Primal Instincts by Winj

Word count 14,230


Murdoch and Scott Lancer rode into the yard chatting idly about this and that. Before his feet were securely on the ground, Murdoch heard Jelly calling out to him. He groaned inwardly, knowing Jelly’s ‘bad news’ tone. Still, he plastered a smile on his face and turned to greet the shorter man.


“Boss, you just ain’t gonna believe it, that’s all,” Jelly started right in.

“What won’t I believe, Jelly?” Murdoch asked.

“Johnny, that’s what. I just come from the barn. Julio said Johnny come home about ten minutes ago, handed Barranca off without a word and walked inta the house.”

Scott and Murdoch looked at each other and shrugged.

“So?” Scott asked.

“So? So, that horse was a mess. He was filthy and plumb wore out. Julio said Johnny didn’t look much better ‘cept he kept his head down so Julio couldn’t get a good look. But he said Johnny was filthy and walkin funny.”

“Walking funny, how?” Scott asked, more concerned now.

“Kind a staggering like he was drunk or somethin, Julio said,” the bearded one explained.

“Well, that is unusual. We’ll see what the problem is, Jelly,” Murdoch said, patting the man’s arm.


Both men walked through the living room to the kitchen but could find no sign of the younger Lancer.

“Maybe he’s upstairs,” Scott shrugged.

They knocked on the bedroom door and received no answer. Murdoch was getting a little aggravated by this time. He opened the door to find Johnny lying prone on the bed, fully dressed. Giving Scott a sidelong look, he sighed and approached his son.

“Johnny,” Murdoch called. He got no response. Reaching out, he shook his son’s shoulder and called more loudly. Still no response.

Becoming concerned, Scott leaned onto the bed on his knee and pulled his brother over. Johnny flopped onto his back like a limp dishrag. Scott actually gasped aloud when he got a good look.

Johnny was filthy, beaten and bloody. Scott shook his shoulders but he would not awaken.

“I’ll send for Sam and get some supplies,” Murdoch said distantly. He was unable to take his eyes off his younger son for a moment.

When he returned with hot water, towels and medical supplies, Scott was still trying to rouse his brother. They went about cleaning him and undressing him. The more skin they revealed, the more cuts and bruises they discovered. There were no serious wounds visible but he had definitely been in some sort of fight.

“Dear Lord, what happened to him?” Murdoch whispered.

“Look at this, sir,” Scott said as he pulled away. The purple and black bruise on Johnny’s left side ran from just under his arm to his waist.

“What the devil?” Murdoch hissed. “What could cause that?”

“There are a lot of abrasions, too. Dragging maybe?” Scott suggested.

“Maybe. He does have a knot on the back of his head. I don’t think I even want to take his pants off,” Murdoch shook his head.

“We have to, sir,” Scott pointed out and went about the task. He unbuttoned the conchos along the sides to make things easier. Johnny’s legs were no better off than the rest of him and his knees were badly scraped and bruised.

“It looks like he was crawling,” Murdoch surmised.

Throughout it all, Johnny never moved, never made a sound. This concerned them more than anything.


Sam arrived and took over his care, examining him thoroughly as the elder Lancers waited near the door.

“What happened to him?” the doctor asked.

“We have no idea. He’s been unconscious the whole time,” Murdoch answered.

“He’s not unconscious, Murdoch. He’s asleep. Very deeply asleep. It’s as if he hasn’t slept in days. His body is completely exhausted. It’s a wonder he made it home,” Sam shook his head.

“It looks like someone beat him to a pulp,” Scott said.

“There is evidence of a fight. But not all these wounds are from a beating. Some of them are scrapes from rocks and the like. Maybe he fell or was dragged. I’m not sure,” Sam stated.

“Will he be okay?”

“He’ll recover, Scott. Whatever happened to him, he’s been through hell. He’s dehydrated and malnourished. He’ll need food and fluids when he does come around. His fingers ….. it looks like he was digging at something. There’s dirt and blood under the nails and they’re all broken.”

Scott stepped closer, not having noticed Johnny’s hands so much. He swallowed hard when he saw the shape they were in. “There was a man in Libby who tried to claw his way through the stone walls. His hands looked like that. He’d gone mad,” he said barely above a whisper.

Murdoch felt a knot form in his stomach. What had happened to his son? He had no idea and it made him crazy and very worried about what Johnny might have endured.

“He was only two days late. Whatever happened had to have been in the last couple of days,” he noted.

“I don’t know about that, Murdoch. Some of these bruises are already turning yellow. And some of the cuts are scabbed over already as well,” Doc argued lightly.


“Boss?” Jelly called from the door, wringing his cap in his hands.

“He’s going to be alright, Jelly. Sam says there are no serious wounds. Exactly what shape was Barranca in?” the rancher asked, trying to glean more clues.

“Julio said he had some scratches and scrapes and he’d been ridden real hard. Had a good lather on him, too.”

“None of this makes any sense,” Scott shook his head. “How long will he sleep, Sam?”

“That’s impossible to say but you should be able to wake him in a few hours and you need to. He needs to eat and drink soon. Feed and water him then get him in a hot bath. And I mean hot. It will help the soreness. There’s one other thing. When he does wake up, give him some time. Don’t start in on him for answers right away.”

“What are you saying, Sam?” Murdoch asked.

“I’m saying he’s had some sort of horrible experience by the looks of it and he’ll need some time to make sense of it all. Give him that time.”

“Do you think he’ll …. I mean, emotionally….” Scott trailed off.

“I can’t answer that, Scott. I don’t know what happened to him,” Sam said.

Scott pulled the covers up under Johnny’s chin and brushed the hair from his eyes. He was pale beneath the tanned face. Still, he could not imagine what had happened to his brother. And, had Johnny been alone or had someone done this do him? It was obvious he’d fought with someone but was it before or during this ordeal?  

“I’ll come back tomorrow unless you need me sooner,” Sam was saying.

“Thanks, Sam. I’ll walk you out,” Murdoch replied.

“Reckon what got hold of ‘im,” Jelly said.

“I don’t know, Jelly. But I have a feeling it was very ugly,” Scott answered morosely. He settled in a chair at the bedside to wait for his brother to come back to them.


Five hours later, the sun was dipping behind the mountains to the west and Scott was nodding off in his chair. He started awake at a sound and leaned closer to his brother. Striking a match, he lit the lamp and turned it up, then waited.

It turned out to be quite a wait as Johnny moaned a few times, settled, then started again. Scott knew he was working his way out of the depths of sleep. It would have been amusing to watch if the circumstances were different. But, then, if they were different, he wouldn’t be sitting here at all.

Johnny’s eyes moved rapidly beneath the lids as his eyelashes fluttered a few times. He turned his head to the side and sighed softly then frowned. Slowly, the eyes opened and he blinked. Bringing a hand to his face, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes before trying to see again.

“Well, hello there,” Scott said softly.

Johnny grimaced and closed his eyes again for a second. “Hey,” he barely whispered.

“You need to drink some water, brother.”

He opened his eyes again and looked at Scott with a nod. Slowly and painfully, he raised up on one elbow and took the proffered glass from his brother. His own hand was shaky but he managed to drink the entire contents without spilling any.

“That was good. Now, how about some food?” Scott asked.

“Sure, thanks,” he whispered and lowered himself back down, closing his eyes once more.

“I’ll wake you when I get back,” Scott smiled.


He slipped quietly from the room but left the door ajar then headed downstairs to find his father.

Murdoch went immediately to the room as Scott went to prepare a tray of food. He sat in the chair and watched Johnny sleep. Soon, the blue eyes opened and rested on him.

“Hi, son.”


“How do you feel?”

“I hurt all over,” he said flatly.

“You’re pretty banged up. After you eat, Sam wants you to soak in a hot tub.”

“Sounds good to me. If I can stay awake,” he managed a flitter of a smile.


Murdoch was not happy. Johnny had eaten very little of his supper. He hoped after a hot bath, the man would feel more like eating. Scott and Jelly filled the tub for him and by the time they were finished, steam was rising from the surface.

“A little hot, ain’t it?” Johnny asked.

“Sam said hot,” Scott explained.

Johnny sighed and removed his nightshirt. He was not shy, figuring they’d seen it all before. Scott stood beside him, knowing he’d need help. Johnny held onto his brother’s arm as he raised one leg and submerged a foot, drawing it quickly out again.

“It’s too hot, Scott. I can’t.”

“Try, Johnny. Sam said you needed it,” Scott encouraged.

Taking a deep breath, he tried it again, putting his foot to the bottom and hissing with the heat. Tightening his grip on Scott, he raised the other foot and plopped it in quickly. More hissing.

“Damn!” he swore as he began to lower himself. “Think I’m gonna have burns!”

Scott was holding onto his arms, helping him so he didn’t lose his grip. “Sorry, brother. It won’t last long then you’ll be used to it.”

As he sank into the steaming tub, Johnny cursed several times. He didn’t understand how boiling water was going to make all these cuts feel better. Right now it hurt like hell. But he persevered and made it all the way in, finally able to release the sides and relax slowly.

“God, that hurts!” he said and leaned his head back, closing his eyes.

Scott bit his lip and sat on the bed to wait. Watching to make sure Johnny didn’t fall asleep and drown himself. He noticed after a few minutes that Johnny was more relaxed but he was also perspiring. Scott poured a glass of water and instructed his brother to drink.

Johnny downed the cool liquid and thanked his brother then went back to his soak. Scott was feeling very anxious just then. He was having a hard time refraining from asking any questions. It didn’t look as if Johnny was about to offer up any information either. But he remembered Sam’s words and held his tongue, albeit with more difficulty than he’d expected.

Johnny did doze but he never slid down in the water so Scott let him be. After an hour, his brother’s head jerked up and he looked around a bit confused.


“Ready to get out?”

“Guess so. The water’s still hot,” Johnny smiled. He grabbed the soap and lathered up. It was a slow and painful process. There didn’t seem to be a place on his body that wasn’t cut, scraped or bruised. He washed himself gingerly. When he got to his back, he stopped.

Scott didn’t say a word. He took the cloth and gently washed his brother’s back then rinsed it off and handed the washcloth back. Johnny felt emotions well and he took a deep, hitching breath. He slid down and dunked his head then washed his hair, scrubbing vigorously.

He dunked once more to rinse his hair and shook his head, regretting the action instantly. Gripping the sides of the tub, he started to stand. Scott was there, towel in hand and an arm under Johnny’s left.

“Take your time, brother.”

A smile graced Johnny’s lips for a second, replaced by a grimace as he stood straight. The water ran off him like a waterfall and the air chilled him as it hit bare skin. He took the towel and started rubbing softly, wishing he weren’t so damned sore. By the time he stepped out, he was nearly breathless.

“Come sit on the bed, Johnny,” Scott directed and accompanied him.

Johnny sat heavily and slumped his shoulders, closing his eyes and trying to get his breath back. “Just need to rest for a minute.”

“Do you want to get dressed or a nightshirt?”

“What time is it?”

“About eight o’clock.”

“Guess there’s no point in getting dressed now,” he sighed and started drying his legs and feet.

Scott nodded and went to the dresser, pulling out a fresh nightshirt. He walked back over and sat beside Johnny.

“Thanks, Scott, for everything,” he mumbled as he pulled the shirt over his head.

“You’re welcome, Johnny.”

Murdoch tapped on the door then opened it with one hand as he balanced a tray in the other. “I thought you might want some more to eat after your bath.”

Johnny made a bit of a face. “I’ll try,” was all he said.

He made a valiant effort and managed about half the stew before giving it up. He was exhausted and all he wanted was to sleep for a week or so.

Scott took the tray out and Murdoch helped him into bed then covered him up. “Get some sleep, son.”

“Murdoch? Thanks for not asking.”

He chewed his lip for a second. “You’ll tell us when you’re ready,” he said, leaving the door open for Johnny to tell his tale.

He slept for thirty-six hours straight and Murdoch was becoming concerned. Sam had been there and examined him but Johnny did no more than mumble a bit. Sam assured the Lancers he would wake up soon. If not from hunger then other necessities of the body would not allow him to continue sleeping.

As foretold, he was sitting on the side of the bed feeling dazed and confused the next time Murdoch checked on him.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, had to use the chamber pot,” he smiled a bit. “Feel drunk.”

“You slept a long time,” Murdoch replied and sat beside him.

“Yeah, long enough I reckon. Guess I’d better stay up or I won’t be able to tell day from night.”

“That’s probably a good idea. Are you hungry?”


Murdoch smiled fully for the first time in days. “I’ll have Maria fix you some breakfast.”

“I’ll be down in a minute.”

“Are you sure? I could bring it up.”

“No, I want to get out of this room. Get dressed and start feelin human again,” he replied and Murdoch noticed a haunted look on his face.

He said nothing about it but simply nodded and left his son to dress.

It was a slow process. Every muscle screamed at him. His back still burned some even though he knew it was healing now. He sighed and sat on the bed, staring at his boots for a few minutes. He picked them up and slid each foot in slowly. Even his feet hurt.

Johnny walked slowly into the kitchen to a roomful of waiting people. They were all there staring at him and he felt uncomfortable. He silently took his seat at the table and thanked Maria softly as she placed his food before him.

“Everybody gonna stare while I eat?” he clipped.

“Nope. Got better things ta do myself,” Jelly said and went out the back door.

“I have some cleaning to do,” Teresa replied and left as well.

That left Scott and Murdoch and they weren’t about to leave him. Maria poured them both some coffee and left the pot, then disappeared herself.


Johnny forced himself to eat slowly. He didn’t want to feel any worse than he already did. He listened to Murdoch and Scott talk about ranch business but his mind kept wandering and he wanted to be outside. Finally, he was sure he could eat no more and he pushed his plate back.

This seemed to be a signal as Scott and Murdoch stopped their conversation abruptly.

Johnny looked up at them and smiled a little. “Think I’ll take a walk, get some fresh air.”

“Want some company?” Scott offered.

“I’m okay, Scott. Stiff and sore but I can walk on my own,” he said as he stood slowly.

“Don’t get off too far, son.”

“Just to the barn. I want to check on Barranca.”

“Now why did I know that’s where you were headed?” Scott grinned.

Johnny smiled back and it was the first sincere smile Scott had seen from him since this whole thing started.

He walked to the barn as casually as he could. He got the feeling he wasn’t fooling anyone, though. Especially since he felt a dozen sets of eyes on him. Shaking his head a bit he entered the stable area. The first thing he heard was a complaint.

“I’m sorry, boy. I know I did you wrong but I’m proud of you, Barranca. You got me home,” he spoke softly to the palomino as he scratched the special spot behind his ear.

Barranca snorted a few more times then relented. Johnny buried his face in the horse’s neck and sighed. “Thanks, boy. Don’t know what would’ve happened to me without you there.”

“Some folks are waitin to find out what did happen.”

Johnny raised his head slowly and turned it to the side. “Hey, Jelly.”

“How ya feelin, Johnny?” he asked in a worried tone.

“Better. Much better. Still a might sore.”

“Glad ta hear it. I’ll rub some liniment on ya tonight if ya want.”

The corner of his mouth lifted. “That the liniment you used on Barranca?”

“It is.”

“I’ll pass, Jelly. Thanks, anyway.”


Jelly nodded and took a couple of steps nearer. He played with his suspenders for a minute then sucked it up. “So, are ya gonna tell your folks what happened?”

Johnny turned back to Barranca and stroked the once more golden and soft mane. He grimaced as he recalled the animals condition a few days ago. “Yeah. I just need a little time is all.”

“Doc figured that. Told us not ta push.”

Johnny laughed softly. “But that wasn’t your medical advice, huh?”

“Well, I figure if yer up ta visiting Barranca, yer up ta talkin things through. We’ve all been worried sick.”

Johnny turned and looked at his friend. “I know. I’m sorry. Be at supper tonight. We’ll sit down and I’ll tell you all a story.”


Johnny went back to his room and picked up his saddlebags. Rummaging through, he found the papers. He laid down on the bed and unfolded them. Frowning, he read it once more and shook his head. He tucked it under the mattress and closed his eyes. He was asleep within minutes.

He felt someone gently shaking his shoulder and his eyes flew open as his head came up.

“Easy, brother. It’s just me. Supper’s ready,” Scott spoke softly.

“Supper?” he grumbled. “Sleepin my life away.”

“It would seem so. But, you must need it. Come on, some food will make you feel better.”

“Okay. I’ll be down in a minute.”

Scott nodded and turned then stopped. He looked back and hesitated for only a second. “Jelly said you have a story to tell.”

Johnny’s eyes lifted to meet his brother’s. Scott was taken aback by the pained expression.

“After supper, Scott.”

He opened his mouth, thought better of it and simply walked out.

Johnny sighed and rubbed his head. He walked over and poured water in the basin and splashed it on his face. Leaning his hands on the dresser, he hung his head and let the water drip off his chin.

Slowly, he looked up at the face staring back at him. It was a face he didn’t recognize anymore. A stranger’s eyes looked accusingly at him. He turned away.

He rubbed his cheek and thought he should shave but he didn’t feel like it. He didn’t feel like doing anything but crawling back in bed and just staying there. Maybe forever.

But he couldn’t and he knew it. He wondered if he’d be able to tell this story. If he’d be able to get through the whole thing. He figured he could make himself. Turn himself off and relate it as if it had happened to someone else. He used to be able to do that anyway. Now, he wasn’t so sure. Now ….. they meant so much to him. He couldn’t stand it if they were disappointed in him.


Ten minutes later, he trudged down the stairs and into the dining room. All eyes were upon him once again and he kept his head down as he took his seat.

Wordlessly, Murdoch scooped a spoonful of potatoes on his plate, then carrots and a slice of beef. Johnny glanced up at him then dropped his eyes again. He wasn’t hungry but he forced himself to nibble at least.

He knew they were watching him and he thought he might just lose his mind. His instincts screamed at him to run but he couldn’t. He couldn’t hide from them. He had to tell his tale and be done with it. His mind reeled with the possible reactions. None of them good. He decided whatever their reaction, he would not have any. He would just tell them and go back to bed. Maybe, just maybe, they’d leave him be.

He had already decided there were some things they didn’t need to know. Those papers under his mattress was definitely one of them.

Scott attempted to start a conversation a few times but gave up without success. It seemed they were all just waiting and wanted no diversions.

Johnny took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He scooted his chair back and stood, walking to the living room without a word.

Scott started to rise until he felt a hand on his arm. He looked at his father who was shaking his head. Softly, Murdoch explained. “Just give him a minute.”

Scott gave him two then left the table. He’d watched Johnny staring into the fire the whole time. Leaning his shoulder against the hearth, one ankle crossed over the other. Looking as casual as ever.

They all walked into the room and found seats. Murdoch took a place on the sofa. Jelly and Scott were in the matching blue chairs and Teresa sat in the red chair where she usually did her sewing.  

Johnny righted himself and reached in his shirt pocket, producing a paper. He walked over and handed it to Murdoch.

Raising a questioning brow, the rancher unfolded the paper to find the signed contract Johnny had gone to Stockton to retrieve. “Thank you, son.”


“Did you have any problems with the lawyer?”

Johnny shook his head no.

“That’s good,” Murdoch said feebly.

He stood there, unsure for a minute longer. He walked over to the sideboard and poured a healthy measure of tequila. Keeping his back to them he asked if they wanted anything. Getting a no all around, he walked slowly back among them.  

Johnny stared into the glass for a long beat, then dropped down to the floor, back against the sofa, next to his father. He pulled his knees up and rested his arms on them, glass dangling in his left hand. He stared into the fire like he’d done so many nights before. Only then, a peace would come over him and he’d feel content. Not tonight. There would be no relief tonight. He wasn’t really sure how to start. How to make them understand what had happened. He took a long drink of the strong liquor and sighed.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again,” he spoke softly.

This chapter begins Johnny’s story. It is told as if happening in the present for him. It is a flashback sequence.

Rated PG-13 for language

“Well, hello!”

Johnny reined to a stop and watched the man emerge from the mouth of the mine. He was middle-aged with a scraggly beard that looked as if he’d meant to shave but hadn’t gotten around to it yet. Light brown eyes and a somewhat pale complexion, though not sickly. “Hello.”

The man removed his hat, revealing a healthy head of salt and pepper hair, and slapped it against his thigh as he smiled up at Johnny. “Can I help you?”

“No, just passin through,” Johnny returned the smile.

The man laughed. “Not many pass through this way. I don’t think I’ve seen another soul in months. Well, climb down and take a breather. There’s a small stream over there if you want to water your horse,” he offered, pointing just beyond the mine.

Johnny dismounted and walked Barranca over to the water’s edge. “Thanks,” he called as he ground-tied the horse.

“You’re welcome. Glad to see a man with manners. I’ve got coffee brewing. You’re probably about ready to call it a day?” he asked as he puttered about the campsite.

Johnny took in his surroundings. The mine had been abandoned at one time, that was obvious. The man had set up what seemed to be a permanent camp site. He had a wagon and there was a small shack. “Do much good in there?” he asked, nodding toward the mine.

“Not yet. But, it’s there. I can smell it,” the man grinned. He stood straight and studied Johnny. “You’re a rancher.”

“That’s right. How’d you know?”

“Saw the brand on your horse. Lancer, right?”

“Right again,” Johnny smiled as he sat on an overturned barrel. He extended his hand then. “Johnny Lancer.”

The man accepted the handshake. “Just call me Ike.”

“Nice to meet you, Ike. You know Lancer?”

“Sure. I go into Green River a couple of times a year. I think I saw you there. That’s what made me think of it. You have a brother, right?”

“That’s right. Scott.”

“Blond fellow?”


“Thought so,” he said, a distant sound to his voice that caused Johnny to look more closely.

“I don’t remember seeing you.”

“No reason you should,” he replied as he passed a cup of coffee over.

“Thank you.”

“My pleasure, Johnny.”

He blew on the hot brew then took a sip, stealing a couple of glances at the man in the process. “You’re not from around here.”

Ike looked up and smiled. “Back east. Is it still that obvious?”

“Maybe just to me. But, you sound like Scott used to when he first got here. He’s from Boston.”

“I spent a great deal of time in New York. Maybe that’s why,” he shrugged.

“Guess so.”

“Headed home?”

Johnny nodded as he took another drink. “From Stockton.”

“Stockton? You sure went the round about way,” he laughed.

Johnny laughed as well. “I had a couple of extra days. Thought I’d check out the south mesa mines on my way home.”

“Oh, yes. Those are played out.”

“I thought they all were,” Johnny said gingerly.

“You think I’m a crazy old man, is that it?” he laughed. “Well, you wouldn’t be the first. Like I said, I have a strong feeling about this mine. The gold’s there, it’s just deep. But, I’m getting older and it takes longer to get anywhere. I could use a young fellow like yourself.”

“Maybe someone in Green River would be willing,” Johnny shrugged.

“May be.   Well, Johnny, the sun’s about gone. You’re more than welcome to camp here with me. I usually sleep outside when it’s nice like this.”

“Thank you. I am ready to get out of the saddle. I’ll just take care of my horse.”

“Alright. I’ll get supper. Been slow cooking a vegetable stew all day,” he grinned.

Johnny bedded Barranca down and threw his saddle near the fire. He settled on the ground and leaned against it with a sigh. He hadn’t realized he was so tired.

Ike brought out a pot and set it over the fire, then returned to the shack for plates.

“Need some help?” Johnny called.

“Nope, just relax. I’ve got it.”

“Good,” he mumbled and crossed his ankles.

He ladled out the stew and added biscuits as he passed Johnny a plate.

“This is really good, Ike,” he said with some surprise.

“Well, I wasn’t always such a good cook. Practice makes perfect,” he smiled.

“Yeah, I know,” Johnny grinned.

They ate in silence and when he finished, Johnny got up to clean his plate.

“No, you don’t. You’re my guest,” Ike proclaimed.

“That hardly seems fair,” Johnny protested.

“Fair or not, that’s how it is. That’s the way I was raised and old habits are hard to break. Now, just sit back down there and I’ll take care of this. Then, maybe we can talk a while. It’s been a long time since I had anyone to talk with.”

Johnny sighed softly and handed his plate over in acquiescence.

Ike was back in five minutes and Johnny had to wonder if he’d even washed the dishes. He dismissed the thought quickly though.

“Johnny, I have a theory about men. I believe any man can be broken in the right circumstances.”

Johnny stared at the man, stunned at the abrupt statement and it’s contents. He wasn’t sure what to say to that.

“Do you agree?” Ike asked.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘broken’.”

“Well, I mean a man with the highest principals, the greatest moral values can be driven to kill under the right conditions. He can be turned from a human being into an animal. Primal in nature.”

“I reckon any man can be driven to kill for the right reasons,” he replied softly.

“What reasons?”

Johnny looked up at him. “Defending what’s yours,” he shrugged.

“Your life.”

“Yeah, and your family and land.”

“No other reasons?” Ike asked.

Johnny’s jaw tightened as he stared icily at the man. “Money, power. Depends on the man.”

“Ah, but that is my point. It doesn’t depend on the man. Any man can be driven to kill.”

Shaking his head, Johnny spoke, “I disagree with that.”


“I just know men who would never kill.”

“Not even if they were starving?” Ike cocked a brow.

“Not even then.”

“Have you someone particular in mind, Johnny?”

“One or two,” he smiled.

Ike nodded. “Your brother and father? Haven’t they both killed for power?”

Johnny’s eyes shot fire. “No!”

“They killed during that range war, what was it, two years ago?” he argued.

“That was to protect our land and family.”

“But not for power? Not for Murdoch Lancer to keep his power?”

“When a man tries to take what’s yours; what you’ve worked a lifetime building, then you kill to keep it,” Johnny said coldly.

“You have a point. But, you’ve killed for money haven’t you?”

“Yes, I have.”

“What drove you, Johnny? Was it power or money?”

“Survival,” he clipped.

“Ah, yes, survival. But, you could have survived without a gun, couldn’t you?”

“I suppose so. I chose not to,” he said tightly.

“I wonder how much choice you were given,” Ike remarked.

“Look, I don’t know what you’re driving at, but I don’t like this conversation much. You seem to know an awful lot about my family.” His back was up now. He didn’t know where this was going but he’d had enough.

Ike smiled pleasantly. “Forgive me, Johnny. I wax philosophical. As I said, I don’t get the chance to talk to anyone very often. Out here alone, a man’s mind comes up with all sorts of ideas.” He stood up and stretched. “I have a rather good whiskey in the wagon. Would you care for a nightcap?”

Johnny was bumfuzzled by this man. “Yeah, sure,” he said distractedly. He was trying to decide if the man was crazy. He knew hermits got that way a lot of the time. He was starting to think he’d be better off leaving. It was the last thought he had before the pain exploded in his head.

Johnny opened his eyes then closed them quickly against the bright sun. His head was pounding and he felt dizzy even though he could tell he was lying down. He tried it again and managed to focus. Raising his head slowly, he tried to look around but turning his head proved to be too much and he plopped back down on the hard ground with a moan.

“Oh, you’re awake. Good!” Ike said amicably.

Johnny groaned again and opened his eyes to see Ike kneeling some five feet from him. His first instinct was to throttle the man. He went to move his right arm but got no farther than six inches before the metal clanged. Looking confusedly at his wrist, he saw the chains. “What the hell?”

“Exactly, Johnny. Exactly,” Ike said and moved out of his line of vision.

He tried to crane his neck but it set off the pounding in his brain. He laid back on the ground and sighed. “What do you want?”

“I’ll explain all that when you’re more clear-headed. For now, we’ll just say this is a test of sorts.”

He could tell the man was nearby from the sound of his voice but he couldn’t see him. Johnny didn’t like that. He wanted to be able to look the man in the eye. See just how loco he really was. For the moment, he took in his own condition.

His shirt was gone and he was surprised by that. His gunbelt too, of course. At least he’d been left with his pants and boots. His arms were manacled to the wagon wheel but his feet were free. That was good, he thought. He raised up slowly and scooted until his back was against the wheel and he could look around. Black dots danced before his eyes and his head screamed. He leaned back and rested against the wagon, closing his eyes for a minute.

When he opened them again, Ike was sitting across the cold campfire, watching him. “What’s this all about?”

“Well, I told you a man gets to thinking up here alone. This might not be a fair test but you’ll have to do.”

“Test? What test? What are you talkin about?” Johnny asked, his frustration and anger rising.

“I know you used to be a gunfighter. I wonder, though. What would make you kill now? There’s no money in this. So, would you kill me if you had the chance right now?”

“Mister, you’re crazy.”

Ike laughed a little. “I don’t think you would. Oh, you’d probably fight me. You probably want to hurt me badly right now. But kill me? No, not yet.”

“Don’t be so sure,” Johnny spoke icily.

“How’s your head?”

“It hurts. That’s how it is,” he said tersely.


Ike disappeared into the mine for an hour or so and Johnny tried to find something to use on the chains but there was nothing. He examined the wagon wheel closely and thought he could break free that way given the time. The problem was, he didn’t know how much time he had.

As he was thinking about this, Ike came back out. He was carrying a shotgun.

“Still plenty of daylight left. Are you hungry?”

Johnny didn’t answer, he only stared.

“Good. You can get to work.”


“That’s right. I told you I was getting too old for mining. Now, you can dig for me,” Ike smiled.

“That’s what this is all about? You want slave labor?” he asked incredulously.

“No, but might as well kill two birds with one stone. Now, I’m going to toss you the key so you can unlock those manacles. Then, you’re going to toss it back to me. If you try anything, Johnny, I’ll blow a hole in your gut.” He raised the shotgun to waist level as he tossed the key.

Johnny caught it with his left hand and unlocked his chains. He stood up slowly, his head swimming with the movement.

“Toss it back.”

He looked up at the man and decided now wasn’t the time. He threw the key past Ike.

He grinned widely and backed up then knelt to pick the key up. “Alright, now put the handcuffs on,” he said as he pulled a pair from his waistband and tossed them at Johnny’s feet.

Johnny moved slowly and applied the cuffs to his wrists, watching Ike the entire time as the shotgun never wavered. “Now what?”

“Get in the mine and start digging. I’ll show you where. After you,” he smiled and bowed slightly as he waved his hand toward the mouth of the mine.

Johnny wanted to smack him right then and there. He gritted his teeth and walked to the mine.


Lamps lit the way into the mine and Johnny’s eyes adjusted quickly to the lower light level. He was almost grateful for it as his head was killing him. Ike told him to stop and Johnny looked at the wall. He could see fine traces of yellow but it was useless.

“There’s a pick in the corner there,” Ike instructed.

He picked it up and turned to look at the man. Ike was twenty feet away and still holding that shotgun steadily on him. Johnny sighed at the ridiculous situation.

“You know there’s no gold in there. Those veins are fine as spider webs.”

“It’s there, it’s just deep. Get to work,” Ike retorted, a hard edge coming into his voice.

For three hours he slammed the pick against the rock, spewing dust and splinters of granite all around and on him. Johnny was covered in sweat and finally, he stopped.

“What’s wrong?” Ike asked.

“Oh nothin. Just thought I’d rest a minute. Some water wouldn’t hurt either,” he replied sarcastically.

Ike’s canteen sat beside his leg but he reached past it and picked up another one, tossing it to Johnny.

He picked it up and shook it. “It’s empty.”

“There’s a little in there. Enough for now.”

He removed the cap with a jerk and tilted the canteen back. There was a swallow of tepid water in the bottom.

“You can load that rock into the wheelbarrow now and dump it outside,” Ike ordered.

Johnny glared at him, a retort begging to spew forth. But, he bit his lip and started the chore. An hour later, he wheeled the rock out and dumped it at the side of the mine entrance. With the wheelbarrow tilted up, he leaned heavily on it. Exhaustion was settling in and he was breathing hard.

“Back to work,” Ike stated.

Johnny didn’t move, still trying to catch his breath. He jumped as a bullet produced a swirl of dust by his right foot. He turned quickly and leered at the man.


With more restraint than he thought he possessed, Johnny turned the wheelbarrow and went back inside.

For two more hours he labored until Ike called a halt. They headed back outside.

“Now, you’re going to chain yourself back to that wheel. This is the key for the cuffs,” he said as he tossed it.

Johnny unlocked them and rubbed his wrists. It was not easy handling a pick axe with handcuffs on.

“Toss the cuffs and the key back, then put those shackles on. And make sure they’re secure.”

He wished he wasn’t so tired. He might be able to think of a way out of this. But, with his head still pounding and the exhaustion and lack of water, Johnny could only do as he was told.

He lowered himself to the ground and leaned against the wheel, closing his eyes.

“Tomorrow, you can put in a full day,” Ike said flatly.


He was given a cup of water and beef jerky for supper. Johnny wanted to refuse but he wasn’t stupid. He would need all the strength he could muster to get out of this mess.

Ike sat across the fire from him watching as he bit off a piece of jerky.

“Ready to kill me yet?”

Johnny chewed the tough beef for a minute. “Oh, yeah.”

Ike leaned in a little. “Ready to beg yet?”

Johnny stopped chewing and stared at him. “Beg for what?”

“Your life. Your freedom.”

Sighing loudly, he started chewing again. He cocked his head to one side and considered the man. “I’ve never begged for anything in my life. No sense startin now.”

“Never, huh? Never begged for a scrap of food when you were hungry? Never begged for a warm bed at night? Never begged someone to stop beating on you?”

Johnny tensed at the last. In a voice as hard as the rock he’d been pounding all day, he replied simply, “never.”

Ike smiled widely. “We’ll see, Johnny. We’ll see.” He stood up then and rolled out a blanket. Settling in, he made himself comfortable. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a lot longer than today.”

He watched the man fall into sleep. Waited until his breathing was even. He casually bent his right knee and pulled the knife from his boot. Moving silently, Johnny slid the blade sideways into the pocket in his waistband then closed his eyes.

Sleep would not come, however. Try as he might, his mind wouldn’t stop working. He made several plans. Worked out different scenarios. They all ended the same, though. He would have to either kill this man or render him incapacitated for quite a while. He preferred the latter. He’d said he was ready to kill Ike. And he would if he had to. But if he could escape without killing, he’d rather it be that way.

Killing had never been that easy for him. Despite what some might think. Johnny had always considered being fast as having more than one advantage. That way, he didn’t have time to think about what was happening until later. Then, he could work it out in his mind and know his only other choice was to die.  

That may very well be the case here, too. He didn’t know how far Ike would go and he didn’t want to find out. Being shackled around the clock was going to make it very hard to get away. But, he’d been in tough spots before. Only now, he had so much more to lose.

Damn! Why couldn’t he have stayed on the trail? Why did he have the bright idea of checking south mesa? He should have gone straight home. Murdoch would have been pleased that it had only taken one day to complete his business. He had even thought of sticking around Stockton for a few days as he had the time. But he wasn’t fond of bigger cities and he missed Lancer already.

Johnny smiled at the thought of home. He didn’t mind these trips much. But given the choice, he would never leave the ranch. Oh, he enjoyed going to town and having fun like everyone else. But that was close to home. An easy ride. He was tired of eating trail dust. He’d done it for too many years.

Sometime during the night, Johnny had drifted off. He was awakened by a kick to the leg. Jerking his head up, he squinted as the headache returned with a vengeance.

“Daylight’s wasting, boy. Time to get to work.”

Johnny shot him an ugly look and started to stand. A cup of water appeared before him and he drank it down in one gulp.

They went through the same ritual as he unlocked the chains and applied the handcuffs. His head felt like a boulder filled with cotton. Heavy on his shoulders but unable to put a cognizant thought together.

He hammered away at the solid rock wall, his mind a blank as he toiled. It became so repetitive, he didn’t even hear Ike shout for him to stop the first time. Finally, he heard it and dropped the pick, turning to see the grinning face.

“Time to move the rocks out,” Ike said.

Johnny turned and began loading the wheelbarrow then pushed it outside and dumped it. As he had the day before, he leaned on it while getting his breath. The fresh air was a godsend after spending the morning in that mine.

“That’s enough,” Ike said.

Johnny shook his head.

“Get back to work!”

He only shook his head again. He felt the fire as he arched his back. The leather strap came down again, slapping hard against bare skin. Johnny nearly went to his knees that time. The next lash did take him down and he hit hard.

Ike kneeled next to him. “Are you ready to get back to work now?”

“Water,” Johnny whispered.

“Say please.”

He raised his head and looked into the laughing eyes. Saying nothing more, he struggled to his feet and started back inside. He could hear the laughter behind him.

Ike sat on a boulder and watched him work. He had brought his lunch and made sure Johnny saw him eating the thick sandwich. Made sure he saw the canteen as well. He even allowed some to dribble down his chin, swallowed up by the dust of the ground.

Johnny knew what he was doing and he refused to let it get to him. He was so thirsty, his throat felt like it was sticking together. But he didn’t ask again.

The sun began to set and Ike called a halt to the work. He had Johnny shackle himself to the wagon wheel once more. He tossed some jerky over and a cup of water.

“How long do you think I can go with just this?” Johnny managed to ask after he drank.

“Longer than you can hold out before begging for it,” he grinned.

“I doubt it,” he said with a hard edge.

Ike laughed boisterously. “I know you think you’re tough and you are. But, sooner or later, you’ll give up. Sooner or later, you’ll be begging like a dog in the street.”


Johnny had no trouble falling to sleep that night but morning seemed to come entirely too soon. Ike was kicking him again and he groaned a little as his eyes opened. Today, he thought. Today is the last day, you crazy bastard.

The metallic click as the cuffs struck home resonated in the small camp. Johnny kept his gaze on the ground, giving the appearance of docility. He began walking to the mine without being told and Ike smiled. It wouldn’t be long now, he thought with satisfaction.

Johnny lifted the pick and balanced the weight in his hands. He choked up on the handle quite a bit. He positioned himself so he could throw all his weight into the swing, then let loose. As he’d hoped the axe handle broke. He slammed against the wall with the forward momentum and gave a grunt.

“You broke it!” Ike shouted.

Johnny righted himself and shrugged. “Sorry.”

“Sorry? That’s the only pick axe I have!” He advanced on Johnny with the rifle butt raised.

Johnny moved quickly to avoid the downward swing and threw his shoulder into Ike’s gut. He kept pushing until Ike slammed against the boulder that was his chair. Johnny backed up two steps then threw an uppercut that landed directly on Ike’s chin, sending him reeling over the boulder.

He took off out of the mine and headed for the hills above. There were trees up there, plenty of foliage to hide in should he need to attack again. He was almost to the top when something fell on top of him.

He grunted the air from his lungs and pushed back. Ike grabbed him around the neck and started choking him. Johnny grabbed at his hands but was too weak to free himself that way. He bucked and they both starting rolling down the hill.

They came to a sudden stop at the bottom as Johnny slammed into a large boulder. His left side took the brunt of the hit and it knocked the air out of him.

Ike wrangled himself free and backed away. Seeing Johnny was incapacitated, he grabbed the shotgun from the mine entrance and brought it to bear.

Johnny made it to his knees and stayed there as he gulped in air. When he raised his head, he felt a fist slam into his cheek and he went back down.

Breathlessly, Ike warned, “try that again and you’re a dead man. Now get up and get back to work!”

It took a few minutes to make it to his feet then he staggered back to the mine. The shotgun held steadily on his back the entire time. He felt the bruises starting to form; the scratches and cuts on his upper body.  

“What am I supposed to use?” he asked in a strangled voice.

“Use the pick!” Ike spat.

Johnny sighed and picked up the remains of the axe. It kept slipping from his sweaty hands. He spent more time picking it up off the ground than using it.

He made another run with the wheelbarrow and noticed it was dark. He looked questioningly at Ike.

“You slowed down the work, you have to make up for it. Keep going.”


Finally, Ike called a halt and Johnny once more chained himself to the wagon wheel. The shotgun ever present.

“Look at you. You aren’t a man anymore. You’re an animal. Soon, you’ll be moving around on all fours,” he sneered.

Johnny glared at him but didn’t bother to argue the point.

“You know I’m right. You can feel it even now. Those primal urges. Instincts telling you that you need to kill me. That is the basis of humans. You said you picked up a gun to survive. But, that’s not true survival. True survival is basic human need. Food, water and shelter. Getting it anyway you can even if that means killing for it. Right now, you’d kill me for one drink of water. Just one drink. Anger, revenge, hate. They don’t play a role. You’d kill me for food not because you hate me.”

“Oh, I hate you,” he remarked pointedly.

Ike smiled. “I’m sure you do. But even if you didn’t, it wouldn’t matter. If we were in the desert and I had one last drink, you’d kill me for it.”

Johnny shook his head no.

“You’d kill your own brother for it.”

He looked up, stunned by the statement. “No,” he whispered.

“Yes, you would. And you know it, too. That’s what eats at you now. You would kill your own brother and take whatever he had to survive. It’s human nature. That’s my point. That’s the theory you’re going to prove for me. Finally, after all these years.” He stared into the fire, remembering some distant event.

“What are you talkin about?”

Shaking himself out of his reverie, he looked back at Johnny. “Never mind.”

Johnny leaned his head back against the wheel and closed his eyes. It was quiet for a while and he reveled in it. He had never been so tired of hearing someone’s voice.

“Survival. Man’s innate need to live. It’s inborn. Unavoidable and undeniable. Call it savagery, barbarity, cruelty, ruthlessness. It all comes down to one thing. Kill or be killed.”

Johnny opened his eyes and looked at Ike. “What would you know about it? How many men have you killed? How many times have you gone with an empty belly? Slept in an alley or horse stable?”

“Never. I have had a life of luxury compared to you, I suppose.”

“I wonder….” he trailed off.


“Just this. You talk a good game, Ike. But, could you kill me? I mean for no other reason than because I didn’t do what you say?”

Ike smiled wickedly. “The question is; do you think I could?”

“I think you’re loco. That’s what I think,” he sighed and rested his head again.

Ike leaned closer to the fire. “I think you are very close to the edge of the abyss. On the brink. Ready to either beg or kill.”

“I told you, I don’t beg,” he said with grit.

Laughing, Ike retorted, “then, you’re ready to kill me.”

Johnny sighed. “I’m ready to have you locked up somewhere. That’s for sure.”


For two more days he went on, eating and drinking barely enough to stay alive. Ike talked the entire time about his theory. Convinced Johnny would begin begging any time now. His ribs burned where he’d fallen against the rock. His back kept scabbing over a little at night then breaking open again as soon as he began working.

His fingers were torn and bleeding from the digging and removing the debris. He could no longer feel the tips. Ike had taken to hitting him occasionally. Verbally abusing him constantly. It seemed he was trying to speed up the process. Prove himself by driving Johnny to the edge of murder.

All the while he looked for an opening. One chance was all he needed. But it had not come. Ike was very careful and kept his distance when Johnny was on his feet.

When he awoke the next morning, Johnny was sure he couldn’t move. His muscles were sore and he ached all over. He groaned unwantingly and opened his eyes.

Ike was standing over him, staring. “Hurting?”

Johnny ignored the question and didn’t move.

“Get up.”


Ike kicked his leg. “I said get up or die!”

“You’re gonna kill me anyway. Get it done!” Johnny shouted. Where he got the strength, he didn’t know.

Instead of the angry retort or kick he expected, he heard laughter. He looked at the crazy man looming over him.

“You’ve got guts, I’ll give you that. But, I don’t think you really want to die. At least, not yet. Now, either you get up or you’re going to find out what real pain is like,” he ended with a gritty tone.

Johnny almost laughed in his face. Ike had no idea that he already knew what real pain was. He raised up and got to his knees as Ike backed away. Finally making it to his feet, he straightened his posture and looked flatly at the man.

“What? No water this morning?”

“You’ll get water when you’ve earned it. When you find something more than stone in that mine.”

Johnny grinned a little. “Suits me. When I pass out, you can dig for a while.”

Ike’s eyes narrowed to mere slits. He said nothing but jerked the barrel of the shotgun toward the mine.

After the changing of the restraints, Johnny trudged to the mine. His mind worked furiously. He had been lazy. Not thinking things through. Today, he would make a plan. Today, he would either escape this hellhole or die trying.


He was moving slowly but Ike didn’t call him on it. Johnny glanced over at the man several times during those morning hours. He’d worked it out in his mind. Now, he just had to be a little patient. He could do that.

Finally, he stopped and sighed. Turning to Ike, he cocked his head. “So, what exactly do you think you’re proving here?”

Ike smiled. “I told you. That a man can be broken. Turned into an animal. His most primal instincts all that is left.”

“So, you expect me to try and kill you?”

“I expect you’ll try. You won’t succeed. But sooner or later, you will try.”

Johnny shook his head. “If you think that makes me an animal, you’re a little late.”

Ike chortled. “I know your reputation. What you were. But, you killed for money and you have a conscience. A rarity in that profession, I’m sure.”

Johnny shrugged. “Maybe. Still, if I don’t kill you; If I just escape somehow, what does that mean according to you?”

“Well, that would mean you outsmarted me.” Ike grinned. “But that won’t happen. You see, I’m quite intelligent. I graduated from one of the finest colleges in the East. In the world for that matter.”

“Takes more than book smarts to survive, Ike.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. An intelligent man can survive. It’s the ignorant man, the uneducated man who relies on pure instinct. Like you, Johnny. You’ve done that all your life.”

“I’m still here,” he pointed out.

“For the moment. I’m betting your anger and pride will be your downfall in the end. You are an angry young man, Johnny. You’ve spent your whole life being angry. It’s what fuels you. What keeps you going. I cannot fathom where the pride comes from, however.”

Johnny’s jaw tightened for a second, then he relaxed and smiled. “Comes from being good at something, I guess.”

“I have to agree, you are good with a gun. Now, let’s see how good you can get with that pick,” Ike said stonily.

“Thought I’d clean up some of the rocks first. But, whatever you say. You’re the man with the gun.”

“Go ahead and clean up,” Ike replied.

Johnny nodded and filled the wheelbarrow. He took it outside and dumped it. He could feel Ike behind him and judged the distance. Setting the barrow down, he stretched out his back. Flames seemed to erupt but he fought to ignore the pain.

“Let’s go,” Ike said.

“Sure thing,” he whispered stonily.

Johnny turned to face him, his hands tucked into his waistband.

“Get the wheelbarrow, Johnny. Stop fooling around.”   

He stood there staring at the man for a long beat. Then, he turned and made to reach down. Like quicksilver, Johnny whirled around and lunged at Ike.

He knocked them both to the ground and wrenched the shotgun from the man’s grasp, tossing it aside. It was then Ike saw the knife and he grabbed at Johnny’s hands.

They struggled for several minutes. Johnny knew his strength would not hold out much longer and he made the decision. Mustering all the force he could manage, he reared back. Ike lost his grip with this unforeseen move and Johnny drove the knife deep into his chest.

He heard a gasp, then a whistling noise. Johnny pulled himself off the man and stumbled back a little, settling on his backside. The bloody knife in his hand. He watched with some fascination as the bubbling blood seeped from Ike’s chest. That was what made the whistling noise.

Ike struggled to breathe, a bewildered look on his face.

Out of pure instinct, Johnny slapped his hands over the wound and pressed down hard. His eyes scanned the immediate area then fell on the injured man. Reaching into Ike’s shirt pocket, he fished out the key to the handcuffs and unlocked them; still managing to keep pressure on the wound.  

Once his hands were free, he untied Ike’s kerchief from around his neck and stuffed it into the wound. He then stood and circled behind Ike, lifting him under the arms and dragging him to the shack.


Johnny was breathing heavily, sweat pouring from his red face. He kicked the door open and pulled Ike inside. With a quick glance, he found the cot and hauled the man over and onto it. By now, he was near exhaustion and he knelt there; head resting on the edge of the bed for a moment.

When he looked up, Ike was staring confusedly at him. He opened his mouth but no sound came forth. Johnny dragged himself to his feet and staggered around the room. He found a towel and a pitcher of water. He tilted the pitcher and drank hungrily before returning to the bedside.

Wetting the towel, he pulled out the kerchief. Blood poured from the wound; bubbling and frothy. He placed the towel over the gaping hole and pressed down.

Ike grunted at the increased pain; his eyes clinched tightly.

Johnny’s arm began to shake from applying the pressure and he switched to his left. He was still breathing hard himself and knew he couldn’t hold out much longer. He felt his strength waning; the pressure easing off the wound. He could no more stop it than he could stop the sun from rising.

“I ….. wasss ….. riiight,” Ike whispered.

Johnny swallowed hard but said nothing.

“Say …. heellloo to Ssssccott for me,” he sighed the last word and breathed no more.

Johnny stared at his motionless form for he didn’t know how long. His mind went blank, unable to comprehend or acknowledge what he’d just heard. Scott? He knew Scott?

Suddenly, he began to laugh. He couldn’t seem to make himself stop. He knew he looked ridiculous. Knew he sounded insane. Maybe he was. Finally, he got control of himself and moved away from the body.  

He stood up and looked around. The first thing he did was head to the stream, grapping the pitcher as he went. He forced himself to drink slowly. Barranca came over and nudged at him.

“Soon, boy. We’ll go home soon,” he promised in a hoarse voice.

Once he was hydrated again, he went back to the shack and ate some cheese and apples. He knew he shouldn’t try to gorge himself. He didn’t need to be sick along with everything else. Guess I’m not crazy. Still got some sense. This made him chuckle again.


Johnny sat at the small table in the shack for a long time. He knew Barranca was all right. He had plenty of grass and water. And he was exhausted. He figured he’d wait until morning to head out. No reason to try leaving this late in the day. He sighed and stood, knowing he had one more chore to perform here.

Outside, he found a shovel then scoped out a spot. Johnny started digging, his back afire and his left side sending sharp pains all the way to his neck. He started mumbling, then cursing Ike. Calling him every name in the book and some that weren’t.

“And don’t think I’m not giving you a proper grave either. Would an animal do that? Huh?” he angrily shouted toward the dead man.

It took over an hour but he had the grave dug. He wrapped Ike in a blanket and dragged him out of the shack and rolled him in. He stood there for a minute, then dropped to his knees and hung his head. He found himself praying and that stunned him. Shaking his head, he stood and filled the grave.

“No marker, Ike. You don’t deserve one,” he grumbled and headed back to the shack.

He lit a lamp and started searching the place for some clues to the man’s identity. Why he had to know, he couldn’t fathom. All he knew was he needed some connection; some semblance of a real life to connect to this crazed man. He found a cedar chest with blankets piled on top. Lifting those, he discovered some books and papers. Johnny grabbed the pile and took them to the table, then started reading.

There was personal correspondence and old newspapers but Johnny didn’t spend much time on those. He found a file and opened it. This was more interesting. Laying on top was a certificate of some sort. Looking more closely, Johnny was shocked. It was a certificate to teach for one Isaac Marcum. Next he found papers indicating tenure at …… Johnny stared for a long time at one word – Harvard.

Blinking several times, he went on. There were papers from his students. Tons of them. Johnny rifled through, one thought in his weary mind. Then, he found it. He read it four times before laying it on the table. He still couldn’t tear his eyes from the title though the writing blurred in his wavering vision.

Primal Instincts in Modern Man

A Thesis by Scott Lancer

Harvard University


He felt like crying right then. His own brother’s words had been proof for that sick son of a ….. for what he’d been put through. He wondered how he would have felt about Scott’s theory if he’d read it before. Right now, he couldn’t be objective about it.

Certainly, none of this was Scott’s doing. And Johnny figured Ike had manipulated his class from the amount of papers on that very subject here.

But Scott’s paper had several notations on it. Things like: Excellent point. Yes, you understand the concept. Remarkable insight. And the like.

Johnny folded the papers with care and stuck them in his pant pocket. He looked around some more and found his shirt which he gingerly put on over the wounds to his back. Then his gunbelt. He took the Colt out and checked it then slid it in its place and wrapped the belt around his hips. Now, he felt more like himself. At least, a little.


He rummaged around for trail supplies. No way was he staying here another minute. He didn’t care if he had to ride all night. He was going home right now.

Johnny saddled Barranca and stuffed Scott’s paper in his saddlebags. He filled his canteen and packed up. Taking one last look at the freshly dug grave, he winced.

Slowly and with much effort, he mounted the palomino with a heavy sigh and a grunt. Barranca took the lead before Johnny could give a command.  

He slumped in the saddle, too weary to care much where he was going at the moment. His mind whirled with thoughts. Ike had been right. He needn’t have killed the man. He could have cut him; left him unable to fight back. The stone cold truth of it was, he wanted to kill him. Johnny had never felt that kind of rage before. He wondered what it said about him.

He remembered the satisfaction he’d felt when he drove that knife into Ike’s chest. Knowing it would be fatal. Wanting it to be fatal. For the first time in a long time, he questioned who he was. Living at Lancer had given him a sense of self-worth. Had it all been an illusion?

Was he even worse than Johnny Madrid? He’d done some things in his past he wasn’t proud of. But he had never felt pure hatred like this before. He’d been put in an impossible situation. Driven to near madness by the incessant prattle of a crazy man. Made to question his own morals.

Johnny laughed out loud. Morals. Ike had said even a man with the loftiest morals could be broken. Had he been broken? Is that what had happened? He didn’t know. He’d never bothered to ask what was supposed to happen next? What Ike’s theory on the aftermath of this killing was supposed to be?

Scott’s paper didn’t say what his theory on that was either. Maybe he’d ask his brother. No, he couldn’t do that. Scott could never know who this man was. He knew his brother. He would blame himself even if it was ridiculous to do so.

He looked up and took in his surroundings. Barranca was taking him to south mesa. Sure, that’s where they had been headed. He shook his head. “No, boy. Home,” he croaked out.

Johnny reared the horse to a more easterly direction and spurred him into a mile-eating gallop. He suddenly felt an urgent need to get home. A desperation he hadn’t felt for a long time. He needed to see his family. Hear their voices. Smell the ranch. Tears stung in his eyes and he told himself it was from the wind being created by his fast pace. He lowered himself over Barranca’s neck to quicken their progress and held tight to the mane.

Home. I have to get home.

There was quiet in the great room. The crackle and spitting of the fire, the ticking of the grandfather clock and the soft breaths were all that could be heard.

Johnny downed the last of his tequila as he stared into the fire. He felt pressure on his shoulder and realized Murdoch’s hand was there. He wondered when that had happened. He didn’t remember his father putting it there. It didn’t matter. It felt good.

He wasn’t sure how much time went by. Several minutes he supposed. No one spoke but then, he hadn’t expected them to. What could they say? Sorry? He almost smiled at that.

“When a man is driven beyond his endurance, he has to fight back. Yes, it is survival. There’s nothing wrong with that. You were pushed beyond any normal circumstance. You did what you had to do. It’s that simple.”

Scott’s voice was a balm to his aching soul. He blinked several times but could not look at his brother. Couldn’t bear to see the compassion there. He simply nodded his head.

“He’s right. Anyone would have done the same. The man was clearly disturbed. Driven by some demon of his own making. I’m proud of you, son.”

Johnny sighed softly. How had he gotten so lucky? What had he done to deserve any of this? He couldn’t think about it right now. He was so tired. He wanted to melt away into nothingness. He was simply grateful for these people he loved so much.

Clearing his throat, he spoke barely above a whisper. “Think I’ll turn in now.” He stood and walked to the sideboard, setting his glass down. Then, he started toward the stairs. As he passed his brother, he brushed a hand over his shoulder. He still couldn’t look at any of them.

“Goodnight, Johnny,” Scott whispered.



They waited until they were sure he was out of earshot. Teresa sniffled and wiped the tears away with her hanky. Jelly was wiping his own eyes with the back of his hand. Murdoch stared into the fire, a pensive frown on his face.

“I wonder what you’d call it? I want to kill that son of a ….. If Johnny hadn’t, I’d be gone right now to finish the job,” Murdoch spoke quietly but the anger in his voice was palpable.

“I think we all feel the same, sir,” Scott voiced. Something was nagging at his brain. Something he couldn’t latch onto at the moment. It was driving him crazy.

“I just thank God he survived,” Teresa said softly. She stood and mumbled a goodnight, then left the room quickly.

“She’ll be alright,” Jelly stated, knowing they worried over her. She was made of strong stuff and he knew she could handle about anything.

“But will Johnny?” Murdoch asked.

“Course he will. Jest needs some time ta get past it, is all.”

“I hope you’re right, Jelly. Something like this can eat at a man,” Murdoch said glumly.

“He’s been through worse,” Jelly remarked.

“I don’t think so,” Scott imparted distractedly.

Murdoch looked at his elder son. “Are you alright?”

Scott met his eyes with a frown. “No. There’s something else. Something I can’t quite put my finger on.” Sighing, he shook his head. “It will come to me. I think I’ll turn in, too.”

“Reckon we could all use some sleep at that,” Jelly agreed as he stood.


He tried, but sleep was elusive. Scott stared at the ceiling. He knew there was something oddly familiar about Johnny’s story but he couldn’t place it for the life of him.

Johnny’s description of the crazed old miner sparked no memory for him. Then, why should it? It bothered him that his brother was unable to look him in the eye. But, he supposed he would have the same reaction under the circumstances.

In fact, he wondered how he would have reacted. He couldn’t see himself doing anything differently than Johnny. Except ……

Scott sat straight up in the bed. Chills ran over his entire body and a fine sweat appeared on his brow. He found he couldn’t breath very well and he swung his legs over the side of the bed. Dizziness assaulted him and his hand went to his forehead of its own accord. He swiped at the fine sheen that glistened in the pale moonlight. Staring down at his sweat covered hand in some sort of daze.

He shook his head hard to come to his senses. Taking a deep breath, he forced his mind to calm and remember. It took a few minutes to recall the name. Then it came. Isaac Marcum. Ike? Scott felt numb. It couldn’t be. It simply couldn’t be him.

But the memories were coming fast and furious now. His last year at Harvard. The thesis subject that had ultimately led to the professor’s dismissal in humiliation. He had proposed to test his theory and was asking for volunteers. Scott remembered now reading the notice nailed to the bulletin board at school. It was there for less than a week before it disappeared and Professor Marcum along with it.

No one ever heard from or about the man again. There were no rumors or gossip. Unusual to be sure.

He stood haltingly and moved to the dresser. Splashing cool water on his face, he stood still and closed his eyes. What were the odds really? That a man he’d known in Boston would appear out here? That a disturbed man with a disturbed theory would come upon his brother? He vaguely remembered his thesis. Really could not remember the content at all. He did remember getting rave reviews from his professor. The rest of the board were not as pleased but they had passed him. Looking more at the teacher than the student for the values held in the writing.

God! He had been so impressionable. Even after all he’d gone through in the war. He recalled the admiration he held for Marcum for keeping to his beliefs so resoundingly. The man had not faltered. Had never given an inch in his enthusiasm and ideals. He had kept his head high though it had done him no good. He’d been summarily dismissed for that very reason. He would not capitulate.

Scott shook his head slowly. Unwilling to believe it was the same man. The odds of two men with the same theory? Two men with the same first name? The chills returned and he felt sick to his stomach. He had to sit down heavily in the nearest chair. Resting his head, he closed his eyes and tried to digest it all and what it may mean. Somehow, he drifted off.


Johnny awoke to the sun in his face. He had forgotten to pull the drapes when he fell into bed last night. Sighing and covering his eyes, he laid still for a few minutes. Resignedly, he got up and went about his morning rituals. He had decided it was time to start living again. Time to stop feeling sorry for himself and get back to work; and to his family.

He’d lain it out and there had been no disappointment; no repercussions. Nothing but support and love. How could he have ever though otherwise? And when was he going to get it? He was disgusted with himself for not understanding the depth of these family bonds. He felt it so why shouldn’t they?

A warmth went through him, deep into his soul. He smiled at his reflection as he shaved. Lancer, you are an idiot, he thought. Feeling more energized than he could remember, he quickly dressed and went downstairs to join his family for breakfast.

Scott awoke with a grimace and a crick in his neck. He raised up slowly and rubbed the offending part. Memory took hold and he shuddered. He sat there, wondering what he should do. Should he ask Johnny? What if his brother didn’t even know there was a connection? If he didn’t, how would he feel about it? And, if he did, he was keeping it to himself. That did not bode well. Scott figured that meant Johnny was trying to protect him. He knew his brother did not fault him. For if he did, Scott would have known it immediately. Johnny would have made it known.

He stood and stretched out his cramped muscles. Still pondering how to handle this. He decided to feel his brother out. So, with determination, Scott walked out his door and across the hall. He knocked once then opened the door to an empty room.

He was partly pleased that Johnny was already up and about; partly disappointed he hadn’t caught his brother. He was about to leave when a gust of wind blew the drapes. He walked over to lower the window. As he turned, he noticed something sticking out from under Johnny’s mattress.

Curious, he walked over and pulled out a sheet of paper then noticed another. Lifting the edge of the mattress, Scott pulled out several papers. He sat down on the edge of the bed to sort them out when he recognized his own handwriting.


“Where’s Scott?” Johnny asked between sips of coffee.

“I don’t know. It’s not like him to sleep in,” Murdoch shrugged.

“Think I’ll go drag him out of bed,” Johnny grinned.

Murdoch smiled at his son. It was so good to see that devilish glint in his eyes again.

Johnny bounded up the stairs, ignoring the soreness he still felt. He knocked once then opened Scott’s door. Frowning at the empty room, he closed the door and turned to go back downstairs. It was then he saw his own door slightly ajar.

Johnny pushed the door open and stopped breathing. Scott was sitting on the bed, his back to him. But Johnny could see the pages hanging limply from Scott’s right hand on the bed. He closed his eyes and cursed his own negligence. Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the room and closed the door soundly.

Scott’s head came up but he didn’t turn around. Johnny stood silently waiting, leaned against the door, knob still in his hand.

When a full minute had passed and Scott still hadn’t spoken, Johnny sighed softly and took up the chore.

“Interesting reading?”

Scott nodded his head. “Very,” he replied in a husky voice. “Ike is Isaac Marcum?”

“Yeah,” Johnny breathed out.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why would I, Scott? What purpose would it serve?”

Scott shook his head slowly. “He had us all write our thesis on the same subject. That’s unusual. I never realized he was so …. obsessed.”

Johnny walked over and stood just to his right. “What happened to him in Boston?”

“He advertised for volunteers to prove his theory. The Board was not pleased. They fired him. He disappeared after that. No one ever knew what happened to him.”


Johnny nodded. “Did you get an A?”

Scott looked up at him for the first time; a look of astonishment on his face. He could only nod in the affirmative.

Johnny smiled and sat beside him. Leaning forward and resting his forearms on his thighs, he let his hands dangle.

“Did he …. did he pick you because of me?” Scott asked, not really wanting the answer.

“Pick me? I don’t think he picked me. I think I happened along. It didn’t matter who it was. In fact, he said I probably wasn’t the best choice but I’d have to do.”

“Maybe he would have preferred me.”

“I don’t know, brother. All I know is the man was stark-raving mad. Scott, it wasn’t your fault,” he spoke firmly.

“I know.”

“Do you? Do you really? I know you, brother. You take the blame for things you have no control over. Don’t take this on, too. Not over some paper you wrote years ago.”

Scott looked over at him. “I thought he was great. I was really impressed by him. He was so ….. open, I guess. He listened to all of our theories and arguments. But he never wavered from his own beliefs. I respected him.” He spoke in an apologetic tone.

Johnny shrugged slightly. “Maybe he wasn’t so crazy back then. Maybe gettin fired pushed him over the edge. We’ll never know. Does it really matter?”

“No. All that matters is you proved him wrong.”

Johnny cocked a brow, a look of disbelief on his face. “Did I?”

“Yes, Johnny. You did.”

“Mind explainin that one to me, brother.”


Scott stood and walked over to the window, then turned to face his brother. “It’s simple, really. You killed him out of self-defense. There’s nothing savage about that. The only part of his theory that held true was this; man will kill to stay alive if threatened. The fact that you tried to save him. That you buried him properly. That’s the true test, Johnny. A man who felt a sense of joy or pleasure by killing. A man who would leave him to the buzzards. That man is truly primal. Truly evil.”

Johnny rolled the words around in his mind. “But, I was glad I killed him.”

“I don’t doubt that. He put you through hell. But, were you glad you killed him or were you glad you were free?”

A frown creased Johnny’s forehead. “I …. I wanted him dead,” he whispered.

“At that moment. In that struggle for life, you did. But right now. In this moment. Tell me, are you glad you killed him now?”

Johnny dropped his eyes and swallowed hard. Shaking his head slowly, he found he couldn’t speak for a moment. Scott waited, feeling Johnny had something he needed to say.

“What I’d like is to talk to him now. Show him how wrong he was. I didn’t have the words. I could only think of a way to get out. I couldn’t think of an argument.” A slight smile adorned his face. “That’s your area.”

Scott smiled as well. “I’m not sure I would have had the words either. That my anger at the situation wouldn’t have left me feeling as desperate as you must have felt.”

Johnny unconsciously wrapped his arms around himself. Scott walked back over and sat next to him, wrapping an arm around his taut shoulders.

“This paper was written by a fool. A young man who allowed his awe of a man of supposed higher intelligence suck him in. Reading it now, I can’t believe I actually wrote this. It isn’t how I feel or what I believe.”

“You’re not a fool, brother. Anything but. It was hard to read but I never thought it was because of that paper. I mean, I saw a whole bunch of papers his students wrote. They were all on the same subject. I know how persuasive he can be, believe me.”

“What do you mean?” Scott asked.

“Just that he talked a lot. Had me wondering if he wasn’t right about a lot of things. About ….. me,” Johnny’s voice dropped below a whisper at the end.

“Johnny, if Isaac Marcum had any idea what kind of man you are, he would never had tried this. He would have known how futile it was.”

“His last words were that he was right. And to say hello to you.”

Scott closed his eyes briefly.

“Was a hell of a shock, brother. When he said your name I about fell over.”

Taking a deep breath, Scott let it out slowly. “He didn’t tell you before?”

“No. He said he grew up back east and went to one of the best colleges. I just never thought ….. he never said where. I went through his things. I wanted to know who he was, ya know? That’s when I found out he was a teacher. Your teacher.”

“One thing is certain. He was not right. No where near right. I’m sorry, brother.” Scott squeezed his shoulder.

“No need. You didn’t do anything.”

“Johnny, are you alright? I mean, really?”

He looked up at his brother then. Pain-filled eyes tried to smile. “I’m trying, Scott.”

“I’m right here, brother.”

“I know,” Johnny nodded.

“So, how do you feel about everything?” Scott asked the question holding his breath.

“Guess it’s gonna take some time to get it all right in my head. But, there’s nothing I can do but just keep going, huh?”

“That’s about the size of it, brother. Just remember, you don’t have to go it alone.”

“All I could think about was gettin home. I could have stayed the night there, rested up. But, after I buried him and found out who he was; I just needed to get home.”

“I’m very glad to hear that. It means you needed *us*.”

Johnny smiled and his shoulders relaxed. “Yeah. Guess you’ve all kind of grown on me. Still get on my nerves though.” He looked at Scott with a gleam in his eyes.

Scott recognized it immediately. Although it warmed his heart to see it again, he knew he needed to be very wary right now.

“Is that right? And you, of course, never get on anyone’s nerves?” he retorted.

“Me? Of course not! I’m the most loveable guy around.” With that statement, he reached behind Scott and grabbed the pillow, smacking his brother on the head, then taking off out of the room.

Scott smiled and went after him. ‘Yes, you are, brother. You surely are,’ he thought as he gave chase.


Comments:  We don’t have this author’s current email address. If you leave a comment below, if she reconnects with the fandom, then she will see how much her work is appreciated.

One thought on “Primal Instincts by Winj

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