Synopsis: A man from Madrid’s past comes to extract revenge; placing a target right on Scott’s chest.
Word Count: 36,650
Author’s Note: This was written in honor of Wayne Maunder’s birthday and takes place during Christmas. Wayne made Scott Lancer who he is and there is no one who could hold a candle to his performance. Thank you, Wayne, for giving us a hero who shines in our hearts and eyes. Thanks to Cheryl for reading along with this one and to Marti for her comments and help with several typos amongst other things. Thanks as always to Antoinette for being the solid beta she is.
Five miles south of Lancer the young man thought as he rode away from Lancer. The word should have filled him with joy, but instead it drove home the reason for this hasty trip to the hacienda on the Mexican border. No one knew where he was headed and that was the way things would stay until he had his brother back. He turned to the man riding slightly ahead and to the right of him and fought the urge to make a move for his gun and send a bullet into the man’s black heart, but his weapon was inside the man’s saddle bag. He knew if he gave into those thoughts Scott Lancer would be dead as soon as he rode onto the grounds.
I’m coming, Boston, just hang on a little longer!’ he vowed as his mind went back to the events leading up to this point in his life.
December 14th – Green River.
“Hey, Boston, is that my Christmas present?” Johnny asked as he joined his brother on the boardwalk outside the mercantile.
“It might be, but you’ll have to wait and see.”
“Ah, come on, Scott, what is it?” Johnny asked, his curiosity piqued as the blond tucked the package under his arm.
“It’s well,” the Bostonian turned to his brother and smiled as he bent close to his ear and whispered. “It’s for me to know and you to find out, Brother!”
“Scott!” Johnny called as the other man hurried across the street. “Where are you going?”
“My throats a little dry and I figured you owe me a beer!”
“What? Hey, it’s your turn to buy!” Johnny shouted as he hurried to catch up.
“No way, Johnny. You owe me two. Remember the last time we went into Moro Coyo? You were so broke you couldn’t even pay attention.”
“Damn, Scott, that’s low,” Johnny said, but couldn’t help laughing at his brother’s sense of humor. They stepped through the doors and Johnny’s gaze automatically swept the interior. In the year since finding out his father was alive and that he had a brother, Johnny’s life had become easier, but he still had the catlike instincts that went with a gunslinger’s reputation. He saw his brother talking to one of the ladies who frequented the saloon and hurried towards them, awed by the simple way Scott spoke to the fairer sex. He knew the women found Scott’s manners and upbringing a challenge since the blond never put on airs like his grandfather. Instead his brother simply chatted with them on equal terms.
“Hello, Johnny, your brother was just telling me what he bought you for Christmas.”
“Yes he was and don’t bother asking me what it is because I’m sworn to secrecy,” the woman batter her eyelashes and crooned softly as she hugged the two brothers before walking towards another potential customer.
“Sorry, brother, but I’m not telling you. I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait and see. Now how about buying me that beer?”
“Guess so, but you owe me…”
“We’ve been through that already, Johnny, you owe me two beers right now and my throat is beginning to get parched.”
“Alright, Scott, get us a table and I’ll grab the beers,” Johnny explained, shaking his head at his brother’s ability to keep a secret. He was chomping at the bit, wanting to show Scott what he’d bought for him, but also wanted it to be a surprise. The timepiece was an expensive gift, but one he knew his brother would appreciate. He’d ordered it from a special catalogue and had already wrapped it and placed it where he knew Scott would not look for it.
“What’ll it be, Johnny?” the bartender asked as he placed a clean glass on the bar.
“Two of the usual, Pete,” Johnny answered as the saloon doors opened and a man stepped into the gloomy interior. The gunslinger instincts kicked in and Johnny Lancer quickly became Johnny Madrid, an alter ego seldom seen since coming home to Lancer. His blue eyes, usually warm with humor were now cold as ice as he watched the newcomer. The man was several years his senior and walked with a simple grace, yet the reflexes were there, as nimble fingers seemed to dance across the top of his gun. The man’s deadly cold eyes were trained on him and Johnny knew he was facing down his own worst nightmare.
“Hello, Johnny,” the voice was raspy, but it held an air of authority that boded anyone to defy his authority.
“Hello, Miguel, what brings you to Green River?” Johnny asked, his voice coldly calculating as his fingers wandered towards his own weapon.
“I thought I’d come see what my old friend Johnny Madrid was doing…”
“Here’s your beer, Johnny,” Peter Mercer said as he slid two glasses towards the dark haired gunslinger.
“Thanks, Johnny,” Miguel Espinoza grinned as he grabbed a glass and dumped the contents on the floor in front of the younger man. The liquid splattered over Johnny’s boots even as the two sets of eyes glared at each other.
“We were never friends, Miguel,” Johnny warned, his voice deadly calm as his hand found his way toward his gun once more.
Across the room Scott Lancer was fully aware of the confrontation between the fearsome duo. He’d seldom seen Johnny in his gunslinger facade, but he recognized the look immediately. Placing the package on the chair beside him, Scott Lancer stood and quickly strode towards the two men facing off in front of the bar. He watched as Johnny’s movements matched the other man’s, but also realized where the newcomer’s movements were sporadic and lacked confidence, Johnny’s were filled with a catlike grace and the instincts of a stalking feline.
“Ah, Johnny, you wound me!” Espinoza said, a haphazard half grin on his face. “You and I are cut from the same cloth!”
“No, Miguel, we may have run with the same people, but I was never a man who attacked women when they refused my affections. Then again what you were offering was not affection!”
“I did not attack that woman. Besides she was mine. I owned her just like I owned everything and everyone on my land!”
“People are not owned, Miguel! I thought I taught you that lesson already!”
“Johnny, is everything okay?”
“This has nothing to do with you, Scott. Grab your beer and I’ll join you in a minute!”
“I don’t think so, Brother. Who is this…man?”
“Brother? You never told me you had a brother, Johnny. Why don’t you introduce us?”
“There’s no point since you’re not staying!”
“It’s a free country, Johnny. I think I’ll stick around for a few days. Perhaps you and your brother could show me around your fair country.”
“I don’t think Johnny’s interested,” Scott said, leaning his elbows against the bar as he watched the man standing in front of his brother.
“I thought your country was filled with friendly people. It seems I was misinformed. Your manners are certainly lacking here!” Espinoza said as he watched the two brothers.
“Manners are reserved for those who show them in return,” the blond said, smiling innocently at the look that flashed across the Mexican’s face. He knew instinctively he’d just made an enemy and something told him this was not a man to be taken lightly.
“Leave, Miguel, I’m not the man you once knew!”
“I don’t think you were ever the man he thinks he knew. Come on, Johnny, I’ll buy you a beer! Pete, make it two!”
“Sure, Scott,” the bartender said, hoping the older brother could diffuse the volatile situation before them.
“Coming, Johnny, we have a long ride back home and that beer will go a long way towards quenching my arid throat.”
“Is he his brother’s keeper, Johnny? Do you do everything he tells you…” His words were cut off as two hands wrapped around his neck and tightened around his throat.
“Go back to your hacienda, Miguel, or so help me I’ll make you pay for killing her right now!”
“Johnny, no!” Scott said, sensing his brother’s anger as the handsome face contorted with rage.
“Stay out of this, Scott!”
“No! I won’t let you ruin your life because of him. You have a family now and you don’t have to do anything alone! Let him go!”
“Johnny, think about it! Is he worth giving up everything we’ve found? Can you go back to be Johnny Madrid after tasting life at Lancer?” Scott watched as the fingers slowly relaxed and the chokehold was finally released.
Espinoza dropped to his knees and used one hand to support himself and the other to rub at his bruised throat. He finally stood and stared at the dark haired Lancer.
“You’ll never be anything but a two bit gunslinger, Madrid, and you’ll regret putting your hands on me!”
“Get out of here, Miguel! Go back where you belong!”
“It wasn’t so long ago that you belonged there too, Johnny, and I’m betting it won’t be long before you come back home!”
“He is home!” Scott said simply as he and Johnny turned their backs on the Mexican. He picked up both glasses and led his brother towards the table he’d picked out. He could feel the tension in the air as the sound of the batwing doors rattled in their frames, but did not look to see if Espinoza had indeed left the saloon.
“Are you all right, Johnny?”
“I’m fine, Scott. Thanks for the beer.”
“Anytime. Do you want to tell me about him?”
“What’s to tell? He owns a hacienda in Mexico and I worked for him for a spell. He didn’t like it when I left and I guess he’s here to tell me that.”
“Doesn’t seem to be any love lost between you two,” Scott observed as he watched his brother’s features relax.
“I never liked the man, Scott, but he paid top wages and I needed the money.”
“What made you leave?”
“Just didn’t like his way of working things. Maybe I’ll tell you about it someday!”
“Anytime you feel like it Johnny,” Scott assured the younger man. He watched as his brother’s face went through several emotions until his gaze dropped towards the beer. The younger Lancer was as steady as a rock as he lifted the glass and downed the contents before signaling that he wanted another. Scott continued to study his brother, wondering how many secrets he had and why sometimes he could read him, while at other times he was as closemouthed as he was right now.
“I’m really okay, Scott.”
“I know,” the blond agreed, smiling as the bartender brought them both a refill. The two men lapsed into silence as the saloon returned to normal and people forgot about the confrontation.
Miguel Espinoza mounted his horse, angry and frustrated that he hadn’t gotten what he wanted. Turning to the two men who accompanied him he snarled as they headed out of town.
“Is he coming back with us?”
“No, Ernesto, the sonofabitch seems to think he’s free and clear, but he owes me and I know just how I’m going to make him pay!”
“Are we going back home?”
“Not until I pick up a certain package.”
“A package?” Ernesto Ruiz asked.
“Si. There is someone here who will insure Madrid’s return to Mexico.”
“Who?” Manuel Mendoza asked.
“It seems Johnny Madrid is really Johnny Lancer and he has a brother who he cares about.”
“You always said there was no room for family when you’re a gunslinger!” Mendoza laughed as they passed the last building at the edge of town.
“So how do we get to Madrid’s brother?”
“We find out where they live and wait for him,” Espinoza explained, looking back at the town once more before continuing towards the area where he’d left the rest of his men.
December 16th – Line shack on the southern edge of the Lancer ranch.
Scott sighed contentedly as he rode his chestnut bay towards the familiar line shack. The snow was just beginning to fall as darkness overtook the land. He’d spend the night here and head back to Lancer at first light and help the family pick out a suitable tree for Christmas. Prince whinnied and shied away from the line shack and Scott quickly patted the horse’s neck as he reined him to a stop in front of the small building.
“Easy, boy, won’t be long and I’ll give you a good rub down.” His voice sounded loud to his own ears as he dismounted and looked around. Sometimes he craved the solitude the line shack gave him and tonight was one of those times. Here he could relax and let his mind wander over the years he’d spent away from the land he now knew and loved. The difference between life in Boston and life at Lancer was like night and day and he knew he could never give up the family he’d discovered.
His life in Boston was filled with socialite gatherings and business meetings. At the time he’d been living each day as it came, wondering if there was something else he would be better suited to. The message he received from his father had come at a time when he was debating about leaving Boston to pursue other interests. Scott looked around once more smiling contentedly as he took in the land he loved so much. A sound off to his left interrupted his thoughts and he searched the area for whatever made the sound. The horse whinnied once more and shifted nervously against its owner.
“Easy, Boy,” Scott soothed, rubbing the animal’s muzzle as he studied the dark shadows surrounding him. The sound was repeated and the blond knew he was not alone. His hand went to his gun, but the sound of a gun cocking halted its progress.
“Keep your hands where I can see them, Lancer!”
Scott recognized the accent, but not the voice as he turned and faced the newcomer. Recognition dawned as he looked into the face he’d seen only once before.
“What are you doing here?”
“Ah, I see you remember me, Lancer. Manuel, Ernesto, please relieve him of his weapon and see that his hands are secured!”
“Si, Miguel,” Ruiz smiled as he moved out of the shadows and strode towards the victim. “Keep your hands where I can see them!”
“What do you want with me?” Scott asked as Mendoza removed his gun and stuffed it into the front of his own pants.
“It’s not what I want with you, Lancer; it’s what you can give me.”
“What would that be?”
“Your brother, of course!” Espinoza smiled as his men grabbed Scott’s arms and pulled them behind his back. He stood in front of the captive and continued to stare into the blue eyes. He saw the hatred and again a smile formed on his face as without a word he drew back his fist and drove it into Scott’s unprotected stomach.
Scott felt the blow as the air was driven from his lungs and a second fist drove into the opposite side of his abdomen. Again and again the blows landed until Mendoza and Ruiz were supporting the blond between them.
Espinoza stepped closer to the battered man and grabbed a fistful of blond hair. He lifted Scott’s head, noting the blood seeping from the nose and trailing down the left side of his chin. He waited for the blue eyes to focus on him before speaking.
“I’m sure your brother will accept my invitation to join me in Mexico. Don’t you think so, Scott?”
“Go…go t…to h…” His head rocked back as Espinoza’s fist rocked his senses once more. Still Scott fought to lift his head and finally met the man’s eyes. Before he could repeat his words something was wrapped around his face and shoved into his mouth.
“Get him on his horse and let’s get out of here!” Espinosa ordered. “Ernesto, you ride to the Lancer place tomorrow morning and give Johnny my ultimatum. Just make damn sure he knows he’s to come alone or his brother pays the price!”
“Si, Miguel!” Ruiz said as two other men joined them.
“Was he alone?” Espinoza asked the newcomers.
“Si, there is no one else around,” Ortez assured them.
“Good, let’s get moving. Ernesto, do not make any mistakes with Madrid. He is faster than any man I have ever seen!”
“I can handle Madrid!”
“Do not fool yourself, Ernesto. Madrid is not someone to take lightly. I have seen his work firsthand and know what he is capable of,” Espinoza warned as he watched Ortez and Mendoza secure Scott Lancer across his own saddle. Without waiting for the others to mount up he took the reins and mounted his own gelding. He turned away from the shack and headed away from Lancer territory, smiling at the idea of finally having his long sought after revenge on Johnny Madrid.
December 17th – Lancer
Johnny looked at his bed and longed to crawl back under the blankets, but he knew there was plenty of work ahead and he needed to meet Scott at the south pasture and fix the fence there. He walked to the window and shivered as he looked at the light covering of snow. His mind wandered to the family that now surrounded him.
Murdoch Lancer was a hardnosed rancher who had only sent for them when he needed something in return, yet things had changed since that first meeting. The hardness had been replaced with a warmth that although seldom seen was there in the way the man treated his sons. They’d had their differences, but again they’d dealt with them as a family.
Teresa O’Brien was like a sister to both him and Scott and more often than not they found themselves squabbling like siblings. He’d do anything for Teresa and absolutely loved when she baked her cakes and pies. He smiled as he remembered stealing a pie she’d placed on the table to cool. He ate the whole thing and still denied being responsible for the theft, but they knew it was him.
Jelly Hoskins was a close friend of the family and had proven time and again that he was loyal to a fault. The man’s grizzled appearance belied the kind heart that beat in his chest. Jelly tried hard to fit in and more often than not he did just that. Johnny smiled as he pictured the man when they were searching for a gift for Murdoch. He’d traded his new boots instead of killing the pig he’d purchased for his boss’s birthday. The man had a heart of gold and he often wore it on his sleeve.
Johnny sighed as his mind turned to his brother. Scott may have been raised in Boston, but he belonged at Lancer. The blond was a greenhorn when they first met, but he’d quickly learned the ways of the west and could easily stand against any and all comers. He admired Scott’s ease when it came to talking business with their father and enjoyed listening to the two men debate the best way to swing a deal. He often joined in and more than once sided with his brother, not because he needed his brother’s approval, but because what Scott said made sense. His brother was well educated and sometimes he felt insecure in his own lack of education, but the blond had never talked down to him. He admired Scott’s ease and simplicity and his ability to talk with you on equal terms instead of down to you. Taking a deep breath Johnny turned away from the window and moved towards the bed once more. He reached for the faded jeans and blue shirt and smiled as he realized Teresa had worked her magic once more. The clothes were clean and freshly washed and he knew he needed to tell her how much he appreciated the work she did.
“Johnny, breakfast is ready!”
“Coming, Teresa!” Johnny called and hurried to dress as the smell of flapjacks assaulted his senses.
December 17th – on the trail to Mexico
Scott felt consciousness returning and wondered if it would be more advisable to stay under. His head pounded and he was sure a herd of wild horses were stampeding through his skull. Nausea and pain threatened to make his ride even more uncomfortable as he fought the bile threatening to come up in his throat. Consciousness was as unwelcome as the pain that gnawed at his gut and he knew if they didn’t stop soon he would be sick. He blinked rapidly in an effort to clear the fog enshrouding his mind, but met with little success as the horses movement continued to make his stomach churn. Scott tried to lift his head, but again was defeated by the mounting nausea.
“Senor Espinoza, we better stop now or Lancer will drown in his own vomit!” Ortez warned as he watched the struggling captive.
The Mexican turned to see his captive fighting against his bounds and knew Ortez was right. Drawing the horses to a halt he nodded towards a clump of brush and stones and spoke to his men.
“Alright we’ll stop here for an hour. Manuel, see to the prisoner’s needs!”
“Si, Miguel,” Mendoza said as he drew alongside Scott’s horse. He dismounted and took the reins from Espinoza before leading the two horses towards the brush. He ground tied both animals before grabbing the captive’s hair and lifting the head. “So, Senor Lancer, how do you like your travel arrangements?”
Scott glared at the man, but the effort sapped what little strength he had left as the man released his hair and he sagged against the horse once more. He felt the ropes binding him to the horse being released and muffled a cry of pain as his body dropped heavily to the ground. Gasping for breath he curled into a ball as the nausea continued to roll through his stomach. His arms were grabbed and he was dragged to his feet as the world swam before his eyes. The gag was removed and he gulped in heaving breathes of air as his body craved the ability to take in oxygen without the obstruction.
“Come on, Lancer, if you got anything that needs takin’ care of you’d best do it now!”
“Take the ropes…”
“The ropes stay, Senor…”
“Perhaps I can be of assistance?”
“Stop it, Ortez! Untie his hands and let him take care of his needs!” Espinoza warned. He wasn’t fond of Ortez, but the man had proven his worth more than once.
“Si, Senor,” Ortez’s voice showed his disappointment as he cut through the ropes binding his captive’s arms.
Scott muffled a groan as his arms dropped to his side and needles and pins shot through his fingers. He stood staring furiously at his captors and knew he would have to do something to escape before Johnny was captured as well. He rubbed at his wrists until Ortez shoved him towards the brush.
“Hurry up!” the big man ordered.
Scott moved behind the thicker brush and quickly took care of business before searching the area for any means of escape. He shivered as the damp cold seeped into his bones and wished he’d worn a warmer coat.
“Get out here, Lancer, or I will come in there after you!”
Scott knew the chill he felt was more from the man’s threats than from the cold and he quickly moved out of the brush once more.
“There’s hardtack and jerky for lunch. Eat it quickly or do without. We’re moving out in fifteen minutes!” Espinosa warned as his captive moved towards the rock and picked up the meager meal.
Scott ate in silence, slowly chewing the jerky as he watched each man checking his own horse and making sure the cinches were tight. He studied the area surrounding them, and watched for anything that would aid in his escape. There was very little he could use to hide in and his body throbbed with a dormant pain that would quickly explode once he started to run, but as the others turned away, Scott Lancer stood and raced towards the strand of trees two hundred feet to the south. The snow had quickly melted with the rising sun and Scott slipped several times as a cry went up from behind him.
“Hey Lancer’s escaping!”
“He won’t get far!” Espinoza shouted as he mounted his Palomino and grabbed the rope off his saddle horn.
Scott stumbled, but didn’t go down as he covered the distance between himself and safe haven. He knew in his heart he would not make it, but it didn’t stop him from trying. Chest heaving as his battered ribs ached in protest the blond man jumped over a fallen log as the sound of hoof beats reached his ears. Someone laughed while another screamed out a wager, and still he ran for his life. The trees loomed ever closer as something hit his left shoulder and he shrugged it off. Diving and rolling to his left Scott tried to duck under the rope once more but this time it landed over his head and dropped down his body before tightening around his waist. He was pulled backwards and jerked off his feet as the rope tightened. The air was driven from his lungs as Espinoza rode astride of him, tightening the rope as he did. Scott stared up at the man as he struggled to gain his feet.
“Well, Lancer, it seems like you enjoy a good foot race! How would you feel about racing with me?” the Mexican asked as he continued to pull the rope.
Scott finally made it to his feet and reached down to pull the rope off his waist, but a quick flick of the wrist had the horse racing again and the blond found himself belly down on the ground as his body was dragged across the uneven ground. He rolled with the change of direction and his right shoulder slammed up against the log he’d jumped over moments before. He bit back a cry as he tried to protect his face from the brush and debris that littered the area, but soon felt the stinging pain as several cuts were opened up. His clothes were hooked and tugged by rocks and stone and he soon felt the dirt grinding into an open wound on his right side. He grunted as his left side slammed against a boulder as Espinoza turned the horse once more and rode back towards the makeshift camp. Scott had no idea how long the ride into hell lasted, but when it ended his stomach churned and he vomited everything he’d managed to eat. Sick and in pain he climbed to his knees and tried to figure out which part of his body hurt worse. He raised his head as his captor came to stand in front of him.
“Well, Lancer, did you enjoy the ride?”
“Senor Lancer does not seem very talkative!” Ortez observed as he accepted several coins from Mendoza.
“No, he doesn’t. Perhaps he’s thirsty!” Espinosa said as he reached for his canteen. He took several long swallows, letting the water run down his chin before recapping the canteen. “Would you like some water, Lancer?”
Scott did not answer as he stared at the older man. He craved the water, yet would not show any weakness to this man or those that worked for him. Using his left arm he loosened the rope from his waist and lifted it over his head. Moving his right arm caused pain to radiate from shoulder to fingertips and he wondered if it was broken or dislocated, either way he knew it his right arm was useless. He began taking inventory of his injuries, but before he got far his hands were grabbed and the world around him tilted and swam before his eyes. He heard the men speaking, but could not understand what was being said as his hands were once more bound, this time in front of his body. Strong hands dragged him towards his horse and he was lifted into the saddle. His hands were bound to the saddle horn, but at least he was not belly down.
“Mount up, boys. Ernesto should be at Lancer by now and I want to be home before they catch up with us. I wouldn’t want Johnny to miss out on Christmas with his brother!”
“J…Johnny won’t c…come,” Scott stammered as consciousness began to slip away.
“Oh, he’ll come and when he does he’ll find out just what it means to lose something that belonged to you!”
Scott watched through blurring vision as Espinosa was handed Prince’s reins and led the others southward once more. As the horse moved steadily over the uneven terrain he gave in to the call of darkness and left the pain behind.
December 17th – Lancer
Patting his full stomach, Johnny smiled across the table. “Scott doesn’t know what he’s missing.”
“Are you still planning to meet him at the south fence?” Murdoch asked.
“Yeah. We’ll meet up around lunchtime and fix that fence before heading into Green River,” Johnny answered, reaching for another biscuit.
“Good, make sure you stop by Sam’s and drop off those papers. He’ll need to sign them both before you drop them off at the bank!”
“Johnny, please don’t forget to pick up the flour or I won’t be able to get any baking done,” the young woman explained.
“Sure, Teresa, wouldn’t want to miss out on any of them cakes or cookies you make!”
“Thanks, Johnny. Since you’re going to meet Scott I’ll make him some sandwiches!”
“Better make a couple for me too. Riding out to meet Scott is bound to make me hungry!”
“When aren’t you hungry, Johnny?” Murdoch laughed as his son wolfed down another biscuit.
“Probably when Teresa’s not doin’ the cooking and I have to eat Scott’s or Jelly’s cooking,” he shuddered for effect and smiled as a slight blush graced the woman’s face.
“Thanks, Johnny,” she said as she hurried into the kitchen.
December 17th – Crossing the border into Mexico.
Scott woke with a start as his horse stumbled and jarred his battered body. It took several long minutes before his eyes adjusted to the bright sunshine and his vision cleared. Espinoza rode slightly ahead of him, his body relaxed and swaying with the movement of his horse. Scott looked for the other men and spotted one to his left and the other to his right. His head pounded and again his stomach churned as the pain in his shoulder intensified. With awakening his mind registered the agony shooting through several regions of his body and he winced as he shifted in the saddle.
“Something wrong, Lancer?” Espinoza asked without turning.
Scott ignored the man as he watched the trail ahead. He suddenly realized he should be grateful he was tied to the saddle, because without it he’d have fallen from the saddle. The world around him shimmered and began to fade, but he didn’t quite lose consciousness as Espinoza pulled the horses to a stop and turned back towards him.
“Well, Lancer, I asked you a question.”
“I’m f…fine…” the injured blond grated through clenched teeth.
“Then I guess you don’t need any of this!” the Mexican said as he patted the canteen. He watched as the blue eyes flashed to the canteen and saw the longing in the unsteady gaze. “Maybe I was wrong. Do you want some of this, Lancer? All you have to do is say so!”
Scott knew he needed the water, but he would not beg this man for the liquid. Sitting as tall in the saddle as possible with his injuries the blond man kept his gaze locked onto the Mexican’s. He unconsciously licked his lips, but didn’t speak as the man shrugged and looped the canteen over the saddle horn before starting the horses forward once more. His mind drifted to his newfound family and he wondered what they were doing at that minute. He smiled inwardly at the thought of Teresa O’Brien.
The young woman was amazingly adept in the kitchen, but she could also ride as well as the rest of them. He loved riding with her and listening to her stories of what life was like at Lancer when she was a child. He’d learned many things about his father, including the fact that he’d told her stories about Catherine and Maria. Scott now understood why his father had come to claim him, but left without a fight. Harlan Garrett had threatened a lawsuit and if that failed he was more than willing to take a very young Scott Lancer out of the country. Murdoch Lancer could have fought for him, but in the end he knew he couldn’t compete with Garrett Enterprises and, therefore left his son in the only home he’d ever known. Scott had many fond memories of his life in Boston, but they were quickly fading in wake of the new ones he was making at Lancer. He loved life on the open range and the smell of Teresa’s cooking after a hard days work. The sound of his brother’s laughter was a soothing balm on his nerves on the days when he had little or no sleep because of the nightmares brought on by his experiences as a prisoner of war.
Scott felt himself losing his tenuous hold on consciousness and smiled inwardly as the thoughts of his family soothed the pain caused by his battered body. He slumped forward in the saddle unaware of the confrontation taking place near his home.
December 17th – Just south of the Lancer main house.
Johnny rode as if he’d been born to the saddle. His hand expertly maneuvering the reins so Barranca easily read his intentions and turned in the intended direction. The temperature was decidedly colder and he pulled the jacket closer around his body as he looked towards the heavy gray clouds overhead. He knew Scott had left without his heavy coat and he wondered what he would make the blond do before he’d hand it over. His thoughts again turned to the upcoming Christmas celebration and he smiled at the thought of his brother’s face when he opened the gift. He patted the horse’s neck and smiled as he spoke.
“What do you think? Will Scott like the watch?” He laughed as the horse lifted his head and gave him an answering whiny as if he understood what his owner was saying. “Yeah, I think so too.”
They rode on in silence for another mile before Johnny noted the change in Barranca. The animal’s ears had perked up as if he heard something and the gunslinger instincts kicked in once more. He reined the horse in and looked to his left and right until he spotted a lone rider coming towards him.
“Looks like we got company, Barranca,” he said watching as the rider continued to close the distance between them. His hand instinctively went to his gun and his fingers flexed, before coming to rest on the handle of his gun. It didn’t take long for horse and rider to come abreast of him and Johnny recognized the man immediately.
“Thought I told Espinoza to go back where he belonged?” Johnny said, his voice dripping venom as he glared at the newcomer.
“Yeah, you did and by now he should be crossing the border into Mexico, my friend,” the word was dripping with sarcasm as the Mexican stared at the dark haired Lancer.
“Why didn’t ya go with him?”
“I would have, but he asked me to extend an invitation for you to join him at his hacienda.”
“Oh, I think you should change your mind…”
“I don’t! Now get off my property before I decide to rid the land of another snake!” With those words Johnny turned Barranca and continued south.
“Insults will not go well for your brother!”
Johnny’s reaction was instantaneous as he turned back to his unwelcome visitor and grabbed the man by the throat. “What the hell are you talking about? Where’s Scott?”
“I…I c…can’t b…breathe!”
“I don’t give a damn. What have you done with my brother? Start talking, Ruiz or so help me I’ll slit you from ear to ear!” Johnny snarled as he pulled a thin bladed knife from the scabbard on his saddle.
“H…he’ll be d…dead if y…you d…don’t come w…with me! Miguel w…will kill h…him…”
“You’d better hope nothing’s happened to Scott or I’ll show you some tricks I picked up while I was with the rebels.” Johnny reluctantly released his hold and felt his stomach churn. If Espinoza had Scott there was no way his brother would be unharmed. Scott was not a man to go without a fight and Espinoza loved teaching his own lessons to people he thought below him. His thoughts flicked to the young woman who’d died in his arms and his anger formed an icy barrier around his heart before he let it control his emotions. He looked into the other man’s eyes and knew the man feared him, but for now he could do nothing about that fear. Scott’s life depended on him going to Mexico and he would have to wait until he rescued him before he could exact his own brand of vengeance.
“Give me your gun and that knife,” Ruiz said once he’d caught his breath.
Johnny smiled as he handed over his weapon, knowing he would have to bide his time. Carefully he removed his gun and handed it to the other man. Next he flipped the knife and holding it by the blade held it out in front of his body until the Mexican took it and placed it in his own saddlebag. Without a word, he turned Barranca and headed towards Mexico.
December 18th – Espinoza’s Hacienda several miles north of Mexico City.
Scott slid from the horse’s back as his hands were released from their bonds. He stood on wavering legs and held tightly to the saddle as they threatened to give out. His left eye was swollen and he found it hard to focus on the darkened building in front of him. The heat of the day had sapped what little moisture he had left and he knew he had to get something to drink, but he would not ask this man for it. A hand landed on his right shoulder and he dropped to his knees as the fingers pressed against the wounded limb.
“By now Johnny Madrid knows I have you and he is on his way to Mexico!” Espinoza grinned at the pain he was causing the blond and pointed towards a long dead tree set in the center of the property.
A length of chain could be seen, and there was no doubt what the items at the end of the chain were. Scott’s experiences in Libby came back to haunt him as he recognized the heavy manacles held tightly in one of Mendoza’s men’s hands. He swallowed painfully as he gathered the courage needed to face the nightmare from his past. He remembered the cold feeling of the metal biting into his flesh each time he moved, cringed inwardly at the idea of being chained up like an animal once more. The dogs at Libby prison were given more freedom than the prisoners, and somehow Scott knew things were going to be even worse for him here. The guard’s voices came back to him and he closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness washed over him.
“Get away from me ya animal!”—“Eat that swill or so help me I’ll tie ya down and pour it down yer throat!” —“Come on ya mangy dawg! On yer feet and get back ta work!”—“Cold! Ya ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”—“On yer feet, Lancer!” The voices ran together as if one man was speaking and Scott fought the rising bile as he tried to detach himself from what was happening.
“On your feet, Lancer!”
Scott shuddered as the two sentences seemed to run together with two distinct accents. He wanted nothing more than to lie down and let his mind and body go numb, but it was not to be as he was dragged to his feet. Scott drew on everything that made him who he was and shrugged off the hands before standing stiffly and walking haphazardly towards the man holding the manacles. He felt two men on either side of him and knew they were there to help him should he stumble, but to make sure he did not escape. Breathing through clenched teeth the battered blond finally stood in front of the tree.
“Not bad, Lancer, you got more guts than that brother of yours!”
“You don’t know Johnny as well as you think you do,” Scott grated out, as the first set of manacles were wrapped around his wrists. They were uncomfortably tight and he knew there was no way he’d be able to slip his hands out of them.
“I know your brother better than you do! Johnny Madrid…”
“Lancer! His name is Johnny Lancer!”
“He was Madrid long before he even knew the name Lancer existed. Long before he even knew he had a brother! There’s a lot more to your gunslinger brother than you know!” Espinoza warned as the second set of manacles were placed around the prisoner’s ankles.
“He’s not a gunslinger anymore and when he was I don’t think he was ever as insane…”
“Insane!” Espinoza spat as he grabbed Scott by the injured shoulder. He forced the blond to his knees once more as his eyes glazed over with hatred-induced insanity. “Let me tell you a little about your wonderful brother! Johnny Madrid killed more men than you’ll ever count on your hands! He killed with a cold-blooded heart and never looked back. He took things that didn’t belong to him and didn’t give a damn whether he was right or wrong! I’ve seen your brother stare down at a man he shot and put a bullet between his eyes!”
“N…No!” Scott tried, crying out as Espinoza continued to put pressure on his shoulder. “N…not Johnny!”
“Are you that sure, Scott Lancer? How do you know what your brother was like before you met him?”
“I know he wouldn’t kill in c…cold blood! I know he did some things he regrets, but he could never be the cold blooded killer you make him out to be!”
“Oh, that’s good, Lancer. Coming from you, that’s real good! How long have you known Johnny Madrid? A year, maybe two? Doesn’t matter because I know the real Johnny Lancer and he’s going to pay for taking Cierra Lucero away from me! He killed her you know?”
“I d…don’t be…believe you!”
“No, well perhaps you should ask your brother about it. Then again your brother will probably lie about the things he’s done!” Espinoza bent forward until he was nose to nose with his prisoner.
Scott’s stomach churned as the smell of strong spices and sweat assaulted his nostrils and threatened to empty his stomach. He tried to turn away, but was held in place by the man’s hands on his shoulders. “I don’t need to ask Johnny anything! I trust him with my life!”
“That’s good,” Espinoza laughed. “Because that’s exactly what’s riding on your brother coming here. If he turns down my invitation I’ll have you killed…very, very slowly!” With a final hiss of horrid breath he released Scott’s shoulders and took something from the man standing beside him.
Pain and weariness nearly overcame the blond as he struggle to stay on his knees. Not wanting to show any weakness he kept his gaze on Espinoza as he moved to stand in front of him. Before Scott could say anything a circle of metal was wrapped around his neck and locked into place. Scott cursed and raised his left hand, but could not remove the offending object.
“Now your brother will see you chained like a dog when he arrives! Give him some water and a blanket, after all I need him alive when Johnny Madrid arrives,” Espinoza warned, smiling as he saw the look of hatred on his prisoner’s face.
December 19th – Just inside the Mexican border.
Johnny rode silently, his body showing none of the turmoil racing through him. His face was set with grim determination, yet inside fear for his brother’s life controlled his every thought, making it impossible for him to concentrate on a plan of action. He knew Espinoza was keeping Scott alive at least until his arrival, and somehow, Johnny would make damn sure Scott would spend Christmas in his own home. He hadn’t spoken since handing over his weapons and he knew it was unnerving and smiled as Ernesto Ruiz looked back at him and turned quickly away without so much as a word.
‘You’ll pay!’ he vowed, pulling his jacket closer around his body as a chill wind crept across the open area. No matter what happened Johnny would exact his pound of flesh for every mark Espinoza heaped on Scott Lancer’s body. He’d see it done personally and enjoy every minute of Espinoza’s agony. His mind turned to the pretty Mexican woman he’d held close and he wondered what would have happened had she lived through Espinoza’s manhandling.
“I’m so sorry, Cierra…”
“Did you say something?”
Johnny didn’t bother with an answer as he glared into the man’s eyes. He smiled inwardly as Ruiz quickly looked away. The man was a coward, but tried to act big when around Espinosa or any of the others. Turning his attention to the direction they were traveling, Johnny thought again about how much his life had changed and Scott’s influence on those changes. It still amazed him that he had a brother and that he’d been a greenhorn when they first met, but had learned the ways of the west so quickly that there was no sign of the man who’d been on the stage. Scott Lancer had quickly proved he was his father’s son and now knew as much about life in the west as any of them. He’d also proved quite adept at riding and shooting. Scott’s prowess with both the rifle and a Colt was quickly spreading, although he was better with the rifle than with the colt.
‘Just hang on, Scott. Don’t give up hope,’ he thought as they continued south.
December 19th – Lancer
Murdoch frowned as he looked out over the land he loved so well. The day had dawned bright and clear, but clouds had quickly dotted the horizon until they encompassed the blue sky and obliterated the sun. The air had grown heavy with cold and it seeped into his bones, yet he knew it wasn’t the cold that caused the shiver to run down his spine. Johnny had left that morning to go and meet Scott, mend the fence and then return in time for dinner. It was now late into the night and neither of his sons had returned.
“Where are you boys?” he whispered as he looked around at the sound of footsteps.
“I thought you’d like some coffee.”
“Thanks, Teresa.” Murdoch accepted the steaming cup and sipped at the strong brew. He wrapped his arm around his young charge and could see the worry clearly written on her face. Since Carl’s return just after supper their worry had gained momentum until neither one could sleep. The ranch hand was supposed to help Johnny and Scott with the repairs, but when he arrived there was no sign of either man. He’d taken the time to ride to the line shack and had been surprised to find it hadn’t been used and there was no evidence that anyone had spent time there recently.
“They’ll be okay, Murdoch, they probably went into Green River early and ended up staying there.”
“Maybe,” the older man said, but the word sounded false even to him.
“What do you think could have happened?”
“I don’t know, but come morning I’ll be taking some of the hands and see if we can pick up their trail. If we don’t find anything then we’ll check Green River and I’ll send a couple of men to check Moro Coyo.”
“Jelly says we’re going to have more snow.”
“He might be right. Those clouds look like storm clouds,” Murdoch said, Shivering once more before looking into the young woman’s eyes. “It’s getting late and you’re cold…”
“I know, but it is cold. Let’s finish our coffee inside before Jelly’s prediction comes true,” Murdoch said, smiling at the worried woman. With a final look out over his land he turned and walked into the house, silently praying that he wasn’t about to lose the two sons he’d only just began to know.
December 19th – Espinoza’s Hacienda.
Scott shifted as he tried to find a more comfortable position, but every part of him ached. The heat of the sun had little to do with the heat raging within his body and he knew he was sporting a fever. He glanced towards the sky blinking rapidly as the sun baked what little moisture he had left. His throat was arid and he knew he was dangerously close to dehydration as he looked around the hacienda. Several guards were in evidence, but none had come near enough for him to ask for water. Shifting his upper body set off another wave of nausea and he cursed Espinoza for making him suffer. He closed his eyes as the bright orb continued to bake the earth around him, casting shadows everywhere but where he sat chained like a rabid dog. The sound of approaching footsteps reached his ears, but he didn’t have the strength needed to force his eyes open.
“You must drink, Senor, before that cursed sun bakes you to a shriveled husk.
Scott opened his eyes, surprised to see a weather beaten face covered in white hair. A pair of luminescent green eyes stared down at him with a mixture of fear and pity. Scott sat forward and moaned as he reawakened the dormant pain. He heard the man speaking to him, but could not summon the strength needed to give voice to his words.
“Please, Senor, before Senor Espinoza discovers I am giving you more than he has ordered. If he finds me I will be beaten. That’s it, open your mouth and drink, but do it slowly or you will only make yourself sick and that would make things worse.”
Scott felt the water enter his mouth and nearly cried with the relief it gave. He slowly drank the warm water as if it was the finest wine ever made. He lifted his hands, but the chains kept him from grabbing the cup as it was pulled away.
“Please, you must eat Senor and then you can have more water. It will help you.”
Scott opened his eyes and was surprised at the raspy quality of his own voice. “W…why are you h…helping me?”
“I overheard Senor Espinoza say that you are Johnny’s brother…”
“I am known only as Jose. Espinoza found me when I was ill and gave me and Carmela a home. It has been a very worrisome one, but at least we have a roof over our heads. Johnny was good to me and Carmela when he was here. He protected her many times from Espinoza’s men and now we can finally do something to help him. I only wish it was more, but Carmela said to make sure you ate and so I have brought you some of her biscuits.” Looking around Jose made sure the guards were busy as he plucked two biscuits from the inside of his shirt. He quickly placed them inside Scott’s shirt and shook his head before speaking. “Make sure no one is watching you or I will not be allowed to bring you water anymore.”
“You are welcome…”
“Jose, what are you doing over there?”
“Senor Espinoza asked me to give the Americano some water. I am simply doing as he ordered!”
“Well, hurry up and get away from him!”
“Si, Manual!” Jose said and turned back to the prisoner. “I am sorry I cannot do more for you!”
“Thank you…and Carmela,” Scott whispered before the cup was once more placed to his lips. He finished the last of the water, but it was not enough and his eyes pleaded with the man for more.
“I cannot bring any more unless Senor Espinoza orders it, but I will remind him often that you are fair and in need of water if he wants to keep you alive.”
Scott nodded and watched as the elderly man left him alone once more. He had no idea how long he’d been at the hacienda, but knew it wasn’t as long as it felt. So far his skin had been protected by the light shirt he wore, but the skin on his face felt tight. Closing his eyes he let his mind wander and smiled as he drifted into a warm dream that did more for the pain he felt than several doses of Laudanum.
Scott watched as one of the guards approached him and he swallowed painfully. The fact that the man was smiling did little to ease Scott’s mind. The man’s face was scarred and pockmarked and his breath was laced with stale tobacco and spices.
“Well, Lancer, your brother will soon be here and maybe Miguel will let me brand him much the same way he branded me. I have a scar on my face given to me by Johnny Madrid and I want to make sure he gets the same thing. Do you think Johnny would enjoy having a scar like this?” the Mexican asked, pointing to a silver dollar sized mark on his right cheek.
Scott tried to ignore the newcomer, but there was no denying a man whose breath could even offend a skunk. He tried to turn away but a blow to the right side of his face rocked his head back and he fought to stay conscious.
“Or maybe I’ll just rearrange that pretty face of yours. Whatcha think? Do you like fire?”
Scott remained silent as the man continued to talk. He knew his silence was contributing to the man’s anger, but he didn’t care! The pain was nearly his undoing, but he fought to raise his head and look into the Mexican’s face. Their eyes locked and Scott knew this man would do just what he was threatening if given the chance. The blond cringed as the man’s dirty hand came up to rub against his cheek.
“Ever smelled burning flesh, Lancer? It’s almost sickly sweet and not pleasant for anyone with a weak stomach! Do you have a weak stomach like your brother?”
Again Scott remained stubbornly silent as he tried to calm his churning stomach, but the man’s breath continued to wreak havoc with his senses. His vision blurred as his antagonist struck out at him again and again.
“Thought you city raised boys were taught some manners, but I can see you’re gonna have to learn proper ways to answer a man!”
“Manual, what are you doing?”
“I was teaching this Americano some manners, Miguel! He does not know how to talk when spoken to! See, even now he does not speak!”
“Leave him alone, Manual!” Espinoza warned as he knelt and stared into the glazed blue eyes. He could tell there was still a lot of fight in Scott Lancer and was beginning to see the similarities between the two brothers. There was more of Johnny Madrid in this man than met the eye and he was not about to make the mistake of underestimating this coiled cobra. He placed a finger under the captive’s chin and forced his face towards his own. “I wish to wait until Johnny Madrid returns to the home he destroyed!”
“Johnny didn’t destroy any…anything…”
“Don’t be so sure of that, Lancer. Johnny Madrid destroys everything he touches! He’s destroying you right now without even knowing it. It’s because of him that you will suffer, Scott Lancer. For who better to use as revenge against a gunslinger but the brother he’s so recently discovered. I might even allow Johnny to live after I kill you but only so I can watch him be eaten away by guilt.”
“S…sick…” Scott managed to ground out as darkness beckoned to him once more. The figures tormenting him blurred even as Espinoza’s cursing reached his fog-enshrouded mind. He grew cold at the threats made against his brother and prayed there was some avenue of escape for both of them. Something slammed against his skull and all coherent thoughts left him in wake of the excruciating pain lancing through his skull. With a final gasp of pain, Scott Lancer gave himself over to darkness, unaware of how close his brother was and the worry the younger man felt.
December 20th – Just outside Espinosa’s Hacienda
Johnny recognized the familiar landscape around him as memories of his time there returned. A warmer time before he really found out the man he worked for was more of an animal than a human being. Several times he’d seen hints of the man’s temper, but hadn’t really cared until he saw the beating he’d given Cierra Lucero. No one deserved that and Johnny had tried to take her away from it, but…he turned his thoughts from those dark times as Ruiz drew up alongside him and stopped the horses.
“Miguel said to make sure you understand who is in charge here. I am to make sure you don’t interfere with his plans.”
“How are you supposed to do that?” Johnny asked, his face relaxed, yet inside he was like a coiled snake, ready and waiting for the right opportunity to strike.
“He said to tie your hands behind you. Your brother’s life depends on you doing as he expects you to! Put your arms behind your back!”
Johnny released Barranca’s reins and slowly, painstakingly put his hands behind his back. He silently cursed his helplessness as a rope was quickly bound around his wrists, tightening until it cut off the circulation. He vowed to make Ruiz and Espinoza pay for what they were doing and knew if the opportunity arose he would kill them without a moment’s hesitation. Taking a deep breath he bit back anything he wanted to say as Ruiz led the horse towards the hacienda.
December 20th – Lancer Line Shack
Murdoch knew the news was not good as he watched Jelly ride towards him. The man had gone into Green River at dawn to find out if Scott or Johnny had been there in the last day or so. Hoskins’ whiskered face did nothing to hide the worry in the man’s eyes as Murdoch reached for the reins.
“Scott and Johnny ain’t been to Green River, Murdoch!”
“Is Carl back?”
“Yes, he rode back to the house to let Teresa know what’s going on.”
“They wasn’t in Moro Coyo?”
“No, and Carl found evidence that Scott and several other riders were headed south. We’re going to follow it and Carl will bring several more men and meet us along the trail.”
“I don’t like it none, Murdoch. Scott and Johnny wouldn’t jest ride off somewhere, ‘specially with Christmas comin’. Ain’t no way them boys’d miss out on Teresa’s cookin’!”
“I know, Jelly,” the elder Lancer said as his shoulders slumped.
“Yer worried about ‘em too, ain’tcha?”
“Of course I am! Scott and Johnny are my sons, Jelly, and I know I missed a lot of years, years that I can’t get back, but I am not going to give up the years we have ahead. Get a new horse and get ready to ride! Tell Zeke we’ll need several days’ supplies!”
“I’ll see it gets done, Murdoch. What about Teresa?”
“Carl will make sure she knows where we are and that we’re following their trail.”
“It’s gonna be hard on her what with Christmas bein’ so close and all.”
“Going to be hard on all of us, Jelly, and it’ll stay that way until we get them back.”
“They could jest be sittin’ at one of the other line shacks…”
“They could, but somehow I don’t think that’s possible. Johnny’s tracks were joined by another rider, but it wasn’t Scott and I believe whoever this rider is knows where Scott is. I’m going after them…like I should’ve done long ago.”
“Murdoch, ain’t no one blamin’ ya fer what happened all those years ago…”
“Except me, Jelly, I’m not the kind of man to apologize for the things I’ve done and never will be, but some things are worth making the extra effort…Johnny and Scott are out there and I’m not about to leave them alone like I did Scott…I’ve got a chance to make up for some of it and I’m aiming at celebrating Christmas with you, Teresa and my sons. Right now Christmas is on hold until we get back. Now get your horse and make sure the men are ready to ride out in ten minutes!”
“Sure thin’, Murdoch!”
The Lancer patriarch held his ground and stared into the cloud covered sky. The snow would not deter him from his mission and he breathed deeply of the cold night air. Christmas had been bleak during the years when is sons were not with him, but Teresa had always been there for him. Now he’d grown used to having the boys around and he’d give up anything and everything just to see them again.
“God, I’m not much of a praying man, but Catherine said you were always ready and willing to listen. I know I haven’t been much of a father to Scott and Johnny, but there must have been some reason you brought them back to me. Lancer may be my property, but it took the two of them to make it a home again. Catherine, if you can hear me, please…” Tears formed and rolled softly down the strong cheeks as Murdoch Lancer did something he hadn’t done since her death. He spoke openly to the woman who still held a major piece of his heart. “Please, help me find my sons…and keep them safe for me!”
“Murdoch, we’re ready,” Hoskins said as he returned to the spot where his friend still stood, snow softly falling on the ground around him.
“All right, thanks, Jelly,” Lancer said, turning and striding with newfound confidence towards his own horse.
December 20th – Espinoza’s Hacienda.
Miguel Espinoza heard the sound of approaching horses as he sipped the strong, bitter liquid from the glass he held. He knew without a doubt his enemy was fast approaching and threw the glass to the ground as he strode towards the figure sitting haphazardly against the post he was bound to. The sun had been beating down on the captive most of the day, but for now he was shaded against the telling rays. Espinoza reached the post just as the riders came into the yard and he watched his enemy’s face as the blue eyes sent icy daggers of hatred towards him.
To say that Johnny’s first sight of Scott cut the breath from his lungs would be an understatement as he saw the damage done to his brother. The blond head was dipped, the hair unkempt and billowing softly in the slight breeze. He sucked air through clenched teeth as his steady gaze fell on the collar wrapped around his sibling’s neck and he struggled with the ropes binding his own wrists. He turned his head slightly, barely enough for his gaze to fall on Espinoza, yet he understood the man caught the meaning of his body’s movements. Without waiting for Barranca to stop he dismounted and hurried towards his brother, but strong arms gripped him and held him fast. Scott hadn’t moved since his arrival and Johnny fought the men holding him, but to no avail.
“Sc…Scott,” he voice broke on the single name and his heart skipped a beat as turbulent blue eyes opened and came to rest on his.
“J…Johnny…s…shouldn’t h…have come…k…kill,” Scott managed to rasp as his thick tongue stuck to his parched lips.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t, Scott?” Johnny asked. In spite of the fact he couldn’t use his hands, Johnny knew Scott was reaching out for him. The blue eyes shone with emotions and unshed moisture as the two men tried to ignore those around them.
“N…no, knew y…you would…”
“All right that’s enough!” Espinoza said and watched as Ruiz and Mendoza continued to hold Johnny away from the captive.
“Leave him alone!” Johnny screamed as Espinoza pulled the blond to his feet.
“Ah, Johnny, I see you still have not learned who is in charge. As with Cierra, I must teach you to stay out of my business. It is too bad that your brother will have to suffer for your wrong doings!”
“Lay a finger on him and I’ll see you burn in hell, Miguel!”
“I’d love to see you try that, Johnny, but see it’s more fun watching you squirm as I cut your brother like I did Cierra.” Espinoza smiled as he produced a blade and slowly ran it along Scott’s cheek. “You remember that, Johnny? Remember how she screamed when I cut her here?”
Scott bit his lip as the tip of the blade cut into his right shoulder. He tried to assure his brother he was okay, but Johnny’s shrill cursing showed how overwrought he was. Espinoza continued to speak from beside him, but the knife was not removed, instead the blade went deeper and Scott felt blood slide down his skin. He couldn’t remember anyone taking his shirt off, but he focused his eyes and understood his shirt was no longer covering his chest. The livid bruises, scratches, and lacerations were evident amongst the dirt and new blood and Scott felt himself sway as Mendoza gripped his arms and held him upright.
“See, Johnny, your brother bleeds just as Cierra did! I think maybe he will last a little longer, don’t you?”
Johnny cursed and struggled against his captors as Espinoza continued to torment his captive. He saw the blood run from the wound to Scott’s shoulders and wondered how much more the injured man could stand. The ropes binding his own wrists seemed to be weakening and he concentrated on breaking free of the hemp.
“Leave him alone you sick bas…” A fist drove into his gut and Johnny Lancer silently cursed as the two men continued to hold him captive.
“Pay attention, Johnny. I warned you long ago that you would pay for trying to take Cierra from me. Today is just the beginning. I will force you to watch as I flay your precious brother alive. You’ll hear him scream and cry out and not be able to stop it and you’ll beg me to kill him so you won’t have to watch him suffer!” Espinoza cried shaking the weakened body he held as he cursed the dark haired Lancer. “You’ll know his pain is your fault…”
“No, Johnny….n…never your f…fault…”
“And the more I hurt him, the more it will hurt you. The brother you’d always wanted will cease to exist because you couldn’t face up to the wrongdoings you performed! Now watch…”
“Don’t, Miguel! Don’t you…”
“Don’t what, Johnny? Don’t do this…” The knife slashed against Scott’s unprotected side, cutting into the flesh and adding new blood to the caked on dirt. “Or this…”
Scott didn’t know which was worse. The pain of the slashing blade as it cut into his body, sending white-hot fire surging through him, or the sound of anguish coming from his brother. He lifted his eyes and tried to send strength through the pain filled stare, but Johnny Lancer was no longer there, in his place was Johnny Madrid, and Scott understood the difference between the two men. He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat as he watched the icy glaze come over the blue orbs. Shivers raced down his spine as his brother’s body straightened and a sense of calm replaced the anger on the handsome face. Scott Lancer knew he was facing a man who could easily kill and also understood he was the reason for the change in the man’s demeanor.
“J…Johnny…” Scott tried, but his words were weak and barely audible as he sagged against his captor. His arms were leaden as he continued to struggle to release his wrists, but continue he did and felt his wrist, now slick with blood slip from the restraints. He closed his eyes and concentrated, ignoring the words that sounded so close to his ear.
“So, you are still Johnny Madrid! That’s something I wanted to find out as well. All those stories I heard about the gunslinger turned rancher had me thinking and wondering if you really had given it up, but I can see the hatred and need for vengeance in your eyes, Johnny! I kinda figured the best way to find out was to use your brother! I bet you can smell his blood…I know you can see it…feel his fear…smell it…”
“N…not a…afraid…n…not of y…you…”
“Is that right, Scott Lancer? Perhaps it would be fun to see just how much pain you can take before you admit to being afraid? How about it Johnny? I’m in the mood for games and your brother seems to think he’s strong enough to handle whatever I throw at him. Do you think he can?”
“Let him go, Miguel! He has nothing to do with this!” The words were calm as the two men glared at each other.
“Ah, but you are wrong, Johnny. Your brother has everything to do with it. He will finally give me the justice…”
“Since when did you start believing in justice?” Johnny asked, watching as the silver bright blade, now sullied with his brother’s lifeblood gleamed in the light.
“Since the day you took Cierra from me!” Espinoza’s eyes clouded dangerously as he pulled Scott straighter and pressed the tip of the blade against his throat. “You killed something that belonged to me and now I’m going to do the same to you! Say goodbye to your precious brother, Johnny!”
“NO!” Madrid screamed, as the blade seemed to sink into his brother’s neck. He dove away from his captors and in spite of his bound arms managed to stay on his feet and stagger towards the horror that was tearing at his heart.
Scott felt his captor shift his weight and seized the opportunity given to him. Without a thought to the threat on his own life, Scott pulled his head away, barely escaping the sharp tip of the blade as he shoved against Espinoza. He heard his brother scream, but did not take the time to see where he was or what he was doing. As the blade came away from his throat, Scott again used his weakened body as a battering ram and shoved against the unbalanced form of his enemy. He knew he was going down and also understood he had to bring Espinoza with him. Twisting against the manacles that still held him prisoner, Scott Lancer dropped on top of his captor as angered curses and gunshots sounded nearby.
“Scott!” Madrid cried as his brother landed heavily on the ground in a mixture of dust and blood.
“Johnny! Look out!” Jose called, grabbing the gun Carmela pushed towards him. Without thinking of his own life, Jose fired the gun taking one of Espinoza’s men down even as he raced towards the scene unfolding before them.
“Jose, be careful!” Carmela cried, ducking behind the horse trough as her husband raced towards the man she’d known as Johnny Madrid.
Scott had little time to react as his body impacted the hard packed ground and the air was driven from his lungs. He heard gunfire and felt the body beneath him struggling for something and knew instinctively it was for the gun strapped at his waist. Scott grabbed for the weapon between his body and Espinoza’s even as his nemesis tugged at the collar around his neck. Scott felt the weakness as he fought the encroaching darkness and knew he was fighting insurmountable odds, but he also understood his brother’s life depended on what he did next.
Johnny hurried towards the struggling figures even as gunfire erupted around him. He heard a grunt from behind him and knew Ruiz had been hit. He recognized the voice of warning as Jose’s and heard the cries from Carmela, but could not acknowledge them as a cry of pain erupted from one of the men on the ground. Something grabbed at his shoulders and spun him around even as a fist connected with his jaw. He staggered backwards, fighting to stay on his feet as Mendoza and another man reached for him. Using his body, he drove into Mendoza’s stomach and heard the harsh whoosh of escaping air as the man’s lungs deflated.
Espinoza could not begin to understand where the gringo got his strength from, but Scott Lancer was a force to be reckoned with. The gun he’d been reaching for was now trapped between his own body and that of Madrid’s brother. The cold steel seemed to glow with a heat of its own as he stared into the blue eyes and saw death looming in them, but now he couldn’t be sure who death was really coming for.
Scott knew there was little chance of winning, but he smiled as he saw fear dawn in Espinoza’s dark eyes. Gritting his teeth, his lips curling into a malicious snarl, Scott called on every ounce of strength he had left as he forced his words through clenched teeth.
The sound of a muffled shot seemed louder than any Johnny Madrid had ever heard before and he fought with new found energy, fueled also by anger as he threw his body at the two men fighting him. Another shot sounded and Mendoza fell beside him. His eyes narrowed considerably as he looked at the lone man standing in front of him. The man’s hand went for his gun, but the eyes darkened as a cry of rage arose on the air as Jose plunged a knife into the man’s back. Johnny nodded his thanks as the Mexican quickly cut the ropes binding his arms. Taking a deep breath, he looked at the two men lying on the ground before him, neither man had moved and no sign of life could be seen and Johnny felt as if his heart had been cut from his chest as he knelt to pull his brother’s body from Espinoza’s inert form. His eyes widened at the amount of blood covering his brother’s chest and he closed his eyes as the unfamiliar feeling of moisture slipped from beneath closed lids.
Jose looked around the land surrounding the hacienda and was glad to see his friends were there and had successfully taken control of the remaining gun hands. He hurried towards his friend and knelt beside Johnny Madrid as the gunslinger pulled the blond into his arms.
“I killed him, Jose…I killed him!”
“I’m sorry, Johnny…I tried…”
“You’re not to blame, Jose…”
“And neither are you, my friend! The blame lies with men like Miguel Espinoza and their greed. Don’t let your brother’s death be for nothing!”
Johnny knew the words were not real…just his imagination as his mind tried to keep his brother with him. The tears were still there, but he refused to let them fall as he struggled with the loss tearing so deeply into his heart.
“Johnny, your brother…he is not dead!” Jose stammered, amazed at the blue eyes that sought Madrid’s attention. He watched in amazement, as Johnny Madrid became Johnny Lancer. The hatred left the emotional blue eyes and was quickly replaced by hope.
“Scott!” Johnny cried as the glazed orbs focused on him and a shaky, blood stained hand reached up to touch his cheek.
“I’m fine, Brother, it’s you that’s hurt…”
“You got that right,” the dark haired man said as Jose checked the Mexican lying on the ground beside them.
“He is dead,” Jose informed Johnny as Carmela hurried towards them. The woman held something clasped tightly in her hands and Johnny sighed gratefully as she showed him the keys.
“Get them off of him!” the dark haired Lancer ordered, his voice deadly calm in spite of the fists that seemed to clench his heart in a strangle hold. He watched as Jose and Carmela used the keys to unlock the manacles and collar before swallowing the anger and looking up as the woman spoke.
“Johnny, we must get him into the hacienda!” the woman explained.
“Let us help you with him, Johnny,” Jose said as several others joined them.
Johnny nodded as he lifted his brother forward, wincing in sympathy as Scott moaned and tried to help. “Lay still, Scott. Jose, can you send for the doctor?”
“Johnny, the doctor was killed by Espinoza a year ago. There is no other in the area!” Carmela said, regret and fear evident on her face as Johnny and Jose lifted the injured man and began to carry him into the hacienda.
“What? Why?” the dark haired Lancer snapped as they hurried towards the hacienda.
“He did not do something Espinoza wanted and was shot. I am so sorry, Johnny,” Jose explained as Carmela held the door open for them.
“Scott needs a doctor…”
“J…Johnny, I’m o…okay!”
“No, Scott, you’re not, but so help me God you will be.” They carried Scott into the main bedroom and gently eased the battered body onto the bed. “Jose, see that Barranca is fed and brushed down and see if Scott’s horse is here. Is there a wagon around?”
“No, Johnny, there is no wagon, but I will see to the horses,” Jose assured him.
“Carmela, can you get me something for bandages and maybe bring some hot water and whiskey if you have any?”
“Of course, Johnny! I will see to it immediately.”
Scott heard his bother giving orders and knew he was struggling to hide his fears. Using what little strength he had left, Scott Lancer lifted his left hand and placed it on his brother’s arm. He didn’t have the strength to speak, but used his eyes to send a silent message to his brother. The emotive blue stare told Scott all he needed to know. Johnny understood exactly how bad he was hurt and no amount of reassurance was going to hide that fact.
“I’m here, Scott,” the dark haired man said as he watched his brother closely.
“W…want to…want to be home for…for Christmas,” Scott stammered, eyes closing as pain overrode his senses and threatened to send him into the darkened maw at the edge of his vision.
“I know you do, Scott…but…”
“P…please, Johnny, I don’t w…want to d…die here…”
“You listen to me, Boston! You’re not gonna die here or anywhere else! You hear me? Scott! Don’t do this to me, Brother, dear God don’t do this to me again!” Johnny’s mind wandered back to a very similar scene, only this time it was his brother’s life that depended on him and although he’d been close to Cierra Lucero, it was not the same kind of pain he felt now. This was his brother, a part of him that had only existed for a couple of years, yet it felt as if it had always been a part of him.
“Johnny, I have the things you asked for.”
“Thanks, Carmela,” the young man said, fighting to keep his warring emotions in check.
“Are you all right?”
“I can see that,” the wizened woman said as she placed a basin of water and several towels on the table beside the bed. “Perhaps you will let me help you care for your brother.”
“I’ll take all the help I can get, Carmela, but first I need to get the rest of his clothes off.”
“I can help you with that, Johnny…”
“Thanks, Carmela,” Johnny said as the older woman helped him maneuver Scott’s unmoving body until what remained of his clothing had been removed. Johnny silently cursed the damage uncovered by the removal of his brother’s clothing. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Espinoza had dragged Scott behind a horse. The evidence was clear to see in the bruises, scratches, and lacerations covering the battered form.
“Madre de dios…how could that animal do this to…”
“Si, Carmela. Espinoza is an animal and…”
“Was, Johnny, he is dead and can no longer hurt you!”
“It wasn’t me he hurt…”
Carmela took a clean cloth and began to bathe the injured man. She kept her eyes on Johnny Madrid and wondered at the emotions warring for dominance on the handsome face. In the years since he’d left Mexico something had changed about the young man she was so fond of. She knew his heart was good, but never had the feeling been so strong in her. She looked down at the pale, bruised face of the unconscious man and understood the changes in Johnny…Madrid was no longer who he was. This man was Johnny Lancer through and through.
‘I think he hurt you more than you realize, Johnny Lancer,’ she thought as she watched his gentle hands care for the injured man.
‘I’m sorry, Scott,” Johnny thought as he washed each bruise, each scrape and laceration. Every mark was soon engraved on his heart, lending credence to the guilt that slowly overwhelmed him. He lost track of time as he washed away the blood from the knife wounds and prayed for his brother’s life. He helped Carmela smooth a salve over the worst of the wounds and held his brother while she bandaged the wounds.
“Ease him down on the pillows, Johnny,” the older woman said and finished tending the cuts before her gaze came to rest on the blonds’ right shoulder. “Johnny.”
“What’s wrong?” he asked, his gaze lifting from his brother’s body.
“His shoulder, it looks like it’s out of shape!”
“What is that?”
“It means we have to put it back in place. It’ll hurt him…God only know I’ve done enough of that already, but…”
“Y…you didn’t d…do this, J…Johnny.” The voice, though weak, was unmistakable and Johnny smiled thinly as the blue eyes finally opened.
“Thought you were sleeping.”
“I w…was, but needed to ask you…”
“Ask me what, Scott?”
“Ask you…to…to take m…me home. Don’t w…want to s…stay here. Home…our home…Lancer.”
“Scott, you can’t travel like this. We don’t have a wagon and you can’t ride alone!”
“Ride with you. Home for Christmas, Johnny. Just….just in case.”
“In case what?” Johnny asked and knew he really didn’t want to hear what his brother would say.
“I…in case I…I don’t m…make it. Case I….”
“Don’t say that, Scott. Okay? Please, don’t talk like that. Carmela and me are gonna fix you up until the doc can get here. I gotta fix your shoulder and then you can rest…”
“No! Can’t stay here. Please Johnny, t…take me back to Lancer!”
“Alright, Scott,” the younger man’s shoulders slumped as he gave in to his brother’s pleadings. “I’m going to get your shoulder fixed and then let you rest. We’ll head home at first light!”
“Home,” Scott said gently and tried to take a deep breath. He gasped as pain threatened to send him into the darkness once more, but fought to stay in the light and bask in his brother’s light.
“Yeah, home. Carmela, could you hold him for a minute?”
“Si, Johnny,” the woman said and eased in behind the blond. She watched as the two men stared into each other’s eyes and Johnny reached forward and grasped the injured limb.
“Hold on, Scott,” Johnny warned as he quickly maneuvered the arm and popped the shoulder back into place. He heard his brother cry out and knew the effort it took for Scott to stay awake was enormous.
Scott remained still as Johnny grasped his arm, but could not stop the cry of pain from escaping his throat, as his brother seemed to wrench his arm from his body. Never before had the pain been so bad as his body arched up off the bed. He blacked out even as Johnny and Carmela quickly strapped his arm to his body in an effort to keep it from shifting.
“He’s strong, Johnny.”
“I know he is, Carmela, but even strong men have their weaknesses. Right now Scott is hurting more than he’s letting on. He wants to get home to Lancer because he thinks he’s dying and I have to make sure that doesn’t happen. I can’t let him die like I did Cierra…”
“You did no such thing, Johnny! Cierra died because that animal cut her and beat her and she was not strong enough…”
“Cierra died because she loved me and if Scott dies it’s for the same reason.” His words were spoken in an icy tone that chilled Carmela to the core. “Scott’s my brother and it’s my fault he’s here like this.”
“No, Carmela, I don’t need you to ease my mind because what I know is the truth and so do you. Scott is hurt because he’s my brother and because I showed Espinoza my one weakness. I’m going to get Scott home for Christmas and then I’m going to leave before I get him hurt again…”
Scott floated on a turbulent sea of unrelenting dreams. Sometimes words drifted by him, but he didn’t understand what was being said. Yet something in the familiar tone caused him to shiver and force back the darkness. He caught the final exchange between his brother and the woman and knew he could not let it go. Somehow he would find a way to make sure they were both home for Christmas. Lancer would not be the same without Johnny to wake him if he slept in, or tease him about being a greenhorn. No, for Lancer to be home Scott needed Johnny to be there and he would make sure the younger man knew he belonged there.
December 21 – Camp north of the Mexican border
Murdoch looked at the sky overhead and let his mind drift towards his two sons. They were so different, yet so much alike. Both were enigmas to him in that they’d grown up without realizing they had a brother, meeting for the first time on a stage before coming to aid their father in the salvation of a way of life neither knew anything about. Johnny, the dark gunslinger who could tame a savage beast with a simple wink and a cocky half smile, and Scott, the greenhorn Bostonian who seemed to know more than he should have about the horrors of life. Now he was alone with his thoughts once more, as the two men seemed to have vanished. They’d lost the trail during the last snowfall and now they were camped out until morning when they’d try to pick up the trail once more.
“Where are you?” he whispered as the far off call of a coyote interrupted the silence of the night. Turning on his side he closed his eyes and sought the sleep that seemed so illusive.
December 21st– Espinosa’s Hacienda.
Johnny held the untouched cup of coffee in his hands, but felt little of the warmth generated by the hot liquid inside it. He knew he should have been sleeping, but had done little but toss and turn during the darkest hours of the night. Now as the wondrous golden streaks of sun peeked over the horizon, Johnny knew it was time to get moving. Scott remained asleep or unconscious and the gunslinger knew he needed to get his brother to the doctor before it was too late. Looking at the pale face he knew there was only one hope of saving his brother’s life. They had to return to Lancer and bring Scott to the home they now shared.
“Johnny, Jose had the horses ready for you.”
“Thank you, Carmela.”
“Are you sure this is for the best?”
“Si, Carmela, there is no choice. Without a doctor Scott will die and the nearest one seems to be Doc Jenkins. We could send a man to get him, but by that time we would already have Scott home and in his own bed. He needs…”
“J…Johnny,” the word seemed to be torn from the injured man and Johnny moved to sit on the bed beside his brother.
“Right here, Scott.”
“We’re going home, Scott. Jose’s got Barranca and Prince saddled and ready.”
“…okay,” the blond stammered and tried to sit up.
“Where do you think you’re goin’ Boston?” Johnny asked, easing his brother back to the bed.
“S…said w…we’re going h…home.”
“Yes, and we are, but you just lie there until everything is ready. No way you’re gonna be able to ride in your birthday suit. I mean the ladies might like it, but it’s a tad cold out there and you get the picture?”
“Y…yes, I got it,” Scott said, smiling at the mischievous glint in his brother’s eyes.
“Now, just hold up a minute and we’ll see if we can’t find you some decent clothes that’ll fit over them bandages.”
“Lie there,” Johnny said, exasperation written on his face as he glared at his brother. “Look, Scott, just let us do what needs to be done and tend you. That way we can be home that much faster.”
“O…okay,” the blond said and let his eyes close once more. He’d been trying to hide just how much pain he was in, but somehow he knew his younger brother could see right through him. He shifted uncomfortably and waited for the pain to ease before opening his eyes and staring into the serious blue orbs above him. “I’m okay, Johnny.”
“Yeah, sure you are. I’m going to make sure we’ve got enough supplies to get us home. I won’t be long.”
“Don’t thank me for almost getting you killed, Scott,” Johnny said coldly before hurrying from the room.
“Johnny!” Scott called and again tried to sit up, but this time he was stopped by the Mexican woman.
“You must be still…”
“J…Johnny’s n…not t…to blame…”
“I know that, Scott, and so does he, but right now he’s angry and until he has you home safe then he’s going to be very protective of you. I saw him like this before…when Cierra…”
“W…who was s…she? What happened t…to her?”
“I’m sure Johnny will tell you when he’s ready, but for now let’s just say she was someone he cared very deeply about. Now, why don’t we see about getting some clothes on you?” She laughed as the weakened man summoned the strength to pull the blanket over himself. “Alright, since you are shy I will leave it to Johnny to get you dressed.”
“T…thank you,” Scott said as his brother came back into the room carrying a shirt and pants.
“Scott, are you okay?”
“Boy, if you could see your face you’d know just how easy it is to tell you’re lying. Carmela, would you mind asking Jose to come in here and help me?”
“Si, Johnny, I’ll finish making up a lunch for you. I’ve made a simple soup for Scott and some bread if his stomach can take it.”
“Thanks, Carmela,” Johnny said as he turned his attention back to his brother. “All right, Scott, think you can sit up a little for me to get this shirt on you?”
“Think so,” the blond whispered as his brother’s strong arms lifted him forward and eased the shirt over his shoulders. Scott held his breath as he fought to stay in place, but each breath felt like a knife stabbing through his gut and n he fell back against the pillow gasping for even the slightest breath of air. He could hear his brother talking as if from a distance, but did not have the strength left to acknowledge him. He floated as if on a calm sea, moaning when a tidal wave of pain grew even worse and threatened to throw him into the dark maw that waited at the edge of consciousness.
“Scott, stay with me, Brother. I know it hurts, but we need to get you home so Doc Jenkins can help you.”
“T…try, J…Johnny, h…hurts s…so m…much.”
“I know it does, but I ain’t got nothing here to give you. Maybe it’d be better if I left you here and went for Jenkins?”
“No!” The panic flashed as Scott’s eyes seemed to change from blue to grey to blue again as he reached for the man sitting beside him. “H…have to go, Johnny. Christmas…Lancer…Home….h…home with you! P…promise me, Johnny…Home for Christmas.”
“All right, Scott, I promise I’ll take you with me, but you have to promise that you’ll stay with me. That you’ll fight to stay with me. Promise me, Scott. Promise me you’ll stay alive for me!”
“I p…promise I’ll try, J…Johnny…I’ll t…try…”
“You damn well better do more than that, Scott Lancer, cause I don’t aim to return home for a Christmas Funeral!” Johnny looked up to see Jose standing in the doorway. “Jose is here, Scott and we’re going to get you dressed. Okay?”
“O…okay,” the blond said as he struggled to get his breathing under control. Again he felt his brother’s touch and knew Johnny would see through on his promise, the trouble was could Scott see through on his. The pain was overwhelming and Scott willingly gave himself over to the siren call of darkness.
Murdoch’s frustrations showed on his face as he watched the men pack up. There’d been no sign of either of his sons and with time running out he knew they’d have to return to the ranch by the end of the day. Most of the men with him had their own families and he knew they would want to celebrate Christmas at home. Sighing in defeat the older Lancer looked at the man who’d quickly become a member of his family.
“Jelly, tell the men we’ll continue searching until lunchtime and then head back home.”
“No nuts, Jelly. You and I can continue searching, but these men have families and I won’t keep them from them when we’re not even sure which direction to look any more. Tell Carl I need him to ride back and let Teresa know what’s happening.”
“All right, Murdoch,” Hoskins said, his head lowered in defeat.
Murdoch watched him walk away and knew by the slump of the man’s shoulders he didn’t agree with Murdoch’s decision. Again he turned his gaze south and wondered at the draw he felt, pulling him in that direction.
‘I’m coming, boys, just wish I knew we were headed in the right direction.’ He thought as he turned back to his mount and began to saddle the horse.
Teresa pulled her sweater close around her body as she looked out over the only land she’d ever called home. For years she’d been the only child, growing up with a father who wasn’t really hers, yet she knew he’d done more for her than her own father could have. She remembered very little of Paul O’Brien, except the fact that he’d loved her and did his best by her. When he’d died she’d become Murdoch’s ward and loved him as a child should love a parent. She smiled as she thought about the extended family she now had.
Johnny Lancer was so much like his father and yet she knew it was only her who saw it. Both men had a stubborn pride and wouldn’t back down from anyone, not even each other. She’d been privy to many of their arguments and had even stepped between the two men before the verbal sparring could come to blows. She often wondered which man would back down, but inwardly she hoped never to see that day come. Johnny and Murdoch might argue, but she could not see them physically hurting each other.
Scott Lancer was also like his father, but Teresa felt there was more of his mother’s temperament in Scott than Murdoch’s. Scott seemed to know when there was a time to fight and a time to back off. That didn’t mean he was a coward or that he couldn’t fight, it just meant he knew how and when to choose his fights. She’d admired his deadly calm while others seemed ready to fight, and the truth was she also admired his ability to step in between his father and brother and make himself known. For a man born and bred in a society where fighting was looked upon with contempt, Scott Lancer could use his fists and guns with a silent prowess that often stunned his enemies and family alike.
Now the three men she cared for most were missing and she had no way of knowing whether they were alive or dead. She turned her gaze towards the sky and prayed her family would be together for Christmas.
“Please, God, bring them home safely,” she thought as again she pulled the sweater closer around her body. Shivering in the cold she turned back towards the house and hurried inside. The clock on the mantle ticked louder than she remembered and again she was reminded of how empty the house was without those she cared about. She looked at the tree sitting in the corner, but felt no desire to decorate it until they were together again.
“Scott, I don’t know if you can hear me, but we’re going to lift you and get you on Barranca. We’ll be home before you know it,” Johnny soothed as he reached for his brother’s body. They’d managed to get him dressed, but not without a few difficulties, including having to stop and allow the blond to catch his breath. Now there was no choice, but to get moving if he wanted to be back across the border before nightfall.
“Johnny, perhaps it would be best if you let me and Carlos carry your brother? That way you could mount up and we could hand him up to you.”
“All right, Jose,” the dark haired Lancer reluctantly acquiesced as he touched his brother’s forehead. The skin wasn’t overly warm, but Johnny understood this would not last long. He knew his brother’s fever was on the rise and also understood that moving him was not the best decision, but for Scott’s sake it was the only one he could make. Scott’s life depended on him being able to get him back to Lancer and the help waiting there.
“Come, Johnny, I have packed some food for you and your brother. He will not be able to eat anything but the softest of foods and maybe you could get him to drink more of the broth while you ride. You must be sure you keep up your strength for the trial ahead of you, for your brother is depending on you to bring him home.”
“Gracious, Carmela, I will not let my brother give up.”
“I did not think so, Johnny. You have much of your mother in you, but I believe you must have some of your father in you as well.”
“You don’t know my father, Carmela.”
“But I do know you and I have also seen the courage in your brother. I do not believe all of that was from Maria for she told me often that she lacked the courage to admit she was wrong about your father. One day I will tell you some things about Maria and perhaps you will understand her better.”
“My mother had a hard life, Carmela.”
“Si, she did, but it was of her own choosing. I think she feared the love she felt for your father, but she died before she could make the decision to face Murdoch Lancer again. Do not fault your mother for this because it took a lot for her to leave him in the first place.”
“My mother could not have loved my father that much, Carmela, or she would have stayed at Lancer!”
“Don’t be so sure, Johnny. Your mother loved your father, but she did not love the ranch or the life that went with it. She was used to living on the wild side until Murdoch tamed her if only for a short time. Your mother was the most beautiful woman in Mexico and she knew it. She had many men call on her, but she chose your father. There was something about the tall man who rode into Mexico City and stole your mother’s heart. She loved him and she loved you. Your mother truly believed leaving Mexico with Murdoch Lancer would be the best choice for her, but we both know how wrong that was.”
“My mother chose her life and she was happy.”
“Was she, Johnny? Was she really? I did not know her well or for long, but she was not happy. Not here in her heart where it counted. She was returning to Lancer before she died, but we both know Cortez would not have allowed that. Perhaps someday you will come back here and we will have time to speak more about this, Johnny.”
“Maybe…someday, but right now I need to get Scott home. Take care of Jose, Carmela, he needs you.” Johnny kissed her cheek and took the small parcel she held out to him. With a look at the two men who held his brother he sighed and hurried to help them. By the time they reached the horses Scott’s eyes were open and weak moans escaped his tightly clenched lips as if each step sent waves of pain washing over him.
“Johnny, you mount up and we’ll pass him up to you,” Jose ordered.
Scott could hear the men giving orders, but did not have the strength to acknowledge their words or the tender concern he sensed from those present. Strong arms lifted him and he felt his left leg maneuvered over a horse and his upper body was soon cradled back against a strong chest.
“I got ya, Boston. Now just relax and we’ll be home in no time.” Johnny reached around his brother and grabbed the reigns. He held tightly to Scott’s body, making sure there was no chance that Scott would fall as he looked at the people standing to the side.
“You ride careful, Johnny. That boy’s hurt bad and he don’t need no more shocks.”
“I will, Jose. Thank you for taking care of him for me.”
“Anytime, Johnny,” Jose said and watched as the gunslinger expertly turned the horses and rode away from the hacienda.
Johnny felt his brother’s body tense with each step Barranca took and he knew how hard this ride was on his brother. He shifted slightly in order to provide more support for Scott and silently cursed Miguel Espinoza and his men. He knew they were dead and that the few that remained alive were to be taken into town for trial. Any other time he would’ve stayed to make sure the trial took place, but right now his main concern was his brother. Scott needed him more than he needed to see justice done.
“I’m right here, Scott. Do you need something?”
“Hold on,” Johnny said and pulled Barranca to a stop. He shifted his own weight as a counterbalance in order to keep them both in the saddle as he reached for the canteen. He used his teeth to uncap it and finally held it to his brother’s mouth. He watched as the blond took several small sips before turning his head away.
“Anytime, brother.” Johnny vowed and knew his brother understood the meaning behind his words. He took a few sips of water before capping the canteen and starting Barranca forward once more. They rode on in silence and Johnny thought Scott had fallen asleep until a weak voice reached his ears once more.
“What do you remember most about y….your m…mother?”
“I remember how pretty she was and her voice…she could really sing Scott. She used to sing in this little church and people came just to hear her. The old padre loved when she showed up because there was never a seat empty. I remember sitting at the front of the church so I could hear her.”
“Y…you miss her?”
“Yeah, I do. She may not have been the best mother a boy could have, but she was always there for me. She made sure I knew right from wrong and never made trouble for anyone.”
“W….wish I c…could have known my m…mother,” Scott said weakly, his voice holding a longing note Johnny had never heard before.
“I do too, Scott, and if the old Padre was right one day you’ll do just that.”
“You’re t…talking a…about heaven?”
“Yeah, heaven. I think maybe it’s a place a mother had a hand in because it’s supposed to be filled with love and good things.”
“You k…keep those mem…memories of y…your mother, J…Johnny.”
“I will, Scott…”
“Maybe y…you’ll share more of t…them w…with me.”
“Sure, Boston, anytime you’re ready.”
“N…now…” Scott answered and heard his brother’s soft laughter.
“You should be resting.”
“C…can’t, h…hurts t…too much,” the blond answered before he could stop himself.
“Damn, Scott, maybe we should go back to the Hacienda…”
“No…no,” Scott stammered as he lifted his hand and touched his brother’s arm. “I…I’m okay.”
“Yeah, sure, tell me another one, Scott,” Johnny whispered as he continued to hold his brother. This time there was no mistaking the soft laughter from his brother and Johnny held him tighter as he struggled to keep them both in the saddle. He felt Scott’s head rest against his shoulder and wondered what life had been like for his brother. As if he’d voiced the thoughts, Scott began talking softly.
“Grandfather tried to do h…his b…best, J…Johnny, b…but I w…wish Murdoch had fought him for m…me.”
“What do you mean, Scott?”
“Something I o…overheard when I w…was f…four…no, five. Grandfather had a big p…party f…for me and I…I remember a…all the gifts and t…the cake. L…lots of k…kids, but not m…much of a p…party. T…too m…much to b…break. I remember l…looking for g…grandfather and f…finding h…him in t…the l…library w…with a…another man.” Scott’s voice trailed off as a tear shone in his eyes.
“Who was the man, Scott?”
“Murdoch. I…I didn’t k…know it a…at the t…time, but that’s who it was. W…why didn’t he t…take me w…with him that day, J…Johnny i…instead of l…leaving me i…in Boston. Didn’t h…he…th…think I w…was g…good enough?”
“I don’t know, Scott, but maybe it’s time we asked him.”
“I’ll be there, Scott. Now why don’t you close your eyes and sleep.”
“T…try. Y…you k…keep the n…nightmares away?”
“I sure hope so. Brother,” Johnny said as Scott finally gave in to the call of darkness. Each step the horse made brought him closer to the home he’d grown to love and he wondered why Murdoch hadn’t gone after them before the trouble with Pardee. Somehow he understood the answers were not always cut and dry. Once more he shifted position and felt Scott’s body lean into his as if seeking the now familiar touch.
“I got you, Scott. Doesn’t matter what Murdoch’s reasons were because we’re a family now and I’m not about to let that go.”
December 21st – Mexican border.
Jelly Hoskins looked at the man riding next him and shook his head. During the latter hours of the morning they seemed to be traveling in circles and Jelly knew his boss was getting frustrated. He didn’t know the man very long, but what he’d seen told him Murdoch was stubborn when it came to his sons. More often than not the older man hid behind his anger and stubbornness in an effort to keep others from seeing it as a weakness. His sons were with him now by choice, but at one point in time Murdoch was given the chance to retrieve his oldest son, but for some reason decided against it. The man was pushing himself on little sleep and Jelly also knew he’d eaten little in the last two days since his sons had gone missing. Taking a deep breath Hoskins finally broke the hour long silence.
“Murdoch, the animals need to rest!”
“Now,” Hoskins tried and held his ground as Murdoch looked at him angrily.
“I’m not giving up, Jelly! If you want to go back home then you go right ahead, but I’m going to keep looking!”
“Ain’t goin’ back, Murdoch! I’m jest sayin’ the horses need ta rest ‘fore they collapse! We need to stop and eat and maybe we’ll be able to pick up somethin’ new after we’ve reasted. Ya know Johnny and Scott wouldn’t want ya runnin’ the horses inta the ground because ’a them!”
“I need to find them, Jelly!” Murdoch’s voice was soft and held a hint of despair.
“I know you do, Murdoch, and we will, but first we need to rest. Okay?”
“I guess so. Half an hour!”
“That’s fine. There’s a little stream a couple of hundred yards through that pass.”
“How do you know?”
“Johnny showed me quite a few places on a couple of cattle drives. This is one of ‘em.”
“Good thing he did,” Murdoch said following the other man through the pass.
December 21st – South of Mexican border.
Scott was aware of very little except the pain that enshrouded his mind and body and the strong arms that held him. He moaned and tried to get comfortable but nothing eased his torment. His fingers gripped tightly at whatever his hands could find and he suddenly realized it was his brother’s jacket he held in a death grip. Turning his head slightly only set off a painful display of fireworks that left him breathless and stomach sick. He leaned to the side and was once more reminded that any movement was not advisable.
“Easy, Scott, just hang on a minute. There’s a small stream just ahead and we’ll rest there until you’re able to travel…”
“O…okay…” the blond muttered, trying to keep his rebellious stomach from churning. He felt the horse pick up its pace and knew his brother was worried.
“Not much further, Scott,” Johnny vowed as he maneuvered the horses towards the break in the pass.
Murdoch sipped the strong coffee and nodded gratefully towards the other man. “It’s good Jelly…thanks.”
“You’re welcome, Murdoch,” Hoskins said and frowned as the Lancer patriarch stood up and looked towards the entrance to the small clearing they now resided in. “Murdoch.”
“Riders coming in.”
“How many?” Hoskins asked, reaching for the shotgun beside him.
“One…maybe two,” Lancer answered as he watched the opening. There was no doubt as to the identity of the horse that seemed to dwarf the entrance AND Murdoch hurried forward when he saw his two sons riding double. The fact that the man in front was injured did not escape Murdoch’s mind for a minute, but hi9s gaze went to the second man. “Johnny!”
“Murdoch! How? When?”
“It doesn’t matter! What happened to Scott?”
“Long story, Murdoch, help me get him down.
“M…Murdoch,” Scott whispered as his father’s face swam before his eyes.
“I’m here, Scott. Hold on a minute and we’ll get you down,” The older man’s voice was filled with fear as he felt the heat emanating from his son’s body.
“N…no…not down. Need to go home!” Scott turned his head and locked eyes with his brother. “Promised…J…Johnny.”
“Easy, Scott. We’ll just stop for a few minutes and then I’ll keep my promise.”
“Promise?” Jelly asked as Scott was lowered into his father’s waiting arms.
“H…home for Christmas,” the blond Lancer answered through teeth gritted with pain as his father eased him down on a bedroll. “N…need to g…go home, M…Murdoch. J…Johnny, take me.”
“We’ll get you home, Scott.” Murdoch looked up as his youngest son joined them and saw the worry and pain written across the handsome face. He wanted answers, but understood this was not the time or place.
“How is he?” Johnny asked as he knelt beside his brother.
“I’m okay, J…Johnny,” Scott lied as Murdoch began examining the wounds covering his body. Again blue eyes locked with blue and Scott could see the underlying guilt in his brother’s expressive orbs. “N…not y…your fault, J…Johnny. None o…of this is y…your fault.” Scott cried out as Murdoch tried to ease the bandage from the wound on his chest and instinctively curled into a ball as he tried to ease the pain shooting through him.
“Easy, Scott,” Johnny said and reached for his brother.
“Jelly, bring me some water!” Murdoch ordered as he took note of the bandaging stuck to his son’s wounds.
“I’m comin’!” Hoskins said, returning with the water and a ripped shirt.
“Thanks, Jelly,” Johnny said as he saw the shirt in the other man’s hands.
“Johnny, hold him up a little so I can soak the bandage off his chest.” Murdoch ordered and tried to ignore the obvious pain they were causing the blond.
Scott felt his brother ease him onto his side and then slide in behind him until his back was once more pressing against Johnny’s chest. He tried breathing through his nose, but was well aware of the pain even this move was causing him. He heard their voices and knew they were talking to him, but for now his strength was concentrated on staying conscious in the wake of the newfound pain they were causing. With a deep breath and a final cry, Scott Lancer gave up the fight and lay still in his brother’s arms.
Johnny’s fingers lightly crossed his brother’s cheek until the tips touched against the blonde’s neck. He looked up at his worried father and smiled in spite of his own unease.
“He’s still with us, Murdoch. H…he’s got a promise to keep.”
“Promised he’d stay with me….and I promised I’d get him home for Christmas. What day is it?”
“It’s December 21st…”
“Good…means we have time, but we need to get moving so Scott can sleep in his own bed. he’s hurt…cold. My fault…nearly died….”
Murdoch knew his youngest son was nearing exhaustion, but he also knew how stubborn Johnny could be. There was no way he’d break his promise to Scott and right now, Murdoch had a feeling that was exactly why he still had two sons instead of one. Scott was fighting to stay alive because of his brother’s promise to get him home for Christmas. Briefly the Lancer patriarch wondered if Scott would still be alive after they reached the ranch. Johnny spoke as if he’d read his father’s thoughts.
“We get him home and he’ll stay there, Murdoch or I’ll follow him to the gates of heaven or hell and bring him back!”
“You know, Son, I believe you would. Now let’s get your brother fixed up and you can both rest…”
“No time. Have to get him home, Murdoch. I promised.”
“I know you did, Johnny, and we will. Jelly, can you ride ahead and find Sam Jenkins. Have him meet us at Lancer.”
“Sure, Boss, but are you gonna be okay?”
“We’ll be fine. Johnny’s going to make sure Scott gets home and I’m going to make sure Johnny gets home. Tell Jenkins Scott’s in bad shape.”
“All right, Murdoch, I’ll leave as soon as I feed the horses.”
“Thanks, Jelly,” Murdoch said, his eyes still locked on those of his youngest son. “We’ll get him home together, Johnny, but first you’ll get some rest.”
“Don’t say it! One look at you tells me you haven’t slept since whatever happened. Now we’ll tend Scott’s wounds and make him comfortable. Then I’m going to fix us both some dinner and then if you’re up to it we’ll head home! Understood?”
“Guess so,” Johnny whispered as he felt the bone weary tiredness wash over him once more. He clung to his brother like a second skin as Murdoch tended the wounds. The deeper bruises showed through around the edges of the new bandages and again Johnny felt as if a knife had been plunged into his heart. The wounds, each and every mark were there because of his past and that was something he would never be able to forgive himself. He had no idea how long he sat holding Scott close, but a hand on his arm startled him from his thoughts.
“Did you hear me, Son?”
“I said you can lie him down on the blanket and I’ll take a look at his back while you get us some coffee. Jelly made it before he left.”
The older man knew how close his son was to going into shock and wondered just what had happened to land them in this predicament. The emotionless tone to his voice send a shiver down his spine and he knew he had to keep Johnny with him.
“He left a little while ago, but he made us some dinner before he left. Now it’s getting cold here and I want to get Scott tended and covered so he doesn’t get cold.”
“That’s right, Son. Come on just ease out from behind him and let me take a look at his back. Okay?”
“Guess s…so,” the dark haired Lancer said as he reluctantly released his hold on the injured man. Johnny moved as if his body and mind were numbed to all senses as he watched his father take care of his brother. How many years were lost to them and how many more could be snatched away in the blink of an eye.
‘Just hang on, Boston, we’ll be home soon,’ he vowed as he stood over the fire. Espinoza was dead, killed by Scott himself, but the damage he’d done to both brothers would way heavily on all of them. That Scott could die was possible, that he would live was definite, because Johnny Lancer did not want to go back to being Johnny Madrid.
Murdoch silently swore as he saw the damage to Scott’s back. It was obvious his son had been dragged, the jagged cuts, scraped skin and bruises were brutal evidence of that. He vowed to get the full story from his youngest son and he’d find some way to exact an ounce of flesh for each and every mark on his son’s body and mind. With hands roughened by years of ranch work and softened by the love of a father for his injured son, Murdoch Lancer gently, painstakingly cared for his elder son’s wounds. By the time he’d finished he knew the horror his sons had gone through and understood that Scott was not the only one hurting. Tucking the blanket around the unconscious blond and making sure he was still breathing, the troubled man stood and walked to his other son.
“Johnny, are you okay?”
“Not me you gotta worry about, Murdoch. I’m not hurtin’.”
“It seems to me you are, Son. Do you want to talk about what happened?”
“Not right now, Murdoch…”
“No! I don’t want to talk about it! Not now! Not here! Just leave me the hell alone!”
Murdoch watched as his son strode away from the fire. It was obvious to him that his youngest son was carrying a load of guilt, one so heavy it might just tear him apart. He looked back towards the unconscious blond and knew this was a fight for both their lives.
‘God help me get them both home for Christmas and maybe there’ll be another miracle on Christmas day,’ he thought as he looked at the untouched cups of coffee and plate of bacon and beans. Sighing heavily he sat down and picked at the food until Johnny returned and sat across from him.
Scott forced his eyes open and tried to remember where he was. Several things hit him at once, it was dark, he was lying on the ground, he was shivering, he was wracked with pain and chills and he was alone. He laid still, hoping and praying the agony twisting through him would dissolve, but it was not to be and he bit his bottom lip in an effort to stifle the sound he felt building in his throat. Breathing became more difficult and he tried to turn onto his side, but any movement succeeded in causing other parts of his injured body to come to life. Unable to smother the rising tide of nausea, Scott Lancer cried out and shifted his body.
“G…God!” he cried as a hand landed on his shoulder and he shrank away from the touch.
“Easy, Son, no one’s going to hurt you anymore.”
“M…Murdoch,” the blond stammered as he tried to focus on anything other than the agony ripping through his chest.
“That’s right, Scott, I’m right here. Just lie still and we’ll be heading for home soon.”
“He’s fine. He just needed to stretch his legs a bit.”
“T…tell h…him…tell him not h…his fault. N…none of it. E…Espinoza’s f…fault. J…Johnny b…blames h…himself. Not to…okay, Murdoch. T…tell him…please…”
“Sh, I will, Scott…”
“I’m fine. Think you can drink a little water?”
“Think s…so,” the blond moaned as he was lifted slightly. He took several small sips of the water before turning his head and swallowing the bile that rose in his throat. He heard Murdoch and Johnny talking, but did not have the strength to make sense of his words. He heard Teresa’s name and his eyes shot open and he grasped his brother’s arm.
“Home,” he wasn’t sure if they heard him or if he’d even spoken the word, but the fire reflected off his brother’s eyes and he saw the promise as if it was written in stone.
“We’re going home, Scott, but we need to let the horses rest, okay? Barranca and Prince are both tired of carrying us and well you know Murdoch’s not getting any younger and needs to rest”
“That’s right, Son,” the Lancer patriarch agreed in an effort to make his son rest easier during the long night ahead.
“Sleep…leave a…at dawn,” the blond ordered.
“That’s right, Brother. You go on back to sleep…”
“Y…you and M…Murdoch need t…to s…sleep.”
“We will, Scott, just as soon as you close your eyes,” Johnny explained.
Scott looked from one man to the other before letting his eyes close. The pain was overwhelming, but he fought to keep it to himself as he felt the blankets wrapped around him once more. Again voices came to him and again he made little sense of what was being said, yet he knew the two men were worried about him. He tried to find the energy to reassure them, but darkness won over and consciousness left him in a kaleidoscopic display of images.
December 22nd – Mexican border.
Usually dawn promised the start of a bright new day, but for the two men dismantling the camp it held only unanswered questions. Neither man spoke as they carried out the necessary chores that would see them on their road home within the hour. The predawn sky was littered with dark clouds that matched the storm raging in one man’s heart. For Johnny Lancer guilt continued to rain heavy on his heart as he glanced at his injured brother.
‘I’ll get you home, Boston, if it’s the last thing I do I’ll get you home,’ the gunslinger vowed, a promise he’d keep no matter what else happened.
“Johnny, maybe we should make a travois…”
“No,” the young man said, his voice adamant as he looked at his father. “I’ll hold him in front of me…make sure he…make sure he doesn’t get cold. Snow’s coming and Scott don’t need to catch a chill. As soon as I have Barranca saddled you pass him up to me!”
“I promised him I’d get him home, Murdoch.”
“I know you did, Son,” Murdoch said remembering the times he’d woke during the night to find his son sitting next to his brother as if his very presence anchored Scott to this life. Something about the scene told him that was exactly what was happening.
Johnny simply nodded, hiding his fears and hoping his father couldn’t read him as well as he seemed to be. Without a word he mounted Barranca and waited for Murdoch to lift his brother up to him.
Murdoch hurried to the blankets where his youngest son laid. The danger was evident now as Scott’s cheeks shone with a rosy hue that signaled a rising fever that could claim his life as easily as any of the wounds that peppered his body. Taking a deep breath he tried to wake the sleeping blond without startling him.
“Scott, we’re ready to move out. Johnny’s going to carry you in front of him on Barranca, but we need to get you up first,” the older man explained as his dark haired son rode the few feet towards them. “Scott…”
“M…Murdoch,” the voice was weak and raspy as Scott tried to answer his father. The words his father spoke were nearly lost as his body shook with pain.
“I’m right here, Son, and so is Johnny. We’re going to get you home now, okay?”
“I know you are and you can sleep once we get you on the horse.”
Murdoch reached for the canteen as Johnny handed it to him and then held it to Scott’s mouth. The more liquid they managed to get into him, the better Scott’s chances were and Murdoch held his hand steady as he watched his oldest son drink several small sips before turning away.
“All right, Scott, let me help you up and we’ll get moving. Johnny, you ready?”
“Yeah,” was the one word reply and Murdoch looked into the dull blue eyes, so filled with sorrow. His heart ached with the need to know what had put that emotion there and he knew he’d have to get the answers or watch Johnny drown in the depths of his own despair.
Murdoch turned his attention back to the blond and eased the blankets off the damaged body. They’d changed the dressings and tried to keep Scott as comfortable as possible, but the blue eyes talked of a misery that was only just beginning. Using all his strength he managed to get his son on his feet and maneuvered him into position. He ignored the near silent moans as he touched bruises that were darker than he remembered and lifted his son into the saddle. He felt Johnny grab onto his brother and ease his left leg over Barranca as
“I got him,” Johnny said as he felt his brother lean back against his chest. He heard the labored breathing and clung to it as a drowning man clung to his raft. ‘I got you, Boston, and I ain’t letting go,’ he thought as his father grabbed the blankets and mounted his own horse. It wasn’t long before the torturous journey began and the solemn party headed for home.
December 22nd –Lancer ranch.
Teresa moved through the silent house, her heart aching for the three men who should be there. Jelly’s return had given her the news that they’d found Scott and she’d nearly jumped with excitement until she saw the sadness in the usually jocular eyes. The news of Scott’s injuries had sent her insides into turmoil and any thoughts of celebrating the news vanished before it even began. Scott’s bed was ready for his return and the table beside it was laden down with the supplies she thought Sam Jenkins would need if Jelly’s descriptions of Scott’s injuries were right.
Teresa moved to the big window overlooking the yard and watched as snow once more began to fall. The pristine white blanket of snow normally filled her with joy, but today it lacked its beauty in that it was a reminder of just how cold it was getting. The sky overhead was becoming dark with the advent of evening and she leaned her head against the cold glass as she closed her eyes and prayed.
“Miss O’Brien,” a man’s voice called from the doorway.
“Jelly just came back and he wanted you to know he found Dr. Jenkins and that the doctor would be out here as fast as he can.”
“Thank you, Carl. Where’s Jelly?”
“He’s making sure there’s enough firewood laid in. You know Jelly, Miss; he needs to keep himself busy when he’s worried.”
“Yes, I do. Tell, Jelly there’s plenty of wood and to come inside and I’ll make something to warm him up.”
“Yes, Miss O’Brien…the boys wanted me to tell you they’re saying a prayer that Mr. Lancer and his sons make it home safely.”
“Thank you, Carl, and tell them I appreciate it.” She heard him leave and went back to staring out the window. ‘Please God, bring them home safely.’
December 22nd –Nightfall, south of Lancer.
Murdoch had seen winter storms before, but never one that came on so quickly or with such force. He rode directly ahead of his sons and hoped his body was protecting them from the worst of the winds and the swirling, mystifying flakes of white. They’d stopped long enough to check Scott’s wounds before deciding it was best to continue on to the ranch where help would be provided in the shape of blankets, food, drinks and hopefully Sam Jenkins. He looked over his shoulder and barley made out the two figures on Prince’s back, but they were there, alive and they would stay that way. Of this, Murdoch Lancer was sure, or as sure as a man could be when he felt as if his heart were being torn from his chest.
December 23rd – At the gates leading into the ranch.
Sam Jenkins cursed the foul weather that had slowed him down. In spite of the thick gloves, his hands were nearly frozen, his fingertips numb from holding the reins. Normally he would never have left his home on such a night, but something told him Jelly’s descriptions of Scott Lancer’s injuries did not tell the whole tale. He prayed Murdoch and his sons would already be inside the house as he flicked the reins and felt the horse move through the thickening snow. Ducking his head down into the collar of his heavy coat, the physician continued his journey towards the house.
As soon as he pulled into the yard two men came towards him and took over the care of the horse as the doctor grabbed his bag and hurried towards the main door. It opened before he had a chance to knock and he stepped into the warm interior as Teresa O’Brien forced the door closed behind him.
“Are they here yet?” Jenkins asked as he peeled off his gloves and moved to the fireplace.
“No,” the one word was laced with worry as she took the coat and hung it on the rack beside the door. “I thought they’d be here by now. Jelly said they were leaving yesterday morning and that should have been plenty of time.”
“Easy, Teresa, they could have stopped at one of the outlying farms to wait out the storm,” Jenkins’ observed as he warmed his hands over the fire.
“I guess…it’s just Jelly said Scott really needed you and I don’t think Murdoch or Johnny would take a chance with Scott’s life. They’d ride through anything to get the help he needed.”
“I know they would, Teresa, and let’s hope if they are riding they are not far from here,” he saw by her face that she was beyond worry and knew she needed something to keep her occupied. “By any chance would you have anything warm…”
“Oh, Dr. Jenkins, I’m so sorry. Would you like some coffee and I could warm up some of the stew left from supper.”
“That would be fine, Teresa. I’m just going to put my things in Scott’s room.”
“I put some stuff in Scott’s room and started the fire there.”
“That was a smart idea and I’d say we’d best make sure Murdoch and Johnny’s rooms are warm as well.”
“I doubt if they’ll be willing to leave Scott,” Teresa said as she hurried towards the kitchen, unaware of the worried frown on the man who walked towards the stairs.
December 23rd – Nearing dawn, Lancer Gates.
Murdoch knew time was rapidly running out as his fingers felt frozen to the pommel of his horse. They’d traded off and Johnny now rode Barranca with Scott bundled in blankets against the cold and snow. He didn’t begin to understand how the younger man was able to keep his brother in the saddle and knew Johnny had to be exhausted, yet there was no complaint, just a quiet strength that spoke of the promise he’d made his brother.
Johnny held tight to Scott’s semi-conscious form and prayed they would be at Lancer before it was too late. The cold had long since seeped into his bones, his fingertips raw and numb with each step Barranca took. He knew his father was protecting them from the worst of the wind, yet it wasn’t enough to keep the icy frost from biting at them. He felt a shudder from his brother and shifted slightly in an effort to see Scott’s face. As happened every time he looked at his brother, a lump formed in his throat and threatened to choke him. Scott’s eyes would open and fix on him for less than a second, but it was enough to let Johnny know the fight was still being waged. One hand released the rope and gently pulled the blankets closer around the blond head before Johnny shifted once more and his gaze swept the stormy landscape around them.
Scott didn’t know how often he opened his eyes, but the one constant was the support of the arms wrapping him in a cocoon of warmth. He’d meet his brother’s eyes and try to instill a sense of strength that he didn’t feel. With each step of the horse’s hoof his chest felt as if it was caving in, but still he hung on. His brother depended on him to keep the promise he made and that was something he had to do, but as the storm continued around him he wondered if perhaps that promise was a mountain he could not hope to climb. His lungs were heavy with congestion and knowing the agony it would cause, he fought the urge to cough and hoped his brother could hold him if he did. Closing his eyes he silently wept, not for himself, but for the brother whose eyes were heavy with guilt.
December 23rd – Lancer ranch house.
Teresa opened her eyes as something rustled beside her and yawned as she sat up. The night had been long and with the newfound day came new hope that the three men would soon be home. The sound repeated itself and she looked towards the window to find Jelly Hoskins where he’d been since she’d lain down on the couch.
“Oh, sorry, Teresa, didn’t mean ta wake ya.”
“Any sign of them?” the young woman asked as she joined him at the window.
“No…nothing. Carl said him and a couple of other fellas are gonna ride south and see if they can find them.”
“It’s so cold out there and the…”
“Teresa, what’s wrong?” Jelly asked when the young woman grew quiet.
“It’s them! God help me, it’s them! Jelly, get Dr. Jenkins and some of the men to help!” Teresa ordered, racing to the door and flinging it open. The cold grabbed at her clothes and froze the bared skin of her neck and face as she raced out to meet the near frozen trio. She didn’t take the time to see if Hoskins was doing as ordered, nor did she feel the cold as her heart beat a staccato rhythm against her chest.
“T…Teresa…get in…inside!” Murdoch stammered as Hoskins raced past them towards the barn. He didn’t take the time to acknowledge the other man as Sam Jenkins rushed out to meet them.
“Teresa, get Murdoch inside and get him out of those wet clothes. Johnny, can you hold him for another few seconds? Jelly’s gone to get a couple of the hands to help get him inside!”
“I….I got h…him, Doc! Ain’t ‘bout to l…let him g…go n…now!”
“That’s good! Murdoch, get inside!” Jenkins said as the eldest Lancer joined him beside the horse.
“Not u…until w…we g…get Scott down! Teresa, go in and get the water b….boiling…maybe make s…something t…to eat! C…cold!”
“Do it, Teresa!” Jenkins ordered as he took charge of the situation. Three men raced towards him as they pulled on coats. “Carl, Bennett, get over here and take Scott from Johnny! Jelly, you’re in charge of getting Murdoch and Johnny inside and into warm clothes. I don’t want either of them coming near Scott’s room until they’re changed and got something warm inside him! No arguments!”
Johnny reluctantly relinquished his brother into Carl’s waiting arm and then slid from the horse as two more hands joined them and took charge of the horses. He watched as Carl and Bennett lifted Scott between them and rushed to take one side, while Murdoch did the same to the other. He heard Jenkins mumble something about mules and pigheaded, but right now he needed to help get his brother out of the cold. Scott’s head laid against Carl’s right arms and Johnny could tell he was awake as they entered the house.
“We’re home, Boston.”
“That’s right, Son, we’re home. Sam’s here and he’s going to take care of you.”
“O…okay…h…hurts, M…Murdoch. N…not J…Johnny’s fault.”
“Get him upstairs and into his room, but don’t put him on the bed until we get him out of the wet clothes!” Jenkins ordered and was pleased when Johnny and Murdoch were finally forced to relinquish their hold on the injured man. “You two get changed! I’m going to need your help and you won’t be able to do that if you’re shaking like a lone leaf in a windstorm!”
“Doesn’t matter what you need, Johnny! Right now it’s what your brother needs and that’s me, but I can’t go to him until I’m sure you’ll do as I ask!”
“I’ll look after him, Johnny…”
“Come on, Son, quicker we change the quicker we can help with your brother,” Murdoch tried as he watched the younger man’s hands clench and unclench.
“Doc, he’s hurt…hurt real bad!”
“I know he is and I’ll do everything I can for him. That’s a promise, Johnny.”
“Lots of promises, Doc, gotta make sure we k…keep ‘em all!”
“We will, Son. Change and eat! That’s an order!” Jenkins said as he hurried up the stairs. He entered the room to find Jelly Hoskins easing the clothing from Scott’s body while Bennett and Carl held him. He moved quickly and opened his bag as Scott was lowered onto his bed. He heard the heavy wheeze and the near silent moans as Scott tried to hide his pain from those around him. Without a word he reached into the bag and pulled out a syringe and a vial of liquid before sitting in the chair Bennett pushed to the bed.
“Do you need anything else, Doc?”
“Actually you can ask Teresa to make sure there’s plenty of hot water and maybe if there’s any of that stew left she could warm some of the gravy for Scott.”
“Sure,” Hoskins said and hurried out of the room.
“Scott,” Jenkins called and watched as blond eyelashes fluttered and finally opened. There was no doubt in the physician’s mind that Scott Lancer was riding a tidal wave of pain and was in need of something to dam that tide up if he was going to have a chance to get through the next few hours.
“I know it does, Son, and I’m going to give you something to ease that pain. All right?”
“Johnny’s fine. He and Murdoch will probably come barging through that door at any minute demanding to know what I’m doing.” Jenkins wrapped a thin piece of material around his patient’s right forearm and searched for an appropriate vein. He measured out the morphine and quickly injected the medication and watched as it quickly worked its magic.
“Doc, how is he?” Johnny asked as he hurried into the room and took up residence on the opposite side of the bed.
“I haven’t had a chance to examine him yet, Johnny. Now if you’re staying then you’ll be my extra hands…”
Jenkins held up his hands and shook his head in exasperation. “Look, I haven’t had a chance to check him over yet…”
“B…barging, doc,” Scott said, his eyes glassy with the effects of the morphine.
“D…didn’t take long, did it, son?” Jenkins asked.
“What didn’t take long?” Murdoch asked.
“I told Scott you and Johnny would come barging in here demanding answers. Now, I’ve given this young man something that’ll help with the pain while I check him out. Scott, if you feel like going to sleep don’t fight it. How do you feel right now?”
“Woozy,” the blond answered, smiling weakly at his brother.
“How’s the pain?”
“O…okay,” Scott sighed heavily as his eyes began to close.
“That’s good, Son, now go on and sleep.”
“Johnny?” blue eyes sought out the warmth they needed and finally came to rest on another set of equally blue eyes.
“I’m here, Boston. Go ahead and let go.”
“W…what day is it?” Scott asked, but didn’t hear the answer as morphine and exhaustion won out to drag him into a deep, drug induced sleep.
“He’s sleeping, Murdoch, and honestly, that’s what you and Johnny should be doing. Jelly and Teresa can help me care for…”
“I ain’t goin’ anywhere, Doc,” Johnny said and saw the same resolve on his father’s face.
“Stubborn fools. All right, Johnny, see if you can ease those bandages off his chest. Murdoch, how bad is his back?”
“Scraped up pretty bad and a lot of bruises. Johnny and I cleaned it up as best we could, but there wasn’t a lot we could do.”
“You did what you could and then some. Hold it, Johnny,” the physician ordered as he looked at the deep wound in the blonde’s shoulder. “Just hold him there for a minute.”
“What’s wrong, Doc?” Johnny asked, his voice lacking emotion as he helped tend his brother’s wounds.
“This wound looks bad and I’m going to need to stitch it once we get it cleaned.”
“Had to put his shoulder in place. Didn’t have anythin’ to fix the wounds. Don’t know how to stitch it. Scott was hurtin’ and I couldn’t do much ta help him…did all I knew…”
“Johnny, you did what you could and you kept your promise to him, Son. You’re not alone anymore. Sam’s here and he’s going to do everything he knows how to keep Scott with us.”
“I know he will, Murdoch, but is that gonna be enough? Scott’s here because of my past and I’m not one ta let that go. I…”
“What’s that supposed to mean, Johnny?”
“Murdoch, Johnny, I know you two need to talk, but right now I need you both here…all of you! That means you keep your minds on what we’re doing here and once we’re finished you can go hash out whatever needs hashin’ otherwise get out of here and send Teresa and Jelly back in because I’m not about to lose this boy because you two can’t keep your minds on what’s important!
“Sorry, Doc,” Johnny apologized as he fought the coldness that threatened to freeze his heart and darken the lives of those around him.
“This is not over, Johnny,” Murdoch said, but let it drop as Jenkins began cleaning the wound.
“Doc, I got hot water and towels here. Where do ya want ‘em?”
“Put them on the table, Jelly…”
“Damn, boy looks worse’n a chick tha’s gone ten rounds with a coon hound,” Hoskins said softly, unaware of the impact his words were having on Johnny Lancer.
“Jelly, make sure Teresa’s getting that stew warmed!” Jenkins ordered. He’d been watching the youngest Lancer and had not missed the slumped shoulders and deep sadness that bespoke of something beyond physical pain.
“Huh? Yeah sure, Doc,” Hoskins said before moving out of the room once more.
“Johnny, take one of the cloths and see if you can’t clean him up some. Murdoch, he’s freezing and we need to get him warmed quickly. Teresa placed a couple of stones close to the fire. Lie Scott back and get them and bring them here!”
Murdoch watched his youngest son and knew something was wrong as the dark haired man didn’t move. The blue eyes seemed to be locked on the bruises covering Scott’s face and chest and something about the grim face sent terror through his own heart. “Sam…”
“Just do it, Murdoch!” Jenkins snapped and turned his attention to the man kneeling across the bed from him. “Johnny! Johnny!” he repeated the name until the dark head lifted and the blue eyes met his. “Johnny, if you’re going to be of any help to me or more importantly to your brother then I’m going to need you to stay focused. If you can’t then you’re of no use to me…or him!”
“Huh…sorry…I can do it!” Johnny snapped and took the cloth from the basin.
“Good,” the physician said as Murdoch returned from the fireplace. “Wrap them with a towel and place then close to his feet, but not touching them. I want him warmed up, not burned!”
Murdoch did as he’d been told and then repositioned himself beside the doctor and watched over both sons. Johnny seemed to be moving without conscious thought and again Murdoch was struck by how easy his son’s features changed with his moods.
“Murdoch, hold his arm steady!” Jenkins ordered as he prepared to put stitches in the knife wound. The physician’s attention was on his patient and he missed the look that came over the older Lancer’s face as he placed his hands on Scott’s body.
Johnny gently eased the soft, warm cloth over his brother’s chest, horrified by the damage done to Scott Lancer. Although he’d seen them earlier, he hadn’t really taken stock in how many, or how vicious they were. The scrapes were raw evidence of Scott’s being dragged behind a horse and each one was another strike against Johnny’s heart. His past had come back to haunt him and the wounds on the blonde’s body conjured more demons than he’d ever perceived before. He watched as Jenkins pushed the needle through the marred flesh and cringed as blood was washed away by Murdoch’s hands.
‘I’m sorry, Scott, this should have been me!’ he thought as his fingers touched against a swollen wound and he heard a soft moan from the man they worked on.
“J….Johnny,” the word was barely audible, but the pain was there, hidden below the drugged surface as Scott tried to twist away from the pain they were causing.
“Easy, Boston, I’m here. Doc’s just making sure the wounds are gonna heal properly,” he assured the injured man as Scott continued to fight them, twisting and fighting in spite of his semi-conscious condition.
“J…Johnny…please…God…make i…it s…stop!”
“Johnny, keep talking to him!” Jenkins ordered as the lean body tried to come off the bed. “Murdoch, hold him still.”
“J…Johnny…cccold…so cccold. H…hurts…”
“Can’t you give him something?” Johnny asked as his father moved to hold his brother.
“I can’t, Johnny. I gave him morphine and hoped it would keep him under. Murdoch, hold him against you, but turn him a little more!” Jenkins ordered and once more turned his attention to the knife wound.
“Not now, Jelly!” Murdoch ordered, holding his son closer as fear welled up around his heart. Scott’s pain was evident, and so was Johnny’s as he spoke softly to his brother.
“Scott, Murdoch’s got you right now and we’re all here. The doc’s gonna fix you right up and when he does I’m gonna make sure you don’t do anything to mess with his work. Now you listen real good, Boston, ‘cause I ain’t gonna repeat this!”
“Sh, Boston, listen to my voice. Just my voice and that’s all you can hear right now. I ain’t told you what you mean to me, Scott. Ain’t a man who’s known for wearing his emotions on his face and don’t have the same poets words like you do, but the day I met you I knew something had changed. Wasn’t something I could see or touch, but it was here…” Johnny placed his right hand over his heart and his left hand over Scott’s heart. “And that’s something no one can touch no matter what they do or say. I wish I could change what happened…take away the pain…the hurt, but I can’t. I know I’m the one who should be lyin’ there…”
“N…no, not to b…blame, Johnny…Es…Espinoza’s fault…m…mean SOB…”
“Yes he is…was…”
“Yes, he is,” Johnny said as he pictured the scene at the Hacienda when he lifted Scott off the other man.
“Can’t h…hurt you?”
“Can’t hurt either of us, Scott. Not anymore,” Johnny explained and looked down to see his brother’s hand reach for his own. He gripped the hand as he looked into the pain filled eyes and knew he had to fight to make sure his brother stayed with them.
“Not y…your f…fault, Johnny…tell m…me tell me y…you be…lieve that?”
“Scott, if it hadn’t been. If we hadn’t met…”
“No!” the blond cried, pulling away from his father and ignoring the pain as Jenkins’ needle broke off in his arm. His fingers touched Johnny’s cheek and he felt the tears come to his eyes. “If we hadn’t met I’d still be in B…Boston…be s…stuck in an o…office. D…don’t want that…need Lancer…need Murdoch and Teresa…need y…you, Johnny…need my b…brother. Tell me…tell me I s…still have that!”
“Johnny, please. N…need you here…c…can’t d…do this a…alone…”
Murdoch held his son as the blond closed his eyes and went still in his arms. He knew Scott was still alive and relished in the slow rise and fall of his son’s chest. His gaze flashed from one son to the other and again he saw how easily he could lose both men. More regrets raced through his mind as he realized how much his life would be lacking without these two sons in it. He knew he could have found them before now, that his reasons for seeking them out when he did were selfish ones, but now, here, he knew there was so much more than a ranch he could lose. If Scott died, then Johnny’s heart would no longer be as carefree as it once was. He could not face losing either son, and a new resolve to keep them all together formed and grew.
“Johnny, I don’t know what happened out there, but I know you…”
“Do you, Murdoch? Do you really?” the voice was unmistakably, Johnny, but it was no longer Lancer as Madrid came to the fore once more. The eyes were cold and calculating as the dark head lifted and stared into his father’s eyes. “I’ve killed, Murdoch. Killed for money…some may have deserved it, can’t really be sure, but who am I to be judge, jury and executioner?” With those words, Johnny stood up and stalked out of the room.
“You’d best go after him, Murdoch,” Jenkins ordered as he removed the broken needle from his patient’s arm.
“If I need any help I’ll call…besides you and Johnny need to get something to eat and get some rest. You won’t do Scott any good falling on your face. Go look after that boy before we lose him!”
Murdoch sighed heavily and moved out from behind his son and walked out of the room. He hurried down the stairs and spotted his youngest standing at the desk with a bottle of brandy in his hand. He watched him down the fiery liquid and poured himself another shot.
“What do you want, Murdoch?”
“We need to talk…”
“What’s to talk about? You saw him…heard him! He’s like that because of me, Murdoch, because of my past…my reputation and as soon as he’s better I’m out of here! You and Scott are better off without me!”
“Johnny, if I honestly thought you killed for the sake of killing or just for the money then I’m a bigger fool than most. I don’t think you’re entirely innocent, but I also don’t think you killed anyone who didn’t deserve it. Years ago I held a tiny baby in my arms and I promised to take care of him and to work hard so that he could be proud of his father. I know I broke my promise, Johnny, but the ones I’ve made to you and Scott since you came here are not going to be broken. I told you how proud I am of you…”
“Proud? What’s to be proud of? I was a gunslinger, Murdoch!”
“Was, Johnny. That’s the operative word here. You once were a gunslinger, but how often have you used your guns since becoming part of Lancer…”
“I used them against Day Pardee the day I came here….I used them against…”
“Damn it, Johnny, that’s not what I meant and you know it! You used your guns then to protect your family and property. You didn’t do it for money…”
“What difference does that make…”
“A lot, son. Family is a word we all need to think about. You, me, Scott and even Teresa are a family now, and I’m willing to bet it’s a word that’s worth fighting for.”
“Family…that’s a good one, Murdoch. One I never thought I’d ever hear from you.”
“Why? Let’s start with the fact that you never came after me…after Scott. Why is that, Murdoch? Why did you wait so damn long?”
“Because I was a fool…”
“Yes, a good one,” Murdoch said, sinking down on the chair next to his desk. He took the glass and watched as his son poured the fiery liquid into it.
“So you admit you were a fool? Wanna tell me about it?”
“I will, Johnny, but I’d rather wait until Scott’s well enough to hear it as well. I think it’s about time you both learned just how big a fool I was.” He drank the brandy and watched his son closely and waited for him to speak.
“Her name was Cierra Lucero and she had the most beautiful eyes. Ever heard the saying the eyes are the windows to the soul?”
“A few times,” Murdoch said, thinking the statement could easily describe his son’s eyes right now. The pain was there, but so were many other emotions.
“Well it must have been written about her. The first time I saw her was at a stream near Espinoza’s Hacienda and I think I fell in love with her then and there.”
The older man smiled inwardly as he listened to his son’s words. ‘Must be something about streams,’ he thought as a vision of the raven haired beauty who gifted him with this son swam before his eyes.
“I rode as close as possible before calling out to her…didn’t know her name so I called her Aphrodite…”
“Ah, the Greek…”
“Temptress,” Johnny finished, a hint of a smile on his face.
“Well, yes, she was probably that too.”
“She screamed and threw things at me and I just kept staring at her. Wasn’t my first time seeing a naked woman, but it was the first time I’d ever seen a perfect sculpture and I saw her clothes hanging on a brush near the edge of the stream.”
Murdoch smiled as the hard lines disappeared from his son’s face and knew the memories were ones Johnny cherished. He waited as the younger man poured more brandy and finally began speaking again.
“I knew there was something about her and I couldn’t keep teasing her and finally handed her the clothes. I rode away, knowing somehow we’d meet again and we did. At Espinoza’s Hacienda. She worked for him as a maid and I knew he wanted more from her, but I could see she didn’t return his feelings. Saw her slap him once and he bragged that she would be his. I didn’t see her again until two weeks later and knew something was wrong. She had bruises on her wrists and arms, but she wouldn’t admit who did it, but I knew. So help me God, Murdoch, I knew it was Espinoza, but I didn’t do anything about it!”
“Johnny, you didn’t know for sure…”
“I knew as sure as I knew my own name and reputation, Murdoch and I should’ve done something right then and there, but I didn’t. Instead I let my reputation get the better of me and figured her being under my protection was enough, but…”
“It wasn’t,” Murdoch finished for him.
“No, it wasn’t. If anything it was the worst thing that could’ve happened to her…to us. I though it was safe leaving her with Jose and Carmela, but I came back to find Espinoza using his knife on her. I tried to save her, Murdoch, but I didn’t…I couldn’t. Damn fool is what I was. Thought Espinoza would back down from me, but he killed her…killed her because she loved me and not him. Killed Scott…”
“Scott’s not dead, Johnny…”
“Not yet, but you seen him, Murdoch! Seen the damage I caused….”
“No, Johnny, I didn’t see any damage from you. I saw what Espinoza did to him and you know something I think…no, I know Scott’s going to make it because he’s a Lancer, just like you are. You boys are part of me…of who I am and you’re also part of your mothers and I think the best part of both my sons comes from the woman who gave birth to them. Scott has Catherine’s love of the written word and yet he also has her adventurous spirit and keen sense of right from wrong. You have Maria’s wildness and love of the outdoors, but there’s also something Catherine and Maria had that they passed on to both of you. It may not seem like it but they both had a love of family and what was right or wrong when it came to family. Your mother left with you and I’ll probably never know why, but I know she loved you with all her heart and I expect she told you about our life and how hard things were at the time she left.”
“She told me there were men who threatened to kill me if she stayed with you.”
“There was more to the story than that, Johnny.”
“Then tell me, Murdoch! Make me understand why you didn’t come after me and my mother?”
“Soon after I came home to find Maria gone I became ill. I was laid up for close to two months and was close to losing the ranch. By the time I was back on my feet a letter arrived from Maria explaining why she left, but I’d already gone to Boston and by the time I got back Maria was no longer where she said she was in her letter. It was shortly after that a man named Day Pardee came to Green River and began moving in on the smaller ranches. It didn’t take long for him to build his spread and then come after the bigger ranches. With so many things happening I couldn’t leave the ranch to go after Maria and by the time I did make the effort she was dead and you were missing. I know I didn’t try hard enough, Johnny, but I did try.”
“Why did you leave Scott with his grandfather?”
“Harlan was a big man and very well known in Boston. He had connections and made threats and I knew he would carry through on them if I tried to take Scott with me.”
“Are you saying Scott wasn’t worth fighting for, Murdoch? Or that he wasn’t as important as the ranch?”
“Neither, Johnny. I’m saying I didn’t want to hurt your brother. No matter what else I thought about Harlan Garrett I knew he loved Scott in spite of his gruff demeanor.”
“Still doesn’t explain why you left him there. Why you didn’t fight for him!”
“No…no, it doesn’t,” Murdoch said, pouring another shot into his glass and feeling the fatigue weighing heavy on his shoulders. “I said I knew Harlan loved his grandson, but he also coveted him. See Harlan threatened to take Scott out of the country if I brought this to court. Scott was only five at the time and the only person he knew as family was his grandfather. To make him leave Boston by force would have disrupted his whole life and I couldn’t do that, not when Harlan was already making arrangements to take him to London and leave him with relatives. I couldn’t chance having Scott uprooted like that, Johnny. At least with him living in Boston I could keep an eye on things and send him letters and gifts, but if he was in London I’d have no way of finding out about him.”
“Murdoch, have you ever told Scott about this?”
“You should. Might surprise you how many things you don’t know about Harlan and what he was capable of.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Scott once told me he wondered why you never contacted him…”
“I did…and I have letters written by him…”
“Not by, Scott, Murdoch. He has no idea that you ever tried to contact him before the business with Day Pardee.”
“Murdoch, Johnny, I warmed the stew,” Teresa said, interrupting the two men and frowning at the anger on Murdoch’s face. “Is everything okay?”
“Fine, Teresa,” Murdoch said and forced a smile to his face.
“I’m gonna go check on Scott…”
“No, you’re not. At least not yet. Jelly just went up to help the doctor and he said to tell you not to bother coming back until you’ve eaten.”
“I need to…”
“You need to eat and rest!” Teresa ordered, hands on her hips as she glared at the two men. “You two look as bad as…as Scott!”
“Murdoch, I’m tired and I’m worried and I’m not in the mood to argue with either of you!”
“I was just going to ask if you’d made any biscuits,” Murdoch asked, linking his hand through her arm as they walked towards the kitchen.
Sam Jenkins sat back in the chair and ran his fingers through his hair as he looked at the grizzled man who’d acted as his assistant. Hoskins looked as if he hadn’t slept in a week, and Jenkins realized the whole family looked bone tired. He had no idea what had happened to Scott Lancer, but also knew he would get the story from Murdoch or Johnny as soon as they returned. He nearly laughed as he heard the footsteps behind him.
“Sam, how is he?”
“Come in, Murdoch. Is Johnny with you?”
“We’re all here,” Johnny answered as Teresa walked towards the bed.
“Good, I only want to go through this once. Scott’s wounds have been treated and one of them alone is not life threatening, unfortunately he has so many cuts, scrapes and bruises that he’s got a painful fight ahead of him. He’s also got several broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder…which was put in place perfectly…”
“Johnny did that before we met up with him,” Murdoch explained.
“Johnny, you did very well. The shoulder will heal, but it’s going to be uncomfortable. I drained the wound in his shoulder and put in stitches there and in several other wounds as well.”
“He is going to be okay though, right doctor?”
“I can’t say for sure, Teresa. Wish I could, but I can’t. Scott’s lost a lot of blood and his temperature is lower than it should be. I’d like you to make sure there are more stones warming and change these when they cool. It’s important we get him warmed up both inside and out. That means giving him warmed liquids…”
“I thinned out the gravy from the stew and made some tea.”
“That’s perfect, Teresa. Make sure someone’s with him at all times and get as much warmed liquids into him as you can.”
“I’ll see to it, Dr. Jenkins,” Teresa assured him.
“Good. Now, he’s resting comfortably right now with the morphine and Teresa and I can handle things from here. That means you three go…get some rest. Have you eaten?”
“They ate stew and biscuits,” Teresa answered.
“I’m staying with Scott…”
“No, Johnny, you’re not. At least not right now! I don’t want to argue with either of you, but with Scott the way he is he’ll need both of you when he is awake. I have no idea how long that’s gonna take, but I want you both rested and able to handle him. Go…sleep…eat…and maybe, just maybe I won’t have to slip something into your drinks in order to get you both to sleep. Have I made myself clear?”
“Yes, Sam, you have. Come on, Son, we’re not doing Scott any good right now.”
“That’s not what your eyes tell me. Johnny, look, I don’t have time for two patients right now so please, just do this without arguing and I promise we’ll come get you when he wakes up,” Jenkins explained.
“You’ll wake me?”
“Of course. I don’t think I’ll have any choice because Scott will ask for you,” the physician assured him.
“All right,” Johnny agreed and moved towards the door. He glanced back at his brother, feeling the need to draw strength from the fact that he was still alive. Unable to delay any longer, Johnny turned away from his brother and hurried to his own room. He sat on the edge of his bed and placed his head in his hands as he tried to make sense of his life…his past. How many more men would darken his future by coming after the ones he held close? The people who meant the most to him were the ones that would suffer. How could he live with the fact that these people were once part of his way of life? He laid back against the pillows as his tumultuous stomach churned and acid rose in his throat burning home the fact that he was the cause of his brother’s condition. Closing his eyes did little to ease the troublesome worries as his mind fought the pictures from solidifying and sending him into a well of despair no one could rescue him from.
December 24th – Midmorning, Lancer ranch house
“Get away from me ya animal!”—“Eat that swill or so help me I’ll tie ya down and pour it down yer throat!” —“Come on ya mangy dawg! On yer feet and get back ta work!”—“Cold! Ya ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”—“On yer feet, Lancer!”
Pain…so much pain…stop…can’t….can’t get up…cold…so cold…grandfather…no… please…. His mind was engulfed with torment…twisting images that formed and dissolved…a never ending horror that seldom changed, yet grew and clouded him until he was once more trapped in images that were real and horrifying as they interchanged in his sleep drenched mind. Dreams, often violent wreaked havoc on both his physical wounds and his mentality as well.
The young boy hated spiders. Hated the way they crawled around in the dark. Crawling over his hands, his legs, his feet, but worst of all was when they crawled over his face. His bound hands made it impossible for him to get rid of them. To his tired mind, they owned him. They were his master, at least until the dark man came to see him. His terrified screams only added to the man’s perverse pleasure.
He watched as the man selected one of his victims and the frightened child was tortured in front of the others. There were five other kids in the tiny root cellar. He was the most recent acquisition and the dark man seemed to want him to see everything he did. Scott Lancer closed his eyes and mind to the panic-stricken screams of the other children. He fought his own fears in an effort to stay sane. There was nothing his eight year old body could do to prevent what was happening.
“Your time will come, young Scott,” the heavily accented voice said. “You will not be leaving this place alive.
“NO! Oh please don’t hurt me,” the young boy cried as he felt two strong arms holding him. “I can’t do this. Oh, God, they’re all dead. I’m next! Have to escape. NO! He’s after me. Gotta run! Grandfather! Help me please!”
Teresa came awake with a start as the single word issued from slack lips. She reached out and touched Scott’s shoulder in an effort to calm the violent trembling. She talked to him in soft, soothing tones, but nothing reached the blond through the misery he was locked in.
“C…can’t get up…can’t…move. Johnny! Please…help…No! Bas…bas…you won’t k…kill…w…won’t let you!” The blond head whipped back and forth on the sweat drenched pillow, fever bright eyes seeking, searching for something he could no longer see. Tears formed in his eyes as he arched upwards in the bed, unaware of the strain he was putting on broken ribs and stitched wounds.
“Scott, please, wake up,” Teresa cried as she saw blood soak through several bandages.
“God…NO!” Scott cried as new images formed and struck at his fever baked mind. “Don’t t…touch her…leave her a…alone.” He twisted on the bed, fighting enemies only he could see, yet they caused damage to his body without really touching against him.
Teresa was at her wits end when she stood on shaky legs and turned her back on the thrashing body. She felt the tears flow as she reached the door and a hand touched her shoulder. She looked up to see Johnny before moving out of the way and watching the man hurry to his brother’s side.
“Hey, Scott,” Johnny whispered as he slid in behind the struggling blond and held him against his chest. He could feel the heat and the labored breathing as he wrapped his arms around the trembling form. Scott’s heart beat so fast, Johnny was sure it would burst from his chest, and he held tightly as he spoke to his brother.
“Come on, Scott, no one’s gonna hurt ya. It’s just you and me, Boston. Nobody you need to be worried about but yourself. You gotta stop fighting, ‘cause otherwise the doc’s just gonna have to sew ya back up and we both know his hands aren’t as steady as they used to be. What about his eyes…think maybe it’s time he got some of them specs…glasses. Might make it easier on his patients.” Johnny shifted as his brother settled against him and smiled thinly as Jenkins and Murdoch came into the room. He shook his head at the two men to let them know he was okay the way he was and that Scott needed to feel him there. Already the blonde’s heartbeat was slowing and he could feel the gentle rise and fall of his chest.
“I’m right behind you, Scott.”
“W…where are we?” the injured man asked as he leaned heavily on the younger man.
“We’re home, Scott. At Lancer.”
“H…home…” the word shook Johnny to the core as he felt the heavy sigh from the older man’s chest.
“Scott, don’t you go thinking about leaving. You hear me, Boston? I’ll follow you to the depths of hell if I have to!”
“W….won’t h…have to. Hot…hot enough here.”
“Doc?” Johnny held Scott as the physician sat on the chair beside the bed and touched his patient’s forehead.
“I knew this was coming. Murdoch, see if Teresa has that Willow bark tea ready. Bring up some of that syrup I made as well,” Jenkins ordered as a heavy wheezing cough erupted from Scott’s chest. “Johnny, sit him up a little more. Scott, I’m going to give you something to help with the fever, but you need to cough in order to keep your lungs clear.”
“Hurts…hot…” The glazed blue orbs gave credence to the words as Scott shifted his body, crying out as the movement jarred his wounds.
“I know it does, Son, but if your lungs fill up you’ll be in worse shape than you are right now.”
“T…try,” Scott answered tiredly.
“That’s all I’m asking. How’s the pain right now sitting like that?”
“Truth, Scott!” Johnny ordered.
“I…is, Johnny. B…breathe easier. R…ribs not so bad.”
“That’s good, Brother. I’ll stay here as long as…”
“N…no. You tired. B…back hurt f…from s…sitting like t…that.”
“He’s right, Johnny, you can’t stay like that all the time,” Jenkins said as Murdoch returned with Teresa.
“Sam, Teresa had the tea steeping and the syrup.”
“Very good. Now, Scott, let’s see if we can get this into you and then make you comfortable,” Jenkins said as Teresa placed a tray on the table next to the bed.
“O…okay,” the blond whispered as Johnny helped him get more comfortable. He accepted the help of those around him, but managed only a small amount of the tea and thin gravy, before his stomach churned and nausea threatened to expel what little he’d managed to take in.
“Come on, Scott, you need to eat.”
“C…can’t, Johnny, s…sick.” Scott moaned as he fought the rising tide bubbling up in his throat and barely managed to turn his head before a thin stream of putrid smelling fluid left his mouth. He coughed and gagged, sagging back against the strong chest as the torment continued.
“Doc?” Johnny asked as he felt his brother’s body tense as the pain washed over him.
“I know, Johnny, just hold him steady. Talk to him and let him know you’re here. I’m going to give him a little morphine and hopefully it’ll help him sleep.”
“N…no sleep…God…” the blond writhed in the younger man’s arms as his mind and body screamed in unison.
“Why can’t you sleep, Scott?” Murdoch asked worriedly.
“M…might not…might not wake up. Promised J…Johnny…”
Johnny twisted until his eyes locked onto his brother’s glazed orbs. “Do you trust me, Scott?”
“A…always,” Scott managed as the doctor readied a site for the injection.
“Good, then you need to relax and sleep. The doc’s giving you something to help with the pain.”
“W…what day is i…it?” the injured man asked, his eyes searching those in the room with him.
“It’s Christmas Eve, Son,” Murdoch answered.
“Christmas Eve…we made it?”
“Yes, we did. We made it, Scott.”
“Home…k…kept your promise,” Scott whispered awed that his brother had kept his word. He felt Jenkins inject the morphine and sighed heavily as sleep beckoned to him.
“Scott, you need to promise me something, brother.” Johnny waited for the heavy lids to open and looked deep into his brother’s soul. “I need you to promise you won’t give up. I know you’re hurting, but I need you to fight. I need you in my life…c…can’t go back to being Johnny Madrid.”
“T…try, Johnny, b…but need to k…know y…you’ll be a…alright. P…promise me…”
“No, Scott, I won’t promise that.”
“No, I can’t promise that. Don’t you see it’d be so easy for me to go back to that way of life without you there to remind me how much I have to lose?”
“D…don’t need me…” Scott said, lifting his hand and touching his brother’s cheek. “Murdoch and T…Teresa here.”
“Not the same, Scott. I need my brother,” Johnny whispered, his heart in his throat as he felt the other man relax in his arms. He lifted tear stained eyes and knew the others had heard him.
“Johnny, why don’t you slide out and we’ll put some pillows behind him?”
“Johnny, he’ll be more comfortable if…”
“I need to know he heard me, Murdoch. I need him to keep fighting.”
“He heard you, Johnny. We all did and Scott needed to know he was needed here,” the Lancer patriarch assured his youngest son.
Johnny swallowed the lump in his throat as he finally nodded his head and slid out from behind the sleeping blond. He waited until several pillows were in place before easing Scott onto them and standing up, his back and arms aching from holding his brother for so long. He stared at the face framed in the light from the window and knew the fight to keep Scott with them was only just beginning. The fever and pain would sap his strength and coupled with the blood loss it could prove deadly.
“I’m here, Scott,” he vowed before walking out of the room.
“He’s worried,” Teresa said.
“Yes, and he has every reason to be. Unless we can get Scott drinking he won’t have the strength he needs to fight this. He’s weak and his stomach has given him fits since I first treated him,” Jenkins said. “We need to make sure Scott doesn’t just give up…”
“Scott’s a fighter just like his brother…at times even more so,” Murdoch assured them. “Sam, can you stay?”
“I left word in Green River if anyone needs me they’ll know where to come. Teresa, make sure there’s always something warm and ready when he’s awake.”
“I will Doctor, but right now I’m just going to sit with him a spell. There’s fresh coffee and cake in the kitchen.”
“All right, Teresa, just call if he needs anything,” Murdoch told her.
“I will,” the young woman sat beside the bed and reached for the cloth in the basin of water. With gentle strokes she bathed her ‘brother’s’ fevered brow and let her own tears escape her eyes. Murdoch was like a father to her and when he’d sent for his sons she’d felt a little jealous of the fact that they were blood relations. Fortunately it hadn’t taken long for the two men to worm their way into her heart and she thanked god every day for her two ‘big brothers’ and was not ready to give either of them up.
“We need you, Scott. Johnny needs you,” she said as the tears continued to fall.
Johnny walked out the front door and let it close softly behind him. His words came back to him and he realized he’d spoken of his own fears and opened his soul for all to read. How easy it would be to go back to the way of life he’d lived before coming to Lancer. One where his heart was deadened to the warmth brought on by family and loved ones. Things didn’t hurt when you didn’t give a damn about anyone but where your next dollar came from or who the man on the wrong side of your gun was. He knew most of his kills had deserved it, but there was always that niggling little doubt and sometimes he wondered if hell was real and was it something you brought on yourself. He rubbed his arms as he looked out over the snow covered ground and shivered as a deep chill seeped into his bones.
“God, I’m not one for praying, hell you’re probably even more surprised by me talking to you than I am, but I need you to listen to me. Scott’s in there fighting for his life, a life that your own son gave up his life to protect and I sure don’t think you’ll let your son’s death be for nothing. Scott’s a good man…not like me…he didn’t kill for money. I have and most of ‘em deserved it. That’s not an excuse, Lord, that’s the truth, but then again who appointed me judge, jury and executioner. I ain’t gonna defend myself or say that I’m innocent, ‘cause we both know that ain’t entirely true. Killin’ a man takes a lot out of you and I think maybe I was close to the end there before that Pinkerton fella found me. That kinda saved me…gave me hope when I found out I had a brother. Figured I had a father out there somewhere… ‘member mama telling me about him when I was little, but I never felt the need to find him until that Pinkerton detective. Something told me I needed to see what Murdoch wanted,” Johnny smiled as he thought of his first meeting with a green horn tenderfoot from Boston who knew more than he let on. “Scott was one hell of a surprise…a good one…and I need him…need him to keep me honest.”
“Johnny, it’s cold out here…come inside before you catch your death of cold…”
“I’m okay, Murdoch…just…”
“Thinking?” the older man asked.
“Yeah, and praying. Not something I’ve done very often, but I figured Scott’s worth it.”
“I’ve been doing a lot of praying on my own since the day you boys told me you’d be staying on. Seems to me it was fate and I’ve been thanking God ever since…for both my sons.”
“Thanks, Murdoch…think maybe we oughta put some decorations on that tree ‘fore it starts shedding itself.”
“That the only reason?”
“No,” Johnny answered as he looked into the house and smiled. “Have a feeling Scott’s gonna be wanting it done and since I ain’t gonna be sleepin’ much now’s as good a time as any.”
“All right,” Murdoch agreed. “You coming inside?”
“I’ll be in…”
“Son, staying out here and getting sick is not going to help your brother. Teresa’s sitting with him and maybe we’ll have a surprise when he wakes up again.”
“Don’t say it, Johnny, Scott needs you…needs your strength more than he’s ever needed it.”
‘I’m not strong,’ Johnny thought before following his father inside. He missed the soft coo of a dove and the wistful sigh that accompanied the heavenly sign.
December 24th – Late evening, Lancer ranch
Scott heard voices and wondered why he felt so hot. His mind was filled with nightmarish images of a war he’d thought long over, yet the evidence that it was not lay before him in the form of the dead body of Dan Cassidy. The twisted remains were a grisly reminder of how many men had died in the war and been left where they had fallen. How often had he been forced to help bury the bodies of those killed in the field? The smell of death loomed nearby and he forced his eyes open.
“Easy, Scott, lie still,” Teresa warned, placing her hand on his shoulder and squeezing lightly, as she watched the blond closely.
Scott no longer saw the room he was in as the nightmare followed him into the present. He twisted on the bed, scooting away from her touch and crying out as pain shot through him in a wave of the familiar agony. His eyes were open, but what he saw was not the dark haired young woman he thought of as sister, but one of the soldiers who’d died blaming him for his death.
“N…no…God no! N…no m…more kill…no more!” he cried, tears streaming from unseeing eyes as the face hovered before him. The soldier’s face faded and was quickly replaced by that of a guard from the prison who’d beaten him more than once and killed more men than Scott cared to remember. The man’s hand was on his shoulder and seemed to be pushing something into his flesh and Scott finally found his voice. The scream nearly shattered the windows and brought a cry of fear from Teresa as strong fingers found her throat and squeezed.
Johnny dropped the ornament he’d been holding as a cry of rage echoed through the house. He took the stairs two at a time and felt his father in close proximity to his heels. The door to Scott’s room was partially open and the scene he saw sent chills through his heart. Scott had somehow managed to get his arm free of the sling and had both hands wrapped around Teresa’s neck. The blue eyes were filled with a rage that left no doubt of his intentions as the young woman struggled to remove his hands.
“Scott!” Johnny cried as he reached for his brother’s hands. Amazed at the strength in the steel like grip, Johnny Lancer knew there was only one way to stop the injured man from choking the life from Teresa O’Brien. Tears cam unbidden to his eyes as he struck his brother and felt him release his death grip. He knew Murdoch was there and heard Teresa fighting for air as Jenkins hurried into the room. He watched his brother’s chest closely, praying he hadn’t injured him further as he reached out and touched the injured man’s neck.
“Johnny, how is he?” Jenkins asked as he examined Teresa’s neck.
“I hit him, Doc!” Johnny answered in a deceptively quiet voice.
“You had no choice, Johnny!” Jenkins assured him.
“No, now look he’s stronger than it appears and he was probably lost in some nightmare. Murdoch, get some ice and pack it around Teresa’s neck. maybe in a towel or something. I don’t think there’s any permanent damage, but the ice will keep it form swelling. Make sure she lies down…”
“I…I’m all right…”
“Don’t you start!” Jenkins warned tired of the family’s penchant of denying pain. “Murdoch, get her to lie down. Johnny, I need to check your brother.”
“I hit him,” the younger man repeated as he moved back, blue eyes locked on Scott’s unmoving form.
Jenkins took one glance at the former gunslinger and knew he was in shock. With everything he’d been through and from what Murdoch told him, the physician knew Johnny was in shock. Taking the young man’s arm, Jenkins moved until he could no longer see the injured man and spoke in a strong voice.
“Johnny, Scott’s going to be all right. What you did just now probably saved Teresa’s life. Scott would have killed her…”
“Scott wouldn’t hurt her,” Johnny said, his tone even and lacking emotion.
“You’re wrong, Son. In his condition, caught up in whatever nightmare he was having, Scott could have killed her. Do you think he could’ve lived with that?”
“Then you saved two lives when you hit him.” Jenkins continued to look into the glazed blue eyes in hopes of getting through to him. ‘Maybe three,’ he thought as the gunman tried to look past him.
“Is he really okay?”
“I won’t know until I take a look at him and I can’t do that until I’m sure you’re okay. Then I’m going to need your help.”
“I’m okay…really. How can I help?”
“Well, first you can get some sleep…”
“I’ve been sleeping…”
“Not much by the looks of things. I know you’re worried about your brother, Johnny, but you won’t be any good to him if you’re exhausted. I’m going to check Scott and make sure he’s okay then I’m going to give you something…”
“I don’t need anything…”
“To help you sleep. Who knows maybe when you wake up there’ll be another miracle and Scott will tell you just how bad you look right now.”
“Wish he would, Doc,” Johnny said his tone sobering as he moved past the doctor and sat next to his brother’s bed. “I just…I don’t know how to change my past sp this don’t happen again, Doc. What if the next time I don’t get there in time. How can I stay here when I’m to blame…”
“You’re not to blame, Johnny. Believe me I’ve seen enough things you are to blame for, but this is not one of them.” Jenkins wondered if he’d gotten through to the younger man as he began examining his patient. The wounds looked to be doing fine and although the movement had jarred the shoulder it was still in place.
“How is he?”
“He’s better than I expected, Johnny. Nothing moved or torn and well except for maybe a sore jaw I think he’ll be fine. Now, I’m going to make that sleep draft for you and you’re going to take it. No arguments.”
“Ain’t arguing, Doc.”
“Good. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Johnny listened to the physician’s retreating footsteps before looking down at his brother once more. “Not much of a prayin’ man, Scott, but lately I seem to be doing a lot of it. We got a tree downstairs…biggest thing I’ve ever seen and lots of fancy doodads on it. Gonna have a lot of gifts under it too, but none of em’s worth a damn if you’re not here to share it with, Boston. Don’t know if you can hear me or not, but I hope so ‘cause I got something important I gotta say and I ain’t about to repeat myself. You hear me, Boston?”
Johnny took a deep breath and closed his eyes against the burning tears forming there. “I ain’t one to believe in fate, Scott Lancer, but that’s what brought us together on that stage and it’s gonna keep us together. The there’s the other word, faith. Fate and faith…one makes you believe you were destined to meet someone and faith in God that he won’t take that someone from you. I gotta have both right now, Scott, but it’s damned hard to hold on to both. Doc wants me to sleep…don’t know that’s such a good idea right now, but I’m so damned tired…” With those words he closed his eyes, knelt beside the bed, and took his brother’s hand in his own.
“Fate and faith, Scott…believe in ours,” he whispered as he placed his head on the pillow and closed his eyes.
Murdoch sighed heavily as he looked at the young woman now sleeping in her bed. The makeshift ice pack was in place and he knew Jenkins would check her again soon. Knowing there was nothing else he could do he walked towards Scott’s room and looked in. The sight that met his eyes made him smile in spite of his own fears. Scott was asleep in a semi sitting position, while Johnny was asleep on the floor. His back was against the wall while his hand was clamped tightly onto his brother’s. Both looked so innocent in sleep and even the bruises marring the injured man’s face didn’t seem quite so harsh. He glanced behind him as Jenkins returned. Placing a finger to his own lips, Murdoch pointed to the two men.
“It’s about time,” Jenkins observed as he led his long time friend away from the room.
“For who?” Murdoch asked, a slight smile on his face.
“For both of them.”
“I meant for them or you?”
“Ah, perhaps all three. I get tired myself you know?”
“Yes, Sam, I believe you do. Can I interest you in a stiff drink?”
“Yes, but make it a mild one. I need to be on my toes when those two wake up. By the way the tree looks great.”
“Thanks…Johnny wanted to make sure it was up for Scott and Teresa. I’m hoping tomorrow is a day of miracles for this family.”
“Me too, Murdoch. God alone knows how many times you’ve prayed to have your sons with you.”
“That’s something that’ll remain a secret, Sam, but I can tell you it’s more times thank I care to think about and I wish I’d done something about it a long time ago.”
“I know you do, Murdoch. Now about that drink…”
December 25th–Christmas Day – Early morning, Lancer ranch
Scott wasn’t sure what woke him, or why one hand felt cold while the other seemed to be bathed in a strange warmth. Opening his eyes he bit back a moan as the light from the window stabbed at his eyes. He waited a few minutes before trying once more and turned to see why his hand was warm. His lips curled into a slight smile as he spotted the reason for the warmth. Johnny’s head was next to his on the pillow, while his upper body leaned against the wall. The gunman’s hand was clasped over his and Scott felt as if he was truly home.
Scott knew without asking what day it was and again wondered at the miracle of being alive to see it. He knew he had his brother to thank for that and vowed to make it up to him. His back ached and his shoulder throbbed, but he didn’t move for fear of waking the sleeping man. A sound at the door caught his attention and he looked up to see his father standing there.
“Merry Christmas, Son,” the older man said, smiling inwardly as Scott signaled for him to be quiet.
“S…sleeping,” the blonde whispered.
“Yes, well he has been worried about someone.”
“W…who?” Scott smiled as he tried to make light of his injuries.
“You, Boston, how are you feeling?” Johnny asked as he shifted and stretched his back.
“I’m…I’m,” blue eyes darted around the room as memory returned and a fleeting image of Teresa gasping for air entered his mind. He closed his eyes and tried to focus the blurred image, and moaned as the image cleared and his own hands seemed locked in a tight grip. “Teresa…oh God…Teresa!”
“Easy, Scott, Teresa’s just fine…”
“No, Murdoch!” Scott twisted free of his father’s grip. He succeeded and was past his brother before either man could react. He stood on shaky legs as Johnny reached for him. “D…don’t touch me. God I choked her! K…killed her!”
“Scott. Teresa is fine she’s in the kitchen with Dr. Jenkins…”
“Don’t you lie to me, Johnny! I know what I did!” Scott said looking at his hands as more images formed and replayed in his mind. “M…my hands I…I…”
“You need to lie down, Scott!” Johnny warned as the blond swayed on his feet.
“Scott, at least sit down and I’ll get Teresa,” Murdoch suggested.
“N…no. I’ll c…come d…down,” Scott told him.
“Oh no you won’t, young man!” Jenkins warned from the doorway as he entered the room.
“Scott, what’s wrong?”
“Teresa, you’re alive…I didn’t…”
“No, Scott, you didn’t! Now why are you out of that bed?” Teresa asked as she stepped towards the blond and placed a hand on his chest.
“Scott, I’m fine. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Show you what?” Teresa asked.
“Your n…neck…show me. Please, Teresa…n…need to k…know I didn’t h…hurt you.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Scott. Look,” Teresa removed the scarf from her neck and turned her head from side to side. She watched as her ‘brother’s’ hand reached out and gently touched the skin. She knew he would not be able to see the vague imprints left by his fingers, yet she understood the horror she saw in his eyes. “Scott, it wasn’t me…”
“D…don’t lie to m…me,” the injured man said as he sank back on the bed, pain and weariness warring to drive him under once more.
“I’m not, Scott. You didn’t see me…you saw something in a nightmare and you tried to…”
“No! Never! You tried to kill whoever was in your nightmare, Scott.”
“She’s right, Scott. When me and Murdoch came in you didn’t even see us. Whoever it was you were fighting it wasn’t Teresa and that means you’re not to blame for this. Must have been one tough sonofa…Sorry, Teresa,” Johnny apologized sheepishly.
“Apology accepted, Johnny. Now, Scott, why don’t you lie back and I’ll bring you something to eat?’
“Doesn’t matter, son. Teresa’s made something for you and well, you really need to start eating and get your strength back,” Jenkins warned.
“I’ll come down…”
“Oh no you won’t!” Jenkins told him. “You’re not to get out of that bed unless I tell you to. Now lie back and let me take a look at you. Probably tore the stitches out and opened everything up again.”
“I…it’s fine, Doc,” Scott assured him, but soon found the himself under the man’s scrutiny again. He laid back against the pillows as a flurry of activity took place around them. By the time Jenkins was done, Scott was in misery, but refused the doctor’s offer of morphine.
“Scott, it’ll help,” Murdoch explained.
“I k…know, but I d…don’t w…want to sleep. Not now…”
“Why?” Johnny asked.
“Christmas…want to be there,” Scott answered softly his gaze moving from one man to another.
“You will be, Scott, but for now you need to rest,” Jenkins advised.
Scott tried to find a comfortable position on the bed, but only managed to remind himself there was none available to him. His back, chest, arms and legs were marred with bruises and scrapes and he knew the physician was right, but still wouldn’t give in to his advice. He lifted his head and stared at the familiar blue orbs.
“Johnny, kept his promise…my t…turn.”
“Your turn for what?” Murdoch asked.
“Told him I’d f…fight to be h…here. W…want to be here…family.”
“Yes, we are family, Scott, and that means we stay together and take care of each other,” Johnny assured him.
“T…time. Need time for that, Johnny. Need to know you’ll be h…here w…when I wake up.”
“I’m not going anywhere, Boston.”
“Said you were to blame for what h…happened. You’re not, Johnny….”
“Yes, I am, Scott…”
“No!” the blond spat and again tried to come off the bed, but was stopped by his brother and Jenkins.
“Scott, be still!”
“No! Johnny, y…you didn’t do this. You’re not t…to blame f…for Espinoza’s actions.”
“I should have stayed away…”
Scott shook his head and laughed, the sound more pain than mirth as he looked at his brother. “No, don’t you see? It was fate. Fate brought us together on that stage and made sure we found each other again. Faith is what I have in you, Johnny Lancer. Faith that you’ve always done the right thing. T…tell me about Cierra.”
“I know some of it, J…Johnny, but not all of it. What happened?”
“Cierra Lucero worked for Espinoza and he killed her.”
“Because of me. He killed her because he blamed me for her not loving him. She didn’t deserve it, Scott. He cut her and beat her when he found us…she…she died in my arms and he laughed because he’d won. He’d taken the one person I truly loved and left me alive so I had to live with her death. When Murdoch’s detective found me I was on my way to Espinoza’s hacienda to kill him, but something in that message changed my mind.”
“Fate? Yeah, probably. I didn’t know I had a brother until we were properly introduced and something changed for me then. I didn’t feel the need to kill Espinoza anymore because I found a part of me that was missing and I made the mistake of caring again.”
“Caring isn’t a mistake, Son,” Murdoch explained as he listened to his son’s story.
“It is when you’re a gunslinger with enemies, Murdoch. God knows there’s enough people out there and they’ll keep coming and I can’t let them know I have people I care about. I can’t stay here and put you, Scott and Teresa in danger.”
“Johnny, our pasts often come back to haunt us,” Murdoch explained, hoping his words would get through to his youngest son. “It’s up to us how we face it when the time comes. I have more regrets about my past than you and Scott put together, but I wouldn’t change what we have now. We’re a family and family sticks with one another. What happened between you and Espinoza is in the past. What happened to Scott in the war is in the past. My past is filled with regrets…especially when it comes to you two. I should’ve searched for you when Maria took you away and I have no excuse whatsoever that could remotely excuse why I didn’t.” He turned to his eldest son and looked into the blue eyes so much like his mothers.
“I think it’s time I went and helped Teresa with….well with whatever it is she needs help with,” Jenkins explained and left the three men alone.
“Scott, I don’t know how much you remember about my visit when you were five.”
“You came to see me?” the blond asked, frowning as the impact of those words left him breathless.
“Yes. It was your fifth birthday and I have no excuse as to why I didn’t come to you before then. I had plans to, but then I met Johnny’s mother and before you know it five years had past and I was alone again. Maybe it was selfish of me to come for you then, but I wanted you home where you belonged.”
“Why didn’t y…you?” Scott asked, shifting uncomfortably on the bed.
“This can wait until you’re feeling better, Son.”
“No… I want to hear it from you, Murdoch. I want to know why I was never worthy enough of you.”
“Scott, don’t you ever think you weren’t worthy of me. In fact it’s the complete opposite. I was blessed with two sons and I let them both down. I could cover myself by saying I tried to find Johnny, but even that wouldn’t be the complete truth. Fact is I did try, but not hard enough. I’m sorry, Johnny, maybe if I’d been the father I should have none of this would have happened. So I guess the blame for Scott being hurt lies with me.”
“No, Johnny, don’t go making excuses because God knows I’ve made enough of those myself. I’m sorry, Johnny, sorry I didn’t do right by you.”
“Why don’t you both s…stop blaming yourselves f…for the past and l…look to the future?”
“We will, Scott, but I still have to tell you why I left you with your grandfather.”
“You don’t need to, Murdoch,” Scott whispered as his father sat on the edge of the bed.
“Yes, son, I do. I wanted to take you home with me more than anything else in the world, but there was no way I could do that without ending up in a court battle with Harlan Garrett. Again that’s not why I left you there. After you came into the room and your grandfather ushered you out before we had a chance to say much I was ready to put up everything I owned to fight him.”
“Then why didn’t you?” Johnny asked, eyes sparkling with unshed moisture as Murdoch seemed ready to bare his soul to them.
“Because Harlan threatened to take Scott out of the country and make sure I would never have contact with him. He threatened to change both your names and live somewhere I would never find you. I couldn’t stand the idea of you living anywhere outside this country and I know he would do that if I went through with a court battle. I made him promise you’d not want for anything and that he would give you my letters when they came…”
“Letters?” Scott asked and saw the anger come over his father’s face.
“Didn’t you get them, Scott?”
“N…no, Sir, Grandfather never gave me any letters from you. Up until that Pinkerton man showed up, I t…thought you w…were dead.”
“Damn him!” the Lancer patriarch cursed as he realized just how vindictive Harlan Garrett could be. The letters he’d painstakingly written to his son had never reached him. The years of thinking his son was getting his message angered him and he drew away from his sons. He strode to the window and looked out at the pristine white beauty of the landscape and wondered how his stormy insides would ever calm as he heard Scott speaking to him.
“Grandfather had no right to keep your letters from me, Murdoch, and that’s something I’ll never forgive him for, but he did love me in his own way. He never showed much in the way of affection, but he gave me everything he thought I needed. Except…a father. I knew my mother was dead because I visited her grave with him, but he always told me you were buried in an unmarked grave near some little known cow town. I could’ve checked into his story any time so maybe the blame lies with both of us.”
“No, Scott, you don’t deserve any blame for not having me in your life. I accept most if not all of the responsibility. I wish I could change things, but I can’t and neither can you or Johnny. We are who we are and fate made us a family and for that I’ll thank God every day for the rest of my life. No matter what the past brings we can face it together and do whatever is necessary to make sure there are many more Christmas’s to come. Maybe someday you boys will marry and I’ll be a better grandfather than I was a father. I know I don’t deserve it, but I’m asking you both to forgive me for the years we’ve lost. The years you two lost as brothers.”
“Murdoch, I know I’ll always wonder what it would’ve been like to grow up with an older brother, but I won’t hold that against you. Maybe things would’ve been different, maybe not. Seems to me there’s only one way to go…”
“For…ward,” Scott finished as his father turned back to him. “We face what the future holds together…as a family.”
Murdoch could only nod as Jenkins and Teresa joined them. Teresa held a tray in her hands and placed it on the table beside the bed. He watched as she gently placed a napkin on Scott’s bandaged chest and slowly began to feed him. He turned back to the window and thanked God for the time he had with his sons. Scott’s life was a miracle, and the very fact that he was showing signs of getting well lightened the anger and pain engulfing his heart.
Scott knew he was being stubborn, but his determination was evident in the set of his shoulders as Jenkins, Johnny, and Murdoch stood beside his bed. No amount of arguing by the trio could change the blonde’s mind and he could see they were showing signs of giving in. The half smile on his brother’s face was good to see and Scott knew he would be the one to give in first.
“Come on, Johnny, help me out here. You know I’m right.”
“Johnny, don’t you dare…”
“Doc, it’s not like Scott’s gonna be working or standing…he’ll be lucky if he’s able to sit.”
“That’s my point exactly,” the physician said folding his arms across his chest.
“Thanks, Johnny, that wasn’t the kind of help I was looking for!” Scott said exasperation evident on his pale face as he looked back at Jenkins.
“Sure you are. Look, Doc, I promise I won’t do anything I’m not supposed….
“Not supposed to get out of bed…”
“And I’ll tell you when I’m tired…”
“That’ll be the day,” Jenkins said.
“And I’ll do everything you tell me to…”
“Everything?” the physician asked.
“Everything. Look, Doc, it’s Christmas Day and I want to have dinner with my family, not lying in this bed.”
“All right, but you let Johnny and Murdoch help you get dressed and you go back to bed as soon as dinner is over.”
“And no wine or whiskey or any other form of alcohol,” Jenkins finished and saw the smile born on the blonde’s face.
“Don’t thank me. I have a feeling I’m going to regret this.”
“You and me both,” Murdoch whispered as the physician moved out of the way and let him in next to his son. “All right, Scott, let’s see if we can get you ready.
It took nearly half an hour for the two men to get clothes on the injured man, and they could see the weariness and pain on his face once they were finished.
“Scott, why don’t you rest and we’ll come get you as soon as the table is set?” Murdoch suggested.
“Y…you won’t f…forget me?”
“No, Son, we won’t,” Murdoch assured him before standing and leaving his sons alone.
“Johnny, are you all right?” Scott asked of his brother’s uncustomary silence.
“I’m fine, Scott. I have something for you.”
“For me?” the blond asked a slight smile on his face.
“Yeah, ain’t much,” he said as he handed the wrapped package to his brother.
Scott looked at the package and wondered what was inside and looked at his brother expectantly. “Can you help me open it?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry, forgot how hard it is when you’ve only got one hand. If you don’t like it I can get you something else,” Johnny explained as he opened the package and watched his brother’s face closely. Several minutes passed before the blond head lifted and tear filled eyes met his. “Scott, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Scott studied the timepiece in his hands and wondered at the gold initials so painstakingly engraved on the casing. The blonde’s eyes were filled with unshed moisture as he looked at his brother. “This is a wonderful piece, Johnny. I saw one like it in Boston a few years ago and I wanted it, but couldn’t afford it at the time. Oh don’t get me wrong I could’ve asked Grandfather for the money, but I didn’t. Now I know why I waited.”
“You like it?”
“Very much, Brother. I’m not going to belittle it by telling you it’s too much. I’m just going to say thanks and make sure I take care of it.”
“I’m glad, Boston. It sorta seemed to fit you when I saw it. Seemed like it rightly belonged to you. Now you’d best lie back and get some rest before the doc changes his mind,” Johnny ordered and watched the blue eyes close. He knew the watch represented more than a gift to his brother. It represented the years they’d lost and the time that lay ahead of them…a time to grow and get to know each other and that was something Johnny Lancer looked forward to.
“Easy, Scott, almost there,” Johnny said as he took most of the blonde’s weight on his shoulder. Their father had the other side and was carefully shoring the blond up with his own strength.
“I put you at the end of the table, Scott,” Teresa said as she pulled out the chair and winced in sympathy at the blonde’s discomfort.
Scott held his breath as they moved towards the table and eased him onto a chair. Once settled he kept his eyes closed as wave after wave of nausea threatened to be his undoing. He heard the others talking to him, but could not find the strength to answer as he wondered if this had been such a good idea after all.
“I knew this was a damn fool idea! Let’s get him back to bed,” Jenkins stated.
“N…no! I j…just need a m…minute.”
“More like an hour,” Johnny said as he gripped his brother’s shoulder.
“Water,” Scott said and soon found a glass of water in his hand. He opened his eyes and smiled weakly at the people in the room before taking a trembling sip of the liquid. He drank several more swallows before looking sheepishly at the people in the room. “I’m okay.”
“You know, Boston, I don’t believe you, but I think you will be. Feel like eating the fancy Christmas dinner Teresa made. I think she even mashed some carrots and potatoes and turkey in with your gravy.”
“Awful,” Teresa finished, smiling as she placed a bowl in front of Scott. She turned to see Jelly enter and pointed to the seat next to the physician.
“It’s okay, Scott; believe me I understand. But Dr. Jenkins doesn’t want you having anything that’ll upset your stomach too much,” Teresa explained.
“Thanks, Teresa,” Scott said and saw the smile on her face as the others moved to their seats. Without a word the young woman bent down and kissed his cheek before moving to her own seat.
Murdoch looked around the table and knew this was a time to give thanks. Folding his hands he saw the others do the same and began to speak. “Lord, there are many things to thank you for including this meal, but there is something we take for granted and don’t realize what is missing until it’s been given freely and taken away once more. I thank you for bringing Scott and Johnny home where they belong and for the friends and family we make welcome at this table. I know if Catherine and Maria could see their boys they would be as proud of them as I am. Amen.”
“Amen,” sounded around the table and all was quite for several minutes as five people gave silent thanks that Scott Lancer was home where he belonged.
Scott lifted his fork and tasted the mashed turkey dinner. It tasted better than it looked and he suddenly felt as if he was being watched. Looking up he was met with several chagrined faces and smiled inwardly at the feelings inside.
“I’m not going to fall off the chair and I’m sure dinner is a lot more interesting than watching me eat. Don’t let Teresa’s wonderful dinner go cold.” He watched them for several minutes as the main dishes were passed and they helped themselves to the bountiful feast before them.
“Sure does smell fine, Teresa,” Jelly Hoskins said and there were several murmurs of agreement from the others sitting around the table. Several times during the course of the dinner conversation stopped as each person took a moment to give thanks for what lay before them. More often than not five sets of eyes would look towards the injured man before turning away after getting caught staring.
Towards the end of the meal, Murdoch’s eyes met Johnny’s across the table and somehow he understood his boys were home for good. Something about the talk earlier had given them the answers they needed and he knew there would be many more years where his family was Home for Christmas.