The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Winj

 

A Hanging Offense

 

 

 

Johnny rode into the small town of San Marcos, weary from his travels. Now on his way home from a grueling trip, he was looking forward to a hot bath and a good meal. He headed to the only hotel in town.

It was a two-story clapboard structure. Nothing remarkable about it other than the four rocking chairs on the porch. He smiled at that and walked inside. Saddlebags slung over one shoulder, rifle resting on the other, he sauntered up to the desk clerk.

He was a thin, balding man with round-rimmed spectacles that seemed to perpetually slide down his nose. He looked at Johnny from over the rims. "May I help you?"

"Room for the night."

"Just sign the register, Mr...?"

Johnny glanced up at him, then began signing his name. "Lancer," he answered.

The small man smiled. "Room 2, top of the stairs. Welcome to San Marcos, Mr. Lancer."

"Thanks. Where can I get a bath?"

"Barber shop is three doors down to the left. The hotel serves supper at six."

Johnny nodded and gave him a quick smile, then headed to the room. It was as unremarkable as the rest of the place. He threw his saddlebags on the bed and sighed. Crossing the room, he opened the window and pulled back the thread-bare curtain. The breeze was gentle but consistent and he allowed himself a moment to enjoy it.

A few minutes later, he was down the stairs and out the door, heading for the barber with one quick side trip to the livery with Barranca as his first chore.

The bell jingled over the door as he entered the empty shop. A man appeared from the back with an overly friendly smile. Johnny didn't feel like being overly friendly so he just told the man what he wanted and sat down to wait.

Eyes closed, head back against the rim, Johnny soaked in the hot water. Feeling the heat relax his tense, saddle weary muscles, a slight smile stayed on his lips. The barber had shaved him and he felt human again. Now, some food and a good night's rest. He would be home tomorrow. That thought made his smile widen.

The water finally began to cool and with a resigned sigh, he rinsed himself off and stood up. Looking over, he saw the towel out of his reach and he stepped out of the tub, leaving a river in his wake. He grabbed the towel and started drying himself, shaking his head vigorously as water sprayed in every direction.

When he walked into the main room of the shop, he was feeling ten pounds lighter.

"Haircut?" the barber asked hopefully.

"No, it's fine." Johnny smiled at the disbelieving look he got. Why was everyone always so worried about his hair?

"Uh, if you were planning on eating at the hotel, I wouldn't. The food at the saloon is a lot better. Rosa is the finest cook in town," the barber offered.

Johnny's smile was genuine now. "Thanks, I'll try it."

He entered the saloon and quickly scanned the occupants. It wasn't a huge place but it wasn't small either. Three men sat to the left embroiled in a poker game. A cowboy stood at the bar draining a beer mug. Two more men sat near the middle of the room with a lady of questionable repute.

Satisfied, Johnny walked up to the bar and leaned his right arm on the counter. The bartender was a stout-looking man of average height. He had a bushy moustache and long sideburns with sandy blond hair. Mug in one hand, towel in the other, he walked up to Johnny.

"Barber said the food here was good," Johnny said before being asked.

"Won't find nothin better in town."

He nodded and pushed his hat back a little on his head. "What have you got?"

The bartender sized him up, not trying to hide it, and smiled. "We got tamales and steaks."

"Tamales it is, and a beer," Johnny smiled back, then found a table near the back and settled in.

In short order, a middle-aged Mexican woman brought his food. Johnny stared at the plate then looked up at her.

"That's .... a lot of food," he commented.

"Enjoy, Senor. It is not often anyone asks for tamales," she smiled and quickly left him alone.

He sat back, feeling more satisfied than he had in days. His stomach was full, he was clean and he looked forward to sleeping in a bed. Finishing his beer, he reached in his shirt pocket and tossed some coins on the table. He was about to get up when he saw a badge staring at him.

Johnny's head came up slowly and took in the face wearing that badge. A grizzled man who looked older than he was watched him with a flat expression. He noted the none too clean clothes and unkempt appearance. Johnny thought of Val Crawford. He sat back down and continued the staring game.

The sheriff removed his hat, revealing black hair that was thinning a little. A craggy face but not what could be called unfriendly. He sat down across from Johnny.

"Sheriff," he nodded.

"Mr. Lancer."

Johnny looked hard at him, then smiled. The hotel clerk, of course.

"What can I do for you?"

The sheriff rested his arms on the table and leaned in just a little. "You can tell me what you're doin in San Marcos."

"Just passin through on my way home, Sheriff," he replied flatly.

"Where's home?"

Johnny leaned back in his chair and studied the man. "Have I done somethin wrong?"

"Nope."

"Then why all the questions?"

"I like to know everybody that comes through town," he explained.

"Uh huh," Johnny replied, not terribly convinced. "Morro Coyo."

The sheriff nodded. "Could've been there tonight."

"Yeah, I could have. But, you see, I had me a real longin for a bath and a meal."

"So, you'll be leavin in the mornin," the sheriff stated.

"That's right, Sheriff. In the mornin."

"Alright." He stood to leave, then stopped and turned back as if to say more. Shaking his head slightly, he decided against it and walked away.

Johnny sat there for several more minutes wondering why the man had bothered him. He had to wonder if he'd been recognized but he shook it off. No sense in lookin for trouble. Maybe the man was just doin his job and nothing more.

He walked outside and took in a deep breath of the night air. Turning toward the hotel, he sauntered down the boardwalk, spurs jingling lightly. Something in the window of the general store caught his eye and he stopped to take a look. He smiled as he thought Teresa would like the necklace. Nothing fancy but very pretty. Just like Teresa, he thought. Deciding he'd get it for her tomorrow, he continued on his way.

As he approached an alley, a scream stopped him cold. Senses awakened, he stepped cautiously to the buildings edge. Johnny peeked around the corner and saw two figures in the night. The not quite full moon cast eerie shadows as they struggled. He heard the scream again, muffled now, and took off down the alley.

He plowed into them, knocking both to the ground. Johnny moved quickly toward the man and they struggled for several minutes. Both making it to their feet, they squared off. The girl, dress torn, mouth bloody, watched in wide eyed horror. Once more they battled, wrestling each other to the ground. Johnny felt a sharp pain behind his right ear and then felt nothing as the darkness consumed him.

Screaming pain awakened in his head as he regained consciousness. Opening his eyes slowly, his vision would not focus. He saw a shadow standing a distance away and tried to use it as a compass. Slowly, his head eased to a constant throb and his vision cleared. He could make out the form of a man but something was blocking his view partially. He finally realized that something was bars. Cell bars.

He looked around the tiny room and sighed, his hand going to his forehead.

"Was wonderin if you'd ever wake up."

"Me too," he whispered.

"There's water on the table next to ya."

Johnny turned his head slowly and looked. He raised up and his head exploded again. Plopping back down, he couldn't stop the groan that escaped. He heard the clanking of the cell door as it opened, then he felt a hand behind his neck raising him up. Cool tin met his lips and he sipped at the water gratefully.

"Thanks. What happened?" he asked.

"Was hopin you could tell me," the sheriff retorted.

He winced and rubbed his head. "It's kinda fuzzy, Sheriff. I heard a scream and went down some alley. This man was fighting with a girl. I went after him and then ....." shaking his head slightly, he sighed. "and then, the lights went out."

The sheriff pulled a stool over and sat beside the cot. "You carry a knife, Lancer?"

Johnny looked at him through spread fingers. "Yeah."

"What kind?"

"Just a boot knife. Why?"

Instead of an answer, the sheriff got up and walked into the other room. He reappeared shortly. "Is this your knife?"

Johnny looked closely at it, as much as he could manage just then. "Looks like it."

"Mr. Lancer, until I can get this sorted out, you're gonna have to stay in lock up."

Johnny sat up, feeling the world upend. His hand went back to his head, hoping to keep his brains from running out. "Why?" he managed to grunt.

"The man you were fighting with had this knife stickin out of his chest. He's dead and there was no girl around when I found you both."

"Whoa! Now wait a minute. I didn't kill anybody."

"Maybe. Maybe not. We'll see what the circuit judge has to say. Unless you can identify this girl...." he trailed off.

"I didn't get a real good look. She was young, maybe sixteen, and Mexican. Pretty, I think," he stated, confusion pouring over him like a waterfall.

"Doc will be back tomorrow. I'll have 'im look at ya. Til then, try and get some sleep."

"Sheriff, wait. Can I send a wire to my family?"

"In the mornin," he nodded and stepped out of the cell, closing it tightly behind him.  

Johnny laid back down and stared at the ceiling. Murdoch is gonna hit the roof, he sighed with the thought. He tried to remember everything that had happened but all that did was make his head hurt worse. Closing his eyes, he decided not to think about it just now.

Outside, in the sheriff's office, a man was waiting. "Well?" he demanded.

The sheriff looked at him and shrugged. "He said he didn't kill anybody."

"And you believe that?" he bellowed.

"Calm down, Mr. Warren. I didn't say I believed him and I didn't say I don't. I don't know and his memory ain't too good right now. He's got a nasty lump on his head."

The tall rancher paced the confines of the room, his weather-worn face in a perpetual frown. Hands, roughened by hard work, wrung together with anxiety and grief. He removed his hat, slapping it against his thigh, his light red hair all but gone now. "I want him hanged!"

Sheriff McCloud sighed heavily. "Look, I know he was your boy ......"

"That's right, Sheriff. My boy. My only son! And now he's dead because of that man in there!"

"You don't know that. We don't know what happened. And until he gets the cobwebs cleared, all we can do is wait." The sheriff maintained his calm demeanor despite the growing headache.

"As if he'd tell the truth! I heard he's a half-breed," he snorted.

"What difference does that make? Look, don't start no trouble, Mr. Warren. Let the law handle this."

Oliver Warren glared at the sheriff. Feeling the heat of his anger swell, he bit back the threat and slammed his hat onto his head. "The law had better take care of it, Sheriff McCloud!" He stormed from the office.

McCloud sat back in his chair and rubbed two fingers across his brow. He opened his bottom desk drawer and took out a bottle. Not bothering with a glass, he took a long pull. He didn't know if Lancer was telling the truth, he only hoped no one found out who the man really was until things got sorted out.

If anyone caught wind that he had Johnny Madrid in his jail, 'justice' would come swiftly for the young man.

Johnny awoke the next morning when he heard the door to the cell area open. His vision was still blurry though not as bad. His head still throbbed and he couldn't tell if that had gotten any better. He heard the key in the lock and opened his eyes.

An elderly man in a black suit walked through the cell door. He was carrying a black bag.

"Hey, Doc."

"Good morning, young man. I understand you had quite a blow to the head. I'm Dr. Turner. Now, let me just have a look at you." He smiled and Johnny relaxed at the kindly face.

"Well, you've suffered a concussion. No doubt about that, but I think you'll live. Your head will hurt for a few days yet," he diagnosed after his examination.

"Thanks, Doc."

Turner nodded and closed his medical bag. He turned back and studied Johnny's face. "Anything I can do for you?"

Johnny smiled a little. "Can you get me out of here? No, thanks anyway."

The sheriff let the doctor out the door and closed it back. Fishing in his pocket, he pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil. "You want to send that telegram now?"

Johnny sat up slowly on the side of the bed. "Want to? No, I don't want to. But, guess I'd better," he sighed, dreading this more than a plague. "Murdoch Lancer, Morro Coyo." He stopped there, unsure how to tell his father about this mess.

The sheriff waited patiently.

"In jail San Marcos. Need help. Hell, I guess that says it all."

"Reckon it does," the sheriff smiled. "Worried about your old man?"

Johnny looked up and smiled. "He can get loud."

McCloud snorted. "Sounds like a good match for Oliver Warren."

"Who?"

"The father of the man you ..... the man that died. He's not a bit happy with you. Wants you hung."

"I'll bet," Johnny deadpanned.

"Do you remember any more?"

"Not really. I remember hearing a scream. I looked in the alley and saw them struggling. All I could really tell is it was a man and a woman. I pretty much plowed in and started fighting with him. I only got one look at her. Very young and Mexican, like I said."

"You sure she was Mexican?" McCloud asked.

"I'm positive. Why? Does that make a difference?"

"Don't know. Just odd. The Warrens ..... well, they don't hold with Mexicans," the sheriff said, dropping his eyes from that stare.

"Reckon not since he was beatin the tar out of her," Johnny flashed, his anger rising.

Sheriff McCloud sent the telegram personally. Things were heating up in San Marcos. He could feel the tension in the air and he wouldn't trust anyone else to make sure the wire was sent. He even waited while the operator did so. Oliver Warren was the biggest rancher in the area. The man had power and most were afraid of him.

He saw the men gathered outside the saloon with more standing around the general store. All of them watched his every move. Sheriff Dan McCloud was feeling a lynching in the air. He didn't like that feeling one bit. He headed for the saloon to obtain a meal for his prisoner. His path was blocked by three cowboys.

"You ain't gonna let that breed go, are ya, Sheriff?"

"I'm gonna uphold the law, Slade. The judge will be here in two days. There'll be a trial just like it oughta be."

"Ain't no need for a trial, Sheriff. We all know he's guilty."

"Oh, you know that do ya? Was you there? Did you see what happened? No, ya didn't. Now look, boys, I don't want no trouble and I expect I'll not have any. But, if I do, you should all know right now, I ain't gonna hand that man over to nobody!" With that said, the sheriff shouldered his way through the cowboys and proceeded inside.

Slade turned to his friends and grinned. "We'll see about that. If Mr. Warren wants that half-breed to swing, he's gonna swing."

When he came back out with the cloth-covered breakfast tray, the cowboys were gone. McCloud sighed with relief. At least for the moment.

At the Circle W ranch, Oliver Warren paced the carpeted living room floor. Slate and his crew waited with hats in hand. He finally stopped and turned.

"I know Murdoch Lancer a little. He's got pull in Sacramento and he'll use it to free that mex. You boys were friends with my son. I know you won't let that murderin breed go free."

Slade smiled and stepped up. "We sure won't, Mr. Warren. Pete was a good friend. We'll see his murder don't go unpunished."

"Good man. Just keep my name out of it, boys. And make sure you don't get yourselves caught. Plan it out carefully. You've got time."

Slade nodded and walked out, the men following him. Warren smiled in satisfaction knowing his son's murder would be avenged.

Scott galloped into the yard at Lancer shouting his father's name.

"What's wrong?" Murdoch asked as he ran out the door.

"Take a look at this, Sir," Scott handed over the wire, breathing heavily from his ride.

Murdoch read the telegram and crunched it in his hand. "Get two fresh mounts ready, son. We'll leave right away."

Murdoch Lancer entered the San Marcos Sheriff's office, seething. Scott had tried to calm him down on the ride but to no avail. McCloud stood when they entered, figuring quickly who the man was.

"Reckon you're Mr. Lancer. Sheriff Dan McCloud," he extended a hand.

Murdoch shook firmly and introduced Scott. Once the niceties were over, he got down to business. "I want to see my son."

"Sure thing. Just leave the guns out here," the sheriff said.

Murdoch walked through the door with a stern looking expression. As soon as he saw Johnny, that stern facade fell, replaced by concern. "What happened to your head?"

Johnny got up and walked to the bars, holding them too tightly. "Got clobbered."

"By whom?"

"I don't know. Reckon the dead man."

"What happened, Johnny?" Scott asked.

He sighed and relayed the same story as he'd told the sheriff.

"Has anyone tried to find this girl?" Scott asked.

"I don't know. All I know is I didn't kill anyone."

Scott turned to the sheriff who was standing in the doorway. "Well, Sheriff? Have you tried to locate this girl?"

"No, I haven't."

"Why not?" Murdoch bellowed.

McCloud cocked a brow and looked at Johnny with a slight smile. "Well, Mr. Lancer, it's like this. A sixteen year old Mexican girl is pretty common in these parts. Haven't had time to look for her yet."

Johnny jumped a little and closed his eyes when the thunderous boom from the other room came in the form of the sheriff's name. His hand went to his head as the pounding started.

"Who is that?" Scott asked.

"That would be Mr. Warren. The father of the dead man. Excuse me, gentlemen," the sheriff said with some dread.

"Oliver Warren? I want to talk to this man. I'll be right back," Murdoch said lowly.

Johnny tapped his brother's arm through the bars and Scott nodded then followed his father.

"And I told you I want that man to hang!" Warren was saying.

"Oliver!"

Warren turned. "Murdoch, I know he's your son but that doesn't mean he gets off scot free."

"Johnny said he didn't kill Pete and I believe him," Murdoch retorted.

"Of course you do! What I want to know is why?"

"What kind of question is that? He's my son."

"He's a half-breed gunfighter," Warren sniped.

Scott took two steps toward the man before Murdoch's hand stopped his advance.

"My brother doesn't lie, Mr. Warren," he hissed.

"Everybody just settle down, now," the sheriff ordered. "Nothin's gonna be gained with all this hollerin and name-callin."

"It certainly isn't," Scott agreed.

"I want to see him!" Warren demanded.

"Why?" Murdoch asked.

"Don't I have the right to look in the face of my son's murderer?"

"Yes, you do. Why don't you go find your son's murderer? My brother didn't kill him!" Scott fumed.

Warren glared at him then strode to the back room before anyone could stop him. Murdoch was hot on his heels.

Johnny stood when the tall man entered.

"Where is it?" Warren demanded.

"Where's what?"

"His watch. My son's watch!"

Johnny shook his head. "I don't know."

Warren's face turned a deeper red as he approached the bars. "Pete wore a gold pocket watch. I gave it to him for his birthday two years ago. It wasn't on .... him. What did you do with it?"

Johnny stood his ground and faced the man. "I didn't take his watch or his life." His voice was soft and calm with the surety of his claim.

Warren turned to face the sheriff. "Well?"

"He has a watch but it ain't Pete's. I've seen that watch a dozen times, Mr. Warren. I'd know it anywhere. Especially bein inscribed and all," McCloud explained.

"Then he hid it or threw it away."

Johnny stepped closer to the bars. "I'm sorry your son is dead but I didn't kill him and I'm not a thief, Mr. Warren. All I did was try to help a young girl."

Warren smirked at him. "One of yours, so you say. Pete wouldn't have been seen with a Mex."

"Well, reckon that's why he had her in an alley," Johnny shot.

For a big man, he moved swiftly. He snaked his arm through the bars and grabbed Johnny by the throat. It took Murdoch and Scott to pull him off.

"Oliver, I know you're in pain, but, touch my son again and you'll deal with me personally!" Murdoch glowered.

"He just better not get off because he's got a daddy who knows the governor," Warren spat and stormed out.

"What a pleasant man," Scott sniped. Turning to his brother, Scott's face softened. "You okay?

Johnny nodded. "Yeah," as he sat back down.

"He's upset, Johnny. He lost his son. Oliver has never been an easy man to deal with on a good day," Murdoch explained.

"He's a bigot," Scott shot.

"So was his son. That's why it don't make sense that he was with a Mexican girl," Johnny frowned.

"It makes perfect sense to me. During the war, I found that many southern slave owners .... used the female slaves," Scott said.

"You think he was trying to rape her, son?"

"Maybe. Or maybe he wasn't as bigoted as his father. We need to find that girl. Can you think of anything else about her, Johnny?"

Johnny shook his head slowly. "She's got to have some marks on her. I know she had a bloody nose."

"Well, that's something," Scott sighed. "We should start asking around, Murdoch. Oh, and Johnny, don't worry. We'll get you out of here if it takes six months."

Johnny stood and looked at his brother incredulously. He stuck his arm through the bars to swat but Scott moved deftly away from him. "I'll get you back, brother," he grinned.

"I'm counting on it, brother," Scott said with sincerity.

Johnny smiled again and nodded.

Murdoch moved closer to him. "Is there anything you need, son?"

"Could you check on Barranca for me? He's at the livery."

Murdoch smiled and shook his head. "Of course. Don't worry. I'll fix this."

Johnny's eyes softened and he swore he saw something in his father's face. Affection. He dropped his head and nodded.

Standing out on the boardwalk, Scott looked up and down the street. "Well, the best place to get information is usually from a bartender."

"Sounds reasonable to me," Murdoch said and wrapped an arm around his son as they headed to the saloon.

The bartender was not, however, very helpful. In fact, he kept looking toward a group of men at a table nearby. Scott was losing his patience and he stepped in front of the man, effectively cutting his line of vision.

"So, Johnny came in, ate, had a talk with the sheriff and left. Is that right?"

"Yep. That's all I know, mister. Didn't cause no trouble."

"Did you fix his meal?" Murdoch asked, not knowing why really.

"Rosa cooks here. She's in the back but she saw less of 'im than I did."

"I'd still like to talk with her," the rancher pressed.

The bartender shrugged and waved toward the kitchen, cut off from the bar by a simple curtain.

Murdoch and Scott stepped into the back and found the woman preparing for the night's crowds. Scott quickly explained the situation. She seemed genuinely sorry but could tell them nothing. When they asked about the girl, she could only shrug.

"What about farms or ranches in the area? Are any of them owned by Mexicans?" Murdoch asked.


"Si, Senor. Many of the farms. Not so many ranches."

Sighing, Murdoch thanked the woman and they left the saloon.

"I guess we'd better start checking the area then," Scott said.

Scott and Murdoch rode back into town at sunset. They decided to clean up then visit Johnny before having supper. As they entered the hotel, the clerk handed Murdoch a telegram. He read it and sighed.

"Harry Richards can't come. He has a big case in Modesto," he relayed.

"Great! Who are we going to get to defend Johnny?" Scott's exasperation could not be hidden. He was tired, dusty and hungry and very worried for his brother.

"I don't know, son. Come on. Let's clean up and go talk with your brother."

Johnny was just finished with his evening meal when the Lancers walked in. Scott smiled at the empty plate.

"Feeling better?"

"Yeah, my head doesn't hurt so much now. You two don't look too happy."

"We aren't. I had wired Harry Richards to come here and defend you but he can't," Murdoch said glumly.

Johnny nodded his understanding.

"There isn't one single lawyer in this town. I don't know who we can get," Scott added.

"What about Jarrod Barkley?" Johnny asked.

Murdoch shook his head. "He's in Europe. I just got a letter from Victoria last week telling me about it."

Johnny's eyes lit up and he looked sidelong at his brother. "What about you, Harvard?"

Scott's head jerked up and he stared at Johnny. "Me? Oh, no, brother. I only took basic law classes," he explained, waving a hand.

"More than either of us. Besides, with that silver tongue of yours, you can talk the devil out of his fork," Johnny grinned.

Murdoch smiled at the gibe. It was true. Scott's command of the language was extensive.

"No, Johnny. I can't."

"He has a point, Scott. You're the best choice," Murdoch piped up.

"No! Forget about it. We'll find someone," Scott scorched.

"Easy, Boston. What's the matter with you?" Johnny asked as he neared the cell bars.

"Nothing. I just .... I couldn't live with myself if I lost."

Johnny burst out laughing and Scott and Murdoch looked oddly at him.

"Maybe the doctor should check his head again," Scott advised.

Johnny waved a hand and shook his head as he gained control. "YOU couldn't live with yourself, Scott? Sorry, that just sounded funny. I'm the one they're gonna hang."

"There is nothing funny about any of this! Especially you hanging!" Murdoch blurted out.

The outburst stopped Johnny cold, the smile sliding off his face. They were all quiet for several minutes. The door opened and the sheriff appeared to tell them visiting hours were over.

Murdoch came near the cell. "I'm sorry, son. I guess I'm just tired."

"It's okay. Guess it really isn't all that funny," Johnny whispered, giving his father a little smile.

Murdoch reached through the bars and grasped his shoulder, squeezing firmly. "We will get you out of this. I swear it."

Johnny swallowed hard. "I know."

Scott approached him next with a smile. "At least you get some time off."

"Yeah, no cows to push around," he laughed softly.

"Hang in there, brother."

"Sure, Scott. Sorry about before but, well, if push comes to shove, I would want you to defend me. Murdoch, he's got a temper," he grinned.

Scott smiled and rolled his eyes. Giving Johnny a firm pat on the arm, he followed his father out the door.

The next morning, the two elder Lancers headed out at dawn. They wanted to cover as much ground as possible. They rode farm to farm and ranch to ranch, looking for the mystery girl. By noon, both men were becoming discouraged.

"We should go back and let Johnny know something," Scott suggested.

"Let him know what? That we've failed?" Murdoch grumped.

"He's stuck in that cell, Sir. He has no idea what's going on in the world. Any news is better than no news."

"You're right, son. I didn't think about that. Let's check this one farm then we'll head back."

They rode into the tiny place. A shack, really, with a tin roof and cross-shaped windows with a well near the small corral that held a mule. Scott and Murdoch dismounted and led the horses to the well as a woman appeared.

"Buenos dias, Senora. May we water our horses?" Scott smiled charmingly.

She leered at him but nodded her head.

Scott turned back and mumbled to his father, "she's a happy person."

"Just keep smiling, son. Use that charm," Murdoch mumbled back.

Both men turned and smiled at the woman again as she watched their every move. Murdoch approached and removed his hat, as did Scott.

"Senora, we were hoping you might be able to help us. A young girl was attacked in town two nights ago. We've been trying to find her."

"Que?"

"Well, my son helped her and now he's in jail. We need her to make a statement about what happened."

"Why is your son in jail?" she asked.

"He's charged with murder, ma'am. But, he's innocent. He was only trying to help the young lady," Scott explained.

"I cannot help you," she said flatly.

"Are you sure? You've seen no young girls with bruises on her face maybe? A neighbor? She's about sixteen," Murdoch tried.

The woman shook her head firmly.

"Mama?"

They all turned at the soft voice. A young girl appeared from the barn. She had long black hair that fell into her face as she kept her head bowed.

"Entre la casa, Bonita," the woman ordered.

"Just a minute, please," Scott said and walked up to her. With a slow hand, he pushed the girl's hair back to reveal a black eye and a swollen nose. "It was you. You're the girl Johnny helped."

"Johnny?"

"My brother. He's been charged with murder, Senorita. We need your help," Scott explained.

"She cannot help you. She is not the girl you seek," her mother spoke firmly and took her arm, pulling her away.

"Would you let an innocent man hang, Senora?" Murdoch said quickly.

"Hang? Por que?" the girl asked.

"Yes, hang. Please, Miss. Could you just tell us what happened with Pete Warren."

She looked at her mother whose stern face never faltered. "Mama, por favor? He saved me."

The woman closed her eyes and made the sign of the cross. When she looked back, she simply nodded to the girl.

"Por favor, come inside," she offered.

Once in the small house, they were seated at the table. The Senora served coffee and the Lancers waited impatiently but quietly. To insult their host now could be disastrous.

"I was coming home from work. I sew for Senora Johnson three nights a week. Senor Warren appeared from the shadows and offered to walk with me. I said no but he would not leave. He pulled me into the alley and tried ......" she stopped as her lower lip quivered.

"Please, go on," Scott said gently.

"He tried to .... take me. I fought him as hard as I could. I remember I screamed. Suddenly, a man appeared and knocked us both down. He then began fighting with Warren. I was so frightened. I could only stand there. Then, Senor Warren, he hit the man with a rock and he fell to the side. He moved no more and I thought he was dead. I ran away."

"Just a minute. Johnny was unconscious and Warren was still alive?" Scott asked.

"Si, Senor."

"The sheriff said Johnny was still out cold when he found them," Scott pointed out.

"Senorita, did you see anyone else. Anyone at all that night?" Murdoch asked.

"No, Senor. I saw no one. I ran straight home and told my mama what had happened. We were sure the man was dead."

"We need you to tell the sheriff what happened," Scott said.

"No, I cannot, Senor," she said in a frightened voice.

"What do you mean you can't?" Scott demanded.

"Easy, son. Why not, miss?" Murdoch said in a gentler tone.

"Senor, my daughter will not be believed by the gringos," the woman spoke.

"Look, I know there is some prejudice. But, the sheriff...."

"The sheriff is a good man. Your son will have a trial, no? And you want my daughter to speak at this trial? Will those men who sit in judgment believe her?"

Murdoch frowned. "If the sheriff believes her, he may drop the charges and there would be no trial."

"It's worth a try. Please, my brother's life is at stake," Scott pleaded softly.

Bonita looked to her mother for the decision. The older woman thought long and hard and they waited and hoped. Finally, she sighed. "She may go with you to the sheriff. If there is a trial, I will have to consider if it is best for my daughter to speak."

Murdoch's shoulders visibly relaxed and he stood. "Gracias, Senora. We will bring her home as soon as possible."

Bonita rode behind Scott as they headed back to town. No one spoke but he could feel her fear. He felt sorry for the girl but he had to do whatever he could to help his brother.

As they entered the town, Scott felt the girl tense. He looked back over his shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile.

The sheriff was sitting outside and watched with interest as the Lancers rode up.

Scott dismounted and helped Bonita down then guided her by the elbow to the waiting man.

"Sheriff, this is Bonita. She has something to tell you," Murdoch explained.

"Alright. Let's go inside, young lady."

Sheriff McCloud listened closely to the girl's recollections. It did not escape him, either, that Johnny was already unconscious when she fled.

When she'd finished, he sat back and rubbed his chin in thought.

"Well, Sheriff? If Johnny was already out, he couldn't have killed Warren," Scott said.

"Maybe."

"What do you mean, maybe?" Murdoch demanded.

"I mean, he could've come to long enough to knife Warren."

Scott threw his hands up in the air and circled the room. "Alright, say he did and doesn't remember because of the blow to the head. Wouldn't that still be self-defense?"

"I just don't know. I'm gonna have to talk to the judge about this when he gets here tomorrow."

"Sheriff, this is ridiculous. I know you don't believe Johnny killed that man. I could tell that when we first arrived. What will it take?" Murdoch fumed.

"I know this is hard, Mr. Lancer. I have to think about the victim and his family, too. If I turn your boy loose, I have to be absolutely sure."

Both other men fell quiet, grudgingly understanding the sheriff's position.

"May I see him?" Bonita asked quietly.

"Sure, Miss," McCloud smiled.

Johnny stood when he heard the door open, hoping it was his family. He was about to go loco with his own crazy thoughts. He was surprised to see a girl walk in but he knew instantly.

"Hi," he said softly.

"Hello. My name is Bonita Ruiz."

"Johnny Lancer."

"I wanted to say I am sorry. I thought he had killed you. That is why I ran away," she explained, tears filling her soft brown eyes.

Johnny smiled tenderly at her. "I understand. You must have been scared."

"Si. I told the sheriff all I know. I hope it helps you. Gracias por ahorrar mi vida," she whispered. (Thank you for saving my life)

"De nada, Senorita."

She smiled at him, then frowned. "May I ask why?"

Johnny was surprised but he smiled charmingly. "I always come to the aid of pretty girls."

She smiled again. "You look nothing like your hermano but you have the same kind of smiles."

"Yeah? What kind is that?"

"El encantar," she blushed. (Charming)

Johnny laughed softly. "Has my brother been trying to charm you, Senorita? I should warn you. He's no good."

"I do not believe that, Senor. No man who has such love for his brother can be no good."

Johnny dropped his head at that.

"If I must speak at a trial, I will do so. I will convince my mama it is for the best."

"Gracias, Bonita," he said softly.

Murdoch and Scott walked in then and smiled at the flush on the girl's cheeks.

"I'll take you home now, Senorita," Scott said.

"Remember what I said, Bonita. El no es ningun bueno," Johnny laughed. (He is no good)

Scott looked suspiciously at his brother. "Whatever he said, it isn't true."

Once alone, Murdoch's smile faded.

"What?"

"Well, son, the sheriff has to talk to the judge about all this tomorrow."

"Why? She told them I was out cold and Warren was still alive."

"I know, Johnny. The man is just doing his job," Murdoch sighed.

"Hey, you okay?" Johnny asked, concern in his eyes.

Murdoch looked into those eyes and tried to smile. "I'm fine, son. Everything will be fine once the judge gets here."

Johnny nodded. "Too bad, though. I would really like to see Scott in a courtroom," he grinned.

Murdoch chuckled. "Maybe someday when it's not such a serious charge."

"Yeah, maybe a bar brawl or somethin." Johnny sat back down and rubbed his forehead.

"Has the doctor been back?"

"No, I'm okay. Just headaches. He said I'd have them for a few days."

Hugh Slade watched as Scott and Bonita rode out of town. As soon as they were gone, he headed back to the Circle W.

Mike Lawson wasn't the brightest penny but he was honest and trustworthy and he didn't mind staying up all night. Youth, the sheriff figured. That was the biggest asset the young man had and one reason the sheriff had made him a deputy.

But McCloud wasn't thrilled with leaving Lawson in charge of this particular prisoner all night. Still, the man had to sleep some time and he was plain worn out. So, he'd left Mike in charge with the intention of getting just a couple of hours shuteye before relieving the deputy. He hadn't heard any more grumbling from Warren's crew lately so he felt fairly safe in leaving Lancer with the young man.

Johnny hadn't spent much time with the deputy but he knew, in a crisis, the boy would be useless. He laid on his cot, hoping tomorrow he would be a free man again. He figured the judge would see things reasonably.

It was quiet in the jail at night. At least, during the day there was noise from outside. It was this silence that made him crazy. The waiting was excruciating. Johnny tried to pass the time as best he could, but the hours between sundown and sunup were painfully slow.

Lawson was diligent in his duties so he had refused any attempts at conversation Johnny tried. He'd given up the first night he was coherent. He laughed a little. That would have been last night.

So, he laid on the cot with his fingers interlaced behind his head and stared at the ceiling. Twenty-two cracks. That's how many there were. He knew because he'd counted every single one. He sighed and turned over facing the wall.

His eyes grew heavy and he was about to drift off when he heard a chair scrape across the floor in the outer office. Sighing, he closed his eyes once more, hoping the deputy would be more quiet.

He bolted up in the bed at the next sound. Listening closely, he could tell there was a scuffle going on out there. Johnny's entire body tensed as he sat on the side of the cot and pulled on his boots. He stood and walked to the cell door, waiting and watching.

It grew quiet once more out there and still, he waited. Soon enough, the door opened and three men he didn't know entered. The first man approached with an ugly grin on his face. He was brandishing a pistol.

"Step back," he ordered and waved the gun.

Johnny did so, backing up until his legs touched the cot.

The man unlocked the door and motioned with the gun for Johnny to step out.

As he did, he asked, "what's this all about?"

"It's about justice, breed. Plain and simple."

His arms were pulled behind him and tied tightly. "So, you're gonna lynch me. That it? And I guess it don't matter that I didn't do it."

"You keep right on spoutin them lies, breed. Right up to your last breath," he spat then shoved him on the back.

"You tell 'im, Slade," one of the others laughed.

Johnny noticed the deputy first. He was laying beside the desk, unconscious. At least, Johnny hoped that was all. He knew the kid was useless but at least he'd put up a hell of a fight. That was plain to see by all the wreckage in the room.

They led him outside and into the street. It was still as death, not even a breeze moving in the air, the good people of San Marcos long since having retired. His family, too, he thought with chagrin. At least they won't see it, he hoped.

He saw it then. Across the street grew an elm tree. The rope swung lazily from it as another man held the end. Underneath, stood a buckboard. They shoved him forward, toward the tree. Johnny sucked in a deep breath and tried to calm his nerves.

They threw him onto the buckboard then two men scrambled up and brought him to his feet. The noose was put around his neck and drawn tight.

"Any last words, breed? A prayer or somethin?" Slade snorted.

Johnny bit his tongue for once in his life. "A prayer would be nice."

"Go ahead."

"I'm Catholic. Mind if I kneel?"

The man looked scathingly at him. "Pray on your feet!"

Johnny sighed and bowed his head. Not really praying but trying to figure a way out of this mess. It didn't take him long to realize there was no escape. So, with a final prayer for his soul and a quick death, he raised his head once more. His eyes saw something shining then. Only a flash really but it caught his attention. Something in Slade's pocket. Why it seemed important, he couldn't say. He took one more deep breath.

"I'm ready," he stated simply.

The two men beside him couldn't help but be impressed by his calm. No begging, no trying to talk them out of it, no pleading his innocence again. Nothing. He stared straight ahead, his face blank.

Scott couldn't sleep for some reason. His mind was awhirl and he couldn't quiet it. Something edged his conscious thought. Some nagging feeling that something just wasn't right. He listened to his father snore in the next bed. That did nothing to help him sleep either. He threw the blankets off and sat up. Swinging his feet off the bed he sat and rubbed his face. He looked over to make sure he hadn't disturbed Murdoch. No chance of that. The man was exhausted.

Leaning his arms on his thighs, he hung his head and sighed softly. Tomorrow everything would be alright. The judge was sure to see the truth of the events and set Johnny free. If not, his brother would go to trial. Senora Ruiz words came back to him. Would the jury believe her daughter? And if not, why would they believe Johnny either? The prejudice the Mexicans endured was bad enough. But, Scott had learned that being of mixed heritage was even worse in the minds of these haters.

This thought made him angry and tense. Great! Now I'll never get to sleep. He stood and walked over to the water pitcher, pouring a measure in a glass and downing it. He wondered if the night clerk had any coffee. Probably. No one could stay awake all night without some kind of help. He didn't much feel like getting dressed though so he sat back down in a chair.

He wondered if his brother was having trouble sleeping. Thoughts of Johnny brought that odd feeling on again. That nagging in his brain. That sensation of impending doom. He snorted lightly at the thought. Deciding he'd rather have that coffee after all, Scott moved silently to the dresser by the window to get his clothes.

Movement in the street caught his eye and he stepped closer to the window. Eyes widening in horror, Scott watched his brother's head come up and stare straight ahead.

Pulling from his training on discipline in the army, Scott found his voice. As he shouted, the buckboard moved. The only sound that could be heard in the stillness of the night was Scott Lancer's heart wrenching, "noooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!"

Murdoch Lancer bolted upright in bed. He was on his feet in a heartbeat. He looked confusedly around the room until he found his son staring out the window. Before he could speak, Scott had grabbed the rifle that was propped next to him and brought it to bear.

Murdoch knew not what was happening, but he didn't want to break his son's concentration. He moved up behind Scott and his heart stopped.

'God, please let my aim be true,' Scott prayed as he squeezed the trigger.

Johnny closed his eyes only briefly as he worked furiously to quiet his pounding heart. He swallowed at the dryness in his throat and cleared his mind of everything.

"This is for Pete," Slade scorched the words as he slapped the flank of the horse nearest him.

The buckboard lurched and time seemed to stop for Johnny. Then he felt his feet giving beneath him. For some inexplicable reason, he kicked out just as the firmament left him. He felt the rope give just a little. Just stretching to its full length. Then the terrifying sensation of no longer being able to breathe.

In that split second, he decided not to fight it. He'd almost wished his neck had been broken so he could go quick. But it was not to be. His brain took over in its demand for oxygen that would not come and his body struggled of its own accord against the rope. He could feel his face turning hot as the blood pooled with no place to go.

Sheriff McCloud walked down the quiet side street on his way to the jail. He checked businesses to make sure the doors were locked. He heard a rifle shot and took off running.

Scott dropped the rifle after discharging it. Not bothering with his clothes, he ran out the door in his long johns. Murdoch right behind him, similarly dressed. Both only hesitated long enough to grab their pistols.

Johnny felt the ground come up to meet him and was confused by it. The rope was still deeply planted in his neck but he felt a little air making its way through as he tumbled onto his right side.

The four men stood dumbstruck by what had just happened, staring at the frazzled rope end. They were brought out of their state by the sound of shots being fired in their direction. All four took off running as the sheriff gained ground.

McCloud pulled up short and dropped beside Johnny. He had no idea how the man ended up on the ground. All he knew was, he needed air and now. He loosened the noose and Johnny started coughing hard. Face red with the exertion now and feeling extremely dizzy as the blood rushed back into his body.

McCloud raised him up and rubbed his back in large circles, more for comfort than anything medicinal. He heard footsteps coming toward him and cocked his gun. He released it and dropped the Colt when he saw the Lancers barreling toward him.

Scott got there first and took over for the sheriff. Holding Johnny from the back as he sucked in huge gulps of air alternating with severe bouts of coughing. Murdoch dropped beside them and took his son's shoulders as he faced him.

"Try to slow down your breathing, Johnny. I know it's hard, son. Just go easy." His voice was softer than Scott had ever thought it could be.

The sheriff cut the ropes that bound his hands and with a quick, "I'll get Doc," he took off before anyone could reply.

Murdoch looked around and ran back to the sheriff's office. He returned in record time with a cup of water and the pitcher to match it. He fed Johnny small sips as he could tolerate them.

Dr. Turner ran as fast as his age would allow once the sheriff had told him. He was horrified. He'd never treated a near hanging and he was not looking forward to what he would find.

Johnny was breathing a little easier and the coughing had reduced some by the time they arrived. Before he could even examine the man, he needed light, however. He instructed the Lancers to take Johnny back into the jail.

But Murdoch's hard voice stopped them all. "No! He's not safe there. The hotel." His eyes went to the sheriff with the challenge hanging thick in the air.

McCloud only nodded, knowing he couldn't argue nor was there time. Scott and Murdoch carried Johnny to the hotel and past the onlookers. They laid him gently on Scott's bed and lit the lamps as the doctor prepared to examine him.

"Mike!" the sheriff suddenly gasped. "I have to check on my deputy," he explained and bolted.

"Young man, I need to look," the exasperated doctor instructed.

Johnny's hands were at his throat and he refused to remove them from the protective posture.

Scott sat beside him opposite the doctor. "Johnny, he has to look. He has to clean the wound. Come on, now. Give me your hands," he spoke quietly.

Johnny watched him, then glanced at the old man. Slowly, his hands came down into his brother's waiting grasp.

Dr. Turner went to work, being as gentle as he could. He hadn't forgotten about the concussion recently received. This certainly didn't help matters any! He noticed Johnny kept his head cocked to the right and he gingerly straightened it. Peering into the blue depths, he made his statement emphatic.

"You must keep your head straight. If you don't, it will stay crooked like that. Do you understand?"

Johnny could only nod. He was unable to speak.

"There are some deeper cuts on the right. I don't know about scarring yet," he continued as he worked.

He wanted to ask but couldn't. He needed to know more than about scars. His eyes went to his brother's, hoping he could convey what he wanted.

Scott stared into the eyes and saw something he never thought he'd see there. Fear. And then, something else. Suddenly, he understood.

"Doc, what about his voice?"

The immediate relaxing told Scott he'd guessed right. This was what Johnny worried about.

"It's too soon to say. You shouldn't even try to talk for a few days. I'll have to wait until some of the swelling goes down before I can examine your vocal chords."

The doctor wrapped his neck loosely in white bandages and sat back. "Well, that's all I can do for now. I'll check you first thing in the morning. I'm afraid you can't try to drink or eat tonight. And definitely no trying to talk," he wagged a finger.

Johnny nodded then his eyes went to the door.

Sheriff McCloud stood in the doorway quietly waiting. "Doc, when you're through, Mike needs tending. He's got some cuts and bruises and a lump on the head."

"I'm coming. All finished here for now," Dr. Turner smiled and patted Johnny's hand.

"I'll be along, Doc," McCloud said and stepped on in the room.

"Reckon ya can't tell me anything," he said more than asked.

Johnny made a motion with his hands that Murdoch responded to. He retrieved a pencil and paper and handed it to his son. Deep creases of worry lined his face. Johnny shouldn't have to do this right now.

He scribbled on the paper and handed it to the sheriff who grimaced. "Slade."

"Who's that?" Murdoch asked.

"Warren's foreman. I'll get some men together at first light and go after him. How many?"

Johnny held up four fingers.

"Yep, and I'll bet I can name 'em all, too," he sighed in disgust.

Johnny frowned in thought as if trying to remember something, then his eyes alit. He started writing again. When the sheriff looked at the note, his eyes widened.

"Are you sure?"

Johnny nodded firmly.

"Alright. Get some rest. I'll let you all know what happens," McCloud nodded and left quickly.

"Care to share, brother?" Scott asked as he retook his seat on the bed. Murdoch took the doctor's place as Johnny wrote another note.

Scott read it and cocked a brow, then handed it to his father.

"Well, I guess Oliver Warren is in for a big surprise," the rancher said harshly. His face softened as he looked back at his younger son. "Get some sleep, Johnny."

He frowned. Frustrated at not being able to talk to them. He had questions, too. And he wanted answers. Shaking his head, no, he wrote again and handed it to Murdoch.

The man smiled and looked at Scott. "Well, let's just say I'm eternally grateful to whoever taught Scott to shoot so well."

He handed the note over at the perplexed look he received and Scott smiled. "Best shot I ever took, brother."

Johnny was astounded as much as he was grateful. His eyes spoke what his voice could not. Scott looked down, unable to handle the wellspring of emotions. The thought of what would have happened had he missed that shot would haunt him for a very long time.

But Johnny's strong grasp on his arm forced him to look back and he smiled at the appreciation and respect he saw on his brother's face.

"Now, go to sleep. Any other questions can wait for morning," Scott admonished.

Johnny smiled and closed his eyes, drifting into sleep as his family kept close watch.

Sheriff Dan McCloud was one angry man when he rode to the Circle W ranch with six newly-appointed deputies. He didn't bother to dismount as Oliver Warren came out of the house.

"Good morning, Sheriff."

"No, Sir. It ain't a good mornin."

"Why? What's wrong?"

McCloud glared at the man but held his temper a little longer. "Is Slade here? I need to have a few words with him."

Warren raised his brows. "He's around here somewhere, Sheriff. I'm sure he's working. Lester! Find Slade!" he bellowed to a nearby ranch hand. "Climb on down, McCloud."

He did so, still ready to spit nails. Mostly because he got the distinct feeling Warren knew exactly why he was there.

Slade came sauntering up with a grin on his face. "Somethin I can do for you, Sheriff?"

"Sure is. You can come nice and quiet back to town with me. You're under arrest," McCloud stated.

"Arrest? What for?" Slade asked.

"Attempted murder and murder!" McCloud spat.

Slade grinned once more. "Of who?"

McCloud's eyes went to Warren when he answered. "The attempted murder of Johnny Lancer and the murder of Pete Warren."

The rancher's jaw fell open as his face reddened. "What are you talking about?!"

"That's what I wanna know. I didn't kill Pete!" Slade decried.

McCloud walked over to him, standing toe to toe. He looked down at Slade's vest and reached into the pocket. He pulled out a fob with a gold pocket watch attached. Stepping back, he turned it over. "To my son on his 21st birthday. Pa." he read.

Warren held out a shaky hand as the sheriff turned the watch over. He studied it closely. Eyes shooting fire and hatred burned into Slade. "You killed my boy? You?! Why?" he thundered.

When Slade only stared at him, Warren advanced. Taking him by the collar, he shook the man until his teeth rattled. The sheriff put up a hand to keep his deputies from acting just yet.

"I asked you a question! Why?"

"He was gonna tell you ... I been stealing cattle ... sellin 'em off on the side," Slade managed to choke out.

Warren let go with a hard push, propelling Slade back a little. "You killed my son over some cattle? He was your friend," he said, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Friend!? He thought he was better'n everybody else. All because his pa was a big dog! He never had to work for nothin!" Slade spat.

Warren fell speechless for a moment. His mind trying to grasp the information. "Get him out of my sight, Sheriff."

McCloud produced a pair of handcuffs and he and a deputy put Slade in the saddle of the extra horse they'd brought.

"Sheriff, wait," Warren called. "You said the attempted murder of Johnny Lancer?"

"That's right, Mr. Warren. They tried to hang him but things didn't go as planned. And you might just want to thank your lucky stars for that. I might just be makin another trip out here for you," McCloud warned.

They rode away leaving a stunned Oliver Warren staring after them.

Johnny had not rested well. His sleep filled with nightmares about ropes and being unable to breathe. He had awakened several times during the night. Always, either Scott or Murdoch was there to comfort and reassure him. Towards dawn, his sleep became less restless and both older Lancers were relieved.

As they sipped their first coffee of the morning, Scott's pensive expression finally got to Murdoch.

"What are you thinking about, son?"

Scott looked up, sadness and worry deep in his face. "How he's going to get past this. The nightmares - that's just the start. I worry about his state of mind, Sir."

Murdoch nodded his understanding and agreement. "I don't know what we can do except try to get him to talk about it."

"And if he can't? I mean, literally. What if his voice is gone?"

"I don't know, son. We'll just have to cross that bridge if we come to it."

Sudden movement ended their conversation as Johnny bolted up in the bed. His hand went to his throat and he struggled for air. Scott jumped up and reached the bed first.

"Easy, Johnny. Take it easy. You're alright. It was just a dream. You can breathe." His voice was like velvet as he soothed his brother.

Murdoch stroked the side of his head. "It's alright, son."

Johnny's eyes were wild with panic as the voices registered and he realized he was indeed breathing. He worked to calm his pounding heart and positioned himself so his head was resting on the headboard. He nodded to indicate he was okay.

The knock on the door had them all looking that way. Murdoch let the doctor in with a smile of relief.

"Good morning. Well, Johnny, how did you sleep?"

Johnny made a face that told the man all.

"Well, let's see how things look this morning," he smiled sympathetically. He walked over and opened the curtains wide then lit a lamp. Dr. Turner sat on the bed and instructed his patient to open wide.

"Hmmmm, still very swollen. Let's try a little water."

Johnny swallowed but not without cost. His throat felt raw and fiery and he grimaced.

"Soups and broths only. Nothing solid. His throat is too swollen for that," the doctor advised.

"How long before we can take him home?" Murdoch asked, getting Johnny's full attention.

Dr. Turner put a finger to the side of his mouth as he considered. "Well, if nothing else happens, I'd say he can travel tomorrow. But, only by wagon, not horseback. He still has that concussion to think about. Besides, he won't feel like sitting a saddle."

Johnny didn't try to disagree. He only wanted to go home. All eyes fell on him, waiting for some form of argument but he only smiled.

"I'll send a detailed report with you for Dr. Jenkins. Have him wire me if he has any questions."

"We will, Doc. Thank you," Scott said.

"I'll check back this evening and again in the morning. Plenty of rest today, young man. Stay in that bed," he called as he walked out.

He met the sheriff on his way out and Scott held the door open.

McCloud walked in and removed his hat. "How is he?"

"Doc's optimistic. He said Johnny can go home tomorrow. So, can he, Sheriff?" Scott asked.

"He can. Slade folded like a bad poker hand. Couldn't much deny it after I pulled that watch from his pocket. Good thing you saw it, Johnny."

Grabbing the pad and pencil, Johnny wrote a note.

"Well, Slade's spillin all that, too. He says Warren was behind the lynchin. I'll be goin back for him in a bit."

"Will Johnny have to testify, Sheriff?" Murdoch asked.

"More than likely, Mr. Lancer. Might not be for a while, though. I'm sure Warren will hire a slew of lawyers," he sighed.

"Just as well. My brother needs time to recover."

Johnny listened to it all, hating that he couldn't talk for himself.  

"Well, reckon I'll be headin back out now. I'll stop and let that gal know what's goin on, too."

Murdoch had almost forgotten about the girl. "Will she have to testify? Her mother wasn't very receptive to that idea."

"Ain't up to me. State's Attorney will contact you all, I imagine. Johnny, I'm sorry about all this."

Johnny wrote his answer and handed it to the man with a smile. 'Just doin your job.'

McCloud smiled and nodded, then left.

Three weeks later, Sam Jenkins frowned as he stood over his patient. "Alright, now remember what I said. Just whispers."

Johnny nodded then frowned. His mouth opened and he began to work at pushing air past his vocal chords. In a whisper that was soft even for him, he said, "don't know what to say."

Murdoch and Scott laughed at this.

"Three weeks of not being able to talk and now you're speechless?" Scott quipped.

"Somethin will come to me," he grinned.

"That was good, Johnny. Very good. Just stick to the exercises like I told you. Don't try to overdo! You could lose your voice permanently if you don't follow orders to the letter this time," Sam warned firmly.

"I promise," he whispered.

"Good. Now, I could use some coffee," Sam smiled.

"Come on, Sam. I'm sure there's a bean or two lying around in the kitchen," Murdoch grinned, casting a wink at his sons as he guided the doctor out.

Scott perched on the side of the bed where he'd spent many hours in the past three weeks. "Well, brother, I guess I'm going to have to keep putting up with that mouth of yours after all."

Johnny picked up his ever-present pad and pencil. 'Reckon so.' he wrote.

Scott gave a chagrined look. "I congratulate you. For two seconds you've followed doctor's orders. Just make sure it lasts, brother."

Johnny rolled his eyes at the patronizing look. He started writing and Scott thought it must be a novel. When he finally finished and handed the missive to his brother, Scott fell off the bed laughing.

The Lancers rode into San Marcos on a Sunday morning. The streets were quiet as most were attending church. They walked into the hotel to procure their rooms for the trial the next day.

The wiry little clerk looked over the rim of his glasses, then came to his full height. "Mr. Lancer. Welcome back," he smiled.

Johnny nodded at him then walked over toward the stairs.

Murdoch winced at the man's enthusiasm, but said nothing about it. "Three rooms, please."

"They're all ready for you, gentlemen. Sheriff McCloud has already reserved them. Rooms 1, 2 and 3. Top of the stairs," he said while handing over the keys.

"Thank you. We'd like some lunch in about an hour."

"Certainly, Mr. Lancer. In the dining room?"

Murdoch looked at Johnny who shook his head. "In our rooms."

Scott walked into his brother's room with him before ever going to his own. He watched Johnny throw his saddlebags on the bed and walk to the window. He approached and looked over his brother's shoulder, grimacing at the elm tree.

"Is this where you stood?" Johnny asked, his voice still too soft.

"Yes."

Johnny nodded and without turning, simply said, "Good shootin."

Scott smiled. "Thanks. You okay?"

He turned then, a smile on his face. "Sure. Just gonna lay down for a while."

"Alright. I'll come get you for lunch," Scott nodded then left for his own room.

Johnny laid on the bed and tried not to remember but, it was impossible. In the past couple of weeks, the nightmares had lessened considerably. Now, it was starting all over again. He didn't want to be here but he had no choice. Not if Warren was to pay for what he'd done. Johnny wasn't sure that would happen though. Warren was powerful and rich. He probably had ten lawyers defending him.

Still, he had to try. He'd felt sorry for the man, losing his only son. But that didn't give him the right to try and take Johnny's life. Especially when he was innocent. He smiled at that. Well, not guilty anyway. He figured he hadn't been innocent since he was about five.

State's Attorney Jacobs visited the Lancers that evening to prepare them for the trial and Johnny for his testimony. He was a seasoned lawyer and knew Warren's attorney was formidable. He warned Johnny the man used any tactics to win his cases and he usually did win. Johnny would be the second witness after the sheriff so they needed to be in the courtroom on time.

And at 9 am, Monday morning, the Lancers walked into that courtroom and sat in the front row, behind Jacobs. The judge entered and everyone stood.

Judge Michaels was 80 if he was a day but still sharp as a tack. A no nonsense man who adhered to the letter of the law. He began the proceedings in short order as the attorneys made their opening statements.

Howard Moore stood in front of the jury and professed his client's innocence vehemently. Johnny had to admit, the man was good. He almost convinced him that Warren was simply a grieving father and had no knowledge of the events that had taken place nor had he condoned them. Satisfied with his statement, Moore sat down and smiled at Warren.

Jacobs called Sheriff McCloud to the stand and went over the events of the night Pete Warren died. The sheriff recounted all the details of what he'd found and what he'd done. He told of finding Johnny on the ground after the attempted lynching and the subsequent arrests of Slade and Warren. He verified the written statement of Hugh Slade swearing Warren had ordered him to lynch Johnny Lancer. It was all very dry and methodical until Moore started his cross-examination.

"Sheriff, you said you arrested Mr. Lancer that night. That he didn't regain consciousness for several hours. When he did awaken, you asked him what happened. He mentioned a young girl. Sheriff, why didn't you try to find this girl?"

"I was still investigating the crime scene and talking to Mr. Lancer. His memory was pretty fuzzy and I wanted to wait until I got more information from him."

"I see. But, when Mr. Lancer's family arrived, they are the ones who went in search of the girl. Isn't that true?"

"Yes."

"And they found her, right?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Amazing that the family of the accused went out and found a young girl with little to go on and in an unfamiliar town."

"Was that a question, Mr. Moore?" the judge asked.

"Sorry, you honor. Sheriff, don't you find it strange that the Lancers were able to locate this girl so easily?"

"Don't know how easy it was but they weren't gonna stop til they did find her."

"And you're sure they found her?"

"Yes, I'm sure. I talked to her."

"Why are you sure this was the same girl, Sheriff?"

"Cause she told me she was. Had no reason to doubt her."

"I see. And you had no reason to doubt the Lancers? The family of the accused?"

"No, Sir."

"Now then. Hugh Slade told you my client ordered him to lynch Johnny Lancer. Sheriff, why would you take the word of an admitted cattle rustler and murderer?"

"He admitted to killin' and stealin'. Figured he wouldn't lie about Warren, either," he shrugged.

"No further questions."

Jacobs stood and called his next witness. Johnny walked to the witness stand casually. He was sworn in and sat back, crossing one leg over his other knee.

"Mr. Lancer, tell us in your own words what happened the night of May 2nd."

"I was walking to the hotel from the saloon when I heard a scream. I went to the corner of an alley and saw two people struggling. I could tell it was a man and a woman but that was all. I ran down the alley and knocked him off her and we started fighting. I saw her then. She had a bloody nose and lip and she looked scared."

"Your honor, the defense would ask that Mr. Lancer speak up."

"Mr. Moore, we have had this conversation in chambers. Mr. Lancer suffered an injury to his neck. He is not able to speak louder. The court has made allowances for this *victim*," the judge scathed.

"Go on, Mr. Lancer," Jacobs said, irritated that Moore would be so petty.

"Well, we were on the ground fighting when I felt something hit me hard on the head. That's the last I remember."

"And when you awoke?"

"I was in jail."

"Did you know the man you were fighting with?"

"No."

"Did you know the girl?"

"No."

"Mr. Lancer, we now know you didn't kill Pete Warren but at that time, you were the prime suspect. What happened the night of May 4th?"

"I was laying on the cot in my cell and I heard a ruckus in the sheriff's office. Then three men came in and took me out of the cell and tied my hands behind me. They took me outside and across the street."

"Did they say anything?"

"Only Slade. He said they were gonna have justice for Pete Warren."

"They hung you, didn't they?"

"Yes," he said, dropping his eyes briefly.

"Fortunately, they weren't successful. Mr. Lancer, did you see anything unusual on Hugh Slade that night?"

"Yes. I noticed a pocket watch. I caught a glimpse of it in the light from the sheriff's office just before ..... I thought it was strange."

"Why?"

"Didn't look like the type of man that could afford a fancy watch. Later, I remembered Mr. Warren had asked me about his son's gold watch."

"You told the sheriff about the watch that night, didn't you?"

"Yes."

"No further questions."

Howard Moore stood and approached the witness stand with a thoughtful frown on his face. "Mr. Lancer, you said Mr. Warren asked you about the watch. Could you elaborate?"

"He came to the jail. Started yellin and carryin on. He asked me what I'd done with his son's watch. I didn't know anything about it and I told him so."

"So, he asked what YOU had done with the watch. Did you take that to mean he believed you killed his son?"

"Yes."

"Did you tell him you didn't kill Pete?"

"I did."

"But, he didn't believe you."

"No."

"Why do you think that is, Mr. Lancer?"

"I don't know what he was thinking."

"Did he say anything to indicate why he didn't believe you?"

"No."

"No?" Moore cocked a brow.

"No," Johnny restated.

"I see. Mr. Lancer, have you always been a rancher?"

"Objection, your honor. Mr. Lancer is not on trial here," Jacobs stated.

"I'm only trying to ascertain why Mr. Warren would be so sure this man had killed his son, your honor."

"I don't care why he thought it, Mr. Moore. Mr. Lancer has already stated he doesn't know. Objection sustained." The judge rapped his gavel.

"Mr. Lancer, what is your heritage?"

"Objection, your honor. Same grounds!"

Judge Michaels pointed his gavel at Moore and frowned. "I know what you're doing and you won't be doing it here. If you have no other questions pertaining to this case, sit down!"

"My apologies to the court," Moore said with a slight bow of the head. "I have but one more question for this witness. Mr. Lancer, did Hugh Slade say anything to you that would indicate that Oliver Warren had ordered, asked or knew of his intentions the night of May 4th?"

Johnny thought about it for a moment before answering. "No."

"No further questions," he smiled and took his seat.

"Redirect, Mr. Jacobs?" the judge asked.

"Not at this time, your honor."

"Mr. Lancer, you may step down. Court will recess for fifteen minutes," the judge announced with a rap of his gavel.

"I don't think I helped much up there," Johnny said.

"You told what you knew, Johnny. I want to call you, Mr. Lancer. I want you to tell the court what Oliver Warren said outside the cell."

Murdoch nodded. "Of course, but I don't see how that will help either. Bigotry isn't a crime."

"It should be," Scott seethed.

When court reconvened, Murdoch was called to the stand. Jacobs wasted no time.

"Mr. Lancer, Johnny Lancer is your son, is that correct?"

"Yes."

"Now, you were in the sheriff's office when Oliver Warren came in to see Johnny. You knew Mr. Warren?"

"Yes, we were acquaintances."

"What did he say?"

"He was demanding Johnny be hung for killing Pete. I told him Johnny didn't do it. He asked why I would believe that and I told him because Johnny said he didn't. Oliver called him a name."

"What name?"

Murdoch looked uncomfortable. "A half-breed."

"Do you know if Mr. Warren is prejudiced?"

"I have heard him make derogatory statements about Mexicans, yes."

"So, his main reason for believing your son killed his, is that Johnny is half Mexican?"

"Objection, your honor. Mr. Lancer can't know what my client's beliefs were," Moore spoke out.

"Sustained."

"Mr. Lancer, tell us what you know about the night of May 4th."

Murdoch closed his eyes briefly as vivid flashes of memory took hold. "I was awakened by my son, Scott, shouting. He was standing at the window. I jumped out of bed and went to look and I saw ..." Murdoch cleared his throat. "I saw Johnny with a noose around his neck and the buckboard he was standing on started to move."

"What happened next?"

"Scott grabbed a rifle and ..." he shook his head, "took the most amazing shot I've ever seen. He shot the rope in half."

Jacobs raised a brow. "That is an amazing shot. What happened next?"

"Scott and I ran out to the street; to Johnny. By that time, the sheriff was with him. We took care of him while the sheriff went for the doctor."

"Mr. Lancer, what damage was done to Johnny?"

"His throat was cut, deeply on the right. He couldn't speak for three weeks."

"Is that why he speaks so softly now?"

"Yes."

"So, he still hasn't recovered?"

"No, he hasn't," Murdoch looked at Johnny, the blue bandana ever-present around his neck these days, and smiled briefly.

"No further questions."

"Mr. Moore?"

"No questions, your honor."

"You may step down, Mr. Lancer."

Warren leaned over to his lawyer, irate that he didn't question Murdoch. Moore explained that Murdoch would only glean sympathy and they didn't need that.

"The state calls Bonita Ruiz," Jacobs announced.

"The defense objects once more, your honor. There is no need for this girl to testify. We already know what happened that night. This trial is about whether Mr. Warren had any input into the attempted murder of Johnny Lancer," Moore said as he jumped to his feet.

"The state will withdraw the witness if the defense will, on the record, concede that Pete Warren did attack Bonita Ruiz the night of May 2nd, this year. And that Johnny Lancer saved her from further assault and other potential unknown crimes against her person," Jacobs stated.

"Well, Mr. Moore?" the judge asked.

With a sigh, Moore answered. "The defense concedes the point, your honor."

"Very well. Miss Ruiz is not required to testify."

Jacobs smiled. He had no intention of calling Bonita. He only wanted Moore to agree to Pete's guilt on the record.

"Very well, gentlemen. Court will recess until 2 pm for lunch," the judge announced.

The Lancers stayed behind to talk with Jacobs. None liked how this was going.

"It's very difficult to prove conspiracy. All we really have are Slade's written statement and Warren's bias," the attorney explained.

"And since Slade wasn't exactly a pillar of society, that means we have nothing," Scott fumed.

"I still don't know why they couldn't have waited for Warren's trial before hanging Slade," Murdoch complained.

"Warren's lawyer pushed hard for swift justice," Jacobs told with some sarcasm.

"Of course, he did. The testimony would have meant a lot more coming from Slade's own mouth," Scott snorted.

"Well, he sure ain't too worried," Johnny observed.

"No, he isn't. In fact, he looks pretty smug," Murdoch agreed.

"There has to be something else we can do," Scott frowned.

"Sometimes, the guilty don't have to pay, Scott."

"I know it happens, Johnny. That doesn't mean I have to like it!"

Johnny smiled and wrapped an arm around his brother's shoulders. "Well, you dislike it all you want, Boston."

Scott relaxed and smiled back at his brother.


"Let's get something to eat, boys. Maybe some food will inspire us," Murdoch suggested.

"Sure, but not at the hotel. The saloon has better food."

"Yes, and look where that got you last time," Scott teased.

They sat down and ordered their food, heads together as they tried to think of a way to help the prosecution. Johnny felt the presence before he looked up. His face hardened.

Murdoch took on the same expression as he glared. "What do you want?"

"I'm innocent, Murdoch. I wanted you to know I never told Slade to lynch your boy," Warren said quietly.

"I have a hard time believing that, Oliver. Especially since you were shouting for Johnny's head from the rooftops."

"My son was dead. I was upset. Surely you can understand."

"Oh, yes. I understand. I also understand that you've always been a vindictive man. You've always seen yourself as righteous in anything you do. There are always justifications for your actions, aren't there, Oliver?" Murdoch growled.

"Especially when those you seek vengeance on are beneath you," Scott got in.

Warren sneered at the younger man. "I would think with your breeding, young man, you would understand. There is a hierarchy. Those who belong at the top and those who belong at the bottom."

"And those in between?" Scott asked.


"Are tolerated."

"And where do we fit in, Mr. Warren?"

His eyes narrowed as he thought if he should answer.

Johnny watched him with some amusement. His eyes dancing at the man's ever-reddening face.

"Be careful how you answer, Warren. You know my *daddy* knows the governor," he quipped.

Murdoch's face lit in an amused smile as he watched Warren. He didn't have to look at Johnny to know the look on his face. His son had a wicked sense of humor at times.

Warren spun on his heel and returned to his table, seething. His anger perpetuated by the laughter following him.

Sheriff McCloud came in and joined the Lancers for a beer before court resumed. He extended his apologies for his own ineffectiveness on the stand. The Lancers could not blame the man. He'd told the truth. Unfortunately, it seemed the only one about to be set free by the truth was Oliver Warren.

As they readied to leave, Rosa came from the back. Johnny thanked her and they spoke for a few minutes in Spanish. Warren listened to the language, his ire heightening with each passing second. It was because of some Mex girl that his son had been killed. He'd been too busy messing with her and fighting with that half-breed to watch his back. The more he heard Johnny's voice, the worse it got.

By the time the Lancers and the sheriff were ready to leave, he'd lost all sense of reason.

As they passed his table, he stood and stepped in front of Johnny. "The bottom," he hissed.

"What?"

"The bottom. That's where you rate. If you'd minded your own business, my boy would have been able to protect himself. You kept him busy so Slade could get to him. Makes me wonder if you weren't in on it with Slade. Maybe that was the plan and Slade decided you knew too much."

Johnny looked in his eyes and knew the man was gone. There was no point in answering so he made to step around. But the tall rancher matched his move and Johnny's temper was flaring.

"You know who I am. Do you want to die today?" he asked in a hard voice.

Warren smiled. "Maybe you're the one who dies today like you should have that night. Until that incompetent idiot messed things up. How hard is it to string up one half-breed Mex? Slade never could do anything right. I should have done it myself."

"Because he didn't do it the way you told him to, right?" Johnny asked, straining to make his voice loud enough to be heard by everyone in the room.

"That's right! Another bottom feeder who couldn't follow directions. I told him to take his time and plan it out. But, he had to try to lynch you in the middle of town!" he bellowed.

Warren felt the cold metal on his wrist and heard the click as the lock struck home. He whirled around to find the sheriff grabbing his other hand and slapping a cuff on it as well.

"What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.

"Placing you under arrest, Mr. Warren. You just confessed to a room full of people," McCloud answered with satisfaction.

The judge was informed of the confession and several people had readily come forward to swear their depositions. The court found Warren guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and threatening a witness. He was sentenced to ten years at San Quentin.

The Lancers walked out of the court with Jacobs.

"Well, that was a unique way to prove a case," the lawyer smiled.

"It was unintentional but at least it worked," Scott said.

"Unintentional? Oh, okay," Johnny grinned.

Scott looked sidelong at his brother. Suspicion mounting. "Are you saying you planned on goading him?"

"Are you saying I didn't?" Johnny retorted.

"I'm saying, let's go home, boys," Murdoch intervened, knowing this debate could go on for hours.

As they mounted up, Sheriff McCloud walked up beside Johnny. "I got to say it. You're nothing like I expected."

"What did you expect?"

"Well, I've seen a few gunfighters in my day. Never seen one worth a dime until I met you."

Johnny smiled down at him. "Maybe that's because I'm not a gunfighter anymore."

"Maybe, but somehow, I doubt it. Have a safe trip," he said and patted Barranca's neck.

All three nodded to the sheriff then reined their horses toward home. As soon as they were clear of town, Scott and Johnny broke into a gallop. Murdoch smiled and shook his head. Happy to have his sons alive and well and heading home. It would take a long time for Johnny to get past this. But, with the help of his family, Murdoch knew his son would be alright.

 

~end~
2004

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