The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Sue Salter

 

 

 
Face Of An Enemy

Part 1

Scott Lancer was angry. Correction – he was mad as hell! His father had assigned him the task of clearing out a stream, which had blocked up with rocks and branches after a severe summer storm. If that job was unpleasant enough, he had to pick a day when the temperature had reached the high eighties by eleven in the morning and was threatening to climb even higher before long.  However, that was not the real reason for Scott’s anger. Murdoch had also instructed another to assist him with his task – his younger son. Only Johnny was nowhere to be found!  

With a barely suppressed curse, Scott stopped what he was doing and straightened, wincing softly as the muscles in his back protested.  He crossed over to his horse, which was sheltering under the shade of a nearby tree, and plucked the canteen from the saddle horn. Unscrewing the lid, Scott tipped a generous swig of water into his mouth and then poured the rest of it over his head and down the back of his neck. The welcome coolness soothed his temper slightly, and he took another swallow before replacing the lid.

“It’s alright for you,” he muttered to his chestnut gelding, as he returned the canteen to its place. The animal eyed him curiously before giving a loud snort and lowering its head to resume its grazing. Scott gave a rueful smile and ran a gloved hand through his damp blond hair, shaking his head briefly to expel the excess moisture.  It felt good here in the shade and he considered sitting for a while under the canopy of the wide branches, but the work would still be there waiting for his return.

Shielding his eyes against the glare, he squinted up the hill to see if there was any sign of his errant brother, but there was nothing. Scott blew out an exasperated sigh. Where the hell was he? He had seen Johnny briefly at breakfast, but when he went to the barn to saddle up Charlie, Scott discovered that the younger man had already left. He knew that Johnny was not looking forward to the job any more than he was; but together they could have got it done in half the time. Now it seemed that he had no choice but to carry on alone.

He sighed again and reluctantly left his leafy shelter to cross back to the streambed. It was only about fifty yards away, but by the time he reached it, Scott could feel the sweat already trickling down his back. He picked at the buttons of his half-open work shirt, wondering if he should take it off completely; but then decided against it. Although he had developed a light tan from working in the Californian sunshine, his fair skin still tended to burn if the sum grew too strong. Better to be safe than sorry, he thought. Rather that than suffer the noxious smell of Jelly’s so called cure-all ointment!

Bending down, Scott caught hold of a large branch in the blocked stream and hefted it out of the way. Then he moved further downstream and started removing some smaller rocks, which had washed down the hillside in the storm. He had only been working about twenty minutes when he heard the sound of a horse whinnying in the distance. He stopped and looked up to see the familiar shape of his brother’s palomino, Barranca, heading down the incline.

“At last!” he breathed, as he moved toward the approaching pair. His little brother had better have a good explanation for his absence!

“Nice of you to finally drop by,” he started sarcastically as Johnny reined to a halt. “Where’ve you been?”

“Wassa matter, Brother, can’t ya handle a little manual labour on yer own? The words should have been delivered in jest. Nevertheless, there was an edge to Johnny’s voice that Scott did not like and concerned him. He waited in silence as his brother slowly dismounted and came closer; but his concern quickly turned to anger as he saw Johnny stagger a little and smelt the alcohol on his breath.

“Johnny, have you been drinking?” he accused sharply.

“Yeah, well what if I did have me a few beers in town?” Johnny retorted, a sardonic smile on his face. “Hey, it’s beats working! You should lighten up and try it sometime.”

Scott looked at him dumb-founded as the younger man crossed to the streambed and kicked absently at a small stone. Johnny had always had a rebellious streak in him and likely to be highly impetuous, but he was no shirker when it came to the work around the ranch.

“You knew Murdoch wanted you to help me here. What were you doing in town?”

His brother looked round and shrugged. “Had some things to do. ‘Sides, you look like you’re almost done.”

“That’s not the point, Johnny,” Scott argued, his temper rising once more at the other’s indifference. “Murdoch wanted….”

“Yeah, well mebbe I’m tired of being at the old man’s beck and call,” Johnny growled. “You and me are supposed to own part of this place, but Murdoch still gets to call the tune.”

Scott stared at his brother in surprise. When they had first joined their father at Lancer, both brothers had had doubts whether they could adapt to their new life at the ranch. Despite his Eastern upbringing, Scott had taken to it easier, surprising everyone including himself. Johnny, with his free and sometimes reckless spirit, had found it harder and there had been several times when it looked like he would leave for good. However, that was nearly a year ago now, and it looked like Johnny had lost his restlessness and was ready to settle down. What had happened to make that change?

“We knew that right from the start, Johnny,” Scott reasoned.

“Well, perhaps it’s time things were different around here!” 

The blond Lancer was now becoming worried about his brother’s unusual belligerent attitude. Although Johnny had had his fair share of arguments with their father, he rarely quarrelled with Scott, and the two young men enjoyed a close and easygoing relationship.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked, reaching out a hand. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong!” The younger man angrily shook him off. “Why’da always think there’s something wrong? I can take care of myself so don’t start that big brother act on me!”

Scott’s bewilderment was now rapidly turning to concern. He could not understand what had suddenly got into Johnny to make him act this way. His brother was no stranger to strong drink – tequila being his favourite tipple – but Scott had never seen him behave so aggressively even after a heavy Saturday night’s session in town.  Something else had to be the cause and when Scott looked closer at his sibling, he noticed that Johnny’s face appeared flushed and streaked with sweat. That, of course, could easily be attributed to the heat of the day. Then he noticed the pupils of Johnny’s expressive blue eyes seemed unnaturally large, and he seemed to be having difficulty focusing.

“Why’ya staring at me like that for?” Johnny demanded, clearly uncomfortable under Scott’s intense look.

“Because I think you’re getting sick, Brother.”

Johnny snorted with derision and stepped forward to prod Scott painfully in the chest.

“Oh yeah, I’m sick all right. Sick of you; sick of Murdoch and this whole lousy place!” he snapped. “You know what, Scott? I don’t want to play at happy families no more. I had me a life before I came here. A good life and mebbe it’s time I went back to doing what I know best.”

“You don’t mean that!” The blond brother answered, aware of a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. “You don’t want to go back to that kind of life.”

“Yeah, well mebbe I do,” Johnny, replied. “It sure beats working my butt off here for someone who don’t give a damn!”

“You’re wrong, Johnny. Murdoch cares. I care,” Scott emphasised.  

“All you care about, Brother, is being daddy’s perfect golden-haired son, with your ‘yes sir, no sir’ and jumping to attention every time he hollers! Well, I don’t need it anymore and I certainly don’t need you.” With that, he turned abruptly away and started to stride purposefully towards his waiting mount. Alarmed, Scott moved to intercept him and suddenly found himself staring down the barrel of his brother’s Colt.

“Whoa, take it easy!” he exclaimed, raising his hands and backing away a few steps.

Johnny smiled, a wolfish smile, which chilled Scott to the bone. This was not the face of the brother, whom he had grown to love. It was the face of an enemy – a deadly enemy.

“Scared, Scott?” the younger man sneered. “Or mebbe you still think I’m sick?”

“I think you should put that gun away, Johnny and come back to the house with me,” Scott answered quietly.

The former gunfighter stared at him incredulously for a moment and then gave a short laugh. “What for?”

“We could talk…..” 

“I’ve done talking,” Johnny growled, “I’m leaving now and nothing or no-one is going to stop me!”

With his gun still clutched in his hand, Johnny swung himself onto Barranca’s back and gathered up the reins.

“Johnny! Wait!”

The other looked at him impassively for a moment and then raised his Colt.

“Goodbye Brother.”

Those were the last words Scott heard, as Johnny pulled the trigger.

 

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

 

The young man rode hard and fast.  However, no matter how quickly he went, he knew he could never erase the terrible burden he felt in his heart. Johnny Madrid Lancer had taken a man’s life, but this time it had not been some nameless stranger who had challenged him to the draw.  He had killed his own brother.

His gut clenched and he could feel the bile raising in his throat, as he relived the moment when he had gunned down the man whose blood he shared; the man whose blood he had shed. A sobbing cry escaped his lips, as he pulled his horse to a rump-scraping stop. Flinging himself from the saddle, Johnny groped his way blindly over to some rocks and promptly brought up the entire contents of his stomach in one violent spasm. Coughing and retching, Johnny staggered back to Barranca and grabbed his canteen, rinsing his mouth out before taking a long drink. Then he slithered slowly to the ground and buried his dark head in his trembling hands, cold sweat trickling down his face and neck.

“Dios, what have I done?” he groaned, softly.

He had said some terrible things to his brother. Words he could not believe he was saying. Words he did not mean, but nevertheless they had spilled uncontrollably from his tongue. That single gunshot had sounded deafening to his ears.  He had stared in stunned disbelief as Scott crumpled to the ground, the front of his shirt sprouting crimson like some grotesque flower.

Holstering his gun, Johnny had leapt from his horse to run over to the fallen man, sinking to his knees beside him. He remembered pressing both hands over the bullet wound in a vain attempt to stem the flow of blood, whilst frantically searching for any signs of life. However, Scott had remained pale and unresponsive.

Johnny had lost track of the time he had spent sitting beside the still form of his brother, staring numbly at the older man’s face, as the full enormity of his actions sank in. He knew he should collect up the body, take it back to the hacienda and confess to his father what he had done. Tell everyone it had been a tragic accident, but that would be a lie.

The painful truth was that Johnny did not know what had made him shoot Scott. Ever since he had left town, he had felt like he was living in some kind of dream world. It was though he was looking at himself from outside his body. It sounded crazy and Johnny was starting to believe he was losing his mind. Colours and objects appeared vividly clear one moment; but then blurred and contorted into a hundred different shapes the next. He did not know what was happening to him and it scared the hell out of him.

Eventually, Johnny had moved away from that awful scene by the stream, forcing himself to mount his horse and leave his brother lying on the ground. He knew he should not, but he had to go. No one, not least his father, would ever understand what had occurred.  How could he explain when he did not know himself? Johnny just knew he had to get away. Run, hide, go anywhere; and try to come to terms with the fact he had killed the man whose life had been the most precious gift in the world.

Now, sitting here with head bent in sorrow, Johnny wept. Not for himself; he did not deserve any pity, but for Scott, Murdoch and everyone else whose lives he had destroyed. He had taken away their future with one violent act; and now his own existence measured in days. They would come after him, the law, Murdoch, his friends at the ranch, all hungering for vengeance. He would be hunted down like a rabid animal, cornered, and eventually imprisoned to await his fate.

However, in the end, there could only be one decision – death. It was the only fate he deserved for such a crime; but Johnny feared the hangman’s noose. He knew he would rather die by his own hands than face that prospect. Without Scott by his side, he did not want to live anyway, so why put off the inevitable. Slipping his gun from his holster, Johnny stared down at the weapon through a veil of tears. The cold piece of metal had been his tool and his friend for several years. Now he viewed it as an abomination.

Johnny had killed his first man before he was sixteen – a justifiable killing, but still a person’s life. A simple pull of the trigger that was all it took. It would be all so simple to place the barrel under his chin and fire. Better that than to feel the rough hemp rope around his throat and the trapdoor under his feet, waiting for the inevitable drop. Better that than to see his father’s eyes upon him, accusing him, cursing him forever to damnation. Cocking the gun, he brought it to rest under his chin, flinching as the weapon caressed his flesh. Johnny sighed and raised his head to the sky to take what he thought was his last look of the world and suddenly froze.

Someone was watching him. Standing silhouetted on the high ground almost directly in front of him was the figure of a man. Johnny immediately leapt to his feet, gun at the ready, but when he looked again, the figure was gone.

“Sonofabitch!” he swore, as he rubbed at his eyes and glanced up once more. He could not have imagined it, could he? The late afternoon sun had made it impossible to make out anything clear, but Johnny was certain someone had been up there. Putting away his Colt, he hurried to his horse and quickly mounted. Was someone tracking him?

Surely it was too early for a posse to be organised? His instinct told him no. How would they even know it was him? Johnny was positive that the man was acting alone and that he had to go after him and find out why he was following him. He estimated it would take a good couple of hours to reach the place where he had seen the mysterious figure; but he should be able to reach it before sunset.

Whatever or whoever it was, it gave him a sense of purpose and all further thoughts of taking his own life had vanished. Nothing could banish his grief and feelings of guilt over Scott, but he knew he had to find out. If it did turn out to be the posse already on his trail, then he had no choice but to keep running. There was, however, one thing Johnny was determined upon – they would never capture him alive.

 

*******

 

“Jelly!”

Murdoch Lancer’s yell resounded around the old barn, almost shaking the dust from the rafters. “Jelly!”

Outside on the other side of the corral, Jellifer B Hoskins rolled his eyes heavenwards at his boss’s insistent cry and made his way over to the barn.

“All right, all right I’m coming,” he answered, “And I heard yer clear enough the first time!”

The tall owner of the ranch was standing with his hands on his hips looking around the interior of the building, and Jelly could see by the tight line of his mouth that he was not pleased.

“What in tarnation’s the matter now?”

“I thought I told you to start clearing this barn out,” Murdoch began, tersely.

“I did!” Jelly protested.

“Well, it doesn’t look like it to me,” Murdoch retorted impatiently, as he walked around and prodded at the piles of scattered objects with his boot.   

“That’s ‘cos you never open yer eyes properly!” Jelly grumbled, going over to join the other man. “I’ve bin separating the stuff we can get rid of and keeping other things back that might come in useful.”

Murdoch did not seem convinced, but looked closer at the various piles. “Well, maybe we can use some of this,” he admitted grudgingly, somewhat mollified by the old handyman’s explanation.

Jelly smiled smugly, but did not reply as he watched Murdoch pick amongst the heaps of wood and metal.

  “What’s this?” the Lancer patriarch asked from the far corner of the barn. Jelly moved over to join him and looked on curiously, as Murdoch pulled a long stick-like object out from the pile.        

“Never seen that before,” Jelly said. “Then again, I haven’t had a chance to git around to this lot yet. What is it anyway?”

“It’s a hobbyhorse.”

“A what?”

Murdoch glanced back at his companion, a wistful smile on his face. “A hobbyhorse, it was Johnny’s”

Jelly looked at the object with new interest. It was a little battered, but he could make out a two-foot pole surmounted by a roughly shaped horse-like head. Originally, the head was painted white; but now had faded to a dark cream colour – strangely reminiscent of Johnny’s beloved palomino, Barranca.

“You make that fer him?” he asked.

“Murdoch nodded, remembering the day he had given it to his eighteen month old son. The little boy’s face had lit up with glee; and he had immediately swung astride the ‘horse’ and started to ‘ride’ it around the yard. Johnny’s loud shrieks of laughter had soon brought his mother out from the house, and together the proud parents had watched as the dark-haired toddler happily played with his new toy. Such wonderful memories cruelly snatched away a few short months later, when Maria had taken Johnny and left for good.

“What’s it doing out here?”

“What?” Murdoch asked, his reverie broken by Jelly’s question.

“How come it’s here, not in the house?”

Murdoch chuckled. “Oh. Johnny always said that horses live in a barn, so that’s why it stayed. I thought it had been thrown out years ago.”

“Reckon he still wants it?”

Murdoch stared at him in surprise for a moment, wondering if he was joking, but then he realised his friend was serious. He laughed and then clapped him on the back. “Why don’t you ask him when he gets back, Jelly?”

The handyman snorted in derision and turned away to walk towards the barn door.  There was no way he was going to ask the former gunfighter such a fool question!

Murdoch smiled and set the hobbyhorse aside before bending down to sift through the rest of the pile, wondering what else he would find.

“Boss. I think you’d better get over here.”

“Mmm?” Murdoch muttered distractively. He straightened up and looked around. Jelly was standing just inside the barn and the grim expression on his face sent a shiver of fear down the rancher’s spine. Dropping what was in his hand Murdoch hurried over to join him and looked outside.

“Oh, my God! Scott!”

He ran outside, Jelly at his heels, and quickly crossed the yard to reach the ranch hand who had just ridden in with the limp form of his eldest son held in his grasp.

“Steve! What happened?”

“Don’t rightly know, Mr Lancer,” the young man answered. “We found him up by the stream up at the South Pasture. He’s been shot.”

Murdoch nodded numbly, too shocked at the sight of Scott’s bloodstained body to reply at first. He reached up and carefully pulled his injured son into his arms. “Let’s get him inside. Jelly, tell Teresa and Maria we need water and bandages.”

 The older man scurried off towards the house, leaving Murdoch to follow in his wake. Steve Mills climbed down from his horse, untied the lead rein of Scott’s chestnut gelding from the saddle horn, and passed it to another waiting hand. The animal had been patiently waiting by his master’s unmoving form when he and his work partner had ridden up.

“We’d gone down to the South Pasture to see if we could help out, “he started to explain as he fell into step beside the tall rancher, “and we just found him lying there. Miguel wanted to fetch a wagon, but I said it would quicker if we used my horse.” Steve knew he was babbling, but he was still partly in shock from discovering his employer’s son lying in a pool of blood in that sun-baked meadow. At first, he and Miguel had thought Scott was dead, but after several anxious minutes, they had detected a faint pulse.

“Where’s Miguel now?”

“I told him to ride to town for the doctor,” Steve replied.

Murdoch nodded again, grateful for the ranch hand’s use of initiative. However, just as he stepped onto the porch, another thought struck him.

“Johnny. He was supposed to be helping Scott out. Didn’t you see him?”

“No sir.”

Murdoch’s worried frown deepened, although he knew if he had been thinking clearly, he should have realised that if Johnny had been present, he would have been the one who had brought his brother home.

“You think he’s in trouble?” Steve asked.

Johnny had been in trouble for most of his life, Murdoch thought grimly, but he did not voice that sentiment to the ranch hand. “Could be.”

“I could get some of the boys together and go look for him,” Mills suggested.

The younger man’s keen attitude was beginning to grate on Murdoch’s frayed nerves until he turned and noticed the other’s worried expression and blood-smeared shirt.  “Why don’t you get yourself cleaned up first? I’m sure Johnny’ll be back soon.”

Steve nodded and headed off towards the bunkhouse. Murdoch sighed and hoped his last sentence proved correct, although he could not help feeling uneasy about Johnny’s absence.

Once inside the house, Murdoch wasted no further time in getting his wounded son up to his room. He was not surprised to find Jelly already there turning back the bedcovers.

“Water’s on the boil,” the other man informed him, as he gently placed Scott on the bed.

“Good,” Murdoch replied. He removed Scott’s dusty boots and gun belt and pulled the blankets up to his waist before perching himself on the side of the bed. “Sam’s on his way, but in the meantime, we’ll do what we can.”

Murdoch unfastened the remaining buttons of his son’s shirt and drew back the bloodstained material, grimacing as he caught his first glimpse of the wound. The bullet had entered low in the left shoulder and it was obvious that Scott had lost a lot of blood. He eased the young man carefully over to the side, and his heart sank when he found there was no exit wound.

“Bullet still in there?” Jelly asked, squinting over his shoulder.

“Yes,” Murdoch answered, peering anxiously at his son’s unconscious face. Although the wound was bad enough, what was troubling Murdoch the most was the fact that Scott had not made a sound since being brought home. He had no wish to see his son in pain, but it was frightening to see Scott so pale and motionless.

“Jelly, hand me some of those towels,” he ordered. Although the flow of blood had eased, the wound was still oozing and trickling down Scott’s chest. Jelly gathered the towels from the washstand and gave them to Murdoch who pressed them firmly against the bullet hole.   

“Who’d want to hurt Scott?” Jelly asked, frowning with concern as he noticed how quickly the towels became soiled.

“I don’t know,” Murdoch answered. His gaze moved to Scott’s gun belt on the bureau. “Check and see if it’s been fired.”

The handyman slipped the revolver from its holster and sniffed at the barrel. “Nope, must have bin someone with a rifle.”

Murdoch’s face tightened with anger. Scott would never have stood a chance if his attacker had used a rifle; and he could only thank God that the person’s aim had not been more accurate. The question was why and more importantly who? Had Johnny gone after his brother’s assailant? That would probably have been his son’s first instinct, but Murdoch found it hard to believe that he would leave Scott in his condition. Unless Scott had convinced him that he was fine, but even if that were so, Johnny would never have gone. For the moment, Murdoch had only questions. Questions he hoped his son could answer when he woke up. He just hoped that would not be too long.  

 

By the time the doctor arrived at the Lancer ranch, Scott’s bullet wound was clean and bandaged. Much to everyone’s concern, he still showed no sign of stirring; and Murdoch was very glad to see Sam Jenkins when he walked into the bedroom.

“Sorry I couldn’t get here sooner, Murdoch,” the doctor apologised, setting his bag down on the table beside the bed. “I was out of town when Miguel turned up. Damn fool kid out at the Simmons’ place fell out of a tree and busted his arm.”

Normally Murdoch would have voiced his concern on learning of an accident at a neighbour’s ranch, but he just nodded and turned his attention back to his injured son. Taking the hint, Jenkins opened his bag and took out his stethoscope. Drawing back the blankets, he placed the end against Scott’s bandaged chest and listened carefully for a few minutes. Frowning, he removed the instrument and checked the young man’s eyes before looking up at his worried father.

“Has he woken at all?”

“No,” Murdoch replied. “The bullet is still in there and he’s lost a lot of blood.”

“I can see that,” Sam answered, glancing back at the blond’s pallid complexion. “He’s very weak and he’s going to lose some more when I start getting that bullet out.”

“But if you wait till he’s stronger…?”

“Then infection will almost certainly set in and he could die.”

Murdoch blanched and he clenched his jaw tensely. No choice then, Sam had to operate now before Scott’s condition deteriorated any further. “What do you need?”

“Boiling water so I can sterilize my instruments, some clean cloths, and a pair of strong hands to hold him in case he comes to in a hurry.”

The rancher gave a brief smile. “That last part I can supply. I’ll ask Teresa to fetch the rest.”

As Sam prepared what he needed, Murdoch filled him on what he knew about what had happened. He could not tell his friend much, but what he said troubled the doctor a great deal. An unknown attacker shooting Scott for no apparent reason, and then Johnny possibly going missing, it all added up to a whole heap of worries for the Lancer household. Murdoch had thought better of Steve Mills’ offer to go and search for his younger son.  Shortly before Sam arrived, he had ordered a small party of ranch hands to head out to where they had found Scott to see if they could pick up any tracks. In the meantime, the main priority was tending to Scott’s injury.  Therefore, Murdoch forced himself to put his other concerns aside as he got ready to help Sam.

“I’m set, Murdoch,” Jenkins said. “Best if you sit on the other side of the bed, and if Scott shows any sign of waking up, hold on tight.”

The senior Lancer nodded, his eyes fixed on Scott’s face. Sam looked on sympathically, knowing the procedure would be hard on both father and son. He would normally have given his patient an injection of morphine before he started in case he regained consciousness; but he was worried that the opiate would have an adverse effect on Scott’s already shallow breathing. He was also certain that the reason why Scott had not woken up yet was that the young man was suffering from shock; and he was very aware that the further trauma of extracting the bullet might jeopardize his condition further. However, to leave it in any longer would undoubtedly be worse.

Jenkins glanced again at Murdoch to ascertain he was ready and then began cutting away the soiled bandages. Murdoch winced inwardly as Sam then picked up his scalpel and drew the thin blade across Scott’s skin, making the entry point of the bullet wider so the doctor could insert his probe. Bright blood immediately seeped out and Murdoch quickly wiped it away with a clean cloth. He then steeled himself further, as Jenkins picked up the probe and carefully pushed it inside the wound. His gaze went back to Scott’s face, but his son’s waxen features never flickered once. Even when the probe went deeper still, the blond remained completely oblivious, and Murdoch did not know whether to be glad or concerned. Scott hardly seemed to be breathing at all. His skin felt cold and clammy to the touch. Some indication of life would go a long way to reassure his father; but Murdoch knew that at this point he had no other choice but to rely on the skill of the doctor to bring his son through.

More blood, too much of it, continued to flow from the wound. Surely, it would be too much, Murdoch thought as he wiped it away again. He knew that in spite of his lean frame, Scott was strong, but how much more could he afford to lose?

“Sam?” he asked anxiously, hearing his friend’s soft curse.

“It’s in real deep, Murdoch,” Jenkins replied. Sweat was beading the physician’s brow as he tightened his grip on the probe and changed the angle of the instrument. He was beginning to fear that the bullet had changed direction when it had entered Scott’s body, possibly causing internal damage to vital organs particularly the lungs. Face furrowed with concentration, he probed further still and finally encountered something solid.

“Think I’ve found it” he said. “It’s pressed right up against his shoulder blade. Bullet would have gone straight through if that bone hadn’t stopped it.”  Withdrawing the probe, he picked up a pair of long-handled forceps and inserted them into the wound.

The rank smell of blood was making Murdoch’s normally strong stomach feel queasy and he was glad Teresa had been ushered from the room before Jenkins had got started. He just wanted the whole thing to be over as quickly as possible.

“Got it!” Sam finally exclaimed.

Much to Murdoch’s relief, the doctor slowly pulled out the forceps with the small misshapen piece of lead firmly clasped between its pincers. Sam looked at the bloody lump of metal closely and then dropped it into a bowl.

“Rifle bullet?” Murdoch asked.

Jenkins shook his head. “Looks more like a handgun to me.”

“Handgun?” the rancher repeated in surprise. “But who, and why didn’t Scott fire back?”

Jenkins shrugged. “Could be someone he knew. Someone he trusted.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Murdoch answered.

“Maybe not, but right now I want to get this cleaned up, stitched and bandaged.”

Sam went about his remaining tasks leaving Murdoch to ponder on the doctor’s words. Someone Scott knew and trusted, he said. The question was who and what had happened to cause his son to be ruthlessly gunned down?

Once the wound was thoroughly cleansed with carbolic, Jenkins picked up a threaded needle and started to stitch the wound. Murdoch was so pre-occupied with his thoughts, that he almost missed the soft murmur, which issued from Scott’s lips.

“Sam. Wait!”

The doctor looked up curiously. “What?”

“I think he’s coming around,” Murdoch replied quickly. He leaned closer and called his son’s name.

Dark gold lashes flickered and the unconscious man’s breathing pattern changed as he struggled to respond.

“Scott? Come on, open your eyes,” Murdoch urged hopefully. “You’re home and you’re safe now.”

Sam was not sure he wanted his patient conscious right now, as he knew Scott would be in a great deal of pain. However, looking at Murdoch’s eager face, he could understand a father’s need to see his son awake.

Scott groaned and shifted restlessly against the pillows, as if he was trying to escape from the discomfort of the still open bullet wound. Then he gave a shuddering breath and his eyes suddenly snapped open in panic.

“It’s okay boy,” Murdoch said hastily. “You’ve been hurt, but the doctor’s right here.”

The wounded man looked at both men in confusion; his eyes squinted as fiery pain ignited in his shoulder.

“M..Murdoch?” he croaked, barely recognising his own voice.

“That’s right, son,” the elder Lancer replied, a relieved smile on his lips. “Sam’s here too. He’s just going to finish what he’s doing and then you can rest.”

Scott passed his tongue over dry lips and blinked away a bead of sweat, which trickled into his right eye.

“Johnny. Wh..where’s Johnny?”

Murdoch glanced up at Sam who shook his head imperceptibly. Knowing how close the two young men were, the doctor thought it unwise to upset Scott any further with the news that Johnny was missing.

The rancher hesitated for a moment before replying. “Your brother’s not here at the moment, but he’ll be here soon. Don’t you worry.”

His words did nothing to reassure Scott. If anything, they seemed to cause him more distress.

“Where is here?” he cried, clutching weakly at his father’s sleeve. “We’ve g…got to find him!”

“Scott, calm down,” Murdoch said, pushing his son back down as he attempted to sit up. “Why do we need to find him? Did he go after the person who shot you?”

“Murdoch!”  Jenkins exclaimed, horrified at his friend’s brusque questions.

“I have to know, Sam!” the other hissed back. As much as he was worried about Scott, he was becoming increasingly anxious over Johnny’s whereabouts. From Scott’s reaction, it appeared as if he knew something that could help.

“Was he with you, Scott?” he continued, ignoring the doctor’s tut of disapproval. “Did you see who shot you?”

The wounded man’s face paled even more and his eyes started to glaze over as his consciousness began to wan. “Johnny…” he muttered softly.

“Scott! Stay with me, boy.” Murdoch was beginning to fear he had said too much, and had inadvertently made his injured son’s condition worse. 

“Johnny...Johnny ....shot me.”

“What!’ Murdoch cried, appalled at Scott’s admission. He glanced up at Sam who looked equally shocked.

“He doesn’t know what he’s saying, Murdoch,” the doctor replied hastily.

“Scott. It couldn’t have been Johnny.”

The blond was rapidly losing his battle to stay awake, as the pain drove him to the edge of darkness. “Was,” he slurred. “Something….wrong. Have to f...find him. Find….”

His eyes fluttered shut and he gave a gasping breath, before falling back limply into his father’s grasp.      

“Scott!” Murdoch felt a sudden stab of fear and Sam hurriedly felt for his patient’s pulse.

“It’s okay, he’s passed out again.”

Murdoch breathed a profound sigh of relief and carefully laid Scott back down onto the sheets. He watched in stunned silence, as Jenkins completed the stitching and bandaging of the bullet wound, still unable to believe what Scott had said. Surely, Johnny would never harm his brother! His boys were so close it sometimes made Murdoch envious of their bond. No, it could not be true. Nevertheless, if it wasn’t, where was Johnny? His absence seemed to confirm his wounded son’s words. However, Scott had said that there was something wrong. Did he mean there was something wrong with Johnny? Was he sick? Something must be terribly wrong for Johnny to shoot his brother down.

The rancher rubbed his hand over his face, as he struggled to make sense of what he had learned; but all that remained were more questions – more uncertainty. Whatever the answer was, Murdoch had the uncomfortable feeling that this was only the beginning.

 

 

  *****************

 

Exhaustion made him stop. He had spent hours trying to track down the man he had seen watching him, but had found no trace. The night was now rapidly closing in, as Johnny pulled his equally tired mount to a halt and slid down from the saddle. He could have easily gone to sleep there and then, but the inborn need to care for his horse stopped him. Half asleep, he dragged the saddle from Barranca’s back, and gave the palomino a cursory rub down with a handful of grass. Johnny then staggered a few feet away and collapsed face down on the ground dead to the world.

 It seemed he had only been asleep for a few minutes, when he suddenly woke up with a start. For a moment he could not think what had disturbed him, but then he realised it was because someone was watching him. Johnny rolled over and sat up convinced he must be imagining things. That is until he saw the man sitting beside him. With a cry, Johnny lurched to his feet and snatched his gun from his holster.

“Who the hell are you?” he yelled, pointing the Colt at the stranger. “You’re the one who’s been following me, haven’t you?”

The man did not reply and looked up without any sign of fear in his eyes. He was Indian or part anyway, middle-aged with long braids tinged with grey. Dressed entirely in buckskin decorated with crude animal pictures, he sat cross-legged on the ground as immovable as time itself.

“Talk to me, you sonofabitch or I’ll……,” Johnny shouted.

“Shoot me like you did your brother?”

Johnny reeled backward as though he had been shot himself.  His blue eyes went wide with alarm as he almost lost his grip on his revolver.

“How did you know? Were you there…”

The Indian smiled. “I did not have to be. Your words have just betrayed you”

Johnny swallowed hard, realising that he fallen into the other’s trap.  He took another step back as the older man got to his feet.

 “How did it feel when you took his life? Did not the touch of his blood on your hands gladden you?”

“Shut up!” Johnny’s fingers curled tightly around the butt of his gun, but the other seemed unperturbed.

“You have lived with violence for a long time,” he continued smoothly. “What does one more death matter to you?”

“Of course it damn well matters,” Johnny retorted. “He was my brother. I loved him!”

“And yet you killed him.”

The stranger’s blunt accusation took the sting of anger out of Johnny, and he lowered his dark head with dejection.

“I didn’t mean to” he replied softly. “God knows, I didn’t mean to do it”.

“Are you so sure?”

Johnny starred up at him, the blood draining from his face. “What do you mean?”

“Perhaps you are a man who just enjoys killing,” the Indian answered, “a man who cannot escape his past.”

“You know nothing about me,” Johnny spat, his temper rising once more.

“Maybe more than you think, Johnny Madrid.”

The enigmatic stranger smiled again and then turned to walk away.

“Hey! You get back here,” Johnny yelled, raising his gun. “Get back here now!”

The Indian continued walking, and in his rage, Johnny ran after him and started firing although he knew his shots were hopelessly wild. He searched for another half an hour before he gave up. The man had disappeared, as mysteriously as he had appeared

Trudging back to his makeshift camp, Johnny sank down onto the ground in hopeless despair. He was hungry, thirsty and tired, but above all that, he was confused. He was beginning to think that the stranger was just a figment of his overactive imagination. He came and vanished with the silence of a ghost. Perhaps the Indian was not even real; and it was his own conscience speaking to him, telling him what he had been denying all along. Had he deliberately set out to harm Scott? No, he refused to believe that, and yet the words, which had come out of his mouth when he faced his brother, seemed to suggest just that. Was he, as the Indian intimated, a man who would never escape his past? That violence was so ingrained in his soul that he could even hurt someone he loved.

   Johnny groaned and took another drink from his canteen before scrubbing his hands over his face. He was too weary to think anymore. He just needed to sleep and find a few hours relief from his overwhelming guilt and sorrow.  In the morning, he had a hard decision to make. Go back and face up to what he had done or keep running until he had run out of places to hide. Both options held little future for him, but whatever he decided, Johnny knew that nothing would ever be the same again.

 

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

     

Murdoch sat with his wounded son for most of the night. Despite being liberally dosed with water laced with laudanum, Scott was feverish and restless. Propped up with pillows piled beneath his shoulders, he twitched and fidgeted constantly in the bed, and on several occasions, Murdoch heard him whisper his brother’s name. He tried to keep him as cool as possible and speak to him with low soothing tones. However, although Scott had opened his eyes a few times, he did not seem to acknowledge his presence.

In the early hours of the morning, Murdoch was relieved to see that his ministrations finally appeared to be taking effect. Scott was noticeably calmer and the fever had lessened to some extent. Murdoch was torn between his need to seek his own bed to snatch a few hours sleep or remain where he was in case Scott woke up. He knew Teresa would be more than willing to sit with her ‘brother’, but his young ward would need all her rest if she were to look after the injured man tomorrow. At first light, Murdoch intended to ride out with some of the hands to search for Johnny. He had held out the vain hope that his youngest son would have returned home that evening, completely oblivious of what had happened to Scott. However, as the hours ticked by with no sign of Johnny, Murdoch grew more despondent, and was now desperate to discover the truth of what had occurred between his sons.

   Eventually tiredness won out and Murdoch heaved his weary body out of the chair; and reluctantly left his son’s bedroom to cross the hall to his own, leaving both doors slightly ajar. He undressed and got into bed thinking he would fall asleep immediately, but he found himself still wide-awake an hour later. Murdoch still found it hard to believe that Johnny could shoot his own brother, and yet Scott was so certain. Could it all have been some kind of terrible accident? No, he was certain Johnny would have brought Scott home himself and confessed to what he had done, not run away leaving his brother bleeding in the dust. The alternative idea that Johnny had deliberately hurt Scott was even more terrifying and one that Murdoch could hardly bear to think about. It suggested that Johnny had been living a lie ever since he’d come home to Lancer and hated his brother so much that he had decided to get rid of him once and for all. If that had been the case, he had fooled them all, but Murdoch did not believe that Johnny could be that heartless.

The rancher sighed. His head ached as a million different theories whirled around his brain, but none of them made any sense. At least in the morning he could ride out and do something positive. Sitting around brooding did not help and God knows he had done enough of that in the past. He needed to act, but knew that without rest he would be of no use at all.  With that thought, he turned over and went straight to sleep.

 

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

 

Scott awoke to pain; nagging, persistent pain that invaded his sleep and from which there seemed to be no escape. Cracking open his eyes, he was dazzled by the early morning sunshine, which stole through half-open drapes, so he closed them again with a soft groan. He lay there for a moment listening to the sounds of the ranch coming awake, his confused mind struggling to recollect why he hurt so much. The sudden image of his brother jolted him to his senses with brutal reality and he realised now that Johnny’s face had haunted his dreams. Not the face he knew so well with those blue eyes that sparkled with amusement, or that infectious half smile which danced upon his lips. No, the last thing Scott remembered was Johnny regarding him with a cold, impassive stare just before he pulled the trigger.

“Damnit, Johnny,” he murmured softly. “Why?”

He opened his eyes and turned his head slightly to avoid the glare of the sun. It was only then that he realised that he was alone in the room. He knew that his father had been with him last night, remembered him speaking to the doctor, so therefore he was surprised by Murdoch’s absence. Then he suddenly recalled what the two men were talking about and he sat up abruptly in bed. The resulting pain astounded him and sweat broke out on his forehead as he tried to ride out the agony. It took him several minutes before it had receded to a manageable level and he could think again.

Murdoch had told Sam that the search for Johnny was going to resume at first light, and that he intended to join the hands in looking for his son. Scott was not sure what the time was, but he was certain that it was still quite early. If he was to see his father before he left, Scott knew he had to act now.

Decision made, Scott threw back the covers, turned slowly to lower his feet out of bed. The room immediately started spinning wildly and he knew it was a bad idea to get up, but he had to try. Taking a deep breath, he eased himself slowly up onto shaky legs. A few faltering steps took him to the window, and he peered out towards the corral. Sure enough, one of the hands was saddling Murdoch’s horse, Toby, and it would only be a matter of minutes before the search party headed out.

Turning quickly away, Scott experienced a nauseating wave of dizziness, and it was only a swift hand on the windowsill that prevented him from falling. Swaying precariously on his feet, Scott shut his eyes for a moment, while he waited for it to subside. He swallowed hard and then groped his way to the wardrobe to pull out a clean shirt and pants. By the time he made it back to his bed with his clothes and boots, he was close to passing out, and his shoulder was on fire. He sat there for a few minutes, his right hand pressed against the thick bandages, and then he began the laborious business of getting dressed.

Breathing hard, Scott pushed his hair, which was damp from sweat, away from his eyes and focused his attention on his bedroom door. It seemed an awful long way away, but he had wasted too much time already.  Gritting his teeth, he struggled up and forced his trembling limbs to move. He just hoped he could make it downstairs before his strength gave out.

 

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

 

“Where ya gonna start looking?”

Murdoch was sitting hunched over at the kitchen table with his coffee cup clasped in both hands and looked up in surprise at Jelly’s question.

“What?” The grey-haired rancher had been so engrossed in his own dark thoughts that the handyman’s query had barely registered. He sat up straighter in his chair and took a sip of the almost cold liquid before answering. “Oh, we’ll go back to the place where the hands found Johnny’s trail yesterday and hopefully we find more tracks.”

“And iffen you don’t?” Jelly asked.

“Then we’ll keep looking,” Murdoch replied emphatically.

Teresa, busy at the stove, looked around at hearing her guardian’s grim voice, and her dark eyes narrowed with concern as she saw the lines of strain on his face.

“Murdoch, why don’t you stay behind and get some more rest. You’ve hardly slept a wink all night.”

“I’m alright, honey,” he assured her, giving the young girl a brief smile. “I’d rather be out looking than waiting around here for news.”

  Teresa nodded. She had not expected anything different, but with his worry over Scott, she was concerned that Murdoch was pushing himself too far.

The Lancer patriarch felt slightly guilty leaving without first talking to Scott. He had looked in on the boy before he came downstairs and was relieved to find him sleeping peacefully with no sign of the fever returning. Now if he could find Johnny safe and sound, he would be content. Explanations could come later, once both his sons were home. Taking another sip from his cup, he set it down and rose to his feet.

“Best get going,” he said to the others, “the hands will be waiting.”

Teresa put down her pot and ran to him, her arms snaking around his waist. “Take care and bring Johnny home,” she implored, tears glistening in her eyes.

Murdoch bent to kiss the top of her head. “I will. I promise.” He pulled out of her grasp and started to turn just as the kitchen door swung open.

“Is there any chance of some of that coffee?”

“Scott!” Teresa exclaimed, as she caught sight of her ‘brother’ in the doorway.

“Son! What the devil are you doing out of bed?” Murdoch demanded, crossing quickly to the young man who appeared to be on the verge of collapse. Jelly went to help him too, and the two men guided the shaky blond to the table and sat him down.

“I’m fine,” Scott insisted, although he felt far from it. His head was buzzing fiercely, and he had almost missed his footing several times while descending the stairs. He could feel a cold sweat trickling down his face and the back of his neck, and the pain of his shoulder wound was making him sick to his stomach.

A cup was pressed into his hand and he took a long drink, looking up in disappointment when he discovered it was only water.

“What do you think you were doing coming downstairs?” Murdoch asked sternly. “You could have fallen.”

Scott refrained from telling his father that he almost had, and took another swallow of the water as he waited for his head to clear.

“I had to make sure I caught you before you left,” he said, hesitating for a second before finishing his sentence, “and to tell you that I’m coming with you.”

Teresa gasped in shock and Jelly mumbled something, which sounded like ‘damn young fool’ while Murdoch’s face just darkened with anger.

“You’ll do no such thing, Scott!” He replied, tersely. “You’re going straight back to bed where you belong and no arguments.”

 Scott drew himself up and looked his father straight in the eye. “With respect, sir, I’m not a child anymore so don’t expect me to follow your orders. I’m going with you and that’s final!”

Murdoch looked slightly taken aback by his son’s assertive tone, although part of him was gratified to see some of Scott’s old spirit back in his grey-blue eyes.

Teresa looked at the two Lancer men’s tense expressions and felt compelled to say something to ease the volatile situation.

“Scott, your father’s right,” she said, squeezing his arm gently. “I know you’re worried about Johnny. We all are, but you’re still very sick and certainly not strong enough to go anywhere yet.”

Scott sighed wearily. He knew they all meant well, and he probably was not in any condition to ride; but he had to make them understand why it was so important he went.

“Look,” he began, “I don’t know why Johnny did what he did, but I know he wasn’t acting rationally.”

“What d’ya mean?” Jelly asked curiously.

Scott glanced quickly at Murdoch before answering. “He didn’t show up to help me yesterday morning, and when he did it looked like he’d been drinking heavily.”

Murdoch drew in an exasperated breath, but Scott ignored him and carried on speaking.

“He was angry and aggressive; something that Johnny isn’t when he’s had a drink.” Scott paused, the events of yesterday still raw and painful. “He said things, a lot of things, and he seemed to get angrier the more I spoke to him. I told him that he looked ill…..”

“Ill?” Jelly interrupted. “How so?”

“He was sweating as if he had a fever and his eyes looked….” Scott hesitated

“Go on,” The handyman urged.

“He looked like he’d been drugged.”

“Drugged?” Murdoch gasped in shock. Teresa and Jelly looked equally shaken, but Scott was not finished.

“I don’t think Johnny knew what he was doing or saying. He was confused and unsteady on his feet. I think someone did something to him and we’ve got to find him before it’s too late.”

“Too late?” Murdoch repeated a feeling of dread rising in his belly.” What do you mean, Son?”

Scott swallowed back his nausea and bit his lower lip, as pain stabbed through his shoulder.

“If Johnny thinks he’s killed me… well, he might try something stupid.”

“What…?” Teresa breathed her face white with horror.

“Kill himself or start a gunfight and let someone do it for him.” Scott realised his words were harsh, but he had to make them aware of what he himself feared Johnny could do.

The other three sat in stunned silence as they considered what he had told them. Murdoch, who had previously thought that things could not get much worse, now faced the prospect of his youngest son dead by his own hands, or deliberately throwing his life away. If Scott came with them and proved to his brother that he was all right, a tragedy could be averted. That is, if they found Johnny quickly and he was still alive.

The rancher glanced at the pain-ravaged face of his eldest son and knew what this trip could cost him. Despite what had happened to him, Scott had never lost faith in his brother and knew Johnny had never set out to hurt him. As to who had drugged Johnny and with what, they would only find out once they had found him. Right now, it was imperative they leave without further delay.

“Jelly, go and saddle Scott’s horse.”

“Murdoch, no!” Teresa protested, but he held up his hand.

“It’ll be all right,” he said replied hastily. “Scott’s right. He needs to be there when we find Johnny. I’ll look after him and I promise we’ll bring Johnny home together.”

His firm manner brooked no argument although Jelly was still grumbling as he got up from the table.

“And what do we tell the doctor when he comes calling?” he asked belligerently.

Scott smiled briefly. “Just tell him I made a miraculous recovery.”

“Huh!” Jelly retorted. “You think he’s gonna believe me?”

“Probably not, but I’m sure you’ll do your best to convince him.”

Jelly muttered something under his breath, but headed for the door. Teresa glared briefly at the two remaining men and registered her own protest by getting up and flouncing back to the stove.

Murdoch exchanged an amused glance with his son for a moment, but then his face turned serious.

“Are you sure about this, Scott? You’re still weak and I know you’re in pain.”

I’ll be okay, Sir,” he answered, appreciating his father’s concern. “And I’ll be even better when we find Johnny.”

“Then we’d better get going.”

 

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

 

Johnny pushed on southwards. He had awoken well after dawn with a severe headache and a raging thirst. Preferring to save his precious water supply in his canteen, he had saddled Barranca and set off to find an alternative source. When he had eventually found a shallow stream, he had drank his fill and ensured his horse was adequately watered before they went on. It was only then that he realised that he was heading further away from Lancer; and he had made no conscious decision as to what he was going to do, as he had originally planned.

Now as the sun climbed higher in the sky, Johnny realised that he never intended going home at all. There was nothing there for him anymore and somehow his former life as a gunfighter seemed more appealing with every mile. He knew that Murdoch would guess that he would head for Mexico. Perhaps the old man would even recruit Johnny’s friend Val Crawford to join in the hunt. The sheriff of Green River knew his ways and was a good tracker; but Johnny was determined that no one was going to catch up with him. Once in Mexico, he could disappear and maybe find some of his old friends. Of course, there was also the possibility of meeting up with some old enemies too, but he had to take that chance. Johnny did not really care what happened to him anyway. He would welcome a bullet if it meant it would put an end to his miserable existence.

Reining in, he reached for his canteen and took a drink. He was still desperately thirsty and his headache showed no sign of abating. Johnny took off his hat and rubbed his forearm across his sweaty forehead before replacing it. Turning in the saddle, he scoured the horizon to see if he could see anything of a pursuing posse or the mysterious Indian he had encountered last night, but there was nothing.

“Just you and me, boy,” he muttered to his palomino. Barranca twitched his ears, sensing his rider’s morose mood and tossed his head as if eager to be on the move.

Johnny sighed and took up the reins again. He had a long way to go and there was nothing to be gained by staying here. However, he knew it would be a lonely road and filled with uncertainty. He had no choice. It was the only path that he could travel.

 

    *************************

 

It had been a frustrating morning for the men from the Lancer ranch. The search party had returned to the place where Johnny’s last tracks had been located the previous day, but there the trouble had begun. Despite their combined efforts, it had been more difficult than they thought to pick up the trail again, and at first, it appeared that Johnny had deliberately misled them. However, Murdoch was not so sure now, and the erratic nature of his younger son’s tracks seemed to be another sign of Johnny’s state of confusion, and deeply worrying. Midday was fast approaching before they finally found some consistent signs, but by then valuable hours had been lost.

Murdoch urged his horse up to the summit of a small hillock and reined in to wait for the others. The search party was small; besides himself and Scott, there were only three others. Frank, their dark-skinned ranch-hand who was considered their best tracker and Steve and Miguel, both of whom had immediately volunteered to continue where they had left off yesterday. Although others had offered to come, Murdoch had refused. If, and when they caught up with Johnny, he did not want his son to be alarmed by a large number of men. In his present unpredictable condition, there was no way of knowing what he might do.

The clatter of hoofs made him turn in the saddle and his craggy features clouded with concern when he caught sight of Scott. The boy was suffering, of that, he had no doubt, and Murdoch knew he should never have agreed to him coming along. Hunched over in the saddle with his left arm held awkwardly in a sling, Scott looked like he might topple off his horse any minute. Steve and Miguel had stationed themselves at his tail ready to render assistance if needed; but Murdoch could see by the stubborn set of his son’s jaw that any help would not be welcome.

“How’re you holding out, Son?” he asked as Scott drew level.

“I’m okay, Sir,” came the terse reply. “Why have we stopped?”

“Frank’s gone on ahead to see if there’s a quicker way around these rocks,” Murdoch replied, indicating the way with a nod of his head.”

“But we could lose Johnny’s tracks again if we do that,” Scott argued.

“No, I’m certain we’re on the right trail now,” the older man answered, hoping he was right. Reaching for his canteen, he took a drink and offered it to Scott, but he shook his head.

“You need to drink, Son,” Murdoch chided, eyeing the wounded man’s ashen features critically.

“We need to keep moving,” Scott insisted.

“Let’s wait for Frank to get back. A few more minutes won’t make any difference”.

‘It might make a hell of a difference to Johnny’ Scott thought, but he held his tongue. He tried to kerb his impatience and settle into a more comfortable position in the saddle.  However, the moment only served to aggravate his shoulder and he was unable to stop the hiss of pain, which rose unbidden to his lips.

“Scott?”

Murdoch’s worried voice sounded a long way away.  Scott’s gloved right hand gripped the reins tightly as he tried to gather his reeling senses.

“It’s al...alright,” he muttered, quickly raising his head to give his father a faint smile. “I just jarred it a little.”

Murdoch nodded. He knew his son was playing his injury down, but it was only a matter of time before Scott realised he had made a big mistake by coming along. Before they left that morning, Teresa had armed Murdoch with fresh bandages and a bottle of laudanum. Despite his protests, Scott would need to take something for the pain, and Murdoch was determined he took it even if he had to sneak it into his coffee. 

  Scott moved his horse a little way away from his father, anxious to escape the older man’s scrutiny, anxious to get on. He knew they were making allowances for him and hated the thought that he was slowing them down. Johnny was out there somewhere and needed their help, he was sure of that – wasn’t he? Would his brother be so riddled with guilt that he would choose to take his own life? Was he just flattering himself that Johnny cared that much about him to commit such an act? What if Johnny hadn’t been influenced by a drug or alcohol and really meant the things he had said? Those words still hurt and doubts had been creeping into Scott’s mind all through the morning. When it came down to it, he had known Johnny for less than a year and his brother was a hard man to read. What if he had been totally wrong about his sibling all along?

‘No’ he thought, closing his eyes briefly. He had to believe in his brother and trust his instincts.

“What was that, Scott?”

Murdoch’s voice startled him and he looked around in surprise, not realising he had spoken aloud.

“Nothing,” he replied hastily. He twisted his head back to look up the trail, narrowing his gaze against the midday sun. “What’s keeping Frank?”

“Here he comes now,” Steve called from his position further down the hill. “And it looks like he’s in a hurry.”

Father and son glanced anxiously for a moment before turning their mounts to follow Steve and Miguel. Frank was indeed riding fast and the others hurried to meet him.

“Frank? What is it?” Murdoch began, as his heart pounded with fear. “Have you found him?”

“No, Mr Lancer,” the younger man answered, “but I think I found where he stopped last night.”

“Come on,” Murdoch replied, kicking his horse into motion. The five men moved off swiftly, and after about ten minutes came across a small clearing dotted with rocks and stunted bushes. It seemed a good place to stop overnight although Murdoch could see no apparent evidence of a camp.

“Why here, Frank?” he asked.

“Over here, I’ll show you,” the other replied as he swung down from the saddle and walked on past the outcrop of rocks. Murdoch frowned, but nevertheless dismounted and signalled to Steve and Miguel to assist Scott. He smiled to himself at hearing his son’s protests, but then he ignored them as he approached Frank, who was crouching down looking at the ground. “Frank?”

The dark-skinned man stood up and turned towards his employer. “Almost missed them at first, but then I saw something shining.”

He held out his hand and dropped the objects into Murdoch’s large palm.

“Shell casings?” the rancher said, peering curiously at them.

“They’ve been used recently,” Frank informed him, “and they match Johnny’s gun.”

“But how do you know they were his?” Murdoch questioned.

“I didn’t. Not till I found his horse’s tracks.” The ranch hand moved over to the left with Murdoch at his heels.  “There, see where the dust has been churned up. Looks like a horse stood here for a spell.”

Murdoch bent down and filtered the earth through his fingers. “Could be Barranca’s,” he mused thoughtfully. The evidence was tenuous, but it was the best lead they had had so far.

“Murdoch!”

The rancher stood up to see Scott making his way towards him. His son looked annoyed, partly because Steve Mills had a firm hand on his right arm, although Murdoch suspected Scott was angrier at his own weakness.

“What is it? What did you find?”

“We found Barranca’s tracks,” Murdoch told him, “and some spent shells.”

Scott glanced at his father in surprise. ”Johnny’s?”

“Could be.”

“What was he firing at?” Scott was fearful his father was about to tell him that they had found a body; another victim of his brother’s crazed state of mind, and was relieved when Murdoch shook his head.

“Don’t know, haven’t seen any other tracks around.”

The four men looked around the clearing in silence for a moment, each immersed in their own thoughts as to what had happened here. Murdoch was especially concerned at his younger son’s seemingly irrational behaviour, and again it only served to increase the sense of urgency that they found him soon.

“How many hours do you think he’s ahead of us, Frank?”

The other squinted up at the sun. “Six or seven hours, maybe, depends on when he left.”

Murdoch nodded. “Let’s go.”

Frank and Steve ran off to join Miguel who was waiting with the horses and Murdoch looked expectantly at Scott, but his son was still staring around at the makeshift camp.

“Scott?”

The young Bostonian turned towards him, his eyes deeply troubled. “What’s wrong with him, Murdoch? Why is he doing these things?”

The rancher reached out his hand and placed it on his son’s good shoulder. “I don’t know, Scott, but we’re going to find him.”

“What if he doesn’t want to be found?”

 Murdoch had no answer for him and wished he could do more to reassure his boy. Scott’s faith and trust in his brother had been severely dented, and he only hoped that damage could be repaired. In the meantime, they had many miles to cover and Murdoch’s anxiety over both his sons was growing stronger with every passing hour. He could already feel the heat of fever seeping through the fabric of Scott’s shirt, and he was afraid that he was pushing himself to the point of collapse. However, he also knew that convincing his stubborn son of this would be nigh on impossible! All he could do was keep a close eye on the injured man and pray they would find Johnny soon.   

 

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

 

The thunderstorm broke in the late afternoon. Johnny had been watching the dark clouds gathering in the distance and knew he was in for a drenching soon. However, he did not make any effort to seek shelter, and almost welcomed the heavy raindrops when they started to fall. If only the sudden torrent could wash away his sin and erase the memory of his crime, but Johnny knew that was impossible.

 The storm soon became more intense and as Barranca began to be spooked by the lightning, Johnny was forced to look for somewhere to wait it out until it had passed. He had spotted some caves up on his right about half a mile back, so he turned the agitated palomino around and galloped towards them. The rain had almost stopped by the time he reached the caves, but the thunder was still booming overhead. Dismounting he led his mount up the slope and approached the nearest entrance cautiously. He did not relish the thought of disturbing any wild creature, which might be lurking inside.

Gun drawn, he crept inside and stood for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the gloom, but the interior seemed clear. The cave mouth was high enough for both horse and rider, so Johnny led the animal inside and ground-hitched him by the opening. Looking around, he realised his shelter was much larger than he had first thought and was dry underfoot. Although there was still a few hours of daylight left, and with the weather remaining overhead, Johnny decided it would be a good place to spend the night. His headache had eased, but he was tired, and sore, and needed to rest.

Unsaddling Barranca, he left the palomino chomping on some vegetation by the cave mouth and settled down on the ground. Realising he had not eaten all day, he fished around in his saddlebags eventually finding some jerky. It did not look very appetising, but it was better than nothing, so he bit into it. As expected, it was rock hard, so Johnny washed it down quickly with some water, grimacing at the taste. His unpleasant repast done, the former gunfighter leaned back against the cave wall and tipped his hat over his eyes, in the hope he could sleep for a few hours.

Ten minutes later, however, he was back on his feet pacing backwards and forwards across the width of the cave. How could he sleep knowing that back at Lancer, everyone would be mourning the death of one of its own, callously murdered by his brother?  Every time he closed his eyes, Johnny could see the look of surprise and horror on Scott’s face as the bullet hit home, and he knew he would live with that image forever.

What would be happening back at the ranch? Would his grieving father be arranging  Scott’s funeral, while seething with rage over his other son’s duplicity? Johnny could picture the scene at the small burial plot with everyone giving Murdoch pitying looks at the graveside as the coffin was lowered into the ground; one son dead and the other as good as. All hope for the future generations at Lancer gone in a wink of the eye.

Suddenly blinded with tears, Johnny stopped pacing and stumbled to the cave entrance. The summer storm was all but over, but the clouds were still scudding over the sky with more rain waiting in the wings. He should go back, he told himself again. Johnny had never run away from anything in his life, but this time it was different.  Scott had been everything to him – his best friend as well as his brother. There was nothing he could do to put things right.

“They are coming for you, Johnny.”

The voice behind him made him turn quickly on his heel, right hand reaching for his gun. A shadowy figure detached itself from the shadows at the rear of the cave, and even before it came into the light, Johnny knew it was the Indian.

“You again! How did you get here?” he cried.

“It does not matter,” the other replied.

“Then why don’t you leave me alone and get the hell out of here!” Johnny retorted angrily.

“I am here to help you.”

“Well, I don’t need any help. Not from you.”

The Indian came closer, his dark eyes intently locked on Johnny’s. “You are in great danger. Your father is drawing ever closer with many men. They mean to harm you.”

“You’re crazy!” Johnny snapped back. “Murdoch wouldn’t let that happen.”

“Your father cares nothing for you,” the older man insisted. “He never did. Your brother was always favoured over you. You know that.”

 Johnny stared at him, wondering if the Indian was telling him the truth. Had he himself said that much to Scott in the minutes before he had fired the fatal shot? Murdoch was always harder on him than his brother was always bawling him out for something or other. It had been particularly bad in the days when he had first come to the ranch and found it difficult to settle in. Scott had adapted quicker and hardly ever incurred the wrath of his father. Did Murdoch really not care for him at all? Had his indifference ignited such a feeling of resentment towards Scott that had ultimately resulted in the shooting? If that was the case, his father was as much to blame for his brother’s death as he was.

“You must see that your father is the one to blame,” the Indian said, echoing his thoughts. “You must kill him and everyone with him if you are to be free.”

“Kill him?” Johnny breathed.

“It will be easy,” the other went on. “This cave will be the ideal place for you to ambush them. I can lead them here and you will have your chance.”

“No, I can’t do it.”

The Indian looked disappointed. “Then you are a fool. Goodbye Johnny Madrid, I leave you to your fate.”

He turned to go, but Johnny was not ready to let him out of his sight again and flung out his hand to grab him – and suddenly woke up!

Blinking in surprise, the dark-haired man pushed back his hat and looked about him, but apart from his horse still standing in the cave entrance; he was completely alone. Johnny rubbed at his eyes and got to his feet, realising it was almost dark outside. He must have slept for a few hours, but he did not remember dozing off. The dream remained vivid in his mind and deeply disturbing. He tried to tell himself that everything the Indian had told him was nonsense, but part of him was inclined to believe it was true. Yes, his father would send people to find him. He might even come himself, but surely no one intended to do him harm? Johnny could not believe Murdoch would be that vindictive, but a man consumed with grief and vengeance was capable of anything.

Johnny sighed and walked back into the body of the cave, and started gathering together some twigs, and dried vegetation to build a fire. He would spend the night here, and in the morning wait to see if anyone was really in pursuit. He had no intention of opening fire on anyone, but if they wanted a fight, he would give them one. Johnny hoped it would not come to that, but if it did, he wanted to be ready. There was nothing to lose, except his life.

 

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

 

Scott ached. Every jolting step seemed to aggravate his injured shoulder; and the pain permeated his entire body even rising to his skull, and settling behind his eyes. He longed to call out to his father that they should stop for a moment to rest, but that would mean giving in to his weakness and letting everyone else down. Gritting his teeth, he ploughed on, forcing himself to look straight at the trail and not let his heavy head droop. The evening was closing in, so they had to stop and make camp soon. He would hold on until then.

Riding a little ahead, Murdoch was well aware of his son’s predicament and wondered how long it would take before Scott conceded defeat. He knew if he suggested that they stop for the day and rest up, Scott would argue to go on and he silently cursed himself for producing two equally stubborn sons. His thoughts naturally drifted to Johnny, and what would happen when they finally caught up with him. Murdoch really had no idea what his youngest son’s reaction was going to be. Would he show the same level of violence and aggression as witnessed by Scott?  If so, how were they going to deal with it? Johnny could be a very dangerous man when crossed. How then, could they reason with him and convince him that he was not to blame for his brother’s injury? Scott’s presence in the search party would undoubtedly be a major factor in doing so, although Murdoch suspected that seeing Scott’s condition would only serve to further Johnny’s guilt.

“Mr Lancer!”

Murdoch had been so engrossed in his thoughts that he had not realised that he had ridden further ahead than the others had. He stopped and quickly looked back, alarmed to see Scott hanging half out of the saddle with Steve beside him, frantically trying to stop the blond toppling to the ground. Galloping back, he positioned himself on the opposite side to Mills and grasped Scott’s arm.

“Easy, son,” he said. “I’ve got you.”

“’M..okay,” came the whispered reply

“No, you’re not,” Murdoch answered. “But you will be when you get some rest.” He looked up and was grateful to see Frank riding back to join them. “Frank, we’re going to stop and made camp here overnight.”

The ranch hand took a quick look around the area and then glanced back at the older man. “Fair enough, sir, but there’s a better place about half a mile up head. Water too.”

Murdoch turned towards Scott who had now raised his head and was trying to push himself upright in the saddle. “Think you can make it, son?”

Scott nodded briefly and wrapped his hand tightly around the reins in a determined manner. His father gave his arm an encouraging squeeze and the small party moved on steadily until they had reached the designated spot. As Frank said, it was a good place, sheltered with trees and small bushes and bordered on one side by a small brook. Murdoch looked on in approval and murmured his thanks to Frank before dismounting to help his ailing son. Scott was struggling to extricate his feet from the stirrups, his movements slow and sluggish as Murdoch reached his side. He was so tired that he could hardly keep his eyes open, and was grateful for his father’s strong hands around his waist, as his feet touched the ground and his knees threatened to buckle under him.

“Come on, son,” Murdoch said, dragging Scott’s good arm around his neck. “Miguel, can you take care of the horses?”

“Si, Senor,” the Mexican answered willingly.

Murdoch led Scott over to the nearest tree and eased him down to the ground. The wounded man sighed and leaned wearily against the broad trunk and closed his eyes in relief. Murdoch regarded him worriedly as he removed his son’s hat, and pressed the back of his hand against Scott’s brow. As he suspected, it was hot and dry and he quickly rose and crossed to the brook to soak his handkerchief.

Scott groaned as the damp cloth was applied to his burning skin, and he opened the eyes to find himself staring into concerned gaze of his father.

“Before you say it,” he muttered a ghost of a smile on his lips. “I shouldn’t have come.”  

Murdoch smiled in return. “But would that have stopped you?”

Scott shook his head. “Johnny needs me.”

“I know, son,” the older man replied quietly. ‘And I need you both’ he thought wistfully. Now, he was painfully aware that he still might lose his two boys:  Scott through his injury and worry; and Johnny who seemed hell bent on self-destruction.

He glanced up at the swiftly advancing night clouds and hoped the rain would hold off. Earlier that afternoon, they had seen thunder in the distance, but thankfully, it had passed by. Murdoch wondered if Johnny had been caught out by the storm and if he had found shelter. A parent’s concern for his child – an experience Murdoch still found strange after all these months. He doubted that it would ever change.

 “Murdoch?”

Scott’s anxious voice startled him, and the pensive expression vanished from his face as he looked into the younger man’s blue-grey eyes.

“You just rest here a while,” he said, getting stiffly to his feet. “I’m going to gather some wood for a fire.”

“All right,” Scott agreed, wishing he did not feel so useless. As Murdoch walked away, he let his head drop back against the trunk and slid his eyes shut. Just a few minutes rest, he promised himself, and then he would get up and help the others set up camp.

 

       *****************

 

“Scott? Come on, wake up.”

Who was calling him? Was it Johnny? Scott had been dreaming of his brother. Random images of Johnny who appeared to be lost in some featureless desert. Scott had tried hard to reach him, but every time he drew nearer, Johnny was snatched out of his grasp by some unknown hand.

“No,” he breathed, struggling to move, but his arms and legs seemed to be strangely constricted. “Let him go...”

“Son! Wake up!”

Someone was shaking him now, and tendrils of pain burrowed out from his shoulder and rippled across his chest. Scott gave a gasping moan, and slowly opened his eyes trying to focus on the hazy form of his father.

“Wh…what?” he croaked. Raising his head slightly, Scott discovered that he was lying on the ground covered in a blanket, and that his upper body was now propped up against a saddle. A well-established fire crackled nearby and when he glanced around, he realised that it was fully dark. “How long have I been asleep?”

“About three hours,” Murdoch answered the relief evident in his voice. He had grown concerned by his son’s agitated movements, and distressed mutterings, and then came close to panic when he failed to wake the sleeping man.

“Three hours!” Scott exclaimed, trying to sit up, only to find himself to be pushed back down again.

“You needed it, Son,” Murdoch replied. He reached out and felt the injured man’s forehead. “Well, you do seem somewhat cooler, but I still think you need to get some more sleep.”

“I’m all right.” Scott pushed away his father’s restraining hand and struggled into a sitting position. He was a little irritable that he had been left to sleep for so long, and the throbbing pain in his shoulder was making him tetchy.

“Do you want anything to eat?” Murdoch asked. “You haven’t had much today.”

His father was fussing excessively, but Scott could see how worried the older man was and relented. “Maybe a little.”

Murdoch smiled and rose to his feet. “Stay where you are.”

Scott nodded obediently as his father left his side.  He had to admit he did feel somewhat better after his rest, although his shoulder was still aching, and his left arm felt stiff. Fiddling at the sling, he eased his arm slowly out and winced as the movement pulled at the stitched wound.

“You okay there, Scott?”

He glanced up to find Steve Mills approaching him. The young ranch hand had been checking on the horses and noticed the pained look on the wounded man’s face.

Scott gave a faint smile. “I’m fine, just a bit uncomfortable.”

Steve nodded sympathetically and turned to leave, but Scott called him back.

“Steve, I wanted to thank you for taking care of me yesterday. My father told me that it was you who found me and brought me back to the ranch.”

“Not just me,” the other admitted. “Miguel was there too. He went for the doc.”

Scott was impressed by the young man’s quiet modesty. “Well, I’m glad you two came along when you did.”

Steve flushed a little with embarrassment. “I’m glad we did too. I just hope we find Johnny tomorrow.”

His comment about his brother took Scott back to his disturbing dream and he ducked his head. “Yes So do I.”

Without further reply, Steve left him to his thoughts. Scott very much hoped they would catch up with Johnny in the morning, although he was equally apprehensive what they would find. For all he knew, his brother might already be dead, by either by his own hand or someone else’s. However, if his dream was to be believed, Johnny was very much alive, but in need of help. Scott’s niggling fears over his brother’s actions had melted away, and he was now sure that someone was deliberately manipulating Johnny. The question was who?

“Scott?”

Murdoch’s voice made him look up. His father was bearing a mug in one hand and a plate of food in the other. “I hope you’re feeling hungry. Frank made so much of this stew I think we’ll be eating it for a week!”

His attempt at humour brought a faint grin to Scott’s lips, although Murdoch could see that he was deeply troubled.

“What’s wrong, Son?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.

Scott sighed. “I just can’t figure out who would want to drug Johnny and why.”

Murdoch squatted down beside him and handed over the mug of coffee. “Your brother’s made a lot of enemies in his time, Scott. It could be anyone.”

“I realise that, Sir,” the younger man replied, “but if they wanted to get back at Johnny they would have tried to kill him.”

Murdoch nodded in agreement. There seemed to be no logical explanation why someone had found it necessary to drug Johnny and the motive behind it was just as unclear. Both men sat in thoughtful silence for a moment, and then Murdoch realised that Scott had removed his sling and he looked to be in some discomfort.

“Shoulder still painful?” he asked

“It’s okay.”

Not convinced, Murdoch leaned forward and took the mug out of Scott’s hand. “Well, it won’t hurt to take a look.”

 Before Scott had time to protest, the senior Lancer unfastened the top buttons of his shirt and carefully pulled the material aside. To Murdoch’s relief, there was no sign of any blood on the bandages, but he had no doubt that Scott was in more pain that he would admit to. “It looks alright, but I’m going to have to change those bandages in the morning.”

Scott did not relish that prospect one bit. Fastening his shirt buttons himself, he picked up the plate of strew and spooned some into his mouth. It was surprisingly good and as he ate more, he could feel some strength returning to his weakened body.

Murdoch watched with approval as his son ate. Hopefully, with some food inside him and more sleep, Scott would be well enough to resume the search tomorrow. The rancher had seriously thought about sending his son back with one of the hands, although he knew the idea would not go down well with Scott. The boy was jeopardizing his health just by being here, and he dreaded to think what would ensue if anything happened to Johnny.

The evening wore on and the small party started to settle down for the night. The rain held off and the men hoped it would stay that way. Scott drifted off in a light doze while his father sat beside him. Frank squatted by the fire, whittling lazily at a sliver of wood, and on the other side of the camp, Steve and Miguel were sitting together playing cards. Under normal circumstances, Murdoch would have found the atmosphere quiet and pleasant, but the real reason they were there could not be forgotten. Despite this, Murdoch soon found himself nodding off and the rancher decided it was about time he turned in. He spread his bedroll out beside his sleeping son and lay down with a weary sigh.

“Mr Lancer?”

Murdoch swore under his breath, but opened his eyes to see Steve and Miguel standing a short distance away.

“What is it?” he said sitting up.

Both men glanced nervously at each other before Steve cleared his throat and spoke.

“Mr Lancer….. We think we might be the ones responsible for what happened to Johnny.”

Murdoch was on his feet in an instant. “What!”

Miguel jumped at the sound of his voice, and stepped back a little, but Steve stood his ground

“It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this,” he explained hastily. “No one was supposed to get hurt.”

“Tell me!” Murdoch’s temper was starting to fray rapidly, and although he had not heard Scott stir, he was conscious that his son was awake and sitting up.

“It was only meant to be a kinda joke,” Mills went on. “Me and Miguel were in town getting the supplies you wanted when we spotted Johnny ride in. Well, we was about done and were going over to the saloon for a quick drink before heading back.”

Steve paused at the rancher’s hiss of disapproval, but carried on with his tale.

“Just as we were going to meet up and persuade Johnny to join us, this Indian stopped us in the street and tried to sell us this potion of his. He kept telling us it would give us great strength and wisdom. We told him we weren’t interested and said we were going to meet a friend. The Indian didn’t give up trying and in the end, we bought the damn stuff just to get rid of him. Anyway, we found Johnny and offered to buy him a drink. He wasn’t going to come at first as he said he was going to go back to meet up with Scott; but then he came along. As I said, we only meant it to be a joke, so when he weren’t looking, I poured some into his beer.”

Murdoch’s face was white with anger, and he could feel his hands clenching into fists at the irresponsible actions of the men he had trusted.

“What was it?” he growled.

“I can’t remember what the Indian called it, “Steve replied. “But it sure made Johnny drunk real fast. He only had two beers, but he rolled out of that saloon as if he’d had twenty. We tried to stop him, but he told us to get out of his way and when he pulled his gun on us we didn’t argue.”

Murdoch looked at both men in turn, unable to believe what they had done. It may have all been a joke on their part, but the repercussions had proved to be disastrous for his sons.

“I think I know what was in the potion, Senor Lancer.”

The older man’s eyes swivelled towards Miguel who up to now had remained silent.

“What?”

The Mexican swallowed fearfully. “I think it was peyote.”

“Peyote?”     

The whispered query came from Scott, who was now standing behind his father’s shoulder; his face an ashen mask.

“It’s something the Indians use in their rituals, son,” Murdoch told him.  “It’s made from a cactus and is said to produce hallucinogenic visions. They say it affects people differently and it can be dangerous in the wrong hands”

“You bastard,” Scott breathed harshly.

“Scott, I….”

Steve did not have time to finish, as the infuriated blond suddenly threw himself at the ranch hand and both men crashed heavily to the ground.

“Scott!” Murdoch cried as he dashed forward to pull his son off, and Frank leapt to his feet to help. Together, they succeeded in dragging Scott away from Mills, but not before the Bostonian’s fist connected with Steve’s jaw. Incensed at being hit, Mills scrambled up ready to retaliate, but was quickly held back by Miguel

“Let me go!” Scott shouted as he struggled to break free from the restraining hands. Like his father, he found it hard to believe that the men’s foolish prank had resulted in such catastrophic results

“Calm down, Scott,” Murdoch ordered. “I’ll handle this.” He fixed his steely glare at the hapless ranch hands and knew there was only one decision he could make.

“Go and pack your things now,” he ground out. “You’re both fired and if I see your faces around the ranch again, I’ll deliver you personally to the sheriff!”

“No! You have to believe us, Mr Lancer,” Steve spluttered in protest. “We didn’t think it would affect Johnny like that. When we brought the supplies back to the ranch, we went straight out to go look for him. That’s when we found Scott. We never dreamed Johnny would turn on him like that.”

Mills turned to the younger Lancer. “We’re real sorry, Scott.”

“Sorry?” Murdoch thundered. “Is that all you can say? Scott could have been killed and God knows what’s happened to Johnny!”

“That stuff must have wore off by now,” Steve pleaded. “We’ll find him, Mr Lancer. He’ll be all right, I’m sure of it.”

“We can’t be sure of anything. Now get out of my sight,” Murdoch yelled. He was disgusted and saddened by what he saw as a betrayal, and he just wanted them as far away from him as possible.

“Come on, Steve,” Miguel said, pulling at his partner’s arm. “Let’s go.”

Mills shook him off, but he knew there was no alternative. Straightening his rumbled shirt and rubbing a rueful hand over his bruised jaw, he turned on his heel and walked off to collect his belongings.

“You shouldn’t have let them go,” Scott insisted.

“What would you have me do, Son?” Murdoch asked testily as he turned towards the younger man. “Shoot them?”

The young man stared at him for a moment, not sure himself what he expected his father to do. He suddenly felt very tired and he swayed slightly in Frank’s grasp as a wave of dizziness hit him. The sudden burst of adrenalin, which had kicked in earlier was now disappearing rapidly, and as his vision blurred, he could feel himself falling.

“Scott!” Murdoch exclaimed, rushing forward to catch him. With Frank’s assistance, he caught hold of his fainting son and they laid him back down on his bedroll.

“He’s bleeding, Mr Lancer.”

Murdoch cursed when he saw the red stain on Scott’s shirt and when he peered underneath, he could see more blood seeping through the dressings.

“Frank. In my saddlebags, there’s some fresh bandages. Some laudanum too,”

The ranch hand nodded and went to look, leaving Murdoch to tend to the wounded man, who although conscious, appeared very pale and dazed.

“Sorry,” Scott muttered softly as he felt the warm blood trickle down his chest. “Stupid move.”   

“Yes, it was, “Murdoch admonished as he carefully peeled his son’s shirt off. “You should have let me hit him!”

Scott chuckled, but the breath caught in his throat and he started to cough instead.

“Easy, Son,” Murdoch said, his eyes narrowing with concern as he saw fresh blood leak through the stained bandages.

Scott groaned and he drew a shuddering breath, as pain stabbed at his shoulder. He guessed he had torn the stitches when he launched himself at Steve, and he was already regretting his hasty action. Murdoch had enough to worry about over Johnny and now he had added to his concern by his foolhardiness.

“Here, Mr Lancer.” Frank had found the medical supplies and Murdoch nodded his thanks as he began cutting away the soiled dressings.

Scott winced and his eyes slid shut, as his father slowly removed the bandages and drew them away from the wound. Hearing Murdoch’s heavy sigh, he opened his eyes again and squinted down at the oozing injury, his stomach contracting ominously as he saw the amount of blood.

“I’m going to have to stitch this again, Scott,” Murdoch told him. “And then in the morning, you’re going back to the ranch with Frank.”

“No!” the younger man complained. “I’m not going anywhere until we find Johnny.”

“Scott, you’re not in any condition to go on,” Murdoch replied firmly. “I’ll not risk losing both of you. I’ll carry on looking for your brother on my own and hope to God he’s all right.”

“Don’t send me back, Murdoch,” Scott pleaded. “I have to be there when you find him. I’ll be all right. I’ll even drink some of that laudanum if it helps, but please don’t send me back.”

The rancher sighed and ran a tired hand through his grey hair. How could he deny his son the chance to help search for Johnny? If Scott went home, he would only endanger his health even more by worrying over the fate of his brother. However, staying here was just as dangerous. He might still succumb to fever or blood loss and Murdoch knew he stood a good chance of burying both his boys. ‘God, grant me more time with my sons’ he prayed. Murdoch had been without them for too many long years, and he knew he did not have the stamina to go on without them.

“We’ll talk about this in the morning,” he said at last. “Right now, we’re going to get you patched up and then you’re going to sleep. Agreed?”

Scott gave him a weak smile. “Agreed.” It might not yet be a victory, but his father’s concession gave him hope. He would do his damnest to be well enough to travel tomorrow and bring Johnny home.

 

    ******************************

 

Morning found Johnny in a state of great agitation. He had barely slept all night, for fear of further dreams and as a result, he was very tired and edgy. He seemed to jump at every sound and more than once, he hurried to the cave entrance convinced he could hear the sound of approaching hooves. Johnny did not like the idea of skulking away and hiding while he waited for his father’s posse to arrive. He was a man who faced a fight head on and riding away now just was not an option.

During his sleepless hours, he had a lot of time to revaluate his relationship with his father. He remembered receiving the summons, seconds before being hauled in front of the firing squad. His obvious relief had been tempered with renewed hostility. The man who had not ever bothered to contact him in twenty years now expected him to drop everything and go home to a place he barely remembered. He had almost walked out of the Great Room that first day, insulted that his own father had offered him money to make him stay. Maybe he should have done. He would have spared himself this present torment if he had turned his back there and then on his new-found family. Yet he knew in his heart that this is what he had craved his whole life. His early years were filled with such uncertainty and sometimes, fear. He had loved his mother dearly and she him. After she had taken him away from Lancer, they had spent the next few years aimlessly wandering from place to place until her premature death. Johnny had never really experienced the stability of family life and was not even aware that he wanted it until he had met his father and brother.

Now with Scott gone, Murdoch was the only family he had left, and yet it seemed his father had no love for him at all. Maybe he was right in hating Murdoch Lancer all these years. Perhaps it was time to finally burn his bridges, and ensure the man was out of his life forever.

‘Dios, what am I saying’, Johnny thought as he ran his hands through his unruly dark hair in anguish. Was he really planning to kill his father as well as his brother? What kind of monster was he turning into? For the last two days, he seemed to had lost the capability to think straight and it did not appear to be getting any better. Johnny had also noticed some numbness and trembling in his fingers. ‘Because I think you’re getting sick, Brother’ – that was what Scott had said on that fateful afternoon. Is that what it was? He was sick, seeing things that were not there and listening to voices in his head telling him to commit murder. Johnny groaned and rubbed at his burning eyes, before drinking some more water to slake his considerable thirst. He was running out and needed to find somewhere to refill his canteen. Should he risk leaving his shelter or stay where he was? Questions, always questions, but no answers came to his tormented brain.

Throwing himself on the ground, Johnny tried to seek refuge in sleep, willing his tired body and mind to relax. He hoped the dreams – if that was what they were – stayed away this time. Johnny still could not work out if the strange Indian was real or not. His ability to appear and disappear was baffling and faintly sinister. Almost like Absolem Weir, he thought with a wry smile, the man he had encountered a few months back over a dispute over a deceased neighbour’s land. Jelly had been convinced Weir had been the devil himself and Johnny had to admit he had been disturbed by the man’s presence. Like the Indian, Weir had tried to taunt and confuse him. Testing him and playing with his mind.

Johnny shook his head. Nothing made any sense any more. The devil had sat on his shoulder all the time when he was a gunfighter, ready to claim him as one of his own. Had he already crossed the line when he had killed Scott? Moreover, was he going to compound his sin when his father came for him? He rolled over onto his side and closed his eyes, blocking out the sunshine filtering into the cave. Weariness was dragging him down and reality became blurred. At last, Johnny slept and this time his sleep was mercifully dreamless.

 

    *********************

 

They were still arguing. Frank rolled his eyes and turned his attention to the trail ahead trying to block out the raised voices of the two Lancers who were riding a few paces behind him. The two men had been quarrelling since sunup, when Murdoch had first asked Frank to get saddled up and take Scott home. The younger Lancer had been furious, and even though he had been sick and feverish all night, managed to stagger to his feet and confront his father.

Frank waited patiently by the horses, ready to carry out the wishes of whoever won out, and was surprised when his red-faced boss eventually came over, and told him that the three of them were continuing the search. However, he did not miss Scott’s look of triumph as his father helped him over to the picket line, and Frank was secretly pleased that the younger man had prevailed. Scott may have been raised in some rich pampered household back east, but he certainly possessed the guts and stamina of a Lancer, and he never dreamed of giving up.

“At least, let me ride double with you,” Murdoch suggested, exasperated at his son’s continued obstinacy.

“No,” Scott hissed through gritted teeth. “That will only slow us down.” A trickle of sweat ran down the side of his nose and dripped to the ground as he spoke, and he barely suppressed a whimper of pain, as Charlie stumbled slightly on the uneven ground.

 

Murdoch sighed angrily. Why could not the boy see reason? He was far too ill to be out here, let alone riding a horse. After his physical attack on Steve last night, Scott had torn open the bullet wound completely and Murdoch blessed his presence of mind to bring along a needle and thread, together with clean bandages and laudanum. Sewing his son up again was not an experience Murdoch wished to repeat anytime soon, and his anxiety had escalated when he had noticed the telltale signs of infection around the edges of the wound. Even now as he glanced across at Scott, he could see the unnatural glitter in his blue eyes and the flush of fever on his cheeks; but his son remained resolute and inflexible.

“Well, don’t come running to me when you finally fall off your horse!” he retorted uncharitably and urged his own mount forward to join Frank.

Scott had to smile at his father’s incongruous remark. He did not think he could run anywhere even if he did tumble from his horse. It would be wonderful if he could just lie down on the ground and take a rest from the endless jolting and bumping, but he had to go on. Despite the heat of the day, he shivered squeezing his eyes shut as the tremor quivered through his shoulder and chest. Focus and keep going, he told himself, as he began to sag in the saddle and then suddenly, he opened to eyes again to find himself slowly slipping sideways. He jerked upright with a start, this time unable to stop the cry, which was wrenched from the mouth, and he cursed as he heard Murdoch’s evitable shout.

“I told you this was ridiculous!”

His father sounded understandably annoyed, but Scott had no breath to answer him. His lungs seemed constricted as he fought to stem the sharp pain, which engulfed his entire frame.  When he finally glanced up at Murdoch, it was through a veil of tears.

The rancher’s face softened, his anger vanishing immediately, when he saw the obvious distress on his son’s face and he reached out a supporting hand.

“It’s all right, boy,” he said softy. Turning his head, he signalled Frank to his side. “We’re going to stop for a while. Give Scott some time.”

“No!”

“Yes, Scott,” Murdoch replied firmly. “I relented this morning, but I’m not going to watch you kill yourself. We’ll just rest for half an hour and then we will go on. All right?”

Scott nodded, realising he had no choice in the matter. He allowed his father to help him down from his horse, and lead him to the shelter of some nearby trees. Lowering himself to the ground, he shuddered again and was grateful when a blanket was draped around his shoulders. He looked up as a shadow crossed his vision, and he smiled as Murdoch settled himself beside him, open canteen in hand.

“Thirsty?”

Scott nodded again and reached out to take it, but Murdoch gently brushed his hand aside and put the canteen to his lips. The water was tepid, but a welcome respite. He coughed once, wincing as another spasm of pain rippled through his shoulder and pushed the canteen away with a sigh. He was tired, so tired, but he knew he dare not go off to sleep. The last thing he wanted was for Murdoch to leave him here with Frank, and go and look for his brother alone.

Seated at his right, Murdoch was thinking about doing just that. He saw Scott’s gold threaded lashes flicker and droop, willing him to drift off even though he knew it would be an unfair move to take advantage of his son’s injury. Scott deserved to be in on the search, but it was unlikely he could keep up this relentless pace for much longer. Even if Johnny stuck to the same trail, he still could be several hours ahead of them. There was also the very real possibility that he disappear altogether, and the effect on Scott would be disastrous

“How’s he doing, Mr Lancer?”

Murdoch glanced up at Frank’s enquiry and put his finger to his lips. Climbing to his feet, he drew the younger man aside so they would not disturb his drowsing son.

“He’s still running a fever and exhausted, but he won’t admit it,” he told the other, his eyes still on his boy.

“What do you want to do?” Frank asked. He could sympathize with his boss’s anguish and could not help feeling guilty that two of his fellow ranch hands were responsible for all that happened.

Murdoch gave a heavy sigh and took off his hat to scratch his grey head. “I wish I knew,” he admitted at length. “The only way I can get him back to the ranch is to hogtie him to the saddle, and then he’d still find a way to get back!”

Frank gave a wry smile, but had to admit he was probably right.

“No, we’ll rest up here for a while,” Murdoch went on. “Get out of this damned sun. Then we’ll see.”

Frank nodded. “I’ll see to the horses.”

The ranch hand walked off, and Murdoch returned to his son and crouched down beside him. Scott was still warm, too warm and yet Murdoch could see him trembling under the blanket. He reached forward to look at the bandages, but they appeared relatively clean. Scott groaned softly and opened fever bright eyes to stare at his father.

“It’s okay, Scott. Just checking. Go back to sleep.”

“Wasn’t…asleep,” the blond muttered “Thinking.”

“What about?” Murdoch asked even though he guessed.

“Johnny.” Scott answered. He paused and shifted uncomfortably on the ground. “If….when we find him, do you think he’ll want to come home?”

Murdoch looked at him in surprise. “Why shouldn’t he?”

“I don’t know,” Scott replied, his expression pensive. “Sometimes, I wonder if he’s really happy at Lancer.”    

The rancher frowned, wondering where this was leading. Scott had never told him much about the shooting, only that Johnny had said many things before he pulled the trigger. Murdoch suspected his words had hurt Scott more than the bullet, which had entered his body, and they had been playing on his mind ever since.

“Your brother has always been restless, Son,” Murdoch said. “But I think he’s finally settled down.”

Scott dipped his head. “I thought so too.”

Murdoch reached out a hand. “What’s this all about, Scott? What did Johnny say to you?”

Scott exhaled sharply, the memory still too painful to speak. Yet Murdoch had a right to know what his brother had said, whether or not the words were drug-induced.

  “He told me how much he hated Lancer, hated me and that his former life as a gunfighter was better than he had now.” He paused, closing as his eyes briefly as the stinging words echoed once again in this head. “I tried telling myself it was the peyote talking, but what if Johnny really feels that?”

Murdoch could only look at him in shock, unable to believe that Johnny could say that to his brother. Like Scott, he believed that Johnny was genuinely happy with his new life at the ranch. Could they both have been so wrong? Scott was waiting for him to reply, to reassure him, but Murdoch had no answer for him. How could he when he himself was uncertain?

   In the end, he did not have to. An urgent shout from Frank made him glance up and he pushed himself quickly to his feet.

“What is it?” he called.

“Rider coming, Mr Lancer. And in a hurry.”

Johnny. Murdoch’s heart leapt with renewed hope, all doubts melting away at the thought of finding his youngest son safe and well. Scott, too, seemed to think the same as he, and was now struggling to get up, but Murdoch stopped him.

“Stay down, son. It may not be him.”

He turned away quickly, trying to ignore the disappointment in his boy’s eyes and hurried over to where Frank was standing. The ranch hand was holding his rifle and Murdoch’s hand strayed to his gun, as the rider grew nearer. Elation faded as Murdoch failed to spot the familiar shape of Johnny’s golden palomino. Nor was it anyone from the ranch.  Both men tensed as a brown and white paint pony sped towards them, and as one, they lifted their weapons as the rider reined to a stop. The middle-aged Indian glanced at the two men impassively for a moment before his gaze settled on the tall rancher.

“Murdoch Lancer?”

“Yes. What do you want?”

There was no reaction to Murdoch’s abrupt tone, and the Indian’s dark eyes never wavered.

“The father of Johnny Madrid?”

A sick feeling of fear crept into Murdoch’s stomach, but he schooled his features into a stern expression.

“My son’s name is Johnny Lancer now. Not Madrid.”

A flicker of amusement crossed the rider’s face before he spoke again. “I know where he is.”

Hope sprang once again in Murdoch’s heart, but he knew he should still show caution. “Where?”

The Indian took a quick look back over his shoulder. “There are some caves not far from here. He is there.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?” Murdoch asked.

“I do not lie. You should come now. Your son is very sick and he needs you.”

Murdoch’s first instinct as a parent was to go with the man, but for all he knew this could be the same person, who had sold the peyote to Steve and Miguel. On the other hand, the Indian could lead him straight to his missing son and if he was as sick as he said, then speed was of an essence.

He deliberated his next move for a few minutes more and then turned to Frank. “Stay here with Scott. Make sure he doesn’t try and follow me.”

“You’re not going with him?” Frank exclaimed incredulously. “You could be walking into a trap.”

Murdoch nodded. “I know, but it’s a chance I’ll have to take.” He clapped the younger man on the shoulder and then strode purposefully to his horse. Moments later, the two men rode off, leaving Frank with the task of telling Scott of his father’s decision. He gave a resigned sigh and then started to walk back to where the wounded man lay. This was not going to be easy.

 

    **********************

 

Murdoch pushed his big, powerful horse hard, but the Indian’s paint pony was much faster making it difficult for him to keep up. He dare not lose sight of the man, but his impromptu guide was not making it easy. Murdoch was also painfully aware that the Indian might not be telling him the truth about Johnny, and as Frank had pointed out, it could all be a trap; but for both his son’s sake he had to find out.

They had been travelling for about fifteen minutes when the Indian started to veer towards the towering rocky outcrop to the right. The sudden burst of speed of the man’s pony and the abrupt change of direction threw Murdoch completely, and the rancher cursed aloud when the man disappeared completely from sight.

Kicking his mount into motion, Murdoch tore after him as quickly as his tiring animal could manage. However, as he rounded a corner, he almost collided with the Indian, who was sitting patiently waiting for him to catch up. He glared angrily at the man as he reined in sharply, but the other remained still. Murdoch was breathing hard at the exertion while the other had not even broken into a sweat.

“Where is he?” he ground out. He had a feeling that the Indian was leading him on a wild goose chase and his patience was wearing very thin.

The man pointed a finger up the hillside. “You must go on foot now. I will wait here with your horse.”

Murdoch smiled mirthlessly. Climbing down from his saddle, he pulled his gun from his holster and levelled it at the Indian. “I don’t think so. You’re coming with me.”

For the first time, the other man appeared slightly perturbed, but then he shrugged and swung his leg over his pony’s head and slid nimbly to the ground.

“This way,” he said. “Be careful. It is a difficult climb.”

“I can make it,” Murdoch retorted gruffly as he replaced his weapon.

The Indian gave him a brief smile and brushed past starting like a gazelle up the steep slope. Murdoch gave an infuriated sigh, and wrapped his horse’s reins loosely around a shrubby branch before he followed.

 It was strenuous work ascending the hillside and Murdoch had to stop more than once to catch his breath. His guide did stop and wait for a few moments, but then he set off again at the same unrelenting pace. They were nearing the top of the incline when Murdoch spotted a series of openings in the rock face. Hot and sweating, he stopped once more bending forward with his hands on his thighs panting for air. ‘I’m getting too old for this’ he thought.  He took a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his face and when he looked up, the Indian had vanished.

“Damnit!” he swore vehemently. Cupping his hands, he called out, but all he heard was the echo of his own voice. He sighed and started forward again, only to stumble onto one knee as he slipped on a piece of loose rock. A frustrated cry formed on his lips, but he never had a chance to utter a sound as a single shot rang out, the bullet whining perilously close to his head.

Murdoch flattened to the ground immediately reaching for his gun, and he squinted up the hillside for this attacker. His natural assumption was that it must be the Indian, but he realised that he had not seen the man carrying a weapon. However, that did not mean that the other had not led him into a trap. He waited silently, feeling the perspiration trickling down the back of his neck, but no further shots came.

Hugging the ground, Murdoch crept along until he found a large boulder to shelter behind and after a moment raised his head cautiously. Another shot smacked into the rock sending tiny splinters into the air and Murdoch back down to the dusty earth.

“Keep away from me!”

Murdoch’s heart lurched as he heard the voice. Johnny! He had found him, although it was hardly the greeting he wanted to hear. The Indian had been lying to him all along. Johnny was not sick, nor did he sound free of the drug, which had affected his reasoning and led him to shoot his brother.

“Johnny! It’s me, Murdoch.”

“I know who ya are. I can see ya, old man. Now get the hell away from me.”

The aggression in Johnny’s voice made Murdoch feel cold inside. That was his son up there, but he sounded like a stranger. Had the peyote turned his brain completely? It had been almost forty-eight hours since he had been given the drug. Why was it still active?

“Johnny, there’s no need for this,” he shouted. “You were drugged. A stupid prank by Steve and Miguel. You didn’t know what you doing.”

“Don’t lie to me,” the younger man yelled back. “I killed Scott. Now you and your men are here to take me down too.”

Murdoch was horrified. Did Johnny really think they had come to harm him? Perhaps he had made a mistake in leaving Scott and Frank behind. Without Scott here, there was little chance that Johnny would believe him. However, he had to try.

“Johnny, listen to me. Scott is not dead. He was hurt, but trust me son, he’s very much alive.”

  There was silence for a moment, and Murdoch prayed Johnny was taking in what he had said, but his hopes were dashed when his son spoke again.

“I know what ya trying to do, Old Man. You’re trying to trick me down so ya can shoot me. I know I deserve it for what I did to Scott, but I ain’t gonna be shot down like some mangy dog.”

Murdoch tore his hat from his head and raked a hand through his hair in frustration. What could he do to make Johnny see the truth? He had to get up there and talk to him face to face. However, if he made a move it was more than likely that he would get himself shot. For all his hostility, he guessed that Johnny was nervous and possibly frightened. He needed help desperately, but Murdoch was at a loss to know how he was going to achieve that.

“Mr Lancer?”

The muted cry in the distance made him turn, and his dismay quickly turned to anger when he saw Frank further down the hillside looking up at him. Surely, he had not left Scott alone on the trail to follow him. If he knew his stubborn son well enough, Scott would not be far behind.

Casting a swift glance upwards, he wondered if Johnny had heard Frank’s voice. If he had, he might well think that his father had brought men to hunt him down. That belief could send him over the edge and Murdoch had to ensure that did not happen.

Slithering backwards, Murdoch started to make him way back down the hillside keeping as low as he could, half expecting to feel a bullet slam into him at any minute. It was with a sense of relief when he finally reached the dark-skinned ranch hand and he sank down gratefully beneath the jutting overhang of rock.

  “I thought I told you to stay behind with Scott,” he started testily, remembering his earlier anger.

“You did, but…..”

“Don’t blame Frank, Murdoch. I made him come.”

“Scott!” Murdoch exclaimed as he caught sight of his son. “What do you think you’re doing, boy?”  He scrambled past Frank who gave him an apologetic nod and crouched down next to Scott. The younger Lancer was half sitting, half lying further down the slope and to Murdoch’s eyes, he looked worse than ever. His blond hair was tousled and spiky with sweat. The short climb had exhausted him further and from the way he was clutching at his left arm, it was obvious that he was in pain. 

“Is Johnny up there?” Scott asked.

“Yes. I’ve tried talking to him, but he won’t listen. I don’t know why, but that peyote still seems to be affecting him.”

Scott glanced up towards the caves. “Then I have to go up there to him.”

“No!” Murdoch cried, grabbing his son’s good arm. “You’re in no shape to go, son. Johnny believes we’re out to hurt him. He’s already taken a shot at me and almost took my head off.”

Scott bit worriedly at his bottom lip: his brother sounded scared and still in a state of confusion. It was risky, but there was really only one way to convince him to come down.

“I have to try, Murdoch,” he replied. “Like I told you before, I have to prove to Johnny that I’m alright, and the only way I can do that is by going up there.”

The rancher sighed. He knew Scott was right. If anyone could persuade Johnny that it was safe to leave his sanctuary in the rocks, it would be him. However, he had no wish to see his son killed.

“He could still shoot you.”

Scott gave a ghost of a smile. “He’s done that before. Now, help me up before I change my mind.”

Shaking his head in despair, Murdoch wrapped his arm around his son’s lean waist and pulled him up. Scott hissed with pain, his face paling, but after a few unsteady moments, he found his feet. “Let’s go.”

 The three men made their way slowly and carefully up the incline, keeping a wary eye on the caves above. However, no challenge came, and Murdoch did not know whether to be glad or more worried. They reached the large boulder where Murdoch had found shelter previously without incident and crouched down low. Frank had his rifle in his hand although he was very loath to use it, and Murdoch was prepared to let off a warning shot if he had to. Scott, on the other hand, had other ideas and started unbuckling his gun belt.

“What are you doing?” Murdoch exclaimed in surprise.

“You said that Johnny thinks we’re here to harm him,” Scott replied. “If I’m unarmed, he won’t feel threatened. Even in his state, I doubt that Johnny will shoot an unarmed man.”

Murdoch was not so sure. At the moment, his younger son seemed to be capable of anything, and he just felt that Scott was putting himself in more danger. Unfortunately, he also knew there was nothing he could say to deter him.

“Just be careful.”

“I will,” Scott promised. He got to his feet with an audible grunt of pain and then glanced back at his father. “Wish me luck.”

Murdoch watched with his heart in his mouth as the slim figure struggled up the rocky hillside. ‘I shouldn’t have let him go’ he thought grimly. The boy was not strong enough, and with no gun to protect himself, he would not have a chance to defend if Johnny decided to open fire. All he could do was wait.

 

This was a mistake, Scott thought as he battled over rocks and loose shale. He could hardly see as perspiration dripped from his hair and into his eyes.  His shoulder wound was throbbing with every beat of his heart and his head felt fit to bust. That in itself was bad enough, but the daunting prospect of facing up to his seemingly out of control brother was scaring him more than he would admit. He felt vulnerable without his gun around his waist, and he knew there was a very great possibility that Johnny could take a shot at him at any moment. He just had to find a way to break through his brother’s muddled mind, and assure him that there was no recriminations for his actions.

As he neared the top of the incline, Scott stopped and crouched down partly out of caution, but mostly to get his breath back. His vision was fuzzy, and he quickly wiped his clammy face with his sleeve before turning his attention to the cave mouth. There seemed to be no one in sight, and Scott was wondering if he was looking at the right opening. Maybe Johnny had already left it, and was even now creeping up behind to attack him.

Scott took a swift glance around him, but failed to spot anything and it seemed to be ominously quiet. It was then he noticed the hind quarters of a pale coloured horse and realised he was looking at Barranca. His hopes rose for he knew that Johnny would never go anyway without his beloved palomino, and he must still be inside. Taking a deep breath, Scott raised his head slightly and called out his brother’s name.

Several seconds passed by, but there was still no response from the cave. Worry started to nibble at Scott’s mind. Had Johnny finally collapsed under the influence of the peyote? Scott did not know how the drug really affected anyone only that it varied from person to person. His own hurts seemed to pale into insignificance as his anxiety for his brother grew.

“Johnny? It’s me, Scott,” he cried once more. “Are you all right?”

Silence, then he tensed as he heard a slight rustle and the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked.

“Get away from me, you bastard! My brother’s dead.”

“Johnny, you’re wrong,” Scott called back. “I’m right here. I’m all right! Come out and see for yourself.”

There was another silence, and Scott could almost picture the indecision on his brother’s face as he considered his next move. He waited, heart pounding wildly, then footsteps scuffed in the dust, and a dark head materialised at the mouth of the cave.

“Show yourself.”

Scott passed his tongue over dry lips and slowly stood up with hands raised. The figure remained motionless for a few minutes and then crept warily forward with gun raised.

“Johnny,” Scott breathed, shocked at the sight of the younger man. His brother was pale and trembling, his blue eyes glassy and rimmed with fatigue. Dark stubble dotted his jaw, and his hair clung damply across his forehead. He looked as though he might keel over at any moment, and Scott put his own danger aside as he stepped forward to raise a helping hand.

“You look terrible, Little Brother.”

“Scott?” Johnny gasped, eyes growing wide with terror. “No, ‘Dios no. You’re dead. I killed you.”

The older man shook his head. “No, Johnny. You didn’t. Murdoch was not lying to you. I’m all right. Now, come on. Put the gun down and let’s go home.”

  “No, NO, this isn’t right!” his brother groaned as he backed away. “You’re not real. You’re just inside my head.”

Scott forced himself to stay calm and still, not wanting to alarm the confused man any more. He hated seeing Johnny acting this way. He wanted his confident, easygoing brother back again, not this shell of a man before him.

“Johnny, believe me,” he said quietly. “You’re not imagining this. You were given a drug, which is affecting your mind. You never meant to hurt me I know that. It’s all right. Nobody blames you. So please, give me the gun and let me help you.”

The dark-haired man continued to stare at him, his look troubled and fearful. Could he really trust this man who looked so like his brother, sounded like him? How could it be him? The last time he had seen Scott, he had been covered in blood. The blood he had spilt. Was this his brother’s ghost standing in front of him, and would he continue to haunt his dreams forever?

Johnny could not stop the gun wavering in his grip, so he brought his other hand up to steady the weapon. He wanted to believe this apparition was real; but he could not trust his own eyes. If the figure took one more step towards him, he would fire. Then he woukd know for sure.

 

 

“Can you see anything, Frank?”

The ranch hand had edged higher up the slope, stooping behind a cluster of thick bushes, with his rifle angled towards the cave.

“I can see Scott,” he paused as he shifted his position. “And Johnny!”

Although he knew the situation was far from over, Murdoch threw up a small prayer of relief. He moved his large frame forward, joining his ranch-hand by the bushes. Removing his hat, he parted the branches and peered up in the direction where Frank was pointing. He could see the slim shape of his eldest son standing to the left of the cave mouth; and when he shielded the early afternoon sun from his eyes, he spotted the shorter figure of Johnny. The younger man was standing a few feet away from his brother, and Murdoch’s apprehension grew when he realised that Johnny’s gun was levelled straight at Scott’ chest.

“You say the word, Mr Lancer and I can take him.”

“No!” Murdoch retorted harshly.

“I was only going to wound him if he made a move on Scott,” Frank protested.

The rancher was somewhat mollified, although he hoped it would not come to that. Enough Lancer blood had been shed already and he did not want to see anymore.  

“Let’s hope Johnny will see sense,” he muttered half to himself.

The two men watched, ears straining to hear what was being said, and trying to gauge if anything was getting through to Johnny.  Murdoch tensed as he saw his younger son take a step forward, and he put a restraining hand on the other’s shoulder when he heard him cock his rifle.

“Steady, Frank.”

The younger man nodded and relaxed slightly as he saw Scott continue to speak to his brother. Both of them looked exhausted, and he could only wonder at the Easterner’s resilience. Beside him, he heard Murdoch give a soft gasp, and when he glanced back up the hill, he saw the gun in Johnny’s hands start to dip.

“He’s listening to him,” Murdoch breathed. “My God! He’s really listening to him”

Frank smiled. “Sure looks like it.”

As if in a dream, Murdoch watched as Johnny’s weapon fell from his grasp, and he stumbled forward to the waiting arms of his brother. An unsentimental man, the rancher felt tears prickle at the back of his eyes as he saw the two young men embrace. It was though a great weight had been lifted from his soul when they broke apart, and stood with arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders as they prepared to come down from their lofty perch.

Then a sudden rifle shot sang through the air, and Murdoch could only watch in abject horror as both his sons fell to the ground.

 

    **********************

 

Scott’s eyes snapped open, the sound of the gunshot still reverberating in his head. Disorientated and in pain, he blinked several times as he tried to gather his stunned senses, then the heavy weight lying against him made him remember.

“Johnny!” He started to sit up, but then ducked back down again. Whoever was shooting at them might still be around. Gritting his teeth, Scott shifted around to face his brother. Johnny was lying slumped next to him, his head pressed against his bad shoulder and his eyes firmly closed. Fighting back panic, Scott reached across and shook him hard.

“Johnny? Wake up!”

There was no response and Scott shook him harder. This time his persistence paid off and to his relief, he saw the dark lashes flicker and heard a soft moan spill from his lips.

“Keep still,” he warned as his brother started to move. “He may be still out there.”

“Wh…what?” Johnny groaned. “Who?”

“My guess is the Indian,” Scott replied. “The one who led us here.”

“Indian?” Johnny murmured, opening glazed blue eyes. “He real too?”

Scott smiled. “As real as I am, Little Brother.”

Johnny moved again, his scattered senses clearing a little, and then Scott heard him take a sharp intake of breath.

“You hit?” he asked, his eyes narrowing with concern.

“Arm,” his brother answered shortly.

Scott looked closer and saw the blood leaking from Johnny’s upper left arm, his blue patterned shirt rapidly becoming stained with red. Fishing in his pants pocket, he pulled out a bandana and leaned over to tie it around the wound. 

“Ouch!” Johnny exclaimed as he tightened the knot.

“Sorry.”

The younger man watched as Scott worked, and then turned his gaze back to his brother, his eyes locked intently on his face.

“What?” Scott asked a little disconcerted by the close scrutiny.

Johnny’s features softened. “I can’t believe you’re really alive, Boston.”

The use of his nickname, once viewed as a source of irritation, now filled Scott with renewed hope. Johnny knew who he was and was genuinely glad to see him. Scott could see the familiar sparkle of amusement in his brother’s eyes and despite the seriousness of their predicament, he found himself smiling.

“Face it, Brother,” he replied, “you’re a rotten shot!”

Johnny’s mouth curved into a grin. “You saying I’m losing my touch?”

“Could be.”

“Well, if that’s the case, I’m real glad I did,” Johnny stated sincerely.

“So am I,” Scott answered. “Believe me, so am I.”

 

    ********************

 

When Murdoch first heard the shot, his immediate thought was that Frank had accidentally fired his rifle, but when he turned to the ranch hand, he could see the same look of horror written on his face.

“It wasn’t me, Mr Lancer,” Frank said hastily. “It came from up there.”  He pointed to a promontory of rock over to their right, although it was difficult to see if anyone was still up here.

“I might be able to get up behind him.”

Murdoch considered Frank’s suggestion for a moment, his anxiety for his sons clouding his reasoning powers, and then he nodded.

“Go on then and watch yourself.”

Frank nodded and scrambled off down the hillside. Murdoch shifted his gaze back towards the cave mouth, straining his eyes to see if there was any sign of movement, but he saw nothing. Flexing his fists with frustration, he was torn between going up to his boys, or follow Frank to track down the perpetrator. It had to be the Indian, Murdoch thought angrily. He had led them here, knowing full well that one of them would go up after Johnny, and then he had set his ambush. For whatever reason, the man wanted the Lancers dead, and now he might well have succeeded with part of his plan.

Murdoch drew his gun from his holster with grim determination. He had to get up to the cave to check on his sons - had to see if they were still alive. Nothing else mattered to him even his own personal safety: just as long as they were all right.

 

“Where’s yer gun, Scott?”

The two young men were still lying close together on the ground, and neither of them had the strength or the inclination to move.

“What?” Scott roused himself from his lethargy and glanced across at his brother.

“Yer gun. Where is it?”

“I left it with Murdoch,” the other answered. “Wasn’t sure how you’d react if I came armed.” He paused and gave a rueful smile. “Not very smart, was it?”

Johnny grunted in reply, reaching up his hand to clutch at his wounded arm. He could feel the bullet pressing on bone.  The pain was spreading all the way down to his fingers. “Maybe I can reach mine.”

“Our trigger happy friend might still be out,” Scott pointed out.

“I know, but we’re sitting ducks up here.”

Scott nodded, glad that his brother was thinking and sounding like his old self again. Perhaps he should thank the Indian for galvanising Johnny from his confused state, even though he suspected that he was the cause of it all along. 

Johnny hitched a breath as he cautiously raised his head and scanned the ground for his weapon. It was lying a few feet away where he had dropped it, and with an effort he rolled onto his stomach and stretched out his right arm to retrieve it. After a few abortive attempts, he managed to retrieve it and turn back towards his brother.

“You okay?” Scott asked, hearing the younger man’s gasping breath.

“Yeah, mite dizzy,” Johnny admitted. “Least now we can protect ourselves if he comes to finish the job.”

“Mmm,” Scott murmured, his eyes fluttering shut as a wave of weariness passed over him.

His drowsy voice made Johnny look around, and his face broke into a concerned frown as he noticed his brother’s flushed features and sweat beaded brow.

“Hey, Scott? You don’t look so good either.”

The Easterner cracked open one eye. “I’m all right just tired.”  He shifted, uncomfortable on the hard ground. “We should get under cover. The cave….”

“Think you can make it?”

“I can if you can, Little Brother,” Scott replied with a challenging smile.

 Grunting and groaning, the two injured men dragged themselves over towards the cave.  However, neither made it inside and instead they slumped down against the outside wall. Both were breathing heavily and weak with pain. The bandana around Johnny’s arm was streaked with blood and when Scott felt inside his shirt, his fingers came away smeared with crimson.

Johnny caught hold of his hand and looked at the blood. Then he noticed the heavy bandaging, which was wrapped around Scott’s shoulder and upper chest, and he glanced at his brother in dismay.

“I’m so sorry, Boston,” he whispered softly. “I nearly killed you. I thought I had.”

Scott’s long fingers curled around his own. “But you didn’t. I’m still here.”

Johnny nodded, but he knew it would take a long time for the guilt to go away. “I still ain’t clear on what happened. You said I was drugged. How?”

Scott took a deep breath and laid his weary head against the cave wall. “Do you remember going into town and meeting up with Steve and Miguel?”

“Vaguely.”

“Well, they had bought something off an Indian and thought it would be fun to pour it in your drink.”

“Son-of-a-bitch!” Johnny retorted angrily. “What the hell was it?”

“Peyote.”

The dark-haired man’s face paled. He knew exactly what peyote was and what it could do to people, but he never believed he could fall victim to the drug.

“This Indian, is he the same one who’s been shooting at us?” Johnny asked, the pieces slotting in place now. “The one who’s been following me around?”

Scott glanced at him curiously. “Following you?”

“I thought I was imagining him,” Johnny went on. “He kept sneaking up on me, warning me that Murdoch was gunning for me. He told me I had to kill him before he could kill me.”

Scott was shocked. This mysterious stranger had been manipulating them all. Inciting Johnny to violence and ultimately to the murder his family. Then when things seemed to be going against his plans, he had tried to kill Johnny and himself. The question was – why? 

“That why you took a shot at Murdoch?”

“I didn’t mean to,” Johnny explained. “He said that Murdoch was coming with a big posse. That he was so fired up with vengeance he wasn’t gonna wait for the hangman. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not.” Johnny paused and ran his fingers through his hair. “He got me so damn confused; I thought I was losing my mind.”

Scott gave his brother’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “It’s all right, Johnny. Everything’s going to be fine.”

“Yeah, mebbe, if we stay alive long enough.”

 

        *************************

 

The last part of the climb was the hardest of all for Murdoch. Although he was eager to see his boys, he was afraid of what he would find. There had been no further firing and the rancher was not sure if that was a good sign or not. He hated the thought of the Indian getting away. The man had to be punished for all the anguish he put them through.

As he neared the top, he stopped and listened for any movement; anything that could tell him that his sons still lived. One bullet could not have killed both of them. One might have survived, but that was of little comfort to him. He wanted them both alive. He wanted to take them home where they belonged – together.

Taking a firmer grip on his gun, Murdoch scrambled over the last of the rocks near the cave and then froze as he heard the sound of a revolver cocking.

“Johnny? Scott?” he called, hoping and praying it was them. “It’s alright. It’s Murdoch.”

There was silence and Murdoch wondered if his ears had been deceiving him. He crept forward again, half expecting a challenge until he came across what he had been looking for.

Sitting side by side beside the cave entrance were his two sons. They were bloodied and dishevelled, but at that moment, they were the most wonderful sight Murdoch had ever seen. Johnny was positioned slightly in front on his brother, his Colt protecting both of them; but as Murdoch moved forward, he uncocked the weapon and laid it down in his lap.   

“Boys! Are you all right?”

Scott smiled up at his father. “We’re fine, although Johnny caught a bullet in his arm.”

Holstering his gun, Murdoch came over and squatted down beside his youngest son. ”Here, let me take a look at it.”

 “It’s okay,” Johnny muttered, not glancing up to meet the older man’s concerned gaze. He was ashamed that he had been coerced into opening fire on his father and did not feel worthy of the man’s consideration.

Murdoch exchanged a worried look with Scott who shook his head impeccably, warning him not to pursue it 

“What’s happening out there?” Scott asked deftly changing the subject.

Murdoch turned his attention away from Johnny and looked back down the hillside. “I don’t know. Frank went off after whoever fired that shot.”

“I think we all know who that was,” Johnny retorted bitterly.

“Yes,” his father agreed. “I think we do.”

“Then we should go and get him,” the former gunfighter asserted. Grabbing his gun, Johnny lurched to his feet, only to stagger and sway as another giddy spell struck. Alarmed at his pallor, Murdoch got up quickly and caught hold of him.

“Come on, sit down, Son.”

Johnny started to protest, but Murdoch lowered him firmly on the ground next to his equally worried brother. “I’ll get you some water. Where’s your canteen?”

 “Cave,” the younger man replied, waving vaguely towards the entrance.

Murdoch rose and went inside and found the canteen on the floor. When he came out, Johnny was sitting with his head bowed and rubbing at his temples.

“Your head hurt?”

“Yeah, been doing that for a coupla days now.” Johnny took the canteen and unscrewed the lid, but as he raised it to his lips, Scott suddenly grabbed his wrist.

“Johnny, wait!”

“What?”

Scott plucked the canteen from his hand and sniffed at it suspiciously. “There could be more peyote in the water. It could be still affecting you.”

Johnny looked at him in surprise. He had never given that a thought, although his mind had been in such a confused mess, it was a wonder he could think at all. However, now he knew that the Indian was not a figment of his imagination, and that he could easily have added more of the drug to his canteen, what his brother said made sense.

“Let’s not take any chances, Boys,” Murdoch said, taking the canteen from Scott. He poured the contents on the ground and looked at Johnny apologetically. “Sorry, Son, you’ll have to wait a little longer for some water.”

“That’s okay,” Johnny replied. “I just wanna get the bastard who did this to me.”

Murdoch glanced at his sons in turn, assessing both their conditions. Scott still looked feverish and there appeared to be fresh blood staining the bandages. Johnny now had a bullet in him, which needed taking out, and was still suffering from the effects of the peyote in his system. They both needed care and attention, and were hardly in any shape to go hunting for a gunman. Once again, the rancher was faced with a quandary. He did not like the idea of Frank tackling the cunning Indian on his own, but equally, he did not want to lead his injured sons into more danger. 

“Come on, Murdoch,” Scott added, sensing his father’s indecision. “We can’t stay here any longer and Frank may need our help. Johnny and I will be just fine, won’t we Brother?”

“Yeah, let’s get out of here,” the younger man affirmed. He climbed somewhat shakily to his feet and was followed by Scott, who put a steadying hand on his brother’s uninjured arm. Murdoch regarded them for a moment, not sure who was holding whom up, and then shook his head in despair.

“I’ll fetch Barranca,” he said, knowing there was no point in arguing with them further.

The brothers shared a conspiratorial grin, before starting to make their way slowly and carefully down the hillside. Murdoch was close behind leading the palomino, while keeping an eye on the two young men. He was also becoming increasingly concerned about Frank. Since that first shot which had injured Johnny, he had heard no more firing. He assumed that the Indian would have fled the scene when the two Lancer brothers had fallen, but then again he could be lying in wait for anyone who came to investigate. There was more than one way to kill a man, and Murdoch was in no doubt that the Indian would be carrying a knife. He valued every single man and woman who worked for him, and he did not wish for any harm to come to them.

The three men reached the level ground where Murdoch had started from without incident, although the descent had tired the wounded men. They paused for rest and Murdoch retrieved Scott’s gun belt from where he had stashed it in the crevice of some rocks and handed back to his son. Scott felt better for it, strapped it around his waist, and still found it amazing how much he had come to relying on the weapon. He was just finishing buckling it up, his actions hampered by his wound, when the first shot sounded His head snapped up and Murdoch motioned for both he and Johnny to lay low, but it soon became obvious that the firing was not directed at them. The gun firing came from further down the valley – the very same direction where Frank had headed.

 

   **********************************

 

Frank had wasted no time climbing up to the premonitory, although he guessed that he would find no one there when he reached it. He was not disappointed. Apart from a single shell casing on the ground, there was no indication that anyone had been there. He looked across to where Scott and Johnny had been standing when they had been fired upon, but he could not see anything. Frank had been shocked and appalled when they had both fallen, and he knew his boss would be going through agony over his sons. He just hoped they were all right, but right now, the odds did not look good.

A worried frown on his face, Frank retraced his steps back down the hill. If it had been the mysterious Indian who had fired the shot, he would surely now be heading back to his horse to escape. The animal had been left behind with Murdoch’s, and if he hurried, he might be able to get there before he had a chance to flee.

Frank scrambled down as fast as he could, keeping a sharp lookout for the fugitive. As he reached the place where the horses were stationed, he could not believe his luck when he spotted the Indian in the process of leaping onto his pony’s back and attempting to steal Murdoch’s horse as well.

Shouting out a challenge, Frank threw his rifle to his shoulder and fired a warning shot over the native’s head. The pony reared up and although the Indian managed to stay on, he lost his grip on the reins of Murdoch’s mount.

“The next one won’t miss!”

The Indian whipped his head around to glare angrily around him, as Frank warily approached.

“Get down,” the ranch hand ordered.

For a moment, the other man hesitated and Frank levered another bullet into the chamber of his rifle “I said, get down.”

This time, the Indian complied and stood watching as Frank moved in closer. “Stand away from the pony.”

Again, the man obeyed, and Frank cast an eye over the animal searching for weapons.

“Where’s your rifle?”

The Indian smiled. “I have no rifle.”

“Don’t lie to me,” Frank snapped back. “You shot my friends.”

“I have no rifle,” the other repeated emphatically.

Frank ground his teeth in frustration. The man was as slippery as an eel, and just as maddening to try to catch. He had to be lying. There was no other person who could have fired the shot, and yet Frank could not remember seeing a rifle when the man had first appeared.

“Turn around.”

“Why? Are you going to shoot me in the back?”

“No, I ain’t, though Lord knows you deserve it!” Frank yelled, his temper almost at breaking point now. “I’m gonna tie you up.”

The Indian gave an exaggerated sigh, but turned around anyway. Careful not to take his eyes off him for a second, Frank looked to see if there was anything he could use on the paint pony; but finding nothing, moved on to Murdoch’s horse and grabbed the coil of rope.

Just as he went to walk over to secure his prisoner, two shots rang out, and Frank could only watch in astonishment as the Indian jerked convulsively, and toppled slowly to the ground. Dropping the rope in surprise, the ranch hand cowered down with his rifle at the ready as he looked about fearfully. He did not need to check to see if the Indian was dead. The sight of his staring eyes, and the two bloody holes in his chest was enough.

A noise to his right made him swing around, and his gaze widened with shock as a figure appeared from behind the rocks.

“You!” he exclaimed “How in the world did you get here?”

 

    **********************

 

The three Lancer men hurried down the hillside as fast as they could, although it was hard going for Scott and Johnny. Both were losing blood, and although it was not extensive, it was enough to slow them down. Murdoch cast an anxious eye on his sons, wishing this was all over and he could take them home. However, it seemed that the scenario had yet to play out before he could hope to do that.

It was Johnny who saw the body first, and without a word, he touched his father lightly on the arm to alert him. The tall rancher paled under his tan, thinking at first it was Frank lying on the ground. However, as they approached with guns drawn, they could see it was the Indian. Johnny stared down at the dead man, knowing for certain now that this was the person who had been taunting and manipulating him. He felt cheated that the man was dead and now he would never find out why he had been doing it. Murdoch, however, was more concerned as to who could have shot him.

“Frank?” Scott suggested.

Murdoch looked around. “If it was, where is he now?”

“I’m afraid Frank’s a little tied up right now.”

The Lancers swung around at the sound of the voice and they were stunned when they saw the owner.

“Steve?” Murdoch cried.

The former ranch hand smiled. “Surprised, Lancer? Did you really think you could get rid of me that easily?”

Mills was half hidden behind a large boulder, his rifle pointing steadily at the three men. Even if they could get a shot at him, there was a good choice that one of them would be hit.

“You reckon you can take all three of us?” Johnny drawled.

“I could try,” Steve answered, unperturbed by the challenge. “The way you two boys look, I figure I could do some damage. Anyways, I got me some help.”

Another rifle cocked nearby and Miguel emerged from behind some bushes, his weapon also trained on them. Murdoch looked disappointed to find that two trusted employees of his had turned against him, all for the sake of being fired.

“Now, throw your guns down,” Steve ordered.

They hesitated for a moment, Johnny and Scott still considering the odds, but Murdoch shook his head and they tossed down their revolvers. Steve kept them covered while Miguel collected the weapons and then he stepped out to face them.

“What’s going on, Steve,” Murdoch asked. “Just because I fired you both….”

“Is that what you think, Lancer?” Mills interrupted harshly. The younger man had lost his cocky, arrogant attitude, and now sounded angry and bitter. Murdoch frowned as he tried to fathom the object of Mills’s resentment, but could think of nothing other him being out a job.

“Tie ‘em up, Miguel,” Steve snapped. “Good and tight.”

The Mexican went about his task silently and efficiently, eliciting gasps of pain from the two wounded men, who when pushed to the ground had their arms twisted behind their backs and their wrists bound. Their reaction brought the smile back to Steve’s lips and he smirked at Murdoch’s glowering face.

“What have you done with Frank?” the rancher demanded as Miguel secured him as well. “

“He’s okay,” Steve replied. “He’ll wake up with a headache, but I got no quarrel with him.

“What’s your quarrel with me then?” Murdoch asked.

  Steve perched himself on a rock, the butt of his rifle resting on his knee. He nodded his thanks to Miguel as he came over to stand next to him, his weapon still pointing at the captives.

“Not just you,” he answered. “I’ve a score to settle with your boys too.”

“Perhaps you’d care to enlighten us, “Scott suggested as he flexed his tightly bound wrists. Already he could feel his fingers growing numb, and the pull on his lightly stitched shoulder wound was pure agony. He did not have to look at the stiff set of Johnny’s jaw to know that his brother was also suffering pain.

Steve shifted his gaze to Scott. “Since you asked so nicely, I will.”

He settled himself more comfortably on the rock and looked at them in turn before he began.

“By all rights, all three of you should be dead,” Steve stated.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Johnny grated. He longed to be free of the damn ropes, and smash the smug expression off the other man’s face. He guessed his father and brother felt the same.

“Yeah, it came as an unexpected bonus when you shot your brother, Johnny,” Mills said. “Pity he survived though. I did think of finishing him off when me and Miguel found him, but I reckoned I’d stay in your daddy’s good books a bit longer.”

“Bastard,” the dark-haired Lancer hissed.

Steve smiled. “Still the Injun did a good job on you. We got the peyote off him, all right and doctored your drink. He made real sure that more got in you canteen, just to keep you on the edge, and convince you that your family hated you enough to want to be rid of you. I had high hopes when your old man finally turned up and I thought you were ready to kill him, but you failed me, Johnny. Just like our Injun friend here.”

“Was he the one who fired at us?” Scott asked.

“Yes, he was supposed to kill both of you, but he didn’t stick around to make sure. He was about to high tail it out of here with your horse, Lancer, and then Frank came along, the loyal, out for justice ranch hand, and tried to stop him. I couldn’t afford to have the Injun talking, so I killed him.”  He paused, turning his dispassionate gaze on the body. “You know, I could have still acted the hero. Shooting the man who tried to kill your boys, but I thought, no, I’ve waited long enough for what I want.”

“Which is?” Murdoch questioned curtly.

Mills’ face darkened. “Revenge.”

“Revenge for what?” Johnny asked.

“Not a what, a who” Steve retorted savagely. He fixed his gaze on Murdoch before continuing. “An old friend of yours. Joe Barker.”

“Joe?” Murdoch exclaimed in surprise.

“Yes, surely you remember the man you’ve known for twenty years,” Steve sneered. “The man you turned your back on!”

Murdoch looked at the younger man, mystified how he knew the former town marshal who ruined his life by helping a prisoner escape. In doing so, he had inadvertently caused Johnny to be accused of murdering a deputy who had tried the stop the prisoner. Things had looked grim for Johnny for a while, especially as he admitted he had known the fugitive, Evans, and he had been locked up in the old guardhouse at the ranch until Barker confessed all. Murdoch had been disappointed and saddened by his old friend’s duplicity; but he had asked the authorities for leniency at Barker’s trial. However, the court disagreed and in order to make an example of the man, he had been sentenced to ten years in jail.  

“I didn’t turn my back on him,” Murdoch protested. “I tried to help him…”

“Help him?” Mills cried. “Once he was locked up in prison, you forgot all about him. All you cared about was your ranch and your two precious sons here!”

“You’re wrong. I wrote to him several times. I also contacted the governor to see if there was anyway the sentence could be reduced.”

“And you think that makes it alright?” Steve yelled. “Joe Barker served that town for twenty years, but they threw if all in his face for one mistake.”

“I did what I could,” Murdoch insisted, his temper rising to match the other man’s. “I told you I tried contacting Joe to see if there was anything else I could do, but he never wrote back.”

“Yeah and you wanna know why? ‘Cos he’s dead! He hung himself in jail three months ago”

“What?” Murdoch looked at Mills, appalled by the news. “No, he can’t be. I would have heard something.”

“Why? Because he was your friend?” Steve replied sarcastically.

The two brothers had been following the conversation with some interest, and both were as shocked as their father to hear of Barker’s death. They were, however, puzzled that Mills seemed to know so much about the former marshal.

“What was Barker to you, Steve?” Scott asked

Mills turned to him, his face grim. “He was my uncle.”

“Uncle?” Johnny snorted derisively. ” Barker didn’t have no kin,”

“He had a sister,” Murdoch said quietly.

“That’s right,” Steve confirmed. “My ma was younger than him and although they didn’t see much of each other, they were still close. When she found out he was going on trail, she was gonna come, be with him, you know.”

“What happened?” Scott prompted, although he had a feeling he knew where this was going.

“She got sick, some kind of a fever,” the other replied, morosely. “She died the day my uncle went to prison.”

Despite the present circumstances, the Lancers felt a brief moment of sympathy for the former ranch hand. It appeared that Joe Barker’s one transgression had stirred up a ripple, which had grown to affect more and more lives. However, once again the Lancers seemed to be paying the price for one man’s moment of weakness. 

“So you’re blaming us for what happened to Barker?” Johnny asked.  He still found it hard to believe that Mills was Joe Barker’s nephew. The man had only been at the ranch for less than two months, but had proved himself to be reliable, and popular character. Now it was clear Mills had been harbouring a grudge against the Lancers, and had obviously been looking for an opportunity to wreak his revenge. Somehow, along the way he had coerced Miguel and the Indian to help him; but what really angered him the most was the fact that Mills had tried to use him as an instrument to kill his father and brother, and ultimately himself.

“You’re damn right I blaming you,” Steve snapped. “If you hadn’t of interfered, Evans would have got away and my uncle could have had the $5,000 that was promised him.”

“You really think Evans would have given him the money?” Johnny countered. “Don’t forget, I knew Evans before and he weren’t the kind of man who was about to share with anybody.”

“At least he would have had a chance,” Mills shouted back. “Nobody ever gave him a chance.” He turned to glare at Murdoch. “You promised him a share in the ranch and he held on to that promise for a long time. But you threw it all back in his face!”

“I explained to Joe why I couldn’t do as I planned,” Murdoch replied. “He understood that.”

“Oh, he understood all right,” Mills answered. “He understood that his old friend had stabbed him in the back. Maybe he made a mistake about trusting Evans, but he tried to make it right. He could have shot you, Lancer. He told me he thought about it, but instead he did the right thing and killed Evans. And what did he get for it? Ten years in a lousy prison. I went to see him, got to know him real well and I saw him die a little bit each day. Prison destroyed him and the thought of him locked up for the rest of his life destroyed my ma too. So you see, I got two reasons for hating you and your family.”

“And now you’re planning to shoot the three of us in cold blood,” Murdoch stated. “Do you honestly think Joe would have wanted that?”

For the first time, a flicker of doubt passed over the young man’s face. He had been devising his idea of getting rid of the Lancers ever since his uncle had died. Barker had spoken to him at great length about his hope for a future at the ranch - a chance to own something material in his life, and share it with his old friend. He also told him of his disappointment when he found out that his chance had been denied. Yes, he had been bitter, and maybe that was why he was driven to let his prisoner escape and let someone else take the blame for a murder. Nevertheless, was that bitterness strong enough for him to take out his revenge on someone he had known for twenty years?

Mills shook his head. He could not falter with his plan now, not when he was so close. The Lancers had to pay for ruining his uncle’s life. He had grown close to the older man as a result to his frequent visits to the jail. Maybe he felt guilty that he did not have to know his uncle beforehand. He knew his mother felt that she should have seen her only brother more, but it was all too late now. Both of them were gone and the price would have to be paid.

“Miguel. Let’s do this!” he said abruptly, raising his rifle.

The Mexican looked at him and then back at the men before him. “You mean to shoot them like this? Their hands are tied and they have no guns.”

“What’s the matter? You getting squeamish all of the sudden?”

 “That was not part of the plan,” Miguel protested.

Steve shrugged. “Well plans change, so let’s get on with it.”

The three Lancers tensed. Despite their injuries, Scott and Johnny had been frantically trying to free their hands from the ropes, but even though they had managed to loosen them slightly, they were still too tight. They glanced anxiously at their father, but he was unable to meet their gaze, and appeared almost apologetic for what was about to happen. His apathetic reaction only served to anger the boys, and Johnny for one, was not prepared to sit around meekly waiting to be slaughtered. Although he knew the situation seemed hopeless, he gathered his strength and prepared to launch himself at Mills. He did not get the chance.

A sudden blur of movement to his right made him blink with surprise, and before he could even move, he saw Miguel crash to the ground.

“Frank!”

Murdoch’s cry made him look again, and his heart surged with relief when he realised that the dark-skinned ranch hand was grappling with the Mexican, and appeared to getting the upper hand. Struggling to his feet, he was aware that his brother was doing the same, and then all hell broke loose as Mills, shaken by the sudden turn of events, started firing wildly and indiscriminately. Johnny automatically threw himself back down on the ground for cover, but not before he heard a sharp cry of pain beside him. Quickly turning his head, his earlier relief changed to horror as he saw Scott go down, blood spilling from an ugly hole in his right thigh. Johnny scrambled awkwardly over to his brother’s side, cursing vehemently in Spanish, as his bound hands made it impossible to stem the flow of blood. Scott’s face was creased with pain, his eyes tightly shut, as this new injury swept through his already abused, fever-wracked body, and Johnny had never felt so helpless.

A loud, bull-like cry of rage made him look around again and his fear increased when he saw his father hurl himself recklessly at Mills. Steve desperately tried to bring his weapon to bear, but Murdoch’s large frame barged into him with the force of a steam locomotive, and the younger man went down, his rifle falling from his hands. However, with his wrists tied, the rancher was still at a disadvantage until he found an ally in the form of Frank. The ranch hand had succeeded in overpowering Miguel and knocked the Mexican senseless with the butt of the man’s rifle. Faced with two adversaries, Steve grabbed up a handful of dust and threw it at Murdoch’s face, before leaping to his feet. Unable to see, Murdoch was powerless to stop him and before Frank could reach him, Mills had made his escape.

“Are you alright, Mr Lancer?”

Murdoch blinked painfully and spat some dirt out of his mouth before answering.

“I’m fine. Just cut me loose.”

Frank drew his pocket-knife and quickly sawed through the ropes. He was thankful that Steve and Miguel had not found it when they had knocked him unconscious or tied him up. He had come to a few minutes ago, and heard Mills talking to the Lancers from behind the pile of rock where he had been dumped. Frank had been just as shocked as his employers when he had heard of Steve’s connection to Joe Barker. He had been present at first hand when Barker had admitted his part in the Evans affair, and saw for himself how the incident had affected the Lancer household. Now it appeared that the whole sorry business was far from over, and needed to be resolved.

Free of his bonds, Murdoch scrubbed a hand over his smarting eyes and hurried over to his sons.

“Johnny?”

The dark-haired man glanced up, blue eyes wide with panic.

“Help him, Murdoch, and get me free of these damned ropes!”

As Frank went to release Johnny, Murdoch knelt down beside Scott and cut him free with his own knife. Then he quickly wrapped his large handkerchief around the bullet wound and knotted it tightly. The blond groaned loudly, and his eyelids flickered open a fraction.

“Take it easy, Son,” he said, smoothing the wounded man’s hair across his forehead.

Scott made no reply, his eyes sliding shut again with exhaustion. Murdoch tore his worried gaze up to his other son and laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“Stay with your brother, Johnny. We’re going after Mills.”

“Murdoch…”

The rancher stopped him with a determined glare. “We’ll get him, Son. I’m not going to let Mills get away with this. Look after Scott.”     

Johnny nodded despondently and watched as his father and Frank retrieved their weapons. He knew he was in no condition to go and his brother needed him right now. He  was unhappy about Murdoch going off after Steve, even though he knew his father was more than capable in looking after himself. However, a cornered man could be dangerous, and although Mills had dropped his rifle, he still had his revolver, and would undoubtedly use it if challenged.

“Be careful,” he warned as the two men prepared to leave.

“We will,” Murdoch promised. “Don’t worry.”

They hurried off, leaving Johnny alone with his brother. Scott seemed barely conscious, and his breathing sounded harsh and rapid. Johnny wrapped his good arm around the older man’s shoulder, and lifted him up higher so he was resting on his knees and looked down at his flushed features.

“Aw Boston, you’ve gotta get out of the habit of stopping bullets.” he said, his face pinched with concern.

“I will….if you will,” came the strained reply. Scott opened his eyes and he gave Johnny a faint smile.

“Hey, how yer doing?” the former gunfighter asked. “And don’t tell me you’re fine.”

Scott shifted slightly and the grin became more of a grimace as the pain soared to a new level. “All right, I..won’t. It hurts like hell.”

Johnny nodded sympathically. His own wound was throbbing remorselessly and he still felt sick and dizzy. Together they made a very sorry pair.

“Where’s Murdoch?” Scott asked, his gaze flitting anxiously around for a sight of his father.

“Gone after Mills.”

“Alone!”

“No. Frank’s with him.”

Scott relaxed a little, sinking back against the support of his brother. “Frank’s a good man.”

“Yeah, he probably saved our lives.”

The Easterner glanced up at Johnny, and realised what he said was true. Steve Mills was quite prepared to kill them all, and if it had not been for his intervention, they have been lying dead in the dust right now.

“What about Miguel?” he asked, remembering the Mexican’s unease when faced with the prospect of shooting them down in cold blood.

Johnny’s looked across at the prone figure. “Out of it for now, but I’d better make sure.”

He carefully eased his brother off his knees, and onto the ground, and then climbed stiffly to his feet. He was more than a little unsteady as he made his way over to gather up his and Scott’s guns, before crossing to check on Miguel. The Mexican was still unconscious and would be for some time, judging by the size of the lump on the side of his head. Johnny relieved him of his weapons and staggered back to Scott.

“Still out, but I’m gonna tie him up just in case he comes to.” He picked up the discarded ropes, which had bound him and Scott, and returned to the other man. Pushing him over onto his belly, Johnny tied his wrists and ankles together, his sense of vindictiveness ensuring that he made the ropes as tight as his own were. Satisfied the Mexican was secure; he retraced his steps, and all but collapsed beside his brother.

“You okay?” Scott asked, eying the younger man’s wan face with concern.

Johnny swallowed back the bile, which had risen to his throat and forced a smile to his lips. “Yeah, I’ll live. Could do with some water though.”

He tried to get up again, but his legs had lost all their earlier strength, and he slumped back down again. “Guess it’ll have to wait.”

Scott nodded and sighed. “I hope Murdoch’s okay.”

“Yeah, don’t want him getting hurt too.” Johnny looked back in the direction his father and Frank had gone. Enough blood had been shed lately, and he could hardly forget that he had been the one who been the primary cause.

“You’re still blaming yourself.”

“What?” Johnny said turning back towards his brother.

“You’re still blaming yourself for what happened the other day,” Scott elaborated. He could see the guilt still in the younger man’s eyes, and guessed Johnny was having a hard time dealing with it.

Johnny pushed his dark hair off his sweaty forehead as he met the Easterner’s intense gaze. Sometimes he cursed his brother’s astuteness and ability to read his moods. As Madrid, Johnny could always succeed in masking his feelings, but Scott always seemed to see right through him.

“Ain’t easy knowing how close I came to killing you” he admitted softly.

 Scott reached up a hand and gave his brother’s uninjured arm a gentle squeeze.

“Johnny, I know I joked earlier about you being a lousy shot, but if you really intended to kill me, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

Johnny stared at him, amazed that the older man could show such trust. His natural talent as a gunfighter was so inbuilt that he never questioned his accuracy with a gun. His opponents in a gunfighter rarely got up again, but Scott had survived, as had his father when he took a shot at him. It appeared that his sometimes hidden, but deep feelings for his family had prevented the ultimate tragedy.

 “What about all those things I said to you?” he asked as he recalled the spiteful things that had spouted from this mouth that day.

Scott looked away, his hand dropping to rest on his wounded leg as he felt the pain start to build. He had to admit those words still hurt, and troubled him more so than his original bullet wound. He had to believe they were the result of the peyote, and not his brother’s true thoughts.

“Scott?”

He glanced up and his doubts vanished when he saw the torment in Johnny’s blue eyes.

“I never meant any of it, Scott,” the other pleaded. “You have to believe that. I could hear myself talking, but it was like it was someone else speaking.”

Scott nodded briefly. The pain in his leg was getting unbearable now, and his fingers clenched in the dust as a sharp spasm injected its fire.

“It’s … okay, Johnny,” he muttered thickly. “I believe you.”

He winced again and shut his eyes as another burst of flame ignited. He could feel the black waves of unconsciousness lapping at his body, and he longed to slip into their welcoming arms.

“Scott?” Johnny’s stomach lurched with fear as he saw his brother’s flushed features suddenly change to a sickly grey. “Scott!” he repeated, clutching franticly at the other’s wrist.

The older man forced his eyes open with an effort, and he drew a shuddering breath.

“I think……I think I’d like to pass out right now.”

Johnny smiled and moved his hand up to rest lightly on his brother’s brow. “You go right ahead, Boston. I’ll be right here.”

“Thanks…” Scott whispered, his eyelids already closing.

Johnny watched as his fair head slowly slip to one side and his tense body went limp. Then he passed his free arm around the wounded man’s neck and settled him more comfortably in the crook of his elbow.

  “I’ll always be here for you, Brother.”

 

    *********************

 

Steve Mills ran – ran for his life. After what he had done, he figured it was only a matter a time before he was killed or captured. Of the two options, Mills strangely enough preferred the first. He had no wish to be locked up in prison, like his unfortunate uncle. The experience had broken the man completely, and eventually led him to end his miserable existence.

Damn the Lancers! They seemed to have more lives than a cat. All his careful planning had come to nothing, and he was left with no choice but to escape while he still breathed. He had made a mistake, and not counted on Frank to intervene and ruin everything. ‘I should have killed him when I had the chance’ he told himself, but it was too late now.

His first instinct had naturally been to head for his horse, but just as his mount came into sight, Steve stopped and hunkered down in the lee of the rock, removing his hat to run a hand through his sweaty hair. Why should he run? It was a cowardly act and he still had his handgun. Breathing hard, he slipped the weapon from his holster and checked the chamber. Full, he noted with satisfaction. He could wait here, and pick off anyone who tried to intercept him going for his horse. The alternative would be to double back and finish off the Lancer brothers. Steve had seen Scott fall, and with Johnny wounded as well, he guessed that they would be together. At least, he hoped so. With the two of them out of the way, old man Lancer would be easy pickings. Frank too, for good measure. After that who knows, he thought. Perhaps return to the ranch and tell everyone that the search party, was set upon by a gang of ruthless bandits, and he was the sole survivor of the vicious attack.

Steve laughed to himself. He had to admit it was a pretty far-fetched idea, but it might just be crazy enough for people to believe. Who was left anyway? That doddering old fool Jelly Hoskins, Cipriano and the rest of the ranch hands, and of course, Teresa. Steve’s smile grew wolfish when he thought of the pretty dark-haired young girl. If he played on her sympathetic nature, he might be able to inveigle himself into her good graces. Hell, she might be gullible enough to fall for him romantically! He was not bad looking and could act the perfect gentleman when he wanted to. Wedding bells could even follow and he might find himself the owner of the Lancer ranch. Now that prospect would be the icing on the cake, and would appease his sense of justice for his uncle who had been denied his chance of fulfilment.

The scuff of a boot on stone quickly dispelled his flights of fantasy, and he swung around with gun cocked. Lancer and Frank. Good, just as he suspected. The old man had left his injured sons behind to come looking for him. The boys would be vulnerable and easy to deal with. Not that he underestimated Madrid of course. The man had a formidable reputation, and he would protect his older brother right up until his dying breath. However, if he could circle around behind them, and surprise them, he might just succeed.

Steve squashed himself closer into the rock face, and held his breath as the two men approached. They were in a hurry and Lancer looked a worried man. He would have more to worry about soon, Mills thought happily. Right up to the moment when he put a bullet in the man’s brain. He could hardly wait.

They went past him, so close that he felt a draft of air brush his face. He waited a few more seconds until it was safe for him to emerge, and then he crept out and started slowly up the hillside, praying they did not look back. He had a job to do, one that he would relish, and no one was going to stop him.

 

   **********************************

 

  “It’s Steve’s horse, all right, Mr Lancer.”

Murdoch nodded as the two men stood by the dark chestnut. “But where is he?” he questioned, his eyes roving around the rocky terrain.

They had wasted no time getting here, although they had no clear idea where Mills had left his horse. The animal stood ground hitched next to Miguel’s dappled grey calmly munching at the sparse vegetation.

Frank looked around anxiously, squinting against the sun, which shot daggers of pain through his aching head. Fortunately, he had a hard skull and there was no blood on his fingers when he gingerly touched the spot where someone, probably Miguel, had hit him. Still he thought in consolation, at least the Mexican would have an almighty headache too when he finally woke up.

“Do we wait for him to turn up or keep looking?”

Murdoch looked back at Frank, his pale blue eyes troubled. He was concerned about his sons and hated leaving them when they were weak and in pain; but he had to find Mills and stop him from causing further harm. Surely the man would run, as far away as he could manage, but why hadn’t he? Unless……

“He’s going after the boys!” he exclaimed suddenly.

“What?” Frank stared at the older man, wondering how on earth he knew that.

“Steve. He’s going back to Scott and Johnny,” Murdoch repeated, his heart pounding urgently with fear. “Come on, let’s go!”

Frank followed him without hesitation, trusting in the rancher’s instinct that his sons were in danger. It was hard to believe that his amiable bunkhouse companion could turn out to be such a vengeful and devious individual, but the evidence was clear and he had to be stopped at all costs.

The sweat trickled rapidly down Murdoch’s face as he stumbled hurriedly along the path, his mind racing with panic, as he thought of the two young men lying injured back on the trail. God, let me reach them in time, he prayed to himself. I can’t lose them now. If he did, he wouldn’t care if Steve killed him as well. There would be nothing to live for without his sons.

A single pebble skittered down the hillside, but it was enough to make Murdoch look up. He caught sight of a flash of grey shirt, and then the paler shape of Steve’s horrified face as he stared down at them. Mills raised his gun and Murdoch dove to the ground, pulling Frank down with him as the shot rang out. The bullet pinged off a boulder and fell harmlessly away. Murdoch cursed as he drew his own weapon to return fire. That was twice he had been fired upon today, and he was getting mighty sick of it! He went to pull the trigger, but Mills was already moving, climbing higher. Very soon, he could disappear into the labyrinth of caves, which dotted this area, and they might never find him.

“Come on,” he cried to his companion as he rose once more to his feet. “We can’t let him get away.”

Frank followed him doggedly, marvelling at the older man’s stamina and tenacity. It was obvious that the continuing threat on his sons lives were the only thing that was keeping him going, but the strain was going to catch up with him sometime. Frank admired his boss immensely. Murdoch Lancer had given him a good, secure job where others would turn him away with disapproval in their eyes due to the colour of his skin. He had never experienced such prejudice at the Lancer ranch, and been treated fairly by his employer and his two sons. Frank had no wish to see any more harm to befall the family, and was therefore as keen as his boss to see that Steve was brought to justice.  

They climbed higher and higher, keeping a wary eye out for Mills, but the man seemed more intent in getting away from them than confronting them again. Eventually the trail started to peter out and they paused as they tried to get their bearings, and take a much-needed breather. Murdoch hoped that Mills had been deterred from going after his boys, but he would not be happy until they had him firmly in their grasp.

“Mr Lancer. Look!”

Murdoch peered up in the direction where Frank was pointing, and there silhouetted against the skyline was the figure of Steve Mills. He was standing on the very top of the rock face, but instead of looking down at them, he was turning his head in the other direction.

“What’s he doing?” Murdoch asked a baffled frown on his face.

“I think he just ran out of places to hide,” Frank answered with a faint smile.

“Let’s hope so.”

 

Steve glanced down at the sheer drop plunging down to his right and cursed under his breath. He should never have come up here. If he had stuck to his original plan and gone after the Lancer boys, they would be dead now, and he could have escaped. However, he had lost his footing during his climb and dislodged a stone. Such a small stone, but with it he had lost his element of surprise, and had been discovered by his pursuers. Now he had no choice but to retrace his steps, and risk running into Lancer and Frank.

“Give it up, Steve. There’s no where else to run.”

Mills spun around and his heart sank to his belly when he saw the two men standing a short distance away, with guns levelled at his chest. He looked at their determined expressions for a moment, and then shrugged and gave a brief grin.

“Guess you could be right.”

“Toss your gun over here,” Murdoch ordered.

Steve glanced down at the revolver in his hand and weighed up the odds. Although he would probably get shot, he could still take one of them, preferably Lancer. He was fairly quick and accurate, and he would die a happy man knowing that Murdoch Lancer was gone. He looked up at them again, noting their grim and resolute expressions, and considered his only other alternative.

“You gonna lock me up?”

“I think you know the answer to that, Steve,” Murdoch replied. “You already murdered one man and you were going to kill us. I really don’t have a choice.”

Steve nodded slowly and looked down again at his gun. “Well, I reckon that make’s me lucky then, ‘cos I do.”

He glanced up again and the confusion on their faces made him smile. Curling his fist tightly around the barrel of the weapon, he tossed it hard in their direction causing both men to dodge out of the way. Then he turned and ran for the edge of the cliff and leapt forward. The sudden feeling of freedom amazed him and he revelled in the rush of air hurtled past him. It was only the sight of the rocks hurling rapidly towards him that reminded him belatedly to scream, but by that time, it was too late.

 

           ********************

 

Johnny awoke with a sharp jolt and his eyes snapped open. He blinked rapidly, but to his dismay, he found his vision was still fuzzy at the edges. He did not remember falling asleep and had no idea for how long. Although there appeared to be no apparent danger, he clutched automatically at the revolver in his left hand, oblivious of the pain it caused and the twin rivulets of blood, which had ran down from his arm and across his clenched fist.

 Scott had not stirred, and Johnny’s right arm was aching with cramp where the heavy weight of his brother’s blond head was pressed against it. Despite being unconscious, Scott’s face was creased with pain, and the heat radiating off his lean body was frightening. Well, it was better than being ice cold, Johnny thought gloomily. At least it meant that his brother was still alive. He remembered holding that motionless body just a few days ago when he had believed he had killed Scott. Even now, Johnny could still feel the hard crust of his brother’s blood under his fingernails, and he knew his shirt bore the incriminating stains. Before he passed out, Scott had told him that he believed him when Johnny had insisted that none of the words he had uttered were true, but the ex-gunfighter had also seen the way his brother had turned his gaze away from him. Did he really believe him, or would their close relationship be irreversibly damaged? 

Johnny sighed deeply. He would not really know the answer until Scott recovered – if he recovered. He tried to banish the worries and doubts, and turn his attention to the present. Right now, they needed some water: some so he could drink, and the rest to cool Scott down. Johnny’s own canteen was empty and his father’s and brother’s horses were too far out of reach to collect theirs. He looked across at Miguel, but the man was still unconscious.  Johnny wondered idly if the Mexican was all right and realised he did not much care. If the man had been fool enough to been taken in by Steve and help him with his nefarious plans, then he deserved all he got.

The sudden sound of running footsteps made him turn his head in a hurry, and his heart started to pound with anticipation. He was, therefore, greatly relieved when he saw his father and Frank appear with Miguel’s horse in tow, and hurry towards him. Johnny then frowned in consternation when he realised that Steve was nowhere in sight, and he very much hoped that this did not mean that the man had escaped.

“You get him?”

Murdoch looked tired as his eyes moved from one son to the other. “In a manner of speaking.”

Johnny’s frowned deepened and Murdoch squatted down beside him to explain.

“We tracked him to the high ground. I think his intention was to lose us in the caves, but he couldn’t find a way through.” The rancher paused, thinking it best not to reveal his fears that Mills was planning to backtrack and take his revenge out on his boys. “We cornered him at the top and tried to persuade him to give himself up, but he chose to jump.”

There was no reaction in his younger son’s blue eyes, and his face remained tight-lipped and impassive.

“Dead?”

“Very,” answered his father grimly. “His neck was broken. Frank and I stopped to bury him.”

Johnny nodded and his gaze fell to his unconscious sibling. “I’d have left him to rot,” he muttered bitterly.

Murdoch laid a large hand on the younger man’s shoulder and squeezed it gently. He could understand Johnny’s anger. Mills had betrayed their trust, and had been the cause of a lot of pain, both physically and mentally. He may have believed he was working in the best interest for his wronged family, but in doing so, he had almost destroyed another.

“It’s over now, Son,” Murdoch said. “Right now, the important thing is get help for you and your brother. How are you feeling?”

“I’m okay,” Johnny replied, “but Scott’s burning up. He needs a doctor.”

“You both need a doctor,” Murdoch corrected firmly. “And unfortunately Sam’s a long way off.”

He paused and looked around for Frank who was checking on Miguel. “Frank, do you know where the nearest town is from here?”

The ranch hand thought for a moment. “There’s a place called Silver Falls.”

“How far?”

“Ten, maybe twelve miles to the east,” Frank informed him.

Murdoch chewed his bottom lip worriedly. Ten or twelve miles was a long way to go with two wounded men, but he did not see that they had any choice. At least it was a more feasible option than to head back to Lancer.

“Think you can made it, Johnny?”

“Yeah, let’s get moving.”

In the event, it was almost half an hour before they were ready to go. Both boys’ wounds were cleaned, and re-dressed, and Johnny enjoyed a long awaited drink. The water revived his flagging energy somewhat, although he still needed his father’s help to get him to his feet and over to his palomino. Scott, who had remained insensible throughout, was lifted carefully onto his father’s sturdy mount, and Murdoch climbed into the saddle behind him, and wrapped a firm arm around his son’s slim waist. Scott’s head fell back against Murdoch’s broad shoulder, as the rancher settled him into a more comfortable position, but still he did not stir. Murdoch was appalled at the heat seeping through the young man’s clothing, and knew that the fever, which Scott had been fighting for the past few days, had now kicked in with a vengeance. Silver Falls could not come quick enough, and Murdoch hoped to God that there was a doctor as skilled as his old friend Sam Jenkins was.

The body of the Indian was hastily buried. Then Miguel, who had now recovered consciousness, was set on his horse, and his hands tied to the saddle horn. He sat sullenly on his mount and glowered at Frank as the man secured the lead rein of his animal around the pommel. The Mexican now faced the unwelcome prospect of a lengthy spell in prison, and he knew he only had himself to blame for his gullible nature. 

 Murdoch took a last look around to make sure everyone was set, and then kicked his mount gently into motion. With any luck, they might make Silver Falls before nightfall, and hopefully some respite from the stresses and strains of the last few days. In any case, Murdoch foresaw that there would be no early return to the ranch, and he prayed that his two sons would still be with him when he eventually went home.

 

   ********************************

 

The town of Silver Falls had started life as a small backwater cowering under the commanding mountain range of the Sierra Madres. Originally called Back Falls, its name and fortunes had changed over ten years ago with the discovery of silver. Although the find had not sparked off a major influx of people into the town, it had been enough to transform it into a prosperous and thriving community. The silver was all but played out now, but the town continued to reap the profits that the precious commodity had made, and its citizens were content to stay.

Whistling tunelessly to himself, Sheriff Tom Stafford made his way back to his office, his nightly patrol of the town completed.  He opened the door. His deputy, Walt Hudson, hastily took his feet off the desk he was sitting at, and looked up guilty at the older man.

“What are you still doing here, Walt?” Stafford asked, removing his hat and hanging it on the peg beside the door.

“Waiting for you,” the deputy answered laconically.

“I told you to go home,” Stafford said as he crossed to his own desk and settled himself on the seat.”

“What about that fella out back?” Walt questioned, casting a dubious eye towards the cells.

“He ain’t likely to cause us any trouble,” the sheriff scoffed. “He’s drunk so much, he could hardly stand up. Now, get off home.”

“Okay.” Hudson stood up, stretched his cramped muscles and then winced slightly.

“That back still bothering you?” Stafford asked.

“Some,” the deputy admitted.

“You ought to get the doc to look at it.”

Hudson rubbed absently at the spot, which he had damaged in a fall from a roof he had been repairing three weeks ago. “Nah, it’s all right. Just stiff is all.” He walked over to the door and retrieved his own hat from the peg. “See you in the morning then.”

“Yeah, good night.”

Alone once more, Stafford heaved his large frame from the seat and went through the barred door to the cells. The sole occupant was in the middle of the three cells, stretched out on the low cot, his snores echoing off the brickwork. Tom smiled at the young cowboy and shook his head. The boy was gonna have one hell of a hangover in the morning.

Wandering back to his desk, he sat down, and pulled the latest edition of the town’s newspaper from the drawer, spreading it out before him. Stafford liked this town. It was quiet, too quiet some of the younger folks said, and there was not much trouble, for which he was grateful. He was now in his early fifties, and was looking forward to retiring in a few years. Stafford had thought of giving up his office a couple of years ago when his dear wife Eliza had passed away. His only daughter, Ruth, had pressed him to come and live with her and her growing family, but he had refused, preferring instead to immerse himself in his job, and cope with his grief in his own way. However, that prospect was looking more and more attractive in the past months, and maybe it was time to hand it over to a younger fella.

Tom pulled out his pocket watch and squinted at the hands, then sighed and reached for his spectacles. !t was well over ten and he should really head home. As he had told his deputy, the young man out back was not going anywhere; and the majority of the townsfolk were settling down for the night. There were a few diehards drinking in the saloon, but they seemed peaceable enough, and were unlikely to cause any ruckus.

Climbing to his feet, Stafford started to cross to the office door, but then changed his mind and went over to the small stove instead. One more cup of coffee would not hurt, and he was not ready to turn in yet. His small, but comfortable house was too damn lonely, and too full of memories of Eliza. He had much rather stay where he was for a bit longer. He started to pour some of the strong brew into his battered mug, and then broke off with a puzzled frown on his face as he heard the sound of an approaching horse. Setting his mug down, he crossed over the window and peered out into the gloom. It was not just one horse, but several, and Tom hoped it did not mean trouble. The last thing he wanted tonight was a bunch of idiots intent on disturbing the peace.

Expecting them to stop at the saloon across the street, Stafford was therefore surprised when the horsemen rode past it and veer towards his office instead. He dropped the curtain, his hand straying involuntarily towards his gun for a moment, and then he went to the door and pulled it open. There were five of them, although two were mounted on one horse. The young man slumped in the saddle looked to be in a bad way, and the older man behind him wore a worried frown. Another young man mounted on a weary looking palomino did not look so good either; and Stafford’s curiosity increased when he noticed that one of the party had his wrists tied to the saddle horn.

“Sheriff?” queried the man who was riding double.

“That’s me,” Stafford confirmed as he stepped forward onto the boardwalk. “You fellas look like you’ve had some trouble.”

“Yes, you could say that,” came the strained reply. “Frank, can you give me a hand here.”

A dark-skinned man slid from his saddle, steadying both horse and wounded rider, as the older man climbed down.

“Sheriff, my name’s Murdoch Lancer. I own a ranch near Morro Coyo…”

“Morro Coyo?” Stafford interrupted. “You’re a long ways from home.”

“Yes, I know,” Lancer replied somewhat testily. “I will be happy to explain everything to you in detail, but right now I’d like to get my sons to a doctor and have you lock up this man there.”

The sheriff glanced suspiciously across at the Mexican on the grey gelding. “What’s he done?”

“As I said, I’ll explain later, but my boys need a doctor as soon as possible.”

Tom Stafford looked closely at the tall man standing in front of him. He figured that they were about the same age, and Lancer looked like he had earned those grey hairs just as much as he himself. He seemed honest enough, and he was certainly concerned over his two sons. The sheriff’s gaze flickered to the young man slumped in the saddle. He appeared to be unconscious and even in the dim light Stafford could see the blood-soaked bandage around his right thigh. The other son, dark-haired and grim-faced, had a rough bandage around his arm, and was staring at him with a steely glint in his blue eyes. The sheriff could not fail to notice the way he wore his rig, low slung around his hips, which to him meant only one thing – the man was a gunfighter.

Uneasy, Stafford shifted his gaze back to Lancer. Was the so-called rancher a man to be trusted? His gut instinct told him no, but there was something about him that told him that he was telling the truth. He realised that he would have to take the chance, and just hope he was not making a big mistake.

“Best bring him inside then,” he said.

Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief and hurried to untie Miguel from his horse. As the Mexican got down, Murdoch clamped a firm hand around his arm and marched him towards the open door. The sheriff cast another uncertain glance at the remaining men, and then followed the rancher inside, and led him back to the cellblock. Opening the first door, Stafford ushered the prisoner inside. The Mexican went in without a word, sitting down sullenly on the edge of the cot, as the door clanged shut behind him

“Thank you, Sheriff,” Murdoch said gratefully. “Now if you can tell me where the the doctor…..”

“Sorry, Mr Lancer,” Stafford cut in, “but you’re out of the luck there.”

Murdoch’s heart plummeted to his boots. “Don’t tell me you don’t have one!”

“Oh, we got one all right. It’s just that he’s out of town at the moment delivering Mrs Simkins’ third.”

Murdoch swore under his breath. “How long will he be?”

Stafford scratched his stubbly chin. “Can’t say. You know how these things go.”

The rancher nodded, although he had only had the experience with one son. Johnny had seemed reluctant to enter the world. Not so with Scott, who had been born on the road to Carterville, and took his first breath just as his mother breathed her last.

“Tell you what though,” the sheriff went on. “You take your boys over to the hotel, and as soon as the doc gets back, I’ll send him over.”

Murdoch took off his hat and wiped his forehead with the back of his sleeve. He was tired, dusty and consumed with worry over his sons, and now it seemed that Scott and Johnny, would have to wait a while longer before they were tended to. On the other hand, at least they could rest in a soft bed, and not have to endure any more hours in the saddle depleting their precious strength.

“All right, Sheriff,” he agreed, replacing his hat. “But as soon as he shows…”

“I’ll send him, don’t worry,” Stafford assured him. “Now get going. You can’t miss the hotel. It’s the only one we got, but it’s plenty big enough.”

Murdoch nodded and hurried out towards the door, with the sheriff following on his heels. He waited as the rancher climbed back on his horse easing his wounded son onto his broad chest.

“Thanks Sheriff. I’m much obliged.”

Stafford watched them as they rode slowly down the main street towards the hotel, and then walked back into his office shutting the door behind him. He cast a quick glance at the cellblock wondering if he should go in and question the Mexican about what had happened. However, he reckoned he would not get much out of him except his protests of innocence. No, the mystery would have to wait until Murdoch Lancer was able to talk to him properly. Whatever it was, he had better have a very good reason for leaving the prisoner in his care!

 

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

 

The Imperial Hotel was James Moffatt’s pride and joy. The entrance foyer was large and imposing with a splendid central staircase, which divided into two graceful curves to the rooms on the first floor. Thick expensive rugs covered most of the polished pine floor of the foyer. The walls were painted a warm cream colour, and the cornices and pillars were picked out in gold leaf.

Seated in his office behind the reception desk, the manager gave a contented sigh as he closed up his leather bound accounts book. The business was showing a healthy profit, the well-appointed spacious guest rooms having seen to that. People still had money in their pockets, and were happy to spend it at the hotel. There were some who baulked at the prices; but when Moffatt informed them that the only other choice of accommodation in town was the boarding house down the other end of town, they more than often capitulated.

Moffatt stood up, and straightened his well-cut suit and exited his office, frowning as he saw a few papers littering the top of the oak reception desk. He tutted with annoyance and hastily tided them away. He would speak to the clerk first thing in the morning about this oversight. It really was most unacceptable. Glancing at the long case clock standing beside the staircase, he saw that it was two minutes past eleven. Now he berated himself. The main doors should have been locked and barred at eleven sharp. He prided himself on his punctuality, and anyone who wished to book in or return for the night would have to adhere to his strict rule.

Bustling over to the doors, he stretched his podgy arms up, and shot the brass bolts home before retrieving the sturdy bar to lay it across the opening. He gave a grunt of satisfaction, and then turned on his heel, stripping off his jacket as he headed for his quarters situated on the ground floor.

He had just closed the door behind him when he heard a loud rap on the glass of the front doors. Moffatt sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward. Well, if they thought he was going to let them in now, they could think again! He sniffed imperiously, and went through to his parlour and plumped himself into his armchair. Another knock, even louder this time, accompanied by shouting, which made him jump as he looked around fearfully. Could it be some town drunks or worse still outlaws out to rob him? ‘Maybe he should escape out of the back door and run for the sheriff,’ he thought urgently. However, who then was to stop the perpetrators from breaking down the door?

Trembling, he got to his feet, and crept towards the door opening it a crack. Although he had turned down the lamps earlier, he could still see the outline of a large figure pressed up against the main entrance. He swallowed nervously, and edged out into the foyer to stand by the main door, keeping well back in case whoever on the other side decided to smash the glass.

“What do you want?” he cried shrilly, unable to keep the quiver from his voice.

“We need a couple of rooms,” a slightly muffled voice shouted back.

“No. We’re closed for the night,” Moffatt, replied, feeling somewhat braver now as he realised the speaker did not sound drunk. “You’ll have to go elsewhere.”

“There is no other place.”

“Try the boarding house down the street,” the manager replied. He was definitely getting back into control now, and was determined to see off his unwelcome guests. There was no response to his suggestion and for a moment, he thought they had heeded his words and gone away; but then a loud crash sounded on the other side of the door as if a heavy boot had kicked savagely at the woodwork.

Affronted by this outrage, James Moffatt forgot his fear and ran forward, lifting the bar and unbolting the door. Flinging it open, he was forced to step back, as a burly framed man strode inside, a fair-haired young man cradled in his arms. He was quickly followed by two other men, and Moffatt’s eyes widened in shock when he saw that one of them was a Negro.

“How dare you come barging in here!” he exclaimed. ”I told you we are closed for the night and you have no right here. I’m going to get the sheriff.”

“He already knows we’re here,” the burly man said gruffly. “He’s the one who sent us.”

“What? That old fool Stafford must be out of his mind sending you.”

“Look, Mister…” the older man replied, clearly trying to keep a check on his temper.

“It’s Moffatt. James Moffatt and I am the manager of this establishment.

Murdoch sighed. He was heartily sick of the man’s stuffy and arrogant manner already. “Mr Moffatt. My name’s Lancer and I need a room for myself, and my sons, and another for my ranch hand here. ”

The manager looked again at the dark-skinned man, and his lip curled in distain. “He can certainly go to the boarding house. His kind is not welcome here.”

The other young man drew in a sharp breath and shifted his stance, but the ranch hand put a restraining hand on his arm. “It’s all right, Johnny. I’ve gotta take the horses to the livery anyway. I’ll bed down there.”

“You’ll do no such thing, Frank,” Murdoch growled. “You’re staying right here.” He adjusted his grip on the limp body in his arms, and glared harshly at the manager.

“Mr Moffatt,” he began tersely,” The sheriff is sending the doctor here when he returns. But in the meantime, if you don’t want my sons to bleed all over your wonderful rugs, I suggest it would be a good idea if you give us the rooms we require.”

Moffatt stared at him in horror and his eyes fell on the bloodstained wrappings about the blond-haired man’s leg, together with the one around the other son’s arm, and then down at his costly floor coverings. He looked up again at the stony expressions of the men before him, and realised that he really did not have a choice in the matter. 

“Very well, I’ll see what I have available.” He sniffed and walked huffily over to the reception desk.  He then took out his large registration book, banging it open to the right page.

Despite everything, Murdoch could not help but exchange an amused smile with Johnny as they followed him over.

“I have rooms eight and five, but I must warn you, they are very expensive.”

“We can pay,” Murdoch assured him firmly

Moffatt gave him a dubious look before turning to retrieve the keys from their hooks. “First floor on the left.”

“Thanks for all your help,” Johnny said sarcastically as he picked up both sets of keys. The manager stayed behind the desk as they moved towards the stairs, and waited until they were out of sight. Then he emerged and stalked back to the main doors, and shut them back up again. The doctor, if he were coming at all, would have to knock very loudly to gain entry, he thought spitefully. Now he was going to his bed, but he was certainly going to speak to his disreputable guests in the morning. He wanted them out of his hotel as soon as possible, especially the Negro.

His mind made up, Moffatt turned to return to his rooms, and suddenly stopped dead and stared at the floor. There was a large splash of blood right in the centre of his cream and gold rug and the trail of crimson lead all the way up the stairs.

 

Johnny had never seen a hotel room so extravagant. They had taken number eight as it was the larger of the two, with a separate room containing two beds. The main room was decorated with dark red flock wallpaper, and heavy velvet burgundy drapes. The carpet was so thick that one’s boots sank into it. The furniture consisted of several chairs and a couch upholstered in a rose pink colour. There was also a circular table, which was so shiny you could see your face in it. In spite of his fatigue, the dark-haired Lancer had to stop and look at the whole room for a few amazed seconds, before following his father into the bedroom.

Murdoch carefully laid Scott down on the bed on the right, and gently eased his son’s dusty boots off. The wounded man did not utter a sound, even when Murdoch perched himself on the edge of the mattress and laid his large hand on his burning forehead.

“How’s he doing?” Johnny asked as he stood at the foot of the bed fidgeting with the storm strap of his hat.

Murdoch shook his head in despair. “If anything, he’s hotter.”  He looked around at his youngest son. The boy looked exhausted, and as he clutched at the bedstead with one hand, Murdoch could see the knuckles were white with tension. He got up and took Johnny’s uninjured arm. “Come and sit down before you fall down.”

“I’m okay,” Johnny shrugged.

“No, you’re not. Now come on.”

Johnny allowed himself to be led to the opposite bed, and he sat down with an audible groan. His arm felt like it was on fire; and he knew he was running a low-grade fever too. However, he knew that his brother was a lot worse off than he was and he just hoped the doctor would not be a long time coming.

Satisfied that Johnny would stay put for a while, Murdoch went to the nightstand and poured some water from the jug into the basin. A clean washcloth and some pristine white towels were lying on the side, so he picked those up, along with the basin, and carried them to the table beside the beds. Dropping the cloth in the basin, he wrung it out, and laid it lengthways across Scott’s brow. His concerned gaze dropped to his son’s injured leg and the saturated bandage. Scott had lost too much blood over the past few days, and this latest injury was sapping his strength to a dangerous level. If the doctor did not get here soon, it might well be too late for his eldest son. Grabbing a towel, he wrapped it around the existing bandage, and then drew the coverlet up over Scott’s chest.

“Don’t think Mr Moffatt would like you dirtying up his nice clean towels,” Johnny observed.

Murdoch glanced round. Although Johnny’s tone was light, Murdoch could see the worry written on the younger man’s face.

“I don’t give a damn what Moffatt thinks!” the rancher retorted, a little more roughly that he intended. He took another towel and tied it loosely around Johnny’s arm. “Hold that in place. You’re bleeding as well…..”

A moan from the other bed made them turn their heads, and Murdoch scooted across, sitting down on the side. Scott was moving his head feebly on the pillow and his eyelids were flickering rapidly. Murdoch took the cloth away from his forehead, alarmed to find it already bone dry and cupped his hands on either side of the injured man’s face.

“Scott? Can you hear me, Son?”

The young man groaned again, followed by a distinctive change in his breathing rhythm

“Looks like he’s coming around,” Murdoch said. Johnny rose on somewhat shaky legs to stand behind his father, while waiting anxiously for his brother to wake up.

Scott’s eyes opened a crack, although it was clear that he was having difficulty focusing on anything.

“It’s all right, Son,” Murdoch murmured. “Just take your time.”

Scott hitched a breath, although it turned more into a pain-filled groan, as he struggled to force himself back to reality.

“Mu…Murdoch?” Scott rasped. He was vaguely aware of lying on something soft, which was infinitely better than the hours he had spent in a jolting, uncomfortable saddle, but had no idea where he was.

“Just lie still,” his father replied. “The doctor will be here soon.”

“Doctor? Sam?”

Murdoch shook his head. “No, Scott. Not Sam, we’re too far from home.”

The younger man closed his eyes briefly as he tried to digest this piece of information. It was hard to think when it seemed that his whole body hurt. He felt sick, light-headed, and so damn hot that he felt like he was about to explode. Scott knew that his father was with him, but just where was his brother?

“Johnny?” he muttered as he opened his eyes with an effort.

Murdoch moved off the bed to allow Johnny to take his place.

“Right here, Brother,” the dark-haired man replied as he curled his fingers around Scott’s trembling hand.

“You…okay?”

Johnny smiled. “Better than you, I reckon”

“Wh..where are we?” Scott was still feeling disorientated and confused. The last thing he remembered was passing out on the trial.  Apart from brief snatches of consciousness when riding with his father, the rest was a blank.

“In a real fancy hotel at a place called Silver Falls,” Johnny told him. “You should see this place, all pretty, and clean. Bet it even beats some of them back East.”

Scott smiled at his brother’s enthusiasm and was about to reply when a searing white hot pain tore through his right leg; and he could not help but let out an anguished cry.

“Easy, Boston,” Johnny soothed as he stoked away Scott’s slick blond strands from his eyes. His heart felt like it was breaking in two, as he watched his brother struggle to ride out the tides of pain. Although he had not been the cause of Scott’s recent injury, he knew that his sibling was far from recovered from the bullet wound he had inflicted. The guilt surged back, stronger than ever. He had hurt his brother badly, and yet Scott seemed ready to forgive him. Johnny did not know if he could be that magnanimous.

“You got any of that laudanum left?” he asked, turning to his father.

“Some, but it’s in my saddlebags.”

Johnny swore. Frank had insisted on going back to the livery to bed down the horses, and would be bringing their saddlebags to the hotel once he’d done – provided the manager allowed him back in again, of course! The circumstances of their arrival at Silver Falls had been far from easy, but they would have to make the best of it.

Scott was breathing harshly and his eyes were screwed tightly shut, as the agony continued to course through his body. The heat rose again to boiling point, and he tried to push back the restricting covers, only to be stopped by a firm hand on his wrist.

“So…hot,” he protested, prising his eyes open again to peer up at the anxious faces of his father and brother.

“I know, Son,” Murdoch answered as he reached for the washcloth again. “Try and rest. The doctor won’t be much longer.”

He hated lying to the wounded man, but he really had no idea when the physician would turn up. For all he knew, it might not be until the morning, and at this stage, Murdoch was not sure Scott would even last that long.

The rancher watched as his eldest drifted off into a restless sleep, and then his troubled gaze met that of his younger son. Johnny’s deep blue eyes were awash with undisguised tears, and Murdoch had the sudden urge to hug him close. Instead, he patted him awkwardly on the shoulder, cursing himself for not being able to show the love he felt in his heart. Johnny turned away concentrating his attention on his brother instead, leaving Murdoch feeling cut off and forgotten. Ashamed, the rancher swallowed hard, slowly left the bedroom, and sank down in one of the overstuffed armchairs with his head in his hands.  Before this night was through, he might very well lose both his sons and to his mind, he had no one else to blame, but himself.

 

 

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

 

Murdoch was still sitting there half an hour later when there was a knock on the door. He looked up startled, and then jumped to his feet and hurried over thinking it must be the doctor. Opening it, he was therefore disappointed to find it was only Frank standing there.

“Sorry to disturb you, Mr Lancer,” Frank began hesitantly, “but I fetched your saddlebags.”

“Oh. Yes,” Murdoch answered, distractedly. He realised that his disappointment must be written all his face, and it had made the ranch hand feel uncomfortable.

“Why don’t you come in for a moment, Frank,” he asked. “Keep me company for a while.”

The younger man looked surprised and slightly panic stricken at his suggestion, and for a moment, Murdoch thought he was going to refuse; but then he nodded and stepped inside the room. Ever polite, Frank removed his hat, and carefully laid the saddlebags on a chair before glancing around the opulent room, clearly as amazed as Johnny had been.

“Nice room,” he said, then almost bit his tongue as he realised how unconvincing that sounded.

Murdoch smiled. “Yes. It’s a bit too ornate for my taste, but I suppose we would be grateful we have a roof over our heads.” He paused, looking at Frank who stood in front of him, turning his rim of his hat self-consciously in his hands. “Your room okay?”

 

“Oh yeah, it’s fine,” Frank replied hastily. It was too, maybe not so fine as this one, being just a large bedroom with a few chairs and small tables scattered around; but it was the fanciest place he had ever stayed in. He just hoped Mr Lancer would not expect him to pay for it out his wages.

“Sit down, Frank.” Murdoch invited as he lowered himself into his chair again. “We’d had a long, difficult day and I’m sure you’re as tired as I feel.”

“Yeah. Thanks,” the dark-skinned man replied. He glanced around and parked himself quickly on the nearest seat, sitting up ramrod straight, and wishing that he could go back to his own room instead of exchanging small talk with his boss.

“How’s Scott and Johnny?” he asked.

Murdoch’s face darkened. He was still feeling guilty that he had not felt able to offer Johnny the comfort he had needed earlier. He also could not help but think that a lot of pain and heartache could have been prevented if he had not promised Joe Barker a share in the ranch in the first place.

“They’re resting,” he answered at length, hoping to God they were. He had not been to check on them since leaving the bedroom, he thought in remorse. What sort of father was he? He should be in there with them, not sitting out here brooding.

“I’m sure the doc will fix them up fine when he gets here,” Frank put in, sensing the older man’s anguish.

“Yes,” Murdoch muttered quietly. His grey head dropped morosely as he considered the consequences if the doctor did not get here soon. If Scott died…. No, he must not think that. He had to remain strong, not only for himself, but for Johnny as well. He had to believe that they would all get through this, and return home to Lancer, whole and able to get on with their lives again.

An uncomfortable silence fell between the two men, and Frank struggled to think of something to say, so he could make his excuses to leave. He was just about to speak when Murdoch looked up spotting the saddlebags on the chair for the first time, and turned to him.

“The manager didn’t give you any trouble when you went to the livery then?”

“No. The main doors were shut, but he let me out of a side door.” Frank dipped his dark head, hiding a smile. He omitted telling his boss about finding Moffatt on his hands and knees scrubbing hard at the bloodstains on his rugs. The man, red-faced, and breathing hard at his exertions, had been too concerned over his precious soft furnishings to raise any objections. He had simply let Frank out without a word, and when he had returned, the side door was still unlocked and the harassed manager was still hard at his cleaning.

“I’m sorry for what he said to you down in the foyer,” Murdoch apologised. “He had no right.”

Frank shook his head. “It don’t matter to me, Mr Lancer. I’ve bin used to it all my life. Even during the War.”

“The War?” Murdoch replied, his interest piqued by this revelation. “You served in the army?”

The younger man looked embarrassed, and wished he had not mentioned this last part. “Yessir. The United States Coloured Troops, or ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ as the Cheyenne later called us,”

Murdoch was intrigued at this hitherto unknown glimpse into his employee’s life. “Cavalry or infantry?”

“Cavalry,” Frank answered, a touch of pride entering his voice. “We had our few share of white officers, some good, some bad, and we did our fair share of fighting. It’s just that some folks didn’t want us around. You just learned to get on with it.”

“Weren’t the United States Coloured Troops one of the first Union troops to enter Richmond after it fell?” Murdoch asked curiously.

“That’s right, Mr Lancer. I was there” his companion replied, as he recalled the devastation that city had seen,

“So was Scott,” Murdoch informed him. “In Libby Prison.”

“I know,” Frank said. “He told me.”

“He told you!” Murdoch was completely surprised by this new revelation. He had only learned of his son’s incarceration at one of the Confederates’ most notorious prisons a few months ago, and Scott had never spoke about it since. Now it seemed that he had found it easier to talk to a fellow former soldier.

Upon seeing his employer’s reaction, Frank was all the more uncomfortable. He naturally thought that Scott had spoken to his family about his time in Libby, but it now seemed that this was not the case.

“Yeah, well, we got to talking on the last cattle drive, and found out that we was in Richmond at the same time. I saw what it was like for those poor devils in Libby. Scott was lucky to get out of there alive.”

“Yes. Yes, he was,” murmured Murdoch, still shocked by what Frank had told him. It just emphasised how little he knew his eldest son, despite him being back in his life for almost a year. The same went for Johnny, and if he were not very careful, he would go to his grave knowing nothing about his sons’ innermost thoughts and feelings.

Looking at the troubled features of the rancher made Frank feel bad, and he suddenly wished he had not said anything about Scott and their conversation when they had sat by the campfire late one night. It has obviously upset the older man greatly, and right now, he had enough to contend with regarding both his sons being hurt.

Taking a firmer grip on his hat, Frank lurched to his feet and glanced towards the door.

“Well, I ought to be going now, “he muttered hurriedly. “Unless you need me for anything else…….”

“What?” Murdoch looked up at him in surprise. “Oh. No, there is nothing any of us can do, but wait. You get along to bed, Frank.”

The younger man hesitated for a moment, wondering if he should stay after all; but, as his boss rightly pointed out, there was nothing anybody could do until the doctor arrived. He nodded, jammed his hat back on his head, and then crossed over to the door. “Night then, Mr Lancer.”

“Yes. Goodnight, Frank.” 

Murdoch got his feet as the quiet-spoken ranch hand left the room. He knew he had a lot to thank Frank for. Things had looked grim when Steve had had the three of them at his mercy, but Frank had risked his own life to save theirs. Murdoch was determined to make it up to the man, but right now, his priority was his two sons. He had brooded alone for too long, and he needed to be with them in the difficult hours ahead. With that thought in mind, Murdoch hesitated no longer, and turned his steps toward the bedroom.

 

   ******************

 

The single horse buggy moved slowly down the darkened main street of Silver Falls, past the shuttered windows and doors, and finally coming to a stop at a small picket fenced house near the far end of town. The driver applied the brake then looped the reins loosely around the handle, before stretching his arms above his head, giving a huge yawn.

Doctor Philip Ambrose stood, jumped down, and then reached for his pocket watch. His dark brows rose in surprise, as he realised the church clock had indeed been correct. It stopped so often that the townsfolk often ignored it, but it had read twenty minutes past two, the same time at Ambrose’s watch. He shook his head and grabbed his bag from the seat. Perhaps it had always showed that specific time, the doctor could not remember. All he knew that it was late, and he wanted his bed.

Ambrose walked up the short path to his front door, fumbling for his keys and almost jumped out of his skin when a dark figure detached it his porch.

“I’d just about given up on you, Doctor.”

“Good God, Tom,” Ambrose said, his heart pounding loudly with fear. “You scared the Hell out of me.”

“Sorry about that, Doc,” Stafford apologised as he came closer and saw the pale, shocked face of his friend.

“What are you doing here?” the younger man enquired. “It’s after two.”

“Yeah, I know,” Stafford replied, “but we could have some trouble.”

Ambrose gave him a puzzled look, then ushered the sheriff towards the front door, inserting his key in to the lock. “What kind of trouble.”

Stafford followed the doctor into his house, and waited until he had lit the lamps before he answered.

“Few hours ago, some strangers rode into town. A rancher by the name of Lancer, who had his two sons with him, and a coupla other fellas.”

Ambrose shrugged.” So?”

“The two boys were hurt, and Lancer wanted me to lock one of the others, a Mexican, up in jail.”

“What for?”

Stafford shook his head. “Dunno. He wouldn’t tell me. He just said he’d explain everything later, and then wanted to know where the doctor was.”

The doctor frowned. “You say his boys were hurt. Bad?”

“One looked that way to me,” the sheriff answered. “The other not so bad, but they all looked like they’d seen a lot of trouble.”

“You think they could be outlaws?” Ambrose asked.

Stafford took off his hat and scratched his grey head. “I don’t know what to think. One of the sons put me in mind of someone I saw once in Sonora about five years ago. A young kid called Madrid. He was only around fifteen or sixteen at the time, but he was already a gunfighter.”

The doctor looked surprised. “Do gunfighters start that young?”

“Some do” Stafford replied grimly. “But few get any older unless they’re really good.”

“And Madrid was?”

The sheriff nodded. “Yeah, he was real fast. Like I said, I only saw him the once, and I can’t be sure that this stranger is the same kid; but he was definitely looked like a gunfighter.”

“Where are they now?” Ambrose asked.

“At the hotel.”

“The hotel!” the doctor exclaimed aghast, but then he chuckled. “I bet that went down well with Moffatt.”

Stafford smiled. Everyone in town knew of the manager’s pompous and high-handed manner. “Yeah, I reckon it did. I would have liked to see his face when they turned up.”

Ambrose glanced at his bag on the table, and then at the clock on the mantle. “Well, I was looking forward to my bed, but I’d better make my way over there.”

“You’re going now?”

“If one of the sons was as badly hurt as you say, then yes I’m going now,” Ambrose answered. He paused as he saw the uneasy expression on his friend’s face. “You still don’t trust them?”

“Let’s just say I’m being careful, Doc,” Stafford admitted. “I wouldn’t want anybody to get hurt.”

Touched by his concern, the younger man clapped him on the arm. “I’ll be fine, Tom. Besides I took an oath to help people who are sick or in pain. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad, my job is to heal them the best I can.”

Stafford nodded. The man was a good doctor, the best they had ever had in town, and Silver Falls were lucky to have him. Maybe with the doctor there helping his sons, Lancer would feel able to talk to him about what had happened, and why he wanted the Mexican locked up. It was worth a try anyway.

“I could go with you,” he offered

“I’d much rather you looked after old Jessie for me,” Ambrose gestured to his patient bay mare still standing hitched to the buggy outside. “See that she gets a good rub down and feed. She’s done a lot of waiting around tonight, and then had a long trip home.”

“Oh, yeah,” Stafford replied as he remembered. “How did it go with Mrs Simkins? What’d she have, another boy?”

The doctor smiled. “Twins! One of each. Mother and babies are doing fine.”

“Twins!” Tom cried in surprise. “Well, they’re sure gonna have their work cut out with feeding all them kids.”

Ambrose agreed. The Simkins were a Catholic family, who did not seem to think of the consequences about raising such a large brood. Their humble homestead was small, and the patch of land around it was not very productive. Nevertheless, they always appeared happy enough, and both mother and father were delighted with the new additions to their family.

The doctor opened his large, leather bag, and checked the contents before going over to his cabinet where he kept his medical supplies.

“I’ll just need to stock up with a few things before I leave.” Ambrose said, filling his bag with what he thought he might need.  His tiredness had melted away now, as he turned his attention to the needs of his new patients.  Although Sheriff Stafford had not specified, he assumed he would be dealing with bullet wounds, which of course were commonplace out here. He was always appalled as to how much damage a small piece of lead could do to a human body, and the subsequent infection, which inevitably followed.  A fever from the wound killed more patients than the bullet itself, and he hoped one day there would be a more efficient way to treat infection, other than with carbolic acid.

Shutting his bag, he turned towards Stafford, who was peering at the books on the shelves on his wall and he smiled to himself. The sheriff’s eyesight was getting worse, but he still refused to wear the spectacles he had given him. Ambrose could not believe it was vanity that stopped Tom wearing them; he just could not admit he was getting older.

“Well, I’m done,” he announced. “Don’t forget Jessie, and when you’re done, can you lock up and put the key under the stone by the porch?”

Stafford nodded. “I might just stay here ‘till you’re back. That’s if it’s all right with you?”

The doctor smiled. Tom Stafford could be a bit of mother hen sometimes, but Ambrose knew that he meant well. He also knew that since his wife had passed away, the sheriff sometimes felt lonely in his house, and was often glad of some company.

“Of course,” he replied affably. “Put some coffee on to brew if you like. Hopefully, I shouldn’t be too long. “Ambrose paused and picked up his heavy bag. “Wish me luck then,”

Stafford glanced at him curiously, “What for? The Lancers?”

The doctor’s smile broadened. “No. Moffatt. I’ve a feeling I’m going to need it!”

 

    *********************

 

“Where the hell is he?”

Seated by Scott’s bedside, Murdoch looked around at his youngest son, who was pacing relentlessly backwards and forwards across the bedroom floor.

“I don’t know, Son,” he replied wearily. “I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”

“Yeah?” Johnny stopped pacing and faced his father, his eyes flashing blue fire. “How do we even know the sheriff told him? You saw the way he looked at us. He don’t trust us.”

Murdoch sighed and dropped the washcloth back into the bowl of lukewarm water before getting stiffly to his feet. He went over to the younger man, and placed his hands on his tense shoulders. 

“Why don’t you come and sit down, Johnny? You’re doing yourself no good like.....”

“I don’t wanna sit down!” Johnny tore out his father’s grip, stumbled over to the window, and looked out into the dark street below for what seemed the hundredth time.

“We’ve been waiting here for over three stinking hours,” he went on furiously. “There’s no sign of the doc and Scott’s getting worse.”

Murdoch closed his gritty eyes for a moment, his head sinking forward in despair. It was true. In the time since they had been here, Scott’s fever had risen to a dangerous level, and he was becoming delirious. With Johnny’s help, Murdoch had managed to strip Scott down to his underwear, tossing his grubby, bloodstained clothes to one side, and settle him more comfortably in the bed. It was obvious that the wounded man was in a great deal of pain, as he constantly drifted in and out of consciousness. When he was awake, he hardly seemed to know anything or anyone around him, and tossed and turned continually against the pillows, muttering a string of unintelligible words,

Murdoch and Johnny had taken it in turns to bathe Scott’s face and neck, in the hope of cooling him down; but their efforts seemed to have no effect at all. The strain was beginning to tell on both men, and Murdoch was becoming particularly worried about Johnny. Although the effects of the peyote had virtually worn off, the young man was still agitated and edgy. Murdoch knew a lot of it was due to his anxiety over his brother, but he also knew that Johnny was still wracked with guilt over the shooting. His younger son’s own state of health was also causing him some measure of concern. If the doctor did not come soon, Murdoch faced the prospect of having two very sick sons on his hands, and in a decidedly unfriendly town.

“Damnit, I’m gonna go look for him,” Johnny exploded, turning abruptly from the window and stalking to the door.

“No!” Murdoch retorted, grabbing him firmly by the arm.  

Johnny swung around to glare at him, his face contorted with rage. “Let go of me, old man.”

 Many men had been intimidated by the stone cold expression on Johnny’s face, but not Murdoch. There was no way he was going to let his son out of his sight, not while he was in this state of mind. He was more than likely to get himself into more trouble, and Murdoch could not allow that to happen.

“You’re not going anywhere, Johnny,” he growled. “You’re staying here until the doctor arrives, and sees to you and your brother.”

“And you think you’re gonna stop me?” the younger man challenged.

Murdoch met Johnny’s icy stare unflinchingly. “If I have to.”

Father and son continued to glare at each other for a few more tense moments – two stubborn men who refused to budge an inch. However, in the end, it was Johnny who looked away first. His shoulders slumped with dejection as he realised Murdoch was right. There was nothing they could do, but wait and trust the doctor would come. He nodded quietly, too tired and hurting to argue anymore, and pulled slowly out of his father’s grasp. Murdoch let him go, and watched as he crossed back and slumped down on the chair, which had been positioned next to Scott’s bedside. Again, he knew he ought to say or do something to help the disconsolate man, but he was at a loss to know where to begin. Instead, Murdoch went over and sat down on the opposite bed, and although he remained silent, Johnny found that his silent presence was the comfort he needed.

 

   ************************

 

Philip Ambrose prided himself as a man who rarely lost his temper. However, a ten-minute conversation with the manager of the Imperial Hotel had proved him wrong. He knew that gaining entry into Moffatt’s establishment might prove difficult, but he did not appreciate how much, until he banged on the back door of the hotel. Despite his persistence, Ambrose was kept waiting on the doorstep for a full fifteen minutes, before the manager finally condescended to open the door.

“Oh, it’s you,” Moffatt had said. “Well, you’ll have to come back in the morning.”

Ambrose had calmly told him that was impossible. He had been told that there were two injured men requiring his services, and he needed to see them now. The manager had refused point blank, and went to shut the door in Ambrose’s face. However, he had not been quick enough, as the doctor quickly jammed his foot inside. Moffatt had been livid by this, and threatened to call for the sheriff to make him leave. Ambrose, however, had thrown the threat back at him saying that he would ask Stafford to arrest him if he did not let him in. Five more minutes of arguing had ensued before Moffatt finally allowed him inside, and begrudging gave him the Lancer’s room number. As the doctor started upstairs, Moffatt had told him that he wanted the Lancers out of his hotel in the morning, so he had better work fast, and ensure they were.

Now as Ambrose stood before room number eight, he was struggling to regain his composure before he knocked on the door. It would do little for his patient’s confidence if he stormed in while he was still hoping mad!

The door was opened almost immediately, which was testimony that he had been expected for some time. Ambrose found himself confronted with a tall, severe faced man in his fifties, who looked like he had not slept in weeks.

“Mr Lancer?” he asked, offering his hand in greeting.

“That’s right,” the other replied gruffly.

“Doctor Ambrose. I have to apologise for not getting here sooner. I had a confinement…..”

“I heard,” Lancer interrupted tersely. He opened the door wider, and Ambrose stepped inside more than a little nervous at the older man’s intimidating demeanour.

In spite of his abrupt greeting, Murdoch was very pleased to see the doctor, although he had to admit feeling somewhat surprised. Ambrose was a lot younger than he had expected; perhaps in his early thirties, with dark, wavy hair and intelligent hazel eyes. He was also English, and by the sound of it, he had lost nothing of his native accent. Murdoch wondered how long Ambrose had been living in America, and more importantly, what had brought him to the country. However, for now, these questions would have to wait.

“The sheriff told me that your two sons have been hurt?”

“Yes,” Murdoch answered. “Shot. We had some trouble.”

Ambrose was tempted to ask what kind of trouble, but thought it best to stay quiet. Tom Stafford had his doubts about the strangers, although at the moment, all the doctor could see was the face of a very worried father. He looked towards the half open door to his left, and even from this distance, he could smell the rank smell of blood.

“Let me see what I can do,” he said.

Murdoch nodded, encouraged by his brisk manner and led him into the bedroom. The once spotless room resembled a field hospital. Bloodstained clothing and towels littered the floor, and the air inside was stuffy and close. One young man lay in the bed to the right, and it was obvious that he was very ill.  Another sat close by, dark head bowed, as he wiped gently at his brother’s flushed face, and he did not glance up even when Ambrose crossed the room to open the window slightly letting some fresh air in.

“Johnny. This is Doctor Ambrose,” Murdoch informed his son.

“’Bout time.”

“Yes, I’m very sorry for not………..”

“Don’t matter.” The young man looked up and Ambrose was surprised at the sight of a pair of very blue eyes staring at him from a deeply tanned face. “You’re here now, so you can see to my brother.”

Ambrose could see where he got his uncompromising style from, but he wasted no further time so he came over, set his bag on the floor, and sat down on the edge of the bed. The man under the covers did not resemble his brother at all. Slimmer in build, this young man was fair and the shape of his face was longer. It was difficult to believe the two of them were related at all, and yet it was plain to see that Johnny cared a lot about his brother. He glanced again at the dark-haired man next to him, noting the rough bandage around his left arm, and the etched lines of pain near his mouth.

“It looks like you need some attention too,” he observed.

“I’ll keep,” Johnny replied, his attention back on his brother. “But Scott can’t. His leg’s real bad and he’s burning up with fever.”

Ambrose drew back the bedcovers and took a gasp of shock when he saw the bloody towel around the blond’s right thigh. He did not have to unwrap it to know that an infection had set in. He was, however, curious when he noticed more bandaging around Scott’s chest and left shoulder.

“And this,” he asked, glancing back at Johnny. “When did this happen?”

The younger man’s head dipped and he looked away. Puzzled by his reaction, Ambrose turned to Murdoch, who stood at the foot of the bed and, raised his eyebrows for an answer.

“Scott was also shot four days ago,” Lancer explained. “He was treated by a doctor, but he managed to tear the stitches open.”

Ambrose waited to hear more, but the other man apparently had said all he was going to say on the matter. So far, the doctor had heard nothing that could prove the Lancers were a respectable family of ranchers. They could well be outlaws for all he knew, and Stafford had said that Johnny had reminded him of a teenaged gunfighter he had seen in action in Sonora. On the other hand, they could be bounty hunters, which explained the prisoner now residing in the town’s jail. It could also explain how Lancer’s sons had been shot.

The doctor carefully replaced the covers over the sick man. The speculations and question could wait, he decided. He had work to do, and he had to act fast before the young man’s condition worsened any further.

“Mr Lancer,” he said as looked back at the older man. “I shall need hot water, plenty of it. I know the manager can be difficult, but please can you ask him to arrange this.”

“Yes, of course,”

“If he gives you any trouble…”

“He won’t,” Lancer answered grimly, already heading for the door.

Concentrating on the job in hand, Ambrose caught hold of Scott’s wrist and checked his pulse. He was not surprised to find that it was racing; a sure sign that the infection was spreading through his body. His patient was also barely conscious, and his breathing was erratic and rapid.

“How long ago was he shot?” he asked

Johnny had to think before he answered. It seemed so long ago and he was almost too tired to remember. “About 12 hours, I reckon.”

“And the bullet’s still in?” the doctor added.

“Yeah”

Ambrose sighed. This was no good news; and he also suspected that Johnny was hiding the extent of his injury in favour of his brother. However, with the high fever and severe blood loss, Scott had to be considered his priority now, and Johnny would have to wait a little longer. Delving in his bag, he withdrew a small bottle and a leather case.

“I’m going to give him some morphine for the pain,” he told Johnny as he looked on. “I don’t want him awake when I start probing for that bullet.

“We gave him some laudanum a coupla hours ago.”

The doctor nodded, grateful for the information so he could adjust the dosage accordingly. Lying his syringe down on a clean piece of cloth, he rose and went into the next room to fetch more lamps. He needed all the light he could if he was going to be able to see what he was doing.

Johnny stayed where he was. He did not intend to leave his brother’s side, while Ambrose tended Scott’s wounds. At least he seemed competent enough, although Johnny would rather have put his trust in Sam Jenkins, who had pulled him and his brother through many misadventures.

A sharp intake of breath made him jump and he saw Scott’s eyes open in sudden confusion. He had clearly forgotten where he was, and Johnny could see the panic start to creep onto his sibling’s face.

“Hey, Boston,” he said, taking hold on his brother’s hand and squeezed it gently. ”It’s okay.”

“Joh….Johnny?” Scott croaked.

“Yeah, who else did you expect?” the younger man asked, a smile curving his lips. “The doc’s here now. He’s gonna give you something for the pain and send you off to sleep.”

Scott was not sure he wanted to go back to sleep. Although it was a relief to escape from the constant pain, his dreams were far from pleasant, and filled with images he had thought he had forgotten about years ago. A flicker of movement by the door made him turn his head; and he frowned as a dark-haired man he had never seen before approached the bed.

“Hello Scott. I’m Doctor Ambrose,” said the man affably. “I know you’re feeling very uncomfortable right now, but I assure you the pain will ease soon and you’ll be able to rest.”

Scott glanced quickly at his brother for reassurance, and then stiffened when he saw Ambrose pick up the syringe. He hated being drugged in any way and he was not looking forward to a needle piercing his flesh.

“Johnny, can you hold his arm still for me, please?”

The ex-gunfighter nodded and pressed Scott’s right arm flat against the bedcovers. He could feel the tension in his brother’s muscles and sympathised with him for what was about to happen. Ambrose had better not do the same to him when it was his turn, or he might be forced to shoot him if he tried.

The doctor wiped the inside of Scott’s arm with an alcohol soaked cloth and then carefully inserted the syringe. Johnny felt his brother flinch as the needle went into a vein, and held on a little tighter as he felt Scott’s arm move a fraction.

“That’s it, hold him steady,” Ambrose said

Scott watched in a kind of horrified fascination, as the Ambrose slowly injected the drug, already feeling a warm lethargy enveloping his body. He panicked slightly as he felt his eyes start to close and he struggled to stay awake.

“Don’t fight it, Scott,” someone said, seemingly from a long distance away. “Just relax.”

He forced his failing senses onto his brother and whispered one word. Unable to hear what he had said, Johnny bent his head closer to the blond’s lips.

“What?”

“S…Stay.”

Johnny drew back in surprise. Did Scott really think he was going to desert him now? Alternatively, was he referring back to the time four days ago when Johnny had threatened to leave Lancer for good, and revert to his former life as a gunfighter?

“I ain’t going nowhere, big brother,” he murmured softy, but his words fell on deaf ears. Scott had slipped away out of his reach and into a state of deep unconsciousness. 

 

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

 

They say that everything always seems worse at night, and for Murdoch Lancer this definitely appeared to be the case. It was certainly one of the longest nights, he had ever experienced, and he wanted it to be over. Now, as he stood by the window, the rancher could see the pale light of dawn starting to show over the rooftops of Silver Falls and he was glad. The chiming of the clock on the lacquer cabinet made him turn, and he frowned when he saw that it read four o’clock. His anxious gaze swept toward the closed bedroom door and he wondered how much longer it would be before the doctor emerged.

Despite his protests, Ambrose had ordered him outside to wait until he was finished. He worked better without fretful relatives getting in his way, he had said. Murdoch smiled briefly as he speculated how he had coped with Johnny. His younger son was characteristically un-cooperative when it came to following doctor’s orders, and Murdoch only hoped that Ambrose was as firm and strong minded, as Sam Jenkins. He had also told the doctor about the peyote, which had affected Johnny so badly. However, he made sure the telling was done out his younger son’s earshot. To his credit, Ambrose had not asked any questions as to why or how the drug had got into Johnny’s system in the first place, and had merely thanked him for the information. Murdoch knew he had a lot of explaining to do, to both the doctor and to the sheriff; but not until his sons had received the attention they needed.

Crossing back to his chair, he sank down wishing he were back in the Great Room at Lancer. There, surrounded by the familiar trappings of home, he knew he would feel much happier. Here they were in a strange town surrounded by strangers, and for an uncertain length of time. In the morning, he would have to send word to Lancer, and tell them that there would be a delay in returning home. Even if Scott and Johnny recovered quickly from their injuries, the journey back would take some time. However, now, Murdoch could foresee no early return, and he had to resign himself to the fact that they were not going anywhere for a while.

God, how much longer would it be? The doctor had been in there for well over an hour. Was something wrong? Surely, Ambrose would have called him if there were; but why was it taking so long? Abruptly, he rose again from his seat and stared hard at the other door, almost wishing he could see through the wood. It was no good he could wait no longer; they were his boys in there and he needed to know how they were! He walked over to the bedroom and raised his hand to knock, but then changed his mind and turned away. Didn’t people say no news was good news? Well maybe, but right now any news would be welcome.

Murdoch trudged back across the room again and went over to the window to look out. Definitely getting lighter now, he thought. In a few more hours, people would be stirring and getting up to face a new day. Murdoch did not know what the day would bring, but at least it was better than the night, when hope seemed very far away and the future looked bleak.

The soft click of a door opening made him turn, and he was relieved to see Doctor Ambrose finally emerge. The young physician closed the door softly behind him, and walked further into the room, setting his bag down on the floor.

“Well?” Murdoch demanded, crossing over to face him.

Ambrose looked exhausted, his eyes red-rimmed and his face drawn with fatigue. “Shall we sit?” he suggested quietly

Murdoch felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. My God, was it that bad? He found himself nodding and groping for a chair. He drew in a ragged breath, steeling himself for whatever was to come.

“Tell me.”

The doctor sat down, grateful to rest his weary body and aching bones. It had been a very long night. “Well, they’re now both asleep and resting comfortably,” he began.

Murdoch felt a little of his tension ease from his mind, but he knew there was more to come. “And?” he prompted.

“I got the bullet out of Johnny’s arm.,” Ambrose went on. “There is some infection, but it isn’t too bad. He has a slight fever, and that’s something we’ll have to keep an eye on, but his basic problem is exhaustion.”

Murdoch nodded. He doubted that Johnny had had much sleep over the past few days. That and the hallucinogenic effect of the peyote had worn him down to a state of virtual collapse. Sleep was probably the best thing for him.

“I managed to persuade him to take a little laudanum……”

“How did you manage that?” Murdoch asked in amazement.

The doctor gave a rueful smile. “Well, it wasn’t easy.” He thought back to the younger man’s protests when he had been handed the mixed up concoction. Because of the peyote, which could still be present in his system, Ambrose had been careful not to give him too much, but it had to be enough to make him relax sufficiently to sleep. Johnny had only been persuaded to drink it, once Ambrose had told him that he needed him well enough to help with his sick brother.

“What about Scott, Doctor?”

Ambrose looked at Lancer’s troubled pale blue eyes and considered his answer carefully. There was no denying that he was very concerned about his patient, but did not wish to alarm his father unduly. However, he believed that the rancher was the kind of man who would rather hear the truth, rather than listen to some sugarcoated version.

“I won’t lie to you, Mr Lancer,” Ambrose replied. “Your son is very ill. His leg wound is seriously infected. The bullet was in very deep, and it also chipped the femur. There were several bone fragments in the wound, which had to be extracted. I’ve cleaned it out the best I could and put in a tube to drain the infection. The dressings will have to be changed every two hours if we are to combat the sepsis.”

The doctor paused as he saw the older man’s face, pale with shock, but there was no point holding back now.

“As you know, Scott has a high fever, although the morphine has lowered his temperature somewhat. However, that and the blood loss have weakened his condition severely. The first injury to his shoulder was bad enough, and he certainly was in no state to be riding a horse.”

“I know, Doctor,” Murdoch answered, “but when Johnny went missing there was no way that Scott was going to stay behind while we went to look for him.”

‘Missing’? These little titbits of information about what happened to the Lancers were intriguing, and Ambrose was again tempted to ask more; but he knew that at this point in time the older man was more anxious about his son than anything else.

“Well, I’m afraid in doing so, he has seriously jeopardized his health, and at the moment his chances of pulling through aren’t looking good”

Murdoch swallowed hard. His worse fears had been confirmed. He knew how sick Scott was from at the start, and yet he had allowed him to come along on the search for Johnny. The problem was that if he had left Scott at home, his stubborn elder son would have found a way to come after him, and would have probably collapsed somewhere along the trail where no one would be able to help him.

“I’m sorry to have to give such a negative prognosis,” Ambrose added, “but believe me, I will do everything in my power to bring him through.”

“Yes. Thank you Doctor,” Murdoch said, finally finding his voice,

Ambrose gave him a brief smile and rose to his feet. “Now, I really have to get some sleep, but I will return shortly. Your sons probably will not wake for a while, but if you’re at all concerned, please come and fetch me. My house is at the far end of town.

Murdoch nodded and stood up as the doctor reached for his bag. Leading him to the door, holding it open as the younger man passed out into the hallway

“Mr Lancer, I know it won’t be easy, but please try and get some sleep yourself, “Ambrose suggested.

“I’ll try,” Murdoch promised.

Closing the door, Murdoch turned and leaned back against the polished wood surface for a moment, his mind going over what the doctor had told him. Both his sons had suffered injuries before; Johnny most seriously, when he had been shot in the back when Day Pardee’s men had attacked the ranch. His boys had proved to be strong and resilient, but Murdoch knew that there could always come a time when the odds were too heavily stacked against them. ‘Please don’t let it be now,’ he thought desperately.

Pushing himself away, Murdoch crossed to the bedroom and carefully opened the door. The lamps had been turned down a fraction, and a slight breeze ruffled the lace curtains at the window. He sat down on the chair between the two beds and looked at his sleeping sons in turn. Johnny lay sprawled on his back, his dark hair untidily splayed across his brow, and the gentle rise and fall of his chest showed he was resting peacefully. Now shirtless, he sported a thick white bandage around his upper left arm, which stood out starkly against his tanned skin. In his drugged sleep, he appeared almost childlike, and Murdoch had the sudden vivid image of his baby son lying in his crib. So innocent and vulnerable then, and yet Murdoch had not been able to protect him of the harsh life he was to experience when Maria had taken him away. He had failed as a father then, just as he had failed with his elder son, who although spared the hard upbringing of his brother, was denied the love and care of both his parents.

Sighing, Murdoch turned to Scott who, despite what Doctor Ambrose had said, and the morphine in his bloodstream, still looked to be in pain. The flush of fever had gone from his face replaced with a grey, wraithlike appearance. His shallow breathing coupled, with his unmoving, supine form, gave the illusion that he was looking upon a corpse.

Suppressing a shudder, Murdoch reached for Scott’s right hand, which was resting on top of the covers. The limp flesh was cold and clammy, as he wrapped his large calloused fingers around his son’s hand, His other hand stretched up to Scott’s head and he pushed back the spiky blond strands from the unconscious man’s forehead. The slight flicker of his son’s eyes made him freeze, and he found himself holding his breath in case Scott woke up. However, the young Easterner merely moved his head a little on the pillow as he settled back to sleep.

Worried though he was, Murdoch was glad to see that tiny sign of life, and it gave him a glimmer of hope that Scott was not ready to give up yet.

“You’ve got to hang on, Son,” he murmured. “You’ve got to keep fighting and I know you can. I know I have never told you, but you and your brother mean the world to me. I cannot bear the thought of losing either of you. So, please don’t leave me now that I have my family back again.”

He broke off, realising how selfish those last words sounded. Perhaps it was God’s will that he should be punished for the mistakes he had made it in the past. Not fighting for custody of Scott, and giving up the search for Johnny, all for the sake of his ranch. His thousands of acres of land were nothing compared to the presence of his sons at his side. Now there was the very real possibility of losing them both.

The sound of stirring from the other bed caused him to release Scott’s hand, and as he turned in his seat, he saw his younger son’s eyes flicker open.

“Murdoch?” Johnny called, struggling to clear his senses.

The rancher smiled, and reached forward to help his son sit up a little. “You’re supposed to be sleeping,” he gently admonished.

“Was,” Johnny replied rubbing at his eyes. “Thought I heard you talking to someone.”

“Probably the doctor,” Murdoch answered smoothly. He did not like lying to his son, but he could not help the feeling of acute embarrassment that his one-sided conversation may have been overheard. “How are you feeling.”

“Okay.” Johnny seemed to accept his explanation. “Arm’s a bit stiff.” He dug his elbow in the pillow, wincing a little, as it jarred his wound, and peered across at his brother. “How’s Scott?”

“Still unconscious,” Murdoch replied with a quick look back at his older son. “The fever’s down some though.”

Johnny regarded his father for a moment and then glanced back to Scott. “What did the doctor say?”

Murdoch hesitated before replying. How could he tell his son that his brother was seriously ill, and might even die? The boy was far from well himself, and Murdoch knew that he was riddled with guilt over his contribution to Scott’s grave condition.

“Come on, Murdoch, tell me” Johnny added, tapping his father lightly on the knee. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

Murdoch took a deep breath and looked into the other’s shrewd blue eyes. “Yes Son, it is.” He paused as he heard his son’s sharp intake of breath, but then continued to explain. “The doctor’s particularly concerned about his leg. The bullet damaged his thigh bone and the wound is badly infected.”

“I know. I saw it, “ Johnny murmured. Although Ambrose had insisted that he stay in bed, he had sat close by when the doctor had started to tend to his brother. He had seen for himself the jagged lines of red and blue-black spreading out from the wound in Scott’s thigh. Johnny had been glad that his brother was unconscious during the whole, unpleasant process of probing, and cleaning away the blood, dirt, and pus from the bullet wound. The loss of blood had been alarming, and now Murdoch had worried him further when he had said the bone in Scott’s leg had been damaged. Did that mean that when Scott recovered, he would be unable to walk properly? What was he saying, when Scott recovered? Shouldn’t that be if he recovered?

Johnny ran a shaky hand through his dishevelled hair and stared across at his brother.

“Dios. This is all my damn fault,” he groaned in despair.

Murdoch put a comforting hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “You didn’t put that bullet in Scott’s leg, son,” he pointed out.

“No, but I sure as Hell didn’t help by putting that hole in his shoulder!” Johnny retorted angrily. “Because of me, he could still die!”

The hand on his shoulder became a tight squeeze. “He’s not going to die, Johnny! You and I are going to make sure of that.”

The dark head dropped. No matter what his father said, Johnny still felt responsible for what had happened to Scott. He could not understand how, like his brother, Murdoch could be so forgiving. People had a habit of getting hurt around him, and this was not the first time his family had been the firing line because of him. He really did not deserve his family, and maybe he was better off without them. At least that way, they would stay safe.

“Johnny?” He glanced up as Murdoch spoke.

“Are you all right, Son?”

“Yeah, just kinda tired,” Johnny lied.

Murdoch nodded. “Well, why don’t you lie back down and get some more sleep.”

Johnny gritted his teeth, wishing that the old man was not so solicitous, but his mood softened when he looked at his father’s tired, strained face.

“What about you?” he questioned

“Don’t worry about me,” Murdoch replied. “I’ll probably doze in the chair. Besides, the doctor will be back in a few hours.”

Johnny nodded and settled back against the pillows, turning his head away to face the wall. Closing his eyes, he tried to relax himself sufficiently enough to catch up on the sleep he knew he needed, but it was hard to come. Once he knew that Scott was going to be all right, he intended to leave for good. He did not know where he would go, and at the moment, he did not care. He just knew he had to get away, and this time, no one was going to stop him.

 

    ***************

 

True to his word, Doctor Ambrose made his way over to the Imperial Hotel just after seven in the morning, and this time he was not alone. Although he had spent longer in the Lancer’s room than anticipated, he was not surprised to find that Sheriff Stafford was still at his house when he returned. Tom was snoozing in his armchair, and had woken up with a guilty start when Ambrose had come in. Stafford had been concerned to hear that one of the Lancer boys was seriously ill, but he was duty bound to find out just what had happened to bring about the circumstances. As he had left for his own house, the sheriff had told his friend that he would accompany him when he returned to the hotel.

Although the hour was early, there were quite a few people on the main street, and Stafford and Ambrose nodded to the men, and tipped their hats politely at the few women who were about. When they reached the hotel, they were surprised to see that the main doors were open and the manager, Moffatt was pacing up and down just inside the entrance. As soon as he saw them approaching, he ran out and pounced on them as they stepped onto the boardwalk.

“Oh, Sheriff, thank goodness you’re here,” he started, totally ignoring the doctor’s presence. “You really have to get rid of that Lancer family! I went up there to tell them they have to leave and the father was most rude and slammed the door in my face. He really is most objectionable!”

Stafford’s mouth twitched with amusement and when he glanced across at Ambrose, he could see that his friend was trying hard not to smile. Looking back at the flustered hotel manager, the sheriff schooled his features into a suitably serious expression before answering.

 “Well, Mr Moffatt, it’s not as easy as that,” he explained evenly. “Unless they do something to break the law, there’s not a whole lot I can do about it.”

 “That is outrageous!” the manager exploded. “They virtually forced themselves into my hotel last night, ruined my Persian rugs, and Lord knows what they’ve done to the room they’re in. They said they could pay, but I doubt that very much. They’re more than likely going to rob me blind, and now you’re saying you refuse to do anything about it?”

Stafford opened his mouth to reply, but Ambrose, his patience starting to wear thin with the Moffatt’s belligerent attitude, quickly interceded.

“I think Mr Lancer has other concerns on his mind at the moment, Mr Moffatt,” he said tersely. “One of his son’s is seriously ill and I doubt he is in the mood to be civil. Now if you will excuse me, I have my patients to attend to.”

Ambrose pushed past the red-faced manager into the hotel, and after giving Moffatt an apologetic shrug, Stafford followed him inside.

The proprietor stared after them for a moment in stupefied amazement, his mouth opening and closing like a goldfish, and then he rushed in through the doors.

“What do you mean, seriously ill!” he demanded. “He’s not going to die, is he?”

The doctor stopped dead in the foyer and looked at the older man, wondering if he was actually expressing a sense of concern; but all he saw in the manager’s eyes was panic.

“There is that possibility,” he affirmed gravely.

Moffatt paled. “No. I cannot have that happening! It would be disastrous for my business if someone died on the premises. You must get them out now!”

Now it was the doctor’s turn to be dumb-founded. He could not believe anyone could be that self-centred and callous. Judging from Scott Lancer’s condition a few hours ago, he had been half expecting an urgent call from his father to return to the hotel. He had been glad no call had come, but he was still very worried about the young man upstairs. Moffatt, it seemed, had other ideas when it came to these particular guests, and was only concerned about his self, along with his business interests.

“If Mr Lancer’s son is moved now, he will almost certainly die, Mr Moffatt,” Ambrose snapped, his temper finally erupting. “I don’t want that on my conscience and if you had any heart at all, you would feel the same!”

“Well! I…” the manager started to splutter indignantly, but Ambrose held up his hand.

“Now have one of your unfortunate members of staff fetch some hot water up to the Lancer’s room and be quick about it. I’ve wasted quite enough time speaking to a damned fool like you, and have much more worthy people to care for.”

The doctor spun on his heels and headed for the stairs, leaving the irate manager with Stafford.

“Sheriff, I object to being spoken in that manner,” Moffatt cried. “And how dare he order me about like some common servant!  I demand an apology, and as his friend, I suggest that you tell him so.” 

Stafford sighed heavily. He too, had had as much as he could stomach from the highhanded manager, and was silently applauding Ambrose for having the guts to say what he felt himself.

“I ain’t gonna suggest anything of the sort, Moffatt,” he retorted. “I happen to agree with everything the good doctor said, and in my opinion, I reckon you got off easy.”  

 

   *********************************

 

This was the second time within the matter of a few hours he had stood before the Lancer’s hotel room door in a state of fury, and all because of one man’s obnoxious manner. Philip Ambrose ran a hand through his dark hair, and took a steadying breath before rapping lightly on the door. This time, there was no immediate response and he frowned with concern as he went to knock again.

“Perhaps they decided to hi-tail it after all.”

“What?” Ambrose turned to see Stafford coming down the hallway, but then looked back as he heard the door open. “Oh.”

Instead of the tall rancher, the doctor was surprised to see a dark-skinned man a few years older than he was standing before him, and for a bizarre moment, he thought he had the wrong room. However, before he could speak, the man drew back and called out for Mr Lancer. The rancher emerged from the bedroom on the left and came over. He appeared even more harassed than before, and Ambrose doubted whether he had had any sleep at all.

“Ah, Doctor. Sheriff,” Murdoch began, spotting the bulky figure of the lawman standing just behind the other. “Come in.”

The two men did so closing the door behind them.

“This is Frank, one of my ranch hands,” Murdoch added by way of an introduction. Ambrose and Stafford both nodded in acknowledgement, and then the doctor glanced expectedly at him.

“How are they this morning, Mr Lancer?”

Murdoch ran a weary hand through his grey hair. “Johnny’s awake and out of bed. He still looks tired to me, but he insists he’s fine.”

“And Scott?”

The older man exhaled noisily. “No better. His fever’s risen again, and he still seems to be in a lot of pain.”

Ambrose nodded. While he was not surprised that the wounded man was feverish again, the morphine he had administered should have kept the worst of the pain at bay.

“I’ll go through if I may?” he asked, as he stepped towards the bedroom.

“Of course.” Murdoch started to follow him, but stopped when the sheriff called him back.

“Mr Lancer. I appreciate you’re worried about your boys, but I reckon it’s time we had a little talk.”

Murdoch cursed under his breath. He was anxious be with his sons while the doctor checked their wounds, but he also knew he owed the sheriff an explanation. The rancher cast a hesitant glance towards the other room, but then gave a resigned sigh and led Stafford over to one of the armchairs.

Doctor Ambrose spared Lancer a sympathetic thought as he walked into the bedroom, and closed the door behind him. His friend was a diligent officer of the law and would not be happy about the newcomers in his town until he had questioned them thoroughly.

As predicted, Johnny Lancer was sitting with his brother, damp cloth in hand. He was wearing a clean shirt, although it was obviously not his own, as it looked several sizes too large, and it was unbuttoned to the waist. His face was a picture of concern as he tended the other man, and Ambrose found it hard to believe that this man could be the hardened gunfighter Stafford suspected him to be. He shook his head and set his bag down on the dressing table before approaching the bed.

“Johnny?”

The dark-haired man barely glanced up when he spoke. Carefully he folded the cloth lengthways and laid it gently across his brother’s forehead. Ambrose sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed to check on the wounded man’s pulse. As he silently counted off the rapid beats, his gaze settled on his patient’s flushed face, noting the restless movements of his eyes under the closed lids. Scott was also breathing faster than normal, and it sounded harsh to his ears. Releasing the limp wrist, the doctor rose and went to his bag. Reaching inside for his stethoscope, he returned to the bed, and inserted the earpieces before slipping the other end under the bandages covering the younger man’s chest. He listened carefully for a few minutes before putting the instrument away and replaced the bedcovers.

“He’s worse, isn’t he?”

Ambrose glanced at Johnny’s solemn face. He still had his eyes fixed on his brother, and the rigid set of his shoulders showed his anguish.

“It’s early days yet, Johnny,” the doctor replied. “The good news is that his lungs sound clear.”

The dark-haired Lancer glanced stonily at him, clearly not impressed by this snippet of information; and his disdainful look made Ambrose feel inadequate. He cleared his throat self-consciously and returned to his medical bag. Replacing the stethoscope, he rummaged inside for a moment, and withdrew a small flask.

“I’ve brought some willow bark tea,” he told his taciturn companion. “It should help to bring down his fever. I also need to change the bandages, and when I’ve finished I’d like to check on your arm.”

Johnny was about to retort that he did not need, or for that matter, want his injured arm checked out. He realised that the doctor was only doing his best, but he was not in the mood to be co-operative. Ever since he had woken up from his troubled sleep, he had felt angry. Johnny was not sure if what he was feeling was the remnants of the peyote. He just knew he was angry at everything and everyone, including Scott for falling sick. Deep down, he guessed that he was really mad at himself, as he still regarded himself as the main cause of what had happened. Right now, he just wanted to lash out at somebody – anybody and he did not care who got caught in the fall-out.

“The ol’ man tell ya?”

Ambrose looked from what he was doing. ”Old man?”

“Murdoch,” Johnny answered brusquely. “Did he tell you I was the one who shot my brother?”

The doctor almost dropped the roll of bandages he was holding in surprise, as he stared at the younger man in horror.

“You?”

Johnny turned to look at him and gave a sardonic smile. “Yeah. I put that bullet in his shoulder, and then I ran and left him. He damn near killed himself coming out to look for me. And all he got for his trouble was another bullet, which almost shattered his leg!”

Seeing his stricken face, Ambrose put down the bandages and came closer. “Johnny, your father told me about the peyote. I’m not going to ask you how or why you ingested the drug, but from what I’ve read about it, I know it makes people see and do things beyond their control.”

“Like gunning down their own kin?” Johnny growled.

Ambrose looked down at his hands. “I don’t know,” he replied softly.

“Yeah, well that’s what happened, and I even took a pot-shot at my ol’ man. I could have killed them both.”

“But you didn’t,” Ambrose reasoned.

“That still don’t make it right,” Johnny retorted bitterly. “I should have been able to fight it.”

The doctor stared at him for a moment and then looked away. There was nothing he could say to help Lancer’s anguish. He hoped the young man’s guilt would ease once his brother recovered, although, at the moment, there was no guarantee of that.

An uncomfortable silence filled the room for several minutes as Johnny gazed moodily down at his unconscious brother, and then he rose abruptly to his feet.

“I can’t stay here. I need some air,” he said and stepped quickly towards the door.

Alarmed by the suddenness of his action, Ambrose caught him firmly by the arm. “Where are you going?” he demanded.

Johnny stopped still and he glanced pointedly down at the hand on his arm before looking up at the doctor’s face. The cold, impassive stare in the blue eyes caught Ambrose completely off guard, and swallowing convulsively, he let his fingers loosen their grip. The transformation from a caring brother ministering to his injured sibling to the hard-faced young man in front of him was astounding, and it once again reminded the doctor that he was looking at a potential killer.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered.

Johnny glared at him for a few more seconds, and then brushed past him to the door. His hand had barely touched the handle when there was a sighing moan from the man in the bed, followed by a harsh cough.

Ambrose immediately stepped towards the bed, but he was almost bowled off his feet as Johnny pushed him aside to sit beside his brother.

“Hey, Boston. Take it easy,” he said, putting a hand on the other’s arm.

Scott coughed again and opened pained blue eyes to squint up at the younger man.

“J..Johnny?” he rasped.

“Who else?” Johnny responded, a grin lighting up his lips.

Scott tried to smile in return, but it turned more into a grimace as a sharp spasm of pain attacked his leg.

“You thirsty?”

This sibling nodded briefly and tried to lever himself into a sitting position.

“You stay put,” Johnny told him firmly, as he reached for the pitcher of water standing on the table beside the bed.

“Johnny. Try him with some of this tea, “Doctor Ambrose suggested. He poured some of the lukewarm liquid into a cup, and held it out to the dark-haired man. Johnny glanced at the cup dubiously for a moment, but took it nevertheless.

“Come on, Big Brother,” he prompted. “Doc wants to drink some of this.”

“What .. is it?” Scott asked, eyeing the pale brew suspiciously.

“Just something to make you more comfortable,” Ambrose cut in before Johnny could reply.

“Doubt it,” Scott answered. He raised his head slightly, grateful for his brother’s hand supporting the back of his neck, and he took a tentative sip. The bitter taste hit the back of his throat and made him want to gag. Trying not to cough, he pushed the cup away and looked at Johnny through watery eyes.

“Tastes foul.”

Johnny chuckled softly. “Course it does, brother. That’s how you know it’s doing you good. Come on, drink some more.”

Scott rolled his eyes, but drank some more. It did not seem so bad the second time around and he managed to swallow most of it. He lay back against the pillows, wishing the nagging pain in his leg would go away, and he did not feel so damn hot.

“Where’s Murdoch?” he asked, as he suddenly realised that his father was not in the room.

Once again, it was Ambrose who provided the answer. “Your father’s in the next room talking to the sheriff.”

Both brothers were surprised at this, and Scott glanced worriedly at his younger sibling.          

“We do anything wrong?”

Johnny gave him a wry smile. “Not yet, Boston.”

The doctor looked at him sharply. He still could not work out this complex young man. He wanted to believe the Lancers were who they purported to be – ranchers from up north, who had ran into trouble – but some of the things that Johnny said, and did, made him uncertain and as much as he hated to admit it, somewhat nervous.

Unaware of the physician’s unease about his brother, Scott was already struggling with a battle of his own, that of staying awake. His all too brief period of consciousness, and lucidity, had tired him considerably, and even now, he could feel his eyes closing. At least the pain in his leg seemed to have diminished slightly, and as the doctor had stated, he did feel more comfortable. The sound of his brother’s anxious voice, and the warm hand on his wrist, made him open his eyes a fraction, but he felt himself slipping away again, and he was just too weary to fight it.

“Scott?” Johnny called again.

“Let him rest, Johnny,” Ambrose said. “It’s the best thing for him now.”

The troubled blue eyes glanced at him for a moment, and then Johnny nodded as he turned back to gaze silently at his brother again.

The doctor watched them both for a few minutes more and then perched himself on the end of the bed.

“Why Boston?” he asked.

Johnny looked up at him in surprise. “What?”

Ambrose smiled briefly. “Scott. Why do you call him Boston?”

The question seemed to perplex the younger man for a moment, but then he merely shrugged.

“It’s where he came from.”

“And you didn’t?”

Johnny snorted with derision. “Hardly.”

The doctor remained quiet, but Johnny knew he was waiting for him to explain further. He sighed and sat back in his seat.

“My old man married twice,” he told the other. “Scott’s ma died when he was born and he was raised back East with her folks.”

Ambrose nodded slowly. “And you? Where did you grow up?”

“Mexico. With my mama”

The Englishman raised his eyebrows in surprise. Well, that explained why the two brothers looked nothing alike. It was obvious now that Johnny’s mother had been Mexican. His complexion was darker than that of his brother, although they had both inherited the blue eyes of their father. However, it was still a mystery why Murdoch Lancer had not raiser either son. The more he learned about this family, the more they intrigued him. Ambrose just wondered how much Johnny was prepared to share.

“We didn’t know either of us existed until about a year ago,” the younger man went on, his gaze once more fixed on Scott’s lax features.

“What happened to bring the two of you together?”

“Murdoch sent for us,” Johnny answered simply. He was growing tired of the doctor’s questions, but the words kept spilling out his mouth nevertheless. Maybe he needed to talk – release some of the pent up anger that had been building in his chest for the last few days. Either that or hurt someone, and Lord knows he had done enough of that recently.

“It must have been a shock for you both to find out you were brothers,” prompted Ambrose.

“Yeah, you could say that,” Johnny replied, remembering that fateful day in Morro Coyo when they both arrived on the same stage, completely unaware of their blood relationship. Of the two, Scott appeared to be the most shocked while Johnny seemed to find it a source of amusement.

“But you became close?” the doctor asked.

Johnny nodded slowly. “He’s my best friend as well as my brother. And then I went and did that to him.”

The torment in his voice was painful to hear, and Ambrose felt inclined to place a comforting hand on the younger man’s shoulder, but he remained where he was.

“Does Scott blame you for what happened?”

“He says no, but….”

“But you don’t believe him?”

“Yes. No. Hell, I don’t know!” Johnny exclaimed, rising once more from his seat to pace impatiently over to the window. “’Dios, I don’t know why I’m even talking to you.”

Ambrose twisted around to face him. “Sometimes talking to a stranger helps. Maybe more so than with someone close to you.”

 Johnny dropped the net curtain he had holding up and looked around at the doctor. He appreciated what the Englishman was trying to do, but he still was not in the mood to be compliant. His wounded arm was starting to ache again and he was sick, and tired of being cooped up in the hotel room. On the other hand, he did not want to leave his brother unattended for a moment. His thoughts were still jumbled up in his head and he could not untangle them. All he wanted was to see a way through his guilt, but did not know where to start.

Sensing his turmoil, Ambrose rose from the bed and stood to face the other.

“Look Johnny, I do understand what you’re going through. Probably more than you think. However, right now, I want to concentrate on getting your brother well, but I can’t do it without you, or your father’s help. Maybe you will find that by caring for Scott, you will be able to overcome that guilt that I know is eating you up inside. What do you say?”

Johnny regarded the doctor critically for a few minutes, trying to decide if the older man was patronizing him. Alternatively, whether he was genuinely trying to help him through his troubles. He was inclined to think the latter, but he was stubbornly loath to admit it. His gaze flittered back to Scott, who twitched and turned in the throes of ever increasing and debilitating fever; and Johnny knew then he could not leave him again. Scott needed him as much as he needed Scott: two halves of one coin. To leave would be selfish and cowardly, and Johnny knew he must see this through to whatever end fate decreed. Glancing back to Ambrose, he was well aware that the doctor was waiting for his answer, so in the end, he just nodded.

 

      ********************

 

“So you’re telling me that this all comes down to a personal grudge?”

Murdoch nodded wearily. “That’s exactly what I’m telling you, Sheriff.” For the last forty minutes, he had been explaining all what had happened over the past few days, interrupted just the once when one of the hotel staff had knocked bearing a large basin of hot water for the doctor. Even now, Murdoch was not sure whether Stafford believed him or not, but he had done his best to convince him, and he was not prepared to argue his case anymore.

The Sheriff sat back in his chair, and rubbed a hand over his hastily shaved jaw as he considered Lancer’s testimony. He was inclined to believe everything the rancher had told him, but he still intended to do a bit of checking of his own, before he was finally happy that Murdoch Lancer was who he insisted he was. The rancher had mentioned the name of the Sheriff in the town of Green River, who would be able to vouch for him ,and Stafford thought he would just wire ahead just to make doubly sure. There were, however, still a few things he was unsure about.

“You know the Mexican will probably hang for what he did?”

Murdoch looked at him aghast. “What?”

Stafford blew out his cheeks in exasperation. “Well, the man is an accessory to murder and attempted murder.

“Yes, I know, but surely…..”

“You saying you ain’t gonna press charges now?” the Sheriff demanded,

“No, of course I intend to press charges,” Murdoch retorted swiftly. “It’s just that Miguel has been a good hand up to now, and I think he was coerced into it by Mills.”

Stafford shrugged. “Well, with him gone, the Mex is the only one left to stand trial, and then it’s up to the judge.”

 “I could speak for him. Maybe get the judge to agree to a lighter sentence.” God, he was doing it again, Murdoch thought grimly. Hadn’t he done the same thing at Joe Barker’s trial, and look what happened as a result? The truth was, with the worry over his sons, Murdoch had not really thought what would happen to Miguel. He had just made sure the man was locked up on their arrival, and he had not thought beyond that at all.

“Well, that’s up to you, Mr Lancer,” Stafford replied. “But I know if anyone had hurt my family like your boys in there, I want to see them punished.”

Mention of his sons made Murdoch’s gaze turn towards the closed bedroom door. Once again, he was forced to wait on the doctor to emerge to tell him how they were; and once again, he was being kept away from them. He understood that Sheriff Stafford was only doing his job, but he was anxious to know what was happening.

He had sent Frank to see if the telegram office was open yet so he could send word to Lancer, but the ranch hand had not returned yet. Murdoch was, therefore, alone to face Stafford’s questions, and suspicions, and he had a feeling the man was not finished yet. Restless, he rose from his seat, and paced over to peer out of the window to see if there was any sign of Frank returning. He needed a distraction – an end in sight to the trauma of the past few days, but somehow he had a feeling there would be further trouble ahead. He was not wrong.

“Err, Mr Lancer, “Stafford began hesitantly. “About your boy, Johnny..? Well, I kinda think I saw him some years back. Only then he was calling himself Madrid.”

At the mention of the name, the Sheriff saw the rancher’s broad shoulders stiffen, and he knew his hunch was correct.

“Johnny goes by the name of Lancer now," Murdoch growled back, without turning around.

“So you ain’t denying that he’s a gunfighter?”

Murdoch swung around abruptly, his face like thunder. “Was, Sheriff. He was a gunfighter. Not any more.”

Stafford looked unconvinced. “Seems to me, Mr. Lancer, a gunfighter can never escape his past, unless he’s dead of course.”

Murdoch sighed angrily and stalked back to tower over the lawman. “If you’re implying that all that had happened was down to my son’s past, then you’re wrong. Very wrong, Sheriff. If any mistakes were made, then they’re mine, not Johnny’s!”

Stafford held up a placating hand. “All right, all right, I was just asking. I don’t want any trouble, that’s all.”

“And you won’t get any from us,” Murdoch replied tersely. “As soon as my sons are fit enough to travel, we’ll be heading home.”

The Sheriff gave a satisfied grunt. “Fair enough, Mr Lancer. I’m sorry if….”

His apology was ignored, as the bedroom door suddenly swung open, and Doctor Ambrose appeared. Murdoch immediately went over and looked at him expectantly. “How are they?”

The Englishman looked a little taken aback by the rancher’s brusque manner, and there was no mistaking the edge of tension within the room. He closed the door carefully behind him and glanced up at the older man’s worried face.

“As well as can be expected,” he answered. “I’ve changed Scott’s bandages. His leg looks slightly better, although it’s still inflamed. His shoulder looks fine, so there is no problem there. He is still feverish, and I expect his temperature to fluctuate throughout the day. That’s my chief concern right now, and he must be watched around the clock.”

Murdoch nodded grimly. He was prepared to sit by his son’s bedside day and night if he had to. “What about Johnny?”

The doctor’s smooth brow creased with worry. “I have other concerns about him.”

“How so?” Stafford cut in before Murdoch could say anything. He shot him a baleful stare, which confirmed to Ambrose that the two men had exchanged harsh words.

“Well, he’s still edgy,” Ambrose replied. “Although he’s very anxious about his brother, he seems quite reluctant to stay with him.”

Murdoch sighed. Johnny’s reaction was entirely plausible. It would be a long time before his youngest son overcame his guilt after injuring Scott – if he ever got over it at all.

“I’ll talk to him.”

After speaking to Johnny, Ambrose was not sure whether that would do any good, but he knew that his father had to give it a try.

“I know he’s feeling very guilty about shooting Scott, but………”

“He shot his own brother?” Stafford exclaimed in surprise.

The doctor cursed silently under his breath and glanced apologetically at Lancer. “You didn’t tell him.”

“No, I didn’t,” Murdoch answered curtly. Although he realised that the doctor had not been malicious by telling the Sheriff about the shooting incident, it only served to reinforce the notion in Stafford’s head that Johnny was a dangerous killer. However, he was no mood to face further questions from the lawman, so looked directly at Ambrose.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to see my sons now.”

“Yes, of course, although I was going to see if I could persuade you to go and get some breakfast,” the doctor replied. “We’ve an excellent restaurant in town called Rosie’s, and I’m sure you must be hungry by now.”

Murdoch seemed surprised by Ambrose’s suggestion, but some of his earlier anger ebbed away. He had to admit he was tempted by the idea, but he certainly did not wish to leave Scott and Johnny alone.

“I’d be quite happy to sit with your sons for a while, Mr Lancer,” the doctor added as he saw the indecision in the rancher’s face. “I thought perhaps the Sheriff could accompany you…”

Stafford stared at his friend in horrified disbelief. After all he had said to Lancer about his youngest son, he thought it unlikely that the man would want to share a meal with him! However, the doctor looked coolly back at him, and Stafford realised the younger man was trying his best to quell the troubled waters between himself and Lancer.

“Um, yes,” he muttered. “Rosie sure does cook up a good breakfast, and I could eat a horse!”

Presented with these words of goodwill after all the unpleasantness of the past hour, Murdoch felt he could not refuse. However, he did insist on going in to see his sons first, and the two townspeople agreed to wait. Shaking his head a little in the Sheriff’s sudden change in attitude, Murdoch quietly entered the bedroom.

He was surprised and more than a touch anxious to find Johnny back in bed. The boy appeared to be dozing, but when Murdoch came over, his eyes opened and a slight smile appeared on his lips.

“Hey. How did it go with the Sheriff? He still think we’re outlaws?”

Murdoch scratched his head and sat down on the bed. “I don’t know what he thinks and frankly I don’t care.”

Johnny frowned and looked closer at his father. The old man was looking bone tired, and he guessed that the lawman had given him a hard time judging by the tense expression on his face. “Well, maybe we should keep him wondering.”

Murdoch smiled. “Unfortunately we can’t. He knows you’re Johnny Madrid.”

“How come?”

“He recognised you as someone he saw a few years back.”

“Mierde,” Johnny swore softly as he dragged himself higher onto the pillows. “It just never goes away, does it?”

“Son,” Murdoch reasoned, “this has nothing to do with who you were. I told the Sheriff so.”

“Maybe not, but he could still make it difficult for us while we’re here.”

“Yes, he could, but we’re not going to give him that excuse.” The older Lancer rose and crossed over to the other bed as Scott shifted and moaned in his sleep.

Johnny looked on in despair as his father bathed his brother’s face and neck in an effort to cool him down. Despite all what the doctor and Murdoch had said, he could not help but feel partially responsible for Scott’s condition. He was no longer thinking about running – he could not do that to his brother. It was just hard seeing Scott sick and in pain.

Closing his eyes, Johnny lay back and listened to his father talking softly to his injured sibling. For all Murdoch’s hollering and gruff words, he could be amazingly gentle and caring sometimes. Johnny remembered his father speaking to him thus when he had been laid up after the attack by Pardee’s men. Here was a man he barely knew and whom Johnny had hated so much during his time of growing up in Mexico, tending to him as though he had done so forever. So much had changed in the last year. He now had a father and a brother, who he loved as much as life itself, and he did not want it to change now.

Sleep was beckoning him and as much as he wanted to stay awake, he found himself drifting off. The doctor had redressed his arm and offered him some of his infernal tea for the persistent aching, but he had refused. He was incredibly tired and had crawled back into bed at Ambrose’s insistence. Maybe an hour’s sleep would revive him enough so he could help his father with Scott. He owed his family that much, and with any luck it would appease his conscience.

 

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

 

The next few days proved very hard for the Lancers. That second night at the hotel saw Scott taking a turn for the worst, with his temperature rising to 104 degrees. His father and brother had their work cut out trying to help Doctor Ambrose bring the sick man’s fever down. The bed sheets had to be changed almost as soon as they were put on, as they quickly soaked through. The last thing they wanted was for Scott to catch a chill. In his weakened condition that could easily lead to pneumonia, which in turn could prove fatal.

Moffatt, the hotel manager was beside himself with worry. Not over his guests, but for the fact that one of them might die on his premises. He stood outside the room, wringing his hands with anxiety, as his staff dashed backwards and forwards with fresh sheets, towels, and hot water. His appeals to have the ailing man moved were greeted with hostile stares, and muttered curses, and at one point, Moffatt was certain that the younger Lancer son was going to pull a gun and shoot him!

As for Johnny, if he had any doubts that his brother had forgiven or in fact needed him, it was answered by Scott himself, who constantly called out for him in his delirium. The blond seemed convinced that his sibling was still missing or had disappeared again. Johnny held on tightly to his brother’s hand, and endeavoured to assure him that he was still around, and was not going anywhere. However, Scott did not appear to understand or even hear his entreaties, and continued to toss and thrash about the bed. So violent were his movements that Ambrose feared he would injure himself further, and at one point urged physical restraint. Murdoch and Johnny vehemently refused his pleas, and although both men were exhausted, they kept up their efforts to calm and sooth the fevered man.

Frank too, played his part in caring for Scott. He, like most of his fellow workers at the ranch, admired and respected the tall Easterner. When Mr Lancer’s sons had returned home, the occupants of the bunkhouse had laid bets on who would be the first to give up on ranching life. Many had opted for Scott, who had no experience at all with the kind of work went on, while others had bet on Johnny, once they found out about his notorious past. In the event, all had been proven wrong, and they were pleasantly surprised on how the two brothers quickly settled in.

The ranch hands had seen how lonely and unhappy their boss was before Scott and Johnny came home, and although he shouted and made them work just as hard as everyone else, they could see how much Murdoch Lancer loved his sons. Frank also recalled the shock and fear on the older man’s face when they had found Scott unconscious and bleeding after they had ridden out to track down Evans. It had been a worrying time then for the rancher with one son wounded, and the other imprisoned under suspicion of murder. The two Lancer boys had borne the brunt of the whole Joe Barker incident then, and history seemed to be repeating itself yet again. Frank had nothing but sympathy for his boss and resolved to help anyway he could.

Scott’s fever finally appeared to break in the early hours of the fourth day in Silver Falls and everyone heaved a collective sigh of relief. However, as the days went on, that relief soon turned to despair, when the young man showed no sign of waking up. His pulse became very weak; and his breathing so shallow that Doctor Ambrose had to hold a mirror up to his lips to check if he still lived.

He looked around at the sea of anxious faces, and wished he could impart some positive news, but it would be wrong to raise their hopes. Losing a patient was always hard on everyone, and despite the Sheriff’s misgivings, he had grown to like and respect the Lancers. Ambrose had racked his brain and consulted his medical books to see if he could find anything that could rouse Scott from his semi-coma state, but everything he thought of looked to be too dangerous in his condition. The prolonged fever had taken its toll on him, and the doctor did not believe he had the strength to fight anymore. The young man’s tenuous hold on life seemed to be slipping away with every fragile breath he took, and it would only be a matter of time before his weakened body failed completely.

“Doctor?” Murdoch began hesitantly.

Ambrose knew what was coming, but he did not want to face the truth right now. He rose from the bed and crossed to the chest to wash his hands, before retrieving his jacket from the back of the door.

“I need to go back to my surgery for something,” he answered. He knew his explanation sounded like a lie and by the look on Johnny’s face, it was clear that he thought so too, but Murdoch just nodded quietly and moved to take his place beside his stricken son.

Feeling something of a coward, the doctor paused for a moment and then reached for his bag.

“I’ll be back shortly,” he added. He took one more glance at Johnny’s accusing blue stare and then left the room.

A tense silence descended onto the three remaining men, and Frank glanced apprehensively at Johnny. The dark-haired ex-gunfighter looked as though he was about to explode, and Frank wondered if he too should make his escape before he did. He almost flinched when the younger man got abruptly to his feet and went to the window. His fingers were drumming convulsively against his sides and his shoulders were rigid with barely suppressed rage.

“The bastard’s given up!” he finally ground out.

“Johnny…” Murdoch said warningly.

“We should never have come to this God-forsaken town,” Johnny retorted, rounding on his father. “If we’d taken Scott back ...”

“We had no choice, son,” Murdoch countered sharply. “Or would you rather he’d died out on the trail?”

Johnny gave an audible gasp of shock, and Murdoch instantly regretted his harsh words. He was so tired, as they all were, and definitely was not thinking straight. He half-expected Johnny to storm from the room, but his son just stood there staring at him, his face pale, with all trace of anger gone.

Murdoch sighed and climbed wearily to his feet.” Frank, do you think you can rustle us up some coffee?”

The ranch hard rose quickly, grateful for an excuse to quit the room. As it was, he felt like an intruder here when the family were going through so much turmoil.

“Sure thing, Mr Lancer.”

After he had gone, Murdoch went over to stand behind Johnny, and placed his large hands on the younger man’s shoulders, which were now slumped with dejection.

“I’m sorry, son,” he murmured gently. “That came out all wrong.”

To his surprise, Johnny seemed to lean back into his grasp, seemingly savouring the rare physical contact with his father. The two men remained as they were for a few moments, gathering strength from each other’s presence, and then Johnny pulled away and went back to sit beside his brother. Murdoch watched, his heart close to breaking into a million pieces, as his youngest son took Scott’s right hand between his palms, and raised it to his lips in silent supplication. There was no doubt in his mind that Johnny was praying, or rather begging for the life of his brother and he knew it was not out of selfishness to vindicate his guilt.

Through blurry eyes, Murdoch turned his gaze towards the still form of his firstborn, searched for a sign that Scott would stir and wake up, but there was nothing. His son was oblivious to everything with his eyes firmly shut. He was as pale as the sheets he laid upon, his wheaten hair dull, and matted with dried sweat, and his high cheekbones stood out in stark relief on his gaunt face. Did his beloved Catherine appear the same in her last moments of life, Murdoch wondered morbidly. Scott was the male embodiment of his late wife, and he had never forgotten his sense of guilt for not being there when she died.

Murdoch swallowed hard and had to turn away from the bed. The image was too painful, and the thought of losing Scott as well, was too terrible to contemplate. In the meantime, Johnny continued to plead for his ailing sibling’s very existence, silently mouthing prayers he thought he had forgotten – calling upon a faith he had all but abandoned long ago. After the death of his mother, he had grown up hard and fast, never believing he needed anybody, but he was wrong. He needed his family, needed his brother and he was not prepared to let Scott go without a fight. So he prayed, unashamed of the tears that stung his eyes. ‘Come on, brother’ he urged, ‘don’t give up now. I know I hurt you, and I hate myself for what I did, but please keep fighting, not just for me, but for Murdoch, Teresa, Jelly and everyone at the ranch’. Clutching Scott’s hand like a lifeline, Johnny prayed for a miracle, but he had a feeling it was now too late.

 

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

 

Scott was cold; so much so that it felt as though his veins were filled with ice. Cold, except for one warm spot around the centre of his chest, but even that part was slowly giving away to the chill. He also had the sensation of floating, flying even, and when he finally opened his eyes, he was disconcerted to find that he was. Above him, the sky was a brilliant blue, so intense that it was difficult to focus on anything. He blinked hard and gazed about him in wonder. Mountains, some capped with snow and a lush green countryside greeted his sight. Everywhere was bathed in bright sunshine; it was a landscape he had never seen before in his life. Lancer, it was not, but nevertheless it was a beautiful place, and Scott felt strangely at peace.

A glimmer of light up ahead startled him, and when he looked harder, he saw a large lake in the far distance. It was almost surrounded by heather clad hills and the still water was aquamarine in colour. The sunlight sparkled off its broad surface, and despite his icy limbs, Scott felt compelled to plunge deep into the inviting waters. Eagerly he swept forward; certain that the lake would put an end to the days of pain, and fever, and he would emerge cleansed, and healed. The warm spot in his chest was diminishing now, and although he experienced a feeling of regret, he knew where his path lay.

‘No! You must not go there!’

The voice seemingly came from nowhere, and Scott looked around in vain for the owner.

‘What?’ he asked in confusion.

‘The lake. You must not go there.’

‘Why not?’

‘You are not ready.’

Scott was starting to get annoyed. The lake was so enticingly close, and yet someone was trying to prevent him reaching it. Who was this person and why was he not ready?

‘Not ready? What are you talking about?’ he demanded. ‘Who are you and why can’t I see you?’

A swirl of movement at the corner of his eye made him turn his head, but all he saw was vague impression of a female figure dressed in white.

‘Go back, Scott,’ the voice insisted. ‘It is not time.’

The use of his christian name chilled him to the bone. Not time? What did that mean? Was he dying? Surely the beautiful lake ahead was the answer to his recent suffering? The waters would undoubtably heal him, and he would be able to rest at last.

‘Go back, Son,’

Son! Scott glanced about him frantically. Surely, the person talking to him couldn’t be his long deceased mother? He only knew of the woman who had given birth to him by means of paintings and photographs. His grandfather had spoken at great length to him about his only child, Catherine, but although Murdoch kept a photograph of his first wife on his desk alongside that of Johnny’s mother, he rarely talked about her. This fact hurt Scott more than he would admit, but he knew his father preferred to keep everything where it belonged - firmly in the past.

‘Mother?’ he murmured hesitantly. He felt slightly foolish speaking to the supposed spirit of his mother, and he was beginning to think he was just in the midst of a particularly vivid dream. Then he caught a fleeting glimpse of the woman, and he was stunned to find he was indeed in the presence of Catherine Lancer.

‘Please go back, Scott,’ she pleaded. ‘They need you.’

He shook his head. ‘There’s too much pain back there. Let me be with you.’

‘No. That cannot be,’ his mother replied sadly. ‘Remember I will always be with you, my Son, but now you must return.’

   The image of Catherine was fading now, and although Scott strained his eyes to see her, she soon vanished from his sight, leaving him with a feeling of loss. The lake too had gone now, and Scott felt himself gradually falling. The weight on his chest seemed greater than before, and the awful chill was at last receding from his bones. With the heat came the pain, although it was not as bad as before and there was a wonderful sense of softness beneath him. He sighed and closed his eyes as his aching body found relief. There was no doubt in his mind that he had seen the spirit of his dead mother, and though saddened by her departure, he knew he wanted to be with his father and brother.  He was particularly concerned about Johnny although he could not remember why. Something had happened to his brother, something bad and he needed to find out what.

His mother had probably been right. Perhaps he was not ready to move on yet,, and it was right that he return. He was not sure what he would find and he only hoped he had the strength to find out. With that thought in mind, Scott took a steadying breath and slowly and carefully, he opened his eyes.

 

It was not his own room, though it appeared vaguely familiar. While his vision was quite blurry, he could make out that he was lying in bed, facing a half-open door, which led to another room beyond. To his left was a window, which was slightly open, and a gentle breeze was moving the lace curtain. It was light outside, but Scott guessed it was still quite early, as he could hear no sounds of activity. He shifted slightly, tensing as a curl of pain unfurled from his leg and spread up to his hip. Memory returned, filtering through his brain, and with it, the fear of what had happened to Johnny. Weakness prevented him from raising his head more than a few inches off the pillow to search for his brother, but he need not have worried.

Johnny was beside him, slumped so low in his chair that his dark head was resting on the side of the bed, pillowed in the crook of his left arm. Scott could not see his face, but he could tell by the sound of his steady breathing that his brother was fast asleep. He looked down, and a faint smile crossed his face when he saw that Johnny’s right arm was draped protectively across his blanketed chest. Scott recalled the warm feeling beforehand and he knew now what it was; his brother seemingly anchoring him to this world.

Turning his head further to the right, Scott saw that his father was on the opposite bed. He was lying on his back, and although he too was asleep, his face looked grey and haggard. Scott had no idea how long he had been sick. He only had vague memories of disjointed voices and people standing over him. However, what he remembered most of all, was the pain. He still felt a degree of discomfort, but it was nowhere near as bad as before. It was plain to see that his father and brother were exhausted with looking after him, and although it would be all too tempting to go back to sleep, Scott wanted to make sure they were all right, and ensure them that he felt better.

Glancing back at Johnny, Scott carefully extracted his left arm from beneath the sheet, wincing slightly at the pull on his healing shoulder wound, and reached across for his brother’s hand.

“J..Johnny..” His voice was little more than a croak, and he had to clear his throat before he could call again.

There was a muffled grunt, and a jerk before long, his sibling raised his dark head to look blearily at him. Johnny blinked again and stared hard, as if he could not quite believe his eyes, and then a slow smile appeared on his face.

“Hey. You’re awake!” he said in surprise.

“More than …. I can say for everyone else,” Scott replied, his own smile mirroring the warmth of his brother’s.

Johnny took a quick glance around their father, still sound asleep, and now starting to snore.

“Yeah, well we’ve been kinda busy,” he explained, sitting up straighter in his chair. “You’ve given the old man a few more grey hairs, and I reckon I’ve got a few of my own.”

The words might have been said in jest, but Scott could see the worry in his brother’s blue eyes, and lines of strain on the younger man’s face.

“That bad, huh?” he asked softly.

“Yeah Brother, it was,” Johnny answered, his quiet tone reflecting the seriousness of the situation.

Scott lowered his gaze, thinking once again of his encounter with his mother. Had he really been that close to death? He did not know, but he was not about to worry his family further by mentioning he had apparently seen the spirit of Catherine.    

“Sorry,” he murmured, not looking up.

“Hey, it don’t matter,” Johnny replied. “Just as long as you’re okay.”

Scott glanced up. “Are you?”

The younger Lancer seemed a little taken back by his question. There was genuine concern in Scott’s voice, concern he did not feel worthy of. The last few days had been hell, and there had been numerous occasions when he thought his brother had slipped away from them. Despite Johnny’s doubts, the doctor had done his best, dosing his patient with various potions to find a suitable remedy. He was not sure whether Ambrose’s medicines or his brother’s stubborn determination had pulled him through, but he did not really care. The important thing was that Scott was alive, pale, and weak, but alive nevertheless. It was also typical that his brother’s first thoughts were the people around him. One of Johnny’s greatest fears was that Scott would die, without forgiving him for shooting him. It was selfish he knew, but Johnny could not bear the thought of his brother going to his grave, condemning him for his actions. Scott had yet to voice that sentiment, and Johnny would continue to worry about it until he did, but for now, he was glad his prayers had been answered.

“I am now,” he said simply.

The brothers regarded each other steadily for a few moments before Scott had to look away, surprised, and somewhat humbled, by the strength of feeling in Johnny’s gaze. Any doubts that lingered that his brother had hurt him intentionally disappeared completely, and he understood the burden of guilt Johnny had been carrying on his shoulders, ever since the shooting had occurred. The peyote in his system had been solely to blame for Johnny’s violent and aggressive manner, and he was as much a victim as himself. Thankfully they had all come out of it okay, and although Scott knew he still had a good deal of healing to do, he felt as though he had made a start. ‘Thank you, Mother,’ he thought, ‘for guiding me back to where he belonged.’ He might have believed he was ready to move on, but he knew now that he was not ready. There was too much he wanted to learn about his brother. There were too many years to catch up on, and experiences to share. His father was also still a closed book to him, but hopefully one day, he too might feel able to reveal more about the past. 

A light touch on his arm made him look back at his brother, and he was curious to see the hesitant smile on the younger man’s face, and the worry back in his eyes. Johnny swallowed, as if reluctant to speak, but eventually he found his voice.

“So Boston, are we okay?” he asked anxiously.

Scott did not answer at first, and Johnny found himself holding his breath waiting for his brother’s reply. Then Scott smiled, and reached forward to squeeze his arm affectionately.

“We’re fine, Brother. Just fine.”

Murdoch woke up some twenty minutes later, disturbed by his own snoring, and the first thing he heard were voices. At first, he thought it was Johnny talking softly to his comatose brother, but he realised he could hear Scott’s deeper voice too, and he sat up with a start. He could scarcely believe it when he found his eldest son awake and surprisingly lucid for one who had been so sick. The doctor, who had been dozing in an armchair in the next room, was immediately roused, and he quickly came to examine his patient. He was pleased and somewhat mystified to find Scott’s pulse, and breathing was stronger and his leg wound much improved. The older Lancer son was tired, and fell back to sleep soon after the examination, but Ambrose was satisfied with his condition. However, he did add a note of caution to the relieved family. All too often, he had seen a patient seemingly rally, and improve, only to suddenly deteriorate, and succumb to their illnesses.

Despite his warnings, Murdoch and Johnny were convinced that Scott had turned the corner, and with time and careful nursing, he would soon be making a full recovery. In any event, it was another two weeks before Ambrose pronounced that Scott was fit to travel. However, he was ordered not to ride, and Murdoch purchased a well-sprung covered wagon, and horses, to convey his convalescent son back home. Scott protested vehemently, saying he hated being treated like an invalid, but when Murdoch, Johnny, and the doctor, all insisted he obey orders, he eventually agreed to comply.

Finally, after almost a month in Silver Falls, the Lancers and Frank were ready to leave. Armed with a pair of crutches, and Johnny anxiously hovering at his elbow, Scott negotiated himself cautiously down the main staircase of the hotel. He had been out of bed for the last two days, hobbling awkwardly around the main room. His leg was still giving him pain, and he found that he tired quickly. Doctor Ambrose told him that as long as he took it easy for the next few weeks, he would be fine. Now he was eager to get home, and he knew that his father and brother did too.

Reaching the foot of the stairs without incident, he paused for a moment to catch his breath. He could feel a trickle of sweat run down the side of his face, and he was more than a little dizzy. Seeing Scott’s face pale, Johnny placed a supporting hand on his shoulder, and looked at him in concern. “You okay?”

Scott hitched a quick breath, and gave his brother a brief smile. “Yes, I’m alright. Let’s go”.

The hotel manager was behind the desk writing, but when he glanced up and spotted them, he put down his pencil and came hurrying towards them.

“I’m very glad to see you up and about, Mr Lancer,” he said, addressing himself directly to Scott. “I hope you’re well?”

The Easterner, polite as ever, replied that he was, and thanked Moffatt for his hospitality.

“It was no problem, sir. No problem at all,” the manager gushed. “I wish you all a safe trip home.”

Scott nodded, and gathered up his crutches again. Moffatt smiled and chanced a look at Johnny. The young man was glowering at him, and the manager’s fixed grin wavered nervously as the two brothers moved towards the entrance. That was one guest whom Moffatt was happy to see the back of.

Murdoch was waiting outside beside the wagon talking to Doctor Ambrose and the Sheriff and he turned with a smile when his sons emerged.

“All set, Boys?”

“Yeah, we’re ready,” Johnny answered for the both of them. He was still rankled by Moffatt’s hypocritical remarks to Scott in the foyer. The manager had given them nothing but trouble ever since they have arrived, and now he was fawning all over them when they were leaving. Scott was probably not even aware of Moffatt’s offensive behaviour beforehand, but it stuck in Johnny’s craw.

Ambrose stepped forward, and ran a discerning eye over his former patient noting with concern, the pallid features and tight set of his jaw.

“Are you quite sure you feel up to this journey, Scott?”

The fair-haired Lancer bit back his exasperation before he replied that he was positive. He wished that everyone would stop fussing over him. Yes, his leg might be hurting and he was feeling somewhat out of breath, but he was tired of being confined to the hotel room, and now wanted to get underway.

Ambrose looked as though he did not believe him for a moment. However, although he was wondering if he made the right decision to let Scott travel, he remained silent. He had given Murdoch Lancer strict instructions to take it slow, and keep to the main routes where there were likely to be fewer ruts and bumps. He had also given the rancher a supply of bandages and a bottle of laudanum in case Scott needed them. The doctor had no doubt that Murdoch and Johnny would take good care of the injured man, but it was not going to be an easy journey.

“Well, we better get going,” Murdoch said. He saw Scott’s grateful smile and he reached forward to take his arm. “Let’s get you up, Son.”

Leaning heavily on his father, Scott handed his crutches to Johnny, and held out his hand to Ambrose.

“Thank you for everything, Doctor.”

“Just doing my job, Scott” Ambrose replied with a grin as he shook the younger man’s hand. “Now make sure you don’t overdo things and ruin all my good work.”

“Aw, don’t tell him that, Doc,” Johnny protested, his good humour restored. “I was kinda hoping he’d do all my chores when we get home.”

Scott swatted his brother playfully on the shoulder, and then, with his father’s help, limped over to the wagon and clambered up onto the seat. After making sure he was okay, Murdoch went over to thank the Englishman himself and take his leave.

“Sorry I gave you a hard time before, Mr Lancer,” Stafford apologised to the rancher.

Murdoch nodded. “You’ll let me know about Miguel?” He was still concerned about his former employee’s fate, and had left a written testimony with the lawman to give to the circuit judge when he came to town.

“Yes, I’ll contact the Sheriff at Green River as soon I know. The judge is a fair man, and I reckon the Mexican will get off with a jail sentence.”

Murdoch hoped he was right. Miguel made a bad error of judgement when he sided with Steve Mills, but he did not deserve to pay the ultimate price for his mistake. Shaking both men’s hands, he climbed onto the wagon beside Scott, and gathered up the reins. Johnny and Frank were already mounted, and with the other two horses secured to the back of the wagon, the Lancer party gave a final wave and moved off.

Stafford and Ambrose watched as they made their way slowly down the main street to turn the corner and disappear from view.

“Well, I suppose you’re glad they’re gone?” Ambrose asked his friend.

The Sheriff turned to the younger man. “I can’t say I’m sorry to see Johnny Madrid out of Silver Falls.”

“I can’t believe you still think they were troublemakers,” the doctor answered in surprise.

“No, I knew they were who they said they were.

“How?”

Stafford smiled. “I wired Sheriff Crawford in Green River. He’s a friend of mine, and he told me not to trust the Lancers one bit. That’s when I knew they were all right!”

 

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

 

Scott had fallen silent. When they had first set out from Silver Falls, he had been quite talkative, chatting to his father beside him, and bantering with Johnny who rode alongside the wagon. Now, as the late afternoon sunshine started to grow hazy, and the trail became increasingly tedious for all, the young Easterner fell into a light doze. Murdoch cast his son a sidelong glance, and saw his head nodding to the swaying of the wagon. He knew that Scott’s leg was paining him, and his own back was troubling him with the strain of sitting in one position for too long. Although Murdoch was as anxious as everyone else was to get home, he was mindful of the doctor’s advice to take it slow, so this seemed as good as time as any to make a stop.

 Scott woke with a start as the wagon jolted to a halt, and he looked up in surprise.

“What’s the matter?” he asked worriedly.

“Nothing,” his father assured him. “I just thought we could all use a break.”

“Oh,” Scott muttered, rubbing absently at his forehead where he could feel the beginnings of a headache.

Murdoch climbed stiffly down, and flexed his aching back muscles for a moment before going to fetch water for the horses.

“You okay, Brother?”

Scott glanced round at Johnny who was still sitting on Barranca looking critically at him.

“Yeah. Give me a hand down, will you?”

Johnny dismounted fluidly from his mount, securing the reins to the wagon strut, before he reached up to help his sibling. Handing down his clutches first, Scott manoeuvred him off the seat and into the safe hands of the younger man.

“Thanks,” he breathed as he positioned the crutches under his armpits.

Johnny did not miss Scott’s slight wince as he limped forward, so stayed close as his brother moved a few more steps.

“Er, Johnny.... I’d appreciate a bit of privacy.”

“What? Oh right.” Johnny smiled knowingly as he watched the injured man make his way slowly over to the shelter of some nearby rocks.

“Where’s he going?”

Johnny turned to his father with a smirk. “Nature call.”

Murdoch made an ‘o’ with his lips and both men waited for Scott to come back, each ready to go to his assistance if he did not return soon. A few minutes later, he emerged and started to hobble back towards them.

“He’s hurting,” Johnny observed.

“I know,” Murdoch agreed. “We could camp here for the night. We’ve plenty of water and supplies.”

“You planning on making this a long trip?” Johnny asked.

“No. We should be home in two or three days,” his father added. “I just don’t want to rush things. Although he probably won’t agree with me, Scott needs to rest.”

“You gonna tell him?”

“Tell me what?” Scott said, glancing suspiciously at his father and brother.

“I was just telling Johnny I think we should stop here for the night.”

Scott frowned. “But there’s still a few hours of daylight left.”

“The horses are tired, Son” Murdoch reasoned. “And so am I. We can make an early start in the morning.”

Scott looked at his brother, but Johnny merely shrugged, indicating he had no objections to the idea. He sighed, knowing there was no sense in arguing and he nodded in agreement.

“I’ll go and tell Frank,” Johnny said.

Murdoch put a hand under his eldest’s son elbow, and helped him back to the wagon.

“You were nodding off earlier, Son. Why don’t you try and get some proper sleep before supper?”

The offer was tempting, Scott thought. His leg had stiffened up during the journey, and now it was throbbing fiercely. The strong sunshine had also given him a headache, and lying down somewhere sheltered sounded like a wonderful idea.

“I’ll get my bedroll.”

“There’s no need.”

Scott looked at his father curiously, but Murdoch just smiled and led him to the back of the wagon, and pulled aside the flap. Inside was a pull-down cot piled with blankets and pillows, and the thick canvas roof covering made it cool and inviting.

“You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?” he said, glancing at the older man.

“Pretty much,” Murdoch replied smugly. 

 

Scott slept until suppertime, only waking when Johnny brought him a plate of food and a mug of coffee. He ate sparingly, his appetite not fully restored since his illness, and he did not even notice the coffee he downed was laced with laudanum. Murdoch and Johnny fretted about him all that night, but the next morning Scott was much better and seemed more like his old self.

They made good progress the next day and by mid morning on the third day, the party were on Lancer land. Murdoch sent Frank on ahead to fetch the doctor from Green River, and get him to meet them at the ranch. Although Scott had fared quite well on the journey, he did have a slight fever, and Murdoch wanted Sam Jenkins to check on his son’s condition. It was a little after two o’clock in the afternoon when the wagon passed under the white Lancer arch, and made its way up the drive to the hacienda. The ranch workers who were around greeted them with waves and raised hats, reminding Johnny of the first day when he and Scott had arrived at their father’s ranch. Then, they had little idea of what would await them, and what Murdoch Lancer was really like. Now they had a year of being a family and coming home, made Johnny realise all over again of what he had almost destroyed, when he had gunned his brother down.

It was, therefore, a somewhat subdued Johnny, who arrived at the main entrance to the house and slowly dismounted his horse. Teresa did not seem to care, flinging herself happily into the arms of her guardian and her two ‘brothers’. Although she knew from Murdoch’s telegram that Scott had sustained a further injury, she was concerned by his feverish condition, and together with the doctor, they immediately ushered the injured man into the house, and upstairs to his room. Murdoch had to laugh when he heard his oldest son’s protests as he was assisted up the staircase, but resolved not to get involved, and instead led Johnny into the Great Room for a welcome glass of Scotch to wash down some of the dust acquired on the trail.

The doctor was up with Scott for about forty minutes checking and re-dressing his wounds. Sam was pleased with the treatment he had received in Silver Falls and resolved to write to Doctor Ambrose and thank him. He knew it was pointless telling the young man off for leaving his sick bed to go in search for his brother. The deed was done and the important thing now was to get Scott fully fit. His fever was not serious, but Jenkins insisted that he should stay in bed and rest. To his surprise, Scott did not put up much of an argument. He was very tired and the long hours spent riding in the swaying, rocking wagon had not helped. Sam gave him a mild dose of morphine to relieve his aching leg and Scott soon drifted off to sleep.

Satisfied that Scott was comfortable and resting, Murdoch and Johnny retired to their own rooms after saying goodbye to the doctor. They too were tired and dirty from the journey, and it would be good to wash up and change into clean clothes.

Alone in his room, however, Johnny could not settle. He was torn between going to see Scott, or going downstairs to the rest of the ‘family’. Johnny knew that Teresa, and Jelly, had questions about how he had come to shoot his brother, and he was not sure how much they had been told. He paced the floor impatiently as he tried to decide what to do. In the end, he made up his mind to avoid everyone and went to the barn to check on Barranca. The palomino was content to be home, and was tucking into a meal of oats, and although pleased to see his owner, seemed more interested in his food. Johnny smiled, and gave the horse an affectionate pat on the neck before leaving the barn, intent on going back to the house, but instead he ran slap bang into Jelly.

“Johnny.” The old handyman sounded hesitant, wary almost. “You all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just seeing if Barranca’s okay.”

Jelly nodded, but made no reply. Perhaps he thinks I’m gonna shoot him too, Johnny thought sourly. Maybe nobody around the ranch would really trust him again, and who could blame them? Coming home was going to be anything but plain sailing.

“See you around, huh?” he said, clapping the older man lightly on the arm.

Was that his imagination, or had he seen a flash of fear in Jelly’s eyes just then Johnny wondered, as he sauntered back to the hacienda. He did not know. He was still tired after their long journey, and the idea of the nap before dinner sounded good. Entering the hallway, he spotted his father at his desk leafing through mail, and paperwork, which had accumulated during their absence. Johnny toyed with the idea of stopping to talk to him, but Murdoch looked engrossed in his work, so instead he headed for the stairs. He was halfway up when he heard the sound of quick, light footsteps behind him and he turned to see Teresa emerge carrying a tray containing a large jug and tumbler.

“Oh, Johnny,” she cried in surprise, the glass clinking precariously against the jug. “You frightened me!”

‘Well, welcome to the club,’ Johnny thought grimly. That’s another one I’ve scared the hell out of!  “Sorry,” he muttered.

 “I was just taking some lemonade up to Scott,” Teresa explained. “I know he’s asleep right now, but he’ll probably be thirsty when he wakes up.”

“I’ll take it to him,” Johnny offered as he came back down. It would give him the excuse he needed to see if his brother was okay.

“Oh. All right,” Teresa said. She handed the tray over, her dark eyes apprehensive. Then she quickly smiled, and turned back to the Great Room. “Dinner’s in about an hour.”

“Okay,” he answered, but she was gone. Probably glad to get away, he guessed. He gave a resigned sigh and continued up the stairs.

The door to Scott’s room was slightly ajar, so Johnny toed it open with his boot and entered. One glance told him that his brother was still sleeping, lying on his back snoring softly. Johnny carried the tray over to the chest of drawers, removed the jug, and glass, and placed them on the bedside table. Sitting down on the side of the bed, Johnny watched his brother sleep, just as he had watched in those long tortured hours in the hotel room at Silver Falls. Had he really known this man just over a year? The older brother, who he had craved for when he was a small boy in Mexico, bullied and spat upon, because he was the half-breed son of a gringo. Therefore, he had grown up, angry and alone, after his mother had died and his life had turned to violence. The Indian’s words had haunted him then, and now, sitting here with his brother, they haunted him still. The violence was embedded down inside him, and it would never let him go. The peyote had merely been the trigger.

Rising abruptly from the bed, Johnny went to leave, but turned back and crossed to the window instead. The drapes had been half-closed to shut out the late afternoon sun, and he wrenched it back savagely to stare out. He remembered the first time he had seen the soaring mountains, and rich pasture that made up Lancer, hardly being able to believe that he had a share in this land. He had gone from a dirt-poor gunfighter with nothing but a saddle to his name, to having a thousand dollars in his pocket, and more riches beyond. He had not deserved it then, and he certainly did not deserve it now, he thought. Johnny felt he was back where he started, treated with fear and suspicion, and knowing he did not belong around here. Once again, his restless spirit was calling him back, and he was a fool if he thought that coming home again would solve everything. It would be better for everyone if he were gone.

“Johnny?”

He turned at the sound of his brother’s voice, and he smiled as he realised Scott was awake.

“Hey, how you doing?” he asked coming over to resume his seat on the bed.

“Okay. A bit stiff.”

“Your leg painin ya?”

Scott shook his head. “Can’t feel it. Sam pumped me full of morphine.”

“Teresa made some lemonade. Want some?”

The older man nodded, and started to struggle up into a sitting position.

“Here, let me help you.” Johnny rose and reached forward to assist his sibling to lean forward, and then arranged the pillows behind him so he could rest back comfortably.

“Thanks.”

“Da nada.” Johnny smiled again and poured some lemonade into the glass, handing it to his sibling then sitting back down again.

Scott sipped the cool liquid gratefully, but his gaze fixed on his brother. Something was eating at Johnny. He was edgy and uneasy in his company. He thought that things between them had been resolved, but looking at the younger man’s troubled face, he could see that it was far from over.

“What’s the matter, Johnny?”

“Me? Nothin.” The dark-haired looked down, his forefinger drawing invisible circles on the bedspread.

“Yes, there is,” Scott replied quietly. “I watched you on the journey home. The nearer we got, the more anxious you got. It was if you wanted to bolt again.”

Johnny glanced up, surprised that his brother had been that observant. He thought he had disguised his feelings of doubt well, but it seemed as though he had failed.

“Yeah, well I wasn’t sure what sort of reception I’d get after what happened,” he admitted at length.

“What sort have you had?”

Johnny sighed. “Pretty much as I expected. Jelly looked like he thought I was gonna pull my gun on him, and Teresa just looked plain scared.”

Scott frowned and put the glass carefully back onto the table. “Have you spoken to Murdoch about it?”

“Na. Thought about it, but he was knee deep in papers and looked too busy.”

“He would have found the time, Johnny.”

His brother looked slightly taken aback by Scott’s statement, and he went back to fiddling again, this time playing with the conchos on his pants. “Maybe.”

Standing up, Johnny moved restlessly over to the window again to peer out for a moment and then he crossed over to the door.

“Look Scott, you’re tired and need to get some sleep. We’ll talk in the morning.”

“No.”

“What?” Johnny’s hand was on the handle, but he glanced round at his brother’s firm voice.

“You and I both know you won’t be around in the morning,” Scott said tersely. “You’re going to leave, aren’t you?”

Johnny’s mouth went dry. His sibling’s blue-grey eyes were boring into his own steadily, and at that moment, he looked every inch the stern older brother. He knew Scott would try every trick in the book to make him stay, but how could he make him understand that this was the only way?

Running a hand through his dark hair, Johnny walked back across the room, and dragged a chair over to the foot of the bed, further distancing himself from his brother.

  “Look, Scott, it just ain’t gonna work,” he explained. “How can I expect people to ever trust me again after what I did to you?”

“Murdoch trusts you. I trust you.”

“How the hell can you say that, Scott?” Johnny questioned angrily. “After all I said and did.”

The older man dipped his head. “There’s no denying I was hurt by what you said, and I did have doubts that maybe you meant it all along.” Scott paused as he recalled those moments of doubt he had felt at the time and then he glanced up. “I like to think that after all this time I know my brother. To know the sort of man he is. A good, decent man, who deserves to have a home and a family who love him.” He saw Johnny swallow hard with embarrassment, but he was determined to carry on and let his brother know what he really felt

 “Lancer is your home, Johnny. In a way, it’s more yours than it is mine. You were born here and you belong here. Don’t you realise it would break Murdoch’s heart if you left now?”

“What, with the way we butt heads all the time?” Johnny asked derisively.

Scott drew in a shuddering breath. He was tiring rapidly, the morphine in his system threatening to draw him back down, but he make his stubborn younger brother understand why he had to stay.

“That’s because you and he are so much alike. You were wrong when you called me Murdoch’s golden-haired son. I’m not the favoured son, Johnny. You are and you always will be. Why do you think he spent years looking for you when you were a child? He wanted you back and he wanted you safe, just as he wants you now. It’s his and my greatest fear that you’ll go back to the life you once had. It’s what scared me the most when I was fighting that fever in Silver Falls, not the fear of dying.  We need you here, Brother. So if Murdoch and I can forgive you, then damn everyone else. The only thing that matters here is that you stay.”

Silence fell between the two young men as Scott finished his lengthy spiel. He had done his best to try to persuade his brother to stay, and he hoped it was enough. Now it was up to Johnny.

For his part, Johnny did not know quite what to say. He was surprised and moved by the depth of feeling expressed by his brother. Scott was primarily a very private person, reticent about his past, and to some, his formal manner could be wrongly construed as being aloofness. Johnny had come to know him better in the year since they had first met, and had been amazed how close they had become in such a short space of time. It was that factor, which made it hard for Johnny to come to terms with what he had done. He had hurt Scott so badly, both physically, and emotionally, and yet his brother was still willing to forgive him.

Johnny was also surprised at what his brother had said about Murdoch and his belief that he was the favoured son. It was true that his father seemed to have more time for him, and although they had some furious rows when he had first come home, there was no doubt that they got along a lot better now. Johnny wished that Murdoch would talk to Scott more especially about the past. When Scott’s grandfather had come to Lancer, Johnny had asked Murdoch why he had never gone to Boston to claim his son back. Unlike himself, his father had always known where Scott was, but had never made the effort to contact him. Murdoch had told him how he had tried to do so, and had gone to Boston on the occasion of Scott’s fifth birthday. Had he ever told his brother that, he wondered? Johnny guessed not and he sensed Scott was more upset by his father’s seeming indifference towards him more than he let on.

However, speculation about his father and brother’s relationship did not serve to address the problem at hand. Would his leaving Lancer solve anything, Johnny asked himself? If Scott was correct, it would cause his father more grief, and he and his brother would constantly worry about him. If he was honest with himself, Johnny had no wish to return to his former life as a gunfighter. He loved his life here, but there was always that fear that his past would come back to haunt him, and in turn, hurt his family. Maybe one day his enemies would forget about him and he could afford to let his guard down.

Looking up at Scott, Johnny could tell he was anxiously waiting on his decision. His brother looked exhausted and Johnny guessed that if he checked he would find that his fever had risen again. Knowing how ill he had been before, Johnny could not put Scott through it again. Once again, he was being selfish and thinking only of himself above others. His brother always looked out for people, whether they were family or strangers, even to the extent of putting himself in danger in order to help others. Johnny had always looked out for himself. He had had to in his former profession just to stay alive. Trust was something he was still learning, and he would never achieve that by leaving.

“All right,” he said finally.

“All right what?” Scott asked.

“All right. I’ll stay.”

Johnny saw some of the tension drain from his brother’s face, but there was still a trace of wariness in his eyes.

“But?”

Johnny got up from his seat and came over to sit down on the bed. “There is no but. I’m not going anywhere. I wanna stay here.”

Scott closed his eyes briefly as he gave a sigh of relief. “What made you change your mind?”

“You.” Johnny answered simply. “Like you said, you and Murdoch have put your trust in me, so who cares about anyone else. You told me that you’ve forgiven me and that’s worth more to me than anything. I sure as hell don’t deserve it, and I’m so sorry that I hurt you. I should have been stronger and fought the effects of that damned peyote…”

“Johnny, it doesn’t matter now,” Scott cut in.

“It does to me. I’m gonna make it up to you somehow, Boston.”

“There’s no need,” the older man replied wearily. “The fact that you’re staying on is all the thanks I need.”

The brothers looked at each other, two sets of blue eyes conveying their unspoken love and affection. Scott reached out a slightly trembling hand, which Johnny clasped in his own firm grip, and used his hand to push back his sibling’s ash blond hair from his clammy brow.

“Now you get some sleep before Sam comes back in the morning and blames me for tiring you out,” Johnny ordered.

Scott smiled. “I suppose you’re right.”

He let his brother re-arrange the pillows so he could lay back and even before Johnny pulled the covers up to his chin, he could feel his eyes closing.

“Night Scott,” Johnny said as he stood and crossed over to leave the room.

“Night,” came the drowsy reply.

 With a last look at the older man, Johnny quietly opened the door.

“Johnny?”

He looked round and saw Scott’s face peering at him. “See you in the morning?”

Johnny’s mouth widened into a big grin. “Just try and keep me away, brother.”

 

~end~

Want to comment? Email Sue Salter