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White Wolf

 

Banishing Shadows
   

 

Disclaimer : I can't lay claim to the Lancers. At least not in a legal sense.
Summary : The Lancers battle to banish shadows that reach out from the past.

 

Chapter One

Johnny had risen, shaved, dressed and then barged uninvited into his brother's room, as was his usual custom. The older man had long since given up trying to dissuade Johnny from his habit of doing so. He simply tried to be up and dressed before the intrusion occurred. However, if forced to, Scott Lancer would have had to admit that he looked forward to his younger brother's morning sojourns into his room. It had proven to be an interesting way to begin most mornings.

“What's happenin', brother?” Johnny greeted with a cheery smile, as he fastened the last button on his sage green shirt.

“Nothing different from yesterday or the day before, or just about every other day you ‘forget' to knock.”

Scott tried to sound annoyed, though he had to turn away to hide the smile that was twitching at the corners of his mouth.

“Aw c'mon, Boston, you know you love my mornin' visits,” Johnny remarked, as he indulged in another of his habits, that of fingering the items on Scott's dresser.

As usual, there was nothing new to be found there, but each day Johnny hoped to discover something he hadn't seen before, believing it might provide another chance to niggle his big brother into revealing more of his life story, like the first time he had found the photograph of Scott in uniform with Gen. Phillip Sheridan. That had proved to be quite a revealing piece of Scott's personal history.

“A small knock of warning would be much appreciated, little brother,” Scott groused affectionately, as he finished buttoning his dark blue shirt and tucking it into his gray pants.

“Are you ever gonna get over that and stop complainin'?” Johnny asked, as he then plopped down on Scott's bed, stretching out and propping himself up on his elbow.

He was careful, though, to keep his spurs well away from the bedspread. That was the one thing he knew his brother didn't tolerate and the excuse Scott would likely use to toss him out on his ear. “I've figured you out, you know.”

“Oh, you have, have you? And, just what is it you've figured out?” the blond asked, continuing his morning preparations.

“Well, it's simple, Boston. If you really didn't want me in here, you'd just lock your door.” Johnny beamed at his logical reasoning.

Scott turned back from checking his appearance out in the mirror and stared at Johnny. “I may have to resort to doing just that.”

He sat in the chair opposite the bed and began pulling his black leather boots on over crisp, white socks. “Anything in particular you want to discuss before we go down to breakfast?”

“Nope.”

“Nothing you want to share with me that you don't want Murdoch to know?”

“Nope,” Johnny replied again, grinning.

“Well then, brother, let's go down and face the day.”

Without a backward glance, Scott headed out the door, leaving Johnny to push himself off of his brother's bed and follow in his wake.

By the time the two Lancer boys had reached the table where they were to eat their morning meal, they had their arms around each other's shoulders, laughing.

Murdoch looked up at the sound of his two sons' obvious good humor. A smile crept onto his face, before a frown soon replaced it. How many happy mornings like this had he missed while his sons had been lost to him? How much of their laughter had he missed hearing? He shook his head. There was no point in pondering the sadness of those thoughts. He had his boys now, so thinking about the past was a fruitless endeavor and one he refused to let mar his morning.

“Something funny you boys would like to share with your father?” he asked with an indulgent look in their direction.

“No, sir,” Scott answered, pulling away from Johnny and rounding the table to seat himself in his chair on his father's left.

Murdoch didn't inquire further. He knew that both young men liked to joke around with each other, and if they wanted to let him in on that joke, they would. He wouldn't pry, even about something that didn't appear to hold any deep meaning.

Johnny, now seated on Murdoch's right, reached out and grabbed the plate of scrambled eggs that Maria had placed on the table just before the younger Lancers had made their way downstairs. He gave himself a generous portion and passed the plate across to Scott, since Murdoch had already filled his own plate.

While he slathered butter on one of the hot biscuits he had helped himself to, Scott asked, “Have you decided whether you want us to check the fence around the east pasture or get supplies in town?”

“Yes, I have,” Murdoch stated. “If it was just the supplies, I'd send Jelly and Miguel, but after working on the books last night, I need you to take care of some business at the bank in Green River. Might as well get both things taken care of at the same time.”

“Yes, sir, that would be a more proficient use of our time.”

Scott and Johnny both knew that Murdoch was never one for spending extra time by going twice to the same place when multiple tasks could be accomplished with one trip. Distances out here were just too great to be wasting time traveling needlessly.

Johnny stared over the rim of his coffee cup at his brother. Another one of Boston's fifty cent words, he mused. Even though he didn't know exactly what proficient meant, he could guess.

“You know, Boston, I think I'm beginning to understand the things you say,” Johnny declared before stuffing his mouth with more eggs.

“Well, I'll tell you, little brother, that's downright scary.”

“Yeah, you should be scared,” Johnny answered. “Now, you won't be able to get anything past me.” The smile on his face was bright and made his blue eyes sparkle. So did the anticipation of the savory flavor of the crispy bacon that soon followed the eggs into his mouth.

Scott didn't think that remark required an answer, so he just turned his attention to the food on his own plate. Inside, though, he was laughing.

Half an hour later, breakfast was finished, and Murdoch had given Scott and Johnny their instructions for the bank business he needed taken care of. He handed the list of supplies to Johnny, who folded the lengthy piece of paper, shoved it into his pocket and headed for the front door.

Both brothers stopped long enough to buckle on their gun belts and retrieve their hats before moving out toward the barn. They were not surprised to find the wagon hitched up and waiting for them.

~*~*~

As the Lancer brothers made their way toward the town of Green River, another pair of brothers were entering it from the opposite direction.

Roger and Danny Fleming, ages 20 and 19, respectively, had been raised on a farm in southern Oregon. Their parents had been honest, hard working people, who had toiled all their adult lives to make a decent living for their family. Unfortunately, honesty and hard work were not what their two sons had inherited from them.

The dissatisfaction and rebellion had started almost as soon as the red-headed boys were old enough to think for themselves. They wanted more than a dirt-scratching existence on a tiny farm in the middle of nowhere, descriptions Roger and Danny had often thrown in their parents' faces.

Their life of crime had started out as simple mischief, then progressed to petty theft in the surrounding farms and in Turner, the nearest town to them.

Though both had had the fear of God thrown at them by their elders, it hadn't stuck, however, neither had ever been arrested. There was no official law in the town of Turner, and the circuit judge only came through there for one day every two months. The boys, while not particularly bright, knew enough to make themselves scarce at exactly that time. Yet, it was clear to everyone who knew them that it was only a matter of time before “those Fleming boys” would end up in jail, if not at the end of a rope.

Petty theft wasn't what Roger and Danny were interested in engaging in, not for long anyway. It only paid for their budding life of crime until they could do better. They had set their sights on grander pursuits.

What no one in and around Turner knew was that the two brothers spent a great deal of time, and most of the ill-gotten gains, practicing with their six shooters. They often competed with each other, while taking target practice. Their ultimate goal was to find a famous gunfighter, kill him in a main-street shootout in a town large enough to have an audience that would spread their newfound fame.

In their minds, it would be pure gravy from then on. Just how they expected both of them to face a single gunfighter and each come out with a reputation, they hadn't figured out yet. It was indicative of their short-sighted plans. But, that didn't make them any less dangerous.

As they made their way down the main street of Green River, the Fleming brothers spied the gun shop and turned in toward it, tying their horses to the hitching rail in front.

There was a sign hanging inside the glass pane of the door that read, Closed, but neither brother could read, so Danny tried the door and found it locked.

“Damn, they ain't open yet,” he groused, shaking the door violently, as if doing so would suddenly allow them entrance. The youngest Fleming was not known for his patience.

“We're early, Danny. I'm sure they'll open soon enough,” was Roger's unhurried assessment. “We'll wait.”

Snorting out a breath, Danny realized there wasn't much he could do about the situation. If left to him, he'd just as soon break in and steal whatever took his fancy, but they couldn't afford to get into trouble before they had gotten the ammunition they had come for. It would take close to the last of their money, but even they realized that without bullets, there would be no gunfight and without a gunfight there would be no reputation.

After waiting a little over five minutes, a middle-aged man with gray hair and a moustache came down the boardwalk, stopped at the gun shop door and unlocked it. He turned the sign to show Open, as he entered.

The Flemings were right behind him.

“Howdy, gents,” the store owner greeted, as he put away his satchel, and hung his coat over a hook on the wall behind the counter. “What can I do for you this fine morning?”

“We need four boxes of .45's and two for a carbine,” Roger said.

Jim Bently smiled and said, “I can fix you gents up with that,“ before turning around and opening a cabinet door behind him. He pulled out the four boxes of .45 caliber bullets and set them on the counter. Then, he moved down to another cabinet and retrieved those requested for the rifle.

While Roger paid for the ammunition, carefully counting out a fist full of coins, Danny opened one of the boxes and began to load his almost-empty handgun. He slipped three of the bullets into the cylinder. Reaching down, he pulled one more bullet from the box and shoved it in to join the others. Grinning, he snapped the cylinder back into place, spun it, then slipped the Colt into its holster on his right hip.

“Anything else I can get for you?” Bently asked, as he eyed the worn holsters these two had strapped on. Even their guns looked a little worse for wear. “I've got some really nice side pieces here, as well as some finely crafted holsters.”

From the look of them, Bently didn't really think these two would have the extra money for such items, but as a businessman, he was willing to inquire, just on the off chance that he was wrong and a bigger profit could be had.

“Naw, we got all we need right here,” Danny said, as he patted his holster and sneered.

For some reason he couldn't explain, the way the young man gestured, the look on his face and the way he said the words “right here”, gave the gunsmith a chill down his spine.

After a moment of silence, Danny blurted out, “I heard that Johnny Madrid settled in these parts. That so?”

 

 

Chapter Two

“Danny,” Roger said, a warning edge to his voice, when his brother asked about Johnny Madrid.

The younger man just shrugged and replied, “Just askin'.”

Jim Bently had stiffened up at the mention of Johnny's name. He was good friends with the Lancers and knew, as just about everyone in Green River did, that Murdoch Lancer's youngest son and the notorious gunfighter, Johnny Madrid, were one and the same. Johnny had never tried to hide his previous life, but now he went by the name Johnny Lancer, a rancher, who was working hard to put his imfamous past behind him. And, Jim Bently had no intention of revealing that fact to strangers.

Johnny had done his best to bury Madrid, and the gun shop owner was not going to be the one to dig him up. Besides he liked the youngest Lancer, liked both of Murdoch's sons, in fact. They were good young men, who deserved to live in peace, doing what they chose to do with their lives.

“I heard that Johnny Madrid was killed a couple of years back,” Mr. Bently stated firmly, looking both young men in the eye and hoping to dissuade them form sniffing around Johnny. It was the truth, after all. He had indeed heard that rumor. He just wasn't going to reveal that it was a false one.

Danny frowned. “You don't mean it. Johnny Madrid's dead? If that don't beat all. I sure was hoping...”

Before Danny could finish his sentence, Roger, who had finished stuffing their purchase in a worn saddlebag he had carried into the store for that purpose, grabbed his brother by the arm and dragged him out of the gun shop.

Once they were alone on the boardwalk and away from the gun shop owner, Roger rounded on the younger man. “One of these days, Danny, yer gonna open yer big mouth once too often an' git us in real trouble.”

“I didn't say nothin',” Danny protested petulantly, rubbing at the spot where his brother's fingers had dug into his arm.

“Well, keep yer mouth shut and make sure of it.”

Roger was in no mood to have to explain to the sheriff of Green River why they were asking about the likes of Johnny Madrid. They'd have no chance to get what they were after, if they got thrown out of town now.

“Maybe Madrid is dead,” Roger stated, while tying the saddlebag onto his saddle. “There are plenty other gunfighters.”

“Yeah, but I wanna take out the best.” Danny grinned. “Ya git a better reputation that way.”

His arrogance didn't allow him to think about the fact that he would have a better chance of getting dead, as well.

“Well, if Madrid is gone, then that means someone else is the best. Right?” Roger reasoned. “We can do a little checkin' 'round town and then see where to go from here.”

The Flemings stood and stared down the street for a moment, trying to decide the best way to proceed toward their goal.

“Maybe there's someone else we could ask,” Danny suggested. “Someone who won't go runnin' to the sheriff.” Danny was quite pleased with his idea.

Roger did him one better. “How 'bout if we say we come to see Johnny Madrid's grave. Sorta like payin' our respects to a famous man. 'Course we gotta be careful not to ask too many people or someone might git suspicious.”

“Wortha try,” Danny agreed and grinned, showing yellowed teeth that looked more like they belonged to a much older man, who hadn‘t taken very good care of them through the years.

“I reckon the saloon's a good place to start, since I'm sure a lotta information gits passed 'round there,” Roger remarked.

With the decision made, the two men headed across the street toward the nearest saloon. The sign above the front read The Golden Nugget, a nod to the Gold Rush days of northern California's not distant past. The name was lost on the two Flemings, however, since neither one could read.

When they got closer, they noticed that the big well-worn wooden doors behind the smaller batwing doors were closed.

Roger snorted. “Don't folks 'round here git thirsty afore lunch time?”

Just then, Roger noticed a wagon slowly rumbling down the street. On the bench sat two men. One was fair-haired while the other looked Mexican.

“What about askin' them two?” Roger said, as he elbowed his brother in the ribs. “If they're inna wagon, they must be from 'round here. They'd surely know somethin' 'bout Madrid.”

With a big grin on both of their faces, the Flemings moved toward the wagon, as it came to a stop in front of the general store.

Scott, who was on the street side of the wagon, wrapped the reins around the brake handle he had just set and jumped down just as Roger and Danny Fleming approached. It soon became apparent to the older Lancer that they weren't merely crossing the street but were coming directly toward him. Scott turned to face the newcomers.

Johnny had remained seated on the wagon bench, looking over the list Murdoch had given him. But, as the two strangers came near, he eyed them closely, even though, to the casual observer, he looked like he was paying them little attention.

At first glance, they looked like the dirt farmers they had been raised to be, wearing rough, well-worn and slightly dingy clothing. Yet, there was something about them that made the hair on the back of Johnny's neck rise. Something wasn't quite right with these two. It was a feeling he had often had about people that could potentially be dangerous. Even his recent life as a rancher hadn't dimmed his instincts. In fact, he kept them honed just as he did his expertise with a gun. A rancher he may be, but he knew that at any moment his past could rear it's ugly head, and he'd be called out. It paid to stay sharp. And now that he had Scott with him, he was even more attentive than when he only had himself to look after.

With deliberate ease, Johnny slipped the list back into his pocket and slid over to jump down beside his brother. Only Scott was aware of the tension in Johnny's body, clearly telling the tall blond that his younger brother was ready for trouble, if any was forthcoming.

“Is there something we can do for you?” Scott asked the two red headed men, who stopped in front of him.

“Well, we was in town and heard that Johnny Madrid is buried here abouts. That true?”

“Johnny Madrid?” Scott repeated, somewhat surprised. That name was the last thing he expected to hear from these men. They hardly looked like gunhawks.

“Why would you want to know about him?” Johnny asked, his voice not betraying the increased caution that had taken up residence inside him.

His hand slipped down to rest on the butt of his Colt, though the smooth, easy nature of the move appeared to be non-threatening.

Scott glanced sideways at Johnny to see if there was recognition on his face. All he saw there was the cool, appraising stare he had seen on more than a few occasions, when Johnny was facing someone he didn't necessarily trust. Not reacting to his brother's expression, Scott looked directly at the men and asked, “Were you friends of his?”

“No, sir,” Danny answered with mock politeness. “We jest heard 'bout him bein' killed 'round here. Thought we'd go look fer ourselves. See the grave of someone famous like.”

He tried to make his voice sound innocent, so Roger wouldn't get on his case again about opening his mouth too much.

In a soft voice, Johnny said, “He died all right. But that was in Mexico, or so I heard tell. He's not buried around here.” That last statement was spoken with the knowledge that he was telling the absolute truth, at least in a physical sense. Though in an entirely different sense, Madrid had unofficially died in Mexico, when that Pinkerton agent arrived to unknowingly offer him his future as a Lancer.

Though Johnny was hardly an uncommon name, Scott wasn't about to give these men even the slightest chance to start thinking about trying to make a connection between Johnny Madrid and his brother, so he avoided calling Johnny by name. He simply turned to his sibling and said, “You go get started on the supplies, brother .” He emphasized the last word, hoping to further discourage any hint of who his brother might be, since it was well-known that Johnny Madrid had no family. “I'll meet you back here after I've finished our other business.” The blond Lancer wasn't going to give them any ideas about the bank, either.

Johnny nodded. Though he hadn't taken his eyes off of the two strangers during the entire conversation, his demeanor appeared to be bordering on disinterest.

Roger stared at Scott and Johnny for a fraction longer, wondering at how two brothers could look so different from each other. However, not willing to spend any more time on that puzzle, he turned to leave, pulling Danny with him.

It wasn't until the strangers were back across the street that Johnny was able to breathe a little easier, though he was far from relaxed.

“You don't know them, do you?” Scott asked. Despite the fact that Johnny had done nothing to indicate he did, that didn't necessarily mean he didn't. Scott had leaned that a long time ago.

“No, but I know their kind.” The words were uttered with disdain.

“Which is?” Scott inquired with raised eyebrows.

“They are far from professionals, but judging by the way they wear their guns, and the fact they asked about Madrid, they appear to be looking to make a reputation for themselves. My guess is they were hoping Johnny Madrid was alive and well and living right here in Green River or, at least, somewhere in easy reach.”

A shiver went down Scott's spine. He hated it whenever anyone even mentioned the name Madrid. Couldn't people just leave his brother alone?

Johnny didn't bother asking himself that same question. He knew that as long as people remembered the name Johnny Madrid, there would always be someone itching to make their own reputation at his expense.

He also knew how much it bothered his brother. He patted Scott on the shoulder in a gesture of reassurance. He hated that there was nothing he could really do to ease Scott's mind, and that bothered him more than any challenge he might get from a would-be gunhawk.

He knew that Scott trusted him and his instincts and that he could handle the challenges he was sometimes forced to face, however, in the back of Johnny's mind resided the nagging fear that something could always go wrong, and Scott could suffer as a result.

Johnny also knew that Scott would risk his own life to keep him safe, and that, too, could bring his brother to harm. Johnny tried to shake off those troubling thoughts. He reminded himself that he had accepted that possibility when he agreed to stay at Lancer with his newfound family. But, it still gripped his heart with a fear he could never quite shake.

Johnny was sure that they hadn't seen the last of the two men, who had reached the other side of the street and were walking down the boardwalk away from them. He was sure there would be trouble from those redheads before the day was out.

The youngest Lancer turned and headed into the general store, glancing down the street once more before entering the darker interior of the building.

Scott stood for a few seconds longer, also looking in the direction the two strangers were moving in. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He hoped that those men wouldn't be questioning anyone else in town about Johnny Madrid. They just might run into someone who would be all too willing to enlighten them on the ex-gunfighter's whereabouts.

Shaking his head, Scott could only hope for the best. He let out a deep breath and then headed down the street before crossing over to enter the bank.

 

 

Chapter Three

By the time the Flemings had reached The Golden Nugget again, the big doors were open. When the men entered, they found that they were evidently the first customers of the day.

Moving up to the long, clean wooden bar, they were greeted by a tall, lanky, brown-haired man in his late thirties.

"What can I get for you fellas?" he asked in a cordial tone. The smile he gave the two men, who had just entered his establishment, was genuine.

Al Laufler was a friendly man by nature, the perfect person to spend his time dealing with all kinds of people who, once they had had too much to drink, were not always easy to contend with.

"Two beers," Roger said, as he turned and led the way to a table on the left side of the room.

Neither brother spoke at first but just sat in silence and waited to be served.

Roger studied the barkeeper, as he approached with two foaming mugs of beer. It seemed that the girls who worked the saloon didn't come in this early, so he took care of both the bar and the tables himself.

"Here you go, fellas," Al said amiably, as he bent over slightly to set a mug down in front of each man.

Straightening up, he asked, "Anything else I can get for you? The kitchen's not open yet, but I can rustle up some sandwiches if you'd like." The smile was still firmly in place.

"We're fine," Roger replied in a neutral tone, as he picked up his mug and took a long swallow, wiping the foam off of his lips with a shirt sleeve.

"Name's Al. Just holler if you change your mind or want more beer." Then he turned and went back to his task of polishing the already gleaming wood of the bar.

Slightly impatient, Danny asked, "Why not ask him about Madrid? Barkeeps are s'posed to know everybody in a town. Right? Jackson back in Turner sure did."

"Well, Turner ain't much bigger'n Green River's main street fer one thing," Roger replied somewhat sarcastically. "As fer this guy..."

Roger didn't finish the sentence but just shook his head. There was something in Al's manner that had warned him off. "He's too friendly. Seems like he might jest be a might too friendly with the sheriff 'round here an' I told you we can't stir up folks' curiosity."

Danny frowned at his brother. "Well, how're we gonna know who to ask then?"

It was a fair question, but still Roger looked at Danny like he didn't have half a brain in his head, which was pretty close to being factual. Roger himself was a bit smarter, but not by much.

"I reckon someone'll come along we kin ask. We'll jest bide our time."

It was almost half an hour and two more beers later before a man entered the saloon that caught Roger's eye and held it.

The answer to their dilemma might well have just walked through the door.

Roger Fleming studied the man, who had just sauntered up to the bar, in the same way he had studied the barkeeper earlier.

The man was dressed all in black. He even had black hair. The only contrasting color was a red bandanna he wore tied around his neck. His face was stern and devoid of any hint of congeniality. A low-slung gun belt was worn on his right hip. He looked the part of a gunfighter, or as close to one as Roger Fleming had ever imagined.

The elder redhead decided that maybe the man in black was the one to ask about Madrid. Maybe, if Madrid really was dead, this guy could take his place in the Flemings' rise to fame.

Telling Danny to stay put, and emphasizing his words with a pointed forefinger, Roger moved over to the table the new saloon customer now occupied. "Mind if I join ya?"

The man looked up and scowled at Roger. In an annoyed voice that bordered on disdain, he said, "You already got a table and someone to drink with. I don't need any company."

Roger regarded the cold stare but wasn't willing to give up on his quest for information just yet. Eagerness outweighed any sense of caution the oldest Fleming might have had that this man could easily turn on him.

"D'you live here abouts?"

"None of your business, boy," the stranger growled, stressing hte last word. By the look of him, he was a good ten years older than Roger. He narrowed his eyes into a scowl that was enough to send a smarter man on his way.

Trying not to stammer, Roger tried one last time. "I was hopin' to find a man named Johnny Madrid. Thought maybe...maybe you could help me, us, find him."

The man scoffed. "You? Lookin' for Johnny Madrid? You must be plumb loco. Either that or you're looking to find an early grave."

The man downed the whiskey Al had brought him and signaled for another one to be brought over to him.

Roger, not wanting Al to overhear the conversation, waited until the barkeeper had served the man his second whiskey and gone back to whatever task he was now engaged in. Then, he barreled on, seeming not to have heard the man's previous comment. "I just heard he may live 'round here or might be buried here. Me an' my brother over there," he indicated Danny with a jerk of his head, "just wanna pay our respects."

A mirthless laugh came from deep in the stranger's throat. "I repeat. You must be loco." He regarded Roger a long moment before saying, "Just why would you two be wantin' to pay your respects to a dead gunfighter?"

"He's famous!"

"And that impresses you?" the man in black asked. His tone of disdain hadn't changed one bit during the entire conversation.

"Sure it does." Roger glanced down at the man's gun. "You look like you could be one, too, maybe. Are you famous?"

Not answering the rather bold question, the man instead said, "Well, Madrid ain't' buried here, nor any place else." He took another swallow of his whiskey.

It took a few seconds for the meaning of the man's words to sink into Roger's head. "He's alive then?" The delight on his face was unmistakable.

"He don't hire out any more. Gave up a great career as one of the best gunhawks around and went all respectable," the man sneered, clearly indicating his opinion of respectability. "Part owner of a ranch near here. Got himself a family now, too."

This was just the information that the Flemings were looking for. Roger got even more excited, not believing how lucky he and Danny had just gotten. So, Johnny Madrid was alive and living near Green River.

The man in black looked at Roger with a steady gaze, then he turned and stared at Danny, sitting two tables away and nursing his beer. He thought about warning the two men off of their quest, but then gave himself a shrug. What they chose to do was none of his business. He'd enjoy watching Johnny Madrid take these fools down. And then, if no one interfered, things might just work to his own advantage, and it would be his turn to do the same to Madrid.

He hadn't come into town with the notion of calling Madrid out. But, if Johnny did face these two, he'd surely kill them both and then, he knew from his own experience, Johnny would be hyped up from the killings. It was the perfect time to take a gunfighter down, when he wasn't at his most focused. Yes, he thought, Madrid just might be his before long. Maybe, before the day was out.

Roger was starting to ask another question when the man in black jerked his thoughts away from what might become his best day as a gunfighter and back to the redhead sitting at his table.

"Do ya know if'n Johnny Madrid happens ta be in town right now?" There was almost a pleading in Roger's voice that begged for the answer to be yes.

"I saw him just before I came in here," the stranger replied, barely able to contain a cold smile.

Roger's eyes lit up. "Yeah, where was he?"

"He was loading a wagon in front of the general store."

Instantly, Roger remembered the two men he and Danny had talked to earlier. They had been in a wagon in front of a building that he recognized as having the same letters on a store-front sign as the one in Turner he knew to be the general store.

"What does he look like?"

"Go to the door and take a look for yourself. I'm sure he's still there." The man was sure Johnny couldn't load a wagon full of supplies in such a short time, especially considering the wagon had barely been half full when he had seen it a few minutes earlier.

Roger jumped up and rushed to the door, grabbing Danny's arm and pulling him along. They stood just inside the batwing doors, craning their necks forward, so they could look down the street toward the wagon.

Having just completed his business at the bank, Scott made his way back to the Lancer wagon, sitting almost empty right where he had left it.

Johnny walked out of the store with a sack of flour over his right shoulder. "'Bout time you showed up, Boston. The bank give you any trouble?"

"No. No trouble. Mr. Talbot just had to look up some things in his ledger books. He could take a lesson from Murdoch on that score. Murdoch can put his finger on any entry in a matter of seconds."

"Ain't that the truth," Johnny agreed with a fond grin.

Changing subjects, Scott continued, "Besides, I didn't want to take all the pleasure of loading all those supplies away from you too soon. You do enjoy it so."

"Very funny, Scott. How about you join in with some of that pleasure before it gets too hot." He emphasized his words by looking up toward the blazing sun and than wiping his sweaty face with his left sleeve.

Laughing, Scott stepped up onto the boardwalk and gave Johnny's left shoulder a friendly slap, as he passed him and entered the store.

The interior was already too warm, and now the outside heat seemed to followed Scott in, giving him only a small bit of relief, though any relief at all from the direct sun was welcome.

The blond sighed as he looked at the pile of sacks and boxes in front of the counter. He shook his head. If he hadn't seen that the wagon already had a few supplies in it, he would have thought that Johnny had been sitting around waiting for him to do most of the work.

"Hello, Scott."

"Hello, Matt," Scott responded, as the store's young helper deposited another sack on the floor near its companions.

Scratching his head, Scott asked, "Did Johnny ask you to save all these for me?"

Matt broke out in a laugh. "Oh, I think there's plenty for the both of you."

He turned and headed for the back again, his chuckles fading as he moved behind the burlap curtain that hung across the doorway separating the rear storage area from the main store.

Scott picked up a large sack of sugar in both arms, then turned to go add that to what his brother had already built up in the wagon.

"Thanks, Johnny," Scott threw over his shoulder, as he passed his brother, who was just entering.

Johnny frowned. "For what?"

Scott was out of earshot and didn't hear the question. However, down the street, there were two pairs of eyes that had just put him in their sights. The Flemings had spotted their quarry. They stared at each other with mouths wide open.

"He was one of them fellers we talked to earlier," Roger declared.

"Well, don't that beat all?" Danny declared in turn. "He never told us who he was." The young man's tone was one of shock, mixed with a touch of indignation. "You s'pose he was scared to tell us?"

Having no idea that the Flemings were looking at the wrong man, the stranger in black let out a loud hoot of laughter. "You boys really are loco. Johnny Madrid ain't scared of nobody."

Whispering so the man in black couldn't hear, Danny asked somewhat tentively, "He don't wear his gun very low. He must really be good."

"Well, ain't that why we want to face him?" Roger asked without taking his eyes off of Scott. Only when the fair-haired Lancer went back into the store did the Flemings move back to the table they had previously occupied.

"Thanks fer pointing him out to us," Roger said, as he passed the stranger.

"Your funeral," was the man in black's only comment before bringing his attention back to his whiskey. However, the smile on his face had nothing to do with the liquor in front of him.

 

Chapter Four

Danny became antsy, wiggling around in his chair at the saloon table. “When we gonna go?” he asked impatiently.

Rober, calmly sipping on his beer, looked over the rim of his mug and stared at his brother. “Soon.”

In a whiny voice that irritated the older Fleming brother more than a little, Danny said, “Why're we waitin'? We know where Madrid is an' there's lots of people out there who can witness the gunfight. Ain't that what we want?”

The man in black had risen from his own chair and was moving toward the front door. “In a big hurry to die, ain't you?” he said in passing.

Danny narrowed his eyes. “Don't need you to tell us...”

The sentence was cut short when Roger grabbed Danny's arm. “Don't let him rile ya, Danny. He pointed Madrid out to us, so we're grateful.” The words were accompanied by a salute when Roger raised his mug towrad the stranger.

All the man in black did was laugh, as he pushed open the batwing doors and walked out into the late morning sunshine. Niether Fleming heard him utter the word “Fools”.

By the time the man in black had walked down the street toward the general store, the only man he saw there was Johnny Madrid, who was just settling a loaded box in the wagon bed.

Johnny, ever on the alert, saw the man moving in his direction. The youngest Lancer narrowed his eyes.

Just as the man arrived withing ten feet of Johnny, Scott came out of the store with his own loaded box of supplies. Once he put it in the wagon, he went over and stood beside his brother. “Know him?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah. I know him.”

His tone of voice, combined with the tension that had suddenly stiffened Johnny's body, told Scott, who had gotten good at reading his brother's body language, that this man was potential trouble. He certainly looked dangerous.

Scott started to take a step forward, but Johnny placed his hand on his brother's arm. It was a subtle move but one that stopped the blond in his tracks.

“Well, if it isn‘t Pony Deal,” Johnny said, barely raising his voice.

“Hello, Johnny,” the man in black replied. “Haven't seen you in a long time.”

Johnny's demeanor didn't change. “Yeah, long time, Pony. What you doin' in California? I thought you spent your time with the John Kinney Gang in New Mexico.”

“Me an' John had a bit of a fallin' out a while back, so I joined up with some others here and there. Then thought I'd mosey over here and see what California's all about.”

“You still rustlin' and robbin'?” Johnny asked, almost causually.

“Now, Johnny, you know I was never convicted of nothin' like that.” Pony smiled broadly, the twinkle in his eyes a clear sign that his words may be true, but that didn't mean he hadn't been involved in either of those pursuits.

Scott just stood and listened to the exchange with fascination. It was like watching a chess match. All seemed friendly enough on the surface, but there was an undercurrent of tension that was radiating form both men in waves.

Scott just hoped that the pleasantries didn't give way to violence. He knew that Johnny could be as patient as Job when need be, but he also knew how impatient and volatile he could be, as well.

One other thing Scott knew: Johnny, ever the protector, would never intentionally put him in danger.

The short silence gave way when Pony Deal began talking again.

“Saw a friend of yours not along ago, Johnny. We rode together for a while. Might even join up again.”

“Yeah, and who might that be?”

“Jesse Evans.”

Johnny's eyebrows rose a fraction. He hadn't seen Jesse in almost two years. He had also ridden with John Kinney. He and Johnny had been fairly close for a time. Although their backgorunds were different, they had gone out on their own at a very young age, making a name for themselves with a gun.

Johnny, for his part, had never been involved in rustling or robbery the way Jesse and Pony had.

“So, why are you in Green River?” Johnny asked.

“Well, I was just passing through. As I said, I was checking out the territory here in California. Heard it was nice. Can't complain about the weather.

“I heard there may be some trouble brewing in Lincoln County, New Mexico. Thought I'd head that way and maybe join up with Jesse. If there's trouble there, he'll most likely be in the middle of it. Wanna come? I'm sure one side or the other would pay top dollar for the gun of Johnny Madrid.”

“Name's Lancer,” Johnny corrected. “I don't hire out anymore, Pony. I have a real home and a family now,” Johnny stated firmly, leaving no doubt about where his future lay.

“Yeah, that's what I heard, but I remember how you loved to get involved in range wars, pittin' your gun against a whole group of others, and takin' in a load of money doin' it.”

Johnny forwned. “That was a long time ago.” He stared off into the distance, his mind seeming to wander back to days gone by. His eyes, however, never left Pony Deal's face.

Mentally chiding himself, Johnny's face took on a hardened look. “My past is in the past.” The words were whispered so softly that only Scott heard them.

Johnny felt a slight pressure on his shoulder and looked around to see Scott's eyes on him. An imperceptible nod told his older brother that he was all right. Never before in his life had there been someone who cared about him more than themselves, someone willing to die to protect him. It was a feeling that gave him a kind of peace he also had never known before.

Noting the contact between Johnny and the tall blond next to him, Pony asked, “This a friend of yours?”

Johnny, who had never let go of Scott's arm, tightened his grip, a clear signal that he would handle the question.

Scott, understanding, didn't budge.

“He's someone who's not involved in my former life. Look, Pony, I have no interest in whatever you're sellin', so just go about your own business and let me and...us...go about ours.”

Pony Deal held up both hands in a gesture of surrender, indicating he was not going to cause any trouble.

He grinned. “If you prefer the drudgery of loading a supply wagon to the thrill of facing off with others like yourself, then that's your own affair.”

“That's just it, Pony. I'm not like those people. Not anymore.” He couldn't avoid a tiny grin. “And loading a supply wagon isn't all that bad.”

Next to him, Scott laughed. “I'll remember you said that the next time you complain.”

Pony took a long look at Scott. The exchange between him and Johnny had been easy and familiar. If it weren't for the total opposites in their looks, he would have taken this man for a relative of Johnny's new family.

Changing subjects, Pony said, “I think I'll just head on over to Lincoln County and see what's up over there.”

“You do that,” Johnny encouraged.

Down the street, the Flemings came out of the saloon and automatically looked toward the general store to see if Johnny Madrid was still there. They wouldn't have been happy if he had left while they were finishing their beers.

“Damn,” Roger declared. “I shoulda known that man couldn't be trusted.”

Danny came up beside his brother and knew exactly what Roger's statement meant, when he saw the scene down the street.

They wree both looking at Madrid, the man in black and that Mexican-looking fellow that had been on the wagon with Madrid earlier. “He wants to get to Madrid first and git all the glory,” Danny declared in anger, stomping his foot for emphasis. “What we gonna do now?”

Not knowing, or at this point, not caring what the situation might be between the three men, Roger grabbed Danny by the shirt sleeve and headed down the street at a fast pace.

When they got within shouting distance, Roger yelled out, “Hey, you in black, what the hell you think you're doin'? Madrid's ours.”

Pony turned around to face the angry Felmings, while Scott and Johnny looked up and saw them stalking toward them.

“Those two idiots are trouble,” Pony stated flatly.

Pony waited for the ocunt of five before he addressed the angry redheads. “I ain't after Madrid. Just sayin' hello and then I'm leavin'.”

Johnny, understanding the Flemings' intent, tensed up, the fingers on his right hand twitching near the butt of his Colt.

“Back off,” Roger commanded Pony Deal. “This is our fight.”

Not the noble type but also knowing that Johnny would be able to handle these two would-be gunhawls, Pony Deal moved several paces to his left.

“We don't want any trouble here,” Scott spoke up, looking first at Pony Deal and then at the Flemings. Ever the diplomat, he was hoping to forestall any gunplay before it could erupt.

“You're the one we want,” Danny declared, pointing his finger straight at Scott.

The blond Lancer's eyebrows rose. “Me?” he was so shocked, he couldn't keep the word from slipping out.

The Flemings had very clearly stated earlier that it was Johnny Madrid they were interested in, only they had said it was his grave they were wanting to see.

The confusion lastest less than the blink of an eye.

Everyone but Scott drew their gun. Not being a part of this world of gunfighters, he didn't see the immediate danger soon enough to react in time. Despite his having lived out here in the West for over three years, shooting was not his first instinct.

When Roger and Danny drew their guns, almost simultaneously, so did Johnny and Pony.

Pony dove under the wagon, while turning, drawing and firing, all in one fluid motion.

Johnny had his gun out ahead of them all, however, his attention was divided.

Keeping his eyes on the Flemings, trusting that Pony was more concerned with self-preservation than trying to get one up on him, he used his right hand to draw his Colt. With his left hand he shoved Scott forward and to the side. He knew that Scott was too close to the wagon to miss it, but it was infinitely better than getting shot and killed.

In the split second he saw Scott falling, he dove to his right, his gun spitting fire, as his body hit the boardwalk with a thud.

He would normally have jumped to his left so that there was no chance of injuring the arm he used to shoot with. But, having shoved Scott to the left, Johnny was not about to draw more fire in his brother's direction.

Johnny was dismayed not to hear Scott's gun. His sibling was not a gunfighter, but he was no slouch with a pistol, either, having gotten better after moving west.

All thoughts of Scott disappeared, as a bullet hit the wooden walkway just three inches from Johnny's head.

Pony was continuing to fire from under the wagon.

A loud scream burst out from one of the Flemings after being hit, though Johnny couldn't tell which oof the two it was.

Roger was rolling across the ground, firing every time he came up onto his stomach.

Danny was yelling, “Roger. Roger, I'm hit!”

Lying flat, Johnny was using the side of the wagon to block the Flemings' view of him, even though he was essentially on a raised platform.

Pony was busy employing a trick he had learned from John Kinney. There was no real cover under the wagon, since wheels hardly offered anything solid to hide behind. However, if whoever was behind the wheel moved around a lot, the movement combined with the spiral pattern of the spokes would make a dizzying

display that could confuse someone trying to aim into the spaces.

Pony had never tried that maneuver before, but he didn't have much choice at the moment, especially since Roger, also being on the ground was on the same level with him.

The trick seemed to be working, but then it also kept him from being very accurate with his own shots.

All Johnny could see of the Flemings was Danny's legs, as he flailed around, continuing to yell that he had been shot. The dark-haired Lancer slowly pulled himself along the boardwalk until he could see around the front end of the wagon.

The horses were stamping in place, but being used to gunfire and other loud noises, they hadn't panicked, not yet anyway.

“Easy, boys,” Johnny soothed, moving a bit forward, so he could reach out and touch the nearside horse. He storked it's flank. “Easy.” He then said a few more words in Spanish, keeping his voice soft.

If the horses took off, he and Scott would be totally unpotected. Pony Deal didn't rate a thought in Johnny's mind.

Johnny aimed his gun between the wagon and the horses' rumps, hoping again that they wouldn't take that moment to bolt.

He help his breath and pulled the trigger.

Danny Fleming stopped yelling.

Johnny pushed himself back until he was even with the center of the wagon. Moving close to the outer edge of the boards of the walkway, he looked down. He realized that he still hadn't ever heard Scott fire his gun. Now he knew why.

 

Chapter Five

Everyone but Scott drew their guns immediately. Not being a part of this world of gunfighters, he didn't see the immediate danger soon enough to react in time. Shooting was not his first instinct, despite his having lived out here in the West for over three years, aa well as spending time with his brother, whose first instinct definitely was the gun. In a face-to- face gunfight, Scott would have been dead before he cleared leather.

Both Roger and Danny had drawn their revolvers together, with Danny having the slight edge in speed.

Seeing what was about to come down and having no other choice, Pony dove under the wagon, while turning, drawing and firing, all in one fluid motion. He might not have the reputation that Johnny Madrid had, but he was no greenhorn with a gun. Still, his shot managed to do no more harm than put a hole in Roger's hat, knocking it from his head.

Johnny, having seen the telltale flicker in Danny's eye, had his own gun out ahead of them all, however, his attention was divided.

Trusting that Pony was more concerned with self-preservation than trying to get one up on him, Johnny disregarded the black-clad gunman. While using his right hand to draw his Colt, he simultaneously used his left to reach out and give Scott a strong shove. Johnny knew that Scott, slightly ahead of him, would most likely tumble forward, rather than to the side. It was not the ideal direction to go, since the blond was too close to the wagon to miss it, but it was infinitely better than getting shot and killed.

In the split second he saw Scott starting to fall out of the way, Johnny dove to his right, his gun spitting fire, as his body hit the boardwalk with a thud. He would normally have jumped to his left to avoid any chance of injuring the arm he used to shoot with, but as with pushing Scott, he didn't have any other option. He had to avoid the bullets he was sure would be coming his way. He may not have been the Flemings' original target, but he was shooting at them, so he quickly became one.

Johnny was dismayed not to hear Scott's gun returning the redheads' fire. His brother was by no means a gunfighter, but he was no slouch with a sidearm, either, and he certainly knew how to defend himself. Yet, Johnny only heard Pony's gun firing from under the wagon.

All thoughts of Scott were forcibly shoved aside, as a bullet hit the wooden walkway just three inches from Johnny's head, sending splinters in all directions. One nicked his forehead just above his left eyebrow. However, in the heat of battle, the sting of it was quickly forgotten.

After several more exchanges of gunfire, a loud scream burst out from one of the Flemings. Which one of them it was, though, Johnny couldn't tell. Both had hit the ground as soon as the first trigger had been pulled.

Roger was rolling across the dirt to the left, firing every time he came up onto his stomach. It was clear he was headed for the water trough a few feet behind the wagon.

Danny, near the front of the wagon, was yelling, "Roger. Roger, I'm hit!"

Lying flat, Johnny was using the top edge of the wagon's side boards to block the Flemings' view of his position. If it hadn't been for the fact that the would-be gunfighters were below him on the ground while he himself was up on the boardwalk with a wagon between them, he would have been totally exposed and likely shot by now.

Not having much choice at anything solid to hide behind, Pony Deal was dodging around behind the rear left wheel. With Roger rolling on the ground, the two were on the same level, and Pony could only trust that by moving the way he was, he was presenting enough of a confusing target that Roger, also trying to get out of the line of fire, wouldn't be accurate in his attempt to shoot between the spokes.

Pony made a quick attempt to nail Roger, as he came into view directly behind the wagon, but a shot from Danny sent him diving backwards and flattening himself on the ground.

With one last shot toward Pony, Roger Fleming rolled behind the water trough and was hunkered down at the far end of it.

At the other end of the wagon, all Johnny could see of the younger redhead was Danny's legs, as he flailed around, firing wildly and continuing to yell that he had been shot. So much for the bravado he had displayed earlier. Reality could be a harsh teacher to someone not prepared for what he was facing at this moment. And now that he was in pain, all Danny could do was think of himself, instead of helping his brother, who, as far as he knew, could be facing three other men.

Using his elbows and his toes, Johnny slowly pulled/pushed himself along the boardwalk until he could see across the front end of the wagon.

The horses were anxiously stamping in place. Being used to gunfire and other loud noises, they weren't totally panicked, not yet anyway. They were, however, shaking and tossing their heads up and down. How long before they finally did bolt, was anyone's guess. The nervous movements were causing the wagon to rock a few inches back and forth, as the horses' agitation mounted.

What worried Johnny most was not that, if the horses took off with the wagon, he would be exposed up on the boardwalk, but rather that Scott might be run over by the wheels, because he realized now that something was wrong with his borther.

"Easy, boys," Johnny soothed the team. "Calm down now. It'll be all right." He repeated his words in Spanish, since the horses were used to both languages. He tried to make his voice as soft and reassuring as he could. If they had known they were in eminent danger of being hurt, he had no doubt they would have taken off at the first sound of gunfire. He was thankful that they were well trained.

The prospect that Pony Deal's position would also be exposed, or he might be run over, didn't rate more than a fleeting consideration in Johnny's mind. Scott's well-being, followed by his own, was all that occupied his thoughts.

A determined look came into Johnny's deep blue eyes. Enough of this stalemate. It was time to increase the odds in their favor, so the dark-haired ex-gunhawk aimed his gun between the wagon and the horses' rumps, hoping that they wouldn't take that moment to bolt. Obtaining his target, he held his breath and pulled the trigger.

Danny Fleming stopped yelling, but it wasn't because he had been silenced by Johnny's bullet. He had chosen that exact instant to roll away from where he had been lying.

He bit his lip to stop himself from yelling out, as he grabbed the team's long reins, that were now hanging loose, and tried to pull himself up, at least to his knees. He was hoping to put the horses more closely between him and whoever had taken the last shot at him, as well as obtain a better view of who to actually shoot at.

Johnny cursed under his breath at the missed shot. Keeping his eyes trained in Danny's direction, he was ready to fire at him again, if he showed any part of his body.

The youngest Lancer was anxious to check on his brother, but he couldn't afford to turn his back on Danny. He had seen others get themselves killed by making assumptions about being in the clear when they didn't know if the other person was truly out of the action.

He crawled a little farther forward. If he could come even with Danny at the head of the horses, he felt sure he could finish him off and then get to Scott. Johnny tried not to let fear for Scott control his mind, but it was hard.

Johnny pulled himself forward a few more inches. When he looked aorund the horses, he expected to find Danny, but the younger man wasn't there.

Lowering his head, Johnny looked down between the horses' legs, but saw no human legs either.

Marks in the dirt streaked with blood showed where someone had dragged their body around to the side of the building. Johnny cursed again, this time aiming his ire directly at himself. He had let the younger Fleming move out of sight twice now. As a result, he, Scott and Pony were in between both Flemings, a most dangerous situation.

The team's reins hadn't held Danny's weight, so he had crawled to where he could use the side of the general store to hide himself.

"Pony," Johnny called out, "you got your guy pinned down?"

"Yeah, for now," Pony replied. "Why?"

"The other one has crawled around the side of the building."

It didn't take Pony long to understand the situation. He glanced at Scott. No help coming from him for the time being.

Johnny swore he could hear sniveling coming from Danny's position. "Not so brave now that bullets are coming back at ya, huh, kid?"

All the answer Johnny got back was a gun that come into view.

A shot soon came whizzing past Johnny's head, but it wasn't enough to keep the former gunhawk from taking quick aim and sending another bullet Danny Fleming's way. This one hit the gun and sent it flying away into the dirt. It was accompanied by a yelp from Danny, stung from having the gun shot out of his hand.

With a satisfied smile, Johnny then sent a bullet into the corner of the building to back Danny off in case he was thinking of trying to go for the revolver.

When the Flemings had approached him and Scott after they first got to town, Johnny had taken a very close look at both men. They had each had one pistol visible. He knew he was taking a chance that they wouldn't have had a second one in their boots. They hadn't seemed like the type that would have even thought of backing themselves up that way.

Despite the fact that worry for his brother had already caused him to make two mistakes he normally would never have made, Johnny had to finish Danny off once and for all, and he had to to it now.

Lying quietly and staring at the corner of the building, Johnny was contemplating whether to wait Danny out or go after him. The decision was soon made for him, when the younger Fleming made a dash toward his gun, lying a few feet past the end of the boardwalk.

Johnny wasn't about to make another mistake. He shot Danny in the chest.

Danny didn't make a sound. He stopped moving, as he lay face down in the dirt, his gun mere inches from his outstretched fingers.

Johnny fired two shots at the gun, sending it skittering several feet away and out of Danny's reach. He said a silent good riddance to him and then focused his attention on getting to his brother.

Still being exposed to Roger's position, he stayed on his belly on the boardwalk, trusting that Pony would keep the young man from having an open shot at him.

Maneuvering himself around and moving close to the outer edge of the boards of the walkway beside the wagon, Johnny looked down. Now, he knew why he hadn't heard Scott join in the fight.

Scott was lying on his left side between the boards supporting the walkway and the near-side wagon wheels. He wasn't moving.

Johnny's heart lurched, as he realized his brother was either unconscious or... He shook his head, refusing to finish that thought. Scott must have simply hit his head when he fell, not that that was a minor thing, but as he had thought earlier, it was better than being shot. Of course, one didn't necessarily rule out the other.

 

Chapter Six

"You killed my brother, you bastards!" Roger screamed, as he began firing blindly without revealing himself. It wasn't clear whether he was actually trying to hit anyone, or if he was just blasting away from shock and grief.

Pony Deal, not necessarily distrusting that Danny Fleming was dead but wanting to make sure for himself, had been aiming his gun toward the youngest redhead's body and was about to put another bullet in him, when one of Roger's wild shots whizzed so close that Pony felt the rush of air stir near his right ear.

The black-clad mans attention was quickly turned toward the remaining Fleming. He fired three shots in quick succession, each plunking into the rough wood of the trough. Two bullets skidded across its surface, gouging out two deep furrows, but the third one went all the way through. Water began pouring out of the round hole the bullet had created.

To Johnny's further frustration, he had to abandon his attempts to see about Scott. Live bullets flying through the air took precedence. To distract himself, he looked toward his old acquaintance. "You always were a bit of a hothead, Pony. Why waste ammo when your target is hidden?"

Pony Deal scowled. "Let him know I'm still here and pissed off," the man declared in a tone that clearly showed just how pissed off he really was. However, knowing Johnny was right, Pony quit firing, taking the time to reload again. It wouldn't do to get caught without a full load of ammunition should a full-out gunfight begin again.

Pony's shots had forced Roger to pull back as far behind the water trough as possible. Holding his gun tightly, he rubbed his stubbly chin with his knuckles. If Danny was dead, where did that leave him?

Under the wagon, a sudden thought came to Pony, "Where's the law in this town?"

"Sheriff's Val Crawford, a good man and a damn fine lawman. Right now, he's out of town. He should be back tomorrow."

"Great. Law only comes 'round when you don't want 'em or need 'em," Pony grumbled. "A town this big has to have a deputy. Where's he?"

"Don't know," Johnny replied. He hadn't thought about Ron Billings until Pony mentioned the deputy, but he was curious why Ron hadn't made an appearance. Val had left him in charge, and he couldn't imagine Ron shirking his duty. Now that Johnny thought about it, no one else had come to their defence, either. The Lancers had a lot of friends in Green River, but none of them seemed eager to help out. The only one he didn't want to see get anywhere near a bullet was the doctor, Sam Jenkins. Besides being a good friend, he would also likely be needed later.

Johnny's thoughts were quickly jerked to the ground when he heard an unmistakable groan.

"I think your friend's wakin' up," Pony needlessly pointed out.

As much as it eased Johnny's mind to know Scott was alive and about to rejoin the waking world, he was also afraid that his brother would attract unwanted interest from Roger Fleming before he was aware enough not to call attention to himself. The redhead had no reason not to still think that Scott was Johnny Madrid.

The dark-haired Lancer lowered his head and called out to his brother. "Scott. Hey, Scott. Don't move."

Unfortunately, either Scott didn't hear him or couldn't as yet process the information, because he not only groaned again even louder but was also starting to raise up.

More desperately, Johnny hissed, "Scott, stay down!"

The words and the urgency of his brother's tone finally penetrated Scott's foggy brain. There wasn't enough room to roll over onto his back, so he had to remain in the same position on his left side, though he made a special point of keeping his head down.

Scott immediately thoguht of his brother. "You okay, Johnny?" he whispered, looking up and trying to see his sibling, who was blocked by the height of the boardwalk.

"Yeah, I'm fine," the all-too-familiar answer floated down to him. "Just you stay where you are. We're in a bit of a pickle right now." He immediately chided himself for that last comment. He didn't want Scott to expose himself by trying to do something to help, especially since he wasn't at his fighting best. "We're okay, though," he added, shaking his head at the lame statement.

Scott did want to help, but right then his head was pounding mercilessly. Had someone entered it while he was unconscious and was now setting up some kind of hammering contest with numerous other participants? He had been knocked out more thabn once, but he'd never cracked his head on a wagon wheel before. He decided he would make a concerted effort not to repeat the painful experience in the future.

As Scott gently began to rub the area behind his left ear where the worst of the torture seemed to be centered, he felt a sizable lump under his exploring fingertips. He winced from the tenderness that was more than a little painful in itself, never mind the hammering contest that was now in full swing inside his skull. Scott was happy to see that his fingers had no blood on them, when he held them up for examination in front of his eyes.

When he raised his right hand to see if it would perchance display bloodstains from an as yet unknown wound, he was a bit surprised to find his pistol tightly clutched in it. He didn't remember drawing the gun and wasn't sure now why it hadn't slipped from his grasp when he had been knocked out.

Scott's eyes widened when a bullet hit the side of the wagon near the bottom, almost directly over his head. Before he could turn over, he heard a gun fire from under the wagon. When he looked, he saw the man Johnny had called Pony Deal. From the man's location, there was no way the shot could have come from him, so the man must be on their side.

It didn't take too long for Scott's foggy mind to sort through the facts, as he knew them, and size up the situation. There was at least one gunman behind the water trough a few yards away and an unexpected gunman helping him and Johnny.

When he looked toward the front of the wagon to see if there were more men aiming guns at them, he saw the body of one of the Fleming brothers, the youngest one, it appeared. He looked dead, but that didn't necessarily mean he was. Scott had learned that hard lesson in the war. Mistaking a live enemy for a dead one had almost cost him his life. Some men it did.

Scott lifted his shoulders, propping himself up on one elbow, and raised his gun, pointing it straight at Danny's inert form.

Finally, Scott decided the man must be beyond causing trouble. He was just about to turn away and devote his attention toward Roger's position, when he saw a slight movement from Danny, who evidently wasn't quite as dead as he appeared.

Not sure if the movement was indicative of something that could lead to danger, or if it was simply the last vestiges of life before death settled in, Scott watched to see what would happen next.

When Danny moved again, the blond wasn't willing to take any chances with his brother's, Pony Deal's or his own life, so he took a deep breath and pulled the trigger.

Danny's body gave a small jerk. Then, there was no further movement.

Scott had only a fleeting pang of regret. He wasn't especially proud that he had shot a man lying on the ground and obviously badly wounded, but he told himself Danny had been trying to kill them and would not have hesitated to try again, if he had had the chance.

Danny Fleming was quickly forgotten.

Johnny had to smile. Good old Boston was watching his back, as usual. He was also taking care to keep himself as safe as circumstances would allow, which was the most important thing to the ex-gunhawk. 'One down and one to go', he thought grimly.

Seemingly in answer to Scott's shot, Roger fired toward the blond, this time hitting the wagon wheel between him and Scott.

The elder Lancer quickly flattened himself on the ground again. An oath escaped his lips, but not even Pony, who heard it and grinned, could quite make it out. He just knew it probably wasn't something the blond's mother would approve of. Then again, if she was anything like Pony's own mother, she might have taught it to him.

No one moved or said a word for long moments, each apparently waiting for someone else to make the next move. Roger's position behind the water trough was particularly quiet.

It occurred to Johnny that Roger might be planning something, though he couldn't figure out what that might be. He didn't believe even someone as dumb as Roger Fleming had proven to be, would try to confront three armed men, especially considering he no longer had his brother to help him.

Suddenly, the loud explosion of gunfire erupted again, shattering the uneasy silence that had descended on the small group of four.

Roger was now looking to take out Johnny, who he considered merely an inconvenience. His next target after that would be the man in black. That would leave him alone with Madrid.

Despite the fiasco that had ensued when he and Danny had drawn down on the three men they had faced, Roger was sure that he would be able to take out Madrid with no interference. Then, he would not only avenge his brother's death but earn himself the reputation he so coveted.

Johnny, having a pretty good idea what the redhead was thinking, wasn't about to let that happen.

Roger crept along the back side of the water trough until he came even with the end nearest the wagon. He stopped then, trying to figure out how he could pick off the two gunmen with Madrid. If he popped up, who would he fire at first? One was up on the boardwalk, while the other one was under the wagon. If he shot at one, the other could get him. Of course, he knew Madrid wasn't going to just sit and do nothing.

"Hey, Fleming," a voice called out. "Give up now, and we won't kill ya."

"Speak for yourself, Johnny," Pony hissed.

Johnny swore. There was no way Roger wouldn't have heard that remark, and now the man knew the words would prove false, and he would likely be shot, if he tried to gave up.

"Liar," Roger yelled.

"Nice goin', Pony," Johnny growled. "Now, he won't dare give up, and one of us might get hurt or killed before this is all over."

"I want that son-of-a-bitch dead," Pony growled back. "Just leave, if you don't wanna continue. I'll take care of him myself."

"You're an idiot," Johnny returned. Now, he remembered why he and Pony had never developed any kind of real friendship. The man wanted what he wanted and wouldn't let a thing like caution get in his way. He was only out for himself, and when he got his blood up, he couldn't see reason when it stared him in the face.

Three against one shouldn't have been that much of a problem. But, that one had a gun, so things weren't quite so simple. Johnny was well familiar with that scenario.

Johnny inched his way a little farther toward the water trough, holding his gun out in front of him, only able to guess at just what it was he was about to encounter.

 

Chapter Seven

Roger had now made his decision on who he would go after first. It had to be the dark-haired man in the green shirt. His confidence level was such that he believed he could pop up and shoot him without exposing himself more than a few seconds to either the black-clad man's or the blond Madrid's positions under the wagon.

Roger shouted out defiantly, "You'll have ta come an' get me, if ya want me."

Then, without giving anyone the chance to think about it, much less actually do anything, the elder Fleming rose half way up from his crouched position and fired toward the man on the boardwalk.

Johnny, not used to being surprised during a gun battle, wasn't expecting the man to be so aggressive, especially not since he had just seen his brother killed and had also seen his plans fall to pieces. Johnny had no way of knowing that Roger's plans were far from destroyed, at least in his own mind.

But Johnny wasn't one to be so surprised he couldn't react. After an instant of shock, when Roger first rose uip, Johnny, fired quickly. He saw his bullet hit the redhead in the left arm, as he rolled over the edge of the walkway.

The shot was just enough to throw Roger's aim off, so that his shot missed Johnny by about three inches.

There wasn't time for Roger to fire again, as Johnny disappeared out of his line of sight.

To the dismay of both Lancers, Johnny landed squarely on top of Scott. Even if he had had the time to plan where he would land, the dark-haired young man had no more space between the boardwalk and the wagon wheels than his brother did. At least, he was able to fall lengthwise, avoiding the kind of blow to the head that Scott had suffered.

The two young men's faces were mere inches apart, as they each stared into the blue eyes of the other.

Scott grinned. "Nice of you to drop in and join me, Johnny."

"Couldn't keep away any longer," Johnny returned with a grin of his own. "I didn't hurt you, did I?" he quickly asked, a slight frown replacing the grin.

"No," Scott returned through clenched teeth, not willing to let his brother know that Johnny's landing had hurt him more than he was willing to reveal. Fortunately, he had been able to use his grin to hide the pain he was feeling primarily in his ribcage. Johnny had had no choice but to drop down in an effort to protect himself. Besides, his brother had enough on his mind without adding more worry for him - or any guilt.

Luckily, the two weren't tangled up, so Johnny pulled himself off of Scott and slithered on his belly under the wagon, coming up next to where Pony was crouching beside the far-side rear wheel.

The man's main concentration was still turned toward Roger, however, he easily noted Johnny's presence to his left.

Scott maneuvered himself around so he cuold crawl on his stomach over next to his brother.

Now, all three were side by side under the rear of the wagon. In a move that wasn't planned but seemed to come to each of them independently, they all aimed toward the water trough and fired simultaneously.

The deafening noise created by the three guns going off under the relatively confined space sent shock waves of agony through Scott's head.

Everything Scott looked at doubled and blurred for a few seconds. He blinked and rubbed his eyes until there were only one of everything, but the blurriness remained. He closed his eyes and lay his head down on his arms, hoping that it would somehow ease the pain. It didn't.

Johnny, lying a foot or so ahead of Scott didn't see his brother's attempt to ease his headache.

Roger yelped at the barrage of bullets that had come his way, but the sturdy wood of the trough had kept him safe.

"There's gotta be a way to get that son-of- a-bitch from behind that shelter," Johnny remarked in frustration. "He's only one man. There's three of us."

"Well, you just go right out there and take him on," Pony commented somewhat sarcastically. "I'll watch."

Johnny gave Pony a scowl and followed that up with his best Madrid stare. "Smart ass," he offered dryly.

Pony snorted but didn't say anything.

"So, you're just gonna sit here and let us do the work?"

"I ain't a coward, if that's what you're inplyin'," Pony snarled back in Johnny's face. "I'm not stupid, neither. I'm not goin' out there, so he can shoot me."

Scott's head had just come up when Johnny turned to look at him. The blond had become very adept at reading his brother's expressions, as well as his body language. He saw clearly that Johnny was about to do something that Scott consiered reckless. He shook his head, then winced, showing that both the movement and the reason for making it were very bad ideas.

"I have to," Johnny answered Scott's visual comment. He had become adept at reading Scott, as well.

"Then, we'll do it together."

"No, Boston, we won't." He could clearly see the way the blond's eyes were slightly unfocused. He didn't want to say it, but if it meant convincing Scott to stay out of it, he would. "You aren't seeing too good, are you?. You might shoot me instead." The attempt at humor fell flat. The message did not.

"Johnny..." Scott was not quite ready to give up.

"No, Scott. You stay right where you are. We'll get Roger Fleming."

He didn't spare Pony a scathing look that clearly said Scott, who was in no shape to help was willing to, while Pony, who was fine, was not. Johnny hoped the look would shame Pony into changing his mind.

Pony hesitated while he mulled over the obvious challenge. He wanted Roger Fleming in the worst way, but was he willing to put his life on the line to do it? Then again, wasn't he after bigger game, which would take even more nerve?

Johnny looked back at Scott. "You keep your gun handy but don't fire it, if you can help it."

As much as it galled the blond not to be included in Johnny's plans, his pride wasn't such that he'd risk shooting his brother by mistake or ruining his plac in some other way. He reluctantly nodded. Another mistake.

Johnny looked at Pony. "You've been watchin' him. Is he still where he was when he shot at me?"

"Yeah. I don't think he's moved. Hunkered down and cowerin' most likely."

Johnny nodded, not so sure about the cowering part. "You go out around the water trough and come at him from behind. I'll draw his attention from this end."

Just before Johnny was able to move closer to the end of the wagon, Scott grabbed his arm. "Be careful, Johnny."

"Don't worry, Boston, I aim to do just that." He gave his brother a big smile and squeezed the hand on his arm.

The entire conversation, from the time Johnny rolled off the boardwalk, had been conducted in hushed tones, so Roger couldn't discern their words.

Roger had the distinct feeling that a plan was being hatched. He didn't like it one bit, but since his last attempt to take charge and kill the man in the green shirt had failed, he didn't know what else he could do but defend himself when they made their move.

Johnny aimed his gun toward the trough and laid down covering fire to keep Roger's head down.

Roger did keep his head down, but he raised his hand up over the top of the trough and fired two answering shots.

While the only remaining Fleming was occupied, Pony slipped out from under the wagon and ran, hunched over, to the far end of the trough.

He snuck around until he was looking straight at Roger Fleming's back. He wanted to just shoot the bastard where he was, but even more, he wanted the man to see it coming. "Fleming!" he yelled.

Roger spun around on the balls of his feet, almost losing his balance and having to grab the top of the wooden structure next to him to keep from falling over. He raised his gun and fired.

Pony's gun was already raised in front of him, so his only response was to pull the trigger.

The one thing that made the difference in who ended up dead was that Pony was turning sideways and moving to his right, as he fired. Roger's bullet passed so close it actually made a rip in the red bandanna Pony wore around his neck.

Roger, on the other hand, was caught full in the chest by Pony's bullet. A look of total disbelief spread across his face, when he looked down at the spreading red stain on his shirt. He looked back up into the cold eyes of Pony Deal, before falling over dead.

That left Pony facing Johnny, who had crawled out from under the wagon when he heard Pony yell Fleming's name.

Johnny lowered his gun and grinned. "Looks like you got him, Pony."

"Yeah. Too bad he never learned the truth about which one of you is really Madrid. At least, the stupid bastard's just joined his brother in Hell."

"I knew when Scott and I first met 'em they were trouble Now, they've met a bad end. And, all for nothing."

"Nothing for them, not nothing for me."

When Johnny looked up from giving Roger a regretful look, he saw Pony aiming his gun straight at him. The confusion on his face was soon replaced with a knowing look. "You, too, Pony?"

"Sure. Why not? It's not why I came here, but when I saw you, I knew I had to give it a try. Your reputation, Johnny, is just too hard to resist.

"Those idiots didn't know the real Madrid. I do."

Johnny glared at Pony, the icy Madrid stare firmly in place. "So, you want to face me for my reputation." The words were softly spoken and all the more menacing because of it. "I'll gladly give it to you, Pony, but I'm not willing to die to make that happen."

"Well, I'm afraid that's the only way it'll happen, Johnny boy. I never thought I could take you before. Now, with you goin' soft ranchin', I'm guessin' I just might be able to."

"Soft? Ranchin'?" Johnny scoffed. "You obviously never rode herd on a bunch of ornery cows or strung fence wire or cleaned out a stream bed. Gunfighting was a whole lot easier than ranchin'." Johnny had suffered through enough sore muscles, some he never knew even existed, to convince him that ranching was about the toughest job there was.

He did understand what Pony was saying. He evidently didn't think Johnny did much practicing, if any, like he had done in the old days, when it came to handling his gun. The younger Lancer was sure that Pony was underestimating him, not that he could have won a confrontation anyway, but it never hurt to have all the advantages you could get.

"We gonna face off like men, or are you plannin' on just shootin' me and claimin' it was a fair fight?"

"There won't be any gunfight."

Both men turned at the sound of Scott's voice. He was walking toward them, or more accurately, he was sluggishly weaving toward them.

Pony had never been a backshooter, so trusting that the man wasn't going to put a bullet in his back and risk hangin' for it, Johnny holstered his gun and rushed over to Scott. He caught his brother just as the blond's legs began to give out, and he started to pitch forward.

 

Chapter Eight

Scott didn't lose consciousness when he fell into Johnny's arms. He had known when he started out that he should probably stay where he was, under the wagon, but he had heard the entire conversation between Johnny and Pony Deal and was determined that this black-clad gunman wasn't going to goad his brother into a shootout.

Johnny wrapped his arms around Scott and half led, half dragged him over to the boardwalk. He eased Scott down until his back was leaning against the walkway support boards.

"Please don't do it, Johnny," Scott said, somewhat breathlessly. "You've fought too hard to put all that behind you."

A sad look crossed Johnny's face. "I know, Scott, but I can't walk away when I've been called out."

"Why not?" the blond asked. "If there's some sort of code of honor involved," he said the words with a hint of contempt, "no one who calls you out will just shoot you down, so you can just refuse to face them. No one would believe that Johnny Madrid is afraid, so you wouldn't lose face."

Scott fought the urge to close his eyes. The bright sunlight made his head hurt even more. However, it didn't seem to be clearing out the fog that his mind was shrouded in. It took hard concentration to keep the thoughts straight and then get them out of his mouth so they made sense.

"A man has to be able to look himself in the mirror and be proud of who looks back at him."

"You'd risk your life for pride?" There was disbelief in Scott's voice, despite the fact he knew what Johnny was talking about. He had felt that way about himself when he had been a soldier. Pride was a powerful thing. So was self-respect.

"You don't understand, Scott. You never will, 'cause you never lived in the world I grew up in."

He wasn't able to equate his experiences as a gunfighter with Scott's experiences as a soldier. But, the two brothers were closer in that regard than they realized.

All the while Johnny was talking, he was looking into his brother's eyes and not liking what he saw there. The normally clear, slate-blue eyes were half closed and far from clear. It was evident that Scott was fast approaching a semi-conscious state, if not a a completely unconscious one. It was only his willpower and concern for his brother that kept him lucid, but even that strength wouldn't last much longer.

Johnny frowned and turned to look back at Pony. "My brother's hurt. He needs help."

"Brother?" Pony said incredulously. "He's your brother ?" The man shook his head. "I knew you had a family, but I never expected a gringo brother."

"Look, Pony. If you want a fight, I'll give you one, face-to-face, man-to-man, but I have to make sure Scott's all right first."

Pony waved his gun back and forth, as he mulled over his options. Did he really trust Madrid to keep his word? Johnny had always been a man you could count on, but now he had a family to back him up. Maybe, after his brother was seen to, he'd just call on the rest of that family to deal with him. Those kind of odds Pony didn't like at all.

The gun Pony held suddenly stopped wavering and was being held rock steady, a sure sign he had come to a decision. Pony's expression was stony. "Sorry, Johnny boy. I don't think I can do that. I got you right where I want you, after all these years, so why should I give that up?"

"I told you I'd face you. That's what you want. Scott isn't part of it. Let me get him help." When Pony's gun didn't move, and the look on his face didn't change, Johnny said, "I've never gone back on my word before. You know that."

"Yeah, but you've never had a family before, either. Fact is, I no longer trust you. You got too much to lose now, starin' with him." At those final words, the gun swung toward Scott and remained still.

"I may never get this chance again." There was no anger in Pony's voice. He was just stating his position.

Johnny stood up and faced Pony, his eyes flashing with an icy intensity. "All right, Pony. Let's do it here and now."

"Not here," the man in black replied. "I want it done in the middle of the main street where everyone can see you die."

Johnny glanced down at Scott, whose head was drooping forward a little more with each passing moment. Without a word, Johnny turned and knelt back down in front of his brother. He knew from having had concussions himself and seeing it in others, as well as what Sam had told him, that someone with a head injury like that needed to stay awake.

Reaching out, Johnny took Scott's head in both hands and lifted it up. "Hey, Boston. You still with me?"

A low moan was his only answer. Scott's eyes were now completely closed.

"Aw, come on, brother, you need to wake up. Sam won't be happy if he sees you like this." 'I'm not happy, either,' he thought with mounting concern.

Holding Scott's head up with one hand, he tapped the blond's cheek several times, a bit harder with each stroke.

The cold voice of Pony Deal broke the silence. "I'm waitin', Johnny."

"I'm not leavin' my brother, Pony, so you can just wait."

He looked around the town. He was sure there were people behind the windows, watching, waiting. He even spotted a few curtains pulled aside to allow some folks a better view of the events unfolding in the middle of their town. The streets, however, were empty. "No audience for your grand gunfight anyway."

The tone of Johnny's voice was pure sarcasm, and he realized that it was aimed at both Pony and the frightened townsfolk that thought more of keeping their own hides safe than helping neighbors in trouble.

Murdoch will not be pleased when he learns that no one helped his sons when they needed it. Johnny almost cringed at the thought of the Old Man bellowing at the mayor and others, who considered themselves important - until trouble came, apparently.

Then, Johnny suddenly remembered the young man who worked in the general store. "Matt!" he yelled out toward the front of the building. "Go get Doc Jenkins!"

Unknown to the men in front of the store, Matt had been near the window, holding a rifle. He was scared, but he would have used the gun, if he felt the need. At least, that was what he had convinced himself was the reason he hadn't done anything before now.

He had seen the man in black holding a gun on Scott and Johnny, but had been hesitant about just shooting him down. He almost felt guilty about that. The young man wasn't a coward, but pulling the trigger on a man wasn't an easy thing to do.

Matt was torn between being there to back Scott and Johnny up, and doing as Johnny asked. He had seen that Scott needed the doc.

When he heard his name called out again, Matt leaned the rifle against the counter. Scott must be hurt bad for Johnny to sound so desperate. "All right, Johnny," he yelled back and headed for the rear of the store.

"No!" Pony shouted. "No one gets the doctor or anyone else. Someone does and Johnny's brother won‘t be needin' a doctor. He'll need an undertaker."

Matt froze. He was pretty sure Johnny was safe, since the man with the gun wanted to face him in a gunfight, but Matt wasn't sure the man wouldn't shoot Scott. "Johnny?" he called out, a clear question as to what he should do.

"Your choice, Madrid," Pony told him coldly.

Johnny knew that Matt could get out the back door of the store unseen, but if Pony called out to the young man, to make sure he was still there, and no answer came back...Johnny shook his head. He wouldn't take that chance with anyone's life but his own, especially not Scott's.

"No, Matt. Stay where you are," was Johnny's dejected answer.

Maybe he couldn't get medical help, but Matt picked up the rifle again, ready to give another kind of help, if the situation allowed it.

When Johnny looked down the street toward the sheriff's office, Pony laughed. "Deputy won't be comin' to help, either. He's all tied up, sitting in one of his own jail cells."

At the puzzled frown the younger Lancer gave him, Pony laughed again. "When I asked about the law in this town, I was tryin' to throw you off. I found him in his office, and so he wouldn't get in the way, I took care of him before I ever came down here to see you. I Knew you'd take care of those idiots out to getcha." He paused. "Never thought they'd be so stupid as to draw on all of us. I already knew the sheriff was out of town, so I just had to make sure the deputy was outta the way, too."

Johnny was somewhat disappointed at that bit of news. He didn't think he had misjudged Ron Billings that much. Besides, knowing Val like he did, Johnny was sure his friend wouldn't have had him as a deputy, if he wasn't up to Val's expectations.

So here they were. No law, no doctor for Scott, no help from the good people of Green River. It looked like he was alone with an injured brother, facing a man determined to kill him and no help coming.

"I'll make you a deal, Deal," he said, too angry even to think about the humor in what he'd said. "You let Matt come out here to stay with Scott, and I'll face you in the middle of the street."

Pony again pondered his options. "Trouble with that is, your brother makes a good hostage, even in his condition. We leave him behind, and you might change your mind."

Johnny, who still held Scott's head upright in one hand, gently let go, easing the blond's head forward. "What do you intend on doin', draggin' him out in the street with us? You gonna point one gun at him and draw another one on me? Is that your great plan?"

The dark-harried Lancer's anger was rising, evidenced by the animosity in his words.

"Well," Pony said, "how about you just dunk him in this trough here and get him on his feet." To re-enforce his idea, Pony pointed his gun directly at Scott's head.

"You shoot him, and you're dead before the smoke clealrs." The unmistakable promise was ground out between Johnny's clenched teeth.

"Yeah, I imagine I will. But, then you'll have to live knowing you were responsible for your brother's death. Can you live with that, Johnny boy?"

Johnny knew he couldn't. Even if he knew he would also die, he didn't want Scott to pay for his choices. And, the thought that Murdoch would lose both of his sons at one time made his blood go cold.

Pony didn't have to ask what Johnny was going to do. He could see it in the younger man's eyes. No way was the

gunhawk-turned-rancher going to risk his brother's life.

Pony laughed. "Gettin' soft, Madrid. You never used to worry about anybody else. That's why I'm gonna to take you today."

"No, you're not."

For the second time in less than five minutes, both men turned toward the sound of Scott's voice. No one had noticed that he had managed to hold on to his gun, even after he fell. It was now pointing straight at Pony Deal's heart.

The shock on the man's face was almost comical. But, Scott didn't let that get in the way of his determination to keep Johnny from risking his life in a gunfight. Scott's eyes were still somewhat cloudy, but the line of his mouth spoke of his intent.

Johnny's voice cut through the silence that had descended on the group of three. "Don't do it, Scott."

In answer, Scott cocked his Colt. The noise was loud in the stillness.

Pony couldn't be sure the blond wouldn't shoot him down, but he was pretty sure about Johnny. He had the feeling that his former riding partner would do whatever he had to do to protect his new-found brother.

There was no question in Johnny's mind that in other circumstances, Scott would be able to handle himself, and he didn't underestimate that fact. However, Scott was suffering from a head injury, and that could mean the difference between success and death.

Pony was looking at the blond's face, so only Johnny saw the slight waver of Scott's gun. His brother's strength was on the verge of giving out, and that could change everything.

 

Chapter Nine

Risking Scott's anger and inwardly wincing at what he was about to say, Johnny spoke softly. "Put the gun down, Boston. This isn't your fight, and you have no business interfering." All the while his eyes stayed on the black-clad Deal.

If he had been thinking clearly, Scott would have known immediately why Johnny was saying what he was. However, in his foggy mind, the words bit deep. He looked up at Johnny and frowned. There was a touch of bitterness in his voice when he said, "I'm not helpless, Johnny, no matter what you may think, and I'm not letting you do this alone."

Johnny closed his eyes. He should have known that Scott was in no fit state to understand what he was trying to do, not to mention being too stubborn to stand aside and let Johnny face a situation and a person that was deadly. Now, he had hurt his brother with his words. He longed to apologize and explain, but there was no sense in doing so now. There was just too much at stake to let hurtful words get in the way, as much as it also hurt Johnny to have said them.

It all made him feel frustrated and trapped in indecision. At the moment, Scott was aiming his gun at Pony's heart, while Pony had his pointed straight at Scott's head. Even as fast as he was, Johnny knew there was no way he could take Pony down before the man could pull the trigger and kill his brother.

Scott attempted to get to his feet. It was a pitiful sight. The normally posture-perfect ex-soldier was almost boneless in his effort to rise. He swayed precariously, but hadn't the strength to complete the maneuver.

Johnny's instinct was to grab for Scott and try to keep him down, but even that he couldn't risk doing. The situation was critical. It could be fatal for either one of them, if he took his eyes and his concentration off of Pony.

"I'll kill you, Deal," Scott said with a menacing tone that gave intensity to his faltering strength.

Pony laughed. "I'll give your brother one thing, Madrid. He has grit. Too bad it won't do him a damn bit of good." As he said the last word, he pulled the trigger.

In the same instant, Scott, his strength spent and falling sideways, fired his own gun.

Johnny, having seen Pony's trigger finger twitch just the tiniest bit, drew and fired his weapon.

Three shots rang out, first one by itself and then the next two sounding almost as one. The smell of cordite was strong, as it hung in the air. Quickly, though, a light breeze lifted the gun smoke away and dispersed it like fading ghosts.

No one moved. No one spoke. No one breathed. Only a profound silence prevailed.

A dark crimson stain began to cover the left side of Pony Deal's shirt. It was soon joined by a similar stain spreading out from the center above his heart. The shiny saturation spoke volumes about what had happened to the shirt's occupant.

Johnny stared as Pony Deal fell over backwards and lay still in the dust beside the water trough, his sightless eyes staring skyward.

When Johnny turned to look at Scott, his brother had a similar red stain on his shirt near the left side of his neck. In the seconds it took him to react, Johnny saw the blood soak down the front of Scott's shirt.

Johnny, who had been the center of this whole situation, had no visible wounds of any kind. He didn't have time to consider the irony of that miscarriage of justice. He holstered his gun, grabbed a handkerchief from his back pocket, as he bent down and pressed it firmly against the wound just above Scott's left collarbone.

Spotting more blood down Scott's back, Johnny bent over his brother's shoulder and saw another hole in the blue shirt. Realizing there was a second wound, he moved his fingers down to cover that one, as well.

"Matt," Johnny yelled out, "get Doc Jenkins!"

"No need," came a familiar voice, as an elderly, gray-haired man rushed up toward them. "I was already on my way here."

Sam Jenkins kneeled down and leaned over the eldest Lancer son. He gently pulled Johnny's hand away, not sure what he would find but hoping it wouldn't be as bad as the amount of blood indicated.

The bullet had been fired at point blank range, so it had gone straight through. That was the good thing. There was no lead to dig out. The bad thing was that it left two wounds instead of one, causing twice as much bleeding.

Sam was pleased to see that there was no spurting blood, which would have shown that the artery in the blond's neck had been greatly compromised. The wounds, however, were still bleeding freely, so the artery could have been nicked.

"We need to get him to my office, Johnny. And quickly."

Johnny's heart seized up at those last words, but he yelled out for Matt, who he saw had come out onto the boardwalk in front of the store.

"Matt, will you help me carry Scott to Sam's office?"

"'Course, Johnny," Matt replied eagerly. He wanted to help Scott, but he was also happy he hadn't ended up having to shoot anyone.

With Sam's hand holding the handkerchief against Scott's wounds, Johnny leaned down to pick his brother up by the shoulders.

"I can walk," the elder Lancer said, somewhat groggily but no less determined.

"Maybe, you can, for about two feet, but you're not going to," Sam admonished sternly. "Stubborn Lancers," he muttered under his breath.

Matt secured a hold of Scott's lower legs ad the two young men lifted the blond up and began the trek toward Sam's office, which was in the front of his house not too far from the general store.

In order for Sam to keep a good amount of pressure on his patient's bullet wounds, the procession had to move slower than he wanted. The elderly doctor had spent so many years in situations like this that he was able to keep his emotions in check. An over-anxious doctor could not do his job properly, and Sam had never been accused of that.

Johnny, on the other hand, was a bundle of nerves. He also had a lot of experience with gunshot wounds and other serious injuries and could handle himself well in any crisis he had ever faced. However, this was his brother, and that intensified his feelings tenfold.

Matt was just plain nervous, because he didn't want to do the wrong thing. He kept telling himself not to drop Scott's legs. The horror of him possibly doing that almost made him sick to his stomach.

It wasn't long before Sam's house came into view around a corner and moments later, they were laying Scott on his examination table.

"Sam, do you need Matt any more?" Johnny asked.

"No. You can help with what needs doing." A nervous, but experienced, brother was better than he was sure a nervous, inexperienced Matt would be.

"Good." Johnny turned to the young store helper. "Matt, go down and make sure that Deputy Billings is let out of the jail. He'll need to take care of the bodies by our wagon."

"I'll do that for you, Johnny."

"Thanks, Matt. Tell Ron I'll be here whenever he needs to talk to me about the fight."

Matt nodded and rushed out the door, eager to do as he had been asked.

"Don't you want someone to ride out to Lancer?" Sam asked. "Murdoch needs to know about Scott."

"Not until I know what to tell him. He'll be upset enough without the added fear from not knowing. So, how bad is it?"

Sam almost chuckled. "Give me a minute, Johnny. Even as good as I am, I need a little time to check it out."

Despite all the pressure that first Johnny and then Sam himself had placed on the wounds, the doctor could easily see how much blood the oldest Lancer son had lost. Blood loss killed, so even if internal organs weren't damaged, the patient could still be in danger.

Johnny stared at he blood - his brother's blood - that now covered Sam's hands. "Too much blood," he mumbled.

He hadn't realized he'd spoken out loud until he heard Sam say, "Yes, it is. We've got to work fast."

"Just tell me what to do," the dark-haired young man said in a tone that held a note of fear, despite the determination it also held to do whatever was necessary, however unpleasant.

Sam started to tell Johnny all the things that he would need, but decided that it would be faster for him to get them himself, since he knew right where to look. Instead, he said, "Here, Johnny, I need you to keep the pressure on the wound, front and back, the same way you did before. Firm but don't press too hard." Squeezing off blood vessels for too long was not a good thing, either.

Scott groaned when the pressure was re-applied. His eyes were now only slits. He was making an unsuccessful attempt to keep them open.

"Don't worry, Boston," Johnny reassured, "Sam will have you fixed up in no time."

"No fears, brother," Scott said, as he gave his own reassurance.

Sam was soon back with both arms loaded. On the table near one side of where Scott lay, he set down two metal bowls, a small cloth, a bottle of liquid labeled Chloroform, two large towels and a metal box, whose lid was soon opened to reveal needles, threads, scalpels and other items used in surgeries.

Johnny had seen this array of supplies before, often in regard to wounds of is own, but, seeing them laid out, knowing they were meant for his brother made him shiver. He knew they were lucky they had been in town and not out on the range, but somehow that made his heart feel only marginally easier. The bottom line was that seeing surgery of any kind, anywhere was hard when it was about to be performed on someone you loved.

When Sam had finished laying out everything he needed, he looked at Johnny, who was staring at Scott's pale face. He placed his hand on the young man's shoulder and gave a reassuring squeeze. "Ready?"

When, Johnny nodded, Sam handed him the small cloth that he had just finished dampening with the Chloroform. "Place this over Scott's nose and mouth. It has enough Chloroform in it to put him to sleep. Hold it down for a few minutes. I'll give you instructions on how to add more when we need to."

Johnny's eyes widened, when he smelled the sweet odor of the Chloroform. "Oh shit, Sam, I forgot to tell you."

"Tell me what, Johnny?" The doctor had a nagging feeling he wasn't going to like the answer.

"When the gunfight started, I pushed Scott out of the way, trying to keep him from gettin' shot." The irony of that statement, considering the present circumstances, wasn't lost on the youngest Lancer. "He fell between the wagon and the boardwalk." Johnny paused before continuing. "He hit his head pretty hard on one of the wheels. It knocked him out a while."

"How long a while?"

"Not too long, I guess. A good five or six minutes maybe. He was pretty groggy and unsteady on his feet after he woke up."

Sam sighed deeply and held his chin in his left hand. This was not good. It sounded like Scott had probably suffered a concussion, and giving him Chloroform this soon could have adverse effects, even disregarding the other possible undesirable consequences Chloroform was believed to cause.

"This means you can't give him that Chloroform stuff right now, doesn't it?" Johnny sounded as worried as Sam was.

"It could cause some problems, Johnny, I won't lie to you. But, I can't put the surgery off. Pressure alone isn't going to do the job. If we wait, Scott could bleed to death."

Johnny stared at the doctor. "Then what do we do, Sam?"

 

Chapter Ten

"Go ahead, Sam," Scott, who was still more conscious than not, told the doctor. "Do what...ever you have to...with...out the Chlor...oform."

Foggy his mind may be, but Scott remembered soldiers during the war, who had suffered mental problems after being given the anesthetic following a head wound. A few even died. "I'd rather en...dure the...pain."

Sam understood, but felt compelled to tell the young man the extent of what he was about to go through.

"The pain will be intense, Scott. Worse than you might imagine."

"Just...do it, Sam," Scott insisted. "Been through...it...before, during...the war." His words were starting to get slower and more halting.

Sam knew time was running out. He had to start now or whether or not he used an anesthetic might turn out to be a moot point.

The elderly doctor sighed again. No matter what he thought, he knew that Scott was aware enough to make his own decision, a decision that Sam couldn't really argue against. He also knew that as bad as the pain would be, it was far better than what the concussion/Chloroform combination could do to the young blond. And, there was no guarantee that any possible adverse effects wouldn't be permanent.

Sam was trying to figure out exactly how Johnny was going to hold Scott down. The best way was to get a good grip on both of his shoulders, but that wouldn't let Sam have the free access to the wounds that was essential. It was going to be an awkward task for the youngest Lancer, considering how essential it was that Scott remain very still. An unexpected movement that caused a slip could result in more damage, especially if his worst fears were realized, and he ended up having to work on the artery.

Then, there was another problem that presented itself. "We'll have to tie his legs to the table."

Johnny didn't like the idea of tying Scott up, even if it was for his own good. He, himself, had been bound more times than he could possibly remember, and it was always an unpleasant experience, rendering him helpless, not only physically but mentally, as well. He knew Scott had been tied up before, too, often bringing back memories of the wartime prison he had spent a year in and seven years trying to forget. At the moment, though, there was no other choice.

Johnny was now wishing that he hadn't sent Matt away.

Sam quickly retrieved a rope from a nearby cabinet, and he and Johnny made quick work of securing Scott's legs.

Johnny leaned over and lifted Scott into his arms, wrapping one arm around his brother's slim waist and the other holding his head with his good shoulder securely against his chest.

"We have no more time to waste," Sam advised, as he picked up his scalpel.

Johnny bent his head down toward Scott's left ear. "Don't worry, Boston. I got ya, and I won't let go." He smiled when he felt Scott's head nod slightly. He knew his brother had placed his faith in his words of reassurance.

Sam spent as little time as possible cleaning out the front wound. It was hard to see through all the blood. As soon as he mopped it up with a clean cloth, more rapidly took its place. The doctor knew then that the artery in Scott's neck had indeed been compromised.

"I'm going to have to cut down between the two wounds and then cauterize this. Sewing it up won't do the job."

Johnny stared at Sam. He had once had a wound of his own catheterized, and he couldn't remember any pain he had ever suffered in his life to be more agonizing than that particular burn.

He looked down to get Scott's reaction to Sam's words. The only thing he saw that told him his brother had heard was that now Scott's eyes were squeezed more tightly shut.

The blond had sustained burns in his life, too, but he had never had one done surgically. He knew he shouldn't pass out, but he couldn't help hoping that he would and that it would happen before the pain got too bad.

Scott's attention was drawn to what Sam was now saying. "I feared that might be the case, so I put a special knife in the fire when I rounded up my supplies. It should be hot enough by now."

Sam made sure Johnny once again had pressure on the wounds and then left the room to retrieve the instrument of the pain he was about to unavoidably inflict.

"Sorry, brother," Johnny said to Scott.

"Better me...suffer a little...pain than you...getting your...self killed, Johnny."

Johnny snorted at the reference to 'a little pain'. They both knew the lie of that statement.

Johnny believed that he wouldn't have ended up dead, but now was not the time to argue with an overprotective big brother. He had been trying to do the same thing with Scott, only he had failed in his attempt to keep his brother safe.

Reading the guilt on Johnny's face, Scott made the effort to lift his left arm up to rest his palm against Johnny's shoulder. "Not...your...fault," he breathed out. It was clear by the continued faltering of his normally crisp speech that his strength was just about used up.

'Then whose?' Johnny thought to himself angrily.

Just then Sam returned. In one hand he held a bottle of whiskey and a heavy leather strap. In the other was the knife with its glowing blade.

He handed Johnny the bottle. "Get as much down him as you can."

Johnny did as he was told, lifting his brother's head up, but Scott wasn't able to take in much of the fiery, amber liquid before he began coughing.

Once the coughs subsided, a disappointed Sam placed the leather strap in Scott's mouth. He gave the elder Lancer son a sympathetic look. After getting a nod from Johnny to his silent question of whether he was ready, Sam began the worst part of the surgery.

Scott had suffered through the deep incision with no more than a stiffened body and clenched teeth, but he bucked as much as Johnny's strong hold and the ropes around his legs would allow when the cauterization began. The screams that formed in his throat were thwarted by the strap in his mouth but still managed to come out as muffled but intense groans.

When the heated knife had touched Scott's skin, Johnny had been forced to close his eyes and turn his head to the side. He didn't want to look at the searing of the soft tissue of his brother's neck. However, he couldn't avoid the sound or smell of burning flesh and blood.

Just as Sam took the knife away, Scott's whole body shuddered and went limp.

Johnny let out a sigh of relief. The suffering, for the moment, was over. He was only sorry it hadn't happened sooner.

Sam both felt and saw Scott give in to the agony and let out a sigh of his own. He glanced up quickly at Johnny, but the young man's attention was focused solely on his brother.

Sam then picked up the threaded needle and began to sew the outer edges of the wounds closed. He was careful to avoid the burned areas, since they would not have held any stitches for very long and would only have caused the drying fluids to fuse to the thread, making removal later difficult and painful.

When he was finished, Sam used an ointment from a jar in the little metal box he had brought in earlier and slathered it generously over the wounds, so the bandage he secured in place also wouldn't adhere quite so much.

"Johnny, you can lay him back down," Sam said, as he cleaned his bloody hands in a bowl of water and then wiped them on a clean towel.

When there was no reaction to his instruction, Sam placed a hand on Johnny's shoulder and shook it gently. When deep blue eyes looked his way, he repeated, "Johnny, you can lay him down now."

The dark-haired young man released his hold and lay his brother down as carefully as he could. "What now?" he asked.

"We watch, and we wait." The frown he received prompted him to add, "It's all we can do," Sam started to explain, as he untied the ropes around Scott's legs. "After the shock of what was done to it wears off, Scott's body will have to begin the healing process."

Sam didn't mention that he was going to have to keep a close eye on Scott to see if there would be any adverse reactions to the surgery and the loss of blood before moving him to a regular bed in a back room of the office.

The elderly doctor didn't believe in hiding the truth from patients or their families, but he saw no need to bring up details to someone not ready to hear them. He couldn't remember ever seeing Johnny in such an anxious state. It was plain how much Johnny loved his brother, and he was worried enough without knowing, or at least acknowledging to himself, that Scott was far from being all right.

Suddenly, Johnny stood up rigidly and looked at Sam. "Do you think he'll make it?" The look in his eyes clearly said, "I want the truth."

Sam saw that the youngest Lancer was determined to hear the truth about his brother no matter what it was. He should have known that this young man would accept nothing less. "I don't know, Johnny," Sam replied honestly. "Scott is in a very bad way, and I just don't know if he'll live through this or not. It's up to God and Scott right now."

Johnny's knees felt like they would give way, but he locked them in place at the knees, so he wouldn't sink to the floor. He knew that all the wounds were serious and had seen how much blood Scott had lost, but he had talked himself into believing that once Sam got involved, all would be well. It was like a physical blow to hear that his brother could actually die. It wasn't a feeling of having misplaced his faith in Sam Jenkins. It was just a matter of accepting the truth of the situation. And it hurt.

"Why couldn't it have been me?" the young man mumbled.

As quiet as the words were, Sam heard them. "You know Scott would never want that."

"Yeah, I do. That's why he's lyin' there instead of me," came the bitter reply. "It's not fair, Sam."

"Life often isn't," was the doctor's sage, though less than helpful, reply.

Johnny started pacing, his spurs jingling on the wooden floor of Sam's surgical room.

"I have to send someone to tell Murdoch." The tone clearly said he wanted to do anything but that. "I was hoping to be able to tell him no need to worry. Scott would be all right. But, now..."

"I know it won't be easy news for Murdoch to hear. And coming all the way here, worrying every minute of those miles, will be hard. But, he can handle it, Johnny. He's handled worse news."

Sam quickly thought back to all the losses that Murdoch Lancer had suffered in his life, though he knew that losing this son again, forever this time, would be among the worst. At least, Scott was alive. "He needs to know as soon as possible."

"I know," Johnny said sadly. "These past two years I've tried so hard to put my past behind me, Sam. Me and him have gotten to a good place, after buttin' heads for so long. Now, my past may cost my brother, and Murdoch's firstborn son, his life. Dios, Sam. Why do things like this have to keep happenin'? Will I never escape Johnny Madrid?"

The only response that Sam could give the distraught young man was to say, "You've done all you can do, Johnny. You just have to keep going the way you have been and hope that one day people will forget Johnny Madrid ever existed. Time and distance." The words sounded lame, but they were heartfelt nonetheless, and he believed them. "Just don't give up trying."

Sam shook his head and squeezed the young man's shoulder. He could only imagine the crushing grief and guilt that Johnny would feel if Scott didn't survive.

 

Chapter Eleven

Sam heard his name being called from the front room. When he walked out, he was met by Sheriff Val Crawford, battered and dusty hat in hand.

"Val," Sam greeted with surprise. "I thought you were out of town until tomorrow."

"That was the plan, but I came back early. The whole trip was a dang waste of time."

Hesitating only slightly, Val switched subjects, his expression changing from frustration over his apparently failed trip to sadness at what he had returned to find. "Ron told me there was a shootout in town, and the Lancers were involved. He also said Scott was injured. How is he?"

"Not good, Val. Not good at all," the doctor replied quietly, glancing over his shoulder.

Val nodded, understanding the reason for Sam's softer voice. "Sorry to hear that. Johnny in there with 'im?" He already knew the answer to that question before he asked it, even if he hadn't heard the sound of his friend's spurs moving up and down the room. Johnny wouldn't be anywhere else.

"Yes. He's pacing around the room like a caged animal."

"I hate to bother 'im at a time like this, but I got three dead bodies at Mosley's, and I need answers before I can put things in order," Val declared to a sad-faced Sam Jenkins.

"I'll send him out, though I'm not sure he'll leave Scott. You may have to go in there, if you expect to question him," Sam advised the sheriff. "Not that he'll be in the mood to do much talking."

Val hoped that Johnny would agree to come out and talk to him here. He didn't want to question his young friend while staring at Scott, who he inferred from Sam could possibly be dying. Val closed his eyes. God, he hoped that didn't happen. Scott was a good man, a good friend, and his death would devastate Johnny, who had finally found the brother he had once told Val he had longed for since he was a little kid.

Sam disappeared inside, leaving the sheriff to do some pacing of his own in the waiting room.

"Johnny, Val's here to talk to you about the gunfight."

"I heard him. Tell him I'll be out in a minute."

When Sam left to deliver the message, Johnny placed his hand on Scott's good shoulder. "I'll be back as soon as I can, Scott." With a steely-eye glare, he said, "Don't you dare leave me while I'm gone." With that heartfelt command, he slowly walked out of the room.

When Val heard Johnny approach, he turned to face the young ex-gunfighter. "Sorry 'bout Scott," he stated sympathetically.

"Thanks, Val," Johnny replied. His eyes strayed toward the room where his brother lay fighting for his life.

"Not a good time, I know," Val declared before plunging on, "but I need to know what happened out there. Been talk all over town, different versions of events, as you might expect. For some strange reason, folks don't ever agree on what they see, even when they're lookin' at the same thing. I need ta hear the story straight, and I know you'll give it that way."

Johnny wasn't in the mood to retell the events that ended with his brother in such a dire condition, but he knew Val had to do his job. Like ranching, you couldn't put things off just because they were inconvenient.

He sat down on the edge of one of the cushioned chairs Sam had in the room for people waiting to hear about their friends or loved ones, who were being treated. However, Johnny couldn't stay still long enough to even begin the story. He stood up and paced to the end of the room, turned and came back again, stopping in front of the Green River sheriff.

Ten minutes later, the youngest Lancer had finished the detailed story from the time when the Flemings first approached him and Scott at their wagon to the point where they had brought Scott here. Johnny couldn't bring himself to talk about the surgery, not that it really had anything to do with what Val required, but his emotions on that subject were just too raw.

Val listened without saying a word. He would let his distraught young friend get through the narration and then ask whatever questions still needed answering.

When it became clear that Johnny had finished his story, Val said, "I know you knew Pony Deal. I did, too, if you recall. Sneaky son-of-a-bitch, as I remember. But, those brothers, the Flemings. Neither you nor Scott knew either of 'em, right?" Johnny had said as much, but, knowing Johnny's past, Val wanted to be sure he got that part right.

Johnny nodded. "Never saw them before they came up to us while we were loadin' the wagon."

He looked at Val forlornly. "They wanted to be known as the men who killed Johnny Madrid. Then, once they were dead, Pony decided now was the time to get it for himself. He's dead, too, Scott's hurt bad and me? Well, I'm just fine."

There was so much bitterness in Johnny's voice, that Val decided not to even try to give the not-your-fault lecture he had given on more than one occasion, when Johnny had been called out. Later maybe he'd talk to him like a Dutch Uncle. Still, considering the way Johnny was talking, he couldn't just not say anything. His friend was miserable. "So you think all this is your fault."

"Well hell, Val, wouldn't you, in my place?"

"You told Scott to stay out of it." Val knew he was taking a chance saying those words, because it sounded like he was blaming Scott for getting hurt.

When Johnny rounded on him, mouth open to protest just that, Val held both hands up in surrender. "I meant no offense, John. I'm not saying Scott is at fault, either, only that he made his choice to help you."

"Sam said the same thing," Johnny muttered.

"Then best you listen to your elders. Me 'n' Sam both understand that Scott wanted to protect you, even though you never want that. It's part of havin'

a big brother that loves you. Best you understand that, 'cause he ain't gonna be changin' in that regard."

"You know, Val, I'll take all the protectin' he wants to give me. I wouldn't say a word, if he just lives, so he can keep on doin' it."

By now, Johnny was staring down, studying his dusty, bloodstained boots. Seeing his brother's blood on them, as well as his clothes, made him groan.

Val stepped forward and placed a hand on his friend's shoulder and gave it a little shake. "He'll be all right, Johnny. Sam'll see to that."

"Sam don't know what's gonna happen. He said so, Val. He just don't know if Scott will make it through this."

Val couldn't argue that point, so he just kept quiet, feeling somewhat helpless. It wasn't a feeling he liked having, no matter the reason for it.

After a few minutes of silence, Val finally said, "I guess I got enough information to get started on the paperwork. I'll talk to you again, if I need more. And, I'll sure check on Scott." Seeing the solemn look on Johnny's face get even more morose, he asked, "Can I do anything for ya?"

Johnny started to shake his head and then remembered. "Yeah, Val. Can you send someone to Lancer and tell Murdoch about Scott? I'll face him myself with whose fault it was when the time comes. No need to let someone else get the full force of the old man's fury at me."

Val shook his head at Johnny's continued determination to take the blame. Nothing to be done about that now. "Sure, Johnny. I'll send Matt."

Johnny looked up. "No. Not Matt. He saw the whole thing, and there's no way he can withstand Murdoch when he's bound and determined to to know somethin'. Send someone who didn't actually see what happened. You'll know what to tell them to say."

"All right, Johnny. I'll do it your way. I don't envy Murdoch the trip into town he'll be makin', no matter how little he'll be told."

"Yeah," Johnny agreed. "I wish I could take that away from him. He's gonna be miserable, worryin' about Scott. Gettin' here and findin' out the truth of what happened. And, Scott's condition ain't gonna make it any easier, either."

Vall turned and left Sam's office. He knew dark times were ahead for the Lancers, and there was nothing he could do about it. Seeking justice from the law was not possible. Planting the culprits on Boot Hill might give them a measure of satisfaction but only if Scott survived. If he didn't, there was no one for Johnny to take his grief and rage out on but himself.

As Val left, Johnny turned and went back into the room where Scott lay. Sam had cleaned up the blood and taken Scott's bloody clothes off of him. Johnny shivered at the pale skin of his brother. It had barely more color in it than the clean sheet he was lying on. A small pillow rested under Scott's head.

The dark-haired young man pulled up the only chair in the room and sat down. His face was devoid of emotion, but inside his stomach was churning, and his heart was twisting. He leaned back, his eyes glued on his brother. His only consolation was that Scott's face showed no signs of pain. However, it also showed no signs of life.

  ~*~*~

Murdoch Lancer sat at his huge desk. He had been working on the ledgers ever since his sons had left for Green River with the supply wagon that morning.

Now, he sat back and pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He knew better than to keep going once the numbers began to blur enough to run together. Pushing through only meant mistakes would be made, and he would have to go back and make corrections, a frustrating task at the best of times, an anger-inducing one at the worst.

A ranch this size depended on accurate and meticulous bookkeeping. He was very conscientious about it. So was Scott. His oldest son's ability with the books had made itself clear the first time he had put his hand to it. Murdoch knew that as Harlan Garrett's grandson, Scott would have learned the accounting business. Still, that hadn't guaranteed he would be good at it.

It had been a pleasant surprise to learn that Scott was not only good with numbers but excelled at managing every aspect of the ranch's records. He had even come up with some time-saving, not to mention hair- saving, ways of doing the more tedious parts of keeping records.

Murdoch smiled. His firstborn had turned out to be a surprise in other ways, as well. He may have inherited Harlan's business sense and work ethic, but thank God, not his ruthless, win-at-all-costs attitude. Catherine may not have been able to give their son the hands-on love of a mother, but she still had given Scott a thoughtful nature and a generous heart, not to mention intelligence, stubbornness and strength of character. Murdoch wasn't sure how much of any of those things Scott had inherited from him.

Murdoch took a long breath and let it out slowly. Despite the heartache of years of separation, Murdoch loved thinking about his sons. He had now had them home for two years, almost to the day. He was still learning to be a father, and he guessed he would be doing so until the day he died.

Suddenly, he became aware of a strange feeling, as it began to creep over him. It was almost as if a cold hand had placed itself over his heart. He shook himself at the chill it gave him. He wasn't one to have visions or dreams that predicted events about to occur. He didn't believe in such things. Well, there was the eerily accurate things that the Widow Blanchard sometimes offered up, but there had to be some logical explanation for that, though he couldn't for the life of him think of what that could possibly be.

Murdoch got up and went over to the sideboard and poured himself a shot of whiskey. Maybe the bracing liquor would banish these crazy thoughts. Why had a sudden feeling of doom come over him? It was ridiculous. He must have been listening too much to Jelly and his talk of aching elbows or something. But, even Jelly's elbows were often more right than not.

The Lancer patriarch shook his head. Well, neither Jelly nor the Widow Blanchard had made any gloomy predictions for the near future that he knew of. He must be getting daft in his old age. Yet, the feeling of impending disaster continued to trouble him. He needed to get his mind back on the more mundane task of balancing the books. That usually sorted him out in short order.

Murdoch downed his whiskey in one gulp and went back to his desk. He picked up his pen, dipped it in the ink well and had it poised over the page he had been working on.

That's when he heard the urgent knocking at the door.

 

Chapter Twelve

"I'm coming!" Murdoch yelled out to whomever it was that was pounding on his front door. The knocking continued, and it took a strong sense of decorum from the Lancer patriarch to keep from becoming irritated at the incessant noise.

He jerked open the door and was almost hit in the chin by the raised fist that was about to connect once more with the wooden door.

"Thomas," Murdoch exclaimed to the young man standing before him. After a brief hesitation, he asked, "Do you have a message for me?" It was the only logical reason why the telegraph operator's young apprentice would be at his door in the middle of the afternoon.

Thinking Mr. Lancer was asking about a telegram, Thomas replied, "No, sir." Then corrected himself. After all, he was bringing a message, just not a written one. "I mean yes, sir."

"Which is it?" Murdoch asked with a touch of impatience.

"A message, Mr. Lancer, sir."

When Murdoch held out his hand for the telegram he was expecting to be handed to him, Thomas shook his head. "Not a telegram, sir. Just a message."

Realizing that he was making Thomas nervous, Murdoch stepped aside. "Come in, Thomas," he said, in a slightly softer voice.

Once they were inside and the door was closed, Murdoch turned to the young man with a milder look of expectation. "What is the message?"

Thomas swallowed hard. "Well, sir, Sheriff Crawford asked me to come..."

"I thought Sheriff Crawford was out of town."

"Yes, sir. I mean, no sir. I mean, he was, but he's back now."

After a moment of silence to give the young man time to gather his thoughts, Murdoch urged Thomas to continue. "And what was it Sheriff Crawford wanted you to tell me?"

"Well, Mr. Lancer, there was some trouble in town, and Sheriff Crawford wants you to come as soon as you can." Thomas said the last words in a rush, as if wanting to get the message delivered, so he could leave. The sheer size of Murdoch Lancer was intimidating in itself, but when he was impatient, which he obviously was now, it was much worse.

"Oh, no," Murdoch breathed out, his first thought being that his sons had gotten into some kind of altercation and that Val had been required to throw them in jail. Now, he was sure he was about to be asked to go to Green River and bail them out. He refrained from expressing his disappointment and anger that his two grown sons couldn't stay out of trouble long enough to get supplies and then get back home.

It never occurred to him that only one son might be in trouble. If they were together, they were both involved. He knew that much about his boys. One would back the other, no matter what.

He felt slightly guilty that he thought it was Johnny in hot water and Scott backing him up. It was the kind of thought that he had hoped to be able to disregard but never seemed able to. Scott had his share of trouble, but it was his younger son that often tried his patience. Two years with them both had softened his rush to judgment where Johnny was concerned, but it had never truly been put to rest. 'Would it ever?' he wondered.

With a heavy sigh, Murdoch asked, "Do you know what happened?" He was expecting to hear that punches had been thrown and chairs sent flying, possibly a window or two broken. Add that all to the fine Val would charge, he mused unkindly.

Thomas hung his head before shaking it. "I didn't see it, sir. I only heard..." The young man quickly shut his mouth. Sheriff Crawford had told him pointedly not to say anything about the gunfire. Only that he hadn't seen what took place, which was true enough.

"Gunfire?" Murdoch asked with a sudden feeling of the dread he had felt earlier.

Thomas realized he had said way too much in just mentioning the shooting. He stood frozen in place, afraid to say more. He didn't know who to be more afraid of, Sheriff Crawford or Murdoch Lancer.

"Gunfire, Thomas?" Murdoch asked again, this time louder and more insistent.

"I..I didn't see anything. Really I didn't. I was in the Telegraph Office, and the sheriff came and told me to come get you. That's all I know."

"But, you just said there was gunfire."

"Yes, sir, but...but I didn't see any of it, and Sheriff Crawford didn't explain. Just said to come get you." By now, his head was hanging down, unable to look the large rancher in the eye.

Murdoch was ready to grab Thomas by the shoulders and shake the truth out of him, but realized that even if he did know, he wasn't going to say any more. Val had seen to that. Probably threatened the boy with jail.

Actually, Murdoch did believe Thomas.

A brief flash of anger raced through Murdoch at the idea that Val was keeping vital information from him. Information that the sheriff knew would upset him more than not knowing would. Dear God, how bad could it be? He didn't want to answer that question. The possibilities were too frightening.

The dread in Murdoch's heart was quickly turning into all-out fear. There was only one reason Val would have sent someone to get him after there had been gunfire involving his sons; One or both of them were hurt, or worse.

Controlling his voice, he said, "Go in the kitchen and tell Maria I said to give you a piece of cherry pie and a glass of milk. Stay here until your horse is rested."

Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out a couple of coins and handed them to Thomas.

Without another word, Murdoch Lancer opened the door and virtually sprinted to the barn.

Just before reaching the big barn doors, he encountered Walt just riding in. "Walt, I'm going into Green River. I'm not sure when I'll be back. If you have any problems, Cirpriano is in the north pasture, working on that new fence line."

Walt was a valued and experienced Lancer ranch hand, and Murdoch knew that what he had just said was all the explanation the man would need to carry out what was expected of him.

"Yes, Mr. Lancer. Do you want me to saddle your horse for you?"

"No, Walt. I'll do it." At least, it would keep his hands and, hopefully, his mind busy for a short while.

Five minutes later, Murdoch Lancer was riding toward the Lancer arch on his way to Green River.

The eldest Lancer's mind was in turmoil, as he rode toward the town. It would take a while to get there, and with each mile he traveled, his thoughts and his mood became darker, in sharp contrast to the brilliance of the sunny California day.

What if one of his sons had been badly injured in some kind of fight? Thomas had mentioned gunfire, though any details had not been forthcoming. What if his other son had been similarly hurt backing his brother up? What if both were dead? He audibly groaned at that thought, but he knew that it was a possibility that couldn't be dismissed, painful though the very idea was.

Again, Murdoch's thoughts took him back to the possibility that whatever had happened had been Johnny's fault. Well, he conceded, maybe not his fault but still because of him. No matter how hard he tried, Murdoch could never seem to get past Madrid. That name haunted him still, haunted all of them.

There was the chance that it was Scott's past that had reared its ugly head this time. After that whole affair with Dan Cassidy, it was a distinct possibility.

Another thought struck Murdoch, as his horse ate up more of the miles separating him from his boys. This new trouble may have been something completely new. Maybe, someone else in town had gotten into trouble, and Scott and Johnny had tired to help. Maybe, it was as he had first thought. Maybe, they had just gotten into an altercation after having a few beers at the saloon. He knew they wouldn't leave town after loading the supplies without cooling themselves off. That had to be it. If it was something worse, surely Val would have come himself and broken the news.

So much speculation swirling around in Murdoch's head was making it ache. His heart was ahead on that one.

"Please, God," he prayed aloud. "Don't let either or both of my boys be hurt. Let me pay a fine to get them out of trouble and get them home in time for dinner." It was a simple prayer, but Murdoch Lancer had no idea that that last request would be a long time in coming.

~*~*~

While the Lancer patriarch was making his troubled way to town, Johnny was sitting in Sam Jenkin's surgical room, in the same chair he had been in for over two hours. It was unusual for him to be so still. The pacing he had done earlier, combined with the emotional turmoil he was in, had worn even the normally energic young man out.

He continued to stare at Scott, willing his brother to move, to twitch a finger, even to groan, as long as it gave him the appearance of life. Even the blond's chest barely moved under the blanket that covered him to his shoulders.

Sam Jenkins walked into the room for the tenth time during Johnny's vigil. He had quit asking if there was any change, usually a question he received, not asked.

"Johnny, you need to get some rest."

"I am restin'. Haven't moved in hours," he replied sullenly.

"You're staring too hard at Scott, which means your mind is working too hard." Sam knew the futility of asking the dark-haired young Lancer to go lie down and relax.

Johnny knew what was in Sam's mind just the same. "Not leavin' him."

"Murdoch should be here in an hour or so. You'll need to support each other, and you won't be much help if you're ready to fall flat on your face."

Johnny now looked up at the elderly doctor. "Can't do it, Sam. Not 'til I know Scott's gonna be all right. Can you tell me that?"

With a deep sigh, Sam said, "No, Johnny, you know I can't. Not at this time."

"Then don't ask me to go anywhere." Johnny's expression softened. "I'm sorry, Sam, I know you mean well, but Scott never left me when I broke my leg, and you had to do surgery on it. Remember?"

"Of course, I do. And, I told Scott the same thing then that I'm telling you now."

"He didn't listen, did he?"

"No, he didn't. I guess the Lancer stubbornness is too strong in both of you." That was a fact he knew well. If Scott made it, it was that stubbornness, as well as his family's support and a helping hand from God, that were going to get Scott through this.

"Will you eat something?"

"Not hungry," Johnny replied, as his eyes went back to stare at his brother's still profile.

"Then, let me get you some coffee, at least."

When Johnny didn't reply to that, Sam took his silence as acceptance and left to bring the youngest Lancer a cup of the very strong brew. He was tempted to put something in it so Johnny could get the sleep he so desperately needed but decided he wasn't going to deceive his young friend that way. He would only ever do that if it was Johnny who was hurt and refusing to get the rest he needed to get well.

~*~*~

Val Crawford was seated at his desk. He had talked to Simon Mosley, the undertaker, about the burial of Pony Deal and the Fleming brothers in the Green River version of Boot Hill, the town cemetery devoted mostly to nameless itinerants and those who had no family and no money to buy a plot in the better kept private cemetery.

No one knew where the Flemings were from, so there was no one to contact about their deaths. Pony Deal was hardly an unknown, but all Val knew was that the man was from New Mexico. He had sent out a few telegrams to other lawmen in the larger towns of that territory, who might have wanted posters on him in their area. Other than that, there was nothing he could do but see that they received a proper burial, courtesy of Green River.

When his door was suddenly flung open, he looked up to see Murdoch Lancer standing in, and taking up most of, the doorway.

"Where are my boys!?" he asked forcefully without even a greeting.

Val took a deep breath. This wasn't going ot be easy, so there was no reason to beat around the bush. "Sam's," was all he said. He figured that was all he needed to say.

Hearing Val's one simple word, Murdoch's heart dropped to the floor, as all his fears came crashing down on him.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Val sat still, waiting for the next question, 'Which one?'. It didn't come. Then he realized that it wouldn't matter to this man. He just found out that at least one of his boys was injured, and he couldn't think past that right now .

Murdoch stood in shock for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. Since the moment Thomas had told him he was needed here in Green River by the sheriff, he had been expecting that there was something amiss with his sons.

At first, he had been so hoping that when he had arrived at the sheriff's office, he would have found Scott and Johnny cooling their heels in one of Val's jail cells. Now, he knew different. Now, hearing the news that one, or both, of them was in need of Sam's help, he found he couldn't move or speak for several agonizing seconds.

Val winced at the almost stunned look on the big rancher's face. He was just about to say something when, without even attempting to speak, Murdoch turned and left the office.

Val sighed and shook his head. He couldn't avoid being glad that he wasn't in Murdoch Lancer's shoes right now. The rumpled sheriff got to his feet, rounded the desk. and headed out, grabbing his hat with one hand, as he pulled the door closed with the other.

When he looked down the street, Murdoch was already near the end of it, just about to turn the corner that would lead him to Sam Jenkins's office. Val marveled that a man of Murdoch's size could move so quickly. Then again, he was moving with the speed of a frightened father.

Murdoch approached Sam's door, hesitating only a few seconds to gather his composure, before opening it with the same commanding presence he had opened Val's door.

"Sam!" he called out, more loudly than was really necessary.

The doctor walked out of the back room and faced his old friend. When he saw Murdoch open his mouth, he held both hands up. "No one's dead." It may have sounded like a lame thing to say, but he had to get the best of the news delivered to quickly ease the worst of the rancher's fears before saying anything else.

"Tell me it isn't both of them."

"It isn't."

Murdoch almost sagged in relief. That relief didn't last very long, as he looked into the eyes of the doctor he had known for years. The intensity of the look asked the question long before Murdoch could voice it.

"They're in the back room on the left," Sam said, as he turned and led the way.

The distance to the room he and Johnny had carried Scott to earlier was short, but the trip to get there seemed like it was taking an hour.

Murdoch had to keep reminding himself that neither of his boys was dead and that only one was hurt. That thought was both a help and a source of pain to the eldest Lancer.

Sam stopped in front of one of the three doors that led off this hallway. He turned to look at Murdoch, not sure if he should say anything or not. He wasn't usually so reticent to speak, having dealt with countless worried family members over the long years of his career. Quickly deciding that the scene he was about to reveal would say it all, he simply opened the door and stood aside.

The sight that greeted Murdoch made his heart skip a beat. Scott lay in the narrow bed, covered to his waist with a light blanket. A white bandage was secured along the left side of his neck and shoulder. Johnny was sitting in a cushioned chair on the far side of the bed. Murdoch suddenly realized with a bit of surprise that it was Johnny he had been expecting to find in that bed.

Murdoch's eyes briefly met those of his youngest son. There was no accusation in his own eyes, but Johnny's were filled with dispair and unmistakable guilt.

Murdoch took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He understood the fear. Johnny was scared, not of him or what he might say, but for his brother. Fear wasn't a look his father was used to seeing in the deep blue eyes. The guilt he would deal with later. But to have Johnny openly displaying so much alarm made Murdoch's heart squeeze tightly in his chest.

'Scott must be bad off,' he thought to himself. Nothing he had seen about his eldest son so far dissuaded him from that notion.

As he approached the bed, Murdoch stared down at his son's pale face. He wanted to sit down but didn't want to risk disturbing Scott. His emotions overcame that feeling of caution, and he carefully sat on the edge of the bed.

Reaching out, he slid his hand under Scott's damp hair and placed his palm on the blond's forehead. "He's hot," he declared, sure it wasn't news to anyone.

Sam, who had left the room unnoticed, returned in time to hear the remark. "The fever set in about an hour ago. I just now went to get some more cool water." He nodded down at the bowl of water and dry cloth in his hands.

Murdoch then saw the bowl of water and a wet cloth that were sitting on the bedside table. That's why Scott's hair was damp and his skin glistened slightly, he surmised.

Sam handed the bowl with the fresh water and a dry cloth to Johnny. Once the young man had a good grip on the replacements, Sam reached around Johnny and picked up the bowl of warm water and used cloth. "I'll just take these away." It was a good excuse to give the Lancer's some time alone.

Just as Sam reached the door, Murdoch asked, "How bad is it, Sam?" His eyes never left his son's face.

Johnny closed his own eyes. He had heard it before and wasn't anxious to hear again that his brother might be dying, nor did he care to witness his father's reaction to that news. He had to tighten his grip on the bowl Sam had given him to keep his hands from shaking.

"It isn't good, Murdoch. An artery was nicked in his neck. He's lost a lot of blood. He had hit his head in a fall and has a concussion, as well. Now of course, the fever.

"I repaired the damage to his neck. Johnny has been trying to keep him as cool as possible. The blood loss..." His voice trailed off.

Murdoch knew what Sam was trying to say and nodded his understanding. Forcing himself to say the words, the big rancer supplied the implication of the missing words, "He could die."

"Yes. But you know I'll do all I can to prevent that from happening. Scott is young, strong and stubborn."

"I know, Sam," Murdoch said with a hint of pride. "I'm grateful that you were in town when this happened."

Murdoch resisted the urge to look at Johnny. He wasn't quite ready to hear what his youngest son would say had taken place that now had his eldest boy in such a life-threatening situation.

"Thank you, Sam."

The doctor nodded, acknowledging his friend's gratitude. He then turned and left the room.

When the door closed, Johnny dipped the new cloth into the bowl, wrung out the excess water and resumed his attempt to cool his brother down.

By the time that Sam came out of the room and headed toward the kitchen, he heard the front door open. With a sigh, he set the bowl and wet cloth down and made his way to the front room.

Val was standing with his hat in his hand. He looked decidedly uncomfortable. "Murdoch stopped at my office, and I told him where to come. I don't hear any yelling, so, did Johnny tell him what happened?"

"Not yet. So far, they haven't said a word to each other, but I don't expect that to remain the case for very long."

"Did Murdoch look angry?"

"No, Val. He looked like the worried father he is. I'm just hoping that he and Johnny don't butt heads over this. Scott doesn't need that. He needs his father and his brother to work together."

"Easier said than done," Val mumbled, as he looked past Sam toward the back hall. "Any change in Scott's condition?"

"Yes," Sam said and then had to wipe the hopeful look off of Val's face. "He's now developed a fever."

"Damn!" Val cursed. "Three dead bodies is enough." He had the good grace to look sheepish at that remark, since it sounded like he cared more abut the added work Scott's death would cause him rather than the prospect of losing a friend. "Sorry," he apologized. "Didn't mean to make it sound like Scott don't mean more than those three yahoos that got themselves killed."

"I know what you meant, Val," Sam said softly.

"Well, if you think you can manage the Lancers, I'll head back to my office. Just send someone, if you need me."

"All right, Val. But, I think I can handle the Lancers. I've been doing it a while now."

Sam thought he heard Val nutter, "Better you than me," before the permanently-disheveled sheriff walked out of the doctor's office.

~*~*~

After a good ten minutes of silence, Johnny couldn't take it any longer. "Go ahead, Old Man. Say it." He cringed at the term Old Man. He thought he had left that bit of disrespect for his father behind. However, he didn't apologize.

"Say what?" Murdoch asked, knowing full well what his son was referring to.

"Say what I'm sure you're itchin' to say to me. How this was all my fault."

"I have no idea what happened." Murdoch raised his eyes from Scott for the first time since he'd sat down. "Suppose you tell me." Those last words were spoken with a touch of anger, which honestly he didn't, as yet, feel.

He clenched his fists in an effort to retain control of his emotions. He was not only willing but actually wanted to hear everything before jumping to any conclusions. He had done too much of that in the past, especially with his youngest son. However, the fact that Johnny thought he would be blamed told him a lot.

Johnny had continued wiping the cooled cloth over Scott's face, chest and arms, being careful, as Sam had told him, not to get the bandage wet.

Now he stopped what he was doing and looked across the bed to his father. "All right, Murdoch. I'll tell you what happened."

Relating the story in almost the exact words he had used to tell Val when the sheriff had questioned him here at Sam's office.

This time, however, he added, "You can ask Matt at the General Store. He saw the whole thing. Don't know as he heard the beginning of it. Don't imagine it attracted much attention 'til the shootin' started."

"Madrid again," was the only comment Murdoch made, and it was spoken with bitterness.

"Yeah. Madrid again," Johnny returned with an equal amount of bitterness.. "He never seems to go away, does he? Not so as would make you happy. I didn't invite any of them, but it was me they came after, so let me have it. Tell me how I've put my brother's life in danger because of my past."

Murdoch ground his teeth, as he listened to his youngest son describe how Madrid had been the cause of yet another incident, this time putting his brother's life at risk.

 

Chapter Fourteen

The Lancer patriarch was trying hard to keep his true feelings from bubbling over into a verbal assault on the young man sitting across the bed from him. He held back, because he realized that he was mad at Johnny Madrid, not his son, Johnny Lancer.

Since his sons had come home, Murdoch had made a conscious effort to give Johnny the benefit of the doubt. It was true what Johnny had said; he didn't invite these men, or indeed any of the others who came after Madrid's reputation. But, in the end, he couldn't deny that, intentional or not, Madrid had brought them, and as much as Murdoch hated the idea, Johnny Madrid was as much his son as Johnny Lancer was.

It had taken Murdoch a long time to separate the two. On a day-to-day basis, working the ranch, there was no issue. However, at times like these, when Madrid came roaring back, Murdoch couldn't ignore or push him away. It nearly broke the big man's heart.

Looking at the expression of pure misery on Johnny's face, making him look like a lost little boy, Murdoch's heart couldn't stop itself from going out to him. If only he could reach out and hug this son the way he had when Johnny was a baby and was hurting. His boy was hurting now, but Murdoch just couldn't make himself react in a physical way. There were too many lost years between them.

He tried to soothe his conscience by telling himself that he doubted Johnny would appreciate the gesture anyway. It didn't shake his feeling of guilt that he was failing as a father by letting Johnny down.

Murdoch was no closer to sorting out his emotions about his youngest son than he had ever been. Reality struck when he realized that he had to just sidestep that issue and concentrate on his oldest boy. However, he felt the need to offer up one last effort to deal with Johnny's feelings.

"Do you think your brother would blame you for this?"

When Johnny didn't answer, Murdoch repeated himself.

Johnny shook his head. "Said he didn't," he mumbled, remembering the words Scott had said to him in the street. "Not...your...fault."

"We need to talk abut this, but now is not the time."

Johnny nodded, however, he decided he'd wait to see what his father would have to say to him. For now, he still stubbornly hung on to the blame he held for himself.

"We‘ll see," was all he said out loud, before going back to his task of trying to bring his brother's fever down.

Murdoch was still no closer to sorting out Johnny's emotions or his own about his youngest son than he had ever been. Johnny had accepted Murdoch's words too easily. The young man's feelings may be at stake here, but it was Scott's life on the line, and that had to come first.

When Murdoch again felt of Scott's forehead, he frowned. He hoped it was his imagination, but he believed his son's fever was even higher than it had been when he had first arrived.

"I'm going to get Sam," Murdoch declared, trying to keep his voice even, as he got up and walked out of the room.

Johnny didn't have to ask why Murdoch was going to get the doctor. His heart sank even more when he duplicated his father's move and touched his brother's heated skin.

"C'mon, Boston. You gotta get better. I'd miss you too much if..." Johnny stopped and took a deep breath. "...if you don't wake up and let us know you're in there fightin'." He didn't mean to express any doubt about that last statement, because he knew Scott was no quitter. "Damn it, brother, you just gotta turn the corner, like Sam always says when one of us is bein' stubborn about gettin' well."

Just then, Sam walked into the room, followed closely by Murdoch. He checked Scott and came to the same conclusion as the other two Lancers had done.

"His fever's up."

"All that cool water isn't workin', is it?" Johnny asked angrily. His frustration was building.

Sam gave the young Lancer a sad smile, knowing the anger wasn't directed at him. "That's one of those questions you can't really answer, because you don't know how bad it would be if you weren't doing it."

Johnny searched the man's face, trying to decide if that was really ture, or if his friend was trying to keep him from feeling worse, as if that was possible.

"Keep using the water, Johnny. If Scott's fever doesn't come down after a while, we'll have to use stronger measures."

"What does that mean?" the dark-haired young man asked.

"Put him in a tub of ice," Murdoch replied before the doctor could answer. When Johnny turned to his father, the big man said,"I've seen that used a time or two in the past."

"Murdoch's right. It's not something I like to do unless absolutely necessary. It causes a shock to the system and can cause other problems, but if his fever doesn't come down, it could kill him, or cause brain damage."

Johnny picked up the cloth and began soaking Scott as fast as he could, heedless of the fact he was dripping water all over himself and the bed.

"Easy, Johnny," Sam said softly, laying a restraining hand on the youngest Lancer's arm. "Just keep doing what you've been doing. I'll bring more water, and this time I'll put a little ice in it."

All the way out the door, Sam was hoping that colder water applied the way Johnny was doing it would be enough. He didn't want to think about having to put Scott in a tub of ice water. Even if that brought his fever down, if it happened too fast, it could cause convulsions, and that way led to nothing but a bad outcome.

Sam sighed to himself. Scott could still die from blood loss, or from infection, if it developed, or being too hot or being too cold. Even the convulsions could simply shut his heart down. Not good. Not good at all.

~*~*~

First was the heat. No, he thought. First was the pain, a searing, white-hot feeling that lanced through the area between his neck and his left shoulder. It felt like he was being branded.

His mind wandered after that, seeming to circle around but always coming back to the pain. Had he somehow fallen into a fire? No amount of trying could bring to mind the last conscious thought he had had. He couldn't even remember what he had been doing, much less how he had become injured, for surely pain this intense had to come from an injury.

He tried to move away from the agony, but it relentlessly followed him, the tendrils of heat working their way into every inch of him. He tried to run, but he had no sensation of movement. That didn't make sense, did it? Was he tied up? Had he been shot and then bound, or possibly the other way around?

Then, the heat began to built up. It was much more that just his neck that was bothering him now. The discomfort started small but soon grew and spread. Again, he wondered if he had fallen into a fire. No amount of searching produced a place where he could escape the inferno that was building inside of him.

Suddenly, there was relief. A cool feeling moved up and down his face and upper body. It felt so good - for a while. Much too soon, though, the heat overtook him again. The coolness was still there on the surface, but underneath, his body was still burning. Before he knew it, the searing pain intensified in his neck. What was happening to him?

His next thought was just to lie still. It was evident he wasn't going to be able to move away from the pain and the strange feeling of cool-tinged heat. Maybe, if he lay perfectly still and tried to will the increasing agony away, it would work. What else could he do? He needed help.

He soon became aware of sounds that were drifting through the void and swirling around him. At first, they were vague, not sounding like much of anything, but at least, it was something besides his misery he could latch onto.

Just as they seemed to be coalescing into sounds he recognized as voices, they faded into indistinct noise. Still, he was excited, because he knew that now, he was not alone. Now, he only had to let the people that belonged to those voices know that he was in trouble and needed their help. He had to call out to them, get their attention before he succumbed to the flames that he felt were consuming him.

~*~*~

Johnny had been relentless in his attempts to lower his brother's fever. The idea that if he failed, Scott would have to be put into a tub of ice water, which could do all kinds of other damage, scared him as much as the fever did.

Murdoch had begun to use more of the ice-cchilled water Sam had brought to rub on Scott's legs. Between them, he and Johnny were working on him head to toe.

Sam came in to check on the progress now and then, each time saying that even though Scott's fever hadn't come down, it also hadn't gone up. It may not have sounded like much of a victory, but to the oldest and youngest Lancer, it was definitely a step in the right direction.

Suddenly, Johnny's head jerked around, as he stared down at Scott. "Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Murdoch asked, having no clue what Johnny was talking about.

"I think I heard Scott." He didn't really explain but instead stood up and leaned over his brother. "Scott? You tryin' to talk?"

There was no sound and no movement from the blond. Nothing that would indicate Johnny had really heard his brother, so with both a look and a sigh of disappointment, he sat back down.

Then, he heard it again. It was a distinctive groan, one indicating discomfort.

This time, Johnny dropped the wet cloth over the edge of the bowl and shifted from the chair to sitting on the edge of the bed. He placed both hands on either side of Scott's head, turning it toward him. "Scott, can you hear me? It's Johnny. Say somethin', brother."

There was a louder groan from the older man.

Murdoch went to the door and yelled out for Sam, who came running. He couldn't tell from the man's bellow, if there would be good or bad news awaiting him.

"Need...help," were the desperate, raspy words that Johnny, who had his ear down near Scott's mouth, heard his brother say.

When the doctor entered the room, he heard Scott mumble something but couldn't make out what it was. "Is he saying something?"

Johnny looked up, first at Murdoch then at Sam. "He said he needs help."

Bending back down, Johnny whispered, "We're doin' all we can to help you, Scott. You just keep fightin', and we'll help get you through this."

"Hot."

"Yeah. You got a fever, but we're gettin' that down some."

It was a small lie, but Johnny was more concerned about reassuring his brother than being brutally honest. He wanted Scott to believe he was getting better and shouldn't give up.

Sam, ever the believer in honesty, had to deflate the Lancers somewhat. He was thrilled that Scott was able to communicate, though he knew it didn't necessarily mean he was better.

"Murdoch, Johnny," Sam addressed the two men, "Scott may not be waking up."

Chapter Fifteen

Johnny frowned in confusion. He didn't understand Sam's words, because they went against every similar situation he had ever experienced. "He was talkin', Sam. How could that mean he might not be wakin' up?"

"It could mean quite the opposite. He's in a lot of pain, and he's overheated. That's the only thing occupying his mind right now. He may be unconsciously reaching out for relief by seeking a place of peace that will send him farther away from consciousness, where he knows the pain will be much worse than what he knows now."

Sam watched as Johnny slowly shook his head. "I'm sorry, Sam. I just can't believe that. I know you're the doctor, but I think Scott is tryin' to come back to us, because he knows that he can find peace with his family." Johnny was attempting as hard to convince himself as he was Sam.

"I'm not saying he isn't coming back, Johnny. I'm just trying to let you know there's a possibility that he isn't. You have to be prepared for that."

Murdoch listened to the exchange between his son and his long-time friend but still didn't know what to think. He so wanted to believe that Johnny was right and that Scott really was reaching out to his family. But Sam was a damn fine doctor and knew what he was talking about. He knew his friend was not going to offer false hope, no matter how soothing that might be for the time being.

Right at that moment, Murdoch couldn't trust his father's heart, because it was probably telling him what he wanted to believe, not necessarily what was true. He almost laughed to think that he was so clear headed about being so confused.

Johnny, on the other hand, was not the least bit confused. He had complete faith that Scott was indeed waking up. He refused to let any other outcome enter his mind.

Johnny re-wet the cloth he held and ran it slowly over Scott's face. "You'll be fine, Scott," he whispered, offering encouragement, sure his brother could hear him. "I'm right here, brother, so talk to me."

While he continued his ministrations, memories from the past invaded his thoughts, which he began to express verbally. "I never thought I'd end up with a Boston dandy for a brother. Then, you went about makin' me see that there's more to a man than his appearance. Well, the way you appeared when I first sat next to you on the stagecoach. Boy, was I in for a surprise.

"I got to know you, got to work out what kind of man you are. Now, I have, I'm not about to let you go. You understand me, Boston? You're comin' back, and I won't take no for an answer. We'll deal with the pain, and whatever else you're sufferin', together. You got that?"

The more he spoke, the more commanding and confident he became. His softly-spoken voice was firm yet filled with affection, as he did his best to keep the fear at bay. He was startled by the sudden thought that he was more afraid now than he had ever been in any gunfight in his past, including facing the Flemings and Pony Deal.

As Murdoch listened to his youngest son talk quietly to his brother, he felt a twinge of... He wasn't sure what it was. There was pride, for sure. Pride that his sons had become so close after having been raised apart and in such different circumstances. But, there was more to it than that. There was also a small bit of jealousy, something he wasn't happy to confess, even in the privacy of his own mind.

He would have given anything if he could just make himself say the same kind of things to Scott that Johnny just had. Why was it so hard for him to express his feelings for either of his sons?

He loved them both more than his own life, yet actually saying something like that to them was beyond him. Murdoch tried to tell himself that it was his actions that let them know how he felt, but honesty made him admit that that wasn't always true. How many times had he yelled at them, or said something in the heat of the moment that he didn't mean, something that had hurt them, for one reason or another?

He could clearly remember times when fear for one or both of them had made him lash out at them in anger. He knew it was a defense mechanism to keep himself from letting that fear overwhelm him. How foolish was that, when words of love and encouragement would have meant so much more to all of them?

There was something else he had to admit. He feared rejection. Despite the time that had passed since Scott and Johnny had come home, the pain of that first meeting was hard to shake. He had made inroads in his relationship with his sons, he knew, but there was still a fragile balance that could be blown apart with the slightest misstep.

With Scott the distance between them usually had to do with why he had left his boy in Boston to be raised by a man he neither liked or respected. With Johnny, it was Madrid. Murdoch sighed, as the thought pricked his mind. It always seemed to come back to Madrid.

Murdoch clenched his fist and turned his head away, closing his eyes against the biting truth that had haunted him since the day he had first lost Scott as a baby, compounded by Johnny's loss a little over three years later. What kind of paternal instincts had been wounded by the first even and then snuffed out by the second?

Bitterness rose up in Murdoch's throat, where he felt sure it would choke him. Was he even worthy to try to be a real, flesh-and- blood father to these two young men? Would he now get no more than the brief chance he had already been given to be one to his firstborn?

With the stubbornness of a strong-willed Scotsman, Murdoch felt it was now or never, and if he didn't choose to follow his heart right then, he could lose the opportunity forever.

He stood up and walked around to where Johnny sat. "John, let me do that for a while." He was tempted to say that Johnny needed a break, but he knew that would be a coward's excuse. That wasn't the reason he wanted to relieve Johnny of his task, and he wasn't going to say otherwise.

Johnny started to protest, but when he looked up into his father's face, he saw a melancholy so deep that only death itself could make it more profound. So, without a word, he stood and moved aside, yielding his position to the Lancer patriarch.

Murdoch took Johnny's place, reaching out for the cloth that his son still held in his hand, heedless that it was dripping on his boots.

Being as careful as Johnny had been not to get the bandage on Scott's neck and shoulder wet, the big rancher began to duplicate his youngest son's movements, grateful when Sam re-entered the room with yet another bowl of ice-cooled water.

"Your brother is right, Scott," Murdoch said, his voice low but still strong. "You'll come back to us. You just need to concentrate on getting better. We'll deal with the aftermath of what happened as a family. Please, son, you must wake up."

The words were softly spoken and though they were heartfelt, they didn't reflect how awkward he felt and how angry at himself he was for feeling that way. Johnny had spoken to Scott so easily, with no hint of self-consciousness. Why couldn't he talk to his son like that? His unease didn't seem to be affected by the fact that Scott was unconscious.

Murdoch had gotten no farther than the words he had already spoken to Scott, when his eldest son mumbled something that neither Murdoch nor Johnny could quite catch.

Before either could lean in closer and ask for a repetition, Scott said, "Johnny, that...you?" His voice was raspy, slightly sluggish and barely above a whisper, but it was clear enough to be heard.

"No, son. It's Mur.. It's your father."

After a brief pause, when both Murdoch and Johnny were sure Scott had not heard and wouldn't answer, the blond Lancer said, "Murdoch?"

A small smile broke out on Murdoch's face. "Yes, Scott. It's me. Johnny is here, too."

"Johnny? OK?"

A huge grin spread across the youngest Lancer's face. "Yeah, brother, I'm right here. And, I'm fine," he added to reassure his brother that nothing had happened to him.

He turned a beaming smile toward Sam, who moved toward the bed. "I told you."

"Yes, you did, Johnny." Sam acknowledged with a smile of his own. This time, he wasn't about to say a single negative word. In fact, he wasn't going to confirm or deny that Scott was finally coming around, though he had to admit, it appeared that the young man had responded to direct comments by both Murdoch and Johnny and was not just talking randomly, as he would be doing had be been in a haze of delirium. Sam hoped with all of his medically-trained being that it was true.

He moved over to the opposite side of the bed from Murdoch and carefully examined his patient. Sam Jenkins had never been a fast worker, but he was extremely thorough.

When he finally straightened up a while later, he had a cautious smile on his face. "I think his fever's down a bit, not much, but enough to be encouraging." It felt good to be able to say that to this anxious family.

"Then, we won't have to put him in that tub of ice you mentioned." Johnny held his breath. He was afraid he was about to hear more negative news about Scott's condition from Sam.

"Yes, Johnny. Right now, I would have to say that we won't have to resort to that. There's a way to go yet before Scott's fever breaks, but for now, no ice bath."

"Ice...bath?" came a whispered question from the figure in the bed.

Johnny laughed. "Yeah. We were afraid we'd have to dunk you in one. Sam still hasn't completely given up on that idea, so you best be gettin' yourself better real fast." Johnny was showing nothing but white teeth.

The entire conversation with Scott, limited though it was, had been conducted with the blond's eyes firmly shut. He had tried to open them, but they felt like lead weights were resting on each one. When he heard Murdoch ask him to open them, he gave a supreme effort and managed to get them at least half-way open.

"You're doing good, son," Murdoch encouraged. "Keep trying."

Concentrating on nothing else, Scott finally managed to open his eyes all the way. He tried to focus on the shadowy shapes that hovered above him, but the haze made him feel like he was looking through a low-lying fog bank.

It was obvious to Sam that Scott wasn't seeing clearly, but he needed to know how much the fever and blood loss may be affecting the middle Lancer. "Scott, can you recognize any of us by sight?"

"No," came the unhappy answer, as Scott blinked slowly several times. He scrunched up his face in frustration. "Hazy shadows," he declared, as he continued trying to clear his vision.

Murdoch was also frowning. "What‘s wrong, Sam? Why can't he see properly?"

 

Chapter Sixteen

Sam hesitated to give Murdoch an answer to his question about Scott's vision. There was a small chance that the head injury the blond Lancer had sustained, when he hit it on the wagon wheel, had affected his eyesight. Mostly though, he thought that it was just a reaction to an accumulation of all the young man had been through and was still suffering from. Sam was too experienced a doctor to think that Scott would wake up without any residual problems. He had simply seen it happen too many times with a variety of injuries, especially where a blow to the head was involved. Sam hated that this particular problem could potentially be such a devastating one.

Before he said anything to the elder Lancer, he held up a finger to forestall more questions and then turned toward Scott, making sure he had the young man's attention before saying, “It may just be a temporary thing, Scott. Don't try too hard to fight what's happening, and don't get too frustrated. The stress won't help. Just relax and let things sort themselves out.”

After patting Scott's arm, Sam looked at Murdoch, raising his eyebrows to silently ask if what he had just told Scott had answered his question.

Murdoch's expression was unreadable, but Johnny, his expression radiating pure anxiety, stared straight at Sam. "Is it the concussion?" he asked almost hesitantly. He prayed it wasn't, otherwise the guilt he was already feeling would be multiplied, since he had been the one who had pushed Scott into the wagon wheel to begin with, unintentional though it may have been.

Sam smiled, not surprised that the dark-haired young man wasn't quite satisfied with what was just said to his brother. "Could be," the elderly doctor replied. "This's one of those things that will take time to sort out. We likely won't have an answer real soon. But he's awake, and that's a great start."

Scott watched each of the other people in the room. At least, he tried to. It was easy for Sam to tell him not to try too hard, but it was a lot harder to put that advice into practice. He kept blinking in an effort to clear the fog, turning his head as each person spoke and trying to see the face that went with each voice. It wasn't working.

Despite the fact that whatever was wrong was evidently inside his head, it felt like there was something resembling dust in his eyes, something that he could clear away just by opening and closing his eyes. Clarity continued to elude him, however, as the haze remained stubbornly in place. He couldn't be sure, but it seemed like his frustration was making the shadows even more insubstantial the more he stared at them. Would they lose definition until there was only the fog or his vision get worse and disappear all together? He half expected the cloudiness to fade to black, a thought that terrified him.

Scott raised his right hand and covered his eyes, hoping, irrationally, to rub away the problem. When that didn't work either, he blew out a breath that Johnny picked up on immediately, knowing exactly what his brother was thinking.

“It's okay, Scott.” Johnny squeezed his brother's good shoulder in a gesture of comfort and support. “Like Sam says, just relax, and it'll come.” His voice was calm and confident. His heart was aching and uncertain.

The eldest Lancer son wanted to reassure Johnny that he was going to take Sam's advice and not do anything that he shouldn't. He reached up and lay his hand on Johnny's, giving the shadowy shape of his brother a small smile.

The gesture gave Johnny's faith a big boost.

Everything that had happened since he had woken up was taking a toll on the weakened young man. Before he could say a word, Scott's eyelids became too heavy to keep open. They slid closed, and he sank into a darkness that had nothing to do with his vision.

Johnny smiled and gave Scott's shoulder another gentle squeeze. “Good, boy,” he said, knowing that sleep was the most important thing his brother needed, at the moment.

Now that Scott was beyond hearing any conversation that took place, Murdoch turned his worried and now dissatisfied expressed on his old friend.

“All right, Sam. It's just me and Johnny who can hear you now, so level with us. What is really wrong with Scott's vision?” His tone was demanding but controlled enough not to be overly harsh.

At first, Sam was a little unhappy that his word was being doubled, yet under the circumstances, he couldn't help but understand. For a man who could hold his emotions so tightly in check, Murdoch could also display them to the point that there was no doubt what they were. “I told Scott and the two of you the truth. You know me, Murdcoh. I don't beat around the bush. What I say is what I mean.”

He refrained from saying that there were times when, under special circumstances, he held things back from someone. But, he had learned a long time ago that complete honesty was usually the best policy, so when he did say something, it was the truth.

Murdoch knew his friend as well as anyone, so he had no real choice but to accept what Sam said. It wasn't that he thought the doctor was being evasive, he just wanted so desperately to have a specific diagnosis. Murdoch was a man of action. He didn't want to think about having to fight something when he didn't know exactly what it was he was fighting. “I'm sorry, Sam.”

Sam nodded his acceptance of the apology.

“So basically, we just have to wait and hope Scott's vision clears up on its own.” It was a flat statement from the Lancer patriarch that held more than a small measure of helplessness, a feeling that Murdoch Lancer hated.

“Right,” was Sam's simple declaration. “In the meantime, we have other issues to deal with.”

When both Johnny and Murdoch looked at him, he said, “We still need to bring his fever down to a more manageable level. Just because he woke up and was lucid doesn't mean his fever can't go up again and cause more problems.”

Johnny hadn't ever heard the word lucid before, but from what Sam was saying, he guessed it meant that Scott knew what was going on and made sense when he spoke.

Murdoch understood Sam and nodded. He felt a small flush of heat when he realized that he had been so wrapped up in worrying about Scott's vision that he had forgotten all about his fever. He turned his head away and began to re-wet the cloth, applying it to his son's forehead.

~*~*~

Two hours later, Scott woke up again. It took him a moment to realize where he was and what had happened to him. He let out a sigh, when he also realized that his vision didn't seem to be any better than it had been.

Darkness had fallen outside. A lamp had been lit and set on the bedside table. Another sigh followed the first, when he recognized that the low light wasn't what was affecting his vision now.

One thing Scott was not was a quitter. He had no idea if he could will his vision back to normal, but he had no intention of just lying in bed and not doing anything to help his own cause. That wasn't who he was.

With a determined air, he began not just blinking but opening his eyes wide and then scrunching them tightly closed. He repeated the action over and over. It might be a futile and even infantile gesture, but he had no other ideas at the moment.

Murdoch, who was sitting in a chair near the bed was snoring lightly, having given in to his aching body and the persistent insistence of both his youngest son and his friend to get some rest. He hadn't taken kindly to Sam's comment that he wasn't as young as he used to be or wanted to remain. Unfortunately, he had to admit that his body was indeed feeling the results of his worry for the life of his eldest son. Even his argument that the chair was not good for his back hadn't gotten him very far in his argument.

He had been offered a bed in Sam's house but had vehemently refused in an effort to persuade both Sam and Johnny that he should stay with Scott. Agreeing to settle in a chair in this room and try to sleep was the compromise.

Johnny, who unlike his father, had refused to give in to his own body's craving for rest, sat on the side of Scott's bed, watching his brother sleep. He tried not to think about how heartbroken he would feel if for some reason, Scott still didn't survive.

He held the cloth in his hand but was not using it, as he suddenly saw Scott's eyes open, close and open again several times. He knew what it was his brother was doing.

“Sam said not to push it, brother,” he said softly.

Scott's head turned toward the voice he knew so well. He blinked again and Johnny's smiling face suddenly came into sharp focus. “You look tired, little brother.”

“Not as tired as...” His eyes went wide. “You can see me?”

“Clear as a bell,” the blond answered with a smile.

Johnny let out a holler that he couldn't have held back if his life had depended on it. “Sam!” he hollered.

Murdoch jerked awake. “What?” he asked in confusion, as he sat up and rubbed his eyes. Luckily, he saw Johnny smiling before his mind could register the opposite of good news as the reason Johnny was yelling for Sam.

The doctor, not having the benefit of seeing a happy pair of Lancers, came rushing into the room with a worried look on his face, fearing that something had gone wrong.

“Scott's awake, and he can see just fine,” Johnny told the anxious doctor proudly.

When Sam approached the bed, he asked, “How many fingers am I holding up?”

Scott's first instinct was to say, “You're kidding, right?” but he knew that Sam had been worried about his vision and was just doing his job in checking it out, Sam's thoroughness being something that Scott was actually grateful for.

“Three,” the blond answered, as he stared at the three digits Sam held up about a foot in front of his face.

His correct answer was rewarded with a smile, a nod and a relieved sigh from the elderly doctor. “I guess that's one problem we don't have to worry about,” he declared with a great deal of satisfaction.

After checking Scott's temperature, his smile returned. “Your fever has broken, as well. You, young man, appear to be on the road to recovery. However,” he added in a warning tone, “that does not mean you are ready to misbehave the way your brother does when told to stay in bed and get his strength back.”

“Who? Me?” Johnny asked in a voice that he was trying to make sound convincingly innocent.

“Yes, you,” Sam, Murdoch and Scott all said at the same time.

“I'm outnumbered,” the youngest Lancer pouted.

“Just remember that the next time I give you orders to take care of yourself.”

Same turned back to Scott. “I need to replace the bandage on your neck. Then, you can go back to sleep and get more of that rest I told you that you need.”

Sam reached for a small brown bottle on the table next to Scott's bed.

Scott recognized it immediately. “I don't need that, Sam.”

The doctor closed his eyes and shook his head. He knew he was in for a battle. “Scott, I know you don't like taking laudanum becasue of how fuzzy-headed it makes you feel. But I can tell you that changing your bandage after having to cauterize the wound is going to be very painful. There's no need for you to suffer through it, since you won't need a clear head afterwards. You'll just be going to sleep.”

“Take the stuff, Boston,” Johnny advised.

“You're a fine one to talk, brother,” Scott scoffed, “considering how much you fight taking it”.

“Yeah well, it's easier to suffer yourself than see someone you care about do it.” Johnny almost blushed when he said that, but it was heartfelt.

Scott might have continued to argue with Sam, but he realized that it would hurt his family to see him suffer any more than he already had, especially needlessly, just because he wanted to put up a brave front.

He looked at Sam and nodded, which pleased the elderly doctor. He was clearly surprised, having dealt with the Lancer stubbornness on quite a few occasions. He gave a silent laugh to think that these two young brothers were so much like the father they had not known until two short years ago.

Sam had not exaggerated when he said the removal of the bandage on Scott's neck would be painful. The laudanum had dulled the worst of the pain, but as Sam had expected, the bandage had to be soaked loose and peeling it away from the burned and overly-sensitive flesh underneath was unpleasant to say the least.

Sam was pleased with what he saw. The wound was not showing any signs of infection. So, after a fresh bandage had been applied, both the oldest and youngest Lancers couldn't help but smile, as they watched Scott sink into a deep, healing sleep.

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

Scott had been taken home, cocooned in a pile of pillows and blankets in the back of a wagon three days earlier. Murdoch himself drove, while Johnny rode with his brother, making sure he wasn't jostled any more than necessary.

The journey had been slow and harder on Scott than he was willing to let on. His head still hurt more than not; he was dizzy anytime he raised his head up; his neck and shoulder ached whenever he changed positions and sometimes when he didn't even do that much.

Murdoch and Johnny were sure he wasn't telling them the truth when he said he was fine, each one of the hundred or so times they asked him how he was feeling. He indulged them their questions and lied, knowing what they had been through on his account, and knowing how he would feel had it been one of them in his place.

They had finally reached Lancer in the early afternoon. The sight of it from the hill always gave Scott a feeling that he could only describe as peaceful. This time, after insisting that they stop so he could look out over his home, and with Johnny helping to lift him enough to see over the side of the wagon, the view that stretched out before him meant more to Scott than he could ever express in words.

He had lain back down with a heart full of joy, as the wagon descended and headed toward the Lancer arch. He watched with pride as the white adobe structure, framed by the brilliant blue sky above it, crossed over his head. He had come so close to losing it all, but now there was nothing and no one to stop him from rejoining his family in the place that he, like his father and brother, loved more than any other on earth.

Teresa, Jelly and Maria had been there to greet him, his 'sister' fussing over him as only she could.

Once he had been carried up to his room and settled in bed, he had been told, per Sam's explicit orders, to take some laudanum and go to slepp. The arduous journey had insured that he would follow those instructions without argument. He had slept for fourteen hours, almost causing worry among his family members.

During those next three days, no one had discussed what had happened to Scott or the reason behind it. No one wanted to. Scott knew, as did both Johnny and Murdoch, that he would need to regain more of his strength before the subject would be broached. There were no illusions from any of them that the discussions that hung in the air, just out of reach, were going to be difficult.

Both Teresa and Jelly were aware of the simmering tension that existed, at first attributing it to Scott's near-fatal experience. It soon became apparent, however, that the three Lancer men, with their overly polite and obviously superficial conversations, were 'walking on eggshells' around each other, and that there was more to it than Scott's condition. The atmosphere in the hacienda was like holding your breath while waiting for the other shoe to drop. And drop it did.

~*~*~

A soft knock sounded on Scott's bedroom door. It was obvious that whoever it was didn't want to wake him, if he was asleep.

"Come in."

Johnny stuck his head around the door. "I didn't wake you , did I?"

"No, Johnny, come on in."

When the younger man entered and closed the door, Scott grinned at him. "I guess it takes getting shot and almost dying for you to knock before entering my room."

Johnny lowered his head. "Don't joke about somethin' like that, Scott. It's not funny."

"No, I guess it isn't," the blond conceded. "But it isn't something that we should avoid talking about either."

"I don't think now's..."

"Well, I do. It's time we got a few things straight."

Scott's voice had taken on a very serious tone, and Johnny knew he was in for a no-nonsense, big-brother talk, probably the one he had been dreading since Scott got home.

Scott patted the bed next to him, "Sit down."

Johnny gently lowered himself next to Scott, not sure how much his brother could still be hurt, if he wasn't careful enough. He stared down at his hands, as he entwined his fingers, refusing to meet his brother's eyes.

"You blame yourself for all of this, don't you?" He indicated himself and his bed.

Johnny now looked up and straight into the blue-gray eyes that were looking straight at him. "Come on, Scott. You can't tell me that after all that happened, you're gonna say it wasn't my fault. You're smarter than that!"

"Did you shoot me?"

"Of course not! Are you crazy?" Johnny said in a raised voice. More quietly, he said, "But those Flemings and Pony Deal were after me, Johnny Madrid, and you got in the way. If it weren't for me, you'd never have gotten hurt. It's as simple as that, and you can't argue with it."

"Oh, but I cam, little brother. I most definitely can.

"As for Johnny Madrid, he's only a small part of you. A part that is where he belongs - in your past. You are not responsible for what other people do."

"By other people, you mean gunfighters that want to take me down, no matter how small a part of me you want to believe Madrid is."

Johnny was playing with his fingers again, until Scott's hand moved to cover them.

"Did you blame me for the trouble that Dan Cassidy caused?"

Johnny's head shot up. "Don't you start that psy... psyc..."

"Psychology."

"Yeah, that psychology stuff on me. They weren't the same thing at all."

"And why not? Dan Cassidy came here to kill me just as much as the Flemings went to Green River looking to kill you. Pony Deal just took advantage of the situation, but he wanted you dead just as much as they did. There is absolutely no difference between Cassidy and them, except for the reasons behind it, and that is inconsequential."

"What?"

"It means it doesn't matter, Johnny. We all have shadows in our past to deal with. If you felt guilty about all of them, they'd destroy you. So you have to forgive yourself at some point. Since you didn't invite this trouble, you are not to blame for it." Scott grinned and repeated Johnny's earlier words back at him. "It's as simple as that.

"Look, Johnny, Madrid exists, no longer as a gunfighter, but as one of those shadows from the past. How people deal with that is their choice. It's sad that sometimes it encroaches on us here and now, but think of it like this: If if weren't for Johnny Madrid, you wouldn't be the man you are today. He also kept you alive all those years you were growing up without anyone to guide you. Every experience, good and bad, shapes us and makes us who we are. And I rather like the brother I have now."

Scott's smile was warm and affectionate when Johnny looked at him. He was close to being embarrassed when he looked away. "But you don't know some of the terrible things I've done."

In what seemed like a crazy change of subject, Scott asked, "What happens to a whole bucket of white paint when a few drops of black paint are mixed in?"

"Huh?"

"Think about it. What happens to the white paint?"

"Nothin'. I mean, you'd haveta put a lot more than a few drops of black in it to change the color."

"Exactly."

"Boston, is your head hurtin' you some more, 'cause you're sure not makin' any sense."

Scott gave his brother an indulgent smile. "My head's fine, Johnny. My point is that you did some bad things in your past, the black paint, if you will, but when that's mixed into the whole bucket of white paint, the man you are deep down, it disappears. It's there, but it doesn't show.

"I know that may be a strange example, but the point I'm making is..."

"I understand, Scott," Johnny interrupted.

"You do. Well, that's great, because I'd hate for you to go around always feeling guilty about those drops of black paint when you have so much goodness in you.

"I don't blame you for what happened to me. It was partly my fault anyway."

"Your fault? Now how the hell do you figure that?"

"You've always told me to stay our of your way whenever you get called out. I ignored your advice, made my own decision to help. That was not your doing. It was mine."

Scott reached up with his right hand and grasped Johnny's left forearm. "You see that what I'm saying is right, don't you?"

Johnny didn't answer for a few moments, once more regarding his fingers. After taking a deep breath, he reached up and placed his hand over Scott's. "Yeah, Boston, I do."

"So, you'll quit feeling guilty over what you couldn't control. Right?"

"I'll think about it."

"As long as you agree with me in the end, then I'll accept that."

Johnny looked at Scott and grinned. "You know, big brother, you really are somethin'."

"Yeah, I keep telling you that. Glad you finally believe me."

~*~*~

Murdoch walked into Scott's room with a tray on which rested a roast beef sandwich and a large glass of lemonade. "Here's your lunch, son."

"Thank you, sir," Scott replied, as he gingerly scooted up in the bed, so the tray could be placed on his lap.

"Anything else I can bring you?"

"No, sir. This will be fine."

Scot almost winced at his own words. Too proper. Too detached. They had all been through a very emotional time, yet it seemed that any emotion was sorely lacking now.

When Murdoch turned to leave, Scott, out of the blue, asked, "Have you talked to Johnny yet?"

Murdoch stared at his eldest son. He knew Scott was too shrewd to buy an act of innocence about why he should talk to Johnny, so he simply said, "No."

"Well, you need to."

"Scott..."

The blond interrupted before the protest could be expressed.

"Look, Murdoch, Johnny and I had a talk this morning and got a lot of things straight. It's time the two of you did the same.

"I haven't been downstairs yet, but I can still feel the tension in the air. Talk to him, Murdoch, before your relationship suffers." Scott looked up into his father's eyes. "It might not be fixable in the future," he warned.

There came a time when Scott knew he couldn't do any more than give advice and then get out of the way. That time had arrived. This business between Johnny and Murdoch was theirs to deal with. So he was just going to have to leave it for them to sort out.

Without another word, Scott turned his attention to the food in front of him and began eating his lunch.

~*~*~

Murdoch wanted to dismiss Scott's warning. He thought, or rather hoped, that the whole affair would just blow over. Once Scott was back on his feet, things would just go back to normal. Having deep, meaningful conversations with Johnny was just... He paused in this thought, trying to come up with the right word. Useless.

The two of them had come to an unspoken understanding a long time ago, or so Murdoch had thought. If Johnny didn't mention Madrid, he wouldn't either. When trouble came because of Madrid, they dealt witth it and moved on. That way they could continue to put their energy into the activities of daily living. However, the ghost of Madrid always hung around, never exorcised, never put in its place.

By the time Murdoch had reached the bottom of the stairs, he knew he was probably fooling himself. What else could he do but ignore his son's past? It wasn't going to change. The Madrid issue didn't come up that often, not really. Just let it blow over, he told himself again. Don't borrow trouble.

The problem was that trouble was already on their doorstep, pushing its way into their lives.

As he entered the Great Room and headed for his desk, Murdoch spotted Johnny, sitting alone at one end of the sofa.

"Murdoch, we need to talk," his son said without looking up.

So much for letting the issue blow over. Then again, maybe Johnny just wanted to talk about ranch business.

Murdoch walked over and sat down on the other end of the sofa. "What is it, Johnny?"

"You blame me for what happened to Scott."

"I blame Madrid," the eldest Lancer replied bitterly, without even having to think about it.

"Come on, Murdoch," Johnny said incredulously, as he got up and walked over to the fireplace, then turned around to face his father. "I am Madrid."

"That's in the past, and you know how I feel about dragging out things that should be left there."

"That's just it, it shouldn't be left there, not 'til it gets dealt with, here and now."

Murdoch stood up and faced his son. "All right, Johnny. We'll deal with it. I've accepted you as my son, a son I love dearly." There he had finally said it. "It isn't you, the man you are now, but the man you once were, Johnny Madrid, that I have trouble with.

"People keep showing up to challenge you, call you out, as you put it. Your brother almost died this time because of it."

"Yes, he did." In contrast to Murdoch's raised voice, Johnny's tone was soft, almost too soft to hear.

"How am I supposed to handle that, John? How am I supposed to live with knowing that next time Scott might be killed, or you might face someone faster than you, and...?” He stopped himself and took a deep breath. “Can you promise me that either of those things won't ever happen?" Murdoch was fairly yelling by now.

"No, I can't promise that. From the beginning, I never said they would never happen," Johnny yelled back.

His voice only dropped a bit when he said, "Scott's always accepted me for who I am, which includes who I was.” Louder, he asked, “Why can't you?"

Then Murdoch did something that he never in a million years thought he ever could. He said, "Because I'm scared!"

Johnny's mouth dropped open, and he stared at his father. That was an admission he never believed possible from this man.

Now that he had come clean, Murdoch continued. "I just got the two of you back. I'm scared that one, or both, of you will be taken away from me again, because of your past." He lowered his voice. "I don't know that I could survive that."

Johnny was dumbfounded, but he couldn't stop now. "Scott said we all have shadows in our past. None of us can be sure that past won't come back to haunt us. He mentioned Cassidy."

Murdoch's head came up. He had never once, back when the man had shown up, or since, connected Madrid and Cassidy as being similar in what they could have cost him, or in the case of Madrid, still could.

"Look, Murdoch, I told you I can't promise anything. I can only tell you I'll do the best I can to protect all of you. That's all I can do."

Realizing that his own position wasn't all that different from his son's, Murdoch sighed. "You're right, Johnny. That's all any man can do."

~*~*~

When Scott had heard the raised voices below in the Great Room, though the words were indistinct, he had closed his eyes and prayed that his brother and his father wouldn't do irreparable damage to their relationship.

He had hoped that they could work things out peacefully, or at least as peacefully as was possible while butting heads.

After a few moments of complete silence had descended, he became worried. He hadn't heard a gunshot or even a door slam, but the quiet was disturbing.

Putting on his robe, Scott got out of bed and waited only long enough for the room to stop spinning before making his way to the stairs. He paused at the top and listened. There was still no sound.

He held onto the banister with his right hand and began the descent, right foot down, left foot down beside it, right foot down, left foot down beside it.

His progress was slow, but he finally reached the bottom. Trepidation gripped his heart, fearful of what he might find, as he rounded the corner.

He came to a sudden stop, when he looked at the scene before him. Johnny and Murdoch were holding each other in a tight embrace.

Scott waited only long enough to make sure he wasn't hallucinating before smiling and quietly turning to begin the slow climb back up the staircase.

He was still smiling when he entered his room and closed hte door behind him.

Johnny Madrid may not be laid to rest never to rise again, but it appeared he had finally and truly been put in the past where he belonged.

Now Scott could find genuine rest, because, for the moment, all was well with his family.

 

 

 

~end~

  

 

Author's Historical Note: Pony Deal, sometimes spelled Diehl, was born Charles Ray in Illinois. He did ride with John Kinney's Gang in New Mexico for several years until he finally left. Later he joined up with Jesse Evans, who had also been with John Kinney, in order to start his own gang. For a time, Billy the Kid rode with Jesse and Pony. The Jesse Evans Gang were participants in the imfamous Lincoln County War in New Mexico. They were opposed by Billy the Kid, who fought for the other side. Pony Deal went on to join the Ike Clanton Gang, though he was not directly involved in the Gunfight at the OK Corral. He was sought by Wyatt Earp when it was determined that he had been a part of the attempt on Virgil Earp's life. Pony Deal was never found by the Earps and faded into hisotry. According to some accounts, not verified, he was killed in 1887 in New Mexico.

I've played a bit loose with Pony Deal in this story, in that I don't know if he wore all black; I have no idea if he ever went to California, though I doubt it; and he would have been younger than I have him here, having been born in 1849.

I could have invented a gunfighter to fit perfectly into this story but wanted to use a real gunfighter. Pony Deal fit more than most I researched.

 

 

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