Synopsis: a what happened next story for the Pilot episode.
Word Count: 2,760
Gun smoke and the acrid scent of burnt sulfur hung heavy in the early morning air, making it sharply crisp and unpleasant to breathe. Slumped against the broad trunk of an old silver oak tree, Johnny Lancer wrinkled his burning nose and blinked liquid puddles from stinging eyes. When he could finally focus a little, his vision locked and held on an incongruous figure standing over him. “Good shootin’,” he murmured softly to the blur slowly coalescing into the form of his brother. He was uncomfortable voicing a compliment to the man whom only days before had been a stranger. Yet, it had to be spoken. Scott had saved him from Pardee’s final, fatal shot, and his gratitude dug as deeply into his soul as the bullet now lodged in the middle of his back.
Steel-blue eyes twinkled beneath thick, golden lashes, and a crooked grin brightened Scott Lancer’s grim countenance. “Thanks,” he said, quickly adding, ” … brother.” Then, “We’d just about given up on you, boy!”
Johnny grimaced inwardly as tortured back muscles suddenly contracted in a painful spasm, but he managed to mask his agony behind a sickly half-smile. “Well,” he said, vaguely surprised when his voice came out controlled and
mock-casual, “. . . you had your plan, and I had mine.” He swallowed a groan, biting down hard on the last word as he moved to rise from his hunched position. Rough bark on the tree he propped against scraped already torn and bruised skin. When he was almost upright, he balanced his body’s weight on rubbery, protesting legs. Then he saw Scott hold out a hand, offering strength and support in the single gesture.
“Take your time … take your time . . .” Scott repeated soothingly.
Instinct made him reach out, take the proffered arm, desperate and needy as a drowning man, but pride blended with shame and welled up inside him. His cheeks flamed at his own perceived weakness. Almost reluctantly, he pulled away, tottering for a moment before gaining a tenuous hold on both his body and his emotions. “I can make it,” he said simply and forced his legs to move forward. The first solo step jarred his already aching insides; the second increased the incessant pounding in his head. He could feel, rather than see, Scott’s presence keeping pace, shadowing him with each successive step. Resentment and gratitude battled inside him, and he started to turn toward the man, reiterate his independence. But the conflicting emotions left him tongue-tied and confused, and the abrupt movement spun the world dizzyingly, tilt-a-whirling everything around him. He staggered, reeling from the sudden attack of vertigo, and then pitched forward into darkness.
“Scott!” His heart lodged definitively in the back of his throat, Murdoch Lancer watched gravely as his older son approached with his youngest slung unconscious across slim shoulders. “Take him up to my room,” he instructed, adding, ” . . . the bed’s larger . . . higher . . . it’ll be easier for the doctor to treat him there.”
As Scott drew nearer, Murdoch thrust out his hand toward Johnny . . . then, just as suddenly, drew it back. Indecision was stark in his expression, and Murdoch struggled both outwardly and inwardly with his emotions. Finally, fatherhood won over tenacity, and he reached out, tentatively and gently caressing Johnny’s back. His fingers manipulated the tiny circular hole in the middle of his son’s bolero jacket, quickly noting with mounting alarm the copper-stained edges. Beneath the garment, Johnny’s white cotton shirt was soaked with crimson blood. The wet cloth clung stickily to his back, covering every inch in Murdoch’s view. Sickened, he sucked in a ragged breath, listened as it whistled out slowly between his clenched teeth.
“Is it bad?” Scott asked, turning his head at the sound of his father’s gasp.
“It’s not good,” Murdoch answered. Straightening torturously, he forced the icy hand of fear to loosen its strangling grip on his gut. “I’ll send one of the hands into town to fetch the doctor,” he said as his eyes scanned the surrounding countryside. Several of his men were clearing away debris, others bent to retrieve discarded weapons, while still others checked unmoving bodies on the ground for signs of life. Sighing at the damnable waste, Murdoch became suddenly aware that his hand still rested upon his son’s unconscious form. The reassuring rise and fall of Johnny’s back told him that his boy was still alive, still breathing, and he felt relief wash over him like a cleansing tidal wave. Abruptly, he became aware of intruding eyes, watching his open display of concern, and he whisked his hand away, all at once angered and embarrassed.
“He’s going to be all right, Murdoch,” Teresa said optimistically, patting her guardian’s arm affectionately. “I’ll get the bed ready. Coming, Scott?”
Without waiting for an answer, she bolted up the outer stairs, her long skirt and thick petticoats swishing loudly at her rapid pace.
“He’ll need lots of hot water . . . bandages . . .” Murdoch threw after her departing form.
“She’ll take care of it,” Scott said with a shaky smile.
“I’ll join you soon,” Murdoch said. “Make him comfortable.”
“I will.” Scott carefully hefted his burden, rearranging the dead weight, and headed up the stairs on Teresa’s heel.
Murdoch watched them go, focusing only on the limply swinging arms of his youngest son. His mind involuntarily replayed the gory picture of what lay beneath the jacket, and he closed his eyes at the memory, silently praying that he wouldn’t have found his son only to lose him again . . . this time for all eternity.
Johnny’s first awareness was that of floating on a bed of the softest cotton. He nestled in the safety and comfort of a sweet-smelling cocoon as gentle, sensual hands plied the back of his neck and arms. He savored the inexplicable attention, relaxing as earnest hands rubbed the soreness and tension from his shoulders and back muscles. He felt a wonderfully familiar stirring in the center of his body, a warmth that fanned out and engulfed his entire being with pleasure. And then the disembodied hands touched raw flesh and rudely yanked him from his comfortable, dreamlike state into cold, harsh reality. He came awake with a start and a deep groan.
“It’s all right,” a soft, unfamiliar voice said. “You’re safe. I’m just trying to cleanse the wound before the doctor gets here.”
Wrinkling his brow at the puzzling words, Johnny pulled in a jagged breath as something again stoked the blazing fire in the middle of his back. He moaned and instinctively moved his hands to his back to grasp and still the instrument of torture – a slender arm and tiny hand.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, Johnny.”
He felt his grip being loosened, his fingers gently pried open by other, larger hands. Something moved his arms carefully, but deliberately, to his sides, and the hands continued their torturous ministrations. All the while, the pleasant voice spoke soothingly to him, and he found the tones both calming and hypnotic. In spite of the pain, he felt himself slipping into a deep, dreamless slumber.
The sun had just nudged the edge of daylight past the horizon when Murdoch entered his bedroom. Although his expression remained fixed and neutral, a storm of emotions electrified his body.
At his approach, Scott looked up from the task of wringing excess water from a washcloth. He finished the job, walked the length of the bedroom in four long strides, and gently removed the used cloth from his brother’s forehead. As he replaced it with the cooler, fresher one, he said, “All right, out with it. What’s wrong?”
Murdoch blanched at the question. “Remind me never to play poker with you,” he said.
Scott remained silent. He faced his father, peering deeply into his faded blue eyes.
“Cipriano just returned,” Murdoch went on. “The doctor left town two days ago on his monthly rounds. He won’t be back for another week.”
“Not good. Johnny’s fever’s up. That bullet’s got to come out.” Scott chewed absently on his bottom lip.
In spite of the grim circumstances, Murdoch smiled, recognizing the unconscious gesture as one of his own.
“Well …” Scott continued, pondering aloud. “I guess that sort of leaves it up to us, doesn’t it.” It wasn’t a question. He paused for a moment before continuing matter-of-factly. “So, do you want me to . . .?”
The older man considered the situation, weighed the possibilities. A long lull in their conversation was finally broken by, “No . . . I’ll do it.”
“Have you ever removed a bullet before . . . I mean . . . from a man’s back?”
Murdoch’s eyebrows drew together into a single, furrowed brow. “Many times,” he said in a hollowed voice. “Many . . . many times.”
“But . . .” Scott continued, “None of them was your own son . . .”
“Do you think that makes any difference?” Murdoch snapped. “It has to come out. It doesn’t matter who he is. If it stays inside his body, he could very well die.”
Scott’s voice took on a deadly calm. “I’ve seen this kind of wound before, Murdoch. It’s potentially crippling . . . one wrong move, and he could be paralyzed . . . or dead. At least . . . if I do it, and he has to live that way . . . it won’t be something else to . . .” He left the unfinished thought hanging.
Murdoch’s head lowered, and his broad shoulders slumped. Indecision was etched in his body’s posture, but his words belied the stance. “No. It’s my responsibility. He’s my son; I invited him here into this war. Hewouldn’t be lying there now if . . .”
“No, he’d have been dead for more than a week! That Pinkerton agent you sent rescued him from a firing squad just minutes before his scheduled execution. It’s not your fault, Father!”
The sound of his older son’s voice calling him ‘father’ for the first time in either of their lives struck him hard in the pit of his stomach, extinguishing the blazing anger burning inside. His breath left him in a sudden rush and in its place, an immediate warmth welled up. It was several moments before he could compose himself enough to speak. Then he said quietly, “I’m calling the shots on this one, Scott . . . just like we all agreed. Tell Teresa to bring the things I’ll need.”
“But . . .” Scott tried once more, but his protestation was met head-on by an icy stare. He paused for a moment, glanced sympathetically at his unconscious brother’s form, and hurried out the door.
It was an amazing thing to burn like fire on the inside while your outsides shook with an all-invasive cold. Johnny Madrid grasped at the fleeting thought, hugged it to him, then watched as it slipped through the invisible fingers of his mind. Reality was an elusive temptress, enticing him with occasional spurts of lucidity, then pulling back just as he roused to the brink of consciousness. Agony was paramount, overriding all other sensations, bending and contorting his memories of the past few days. The roots of pain dug deeply into the small of his back, but offshoots branched to his bruised left shoulder and side, blossoming into the base of his skull.
Besides the pain, the only tangible elements in his ethereal world were the hands and voices that alternately upended his universe. “Easy, Johnny. . . we’ve got to get that fever down ….” was a litany that played repetitively. The coolness that always followed was like bathing in an icy stream, and he would surrender to the freshness of the chilled water.
Exhausted, but refreshed, he would sleep peacefully for a little while. Then, he would wake again, drenched in his own sweat and surrounded by the fires of Hell.
A palpable silence awakened him, and he struggled to open eyes restrained by heavy lashes. When he could see in the darkened room, the silhouette of a man loomed beside him, close enough to touch. Johnny watched as the form stood, turned toward him and walked to the side of the bed. All at once, a warm hand crooked behind his neck, lifting his head slightly. A glass of tepid liquid touched his lips, and he opened his mouth instinctively, sighing with relief as the quenching moisture slid down his raw and swollen throat. When he had swallowed several times, he pulled his head back, and the pressure beneath his neck disappeared. “How . . . long . . .” he croaked.
His father looked away, towards the massive window that faced the eastern horizon. “Sun’ll be up in less than an hour … that’ll make four days.”
” . . . ‘m . . . sorry . . .”
“Sorry? For what?”
“Bein’ stupid … enough to get shot up . . .”
“Nothin’ to be sorry for, Johnny. It wasn’t your fault,” Murdoch said candidly. “Do you want some more water?”
Johnny shook his head, then wished he hadn’t as the room suddenly spun around. When it stopped twirling on its axis, he watched as Murdoch replaced the half-empty glass on the nightstand and returned to his chair. It creaked as he lowered his body into its softness.
His father turned toward him. “Change your mind about that drink?”
“No . . . I’m not thirsty anymore . . . I just . . . just . . . did my mother . . . is it true what Teresa said about . . . her and . . . some gambler . . .”
The older man leaned his head back and sighed wistfully. “That was long ago, Johnny. It’s over and done with now.” He turned toward his son.
“Would it really make such a difference if we dredged up all those old memories?”
Johnny remained silent, and Murdoch went on.
“I try to remember . . . only the good things . . .” A half-smile softened the grimness of the older Lancer’s features. “When you weren’t quite two years old . . . your mother left you with me to . . . well, she left you, and we spent the day together. I found out that day how much you really loved feeding chickens. And the chickens found out how much feed they could wolf down. You were quite the popular young man with them that
day.” Murdoch’s lips broke apart in a grin. “But when I put you into your bed that night, you cried for your mother. So I brought you here . . . to our bed . . . and when you wouldn’t sleep, we sat together in this chair . . just you and I . . . talking the night away.” The smile faded; the shadow was back. “A week later, you were gone . . .”
Aware of his father’s pain, Johnny closed his eyes and tried to recall another time he’d been in this room, a time he’d been held in his father’s arms, a time he’d felt safe and loved. ” . . . I can’t remember . . .” he blurted in a trembling voice.
“No reason for you to,” Murdoch said matter-of-factly. “They’re my memories, not yours.” Suddenly, the tall man pushed himself into a standing position. On his immediate right, daylight seeped through the windows, puddling on the floor. “I think I hear Teresa in the kitchen. I’ll get her to bring you some broth. You’ve been very ill, so try to eat something if you can. It’ll take a while to build your strength back up.” The older Lancer walked to the door, put out a hand to open it. Johnny’s voice stopped him.
“Murdoch?” An energy-sapping weakness lifted unwanted emotions to the surface, and Johnny felt an unaccustomed wetness slide, unbidden, down the side of his face. It slithered to the curve of his left ear and settled there. ” . . . thanks … for . . .” His voice broke. Embarrassed, he looked away.
“Johnny!!” Teresa’s voice, an octave higher with unbridled enthusiasm, startled him, and he jerked his head back toward the door just in time to see his foster sister burst into the room. She was a brown-haired bundle of youthful enthusiasm, and she bounced to his bedside, plopped down unceremoniously, and planted a platonic kiss on his forehead.
Directly behind her, Scott entered. “Well, brother, it’s about time you decided to stop lolling around and join the rest of the world again!” He took up a position directly opposite Teresa, and both began talking faster than his ears and weakened condition could comprehend. He found himself in a ridiculous crossfire of exuberance, but it felt good, and he wallowed in the familial closeness.
Across the room, his father viewed the goings-on with an unreadable expression, and Johnny reached out with his eyes, catching Murdoch’s attention once more. He was rewarded with a paternal smile and a nod of acceptance. Over the din of sibling voices, he managed to grasp his father’s parting words. “Welcome home, Johnny. The chickens have missed you. And so have I.”