Word count 18,260
DISCLAIMER: The following is a work of fiction based on the characters of the television series “Lancer”. No infringement is intended to anyone who owns a portion of this series. No money was made on this.
WARNINGS: A little foul language
SPOILERS: Chase a Wild Horse
Abilene was a rough town at the best of times. The cattle herds that had brought wealth, prosperity and good times to the frontier settlement had also brought murderers, thieves and outlaws by the droves.
The citizens of town quickly learned it was best not to stick your nose into someone else’s business, especially late at night in an alley outside one of the many saloons that sprang up in the wake of the cattle boom. Heads turned as the sounds of a fight were heard on the street, but no one dared venture into the darkened alley to assist.
Jasper Haglund crashed into empty crates standing beside the rear entrance of The Silver Dollar Saloon, then turned immediately to face his attacker, raising his arms to ward off the vicious fists of the hulking giant. He cursed his luck for the umpteenth time for bringing him to Abilene in the first place. Nothing had seemed to go right lately. He hadn’t expected to be jumped on his last night in town but here he was, fighting for his life over a bit of information he’d thought might get him a little money if he worked it right. Jasper had already decided if he got out of town with his life, he was going to be the luckiest so-and-so this side of the Mississippi.
The blows he was expecting suddenly ceased, as his attacker grabbed his dirty shirtfront, holding him more than a foot off the ground and bringing the two of them face to face.
“Now, you yella dog. Tell me. Where is he?” Rafe Boone demanded, each word punctuated with a violent shake.
“I don’t know…” Jasper wailed, his slight frame visibly shaking, then drew back as the bigger man raised his fist again. “No! Wait!” he said in defeat, “I’ll tell you what I know.”
Boone eased off his grip, yet didn’t release him completely. He didn’t trust the little weasel.
“I…I don’t know for sure but before he left… he.. ahh…he mentioned something about looking up his old man on a ranch named Lancer. Said his father had been looking for him.” Jasper’s voice shook with fear.
Boone frowned through his thick beard, eyeing the other man with suspicion. “Lancer? Why there?” he growled.
Jasper gave off a wheezing sort of snicker as he recalled the events that had lead to his ex-partner’s drinking too much one night so long ago.
“Once, when Johnny’d had too much to drink he let slip that his real name wasn’t Madrid. It was Lancer. Johnny Lancer. His old man owns a big ranch out in California somewhere.”
Lancer. So that was why he’d had so much trouble tracking him down. Boone smiled in satisfaction. Well that was all changed now that he knew who to ask for. Finally, things were starting to come together.
Rafe Boone looked down from his 6’4″ height to the cowering man at his feet. Hatred and contempt mixed with rage and welled up inside him once more. Hate for anything or anyone who opposed him, but mostly hatred for the man he’d spent two years trying to find. Without further thought, his gun was out of his holster and firing at Jasper Haglund.
One. Two. Three bullets he pumped into the quivering man before his seething rage began to subside. No one would miss this worthless piece of trash.
Boone took a deep breath and watched as the mortally wounded man breathed his last. He paused to make sure there was no one watching, then made a hasty retreat down the back alley toward his horse.
The noon sun was just beginning to crest when Murdoch Lancer stopped long enough to stretch his aching back muscles after leaning over the table before him for too long.
*I must be getting old,* he told himself, then stopped with a wiry grin. Of course he was getting old, but at least that statement didn’t carry the same scary implications it had a year ago.
He rubbed at his back trying to ease some of the tension he felt gathering there and smiled as he watched the heads of his two sons, bent over the table they had been sharing.
Murdoch never thought he would have lived to see the day when his sons would be by his side, not only living at the ranch but both taking an active part in running the immense spread.
It was strange, how you could miss something you had never possessed and had not even be aware of what you were missing. Now, he couldn’t imagine the ranch without either of his sons or the special girl who shared their lives.
Murdoch thought of his ward lovingly. Teresa O’Brien was the daughter of his dead foreman and best friend. She had grown up at Lancer and at times it seemed she was the mortar that held the men of the family together.
It was funny sometimes to watch the way Scott and Johnny treated her. They seemed to waver between vying for her attention and viewing her as a pesky younger sister.
His smile deepened. Regardless of what happened between her and his sons, she was his daughter now as much as if she’d been born to him.
Old regrets began to rise once again as he recalled how he’d been emotionally and physically unable to keep his sons by his side when they had been small children, but he had watched Teresa grow up before his very eyes. She belonged here as much as Scott or Johnny, possibly even more.
Murdoch’s thoughts drifted to his blond oldest son’s birth and the death of his first wife.
Shortly after the young couple had arrived at the ranch Murdoch had bought sight unseen, Katherine had announced her pregnancy to him. He had been deliriously happy, but the frontier life had taken too much from the frail young woman and she had died in childbirth. Murdoch had been shattered at the loss of his beloved wife and when her father had appeared offering to take the newborn infant to raise he had not objected. Katherine’s father had known Murdoch felt guilty for uprooting the delicate beauty from the only home she had ever known to bring her to the untamed frontier and the old man had no qualms in using that guilt to gain custody of his grandson, the only remaining link to his daughter. Murdoch was not proud of the fact that he had given up his son but at the time he had truly felt incapable of raising a child. He had, instead, thrown himself into building the ranch.
It hadn’t been until a couple of years later that he had met Maria Valdez. A dark eyed woman from the local settlement, she had been flighty, but she had brought a spark of life back into Murdoch’s existence. Maria had been everything Katherine had not. Dark haired, vivacious and with a temper few people wanted to cross, she had made Murdoch feel alive once again.
She had become pregnant and they had married quickly. With the birth of a second son Murdoch had been given the chance to redeem himself for the abandonment of his first-born. He had lavished his affection on the new baby who had inherited Murdoch’s blue eyes and his mother’s dark coloring, but the happiness had been short-lived when he had woken one morning to find his son and wife gone without a trace.
Although, he had felt Maria’s love fading, he had hoped the love they shared for the baby would be enough to hold them together. It had not, and Murdoch had spent the next several months trying to find his wife and son.
Even after exhausting himself and losing their trail outside of Juarez, he had hired a Pinkerton man to continue until he had lost almost all hope of ever finding them again.
Murdoch had ceased his search and once again concentrated his efforts on building his ranch, defending it against continual raids by bandits, cutthroats and thieves that had begun to swarm the San Joaquin valley for its wealth.
The valley had turned out to be a gold mine for ranching and vineyards and was attracting every unscrupulous land dealer west of the Rockies. With the help of his friend, Tom O’Brien, Murdoch had built the ranch to one of the largest and best in the state, but in so doing, he had allowed himself to close off his feelings and had become a hard man.
The only soft spot he had ever shown had been toward O’Brien’s daughter, even though her presence was a constant reminder of the two sons he had possessed and lost. Murdoch had written to Scott frequently over the years but the responses to the letters had become increasingly distance and bitter. He didn’t know what Katherine’s father had been telling the boy but he could tell by the tone of Scott’s letters it wasn’t good. Several times he had considered going after Scott and bringing him back to the ranch to live, but each time he would back out, cursing himself for his inability to face his own son.
It wasn’t until the land pirates had moved in to try to take over the valley, killing Teresa’s father and leaving Murdoch with a bullet in the back that he had finally decided to send for Scott with an offer of coming to California.
Murdoch hadn’t held much hope of ever finding Johnny, even though he had let the search for some trace of his other son continue off and on through the years. It had come as a shock, to hear from the Pinkerton people that they thought they had finally located the young man living under a different name. Murdoch’s thoughts darkened as he watched his dark-haired youngest son and remembered how close Johnny had come to death the day the Pinkertons had finally located him.
The report he’d received had said Johnny went by the name of Johnny Madrid, a shock to Murdoch because he had heard of the famed gunfighter, from down around the Sonora area. Then the report came of Madrid’s capture by the Mexican rurales for being on the wrong side of a land dispute. Johnny had been next in line for the firing squad when the Pinkerton man had arrived and persuaded the sergeant in charge that Senior Madrid was worth more alive than dead.
With his freedom and the promise of a thousand dollars for ‘listening’ to the man reported to be his father, Johnny had headed north.
It had been a stroke of good luck that Scott and Johnny had unexpectedly arrived at the same time in Murro Cuyo. Murdoch had tried to hide his anxiety behind a granite mask when they had first met, but Johnny’s shadowed past and Scott’s distrust of his father had made the guilt Murdoch felt surface once again. Through the first uneasy meeting, with tempers and nerves strained to the breaking point, until they had defeated Day Pardee and his outlaw band, father and sons had stood together. They, along with Teresa, were now a family and nothing could change that.
“Okay then, we’ll move this bunch onto the east slope,” Scott stated, as he also straightened from the map they had been studying.
Murdoch’s thoughts returned to the present, as he watched his sons nod in agreement with each other. Johnny reached for the hat that hung down his back by the chinstrap, intending to start moving the cattle immediately.
It was a typical response for the intense young man and Murdoch had to stop himself from once again urging Johnny to lighten up. For someone who had spent the majority of his life being bounced from one home to another around the border towns of the southwest it was sometimes hard for Johnny to relax.
It had not been too long ago that the pressures and demands of such an abrupt change in lifestyle had been too much for him. Johnny had reluctantly walked away from the ranch and the life he was trying to build and had tried to return to the life he had left behind. It had been a dismal failure for him and he had returned home with a renewed determination to make his life at the ranch work.
Murdoch stopped him with a hand on his arm, “Whoa…wait, Johnny. We don’t have to move them this minute.”
Johnny looked up into his fathers’ face, curiosity written in every line. “Why not now?” he asked, “It’s as good a time as any.”
The sincerity on his son’s face cut into Murdoch’s soul. Johnny was still trying to make up for his leaving the ranch a few months back.
“I know, son, but it can wait until morning. We’re not in that big a hurry.” Murdoch looked to Scott for help.
“H…He’s right, Johnny. It can wait till morning. Better to get a fresh start tomorrow.”
Johnny stopped and stared at Murdoch and then Scott in turn. There were still a lot of things about ranching and family he didn’t understand but this didn’t sound right. They could have most of the cattle moved before dark. He was still puzzling out the problem when the sound of pounding hoof beats reached his ears. A lifetime of instincts sent a shiver down his spine as his hand dropped to his gun and he whirled to face the anticipated danger.
The move did not go unnoticed by Murdoch or Scott. Father and son exchanged resigned looks as each acknowledged how much Johnny’s past still haunted him.
Luke Gray, the ranch foreman, brought his horse to a halt in a dusty whirlwind as Murdoch stepped forward with concern on his face. “What’s up, Luke?” he called.
“Some of our cattle broke through Anderson’s east fence again. I thought I ought to let you know, boss.”
Murdoch shook his head in despair. This wasn’t the first time it had happened and Anderson was bound to be getting tired of it. “How many?” he asked.
Luke looked thoughtful for a moment. “Not more’n a dozen. It won’t take long to get’em back. I’ll get on it right away.”
“Hold on a minute, Luke,” Murdoch said as he turned back to his sons, his eyes focusing on Johnny, “We need to get things settled here before we start that move. Johnny, you get along pretty well with Carl. Would you go over and soothe his feathers and get those cattle back on our own land? We’ll get things ready here and I’ll have Jelly pack your roll for you.”
Johnny nodded, relief evident in his voice, “Sure Murdoch. No problem.” He reached for the reins of his palomino and swung effortlessly into the saddle. “I’ll be back before dark,” he said as he backed out of the courtyard.
Murdoch and Scott watched until Johnny had cleared the main entrance to the ranch before shoving the table aside and beginning their preparations. Luke Gray returned, a large grin on his weathered face.
“How’d I do, Murdoch?” he asked.
Murdoch turned to him with a return smile. “You were excellent, Luke. I don’t think Johnny suspected a thing.”
Scott joined them a moment later, “What did Carl say when you went to him?”
The older man laughed, slapping his knee. “At first he thought I was crazy but after I explained what we were doing, he went along okay. Said he’d give Johnny proper grief over the busted fence but he promised not to shoot.”
All three men laughed at the joke and the thought of gentle old Carl Anderson raising a gun to anyone. “He also said he’d be by later for some of that wine you got saved back from last year Murdoch.”
Murdoch nodded, “I’ll owe him a couple of bottles after this,” he said, grinning even wider. “Come on fellas,” he said motioning for help with a table, “Johnny’ll be back before long and we’ve got to have this all done or he’ll bolt on us.”
Scott looked thoughtful for a moment, “Murdoch, are you sure this is such a good idea?” he asked, “I mean, you know how Johnny is about crowds, and a birthday party….” his voice trailed off.
Murdoch turned serious for a moment. “Indulge me, Scott. Call it an old mans’ fantasy. The last birthday I was able to celebrate with you or Johnny was when you were born and I doubt Johnny’s ever had a real birthday celebration.” he paused as a thought occurred to him, “Has he said something to you about today being his birthday?”
Scott looked thoughtful once again then shook his head. “No. No, he hasn’t. I just don’t know how he’ll react to a surprise party is all. He’s not much for…ah…socializing.”
“I know, but I think it might help him feel more a part of the ranch and family, if we have a few people over once in a while.”
Scott ducked his head as a string of Chinese lanterns were place above the courtyard and smiled at Murdoch’s efforts for his youngest son, “I just hope he doesn’t take one look at things once he gets back and high-tail it straight back to Mexico for good.”
Murdoch gave a short laugh. “I hope not either,” he said as they joined in the final preparations for the party.
Several miles from the ranch house, Johnny reined to a stop beside a small stream to give the palomino a breather. He reached for his canteen and took a drink while he surveyed the surrounding landscape. This was sure enough good land. Murdoch had known what he was doing when he had chosen it. The cattle thrived here and the horses were some of the finest Johnny had ever seen.
Barranca stomped his feet impatiently, eager to be on the move again. Johnny smiled at the palominos’ impatience, something he understood
all too well. Being in one place for very long was not something Johnny had very much experience in.
For as long as he could remember he had always been on the move. It felt good now to know he had a home to come to and a family that cared about him…a family he cared about. It was still strange to find himself worrying about them, wondering if they were safe. If something ever happened to one of them because of his past…
Johnny’s thoughts trailed off. He didn’t want to think about that possibility. Murdoch kept reassuring him he didn’t need to worry, they could handle anything. Still, Johnny found himself constantly on the lookout for old enemies or acquaintances of Johnny Madrid. His past was something he couldn’t shake completely. Too many times, just when he thought all traces of his gunfighter past were behind him, something or someone would reappear to prove him wrong.
Many times since Murdoch had offered he and Scott a partnership in the ranch, he had come very close to calling it quits and leaving. He had left at one point but that had been a miserable failure.
A friend’s death beneath the hooves of a wild stallion had made Johnny see just how much he wanted to be needed by his father and brother. He had returned to the ranch, willing to beg, if need be, for Murdoch to give him another chance.
He still felt unsure of his standing with his father and brother, but since his return, he had worked everyday to regain their trust. He was determined not to betray that trust again, even though there were still some days when things would close in around him and he felt the need to get away from everyone and everything at the ranch.
A lifetime of living on his own and surviving the best way he knew how sometimes made it difficult for him to rely on another person. So far, Murdoch had understood those times and had not pushed him. Scott seemed to understand, in many ways, more than Murdoch. He………
Johnny was rocked out of his thoughts as the quiet afternoon was shattered by a rifle shot and the canteen he held exploded from his hands. On instinct, he had reached for his gun before the first echoes died away.
“I wouldn’t try it, boy,” a cold voice called to him from a nearby grove of trees. “I can drill you easy from here.”
Johnny stopped in mid draw, letting the pistol slide back into the holster and slowly raised his hands, all the while scanning the surrounding area.
“That’s good, now step down off that horse.” A moment’s hesitation drew a well-placed warning shot in Johnny’s direction. “I’m losin’ my patience with you, boy. Do as I say.”
After another moment’s hesitation, Johnny slowly eased himself from the saddle, careful to keep his hands in the air, while his mind raced with questions. He didn’t recognize the voice but common sense told him the man meant deadly business. He would have to go easy until he knew for certain what the man wanted.
“What’s this all about, mister?” he asked, keeping his voice low, as he heard the other man approaching. “ I don’t have but maybe twelve dollars on me, if that’s what you’re wantin’.” Johnny started to turn as he heard the stranger approach.
“Money ain’t what I’m after,” he growled, grabbing Johnny by the shoulder, spinning him around and shoving him, face first, against the horse and saddle.
Before he could stop himself, Johnny’s temper flared and he swung a fist into the bigger man’s face, bringing a trickle of blood from his mouth. With a bellow of rage, the stranger gripped the rifle he still held with both hands and slammed the stock, butt first, into Johnny’s head.
A blinding pain crumpled the ex-gunfighter to his knees and darkness closed around him.
Pain was the first sensation to return when the darkness began to subside. Biting his lip to keep from crying out, Johnny tried to roll to his side away from the burning sunlight streaming into his face, only to find his hands and feet bound. After a moment to hold down the rising nausea, he carefully opened his eyes.
Squinting against the bright sunlight, he took note of the thick rope around his wrists then peered around as far as his limited movements would allow. His horse was ground reined nearby, and his gun and holster hung from the saddle horn, but there was no sight of his attacker. For a brief moment he wondered if perhaps he’d been left to die of thirst in the sun.
He shook off the morbid thought and slowly pushed himself upward. It took several failed attempts before Johnny was finally able to rise to a sitting position. He leaned forward, testing his bonds and silently cursed. Whoever the man was, he wasn’t taking any chances. The ropes bit deep into Johnny’s wrists and had no give in them.
His vision cleared a little more and he spotted a large rock with rough edges half-buried in the ground. He immediately began to work his way forward. If he could just get over to it, he might be able to wear through the ropes enough to make them give way. It was a long shot and not the best of ideas, but at the moment he didn’t have any other options open to him.
Luck was not with him, however. Before he could reach his destination his attacker emerged from the nearby brush with another horse in tow. Johnny warily watched him as he approached.
“Get up,” the stranger ordered, his voice sounding cold and hard.
Johnny squinted up at the man. “Are you..gonna tell me…who you are or…what you want?” he asked after a moment.
The dark man stood over him, his face a mask of hatred. After a long pause he spat tobacco juice into the dust next to Johnny’s knee, and a look of unbridled hatred crossed the features. “Names Boone,” he said finally. “Rafe Boone.” His voice quavered with suppressed rage.
Johnny paled at the mention of the name. “Tom’s brother,” he uttered in a dry voice.
The man nodded in satisfaction. “You remember.” It was a statement, not a question.
Johnny shivered as blackness threatened him once more. He remembered all right. It would have been hard to forget the name of the man who had shot him in the back.
His own feelings of anger mixed with sorrow. “I remember him,” he said softly, closing his eyes against the memory. “What do you want with me?”
The rage that had been building within Boone was evident in his words. “What do I want?” The man barely kept his voice from vibrating with rage. “You killed my brother and you want to know what I want?”
Johnny stared up at him. “I don’t know…what you heard,” he said carefully as he watched the man struggle with his anger, “but Tom fired first.” Despite the afternoon heat taking it’s toll on his limited strength, Johnny felt a chill pass through him as memory of the incident replayed in his mind as vividly as if it had happened yesterday instead of over two years ago. “I was… coming out of a saloon… in El Paso and he fired from the shadows. I didn’t even know who was doin’ the shooting ‘til the marshal arrived.” Johnny took a deep breath, watching the man’s face for a reaction.
Boone’s stony silence was unnerving to the young gunfighter after the barely suppressed rage.
It was a moment more before Boone finally spoke. “I know what happened,” he said coldly. “I was in Yuma when word come Tom’d been killed.” He paused once more with a deadly glare. “It took me two years to find you.” He looked at Johnny with contempt, as if he were remembering the long trail he’d been following. “Johnny Lancer,” he spat in disgust. “That threw me for a long time, but I stuck with it. An eye for an eye. That’s what I was always told.”
Despite the situation, Johnny couldn’t help but laugh inwardly as darkness pulled at him. How many times had he heard that statement from someone trying to justify their reason for killing? As unconsciousness closed in again, he was reminded of another quote that was constantly lost when convenient. Was it part of the same verse? Or a separate one? He couldn’t remember. “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord,” he whispered softly as oblivion claimed him.
Prodding from the end of the rifle brought Johnny back to consciousness.
Johnny heard the demand, but disorientation and confusion slowed his response. As the prodding continued, memory slowly returned and he began to push himself upright, fighting frustration, anger and the continued pounding in his head. It took a moment more for him to realize that although his hands were still tied, his feet were now free.
The rifle dug into his ribs once more as the last of his memory returned. Boone. Johnny sighed as he realized the man was not going to listen to reason. He was not surprised. Boone had just spent two years tracking him down. No amount of talking was going to convince the man Johnny had no choice when he had killed his brother.
Without warning, Boone’s foot lashed out, landing a vicious kick into Johnny’s ribs and forcing the air from his lungs. He crumpled back to the ground, gasping in pain and clutching his chest.
As he steeled himself against the new agony, he barely registered that the larger man had grabbed a handful of his hair and was pulling his head back.
Eyes dark with rage and barely suppressed insanity stared Johnny in the face. “Now,” Boone said viciously between clinched teeth, “Starting right now,” he gave a shake to the handful of hair he held, “you do what you’re told, when you’re told, and you do it quick or you’ll get the same treatment every time. Now get moving!” he finished in a shout, releasing Johnny’s hair and shoving him away in disgust.
For long seconds Johnny was paralyzed with shock. He was no stranger to rough treatment, but Boone’s brutality surprised him. The world around him spun and time slowed. It seemed like an eternity before he was able to make his body obey, but with a great deal of effort he was finally able to regain his feet. He braced his hand on his knees for a moment to make sure his legs would not buckle beneath him, then turned to Boone. “Which way?” he asked in a dry, soft gasp.
“There.” Boone said, motioning toward the south, away from the Lancer hacienda.
“Where to?” Johnny croaked, eyeing the badlands he knew lay in that direction.
“It won’t matter to you. Just walk.” Boone growled. “Move out,” he said shoving his captive once more.
Johnny stumbled and started for his horse, only to have Boone grab his arm painfully and growl once more. “Leave’im” he said, shoving Johnny away from the horse and moving toward the palomino to remove the rope from the saddle. Johnny watched in confusion as Boone hobbled the horse. “The horse stays. He’ll have water and graze until someone finds him.” A sneering smile spread across Boone’s face as he glanced back at Johnny. “It’ll give your family something to wonder about.” Johnny gritted his teeth to keep his anger in check. Striking out at Boone at this point would have been futile and more than reckless. The man was obviously not straight in the head. Somewhere along the way he had crossed the line in his search for revenge and his hatred had festered to the point of insanity. Johnny took a step back, gauging his chances of running, despite what his common sense told him. Finally, he decided the odds were definitely not in his favor. His vision was still blurring and his head still pounded from the blow he had received. Better to wait until he had regained some of his strength before attempting an escape. He knew when he did make a break, he would only get one chance and he had best make the most of it when the time came.
Once again Boone pointed toward the south with his ever-present rifle. “Walk,” he commanded.
Johnny sighed and began walking.
As the afternoon worn on toward early evening, Johnny’s pace became erratic. The injuries he had received and the relentless afternoon sun had taken their toll. Boone had not spoken since the beginning of their journey and Johnny remained silent to concentrate on keeping himself moving. Although he slowed, Boone kept him moving. His earlier threat for Johnny’s obedience now seemed unimportant to the larger man.
Johnny had long since become lost to anything except the struggle for the next step. Anything beyond that requirement simply took too much effort.
As night closed in, they came to a small grove of trees set a short distance from a small stream. Boone surveyed the area, nodded and finally called for a halt, apparently satisfied the site would be sufficient for night camp.
Johnny dropped to his knees in weariness and exhaustion. He cursed his body’s slow reactions as his captor approached with a huge knife in hand. For a brief moment, he expected to feel the razor-edged blade slice into him. However, before he could get his aching body to take any action toward warding off Boone’s attack, the gleaming knife cut through the ropes binding his wrists. Confusion mingled with relief as the returning circulation sent sharp needles of pain skittering through his hands and up both arms. Johnny clinched his teeth against the pain and rubbed at his raw and bloody wrists.
With little concern for his prisoner’s misery, Boone pulled several pieces of rawhide from his saddlebag and, after roughly forcing Johnny to the ground, wrapped the leather around his ankles.
With a vicious kick to Johnny’s side, Boone turned to the care of his horse, pulling the tack and gear off and staking the animal nearby.
While Boone tended to his horse, Johnny regained his breath and settled himself against the nearest tree while he worked his fingers until the tingling sensation ceased. He had puzzled over Boone’s actions the entire afternoon. Something wasn’t sitting right. If the man wanted revenge for his brother’s death, why hadn’t he killed Johnny with his first shots? It didn’t make sense.
Sometime during his thoughts, Johnny’s eyes closed as exhaustion won out and sleep claimed him.
He was startled awake when he felt Boone kneeling over him, binding his wrists behind the tree he was settled against. His heart pounded at being caught unaware. In his former life, that would never have happened, no matter how tired or miserable he felt. He attempted to fight, but he lacked the strength. Before he was fully awake, his hands were secure and his head was pounding even more than before.
As Boone moved away from him and began to set up camp for the night, Johnny eased himself into the most comfortable position he could find. He knew that despite the heat of the day, the cool evening breezes would turn cold before morning. Johnny tested his bonds once more before resigning himself to captivity for the night. If he had any hope of getting away, it would have to wait until morning, before they started out again.
His stomach rumbled, reminding him that Boone hadn’t offered him water or food before bedding down for the night. That was no problem, he had gone without food before, but Johnny knew without water, he didn’t have a prayer of surviving tomorrow. He had to make his move come morning. It might be the only opportunity he would get. Content with the plans he had made, he eased himself against the tree and closed his eyes. As exhaustion overcame him and the chill of the night began to creep in, he fell asleep.
Near dusk, at the Lancer ranch, Murdoch watched as the last of the party guests bid him farewell. The nagging worry that had plagued him through the afternoon and evening had multiplied now that things were quiet. Johnny should have been back hours ago.
Murdoch reminded himself that they had not told Johnny of their plans and it was not uncommon for him to be gone overnight or to return to the ranch late at night. He was, after all, a grown man. However, since the incident with the Strikers, Johnny had made a point of letting Murdoch or Scott know if he planned on being away. He couldn’t explain it, but Murdoch had a feeling that something was not right.
His son’s absence, at a party in his honor, had been noted by all of the guests. Each had expressed their apologies at not being able to stay until Johnny arrived and several had quietly offered Murdoch their help if he decided to form a search for his son.
Murdoch had put each of them off, assuring them Johnny would be home soon and there was nothing to worry about, but now…
Now, Murdoch could no longer push aside the unmistakable feeling that something was definitely wrong. He turned toward the house, intending to find Scott and discuss with him the possibility of a search, when a sound caught his ear. He turned to find Scott leading their horses from the barn, already saddled with gear in place.
“We’d better get started, hadn’t we?” Scott asked, handing a set of reins to his father.
With a knowing smile of understanding, Murdoch accepted the reins and they mounted to follow the trail Johnny had taken that afternoon.
Darkness slowed them but within the hour they found the palomino quietly grazing near a stream.
“Is he hurt?” Murdoch asked, as Scott moved his oil lamp closer and examined the animal.
Scott shook his head, releasing the makeshift hobbles after examining the animal’s legs for signs of injury. “Doesn’t appear to be….” His voice trail off then came back tensely, “Murdoch. Look.” Scott moved the lamp to cast a light on the gunbelt hanging from the saddle horn.
Murdoch dismounted and reached for the gun and holster. “This doesn’t make sense,” he said, fear adding strain to his voice. “Everything’s still here. Why would Johnny leave his horse and his gun?”
“He wouldn’t,” Scott said solemnly. “Not if he had a choice. You and I both know that.” Scott handed his father the lamp and reached behind his saddle for the second lantern he had remembered to tie behind him. Lighting it, he searched the surrounding area for some sign or clue to his brother’s whereabouts.
After several moments, Scott knelt and examined the ground closer. “Murdoch, look.” He pointed toward dark impression in the flickering light. “Another set of tracks. Bigger and heaver than Johnny’s.”
A few more moments of searching showed them the footprints that covered the entire area. Scott followed them as best as he could in the dim lighting, but they quickly gave out less than twenty feet from the palomino’s location.
Frustration eating at him, he returned to the point he had begun as Murdoch stood from his own examination of the area.
“What now?” Scott asked.
“Whoever the tracks belong to must’ve met Johnny here and they left together.” Scott nodded in agreement. “But, it’s obvious Johnny didn’t go along willingly. He wouldn’t have left the horse or his gun here like that.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Now, we wait till morning. We’ll start from here at first light and find out which direction they took.”
Johnny woke slowly to the scent of frying bacon and hot coffee. Normally the smell alone would have been enough to bring him from his bedroll, but this morning the cooked food only made him grateful it had been a while since he had last eaten. As it was, it had been a long, cold, miserable night, and what little sleep he had gotten had been laced with dark dreams and nightmares. He had given up trying to find a comfortable position for his body and had settled instead for the least painful position. Briefly, he could not recall why his entire body hurt and wondered if he could have gotten a hold of bad tequila again. That had happened once or twice in the past and he remembered paying the price with a damnable hangover the following morning. But, memory flooded back with a shocking clarity and he remembered before he could follow the thread of thought.
A sigh escaped dry lips as he shifted and felt ropes dig into his wrists once again. Carefully he eased back to lessen the pull of the ropes. His arms and shoulders had been completely numb until his first slight movement sent stabs of pain up both arms. Johnny gritted his teeth to keep from crying out against the pain.
Once he had a grip on the agony, his thirst made itself known. His mouth felt like cotton and the smell of Boone’s breakfast set his stomach to rolling once again. Fighting down the thirst and nausea, he watched the man through narrowed eyes.
Johnny knew he had lost track of a lot of time and distance yesterday, but he didn’t think they had made much distance from the ranch, and by now, Murdoch and Scott would be wondering why he hadn’t returned. They would be concerned, but would they come searching for him?
When they had defeated Pardee and Johnny had made the decision to stay at the ranch, it had not been uncommon for him to stay out overnight; sometimes on the range or other times in the bunkhouse with the hands. He had lived his entire life on his own, answering to no one but himself. He had not changed that part of his life just because he had found a family. But, since Wes’ death, and Johnny’s return to Lancer, he found himself going out of his way to give notice to Murdoch or Scott if he expected to be away overnight. It surprised him, but he did not feel tied down by the simple courtesy.
On the other hand, Murdoch and Scott continued to go out of their way to give him space and the freedom they believed he needed. They might worry about his delay, but he didn’t expect them to start looking for him until sometime this afternoon.
Johnny sighed with the realization that by the time they caught up, it would most likely be to late. If Boone didn’t kill him, the lack of water while crossing the hard-baked badlands would.
Boone’s lack of urgency was puzzling. He wondered once more about the man’s motives. If he wanted Johnny dead for killing his brother, why didn’t he just shoot him when he had first captured him? Dragging him across open country like this didn’t make any sense.
“Hey, boy,” Johnny’s eyes came open with a start as Boone prodded him with the rifle. He had not realized he had drifted off to sleep during his thoughts. “Get up.”
Before Johnny could fully come to his senses and make his sluggish body obey, Boone reached down with his knife and sliced through the
ropes binding his wrists.
Johnny’s surprise was quickly replaced by pain as the circulation returned to his hands and arms. He gritted his teeth and inhaled sharply. After a few moments, he forced stiff muscles to move and began rubbing at his hands to help restore the feeling as blood returned to numb fingers. He was surprised once more when Boone tossed a canteen to the ground in front of him. Johnny stared at him, suspicion clearly etched on his face.
“Drink,” the man ordered, indicating the container.
For a long moment Johnny hesitated. A lifetime of suspicion had made him cautious and had kept him alive on more than once occasion. After yesterday’s and last night’s denial, why would Boone offer him water now?
Questions ran through his mind at lightening speed, but his overwhelming thirst won out and he struggled with numb hands to get the top off the canteen. He stole one more wary glance at his captor before turning the canteen up and gulping.
The cooling liquid had just begun to cut through the dust coating Johnny’s throat when the canteen was knocked from his hands by a blow from the rifle Boone carried.
Anger, pain and frustration overwhelmed Johnny as he silently watched the last of the water drain from the upended canteen. Slowly he raised his eyes to stare at the man who stood over him, paralyzed with confusion at his actions.
Boone stared at him, daring Johnny to strike back as he reached for his wrists to retie them once more.
As the man turned to reach for a length of rope he had laid aside for that purpose, the contempt Boone flaunted made Johnny’s anger explode and with no warning he clasped his hands together and swung with all the strength he could find into Boone’s face.
The blow caught Boone by surprise and knocked him backwards into the hot ashes of their dying campfire. At the bigger man’s bellow of pain, Johnny forced himself to his feet, intent on escape.
Unfortunately, the previous day’s abuse and the long hours tied to the tree had left his legs too stiff to support him and he collapsed to the ground in a heap. Much to late, he saw the hopelessness of his attempt and realized the jeopardy he has just placed his life. He began frantically to scramble away, desperation giving him the strength his body lacked.
A hand snaked out and caught him by the collar, jerking him back. Johnny curled into a ball, trying in vain to protect himself from Boone’s blind rage.
With the first blow, he felt the unmistakable pain of bone breaking. A rib, maybe two. A second blow to the head brought a graying to the edges of his vision. He could still feel the blows but he no longer had the strength to protect himself. The darkness that finally enveloped him was a welcome relief.
Consciousness returned all too soon, and with it, pain. Johnny’s mind was still fuzzy, but he had no trouble remembering what had happened this time. Boone’s fists made a powerful reminder. Slowly he opened his eyes and scanned what he could see of the camp sight without moving.
Boone was nowhere in sight. His bedroll had already been taken up and across the clearing Johnny could see their lone horse, saddled and waiting. Cautiously he began pushing himself upright, his movements hampered by wrists once more bound and the ache of cracked or broken ribs. He sighed in weariness and fought down anger at his captivity. He didn’t have the time or the energy to waste on useless emotion. Boone’s actions had proven how unpredictable he could be. Whatever was keeping the man from killing him, obviously wasn’t going to keep him from beating Johnny to within an inch of his life.
It occurred to the young gunfighter as he painfully pushed himself to his knees that Boone’s plan was to kill him slowly, to watch him die a little at a time.
Johnny felt a chill creep down his back. That made more sense than anything that had happened since Boone had first captured him. It would explain the teasing bits of water and the unexplained slow pace he allowed; no hurry and not enough water to satisfy a man’s thirst, but a constant forward movement and just enough water to keep him on his feet and going a while longer.
Johnny’s anger boiled at the thought of Boone using him like a kid’s string-tied junebug. He had lived his entire life depending on no one and never allowing himself to be controlled by any man. Even when he first came to the Lancer ranch, he had held to the lessons he learned early on in life. He would be damned if he was going to die at the hands of a vengeance-crazed lunatic now. Not while he had breath in his body. He had to get away.
Johnny took a swift look around and regretted the sudden movement as the pounding in his head increased. He gritted his teeth against the pain and forced himself to his knees, holding his arms against his chest to brace sore ribs. His confidence returned as he started an unsteady shuffle toward the horse. He reached the animal and felt a moment of elation as he began painfully pulling himself into the saddle.
It was a short-lived victory. Johnny felt a vicious grip clamp to his shoulder as he was savagely dragged away from the horse. White-hot pain erupted in his chest and in desperation he struggled with what remained of his strength. But, the abuse he had suffered, coupled with broken ribs, exhaustion and a lack of food and water had taken their toll. He was unable to keep Boone from holding him in place while he placed a rope around his neck. Johnny felt the rough hemp tighten and braced himself, expecting death.
Boone gave the rope a savage jerk. “You got any more fight left in you, boy?” he growled and gave the rope a savage jerk once more. “Huh?” Johnny gritted his teeth against the choking sensation, unable to answer. Boone smiled viciously. “Maybe a little?” The insane man grinned in satisfaction when his captive remained silent. “Maybe not.” The smile turned to a snarl as his eyes narrowed. “Now you get up and get goin’. Else I’ll be draggin’ you.” Boone released his tight hold on the rope as he shoved his captive to the ground.
For long moments Johnny took in great gulps of air while his heart pounded in time to the ache in his head and ribs. He knew he had just come very close to death.
“Now. Get goin’,” Boone ordered as he gathered the trailing end of the rope in his hand and climbed astride his horse.
Johnny sat for a moment more before slowly pushing himself to his feet. A tug on the rope nearly brought him back to his knees as he heard Boone once again. “You keep in mind. Any more tricks like that… and I’ll kill you…here and now,” he breathed.
Fear and rage combined to engulf the young gunfighter. “Go ahead then! Kill me!…..You’re going to anyway.” Johnny’s angry shout through a dry throat trailed away in a horse cough.
Boone sat tall in the saddle glaring down at his captive. “Maybe,” he said, this time without emotion. “Maybe not. We’ll see.” He flicked the rope with a twist of his wrist. “Now move out.”
John Madrid Lancer had heard cold, unfeeling voices in his past. More than one directed at him, but he had yet to hear one as emotionless as Rafe Boone at that moment. Johnny realized that what ever sanity the man had possessed after leaving prison had disappeared during his search for his brother’s imagined murderer.
Johnny knew he was staring into the face of death with no immediate hope of reprieve. By the time Murdoch or Scott began to suspect anything was wrong, he would be dead of thirst or worse and Boone would be long gone. If he was going to get out of this alive, he would have to do it on his own. With slow, painful steps he began walking.
Johnny lost track of time as the heat increased. Whether he had been walking for minutes, hours or days, he didn’t know, and he was rapidly reaching the point where he didn’t care. The rope bit into his neck each time he stumbled and fell, but Boone seemed content to sit quietly on his horse and let his captive continue to pick his own pace.
Johnny tried to keep his mind from focusing on the rope round his neck. Not only was it humiliating to be leashed like a whipped dog, but when he thought on it, he would lose his stride and falter. He silently cursed Boone again as he stumbled on weakening legs. He needed water. Needed it bad.
That stunt Boone had pulled at morning camp and Johnny’s own response, still grated on the ex-gunfighter’s nerves. He hadn’t known what to expect of the man, but he should have been prepared for betrayal. In fact, he thought as he berated himself, he should have known Boone was playing with him from the very first, when he hadn’t shot him on sight.
Johnny caught a backwards glimpse of his captor as he stumbled again. Boone’s actions still did not make sense.
He had mentioned being in Yuma prison. Johnny had heard the stories of Yuma being a hell on earth, even by men who had spent time in
prisoner of war camps. It was said the prisoners were treated less than human in that hell hole, and that the stronger a man was when he entered Yuma, the more the guards worked to break him during his time in prison. It wasn’t uncommon for a man to come out of that place broken or insane.
Boone was a physically big man to begin with, the guards must have had their work cut out for them in trying to break him.
Johnny felt a chill ripple down his spine as the thought came to him that Boone might have wanted revenge for his brother’s death at one time, but that desire had long since turned into retribution for his treatment in prison.
Johnny tensed as he recalled he had not received an answer about their destination. A cold weight settled in his stomach as he accepted the fact that Boone was using his brother’s death as an excuse to inflict the same treatment he had endured in Yuma on someone else, anyone else. The only end he could see was his own death.
Many times in the past, Johnny had come close to dying and just as many times, he had prepared himself for that possibility. The life of a gunfighter was not known for its longevity. He had accepted that fact a long time ago and had lived his life accordingly, trying not to look back with regret.
He had been fairly successful until the day he ended up in front of a Mexican firing squad. He had regretted a lot of things that day, but he ‘had’ been prepared to die. And would have, if not for Murdoch’s Pinkerton man showing up to buy off the rurales and offer him a thousand dollars for listening to the man reported to be his father. That was more money than Johnny had ever seen in his entire life at one time. Money that could get him a new start somewhere. He had taken the fastest trail he could to California.
What a surprise that had been.
His unexpected arrival at the same time as Scott’s in Murro Cuyo made for a tense beginning. And even after first meeting his father and half-brother, Johnny was ready to take the money and leave without ever looking back. He had not seriously considered taking the partnership in the ranch Murdoch offered. The stories he had been told as a child of his father’s abandonment of he and his mother had left him filled with anger and resentment. But after talking with Teresa and finding a few truths out for himself, his anger cooled and he stayed to help Scott and Murdoch defeat Pardee.
When the fighting was done, both he and Scott remained at the ranch.
At first, it had not been difficult to keep himself distanced from them. He told himself he stayed to protect them. The land pirates might have been gone from the valley, but there were still any number of outlaws and cutthroat businessmen out there just waiting to pounce on a ‘helpless old man’ and a ‘greenhorn from Boston’.
Despite the heat and exhaustion he was feeling, a smile crossed his face. That had been his impression of Murdoch and Scott when he first arrived. However, it did not take the two of them long to show him just how wrong he was to assume they were unable to take care of themselves or their land. Murdoch and Scott had shown a toughness that surprised him, especially Scott. Johnny had learned the hard way there was much more to his brother than just fancy clothes and clean fingernails.
When Johnny first came to the ranch, the word ‘family’ had not meant a whole lot to him. It was hard to understand something you never possessed. But he slowly found himself becoming a part of that something. A family. A real family. And that had led him to another problem.
Johnny’s past had been and still was a constant threat to anyone around him. Because of that, he refused to allow himself to become dependent on others or let himself become close to anyone. Each time he felt tempted to let someone inside the walls he had built for himself, he would pack up and be gone before morning light. It made for a lonely existence but he had been doing it his entire life and it always worked out for the best.
He remembered trying to keep his distance from Murdoch, Scott and Teresa, but the strain of constantly keeping his feelings in check and the isolation he tried to maintain wore on him. For the first time he could remember, being alone was not a welcome state. It had been a shock when he realized what was happening, but the feeling was new to him and he didn’t know what he should do. He found himself becoming restless and short-tempered with his newfound family.
That was about the time that an old friend from his past had shown up and, with a little coaxing, had taken a job on the ranch.
Wes’ reminders of their former life had only added to Johnny’s growing confusion and when Murdoch had sided with the renegade Striker family against him over a wild stallion he had captured, things had come to a head for him. He felt betrayed, and in anger left the ranch in an attempt to return to his former life. It was a hotheaded decision on his part and had nearly ended in disaster. His friend, Wes, had been killed and Scott had been wounded, but when the smoke cleared, Murdoch welcomed him home and he finally began to appreciate his family and the chance they offered him.
He still felt the old mistrusts at times, but it was becoming easier to share parts of himself with his family. For the first time in his life he really understood what it meant to have people he could count on, no matter the situation. It just didn’t seem fair that Boone had showed up when things were just starting to work out for him.
Johnny continued with thoughts about his family and his past life until details and events blurred into a foggy, half-remembered existence. Before long, the heat of the day dimmed all coherent thought except the constant necessity to put one foot in front of the other and to keep Boone’s rope from cutting off his air.
A long time later, the suffocating blackness refused to be kept at bay any longer. Unsure whether he was still moving or not, Johnny collapsed to the ground.
A cool breeze softly drifted over his body. He could feel it on his face, down along his back and across his legs. Fresh, and cool, straight from the nearby mountains and still ripe with the crispness of the new-fallen snows from the higher peaks.
He could almost taste the moisture it contained…cool…wet…grainy? The chilly breeze slipped away and was replaced by heat. That didn’t make sense. What had happened to the cooling mountain breeze? Johnny ran a tongue across his lips, searching for remnants of the dampness he had felt moments before. His heart sank as he tasted sand instead of the expected snow. Hot, dry, burning sand. Where had the cool gone?
Johnny forced open his eyes, searching for answers, but was only partially successful as one eye had swollen shut during the course of the day. He was lying on the ground, his hands clutching sand. The coveted coolness he had been imagining was replaced by the harsh reality of the burning malpias.
He groaned with the realization, and could not stop the moan that escaped his lips as memory returned, reminding him of his capture and the man responsible.
Slowly and with a great deal of pain, he pushed himself to a sitting position. Boone sat contentedly beneath a tree, finishing the last bits of a meal of jerky and biscuits. Johnny’s stomach rumbled, but he made no outward sign of acknowledgment.
He brought his hands up to rub at his neck where the rope had abraded the skin, leaving it bleeding and sore. His eyes narrowed in misery, as they followed the length of rope from himself to a coil Boone had formed and lay to his side. Johnny sighed in resignation, bringing a stab of renewed pain from his ribs. The ordeal hadn’t been a nightmare after all.
Johnny heard his captor stir and involuntarily flinched, his body reacting to an ingrained self-defense that in his weakened state, his mind was not quick enough to stop.
Weary beyond endurance, he waited to see what new torment Boone had dreamed up while he had been unconscious.
As the day moved toward noon, Murdoch and Scott had increased their pace and the signs they had been following since morning became increasingly fresh.
Murdoch frowned against the midday glare of the sun as he remembered the blood they had found in the daylight at the spot they had come across the palomino. It hadn’t been much, but it was enough for them to know that someone had been injured. He felt a chill as he acknowledged the injury had most likely been to Johnny.
His fears were not alleviated when they came across a camp sight later in the morning. Once again they found signs of a struggle and the tracks provided stronger indications that Johnny was being held captive.
Murdoch scanned the horizon, praying for some sign of his younger son. Johnny was out there somewhere and he was alive, but Murdoch could not help but wonder how long that would last. Johnny was evidently being forced to walk through the burning summer heat; injured and without adequate protection.
Murdoch ran his finger along the brim of the hat hanging from his saddle horn. Scott had found it that morning in the daylight before they began their search. He had heard stories of men going mad after being out in the sun without a hat for too long. Remembering those stories, he shivered and urged his horse along quicker. They had to find Johnny fast.
By noon, both men knew they were getting close. The signs had become increasingly obvious, but those signs did not hearten either man. Johnny’s pace was increasingly erratic.
A flash of sunlight on metal caught Scott’s attention. He pulled up and stopped his horse, taking the binoculars he carried out of his saddlebag
and scanned the horizon.
After a moment’s search, he handed the field glasses to his father. “Murdoch. Look.” he said pointing to the barely visible dark shape of a horse in the distance to their left.
“Is it them?”
Scott shook his head. “I can’t be sure yet. We need to get closer.”
Murdoch nodded his agreement, handing the glasses back to his son and moving forward cautiously once more.
The two men were within a quarter of a mile before they were close enough to make out the still form of Johnny as he lay in the blazing noon sun with the field glasses.
Murdoch felt his stomach tighten at the sight of his youngest son. It was obvious Johnny was in bad shape. His clothing was ripped to tatters and every inch of him looked to be covered in a thick layer of dust and dirt. What he could see of his son’s face appeared haggard and beyond exhaustion.
When they had worked themselves closer, Scott took the glasses from Murdoch, cursing his brother’s captor as he did. He could see the matted dark hair where dried blood had left a flaking trail down one side of Johnny’s face.
Scott swallowed hard and bit back the curse he felt erupting from within. Johnny looked like he had been through hell. That much was fairly obvious. Without conscious thought he pulled his gun from his holster and fingered the trigger.
Murdoch felt Scott’s arm next to him move as the younger man drew his gun. He had been half preparing himself for this action by his older son and even though he knew he could not let Scott take action yet, he couldn’t help but smile to himself.
His sons had seemed so different from one another when they first arrived. Scott might have led a sheltered life growing up in Boston, but he had distinguished himself during the war. He wasn’t the greenhorn tenderfoot, Murdoch knew Johnny had first thought him to be. On the other hand, Johnny had lived on his own for most of his life and had done his living among some of the roughest border towns in the Southwest. He had earned a reputation and learned to make do with what he had been able to scratch out for himself. And yet, the depth of Scott’s protectiveness toward his brother never ceased to amaze Murdoch.
In the short time they had both been living at the ranch, Scott had quickly assumed his natural role as older brother. From his first impressions of his sons, Murdoch would have sworn Johnny would have told Scott exactly what he could do with his ‘older brother’ attitude the first time he used it on him. But instead, Johnny had allowed the slight bit of coddling. There had been a fair amount of bristling at first, but once the younger man realized the actions were not done in arrogance or maliciousness, Johnny seemed to have accepted his roll of ‘younger brother’ and to Murdoch’s observation, had actually seemed to relish it.
A dark corner of Murdoch’s memory reminded him that having someone worry about him and actually looking for him was something Johnny had never really experienced in his life. Murdoch prayed to God he and Scott got the chance to show him again.
Placing a calming hand on Scott’s arm, Murdoch shook his head. “Not yet,” he said, staring at the scene before them. It was times like this that he wished he still had the eyesight his sons still possessed.
Scott bristled at his father’s stalling action. “Murdoch,” he said, anger hissing through clinched teeth. “Johnny can’t take much more of this.” He nodded his head toward his brother and his captor. “Look at him. He’s barely moving.”
Murdoch felt his breath catch in his throat. He was looking and what he saw made him want to rush forward and strangle the man who was brutalizing his son. But his years of experience held his anger in check. He just had to make Scott understand. “We’re still too far away,” he said. “He could kill Johnny before we got close enough to prevent it.” He finished as his eyes caught and held Scott’s attention. Murdoch remained still until he knew his words had penetrated his son’s desperate desire to help his brother. When he was certain Scott understood, he continued. “See that line of trees just to the left of the clearing?” Scott nodded. “We’ll work our way down there. We’ll be close enough to get the drop on whoever that is before he can do any more harm to Johnny.”
Scott surveyed the layout and mulled over Murdoch’s suggestion, then nodded again, reluctantly agreeing with the plan. “Okay,” he said as both men began their advancement.
Rafe Boone sat quietly beneath the shade of a juniper tree watching his captive slowly regain consciousness.
A stab of anger toward the man before him made his anger boil once more. This was the man that had killed his brother. Rafe had been searching for him for over two years and now that he had him in his grasp, the satisfaction of ending his search was slipping from his hands.
How many nights had he lain awake and ended Johnny Madrid’s life in his mind? How many imaginary beatings had he inflicted on the man in retaliation for a beating he, himself, had suffered at the hands of the guards in Yuma? Sometimes the reason for tracking this man down blurred in his memory.
When word came to him in prison that Tom had been shot, he’d barely been able to react to the news. He had already been in that stinking hell hole of a prison for a year and he still had a year to go.
Everything he had ever heard about Yuma had proven itself true in the treatment he received daily. The guards were given free reign over the prison yard and the men within.
The warden spent most of his time in Phoenix attending to ‘details’, as he like to call them. Everyone knew those ‘details’ involved the biggest saloon in the capitol city and a woman named Lily. The guards talked among themselves and continually ignored the fact that the prisoners under their charge were human.
Rafe had never been particularly close to Tom, but he was blood kin. News of his death had provided Boone with something to occupy his mind other than the pain of his torment by the prison guards. Every long miserable night when he had been to tired to sleep became a time for him to work out in his mind just how many different ways he could make Madrid pay for killing his brother.
Several months after the news had arrived, a newspaper began circulating in the prison. Reading material of any kind was a prize to the men in captivity. The paper was slowly traded among the prisoners until it had wound up in Boone’s hands.
Rafe had never made it to school. His ma had taught he and Tom the basics of their sums and letters before she had died, but neither brother had been very good at them. So, when the paper came into his possession, its main worth had been what he could trade for it. Boone had made no attempt to read it until a name caught his eye in dark letters on the back page.
He remembered spotting the name, then taking the paper and sitting down to slowly work his way through the fading type.
The story told how gunfighter Johnny Madrid had been wounded coming out of a saloon in El Paso. The story went on to say that the famed gunfighter had been leaving the saloon for the evening when he was attacked from behind, but had managed to kill his attacker before passing out in the street. The final lines in the small paragraph stated that Madrid had caught Tom Boone cheating at poker earlier in the evening and had forced the man to leave the saloon at gunpoint. Tom Boone had obviously waited for and attacked Madrid in retaliation.
The words had meant little to Rafe at that time, but later he had directed his hatred toward the gunfighter to keep himself going as he endured his treatment at the hands of the savage prison guards. At the end of his sentence, that hatred had been enough to keep him searching for the elusive gunfighter with dogged determination.
Boone shook himself from his memories and watched his young captive stir as consciousness returned.
Madrid couldn’t have been much more than twenty now. He had to have been a boy at the time Tom had tried to kill him.
*NO!* He shouted to himself in anger. *Tom didn’t try to kill him. Madrid killed Tom.* Boone felt his breath quicken in his chest and his heart pound at a furious rate. *Madrid had killed Tom. Madrid had killed Tom. Madrid had killed…* He repeated the conviction with anger as he climbed to his feet and shoved the last of a cold biscuit into his mouth. He had wasted enough time. As much as he’d like to draw out the gunhawk’s torture, it was time to put an end to this thing. He had watched Madrid and his people long enough before nabbing him to know it would not be long before they realized something was wrong and would begin searching for him. Boone had enjoyed his revenge, but time was running out. He briefly touched the faded scrap of paper in his pocket that had been torn from the newspaper years ago telling of his brother’s death. He intended to leave the paper on Madrid’s body. He wanted Madrid’s family to know why he had died and for what reason.
Johnny was nearly beyond feeling by the time Boone came at him. The hulking man stood over him, purposely straightening his frame to his full height before kneeling beside the spent younger man.
Eyes that refused to focus peered up at his tormentor before slowly closing once more. Johnny felt a rough hand on his shoulder shake him.
“Wake up, boy!”
The words vaguely reached through the fog in his mind, sounding like the final waves of an echo. Painfully, he forced his eyes open once more. “Go ‘way,” he said sluggishly through a rasping dry throat before turning away from Boone and willing himself back into the comforting dark oblivion.
“Not so fast, boy.” Boone shook him hard once more. Johnny felt drops of water dribbling into his face. “Come on. Wake up.” The larger man continued to let the droplets of water fall until Johnny began moving.
Despite his attempts to remain in the comforting blackness, the young gunfighter slowly regained consciousness. Memories of spring rain drew him further and further from his dark retreat.
Before he was aware of what was happening, he felt his body drawn upward of it’s own will, seeking the cooling liquid.
Through bleary eyes he saw Boone smile cruelly, pleased with the reaction. “You like that, don’t you?”
Johnny stilled at the words and the note of satisfaction he heard in the voice that seemed to constantly plague his nightmares. Feeling shame at his body’s betraying reflex, he sagged into a boneless heap.
The knowledge that Boone was real and that his presence was not a fevered dream was more than he felt capable of dealing with at the moment. His eyes were closing when Boone’s hands pulled at him once more for attention.
“Not so fast.” the man ordered, lowering a canteen to his lips. “Here, boy. Have a drink.”
Slowly, Johnny opened his eyes. The temptation for a drink was overwhelming but he hesitated, remembering Boone’s actions from their morning camp. But after long moments, his thirst overrode his caution and he accepted the offer.
The water was just beginning to cool the burning fire in his throat when it was jerked away with a violent motion and it’s contents sent spiraling into the dust.
The vindictiveness of the torments and abuse he had endured since his capture by Boone exploded in a flash of anger. Without thinking, Johnny clasped his bound hands together and swung with every ounce of strength that remained in his body into Boone’s chin, then painfully climbed to his feet and ran without looking back.
Scott and Murdoch Lancer had been working their way as close to the campsite as possible, taking extra care to keep their presence unknown. They had just reached a line of trees that would put them at the edge of the noon camp when Johnny had erupted into a frenzy of escape.
Scott watched as Boone’s large frame was thrown backwards from Johnny’s unexpected attack. He heard a sickening loud crack as the man’s head hit a half-buried rock but the sound registered only slightly in his perception as he concentrated on following his brother. He heard Murdoch stop behind him to kneel at the man’s side, but continued after Johnny into the heavy brush.
Murdoch paused beside the man he had witness tormenting his son, quieting the anger he felt as he searched the bearded face. As he tried to locate something familiar in the features, he wondered what reason this man had to kidnap and brutalize his son? Murdoch sighed and shook his head. Although he didn’t recognize him, it wouldn’t be the first time an old enemy from Johnny’s past had appeared to dredge up an old vendetta.
Through the brush Murdoch could hear Scott’s voice carry back to him as he called to Johnny. Murdoch looked once more into the face of the stranger on the ground and the odd angle of his head. A cold lump formed in his stomach as he placed a hand on the stranger’s chest, searching for a heartbeat. The man wasn’t breathing. Shaking his head, he stood to retrieve a blanket from his saddle. Whatever the man’s motives were, he would not be a further danger to his son.
Scott pushed on through the underbrush, easily following the trail left by his brother. Johnny’s movements were far from his usual cat-like stealth and Scott was having no problem trailing him. From what he and Murdoch had witnessed, Scott suspected Johnny was near the end of his endurance and it should not be difficult to catch up with the younger man.
Bursting through the last of a thicket, Scott saw Johnny lying face down on the ground. His brother’s strength had finally played out and he had collapsed at the edge of a clearing. Scott breathed a sigh of relief as he knelt beside him.
At his touch, Johnny began struggling, fighting memories of his kidnapper. “No!” he shouted in a hoarse voice as he managed to roll to his back and blindly throw a punch.
Scott grabbed for his wrists, easily warding off blows from the desperate hands. He remembered a fistfight with his brother shortly after their first meeting and how painful it had been. Even though he knew Johnny was weak and the struggle was from delirium, Scott had no desire to feel the blows again. “Johnny! Johnny, listen to me. It’s Scott.” The struggling continued undiminished. “Johnny! Come on. Take it easy. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Scott felt a lessening in the tense muscles of his brother’s arms as he continued. “That’s it. Relax. It’s only me.” He waited for the information to filter through to Johnny’s weary mind and was rewarded a few moments later when he felt his brother relax even further.
“S…Scott?” he called weakly.
Scott couldn’t recall ever hearing Johnny’s voice sound so fragile. “Yeah, brother. It’s me.”
With a burst of unexpected strength, Johnny shook himself free of Scott’s hold and placed his hands on his brother’s arms. “Scott,” he whispered, his eyes searching the surrounding area in fear. “B…Boone,…”
Scott was shocked at the desperation he heard in the younger man’s voice. From the first moment they had met, his brother had shown a fearless strength that Scott had admired and envied. Johnny had always been confident in himself and in his abilities with a gun. He was not arrogant, but he knew few men could match his speed. Scott could not recall a time he had ever seen his brother intimidated by any one. He might be respectful of another’s ability, but never intimidated.
The fear he now heard in Johnny’s voice was completely out of character. Whatever this man, Boone, had done to him, it had come very close to destroying his brother.
“Shhh… It’s okay, Johnny. He’s not here.”
Johnny continued to hold on to Scott’s arms a moment longer, his eyes still frantically searching in fear. After long seconds and a final pleading look to his brother, Johnny’s grip loosened and he slumped forward into Scott’s chest, muttering incoherently until unconsciousness claimed him.
Scott caught his body, turning him to lie on his back as he fell. After reassuring himself that Johnny had simply lost consciousness, he quickly checked over the obvious injuries. Cuts and bruises covered his brother’s face and Scott could see bruises ranging down his chest through the remnants of the shirt he wore. A quick touch to brush sweat and dirt away from his forehead revealed a large lump that had been concealed by dark, blood-matted hair. He silently cursed Johnny’s kidnapper once more before moving down to carefully examined the bruises on his brother’s chest. He shook his head in worry and frowned as his fingers detected two, possibly three broken ribs. A worried sigh escaped him. The injuries he could see were bad enough, but he could not tell if Johnny was hurt inside as well.
A chill ran down Scott’s back as he remembered an incident during the war when his unit had helped liberate a small confederate prison along the banks of the Shenandoah River. One of the prisoners, a kid not more than nineteen year old, had been brutally beaten by his guards prior to the army’s arrival. The young private had insisted he was not hurt bad, but an hour after Scott had spoken to him the kid was dead. The doctor that had arrived later told Scott the beating the kid had received had ruptured his insides and he had bled to death. It hadn’t made much sense at the time to Scott because although the kid’s face was cut and bleeding, he hadn’t lost much blood. It wasn’t until later that Scott had talked to the regimental doctor and learned that the bleeding had occurred inside and had been just as deadly as a bleeding gunshot wound. Scott prayed Johnny didn’t suffer the same fate.
And his concerns were not limited to his brother’s visible injuries. He felt the heat radiating from Johnny’s body and wished he had thought to bring a canteen along. Johnny had obviously been without sufficient water for to long and Scott needed to cool down the raging heat within his body. He prayed the heat he felt was from the exposure to the sun and not from a building fever. In Johnny’s present condition, Scott didn’t think he would be strong enough to fight a fever.
Scott looked around the small clearing then back in the direction they had come, trying to decide the best course of action. Thoughts of Johnny’s captor sent a chill through him despite the heat of the day. He hoped Murdoch was able to tie the man up before he regained his senses.
As if in answer to his thoughts, he heard the breaking of underbrush as his father appeared. Scott’s eyes narrowed and he raised an eyebrow in question when Murdoch appeared alone. Where was Johnny’s attacker?
The older man shook his head at Scott’s unspoken question. “He’s dead,” he told him softly as he knelt beside his sons and handed over the canteen of water he carried. “What about Johnny?” The tall man placed a hand gently on Johnny’s shoulder and brushed dark hair from his youngest son’s forehead. “How is he?”
Scott sighed as he wet the bandanna he had pulled from his back pocket and began cleaning dirt and blood from his brother’s face. “Hard to tell. He passed out before I caught up to him.”
“Can he be moved?”
“If we’re careful. He’s got a couple of broken ribs.” Scott looked up from his task, nodding in the direction Murdoch had just appeared. “Johnny called him Boone. Did he say anything?”
Murdoch looked silently to Johnny’s unconscious form. “No,” he sighed. “He hit a rock when he fell. Must have broken his neck.”
Scott sighed as he paused in his ministrations. He had mixed feelings about the man being dead. They would not have to worry about the bastard hurting Johnny further, but he would have preferred the man answer to a judge and jury. Scott looked at his brother’s lax face. Knowing his brother, now that Boone was dead, they would probably never get all the details of what had happened during Johnny’s captivity. Scott shook his head in regret and continued his efforts to cool his brother.
Throughout the rest of the afternoon Scott and Murdoch took turns sitting beside Johnny, constantly bathing his face and chest with cool water. During the brief periods he was conscious, they were able to coax small amounts of water into him, but not nearly enough to either of their satisfaction.
Gradually, the heat Scott had felt radiating from his brother’s body lessened and as evening approached, Johnny finally began to rest peacefully.
They set up camp where Johnny had fallen, not wanting to move him and preferring to keep Boone’s body out of his sight when he regained consciousness.
As darkness settled on the area and Murdoch cleaned the rabbits he had snared, Johnny began to show signs of coming around. Scott edge closer to him and began calling to him.
Out of the comforting darkness, sensations returned to Johnny. Aches and pains from various parts of his body awakened and made themselves known, most specifically in his head and his chest.
Scott’s voice pulled at him and Johnny could hear the worry in that voice. He didn’t quite understand why that bothered him, but he knew that not very long ago he wouldn’t have cared much what a fancy dan from Boston thought or felt. He slowly forced himself out of the comforting darkness.
“Johnny?” Scott called once more. To his immense relief he saw movement behind his brother’s eyelids. “Can you hear me, brother?” A smile crossed Scott’s handsome face as Johnny slowly opened his eyes.
Scott smiled and felt Murdoch move to stand behind him. “That’s better,” he said softly as he waited for Johnny to orient himself.
“Yeah, brother. It’s me. Murdoch’s here too,” he said, easing aside slightly for his father. “How are you feeling?”
Johnny’s eyes briefly narrowed in confusion, not quiet focusing yet, but as Scott watched he could visibly see memory return to his brother. In a panic, Johnny tried to push himself up only to be slammed back to the ground by sharp stabbing pain.
As he grasped his chest and turned to his side, Scott gently gripped his shoulders. “Easy,” he soothed, easing him back. Johnny groaned softly and tried to turn to his side as his face contorted with the pain. “Johnny.” Scott scolded. “Lie still. Don’t move.” His words went unheeded.
“No!” Johnny’s dry rasp was emphatic as he tried to see past his brother in panic. “Wh… where is he? Wh… where’s B…Boone?”
“Easy Johnny.” Scott told him, trying to coax him into relaxing as Murdoch reached for the canteen once more. “It’s okay. He’s not going to bother anyone.”
“You d…don’t understand, Scott. He…he’s…” Once more the weakened younger man tried to rise.
“Johnny. It’s okay. He’s not going to hurt you.” Scott had gripped his brother’s shoulders again in an effort to keep him from harming himself further. He hated to use force, but Johnny was not thinking rationally at the moment and Scott knew they had to prevent one of his busted ribs from puncturing a lung.
Losing and regaining consciousness had disoriented the young gunfighter to the point of panic. Scott knew that if Johnny’s normally lightening-fast reflexes had been up to par and they had tried to restrain his brother, the least they would have wound up with was a fist to their face. He was more than a little grateful to feel Johnny relax slightly.
“Wh… where is he, Scott?”
Scott was relieved to hear a measure of reason return to Johnny’s voice. He hesitated in answering, trying to judge if his brother was physically strong enough to handle the news of Boone’s death. One look into the intense blue eyes gave him the answer. He nodded in the direction they had left the body. “He’s through there, Johnny. He’s dead.”
Johnny paused and blinked. “Dead?” He frowned and rubbed at his forehead as he concentrated on sifting though fuzzy memories. “Did you…?” The question trailed out unasked as his eyes sought out Scott and Murdoch.
Scott shook his head slowly. “No.”
Slowly Johnny raised anguish filled eyes to his father and brother. “Did I…?” Again he left the question unasked. Scott didn’t have to answer. The look on his face let Johnny know.
The younger man’s shoulders slumped in exhaustion. Scott saw the remorse settle around Johnny as if he had wrapped a heavy woolen coat around himself. Scott also knew he had to do something to ease his brother’s guilt.
“Johnny.” He waited for a response. “Johnny. Look at me,” he instructed.
After long, silent moments, haunted blue eyes lifted to watch him. Scott felt a protectiveness sear through his soul. “You remember what I said, don’t you?” He paused. “What we talked about?” He waited patiently for acknowledgment. “Johnny?”
Slowly the younger man nodded, looking away and wincing as the movement sent waves of pain rolling through his pounding head. “I re…remember, Scott. But…”
Scott held up one finger to silence his brother. “No buts, Johnny. This was not your fault.” Scott saw Johnny close his eyes in anguish and felt sadness overwhelm him.
“But it was, Scott,” he said in a low soft voice.
“How?” the blond man questioned, hoping to gain a little information before Johnny clammed up and kept the answers they were looking for to himself.
Johnny paused again, as if to gather his thoughts. “I killed his brother,” he said finally, not looking up. “More’n two years ago down in El Paso.”
Scott struggled to control the heartache he felt welling up inside while he wondered how many times his brother’s past was going to return to haunt him. “In a gunfight?” he asked without accusation.
Johnny’s eyes still did not meet him. “Not exactly.” He hesitated. “I was…coming out of a…saloon.” He paused again and swallowed hard. “Someone fired from the shadows,” his voice gathered strength, but lowered as the memory replayed in his mind. “I felt…the bullet hit hard and turned to face him. He…he was about to fire again, but I got off a quick shot. Didn’t have time to aim or I’d have only wounded him. Marshall said he was dead before he hit the ground. I didn’t even know who he was til later.” Scott tightened the grip he held on Johnny’s shoulder, at a loss for words but feeling his brother needed the stability in order to be reminded that he was no longer alone to face his demons.
“Johnny. I…” Something his brother said caught in his mind and he frowned. ~Turned to face him?~ “Johnny? You said you turned to face him?”
The younger man nodded. “That’s why my aim was off.”
“Did he shoot you from behind?”
Slowly Johnny nodded and closed his eyes in memory. “Yeah. I didn’t hear him until it was too late.”
“He shot you in the back?” Scott flashed a look to his father as he tried to control his surprise at how much he still did not know about his brother.
Johnny nodded briefly as his voice wound down and exhaustion pulled him toward sleep. “Sh…should’a waited…”
Scott shook his head as Murdoch knelt on the opposite side of Johnny and pulled the coarse blanket up to his shoulders. “You didn’t know?” the elder Lancer asked.
Scott raised an eyebrow and shot an accusing, narrow-eyed look to his father. “You did?”
Murdoch nodded and ran a large calloused hand across his youngest son’s forehead, reassuring himself the fever was not returning. “It was in the final report I received from the Pinkertons.”
Murdoch paused, debating whether or not to reveal details of a life that Johnny was reluctant to discuss. Remembering something Scott had said to his brother a few moments ago, he made his decision. “Like he said, it happened a little over two years ago. Johnny caught Tom Boone cheating at cards and forced him to leave the game at gunpoint. When Johnny left later that night, Boone was waiting in the shadows and shot him in the back.”
“Was the wound bad?”
Slowly Murdoch nodded. “Bad enough. Johnny had just begun to recover when he got involved with a bunch of farmers against a high-powered don outside of Rio Blanco. That was how the rurales captured him. He hadn’t fully recovered and let his guard down.” Murdoch sat back as he watched the face of his sleeping son and once more sent up a silent prayer to God for the timely arrival of the Pinkerton man at the sight of the firing squad. From the corner of his eye he saw Scott shake his head in wonder. “It wasn’t the first time he had been wounded, Scott.”
“I don’t doubt that, Murdoch. It’s just…” he paused in frustration. “ Sometimes I feel… I don’t know.” He searched for the right words. “There’s so much about him we don’t know. And trying to get information out of him is like pulling teeth.” Scott’s voice was filled with anguish.
A faint smile crossed Murdoch’s lips as he gently brushed the hair from Johnny’s forehead once more. He didn’t miss the fact that the gesture was one he never would have attempted if Johnny were conscious. “I know.” He nodded. “He’s spent his entire life depending on no one and he’s uncomfortable talking about himself.”
Scott watched his brother sleep for a moment feeling worry creep in once more. “He can’t go on alone forever.” He shook his head. “I thought we had this worked out when he came back after Wes’ death.”
Murdoch smiled faintly. “We did, to an extent. And he’s trying, Scott.”
“I don’t know.” Scott’s voice was filled with doubt.
“He is,” the older man insisted with another smile.
Something in his father’s voice caught his attention. “What makes you think so?”
Murdoch smiled as he looked from one son to the other. “Something you said a few moments ago.” Scott cocked his head trying to remember what had been said. “You asked Johnny if he remembered what you had talked about.”
Scott remembered and a smile crossed his lips. Although he didn’t know a lot about Johnny’s life, he did know what Johnny had been prior to coming to Lancer. The two of them had talked about it a time or two. Johnny had told him the circumstances that had led him to becoming a gunfighter and he had talked about the regrets he dealt with daily. Johnny hadn’t said as much, but Scott had been able to read between the lines of what his brother hadn’t said. He knew the younger man lived with regrets for the life he had been thrust into and the decisions he had made in his early years. It had come as something of a revelation to him to learn that his world-wise, hard-living, younger brother desperately wanted peace from the ghosted memories of men he had killed. Finally he smiled. “I guess you’re right, Murdoch. He’s trying.”
“Yes. He is,” Murdoch smiled, clapping his blond-haired son on the back. “Now. How about we get some rest and get ready to take him home.”
Scott nodded, but continued to watch his brother sleep. “In a minute,” he said as he bent and straightened the blanket covering the still form a bit more. “I want to make sure he’s resting easy before I turn in.”
Murdoch nodded as he crawled into his own bedroll and watched Scott fussing over Johnny. He could not help but marvel over the closeness the two brothers shared. Scott was right that Johnny didn’t talk about his past much. Most of what Murdoch knew had been provided by the Pinkerton Agency, but he felt a measure of relief that at least Johnny was comfortable enough with Scott that he could talk to him.
Although he had never ceased his search for Johnny, Murdoch had not known what to expect when he finally had both sons at his side or how they would react to each other. The situation had worked out much better than he had ever dared to hope and he had been rewarded many times over. As he settled into his blanket, he sent up a thankful prayer. For all their differences, his sons continued to stand together.
The following morning, Johnny insisted he felt well enough to begin the journey home. However, after a breakfast he barely touched, he fell asleep as Scott and Murdoch prepared to break camp.
When he awoke later, long years of habit had him checking out the camp in confusion and disorientation. A glance at the sun’s position told him he had been asleep several hours. Memory of the past two days returned to him. Damn Boone anyway.
Murdoch was huddled over a campfire, stirring a pot of what smelled like stew. Johnny’s stomach rumbled loudly as he attempted to push himself to a sitting position. He could not help the groan that escaped as a sharp stab of pain seared through his chest and took his breath away.
“Johnny?” Murdoch was instantly by his side, easing him back to the bedroll. “Take it easy, son.”
With a soft hiss, the younger man gritted his teeth until the pain subsided.
“Better?” Murdoch asked him when he had regained his breath.
After a few moments Johnny swallowed hard, then nodded. “Yeah. I think so.” His voice was soft as he looked around the area. “I guess…I guess I fell asleep.”
Murdoch grinned at the sheepish note he heard in the voice. “Yeah. I guess you did.” Johnny began pushing himself up again. “No! Not yet.” The older man cautioned and pushed him back once more.
Johnny’s aversion to being coddled sent a flash of anger coursing through him, but he managed to hold his tongue. He knew Murdoch meant well, but he had never been real good at obeying orders. Another testament to why he had not stayed in the Mexican army. He bit down his temper. “Okay, Murdoch. I’ll behave,” he told his father with a weak half-smile.
Murdoch’s worry eased slightly at his son’s words. “How are you feeling?”
Johnny shifted his shoulders. “I’m fine,” he said as he raised his head enough to look around the campsite. “Where’s Scott?”
Murdoch shook his head at the evasive answer and deflective question. He had known evasion would be Johnny’s response regardless of how he truly felt. Neither of his sons were much for admitting to a weakness. He only hoped Johnny would be able to put his ordeal with the man he had called ‘Boone’ behind him as easy. “He’ll be back soon.” Murdoch knew his vague answer would not be sufficient. The look Johnny sent him confirmed his thoughts.
“Where is he?”
Murdoch studied his youngest son briefly before answering. “He’s burying Boone,” he said finally.
Johnny became still, then silently nodded and closed his eyes without further word. It was not long before Murdoch heard deep rhythmic breathing as his son drifted back to sleep.
Murdoch didn’t know what he had expected Johnny’s feeling to be regarding the dead man. In many ways the young ex-gunfighter remained a mystery to all of them. Johnny shared very little of his past life with his family and Murdoch knew the small amount he did share was not the darker, harsh side of his past.
Johnny might not have been very forthcoming with details of his past, but that did not mean Murdoch did not know. As he had mentioned to Scott, one of the last reports he had received from the Pinkerton Agency after Johnny’s rescue from the Mexican firing squad had chronicled his son’s background. Murdoch still cringed each time he thought of how close he had come to losing the young man forever on that day.
Johnny’s life had not been easy and Murdoch would hold that against Maria forever. Whether she had truly loved the man she had left with or simply hated Murdoch and wanted to hurt him in the worst possible way, she had no right taking Johnny from the ranch.
He shook off the morbid thoughts. What was past, was past. He could not change that fact and his feelings of anger at his wife would not help Johnny now. He needed to concentrate on what lay ahead and what he and Scott would need to do to help Johnny get past the treatment he had received from Boone.
A proper report would have to be made to the sheriff in Spanish Wells, but all three knew it would not be possible to carry the body back to town. Any questions the law might have regarding the man’s death would be answered in full.
For now, Murdoch would content himself with knowing his son was alive.
When Johnny woke a short time later, Murdoch was relieved to see him hungry and making an effort to move around. His movements were slow as he braced a protective arm across his ribs, but Murdoch knew he would be doing that for several more weeks.
With a word of caution from his sons to be careful, Murdoch had taken his rifle and left the camp in search of game for an evening meal.
He found sign of a faint track leading to a small spring and settled in to see what he might be able to choose for their supper, but while he was waiting his mind kept going back to his son.
He could tell Johnny was feeling a little better physically. What concerned Murdoch more was Johnny’s quieter than usual demeanor. The family was used to his quiet intensity. The things he had done as Johnny Madrid to survive had left him with a wild side he constantly worked to control and keep away from his family. There were many aspects of Johnny’s past Murdoch knew the young man kept hidden.
Johnny had never made a secret of the fact that he had been a gunfighter when he arrived at the ranch. He had offered no excuses, nor had he attempted to hide his profession. In fact, it had been necessary for him to revert to his former life on several occasions since he first came to Lancer. And when Murdoch let himself admit to the fact, he knew a gunfighter was what he had needed when he had arranged for Scott to come from Boston and for the Pinkertons to step up their efforts in finding Johnny. It might have been fate that led both his sons to arrive at the same time, but it had been his arrangements that set the meeting in motion. He had needed help to rid the valley of Pardee and he thanked God every day that help had been from his blood sons, but he couldn’t help but wonder if the price had not been too high for Johnny.
After Pardee’s defeat, Johnny had given up the life of a gunfighter to try his hand at ranching. There was no denying the transition had been tough on his youngest son, but to Johnny’s credit and with the exception of his time with Wes Gammon, he had stuck to the ranch with dogged determination. Unfortunately, it seemed that each time Johnny let his guard down and began to relax, someone or something from his old life appeared to remind him of his past. Murdoch was afraid that one of these times Johnny would quit fighting and return to his former life. He prayed this was not the final straw for Johnny.
The rustle of leaves nearby brought Murdoch back to the present and the task at hand.
Scott watched his brother from across the campsite. After eating then sleeping a short time more, Johnny had gotten up and began to move around the area. First to check on Barranca, then seemingly directionless as he stretched his legs. He had remained awake, but as the afternoon wore on it was easy to see he was beginning to wind down once more.
When Scott had returned from the task of burying Boone, Murdoch told him of Johnny’s questions regarding his whereabouts and his brother’s quiet acceptance of the man’s burial. When Johnny had awakened, he had not mentioned Boone, but had stated he was ready to head back to the ranch as soon as possible. Scott and Murdoch had exchanged quick looks.
The two of them had discussed the situation the previous night and both agreed to let Johnny rest and recover for at least a day before attempting to return to the ranch. When they told him of their decision Johnny had argued that he was feeling fine and did not want to hold them up.
Scott felt a smile creep across his face as he remembered Johnny’s contention that he was able to begin the journey right away, but his next breath had been labored as pain from his ribs flared. They had helped him back to the bedroll and assured him that if he did not feel better by morning, they would hold up and wait until a wagon could be sent for from the ranch. Not a threat, Scott told him. A promise. Johnny’s eyes had narrowed and his stubborn nature had reared, but Scott had held his ground. He had been on the verge of keeping that promise, when Johnny had backed down. At that point, Scott had been torn by the small victory. He had won, but Johnny’s easy surrender attested to his weakened condition. Scott had seen him visibly grit his teeth against further argument.
Shortly thereafter, he had begun his periodic forays to strengthen his sore body. Scott didn’t miss the fact that Johnny’s wandering did not included Boone’s burial site.
On the latest of those rounds, Johnny stopped at the path that lead back to Boone’s grave. For long moments he stood silently, completely still and unmoving.
“Johnny.” Scott finally called softly to him. “Talk to me.”
Scott saw his shoulders tense. “About what, Scott?” he said softly, without turning.
Scott felt a flare of frustration and anger that he could not keep from his voice. “I thought we were past this.”
Scott heard the tightly controlled voice and saw the same shoulders that a few moments ago were filled with tension, slump. Johnny’s voice was low, almost inaudible. “I thought we were past a lot things, brother.”
The remorse Scott heard in Johnny’s voice tore at his heart. He quickly climbed to his feet and went to stand behind the younger man. “Johnny,” he said softly, placing a hand on the tired shoulders. “His death isn’t your fault.”
Johnny made a half turn toward him and Scott saw anger in the intense blue eyes. “How can you say that? I told you I was the one that killed his brother.”
Scott took a deep breath, hoping he was not about to make a mistake in admitting to knowledge he had gain by Murdoch’s Pinkerton report. He was not sure if Johnny was aware of the report Murdoch held on him. “I also know what you didn’t tell me.” He waited and mentally held his breath at Johnny turned fully to him and waited. “Boone’s brother shot you in the back coming out of that saloon, didn’t he?”
Johnny flinched. “Who told you that?”
Scott ignored the question. Evidently Johnny had forgotten his admission the day before. “Is it true or not?”
Johnny sighed then pushed past Scott and returned to the campfire and his bedroll. “Yeah. It’s true,” he admitted softly.
Scott followed him. “Then why are you blaming yourself? From what I understand that man nearly killed you. You were barely able to defend yourself.”
Johnny was silent for a long time. Scott could see the conflicting emotions in his brother’s face. “He’s not the first man I’ve killed, Scott. You know that.”
“Yes. I know that.”
“I’ve always known it would only be a matter of time before things caught up with me and I’d have to answer for what I’ve done. I learned a long time ago there’s always a price to pay.” Johnny paused, deep in reflection. “That things’ll always come back, no matter what you do.”
Johnny was silent for a long time and Scott let the silence ride between them. He knew he had to take quick action or Johnny’s guilt was going to eat him up inside. Or worse. His brother might decide to leave again and this time, Scott feared it would be permanent. “So what’s the answer, brother.” He paused briefly, before coming to the decision that being brutal might be his best option. “What happens now?” Scott held his breath as he waited.
Unless he could convince Johnny that he belonged on the ranch, Scott felt certain the young man was destined to a very short, bloody life.
It was true that Johnny had given up the dangerous lifestyle only a short time ago, but Scott felt certain he had already lost his taste for that way of life. The guilt he carried would get him killed in the first gunfight he became involved. Whether he would admit it or not, he no longer had the desire to be a gunfighter.
“I just want to go home, Scott.” Johnny finally said softly and hung his head. “I’m tired and I want to go home.”
The note of longing Scott heard in Johnny’s voice tugged at his heart. It was the first time he remembered hearing his brother refer to the ranch as ‘home’. Always before it had been ‘the ranch’ or ‘Lancer’ or ‘this place’.
Scott realized that Johnny had made his decision, but he was uncertain whether or not he could hold to that choice. There was always going to be the possibility that someone from his past could show up and threaten their lives, but as long as staying was Johnny’s choice, Scott knew they would win. It might not come easy at times, but Scott reminded himself, that nothing worthwhile was ever easy.
Johnny was ready to grow some roots and he had chosen Lancer and the family as the beginning of those roots.
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