave up on his meal as well.  “It could take the whole day to search all of them if we don’t find any clear signs in the area.”

The bleakness of the situation coated the heavy silence that had descended over the great room.

“Better go send them others down ta eat,” Jelly suggested as he began to clear away their plates.  “I’ll get ‘em fed.”

“Put another pot of coffee on, too,” Murdoch requested as he stood and headed out.

“Make it strong,” Scott added as he followed his father up the stairs.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

The Lancers found Johnny agitated, tossing restlessly in his sleep.  Van Helsing stood near the bed.  Harker peered one last time out of a corner of the window and then closed the curtains firmly.

“How long since his last dose of the laudanum?” Van Helsing asked as Murdoch stepped beside him.

“About three hours,” Murdoch replied.

“Millicent calls to him.”  Van Helsing glanced contemptuously toward the window.  “The witch will not let him rest this night.  She dares us to try and find her in the darkness.  But we are too smart for this . . . are we not, Scott?”

Scott took his eyes off Johnny and glared at Van Helsing from the other side of the bed.  The man had read his mind . . . but then, with a deep anger coloring his face, he had been easy to interpret.  Scott took a steadying breath and let his temper drain.

“Make John take some laudanum when he wakes.  It will help calm him.  Come, Mr. Harker.”  Van Helsing headed toward the door.  “Our time for dinner, yaah?”

“Yes,” Scott said, as Murdoch took up the seat by the bed.  “Jelly is waiting for you.”

“Good, good.  Remain vigilant, gentlemen.  This will be a difficult night.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Scott pulled another chair into Johnny’s room, ready to wait out the night.  But he found himself unable to sit still as he watched his brother toss and turn.  Murdoch sat in the chair next to the bed, hunched over, head down, only occasionally glancing up to check on his son.  To Scott, he had the look of a guilty man.

“It’s not your fault.”

Only when Murdoch looked back at him did Scott realize he’d actually spoken aloud.

“I know,” Murdoch said, but his penitent demeanor told another story.

Johnny suddenly opened his eyes, and despite an obvious weakness, struggled to sit up.  Scott moved to stand behind Murdoch.

“Settle back, son.”  Murdoch pushed on Johnny’s shoulders, but he just rolled to the side, threw off his covers, and continued in his efforts.

“Lemme alone,” Johnny grumbled as he slid off the other side of the bed.

Murdoch stood as Scott rounded the bed.  After only a couple of steps Johnny’s knees buckled, and he would have fallen except for his brother’s steadying hand.  “Johnny, you need to get back in bed,” Scott encouraged.

“No,” Johnny said and pushed Scott’s hand off his arm as he stumbled toward the window.

Murdoch headed him off and set himself in his son’s path.

“Get out of my way, old man,” Johnny threatened even as he swayed on unsteady feet.

“Johnny, you’re going back to bed.”

“No I ain’t!”  Johnny punctuated his defiance with a firm push on Murdoch’s chest.  But when Murdoch didn’t budge, Johnny rocked backward from his own momentum, right into Scott, who caught him again before he could fall.

“That’s enough,” Scott demanded.

“Get the hell offa me!”  Johnny twisted himself free from Scott’s grip and backed up against the wall.  “You got no right to keep me here.”

Johnny looked like a cornered animal.  His eyes kept a wary watch on Murdoch and Scott even as they darted between the window and door, hunting for escape.

Scott hated the change in his brother.  Usually strong and confident, Johnny now appeared weak and confused.

Keeping his voice calm and deliberate, Scott backed off a step and tried a less defensive strategy.  “Johnny, you don’t have to go back to bed, but you can’t leave this room.  Remember what Murdoch told you about Millicent?  We know she’s calling to you.  She wants you to come to her.  But I don’t believe you really want to go.  Isn’t that right?”

Johnny didn’t exactly calm, but he did seem to reconsider the situation.  He looked slowly from Scott to Murdoch, then toward the door.

The window drew Johnny’s closest attention.  He stared at the drawn drapes as if he could see right through them.  The longer he stared, the more agitated he became.  His teeth clenched tightly and his breathing quickened.  His eyes closed tightly as he raised his left hand to press the palm against his temple.  “I . . . She . . .” Johnny’s head bowed as his hand pressed harder against his head.

Murdoch stepped forward to stand next to Scott.  “That’s it, son. I know it’s hard, but you have to fight her.  She can’t get in here, so she needs you to go to her.  We’re not going to let that happen, are we, Johnny?”

The bowed head shook no, even as Johnny took a step forward.  “I . . . I . . .”

“You what, Johnny?  What do you need?” Murdoch asked.

“I want . . . I want to get dressed.”

Murdoch and Scott shared a look as they considered Johnny’s request.  With a nod, Murdoch faced Johnny as Scott headed to the dresser.

“You can do that, son.  Do you need help?”

Johnny looked up quickly, his eyes dark with resentment.  “No.”

“Fine,” Scott allowed as he pulled clothing out of the dresser.  He pitched long john bottoms, a shirt and a pair of pants onto the bed and then casually crossed to the chair he’d brought into the room and sat down, avoiding any sign of confrontation.

Murdoch picked up on Scott’s lead and searched the room for anything else that might distract Johnny.  He crossed to a small table next to the dresser.  “There’s coffee.  Want a cup?”

“Yeah,” Johnny answered, more out of habit than desire.  He glanced once toward the window before pointedly looking away, determined to ignore Millicent’s cloying summons.

Johnny slowly made his way over to the bed and began to dress.  Father and brother gave him a moment of privacy while he pulled on the long johns, but as Johnny removed the nightshirt and tossed it onto the bed, Scott and Murdoch couldn’t help but look.  The changes to his appearance had progressed slowly, but it was starkly apparent how little Johnny had been able to eat since Millicent’s first attack.  His face had grown gaunt and his always-lean body now appeared positively wasted by the malnourishment and inactivity.  Neither man commented on Johnny’s condition, simply let him finish dressing.

Johnny managed to button the shirt, but left it un-tucked.  He ran a hand through his hair and then just stood still.  It seemed like he didn’t know what to do next, so Murdoch took a couple of steps forward and held out a mug of coffee.  The hand that received it was steady enough, but Johnny stared at the contents like he’d just been given a cup of poison.  “Never mind,” he said as he passed the coffee back.

As the hand made another pass through dark disheveled hair, Scott suggested, “There’s fresh water if you want to clean up.  You could use a shave, brother.”

That familiar look of resentment shadowed Johnny’s eyes again, but with a deep controlling breath, he merely nodded and crossed to the washstand.  He had to use both hands to lift the pitcher to pour water into the washbowl.  Johnny rolled his sleeves back then ducked his head down to splash water over his face.  He straightened as he ran his wet hands through his hair.  He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror on the wall above the washstand and abruptly looked away, disgusted by his own image . . . and something deeper.

Johnny grabbed the towel roughly off the side of the stand and ran it indifferently over his face as he stepped away – only to be confronted by another mirror newly hung over his dresser.

“Who the hell put that there?” Johnny practically shouted as he flung the towel at it.   Facing Murdoch he demanded, “Take it down.”

“No,” Murdoch answered evenly.  “It’s there to fight Millicent.”

“And what about me?” Johnny shouted in earnest.  “Don’t I get a say?”

“No, son.  I’m sorry, but you don’t.  If the mirrors make you uncomfortable, don’t look at them.  But we can’t take them down.  Jelly’ll be up in a bit . . . I’m sure he’d be happy to give you a shave.”

“I can do my own shaving!”  Johnny paced, once more behaving like an animal trapped in a too small cage.  He spotted one of the crosses Van Helsing had placed on another wall, and felt nauseous.

“Johnny, you need to settle down.  There’s laudanum if . . .”

“I ain’t takin’ any more of that stuff.  I don’t need any more sleep!”  He took a step toward the door.  Scott rose and blocked his path.

“Get out of my way.”

The threat palpable, Scott set himself for a fight.

Johnny grimaced and his left hand rose to press once more against his temple.  “Lemme by.”  A trace of pleading underlay Johnny’s demand, but Scott didn’t budge.  “I can’t stay here no more!”

“You can’t leave, Johnny.”

Johnny rounded angrily on his father.  “What do you expect me to do shut up in here all night?  You got it so I can barely breathe.  Can’t even look at the walls without feelin’ sick!  Just what do you want me to do, Murdoch?”

“I want you to fight, Johnny!  We can’t defend the whole house.  Millicent wants you to leave here . . . to make it easy for her to get to you.  Is that what you want?”

“No!  But she won’t – shut – up!”  Johnny’s hands covered his ears as he sank to his knees.  “She’s all I can hear!”

Murdoch waved Scott off as he crossed to Johnny.  His back and knees protested as he knelt in front of his son.  He grabbed Johnny’s hands and pulled them away from his head, demanding attention with a swift jerk.  “Then we’ll give you something else to listen to.  I never told you what it was like in Scotland.  What it was like for me growing up.  Or how rough the ship’s crossing was when I came to America.  Do you want to hear about that, son?”

The men stared at each other, Johnny desperate for relief, Murdoch begging his son not to give up.  Johnny nodded vehemently.

And so the night went.  Murdoch’s stories were told until he was hoarse.  Then Scott took over.  He spoke of the harsh winters in New England . . . of watching the whaling ships pulling in and out of Boston harbor . . . what it was like to cross the country by train and stagecoach to reach Lancer.

Jelly and Van Helsing sat the next shift with Johnny, and eagerly took up the salutary litany.  While Jelly gave Johnny that promised shave, he distracted his young friend with stories of his own adventures over the years – the various jobs he’d held, the friends he’d known and lost, the mischief he’d caused and the fun he’d had doing it.  Only preliminarily introduced, Van Helsing took his turn by further explaining who he was and why he was there.   That information seemed to merely agitate Johnny, so the doctor instead spoke of his homeland.  He described the dunes and dikes that dotted the countryside, connecting the many waterways of the Netherlands while protecting the land from flooding.  He helped Johnny imagine a country filled with windmills and flowers called tulips.  He spoke of his own son, Abraham, a promising young doctor with a temperament much like Johnny’s.

Scott came back to spell the others, this time with his friend, Will.  It was Harker who drew the most interest from Johnny.  After another cursory introduction, Johnny barely looked at the man.  But he listened raptly to Harker’s description of how he and Scott had grown up together.  How they had gone to school together.  How they had been separated in different units during the war, only to be reunited while finishing their studies at Harvard.  Learning about Scott’s youth proved the most successful diversion for Johnny, engaging his attention as he soaked in every detail of his brother’s life before they’d met.

The torrent of words was an effective weapon against Millicent’s beckoning, but it was a struggle for Johnny to concentrate.  With two voices constantly battling in his mind, Millicent’s merciless call threatened to drive Johnny mad.  Their bond was closer than ever now, and Millicent could have commanded Johnny to come to her, forcing another physical confrontation.  But she seemed content to merely torture Johnny with an unrelenting drone of beseeching entreaties and lecherous promises that further weakened his will.

Through every tale Johnny rarely spoke himself.  He sat.  He paced.  He crouched.  He knelt.  He stood or sat huddled on the floor in the corner, staring at the baseboards or ceiling, pointedly avoiding the walls littered with the now repulsive array of mirrors and crosses.  He took one of the strips of sheeting that had been used to tie him in his hands, and began to pull it apart, one thread at a time.  By morning there was one less binding but a sizeable pile of useless string.

Murdoch and Van Helsing entered just before sunrise.  Scott and Will left to get ready for a new day of searching, while Jelly prepared breakfast.

Johnny was clearly both mentally and physically exhausted and, as dawn broke, finally crawled onto the bed without a word and fell asleep.  Van Helsing examined him, and then faced Murdoch.  “John will sleep deeply throughout the day.  He follows the needs of the vampire now, and will not stir until the sun descends.  At that time you must be alert, Mr. Lancer.  John has shown amazing self-control, but his body will betray him.  Millicent is a cruel seductress.  She will know that he is ready for the final transformation.

“I understand it will be not be easy, but you must reconsider tying John once again.  The night just past was difficult . . . the night to come will be worse.  It is your decision.  Consider it wisely.”

Minutes later Murdoch sat in the chair by the bed.  He stared at his son as a muted murmur of men’s voices floated up to Johnny’s room from the courtyard.  A sudden cacophonous burst of galloping hooves was swiftly followed by a melancholy silence.

‘Find her, Scott.  Please find her.’

 

L L L L L L L L

 

The search party rode straight to the area where they had stopped the afternoon before.  Cipriano had been right – the tracks led to the caves at Coyote Bluff.  The men worked in three teams, but it still took them almost until noon to cover the entire area.

The discovery of carriage tracks raised everyone’s expectations.  With hopeful fervor the men followed the new trail until it ended abruptly near the long abandoned Renfield mines.  An old miner had gone insane over the years, searching for a golden mother load that never was there to begin with.  He left behind a labyrinth of tunnels that had myriad entrances stretched over a good half-mile.

The search party again split into teams to scour the area.  Scott and Harker finally found fresh signs of mounted horses, but additional carriage tracks remained elusive.  The sun had reached its zenith and was beginning its maddening descent for the day.  Scott’s escalating concern was evident in an increasing tension as he conferred with Cipriano and Van Helsing on the important decision of where to search next.

Harker watched Scott closely.  He was worried about his friend.  He knew what lay in store for Johnny if Millicent succeeded.  In revenge Scott would surely hunt her down and kill her, no matter how long that might take.  What then of Johnny?  Turned to vampire, the younger Lancer could not be allowed to survive.  Destroying Johnny would surely kill Scott’s spirit as well.  Harker knew that without a doubt.

Will had met Johnny under the worst circumstances, but he couldn’t help notice the close bond the brothers had with each other.  During the night Johnny had barely talked to anyone, but Will had discerned a silent dialogue hidden in how Johnny had reacted every time Scott spoke, or was spoken of.  Johnny had been able to ignore everyone else, but he wouldn’t ignore his brother.  And Scott had shown infinite patience in dealing with his younger brother’s unpredictable behavior.

He’d considered himself Scott’s closest friend for a long time.  But nothing could compete with the blood tie between Scott and Johnny.  And that’s what had Will so worried.

At last it was decided where to search, interrupting Harker’s cheerless contemplations.  Loath to split up completely earlier in the day, it was nevertheless decided that one team, led by Cipriano, would follow the horse tracks up higher into the hills.  Scott and his team would head into the valley below to scout across flatter lands closer to Lancer.

The men moved with purpose as they mounted up and rode off, all with one thought in mind – they were running out of time.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Cipriano stood on the crest of the hillside.  He stared down in disbelief at the loose dirt beneath his feet, demanding that his eyes find what he knew was not there.  The horse tracks his posse followed had stopped.  Completely disappeared.  They did not trail off onto hard ground, or up into the rocks.  They had vanished, ceased to exist past one last clear hoof print pressed deeply into the soft earth.

The men stood around the Segundo in awed silence.  Never had any of them ever seen so clear a trail die out so dramatically.  No backtracks had been found, nor any sign that the ground forward had been disturbed in any way.  It was as if the horses had suddenly taken flight and lifted themselves off the hillside.

Several of the men followed Cipriano’s lead and crossed themselves, invoking the protection of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost against the devil they tracked.

The Segundo lifted his eyes to the heavens, and found another reason to pray for divine intervention – the sun was setting.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Scott’s group doubled back to where they’d last found carriage tracks.  Harker and Van Helsing watched as Scott and two other men used all their skills, experience, and instincts to evaluate the possibilities.  Unbelievably they chose to follow a wide but steep path that meandered down the hillside at ever more precarious angles.  As their horses stumbled over the trail it seemed impossible that Millicent’s cumbersome carriage might have made it down successfully.  But the barely hours old set of tracks they found at the bottom proved otherwise.

The tracks from that point on were surprisingly easy to follow.  Van Helsing warned of a trick.  But with the sun disappearing quickly, the posse was forced to throw caution to the wind and hurry forward.

The men grew concerned as the sun sank ever lower.  Scott knew they should turn back.  The command to stop was on the top of his tongue when a shout was heard.

“There it is!” Frank yelled, pointing at a break in the trees on the trail, not more than a quarter mile ahead.

As if they knew they’d been spotted, the carriage lurched forward, picking up speed.

The Lancer posse took off almost as one, every man fully aware of why it was important to catch Millicent Fairfax before dusk – and every man pledged to kill her.  Stray branches along the tree-lined trail reached out and caught against them as their horses galloped swiftly forward, but there was to be no stopping any of them.

Van Helsing tried to keep up, but he could not maintain the breakneck, reckless pace.  Not for the first time that day he regretted his age as the pounding of hooves faded in front of him.  He hoped that the men had listened well to his warnings about Millicent, and that clear heads and not heated hearts would prevail in their pursuit.  It was almost night . . . If Millicent got away there would be little hope for John Lancer.

‘Be safe, mein friends.  Gehen mit Gott.  (Go with God.)’

 

L L L L L L L L

 

The riders rounded a bend and caught their first clear look at the back of Millicent’s carriage.  Totally enclosed they couldn’t tell who might be inside.  But the tall form of one of the giants was recognized driving the rig.

Malcolm dared a glance behind him, and slapped the reins furiously, urging his already tired horses to greater speed.  A shot rang out and a bullet slammed into a tree in front of him, but still he pushed them onward.

The trail narrowed and took a sharp turn.  The carriage tilted dangerously to the right.  The rig balanced on two wheels for a moment as it careened around the treacherous curve.  Malcolm shifted his own balance to keep his seat, and then had to duck as a low-hanging branch threatened to sweep him off completely.

Before the carriage could right itself the top edge rammed into the outstretched limb of a huge oak.  The impact smashed a hole in the coach, sending splintered wood into the air and the whole vehicle zigzagged back and forth along the trail.  The horses panicked from the dangerous sway and rebelled as the tongue twisted to throw off their balance.  One of the horses stumbled.  Malcolm whipped the reins wildly but still the carriage slowed then stopped as the animals reared in their traces.

Malcolm quickly abandoned his efforts to keep the horses moving.  He threw down the reins and reached under the seat of the pitching carriage.  As he stood he brought a rifle up to bear and aimed it toward the quickly advancing Lancer posse.

Surrounded by crack shots, Scott trusted his posse to stop Malcolm.  He galloped forward, heedless of the danger.

Simultaneous shots from Harker and two of the Lancer men rang out.  Malcolm’s body rocked, but despite three clear hits to his torso the giant did not fall.  He raised his rifle once again, but Harker’s next bullet hit him dead center in the forehead, ending his fight.  The weapon fell from his unfeeling grasp as Malcolm tumbled from the seat.

Scott reined his horse to a sliding stop and dismounted quickly just as Malcolm’s body hit the ground with a resounding thump.  Scott untied a heavy bag from the back of his saddle and threw it to the ground.  He ripped open the bag and pulled out the long wooden stakes he and the men had fashioned out of hardwood, following Van Helsing’s orders.

Frank and Jake dismounted right behind Scott.  Malcolm no longer a threat, they headed straight over to the carriage and set themselves on either side of the door.  Jake drew his handgun and placed his hand on the doorknob, as Scott tossed Frank one of the stakes.  With the light of day fading to nothing around them, Scott got a good grip on his stake then nodded to Jake to open the door.

The inside of the carriage appeared as a dark cavity, painted the black of the exterior and devoid of light.  Scott leapt up the coach steps and lunged forward.

The carriage was empty.  There was no window, no other opening from which Millicent could have escaped.  Malcolm had died protecting no one.

“Dammit!”  Scott’s curse burst out of the coach and echoed through the air outside.  Van Helsing caught up with the group just in time to hear it, and flinched.  The bleak sentiment settled over the men like a shroud as they realized they had failed.  There was no way they could get back to the hacienda before dark.  If Cipriano hadn’t found Millicent, Murdoch and Jelly would be Johnny’s last defense against the vampire.

Harker made his way past the loyal Lancer cowboys with their dejected faces, and stood just outside the carriage door.  It took Scott nearly a minute to emerge.  Harker’s earlier concerns proved well warranted, as Scott faced his friend with a look of total despair and heartbreakingly proclaimed, “He’s my brother, Will.  Johnny’s my brother.”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Jelly stood at the doorway and, with a profound sadness, studied Murdoch as he passed another hour in the chair by the bed watching Johnny.  They’d left him dressed, figuring if he woke that’s what he would want.  His body still cool to the touch, they’d kept him well covered.  But other than a slight, steady rise and fall of his chest, Johnny hadn’t moved the entire day.

Murdoch had grown quiet . . . too quiet.  His brooding reminded Jelly of Johnny’s habit of going to ground whenever he had an important decision to make.  He’d been told of Van Helsing’s recommendation, and figured that was what plagued Murdoch’s contemplations.  And now Jelly had come, a bearer of bad news.

“It’s almost dusk, Murdoch.”

“I know.”  The response came quietly, after a pause, as Murdoch’s gaze remained fixed on Johnny.

“No sign of Scott yet.  Maybe that’s a good . . .”

“Jelly.  Bring me the bindings.”

“You sure, boss?”

Murdoch stood wearily and faced his friend . . . Johnny’s friend.  “Yes.”

As Murdoch wiped a hand across his careworn face, Jelly nodded and turned to do as bidden.  He found it a somber task, but one he knew Murdoch did not request lightly.  Recognizing the necessity did little to make the deed any easier.

Bending over to retrieve the torn sheeting from the corner where it lay, Jelly heard the mattress creak, then a grunt.  He straightened and turned just in time to steady Murdoch as he stumbled into him, nearly toppling both men to the floor.

Johnny stood next to the bed, a gun held by his side.

Murdoch’s holster hung empty upon his hip.

“Johnny, what are you doing?” Murdoch asked, appallingly confident that Johnny might actually use the weapon.

“I’m going to find Millicent.”

Murdoch took a step forward, but stopped when Johnny raised the gun and aimed at him with a gunfighter’s precision.  “You can’t do that, son.  You have to stay here, where it’s safe.”

Johnny’s laugh was laced with pessimism.  “No place safe for me now.   I know what I gotta do.”

“You can’t fight her alone.”

“Who says I’m gonna fight her?”  Johnny’s expression was flat, unreadable.  “Tie ‘im up, Jelly.”

Jelly looked at Murdoch in disbelief, then back at Johnny.  He jutted out his whiskered chin and declared, “I’ll do no sucha thing.”

The gun shifted in his direction.  “You’ll do it or die.  Makes no difference to me.”

Jelly swallowed hard and peered down at the strips of sheeting in his hands.

“Do it, Jelly,” Murdoch commanded as he turned to the side and held out his hands.

“Tie him to the chair . . . hands in back,” Johnny clarified.  “And tie him tight.  I’ll be checking.”

Johnny backed to the doorway as Murdoch came forward to sit in the chair by the bed.  Johnny showed none of the signs of weakness or confusion that he’d experienced the day before.  He was all business, cool, calm, collected, and determined.

“Sit down, Jelly, and put your hands behind you,” Johnny ordered as the old man finished tying Murdoch.  Jelly stepped over to the chair Scott had brought into the room.  “Johnny . . .”

“Don’t want to hear it.  Just sit down.”

Jelly did as he was told, and in seconds Johnny had him securely lashed to the chair.  He stepped over and pulled at Murdoch’s bindings, satisfied neither man would be able to follow him anytime soon.

Johnny started to leave, but he paused in the doorway.  He stood for a long time, his back to the bound men.

“Son.  Please.”

“Ain’t in the cards for me to stay, Murdoch.  I’m sorry for how I turned out.  Tell Scott . . .”

There was another . . . long . . . pause.

“. . . don’t matter,” Johnny whispered, and then he was gone.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Johnny padded down the stairs, feet bare, shirt still un-tucked, hair mussed, gun in his hand.  He moved with purpose, his mind made up during the long night before.

He reached the bottom of the staircase but made no move to exit.  Instead he turned into the great room and stopped a few feet within.  “Hello, Millicent.”

“It’s wonderful to see you again, Johnny.”  Millicent greeted him from her perch sitting atop Murdoch’s desk.  “I’ve missed you.”

“Ain’t missed you.”

“Johnny, dear, how can you talk to me that way after all I’m doing for you?”  She pouted theatrically, but couldn’t maintain the ruse and broke into a devilish smile.

“For the last time, I ain’t interested.  I ain’t like you and I don’t want what you’re offering.”

“You don’t know what you want.”  She slithered off the desk and glided forward a couple of steps.  “I know what’s best for you.  And for me.”

“I want you to leave me alone.”

“I can’t.”

“You will.”

“Is that a threat?”  Millicent laughed, that husky yet feminine laugh that was usually so attractive.  “Oh, Johnny.  Your obstinacy continues to amaze me.”  She gave the gun in his hand a passing glance and laughed again.  “What are you going to do, shoot me?” she scoffed.  “I told you, bullets can’t hurt me.”

“I know.  But they can still hurt me.”  Johnny cocked the gun, raised and pointed it at his own chest.

The insolent smile left Millicent’s face.  “Put the gun down, Johnny.”

“No.”

“I could make you.”

“I’ll find another way then.  I won’t spend forever with you.”

There was a showdown of wills, neither ready to back down.  But Millicent’s eyes once again darkened to an ominous near black.  “You can deny it all you want, Johnny, but we’re meant for each other.  I know you, Johnny Madrid Lancer . . . your strengths and your weaknesses.”

Millicent took another step toward him, but Johnny didn’t move.  “You see . . . I knew you would try something like this.  But it won’t work, Johnny.  Hurt yourself and you’ll find you’re just hurting someone you love.  Burt . . .”

There was a scuffle of feet in the great room entrance near the dining table.  Johnny looked over in time to see Burt enter.  The giant pulled a paw of a hand away from Teresa’s mouth, but kept his other arm firmly around her waist.  Lucy cowered behind the pair in the entranceway.

“Johnny!” Teresa screamed as tears pooled in her eyes.  She struggled courageously against the giant’s grasp, but despite her frantic efforts he barely wavered.

Johnny’s eyes were full of loathing as he once again faced the vampire.  “God damn you to hell, Millicent!”  The hand holding the gun shook from the vehemence of his anger.

“So he shall, Johnny, my dear.  So he shall.  I knew from the first moment I saw you that you were going to be a pleasure to play with.  But as good as you are, you have so much more to learn.  And I’ll teach you.  We’ll have such a long time together.”

The gun drifted downward, only to once again rise to aim at Johnny’s heart.  “I won’t . . . I can’t . . .” For the first time in years, Johnny was at a loss for what to do, his indecision tearing him apart.

Millicent sashayed forward, the delight of her triumph sparkling in her dark, evil eyes.  “You know, Johnny . . . before I met you, I thought Scott and I might make a rather nice couple.  What do you think?”

“You bitch,” Johnny whispered, still unwilling to give up, but knowing he’d lost.

Laughing again, Millicent continued forward until she stood right before him.  She couldn’t resist entangling Johnny’s soul further, to seal his fate.  “I’ll have you come to me willingly, Johnny . . . or I’ll have everyone in your family.  If you ever threaten me – or yourself – again, I’ll come back here and tear them apart, limb-by-limb, until you can’t recognize them.  Or I’ll find their children . . . or their children’s children . . .”

She stood within inches of him now, the gun still between them.  “I love you, Johnny,” she murmured, her breath rank with the smell of death.

“You don’t know what love is.”

“Show me.”

The gun slowly lowered, then dropped with a forlorn thump to the floor.  Fighting against every instinct, Johnny reached forward, pulled Millicent into the semblance of a lover’s embrace and enveloped her mouth with a kiss – a kiss of submission as he surrendered himself to her control, forever.

“Johnny, no!” Teresa shouted.

Johnny’s decision made, he refused to hear her.

Millicent was too drunk from her conquest to recognize anything else around her but the feel of Johnny’s hands on her body, his lips on her mouth.  She felt euphoric, her desire stronger than ever before, her need to make Johnny hers climaxing in a burst of uncontrollable animalistic passion.

Millicent grabbed Johnny and pulled his lips from hers as she twisted his head to the side.  With a voracious hunger she exposed her fangs and plunged them into his neck, ignoring his cry of pain from the viciousness of her frenzied bite.  All Millicent knew was Johnny’s blood, the feel of it as it poured over her tongue, washed through her mouth, flowed down her throat.  On and on she drank, heedless of all around her, knowing only that Johnny would be with her now for all time.

Lucy had seen Millicent take victims before, but never had she witnessed the making of another vampire.  The act made her angry.  The way Millicent had trapped Johnny with his own sense of righteousness was reprehensible.  Johnny had been kind to her.  He loved his family and they loved him.  He didn’t deserve to be Millicent’s slave.

The young woman was scared, more frightened than she’d been in her entire life.  But she knew she could not just stand by and watch as Johnny was forced to become vampire against his will.

Burt continued to hold Teresa tightly as both of them viewed the exchange between Millicent and Johnny.

Lucy peered around her surroundings, searching for any weapon that might give her a fighting chance against the giant.  There were a couple of long wooden stakes on the chair to her left, but she’d be clearly seen by Burt if she tried for one.  Lucy looked behind her, and saw a large candlestick on a table.  She crept backward, carefully watching Burt for any sign that he was aware of her movement.  She reached the table and snuck a hand behind her to judge the weight of the candlestick.  Brass.  Unmistakably, it was made of brass.  It would be heavy.

‘Nawt too heavy,’ she wished.

Lucy took a chance and turned completely around to remove the broad candle from the base, then hefted the stick in her hands, positioning it for a firm strike.  She made her way slowly toward Burt and Teresa, glancing toward Millicent to be sure the vampire had not noticed her intent.  Lucy stopped behind the pair, and after a deep breath, curled her hands around the candlestick and swung it as hard as she could at Burt’s head.

The giant fell and took Teresa down with him, knocking the wind out of her as they landed in a heap.

Lucy ignored the couple on the ground and looked to Millicent, sure her mistress had to have heard the commotion.  But Millicent had begun to feed and knew nothing but the feel and taste of Johnny Lancer.

The young woman turned back just in time to see a hand arc toward her.  Burt’s fist hit her on the chin and sent her sprawling backward into the entranceway behind them.  Lucy was out cold when she hit the floor.  The candlestick cradled in her arms fell with a metallic clang beside her.

Burt crumpled to his knees once more.  His head bled heavily from Lucy’s blow.  He lingered a moment, trying to clear his doubled vision, until he heard someone move behind him, saw a shadow loom over him.  Burt gathered his feet under him, and with a mighty effort, attempted to rise.

Millicent reveled in ecstasy as Johnny collapsed in her arms.  She held him tightly as she continued to ravish him completely, desiring every drop of his blood, draining his life to gift him with immortality.  She was one with him as she fed, felt it when the pace of his heartbeat increased abnormally as Johnny’s body fought to sustain him.

As the flow of blood in Johnny’s veins decreased, Millicent dug her teeth into his flesh.  She pulled his head back further as she gnawed at his neck, pushing her fangs in ever deeper.  But suddenly, furiously, Johnny slipped away from her grasp as a meaty hand grabbed her arm and yanked her backward.  Startled, before she could regain her balance, excruciating pain flooded through her.  Millicent looked down in shocked horror at the wooden stake protruding from her chest.

She felt the hand leave her arm.  Gasping for breath, her eyes wide, she followed the path of the deadly instrument and watched with dread as the hand joined another that already had a firm grasp on the stake.  Millicent dared to look up further, and found the eyes of Murdoch Lancer staring back at her, filled with a depth of malice that rivaled her own hatred and anger.

“I told you . . . you – can’t – have – my – son.”

Murdoch pushed the stake forward with such a force that it burst out of Millicent’s back with an explosion of blood – Johnny’s blood.  Millicent threw her head back and let loose a desolate scream, replete with the bleakness of her unimaginable defeat.  Murdoch maintained a firm grip on the stake as she fell, ensuring her impalement as he followed her descent to the floor.

Millicent’s hands flailed in vain against the stake, as her body contorted and writhed in pain.  Murdoch held the primitive weapon firmly in place, until finally the vampire heaved in one last gasp of air just before her body stilled.

Satisfied she was really dead, Murdoch finally allowed himself to release the stake.  He turned quickly and crawled the short distance to where Johnny had fallen.

Murdoch knelt on the ground and gathered his son’s limp body in his arms.  Where Johnny had before appeared pale after Millicent’s attacks, his face was now colorless.  His head was draped over Murdoch’s arm, his eyes were closed, his mouth slightly open.  And his chest did not rise.

The father could not accept the fate of his son.  “Johnny!” he shouted, his strong hand patting carefully against the blanched face while he watched for any sign of life.

“Johnny!”  He patted harder, using the arm cradling his son to shake him . . . wake him.

“Johnny!”  Murdoch slapped him, then grabbed Johnny’s shirt and ripped it open, sending buttons flying across the great room.  He slapped him again then pressed his hand against Johnny’s bared chest, willing air to fill his son’s lungs.

“Johnny, please,” Murdoch whispered as he leaned his own body over his son’s, keeping his hand pressed over Johnny’s heart as he prayed for life . . . his son’s life.

“Johnny . . . please . . . stay . . .”

 

L L L L L L L L

 

EPILOGUE

He sat on the veranda . . . hands crossed over his chest, feet up on another chair, head perfectly still, staring intently into the distance, but seeing nothing.  And he looked old . . . like a ton of years had landed on him all at once and crushed the youth out of him.  He’d always acted more mature than his years, but now he looked aged, used – tired and worn.

Johnny heard Maria coming out to once again check on him, and he felt his shame stir.  Without Millicent’s powers suppressing his thoughts, Johnny’s memories were slowly coming back.  He remembered how badly he’d treated the housekeeper, how he had hurt her.  Johnny had apologized.  Over and over again he had apologized, until that morning, when Maria had had enough.

“Again I must listen to your apologies!  This is no good, Juanito . . . no good.  I have told you, these apologies I do not accept.  I was with Teresa when that bruja come for her.  That woman made it so I could not think . . . could not move . . . could do nothing to stop her.  What you did, you did because of the witch, so your apology, it means nothing.”

He wanted to believe her, wanted forgiveness.  But he could find none within himself, so believed there was none to be had.

Maria picked up the plate holding the barely nibbled sandwich left over from lunch.  “For this you should be sorry, Juanito,” she chastised.  “The doctors, they say you need to eat . . . drink . . . or your strength will stay away.  I feed and feed and feed you, but once more I must give my food to the pigs.”

“Lo siento, Maria.”

“Ay yi, again with the apologies.  You will eat my dinner, sí?”

“I’ll try.”

“Ay yi yi, you will not ‘try,’ you will do!”  She reached down and picked up the blanket he’d let fall to the floor, and draped it over his legs.  “You will eat and you will stay warm and you will sleep and you be better soon.  You will see.”

He didn’t think he deserved it, but her mothering was much appreciated.  “Gracias, Maria.”

“De nada.”  She leaned down and gave him a kiss on the forehead, then scurried to the kitchen, eager to cook something special that would tempt Johnny’s still meager appetite.

 

L L L L L L L L

 

Murdoch wasn’t one to condone eavesdropping, but he felt justified in hovering near the French doors, listening in on Johnny’s conversation with Maria.  He was very worried about his son’s recovery.

When Johnny had left he and Jelly tied up, Murdoch thought he would never see his son again.  He’d fought madly against his bonds, finally freeing himself from the chair that anchored him by smashing it to bits against a wall.

Murdoch had bound down the stairs, Jelly’s shotgun in hand, expecting to follow Johnny into the night.  Instead, the tableau he’d witnessed in the great room would haunt him for years to come – Teresa sitting dazed on the floor, Lucy lying unconscious, one of Millicent’s bodyguards on his knees bleeding, and Johnny in the clutches of the vampire, her teeth pierced deeply into his throat.

His rage unrestrained, Murdoch had grasped the shotgun in both hands and crossed to the bodyguard, cracking the weapon across the man’s brow as he tried to rise.  Then Murdoch had grabbed one of Van Helsing’s stakes and faced Millicent . . . and it had almost been too late.

Millicent had nearly killed Johnny.  Murdoch’s chest ached every time he thought about those desperate moments when he had willed, begged Johnny to breathe.  Then two days had passed before the doctors were convinced that he would live.  The Lancers considered it a miracle that Johnny had survived.  But his convalescence continued to be complicated – mostly by the guilt-ridden man himself.

The night of the last attack, Millicent had killed two of the Lancer hands set around the hacienda to protect Johnny, ripping their throats open viciously.  Their deaths weighed heavily on all the Lancers, the youngest most of all.

Johnny experienced nightmares about Millicent almost every time he fell asleep, and the darkness made him tense.  These were understandable reactions to his ordeal.  But he’d pushed himself to get out of bed too soon, just so he could sit outside in the sunlight.  Every moment of daylight he could manage he sat on the veranda, staring off at nothing.

Johnny was still weak, barely ate, slept only when too fatigued to keep his eyes open, and he was too quiet.  He had offered a few hints as to what troubled him, but he refused to talk much, even to Scott.  Johnny’s behavior had grown progressively worse, and his health continued to suffer.

Murdoch couldn’t stand it anymore.  He walked onto the porch, determined to make Johnny admit what was really bothering him.

“You’re doing it again.”

“What?”  Johnny played evasive, but his face couldn’t hide the guilt of being caught brooding.

“Blaming yourself.”

“Millicent picked me.”  Johnny looked away.

“And if you hadn’t been here, she could have picked Scott.  And if I’d been twenty years younger, maybe she would have picked me.”

Johnny’s eyebrows went up at that, and he snuck a look at Murdoch, but then he faced away again.

“Son, you haven’t done anything each of us is capable of.  You might have walked a line few of us dare to cross, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t stood on the edge.”

“I have crossed that line, Murdoch.”  Johnny responded quietly.  “You don’t know everything I’ve done . . . but Millicent did.  That’s why she picked me.”

“Johnny, I can only speak to the man I know . . . the man who was willing to give his life to save Teresa . . . to save the rest of us.  Why do you insist on believing that your life is worth less than anyone else’s?”

Johnny’s head dipped, and Murdoch immediately regretted his raised voice.  Johnny was skittish, taking too much blame on himself and looking to add more every chance he got.  Millicent had gotten it into his head that he was a sinful, evil man, and Johnny wanted – needed – to be punished for past transgressions.  The fact that he’d already paid penance in so many ways was lost to him.

Murdoch took a calming breath, and tried another tack.  “When I asked you if you wanted what Millicent was offering, you immediately said no.  Not ‘yes’ or ‘maybe.’  You said no.  The man Millicent wanted would have said yes, Johnny.  You’re not that man.”

“Then how do you explain how mean I was to everyone?”  Johnny’s legs came off the chair and his boots stomped to the floor, letting the blanket once more fall into a heap.  Not strong enough yet to go far, he settled for leaning forward with his elbows on his knees.

“I remember what I did more each day, Murdoch.  I was hateful to you and Jelly . . . I hurt Maria . . . I punched Scott . . . I . . .”

Johnny’s head drooped even lower.  He couldn’t admit to his father how he’d touched Teresa.  Johnny had been mortified when he’d remembered that, just that morning as he woke.  He had no idea how he was going to apologize to her.

“I pointed a gun at you!  I can’t just forget that I did those things.  Me, Murdoch.  Not Millicent.”

“You’re wrong, Johnny.”  Murdoch grabbed the chair Johnny’s feet had been perched on, sat down and leaned forward.  “Johnny, everything you did was because of Millicent.  If you’re mad because she was able to control you, then be angry at her for that, but don’t take it out on yourself.  You were sick, Johnny . . . no one blames you.”

“They should.”  Johnny glanced up at Murdoch, but he quickly went back to trying to find answers in the tiles of the porch.  “A man’s gotta have hate in him for someone else to call it out.  Millicent knew what she was doin’ . . . she picked the right man.”

“Son, you don’t own the sole rights to anger, hatred, vengeance and revenge.  The minute I found out what Millicent was doing to you I wanted her dead.  I didn’t want to catch her and put her on trial . . . I wanted her murdered, Johnny!”

Murdoch grabbed Johnny’s down-turned face and made him look at him.  “Scott, Harker, Van Helsing . . . and me . . . we were all ready to kill her on sight, without mercy.  What does that make us, Johnny?  Does one evil deed define a man’s entire life?

“I know what you’ve done in your life, Johnny.  I also know who you are now, and I respect that man.  Please don’t tell me that Millicent Fairfax’s opinion of you means more than mine . . . than Scott’s.  It comes down to that, son . . . who do you believe in more – her or me?”

Johnny shook himself free of his father’s grasp, and once more stared at the ground.  “It ain’t that easy, Murdoch.”

“Yes it is, Johnny.  Millicent had her own motives for making you think you were like her.  Well . . . maybe my motives are selfish, too.  I want you here at Lancer, son.  Nothing has changed that.  You belong here.  Please don’t let Millicent take you away from me.”

Murdoch’s voice cracked, and Johnny’s head sprang upright.  He’d said “from me,” not “from us.”  “. . . me.”  And he might just as well have said “Maria” not “Millicent.”  Johnny realized Millicent’s actions had done much more than harm him.  She had opened up old wounds in his father as well.

“I’m sorry, Murdoch.  I didn’t mean to hurt you again.”

“Johnny, that’s the point.  The only thing hurting me now is the fact that you believe you were at fault.  Let your guilt go, son.  Millicent is part of the past, and she deserves to be buried there.  We killed her.  We won.  She had a long enough life . . . don’t buy her more time by robbing yourself.  Let her lie.”

Johnny rolled Murdoch’s wisdom around in his troubled mind, and actually found himself settling.  He’d fought so hard to stop her control over him that the thought of letting Millicent have any more power from the grave made him angry.  “Have I thanked you yet for puttin’ that stake through her heart?”

Murdoch smiled.  “Only about a dozen times.  Believe me . . . it was my pleasure.”  He stared at Johnny closely.  “Are you back?”

“Gettin’ there.”

A moment of contented silence passed between father and son before Johnny’s eyes were drawn to movement off in the distance.  Murdoch turned in his chair as Johnny pointed toward the figures of Scott and Will, riding in from another day of sightseeing around Lancer.

“Think Scott has convinced Will to stay yet?”

Murdoch released a welcome laugh.  “He’s been working on him hard.  I think Harker will travel to Boston with Lucy and Van Helsing next week, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he ends up coming back someday.  Now . . . where Dr. Van Helsing and Dr. Jenkins might end up will be too close to call.”

“What do you mean?”

“Joseph has been doing rounds with Sam.  The way they carry on a conversation you’d think they’d known each other all their lives.  The other night Sam was saying how much he was learning about medicine from Van Helsing, and Joseph turned around and said the same about Sam.   If Van Helsing hadn’t promised to escort Lucy back to England, I think he’d like to stay in the States for a while.  And I know Sam is eager to learn more about European medicine.  If nothing else, they’re sure to be writing to each other for years to come.”

“Do you think Teresa could convince Lucy to stay?”

Murdoch searched his son’s face for sign of any special regret over the young woman’s decision to leave, but he saw no indication that Johnny thought of Lucy as anything more than a new friend.  “No, I think it’s a sure bet that she’ll go home.  Lucy is enjoying her freedom, and Teresa is making sure she’s having a good time, but she’s homesick.  She didn’t exactly choose to become Millicent’s servant . . . her family was threatened, too.  They’re waiting for her back in London.  Lucy has had more than enough excitement and adventure to fill her young years.  She’s looking forward to going home.”

“I know how she feels,” Johnny stated wistfully.

“I know you do, son.”

Scott and Will rode under the Lancer arch and waved in their direction.  “I’ll let Maria know those two are back,” Murdoch said.  “I imagine they could use something cool to drink about now.”

Murdoch picked the blanket off the floor and handed it to Johnny as he stood.  “You better get under that if you expect Maria to let you stay out here,” he threatened lightheartedly, pleased to be able to tease his son once again – and delighted by the shy smile he got in return.

Patting Johnny on the shoulder as he passed, Murdoch went to find the housekeeper.  He’d barely stepped a foot into the great room when Johnny requested, “Tell her I could use a piece of pie.”

Murdoch smiled and leaned back out the door.  “I’ll do that.”

He started off again, but had to pause when Johnny once more called out.  “And maybe a glass of milk.”

“Anything you want, son.”

‘Anything you want, mi hijo.’

 
~end~
MP – February ‘06

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